Janice didn't rush towards the dome wall. She limped as fast as she could, shifting weight to her good foot, painfully moving forward. She splayed her hands on the transparent wall and gazed at the growing crack. I realized I was holding my breath - everyone was - but I relaxed when the crack stopped growing. Janice sighed, lowered her head and just stood there, hands still on the wall, her silhouette framed by the red sand outside.
I wanted to get up from the gray grass, to tell Janice it was all going to be okay. I wanted to tell her it was just a surface crack and that I would fix it in the morning, before I did my rounds checking the air conditioning. It would take me just a few minutes and it wasn't a big deal, it was just a matter of using a liquid neoplexiglass gun to refill it. The wall was fine and I was sure Janice knew it. I couldn't understand why she looked so upset. Was it her leg? Was it hurt that bad?
"It just… burst," Janice said, not even bothering to turn around.
My heart skipped a beat. I think everyone's did. They all turned to me like I had some kind of answer. Even Sorata looked at me, devoid of his usual confidence. Their eyes said “fix it” and no one said a word. No one needed to. My job was basically making sure we stayed alive, but I had never felt that kind of pressure before.
I had no easy answers. What I had were memories.
I used to play videogames with my father almost every day. He would enter our cabin after his shift and rustle my hair. Then he would ask me about my day, what I had learned, what I had done, what I had eaten. Then he would tell me about his day, what he'd fixed, which solutions he'd found for which problems. Then he would spend some time explaining how I could do the kind of thing he did and then – finally – we would play videogames together.
The colony's game room was the place for videogames. There was always a line and we would have to wait a bit, but I didn't really mind. I guess the mess hall and the gym were more crowded, but chatting in the game line was the main social activity in the colony. We would often run into Sorata and his mother in the line. It's funny, I don't remember the name of Sorata's mother. I remember how she was short and pretty and how she kept her hair in a ponytail. I remember that she hardly ever smiled but she still looked kind somehow. I remember how I wanted her to be my mother but I don't remember her name.
I didn't get along with Sorata back then. While I was taking maintenance classes, Sorata was being taught how to explore. It took me a long time to notice, but everything we were doing – the colony, the classes, the maintenance – was for the explorers. They were the protagonists to our little drama and Sorata knew it. He managed to look me from above even though he was shorter. The way he talked to me was a mix of pity and contempt. He saw me as a servant, as inferior, but he felt bad for me because I had lost my mother. In a way, I think he envied me because I was really close to my father and everyone knew Sorata's father treated him even worse than Sorata treated us. We used to argue a lot when the grown-ups weren't around and when it came to words I could never beat him. If he got me angry enough, though, I knew a punch to the gut could be a strong argument. Each time things got physical, Sorata would fake respecting me for some time – it could be days or weeks – until his need to feel superior overcame his fear of getting his gut punched. When our parents were around, we behaved. They thought we were best friends. I was almost surprised by how little my father knew me while he knew the colony’s system inside out. Years later, when Sorata actually became my best friend, I realized my father knew me better than I did.
When our Mars-Earth communication array was upgraded, the first thing I noticed was how our games were outdated. Back then, during the first phase of colonization, it was all we ever knew and all we ever needed. We played a bunch of co-op games, killing orcs and demons and dragons. I didn't like it much at the time, because it made me realize how well Sorata and I worked as a team. We also played a bunch of fighting games and I think I can say with a certain degree of confidence that I was the best player in the whole colony. Those were not my favorite games, however. What I really liked were the sports games. Not really because of the games themselves, which were a bit crude and complicated, but because of how much my father liked them. He explained the rules really carefully and always said that back home everyone played those games, the actual sports instead of videogames, and that we would do the same after we had the colony all set up. I could notice the glimmer of hope and pride in his eyes when he said that. If we could get to the point of playing sports, that would mean colonization had been successful. In the end, what made me realize the importance of what we were being groomed to do was not the NASA briefing video or the UN brochure. It was that glimmer of hope in my father’s eye when he explained soccer rules. We played more and more soccer videogames because most people liked them and more people could play at once. I wasn't very good at it, but I loved it because of what it meant for my father.
One day my father arrived late in our cabin. I knew we were having trouble with our air purifiers and everyone else was tense, but I knew my father was going to see us through that. He rustled my hair and asked about my day and half sit half fell in his bunk, exhausted. I was reading a book about spiders and hardly believing such a thing could exist. I wanted to ask my father about his day, about playing videogames, but it felt wrong. That was not an average day, what with all of our lives weighing on his shoulders and he having saved us all yet again. So I asked him if we could play soccer and he told me to get in line, he would be there in a minute, he just needed to rest for a while. Then I told him that no, I wasn't talking about videogames, I was talking about actually playing soccer, the sport, in real life. My father looked me in the eye for a while, dead serious. Then he smiled and said he wanted to show me something.
We walked through corridors I had never seen, reaching places of our colony I didn't know were there. It made me think about how little I knew about our small world and that it was foolish of me to think I had it all figured out if I didn't even know that taking this right and this left on Corridor A-22 we would end up in Storage Room L. After that, I respected father even more.
Storage Room L was smaller than the storage rooms I’d seen before. It wasn't that well organized and father needed to use his All Access Pass to enter it, so I knew it was not a place I’d normally be able to see. I saw a bunch of boxes and crates, all closed. It didn't look like anyone had fiddled with them in a while. Father didn't turn on the lights; he just lit up the way with his flashlight. He looked around for a while and found a small box with a green and yellow mark on it. He opened it and urged me to check it by myself.
I reached into the box and retrieved a white ball. I recognized it instantly as a soccer ball – I'd seen it a lot in videogames, after all – but nothing could have prepared me for that smell. It smelled unlike anything I'd smelled before. Of course, it was my first time smelling leather, but that wasn't it. I knew no other ball would ever smell the same. I think it smelled like hope. Father smiled, realizing that white ball was creating another connection between us.
I kept that ball. After father died, I would hold it and smell it and I could almost feel like he was there beside me.
When Janice arrived in Mars, our colony had been running smoothly for years. Sorata was in charge of the explorers and was our de facto leader, while I was maintenance chief and Sorata's right hand, more or less. Even older folk trusted our leadership, either because they knew us, because they knew our parents or out of some misguided sense of pity since our parents had died for the colony.
Janice's arrival was bound to change things. She and her crew (4 people total) had brought a new form of plexiglass which would be able to filter UV rays and resist the greater internal pressure of our dome homes while being transparent. That meant everyone living under the neoplexiglass dome would be able to see the sky, not only the explorers. People were really excited about moving into a new home that would allow them to see the sky. The possibility of livestock was raised by some, even though it was shot down as soon as it was mentioned.
I was more interested in Janice, however. She was more or less my age, but she had been born on Earth. She was taller than me and looked stronger as well. We knew muscle degradation was a very real possibility in the weaker martian gravity, but we had strict exercise regimes to counter it. I challenged Janice to an arm wrestling match later that day. Though I won, it was mostly because she didn't care much about it. I'm not sure if I really thought our physical strength was an issue we could fix or if I wanted an excuse to fulfill my father’s dream, but later that day I approached Sorata and proposed that we should not use the new dome as extra quarters – we had enough room for Janice and her crew as it was.
What we needed was a soccer field.
I got my father's ball and we started training. Janice and her crew knew some soccer, but most help came from the older folk, those who had come from Earth decades ago with my father. We knew soccer was a luxury, so it took a while for people to warm up to my idea; but I knew how important my father thought it was and our colony had been doing really well these last few years, no accidents, expeditions ranging farther and farther ahead. What really pushed it, of course, was that the old men remembered my father and they knew he would have approved it.
My concern with our muscle power quickly proved superfluous – we could hit the ball strong enough to make it soar, due to Mars' gravity. We decided to apply indoor soccer rules, even though the dome allowed a bigger playing field. We played with teams of five plus a goalie, keeping the ball away from the dome walls. We knew no one could shoot hard enough to break a neoplexiglass wall, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
Janice quickly became a valued striker in our team. Sorata was a good goalie but I think most of it was because he was braver than anyone else and would abuse the great jumps Mars' gravity allowed us. I trained ball control and trick shots more than anything else. It took me a great deal of effort, but I eventually mastered the trivela, a curl shot, allowing me to bend the ball to my will. A trivela shot was a pretty big deal in any non-professional match in Earth, from what I've read. It could trick both defense and goalkeeper, especially from a stationary position, such as on a free kick. Janice had a stronger kick than mine – I soon learned that she was a fitness enthusiast – but she couldn't master the trivela by herself like I had done. I’m not going to be modest, here – it was kind of a talent.
Sorata and Janice started going out. I was a bit concerned, since Janice was becoming more and more of a leader figure and if they broke up everyone’s morale would suffer for it. I think that’s why I decided to teach Janice my trick shot. If they were ever against one another in a match, she would need some kind of edge against Sorata's acrobatics. Maybe I was just bitter from our childhood and wanted to see Sorata defeated when it happened. Maybe I was just jealous, acting childishly because my best friends were part of something I couldn't join. Maybe I was into Janice. It was probably all of it. Fact was, I began teaching Janice how to bend a shot.
Months later, we were running mixed teams and Janice's team got a free kick. She was really close to the goal and I could tell from the way she picked up the ball that she was going to try a trivela. I was a bit concerned, to be honest – she suffered that foul herself and it was a vicious stomp on her foot. She was limping and I wasn't sure if she could actually shoot. It always surprised me how tough she was.
I held my breath as she shot, hitting the ball with vicious power and throwing gray grass everywhere. She bent that ball like one of the legends I watched on blu-ray. It was a trivela worthy of Beckham. No, it was Beckenbauer level. She shot it like a cannonball and it bent straight away from Sorata's hands, leaving him slightly confused. However, there is such thing as an exaggerated bent – and the ball went away from the goal and straight towards the dome. After a loud bang, silence followed and no one dared move. No one but Janice.
Janice didn't rush towards the dome wall. She limped as fast as she could, shifting weight to her good foot, painfully going forward. She splayed her hands on the transparent wall and gazed at the growing crack. I realized I was holding my breath - everyone was - but I relaxed when the crack stopped growing. Janice sighed, lowered her head and just stood there, hands still on the wall, her silhouette framed by the red sand outside.
I wanted to get up from the gray grass, to tell Janice it was all going to be okay. I wanted to tell her it was just a surface crack and that I would fix it in the morning, before I did my rounds checking the air conditioning. It would take me just a few minutes and it wasn't a big deal, it was just a matter of using a liquid neoplexiglass gun to refill it. The wall was fine and I was sure Janice knew it. I couldn't understand why she looked so upset. Was it their leg? Was it hurt that bad?
"It just… burst," Janice said, not even bothering to turn around.
Then I noticed the flattened mass of white leather at Janice's feet. I looked around and everyone else was somewhere between surprised and mad. There was a crack in the dome, in that thing that kept us alive by keeping Mars' atmosphere away, but no one was worried about that. What I was worried about – and I’m pretty sure I can speak for everyone else regarding this – was how the hell we were going to get another soccer ball in Mars.