The Lorelei Signal
Julienne Cleans Up
Written by Mary Jo Rabe / Artwork by Marcia Borell
Julienne Fredricks shook her scrawny fists at the door to the inner room of airlock number seventeen where the settlers kept their surface suits. Some careless settlers hadn't followed the rules again.
She could smell the caustic Martian dust, that horrible stench of peroxide mixed with sulfur. There shouldn't be any smell at all here in the habitat corridors and tunnels. This was an abomination as well as a health hazard.
Julienne's hefty nose dominated her narrow face but endowed her with an excellent sense of smell. She didn't care if gauges or numbers failed to show the presence of the substances she smelled. If she smelled something, it was there. Caustic dust from the surface of Mars endangered the whole Bradbury habitat, all because some settlers were too lazy or stupid to follow the rules.
She reached into her pocket and grabbed for her communications device, that flat slab of dark plastic, barely longer or thicker than her skinny hand. She pressed the touch-screen input areas impatiently.
They didn't work again, so she had no alternative but to scream "help" into the device. The information and communications technology people guaranteed someone would always reply if you used the emergency voice option.
Indeed, the section of the gray wall she was leaning on lit up. Julienne saw the youthful and contemptuous face of Dr. Randolph Slick, the arrogant head of habitat technology. Unfortunately, he was also someone who refused to obey all the rules.
"Have you worn down the surface of your communicator again, Ms. Fredricks?" he asked. "You know, if you just used the audio-video interface, you wouldn't have this problem. The surface of these communicators isn't meant to be rubbed day and night. It's meant to show you the features you can call up with voice commands."
He smiled, but the almost imperceptible twitches on his smooth, chubby face revealed his disdain. He couldn't fool Julienne.
She snorted as she stared at her communicator. The shiny surface reflected her narrow, wrinkled face and stringy, short, brown hair that stuck out in all directions. What it didn't do was carry out the commands she tried to tap into the virtual keyboard.
"You know I don't consider the voice interface to be safe," Julienne answered. "No one can guarantee that someone won't eavesdrop on or manipulate my audio or video commands."
"Most settlers find the video communication interface to be efficient and sufficiently secure," Dr. Slick said. Julienne saw the subtle way the corners of his mouth forced themselves not to move.
"Then they are fooling themselves," Julienne said. "But I have no time for this useless chit-chat. I need a new communicator, and I need you to send me all the surveillance videos from surface airlock number seventeen for the past twenty-four hours."
This time she saw Dr. Slick roll his eyes and raise his eyebrows. The muscles under the skin of his forehead squirmed and made his stiff Mohawk hair style, tinted bright green today, move back and forth slightly.
Most people wouldn't have noticed, but he couldn't fool Julienne. He despised her but was clever enough not to admit it or make it obvious to less observant settlers.
"Why?" he asked. "Don't you have anything better to do than voyeuristic snooping? What is it with you? Do you get your kicks watching people get into and out of their surface suits?"
"I don't have to listen to this," Julienne shouted, or at least tried to force more volume into her thin, reedy voice. "Ned Brooks, who owns and runs this whole Mars settlement project, has confirmed that I am to be given access to all information regarding the safety of the habitat."
"Actually, Max Gruhn is the habitat safety officer," Randolph Slick interrupted her.
"I know that," Julienne said impassively. "I report to him. I'm his external sensory system for the entire habitat. I detect dangers the useless observation robots either don't notice or simply ignore. Today there is surface dust here in the corridor outside the door to airlock seventeen. Someone didn't follow the protocols for returning to the habitat after spending time on the surface, and I want to find out who it was."
"Poor bastard," Mr. Slick muttered.
"I heard that," Julienne said. "Caustic dust from the surface of Mars is a recognized health hazard. It can cause irreparable damage to mucous membranes and lung tissue as well as machine malfunctions. The infiltration of such dust into the habitat has to be prevented at all costs. I need to know who was so criminally careless."
Mr. Slick sighed and tapped at a keyboard. "I sent the video to your files and to Mr. Gruhn's. Do what you have to do. If you want a new communicator, you have to come here and pick it up." And the wall returned to its light gray display.
Julienne didn't want to waste any more time struggling with her defective communicator. She loped down the corridor and took the turnoff to the tunnel to her living quarters.
She was in good shape. She ran at least five kilometers every day to maintain her optimal fitness. In less than forty-five minutes, she was sitting at the super-sized monitor in her room and watching the video from the airlock.
Aha. Spinoza—could parents be more pretentious about naming their children—and Martha, the two teenage rocketeers were the evildoers. Julienne had never approved of letting children do cargo delivery with rockets, even if they were certifiably excellent pilots.
These two were teenagers in Earth years, and therefore spontaneous idiots with persistently flawed judgment. In this case, she had proof that they hadn't stayed in the outer airlock long enough for the air from the inner airlock to blow all the dust off their surface suits and back onto the surface. They had just entered the inner airlock area still wearing their dusty suits.
Julienne wished she could notify Mayor Ben Berry and have these kids lose all outside-the-habitat privileges. The mayor was a kindred spirit who was eager to enforce the rules. Unfortunately, according to her job description she could only inform Max Gruhn who would probably just tell the two teenagers to be more careful the next time.
Useless. She sent a message via her residence computer to Mr. Gruhn demanding measures to prevent Spinoza and Martha from ever leaving the habitat again and insisting on immediate purification of the air in the corridor next to airlock seventeen.
She didn't feel optimistic. When the return message came within seconds saying that he would remind Spin and Marty to do better next time, Julienne despaired.
That feeling didn't last long. Despair would keep her from performing her duties, and her duties were essential to the safety of the settlers here in the Bradbury habitat. She was responsible for recognizing dangers to the settlers, especially those dangers they refused to notice. However, first things first. She was hungry.
She pounded her fingers on her communicator. For whatever reason, this time it worked. Julienne despised untrustworthy devices. Still, to save time, she sent for a robot transport vehicle to take her to the cafeteria. It was always good to talk to Emma Brooks Baxter who ran the cafeteria.
Actually, Emma was just as careful about avoiding dust as Julienne. For some reason, though, people didn't mind when Emma reminded them to keep dust out of the habitat. They always got angry whenever Julienne said anything.
The habitat robot transport vehicle consisted of an open-framed, i.e. without any real roof or sides, four-wheeled vehicle and varying numbers of rows of seats. This one had two rows of seats with strap-on restraints. It drove much too fast through the narrow, gray tunnels and almost collided with two other vehicles.
Julienne composed a complaint to David Grundy, the robot manager. Granted, it was necessary to have transport vehicles for the tunnels. The Bradbury habitat was spread out over many kilometers and underground levels. However, it was reckless to allow robot vehicles to drive so fast.
Mechanical and software glitches could cause crashes that endangered passengers especially at this high speed. The robots were programmed to avoid crashing into human beings, but what if a settler made an unexpected move and the vehicle couldn't stop in time?
The more she thought about what could go wrong, the more she shuddered. She closed her eyes tight and didn't open them again until the vehicle stopped at the cafeteria door.
Grateful to still be alive, Julienne exited the vehicle and opened the door to the cafeteria, a huge glassed-in, circular room on the surface of Mars. The color scheme was pleasant to the eyes with furniture and walls in differing shades of red, orange, and pink, but Julienne hated this location.
It simply wasn't safe to be on the surface of Mars even enclosed in a sturdy building. Human beings should stay kilometers below the surface. That's the only place it was moderately safe.
Emma stood behind the pick-up counter. Emma was short and chubby with a head of thick, curly, sparkling white hair. She had to be the oldest settler in the habitat, but her face was as smooth as a teenager's. Julienne knew from experience that Emma's boundless optimism was genuine.
Emma walked over to Julienne. "Julienne," she said. "What would you like to eat?"
Julienne noticed that Emma was walking more gingerly than usual. She winced visibly with every step.
"Do your feet hurt again?" Julienne asked her.
"It's not important," Emma said. "I just spent too many hours standing while I made some more desserts this morning. Right now, the pain from my aching feet is racing up to my throbbing head. I'll go see Doc Brach later to get an injection of better nanobots. I think the ones I have circulating in my blood right now are slackers. They no longer keep my podiatric extremities in perfect working condition."
"You know these nanobots might not be safe," Julienne said. "That's why they are still forbidden on Earth."
"And that's yet one more reason why I came to Mars," Emma said and laughed. "Let the nervous Neanderthals on Earth howl about risks while we build a better life for human beings here on Mars."
"But let's not argue about that again," Emma said. "What can I get you?"
Julienne thought for a moment. "Didn't the mayor send a recommended dietary menu for the settlers sometime back? I'll have whatever is suggested for the second day of the week."
Emma snorted but went to get her a tray. Julienne sat at the table in the middle of the room, farthest from the fragile-looking windows. She approved of the fact that the whole cafeteria lacked the stench of surface dust.
Here and now it smelled like a bakery. She detected cinnamon rolls, chocolate chip cookies, and angel food cake. The sturdy, red, plastic tables and chairs were squeaky clean. Obviously, Emma was able to get her housekeeping robots to do a good job.
Emma brought the tray loaded with a bowl of something, a spoon, and a large glass and put it down in front of Julienne. "I could fix you anything that tasted better than this stale swill," Emma said.
"I trust the mayor to come up with a food list that is healthy," Julienne said. "However, I don't want to argue with you." She swallowed a spoonful of a dubious stew absolutely devoid of any taste.
Emma sat down next to her. "You still don't like to sit at the windows?" she asked. "It was a major effort on my part to get my cafeteria built with this panorama view of the surface. Most people like it, the feeling of truly being on Mars."
"Much too dangerous," Julienne said. "It's a frozen vacuum out there that is constantly being fried with cosmic rays, a place completely hostile to human life."
"And yet it is hauntingly beautiful," Emma said as she looked out the window to her left. "The volcanic mountains in the distance, the red rocks, the dust devils, Phobos and Deimos buzzing across the orange sky. This is where you discover that you are a child of the whole universe, not just the one planet you happened to be born on."
"I'm all for safe space travel," Julienne said. "But human beings have to do everything necessary to stay alive. That means taking precautions. Your cafeteria would be a much safer place ten stories beneath the surface."
Emma laughed. "As always, we'll have to agree to disagree. How has your day been so far, Julienne?"
Julienne frowned. "Not good," she said. "People are so careless and endanger us all. Spinoza and Martha didn't dust off their surface suits before entering the inner airlock. My touch screen on my communicator doesn't always work. The robot transport vehicle drove much too fast again."
Emma sighed. "Okay, those were the bad things that happened today. What good things were there?"
Julienne shook her head. "There is just too much to worry about," she said. "And no one else does. I'm the perpetual cleaning lady on Mars, but I can't keep up with all the messes."
Emma stood up and put her arm around Julienne's shoulders. "You are the most conscientious person I have ever known, and we are all very lucky to have you here. You have discovered all kinds of potential dangers since you got here. However, so far they all turned out to be more or less negligible."
"That's only Mr. Gruhn's opinion," Julienne said. "I don't understand why he doesn't take my observations seriously."
"He does," Emma said. "But he assesses them differently, and so far he has been correct."
Julienne shook her head. "Why doesn't anyone listen to me? They listen to you, and you also do everything possible to keep dust out of your kitchen and your cafeteria."
"I have to work at getting people to listen," Emma said. "It's a long process, especially with new settlers. It's never enough just to tell people what not to do. You have to educate them, explain why they should or shouldn't do something."
"But most people are too stupid to understand," Julienne interrupted her.
"That's the next problem," Emma said tactfully. "To get people to listen to you, it helps if they think you like them."
"Well, I don't like most of the settlers here, and I can't pretend that I do," Julienne said.
Emma sighed again. "You just need to get to know them better," she said. "Most of the settlers are good people. If you can get along with the mayor, you should be able to get along with the nice people here."
Julienne stood up. Much as she respected and even liked Emma, this conversation was no longer useful. "Thank you," Julienne said. "I should get back to my inspecting work."
"And after I get some new nanobots, I have to prepare more food," Emma said. "It will be a lot easier after they connect the new source for water. Having to restrict my use of water at unexpected intervals has often been a nuisance."
"Where did they find new water?" Julienne asked. "I should have been informed about such things." That's the way it always happened. Julienne only found out about changes when it was too late to stop them. It was as if people deliberately tried to keep her out of the loop.
"I never paid that much attention to the details," Emma admitted as she looked out in the direction of Olympus Mons. "Ruthie Sandcorn and her engineers talked about it occasionally when they were here. They are always looking for more underground lakes that they can tap into to get water for the habitats. I'm sure she would be happy to bring you up to speed. All you have to do is ask."
Julienne left. She hoped Dr. Sandcorn would be as helpful as Emma believed. Her communicator seemed to be working, but she had no faith in its further functionality. So, she directed the robot transport vehicle to take her to the rude information and communications technology people so she could pick up a new one.
Fortunately, Dr. Randolph wasn't there and the friendly assistant programmed a new communicator for her. The new touch screen worked perfectly, and Julienne put in a call to Dr. Sandcorn. A smiling face surrounded by short, blonde hair appeared on her communicator screen.
"Ms. Fredricks," a pleasant, almost musical voice sounded out of her communicator. "What can I do for you?"
"I heard you found a new source of water for the habitat," Julienne began.
"Yes," Dr. Sandcorn said. "We're very excited about it. Why don't you come down here and look for yourself? I'll be here all day. I'll send the planetary coordinates to your communicator."
Julienne was pleasantly surprised. Most settlers weren't that helpful. "Yes," she said. "If it's all right with you, I'll come now or whenever the robot vehicle will get me there."
"Good," Dr. Sandcorn said. "See you soon."
Julienne had instructed her robot vehicle to wait. Fortunately it still stood obediently in the tunnel outside the information and communications technology department. She sent it the coordinates of the underground lake.
Apparently Dr. Sandcorn's location was quite deep under the Martian surface. It took the robot several seconds to calculate a route, but then it took off at a frightening speed.
The trip ended where the tunnel did, at a flimsy fence with a gate. Beyond the gate Julienne saw a huge cave filled with numerous, huge, clanking machines, all producing a deafening roar.
Apparently, the engineers had already provided sufficient air pressure and breathable air this far down below the surface as well as barely sufficient lighting. Based on the number of machines, people had been working here for some time.
It was cold, perhaps twenty degrees Celsius colder than in the heated residential areas of the habitat, yet of course significantly warmer than outside on the surface. Julienne walked through the gate, quite an imperfect excuse for a barrier, and past a shelf filled with helmets, boots, and gloves under a sign that invited visitors to borrow anything they would like.
Julienne put on all three items of protective clothing and walked toward the noise. It was somewhat dark, and the gray rocks jutted out at random intervals. The smashed rock path under her feet was quite bumpy and uneven.
This curvy, rocky path led around rock walls down to what looked like a huge, slushy pond. Julienne couldn't tell how many settlers and robots were working there. A petite, blonde woman without helmet, gloves, or boots climbed up from a steep path directly next to the water. "Ms. Fredricks?" she asked. "I'm Ruth Sandcorn. This is our new source of water for the Bradbury habitat. We're overjoyed to have found it."
Julienne looked around. "I am impressed. You must have been working here for a long time."
"Not that long," Dr. Sandcorn said. "As soon as our water-seeking nanobots discovered this lake, we sent down construction robots to clear an area for possible further excavation. Once we got here, the huge amount of water was so impressive that we started blasting holes in the caves and installing water pipes immediately."
"Have you tested the water yet to see if it is safe?" Julienne asked.
"We're working on that," Dr. Sandcorn said. "But water is water. Even if it doesn't turn out to be safe for human consumption, there are hundreds of other practical uses we can find for it." She looked directly at Julienne and smiled.
"Hmm," Julienne said noncommittally. "Your site doesn't seem protected very well. Do you have robots guarding it?"
Dr. Sandcorn laughed. "Engineers trying to supply the habitat with water don't have any enemies," she said. "We are using all resources at our disposal to get this water up to the habitat as soon as possible. And, we welcome visitors. When people see just how difficult it is to supply the habitat with water, they are inclined to appreciate it more and use it more conscientiously."
"I hope you're right," Julienne said.
"And I hope we can get this done soon," Dr. Sandcorn said. "Thank you for visiting us. It's always so encouraging when someone is interested in your work. Please come back any time."
Dr. Sandcorn then turned and walked back down to the lake. Julienne had vague feelings of unease but had to admit that Dr. Sandcorn had been quite friendly and open about the project, not at all secretive.
So, Julienne decided she wouldn't lodge any complaints about this activity yet. Besides, she had many other sites to inspect for the rest of the day and week and month.
Two Martian months later the deafening projection on her entertainment wall woke her up out of a deep sleep. "Life discovered on Mars" some female entertainment celebrity from Earth proclaimed. It took Julienne at least ten minutes to understand that living microbes had been discovered in the lake Dr. Sandcorn and crew had been working at.
She tried to reach Dr. Sandcorn, but everyone on two planets was making the same attempt. So, Julienne took her life in her hands again and called for a robot transport vehicle to take her to the cafeteria. She was sure Emma would know something.
Emma in fact did know a little more. "It's the biggest news of the millennium," she said. "The discovery of alien life forms. Preliminary tests show that microbes in the underground lake are truly indigenous to Mars, not anything we brought here. Everyone is thrilled and amazed. The DNA of these microbes is completely foreign to ours. We can forget all the silly panspermia theories. The existence of these microbes proves that planets grow their own, unique life forms, or so the scientists say."
"Wow," Julienne agreed. "That is so amazing. Of course it's unfortunate that the habitat will have to do without the water in this lake now that we know about the microbes."
"No," Emma said. "Actually, we can't. The habitat is growing; more habitats are under construction; more settlers have been selected for Mars. We desperately need the water Dr. Sandcorn and her crew have discovered."
"But it's not safe," Julienne said. "Alien life forms! Who knows what diseases they will cause if human beings consume them or even have anything to do with them. Any contact with these extraterrestrial creatures could be fatal for human beings. The lake has to be quarantined, maybe even everyone who has worked down there."
"Well," Emma said. "Dr. Sandcorn and Doc Brach have already developed a filter that will keep the microbes pretty much out of the water supply that gets pumped up to the habitat. We will also clean the water after we use it so that anything that seeps back to the lake won't harm the microbes."
"That's not good enough," Julienne said. "That is much too risky. I can't allow it."
Emma shook her head. "Max Gruhn already spoke with my brother Ned after the mayor tried to forbid use of this water. Ned decided that the habitat will pump water out of the underground lake, taking all possible precautions."
Julienne shook her head. "Why wasn't I informed of any of this? How can all of you be so reckless? You are risking your lives."
"I suspect people didn't want to upset you until they had all the facts," Emma said. "By the way, there is one other person who wants the lake quarantined. Barbara Cohan, our astrobiologist, is obsessed with the idea that we need to protect the poor microbes from us human beings."
"That's just as stupid as the idea that filtering the water to make it safe for the settlers," Julienne said. "People are important, not primitive microbes. Can't anybody think straight on this planet?"
Julienne left, returned to her tiny office, and sent off blistering messages explaining why the settlers must not risk their lives by using water contaminated by Martian microbes. She only got form responses, and the work connecting the lake to the habitat continued.
Reflecting on Emma's quiet but consistent advice, Julienne then tried to send friendly and pleasant messages, saying that she was worried but that she trusted those in command to make correct decisions.
She met with her boss Max Gruhn, with Dr. Sandcorn, and with other engineers and tried to persuade them that she in fact liked them and respected them but was still worried. Yet the work continued.
That is, it continued until Barbara Cohan set off her bombs in the pipes around the lake and killed many of the engineers, including Dr. Sandcorn, whom Julienne had genuinely liked. This time Julienne wasn't just angry; she felt guilty because she hadn't suspected this would happen but should have.
She had noticed that the lake area was completely unprotected. She had heard that Barbara Cohan was the habitat nutcase, that she had wanted to protect the microbes at all costs. Julienne felt she should have connected those two bits of information and prevented the tragedy. Surely sufficient robot guards would have kept Barbara Cohan from concealing her bombs.
Julienne couldn't deny the obvious. She was losing her touch, her automatic suspicious nature. That meant she had no real value left to the settlement. She couldn't even gloat over the fact that Ms. Cohan managed to get herself killed after a theatrical performance on the top of Olympus Mons where she threatened suicide if the human beings didn't leave Mars to the microbes.
"Julienne," Emma said the next time she went to the cafeteria. "None of this is your fault. Barbara Cohan was a criminally insane fanatic. If anyone should have done more, that was me. I listened to Barbara's harangues over and over again without ever suspecting that she would do something so terrible."
"No," Julienne said. "You couldn't have suspected anything. You always assume the best of people."
"Not of the useless mayor," Emma said bitterly. "And I should have realized what Barbara was capable of."
Julienne tried to listen to Emma. The whole chain of events sapped her strength, though. She lost her certainty about being right.
After the tragedy, whenever she discovered some possible danger to the settlement, she questioned herself, wondered if it was worth reporting, and then only mentioned her worries in a laid-back, half-hearted fashion, accompanied by the words "But of course I could be wrong."
To her genuine surprise, this made her popular among the settlers. For some reason people liked Julienne the self-proclaimed fallible human being.
The fact that she started her sentences with "I wonder if" instead of "You must stop immediately" made people listen to everything she said. They still didn't always share her worries or do what she suggested, but they never had done that before at all.
Emma congratulated her on her new social success, on the fact that she had many people who enjoyed her company. Actually, now that Julienne no longer sent off angry complaints or threats, she seemed to be making friends.
As a rational human being, she couldn't ignore the fact that being hesitant and flexible about her worries vastly improved her quality of life. So, even after she recovered from the shock of the deaths of the engineers, she didn't return to her previously automatic compulsive behavior.
She worried, but she also worried about whether she was right. She made it her top priority to communicate her worries in a way that didn't make other people angry.
Unfortunately, this new, popular Julienne was then reluctant to express her misgivings about the fast-moving celestial object that the astronomers detected, a moon-sized rocky visitor swooping through from another galaxy.
They thought it was fascinating. Julienne worried, but didn't say anything, mostly because she wasn't completely sure what she was worried about. She just had a bad feeling about the whole business, but she no longer trusted her feelings. So, she didn't demand any new, protective measures, like evacuation of the surface habitats.
The inter-galactic visitor flew past Mars as expected, unfortunately followed by an enormous cloud of imperceptibly tiny but, due to their numbers, viciously destructive mini-asteroids that intersected with the orbit of Mars at an unfortunate angle and destroyed the habitats as well as all human settlers.
The microbes, deep enough underground, survived and waited patiently to be discovered another day.
Mary Jo Rabe grew up on a farm in eastern Iowa, got degrees from Michigan State University (German and math) and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (library science) where she became a late-blooming science fiction reader and writer. She worked in the library of the chancery office of the Archdiocese of Freiburg, Germany for 41 years, and lives with her husband in Titisee-Neustadt, Germany.
She has published "Blue Sunset", inspired by Spoon River Anthology and The Martian Chronicles, electronically and has had stories published in The Lorelei Signal, Fiction River, Pulphouse, Penumbric Speculative Fiction, Alien Dimensions, 4 Star Stories, Fabula Argentea, Crunchy with Chocolate, The Lost Librarian's Grave, Whispers from the Universe, Draw Down the Moon, Mysterious Christmas, Mystery Tribune, Dark Horses, Wyldblood Magazine, and other magazines and anthologies.
She indulges in sporadic activity on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/rabemj)