Uriah squatted, poked at the semi-jellied orange mass. “Do you think it’s alive?”
“Naw," Brandon said, "Look, it’s all mashed and oozy. It probably was alive, but not now. I’ll bet it’s just some Mars moss gone bad. They been growing it all over the place.”
“Yeah, but not here, not so close to the domes. My dad says it can only live on the windward sides of craters and chasms where the dust storms can’t get to it. Come on, shorty, we need to get back before the sun sets.”
“I’m not short. Only one and a quarter centimeter under you.”
Uriah elbowed his friend. “Are too.”
The boys stuck together everywhere they went, every adventure—Tom and Huck. Though, Brandon thought his fifth-gen friend, Uriah, took too much for granted. In his opinion, Brandon, through some imagined generational knowledge osmosis, considered his nineteenth-gen family had a better understanding of what it had taken to make Mars habitable enough to wear winter Earth clothing and belted oxygen concentrators while on the surface during daylight hours. Nobody ventured out alone, or beyond sight of their home dome unless on a sanctioned exploration or survey. Even then, it was by encapsulated ground crawlers.
Brandon was eager to grow up, to sign on with a land survey crew, or become a real explorer out in the belt. Mars, having the same landmass as Earth, still had hundreds of thousands of places left for the human eye to cast first-person sight. Brandon’s mom wanted him to be an agronomist like her. He preferred not to but had learned to keep that to himself.
The ten-year-old boys had been pals since the first day of school, drawn by each other’s gravity. Unaware of outside influences, their orbits occasionally became slightly oval, slightly eccentric, sometimes appearing in retrograde, but always returned to synchronicity about the common center of shared boyhood. This duality would remain quite stable until a wandering, sparkling comet named Becky came into the system, still years away, out of sight, unimaginable to the boys at this point. It would become a three-body problem; a complicated, if not impossible, thing to calculate.
Tens of millions of years ago, a series of metal- and crystal-laced bodies lined up, crashed into the surface of Mars, creating a chain of craters across a quarter of the globe. It had been those collisions which gave Mars a lopsided, slight magnetic surface field in places. The first crystals returned to Earth, raised speculation as to their future uses. It had been the combination of low atmospheric heating on the final descent, followed by intermingling with melted surface oxides that created a unique, very difficult and expensive to reproduce, lattice structure. Those precise interstitial defects made them ideal for everything from realistic holographic projection to aerogel quantum computer manufacturing. It had been a fortuitous find that pushed colonization and mining. Well before that, several large, close-approach ice ball comets were available to force crash into the Red Planet, increasing the atmospheric density and locking more water as ice on the surface.
In the time between comet impacts and colonization, bio-gene manipulation solved the gravity problem for colonists, or at least for their children, and through genetic inheritance, subsequent generations: those Mars born. First-gen adults, even with bone-strengthening meds and special diets, still had to spend at least two hours a day on the tramps, treadmills, and elastic-band machines to maintain bone density and muscle tone for the rest of their lives. They never would develop the increased lung capacity their children would have for coping with the low atmospheric pressure and oxygen levels under the domes. For them, it was like living three miles above sea level on Earth, but they could acclimate. Strength, however, was still a necessary thing. While the gravity on Mars is forty percent of Earth’s, it didn’t negate the mass of objects. A twenty-kilogram mass on Mars still had the same inertia as on Earth and required the same force to start or stop motion. Everywhere in the cosmos, force is always equal to mass times acceleration.
Things were still changing. Even now, smaller, more easily directed water-bearing space clumps are being steered to skip-orbit into and out of the Mars atmosphere before finally giving up their treasure to the thickening atmosphere. Full terraforming and self-sufficiency were still a long way off for the Martians, but they paid their way.
Brandon sat on the bench during most Marsball games, while Uriah became, while not the star player, a notable one. He didn’t envy his friend or console himself as being the brainy one of the pair. No, he enjoyed watching his buddy and high school team from that ground-level position, with enough game time thrown his way to satisfy his small need. His only lament was not knowing how it looked to Becky, a family transfer last year from another dome. Until recently, neither boy felt confident enough to consider having a girlfriend. They thought about it—a lot. Brandon knew Uriah also had his eye on her. He’d given Brandon the nudge during lunch one day last year when the new girl walked by, ponytail swishing like a fishing lure. Neither had yet made the decision or gathered up the courage to peek over that precipice to view the undiscovered country—until tonight.
Brandon took a chance, leaving the bench, knowing he’d not be called on in the waning minutes of a tight game. He stopped only long enough to rub some dirt on his uniform and give his face a little smudge before taking that long climb of ten steps into the student section. Becky accepted his excuse of a bruised ankle for the reason he wasn’t still sitting with the team.
Becky invited him to her wedding. He declined. His excuse was being too far away, harnessing metal and water-bearing asteroids, directing them into a trajectory that would put them in Mars orbit. Even though both had dated her, neither Uriah nor he had won her hand. University, it seemed, was their Achilles heel, as she found her champion there. Now young men, past their teenage angst years, they stoically chalked up their time with her as good experience, learning the language of the opposite sex, decoding their body language.
Occasionally, Uriah and Brandon would be in the same belt sector. Uriah’s natural, youthful skills as a Marsball player made him an excellent tug driver. Brandon’s talents leaned more toward math and chemistry. In the belt, the drivers and survey teams held to a tight camaraderie. Being on the same six months on and six off cycle gave the friends time to extend and deepen their friendship—exchanging and sharing the victories and defeats of adult life. When off-shift on Mars, they worked the agri fields under the domes. It was enjoyable restorative exercise and a way to work out the stress, and kinks that belt work pressed into their bones. Brandon didn’t accommodate or give way to Uriah’s missing leg, lost in an accident when another tug ripped into his ten years ago. To him, Uriah was still the same, always his buddy. They weren’t too sure how the other’s wife and kids melded with theirs during occasional get-togethers. It didn’t matter to them, not really.
“Hey, Brandon, remember when we jacked up old Thompson’s tractor? How he cursed and yelled at it when it wouldn’t move? Boy, he was looking to murder someone when he looked underneath.”
Brandon rubbed the back of his neck, trying not to smile too much. He’d married Thompson’s granddaughter, and she was standing beside him as he sat alongside the bed of his dying friend.
“Yeah, we were something back then, a proper pair of delinquents.”
“Naw, not delinquents. Just boys.”
“Guess you’re right, Uriah. Just boys.”
“Where did the years go, old buddy? It seems like yesterday we were poking about as boys. Now, look at us. Me dying and you a wrinkled, stooped-over old man.”
“I’m not stooped-over. I’m just leaning in.”
Uriah took a labored breath. “Are too.” His last words.
Author’s note: Everyone’s life is an exploration. Whether traveling the world or remaining in one’s community, the connected commonality of being human, experiencing growing up, then growing old has universal truths. It is we, each of us, who can choose to look over the edge or not.