The Aristillus Engineering Club and the Journey to the Center of Mars (chapter 1)

This is the true story of the time the Aristillus Engineering Club (that’s me – Stevie – and six other guys) decided to find a way to the center of Mars.

Well, OK, that’s an exaggeration. Not really the CENTER of Mars, which is 3,390 kilometers straight down … but into the basement of the city, which is 1 kilometer down. Not quite as impressive, I guess, but it was still kind of audacious.

How it started, was like this:

It was just another day in the Aristillus Engineering Club headquarters (although according to Vik, we’d renamed the club “Aristillus Engineering and Infrastructure Research Society” at the last meeting, but according to me, the vote was illegitimate because we hadn’t had a quorum , so there was some ambiguity around what exactly we were called).

By “just another day”, I mean that five of us were hanging around in the hacker-space we set. We’ve got a few folding tables donated by various local businesses, a soldering station with an oscilloscope and a circuit analyzer, a 3-d printer, a workbench and tool-chest where Tiny keeps his hand tools, and the lathe and milling machine he’s building.

The hacker-space is in an empty storefront that Vik’s father owns. It’s part of a cluster of six storefronts on the second level of a C sized tunnel.

Oh, about the tunnel part – did I mention that this all took place in the tunnels of Aristillus, which is an underground city on Mars? Actually, Aristillus used to be in the moon – that’s Earth’s moon – but then there was the War of Terran Aggression, and the Long Trek, and – well, it’s a long story, and we don’t need to get into it here.

But like I was saying, the way it started was that we were hanging around in the Aristillus Engineering Club house, doing various projects (or just reading books, or playing video games), and we got to talking – which is the way that most of our adventures start, come to think of it.

“We should do something”, said Tiny. Tiny’s our resident Texan, at least he says so, but he left Texas and came to Aristillus when he was three years old so I’m not sure that that counts.

“I am doing something – I’m playing video games.” Vik said.

Jinpei squeaked and squawked something – I wasn’t sure what, because pretty much only Tiny can understand him.

Tiny shook his head at both Vik and Jinpei. “Sitting around playing video games – or writing code – isn’t doing something. We should get up off our butts and – you know – do something real.”

“Like what?” Mark asked. Mark is the informal leader of the club, because he’s the oldest, and also because he’s pretty level headed…and the fact that he can design rocket engines doesn’t hurt in and engineering club.

Jason, who’s the second oldest, and is kind of Mark’s opposite in a lot of ways, leaned forward on his elbows on the table, and said “There’s a contest. New World Documentaries is offering a big prize for the best new video series about Aristillus.”

Jinpei said something, and Tiny translated for him, the way he usually does. “How big a prize?”

Jason looked straight at Jinpei and grinned. “Big enough that we could get anything you want for your projects. Rovers, from the army surplus store…or even new computers, straight from Earth!” He looked at Tiny. “And anything you want too. A new lathe.” Tiny’s eyebrows went up a centimeter. “Or an EDM machine.” Tiny’s eyebrows climbed a bit higher. “Mark, you could get a new 3-d metalloceramic printer for prototyping rocket engines.” Jason leaned back in his chair and spread his arms wide, taking in the whole club. “Enough that we could all get anything we wanted.”

Jason, as usual, had captured everyone’s attention, and – from the wide eyes all around the room – had gotten them sharing the same dream he had. Jason can’t code, like Jinpei, design rockets like Jason, or build circuits like Susan, but the one thing he’s an expert at is building dreams…and the club usually ends up going all in on his ideas.

Mark cleared his throat. “OK, so…there’s a contest for the best video documentary. So you’re suggesting that we film ourselves doing some project…but what project, specifically?”

Jason shrugged, then crossed his arms. “That’s beneath my pay grade. I’m sure you’ll come up with something.”

Stevie said “We could do another exploring adventure.”

Mark shook his head. “You remember how bad we got yelled at by our parents after Al’s Protection caught us exploring the TBM racking yard? No way.”

(TBM stands for “tunnel boring machine”, and those are the huge machine that bore out the tunnels that the underground city of Aristillus is built in.)

Jason scoffed. “Mark, afraid of having a good time, as usual.”

Mark said “I’m not afraid of having a good time, I just -“

Stevie said “We don’t have to break any rules – we could go to the surface and explore Dead Man’s Crater.”

There groans around the room. Dead Man’s Crater was pretty boring except for the name, but Stevie was obsessed with it.

There were a few more suggestions of projects to build, or places to explore, but none caught the room on fire. Then finally Jinpei said something, and Tiny translated “What about the basement?”

Mark’s eyebrows pinched together. “This building has a basement?”

Vik shook his head. “No, just the three floors. Under the roadslab is utilities.”

Jinpei said something more, and Tiny said “No, not the building’s basement – the city’s basement. The cradle.”

There was a moment of stunned silence, then a babble of voices as everyone talked at once, tasting the idea, rolling it over, inspecting all sides of it.

“City’s don’t have basements”, you’re probably going to say. And, if you live on Earth, or if you’re in one of the newer outposts on Mars, that’s right. The city of Aristillus is a special case, though.

I was saying earlier that Aristillus used to be on the moon, before it was on Mars. You probably already know the story, but just in case you forgot some parts of it: back in the old days, in 2053, Mike Martin and a bunch of other guys used the anti-gravity drive that Ponzie invented to fly a ship from the Earth to the moon, and then they started digging an undeground city. Eleven years later, in 2064, was The War. The peakers – that’s the Earth military – didn’t want the expats – that’s us here in Aristillus – to live on their own, without government and taxes and stuff, and so they sent an invasion force to Aristillus to try to stop us. The peakers almost won, too, but at the last minute Gamma, the AI, set off the last step of his secret plan. It turned out that for months he’d been building a huge antigravity drive, and when the battle was going against the expats, Gamma set off a bunch of explosives that broke Aristillus free of the moon, and used the AG drive to fly it to Mars orbit. That was called “The Long Trek”, and I wasn’t even born then, so I can’t tell you about it, but my older brother Mark was, and he remembers it. Anyway, after Aristillus got to Mars, all the grown ups used remote controlled bulldozers and other earth moving equipment to dig out a big hole in the surface of Mars (they called that “The Cradle”) and reenforce it with concrete, and then they took Aristillus down from orbit, landed it in the Cradle, and cemented it in place.

The Cradle is still down there, underneath the old city. It’s a big concrete bowl, with pillars and arches and buttresses and stuff. …but no one ever talks about it, or goes there.

“That would be an awesome adventure. We should do it!” Stevie said.

Mark twisted his lips and rubbed his chin, the way he does when he’s thinking. Then he said “It would be a very cool adventure, but -“

“But what?” Jason asked.

“But we have to do it by the book. No trespassing. No breaking rules.”

Stevie made a loud farting soun with his lower lip, and Jinpei said something which Tiny didn’t bother to translate.

Mark looked at them. “I’m serious, guys. This club is about having fun, and learning engineering…but I’m not going to break rules.”

Jason raised an eyebrow and smirked. “…but if we have to bend them…”

Mark shook his head. “No. Not in any club I’m part of.”

Jason shrugged, letting it go, then put up his hands in surrender. “Fine, fine.”

…but knowing Jason, he was just saying what Mark wanted to hear.

Vik asked “So where do we start?”

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