The Martian soil was cool and dry in Erich’s hands. He brought it up to his nose and inhaled, wondering how it would smell compared to the rich wet soil in his garden.
There was nothing. Perhaps the faintest scent of iron, but that may have been his imagination. The dust made him sneeze. He let the soil fall back to the ground and wiped his hands on his pants.
“This is weird.”
“This is fun!” Iris said. “Come on, when was the last time you were on Mars? Was it never? Of course it was. You’ve never been to Mars.”
“I’ve still never been to Mars.”
“Don’t be like that,” she said, but she didn’t even look at him. She was off walking towards the endless horizon, and he had no choice but to follow.
They walked in silence, her looking at every rock, every crevasse with a sense of child-like wonderment and him only occasionally glancing aside, thinking about Paris, about Los Angeles, about what wilderness there was still in Alaska. And here they were, “on Mars.”
Be happy, he thought. She’s happy, and you should be happy, too.
“This is really something, isn’t it? I used to love astronomy when I was a little girl. My favorite vacations used to be when my dad used to drive us all out to the mountains. It took eight hours, but the sky was so clear that you could see the Milky Way. Not the way it looks in pictures, but still. There it was.” She paused, looked around. “I wish we could be here for nightfall. God, just think of the stars.”
“The surface temperature of Mars is hundreds of degrees below freezing at night, you know.” He paused, thought about it. “And probably never hotter than San Francisco during the summer down at the equator.” Iris stared at him, her expression not angry but annoyed. She had known Erich for long enough to accept that this was simply how he could be, and that in time, he would apologize for his behavior. She accepted it. He had other qualities that made it tolerable.
“Mars doesn’t have any atmosphere to speak of, you know. Nothing to trap the sun’s heat,” he went on. Iris walked up to him, put her arms around his neck, and kissed him. The sensation of the kiss startled Erich. He could smell her, taste her, the lavender perfume she used, the subtle undertone of alcohol still lingering on her breath from the wine they had shared at lunch. Her bare skin on his was warm, warmer even than the improbably warm atmosphere of this desolate, unreal place.
“Baby,” she said. “Shut up.”
They walked on.
* * *
Some time later they came across a cave, and at her insistence they went inside to explore it. They turned on their flashlights and entered, Iris idly wondering what had created the cave and Erich volunteering that it might have been carved out by water millions upon millions of years ago.
“It seems like a good place for a bear,” Iris said. “If this were Earth, I could totally see a bear living in this cave. Hibernating in the winter, you know?”
“Probably nothing in here but rocks,” Erich said. He was silent, thought about it, said, “Maybe there’s some hibernating bacteria! I bet we could find some really ferocious Martian bacteria in here.” He reached forward and wrapped his arms around her waist, pulled her close, kissed her neck. She laughed, closed her eyes, smiled. He had his moments.
They stood there for a few moments, holding each other. Gradually, Erich slowly became aware of another smell, harsh and oppressive. Rancid. Like a predator. Something sucked in air and snorted. He opened his eyes and saw it by the light of their flashlights, enormous and pale and blind, its head covered in protuberances that wriggled and twitched of their own accord, and its muzzle opened wide to reveal sharp, yellowed teeth.
There was no time for thought. Erich pushed Iris behind him. “Run!” he screamed. “Run!”
The creature recoiled, as if startled by the sound of Erich’s voice and it backed up uncertainly. Iris saw the thing, screamed, and took off back towards the cave entrance. Erich was only a few steps behind her, and the thing only a few steps behind him, charging after him in a great loping gait. He bent down, picked up a rock, and threw it behind him, almost losing his balance but hitting the creature in the center of its head. It stopped, shook its head, and roared. Whatever it hunted, it was not used to its prey fighting back.
Outside the cave, Iris screamed Erich’s name. He was running as hard as he could, his mouth dry from terror and from the Martian dust. The entrance was just ahead, growing brighter and brighter, the beast’s heavy panting growing louder and louder. Erich burst forth into the sunlight, fully expecting to be struck down at any moment, alien teeth tearing into his flesh. But nothing happened. He ran into Iris’s open arms and tried to carry her with him, to make her keep running, but she resisted. “Look!” she said. “Erich, look!”
He turned. Back at the entrance, the creature stood growling and pacing, unwilling to step into the light. Erich stood, trying to catch his breath. “Well,” he said in between pants. “It must be blind. Doesn’t want to step into the light. Sensitive skin and eyes, probably.” He paused, thought about it. “What in the hell is that thing and why is it on Mars?” he shouted.
Iris didn’t respond. She pulled him close, kissed him, ran her hands over his chest. “My hero,” she whispered into his ear.
* * *
Iris smiled at Erich through the vid-screen. “See? Wasn’t that fun?”
“It was exciting,” he admitted. He grinned. “I liked the ending. The technology’s very… very realistic.”
Iris smiled. “You can really feel everything, right?”
“Everything.” He winked. She stuck her tongue out at him and laughed.
They talked a bit more, made plans to interface back at one of the virtucation centers as soon as possible, to see each other when their schedules and their finances permitted, and they said their goodbyes. Erich went about his day, occasionally rubbing at the scratches on his back she had given him that were not really there.
This concludes my experiments with flash-fiction for now. Hope you enjoyed it! Be here on Friday when I return to short stories!