“So how is your relationship with Mike progressing?” Beate asks.

We are in her office, again, having another session of counselling. I’m leaning back in her armchair, my legs crossed, feeling relaxed and pretty good, all in all. A cup of mint tea sits steaming on the little table beside me.

I smile. “You saw us at the sports day,” I say. “What do you think?”

“What I think is neither here nor there,” Beate tells me. “As you well know.”

“Fine. I think – credit where credit’s due – he is honestly making an effort. Don’t you agree, seriously?”

She doesn’t say anything, and is listening, patiently.

“It was quite surreal, in a way,” I say.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it was almost like old times. Him and me and Chiara, all together at the sports day. Him talking to his mates.” I catch her expression. “And you. That was different, obviously.”

“I see what you mean. It felt like normality.”

“Yes.”

“And that felt surreal?”

I look at her, a little taken aback, and I think about what I have just said, and correct myself.

“Unexpected,” I say. “I’m not used to normality, and I’ve stopped expecting it.” I laugh suddenly, and she looks enquiringly. “I’ve just remembered something,” I explain.

“Go on.”

“Mike once told me with a perfectly straight face that his family’s heraldic emblem was two short planks. I didn’t know the expression, and I thought he was serious.”

“How did you find out?”

“He took pity on me, and explained that it was a joke.”

“Did you think it was funny?”

“No.” I look at her, and we both laugh.

“But apparently you do now,” she says.

“Apparently,” I agree, wondering.

“What has changed, that lets you laugh at it now?”

I reflect on this.

“I’m still not laughing at the actual joke,” I say. “I still don’t think it’s funny. So why am I laughing?”

“Well?”

“I’m laughing at the memory.” That’s what it is.

“Is the memory funny?”

“No – it’s enjoyable.”

“You’re laughing out of pleasure at an enjoyable memory.”

“That’s right.”

“Do you see, Selena, the amazing progress that you have made? There was a lot of anger in you, in both of you. You were hardly able to exchange two sentences with Mike without bristling and feeling resentful and hurt. Now you can look back with affection at a shared memory, and actually laugh for pleasure.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“You are both doing very well for Chiara. That’s the best thing you can give her: two parents with her best interests at heart, working together as grown-ups, without resentment or cheap point-scoring.”

But I do resent him, Beate. I’m not letting you see that, apparently, but it’s true.

I’m responsible for Chiara literally all the time. Even when she’s at the nursery, or with Mike, or sleeping over with Pamela. There is no time when I don’t have to think about her needs, organise her time, her things, make arrangements, plan. I have to deal with her moods, her tantrums, her dawdling. I have to make sure she is wherever she is supposed to be; I have to deliver her on time, clean and presentable and ready to go.

I’m not complaining about that, at all. Chiara is my life, and that is what I want. The only thing I want, really.

But what does Mike do? What’s his responsibility? He swoops in whenever he feels like it, gathers her up, shows her a good time, and hands her back when he can’t be bothered any more, for me to tidy her up and bring her back into her routine.

And he’s the one she misses! He’s the one she pines for, and pulls a long face for when it’s time for him to go. While I have to sneak my snuggles when she’s distracted by something else.

“What are you thinking, Selena?”

I glance across at her.

“Oh – you’re right,” I tell her. “That’s the best thing for Chiara. It certainly is.”

“And you’ve done it yourselves.”

“With your help.”

“I haven’t done it for you. You’ve done it all yourself. All I’ve done is listen to you.”

“I suppose.”

“And you’ve proved – both of you – that you are good people: responsible, grown-up people who respect each other and take each other seriously as human beings. You have a shared responsibility, which you accept and work for, so that you can both continue to be good parents and give Chiara the security and the guidance that she needs as you both move on with your lives.”

“Move on,” I echo, and I think of Craig, and I have a horrible feeling that I am blushing.

Beate doesn’t reply, and I am avoiding her glance, but I expect she is looking inscrutable.

There is a long silence, and when Beate speaks again it is in a softer voice.

“Each of you has a right to a fulfilled life. It’s a mark of true maturity if each one of you can let the other go, and be glad with them as they find happiness on a new basis.”

I take a deep breath and let it out slowly in a kind of sigh, very quietly. I am thinking about Chiara.

“She’s behaving like a boyfriend.” It has suddenly dawned on me.

“What?” Beate is startled, and I smile.

“Sorry. Chiara. Did you notice her not wanting to hug me, at the sports day? She’s been doing that a lot.”

I shift my position in my chair.

“I think I’m being too needy, and I’m driving her away. Like a boyfriend.”

“I understand what you mean.”

“Because she hugs Mike. It’s not as if she doesn’t like hugs. But I’m suffocating her. So she takes a step back, and I follow her, and she retreats again, and so on.”

“Like a boyfriend.”

“Exactly.”

“That could be right,” she agrees. “There’s another way of looking at it.”

“Yes?”

“Yes. She feels secure with you, and feels no need to be demonstrative. But since your separation she’s less certain of Mike, and needs to be reassured that he loves her just as much.”

Actually that makes a lot of sense.

I think about that, and begin to feel reassured myself. It’s a good thing if she feels secure with me.

“So what do you think I should do?” I ask.

“I think,” she replies, “that you’re right to feel that you should hold back a little. Give her the space that she seems to need. And don’t be jealous of Mike.”

“Is that what I’m doing?”

“What do you think?”

I smile ruefully. “Could be.”

“I think the two of you are finding a good basis,” she says. “I saw you together at the sports day. I didn’t detect any tension or hostility. You were both relaxed and friendly, and Chiara was happy.”

“Until Mike left.”

“Yes, that’s true. But he handled it well.”

“Yes, he did.”

“I think, honestly, he’s doing well. He’s respecting you and treating you with consideration, and he’s not trying to compete with you for Chiara. It could be very different.”

I nod and gaze into space. I suppose you could say I am lucky.

But what is the use of finding a basis with Mike for Chiara’s benefit, if in a few weeks I’ll be on the ship back to Earth?

And once again the void opens, the abyss that I am walking beside.

I am walking across a fragile surface, egg-shell thin, like a soapy film, out in the sunlight, laughing and talking and waving; and beneath it is the void, black and empty and bottomless, and waiting.

I can’t think about this.

“What are you thinking, Selena?”

I look across at Beate, and her face is concerned.

“Oh – er – I’m thinking about the ship. On its way to us.”

That tiny metal wheel, glinting in the sunlight, alone in the vast void, inching across it, indomitably approaching us and bringing us a shipful of new people.

Beate leans back.

“Yes – it will be here soon.”

“Soon.”

“You know,” she says, and she smiles wryly, “you’re going to laugh at me, but I’ve never understood the ship’s timetable.”

“You mean, why it’s tied to certain times?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Oh, that’s simpler than you might think,” I say, grateful for the change of subject. “I know, because it used to puzzle me – because I’m not very good at visualising things in three dimensions.”

“Aren’t you? I thought you would be, being a physicist and a mathematician.”

“I’m not a mathematician. And it would certainly help if I did have a talent for that; but I haven’t, so I have to make the best of it as I am.”

“But it doesn’t puzzle you any more?”

“No, because I sat down one day with a sheet of paper and drew myself some diagrams, and actually it’s quite straightforward and obvious, really. Once you think about it logically.”

“Do go on.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to bore you! Running on like a geek.”

“No – I like to hear you talking about science.” She settles back in her armchair and gives every appearance of being genuinely interested.

“All right,” I say. “Well, first of all we have to remember that Mars and the Earth are both in orbit around the Sun, going in the same direction, and the Earth’s orbit is inside Mars’s orbit, in the same plane. So in fact we don’t need to visualise three dimensions at all. Two dimensions are enough.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes. You can imagine looking down on the planets from above, somewhere out in space, and what you see beneath you is the Sun in the middle, and the Earth going round it in a circle, and Mars going round it in a rather bigger circle. Like, I don’t know, cars going around on a racetrack.”

“I thought the orbits were elliptical.”

“Well, yes, technically, they are. But the Earth’s orbit, at any rate, is close to circular; and it doesn’t make any difference to what I’m about to explain, anyway.” I slide forward to the edge of my seat. “Look, have you got a sheet of paper?”

“Sure.” Beate goes to her desk and tears a sheet off a pad there.

I stand up and move the little table in front of her chair.

“Sit down again,” I tell her, and she hands me the paper and a pencil and sits down in her chair.

I sit on the floor the other side of the table, with my legs beneath me in a ladylike pose, and I screw enough lead out of the pencil to be able to draw.

“Here’s the Sun,” I say, and I draw a little circle in the middle of the paper. Then two more concentric circles representing the orbits of the Earth and Mars, and then I draw the Earth at various positions along its own orbit to show where it gets to at various times during the year.

“The Earth takes a year to go round the Sun,” I remind her. “That’s what a year means. So after three months it’s gone a quarter of the way round; after six months it’s exactly on the other side of the Sun; after nine months it’s half the way back on its return journey; and after a full year it’s back where it started.” There are four little circles on the Earth’s orbit now.

“Mars is doing the same thing,” I continue, “but it takes about twice as long to complete one circuit. Actually it’s not exactly twice as long; but I’m showing you the principle here: it doesn’t need to be exact.”

And I start drawing little circles on the Martian orbit, starting at the beginning of the first year when I am assuming Mars is in the same position as the Earth, so that both planets and the Sun are all along one line. After a year, when the Earth is back where it started, Mars has only completed half of its own circuit, so that it is now exactly on the opposite side of the Sun to the Earth; and then I fill in the gaps along both halves of Mars’s orbit to show where it has got to after intervals of three months, in year one and year two, as I have just done for the Earth.

“So you can see,” I tell Beate, “that depending on the time of year, Mars and the Earth can be close together, relatively speaking, or they can be a long, long way apart.” I look up at her, and she is smiling down on me with a curiously tender expression.

There are many routes for getting from the Earth to Mars, in theory, but the shortest is for the ship simply to nip across from the Earth's orbit to the Martian orbit, travelling directly away from the Sun, and timing its departure and calibrating its speed so that Mars arrives at that point on its orbit at the same time as the ship does. Any other route would mean that the ship would have to travel at a slant to the two orbits, rather than at right angles to them, so that the trip would inevitably be longer.

There is one point on the Earth's orbit where this can be done, and correspondingly one point on the Martian orbit. This is the route chosen for the outward trip, from the Earth to Mars, when the ship is full of people. The return trip is done as soon as practicable after the ship has arrived at Mars, before Mars has moved too far along its orbit from that optimal point; and the ship does travel at a bit of a slant to the two orbits when returning, because it needs to arrive at the Earth before the Earth gets back to the optimal point, so that it’s in time to make the next trip out, two years and two months after the previous trip.

That trip takes longer than the trip out, partly because it’s a little further in distance, but mainly because it will take well over a year for the Earth to arrive at the point which the ship is aiming for and there is therefore no point in hurrying. But the ship is nearly empty, so that it doesn't much matter that the trip takes a few months longer.

As a matter of fact, the ship travels at a speed which gets it to Mars about eight months after it has left its orbit around the Earth, but there is no truly compelling reason for the ship to travel at a particular speed. Technically speaking it could easily travel faster or more slowly, making the trip shorter or longer and its departure, correspondingly, later or earlier. The optimum speed is derived from a calculation involving fuel economy and the need to carry supplies for the journey. In any case, making the outward journey quicker would necessarily make the return journey longer, because the ship always has to wait for the Earth to come back from going all the way round the Sun once more.

"In fact it's not quite as simple as that," I say, and I grin.

"Oh, really?" says Beate. "Why am I not surprised? All right, what else is there?"

"Are you sure you want to know?"

"No," Beate says, and she grins too.

“It's not actually all that complicated,” I explain. “The main point is that, when the ship leaves its orbit around the Earth to make its way towards Mars, it’s still being swept along in the direction that the Earth is going in.”

"Like stepping off a moving bus," Beate interjects.

"Yes!" I say, a little surprised. "Exactly. That's a good analogy. You hit the ground running. So you don't step off the bus exactly at the point you're aiming at; you get off a bit earlier, so that by the time you've slowed down you're in the right place."

"And that's what the ship does."

"That's exactly what it does. It’s aiming to intercept Mars when Mars arrives at that point on its own orbit that I’ve just described. But it doesn't set off for Mars when it's exactly opposite that point; it sets off a bit earlier and travels at a slant."

“And then it arrives here at Mars, and Mars catches it and sweeps it along too.”

“That’s right; and the ship goes into orbit around Mars for as short a time as practical, before it leaves to return to Earth.”

“Into orbit? Surely it’s stationary, so that it can let the people down.”

The ship never lands, either here or on Earth; in fact it can’t land: it could only crash. The way we have all arrived here on the surface, along with our supplies and equipment, is in what we call a space lift or a space elevator, depending on where we are from; and that is a capsule attached to a cable that dangles down from the ship until it reaches the surface and is made fast there, while a similar cable dangles upwards from the ship into space to preserve the stability of its orbit.

“We call it a stationary orbit,” I explain, “because it looks as though the ship is motionless above its point of arrival on the equator all the time that it’s here; but don’t forget that Mars itself is rotating; so the ship has to orbit Mars once every Martian day in order to stay directly above that point as we all move. It’s the same principle as the communications satellites that we have here all the time.”

“Yes, of course. Actually I knew that; but I forgot.”

I put the pencil down on the little table and I look up at Beate.

“That’s pretty much it,” I say.

“You’re good at explaining these things, Selena,” she says. “You’ll be able to help Chiara a lot when she’s older.”

“Oh, she’s already curious about the natural world,” I tell her. “Even though she hardly ever sees it; she’s only been outside that one time.” There are places inside the colony where we can look out, and Chiara and I have often done that together. “She knows that the stars are just like the Sun, and they only look so small because they’re so far away. She knows the stars are still there during the daytime, we just can’t see them because the Sun is too bright. She’s very interested.”

“She’s a clever girl.” I smile at that. “She’s lucky to have a mother who can explain these things to her.”

“Most mothers here can do that too,” I point out.

“That’s probably true, though I’m not sure that many of them have the patience for it.” She looks steadily at me. “I really do think that you are a very good mother.”

I smile for sheer pleasure, and I feel a little prickling in my eyes.

My bond with Chiara is so precious to me. So urgent and powerful. Beyond expression. No relationship, no feeling, no interest, no instinct or drive, nothing has ever felt so fundamental, so much a part of me. It overwhelms me, to feel the clarity and brilliance of this love, so different from the cynical, sceptical, selfish, timid concerns that seem to govern everybody’s lives otherwise, including my own. Especially my own.

I imagine stepping into that capsule in a few weeks’ time. It will be resting on the ground, a buggy journey away from our crater, its silver walls shining and the emblem of the Agency gleaming on them in bright red and gold. The doors will be gaping open and it will have disgorged its passengers, featureless in their space suits, who will now be on their way to the colony, bouncing in slow motion in Mars buggies; and I shall be left standing there, with only the lift operator for company; and we’ll step in, and the doors will close, and the lift will commence to travel up into the sky. And where will Chiara be?

We move on to talk about other things, Beate and I, and the atmosphere continues to be relaxed and good-humoured. We smile, and laugh, and chat; we lean back in our chairs to listen, and we lean forward to make a point; Beate gets up and makes some more tea at one stage, and I smile up at her as she hands it to me. Finally it’s time for our session to end; we stand and say our farewells, and she looks into my eyes one last time as we shake hands.

And just as the colony is bright and cheerful and airy and safe as I walk home through it, but outside its walls is a deadly and threatening wilderness that will tolerate no life, so I feel that I am going through the motions of a bright and cheerful daily routine, protected inside my pretty bubble, but outside is the vast and gaping void that is going to swallow me up and put an end to all this cheeriness.

And for the first time I feel unreality as Brandy lets me into her apartment and I see how the children are playing and chattering in the bright light and the happy colours of her sitting room. I feel like a ghost.

Just as well that Chiara gives me no time to mope as I take her home and get her ready for bed. She brings me down to earth, or Mars. She doesn’t want her supper, then she doesn’t want her bath, and finally she doesn’t want the pretty nightdress with the princess flounces that I have laid out for her, but insists on the giraffe pyjamas that I have put in the wash.

I win all three of these battles, except that instead of the princess nightgown I give her some clean pyjamas with a family of bears on them, and once she is in bed I tell her a story about bears, in which half way through Chiara herself appears. She loves it when I do this, and she asks me questions about whether Chiara is going to do this or going to do that; and of course Chiara always does, and so she nudges the story along in the direction that her own imagination suggests.

As I finish the story I look down on her for a moment in silence, lying on her bed with her face cast in shadows by the half-light from the door.

I am mindful of my resolve to stand back a little, and so I just stroke the side of her head with my fingers.

“Ti amo, cara.”

“Ti amo too, Mummy.”

I smile, and I stand up and walk to the door.

“Mummy!”

I stop and turn to look at her.

“Hug, Mummy!”

I feel as though my insides are melting with gratitude and joy. I kneel beside her bed, and she lifts her arms and wraps them around my neck. I bury my face in the space between her head and the pillow, and there we remain for a moment of perfect communion; at least that is what I feel it is.

And I go back into the kitchen and close the door quietly, and I am smiling to myself as I start to make my own supper.

*

I have been so hungry for this. I want to draw him inside me and hold him there. I want to be like – not a pump, nothing inanimate: an octopus, that captures her prey and holds it fast and squeezes it, and draws it in and devours it.

I reach down and touch myself where his penis is sliding inside me, taut and full and hard. We are lying on our sides and he is behind me, and his penis has come from behind and entered me, and it is deep inside me and sliding and pushing, and touching that place and passing over it, and I am so hungry to take him inside and be full of his bursting manliness.

His arm holds me, and his hand covers one of my breasts, and his chest pushes up against my back, close and warm. His groin squashes my buttocks, almost the only squashy part of me, beside my breasts. I can feel his legs touching the backs of my legs.

I move my arm, the one that’s not reaching down, and cover his forearm as it holds me, and I squeeze his arm and push back against his body because I want to be so close that our bodies are on the point of merging. His penis moves again and keeps on moving, and each time a dark, sweet flood seems to engulf me, and I gasp and pant. Some women shout, and I know how they feel at this moment; I could never do that, but in this moment I feel almost abandoned enough to shout too. And that flood rushes and rises and deepens, and it washes out all the thoughts and fears that fill my head the rest of the time, it washes through my whole body and takes me over altogether, I am filled with it, and with him, and I let go of everything, everything, except his body and his penis, and these I hold tight. I don’t care about anything except this feeling; and he grips me and thrusts and pushes, and he is engulfed by a feeling too, in his own way, and he climaxes and shudders and gasps, and then he subsides and lies still, and his heart, gradually, beats more slowly and his breathing slows down. The room is quiet, and so are we.

I think today’s has been the best sex I have ever had with Craig. I have trained him well.

He pulls out of me, lets me go and rolls on to his back. I turn on to my back too, and I am lying next to the person Craig Winterton. We’re touching from our shoulders to our elbows. I straighten the cover so that it lies properly over us.

In the beginning he would have been straight out of my apartment, but he has got used to staying for a little while and talking. We do find some things to talk about, more than I would have guessed at first, but it’s still not very much. At least I know a fair bit of his back story by now, and he a little of mine.

For some reason we talk about children today. I don’t think he got very involved in bringing up his son. I think they had a very traditional family, in which he was the main breadwinner and would watch sports and game shows in the evenings and at weekends, and he would only engage with his son when there was some kind of structured activity like going to a football match.

I may be misjudging him; but I don’t think I am.

He always says very little about his wife, and I know very little about her myself. I know what she looks like: a bit severe-looking; wants to be elegantly dressed but hasn’t really the sure taste to bring it off; looks her age. I wonder what it has been like for her, being married to Craig all these years.

I’ve actually forgotten her first name. He has mentioned it.

“So how did it feel,” I ask him, “when John was born and you held him for the first time in your arms?”

I remember the same thing with Chiara, and feel a thrill of remembered pleasure as I speak.

“Don’t recall,” he says. “Long time ago.”

“But you must remember when he was born!”

“Oh, sure. It was in the hospital at Cincinnati. We walked around in that hospital for hours until he decided he wanted out.”

“What time of day was it?”

“Uh – it was daytime.”

“Daytime,” I echo, and I wait.

“I guess it was the afternoon. I think we spent all day in that damn hospital, waiting.”

“Was your wife in pain?”

“Yeah, I guess she was. She was pretty tired when it was all over.”

At least you remember that.

“And when did you first hold him?”

He thinks about this, and doesn’t answer.

“Did you hold him at all as a baby?”

“I guess I must have done. Mostly I remember Julia holding him. Sitting in that hospital bed with the kid on her lap. I took pictures.”

“And how did that make you feel?”

“You got questions!” he says, and he laughs. “I guess I felt pride. Achievement.”

And I find that response so bizarre, it’s like talking to an alien.

“That’s all you felt about your newborn baby?”

“Well – I don’t know about all. But I did feel that. I felt pride, that we were now a family, with a child.”

“With a son.”

“Yeah – I didn’t say that.”

“No.” But you’re starting to push my buttons, Craig.

“You have a daughter,” Craig says. “Didn’t you feel pride when she was born?”

I cast my mind back and consider this honestly, giving him the benefit of the doubt.

“Fulfilment,” I say at last. “You could say I felt fulfilled.”

He gives a little half-smile at that, which I only catch because I happen to be glancing up at his face.

“But really,” I say, “overwhelmingly I felt love and joy at that precious little bundle. As if nothing had ever been so precious to me in all my life.”

Which it really hadn’t. I remember, I’ll never forget, her clear blue eyes looking up at me, searching, and her surprised little face, as I held her and cuddled her. They can’t focus their eyes in those first few days, but they very obviously register the light that is streaming in on them, for the first time ever, and they don’t know what it is that they are seeing.

So she wasn’t really looking at me, or even seeing me, but she was taking in those first sensory impressions, that must have been so surprising and new. And she heard my voice as I talked to her, and she felt my warmth as I held her on my body, skin on skin, really not caring that she was bloody and wet, and I was sweaty and exhausted and in pain, still.

I remember that perfect joy. My whole body remembers it.

And I talk to Craig about these feelings, thinking that I might strike a chord in him, get him to admit that he felt something of that too: maybe not right away when his son was born, but surely over time as he was growing.

I talk to Craig about the phases of Chiara’s life, from newborn to little baby, to older baby, to toddler, to the child she is now, curious and bright and self-willed, and affectionate and funny. I talk about the feelings that I have as I watch her grow, how every phase is special in its own new, unexpected way: how it’s sad in a way that she is leaving that latest adorable phase that I have come to love, but how each phase is a new world of wonder and new joys, and the love and the protectiveness and the joy and fulfilment that I feel never grow less or cease to amaze me and make me feel that my life is worth living.

But I don’t think I am striking a chord; or not the chord I am hoping to strike. He listens, and smiles tolerantly, while I am lyrical about how much Chiara has meant to me at each stage of her life, and how it has felt to be her mother. If there were another man here, they would be catching each other’s eye over me and exchanging tolerant, superior glances, knowing they both think the same about these women, ruled by instinct and emotion, obsessed with feelings, and only really happy as mindless, bovine fulfillers of their biological function: to give birth and raise the young of the species.

As opposed to the evolutionary function of the male, which is to reach the top shelf and open tight jars.

He is reminding me of everything I dislike about men; and I am fighting against this, because I don’t want to ruin the atmosphere between us, but at the same time I am wondering whether I really want to fight it.

I have a doctorate in astrophysics from one of the most renowned universities in the world. Forgotten that, Craig? Am I just the IT support girl for you, who is always having to explain the latest software update to you that she’s explained to you fifty million times already?

I shouldn’t exaggerate. Twenty million times.

Craig very obviously doesn’t realise what I am thinking or how he is making me feel.

Smug, I think, sums up his attitude. Impenetrably smug.

And from within his impregnable emotional carapace he continues the conversation, relaxed and friendly and matter of fact.

“You sure do love your little girl!”

“Yes.”

“I guess it’s too early to know what she’s going to want to do later.”

“You mean, when she grows up?”

“Yeah – no, of course it’s too early.”

“Of course.”

“But, Selena, how come it took you two years to have your first child after arriving on Mars? Seems to me as though everything was lined up for you to have a baby as soon as possible after you got here.”

“I had a miscarriage, Craig.”

“Oh, okay, that would explain it.” He catches the expression on my face and adds awkwardly, "Uh, I guess that wasn't so great for you.”

“No.”

I am a little surprised at myself, and feel a little bad, because I feel that I am being somewhat bitchy and not entirely fair.

It’s not Craig’s fault that he didn’t know about my miscarriage.

Very plainly I’m not that malleable, amenable, accommodating, eager-to-please little girl that I was back at Berkeley.

Back then I’d probably have felt guilty about mentioning my miscarriage at all, as if it had been somehow my fault.

Have I swung too far in the other direction?

Have I become, in fact, not a very nice person?

I think it is at this moment that Craig finally notices that the atmosphere is slightly strained.

“Yeah – I’m sorry you had to go through that,” he says.

“It’s not your fault.”

“I know.” He draws away very slightly with his shoulder and stares up at the ceiling. Then he turns over and gets up out of bed. I roll over on to one elbow and watch as he starts to put on his clothes. Neither of us is speaking.

I get up too and sit on the side of the bed.

“Look, Craig,” I say. “I’m sorry.” He stops dressing and raises his eyebrows. “I feel that I’ve spoiled the atmosphere between us. I apologise. I didn’t want to do that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he replies, and he continues to get dressed.

“It’s not you,” I say. “It’s nothing to do with you, or with us.” I’ve never spoken to him about this, but I feel that I have to now.

“I’m under a lot of stress lately,” I explain, “and I think I’ve been taking it out on you. I’m sorry.”

He pauses as he buckles his trousers.

“What kind of stress?”

“Craig, I think the Agency is going to send me back to Earth.” There is a little wail in my voice, though I am trying to speak calmly and rationally.

“Why’s that?”

“Because I don’t have a proper role here. I’m using up resources here which could be used for someone better fitted for their plans.”

He digests this.

“Yeah, I can see that,” he says. “So are you going back with the ship this time?”

“Nothing is fixed,” I say. “But that’s what I’m expecting, yes.”

“Well,” he says, and he puts on his shirt. “Would that be such a bad thing for you? You could have a way better career on Earth.”

“I suppose.”

“Sure you could, with your qualifications, and your experience. An astrophysicist who has actually lived off Earth! Are you going to be working for the Agency?”

“I don’t know.”

“You could have your pick of the universities. They’d be lining up for you.” He is getting quite enthusiastic. “Berkeley, is that where you were? I bet there’d be an opening for you there.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Or you could go back to Italy.” That is actually a good point. “Local girl, back from Berkeley and Mars. They’d make you a professor like a shot.”

“Maybe not a professor.”

“But something really good. That’d be way better than footling around here with IT.”

He’s right, of course. It really would.

“But it’s Chiara,” I say.

“What about her? Doesn’t she speak Italian? Or if she doesn’t, she’ll pick it up.”

“We’ll never find out,” I say sadly. “She’ll have to stay here.”

“What?”

“I can’t make the Agency send her back to Earth with me. I haven’t the right. I checked.”

The lawyers got back to me with their preliminary results just the other day, and I have been carrying this knowledge around with me.

It turns out that the legal position is complex and unclear, and it might go this way and it might go that way if it came to a trial, but I definitely have no chance of obtaining an injunction to compel them to transport her to Earth with me now, not until the whole issue has been finally resolved by full court proceedings. And that will take far longer than the time until the ship returns.

It looks as though Mike was right, damn him.

“What do you mean, you checked?”

“I’ve checked my legal position,” I explain. “I’ve taken legal advice.”

“Who from?”

“From a law firm in the States.”

“Really? That’s very – well organised of you.”

“Well, it’s the obvious thing to check,” I say, feeling rather hypocritical.

“I guess so. Look, Selena, I need to get out of here.”

“Oh, sorry, yes. Give me a minute.”

I stand up and start pulling on some clothes.

“Anyway, that’s the reason,” I say. “That’s why I’m a bit preoccupied.” I glance at him, and I pull my top over my head. I walk up to him and put a hand on his chest, and the other hand on his hip. “It was really good today, honey.”

“Yeah.” He gives me a brief squeeze. “You need to put on your shoes.”

I step back and bend over to pick them up, and I sit on the bed to put them on. I feel a little hurt now.

He gives me a peck on the forehead as I stand in the shadow behind the open front door.

“See you at work,” he says. He follows me out as he always does, and waits for my signal that the coast is clear, and then he is off down the corridor, as always, without turning his head. I turn and walk back to my empty apartment and think about getting ready to pick Chiara up.

*

It’s a couple of days later, it’s evening, and I am sitting in my kitchen. Chiara is in bed and presumably asleep, and I am on my mobile device, getting in some supplies for the next few days. A cup of my favourite herbal tea sits steaming on the table beside it.

The device flashes and vibrates to indicate an incoming call, and I answer it. I can see who it is.

Marketa’s face appears on the screen.

“Marketa Neumannová here,” she says. “Good evening, Selena.”

“Hello, Marketa. How are you?”

“I’m fine, thank you, Selena. I hope you’re well.”

“Very well, thanks.”

“How is Chiara?”

“She’s fine too, thanks, Marketa. Fast asleep now.”

“Good, I’m glad to hear it. Selena, you and I had a discussion a little while ago. It’s been a few weeks now.”

“Yes, it has.”

“And I said I would speak to Mahendra about whether there might be an opportunity for you to join our team.”

“Yes.”

“Let me say right away that Mahendra was very impressed by your qualifications and your obvious expertise. You’re clearly a highly trained and gifted scientist, and your talents are wasted where you are now.”

Come on, Marketa, I know what you’re going to say. Spit it out and get it over with.

“Mahendra was so concerned about this that he spoke to several of the team heads to see where there might be a role for you. He found it very persuasive, as I did when you and I spoke, that the training and the point of view of a physicist can be a very valuable component in a team that consists otherwise of chemists. As we discussed, there are physical aspects to many of the things we do, and we chemists aren’t necessarily best equipped to deal with those aspects.”

But?

“But Mahendra felt, and so did the others that he spoke to, that your specialism is too remote from what we have a need for. Now I understand, of course, that you have been trained as a physicist in general, not just an astrophysicist, and your degree fits you to embark on a career in many directions in physics.”

“Yes.”

“But the fact is that your knowledge of these other areas is at an undergraduate level, and was acquired a decade or more ago. Your postgraduate experience, which is very impressive, is in a field that has no connection with the work that any of the teams here actually do. Mahendra feels, and I must say I agree with him, that for the sake of your own academic development and career you would be far better off returning to Earth.”

She pauses.

I don’t say anything. I could argue. But the decision has been taken. And what could I say? It’s all true.

I suppose I was just deluding myself, thinking I could find a real scientific role here on Mars.

“I don’t want to return to Earth,” I say. Could I have thought of something more lame? I am pathetic.

“Well, I’ll leave that with you to think about,” Marketa says. “We all think you have great potential, Selena, and it’s a pity not to develop it. If I were you I’d give some thought to opportunities on Earth.”

“Okay.”

“The Agency could probably help you with some introductions, if you’d like. But you may feel that’s not necessary. You’re probably still well connected from your days at Berkeley.”

I don’t say anything. I am just looking at her face and hearing her words.

“Well, all the best, Selena,” she concludes. “Good evening, and good luck.”

“Good evening,” I echo. “Thanks. Bye, Marketa.”

The window in which her face was enclosed vanishes into one of the lower corners of the screen, and I am looking at my shopping list again. Carrots, I read. Sunflower seeds. Tofu.

Rice. Soya sauce.

Pasta.

There’ll be lunch to cook tomorrow. I should think about what to make. Make sure I have everything I need.

Chiara didn’t like the stew I made the other day. Better not do that again.

She’s started to like mushrooms a lot lately. She never used to. Maybe I’ll make a mushroom goulash with pasta.

Maybe.

Maybe I’ll go to bed now.

Maybe I’ll just go to sleep.

I want to hear Chiara breathing in the next bed, in the dark and the quiet.

I don’t want to think about anything.

I want to be cocooned in my warm bed and not think about anything.

But of course I don’t just go and do that. I finish my shopping, I log off properly, I tidy up in the kitchen, I undress and put on my nightgown, I wash and exfoliate and clean my teeth and floss and apply some night cream, I do all those jobs, and only then do I switch off the light and get into bed. And there I lie, in the dark, and I can hear Chiara, and I am cocooned, but I am thinking about things. Of course I am.


Next chapter

Chapter Ten


All Seeming to Slip Away