Their craft had finally set down on the ground that didn’t look all that different from any desert back home.
“Isn’t it supposed to be red?” Benjy asked glancing from the scenery outside to his father, who was also staring through the viewport.
Fahrid O’Reilly sympathized with his son. He’d wanted Mars to seem different, too. “That’s just because of the dust in the air when we look at Mars from Earth,” he explained. “Are you disappointed?”
“Who’s gonna believe we really came here if the dirt I send home is just… dirt?”
“Benjy, we’ve been through this before. You can’t send soil back to Earth. But you can send a photo of yourself at Curiosity Memorial.”
The ten-year-old was not impressed. “Anyone can photoshop that.”
“Well, we’ll have to figure out something else to prove to your friends where your new home is.” He was about to remind the boy that his mother had arrived on the previous lander, three months before, and that he’d get to be reunited with her shortly, but one of the officers – Morris – came to join them.
“The umbilical into the Habitrail will be attached any second now,” he said, gesturing to the series of interconnected domes and tunnels that provided a livable environment on the Red Planet. “Everyone’s anxious to get to their quarters and decompress from the trip, but we think it’d be best if you took the animals out first. Get them settled in their enclosure.”
Fahrid nodded, “A wise choice, Commander Morris. I’ve been checking on them and they seem to be alright, but large animals shouldn’t be cooped up for so long.”
“Do you mind if I ask… what made you pitch the idea of bringing them?”
“I was going through my father’s things after he died, an I found a picture of him with a camel, and a book about the Texas Camel Corps.”
“Is that a real thing?” Morris asked.
“Oh, very real. In the early twentieth century a rancher in Texas who’d been the camel caretaker at a zoo decided that camels would be fantastic herd animals.”
“O’Reilly, don’t you dare tell me they raised camels for food?”
“No… no they didn’t. They used them as pack animals and for transportation in the Chihuahuan Desert – there are places where it isn’t practical to use road transports, and it’s too dusty for flitters. He started doing tours for tourists, but eventually he was training camels to be used as riding beasts for ranchers throughout the southwest.”
“Wow, I had no idea.”
“Most people don’t. Anyway, I did some research, found out that he’d been experimenting with genetic mods, and his descendants had continued his work. Not only can our camels store liquid water, instead of just fat, they can actually create water out of what they eat and breathe.”
“They’re not dangerous, are they?” Morris asked.
“Benjy,” Fahrid said to his son, “why don’t you take this one?”
The ten-year-old uncurled his fingers from the rim of the viewport and pushed himself away from the bulkhead. Standing up straight, and speaking in rapid, but well-rehearsed sentences, he shared, “It’s a myth that camels are mean. Llamas have been known to spit at humans, and camels can do that too, but for the most part they’re docile creatures. Some people even describe them as giant hay-eating puppies.” He paused and grinned up at both men. “Lucy’s my favorite. She likes to give kisses.”
Morris seemed like he was about to ask a question, but there was a jolt followed by a hiss. “Sounds like the umbilical is linked. Can you two manage, or could you use a hand?”
“The more help we have, the faster we finish,” Fahrid said. He turned and led the officer down to the part of the hold where the livestock had been quartered on their long journey. “Coming, Benjy?”
“I wanna get Sophie first,” the boy said. Part family pet, part herding animal, Sophie was their border collie. “We’ll meet you there.”
“Okay, but don’t dawdle.”
It took the men, the boy, and the dog about an hour to offload the seven camels and five goats, and usher them into the umbilical tunnel that led into the main dome of Opportunity Village, where much of the extant community was waiting to greet the new arrivals, whether they had four feet, or only two.
From the center dome, there was another tunnel that led to a series of gates and beyond them to another dome, this one carved among pillars of stone that were part of the natural landscape. It had shaded stalls, water troughs, and pens full of hay. An older woman, dressed in a coverall, was waiting with a pitchfork, and several people using tablets to control camera drones were also gathered.
“Mr. O’Reilly! Welcome!” She greeted Fahrid first. “Benjy, it’s good to see you. And Commander Morris, welcome back. You staying, this time?”
“Looks like it,” the officer said. “Especially since Specialist Weaver finally agreed to marry me.”
“Did he! That’s wonderful. You two will have to join George and me for dinner soon.” But she turned back to the O’Reillys. “I’m Anna Meier, the governor. I’m so excited to have you and your charges with us. Join me, now, as we pitch the first hay into the feeding bins… folks back on Earth are dying for a photo op.” More softly, she added, “Penelope is waiting for you in quarters… she asked for a private reunion.”
“Penny’s always been camera shy,” Fahrid observed. He reached out to ruffle his son’s hair. “Okay Benjy, line’em up.”
And they cajoled the animals into a loose semicircle around the feeding bins and let Governor Meier toss the first loads of hay to each beast.
“I’m so excited. I know the dome won’t be their favorite place, but with rebreathers, we’ll be able to use your animals to explore the surface and hopefully find more access to the underground sea.”
Benjy and Sophie wandered away while the adults were talking, heading directly toward Lucy. The camel blinked at the boy and the dog, and then slurped the former. Benjy heard the whirr-click of the drone camera capturing his picture.
“Hey, kid!” A blonde reporter with a friendly grin called out. “Mind looking this way?” Benjy turned and flashed her a smile that was a dimpled echo of his father’s. “Awesome,” the reporter said. “That’s the money shot.”
And it was.
All the papers and news feeds on Earth, Luna, and Mars had the image of boy, dog, and camel, with the great stone pillars behind them, as their lead story. The caption? The Camels of Mars.