Exopolis One: Foundation

I was funneled away to my work assignment within minutes of setting foot on Augustine, having barely had a chance to take in the sight of my new home. Lieutenant Levi had been right about Captain Hyro being organized. As I would come to appreciate over the following years, under the Captain's leadership, the colony schedule moved with the choreographed precision of the military marching bands my dad had taken me to see many times on Earth.

The short glimpse I did have of Exopolis One from my brief moments on the shuttle landing pad was both breathtaking and underwhelming. I was in awe of the otherworldly panorama surrounding the colony. Gigantic shards of ice and rock pierced the sky all around, like mountains of jagged teeth. The ice had veins of blue and pink snaking their way through the frozen strata. The wind was strong enough that I had to lean into it with every step and I could feel the biting cold even through my insulated suit.

The colony itself was dominated by the immensity of the imposing landscape. Situated on a plateau of charcoal gray rock, Exopolis One was a cluster of unimpressive dirty white domes half-buried by loose fragments from the excavation. I couldn't see windows on any of the domes. Most of the structures were connected by tunnels and I assumed that some tunnels might also exist beneath the surface.

My landing party paused at the airlock as the pilot pointed at a dome under construction. "The design of Exopolis One is from the standard colony template drafted in Earth orbit while we were making preparations to leave Sol. Most of the domes will be buried completely for insulation, though future colonies might also need to do it for protection against radiation. When Le Maudlin Rouge, Raustik, and Stillwater leave orbit in a few years to establish their own colonies, they'll adapt their designs based on what we learn with our construction. Once we're self-sufficient, most of our focus will be in providing support to those colonies so that they can establish themselves more quickly."

And that was it for an overview of the colony. As soon as I made it through the airlock and had finished removing my suit, I was met by an middle-aged Indian woman named Priya Narine who promptly whisked me out of the locker room with barely a greeting. Despite her small stature, I had to break into a half-jog to keep up with her. I quickly became lost as we hustled through a warren of long tunnels and non-descript gray rooms, finally arriving at the horticulture station.

The horticulture station (which I later found out was nicknamed The Water Palace) was a series of domes connected together with short passageways of only a few meters. Collectively, it was by far the biggest structure I had seen in the colony. Each dome was stacked to the ceiling with towers of trays and pipes, each of which was overflowing with various plants. Rows of lights illuminated the plants, providing a substitute for sunlight. The air was warm, humid, but fresh.

"We've been experimenting with both traditional soil-based horticulture and hydroponics, but so far we're seeing a greater yield from hydroponics because the soil just isn't rich enough," Priya told me. "Your initial job, Carmen, will be harvesting our vegetables. We're concentrating on establishing staple foods right now, so for today, you'll be working with the starches: potatoes and yams. As time goes on, we'll move to other varieties of vegetable and then fruits. I'll also be training you in various agricultural techniques, but you'll be expected to do most of your studies on your own."

After showing me how to rotate the planter racks and identify harvestable potatoes and yams, Priya left me to work on my own. She spoke very little, which seemed to be her way, but we both worked steadily for the next ten hours, pausing for only a brief meal of a baked potato and a small salad.

Finally, she beckoned me to follow her and we left the horticulture station for another series of tunnels that culminated in a communal bunk room. After pointing out the showers and warning me that I would only get two minutes of cold water, she showed me my bunk and told me that work started at six the next morning.

The next day and every day after consisted of early mornings, long days, and bland meals. Every night, I tumbled into my bunk exhausted. The monotony blurred each day together as there was little to differentiate one day from the next.

I hated it. Priya rarely spoke and the other colonists were so exhausted from their daily efforts that there was little socialization. I became lonely and depressed for my entire first year as I desperately missed my dad and dreamed of a different life in which the Earth and Mars had never been destroyed. I cried myself to sleep most nights.

In the end, it was the flowers that saved me. I discovered seeds for gerbers in the seed bank and decided to secretly plant them in a secluded corner. I stayed late several nights a week to tend them after Priya had left. I'll never forget the first blossom; the pink petals with the yellow center brought me so much happiness that I started bawling. I spent nearly an hour every night after that curled up in a ball, just looking at my little collection of color.

Three weeks after my first flower bloomed, I heard a cough behind me during one of my late night viewing sessions. Startled, I turned to see Priya standing behind me scrutinizing the flowers. Her expression was unreadable and I began to cringe inside, fearing her reaction.

"Hmmph", she cleared her throat after several more long moments. "I guess it's time."

She walked away without saying anything more, but the next morning I arrived to find packets of seeds, bags of dirt, and planters arranged on a cart next to my workstation. When I went to find Priya, she told me to begin planting flowers and shrubs around the colony.

And thus began my daily rotation around the colony. I chose the most public areas for the first planters, starting with the mess hall and the bunk room. When I wheeled my cart in, I received a lot of frowns and puzzled looks from those that noticed, but those looks quickly turned to smiles when they realized what I was doing.

As I tended the plants around the colony, I began noticing tiny signs of progress. The first private dorms were completed, to be occupied by Captain Hyro and senior members of her leadership. The genetics lab successfully grew the first batch of cultured meat (it was bacon!). Several days after my first petunias started blooming, someone began painting a mural in one of the tunnels leading to the cafeteria.

My migrations also put me in contact with dozens more people. I needed help setting up water and lights for some of the planters, which allowed me to meet many of the engineers. Others would simply stop to chat as I made my rounds, commenting on the beauty of the flowers and plants, grateful for the splash of color to enliven the dull palette of sterile lighting and underground living.

In my third year after waking up from suspension, Exopolis One became fully self-sufficient, no longer drawing from the supplies stored aboard the Anchorage. Water was mined from ice from a nearby glacier. The nuclear power generator was buried a safe distance from E1. The lab had expanded to producing three different types of meat; beef, chicken, and pork. My Water Palace broadened to growing various fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, and shrubs. An entertainment dome was constructed, housing a small movie theater, a bar, and gym.

That year, Priya came down with a case of pneumonia and was put on bed rest for two weeks. I struggled with the added responsibilities. I managed to keep food production going, but the decorative plants suffered from my reduced time. When Priya finally came back to work, we added a third member to our little team to help with the workload, a young man named Kenichi.

The last dorms were completed shortly after my seventeenth birthday. I was assigned a room with Blanca, a talkative girl who was two years older than me. Blanca worked on the security and emergency task force and kept me supplied with all of the latest events and tidbits of gossip from the areas of E1 that I didn't frequent. We quickly became best friends.

Five years later, Exopolis One had produced enough supplies to fully restock the Anchorage. The senior crew from Le Maudlin Rouge was woken from suspension and shuttled down to the surface for extensive training with each of E1's department heads. After six months of training, they returned to their ship and made preparations for departure.

Both Raustik and Stillwater would remain in orbit with their sleepers as a safety precaution, but also to give us time to produce additional supplies for their colonies.

When the Anchorage and Le Maudlin Rouge finally wave jumped away to the Airlie system to establish a new colony, the mood on Exopolis One was a mixture of elation and sadness. The launch was the culmination of years of work, but it would also be years before we would hear if our new sister colony had succeeded.

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