Science Fiction

Mars Needs Martians

By Alex Isle
Oct 31, 2019 · 8,046 words · 30 minutes

Photo by Christian Lischka via Unsplash.

From the author: Two parents deal with the Family Court - but one is on the Moon and one is on her way to Mars. Somewhere has to be found for their children, or will they find somewhere for themselves?


The Earth to Luna voice circuit was part of the job for the courts these days, but surely it couldn’t be as everyday as the judge was making it sound. Nerissa el Fadil sat silently, watching the image of the Sydney judge as he shuffled papers, wondering why the courts still hadn’t shifted to paperless sessions. Maybe they thought it made them seem wise and important.

There was another section of her screen which she’d shrunk to minimal. Not much was going on there anyway, only a man’s head and shoulders as he sat, also waiting to hear the word from Justice Marshall. Jamil, Nerissa’s ex-husband, in the legal offices on Luna. Nerissa herself was in her cubicle on board the research vessel Kurun, in the ‘yards’ orbiting the Moon; a few minutes by tug. It felt like light years.

‘I’ll make this quick, given the circumstances,’ Marshall said, catching Nerissa by surprise. ‘Since neither the husband nor the wife can agree to the children living with extended family on Earth, the choices are between Luna Base and the current home of the wife, which is the vessel Kurun. The husband has made it plain that his mining duties do not allow time to care for the children in the restricted environs of the base. No such stricture has been made by the wife, although it may be presumed that Kurun is also not intended for families. I have been able to ascertain, however, that there is a crèche on board and that two passenger families have children of toddler age accompanying them.’

‘It wasn’t like that!’ Jamil yelled.

‘Don’t interrupt me, please,’ Marshall said, precisely three seconds later, having kept talking in the interim.  ‘Therefore it is the decision of the court that the children be temporarily passed into the custody of the wife on the research vessel Kurun, this order to take place immediately and the children ferried from Luna to the ship before it jumps. Adjourn the court.’

Jamil didn’t wait for the judge’s screen to go black. He punched Nerissa’s code in as though it was her chin. ‘What the hell are you doing?’ he yelled. ‘You don’t want them on the ship!’

‘You don’t want them with you,’ his ex-wife countered. Her screen expanded to full and he could see her face clearly; dark eyes sharp and angry in her olive-skinned face, black hair bound back in a practical style that managed to be attractive anyway.

‘You don’t know what that crèche is like. Why couldn’t they have stayed with my mother?”

‘It’s a bit late to rehash this. The kids will be on this ship and by the court’s decision, this is where they’ll stay. See you in court when I get back.’

‘It’s a date,’ Jamil retorted.

Nerissa brought her hand down on the disconnect. It lacked the satisfaction of banging a phone down or better still, slamming a door, but given that she and her ex-husband hadn’t shared a planet for more than 12 months, this was the best that could be managed.

The door slid open and Vlad Woislaw stuck his head through. ‘Didn’t go well?’

He was captain of Kurun but enough of a friend for Nerissa to swear, briefly but creatively, and then tell him that those two extra crew members would be staying.

‘Plenty of deck for them to swab,’ Vlad said, in what she supposed was meant to be comfort, to show her he wasn’t angry. He didn’t look surprised either. Vlad had his own history with the Family Court. ‘Go meet them, get them settled. There’s a few won’t be too happy with children on board in crew areas, so sooner they’re out of the corridors the better. Make sure they’re clear about that—they are old enough to understand?’

‘Aimil is. Moh—I don’t know. Nobody really knows about Moh.’ She got up, frowned suddenly. ‘The judge knew about the Lloyd and Carew babies. I wonder who told him.’

‘He just had to look at a crew list, they’re not secret,’ Vlad told her.

‘So if the babies are all right, why are crew going to object to my kids?’

‘The babies are in the passenger section and will be kept out of crew’s way and earshot, by my directive,’ Vlad said. ‘Your kids are up on crew level with you, will get around on their own legs and are tall enough to open doors. You know there’s a much higher percentage of what groundsiders like to call “social disorders” among spacers.’

‘Aspergers, agoraphobia and the rest of the list. Of course I know.’ Should she mention Moh? No, better not yet.

‘I just mean that kids are random and a lot of spacers don’t do so well with random,’ Vlad said. ‘Just make sure the kids know to keep a low profile and report to me when you’re back on duty—say at the start of your next shift.’

Nerissa knew mothers were supposed to feel anxiety at being separated from their children and be overjoyed about reuniting with them. But what she felt, arriving on the flight deck and seeing the two small forms beside a person she supposed was a court staffer or counsellor, was pressure. Instant expectations. She had farewelled the kids three days before when she came aboard Kurun, full of tension then because the court case was still running and Moh and Aimil hadn’t been sent to Earth to stay with her cousin Leila and her family as she had planned.  Jamil had been off on duty most of the time, so she had had to employ a nurse from the Base Hospital as a minder. A nurse would hopefully be able to manage Moh a bit better than some, especially with Aimil’s help.

Aimil. Her daughter stared at her, a mix of confusion and hostility. Aimil wanted none of the decisions which had been laid out before her. At thirteen, she had her life neatly mapped out and saw her parents, Nerissa was convinced, as impediments. Beside her, Mohammed had a handheld and was intent on whatever game clicked and flashed on its screen. He was ten, but you couldn’t treat him as a normal ten-year-old.  Sometimes he could interact with you as well as Aimil, but sometimes he was off in another dimension and you weren’t even registering on his personal radar.

‘Come on, kids,’ Nerissa said at last. ‘We don’t have much time and I need to get you settled down before jump.’

She didn’t try to say she was sorry, or that they would have fun aboard the ship. Aimil would know they were lies and Moh wouldn’t give a damn.

In quarters, she showed the kids their bunks, then sat them down and read them the riot act. It took a while to get Moh’s attention but she managed it. ‘This is your space,’ she said, indicating the windowless room off her own cabin, which up to today had been her office space. It contained the two bunks, recessed into the wall, the drawers under and over the bunks, and the door into the bathroom, which they were all going to have to share. Opposite the bunks was a desk with two comps, a huge two adult paces from the bed. The cabin was maybe another pace either side of the bunks long. Bulkheads grey, deck, grey.

‘Outside of this space is the ship,’ she said, reaching out to tap Moh’s cheek when he began to turn away. ‘This level is inhabited by the crew, three adults besides myself, none of whom like children or will tolerate noise or disruption.’ Aimil nodded. Moh shrugged. ‘I’ll introduce them to you at dinner. Any relaxation of the rules comes from them, not you. You don’t go into their space.’

‘Sounds like you’re saying we don’t leave this room,’ Aimil said.

‘I’m saying you’re on best manners when you do. If you have to scream, you come in here and close the door before you do it. Trust me, that’s what the adults do.’

‘We’re here for a year?’ asked Aimil, not exactly a question but seeking confirmation.

‘A year to reach Mars and come back,’ Nerissa agreed.

‘I don’t want to go to Mars.’

‘You don’t want to stay on Luna either, according to the children’s psych who interviewed you and Moh. You want to institute divorce proceedings with both of us when you’re fourteen and go to Earth. Well, when you’re fourteen you can do that. Right now you’re thirteen and you do what I want you to do, to stay safe.’

Aimil only stared at her.

She buckled them in for jump and retreated to her own bunk.

Half an hour later, gravity’s pressure released them and Nerissa had to leave Moh and Aimil to computer games while she went to station. Two hours later, when she came to get them for dinner, Aimil still didn’t speak to her. Nor did Moh but that was normal. Nerissa led them down the corridor to the galley, where the ship’s other three adults were assembled for dinner. At least the threats were still working; Moh and Aimil stood quietly beside her as she indicated each adult.

‘This is Captain Woislaw, who runs the ship.’ Woislaw, alone of the group, smiled. The kids stared at his white hair, obviously confused by its colour on a man who, while ‘old’ wasn’t ‘wrinkly old.’ ‘This is Julia Andrevich, the engineer.’

Andrevich glanced at the kids, then back at the handheld in front of her plate. Moh was staring at it, not at her. ‘She’s also our doctor. Everybody in space has to be able to do two or more jobs. And this is Dr Simon Warnick, our geologist/biologist.’

Warnick, who had also been busy with a comp while he ate, looked the kids over. ‘They could be handy, if I need somebody to squeeze into crevices on Olympus Mons,’ he mentioned.

‘Thanks, people,’ Nerissa sighed. ‘Kids, park at the end there and I’ll get you your dinners. Don’t bother people.’

As she went to dig three frozens out of the freezer, Andrevich belatedly noticed Moh’s focus. She pointedly shifted her comp away. ‘Do not bother also means do not stare.’

‘Moh!’ Aimil grabbed his hand and tugged once, sharply. Her brother blinked and refocused on her.

‘I want to go home,’ he said.

He spoke quite matter-of-factly, not with the usual whine of a child saying such words. Aimil looked at him, knowing he understood quite well that they were on a spacecraft and could not retreat, that he was saying it was going to be a long, long stretch. He understood the age thing too; he had asked her whether she could be his guardian then and take him to Earth also.

‘No,’ she’d had to say, ‘they won’t believe I could be any better than Nerissa.’

They hadn’t used the words ‘mother or father’, or any cutesy derivative, for many months now.

Home wasn’t Luna, the cramped quarters assigned to their father, any more than it was this ship. It wasn’t the home of any of their grandparents either. Aimil wasn’t sure whether it made sense to say Earth itself was home or not, but if it wasn’t, there was no substitute she could put in its place. Now, sitting silently at a galley table with a group of unfriendly adults wishing they were not there, she only looked back at Moh and nodded.

Nerissa watched, in glances over her shoulder while the dinners microwaved. She had not missed any of the interaction between the two. Maybe she ought to see if the kids could get moved in with the passenger families, though that wouldn’t really be fair on the families. There weren’t any other school-aged kids, purely because such a journey was so hard on them.

What annoyed her was that those self-centred kids had never bothered to wonder what she did here. They knew she was neither a researcher nor the captain. Of course, she was their mother, she didn’t have to do anything else! She supposed being the ship’s steward, in charge of the twenty-some people riding in Kurun’s belly, wasn’t that far from child-wrangling, when it came to it. And overseeing life support and recycling, which responsibility she shared with Andrevich, while vital, wasn’t as romantic and exciting as scaling some rocky cliff on Mars.

They were all intertwined, she reminded herself firmly. Her responsibilities overlapped with Woislaw’s, with Andrevich’s and even with Warnick’s; he worked in the ship’s hydro garden and directed the rest of them there. It was considered psychologically beneficial to mess with the water and the lights and the green growing things. Even the passengers got to take shifts in the garden.

There, they’d finished or at least hadn’t bothered to pick up another bite for several minutes. She finished her meal where she was, leaning against the bench, then added the container to recycling and crossed the room to the kids. ‘Time to go, Moh, Aimil.’

Nobody, not even Woislaw, looked up as she shepherded the sullen children out and back to their cabin.

They were halfway to Mars when everything came unstuck.

‘I’m floating! Nerissa—why are we floating?’

Trust Aimil to turn the wonder of micro-g into another reason for adolescent complaint. Nerissa woke, fuzzily realising that yes, she was bumping into the top of her sleeping bag and that the aching shoulders she’d gone to sleep with had miraculously eased. ‘Because the gravity’s been turned off, Aimil,’ she called back. ‘Remember you’re almost thirteen and not three, please.’ With her daughter capped for a few moments at least, she was free to wonder what Woislaw was doing. Or had Andrevich asked for this in order to complete some task or other?

She reached for the intercom button but it buzzed before she pressed it. ‘Nerissa?’ Woislaw asked.

‘I’m here, floating happily,’ she told the captain. ‘Was this scheduled? I don’t remember...’

‘No,’ Woislaw said. ‘I need you to go talk to the passengers. I’ve done so by intercom and they’re okay, just a bit roughed up, but they need someone there in person. Are your children all right?’

‘Yes, they’re still in their sleeping bags.’ At least, they hadn’t left the adjoining cabin and that would do. ‘I’ll be right down there. Ah—what do I tell the passengers? You haven’t told me anything yet, sir.’

‘I know. That’s because Andrevich is still looking. But she says it was spontaneous, nobody was playing with the controls. Tell the passengers the engineer was doing tests and forgot to request permission. Tell them some engineer jokes. It’s not as though Andrevich will care.’

That was the truth. ‘And right after I talk to the passengers, I’ll be along to talk to you.’

‘That’s fine. I might even have some answers by then.’

When Nerissa left the passenger level, the occupants were reasonably calm and had agreed to stay in their cabins until things were sorted. At least it was easier to move upwards, what was technically upwards, Nerissa thought. She had enough experience with micro-g not to flail helplessly, and at least one memory of the grav suddenly returning, reminding her to keep close to that surface previously known as ‘the deck’.

So she felt pretty good, right up to the time she tapped on the hatchway leading to the bridge and it opened to show Woislaw on the other side. That wasn’t so alarming in itself, but there was Andrevich, floating behind him. The engineer was focusing on her, which wasn’t a thing that happened often.

‘What is it?’ she asked.

‘I have looked inside the mechanism,’ Andrevich said, giving her the words only reluctantly. Andrevich believed nobody but another engineer could understand anyway, so tended to treat them all as though they were as ignorant as the passengers. ‘There is a human error fault; equipment not properly secured, so that it worked as intended until it became stressed. It is nothing which was intended to be repaired in the field—it cannot be repaired in the field because we would have to turn off the engines and they cannot be restarted in that situation.’

‘So what can we do?’ She was aware that she sounded like the straight man in a comedy, or the fall guy.

‘I will endeavour to repair it anyway, but if I cannot, then we will be without gravity until we reach Mars.’

‘We aren’t turning around?’ Nerissa asked. Andrevich, who could have answered most precisely, only shrugged, leaving the talking to Woislaw.

‘It’s easier for us to keep going,’ the captain said tiredly. ‘Turning around uses a lot more power, and we’re so close to halfway anyhow. Mars Base can do the repairs.’

‘But how do we get back? “We” meaning those of us who don’t have jobs waiting on Mars!’

‘The repairs won’t take that long once we’re in dock. But what I need to talk to you about, Nerissa, is your kids. Since we may be in micro-g for the rest of the run—three months—all of us will have to increase our exercise levels, but there’s nothing we can do for the babies, and your children...’

‘They can do the exercise too. I don’t care how much they complain—and they will—they’ll do it.’

‘I will get back to work,’ Andrevich said and swam past Nerissa and out, not bothering to say farewell.

‘That’s not the problem,’ Woislaw went on. ‘Immature bones suffer the effects of being without gravity much more intensely. Adult astronauts in space for this long would be in lengthy rehabilitation when they got back to earth. For children, it pushes the envelope. Then on Mars, there is gravity but only one third of Earth’s...’

‘Will they be able to go back to Earth?’

‘I don’t know.’

The long, long delay between words on this relay made that initial judge’s summation seem as swift as thought. Jamil had been called in from shift, which never happened, then into the supervisor’s office, which was cleared for him. That scared him. Then Nerissa spoke, faint but clear, wasting no words on greetings. She said, ‘We’re all well. But there has been an accident... lost gravity onboard... three months to go...’

‘Can’t they send a faster ship after you? I’ll talk to people here, if it’s money...’

‘Not money, physics.’ She started to laugh, stopped herself. He heard the little choke, knew she was doing it to speed things along and himself held back any fear, recriminations. ‘I’m told the kids may not be able to go back to Earth... bone degeneration... Luna will be all right, they think, or Mars... Aimil furious... so you win after all.’

‘Not so restrained as all that. This isn’t about me.’ Let her tell herself it was her choice that had done this. The delay stretched out between them, until Nerissa’s voice crackled again.

‘We’re continuing to Mars. Woislaw says... turning more difficult... repairs at Mars...’

‘But that’s worse for the kids than coming back here!’

‘I know, Jamil.’ The flatness of her voice, even amid the static and pauses, was familiar from the many recent arguments. He bit down on any further recriminations. There was no point. He thought she started to say something else, but a long, long crackling cut in. Later, his supervisor came in and finally got his attention to tell him the link had failed. But he thought he’d heard a final few words, like one of his ex-wife’s favourite doomsayings, along that ether. ‘They’re angry.’

Luna’s doctors, all two of them, were no help either. They admitted they couldn’t be sure without examining the kids, but both Moh and Aimil’s records were in their computer and virtual scans showed that three months in micro-g would do nothing good. ‘Your kids will be fine, able to live and work here,’ one of the doctors said, evidently thinking she was comforting him. ‘It’s not so bad.’

‘It is when you’ve got no choice,’ Jamil el Fadil snapped.

If this was a movie, Aimil el Fadil thought, she or, most likely, her weird little brother, would somehow manage to save the ship, Junior Space Explorers-style, where all the adults had failed. Since it wasn’t, she was stuck wandering—or floating—through the corridors in a vain attempt to work off angst and frustration. She had done her studies—studying alone with the comp was great for making you focus and get it done so you could just stop—and now there was nothing. The crew adults didn’t want her in their way. Her mother was down below wrangling the passenger adults—another argument involving the families of the two babies and some of the others—and didn’t want her around either. And as for Moh...

‘Aimil! What are you doing?’

Correction, there was something worse. Her mother suddenly appeared, head and shoulders through an access shaft from below, flying with the sort of ease and grace Aimil thought she’d never achieve.

‘Nothing. Why do I always have to be doing something?’

‘You don’t. I thought you were in trouble...’

‘Causing trouble, you mean,’ Aimil snarled. ‘I’m thirteen, not three, as you like to remind me. Why would I suddenly have trouble getting myself around when I’ve been okay for three months?’

‘Sorry for living,’ Nerissa snapped back. Which was almost funny. Her mother usually affected the very-hurt routine when Aimil got angry, as though Aimil’s anger itself was childlike and not to be taken seriously. ‘I went to quarters to get something and then to galley. Moh’s not around either place. I even checked the crèche in passenger space. Do you know where he’s got to?’

Aimil laughed. ‘I’m not his mother. If I was, I might go and talk to Dr Andrevich.’

She guessed she was lucky it was difficult to move fast and administer a slap to the side of someone’s head in micro-g.

In engineering, Andrevich was busy doing something inside a bulkhead. At least, Nerissa assumed that was what it was. She didn’t look like someone who’d recently been tormented beyond endurance by a ten-year-old boy invading her work area. ‘Julia?’ she called.

‘What do you want?’ Andrevich didn’t bother to turn around from the open panel. With anyone else, Nerissa would have thought the unusual conditions were affecting the engineer, but this was Andrevich.

‘Aimil thought you might know where Moh has got to...’

‘Mohammed!’ Andrevich raised her voice. ‘Where is that adjustment reading!’

‘Here.’ And there was Moh, swimming/flying with greater skill than his sister and mother put together. He had his handheld with him and began reciting figures as he got to Andrevich, who listened while she worked.

‘Good, that’s steady. Did you stow the equipment away as I asked?’

‘It’s fast.’

‘Good.’

Nerissa stayed where she was, staring at Andrevich’s back in a stunned sort of way. She thought of various things she might say to a recalcitrant pre-teen, but none of them seemed appropriate to address to an engineer’s assistant.

‘Well, see you at supper,’ she managed. ‘I’ll, ah, let myself out.’

Since no answer was required, she got none, from either of them.

At supper, Aimil sulked, ignoring everyone. At least that meant she was less bother than usual, Nerissa thought. Warnick had announced at least three times in the past week that he was sick of the sound of Aimil’s voice and there was no sense in what she said. While Nerissa privately thought it wouldn’t hurt the self-centred child to realise there were adult people in the universe who didn’t find her at all charming or even interesting, it was rough when Aimil couldn’t get away from them anyway. She’d been doing stints in the hydro garden until Warnick threw her out two weeks ago. Since then, she’d had only study, exercise and reading on comp to occupy her time.

Moh had somehow found his niche and was communicating even less than normal. He didn’t even talk to Andrevich at supper; both of them were reading on their comps while they ate. But Aimil had no niche and no purpose and Warnick had not helped matters.

After supper, she saw Aimil desultorily stacking lidded plates in the washer as she’d been ordered. Something snapped in Nerissa’s mind. She looked around for Woislaw and saw him just rising from the table with his plate.

Vlad?’ She floated closer, though the room was too small for privacy. ‘I want to set up a call to Luna.’

‘Purpose?’

‘To get her father on the line.’

If Aimil heard, she didn’t react. Woislaw considered, then nodded. ‘Five minutes max,’ he said.

Warnick, in the kitchen with his plate, suddenly growled at Aimil. ‘You’re crawling like a bloody snail. Just snap the plates in, it’s not that damn difficult!’ He reached out and shoved her, hard enough to send her into a flailing spin.

‘Warnick!’ Woislaw snapped. ‘In your cabin, twelve hours isolation. Now!’

‘You mind if I finish up here before you send me to my room?’ Warnick asked.

Aimil recovered herself, glowering, but the fact that she turned that expression to include her mother and the captain indicated her belief that they were all in the same anti-Aimil club. ‘Come with me,’ Nerissa said, gliding past her. ‘We’re going to the bridge to make a call to your father.’

Aimil held her position for a moment, staring at Warnick. ‘If I was home, I could get declared a legal adult in eleven months and five days and then I wouldn’t have to put up with you.’

The calculation took Nerissa by surprise. She hadn’t realised just how much Aimil had focused on that goal.

Warnick laughed. ‘Lucky that we’re going on to Mars then, isn’t it, princess?’

‘Why?’ Aimil said distrustfully.

The geologist shrugged. ‘Mars law is different. You can be declared an adult at thirteen if you convince the court you’re mature enough. They need people so badly and they still haven’t figured out a way to deal with the radiation so folk can have their own babies there.’

‘Aimil, come on,’ Nerissa said, just as Woislaw said pretty much the same thing to Warnick. But she had seen Aimil start to think and it made her unsettled. She wanted to curse Warnick, but drawing any attention to what he’d said would be just the thing to make Aimil home in on it. Better to behave as though his comments didn’t matter at all.

Simon Warnick didn’t react at first to the tap on his door. There wasn’t really any reason why Vlad or Nerissa would come knocking and plenty why they wouldn’t. Julia wouldn’t think of it. If they had a problem, five minutes after chucking him into the sin bin, he really didn’t want to know. So he paid absolute attention to his computer game and hoped the tapping would stop. It didn’t. Then he heard Aimil’s voice and cursed softly to himself.

‘Dr Warnick? I need to ask you something.’

‘No, you can’t go outside,’ Warnick raised his voice. ‘And a jury might just convict me if I showed you how to open that door. Go away.’

‘I’ll make a deal with you,’ said Aimil el Fadil’s voice. It was still that annoying, squeaky teenage-girl voice which made listeners—this one anyway—want to flatten her, no matter what she was saying. ‘If you’ll hear me out and then answer me properly, I’ll stay out of your way totally until we get to Mars.’

Warnick pushed off for the door and hit the button to slide it open. He stared at the girl, who floated around until she was eye-to-eye with him. ‘And how can I make you keep to that?’

Aimil lifted her handheld. ‘I don’t want my mother to know about this. You get your comp and record what we say and then if I don’t do what I promised, you can tell her.’

‘Are you recording now?’

‘No.’ She handed the computer to him. ‘Check if you want.’

He did, handed it back. ‘All right. Wait a minute.’ He retrieved his comp, saved the game and set it to record. ‘Come over here so it gets a picture of our faces. There. Now get away from me.’ She did. ‘All right. What do you want to know?’

‘What do I have to tell the Mars courts, in detail, so that I can be declared an adult when we get there?’

‘Oh, fuck.’

‘Were you telling the truth about that?’

‘Yeah.’ Warnick surveyed her with increased displeasure. ‘I’ve seen enough snotty kids around your age at Mars Dome who did it. Well—three. One was an orphan at sixteen, didn’t have a choice, but the other two, brother and sister, had parent issues. Or the parents had issues with them. It could have been either.’

‘But you know what they had to tell the courts?’

‘It was my misfortune to sit on the jury in both cases.’

‘So tell me.’

‘Your mother will fucking kill me if I do.’

‘She’s going back to Luna as soon as she can and you’re staying on Mars.’

‘Yeah, and that’s another point. How about staying out of my way on Mars base? You get this, you stay on Mars, because if you leave, you’re just a kid who has to do what her divorced, messed-up parents tell her to do.’

Aimil shrugged. ‘It’s a big place and I don’t see how our lives will cross much. You’re nasty but I’ve never heard you’ve got a thing for teenage girls.’

‘Don’t say that on the damn record! You’ve got to be out of your tiny mind, princess. Fine. All right. Come in here, stay over there, by the door.’ He snatched her comp back, holding one in each hand. ‘To start with, they look at scholastic record, ability to work, keep to tasks and do so on your own initiative... ’

Several minutes later, Warnick stopped talking and shut down the recording. ‘There. If I think of anything else, I’ll tell you. If I don’t tell you, I don’t want to see you from this moment on. Got that?’

‘Thank you.’

‘Thank me by getting lost!’

‘No problem.’ Aimil called back over her shoulder. ‘I’ll be on the bridge, so you might want to avoid that for the next half hour.’

‘No problem,’ Warnick muttered and slid his door shut with the best slam it could manage.

‘Where the hell were you?’ Nerissa muttered when Aimil floated into view, kicking off with a foot to the bulkhead as though she’d always lived in micro-g. The kid was getting much better at moving around that way, better than the adults, curse her.

‘I had something to organise. Have you got Dad on the line?’

‘No, for some strange reason we decided not to go through the procedure for a connection which would have left him sitting there for twenty minutes waiting for you,’ Nerissa said pointedly. ‘Sit down and Vlad will do it now.’

‘I want to talk to Dad alone,’ Aimil said, ignoring this.

‘I have to be here,’ Vlad said, looking up. ‘Ship rules.’

‘Okay,’ Aimil said after a brief hesitation.

‘Hello, Vlad?’ Jamil’s voice said, reasonably clear through the static. Enough to be understood, which was all anyone hoped for. ‘I guess if you’re on the com, the ship is okay and on course.’ Then they had to wait through four minutes of lag before Vlad could answer.

‘Jamil, I’ve got Nerissa and Aimil here on the bridge with me, but it’s Aimil who wants to talk to you, so to save time, she’ll be the next one who speaks to you. She’s asked to talk to you alone, so officially I’m not here, though I have to stay on the bridge. You can talk to Nerissa when Aimil says she’s done. The ship is all right, though we still don’t have gravity and won’t until after we reach the Mars docks. Your children are both well.’

Vlad sent, then looked at Nerissa. ‘I need to talk to him when she’s done, whether he wants that or not,’ she said, a parting shot. ‘And I want to talk to you too, miss.’

Aimil ignored that. Her entire focus was on the com board in front of her.

‘Aimil?’ Jamil asked. ‘How are you doing, sweetheart?’

‘Dad, I need you to support my application for Mars citizenship and legal adulthood. I know I’m never going back to Earth now and nor’s Moh, but he’s not old enough to do this. I need you to come to Mars. Dr—the person who told me says it’ll be better if I’ve got an adult backing me, even more if it’s one of my parents.  I’m sorry, but I don’t want to stay on Luna and I don’t want to be stuck on this ship with Nerissa for another half year. It’s her fault that my bones will get brittle. I want to get off at Mars and do something myself.’

Jamil sounded stunned, but he still managed to cram his astonishment down into the brief phrases necessary. ‘Aimil—I can’t come to Mars. There’s just no way. My contract holds for another six months at least and they want me to renew. Also I just can’t afford it. I have to think about this—but I’ll talk to somebody on Mars. I promise you that. It’s not your mother’s fault, darling. Or if it is...’ the words came slowly now, painfully, ‘it’s my fault just as much. We didn’t leave anywhere for you to be when we tried to work things out between us.’

‘Can you send permission for me to stay on Mars?’ Aimil pressed. ‘Can you find a lawyer or somebody to be my—my guardian or something, until I get citizenship? And please don’t say anything to Nerissa. She doesn’t know I’m saying this to you.’

‘I’ll talk to my contact but I can’t promise you’ll get the okay to stay behind when Kurun returns to Luna. You’ll still officially be a minor. And I want to know who it is that’s stirred up all this in your mind.’

‘He didn’t stir anything,’ Aimil said, resolutely not looking at Vlad, though the captain had abandoned all pretence that he wasn’t listening. He held up a finger—not the rude sign, only an indication that she had to stop soon. ‘I asked him and I’m not saying. Please do this for me, Jamil.’

Vlad drew the finger across his throat, meaningfully, and Aimil added reluctantly. ‘I guess I’m finished.’

Nerissa floated in, so quickly that Aimil wondered whether she had heard anything. If so, she didn’t say. ‘Your turn,’ Vlad sighed, indicating the seat Aimil had just vacated. Nerissa floated to it, strapped down.

‘Sorry, Jamil, I told him I needed to speak to you. I don’t know what Aimil’s said, but I’m guessing she wants you to do something that I’m not necessarily going to like. Definitely not going to like, judging by her face right now. So all I’m asking is that you talk to me about it. We need to—think about Aimil and Moh’s future right now, not ours. I want to renew my contract, I’m guessing you want to keep yours. Just talk to me, okay?’

She unstrapped and had made it to the hatch when her ex-husband’s voice crackled through the void.

‘I don’t know what I’m going to do right now about what Aimil’s asked me. When you get to Mars—somebody may come and talk to you. He’ll have my words.’

‘Jamil!’

‘Sorry, he’s gone,’ Vlad said.

‘Did he hear me?’

‘I think so.’

Aimil found Moh in their room, busy with his comp. Easy to think it was kid’s games, she thought, but it was more likely to be some engineering job assigned by Andrevich. Talk about kindred spirits. She floated to her bunk and regarded her little brother. It seemed only fair to give him some sort of heads up, but would she make things worse if she did? She was proposing to head off to Mars Base and leave him to whatever fate their parents assigned to him. Warnick had said he didn’t know for sure, but he hadn’t ever heard of any kid younger than twelve getting Mars citizenship.

Abruptly, Moh looked up and met her stare. It was quite creepy, Aimil decided. He was learning more than math and engineering off Julia Andrevich.

‘I’ve got to tell you something,’ she said. Since she hadn’t asked a question, he just waited. ‘When we get to Mars—two weeks, the captain says—I’m going to try to stay there. If you’re over twelve, you can get yourself declared an adult, if you can convince the colony board that you’ve got stuff, know stuff they want. I talked to Jamil and asked him to help me, though I don’t know what he’s going to do. I’d take you along if I could, but you’re too young...’

‘Oh, I’m staying on the ship,’ Moh said, as though surprised. He tapped away on the comp.

‘Is that what Nerissa said?’

‘She doesn’t know, but why should she mind? That’s what the court said for us to do anyway.’

‘For this trip! When their contracts are up, once we get back to Luna, they’ve got the option—I mean, we’re supposed to link with that court on Earth again...’

Moh ignored this as meaningless noise.

‘Hey!’ Aimil said, loudly enough to get his attention once more. ‘If you think you’re going to make like a Junior Adventurer and save the ship, so they can’t do without you, think again. If you were going to be that, you should have done it while there was still time for you and me to be able to go to Earth!’

‘Of course I can’t,’ Moh said, faintly surprised still. ‘Julia can’t either, not while we’re still in space. But I can only learn the stuff I need here.’

‘What about school!’

‘School too, from the computer, but most of that won’t be any use to me.’

‘That’s the truth,’ Aimil muttered. She’d been studying as hard as she could, for the weeks since her revelation, but the Earth-controlled curriculum had less and less meaning for her. Mars had no interest in people who could not contribute, Warnick had warned. There was no deadheading, no welfare, except for the very elderly or ill. She got up from the bunk and swam out, leaving Moh to whatever it was he was doing. As always, her little brother had things sorted out perfectly. It was the rest of the family who were flailing in his wake.

They would be landing on Mars, beside the main Mars Dome structure, on the side closest to the shipyards. The ship would then be conveyed within the dome to the docks for repairs.

‘Where do we go?’ Nerissa inquired pointedly of Vlad. ‘The spaceport lounge?’

‘There’s facilities for crew,’ Vlad said patiently. ‘Which you know. Come on, Nerissa, it’s not the first time you were ever on Mars.’

‘It’s the first time I’ve arrived on a ship that’ll have to be towed inside,’ she muttered.

‘Well, you’ll be too busy to worry in a few hours,’ the captain said. ‘The passengers are going to need you with them, so stow the attitude, Nerissa. You’ll have to take your kids down there, get them to strap down for entering atmosphere in the passenger lounge.’

She blinked, that was sharp for Vlad, who was generally able to take everything in his stride. He was still watching her, his pale blue eyes focused on her face.

‘Sorry, Vlad. I’m—just sorry.’

‘Passengers,’ he said, more gently. ‘You’ve got the easy side. I have to wrangle Warnick.’

‘What’s the matter with him now?’

‘Oh, he wants to stay on the ship until it gets to the docks and they open it up for repairs.’

‘He’s moving on to employment right away, isn’t he?’

‘I thought so.’

‘What about Julia? She’s staying with the ship, isn’t she?’

‘That’s different. She never has got off the ship on any of her journeys. Now, go. Be nice to the passengers, this is difficult for them.’

The twenty-some passengers thronged nervously in the centre and Warnick was leaning against the starboard bulkhead. He and Aimil, Woislaw noted, were about as far from one another as they could get. Warnick had lost the argument about staying on board when Woislaw told him he’d lose any entitlement to insurance if he did. Since Warnick had had some equipment damaged when the grav failed, and wanted his money back, that had worked.

No sign of Andrevich, of course, she’d remain in her lair within the engineering area. With a sudden frown, Woislaw realised he couldn’t see Nerissa’s son. He’d thought the boy might be mixed up in the confused mass of passengers but there was no child his age there, only the two toddlers, crying in confusion and discomfort. Mars gravity might be only a third that of Earth, but after all that time in micro-g, the children weren’t enjoying it.

‘Where’s Moh?’ Nerissa asked, breaking off from some complaint about the unknown person waiting for Aimil, which Woislaw hadn’t been listening to. ‘Aimil! Is Moh here?’

‘Of course he’s here,’ the girl said flatly. ‘It’s a spaceship.’

‘Well, go find him and keep him with you.’ One of the passengers called to Nerissa and she had to go, putting her somewhat worn ‘social face’ back on with effort. ‘We’ll be off... soon, won’t we, Vlad?’

‘Not soon enough,’ Vlad muttered.

The person waiting on the other side of the hatch was a teenage boy. Noting that, Nerissa dismissed him at once and looked for the bleeding-heart lawyer that Jamil had booked to help Aimil. Great, they’d got tired of waiting and wandered off. She looked for Aimil again and saw her walking forward to the boy.

‘Aimil el Fadil?’ he asked.

‘Yes. And you’re?’

‘David Silverman. I’m the apprentice of Randall Travis, of Travis, Monk and Silverman. The Silverman there is my mother. I’ll be your lawyer in this matter.’

Aimil nodded a little distantly. ‘Good, so can we...’

‘Aimil! Come back here.’ Both teens stopped and glanced back at her. ‘You! You’re not walking off with my daughter.’

‘Ma’am, I’m...’

‘I heard who you are. Tell Mr Travis, if he has been retained by my ex-husband, he still has to speak to me before anything happens regarding my daughter. She’s only thirteen!’

‘Um, I haven’t been quite clear,’ David Silverman said. ‘I’m Mr Travis’ apprentice in law, but I’ll be taking her case. I’ve been studying law for two years, much more thoroughly than they might on Earth,’ he added.

‘And you’re how old?’

‘Seventeen Earth years, ma’am.’

Nerissa opened and closed her mouth several times. ‘Okay,’ she said at last. ‘It’s a dome, you’re not going anywhere I can’t reach you. Aimil, if I phone you and you don’t answer, I’m sending security after you. And before you take off, for the last time, where is your little brother?’

‘He’s in Engineering. He’s staying on the ship.’

‘He is not!’ But Aimil and the boy were gone.

The ship was deserted, once she got through the throng of people waiting at the lock to leave. Nerissa got to Engineering faster than usual. Inside, Julia Andrevich sat at a computer and Moh at another, not far away. They were not talking to one another. When Nerissa rapped on the table, there was a moment before either looked at her.

‘Julia!’ Nerissa called. ‘You have no right to keep my son here.’

‘I’m not keeping him, Nerissa,’ the engineer retorted. ‘He’s smart and he’s handy and above all, he doesn’t want to be on Mars or Luna. You tell her, Moh.’

‘I want to be on the ship,’ Moh said. ‘I can study here and learn way more than I can at either of the places you’ll be.’

‘About ships!’

‘That’s right.’ He seemed surprised at having to point it out.

‘But you’re ten!’

That didn’t even get a reply.

‘I’ll watch out for him, as much as he needs,’ Andrevich said, meeting her eyes for a fraction of a second. ‘That’s not much, you know, not for much longer. He’s a spacer kid, even if he was born on Earth. Takes one to know one.’

‘This happened to you?’

‘I was raised on Earth until my parents went to work on a miner ship in the asteroids.Took me along on a two-year furlough. I was nine when it began. I never went home.’

‘And what am I supposed to do about Aimil? She’s gone off with some teenager who says he’s a law apprentice. What the hell is a law apprentice?’

‘I’d let her loose too, not that I know anything about kids except having been one,’ Andrevich said, her gaze straying back to her comp screen.

‘It’s my bloody husband who caused this.’

‘Only because the girl asked him. Grow up, el Fadil. Your kids have.’

Nerissa muttered something she wouldn’t normally have said in front of either Moh or Aimil, sliding the door shut as violently as she could. She stalked away down the corridor, not too sure what she was going to do, except that now it didn’t seem right at all that she should force Moh to come with her. Oh, she could have. She could send the cops after Aimil as well, wherever in the dome she’d gone. She had the law firm’s name and the boy’s name.

A thought seemed to burst in her mind, relieving a pressure Nerissa el Fadil hadn’t really known was there. Or rather, she had been putting the blame for that pressure on Jamil. Who put it on her. Never mind the lightyears between them. There had been no good solution for the kids, not with the two of them off Earth and likely to remain that way for some time. But now? She could fight, the way she’d freed herself of Jamil—and he of her—or she could just... what? Accept what was, insane though it was. Accept the new rules by which her own children were apparently operating, obeying a society which she could never properly understand.

‘Don’t block the corridor!’ The growl was from Warnick, who pushed past without waiting for her to give way. He carried a duffel bag over his shoulder, bulging with god knew what. Way over the mass limits, she was sure.

‘What are you doing back here?’ she demanded. ‘You’re supposed to disembark.’

‘I’m disembarking, don’t worry, but I had to come back and get the things... that I left because I thought I could stay,’ he admitted with a mutter. ‘Why are you skulking?’

‘I had an epiphany.’

‘How lovely for you, but I think you’ll have to have it off the ship.’ Oddly, he seemed reluctant to look her in the eyes. He picked up his pace but so did she.

‘Dr Warnick?’

‘I just told her things. I didn’t help her do what she’s doing!’

‘Dr Warnick!’

‘What?’

‘I’m not asking about anything you told Aimil.’ Though I probably will. ‘She’s pushy as hell. If she wanted you to do something, you didn’t have a chance. Her father certainly didn’t.’ Which, as she said it, was something she realised was the truth. ‘Think yourself lucky she’s not ten years older or you could be getting married to her.’

‘Oh, God!’

‘So all I’m asking you right now is if you’d like to have a drink, or maybe dinner, once we get settled wherever they put us. I may be moved to another ship but I’m guessing I’ll be on Mars awhile.’

‘Oh.’ Warnick shifted his bag to the other shoulder so that he could turn and look at her. His hostility had dropped by several levels and he now looked merely confused. ‘All right. Why not?’

She had to contact Jamil, she thought. Announce that the war was over, that it had been over for longer than either of them realised. She could do that from the bar and then get on with her life.

‘Why not, indeed?’ Nerissa said.

 

This story originally appeared in Review of Australian Fiction, edited by Matthew Lamb and Phil Crowley.


1 Comment
  • leece
    October 31, 9:24am

    Wow, that was really cool. Very interesting study of the characters involved. I would like to read more about life on this Mars.

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