During the world-building process for Red Soil Through Our Fingers, I spent a lot of time on Google Mars exploring the surface of the red planet for possible settings. I settled (no pun intended) on a region just northeast of the Hellas Planitia, a large depression in the southern hemisphere. Hellas is the lowest altitude point on Mars’ surface, and hence the highest ambient pressure and temperature. It is one of the areas with the highest probability of liquid or near-liquid water on the planet.
Below are some excepts from the novel, currently approaching Draft Alpha (first complete revision).
The fictional colony extends roughly a thousand kilometers northeast of Hellas into rugged highlands more characteristic of the southern hemisphere. Hadriaca Caldera, in which much of the novel’s action takes place, is the most remote settlement of the colony, and roughly six kilometers higher in elevation than the Hellas basin.
Malika stole a glance backward. It was before the sunrise, a pale-rose glow ringing the opposite rim of the caldera far behind him, with the majority of the intervening crater in shadow. At seventy-seven kilometers across, the Hadriaca caldera was a smooth, shallow, circular depression in Mars’s otherwise wrinkled southern highlands. In the darkness, Malika couldn’t make out the edges, but he knew where they were. The dome-top lights of over four hundred farms twinkled in the night, the red soil’s only response to the billions of clear pinpoints of light in the heavens above. Some of those lights were large and stationary, others tiny and moving. The HUD projected onto the inner surface of his helmet added identifiers, ranges, and tiny orbs which he could double blink at to bring up communication and other options. The farms of Hadriaca and their machinery were waking up.
The colony is wholly owned and operated by the Rekos-Breland XenoMaterials Corporation, a massive, interplanetary business with ambitions that span the solar system. Their Mars administrative center is in the city of Dao, the capitol of the colony.
Sun-Hee’s lip twisted slightly and she hoped her cheeks weren’t burning. She set her mug down on the table and glared at her counterpart. “I may be new to this position, Boyce, but I’m not as stupid as you seem to think I am.”
“Right back at you. How about a deal? You put the glasses down on the table and turn them off. And in appreciation for talking with the real you, I’ll be completely forthright with you.”
“I very much doubt that, Mr. Boyce.” But she removed her data glasses and folded them. The power light in the corner dimmed, blinked, and went out.
Boyce smiled. “Look, I’m just trying to make a deal. Rekos-Breland and SolStream both benefit from this contract. I benefit from this contract.” His voice dropped low. “And off the record, I’ll have you know that Gareth benefited from a lot of contracts too.”
She stared at Boyce. Her pulse was racing but her mind was blank. Boyce made a grand sweep of his hand towards the other side of the plaza, and Sun-Hee followed his gesture. Through the north wall of the plaza dome she could see the rugged ridge lines to the northeast climbing upwards towards Hadriaca Caldera. She tried to keep her breathing even.
“This is the frontier, Ms. Yoo, and we’re all out here looking for something. There’s a lot to be gained for those who know how to listen when opportunity knocks. Believe me when I say that I can make sure you get whatever it is you’re looking for.”
She stood up, politely thanked him for the drink, and stepped away into the glittering dome of Spirit Plaza.
He held them out to her in his hand and she took them. As soon as she powered them up and put them on, a private message notification popped up in the corner of her vision.
“My private number,” he said. “Secure. In case you ever want to talk.”
She nodded and turned without saying anything, and walked away toward her office.
Google Mars has also been great at giving me a zoomed in sense of what it might be like to descend from Hadriaca down to Dao. I put that simulation + imagination to work in describing a train ride that Malika takes from his remote settlement in the highlands down to the big city:
Malika had been dozing when the train jerked into motion and woke him. He was on the earliest train down to to Dao, and through his window he could see that it was barely past sunrise on the lip of the caldera. Hadriaca was a shallow, relatively smooth depression in the otherwise creased and rugged highlands to the northeast of Hellas Planitia. The ground looking southwest sloped away gently, undulating in ripples of rusty red in the cold morning light.
Directly in front of the train, the rails and supply lines that connected Hadriana merged in a Y with those going off to Cañas to the north. They tracked backwards down the slope where a few hundred kilometers further, just beyond the horizon, they merged with lines headed to the mining community of Coronae, and then further on down towards Dao, the capitol.
At roughly five hundred and fifty kilometers away, Dao itself was well beyond the close Martian horizon, even considering Hadriaca’s elevation. But the northern ends of the side by side valleys of Dao Vallis and Niger Vallis were visible to the east. In a flyer, one could follow Dao Vallis south and find the city of Dao on its western edge, and on the far eastern side of Niger Vallis there was another small farming community.
Beyond Dao, one could travel another five hundred kilometers southeast into the Hellas Planitia, the great impact crater that sported the lowest altitudes on the red planet, as low as several hundred meters below the datum. The slightly denser atmosphere at the bottom of Hellas allowed for the higher ambient pressures and temperatures that made it one of the most suitable points on the planet for in-situ extraction of liquid water from the ground and gaseous carbon dioxide from the air.
Though there were higher mountains behind Hadriaca to the north, the settlement was at present the furthest reach of RBX and the Hellas-Dao colony into the southern highlands. In all, Malika would descend over three kilometers in altitude on the ride down to Dao. There were few stops. The spaces between settlements were vast and empty, connected only by over a thousand kilometers of supply lines which carried the essentials for human and agricultural life like arteries into the highlands. The trip to Dao would take less than three and a half hours by rail.
What an incredible tool! I sometimes have to stop and think how amazing it is that we have the real imagery, topographical information, and computational systems necessary to assembling a navigable, detailed, three-dimensional model of another planet. I can’t wait until I can nerd out to other planets in the solar system too… and perhaps sooner than we think, planets beyond our solar system as well.