Chiara bounces along the corridor happily with the other children and into the room where the space suits are.
We mothers follow at a sedate distance, and by the time we enter the room too, Mrs Dalgleish is already helping the first child into his suit.
Chiara has found the one she wants to wear.
"Look, Mummy!" she says, and her eyes are shining. I see the flower pattern on the boots, and it’s obvious why it has to be this suit.
"That's very pretty, darling. That'll look lovely. Shall we see whether it fits?"
Her face falls a little, because she clearly hadn't thought of that; but she recovers instantly and jumps up and down on the spot.
I look towards Mrs Dalgleish, and there’s a knot of jostling children around her as she does up Yves Messier's suit for him and sends him off towards the exit.
I suppose I don't need expert help to take this space suit down and see whether it's the right size for my daughter. I look around me, feeling a little uncertain; but here comes Irina Rankovic, who is helping Mrs Dalgleish today and has seen what we are up to.
"That's a pretty space suit, Chiara," she says. "Shall we put it on for you?"
She glances at me.
"I'm sure it'll be fine," she says. "This is for two to four. I'm sure it'll fit," and it does.
Chiara is beaming as Irina fastens the inner lining and seals the outer shell up to her chest.
"Can we go now, Mummy?"
"Look," I say. "There's Pamela: she's not quite ready yet. Shall we go in with her?"
But Chiara can't wait, and she tugs me by the hand to go down the gangway.
"Fine! Thanks, Irina. See you outside!"
I pick up the helmet that goes with Chiara's suit and carry it along with my own into the airlock.
There a technician is fitting everyone's helmet and checking that all the suits are properly sealed. Marissa is making a fuss about her hair, and her mother, while not exactly encouraging her, can very obviously see her point. As can I, to be honest; but what can you do? That helmet has to go on.
Feeling glad that Chiara and I both have sensible hair, I watch as the technician adjusts first Chiara's helmet, then mine, with a practised and firm hand, and then we wait as the airlock gradually fills with children and grown-ups.
I press a button on my wrist and speak in a low voice.
Chiara looks around her, startled to hear her mother's voice inside her helmet. This is the frequency that only I am broadcasting on, and that only Chiara can receive, alongside the general frequency that everybody has.
I kneel down in front of her.
"Can you see me, Chiara? Here I am!"
Her helmet approaches mine, and I can see her face through our plastic visors, surrounded by the pink and grey of the rest of the helmet.
"Look, Chiara, you can see me, and my voice is in your helmet! You say something."
She peers at me uncertainly, and I start to sing softly:
"Comfy Blanky swings with me,
Swings beneath the apple tree."
Which is the start of a song from her favourite programme, and makes her giggle shyly.
"There you are! I heard you laugh, in my helmet. Just like you can hear me in your helmet."
"Can you hear me, Mummy? In your helmet?"
"Yes! I can hear you, and you can hear me, and we're talking! With our helmets on!"
She gives a pleased laugh, and I give her a hug. I love this child.
It takes quite a while until everybody is ready; some of the boys are showing off and wasting time; but at last even the silliest boy is properly suited up and we are ready to go.
The door to the corridor closes, the air in the airlock is extracted, most of it, that is, and I watch with a curious sensation as the door to the outside begins to slide open.
"Don't forget: every child must hold on to a grown-up's hand!"
We’re already doing that, Mrs Dalgleish, but thanks for reminding us.
We troop out, and suddenly everybody's mood is subdued, even awed, a little.
Most of the children have never been outside before, and most of the adults too have seldom left the colony, though obviously we all know what to expect.
The sun is shining, much, much smaller in the sky than it would be back on Earth, and the temperature is a little above zero degrees Celsius: this would be a bracing winter's day back home, but it's a real scorcher on Mars. Most of the year it’s far below zero, even during the day.
We spread out, still subdued, in this utterly alien landscape: all rocks and dust, and everything suffused with the red Martian hue, that those who spend a lot of time outside cease to notice after a while, they say, but which is the most obvious feature of the landscape to my eyes.
It's a little ironic. When I first went to California and had some free time, I wanted to see something I had never seen before. I grew up in northern Italy, near the Alps, so mountains, forest and sea didn't really seem worth visiting; but I had never seen a desert. So I hired a car that weekend and drove out to the desert with another female European postgrad on my programme, and there we spent a happy few hours that entirely satisfied our expectations, taking very seriously the advice always to have a bottle of water with us, and feeling quite charmed when we saw some sort of lizard sunning itself on a rock.
And now here I am actually spending my life in the most hostile and barren desert a human being has ever seen. It's the lush, rich landscapes, charged with moisture, with their succulent vegetation, that seem exotic now. And the fresh air: though we’ve left the colony and are now outside, obviously we’re still breathing the same processed air as we always do.
None of these children have seen those succulent landscapes or breathed that fresh air. They are the Martians. They were born here, and this is all they know, except from images on a screen.
The children are swarming out into the area outside the airlock, having now overcome their initial hesitation. Chiara pulls me towards a child who I am fairly sure is Pamela, because I remember the space suit she was putting on. Pamela has made for a large, flat rock and clearly wants to be put on top of it. Her mother is just lifting her up as Chiara and I arrive, and I lift Chiara up too: the surface of the rock is quite high, higher than our heads, but everything only weighs about a third here of what it would on Earth, and though my muscles, like everybody's, have weakened for lack of use, it’s still extremely easy to lift my daughter up there.
Pamela's mother and I exchange a glance and a nod. I press another button on my wrist to share our frequency, and I say:
"What can you see, Pamela?"
Pamela has been looking down at us, but now she and Chiara both look around: up the slope, and back towards the colony.
"Look!" says Chiara, and points.
Up the road, or rather, along a strip of desert that has been cleared of the larger rocks, rolls a Mars buggy with four children in the back. It’s making for the crest of the hill, which is in fact the wall of the crater in which the colony has been built, to give it some protection against the Martian dust storms. It looks like a bumpy ride, and I'm not sure that I am looking forward to our turn.
"I don't want to go on that," Chiara declares.
"Oh, but it'll be fun!" I protest. "Just think how far we'll be able to see from the top!"
Chiara thinks about this.
"What's on the other side, Mummy?"
I’m trying to remember, and failing.
"Oh - I think you can see some mountains, a long long way away."
"Who lives there, Mummy?"
"Nobody, darling. Everybody lives here, in the colony. But sometimes people go out there, in a buggy like that one."
"Because they're looking for things."
"Well - water, for instance."
This is actually true, though they are obviously not going to find any on the surface.
"Why is there water there?"
"Erm - I'm not sure, darling. But it's a good job there is."
"Because we need water. You need water, don't you, Chiara: you drink water, and you wash in water."
"And you wash in water, Mummy."
"I do; and I cook with water, and I wipe the table with water."
"And my face."
"Yes, I wipe your face with water too."
I hope all this talk about water doesn't have unintended consequences. Chiara has been potty trained for ages, but she has been having a few accidents lately.
Please don't have an accident in your space suit, Chiara.
Time to change the subject.
"And we use water for rocket fuel."
This is true too, though I’m not going to explain about oxygen and hydrogen at this stage in my daughter's career.
"Look, you're a rocket!" I say, and I stretch my arms up, lift her off the rock and make her zoom around my head before I set her down on the ground, giggling.
"Up you go, rocket!" and up she goes again. "Zoom, zoom!"
Thank goodness for low gravity.
Now Pamela wants to be a rocket too, and I apologise to her mother.
"No worries, Selena. I need the exercise anyway!"
And that is true too. We’re all supposed to adhere to a strict exercise routine as part of a scientifically designed programme to combat muscle atrophy and osteoporosis.
So we decide to get some more exercise by tramping up towards the edge of the crater. That is, Pamela's mother and I tramp: our little bundles of energy are running around us, in great loops and circles.
"Careful you don't fall, Pamela and Chiara!"
Though we don't need to be too paranoid about it. There’s a small but non-zero chance of ripping a space suit on a sharp rock, and most of the year that is potentially a dangerous thing to happen; but with the temperature as mild as it is today, the worst that is likely to occur is that we have to cut our outing short and go back indoors.
Also I suppose questions might be asked about the cost of repairing the suit.
About half way there we stop for a rest and a look around. We’re already a fair bit higher than the colony, and we look back down on it, sprawling in the basin of the crater.
Over to the left is the hydroponic wing, where I have never been, and where all our food is grown. We are all vegans on Mars, of necessity, not choice. Keeping any kind of animal here - even disregarding the expense of getting at least a breeding pair to Mars - would be a huge challenge. It's bad enough dealing with the consequences of humans living here.
So my daughter has never seen an animal, or a bird. She will never have a puppy.
"Look, Chiara. That's where we live, down there."
I point to roughly where I think our little apartment is, in the complex, and where the nursery is; but Chiara is not really interested. From outside it doesn't look anything like what she is used to seeing.
"And that's where we came out today. Can you see? And there's the rock where you were a rocket."
But Chiara runs off again, with Pamela just behind her, inspired by my daughter's vigour and high spirits.
Down in the crater the colony sits, its interconnecting pods glistening in the sunshine, smooth and curved and utterly incongruous in this rocky desert.
Living inside all the time, surrounded by technology and its amenities, you forget how incongruous it is. I'm not high enough yet to see out of the crater, but I’ve been to the top before and I know that wherever you look, for miles and miles around, everything on Mars is the same.
Yes, some of it is flat and featureless, other parts deeply clefted and mountainous, but everywhere it’s the same expanse of red rocks and dust, and stark shadows, except during a dust storm.
Above is the sky, with its two moons, only one of which is visible at the moment (and I can see it, low above the opposite edge of the crater: Phobos or Deimos, I don't know which, though I could check easily enough, if I could be bothered). But the sky is full of danger, unlike on Earth. Solar activity is low at the moment, and we would have plenty of time to get under cover in the event of an alert: any warning would be transmitted at the speed of light from where these things are monitored on Earth, or close to it, while an actual solar storm travels at the speed of the high-energy particles of which it consists, protons and electrons that are flung off the Sun in an explosion of devastating force; which is fast, but slower than light.
But if we were caught outside when one of these solar storms arrived - or if any of the geologists were caught outside on one of their trips, looking for water or other things, as I had explained to Chiara - its particles would blast through our tissues, damage us, maybe even kill us. We’re only safe inside the colony in its underground shelter.
As a race, we have ventured outside our little haven, the Earth; and the colony's presence here bears witness that we’re determined to make a success of it. But every aspect of that presence rams the point home that, outside that little haven, the rest of the universe is deeply inimical to human life. Unless there are other havens that we don't know about yet, or we manage to turn a place like Mars into something as hospitable and protected as our home planet.
Inimical to all life, presumably. It’s mild today, for Mars, such that we really only need our space suits for breathing and to protect our skins against the ultra-violet wavelengths in the sunlight, but a great deal of the time Mars is so bitterly cold that it ought to sterilise anything living that we were inadvertently to leave out, despite being very careful not to do any such thing. But we can't rule out that some bacterium or other that we accidentally released, from the residual air in the airlock, for instance, might survive the Martian cold; there are extremophile bacteria on Earth that flourish in the most surprising environments. I’m not a biologist, but it seems to me that any bacteria that did manage to survive and reproduce would be under immense selection pressure on Mars, and they would rapidly evolve into a hardier strain that could cope better with conditions here. It is not obvious to me that such an organism, when it came into contact once again with humanity, would necessarily be benign.
Lots of things one can worry about, if one feels so inclined.
In the corner of my eye I can see the buggy rolling down the slope with some tired children in the back. The driver sees me watching and waves.
"Is that Mrs Hutchinson? We're collecting all the children and bringing them back down now."
"Okay," I say, and I wave back. "Thanks!"
The buggy bumps over something and jiggles the children about; they clutch on to each other and to the sides of the vehicle, though naturally they are firmly secured and can't possibly fall out. I smile to myself and turn towards Chiara and Pamela.
They’re still running about and clearly enjoying themselves. I don't think there’s any need to be overly punctual in returning.
This is the first time they have ever done this. Let them work off their energy and enjoy the unfamiliar surroundings. Not long, and it will start to be too cold again to take them outside, and then it will be two whole Earth years before it’s summer again in this hemisphere of Mars.
That obviously won't stop the geologists from going out, in their proper, grown-up, professional space suits, in which they can survive for days at a time, if need be, even in the dead of Martian winter.
But the children will be confined to the pods and gangways that are all they have ever known; they'll carry on growing, and learning, and maturing; and by the time she can don a somewhat larger and probably less pretty space suit and visit the outdoors again, maybe even taking a ride in the buggy this time, Chiara will have learned to read, and chat with her friends online, and select the films she wants to watch, educational or otherwise, and she will probably understand a great deal more about her situation here and how different it is from that of other children back on Earth.
At last we do traipse back down to the bottom, Chiara and I, still together with Pamela and her mother. The children are subdued again, but for a different reason this time. There won't be any difficulty in getting them to sleep tonight; the only risk is of one or the other of them falling asleep on the way home.
At least one group has evidently already gone inside. Those of us still left drift gradually into the open airlock and wait until the final little party has come back with the buggy and is ready to go indoors.
Back in the room with the space suits, there is Mrs Dalgleish again with Irina and her other helpers.
"Did you have a nice time, Chiara? Did you ride in the buggy?"
Chiara clings to my leg and doesn't want to answer.
"I didn't see you out there, Irina," I say.
"But I saw you," Irina says. "I saw you from the top of the crater when you were down by a big rock with Brandy and Pamela. And I saw you flying around, Chiara. Were you being a spaceship?"
Chiara is smiling now at the memory, but she still doesn't want to say anything.
"She was a rocket, weren't you, Chiara? And Pamela was a rocket too."
I squat, and Chiara holds on to my hands as she steps out of the space suit which Irina peels off her and puts away.
Chiara puts her arms around me and whispers in my ear.
"Mummy, I need to do a wee."
"All right, well done for telling me. Hold it in for a moment, darling."
I think there’s a bathroom close by; better not risk waiting till we’re home.
There is indeed a door with a sign in a schematic female shape, in the corridor just outside; I must have subconsciously noticed it on the way down earlier. Inside there are several other women with their children, male and female, who have evidently had the same sudden thought as mine; there is even a queue for a free cubicle. There is much bustle, involving banging of doors, washing of hands, even brushing of hair, in one case; but it’s mainly the grown-ups making all the noise; the children seem dead on their feet.
Gradually each woman departs, taking her one or two children with her and taking her leave of her friends. Chiara and I leave too and walk slowly, hand in hand, along the corridor. After a moment I take pity on her and lift her on to my arm. I actually rather like carrying her, though these days it’s hard work after a while, even in Martian gravity: her face is up close to mine, and her little body is warming mine, and if she’s tired she will snuggle up and put her arms around my neck. These are the moments when I really know there is nothing like being a mother. It is the best thing in the world.
At last we’re back at our apartment, and the door slides open as it senses me and my body language, signalling my intention to enter. I am so looking forward to getting out of my space suit.
In the kitchen I make supper while Chiara waits on a chair by the table, which is no more than a flap attached to the kitchen unit, that one can fold back when it’s no longer needed. I’m making pancakes, because they’re quick, and Chiara loves them. I remember making vegan pancakes once back on Earth, and while they were all right, they turned out quite hard and a bit bland. But here we have artificial vegan egg and vegan milk, and the pancakes are quite yummy, though I say it myself.
We sit at the little table opposite each other and eat our pancakes, though by the time I have made the whole pile Chiara has already eaten two. She has syrup on her pancakes, and I have jam. Two more successes of the hydroponic wing.
Chiara perked up a little when she came in and sat down, and she eats her supper with gusto, but it doesn't last long. As I squeeze a worm of syrup on to one last pancake, her head nods and she pulls herself up with a jerk; so I change my mind and pick her up and carry her into the next room. I sit her on her bed and pull her shoes and her leggings off her, kneeling in front of her. It won't do any harm for her to sleep in her top and underpants for one night; so I roll her over and cover her up. I sit next to her and bend over to give her a snuggle and a kiss.
"Good night, Chiara dear."
"Good night, Mummy."
"Ti amo, cara."
"I love you too, Mummy."
I go back into the kitchen, closing the door quietly, and sit down again at the table. These two rooms are all we have, apart from a small bathroom. It was hard enough getting even this space, though the colony is growing, for a number of reasons, and as pods were added and space allocated to various competing functions, it proved possible to carve out this little section for Mars's first single mother.
There was, of course, also a question of cost: I’m not made of money, so this little cubby-hole is just right, for now.
I'd rather not think too far ahead.
The kitchen is silent as I sit there in the gloom, apart from the muffled hum of various electrical or mechanical aggregates, somewhere in the complex, that never goes away.
I’m trying to put my finger on how I feel. Trying to identify it.
I feel - it's as if I’m teetering on something. As if I’m trying to cross some sort of river, by leaping from one rock to another; and I’ve arrived on a rock which is firm underfoot, for now, but it’s too small and insecure to stay, and I’m teetering, and worrying about falling into the river, and I don't know where to jump to next.
If I lose Chiara I'll just die.
Right, pull yourself together, woman. Moping never got anyone anywhere. Switch the light on properly, do something useful. Time and tide.
I think I'll clean the kitchen. I do indeed turn the light up, and I put some music on, and I run hot water into a bucket. Well done, geologists, for enabling me to do that. The scrubbing brush makes a satisfying clatter in the bucket as I mix the cleaning fluid up with the hot water, and then I get down on to my hands and knees and start to scrub.
Mars's First Single Mother