Xander felt a tug at his shirt. He looked down at the younger boy, who peered back. Armondo, holding a red, rubbery ball with one hand, pushed up to his toes and then, in slow motion, landed softly back on his heels.
"Oh, alright," said Xander. "We'll play just one round. But that's it, okay?"
The black-haired boy nodded sharply. He bolted towards an indoor court nearby, light frame gliding between each step, as if moving through water. Just inside the doorway he froze before turning to wait for his companion. A glittering of pale, pink dust rose behind, riding air currents warmed by late morning light streaming through a transparent dome. To one side a sagging, metal cage held dozens of solid-colored balls, similar to the one Armondo had in his grasp.
"So, will it be tournament rules or free-for-all?" Xander asked as he entered the room.
"Free-for-all with no time limit!"
"Woa, now. We need a time limit, little dude. Let's make it ten minutes. That way we won't be late for lunch."
Armondo pivoted, pushing with one leg against the cushioned floor mat. He was headed straight for the center of a circular goal post that jutted from the metal walls several meters up above him. Xander repeated Armondo's technique. Their bodies made long arcs through the air, until each landed on one foot. They both leaped again. Armondo shot the ball into the target, Xander's extended arms trying to block.
Caroline entered just as Armondo scored the point. She watched Xander gently shove the smaller boy into the spongy netting between the arms of the goal post. Xander landed, and turned to look at Armondo who slowly bobbed up and down in his temporary nest.
Leaning against a padded support column near the door, Caroline shook her head in mock disapproval.
"Have you even played this sport before?" she teased.
"Sure, lotsa times," Xander chin pushed higher. "They don't call me the Splunk Kid for nothin', you know!"
"Right. Let me show you how it's done." Caroline removed a utility belt strapped around her upper thigh and set it on the floor. She grabbed a yellow ball from the pile in the cage before launching herself with both legs towards the boys. She was headed directly for Xander at high speed. The adolescent took a step back. At the half-way point she twisted up and away, still in mid-air. While upside-down, she deftly tossed the ball over Xander's head, just out of his reach. It arced into the webbing at the uppermost part of the goal, rolled down the incline, and collided with the other ball lying next to Armondo. The pliable surfaces stuck together. Descending, Caroline did a quick reverse flip to make a solid landing. Her auburn hair took on an orange halo where the sunlight peeked through.
Arms crossed, she peered at Xander with a slight tilt of her head.
"Splunk kid, huh?”
"Show off." He broke out a good-natured smile.
Caroline had learned the game of Splunk while growing up on Earth. She had been happy to see its popularity quickly spread through the Martian colonies, where players could perform acrobatic maneuvers that were impossible in the stronger Terran gravity. The Splunk balls themselves were made of stiffened, rubbery gelatin. Thrown with enough force they would fuse together, but too hard and they would disintegrate in the hand of the thrower. With aggressive play thus discouraged, the sport promoted tact and strategy, as well as grace of body movements.
Armondo scrambled out of the netting, holding the connected mass of red and yellow with both hands. He drifted to the floor, then ran up to the much taller woman.
"Wow, that was really somethin'! Do it again!" He absentmindedly played with the glob, kneading it with both hands, his gaze fixed solidly on her face.
"Sorry, kiddos, but I gotta get back to work." She picked up her utility belt, strapped it back around her thigh, and ruffled Armondo's hair on her way out of the play area. He stared back in awe, black locks sticking straight out.
Once in the corridor, Caroline pulled a square data collection device from her belt. She began pouring over vegetation growth and density readings she had gathered the previous day on her weekly foray around the crater's perimeter. The scanner's green glow reflected off the burnished metal walls of the pre-fabricated building. Just around the next corner she entered her cramped office and switched on an overhead light. Some reddish brown sediment had managed to get through the air filters and settle into a thin layer in the corner of the floor.
She made a mental note to notify the maintenance crew of the problem. Walking over to her desk, she sat down and placed the scanner in its cradle to begin the download into the town's DNA-based storage system. She'd always thought of the underground vat of organic memory as a kind of disembodied brain, connected to storage systems in other communities through bundles of above-ground fiber optic cables, like a web of spinal cords laced across the Martian terrain. She watched the data transfer. Recent measurements from wind storms, which occasionally raged in the unclaimed desert areas, indicated they were still too intense to allow construction of the network hubs needed before a global, wireless communications grid could be established.
Out of habit she reached into the air in front of her to input some notes to the grid, but pulled her hand short when she remembered where she was. With a sigh she grabbed an electro-pen off the desktop and tapped the surface of the collection device to insert her comments. The lack of a direct connection to a wireless network had been difficult for Caroline to get used to. Most citizens on Earth were given the necessary implants shortly after birth, but she had not received them until the age of six. After a short period of adjustment her verbal communication skill developed rapidly, until there was little trace left of her mutism. She quickly caught up to her peers academically, and as a teenager often outpaced them in athletic ability. Now, without the use of the grid and the intimate access to a universe of information it provided, her daily reality often seemed mundane.
"Dr. Nurinne?" someone called out from the corridor. Caroline hesitated, still unaccustomed to the title which had always been her mother's while she was growing up.
"I'll be there in a sec," she shouted back. Her adoptive parents still lived in Shore, the capital city of the continent-state of Chiyan on Earth. Her mother, Dr. Tanielle Nurinne, widely known for her work in disease prevention, was the originator of the mathematics that allowed for the harnessing of power from dark matter.
Concentrating on her work, she mentally calculated the rate of expansion of fresh vegetation around the immediate area and compared it to last week's results. She noted that the progression had slowed slightly from her predictions. A curious development, but it will have to wait for further analysis.
She detached the portable device from its desktop base, reattached it to her belt, and left her office to see what was happening outside.
In the hallway a commotion was taking place between several of the other scientists. Larkin Rand, a mineralogist, was arguing with Jules Thorkoff, an evolutionary ecologist. Others watched in mild amusement, enjoying the diversion from the routine of their daily work schedules.
"You can't extract niobium from the upper layer of the floral substrate without the procedure impacting the nutrient value of the soil!" Jules stated adamantly.
"But we need it for the expansion of the elevator system," Larkin calmly responded. Maybe that would explain the decelerated plant growth,
Caroline thought. During her twelve Earth months on Mars, just half the Martian year, the construction of the space elevators had begun, allowing supply craft from Earth to dock at the upper nodes of the hollow shafts and send supplies and passengers planet-side. Cargo, as well as passengers leaving the surface, were shot up the elevators using magnetic propulsion, which required only modest amounts of energy because of the low friction of the superconducting material coating the inner surface of the conduits.
"Besides," Jules continued, "it's available in the unclaimed areas. Why disturb the biome when you can send your infernal machines out into the desert?"
"The harsh conditions in the outlying areas eat up our equipment in no time. You know that, Jules," Larkin replied.
With a pleading look the ecologist turned to Caroline. "Carol, please talk some sense into Larry. The man is being completely obstinate."
"Well, in the unclaimed areas you could run the extractors at night, when the storms are minimal," she said, "and during the day you can continue in the green zones where you can use nitrogen and organic phosphate injections to bolster root growth."
"You see, I knew you could move your activities away from the all-important areas of life," Jules stated. He turned back to Larkin, who replied, "She was supporting me, not you!"
Caroline shook her head and walked away while the two still bickered. She would wait a day or so, and if the disagreement was not yet resolved, would then weigh in with a decision. Right now a rumbling in her stomach told her it was time to head down the corridor towards the kitchen.
"Leave it to Carol to be the voice of moderation." The female voice came from behind.
"Oh, hey Roe, I didn't see you back there." Caroline turned, and stopped to talk to her friend. The light-haired woman caught up to Caroline and they continued towards the food dispensers.
"Men! Do they ever accomplish anything?" Roe asked, rolling her eyes. The young biologist had applied to join the team after working only a year in the high altitudes of the Himalayas. Assigned as the group's entomologist, her expertise was needed only as a result of the unintentional introduction of insects to this planet. The creatures had hitched a ride on the earliest space craft that brought the materials for the construction of the gas production factories. They held the distinction of being the Earth's first macroscopic residents of an alien world.
"You know," Caroline responded, "the male of the species can be useful in other ways." The two shared a laugh as they took their meals and sat down at an unoccupied table. Caroline had come to value her one close friend more than anyone she had known on Earth, besides her family. They shared a passion for the life sciences, and while Caroline's experience and background made her the lead member of her group, she valued Roe's insight and would often confer with her before making a decision.
Roe looked intently across the table. "So how are things going with Garrett?"
"I don't think it's going anywhere, really," Caroline replied as she played with her food.
"Oh." The two ate in silence for a few moments.
The discussion continued when Roe asked, "How soon are we scheduled for the team excursion?" She seemed eager at the thought of her first trip into the depths of the unclaimed areas.
"No definite time table yet," was Caroline's reply, "but soon, I think. We need to get that information before too long or we'll never be able to sustain our presence here." There were just a few hundred populated areas on Mars, with no more that several thousand residents each, and all were clustered together in a particularly wet and fertile region about a thousand kilometers in diameter. Surrounded by the extremes of Martian weather, this inhabited zone was in constant danger of being taken back by the encroachment of the lifeless environment that still covered much of the planet's surface.
"It's too bad the satellites have trouble retrieving uncorrupted data from that close to the surface. And I know we can't afford to try sending more bots to the factories," Roe said. "Hard to believe even the laser equipment got destroyed by the sand storms." All attempts to retrieve the atmospheric data, collected by sensors placed on the tops of the factories nearest to the towns, had ended in disaster. It didn't make sense at first, but eventually the scientists on Caroline's team had determined that instead of diminishing, as their models suggested, the conditions in the upper atmosphere were actually getting worse as the areas of inhabited land spread. It was a kind of kickback by the environment against the expanding bubbles of life. Like pushing on a coiled spring, it made the rebound even stronger.
"Our only option is to manually gather the data," Caroline confirmed. "A copter can fly us there as long as we avoid the storms."
She paused to take another bite of food. "Think you're up for it?"
Roe let her breath out slowly. "If you think we can do it, Carol, then yes, I'm up for it."
Caroline smiled in return, grateful for her friend's confidence. They continued their meal with a more relaxed conversation, finally finishing up and heading their separate ways. The outing could be a taxing affair,
Caroline thought as she headed towards her quarters. The sandstorms were more frequent than before the colonists arrived, and although they were more localized than the mega-storms of the past, they still brought high-force winds with them.
As she approached her room’s doorway, Caroline noticed a yellow, flashing light that fell into the hallway. Once in her living space she walked over to the video phone, and with the press of a button it displayed the source of the signal. The call had come from her parents. Caroline could only hope that her mother's nerve degeneration hadn't flared up again. She anxiously sent back an acceptance message for the interplanetary link-up.
Communications between the two worlds was an infrequent affair. The directed laser beams that carried the feeds needed to be finely tuned at the source due to the slight spread of the signal over millions of kilometers. Slight miscalculations of positioning, as well as adverse weather conditions, could cause a significant loss of quality. Once on Mars the signals were routed through lines that were often heavily loaded with scientific data. There was also the matter of the time delay, with a pause lasing up to nearly fifteen minutes each way. It made for a cumbersome way to talk.
Using a visual memory of the current orbital positions of Earth and Mars, Caroline determined they were at one of their closest approaches. She knew it would still take several minutes before she got a reply back from Earth, if it came back at all. In the meantime she kept herself occupied by doing some tidying up of personal items around her room, and with organizing some of her equipment. The room furnishings provided for each scientist were minimal, but they still took up a fair amount of space in the tight quarters. It paid to keep her belongings neatly arranged.
Eventually a click from the wall phone told her someone was returning her invitation. An image appeared on the small screen of the device.
"Hey, sweetheart, it's me." The stuttering frames from the weak signal revealed the distorted, smiling face of her father, accompanied by his familiar voice. She had a strong urge to reply, but restrained herself as his message, broken by crackles and pops, continued.
"They tell me I don't have a lot of time to talk, so this may be a one-sided conversation. Your mother's had a slight relapse, but don't worry too much as it's nothing very serious. And you know her! She's already started to track down a solution herself."
Caroline couldn't keep stop herself from picturing a world without her mother. It was a future she had always avoided thinking about, but before she could dwell on it her father continued.
"They say I need to finish up quickly since the signal power is dropping fast. I know you're probably a little nervous right now, honey, but don't worry yourself too much. We've been through worse, and your mother is too smart and too strong a woman to let this get the best of her. We'll let you know as soon as-"
The connection cut off. Caroline could feel her heart pounding in her chest as her mind raced to consider the available options. Once every day a feed was piped through carrying the day’s news, along with any social media communications for the town's residents. Perhaps her father would send additional word to her that way. There was also the dedicated audio channel, but that was reserved for emergency use only. For now, at least, this was not a life or death situation. Maybe I can try again later, when the signal is stronger.
She made a mental note to check back periodically. Caroline left the room, and headed towards her office to finish up the day's work.