Queen Victoria, empress over nations on two planets, was dead. Her death had surprised Joshua Lewis. Victoria had been Queen for as long as he could remember; it had seemed like she would live forever. He had not grieved when she died, but he did feel the solemnity of the occasion.
The Queen had been dead for about a week when Joshua received news that did cause him grief. His best friend, Tom Crummels, was planning to travel to Mars to help build a canal. Joshua would miss Tom terribly, and he doubted that Tom would ever come back.
Joshua had heard plenty of horror stories about Mars. He knew that it was practically a desert world, with thin air and hardly any water, and that despite being a desert, it was as cold as the Arctic. He had heard that the Martians were not friendly to Englishmen, and that fierce predators that ate humans roamed the planet. His uncle James, his father's brother, lived on Mars, and he had a half-brother stationed with a garrison there. However, neither his uncle nor his half-brother had ever contacted him. If Mars was as cruel a planet as he thought, they were probably both dead.
And Tom was planning to live there, despite all the dangers! Tom had always been more adventurous than Joshua, but journeying to Mars was practically suicide. Joshua's heart grew heavy whenever he thought of Tom's upcoming trip. But in the second week of February, everything changed.
On a frosty Saturday afternoon, a letter came for Joshua at Cambridge. He took it from the letterbox without much enthusiasm. He did not recognize the return address, a law firm in London. He opened the letter, read the first sentence, and sucked in his breath. His uncle James was dead.
For a while, Joshua sat without reading further. It was just as he thought; Mars had killed his uncle, and it would kill Tom too. His heart ached at the thought of the upcoming separation from his friend. He was more depressed about Tom than about his uncle's death, and he felt slightly guilty. But how could he mourn his uncle when he didn't know him? God rest his soul, he thought.
He returned to the letter. As he read it, he felt his gray eyes widening, in astonishment and horror. His uncle James had left him twenty thousand pounds, as well as Redfield, his oxygen farm on Mars.
Joshua sank into a chair, his mind in a whirl. How had Uncle James even known he existed? And why had he left Redfield to Joshua? Especially with a legitimate, white, completely English nephew, who already resided on Mars. Unless he's also dead.
Dread coiled in the pit of Joshua's stomach. He would refuse the estate; he would stay on Earth. But if he went to Mars, he would be able to stay with Tom. But Mars was such a dangerous planet. But if his uncle had only just died, he must have lived a long life there. Perhaps Mars wasn't as dangerous as Joshua had thought.
For the rest of the day, he sat in his chair or paced back and forth, trying to make a decision. By six o'clock, he still had not decided, and he was meeting Tom for drinks at the Eagle. Perhaps Tom would give him some advice.
He went to the pub and found Tom already there. He and Tom ordered pints and sat down at a table. "I got a letter today," Joshua said. "My uncle is dead."
"I'm sorry about that," said Tom. "Do you know what he died of?"
"The letter didn't say," said Joshua. He took a deep breath before he said, "He's left me his oxygen farm on Mars."
A smile appeared on Tom's face, and he rubbed his hands together. "You'll be moving to Mars as well? Excellent!"
"I haven't decided whether to accept it," Joshua said.
Tom frowned. "But why not?"
"Why not?" repeated Joshua in disbelief. "Because it would be suicide."
"No, it wouldn't be," said Tom. "It's hardly as bad as they say."
"But there's no water, and the thin air…"
"We harvest water from the air and the ice caps," Tom said. "True, some people can't bear the thin air; it's like the air high in the mountains. But it's breathable."
Joshua was slightly reassured, but he continued, "I've heard it's horribly cold there."
"Not everywhere. The climate is temperate near the equator."
"And the animals," Joshua said.
"Just shoot them," Tom said promptly. "Or if you can't use a gun, you can hire a Martian guard to protect you and your property."
Joshua was feeling more comfortable. "And I've heard the Martians are hostile."
"Not everywhere. Some nations there have signed treaties with the English. Including the Queen of Talaza."
"That's where I'm going." Tom rumpled his curly brown hair. "We're building in the old capital, Larvazi. Is your uncle's oxygen farm near Larvazi?"
Joshua tried to remember what the letter said. "I don't think so. The letter said it was near a place…Raga-something."
"Ragasin?" Tom frowned
"That's it! Ragasin," said Joshua. He noticed that Tom's frown deepened. "What's wrong with it?"
"It's a completely Martian town, almost no Englishmen there." Tom shook his head. "The nemambu of Ragasin hates the English."
"The nemambu. An elected official, of sorts; she governs Ragasin and the area around it."
"Lady Azgal. She's ruled over Ragasin for ten years now; I've heard stories about her."
"What kind of stories?" Joshua asked apprehensively.
"The only English she lets into Ragasin and the surrounding area are oxygen farmers. Nobody else from Earth is allowed. I've heard she supports terrorist groups."
Joshua shivered. "Then I probably shouldn't go there."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," Tom said. "Your uncle lived there with no trouble, it sounds like."
"I wouldn't know; he never contacted me," Joshua said stiffly.
"And I've talked to Englishmen who have come back from Mars, oxygen farmers and soldiers and miners. They did well on Mars; some of them got rich."
Rich? Joshua put his chin in his hand, deep in thought. If he stayed on Earth, he would remain a half-Indian student trying to overcome the disadvantages of his skin color and heritage. On Mars, there was a chance that he could prosper. But was prosperity worth venturing into a town hostile to the English? Tom seemed to think it was.
Perhaps it was the ale, perhaps Tom's reassuring words. But Joshua looked squarely at Tom and said, "All right. I'll accept it and go to Mars."
"Splendid!" Tom said, with a wide smile on his face. "We might as well travel together."