"Bennett! Lewis! Get over here now, you're holding everyone else up!"
Standing in the shadow of the yellow-coloured school rover, writing graffiti on its dusty sides with their fat, gloved fingers, the two boys just laughed at their teacher's urgent command. His voice – always so stern and commanding in the classroom – was reduced to a tinny whine by the helmet comms systems, and the fear they usually felt when faced with his wrath back in the school module at Ares was replaced by amusement. Oh, let him wait. What was he going to do? Slit their air-hoses?
"If you're not back here in twenty seconds you'll both be cleaning out the toilet's recycling tubes for the rest of the trip – "
Bunny-hopping across the gritty plain, scuffing up clouds of red dust with their boots, the two young martians headed back to the camp-fire. It was an easy journey. The colour of powdered blood and with no landscape features within sight, except the raised rims of a handful of shallow craters, the centre of the Meridiani plain was virtually rock-free, with none of the boulders and shattered ejecta rubble found closer to Ares. Meridiani was the kind of exposed wilderness that had sent several Newcomers crazy with agoraphobia. But being two hundred klicks away from the nearest outpost, alone with just the elements, was perfectly natural to the two kids.
They made it back to the camp-fire - and the rest of their impatient classmates - with a good five seconds to spare.
It wasn't a real camp fire, of course; Mars' atmosphere was too thin and choked with carbon dioxide to allow anything to burn in the frozen vacuum that passed for the red planet's "open air". The camp fire the group was gathered around in a tight circle was a conical storm lantern, usually deployed when the big dust tsunamis boiled up from Hellas and Argyre, Now, wrapped in a thin sheet of orange plastic to give the impression of flame shining inside it, instead of a bright halogen bulb, it formed the centrepiece of the ritual get-together which marked the end of every day out in the deep desert. The sundown "campfire chat" was a chance for everyone to talk about what they'd seen and done that afternoon, and plan the next day's activities.
An outsider would have found the scene quite bizarre: ten white space-suited figures, seated on sample boxes and supply cases retrieved from the rover's hold, arranged in a ring around an electric lamp, casting a dull orange light just about bright enough to cast shadows. Ten snowmen huddled together for warmth around a pale, cold light, out in the centre of a flatter-than-flat, petrified, deep martian desert, beneath a huge alien sky painted purple and violet and rose by the glow of the approaching sunset...
Finally, with Bennett and Lewis seated on their boxes, the review of the day could begin.
"So..." their teacher began, stretching out the word annoyingly, as he always did, "did we all have a good day today?" Most heads nodded imperceptibly, a few stayed stubbornly still.