Far beyond the classroom windows, one can see the dome’s transparent wall, separating life from death, heat from freezing cold. Grownups always say there’s nothing beyond that wall, that there’s nothing unusual about Mars’s bleak landscape.
But a careful observer might see things differently. The ancient, wind-worn rocks can come to life miraculously, resembling sights from long-gone eras. A knight in armour, ready to strike. A big elephant and its calf. The red dust, carried by the wind, seems to form waves like those seen in documentaries about oceans.
“John Hooverbart, which of the jobs just mentioned would you like to have?”
The round-faced, short-haired boy starts, hearing his name spoken out loud. He glances at the teacher’s frowning face and realises he’s in trouble.
“None, teacher,” he answers as seriously as he can.
“Really? Then you haven’t been paying attention!” she says, sounding slightly irritated.
“You haven’t mentioned my job.”
“Is that so? Can you tell us what it’s called?” the teacher asks, bemused.
“When I grow up, I want to be an earthman!”
Laughter echoes around the classroom.
“Being an earthman isn’t a job. So, you want to live on the planet our ancestors inhabited before the Great Ice Age?”
“I want to go back to where we came from. I don’t belong here,” the boy replies honestly.
More peals of laughter from his colleagues.
“You haven’t been anywhere before!” the teacher cries. “Neither have your parents, nor your grandparents. We were all been born on Mars, under these fantastic domes built by our ancestors.”
“Yes, miss, but I want to be an earthman…”
“First, you have to finish school. And to do that, you need to at least try to pay attention to your classes!”
When that day’s classes finally ended, the boy hoisted his backpack on one shoulder and went home, sad and lost in thought. He didn’t feel like doing anything, as his classmates’ laughter still resounded in his ears.
He went down the alleys leading to the residential area, trying to ignore the chuckles behind him. He focused on walking, on stepping right in the middle of the clay tiles, without touching the lines between them. For him, it was a game; for the others, it was another chance to joke at his expense.
Earthman Johnny / Walking is so stumpy!
When they reached the park in the centre of the habitat, the children went their separate ways, each towards his or her own home. John was left all alone, with the world suddenly quiet around him. The only noise was that of trains running on the suspension railway from time to time, travelling from one dome to the next.
He reached his home and pressed his right palm against the biometric identification surface. The door opened. There was nobody home, his parents were at work, and his younger sister was still in kindergarten. The solitude didn’t bother him. On the contrary, there was nobody there to bother him as he watched a documentary about lions living in the savannah on the multimedia device in his room.
A few months later, Joseph Mitchell – a classmate John got along with quite well – found his family disintegrating before his very eyes. His father, Mister Mitchell, abandoned his family without a word or note to say goodbye. Joseph’s mother was deeply affected by his leaving and fell into a deep depression, which got her institutionalised in a facility for mental afflictions.
Before he knew it, Joseph effectively lost both his parents and ended up at the mercy of social services. Disoriented, he chose to take refuge in an inner world, rarely bothering to interact with those around him, and his grades in school dropped more and more each day. At first out of pity, and later out of sincere friendship, John tried to help him recover. They did their homework and played together, then ate dinner together in the Hooverbart home.
Studying consisted mostly of John doing his best to read the lesson out loud, while his friend grumbled disapprovingly.
Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa in 1451, to a family of prosperous tradesmen. He married a governor’s daughter but did not allow himself to indulge in a carefree lifestyle. He believed that journeys to Asia could be shortened and he was determined to prove it by going on an expedition.
“He was nuts! He had everything he could ever want at home, but he wanted to roam around like a madman? Why do we have to learn about him? He lived on another planet, a long time ago.”
“He wasn’t insane, and Earth isn’t just ‘another planet’! We should have lived there, too!”
“Whatever, fine, read on. But skip to the next lesson, I’ve had enough of this Columbus guy.”
John glanced up at him, none too pleased, but obligingly jumped a few pages.
Centuries later, humanity began its conquest of outer space. One of the most important missions at the time was Apollo 11, when, merely eight years after the first man escaped earth’s atmosphere, human beings first landed on the moon.
“Wait a minute. Eight earth years? Is that about four of our years?”
“Yeah, Joseph. Why’d you ask?”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard! Did people actually fly to the moon that early?”
“Yup. Why are you so freaked out?”
“They should have sent robots first. Or monkeys!”
John glanced at his friend, not knowing whether to laugh or not. He found it very hard to read lessons out loud when he was interrupted every other minute. But, strangely enough, Joseph’s snide remarks made sure he’d remember them better.
Nothing could compare, however, with the bravery of the first explorers who headed towards Mars, even if manned trips to the Moon had become routine at that point. If we scale down distances, we can say that the difference between a voyage to the Moon and one to Mars is comparable to that between a trip to the shop on the corner of the street and one to the supermarket 20 kilometres away.
Joseph stood up and said, “You know what? That’s enough homework for one day. Let’s go out. How about we have some chocolate ice cream?”
What could John say? He nodded. They raced each other to the cake shop two streets away from John’s house, where Madam Yadira took their orders – she was a blond saleswoman, slightly plumper than most people on Mars, which was only natural when she sold delicious cakes and ice cream. They often went there, so they were on friendly terms with everyone. Sometimes, Madam Yadira made them work for free ice cream. They supervised the floor-cleaning robot, they helped with stacking up packages and wrappings, or they did other tiny, annoying things to earn their treats. Afterwards, they spent long hours sitting at the tables outside the shop, lost in conversation or playing games.
Their friendship was put on hold a few weeks later, however, when Joseph was moved to another school, four domes away. Visibly changed for the better, he seemed resigned to his lot in life.
By the time he finished his compulsory education, John was a tall young man, with an athletic build. Only his thick, short hair made him resemble the little boy who used to daydream about adventures outside Martian domes.
His final evaluation results were good enough to allow him to continue his education on an academic course, but he refused. His parents were disappointed; they couldn’t understand why he wanted to apply for a job, instead of preparing himself for a career which would yield much more money later.
They had no idea that John was following a plan he’d come up with in childhood. He wanted to work until he had enough money for a one-way trip to Earth. There, he would apply for a job with the intervention teams charged with preparing the planet for repopulation.
It was easy enough to imagine the shock his parents felt when he started telling them what he had in mind, speaking with a natural tone of voice.
“I want to go to Earth. I have a ticket on one of the cargo ships leaving next week.”
“You can’t be serious! Where’d you get that idea from? Who’ll be there for you in that wilderness?”
His mother seemed to be panicking.
“Nobody. I’ll be on my own, but I want to go there and be a part of the intervention teams.”
“Where did you get the money for the ticket?” his father asked.
“I saved it,” John answered. “I something aside every time I got my salary.”
“That’s why you didn’t want to go on with your studies, isn’t it?”
“Maybe. What difference does it make? Studies or not, I was going to leave anyway.”
“On a cargo ship! Like a beggar!” his mother cried. “Wait a little longer, until you save enough to afford decent transportation. We might be able to help, too…”
“I’m sorry, I want to leave as quickly as possible.”
After a moment’s silence, his father asked, “And when are you coming back?”
“I don’t know,” John replied, disarmingly honest.
From that day on, his relationship with his family became a lot cooler. His parents were upset about his leaving, and about his not telling them about it sooner. Everything was happening too quickly. Even his younger sister pouted at him and treated him like a stranger.
At work, his colleagues weren’t very enthusiastic when they heard the news, either. They were a tight-knit group and got along both during work hours and outside them, as they often went out for a beer after work.
The team leader, an older, dwarfish man, with a wrinkly face and sunken eyes, had earned everyone’s respect because of the way he treated them. He rarely shouted, and he never insulted anyone. Or, rather, John had never heard a bad word come out of his mouth until the day he announced he was leaving. Then, the man pulled him aside.
“John,” he said, “think about what you’re doing. It won’t be long until I retire. It’s a beautiful job, but I’m not getting any younger. I need someone to take my place, and of all the scallywags here, you’re the only one who doesn’t have sawdust for brains. I want to promote you to team leader at an age when others can’t even dream of such a thing. Think about it, don’t be so eager to leave.”
The old man was right in his own way. The climate maintenance machines ensured the optimal atmosphere composition under the domes, and the very lives of those who lived on Mars depended on them. Those who manned them were well-paid, and as a team leader he would have a decent, carefree life.
Faced with the option, he remembered Christopher Columbus, who’d been in similar situation hundreds of years before, when he had to choose between a comfortable life and a journey fraught with danger, but which promised adventure and all sorts of discoveries. He didn’t have to think long about it, though. To hell with comfort, that’s for annoying people!
He tried to phrase an elegant decline, but judging by the man’s obvious disappointment, he didn’t manage to make it sting any less.
On the day of his leaving, his father walked with him to the embarkation area, and once they got there, he turned to his son.
“I can’t stop you from choosing your own path,” he said. “All I can wish for is to see you again, sooner or later.”
Seeing a tear rolling down from the corner of his father’s eye, John felt the need to leave room for at least a bit of hope.
“I promise, if I can’t do well on Earth, I’ll return to Mars.”
They hugged, then John went on his way to the great cargo ship. At one point, it had been an imposing, glittering ship, but now SC 417 had only one remarkable trait: the large collection of different patches which covered the hull in the numerous places where it had been damaged during four hundred years of service.
Its shape resembled that of a pregnant whale, which had made some sense in the beginning when it had been designed to transport ore from the mines on the Moon to Earth foundries. Now it looked almost ridiculous with its rows of improvised portholes on the sides, where they’d made compartments for passengers.
He was led to his small cabin, which could have sucked the soul out of even the most enthusiastic traveller with its grey walls and furniture. However, right now it wasn’t the journey that was important, but the destination. Therefore, he had no reason to complain about his lodgings.
He’d been in space before, but only in small ships, when he and his friends had been on school trips around the orbit. If lift-off could barely be felt in the small, modern ships, the same was not true of the cargo ship’s lumbering take-off. The old engines started whirring with a deafening sound, which made the ship’s metal structure vibrate so hard that it seemed about to explode rather than to leave orbit.
As if by miracle, the ship managed to break away safely from the reddish ground and it slowly stopped vibrating and whirring. Mars, haven to those who’d survived the Great Ice Age, was getting smaller and smaller behind them. John’s thoughts and gaze turned now towards the planet of his ancestors, which would one day be inhabitable again.