“I thought the view would be better than this, ya know?”
Ahead, the Vandenberg Spaceport spread out across the horizon, grey tarmac merging seamlessly with the imperceptible horizon. Weak sun, seeping through the toxic Californian smog, glinted off the distant skyscraper of a Transport. Nothing moved in the dirty expanse beneath them, save the neon flickering of the sharp red lights of a landing pad.
The girl pressed her cheek against the harsh black fabric of the boy’s hoody. Fuel pipelines and boarding walkways hung slack from the underside of the launch gantry they sat on, like the bowels of a freshly butchered animal.
“You’re really going then?” she asked, ignoring his complaint about the view. They’d spent hours getting there, bypassing security and hiking across the featureless cement desert of the launch complex. The climb up the launch tower had been long- 1400 steps, she’d counted.
“Yeah,” he sighed apathetically. He took a final drag on the cigarette and tossed it into the mist below them. He watched the orange-glowing tip recede until he could no longer see it. The ground itself was only just visible, 130 stories below them. The whole structure creaked just a little in a wind that blew in off the sea.
“You don’t sound happy about it,” she replied. He looked at her.
“Would you be happy if your parents were dragging you to some fuck-off rock in the middle of nowhere?”
She scoffed, “It’s hardly a rock, moron- you’re moving to Mars!”
“Oh yay,” he spat. “Another planet for us all to screw up, hooray for me!”
She frowned. “You’re sounding like one of those dickhead anti-colonial terrorists.”
“Whatever,” he sulked half-heartedly, looking off at the invisible horizon. A pause hung in the air, as heavy as the polluted clouds. They could hear the sounds of the distant surf as the wind picked up a little, rolling in off the dead Pacific coast.
“Look at the lights,” she said, changing the topic. A concentric snowflake pattern had started to play on the landing pad, spiralling inwards.
“The 17:34, back from Venus station, right on fuckin time,” he said. “Hold on to something, it’s gonna be quite something.”
She tightened her grip on his arm, wrapping both around him and squeezing in close. He sighed.
“Fine, but if you fall, don’t blame me in the couple of seconds you get before you hit the sidewalk.”
He sidled over slightly, hooking his arm through the triangular support struts beside him. They both glanced skywards as the roar approached.
Suddenly, like the whales of old, a leviathan breached the heavens. Sides scorched with re-entry heat, the rocket rode down through the sky, a pillar of bright fire supporting it as it descended. Flashes of bright control jets flickering on and off, making automated course corrections. Other thrusters came on and off ten times a second, adjusting the orientation as the ship’s speed slowed, eventually sliding effortlessly towards the flashing beacon. With a last thunderous crash, the engines flared up and seared a mark onto the pad. Then it was quiet, save for the final creaks of the vessel settling on its sturdy legs, and the Pacific waves.
The girl let out a silent wow. Once the sonic booms had finished reverberating off the ground, the boy shrugged her off.
“We should get going soon. They’ll let the passengers off at the ground level, but later this evening they’ll roll this gantry out and get the cargo off.”
She narrowed her eyes at him.
“You really don’t give a shit, do you?”
“Thanks,” he smirked.
“No, not that,” she sighed. “Look, you’re just… dull. Do you have no sense of wonder left?”
“Wonder?” he laughed. “Take a look around you? What’s wonderful about this?”
Her mouth dropped open. “What do you mean. This is sorta amazing, don’t you think? Fuck, 50, no, 30 years ago, no one could have believed that this would happen. It was god-damn science fiction for them.”
“Yeah, dystopia more like.”
He looked at her, and she turned away. Her pink, half-shaved hair stretched into the wind, a rare speck of colour in the Californian miasma. He looked beneath that, though- the sallow skin, stretched thin across her bones. He could see the bumps of her spine as it went down into her violet sweatshirt.
He’d watched a documentary the other day, some Martian production, and they’d talked about that- the “Terran Rot”, they’d called it. Average life expectancy had been shrinking for the last three decades.
“Look, you said something about it being like sci-fi, right?”
She nodded, quiet.
“Yes, fifty years ago they didn’t have the rockets, or the spaceports, or even VR, but… ah, fuck it.”
“What?” she asked.
“It sounds stupid, but you realise California was pretty much a nature reserve back then? There were millions of animals on earth in the ‘tens. Now, we’re living in a wasteland and we fucking built it.”
She slumped, resting her pointed chin on her hand. “I thought you didn’t give a shit?”
“You know why we’re moving there, don’t you?” he asked.
He nodded. “They’re covering up the whole crater. Don’t listen to what the company says, they haven’t done a full survey of the area. They don’t know any more than you or I do that there’s nothing native there.”
She gazed at him quizzically. “You mean you’re being this much of a sulky jackass just ‘cuz of a few alien bacteria?”
“It’s not just there,” he said. “It’s terraforming writ small. Once they dome over Schiaparelli, there’ll be nothing to stop them from filling up Hellas Planitia, the whole Southern Basin. All it takes is just one of their test-bed projects to be successful, and they’re gonna take that whole planet and turn it into as much of a shithole as this place is. Mars may be the red planet right now, but don’t worry, it’ll be grey and corporate within a few years.”
She stood up and stretched. The boy noticed goosebumps on her bare calves, and shivered himself.
“Well, as you said, I better get going. You gonna come?”
He shrugged. “Nah, I’ll wait here a little while. See ya.”
She walked off a little way along the gantry, back to the staircase. There were heavy clouds coming in, and she briefly worried about thunder striking the gantry. She looked over at the boy, but he was already staring off at the recently-landed Transport.
“Hey, look on the plus side,” she laughed. “Keep this up, and you might be the first punk on Mars!”
She heard a brief chuckle from the boy and, without turning, he raised his fist and flicked up a middle finger at her in response.
As she started down the stairs, she gazed back at the boy sitting on the end of the gantry, his legs dangling over the drop. A cloud engulfed the top of the tower, and he disappeared into the grey.