Kirk O’Donnell called the Phoenix 5 crew together another time for a very important conference call. The group crowed around the main video screen.
“Crew, I have something to tell you. I was just informed of this myself and I’m a bit shocked, although I can’t say I hadn’t considered the possibility. As you probably know, Norbite and Kara came across a strange dark-green substance a few weeks ago. There has been some disagreement about whether this was caused by the Phoenix 5 mission or was some natural phenomenon. It turns out – there’s no delicate way to put this – this is part of a stealth mission by the Department of Defense. The growth is a nanobot, algae hybrid that is designed to reproduce quickly on the surface of Mars. They call it algaephage. Commander Kurt seeded the algaephage shortly after landing on the planet. Now before you judge him, remember he was just following orders. The knowledge of this mission goes all the way up to the President.” He paused to take a deep breath and then continued, “The purpose of this mission, as you might have guessed is two-fold: firstly to claim more territory for the US – now they’re claiming the algae they used is classified as a plant, but I wonder if that will be contested at the UN, and secondly to increase the surface temperature of Mars as part of a long-term terraforming effort. No doubt this will cause all kinds of diplomatic and political problems, but I hope that you all can keep from overreacting to this news and calmer heads will prevail. Just as a reminder: commander Kurt is still in charge and you all will be returning to Earth in the not-so-distant future. That is all. Ending transmission.”
Kurt looked around the room at the faces of the other astronauts in the room. They were all shocked and speechless for a moment. Rin was the most upset of all. She had the look of a woman who had been betrayed and lied to for months, and for good reason.
“Rin-” Kurt started, but he couldn’t find the words.
Rin walked over the airlock and started the airlock sequence. “I’m going for a walk,” she managed to say before locking herself in her suit.
Kurt started to go after her but Kara stopped him, giving him a knowing look and saying, “No. Let her go.”
Everyone avoided Kurt for days after. Anesh and Akshara seemed particularly quiet and kept to themselves, messing around with the diggers and building up the metal stocks.
Rin could not believe she had been betrayed this way. She finally let her guard down, having achieved her lifelong goal of going to Mars, and now this. Perhaps she could forgive him some day, although it felt unlikely, but for now she gave Kurt nothing. She felt a cold chill every time he came near and she ignored his pleading words. “Go away,” was the only thing she could muster to say. She spent many hours a day away from the hab, spending time helping Phoebe who was frantically performing tests for signs of native Martian life, deeper and deeper beneath the surface. She was worried that the algaephage would destroy any traces of native life, if it did exist, and she was running out of time.
Meanwhile, with most of the LEDs destroyed by the proton storm, they were quickly depleting their stores of food. At least they could grow dirt-based food now that they had the perchlorate scrubber, so they started growing the most caloric efficient plant they could think of, potatoes. Much of both green-houses were converted from various hydroponics to dirt grown potatoes. Kurt worked mostly on his own, trying to build larger solar collectors, while everyone else took shifts tending to the potatoes. Kara went back and forth with everyone, trying to mend the group’s wounds, but so far it was not helping.
Norbite spent most of his time fixing Rover One and started to build a smaller backup rover with plans of building a third. He felt horrible for what had happened to Phoebe and Rin and was determined to never let it happen again.