"Come in, Mrs Hutchinson. Please sit down."
Professor Craillie closes the door behind us, walks back behind his desk and sits down.
He is a little man, with hooded eyes and striking eyebrows, and he’s looking straight at me, with his hands clasped in front of him.
I’m wearing my best suit, a business-like anthracite grey, jacket and skirt, with a thin white round-necked top up to my neck and an understated pendant over it made of Martian minerals. No heels: we don't do heels on Mars. I had my hair cut yesterday in preparation, and I’m wearing a touch of lipstick in an unobtrusive shade, and otherwise no make-up.
I’m not seriously expecting Professor Craillie to notice any of this; but it makes me feel good about myself and about the challenge that I am about to face.
My ticket to stay on Mars: nothing less than that is my objective.
"Tell me about your work, Mrs Hutchinson. What are you working on?"
This is exactly where I didn't want him to start.
When I was still on Earth and it was clear that I would be going out to Mars with Mike, for a lot of people around me this was the natural step for someone with my education. Predestined, they said. The ideal person to go into space. My family back in Europe, particularly, and Mike's family, and other, mainly non-scientific acquaintances. What they don't realise is that by far the best place to do astronomy is on Earth, with access to good computing facilities and the relevant online data bases.
Most of the universe is so far away that it really makes no difference whether you observe it from Earth or from Mars, unless you’re studying Mars itself or something very close to it, which can only really mean its two moons. And even if you were studying these objects (as an astronomer, rather than as a planetary scientist), and supposing there was an observatory on Mars, or in orbit around Mars, collating data on them: why, those data would be transmitted back to Earth and fed into the relevant data base, in the same way as the data from all the observatories on the Earth or in orbit around it are; and if you were working on those data, you'd be better off attached to a normal university or institute, at Berkeley or Manchester or Bologna or wherever, where you could go home after work to your normal apartment or house and sit in your garden on a summer's evening with your husband, and where your children could go to school and play on the playground in the afternoon with other children from families who have no connection with science.
No: we have what we think are good reasons for establishing a colony on Mars; but doing astronomy is not one of them.
And so, consequently, I don't do astronomy on Mars. I have a job, because everybody works here, except the children, obviously; but it’s not what I was trained to do; I don't need a PhD in astrophysics to do this job.
Basically I look after the IT for the actual scientists in my team.
"It's a start," Mike pronounced when I told him about the opening that I had been offered.
And that was true. You have to look on the bright side, I told myself; you have to make the best of the chances you have been given.
How different it was for Mike. Mike is a geologist and a chemist, dually qualified, and he was already attached to MEG, the Mars Exploratory Group, when I came to Berkeley. He had come over from England as a bright young star, and seemed to have fulfilled all the hopes that had been placed in him.
When I first met him, at a professorial party after some to me utterly obscure football game, it was already clear that he would form part of the group that was to be sent out to the colony to move it into the next planned phase of its existence. He and a few others at that party were the lions: the inner circle, the praetorians, the senior team. The older academics looked on them with pride and satisfaction; the younger ones with admiration and (some of them) with envy.
I'm embarrassed to admit that I was starstruck.
So I am telling Professor Craillie about what I do at work. I only work part-time, while Chiara is at the nursery, and it does tend to get quite intense, because typically as soon as I get in I have to deal with a whole pile of problems that have accumulated during the previous afternoon and evening while I was out. I tell him about the software that I maintain, and how I have tried to improve the way it works for us. I tell him about the other members of the team, and how each of us fits in, and how we complement each other; and he is listening to me patiently, or rather, actually he’s looking as though he is being deliberately patient; and suddenly it dawns on me that he wants to talk about the science, not about the office.
So I switch tack, and try to summon up my knowledge of what the team actually does.
It is, of course, not at all my field, but at least it involves a little physics, and not just geology, chemistry or other fields that I know little about.
Physics was the only thing I was really any good at as I grew up, and that was because I had always had an aptitude for mathematics: physics, when you do it properly, is really just applied maths, with units.
I think, at bottom, it was a certain housewifely talent for organisation that made me good at mathematics as a schoolgirl. My neat, orderly, systematic approach, that helped me keep track of the various elements of the proofs.
I also liked stationery, and pencil cases with lots of different compartments.
When I got to university at Bologna and saw what mathematics is really like, I was very glad that I had gone for physics instead. Maths is beautiful and marvellous; but I lack the creativity for it.
I remember another party, at Berkeley again.
Mike and I were together by that time, and we had arrived together in his sports car, driving up from the ocean with the wind in our hair.
We were standing in a group of research students, mostly male, loud and boisterous and good-humoured. I was just standing next to him, listening and smiling, basking in the warmth and glory of being with this marvellous man. Silly girl.
Jack Baines is talking, a mathematician from Minnesota, and he is being very amusing about the frustrations of being a mathematician.
"It's a young man's game," he says. "Ah, what am I saying? It's a boy's game!"
"It's child's play," says someone else, and everybody laughs.
"Look at me," says Jack. "I'm twenty-six, and I'm past it. Twenty-two, that was the age to be. At twenty-two I could conquer the world."
"Which world was that, Jack?" someone asks.
"Oh, just some n-dimensional vector space or other. Nothing out of the ordinary."
"But you could have conquered it."
"Oh yes! I could have extracted the last droplet of meaning from its topology. Could have? I did! I was the king of the world, at twenty-two. I could discern strange and beautiful patterns and insights - excuse me," and he takes a gulp of beer, "but now look at me. Past it. Over the hill. This is an ex-mathematician. This sport is over for me. I need something else, some other field, something simpler, something more suitable for an old and weary man."
He looks around the group, and his gaze alights on me.
"Astrophysics. Is that difficult?"
"Not the way I do it!" Look at me, actually opening my mouth.
But that is my entire contribution to this conversation, though I was gratified when Mike mentioned it favourably in his round-up of the evening after we had left. It raised a laugh, and I felt pleased and warm after Jack had turned his attention elsewhere and the conversation had moved on to other things.
Data collation and data analysis is essentially what I was doing for my PhD.
There is a technologically highly advanced and sensitive observatory, fully automatic, in orbit around the Earth, outside the atmosphere with its obscuring and distorting effects, and since its launch it has been mapping in extraordinary detail a large part of the sky, in directions pointing away from the main body of our galaxy, where the stars are relatively sparse and our line of sight into the furthest reaches of the observable universe is relatively unobscured.
I was researching into quasars, and I was using the data from the orbital observatory in order to perform that research. There's a plus: in modern astronomy you don't need to stay up all chilly night and wait for a break in the clouds; you can do it all during normal office hours at your desk.
A quasar is a celestial object of phenomenal brightness, more luminous than billions or even tens of billions of individual stars. A quasar is always at the centre of a galaxy: there are, of course, billions of galaxies that we can see with the aid of a telescope, and many of them have a quasar at their centre. The engine that powers the quasar is a super-massive black hole, which is an object so massive and with such powerful gravitational attraction that nothing, not even light, can escape it once it has been drawn in. The black hole just keeps on growing as its gravitational field pulls in more and more of the material in the host galaxy. As that material approaches the black hole, it spins around it in a more or less circular orbit, at phenomenal speeds. Typically it collects into a disc of dust and gas around the black hole, surrounded by a doughnut-like region of rather lower density, which in turn is surrounded by regions of still lower density, close to a vacuum. And by some process which to this day is not well understood, that swirling material radiates energy and ejects jets of matter into the surrounding space with a staggering and extraordinary intensity.
Not the black hole, because that is black: no light can escape it. The material surrounding it, packed into a comparatively tiny space about the size of our solar system, is set into such turmoil by the gravitational field of the black hole that it emits radiation bright enough, in many cases, to outshine the entire galaxy whose centre it forms.
So we have this incredibly bright object, shining like a beacon across the vast expanse of space; and because it’s so bright, it can still be recognised and its light analysed, even if that light has been travelling for billions of years before it finally reaches the Earth. When we observe an object like that, we’re actually seeing what the universe was like all those many, many years ago, when the light set off on its way towards us; and the more distant that object is, the closer we are getting in time to the beginning of the universe itself.
It still blows my mind, though I ought to be used to it by now, to contemplate how absolutely vast the universe is, and how tiny our little world is in comparison.
But all that enthusiasm is of no use in talking to Professor Craillie.
The sad truth is that my knowledge of astrophysics is completely irrelevant to the work that is being done on Mars, by the team of which I am a member or by the other teams.
Of course I am able to discuss that work, in principle, anyway, because I took a degree in physics before I specialised: I had a good grounding in electromagnetism and kinetics, and statistical mechanics and quantum physics, and all the areas that you need in order to call yourself a physicist; though all that is quite some time ago now.
So I am telling Professor Craillie about what the team is doing, and the teams it liaises with; the questions those teams are looking into and how they are organising the research; why the research is interesting and what we hope it could be useful for; and the preliminary results that we think we already have.
I’m feeling rather uncertain, because I can't get away from the fact that it’s not actually me who is conducting this research: that’s not my role in this team. So I try to compensate by making it sound as interesting as possible. I put on my bright, vivacious manner, and into my description I insert observations and allusions to those aspects that occur to me as I talk, to show that it all has a higher relevance, it’s all embedded in a wider context, a system of parts that all hang together and influence one another: the colony, our lives here, our relationship with Earth, the hopes that are being placed in what we are all doing here, and so on.
But something appears to be going wrong. Professor Craillie is listening politely, but he is not really engaging: he’s not contributing, he’s not putting questions or making comments that move the discussion along; I’m doing all the work, and I don't think it’s working.
I don't know what to do about it.
I probably ought to have prepared for this interview better, if only I could think how. In fact I should have had this interview, or one like it, a long time ago. In our minds the IT role wasn't supposed to be permanent. It was a way of justifying my taking up a place in the colony, or rather, it was part of the way we wanted to justify it.
The other part was Chiara.
All the while, as Mike and I were coming closer and becoming more involved back in California, the Agency was working out the final details of its expedition to the Martian colony.
The colony had already been in existence for a number of years, though much smaller: in fact it was called a base initially, long before there was any thought of building it up into a permanent settlement of lifers. Some of the personnel of the original base are still with us, including Professor Craillie, as it happens.
Now work was going on at both ends, both on Mars and at mission headquarters on Earth, to prepare for a really significant influx of individuals and equipment, with the intention of transforming the base, over time, into a community that was genuinely viable.
The timetable was dictated by, among other things, planetary orbits: Mars goes around the Sun once about every two Earth years, and consequently there are times when both planets are on opposite sides of the Sun from each other, and other times when they are much closer together. Naturally, the expedition was going to travel when the journey would be shortest.
It was during that last year before the expedition was due to start that Mike and I decided we wanted to be married.
That meant we had to find a way for me to go to Mars with him. This wasn't going to be a run-of-the-mill space trip: up to the space station, for instance, and back down again after a few weeks or months to be reunited with his loving wife. Even that would have been hard to deal with; but this trip was on a completely different time scale. The voyage to Mars alone would take about eight months, the whole exercise including building living capacity on Mars was astonishingly expensive, and consequently the plan was for the members of the expedition to remain on Mars indefinitely, and in many cases probably for the rest of their lives.
That was the problem for Mike and me, the soon to be newly-weds; but at the same time it created an opportunity.
The base was going to become a colony. A lasting settlement of people for whom Mars was to become their new home. It would be rather different from a new town on Earth, because – for a start – all the colonists would be scientists or technicians or other professionals, everybody would be working for the same employer, and all that work would be according to a clear plan, with a view to the objectives for which the colony was being set up.
Maybe the closest equivalent is a settlement and plant established somewhere in the Siberian tundra for the sole purpose of extracting a certain mineral.
But this is where the other big difference comes into play. The colossal distance would mean minimal physical contact between the colony and Earth. There would be no visits home for Christmas, no summer holidays, no sick leave, no compassionate leave: the colonists would be staying on Mars permanently, or at least for the foreseeable future, so that every single part of their individual life plans now had to be catered for on Mars. And everything that was necessary to sustain the colony as a viable, long-term settlement would also have to be available on Mars.
And that led to one very obvious conclusion, and that had been a part of the planning ever since the decision was taken to transform the base into a colony: there would have to be children on Mars.
Suddenly there was a case to be made for including in the mission a female scientist of child-bearing age who was about to get married to one of the men who was already down to join the colony. Even if that female scientist's specialism was not really relevant to the work of the colony.
So Mike spoke to the people at UNMEA, the agency that had been financing his studies and would be employing him once the mission started in earnest, and I went with him to their headquarters at Houston for interviews and tests. To nobody's surprise I turned out to be female, fertile, physically and psychologically healthy and in a stable relationship: in fact deeply in love, though the tests didn’t really address that point.
Nothing like this project had ever been done before. That is, of course, true of many aspects of the Martian colony; but I do think that raising a family on Mars is new and different in a more radical way than, for instance, cultivating crops in low gravity.
Of course there had been intensive studies in preparation. Experience had been gathered over many years of the effects on both men and women of prolonged stays in space: on a space station in orbit around the Earth, for instance, or on the Moon. There had been experiments with animals which included reproduction in space, in artificial gravity fine tuned to simulate that on Mars, to study the effects on embryonic development and growth after birth. And a great deal of knowledge had been accumulated, so that UNMEA's biologists were confident – they explained – that provided everything was done in the way they required and in the circumstances they believed they could control, there would be no cause for concern for either mother or child.
But the fact remained that it was new and unprecedented. We women of Mars would be the first humans ever to give birth outside the Earth, and our children would be the first to be born and to grow up away from the Earth.
It wasn't exactly that Mike and I had to give a binding commitment to have children when we went to Mars; that would have been a bit high-handed; but one of the purposes of the tests was to establish that we really wanted to do this, and everybody knew that this was the principal reason why UNMEA was willing to include me in the mission and give me a place in the colony.
What we did all have to undertake was that we definitely wouldn’t be pregnant when we left. The acceleration of the launch and the possibility of cosmic radiation during the voyage were clearly outside the controlled circumstances in which the biologists wanted our embryos to develop.
So, like all the couples, Mike and I waited until we were safely on Mars, in the sheltered and controlled environment of the colony, shielded from radiation out of space and under the watchful eye of the local doctors, who monitored every stage of the pregnancy from fertilisation to birth, and instructed me on all the things I had to do and the medicines I had to take in order to ensure - we all hoped - that my baby developed normally despite the low gravity.
Obviously that has continued since Chiara was born, and it will continue as long as she is growing, except that it is she who takes the medicines now.
But everything is different now.
I had a place in the plan, in those days. I came here to be one of Mars's mothers, to show that the human race can reproduce and survive on another planet: a fundamental requirement for a truly self-sustaining colony.
My IT role was very much secondary to that. I had to have a job, because everybody works here: resources are too scarce and the whole mission too expensive to afford idle members; but anybody could do that job. Lots of people here could spend each morning in that team, as I do, and could easily replace me.
The fact is that, if I am no longer available as a producer of babies, I am not needed here.
And the devastating consequence of that, the fact that blasted the landscape of my soul like an atomic bomb when Mike was thoughtful enough to point it out during our last towering row, is that the Agency will send me back to Earth.
Chiara will stay here, because she still very much has a place in their plan; but the Agency will terminate my contract and send me back to Earth; and I shall lose Chiara.
That is why I need this job, and I am furious with myself for not making an effort long ago to get out of this IT rut, when things were still good between Mike and me.
Now even I can hear an edge in my vivacious voice, that betrays the desperation that I am feeling and am trying not to show, as it becomes clear to me that I am not convincing Professor Craillie that he needs me in his team.
Another party that I went to with Mike, much more recent: here on Mars.
It’s a gathering in the apartment of one of Mike's work colleagues. Chiara is playing with some other children in one of their rooms, and having made sure that she is all right - "I'm fine, Mummy! Go away, Mummy!" - I return to the main room, chat a little with the hostess and then drift across, drink in hand, to where Mike is standing in a group of men.
It's the same set-up, familiar from all those gatherings at Berkeley: it's even the same men, in part. A little older, with more responsibility than back then, though you wouldn't know it from their behaviour now. They're relaxing, talking loudly, drinking, telling jokes: boys having a good time.
I am the only woman in the group this time, and it’s sheer force of habit that brings me here. If I don't feel like talking to anybody, or I don't know what to say, I come and stand next to my husband and share his conversation. Without actually taking part in it.
I don't even necessarily listen, a lot of the time. Their jokes don't really interest me, or particularly amuse me; but I like the feeling that everybody is having a good time, which I can tap into and share without doing very much. It's laziness, really.
Mike is talking, and his face turns from the group to me, standing beside him.
"Why are opinions like orgasms?"
I look blank.
"I don't care if you have one!"
His mates all guffaw; and after a moment I laugh too, though as I do so I wonder why I am laughing, and whether I really want to.
Look, I realise it was a joke. It has the surprise element that makes a good joke. It's like this one: "What's brown and sticky? A stick."
Am I being unreasonable to find it hurtful at the same time?
Because there is an aspect of truth to it.
Do you really care, Mike, about either of those things? Really and truly? Or are you and your mates laughing because you know that, in fact, you don't care, with respect to me or to any of your wives and girlfriends, and you feel secure and smug because you can afford not to care, and look, that dumb Selena is even laughing along with you?
I am somewhat pensive as we return home, and I concentrate on Chiara, who at first doesn't want to leave, but is then suddenly tired and requires to be carried.
I put her to bed and come back out into the living room, where Mike is online, doing something or other not obviously important; and I try to explain why that really wasn't a good thing to say. Predictably he is not exactly receptive.
"It was just a joke! Jeez!"
What is it about men, that makes them think that line is an unanswerable defence against any criticism?
If something is hurtful, it doesn't matter that it was supposed to be funny; in fact, doesn't that make it worse, in a way?
Well, maybe not; but it doesn't make it any better.
It probably wasn't the best time to try to explain that to Mike: he had had a little too much to drink, it was late, and I was distracting him from whatever amusement he had been looking at, or playing.
But why do I have to choose times that are convenient to Mike to talk about how he hurts my feelings?
Are there, in fact, any such times?
Mike is sitting on his chair in front of the screen, swivelled round to face me, with his legs stuck out and his arms folded. I am standing in front of the door to the hallway, which is a little ajar. I’m trying to be calm and not to let things escalate, but I can feel my irritation rising, as our voices rise too.
The more loudly we speak, the less we are listening to each other.
I don't really mean that. He is not listening to me. I know exactly what he means, how he sees the situation and what he is failing to see.
He thinks, typical man, that if something is a joke, that is all it is and it can't be something else at the same time. A joke is a joke, and is completely excused by being a joke.
Mike, the jokes you choose to tell, how you choose to tell them and who you tell them to, that is all very revealing of what you really think.
It's a pity that this obdurate stupidity, this refusal to see something that is as clear as day, is not just irritating and frustrating, but it repeats the original offence of devaluing and trampling on someone else's feelings.
"I'm sorry I offended you with my harmless joke!"
If you think that is an apology, arsehole, then I don't know how you got through your exams.
I am listening to a catalogue of my failings and inadequacies when I suddenly lift my hand with the palm facing Mike.
I listen into the darkened hallway.
"She's awake," I say, and I go out through the doorway.
Softly I open Chiara's door, slip inside and close it again. In the dark I crouch down close to her bed. Here it is cool, dark and peaceful after the drama in the next room.
Something soft and warm approaches me and flings its arms around me. I cuddle her back and nuzzle into her hair.
I am quivering with suppressed rage and disappointment: I had felt a little hurt and upset when we got home, but this argument has made everything far, far worse.
And now we have upset Chiara.
She knows something is wrong, very obviously, but she doesn't understand it. How could she?
I see right through her, of course, bless her. She is upset and doesn't know why, and wants to be comforted; and she knows I am upset and wants to comfort me, despite me doing my inadequate best not to show how upset I am.
So there we stay in the darkness, comforting each other and not saying anything.
Not for long, though. After a few moments she pulls back and asks,
"Can we read a book, Mummy?"
That brings a smile to my face, the first one for a while. Oh to be as carefree as a small child.
"No, darling. You have to sleep now. It's very late."
She starts to whinge, and I interrupt her.
"Look, Mummy has to go to sleep too. It's bedtime for everyone. I'll lie down here with you."
That stops her.
"Down here on the floor, next to your bed."
"Are you going to sleep there?"
"I don't know. I think so."
"Yes, I'm going to sleep on the floor! That'll be uncomfortable, won't it?"
"Can I sleep on the floor too?"
I am about to say no, but then I can't see why she shouldn't. I can put her into her bed again once she has dropped off.
"All right. Sit down on your bed for a moment while I get ready."
I put the light on and spread a blanket on the floor that I take out of a cupboard. Then I switch it off again and we lie down, and I put the cover from her bed on top of her. She snuggles up to me and I put my arm around her.
"Darling, we both have to sleep now. Ssh!"
"Mmm!", another whinge. "Story!"
"Ssh, darling. Mummy is going to sleep. I'm very sleepy."
"Are you sleepy?"
"Very sleepy. Comfy Blanky is sleepy too."
And that is the last we say to each other. Very soon she is fast asleep again. I can hear her breathing, and I can feel it under her cover as her little chest fills and empties.
In that quiet room I stare into the dark.
I know I am only seeing my side of the argument, and there are always two sides.
What is the other side to this argument, in fact? That I should accept that my feelings don't matter because he didn't consciously intend to trample on them?
I'm sure your mates all see your side, Mike. They share your views on that cranky bitch in permanent PMS. Newsflash, Mike: I know you never noticed, but I am always sweetness and light when I'm coming on, apologetic and hesitant, because stupidly I have never managed to shake off the guilt and shame of my first periods.
Aren't I stupid, Mike? Isn't your stupid wife a dumbass?
I had actually started to calm down, thanks to this time out with Chiara; but my anger is rising again.
I never swear, ever. But this man makes me so angry, I want to use the most obscene words that I know and hurl them in his face.
Well, there it is. This is why Chiara and I don't live with her father any more.
We patched it up in the morning, sort of: tiptoeing round the subject, rather than re-opening and resolving it. We went our separate ways, Chiara to nursery, her parents to work. Of course it wasn't our last argument, as it hadn't been our first.
And now Mike and I have gone our separate ways altogether, and I need to find a way to make sure that Chiara's way and mine don't separate too.
The interview is not going well. Professor Craillie is becoming more courteous the longer the interview lasts. It’s obvious that he has made up his mind, long before he finally stands up and comes around the desk to open the door for me.
"Thank you for taking the time to come and see me, Mrs Hutchinson."
I stammer, and am effusive as we shake hands.
"Thank you for seeing me, Professor Craillie. I'd very much like to work in your team; I hope - I hope I was able to, ah, show you that -"
He holds the door open, and lifts his other arm in that gesture that shepherds you in the desired direction.
"Have a good day, Mrs Hutchinson. Will you be meeting your daughter now? Have a wonderful afternoon together."
"My office will be in touch. Goodbye, Mrs Hutchinson."
Oh well. They can't kick me off Mars until the next ship arrives from Earth.
In fact the ship that brought us here has already set out for Mars again, transporting the next batch of colonists and, presumably, equipment and supplies; but it will be several months until it gets here. Several months which I can use to carry on looking and applying for some alternative position.
Surely there must be something.
Surely there is some project being done here, or about to start up, that can use my skills. I am flexible, and eager to learn, and highly motivated: I’ll do anything, make any sacrifice, make any effort, to ensure that it works, whatever it is, and that I can prove a valuable and valued member of whatever team I manage to find.
I have to keep talking to people, finding out what projects are planned, and working out a case to justify including me.
After all, I’m already here, and I know my way around: I don't need to be transported here, I don't need any time to acclimatise and get to know how the colony works; I’m socially integrated and have no enemies - just a rather angry ex, but I can't help that.
Everything points to the Agency keeping me here and assigning me, at last, to a task that is really appropriate to my level of skill and qualification.
I just need to identify that task and bring it to the Agency's attention; because they are not going to find it for me.
I thought I had done that when I lighted upon Professor Craillie's project; but clearly not. Perhaps I should have done some more research, and been better prepared.
Never mind. Onwards and upwards. Plenty of time to find a job in this colony that is crackling and sparking with new activity and exploration, like a frontier town. There must be a job here for me.
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