The alarm comes one morning while I am at work.
My screen pulses red, and so does everyone else’s.
An authoritative male voice cuts into the quiet activity of the room, calm, firm, with clear American diction.
“Alarm. Alarm. Proton event. Proton event. Make your way immediately into the shelter. This is not a drill. Make your way immediately into the shelter. Do not finish what you are doing. Turn off all apparatus. Go straight to the shelter. Do not wait for other people. Go immediately to the shelter. Alarm. Alarm. Proton event. Proton event. Make your way immediately into the shelter.”
As soon as the voice begins to speak the room is transformed as we look up from our screens, exchange glances, push our seats back, begin to get up. Most of us are indeed finishing what we are doing, but quickly and furtively. A hum of voices rises, there are clatters and thumps, but the recorded voice is easy to hear above it all as it continues to speak.
“Go straight to the shelter. Do not wait for other people. Go immediately to the shelter.”
I stand up and pick up my handbag. I had taken out a tube of hand cream and some lozenges and put them on my desk; I pop them back into the bag and clip it shut. Chiara is in the nursery. I need to make sure she is safe.
Rashida is standing up and leaning on her desk with the palm of one hand. Vera is with her and circles her waist with one arm. Rashida straightens up and leans on Vera, and together they make their way slowly towards the exit. We all file out, calmly, not rushing, not pushing.
Outside in the corridor the recorded voice is audible again, but with a different quality: more resonant in this wider space. People are pouring into the corridor from other offices and labs and all streaming in one direction.
This is the wrong way. I need to get to the nursery.
I turn and look back, and nearly bump into Étienne.
“You can’t go back, Selena,” he says.
“I need to find Chiara,” I tell him.
“You can’t go back,” he repeats.
A voice speaks up from behind him.
“Move along there, please. Move along!” There is an edge in the voice.
My mobile device rings and I open my bag to take it out, because I’m not wearing it. I want to flatten myself against the wall of the corridor and let people pass as I take the call, but Étienne chivvies me along, and I continue on down in the same direction as everyone else, in front of Étienne, with many an agitated look to the right and to the left.
It’s Beate on the phone.
“Selena! Are you all right?”
“This is not a drill. Make your way immediately into the shelter. Do not finish what you are doing.”
“Beate, I can’t hear you very well.” I stumble, regain my balance and put the device to my other ear.
“Are you down yet?” she asks.
“No. I’m on my way. I must look for Chiara.”
“Selena! Go down right now!”
“But Chiara -”
“Chiara will be fine. She’s at nursery. The nursery staff will take all the children down. You’ll see her there.”
She’s right, of course.
“Okay. I’ll see you down there, Beate.”
“See you in a minute.”
We’re now entering the central area, but not crossing it: just skirting its edge and making our way to a door in the side wall. People are accumulating in front of it, evidently arriving at the door more quickly than they can go through it. I see the back of Brandy’s head just before she disappears into the opening. Ahead of me as I join the group is Nancy with her two children, who are apparently not at the nursery today. They enter in front of me and each child holds one of Nancy’s hands as they step down the stairs together. They haven’t noticed me. I’m surrounded by people that I scarcely know.
The recorded voice can no longer be heard down here, and all I can hear is the tramping and shuffling of a mass of people descending the stairs, and voices as some of them converse. Nancy’s children are having an animated discussion, moderated by Nancy herself, about who did what to whom at home this morning and whose fault it was. Behind them some of us exchange a wry grin as we negotiate a turning in the stair.
At the bottom of the stairs we issue into a wider space, low-ceilinged and brightly lit. Down here the colony looks less like a mall than it usually does and more like an air-raid shelter or a storage room. Not that I have ever seen an air-raid shelter. Many people are down here already and more are coming, from this stair and from others that descend from elsewhere in the colony. People are milling around, some standing in small groups, some already sitting down. I move into the room and look all around me for Chiara and the nursery children.
“Selena, there you are!” I turn and see Beate beside me, a welcoming smile on her face.
“Have you seen Chiara?” I ask her.
“Yes. All the nursery children are over there, look.”
In an area of this basement somewhat off to the side of the main space the older children are engrossed in a game under the supervision of several of the staff, while the smaller children are seated at long low tables and seem to be drawing. I move across towards them, with Beate following me.
Mrs Dalgleish herself is supervising the game, which involves lining up, leapfrogging, waddling along in a squat, but no running: there is not enough space for that. I don’t see Chiara at first, but then I discover her in one of the lines, chattering excitedly with two other girls. In fact they are all very excited. I daresay most of them don’t remember being down here before.
I stand and watch them from the side. Beate moves up and stands behind me. She is taller than me and can see very well.
“She seems happy,” she says.
“Yes. Good for the staff,” I reply. “Keeping them amused and out of everyone’s hair.”
“That’s what they do every day anyway.”
“That’s true. Good point.”
I notice that Rakesh, the Sharmas’ little boy, is standing on his own at the edge of the group, looking into the air and not taking part. Markus has noticed him at the same time and strolls over to him. Rather than briskly and noisily telling him to join in, as Mrs Dalgleish would surely have done, Markus squats down next to him and says something to him quietly. Rakesh turns and answers, and the two of them are still chatting as I turn away again.
Several other parents are gathering and watching as we are doing. It’s like the sports day again. Marshalling a team of children, Irina catches my eye and waves to us before turning back to her charges.
“Why don’t we sit down,” Beate suggests. “They’ll be busy here for some time.”
“Yes, they probably will,” I agree. “Okay. I don’t want to go too far away.”
“We don’t need to. Look, there’s a bench over there with no one on it.”
There is seating lining the walls in several places, as well as areas where groups of seating are arranged after the fashion of a departure lounge. There are plenty of spaces at the moment where we could sit, but the place Beate is indicating has the advantage of overlooking the area where the children are playing.
People are standing around or passing as we make our way towards it. Beate stops a man who is crossing with a purposeful air and holding a mobile device in his hand.
“What do we know, Bob?” she asks.
He stops and looks at her, and at me.
“Major solar flare,” he replies. “Major coronal mass ejection. Travelling at high speed. We thought it was going to miss us, but apparently it isn’t. Earth is having the mother of magnetic storms.”
“Is it here yet?”
“It wasn’t a few minutes ago, Beate, but it may be by now. It can’t be long now, anyway.”
Beate nods. She addresses me.
“Selena, do you know Bob? Bob is responsible for security. Bob, this is Selena. She is a very good physicist.”
“Well then,” he says as he shakes my hand, “you’ll understand the physics of it better than any of us.”
I smile in acknowledgement but don’t say anything.
“I imagine we must all be down now,” Beate continues.
“My guys are just finishing their sweep,” Bob answers, “but yes, it looks like it.”
“Is anyone outside?”
“I don’t know, Beate, but we’re finding out.”
She nods again. “I should let you go. Thanks, Bob.”
He nods to us both and disappears with a glance at his device. We continue to the long seat that Beate has identified and sit down on it. It’s quite comfortable.
“The ship must be in this too,” Beate says.
“They’re safer than we are,” I tell her, and this is true, because the ship is fitted with a shield that is impermeable enough to withstand anything that the Sun is likely to fling at it. It’s a vast, broadly circular sail made of material lifted up from the Moon when the ship was being constructed in orbit; it’s turned to face the Sun at all times, and behind it, in its shelter, is the inhabited part of the ship, ever rotating around the axle that joins it to the shield. The only way for us to be just as safe would be if we spent all our lives underground.
“Yes, that’s true,” says Beate, and we fall silent, next to each other, looking over towards the children’s play area. It’s not easy to watch them because of all the people standing or moving in the space between, but very gradually these people are finding places to sit down, and the crowd is thinning.
I think about the upper regions of the colony, now entirely deserted. The central area with its playground, empty and silent. The offices and laboratories, all the equipment switched off, the stools and chairs unoccupied. The hydroponics wing with its plantations that I have never seen. Our plants are the only living things that we have left up there, exposed to the solar storm.
They are, of course, just as vulnerable as we are to ionising radiation, to biochemical damage caused by protons passing at high energy through them; but we’re less concerned about damage to plants. We’re going to eat them anyway.
I know that somewhere down here is a store of seeds so that, if the worst happened, any survivors could rebuild the colony’s agricultural capacity. I think this is to protect against a different kind of radiation, though: bursts of gamma rays arriving without warning out of deep space, not from the Sun, and potentially causing genetic damage to any creature, animal or vegetable, that is in their path.
Fortunately these are very rare events.
“Look, they have water over there,” Beate says suddenly, and she stands up. “I’ll get us a couple of bottles.”
“Good idea,” I say, and I watch her as she crosses the room to a table stacked with bottles.
The children’s game seems to be drawing to a close, but they’ll probably start another one.
When Beate comes back she’s talking to a man that I don’t know, though he seems familiar. They’re talking about the evacuation of the upper level, but they break off as they approach me.
“Selena, this is Dr Klaus,” Beate says. “Dr Selena Hutchinson.”
“Ah yes,” the man says as he shakes my hand, and this surprises me. Does he know me?
“Dr Klaus is interested in ways to make evacuations like this unnecessary,” Beate continues.
“Hmph,” he says. “I’d be interested if I could see any sign that there actually were any such ways.”
“Better shielding,” I volunteer.
“Certainly; but how to do that and still live on the surface?”
“Well –” I say. “The reason this doesn’t arise on Earth is the Earth’s magnetosphere.”
The interior of the Earth is very hot, and much of the rock that comprises it is molten; only the core is solid, despite the temperature, because the immense pressure of the rest of the planet above it compresses it to a solid. And that ferrous core rotates slowly and ponderously in its molten environment, and that rotation creates a magnetic field that surrounds the whole Earth. That magnetic field is what deflects incoming particles like the ones we are experiencing and sends them around the Earth like a stream flowing around a pebble, and this is why the inhabitants of the Earth don’t need to take shelter as we are doing.
“Exactly,” says Dr Klaus, “and we know why Mars doesn’t have a magnetosphere.”
Because its interior cooled aeons ago and it doesn’t have a rotating core.
I’ve heard that people were looking into how to generate a magnetosphere for Mars as part of the process of terraforming the planet, but that feels like rather a tall order.
“I know,” I say. “But there ought to be a way of artificially generating a local field that’s strong enough. Even if it’s only switched on in emergencies.”
“Sure,” he says. “Anything can be engineered, given enough resources. It has to be practical.”
I feel reprimanded, I’m not sure with how much justification, and I don’t comment on that.
Beate joins in.
“A local field would only be a partial solution anyway, wouldn’t it?” she says. “If we want to inhabit this planet properly, we need to protect all of it.”
Dr Klaus gives her a weary look.
“Well, that’s what I was alluding to,” he says. “No sign yet of any practical way of doing this.”
“À propos, do you know whether anyone is outside now?”
“The last I heard,” he replies, “not everyone was accounted for, so it seems as though there might be. But I don’t know for sure.”
“I hope they’re safe, whoever they are,” says Beate after a pause.
He gives her a look of agreement.
“I’ll see you later,” he says. “I need to talk to Craillie.”
“Yes, I saw him just now over that way.”
He nods. “Goodbye, Dr Hutchinson,” he says. “It was nice to meet you.”
“It was a pleasure,” I remember to respond, and he is gone.
Beate and I glance at each other and sit down again. She stands the bottles of water on the floor between us. There are three of them.
“Is one for Chiara?” I ask. She nods. “Oh, thanks, Beate!” I am touched.
She smiles. “Apparently there’ll be lunch in an hour or so,” she tells me.
“That sounds good. Though I can’t say I’m hungry.”
“I don’t think it’ll be anything that needs to be eaten right away,” she says.
We sit in silence for a while and look out over the open space in front of us. There is a knot of people over by the table with the water bottles, and there are still some groups of people standing and talking, but most have now found somewhere to sit and wait. Many are reading; some are chatting; some don’t appear to be doing anything. One couple is sitting very close together, the woman’s eyes cast down, the man’s arm protectively around her. I think she might be pregnant, but I’m not sure I’m remembering correctly who she is.
The sounds of the children’s game are what I hear most clearly now. I imagine they will continue their organised play until lunch is provided, and then I don’t know what will happen. In normal circumstances most of them would go home and most of the staff would finish work.
“The ship will be here soon,” Beate says after a while. I nod sadly. “There’ll be at least one person on board, going back, beside the crew.”
I freeze, and look straight ahead of me. She looks at me.
“Do you know who I mean? Abdelkerim.”
I turn my whole body and look at her in astonishment.
“Yes. He’s asked to go back to Earth.”
I sit and think about Abdelkerim. I feel a little guilty. I knew months ago that he wasn’t happy. I haven’t given him a thought.
“He’s not married, is he?” I ask.
“No. It makes a lot of sense for him. He has no ties here.”
“He’s never really fitted in,” I reflect. “I’m not surprised he wants to go home.”
That couple is at the edge of my field of vision, and something in the way the man is holding himself makes me realise suddenly that it’s Raj, my colleague. That means the woman is not who I thought she was; but she is still pregnant.
“Did you counsel him?” I ask, and then I regret asking. “Sorry, I know you can’t talk about it.”
“I didn’t counsel him. Anything I know about Abdelkerim is common knowledge.”
“I wonder whether he has had anyone to talk to at all,” I say. “Poor guy.”
“Poor guy,” she repeats. “I have the impression he is strongly rooted in where he comes from, and he should never have come to Mars in the first place.”
“Really? Where is he from? Germany, I know.”
“Stuttgart, very obviously.” I look at her, querying. “His accent,” she explains. “Very obviously Stuttgart. Even when he’s speaking English. It’s quite comical, actually.”
“Really?” I say, yet again. “I can’t hear it.”
“I think you can,” she says. “You just don’t know what it is.”
“That may be right.” I think about this. I don’t know anything about Stuttgart.
“Where are you from, Beate?” I’ve never wondered about her origins before.
“I’m from Münster,” she replies.
“It’s a cathedral town in Westphalia, in north-western Germany. Quite picturesque, in a boring sort of way.”
“Not far from Holland, that’s right.”
“And are you strongly rooted too?” I can’t imagine that she is.
She smiles. “I grew up there, and I went to university there, but I’ve never lived there since. My first job was in Sydney.”
“At an institute there. It was quite an experience. It opened my eyes to a lot of things.”
I imagine a young woman from boring Münster, having her eyes opened in cosmopolitan Sydney.
“After Sydney I went to Kuala Lumpur for a while, and then I came to the States. That’s where I was until I came to Mars.”
“That was probably the least cosmopolitan of the places you were.”
“That’s a perceptive comment,” she says. “Yes, I’d agree with that. But Mars compensates for that.”
“Yes, I imagine it does.”
“Though only in some respects. In other ways Mars is very homogeneous.”
“Everyone living the same way,” I say.
“But not in all respects. The colony is organised in a particular way, and we all fit into it. Like an American university, or a software giant. But we have people here from very different countries and cultures, and those differences overlay the fact that we have come here for the same purpose, and that most of us have very similar professions. It’s quite interesting.”
Mike once said that Mars gave him the opportunity to rub shoulders with exogeologists from all walks of life. Another of those jokes that I never really got.
“What was it like at Kuala Lumpur?” I ask her, and she begins to tell me. It was an institute, again, where she was attached to a particular research programme. Kuala Lumpur is in a region of great differences in economic growth and welfare, and the researchers were looking into the effects on the psychology of individuals from the resultant strains on society and culture.
I don’t really understand how you do research into this kind of thing. You can’t carry out experiments; you can observe, but you can’t really measure, it seems to me, or not with anything like the accuracy or the level of detail that we have in astrophysics, for instance, another field in which experiments are generally not possible.
But I don’t want to be dismissive, typical scientist, of these endeavours in a social field; because I respect Beate, I think she is very intelligent and thoughtful, and I’m willing to listen and suspend judgment as she tells me about the research she was involved in.
The conversation peters out after a while and we sit next to each other, in silence but not in any way awkwardly. I feel quite content, and I’m almost succeeding in forgetting my problem, massive as it is.
The children’s organised games have come to an end and they are all sitting down, some at those low tables where some of them were drawing earlier, some in circles on the ground. I can’t see what they are doing. I suspect some storytelling may be going on.
Waiting again. A different kind of waiting, down here: waiting for the solar proton event to pass us by, or for nightfall, if that comes first. We can go back upstairs after dark, because the planet will shield us, and we can spend the night in our beds; but we must be back down here before daybreak, if it’s still going on.
Space lady in waiting. I realised later, too late, that my choice of user name on that forum was revealing of my imperfect knowledge of English. In Italian, “in waiting”, in attesa, does actually mean that you’re waiting for something; and I was waiting for Chiara to be born, so it seemed a very apt name to choose. I didn’t realise that, in English, a lady-in-waiting is waiting in a quite different sense. Waiting on the queen, her boss.
I smile wryly as it occurs to me that I have been waiting on Chiara ever since I stopped waiting for her.
At last there is some activity around the table with the water bottles. People are wheeling stacks of little boxes in, and they unload them and pile them on the table. A queue starts to form as people realise that lunch is arriving. At the same time the children all stand up; a word has evidently been spoken. The staff assemble them in lines and lead them to the lunch point where they join the rapidly lengthening queue. A voice comes from the loudspeakers and cuts across the growing hubbub.
“Lunch is now being served in hall C. Parents, please collect your children from the lunch point as nursery activities are now ceasing. Thank you.”
“Do you want to go and meet her?” Beate says. “I’ll wait here and keep our places.”
I thank her, and I cross the open area to where parents are already gathering. If I join the queue myself I’ll miss her; so I stand at the edge and wait with the others. Pardip is here, and she smiles at me. So is Marianne. In fact there are many people here whom I know.
I see Chiara in Irina’s group, chattering to Libby and another girl. She turns once and her gaze sweeps across the room, and I’m certain that she has seen me, but she doesn’t acknowledge me. More important things to think about at the moment, clearly.
I see Brandy with her husband and Pamela, whom she has evidently already collected. They all have their lunch boxes and are walking away. How did they manage that?
In the queue, some way behind the last of the children, I glimpse Craig and Mrs Winterton. I turn away.
There are four helpers handing out the boxes, and the queue is moving quickly. Chiara takes her box from a bearded man in a roll-neck pullover and with the yellow armband of the helpers, and she turns and makes straight for me. I knew she had seen me.
“Ciao, cara,” I say. “You must be hungry!” I have learned to articulate her feelings for her, rather than asking her.
She nods and beams, and jumps up and down twice. She hasn’t done that for a while.
I take her hand. “Come on, let’s go. We’re sitting over there.”
“Is Daddy there?”
“No, darling. I haven’t seen him yet, but I’m sure he’s down here.”
We arrive at our seat, and Chiara acquires a serious look as she sees Beate.
“Hello, Chiara,” Beate says. All credit to her, she always makes an effort with Chiara. “How are you? Did you have a nice time at the nursery?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Are you hungry? I wonder what there is for lunch.”
Chiara looks down on her box and back up at Beate, and then at me, still holding her hand.
“Let’s have a look,” I say, and I sit down in the middle of the seat. Chiara sits next to me, on the opposite side to Beate, and she rests the box on her knees. I wait for a moment, and then say,
“Come on, let’s open it.”
Chiara looks up at me.
Beate stands up after another moment.
“Selena, I’ll go and get lunch boxes for you and me,” she says.
“Oh, thanks,” I say, and she smiles at both of us and walks away.
“Is this one just for me, Mummy?” Chiara asks.
“Yes, cara, it’s all for you.” I see what she was worried about. “Shall we have a look inside?”
She beams at me and proceeds to open the box. There are no surprises: a couple of sandwiches, a stick of vegetarian sausage, a slice of flan, sticks of celery and carrot, and a kind of yoghourt. Chiara starts with the sausage.
When Beate comes back with our boxes I’m beginning to feel hungry myself. I open mine and try the flan. It is really quite good.
Chiara is good-humoured again; she sits on the seat with her legs swinging, munching on her sandwiches and talking with her mouth full, despite my telling her not to. It’s a game for her, not disobedience, and I take it as such. We’re all laughing, and it’s nice that Beate is a part of it.
Chiara is eating a mouthful of flan and talking at the same time when she laughs again suddenly, and she sprays pieces of crust and spinach over me.
“Chiara Henrietta!” I say as she dissolves in laughter. I pronounce it the Italian way, with a silent H, and lingering on the double T. I haven’t called her that for quite a while, and I sense that she likes it.
“Enrietta?” Beate queries. “Is that an Italian name?”
“No. Yes.” She gives me an amused look. “Well – yes, it is, theoretically, though it’s not very common in Italy. But that’s not why she has it.”
She raises her eyebrows.
“Chiara Henrietta,” I say, pronouncing it the English way this time. “She’s named after one of my heroines, Henrietta Swan Leavitt.”
Chiara is listening. She has heard this before.
“Henrietta Swan Leavitt was an astronomer in America, a long time ago. She made a very important discovery.” I am, more or less unconsciously, phrasing this simply so that Chiara has a chance of following. “You see, it’s very difficult to tell how far away the stars and galaxies are. We can’t go there and measure the distance. So how do we find out?”
Chiara is looking straight ahead, eating her food, and clearly listening. Beate is watching us both with a little smile, and is listening too.
“Well, Henrietta was working on some strange stars called Cepheid variables. What a Cepheid variable does, is that it gradually blows up like a balloon, getting less bright the more blown up it gets, until it reaches a certain size, and then it deflates again, like letting the air out of a balloon, and that makes it brighter again. And each Cepheid variable does that over a fixed period: the same number of days. Do you see?” I look down on Chiara. “So one star might have a period of, I don’t know, seventeen days, which means that every seventeen days it reaches that point where it’s least bright and it starts to deflate again. And what Henrietta noticed was that the length of that period depends on how bright that star is over its whole period.”
I pause, and I glance at Beate to see whether she is still with me.
“Do you see?” I repeat. “So Henrietta realised that, simply by measuring the length of that period, by measuring how long a star takes to go through its whole cycle once, we can tell how bright it would be if we were right up close to it and looking at it, the way we are up close to the Sun here. Then, all we need to do is see how bright that star seems to be from here, because obviously it seems dimmer the further away we are from it: and there we are. We can work out how far away the star is.”
Beate nods slowly.
“That may not seem very exciting in itself,” I go on, “but if you observe a galaxy that has a Cepheid variable in it, and you work out the distance to the Cepheid variable the way I’ve just described, then you know how far away the whole galaxy is. And that is quite something.”
I don’t know how much of this Chiara really understands. I’m sure that she understands some of it, and it’s not just that her namesake discovered something important.
“It’s what we call a standard candle,” I continue. “An object that has a definite brightness – luminosity – so we can tell how far away it is simply by looking at it. There are other standard candles, that work over different distances. Cepheid variables are useful with nearby galaxies like the ones Henrietta was working on: the Magellanic Clouds. We need other standard candles if we’re looking further out. And, to be fair, somebody else – a man – calibrated this standard candle so that it could actually be used to determine distances, and another man worked out the physics of it: why a Cepheid variable pulsates like that. But it was Henrietta who discovered it in the first place; and that was the first standard candle that was ever found.”
“It must have been a huge advance,” Beate says.
“It certainly was,” I agree. I’m remembering how I felt, nearly five years ago now, when I chose that name for Chiara. Henrietta’s work on Cepheids had reminded me of mine on quasars, and the way it had been taken up by others and developed and integrated into wider theory and analysis was how I hoped that my work too would contribute to science at large.
Clearly I still felt like an astrophysicist back then, in my second year after arriving here in the colony.
I think I had forgotten how that felt, and I feel it now, stirring once again, unfamiliar and familiar at the same time.
“A feminist case study,” Beate muses. I look at her blankly.
“Don’t you remember?” she says. “You said that once, in one of our sessions.”
“Yes, I did,” I reply, remembering. “Or wasn’t it you?”
“You said it first. You said you never expected your life to turn into a feminist case study. And I said that all our lives were feminist case studies.”
“Yes, that’s right,” I remember. “And I suppose you’re saying that this proves that my life was a feminist case study all along, and you were right.”
“I suppose it does. I wanted Chiara to have a strong role model.”
“A role model like you.”
“Yes. I wanted to be a strong role model for her.”
“And you still do.”
“I still do.”
Our eyes meet. “You’re doing a good job, Selena,” she says, and then, changing the subject completely: “Is that an Italian name, in fact?”
“No, not really,” I reply. “It seems it was fashionable in Italy for a while back then. As was Jennifer, apparently.” I shudder inwardly at the thought of being called Jennifer. “There were two Jennifers in my year at school.” Neither of whom I liked at all. One of them was truly horrible, as I recall, though at the moment I can’t seem to remember how.
Two people are approaching, Gaynor and Bob, the man Beate stopped earlier and asked about the evacuation, and it shoots through my head that Bob is Gaynor’s husband. It’s all falling into place. I don’t remember ever seeing Bob any of the times I was at their home for the embroidery, but I do remember hearing the name.
They stop in front of our seat, and Gaynor looks down on the three of us with a benevolent expression. Bob has one eye on the device in his hand and emanates stress.
“Beate,” he says, “since you asked earlier: it’s confirmed that there is a party outside.”
“Where are they?”
“We don’t know. Radio communications are down.”
“I thought we were communicating with Earth.”
“We are. Sorry, I meant communication with the party is down. We don’t know exactly why, but we know they were experiencing a dust storm before we lost them.”
“We must know more or less where they are.”
“Yes, we do,” he answers, and he names a location some way from the colony where there’s a station, generally controlled remotely, for gathering electromagnetic data. “But we don’t know whether they got to shelter in time. We hope they’re sheltering in the workings, but we don’t know for sure whether they even knew the proton event was coming.”
Beate looks very grave.
“Who is out there?”
“I have a list,” Bob replies, and he reads the names out from his device. I give a start as I hear the name of Irfan, Rashida’s husband.
Beate glances at me briefly, but she doesn’t speak to me and turns back to address Bob again.
I thought Irfan was only working part-time until the baby was born.
Why is he out with a surface party?
They must have found someone else to look after their son after nursery.
And now this. Poor Rashida.
I only have a vague idea of what these “workings” are that Bob referred to. I’ve never been out there; I’ve never been anywhere, really, on Mars, to speak of. I imagine it’s some kind of mine, where they can shelter underground, shielded by the rock as we are here; except that the rock shielding us was shovelled back on top of this lowest storey after it was excavated and built.
Beate is still talking with Bob in the manner of a person receiving a report from a subordinate. It has been dawning on me today that she is more senior in the Agency’s hierarchy than I had realised. Not that I had ever thought about it.
Chiara is beginning to get a little restless. She has been very good, bless her, ever since I started talking about Henrietta and the Cepheids; but she’s not interested in what Beate and Bob are discussing, or she doesn’t appreciate its significance, and she starts to squirm and to tug at my arm.
Gaynor is watching us, and then so does Beate; finally Bob breaks off and looks at us too. How embarrassing.
“Does Chiara want to go and play?” Gaynor asks. “It’s a bit boring here with the grown-ups, isn’t it?”
I am about to reply to that, but Beate responds for me:
“She’s been playing all morning with the nursery. I think she’s glad to be with her mother now.”
I could have said that; but I acquiesce. And she’s right. I agree with her assessment.
Bob and Gaynor exchange a glance.
“Well, I guess we’ll leave you in peace now,” says Bob.
“Yes, Bob,” says Beate. “I don’t want to keep you. Thanks for keeping me informed.”
Gaynor smiles at us.
“Bye, Chiara,” she says. “Have a nice time!”
“Thank you,” says Chiara, my well brought up little girl.
We all say our goodbyes, and they pass on. Beate looks at me, but I speak to Chiara first.
“How about a story?” I suggest.
“Mm-hm,” she says, assenting. She snuggles up close to me, holding my arm and leaning her head on it.
The stories that I tell are seldom exactly the same, but they have a lot of familiar features. I start from well-known, traditional stories that I remember from when I was a little girl; some of them I have had to read up in order to remind myself of how they went; but I don’t simply re-tell those stories, I change them and re-arrange them and introduce new elements into them and make them my own creation.
At the same time Chiara likes the stories to be familiar, and she will often steer them back to the version she knows by the questions that she asks. She particularly loves it when I put Chiara herself into the story.
As I’m storytelling I catch a glimpse of her father out of the corner of my eye, across on the other side of this wide room, with Wade, and I think it must be Rob. They seem to be drinking beer, at a time like this.
Chiara is not asking any questions this time. I look down intermittently to check that she’s still listening. Beate is listening too.
Chiara’s head, resting against my arm, slides forward and jerks back up. I stop recounting the story, I reach around her with my other arm, liberate the first arm and lift her on to my lap. She struggles at first, a little, but subsides when she’s up there and settles against me. I put both arms around her and hold her on my lap with her head resting on my shoulder and my face nestling in her hair. My baby.
There we stay for a long while, as Chiara’s breathing becomes long and slow and regular, and the warmth of her body spreads through mine. She is almost too big to do this any more; but not quite.
Chiara’s weight is pushing me slightly aside, and I need to find a stable position for myself without disturbing her; I find myself leaning against Beate, I turn slightly away from her so that my back is resting against her upper arm, and I settle too. We sit there in silence as people pass from time to time in front of us. Chiara sleeps.
My thoughts drift away, along no particular path. I’m not really seeing the scene in front of me. Time passes. I think I must have dropped off myself for a little while.
At one point I turn my head and look up at Beate, worried that this is not very comfortable for her. She sees me looking at her and smiles at me. Her expression is of deep content. I stop worrying and settle down again.
Somewhere out on the surface there are some people, maybe in safety, maybe not. Maybe they are dead.
Beate will be among the first to be told when we find out, and so shall I.
My eyelids are growing heavy again. Chiara stirs, shifts a little in my lap and settles in much the same position as before. I move my arms almost imperceptibly tighter around her, and I give myself up to this warmth and peace and love. Time passes, and more time, and I really do fall asleep as well.
Something startles me. Suddenly I’m listening, I don’t know for what. My slumber is dropping away from me. Beate is listening too.
I hear it again. A kind of whoop, and a gasp, and low voices somewhere at the other end of this hall. Sounds of movement, growing louder. The whooping continues, and it is clearly a woman in distress. Around us people have stopped whatever they were doing and are staring towards the source of the noise.
Beate stands up and takes a couple of steps away from me where I sit with Chiara, still fast asleep, in my arms.
She takes another couple of steps, to see better, glances at me briefly, but says nothing and carries on looking. In the body of the room people exchange looks and gradually return to what they were doing.
“I think it’s Rashida,” Beate says to me. “I think she’s in labour.”
A scream, and a shudder. There’s a more determined kind of bustle now, some banging and louder voices. I’m imagining Rashida being lifted on to a trolley and someone parting the spectators to allow her to be wheeled into the sick bay. There is a sick bay down here, but it’s not really comparable to the facilities upstairs. I hear her bellowing and gasping, and shuddering and moaning. I don’t recognise her voice at all.
Who is looking after their son?
There must be someone helping her with him anyway, with Irfan not there. She’ll have organised that already.
Oh, poor Rashida.
Mars is really putting my problems into perspective for me.
“Mummy, I need to do a wee.”
I hadn’t even noticed that Chiara was awake.
“Hullo, how long have you been awake?” She doesn’t answer that. “All right, so do I. Let’s go!”
I stand up and re-arrange her so that she is on my arm with her arms around my neck.
“Mummy, it’s over that way.” Presumably she went there while she was with the nursery children.
“I know, but there’s another one just here.”
“It’s over that way, Mummy!” She starts to grizzle. She is always irritable when she wakes up after a sleep during the day.
“I know, darling, but this one is closer. Trust me.”
She’s still irritable and still grizzling when we reach the door of the ladies’ lavatory and she must realise that I was right. I’m sure she‘s forgotten why she was grizzling in the first place.
I set her down and let her find a cubicle to sit in. I know better than to attempt to put her there myself. She closes the door and I sit in the adjacent cubicle. We are the only ones in here.
When we come back out again, Rashida is evidently gone and everything is peaceful and back to normal.
“Beate,” I say, “I think I might walk around with Chiara and see if we can find some children for her to play with.” She has had a long sleep and will be wide awake and restless now. No chance of her sitting still on a bench and being good.
A number of children and their parents, including several dads, are already in the area which the nursery occupied in the morning. There is some horseplay, mainly from the dads, some running around and some scuffling, from the boys: nothing so organised as this morning, all rather fragmented and random, but everyone is having fun. Chiara sees Libby and Ana and runs off to join them.
I wander to the edge of the area and watch in silence for a while, smiling. Sometimes I exchange a word or two with another parent, but mainly I’m content to stand and watch. This feels very much like the playground upstairs, still being bombarded, as far as I know, with those high-energy protons that the roof of the colony does little to reduce; but it’s more cramped and crowded down here, and of course there’s no equipment like that on the real playground. Some of the children are clambering over the tables or playing underneath them, using them as an impromptu climbing frame or play house. Nobody objects.
After quite some time Beate comes across and joins me.
“I thought you might like to know,” she says. “Rashida has given birth to a little girl.”
I feel that I am beaming all over my face.
“Oh, I’m so glad!”
“Wow, that was quick,” says another lady who has overheard her. People start to gather around us and Beate has to repeat what she knows.
“She gave birth to a little girl just a short while ago. No complications, and both are fine.”
“Who’s with her, do you know?” I ask, and “Is the baby with her?” and “When can we see her?” is what we all want to know.
“The medical staff are with her, and her friend. Yes, she has the baby with her, and her son is there too. I don’t know when she can see visitors, but not for a while, I imagine.”
“Have you seen her?”
“No, goodness me, no. I spoke to one of the doctors. Yes, it was very quick in the end. Apparently she’s sitting up and enjoying her baby. Nursing? I don’t know whether she’s nursing it.”
I remember what it felt like, and I feel so glad for Rashida who is now feeling it once again. All that is missing must be Irfan, the father, and the knowledge of how he is doing.
Beate has imparted all she knows now, and people begin to disperse.
“How’s Chiara doing?” she asks me. “Not too bored?”
“She’s fine,” I reply, and we turn our faces to where she is squatting on a table with two of her friends in a circle, or a triangle, strictly, I suppose. I can’t tell from here what they are doing.
Time passes again. Beate and I stand and watch together for a while. Snacks and more drinks have arrived at the tables where lunch was dispensed earlier, and people are stopping by whenever they feel like it. There’s no need to provide a full meal again because we can all go back to our homes once it’s dark and we have the planet between us and that bombardment of protons. Chiara shouldn’t be too tired to eat a meal, because she had a long sleep this afternoon. I hope she’ll get off to sleep afterwards without any difficulty.
We’re all sitting on our bench again when the signal is given that all is clear to go upstairs. Chiara is sucking on a tube of juice and is listening while Beate tells her a story. I’m impressed that Beate has learned to pitch the story just right for her age. That wasn’t the case the first time she tried it.
People are standing up and moving towards the stairways, some obviously keener to get out of here than others. Crowds start to build up by the exits. We take our time, because Chiara wants to listen to the rest of the story. Beate carries on telling it as we stand up and pick up our things, and we make our way slowly as a group towards the nearest stairway. I’m not sure where it emerges, but I’ll deal with that when we get there.
Bob Wallace sees us as we are standing on the edge of the crowd waiting to pass through the door, and he hurries over to us holding his tablet like a clipboard and still emanating stress, but visibly mingled with relief.
“We heard from the party, Beate,” he tells us as he arrives. “They’re all okay.”
“Well, that’s really good news,” she says, and her face lights up. “Were they sheltering in the workings?”
“Yes, they were. They picked up the news about the proton storm, so they knew they had to take shelter, but they were already unable to transmit, so they couldn’t let us know what they were doing. So they’ve been underground all day, and went out after dark to repair the transmitter in their buggy. Seems to have been a quick fix, after all.”
“And what are they doing now?”
“They’re on their way back to the colony.”
Beate looks at me, and then back at Bob.
“One of them has just become a father again,” she tells him. “Does he know?”
“He sure does. He’s delighted. Can’t wait to get home.”
“I bet he can’t.” She looks at me again. “What wonderful news for your friend.”
I nod. “It really is.” I look at Chiara. “We’re talking about Hassan’s daddy,” I tell her. “He was stuck in a tunnel because of the storm, but now he’s coming home.”
“Mm hm,” she responds, utterly failing to grasp the magnitude of the news.
I wonder whether Rashida will go home now. No, I imagine she’ll spend the night, at least, down here in the sick bay.
It will be strange down here when everyone is gone but Rashida and her baby and the staff looking after them.
Bob has some more organising to do, it seems, and he takes his leave of us.
There’s practically no crowd left at this exit now. We join the last ones to pass through the door and walk slowly up the stairs, Chiara setting the pace. The people ahead are gradually drawing away from us; the echoes of the noises they are making become more vague and muffled. We ascend, in silence at first, but Chiara soon begins to chatter. I am thinking about soup.