It’s the dead of night. All is still. I am vaguely conscious of the sound of Chiara breathing, fast asleep in her bed on the opposite side of our bedroom.

I’m only vaguely conscious at all. Mid-way between slumber and wakefulness, poised between waking up and falling asleep again. I feel the cover touching my cheek and weighing on my body, stretched out beneath it. I lift my legs and make a movement that tucks a fold of the cover below my feet, so that my legs and feet feel cocooned in the cover.

I’m not sure whether I have been dreaming that there was someone in here with me.

I’m not dreaming now, and I know that there is no one here.

But I imagine someone here, lying behind me and moving up close. I feel his hand slipping through from behind, resting on my hip and on my stomach, and then passing slowly up my body; and I feel his body pressing up against my back and my bottom, and the pressure of his arm that holds me and draws me to him.

I feel how my body aches. How my breasts ache to be touched, how my spine yearns to arch and rise and respond, and how I long to feel someone moving inside me, something hard and urgent and demanding, tender but relentless, parting my timid lips, pushing them gently but firmly aside and moving, pushing, piercing deeper into my dark, warm wetness - and I moan audibly, and that wakes me up, and suddenly I am lying there wide awake, my heart pounding, and listening guiltily for whether Chiara is still asleep.

*

I have another appointment with Beate, but first I have arranged to meet someone at the café. It is, of course, not a café as on Earth, with newspapers on long rods, bustling waiters and with a vitrine by the tills exhibiting the cakes among which one can select.

Out of the wall at the side of the central area tumbles a stream of glistening water, already falling rapidly because it started its descent further up behind the wall; it splashes on to some rocks where it gathers briefly in a pool and brims over into a more placid waterfall that turns gradually into a smoothly rushing brook as it continues into the park.

Close to that first waterfall, set above that restless pool on a rocky platform by the wall, is a collection of round white tables with three or four chairs around each one, and that really does look like the outdoor terrace of a café at home. Here people can sit and relax, chatting to each other over the splashing of the water, looking out across the trees and the pathways of the central area, that is designed to resemble a real park on Earth, but for me feels more like an enclosed environment in a vast glasshouse in a botanical garden. Albeit a very pleasant and leisurely botanical garden.

I climb up the rocky steps out of the park below. One of the tables is occupied by two people leaning back in their chairs and exchanging the occasional remark as they sip their coffee and survey the view. I make my way to a free table at the other end of this terrace and put what I am carrying down on the table.

There is a vending machine with various biscuits, cakes, sweets and the like at the side of the terrace, all hermetically sealed; but I have baked a cake.

I remove the cover, take out the knife that I have brought with me in my bag, and cut four slices. It’s a simple enough cake, inspired by the panettone of my childhood and, I am pleased to say, indeed resembling panettone: it‘s light, airy, yielding and with a subtle, sweet fragrance that makes me hope my interlocutor will arrive soon.

I sit down on one of the chairs and wait; I don't want to get myself anything to drink until she does arrive.

Very soon I see her picking her way up the steps, her slender figure elegantly and professionally dressed, her hair perfect. I smile as she approaches, and she gives me her hand.

"Hello, Marketa; good of you to come."

"Hello, Selena. You've brought a cake!"

"Yes, I have. Do sit down. Will you have coffee? Water? Anything else?"

"Let me get it, Selena."

"No, no, please, let me." I stand up and motion to her to sit down. "What will it be?"

"That's very kind, Selena. I'll have a green tea, please, no sweetener, and some still water."

"No milk?"

"No!" she says, and makes a face. "That English habit!"

I smile. "We agree on that point!" I say, and it’s not just because the milk is made from soya.

I walk to the dispensers at the side of the terrace, hold my wrist device near the reader and draw two green teas, unsweetened, and two beakers of still water, which I carry to our table in two trips.

"Where's Chiara?" Marketa asks me as I am doing that.

"She's down in the park, Marketa," I reply, and I gesture with my head. "She's playing with Pamela Murdstone. Pamela's mother is with them, Brandy Murdstone. Do you know Brandy?"

"The Australian lady? Yes. A chemist?"

"That's right. A biochemist, in fact. Works in hydroponics."

"Yes, I remember."

I sit down and create some order on the table: a tea and a water for each of us, and a slice of cake each on the plates that I have brought with me.

"This looks delicious, Selena."

"Thank you."

She tears a corner off her piece of cake and inserts it into her mouth. I pick up a rather larger piece and take a bite out of it.

"How old is Chiara now?"

"She’s four."

"Goodness, is she really? That hardly seems possible!"

"I know," I say, a little melancholy. "We've been here for six years now."

"Yes, you have. You came with the first ship."

"And you came with the one after that."

"I did; and when we met, Chiara was a tiny baby."

"She certainly isn't that any more." Leave me alone, memories! Why must time pass so quickly?

"So what did you want to talk to me about, Selena?"

I sit back and assemble my thoughts.

"I don't know whether you have heard at all," I begin, "but I'm very keen to move back into real science, after my temporary role in IT while Chiara was small. I'd like to know what you think, your advice, on what possibilities there might be in your team, thinking creatively," and I start to tell her what I know about what her team does.

Marketa is not the head, but she is quite high up in her team, whose activities are centred on chemistry. They operate one of the colony's chemical plants, set a little distance apart from the main complex, though linked to it by a corridor with an airlock, so that people can go back and forth without needing a space suit.

The plant deals with certain key stages in the manufacture and reprocessing of many of the products that are used in the colony, in our everyday lives or for other purposes of the colony. Really it’s an industrial operation rather than a scientific one, its activities focussed more on technology than on science, its research aimed at improving process rather than increasing knowledge.

But the team does conduct research, I know that, and I talk to Marketa about what I know. I know there is a broad spectrum of people working at the plant, from the hands-on technicians and engineers whose concern is the output of the plant, to those further upstream in the process who are seeking technically practical solutions to the demands the colony makes on it.

"You're an astrophysicist, Selena, yes?"

"Well, yes, my PhD is in astrophysics; but I'm a physicist first and foremost," and I start talking about electromagnetism and quantum chromodynamics.

"Have you done any chemistry?"

"Yes, I have," I am pleased to reply, and I am indeed glad that she asked that question, because I took a seminar in quantum chemistry back at Bologna.

Physics and chemistry both look at matter, at substances, at a very small scale, but as fields of study they are adjacent to each other. Physics deals with the structure of atoms, which as everyone knows consist of a tiny nucleus at their centre, and one or more shells of electrons surrounding that nucleus, and its interest really stops at the electrons. Chemistry then takes over and looks at how atoms interact with each other to form molecules, and its interest stops at the electrons too, but coming from the outside rather than from the inside.

In fact I assume that quantum chemistry will not be directly relevant to anything that Marketa's team does; but it shows that I can look outside my own field and take an interest in other areas of research.

So the obvious next step in our conversation is to put those last two topics together: the discussion we have just had about the team's activities, and my physical background and proven interest in chemical questions. And I can see that Marketa is taking an interest. Soon we are having a lively and detailed discussion in which Marketa tells me about the processes that go on in the plant, giving me a much better understanding of them than I had had before, and we talk about how, in very many cases, physical questions are always part of the picture.

"You're right, of course," she says at one point, "and a lot of us do have a physical background, in part," which doesn't sound so good, and worries me for a moment. "But nobody is actually a physicist," she goes on, and I feel relieved. "Physical chemists, or chemists who have dabbled a little in physics, like you with your seminar in quantum chemistry. But nobody who is a real expert in physics."

Thanks to this discussion I am getting a better idea of how I could contribute if I were part of that team: how I could add a dimension that is not really there at the moment; and I think Marketa is beginning to see it too.

Now Marketa wants to hear about the work I am doing at the moment; and I am quite happy to talk about it, because we have already established my scientific credentials, and we can move on to talk about my IT skills as an additional factor, something that could make my presence in the team potentially even more valuable.

In reality a lot of the IT there is concerned with automated processes inside the chemical plant: robots, in fact; and that is something I know practically nothing about, and for which the plant has its own proper experts already. But there is enough IT going on of the sort that I am used to, in the activities of the researchers, for instance, where I would be likely to be working; so here, too, I think Marketa is seeing that I could be a useful addition to the team.

"All right, Selena," she says finally. "I'll speak to Mahendra and see what he thinks. I can't make any promises."

"No, I know that."

"It's been an interesting discussion."

"Yes. Thank you for taking the time."

"Not at all; thank you. And thank you for the delicious cake," of which she has eaten rather less than half a slice. But I do think she liked it.

I clear up our debris as she steps daintily back down the rocky stair. The beakers go into a hatchway in the pod wall to be washed later, automatically; I put the lid back on to the cake plate, with two untouched slices, and I slip our two plates into a side compartment of my bag. Down in the park children's voices peal out and fragment into laughter.

*

"You're in a good mood today, Selena," Beate says. "It's nice to see."

I smile at her. Indeed, I feel buoyed by my interview with Marketa.

"You've been here from the beginning too, haven't you?" I say. "I mean, you came with the first ship."

We colonists talk about the first ship, the second ship and so on, although it's really always the same ship, coming every other year.

"Yes, I was on the ship with you and Mike, though I don't think we spoke much. Why do you ask?"

"I was just thinking, it must be interesting for you. Watching how all this has developed, from a handful of scientists based here to a real settlement, a village, and one day a proper town, if it keeps on growing."

"Well, yes, it is. Though it's not really like a village."

I look at her inquiringly.

"There's no agricultural under-class. No diseases caused by poverty and want. No superstition holding sway over ordinary people's lives. No need to travel for days to get to proper medical care. No old people."

"Well, all right. If you put it like that!"

"It reminds me of a campus, more than anything else," Beate says, and she sees my puzzled frown. "Do you not think so?"

"Well - I'm seeing differences more than similarities, to be honest. Everyone here is a proper grown-up, for a start, apart from the children. And we all have jobs, and responsibilities. I know I had responsibilities when I was a student, but not like now."

"This is your first real job, isn't it, Selena?"

This remark surprises me; but I have to admit that it’s correct.

"I did some tutoring at Bologna," I say, "and later at Berkeley. And I was an au pair before I even went to Bologna. But, yes, apart from that I had only ever been a student before coming here."

"What did your parents do?"

"My father works for the government," I reply, "for the agricultural ministry. He visits farmers and foresters and that sort of person, and advises them on environmental issues. I mean, on how to comply with the various rules and regulations that affect them."

"And checks that they actually are complying?"

"Yes, I suppose so. And helps them to comply."

"Is he responsible for a wide area?"

I think about this. "I suppose so, yes," I answer. "He does a fair bit of driving, all the way up to the border at times, the Austrian border, and down nearly as far as places like Treviso and Vicenza."

"As far down as there are farms to visit."

"Exactly."

"And your mother?"

"My mother runs a restaurant, with my uncle. It used to belong to my grandparents, but they're very old now."

"Is that where you grew up?"

"No. My mother did, but she moved out when she got married. We had an apartment in a modern block in the next small town. But my uncle still lives there, and so do my grandparents. It's really too small for both of them and my uncle with his family."

I realise that I don't know whether my cousins are still living at home.

"Your uncle is the younger child?"

"Yes."

"And then you left home to go to university?"

"I suppose so. Depends how you define 'leave home'. I still had a room there while I was at Bologna, and before that when I was in London, and I used to go home during the vacations. But that pretty much ceased to be my room once I went to Berkeley."

"That was right after you graduated?"

"Yes."

"You must have been very good, to be able to go on to Berkeley."

"Yes. Yes, I was." I look at her with a slightly defiant expression, but realise there is no need for it: she means it literally.

"And now here you are."

"Here I am."

"How do you feel about that?"

Beate keeps taking me by surprise with her questions.

"Are you glad to be here?" she asks.

"You mean, now that I'm not with Mike any more?"

She waits, and I reflect.

"Obviously I'd never have come here if it hadn't been for Mike. My career would have been on Earth, at some university or observatory somewhere." I pause to wonder how my life would have been. "But now that I am here, I think I'm glad." I think about how things have been going. "I can play a useful part here. I can lead a fulfilled life."

"You can?" Beate repeats.

"Well, okay, I see why you pick up on that word. No, I'm not leading a fulfilled life at the moment. Not completely. But I really am confident that I can."

"What would need to happen?"

"For my life to be fulfilled? I'd need a role here, a job, in which I would really fulfil all my potential, and be safe, here, with Chiara."

"And you're looking for a job like that?"

"Yes; and I think I'm going to find one."

"What about a man?"

"What do you mean?"

"For your life to be fulfilled."

"What? No!" I snort with derision.

"No?" Beate echoes, and I look at her with an expression which, as I remember with some amusement, Chiara sometimes uses with me when she thinks I have missed some important point and she needs to remind me of it.

My face resumes its customary expression.

"It does feel strange," I say.

"Strange?"

"I'm just a normal human being," I explain. "Trying to lead a normal life, doing her best to deal with the problems that arise. Doing the best for her child. I never expected my life to turn into some kind of feminist case study."

"All our lives are a feminist case study," she replies. Is that true? I file that remark away to think about later. "What would be different in your life if things were perfect, feministically?"

I open my mouth to speak, and close it again, not sure how to answer.

I can't blame the colony for not having jobs for astrophysicists.

I could have had a career on Earth, but that would have meant either separation from Mike, for ever, or Mike giving up Mars for my sake: the thing he had been preparing for all these years.

It wasn't as if I had a career actually lined up on Earth. I was just a postgrad student, and in fact I had to hurry up to finish my PhD in time for the voyage. Who knows what kind of job I might have got if I had stayed?

It was my choice to come here instead.

And I do like being here. It’s exciting and special. Nobody has done this before. We’re pioneers of humanity. A special group with a special bond, with all eyes upon us.

And yet. All those excellent reasons, and yet somehow it’s the woman who is stuck with a dead-end job, a tiny one-bedroom apartment, the suspicions of her peers, and above all the threat of expulsion in a very few months, and the loss of the most precious thing at the heart of my life, the one thing I really care about with all my soul.

"It's complicated," I say at last.

"Yes!" Beate agrees, with a sad smile.

"What would you be saying," I wonder, "if this were a man you were talking to?"

"Why would I be saying anything different?"

"Would you ask him how things might be different, from a feminist point of view?"

"Quite possibly. But it was you who brought that up, Selena."

"Was it? Yes, I suppose it was." I reflect.

"What are you thinking about now?" Beate asks with a smile.

"Oh, just about how this conversation might go if you were talking to a man. Do you counsel men like this?"

"Yes, of course."

"Of course you do. Silly question." I’m suddenly interested in this. "And what is that like? What are they like?"

"Everyone is different."

"Yes, but how do they like talking to you like this?" I’m trying to imagine Mike in this chair, drinking this peppermint tea and with that box of tissues in attendance. "Having to talk about their personal lives. Being advised by you. Told how to think about themselves and their lives."

"That's not what I do, Selena."

"Er –"

"Have I told you what to think about anything?"

"No. Sorry. Of course that's not what you do."

"Everyone really is different, and every counselling session is different. It's the client who determines how the session goes."

"Really?"

"Of course. Think about how our sessions have gone."

I do that, and a thought comes to me:

"Actually you did tell me what to think, just now. About whether the colony is like a village."

"That's true; I did. In my defence, we weren't talking about you. But you're right, I did tell you my own opinion."

"And you were right," I say, "and I didn't mean that as a criticism."

"I know."

I’m still thinking about how Beate manages our sessions.

"But you don't just listen, do you?" I say. "You intervene."

"And how do I intervene?"

"By asking questions." I smile. "Which then leads to some more listening. Until you need to intervene again."

"That makes me sound quite manipulative!"

"I suppose it does. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Maybe manipulate is not the best word for it. Guide, perhaps."

"Guide is a better word," she agrees.

"I think that's part of what I was thinking of when I was wondering about how this works with a man. How they like to be guided like this."

"Nobody likes to feel manipulated, male or female."

"I'm sure that's right."

"Do you, in fact, feel manipulated in these sessions?" she asks, and the question makes me realise that I am being silly.

"No," I reply. "Not at all." I look at her with a frank and open expression. "I'm sorry, Beate."

"No need to apologise, goodness me!"

"Thank you. No, you've already helped me a lot, to see things that I wouldn't otherwise have recognised." I’m remembering the conversation we had in the park a little while ago. "Helping me to manage my life. All part of keeping the whole colony on the right track." I imagine Beate conducting many sessions like these ones with me, with different people from all across the colony. "You listen to people as they talk about their lives, lending a friendly ear as they unload their worries, and you intervene only when it's necessary to bring them back on to the right track."

"That's not quite it either," Beate interjects. "There is no right track. If I intervene, it’s to make sure that the person is aware of the track she is going down, that she has thought about it and about the consequences, and that this really is what she wants."

"What about the consequences for other people?"

"Well, yes, you're right: obviously there are always consequences for the people around us, whether we behave this way or that way."

"So you're counselling me, for instance, and that might change the way I lead my life, and if that has consequences for Mike, say, then that's just something he has to deal with?"

"Basically, yes. Generally none of us has a right to demand a specific kind of behaviour from anyone else."

"Generally?"

"I mean there are exceptions, and some examples will be obvious to you."

"Chiara, for instance?"

"Indeed; Chiara of course has a right to demand that you are a good mother to her. Which you are."

"But Mike doesn't have any rights like that."

"Not to the same extent. Naturally there are limits. You mustn't murder each other, for instance. But Mike is a good example. You were telling me last time about how your own behaviour has changed since Chiara was born: how you have become more self-assured, more assertive, more independent. That has of course had an effect on Mike, and he may not have liked it at first."

"I don't think he did, no."

"Doesn't matter. We are all living human beings, growing and maturing and changing every day, imperceptibly at first; and no one can demand from us that we arrest our development and stay locked in a particular pattern of behaviour that is familiar to them."

"Because they are changing too?"

"Well, yes, they are; but that's not the point. Even if someone else were to stay the same - and that does happen, especially later in life - that doesn't give them the right to expect you to stay the same too. If you change in the course of your natural development, then that is something people around you have to deal with; and if they can't, the problem lies with them, not with you."

"An encouraging way to look at it."

"It should be!" She smiles. "A lot of people, especially women, are tempted to feel guilty in those circumstances; and they really don't need to."

"As you tell them when you counsel them."

She stops and looks at me for a moment.

"You're quite the cross-examining counsel, Selena!" she says with a smile. "In general I would try to help someone in that situation recognise for herself that her feelings of guilt are unnecessary. But if that doesn't work, then yes, there might be circumstances in which I would tell her that straight out. Tell her what to think, as you put it earlier."

"I think you're right to do that," I say.

She acknowledges that with another smile.

"All right," I say, "so you're counselling one person, and it's her that you're responsible for. And you help her to understand the changes that she needs to make, that are natural for her, and you help her to grow and develop in this way; and if that has consequences for the people around her, tough luck. Is it really that simple?"

"Well, part of that counselling process is helping that person to understand the consequences that she is initiating. Helping her to understand that whatever she does will inevitably have consequences for others."

"Like that rope structure in the playground."

She looks nonplussed at that, so I explain:

"It's a climbing frame made of ropes, which are pretty taut, but obviously they're not rigid like metal or wood. So if you climb through it, or if you even shift your weight as you're standing somewhere in that structure, the other children will feel a difference because the ropes they are standing on will change the way they're supporting them."

"You can't move without affecting everyone else."

"Exactly."

"Yes, that's a good comparison. So, with that hypothetical client that we are discussing, we'll be exploring the fact that any changes she makes - any changes anyone makes - will inevitably affect other people. As you and I are discussing right now."

My eyes open a little wider as I look at her.

"Are you counselling me now?"

"This is a counselling session. I never stop counselling you."

"I suppose I thought that would only be when I was talking about myself."

I catch a secret smile on her face at that, gone in an instant, and I realise just as instantly what it means: that to the trained ear I am always talking about myself, even when on the face of it I am talking about something else.

"All right; well, anyway, I'm still wondering whether you really just let those consequences take their course – so that it's someone else's responsibility to deal with them. Even if those consequences get out of control." I’m trying to think of an example in the real world, a physics example. Resonance occurs to me, but I'm not sure that I can explain it to a non-scientist.

"Can you give me an example?" Beate asks, and I have to smile, because she obviously doesn't mean a physics example.

Actually I can.

"A cult," I suggest. "What if people started believing in a cult, one after another."

"Perhaps not very likely, given who we are here."

"Maybe not. Or feminism. What if you had a woman who rejected feminism. Who didn't want to be emancipated. You can say that's her own choice, and it's up to her, and to her husband, if he's okay with it. But it would affect how they brought up their children, and if that started catching on, you can see how, over time, the clock would be turned back, and all our rights, all the achievements of the past, would be in danger."

"A patriarchal society on Mars."

"Yes."

"Well," says Beate, "as a matter of principle, what I said just now still holds. As long as the people involved clearly understand what they are doing and the path they are going down, and they are sure that this is what they want, then it is indeed their choice. But I am a member of this community too, as well as being paid to do a job, and your feminist example is something that I would personally feel strongly about."

I digest that.

"I suppose the Agency would have a view too," I observe, "if some dynamic like that started to move the whole colony in an unexpected direction." I muse. "The question is how free we all are here, given that everyone works for the Agency."

Beate's face has a no-comment expression as I glance at her.

"I imagine you at the controls of a reactor," I say, "and we are all the particles inside, reacting away. Like the gas in the core of the Sun."

"The gas in the core of the Sun? I'm afraid you've lost me there, Selena."

"Sorry. The Sun – any star – is just a cloud of gas particles, or plasma, technically, collapsing under its own gravity. As those particles are compressed very close together, they get very hot, and they zing about, colliding with each other and interacting, as we do here in the colony. And sometimes two of those particles, when they collide with each other, will fuse and make a larger particle, and when that happens they radiate energy. And when enough of that is going on at once, that radiation pushes the other particles apart and stops the cloud from collapsing any further, and so the star stays in equilibrium for billions of years."

"And that radiation –"

"Is the starlight, yes."

"And that's how stars work?"

"Pretty much."

'Well," says Beate. "That's more straightforward than I thought!"

"I always said there's nothing very difficult about astrophysics!"

"There must be more to it than that."

"Well, yes, there is," I admit. "In the details. But if you want to know how the Sun works, and most of the stars in the universe, the basic principle, that's it."

"That's very interesting."

I probably look sceptical, because she insists, "No, it really is interesting. Fascinating. But I imagine there's no need for someone like me to sit at the controls, in the case of a star."

"No, and that's why a reactor is a better example. You have nuclear reactions going on there too, different ones, but in an artificial environment, and someone has to watch over it and make sure the reactions stay within the limits set for them."

"Otherwise, if they got out of hand –"

"That could become quite dangerous." I think for a moment. "The difference is that we're not many particles here, in the colony. That's where the comparison breaks down."

"You've lost me again, Selena!"

"Well, really I'm picking up something you said to me a little while ago. We're a small group of individuals here; not like on Earth with its billions of people. And if you only have a small number of particles interacting with each other, then it's much more likely that some small random development will have effects that can change the character of the whole system."

"Whereas with a large number of particles –"

"It's much more likely that those random developments will just be absorbed by the system, and nothing will change, over all. It's simple probability."

"I see what you mean."

"That's certainly what happens in physics, in statistical mechanics, and I guess that's the way it works in a society too."

"Yes, I think you're right. In a small, closed society, it's easier for some development to gain momentum and reach a tipping point."

"And then the whole society tips over that edge and slides into something quite unexpected."

"Well," says Beate, "that's right in principle. But we do have a corrective against that happening here, for the time being, in the new settlers that arrive here every time the ship returns. Whatever developments have been going on among the individuals living here on Mars, the new arrivals won't have been subject to them. They'll join us here untouched by any of that."

"That's true," I agree. "The system gets a slug of negative entropy every couple of years."

"Whatever that means." She smiles, and I smile back.

"So your job is quite easy at the moment, at the controls of that reactor," I conclude. "The system is self-correcting."

"It's all very theoretical anyway, isn't it, Selena?" she says. "My job is to counsel you, as an individual. To help you and Mike to come to terms with your situation, to build a positive and constructive way of interacting with each other. For your own sakes, and for Chiara's."

"Yes, of course you're right."

Beate's eyes flicker to her wrist device, and I know what she is seeing.

"Is our time up?" I ask.

"I'm afraid it is, yes. Already."

We both stand up and she advances towards me to give me her hand.

"That was an interesting session," I say, and as she looks as though she is about to agree I add, "Being counselled about stars."

She looks sternly at me, but with a twinkle in her eye.

"You really are in a good mood today!" she says. "A little bit too good. Cheeky!"

I grin and shake her hand, and I am still smiling minutes later as I hurry through the central area to find Brandy and the children.

They have been joined by two more girls, Paula Meissner and Linda Carstairs, and as I turn a corner and catch sight of them they are all high up on the platform at the top of the climbing frame. Brandy is up there with them and is sitting at the top end of the slide, evidently about to launch herself down it. The girls are hooting with laughter.

They clearly haven't noticed me yet, and I stand on the pathway to one side, watching. High above us is the dome of the central pod, translucent to let the sunlight through but coloured with a bluish tinge to look more like an Earth sky.

Brandy lets go and plunges down the steep part at the beginning of the slide. The children are lined along the rail at the top and watch her progress as she negotiates the curves of the slide. I think she must be using her shoes to slow herself down, because that progress is more sedate than you would expect, even on Mars.

She emerges at the bottom, stands up and catches sight of me at last.

"Hi, Selena!" she calls.

"Again!" Chiara calls down to her, and the other girls join in a chorus: "Again!"

Brandy looks uncertainly at them and at me.

"Go on!" I say, and I smile. Brandy turns and starts to climb back up the frame. It is quite a climb, though it’s obviously made easier by the much lower gravity.

I stand with my weight on one leg, one hand on my hip and my bag over my shoulder, and I watch. I could sit down on a bench, but I have been sitting all afternoon as well as all morning at work, and I feel too restless now to sit down yet again.

I stand there in something of a reverie: remembering my meeting with Marketa earlier, savouring the feeling that things may be moving at last: not formulating any specific thoughts, but enjoying the sensation that life is generally good, after all, and I have my place in it.

I hear the children in the climbing frame above me, and other voices further away. Behind me trees rise to approach the dome that covers us. Somewhere, invisible from where I am standing, the stream flows smoothly through the park.

I hear footsteps approaching and realise that I am standing in the middle of the path. I step to one side and turn to face whoever is coming, with a smile ready on my face; but as I see who it is I take a sharp breath, and my smile is arrested and transmutes into an expression of confusion and uncertainty.

Craig is looking straight at me, just a few steps away now. I don't want to meet his gaze, but I feel that I am shifting my eyes too late; it feels like a long moment in which our eyes are meeting and my lips are parted in surprise and confusion.

It’s Craig who breaks the eye contact, glancing above my head to the climbing frame. He looks back down at me and nods, almost imperceptibly, as he passes. My expression feels frozen, though all this must only be taking a very short length of time.

My eyes follow the back of his head as he walks on along the path. At last I feel my expression relaxing: my lips are closing and my face is settling into a calmer configuration; but I can feel my heart beating, and I think my cheeks are starting to burn. Craig's back recedes as he continues on his way; and over by the bottom of the slide I can see Brandy watching me.


Next chapter

Chapter Six


Still Looking