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From Mars on a Handcart

by Kevin Salls

Snip, snip, snip.


I hold myself still and straight while Mara works. Her fingers twine and pull through my

hair, feeling for the right length while her other hand manages the scissors. Now would be a good

time to talk about it, I think, but I can’t find the words. I try to relax, to enjoy the moment, the

feeling of her fingers in my hair, but I can’t convince my shoulders to unknot. Brown tufts fall

away from my head in clumps, tickling and itching where they slip past the plastic apron slung

over my shoulders. Mara scuffs them under the stool I’m sitting on as she goes, trying to keep all

the clippings in one place. The manager of the domes hates that we cut our own hair. Clogs the

filters, he says, but he can’t stop us. Maybe he’s got thirty extra credits lying around for a haircut

every month, but he doesn’t have three children to account for.


The kids are outside, playing, and if I turned my head to the side, I can see them through

the glass window. They’re playing tag in the red dust and thin grigi plants outside our dome,

wearing nothing more than rebreathers and goggles. You couldn’t do that a generation ago, and I

still find it too cold. The Martian air is too thin on my skin to tolerate without a suit, but they

love it. My heart aches as I watch their play; they won’t be able to do this much longer. Aaron,

our youngest, trips and goes down hard, or at least as hard as you can in a third of standard

gravity, trying to keep up with his older brothers. Sprawling and rolling in the dirt, he pops back

to his feet a moment later and takes off after his siblings again, his blond hair stained red.


“You’re tense, Eddie.” Mara remarks, giving my hair a little tug to get my attention. “What’s on your mind?”


I puff out my cheeks and blow out a long breath, trying to order my thoughts and

managing only to scatter a flurry of hair through the air. “Nothing, really.” I say, stalling.


“Long day at work?”


Just tell her. The longer you put it off, the worse it will be. “No, it was fine. Just the

usual; same batch of engineering reports as every day.”


“The government does love its paperwork.” She observes, working the scissors around

my ear.


Why do we call it that? The only paper I’d ever seen was in old books, heirlooms from

Earth. I couldn’t imagine why you’d bother writing reports on the stuff. How would you change

it later if you needed to? “It sure does.” I agree, trying to fill the silence.


“Come on, seriously. What’s going on?” She gives my ear a playful pinch. “You worried

about George complaining about the filters? You know he just likes to gripe.” Her voice takes on

a teasing tone. “We could always cut your hair outside if you’re really worried.”


I laugh, but it comes out as a short bark rather than with any real mirth, and her hands

still. I sigh, knowing that there’s no way out of having this conversation, whether I’m ready for it

or not. “Elder Chambers called today.”


She waits for a long moment before resuming her work, scissors snapping back and forth.

Elder Chambers is our Area Seventy, and he’s not prone to casual conversation. “And?”


“He’d like us to come in and meet with him tomorrow night.”


She drops her hands from my head and steps around to look at me. I have to crane my

head up to meet her eyes. The stool is kid-sized, and she has the tall, willowy figure that come

with living your whole life in low gravity. Meanwhile, I’ve got the squat frame of a transplant

from Earth. We’re a study in contrasts that way; I’m short where she’s tall, dark where she’s

pale, and brown where she’s blond. But I can tell she’s feeling the same shock I was earlier.

“The Titan colony?” She whispers, scissors dangling loose from her hand.


“Probably.” I admit. “He didn’t say for sure, but I can’t see it being anything else.”


“Well, call him back and tell him no way!” She says, jabbing the scissors at me. “Tell

him to go take a hike right up Olympus Mons and over the edge!”


“Mara,” I start, trying for a patient tone. I know I should let her vent, but I don’t want her

all worked up. “They wouldn’t ask us if they didn’t think that we weren’t the right people for the

job.”


“Well they’re wrong, then, aren’t they?” She tosses the scissors onto the counter with a

clatter. “You’re all done, you can get up.”


I stand and knock the worst of the hair onto the floor from the apron before taking it off. Usually I’d go shower off right now, rather than deal with the hairs itching down my shirt for the

rest of the day, but I need to deal with this. “We should do it.”


It comes out all wrong, blunt and commanding, and her eyes flare. “Oh we should, should

we?” She snaps, he hands on her hips. “We should rip up stakes and go live in some heaven

forsaken frozen wasteland-”


“Not frozen.” I interject. “The orbital mirrors have some of the water around the equator

as a liquid, and it’s warming every day.”


“Great.” She says sarcastically. “So we’ll, what, spend the rest of our lives living in a

little floating capsule?”


“Come on Mara, how is that so different from here?” The kids won’t be able to play

outside, for starters, part of me thinks, but I push the thought away. I need her on my side.

“My folks won’t be there, for one thing.” She puts a hand up and starts ticking off

reasons on her fingers. “The kids won’t know anyone. We won’t know anyone for that matter.

What will you do for work? There’s not even a temple there!”


“So we’ll help build one, same as we did here.” I say, moving to take her into my arms.


She’s stiff in my arms, and pushes me away after a moment. “You’re covered in hair. You need

to go get cleaned up.” She turns away so I can’t see her face, but I can still hear her voice

cracking. Without another word, she hurries away towards our bedroom.


I hate it when she cries. I want to fix it, make her feel better, but I have a feeling that

anything I say right now will only make things worse. I thump my fist against my thigh,

scattering hair off the apron as the door to our room slides shut. I didn’t like the idea much

either, so why was I defending it? Because if we’re called, we should answer. I sigh, packing

away the apron and the scissors.


Using the little pan and broom, I set about cleaning up, sweeping all the hair into a pile

and scooping it into the recycler. I don’t know if the recycler is technically meant to handle hair.

I’m not that kind of engineer, after all, but I figure it can’t hurt it. It handles every other organic

waste, why not hair too?


I tap out the last of the hair in the pan and hang it next to the chute before heading for the

shower. My bare feet slap on the cold metal floor down the hall, but I pull up short by the

airlock. I’m restless and antsy, and I feel the need to move.


I pull on my tough coveralls, smudged with dust and grit, and stuff my feet into my boots.

Running a hand over my cheeks, I check for stubble. Even a few stray hairs can interfere with the

rebreather seal, but my face is still smooth from yesterday’s shave.


It takes a minute to cycle the airlock, but it’s faster than it was last year, or the year

before that. I swallow and my ears pop, but it doesn’t hurt. Every year sees the air pressure on

the surface rise; we even had an honest rainstorm earlier this year. Mara and the kids had oohed

and awed, since they’d never seen one, while I’d tried not the let the sense of nostalgia

overwhelm me.


When the light over the lock turns green, I let myself out onto the surface. Cold, thin

wind bit through my coveralls, chilling me to the bone and stinging my cheeks. I don’t know

how the kids tolerate it. I’d love to take them to Earth to visit my parents someday, but they’d

probably sweat themselves to death; they like it cold, these Martians.


Of course they spot me as soon as I step out, and stampede towards me, screaming

“Daddy!” I laugh, a real laugh for the first time since I talked with President Chambers, and drop

to a knee to sweep them into a hug before they sweep me into their game.


I can’t keep up with them to save my life. Running on Mars for me means big, awkward

lunges. I’ve never figured out the trick to moving fast in low gravity. They have a natural grace

in this environment that I envy, turning like old earth gazelle in puffs of red dust without any

sense of hesitation. It’s all I can do to keep them in sight, playing the part of the monster chasing

them as I roar my way through the grigi grove. Derived from bamboo, and engineered for

Martian soil and the ever-thickening Martian atmosphere, it grows thick around our dome.

Highly modified, it bears little resemblance to its earthly cousins. Broad leaves protrude from a

tough central stem to catch every scrap of thin light that they can from the distant sun and orbital

mirrors. I push through them in a flurry after my kids, following the distorted sound of their

voices and giggles in the thin atmosphere into a small clearing.


“Got you!” A child’s voice yells, and a heavy warm weight thumps onto my back. It’s

Aaron; he must have scrambled up some of the thicker grigi at the edges of the clearing to get

the drop on me.


“Oh yah?” I mock growl. He shrieks as I spin around like a bull trying to throw a rider,

but I have his hands in mine. When he loses his grip, I swing him around in front of me and

launch him into the air.


He soars much higher than the same maneuver on earth would send him, and my stomach

does a flip, but he loves it. He screams with glee the whole way up and the whole way down,

windmilling his arms for balance. I snag him out of the air and whirl him in one final circle; I’m

getting too old for this, even with the rebreather feeding me extra oxygen I’m gasping for breath.

I’m even sweating, and the cold air almost feels good. Maybe that’s my kids’ trick; never stop

moving and you’ll never get cold.


I squeeze him tight, and he hugs me back with all the unhindered joy and innocence of

youth. “Love you, dad.”


“Love you too, kiddo.” I set him down and look around for his siblings, but they’ve

continued on their romp without us. “You looking forward to next week?”


He nods. “My birthday!”


“Your birthday.” I agree. “And your baptism!”


He nods again, enthusiastic and grinning behind the rebreather.


I ease myself down to sit, leaning back against the grigi. “It’s a big step.”


“I’m ready.” He says, supremely confident, and plops down next to me in a puff of dust.

“Yah?” I ask, my smile a little wistful. “How do you know?”


“Cause I feel it.” He taps his chest. “Just like Sister Jenkins taught us.”


Sister Jenkins is his Primary teacher; she’s a gem, an earth transplant like me and as

sweet as they come. “And what did Sister Jenkins teach you?”


“That you could pray to know if something was right, and the Spirit would tell you if it

was. And this does.”


“Very wise.” I say gravely, picking a stray chunk of grigi leaf out of his hair. “We might

be moving.”


He twists around to look at me. “Really?”


“Maybe. President Chambers might be asking us be part of the Titan colony.”

His eyes get huge behind his goggles. “That’s one of Saturn’s moons! I learned about it

in school.”


“Yup.” I agree. “The church is putting together a group to establish a community of

saints there.”


“Like the pioneers going to Utah!” He exclaimed, full of excitement.


I can’t help but laugh. “Yes, a lot like that. What do you think, would you like Titan?”


“I don’t know, I’ve never been there.” He shivers. “The ground is cold, dad. I’m going to

find Mikey and Sarah!” Aaron jumps to his feet and takes off again, spraying dirt into the air

behind him. “See you back at the dome!”


“Be back by dinner!” I yell after him, reflexively. I’m not worried; they’re good kids,

they’ll be there on time, in all their messy glory. He’s right though, the ground is cold, and it

leaches the heat of my run out of me faster than the thin air does. I stand up and brush off my

coveralls, and tromp back to the house.


It’s quiet when I come in shivering, the door to our room still shut tight. Mara will have

heard the airlock cycle, so that means she’s still not ready to talk. I head to the shower instead,

stripping out of my coveralls and tossing them in the wash as I go. I strip off the clothes I was

wearing earlier too, and add them to the pile; between the hair trim and my romp outside with the

kids, they’re thoroughly dirty.


The shower doesn’t look like much, little more than a narrow stall wide enough for one

person with a spigot overhead. It’s a waterproof box with a drain, basically. Simple construction

aside, it will pump out as much hot water as you want, courtesy of the recycling system we’re

tied into. The only cost is the electricity to heat and reclaim it, and power is cheap when you’re

nuclear. I make liberal use of it, resting my forehead against wall and letting the water wash over

me, carrying the dust in my hair away. It chases the chill from my bones right down the drain,

and I rest my head against the wall as the steam billows up around me, my eyes closed.

I envy Aaron. His world is so simple; if a thing feels right, he does it. Sometimes that

meant being baptized, and other times it meant hiding under the covers of his bed when it was

time to get up and go to school. Simple.


I smile a little at that, but the thought niggles at me. Why shouldn’t it be just that simple?

Not the staying in bed part, though I sympathize with him on that score. Doing what feels right…

By the time I get out of the shower, towel off and dress in clean clothes the door to our

room is open and Mara is out again. She’s working on dinner, chopping up greenhouse veggies

for a soup while something aromatic sizzles in the pan on the range. Her eyes are a little puffy

and red. “They having fun out there?”


“They are. Though they’ll need to be hosed off before we let them anywhere near

dinner.” I reply, and mime snatching a chunk of carrot from the cutting board. She swats at me,

thankfully not with the hand occupied with the knife, and the ghost of a smile flits over her face.

That hint of humor warms me more than the shower. “I’m sorry about earlier.” I say, and

wrap my arms around her from behind, holding her close. “I know it’s a hard thing to ask.”


She stiffens for a moment, her shoulders tense, then relaxes with a sigh and sets the knife

down, folding her arms over my own. “It’s so far away.” She whispers, and I can feel real worry

in her voice. “We’ve got a good life here; why would they ask us to leave it all behind?” She

gestures out the window. “It’s just…It’s really far away.”


It’s not just that, but I know what she’s trying to say. “I know.” I say, resting my chin on

her shoulder. “I know. Before we go talk to President Chambers, we should pray about it.”

She pulls away a little bit so she can turn and look at me. “What, like now?”


I hadn’t meant now, but that sounded good. “Sure, why not?”

“I’ve got food on…”


“Will it keep for a minute?”


She glances over at the pan, gauging the doneness of the contents. “Maybe even two.”

“Alright then, let’s do it.”


We kneel, right there in the kitchen, facing each other. I reach out to her and take one of

her hands in mine, the other on my knee, and bow my head. With the steady, sizzling

background of food cooking, I bowed my head and began.


“Our Father in Heaven, we thank thee for all the many things that though hast given us.”

I always start the same way; I don’t think He minds the repetition too much. “We thank thee for

our home, for our family, and for the love that we share.” My wife, my sweet Mara, gives my

hand a squeeze at that and I go on. “We thank thee for our good jobs, our livelihoods, and for the

health that we and our children enjoy.”


I take a deep breath, not entirely sure how to continue. With a start I realize that I haven’t

prayed for direction, for guidance, in what feels like years. Maybe that comes with being an

engineer; you’re expected to solve your own problems. I stumble a little bit on the words.


“Father…We have a difficult decision to make. We’re being asked to move to Titan, away from

all we’ve ever loved and known. Father, please help us to know if this is the right choice.” I

pause, feeling as if I should say something else, but I can’t find any other words. “In the name of

Jesus Christ, Amen.” I close.


Mara makes no move to rise, holding my hand tight. I squeeze it in return, looking over

to her. Her eyes are wet with tears, but she nods to me. “We should accept, if they ask.” She

says, her voice thick with feeling.


I understand; I feel it too. A sense of peace, of comfort, as heavy as a thick comforter on

a cold winter Earth day, settles over me and wraps around me. I know, just know, that everything

will be all right. The engineer in me is annoyed that I can’t explain how I know, but that voice is

small and distant for the moment.


We come to our feet as one, holding each other tightly for a moment until we hear the

airlock signal the return of our children. Breaking apart so that she can finish cooking and I can


corral the kids into the shower before they trash the whole dome, she gives me a crooked grin. “I

guess it’s fitting; we’ve got a long family pioneer tradition to uphold, right?”


“Definitely!” I agree enthusiastically as I head for the airlock door to catch the kids as

they come in. It’s true; both our ancestors were pioneers. Mine in Utah, and hers here on Mars.

“Do they have a ship for us?” She calls down the hall behind me.


“Oh yah!” I laugh. “You’ll like this; it’s called The Handcart.”