After all that drama it almost comes as an anti-climax when it turns out that I can stay on Mars after all.
I get a call from Dr Klaus’s assistant asking me whether I can drop by his office later that morning. During work hours.
Of course I can. I rearrange a visit that I was going to make to my team, which was not particularly urgent, and when the time arrives I log off and make my way down a few corridors to his office.
His assistant gets up to greet me and goes before me to Dr Klaus’s door. He opens the door and announces me.
“Dr Hutchinson is here.”
He steps back and lets me pass through the doorway.
“Dr Hutchinson!” says Dr Klaus. “Good morning. Very good of you to come across at such short notice.”
He shakes my hand. A woman is sitting in his office, and she now stands up and approaches us with a smile.
“This is Dr Ampleforth,” he tells me, and she offers me her hand.
“Verity,” she says, and looks me in the eye. “Verity Ampleforth. Good to meet you, Dr Hutchinson.”
“Selena,” I say, and I slip my hand into hers.
“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” she says. She is older than me, with light brown hair whose colour I think she has enhanced, and a pleasant, slightly squirrel-like face. I’m taking a liking to her.
“Yes, I’m sure we have,” I reply. “Didn’t we talk about asteroids at a party once, a while ago?”
“That’s right,” she says, and smiles.
Dr Klaus smiles too.
“How prescient,” he says. “Do sit down. Will you have some coffee, Dr Hutchinson? Some water?”
“Just some water, please. Thank you.” I only ever drink one coffee a day.
I take the only free chair, and the others sit down again. We are at a small, round table in the front half of Dr Klaus’s room; his desk occupies the other half, and there is a window behind it that overlooks the park in the central area.
“Dr Ampleforth is heading a new project in my team,” he begins to explain, as he pours me a glass of water and hands it to me. He leans back and puts the tips of his fingers together, making a kind of wigwam.
“As you know, this colony has an economic objective as well as its scientific purpose, and that economic objective is very much focussed on exploring, extracting and exploiting the mineral resources that are available to us out here.”
I listen, not daring to wonder where this is leading.
“There is, of course, an abundance of such resources here on Mars, and I am aware that the team you are working with now is involved in identifying where they are.”
I nod, and glance at Verity Ampleforth.
“In the long term, the intention is to transport the most valuable materials, I should say, the most valuable per unit mass, to Earth, where they can be put to productive use and help the colony to pay its way.”
“Of course, it is an expensive procedure to transport things to Earth, and one of the factors that make it so expensive is the need to lift them off the surface of the planet into space before that interplanetary transport can even commence.”
“Now, we have always been conscious that there is also an abundance of mineral resources that are already in space and don’t need to be first lifted there. I am speaking of the asteroid belt. Many objects in that belt contain metals that are very interesting for our purposes, if only we could manage to mine them and send them to Earth in a cost-effective way.”
I look at Verity again. She is listening, and watching me.
“The Agency now believes that we are ready to start investigating that possibility in earnest. In theory we have always been aware that it exists, and indeed it has always been the intention, at some point, to incorporate the exploitation of the asteroids into the economic rationale of the colony.”
He clears his throat.
“Dr Ampleforth’s task now is really to take that forward, in a practical sense. I have asked her to investigate the practicality of implementing that intention, with a view to elaborating a recommendation, within the timescale of the project, as to the procedures and the resources that the Agency will need in order actually to commence mining in the asteroid belt in an acceptable period of time. I have asked her, as a preliminary step, to assemble a group of specialists to cover all aspects of this task, and this is why I have asked you to come and meet us this morning, Dr Hutchinson. I’d like to ask you whether you would consider joining Dr Ampleforth’s group and working with her on this project.”
He pauses and looks at me, and I have nothing better to do than to burst into tears.
Dr Klaus is suddenly, very obviously, out of his depth here. After a moment of astonishment he begins to pat my arm and make soothing noises, and most clearly has no idea what he is supposed to do about this throbbing sack of emotions right in front of him.
I have to stop this. They’ll think I am emotionally unsuitable.
“I’m sorry,” I tell them, and I make a massive effort to assert control over myself. “It’s just – I’ve been so worried.” Careful, Selena. “I want to stay so badly. I’d be devastated,” and off I go again.
Dr Klaus waits patiently for me to calm down. Verity Ampleforth is waiting too. I’m not seeing her face.
I’ve taken a packet of tissues out of my bag and I press one up against my eyes. I take a deep breath.
“I’m so sorry,” I say again. “I don’t know what you must think of me. I’m so sorry. I’m all right now.”
“I’m looking forward to you joining us,” says Verity. “I think you’ll fit into our group really well.” She leans forward and places a hand on my forearm as it rests on the table, the wet tissue in my hand. She takes her hand away again and leans back.
“Yes, indeed, I’m sure that will be the case,” says Dr Klaus, and he gives us both an encouraging smile. “I believe it is very important for a group to be real colleagues. Even friends. I try to ensure that we are all the best of friends in my team. A family.”
Verity listens to this with a little smile on her face. Is there a hint of irony?
I feel the tears welling up again, but I manage to suppress them this time. I’m not used to the Agency being nice to me.
Almost. I almost suppress them. I dab my eyes again.
Verity starts to talk about who else she wants to include in her group. There are several names, women and men.
“They won’t all be full-time,” she says, and she names some who will continue with their current duties. “They’ll be seconded to us for batches of their time, as the need arises. And you’ll be part-time too, of course, if that’s what you wish.”
“That would be perfect,” I say.
“I know you have your daughter to think of.”
“Yes, that’s right.” This seems almost too good to be true.
“We’re a small group, and we don’t have to service anyone else: just work to a common deadline. So we can be as flexible as we need to be.”
“That sounds perfect,” I say again.
Now that I know who I’ll be working with, Verity goes on to talk about what we’ll be doing.
The idea is that, in the end, the mining will be done by robots. Unmanned craft will be positioned in the asteroid belt, or close to it, and from there equipment will be landed on suitable asteroids and proceed to extract the minerals we want. Then other equipment will transport the minerals to wherever in space this is all being collected, prior to being picked up and transported to Earth, probably in the same rhythm as the ship that brings the colonists.
Humans will be monitoring and controlling all this equipment remotely; and this will be feasible, because we’re quite close to the asteroid belt here, some of it, at least compared to Earth, so the time delay will not be very great: the human watchers will be able to see what is happening out there almost at the same time as it actually is happening. But the equipment has to be able to do everything on its own if need be: it must be fully robotic. Especially if mining on a particular asteroid extends into months, as seems likely, or even years, because an asteroid that was close to Mars when mining started, will fall further and further back on its path around the Sun as time goes by, and the time delay for the human watchers will become greater and greater.
This is where I come in. The asteroid belt consists of myriads of irregularly shaped objects, tumbling over themselves in their orbits around the Sun, outside the orbit of Mars, and occasionally bumping into each other. To make this robotic mining exercise a practical possibility, we have to be able to calculate the path and the rotation of each object that we are interested in, and its neighbours, accurately enough to land equipment on it and take off from it without any damage.
That is, of course, physics: kinetics, or ballistics, a classic part of what physicists learn early on in their studies. Actually I think it’s engineering, really, more than physics; but I’m not complaining.
Why didn’t I think of that? It’s obvious, now that I hear about it from Verity and Dr Klaus. I’m a physicist and an IT expert. I really am one of the most suitable people on Mars for this task.
Finally we talk about the terms of my future employment.
Dr Klaus is almost apologetic as he explains why he can’t afford to pay me more than he’s offering; but that is still more than I’m getting at the moment, for a much less important and more junior job.
I’m so grateful for this job offer that I would happily take a cut in pay. But I don’t say that.
There will be a dedicated lab room for the project, and this is where I’ll be expected to come every morning; Verity will be there too, and other members of the group as they are needed. It sounds as though I’ll be one of the lucky ones who will have their own work stations. No hot-desking for Verity and me.
We talk about timing. I have some projects that I really ought to see through, and somehow my responsibilities are going to have to be reallocated among the other IT specialists. But, as I point out, they must have been expecting to have to do this anyway; so it shouldn’t be a problem to let me join the new group as soon as we like.
Dr Klaus looks puzzled.
“What do you mean, Dr Hutchinson?” he asks. “Why are your responsibilities expected to be reallocated anyway?”
“Well, if I’m leaving,” I say. “The ship is nearly here.”
He and Verity look at each other, and back at me.
“Had you been intending to leave with the ship?” he asks.
“Not intending,” I reply. “Certainly not intending.”
He exchanges another glance with Verity.
“I don’t follow,” he says. “Why would you leave with the ship if you don’t intend to?”
“Because the Agency will send me back to Earth. Or it was going to.”
“What makes you think that, Mrs Hutchinson?”
“Well –” I am nonplussed. Is he putting on an act?
“I assure you, I am not aware of any such intention,” he says. “I should be surprised to learn of such a thing.”
I must be looking sceptical. He looks me in the eye.
“You are a valued member of our community here, Dr Hutchinson, and you always have been. I very much wish to dispel any doubts you may have on that score. Please, set your mind absolutely at rest.”
I don’t know what to say.
He leans back in his chair and gives a sudden little laugh, like a bark, and looks once again at Verity.
“Send you back to Earth against your will?” he says. “Goodness me. What an idea. No, Dr Hutchinson, I’m sure there has been a misunderstanding here, and there was never any such intention. Put it out of your mind. I assure you.”
I look at him, in turmoil.
What about what Marketa said to me?
What about all the logic?
What about the lawyers’ analysis?
I think they have made up their minds, presumably because of this new project, that they want me to stay, and now they are putting on this appearance of concerned and humane management.
I’m sure Dr Klaus was perfectly well aware of what was going on, and he along with all the others would have been perfectly happy to see me go.
Hard decisions have to be made sometimes when you’re in a position of authority. Everybody knows that.
Now that they’ve decided they want me here after all, they want my heart to be in it too. All of a sudden they’re interested in my feelings. That’s why Dr Klaus is talking about me being a valued member of the community, all one happy family, bla bla bla. They want me to identify with them and their mission, they want me motivated and enthusiastic and ready to give my all, not just my contractual duty. They want my love.
Am I imagining it all? Is it possible that I misunderstood, that I was afraid of a phantom all along, that Dr Klaus is telling the truth?
I can’t believe it. Nobody I spoke to thought I was over-reacting or imagining things. Brandy. Craig. The lawyers. Even Mike, who alerted me to the problem in the first place. Everyone could see that it made perfect business sense for the Agency to send me back to Earth to make way for someone who would contribute more and justify using scarce and expensive resources. Until now, when suddenly it makes business sense to use my abilities for this new project.
Everything is about money.
But so what? I can stay. That is the one important thing. I can stay here with Chiara. Chiara and I will be together for ever. Until she grows up, anyway. Long may she not do that.
And that is my state of mind as I take my leave of Verity Ampleforth and Dr Klaus. Glad, but realistic. Sober. Not really grateful any more, but certainly relieved and content. In fact, very excited about this unexpected and wonderful turn of events, and that excitement is growing as I walk down the passageway away from his office.
I can’t wait to tell Brandy.
I wonder whether the other wives will see me differently now. Now that I have a ticket to stay in my own right.
I can’t really blame them, I suppose. Even Craig thought that was what I was up to.
He’ll soon see how wrong he was.
I don’t need a man to be entitled to stay on Mars. I’m an essential part of the colony in my own right.
In fact the likelihood is that I’ll never find a man now. I’ll be a single mother for the rest of my life, out here on Mars, growing old as my one child grows up and makes her own way in the world.
I don’t care. Marriage is over-rated. I’m very happy for it to be just my daughter and me. There’s no deficit there, no gap that only a man can fill.
I’m hurrying through the central area on my way back from the interview, and I see Beate sitting on one of the park benches, watching as I approach with a smile on her face. She stands up.
“Hello, Beate, fancy seeing you here. I’ve got such amazing news!”
“Really?” She smiles, like a parent indulging a child who wants to talk about her Christmas presents. “Why don’t you sit down and tell me about it?”
I’m really too excited to sit down, but I do so, and I perch on the edge of the bench and turn to talk to her.
“Dr Klaus has just offered me this super job! He talked to us down in the shelter, didn’t he, during the storm. You introduced me to him. It was weird, because I got the impression he already knew who I was. I suppose Dr Ampleforth must have already mentioned me. Do you know Dr Ampleforth?”
“I know of her, yes.”
“Well, she’s putting a team together to look at exploiting the asteroid belt, and she needs me! She works for him, and he’s asked her to put this team together, and I’ve just had an interview with both of them, and they want me to join the team!”
“Well, that is exciting news.”
“It’s the best news ever! I’m so relieved.” I want to stand up, but remember that I’m supposed to be sitting and talking to her; I’m so animated that I’m almost bouncing on my seat.
“So, financially, will you be better off? Will you be able to look for a bigger place?”
“Yes! That’s another good thing about it. Chiara can have her own room. I hope, anyway. I’ll have to see.”
I’m not really seeing anything in front of me as I imagine all the ways in which everything is now going to start to get better.
“She can have her friends over for play dates and sleepovers. There’ll be more space for her toys and her clothes. Maybe I can have a larger kitchen, with more chairs.”
“You know who to talk to, don’t you, about that?”
“Yes, thanks, I do: same as before, when we were moving out.”
“Exactly. I think you’ll find them helpful. Even with all the new colonists coming in now, there’s been so much building that there’s sure to be space to fit you and Chiara in.”
“I hope so.”
I turn and look directly at her, and my heart is so full that I put both my hands down on her, something that I have never done before: one on her hand, the other on her knee, and I press down as I speak.
“Oh, Beate, I’m so – I can’t even say how I feel. This is the best day ever! I had no idea. And now everything is – everything’s going to be fine.” I shake my head, and I take my hands away again. “This is like waking up out of a bad dream. All my dreams are coming true.”
I gaze in front of me, remembering, and I turn back to her.
“It’s been a really difficult time,” I tell her. “Sometimes I – I really haven’t known what I was going to do. It’s been so hard. It’s felt like – as if nothing was any use. No matter what I did. How I tried.” I remember. I never want to feel so hopeless again.
“You’ve been such a big help, Beate. I don’t know how I’d have managed without you. Your counselling. It’s made such a big difference, to have someone to talk to.”
“I’ve been glad to help, Selena.”
“I know you have. What a good thing we happened to speak, months ago. Just here, wasn’t it? You happened by as I was watching Chiara on the playground, and we got talking, and you suggested counselling me. What a good thing that you did, and that I took you up. I’m so glad I did.”
“So am I.”
“And now I’ve got through it, with your help. You’ve spent so much time bothering with me, all those months, I feel quite guilty; but I’m very glad you did. You’ve really helped so much; and now I know that I can manage. Everything is going to be fine. It’s time I stopped taking up so much of your time.”
“I don’t mind taking time for you, Selena.”
I glance across at her.
“Well, it’s very kind of you to say so. But I know you have lots of other important things to do with your time. It’s time for me to stand on my own two feet! And I know I can, now. I’ve really got my head sorted out, and my life is on track. I’m in control, and I owe it to you. I really want to say thank you, Beate. You’ve done wonders for me, and I truly am a success story of your counselling. Thanks to you I’m back on my feet, and I can face anything, with Chiara. I –”
Beate stands up, seemingly involuntarily, and takes a step or two away. I stop chattering and stare at her. Her face is working, but she turns it away, and she is clearly struggling to maintain her composure. Evidently something has deeply moved her, but I have no idea what.
“Is something wrong, Beate?”
She shakes her head and says nothing.
“Have I annoyed you?”
“No! No, Selena, you haven’t annoyed me.” She turns back to face me, and she is smiling at me.
“I’m very glad about your news,” she says. “I’m glad I was able to help you. You’ll be wanting to meet Chiara.”
“Yes, good point.” I stand up too. She holds her hand out for me to shake.
“Let me know how you are getting on,” she says. “I’d like to know how you’re doing.”
I take her hand and look her in the eyes. “I will,” I promise.
Her face is smiling, but there is something in her eyes that seems to belie it.
“Are you all right, Beate?”
“Yes! Yes, of course. I’m fine.” She lets go of my hand. “Goodbye, Selena.”
A wild thought crosses my mind, but I discard it immediately.
“See you later, Beate. Thanks again for everything. I really mean it.”
She smiles. “Goodbye.”
She takes a step back, but doesn’t yet turn to walk away.
“Bye!” I say, and I turn round and continue on down the path. After a few steps I look back and see that she is still standing there, watching me. I give her a little wave, and then I face in front once more and carry on the way I was going, through the park, first to find Chiara, then Brandy.