Later that evening I am sitting in my kitchen and all is quiet. Chiara is fast asleep in the next room. I have made myself a nice pot of herbal tea, and the cup that I have poured sits steaming in front of me on my kitchen table. Behind me a soft light is on, up by the shelves, and the other source of light is the screen in front of me in what we moderns persist in calling a tablet. A curious combination of the cool, sleek, stylish contours of the parts cannibalised from a product widely sold on Earth, and the stolid functionality of the parts that have been developed for use on Mars.
I am online. Not online in the sense that we all are, on Mars, at all times, with our devices constantly communicating with each other and with the central unit. I am online on Earth. Something that I haven't done for some time.
This used to be part of my daily routine when I first came to Mars. A terrestrial habit that I continued here, out of habit, but which has fallen into discontinuity as time has passed.
I am logged into the forum where I used to post regularly when I was pregnant. There are several discussions going on as I read: people comparing experiences, asking questions, about dilation, pain killers, protruding belly buttons and many more subjects; good natured rants about the hell of pregnancy and how fundamentally one's partner fails to appreciate what one is going through; it all seems very familiar. New threads, same old themes.
I can't see any user names that I recognise, apart from my own, at the bottom of the page as "reading the thread": spaceladyinwaiting, though obviously I'm not any more.
Pregnantpaws was one of my online cronies back then, when Chiara was on the way. And there was the user name that always used to make me smile: theelephantintheroom.
I wonder what has happened to them in the intervening years. There has been time for them to be pregnant again, to give birth again, and now to be raising two small children, or more. They would be the old hands now, giving advice to the newbies, as we were back then.
I was different from the other posters, simply by being the only one not on Earth. I had this idea, in the beginning, of describing life here: a reportage, in blog form, on what it’s like to be a woman on today's Mars; but I don't think anyone was really interested. They only wanted to talk about babies and being pregnant; and so did I, really, as I found.
But the main thing that isolated me from the others was the delay in communication: the time it takes for electronic signals to travel from Earth to Mars and back again. How long it takes, depends on how close to each other or how far apart the two planets are: Mars goes around the Sun once to the Earth's twice, more or less, and that means that every other Earth year Mars is on the opposite side of the Sun to the Earth, at its maximum distance.
I’m very conscious of where we stand at the moment, because of the ship that never lands, that is on its way to us now from its orbit around the Earth. The Earth is currently almost as far away from Mars as it gets; it will be about midway between its minimum and its maximum distance away when the ship is due to arrive, in a few months.
So, depending on where the Earth and Mars happen to be in relation to each other, it can take twenty minutes or more for the signal to travel from one to the other. The thread that I read may be twenty minutes old as I load it, and by the time I have considered my response and sent my post back to Earth, easily three quarters of an hour will have elapsed since the post that I am responding to was written. And that is without any additional delays due to bandwidth or server difficulties or that kind of factor.
Even when we’re at our closest to Earth, that time lag is at least ten minutes or a quarter of an hour.
In practice that didn't matter too much on slow-moving threads; but those were, of course, the threads that didn't arouse much interest, or at times when not many people were awake. If there was any kind of chat going on, it was impossible for me to contribute in the same way as others. I would send my contribution, but when I then refreshed the thread and read what it had become, my post would seem incongruous and irrelevant, surrounded by the ongoing chat that had long moved on.
Of course I explained this on the forum; people were aware of my situation.
But this is why I stopped posting, in the end. After a while it becomes disheartening and you just can't be bothered.
It would be great if some technical advance could solve that and let me post in real time on an Earth forum. Like one day suddenly being able to talk to Australia on the phone instead of sending letters by ship.
But I am a physicist and I know this is not going to happen. Nothing can go faster than the speed of light, and that is the speed at which those signals travel. We are simply a very, very long way from home.
I’m not sure this was a very good idea: logging on to this old forum where I don’t know anybody any more, to wallow in unhealthy nostalgia and sit in my kitchen feeling sorry for myself.
Sometimes when I feel like this I steal into the bedroom, sit on the floor next to Chiara’s bed and just watch her as she sleeps.
I’d be quite annoyed if someone did that while I was sleeping; but somehow it seems different with Chiara.
I’m not going to do that tonight, however, because just thinking about her asleep in her little bed is working. That familiar warm glow spreads inside, and it’s not because of the tea.
I know why I did this; and I’m still surprised at how shaken I was by what I heard this afternoon.
Marie-France is in my embroidery group. She was working on that lion’s head just the other day in Gaynor’s house.
I suppose everybody knew about her birthday party, every adult in that room, except me.
Casting my mind back I’m realising that lately I have only been invited to gatherings of wives. Plenty of those; but nothing where a husband might be in attendance.
And a thought emerges in my mind that is absurd and laughable, and at the same time incredibly hurtful.
Is that what they all think of me?
Are they seriously worried about giving me access to their husbands?
That is so ridiculous, on so many levels, I hardly know where to begin.
As if I had time to think about having an affair with someone else’s husband.
As if it were possible to put someone in quarantine in a community like the colony.
As if I were the type of woman to be likely to entrap someone else’s husband with my feminine wiles.
When some people hear where I am from, they expect some voluptuous vamp of a female with a sultry look and a riotous mane of jet-black hair. In fact I am slight and boyish, with a B cup and short, mousy hair. I can still wear the jeans I wore when I was eighteen, or I could if I had them here with me, and looking down at myself I find it hard to imagine how Chiara found a way out.
The idea that I am too dangerous to be unleashed on people’s husbands, for fear of my turning their innocent heads and luring them into my web with tantalising promises of sensual pleasure – well, it’s just silly.
Ask Mike whether that is what it was like with me.
Though we did enjoy some sensual pleasure. Oh yes. It’s been a while, but sensual pleasure was definitely involved. There was a different kind of inner glow in those days.
I pour myself some more tea and try to change the subject in my mental conversation with myself. I don’t want to think about sex with Mike.
Another thought occurs to me, another reason why the wives might be worried about me.
If I really did snag another woman’s husband for myself – not just have an affair with him, but really detach him from his wife and take possession of him for myself – that could be my ticket to stay on Mars. I wouldn’t need a scientific job, if I did that. I could go back to producing babies.
Is that why they’re worried?
It’s completely mad, if it is. Even if I wanted to, what are the chances of me persuading one of the male scientists to divorce his wife and marry me in order to have babies with me?
Why would any man find me so enticing and the experience with me so addictive that he would turn his life upside down like that, just to be with me?
Ladies, that is foolish.
“Well,” I can hear Marie-France saying to anyone who raised that objection: “better safe than sorry.”
Would I do it, in fact, if I could? If I had no alternative? If there were no other way to stay on Mars, to stay with Chiara? Honestly?
Of course I would.
I take a deep breath, and let it slowly out.
Yes, I would.
Yes, I would. If a man, not Mike, wanted me, and I truly believed he would be good with Chiara – good for Chiara –, then yes, I would. Even if I didn’t really have feelings for him. My feelings for Chiara would be enough. And for the children I would have with him.
Fortunately for the wives of Mars, that scenario is completely unrealistic.
And it won’t be necessary. I am going to find a job, a full-scale, serious scientific job that justifies my staying here, and I’m going to earn my right to stay here through my own ability and hard work. I am not going to be dependent on some man again.
One more thing to decide before I go to bed. Should I take up Beate’s offer of counselling?
I’m tempted to do it, if only to stop Mike from talking to her about me. Not that he’s likely to want to.
I stand up and carry the teapot and my cup and saucer to the sink to be washed out. I’ll do it. I go back to the table, wake my device up from its slumber and send Beate a text, timed to arrive in the morning. I’ll make an appointment.
Two of us are sitting looking at the same screen, in a laboratory room in the colony. It’s a fine morning on Mars, though you wouldn’t know it from where we are sitting.
The third person is at the other end of a communication channel, and we can see him, or parts of him, on the screen. He is in a space suit and is sitting in a buggy, somewhere out there on the surface. He is not happy.
“Okay, let’s try that again,” I say.
The man in the space suit enters the commands that I give him on to his device, and the two of us here watch the display on the equivalent device on the desk in front of us.
“And now you, Raj,” I say to the man next to me.
I could easily fix this myself by getting on to both devices remotely from my own work station; but it’s better in this case to talk them through the necessary steps so that they’ll have at least a chance of fixing it themselves the next time it happens. As it surely will.
Bill Smedley is a technician and has driven out to find out why one of our measuring stations is no longer transmitting.
Dana Lajoux, one of the scientists on our team, is there too, though we can’t see her; but she is just along for the ride, because nobody ever goes anywhere alone on Mars.
As we suspected, the antenna had been damaged during the recent dust storm, and that was easily repaired; but the way that accident had disconnected the systems from each other had triggered a further bug in the software, not for the first time, and that is why Bill had had to call IT support.
The individual devices that people carry around with them all function without a hitch, pretty much; but the interfaces that link them together and allow them to communicate with one another are a fertile source of problems.
“It’s still not working,” Bill announces.
“I know,” I reply. “That was just one part of the fix. There’s more to come.”
Bill expresses in drastic terms a sentiment about computers with which I have some sympathy. It would never do to admit that.
Raj and I exchange a glance and a smile.
“We’re nearly there, Bill,” I say. “Just a few more steps.”
I know this is true because I keep having to fix exactly this problem.
It ought to be possible to tweak something in the programming to prevent it from happening in the first place, but neither I nor any of my counterparts in other teams have had time up to now to work on that. Even though, in the long run, it would surely save time.
As Bill types the last command I lean back and watch with my hands behind my head. I see Raj's face lighten up as the data begin to come through again.
Out of the corner of my eye I see someone watching me, and his eyes switch back to his screen as he sees me noticing him. It’s Craig Winterton, one of the geologists.
"Thanks, Selena, that's great," Raj says.
"Here, I've written the steps down for you," I tell him, and I hand him a sheet of paper, or what passes for paper on Mars. "I'll send it to you electronically as well so you have it on your devices. Obviously you should still call me if you can't make it work."
Even Bill is mollified now that the problem is resolved, and he thanks me too.
I stand up and look around for the other person I am supposed to be helping this morning. Abdelkerim has apparently been having problems with one of the regular software updates from Earth and I have promised to sort them out for him. I’m not convinced that it’s a software issue.
It's a room full of screens, this computer lab. Though we call it a laboratory, no experiments are conducted here: we process data that are collected from outside.
This team's task is to conduct a survey, of the area around the colony and other areas that are declared to be of interest.
At one level this simply means making a map: recording topological features like mountains, canyons, craters, gullies and plains. But it’s also very much a geological survey, and is as interested in what is below the surface as in the surface itself.
Geological, or areological, as some people insist it should be called.
Ares is the Greek god of war, as Mars is the Roman god of war.
Gaia is the Greek earth goddess, and just as the word "geology" comes from the name Gaia, so some people derive the equivalent name "areology" for the same science when done on Mars.
Personally I think it a perfectly futile distinction to make; but I don't want to offend people needlessly.
The survey ties into the purpose of the colony.
You might think that the E in UNMEA stands for "Exploration", but in fact we are the Mars Exploitation Agency. Our objective is not just to set up a human colony on Mars for its own sake, though that is an impressive achievement in itself: so far from home and in such a hostile environment. We are working towards becoming self-sufficient.
Not technically self-sufficient in the sense that we don't need any supplies from Earth: that is highly unlikely ever to happen; but financially self-sufficient. The hope is that the colony will be able to find things, gather things, extract things, even make things that will be valuable enough when sent back to Earth to pay for the cost of maintaining it, and maybe start making a contribution towards the cost of setting it up in the first place.
We’re a long way off achieving that objective, but that is our purpose.
This is why we need the survey. We’re mapping Mars's mineral resources, as a first step towards exploiting them. In fact we are already exploiting some of them, not to be sent back to Earth for money, but for our own use: the water, for instance, that I told Chiara about when we were out with the nursery: it’s found in pockets below the surface, mainly as ice, and can be tapped and piped to the surface once it has been warmed to melting point.
Another thing we are already doing, and investing a lot of effort into expanding, is making our own oil based products. Traditionally these products have been made from oil and gas that are found underground on Earth, the fossilised remains of organisms that lived many millions of years ago. For obvious reasons there are no such deposits on Mars, so it’s just as well that even on Earth we have increasingly been synthesising these products, as the natural reserves have depleted. And that is what we do here too. Clever things can be done with methane, apparently, which is found in the Martian atmosphere, a naturally occurring hydrocarbon. We have more than one chemical plant attached to the colony, and these days we are as self-sufficient in synthetic petrocarbons as we are in water.
Obviously our geological and topological survey is not needed for that activity. But one project for which it may well be needed in the future, rather unexpectedly, and which is influencing the way in which we carry out the survey, is the railway.
Not that one day people will be catching the 9.15 from platform 7 for some other Martian city. But we do expect that we'll need to link together the various nodes of activity that one day will be scattered across Mars. Becoming financially self-sufficient means paying our way with products that are readily transportable to Earth and command a high price once they get there, and as a practical matter that can only mean rare metals that are in short supply or difficult to extract on Earth, but essential in its manufacturing processes. Tantalum, for instance, niobium, indium, scandium and a list of other substances that most people have never heard of.
Besides water, these rare metals are the main focus of the colony's geological exploration.
Clearly we can't know in advance where deposits of these metals are going to be found: they might be close at hand, or they might be immense distances away. Rather than founding a second colony like this one, and a third, and more, to exploit those resources, it might be more practical to set up an outpost of a few people, like an oil rig in the ocean back home, and link that mining outpost to the colony by means of a rail, probably a magnetic rail, along which the ore can be sent here in unmanned trucks for processing.
Whether, and in which cases, that actually happens, will be a question of economics. We have the technical ability to do all of that, and other teams are creating the physical capacity to manufacture the machines and equipment, and the railway lines themselves, once the decision has been taken and the planning done.
Who would have thought my academic career in astrophysics would lead me here: IT support in an office of cartographers and geodesists. Or areodesists.
I sit next to Abdelkerim and patiently explain the updates. Like Beate, Abdelkerim is from Germany, but his forebears came from elsewhere: North Africa, as I seem to remember. I think he is very good, but his problem is his English. I feel for him, because English is not my native tongue either; but I am good at languages, and Abdelkerim really isn't. And I spent years in America, and before that in England, whereas Abdelkerim had only ever lived in Germany.
Unfortunately my German isn't good enough to be of much help here.
We get there in the end, though. Abdelkerim is able to use all the applications he needs, access all the data he requires, and do his job at least as well as before the updates. Even then he is still a bit taciturn, even a little sullen, and his thanks seem absentminded and perfunctory; but I don't let myself be offended or take it to heart, because I’m a little worried about him. I go out of my way to be kind and friendly to him, and hope it will help him feel a little bit more included.
With that I am finished here. I stand up and take a last look around the room. Heads bowed over mobile devices or staring at monitors, typing, drawing, making notes, reading: everybody is hard at work.
Raj looks up and catches my eye; he raises his hand to say goodbye, but he has his headset on and is talking in a low voice, so we leave it at sign language. Craig catches my eye too, but doesn't speak or make any sign, and his expression remains unchanged.
I wave to the room at large, saying "See you later!" more or less under my breath, and make my way back to the room where my own work station is.
This is a room of IT specialists. We are all attached to different scientific projects, but we sit together, apart from the teams we work with, and that has two reasons. One is that we spend a lot of time on the phone, and don't want to disturb our teams while they are trying to work; the other is so that we can pool our IT knowhow, ask each other questions, share fixes that we have developed, and so on.
My favourite colleague is there as I walk in: Rashida, from Pakistan, who came with the Indian team. She is a real IT expert with a proper degree in computer science, and has helped me a lot.
I was - shall we say - reasonably well informed by the time I got here, because I had used the eight month trip to do some courses and prepare myself for my duties; but that is, of course, no substitute for studying the subject properly.
Rashida's bump is beginning to show if she turns a certain way. I was very touched when I was one of the first people that she told, long before you could see anything.
I had already guessed, in fact, though I didn't tell her that. Something in her features made me think of it.
This will be her second. She already has a little boy, at the nursery at the moment, where Chiara is too. Chiara doesn't like him at all, I’m a little sorry to say; in fact she doesn't particularly like boys generally. I'm sure that's just a phase that she'll soon grow out of.
Rashida is on the phone as I come in, and in any case I have no time to chat about children this morning, much as I might like to. I walk to the dispenser on the side, draw myself an espresso and sit down at my desk.
Talking to Abdelkerim has made me realise that I am not as familiar with some of the details of these latest updates as I'd really like to be. So I’m carving out some time this morning to read the electronic manual again, properly this time, that came with them and work through some of the changes, in order to get the whole thing sorted in a logical fashion in my mind.
As ever, I’m interrupted, time and again, by requests for help from my team, in the lab or somewhere outside; some of them a significant distance away. I deal with them all, calmly and conscientiously, and between the requests I persevere with studying the updates. By lunchtime I really feel that I‘ve made some progress.
On a normal day I'd be picking Chiara up from the nursery now and having lunch at home with her; but today Mike is picking her up, and I am putting in some extra time at work.
Rashida logs off and stands up.
"Bye, everyone. See you in the morning."
She slings her bag over her shoulder and leaves. There are five or six of us left in the room, and we have lunch together, as we always try to, if we’re not too busy. We have a separate kitchen next door where we can warm food up and sit down together, with our mobile devices clearly visible in case of emergencies.
I’ve brought some salad with me, left over from yesterday's lunch, which there is no need to warm up: just a little bit of preparation such as adding some dressing. It’s nice to be able to relax for a little while without a screen to stare at and a headset talking to me, and also, if I’m honest, without a little girl that I have to keep an eye on all the time.
I do feel a bit guilty about that last part.
There are no interruptions for me during my lunch break, but I know I’m in for a busy afternoon. In addition to looking after my own team I’m standing in for Étienne, who is out on a call. In fact Étienne's team has a second IT person, Sumit, but Sumit is really an electronics engineer and has an important role outside IT support, so that he only spends part of his time in that function. With Étienne out this afternoon as well, there is no one available for their team, so any calls will go through to me.
At five o'clock I am feeling quite ragged and am very glad to take off that headset and log out. I feel as though I never want to talk to anyone again.
Fortunately I know that I can forget about work now until tomorrow morning. There are colleagues who are on call for out-of-hours support, on a roster, but that doesn't include people like me or Rashida who have the care of small children.
I hurry down the gangways to the place where I have arranged to meet Mike and take Chiara back from him. I needn't have hurried. I sit down on a bench and wait for them.
Before long they appear at the end of a gangway. Mike is walking towards me, and Chiara is chattering to him, running a few steps, jumping up and down, then running a few more steps and jumping again.
I smile as I see her, and I stand up to meet them. They haven't noticed me yet, and I watch them as they approach: Chiara so tiny, and Mike with his great long limbs and his ambling gait. Not for the first time I wonder what it feels like to be so large.
Mike notices me first, and Chiara immediately afterwards. She runs towards me and jumps up and down right in front of me.
"Mummy, Daddy's got a bloom! There's a bloom in Daddy's house!"
I laugh, and shake my head.
"What are you talking about, darling? Come, stand still and give me a hug."
I crouch down and spread my arms, and then furrow my brow.
"What's that on your top?"
She stops jumping and looks up at her father. I look at him, and wait.
"Sorry, Selena," he says. "I let her help, and I'm afraid some of it got on her clothes."
I inspect her front. There is a dark stain across her top, inexpertly masked by a badge that she has painted herself and fixed where the stain is worst. Goodness knows what they have been doing.
There are more stains further down, smeared and smudged where they have evidently tried to wipe off whatever it was. It looks chocolaty, which gives me hope that it will be easy to remove.
"I'm sorry, Mummy!" She looks and sounds distressed.
"Never mind, darling. It's not your fault."
There’s some food of some sort at the side of her mouth, which I try to brush off with my fingers.
"Now give me that hug!"
I fold my arms around her, and glance up at Mike, who still has that hangdog, apologetic look.
That doesn't work, Mike.
I don't need your apologies, I need you to perform the simplest tasks properly.
But I'm not going to say anything. What's the point.
I release her and look her in the face, still crouching.
"So what have you been helping Daddy to do?"
Her face lights up and she jumps again.
"We made chocolate cake!"
"Chocolate cake! Really?" Since when have you been baking cakes, Mike? I look at him, and he shrugs.
"It was a mix," he says. "All you do is mix it with water and put it in the oven. Wasn't hard."
"And did you eat some?"
"Yes! It was yummy!"
"Ah, that's nice. And that's what those crumbs were on your face?"
She giggles sheepishly.
"So how much cake did you have?" What is her appetite going to be like this evening?
I look at Mike, who says, "She had two slices, and she licked some of the mixture before it went into the oven."
"Is that how you helped?" I ask her. "By licking the spoon?"
"No!" she protests, vehemently. "I stirred!"
"Did you? All on your own, or did Daddy help?"
"He didn't help me, but he stirred too."
"Ah, that's good."
I stand up.
"Right, let's get you home and into the bath."
"I don't want a bath, Mummy."
"Never mind. You're having one." I know she'll enjoy it once she’s in the hot water.
"I was thinking," says Mike.
“You know that musical thing, outside. You know, where you all go out and gather, with the music coming through over the radio."
"The Dawn Chorus?"
"That's the one. I thought you might like to go to it."
"Well - yes, I would -"
"So Chiara could stay with me, if you like, that night. So you can go."
I look at him, wondering.
"That's - that's very thoughtful. Thank you!"
"It's fine. No problem. Bring her to me in time for bed, and I'll take her to nursery."
I look at my daughter, considering. She has never spent a night away from me. I suppose she has to start some time.
"Think about it," he says. "Let me know."
"I will. And thank you. Come on, Chiara, let's go home. Say good night to Daddy."
Once home, it turns out that she is quite hungry after all. I give her a slice of the meat loaf that I made the other day which is still in the fridge, and which obviously doesn't really contain meat. I make some tomato salsa while it’s warming up, and she eats it with a stick of fresh celery, which I am glad to say she likes very much these days.
Then it’s time for her bath. I run hot water into the little tub, in which I can just about lie down with my knees in the air, small as I am, and then I help her get undressed. As I pull off her leggings I notice a pulled thread. Oh, Mike.
I love bathing her. I love this atmosphere of carefree, childish innocence. As if nothing could possibly be wrong. As if all the cares and worries and problems of the world outside this bathroom just don't count, and all that matters is the warm, moisture-laden air in the room, the sound of her splashing and chattering in the hot water, the laughter we share when one of her toys does something funny, bouncing out of the water and surprising her, for instance. Then taking her out and rubbing her down vigorously with a bath towel, standing on the mat in front of me where I kneel.
"What was that you were saying about a bloom, Chiara?" I have just remembered what she said earlier. "What were you talking about?"
"The flower, Mummy. The flower in Daddy's house is blooming!"
"A red one."
A red one.
"Was it not blooming before?"
"No, Mummy. It was just green. But now it's got a red flower on the top."
"That must be pretty." This is very interesting. Mike has a potted plant at home?
"Yes, Mummy!" She does another little jump, impeded somewhat by the bath towel that I’m holding. "It's following the lamp."
"Because the lamp is nice and warm."
I look at her as she stands in front of me, swathed in her towel, and I give her a hug.
"Come on," I say at last, softly. "Time for bed."
I carry her into the bedroom, where she puts on the pyjamas that I have laid out for her. She insists on doing it all for herself, and I have to force myself not to help her find the sleeves as she pulls the top part over her head.
We sit next to each other on her bed and I read her a story. She knows it by heart, and tells parts of it to me as we go from one picture to the next.
Finally it's lights out. She lies down on her bed and I cover her up. I look down on her in the light from the open door and smooth the hair out of her forehead.
"Good night, sweetheart. Ti amo tanto."
"I love you too, Mummy."
I close the door gently and go into the kitchen. Now this typical hectic day really is drawing to a close. I just need to make myself something to eat, and then I can relax for a couple of hours before going to bed myself.
I can't really face the meat loaf. I give the matter a little thought and settle for some fruit and a biscuit. I make my usual herbal tea, carry the food over to the table while it brews, pour myself a cup to cool down, and I sit down and turn on my mobile device to see that I have got a text from Craig Winterton.
Too Busy for Anything Else