Chapter Eight

Nails and Meatballs

Brandy is sitting in my kitchen and we are giving each other manicures.

Chiara is in the bedroom, playing with Pamela. The door is open and we can hear their voices, quiet and intent.

Brandy's arm is resting on my little table. I’m sitting opposite and holding her hand, and I am finishing off with a file. Next to us on the table is a small bottle containing something with a deep red hue.

"I can't wait," she says, catching my eye as I glance at it.

"Me too," I say, and I imagine the colour filling those perfectly rounded nails that I am working on.

"You should try it," says Brandy.

"Oh no. That wouldn't suit me at all." I always use a colourless varnish, that gives a flawless surface to my nails but doesn't draw attention to them.

"I don't know why you say that, Selena," she says. "A strong colour can only be good. Liven you up a bit. And isn't it a gorgeous colour?"

"Well, yes, it is," I agree. It’s a deep and vibrant red. Not like the rocky, dusty red that surrounds us on Mars when we go outside, but a warm and saturated crimson red that makes the heart glad.

We’re all very proud, vicariously, because it was developed here on Mars.

"Let me put it on you," says Brandy. "One hand. Just to see what it's like. If you don't like it, we'll take it off and put on your usual varnish."

I smile and bend over her hand.

"We'll see," I say. "Let's do yours first."

"Well yeah, mine first!"

I finish off her last nail in silence and lean back.

"There we are," I say. "Time to open a bottle."

Brandy lays both hands flat out in front of her. I unscrew the bottle and take the brush out, and I apply the varnish with all the concentration that I can muster, one nail after another, evenly and exactly.

I’m doing a good job.

"So how's it going on the job front?" asks Brandy. "Have you heard from the chemical plant?"

"No, I haven't," I answer, rather gloomily. "I'm starting to get a bit worried."

She looks at me thoughtfully.

"How well do you know Mahendra?" she asks.

"I don't know him at all. Never spoken to him."

"Hmm. And I suppose he doesn't know anything about you. Apart from what Marketa has told him."

"I suppose not."

"So what's Marketa's relationship with him? I mean, how much influence do you think she has?"

"Honestly, I don't know," I say, and I stop applying the varnish for a moment. "She comes across as very important and self-assured."

"Yes, she does."

"But I've no idea what effect she has on Mahendra."

"Maybe he hates that."


"Or maybe he's glad to have someone he can rely on. Someone he can just leave things to, so he can get on with what he wants to do."

"That would be good," I say, and I take a deep breath. I bend over her hand again.

"So is that somewhere you would really want to work? I mean, apart from your present situation."

"Do you know, I think it is," I reply, and I look up at her again. "I didn't really know that much about the plant, but I really started to get interested when I was talking about it with Marketa."

"What about the people there?"

"Well, I know some of them," I say, and I name some names. "It all depends on where they put me."

"But you're expecting to be more at the research end?"

"That's where I think I'd be of most use. But who can tell what Mahendra will think?"

"Well, if he's got any sense he'll see how useful you would be."

I glance at her ruefully and don't say anything.

I finish off the last nail and lean back. Brandy looks down at her hands, her fingers splayed out, and then she lifts them and shows me the backs of her hands. The effect is really striking: the deep rich red of the nails, still drying, against the deep black of her hair and the dark tone of her skin.

“Now a new hairstyle,” I say,” and you’re a new woman.” Brandy doesn’t go to Marianne for her hair as many of us do, because while Marianne is an excellent hairdresser for the likes of me, she doesn’t understand black hair. So Brandy is part of a collective of women who help each other to look after their hair and that of their children.

“Well, it’s funny you should say that,” says Brandy, and she commences to tell me about the style that she wants to have. It involves a resolute use of straightening irons to create a long, sweeping curl on either side of her face, with the rest of her hair on the top and on the back of her head gathered and folded together. It sounds gorgeous.

The children come in, choking with laughter. Chiara comes to me, and Pamela to Brandy, and they are trying to tell us about what has happened in their game to cause such hilarity, but neither Brandy nor I can make head or tail of their explanations. I smile benevolently at my daughter and want to give her a hug, but she wriggles away. Brandy is holding her hands up away from Pamela, who is leaning with her hands on her mother’s leg and jumping up and down as she looks up at her and tries to speak with whoops and helpless giggles.

Then they are gone, back in the bedroom, and we are on our own again.

“How did she like staying with Mike?” Brandy asks. “You haven’t said anything.”

“I think she was fine,” I reply. “I was ready for them to call if she was getting homesick, at bedtime maybe, but that didn’t happen.”

“Well, I know what you mean, but it’s not exactly like really being away from home for her.”

“Well, no, it isn’t. Away from me.”

“I bet you were sadder than she was,” she says.

“That’s probably true,” I admit. She doesn’t know what I was doing in my bed while Chiara was away. “Actually I don’t think she was sad at all. I think she felt it was just like any other time when she goes to see her father.”

“Except that she went to bed there this time.”

“Exactly.” I’m remembering. “In fact she was really excited about going for a sleepover.”

“I bet she was. You know, she can sleep over at our place if she wants.”

I don’t say anything, and she sees my face.

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh,” I say, and it comes out as a sigh. I don’t know how to explain; but Brandy guesses what I’m thinking.

“I know you can’t offer the same thing for the moment,” she says. “But it doesn’t matter, Selena. Don’t worry about it. You’re my best friend. We help each other in all sorts of different ways.”

I look at her gratefully.

“I’ll tell Pamela we can have her over,” she goes on. “If they ask us first. If they’re playing together anyway she can just stay on, and have supper with us, and go to bed.”

“They won’t go to sleep for hours.”

“I daresay they won’t. But they will in the end.”

“And Rob won’t mind?”

She looks scornfully at me.

“Don’t worry about him.”

“It’s really kind of you, Brandy. I really appreciate it.”

“No worries,” she says. “I’ll enjoy it anyway. It’s nice to have the two of them around. They make me laugh.”

I chuckle at that.

“Me too,” I say.

Brandy inspects her hands, flat out on the table.

“So are we going to do yours now?” she asks. I give her one of my hands and she takes it and has a good look before commencing with the file.

“So what are you going to do if it doesn’t work out with the chemical plant?”

I take a breath and feel how my expression becomes serious.

“I haven’t thought about that for a while,” I say. “I felt really confident after talking with Marketa.”

“Are you panicking?”

“Oh, Brandy, I’m so worried.” I can feel tears behind my eyes. “I don’t know what I’m going to do if that doesn’t work out.”

“Why can’t you just carry on doing what you are doing? I mean, I know it’s not ideal.”

“What if I have to go back with the ship?” I am actually about to cry in earnest. A small step away.

She squeezes the hand she’s holding.

“That would be a pity,” she says. “I’d miss you! But it wouldn’t be the end of the world, would it? There must be millions of things you could do on Earth.”

“But to leave Chiara! I can’t imagine anything worse. It’s my worst nightmare.”

“Leave Chiara? What, leave her on Mars and go back to Earth on your own?”

I nod.

“Why would you do that?”

“Because I’ll have to. They won’t let me stay, and they won’t let me take her with me.”

She furrows her brows and looks at me over my nails.

“Are you sure that’s right, Selena?”

“What do you mean?”

“Is that really true, that you can’t take Chiara back to Earth with you?”

“There’s no way the Agency will let me do that. She’s part of their plan. Their investment.”

She sits back and regards me with a sceptical eye.

“Well, that may be true, that they won’t want you to take her. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they get what they want.”

I look at her, not comprehending what she means.

“Have you checked?”

“Checked what?”

“Your legal position, Selena! Have you checked what your rights are?”

I don’t know what to say.

“Er – I don’t know how.”

“My God, Selena!” She stares at me with her eyes wide open. “Ask a lawyer! What do you do if you want to know something that’s outside your field? You consult a specialist!”

“I don’t know any lawyers.”

“Selena! Get online and find a lawyer, and get some proper advice! Do it today!”

“Okay,” I say. “I will.” I can feel my cheeks flushing with embarrassment.

“Honestly, Selena,” says Brandy. “You really are my best friend, and I love you dearly, but right now I feel like slapping you. Do you mean to tell me you’ve been moping all this time about leaving Chiara here, and it hasn’t once occurred to you to find out what your legal rights actually are?”

I shake my head, and feel extremely stupid.

“Well,” she says, and resumes filing on one of my nails. “I’m not really going to slap you. I don’t want to break a nail. Promise me you’ll get online tonight, the minute Chiara is in bed.”

“I will. I promise.”

“And I want a report. I want the name of the lawyer, and all the details: who she is, or he, what’s their experience, what have you asked them and what have they told you.”

“All right. Thank you, Brandy.”

“I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.” She stops filing for a moment, reaches across and strokes my head. “Don’t feel bad,” she says. “I’m really glad we’re talking about this.”

“So am I,” I say, and I mean it.

“It’s what friends are for,” she says. “Friends do this. We can be dumb with our friends, and we know it doesn’t matter.”

I feel a rush of affection.

“You’re a great friend, Brandy,” I tell her. “What would I do without you?”

“Mope, and have crap nails,” she replies. “You know I’m going to paint them red?”

“I don’t know about that.”

“I’m in no mood for an argument. I shall brook no denial. Red it is. Red as the rose.”

“Okay.” It feels good to let Brandy have her way.

“Now you’re starting to see reason.”

She works away in silence for a little longer and then puts the file down.

“Now for some real colour.”

I place my hands on the table as Brandy did earlier, my palms down and my fingers apart, and I watch her gratefully as she begins to apply the varnish. It is a sensuous feeling, to see the deep, rich red spreading over my nails. It’s great to have a friend. I wish I could talk to her about Craig.

No I don’t. I don’t want anyone to know about him.

Unless she already knows, and that’s why she has offered to let Chiara sleep over sometimes.

I can’t possibly dare to ask her that.

I do feel bad about having this secret from her. I hate secrets.

I don’t think she can know. She would be very hurt if she knew I had been keeping all this quiet.

She glances up, sees me watching her and smiles.

“You’re going to be a sensation as soon as you walk out with these,” she says.

“I think you’re right,” I agree. “I wonder what they’re all going to think.” I wonder what Craig will think. And Mike.

“Are you looking forward to it?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You should. Look forward to it!” She looks me in the eye. “You’re a beautiful woman, and you have the nails to prove it. Go show ’em!”

I smile at this. Brandy makes me smile.

I have almost forgotten that I was on the point of crying a little while ago.

Brandy finishes the last nail with a deft stroke of the brush and leans back on her chair. I leave my hands where they are for the moment, the varnish faintly glistening as it dries. I have to admit to myself that it looks very good.

“Careful with them as you’re doing your embroidery,” she warns me. We exchange a mischievous glance. Neither of us has done anything to our tablecloths for several weeks.

Brandy stands up and wanders over to the bedroom door. I join her, and we stand in the doorway looking in at the children playing together on the floor. I’m careful not to touch anything with my nails.

“Pamela, we need to be going in a few minutes,” says Brandy. “Three minutes, and then finish your game.”

The girls say nothing, but I know they have heard, because Chiara is playing with a very slightly, subtly more determined air. I can read my child like a book.

Brandy and I chat for a bit about what we are going to cook this evening: Brandy is making a pasta bake, while I am going to make soya meatballs in a tomato salsa, baked in the oven too, using fresh basil from the plant that grows in my kitchen, and with tagliatelle. The meal has the advantage that you can plan for leftovers, which taste at least as good and probably better when you warm them up another day. Chiara likes it very much, and so do I.

Brandy has been counting down intermittently – “Two minutes! One minute!” – and now she says, “Right, Pamela, it’s time to go now.”

Pamela stands up, but Chiara is furious.

“No!” she shouts. “We haven’t finished!”

“Chiara!” I say, shocked. “Don’t talk like –“

“We haven’t finished!” she shouts, even louder.

I crouch down and look her straight in the eye.

“Chiara, you do not shout like that at a grown-up.” She turns away, and I grab her and make her stay where she is. “You do not shout at a grown-up. Say sorry to Auntie Brandy.”

“We haven’t finished!” She’s shouting at me now.

Pamela skirts around us to go to her mother, a little frightened by what is suddenly happening.

I’m resisting the temptation to get angry. Calm and serious, that’s the strategy.

“Say sorry to Auntie Brandy, Chiara.”

“That’s enough, Mummy!”

“Chiara, that’s enough of your cheek.” Behind my rising irritation is amusement at her picking up that phrase. “Apologise to Auntie Brandy. Now.”

She looks at me defiantly and says nothing.

“Selena, I think it’s best if we go now,” Brandy says, behind me.

“Oh, yes, of course. Sorry, Brandy.”

“No worries. Good luck!” She takes Pamela by the hand and they slip out of the apartment door.

I am still crouching in front of Chiara and looking straight at her in the solitude of our bedroom.

”Chiara, you are being very naughty, and I am not happy with you.”

“You’re being naughty, Mummy! We weren’t finished, and you spoiled our game!”

“Well, Pamela needs to go home now.”

“She can go home afterwards.” Chiara is crying now and not shouting any more.

“Chiara, dear, that’s not for you to decide. When Pamela’s mother says she has to go home now, then she has to go home.”

Chiara doesn’t reply to that and she is taking great gulps of air as she weeps.

I turn to the side and start to pick up her playthings.

“I still want you to apologise to Auntie Brandy,” I say.

She says nothing and continues to stand there, sobbing, while I put her playthings in their box. I finish, and I look at her again. My legs are getting stiff from crouching so long, so I sit on the floor in front of her, looking up at her face. She is weeping less violently now and her sobs are less frequent.

“Do you see that you’ve been naughty, Chiara? You mustn’t shout at a grown-up.”

She still says nothing. Another sob shakes her whole body, and she stares in front of her.

“Pamela and Auntie Brandy will be home by now,” I say. “Auntie Brandy will be making their supper. I’m going to start making our supper soon.” I pause. “It would be nice to be friends again, wouldn’t it, so we can have supper together?”

“I’m sorry, Mummy,” Chiara says in a small voice. I open my arms and she steps forward and into my embrace. I hug her, and she nestles into me. There we stay for a few moments, not speaking.

“Now you need to apologise to Auntie Brandy,” I say, looking at her eyes again, which are downcast as she stands in front of me. “Shall we do that now?”

“Okay,” she says.

“Come on then,” I say, and I stand up, take her by the hand and walk into the kitchen. I sit her down where Brandy was sitting earlier, and sitting opposite I call Brandy on her wearable device.

She’s not answering at the moment, and it goes to mail. I turn the device so that Chiara is looking into the camera. “Go on,” I mouth.

“I’m sorry, Auntie Brandy,” she says in the same small voice. She looks at me, and I prompt her, mouthing the next words.

“I’m sorry I shouted at you, Auntie Brandy.” I think Brandy will realise that I am prompting her when she watches this, but at least she can’t hear me doing it.

“I love you, Auntie Brandy. Bye, Auntie Brandy.”

I switch the device off and put it down, and I lift Chiara off the chair and give her a big hug and a kiss.

“I love you too, my darling,” I say.

“I love you too, Mummy.”

The challenge is that I keep having to revise my strategy for dealing with her behaviour as she grows up. What worked like a dream a little while ago, won’t necessarily work now, and my parenting has to grow in parallel with her.

At least I can reason with her nowadays. She’s able to understand what she can and what she mustn’t do, and why, up to a point.

It does mean I have to be reasonable too. I can’t be an unpredictable autocrat; that’s only fair.

I set her down on the floor.

“Are you going to help me make our supper?” I ask.

“Yes, Mummy!” She actually jumps up and down, her good humour evidently restored.

There are not very many things she can do to help, realistically, but there are one or two. I take a green pepper out of the fridge, slice it lengthwise into quarters and cut out most of the seeds, and then I place a bowl of water on the table and the pieces of pepper next to it.

“I’d like you to wash these in the water, please,” I tell her, “and do you see these white bits? Can you tear them off, please. Like this: look.”

While she’s doing that I switch on the oven to pre-heat, turn on the stove and put some oil in a pan. I made the meatballs yesterday evening while Chiara was asleep, and now I need to brown them all over in the hot oil. As I wait for the oil to heat up I cut the outer layers off an onion ready to chop it.

“Finished, Mummy.”

So she is. “Well done, darling, that’s just right. Are you going to help me do the meatballs?”

I keep Chiara at a distance while I put the meatballs into the pan; I burned my arm quite badly one time cooking this, splashing hot oil on to myself as the meatballs went in; and once they are safely in the pan I lift her on to my arm and with the other hand I pick up a wooden spoon. It really is a wooden spoon: made from what grows in our hydroponics wing and passes for wood.

I give her the spoon and with my hand I guide her as she prods the meatballs and rolls them around in the oil. They don’t spit fat as the meatballs made from real meat used to when I would make this, or something similar, back home.

When they’re brown enough I stand her on the floor, take them out of the pan and put them into a baking tin. Then I let Chiara put the pepper and the onion into the mixer and replace the lid, and she laughs as it springs into life and the pieces leap about madly inside until we switch it off again.

I pick her up on my arm again and she shakes the pieces of chopped pepper and onion into the oil where the meatballs were, and we fry them for a couple of minutes, stirring together with the wooden spoon again. In the meantime I have boiled some water, and I pop some tomatoes briefly into it.

“Chiara, can you sit down at the table again, please, and I want you to tear some leaves off this basil plant. Oh, careful: just the leaves! Like this.”

While that is happening I peel and chop the tomatoes and add them to the green pepper and onion, and then I add some water, salt and some oregano. As I’m grinding black pepper into the mixture the device on the working top rings.

“Just a minute, Brandy!” I call.

Her face appears on the screen, but she can’t see me, because I’m out of sight of the camera.

“It’s not you I want to talk to, Selena,” she says.

“I know. Bear with us a moment.”

I flit to the table, place the device in front of Chiara, take the basil leaves away and bring them back to the working top to chop them.

“Chiara, my darling,” Brandy says. “Thank you so much for that lovely message.”

Chiara smiles shyly.

“I love you too, Chiara,” she goes on, “and I’m not cross with you at all.”

Chiara has stripped off rather more leaves than I really need. Shall I use them all anyway? I decide that yes, I shall, and I chop them all up and drop them into the pan. I stir the mixture for another half a minute or so as I listen to Brandy and Chiara talking, and then I switch off the stove, pour the mixture over the meatballs and cover the whole thing with a lid. Finally I place the tin into the oven and close the door, and I have nothing more to do for at least three quarters of an hour, when I shall need to make the pasta.

I stand up and survey my kitchen. Chiara is sitting at the table and chattering away to Brandy, who is listening and interjecting a laugh and a jokey comment from time to time. Brandy had said that the children make her laugh, but right now she is making Chiara laugh.

Around me is the debris of preparing the meal, but I think I’ll clean that up later. I wander back to the table and sit opposite Chiara where Brandy can’t see me.

It’s partly thanks to Brandy that I can cook as I have just been doing, it occurs to me. What is the reason for that slightly bizarre and unrelated thought? Because Brandy’s specialism is to do with genetic modification of plants to enable them to thrive in our environment: low gravity, obviously, but also the different quality of the solar radiation that reaches the Martian surface, compared to Earth, where the atmosphere shields the planet from the high-energy end of the spectrum.

Sadly even I can’t think of how I could contribute anything meaningful to Brandy’s team.

Brandy and Chiara say goodbye to each other, and I call “Goodbye!” from behind the device before it switches off. Now Chiara and I have some time for each other without anything that needs to be done, no deadlines to meet. I take a pack of cards out of a drawer and we play Snap. They are pictures of characters from a series of films: fairy princesses, talking animals, magicians and so on. Very unscientific, and I’m not sure I approve.

It has become almost idyllic now, sitting here in my kitchen with my daughter as the evening draws in, and it has drawn in altogether as I sit here again a couple of hours later, having put Chiara to bed, tidied up in the kitchen and made myself a pot of tea.

I stare at the screen and muse on how best to set about this.

My natural inclination would be to seek advice from other women first. On that forum, for instance, where I used to post as spacelady.

But I’m not going to do that. Quite apart from the time delay and the frustration that causes, and the fact that I haven’t posted there for so long and most members today won’t know me: my circumstances are so individual that anyone here who happened to be reading the forum would easily recognise who spaceladyinwaiting really is.

So I do my own research. That is less challenging than it might seem, out here, so far away, because a lot of sites are mirrored and regularly updated on our own servers here: not the entire internet, obviously, but so much of it that you notice little difference when you’re surfing for your own private purposes.

Serious scientific research requires access to the actual data bases on Earth, and that would be a frustrating process indeed if you had to wait for the signal to travel to Earth and back again every time you clicked on a link. So special algorithms have been developed which do a lot of that research work for you: you set it off with a click here on Mars, the signal travels to Earth, the algorithm does its stuff there and then reports back with whatever it has ascertained.

Unfortunately there are no such algorithms for finding a family lawyer.

Before I look in earnest for a lawyer I want to inform myself about the legal context, if I can, so my questions to the lawyer can start at a high level and I don’t have to incur fees to have things explained to me that I can find out for myself with a little effort.

I have never studied anything to do with law, and it’s very unfamiliar territory.

After quite a lot of time and a second pot of herbal tea I have arrayed an impressive set of facts, but I am no closer to knowing, or to having any idea, what my rights are with respect to Chiara.

There is a treaty among most of the nations of the Earth, covering the exploitation of outer space. I knew that, in theory. Any nation that wants to do anything in outer space has to adhere to certain principles. Not causing unnecessary damage, for instance, by leaving scrap or debris around where satellites or spacecraft might collide with it. Exploiting natural resources of celestial bodies in an equitable and responsible manner. Not restricting access to those resources more than is necessary to safeguard one’s own responsible activities. Furthering a communal and cooperative spirit in exploring and exploiting the universe in the enlightened interests of humanity.

Not very helpful, really, for my present purpose.

Then the nations have agreed that agencies can be set up to carry on certain of these activities in common, and there is a whole book of regulations dealing with them. UNMEA, obviously, is just such an agency, set up by the United Nations but paid for and operated by the European Union, the United States and India. The Agency is my employer, but it evidently has a role in all sorts of legal areas that I had never thought about. I’m not sure whether it seems more like a company or a country.

At any rate this is helping me to frame my questions to the lawyer, once I have found one. The first thing to clarify is the status of the Agency and the rules that it sets. Is the Agency a closed system, so that the only relevant legal rules within it are those that it sets itself? Or is it part of a wider system; does it exist within a field, so to say, like a gravitational field, which the particles inside it react to and obey in addition to the Agency’s own internal laws? Is the Agency itself, in how it treats its members, subordinate to external rules (and set by whom, if so?), or can it make its own rules with no appeal?

I open a document and start to formulate my questions.

First the facts: employed by UNMEA, separated from my husband, daughter living with me with his agreement.

Then a précis of what my research has ascertained and the questions that it points to: can the Agency do what it likes, or is there an appeal to some other authority?

Finally my questions: can the Agency fire me? Can it compel me to return to Earth? If it does, have I the right to take my daughter with me?

The real question, though, behind all these legalities is what is best for Chiara herself.

She was born here on Mars. She has never been anywhere else. Her skeleton, her internal organs, everything has developed from conception to her present age in Martian gravity.

It’s one thing for me to adjust. I’ve done it before, in reverse. When we joined the ship from the Earth it had Earth gravity. Not because it was within the Earth’s gravitational field: on the contrary, it was in free fall in orbit around the Earth and would normally have felt like weightlessness; but the rotating part of the ship, a giant wheel behind the sail that shields it from harmful solar radiation, was turning with an angular speed that exactly simulated the gravity on Earth for those who were inside it. Then as we spent the months of the voyage living within that great wheel, gradually it span ever more slowly until, by the time we arrived at Mars, the artificial gravity it created was the same strength as on Mars, and we were already used to it.

When I go back – if I go back – the gravity on the ship will start at the level that I am used to today, and gradually during the voyage the wheel will speed up again until terrestrial gravity has been restored. We’ll have the whole of the voyage to acclimatise ourselves once again to being heavy.

It will be hard work. Our muscles will have to grow back; our bones and sinews will have to grow used to the greater strain; tissues will need to be regenerated; all these processes will have to happen, of which I only have a vague idea: I’m not a biologist.

Hard work, but I know it can be done. The ship’s crews do it after every visit here. Helpfully the voyage back to Earth is a few months longer than the journey out: the ship travels more slowly because it has to wait for the Earth itself to come back from travelling around the Sun.

But how will Chiara cope with it? How will her little body deal with the crushing force of a gravity that it has never experienced? Not just during the voyage, but for the rest of her life, as she grows and matures, as she goes through all the changes that our bodies experience, and then grows old?

Am I being utterly irresponsible even to think about subjecting her to that?

But I don’t know whom to ask. The experts on low gravity embryology and child development are here, working for the Agency. Can I trust them to give me an impartial view if I ask them, naively, what are the risks for Chiara if I take her back to Earth?

I’m just going to have to put off thinking about that. Maybe it won’t arise, if it turns out that legally I have no right to take her with me anyway.

Finally I turn to the search for an actual lawyer, and immediately I encounter a further problem that I should have thought of before. Which law? I am Italian. Mike is British. Chiara is both. We were married in America and were employed there by UNMEA. UNMEA itself is some kind of supranational body.

It feels like a complete stab in the dark, but I decide to go for an American lawyer, with some misgivings that this may be the most expensive choice. There is, of course, a huge multitude of possibilities, even on the abridged version of the internet that we have here. Not many of them say they know about space law, though, unsurprisingly; in fact no individual family lawyer claims to know about space law; but there are a few law firms which say they cover that area along with many others.

In the end I select a largish US firm with several offices across the country, and I compose an email to a specialist in family law who is based in the same office as one of the specialists in space law. There are several family lawyers in that office, and I select a female one whose face seems sympathetic. What else can I go on?

It’s late by the time I send that email off. I have no idea what time it is there.

As soon as I’ve sent it I have misgivings. What if it gets back to the Agency that I’m making these enquiries? I know that lawyers have a duty of confidentiality, or I hope they have, even before they start working for me; but I don’t suppose there are many real specialists in space law, and won’t they all know each other? A chance word in a conversation about other matters? An anecdote about the questions somebody is looking into, naming no names, of course, but there is only one person in the Solar System that this could possibly be about, making it easy for the Agency lawyer to guess?

I calm myself. I can’t learn the answers to my questions without asking someone who knows, or who has the expertise to find out. The die is cast, the javelin thrown, the soufflé is in the oven. Now to wait and see what response I get.

At last I switch off my device, I clear away my crockery and I get ready for my bed, with the light on in the kitchen and the bedroom door open so that I can see what I am doing. I stand for a moment in the doorway, in my nightdress, looking back into my kitchen, now tidy, empty and peaceful, and then at Chiara fast asleep in the shadows. She gives a little sigh and then settles again. I smile down at her, and then I switch off the light and go to bed.