John Peace

Near Al Awir, Dubai, UAE
August 2029

Standing in a full Mars suit, minus only the helmet which he carried in one gloved hand, Cam MacDonald stared a piercing stare at Abdul Qawi. He leaned against the external frame of the Mars Habitat Simulator with the other hand outstretched. "Aye, I can see your position, Abdu my friend," he said at last, in that Scots drawl so reminiscent of the hills and dales of Aberdeenshire. "Ye mustn't think I'd ruther be back on Devon Island in that tin can. Just the frustration of working with a training system that's a few raisins short of a fruit cake, is all, when I'd much prefer to be watching the static fire test down the road. Like you say, it can only get better from now." With that, he clipped the helmet loosely in place on the neck O-ring and entered the simulator's airlock hatch. He had to stoop to squeeze his great frame through.

Abdul Qawi tut-tutted to himself and sat back down in the flight controller's chair, cross-legged. This early in the morning the vast hangar was so quiet that the echoes of his tongue-clicks bounced back to him from the hangar wall ten metres away.

He had something of the compact build of a marathon runner, bony in the joints and muscular in the shoulders and calves. The sharp cheekbones, wide eyes and thin, angled nose gave him a half-starved look, and his hair was like an unruly cap of dark wire, matching his closely trimmed moustache. He wore a pale blue Emirati thoub which he tucked up above his knees as he sat.

In the seat next to him, Ahmed Aqlan shifted his frameless glasses back up his nose, scratched his balding head, and studied the instrument panel on the desk. "If only we had time to set up this new simulator correctly," he muttered in Arabic.

Shaking his head, Abdul Qawi checked his three monitors to ensure that the four crewmembers were ready to begin the next part of the training simulation. He glanced at his companion. "If only the other three would pull their weight, we could overcome any obstacles," he replied evenly. As Director of Training for SSI Mars he knew he was in the hot seat, the seat in which the buck stopped.

Three students stood a respectful distance behind his position. One of them, a second-year female Masters student wearing a gold and silver hijab around her head, cleared her throat and asked, "So may we stay and watch the rest of the session?" She was a native of Dubai, and the other two, males, were Indians, from Mumbai, studying at the University of Dubai.

Abdul Qawi turned briefly and nodded. He spoke in clear fus-ha, standard Arabic, so that the Indians would have a chance to comprehend. "You all worked hard on setting up the monitors and electronics, Nadia. Why not? Next time I will make sure you have chairs to sit on. If you're going to miss a whole day of lectures, we better not make you suffer too much, right?" All three students grinned at him.

He and Ahmed watched as the crew worked through their morning routine: Life support system readings, biomonitors, then a check of the comms link to MCN-Sat – a system which was still outside the scope of their simulation equipment, so Dr Donald Luther just said "Checking comms," as usual, and Ahmed replied, "Orbital comms link nominal."

Cam finally extracted himself from his Mars suit and checked the health of the solar power system. There were no solar panels attached to the circuit, just a truck battery whose voltage could be dialled down to simulate dust or electrical failure. It wasn't realistic, and they all struggled not to resent it. "Voltage pretty low today. Looks like the array needs a dust-off," he said brightly.

Annika checked that the backup fuel cells could be run and shut down with the flick of a switch. Again, this simulator had no real fuel cells.

With each report of systems performing nominally, there came an almost inaudible collective sigh of relief from the students. Most other sim sessions had featured at least one failure of one of these vital components.

Finally the morning systems checks were complete and Cam announced that it was time to cook breakfast. "Woo-hoo!" hooted Steve Chase, the stocky ex-NASA astronaut. "Cookie dough or strawberry ripple?" All four chuckled at some shared joke.

Ahmed's finger hovered over the Enter key. He and Vijay, the Fire and Safety Officer, exchanged curt nods. Vijay stood not far from the simulator looking huge in his boots, scarlet helmet and unzipped dayglow-yellow fire jacket.

Breakfast was quite an operation in itself. Everyone was busy pouring water, rehydrating foods from packets, clearing away the last night's junk, powering down some non-vital equipment so that the small kitchen range could be switched on.

"OK, let's see," Don muttered as he held up the open packet of dried food and peered at the label. "Uh-huh? Ingredients: egg and sausage, but tastes like chicken, I bet. Special treat." With that he poured it into the pan of water, flipped the switch on the stove and rotated the heating dial. Nothing happened. "Right on. We only have the one coil right now, because – uh – just because." He slid the pan onto the left-hand coil and spun the dials accordingly.

At that moment Ahmed tapped his key. Vijay tensed, extinguisher in hand.

With a loud pop and a fizz, a modest pyrotechnic was set off behind the food prep counter, close to the stove. Don jumped back and collided with Steve, and the two mugs of unheated coffee Steve was holding spilled against Don and onto the floor.

"Hey!" "Look out!" "What's that?"

Annika said, "What is it, fire? I smell smoke."

Don quickly rotated the heating dial to zero and switched off the power to the stove. Annika stepped over to the electrical cabinet and cut the power to the whole kitchen area with one deft flick.

Then Steve leaned over the stove and sniffed. "Yeah, sulphur. Black powder. Probably a firework. No actual flames."

Cam nodded. "Extinguisher! Someone grab the – Oh."

Annika unclipped a plastic tub labelled "Type B & C" that was hanging on a hook beside the Hab's main door. She passed it quickly to Steve, who pointed it vaguely in the direction of the stove and spoke to the ceiling: "Extinguishing fire with carbon dioxide extinguisher."

Nadia stepped forwards to a spot close to Ahmed's shoulder. She squinted at the monitor. "Why is he saying that? And that looks more like a container of feta cheese than a fire extinguisher."

Abdul Qawi sighed heavily. "This is what I inherited from the last Training Director. Maslatronics, the contractor building our Habitats, didn't supply us with the Version 9c Hab Sim to match the 9c which is on its way to Arcadia Planitia right now. No, we have the 10a, because they retooled their plant last April, and there are a few differences. Improvements, you could say. And if Maslatronics could send us the operation manual for the 10a, it would help hugely." He spared all three students a glance. "We're still trying to make all the corrections so it's exactly the same as what the crew will find when they land. Including the fire extinguisher."

Nadia nodded, creasing her brow. The Indians glanced at each other.

Ahmed flicked open the Hab intercom. "OK, the fire is out. Good job. What next?"

Cam grabbed a toolkit from a locker and rummaged inside. "Let's open up the counter and see the damage. Repair and test."

Soon he had the top cover off the counter, exposing the cable runs and one heating coil, as well as the obvious gaps where the other heating elements would have been.

"Hey, you might wanna grab the electrical test kit too," Steve said. "Here, I'll find it."

"Nah. I've got this," Cam muttered, as he reached into the stove's innards and extracted the charred pyrotechnic with a pair of pliers.

Don raised an eyebrow and swapped a slightly resigned expression with Annika, as if to say, "Here we go again."

A rumble from far away grew, trembling through the solid ground like fierce thunder across the sea. Cam glanced around, westwards. "Static fire," he murmured. "The Saqr rocket speaks." Everyone paused, thoughtful, then the bass sound died away. That was the improved version of the Saqr rocket, and that design would carry the first SSI crew to the Red Planet in less than two years.

+ + +

Nowal No'man Saiid turned from her office window and faced Elham. Her visitor was a round-cheeked woman in her forties, carefully and conservatively dressed and intense in manner. "Would you like tea or coffee? You've come all this way from Sharjah to see me."

Her visitor shook her head minutely and put on a smile. "You still haven't moved your office to a decent location," she said. "Doesn't this view of warehouses and parking lots bore you? You're the CEO, for God's sake! Don't be afraid to live like it. Some people might think it's odd."

Nowal wore her usual grey business clothes – a mixture of new Arab and old – expensively cut, down to the ankle-brushing skirt – but still she felt outclassed by her paternal uncle's Emirati wife. "I can keep an eye on things from here, and it's north-facing, less sun," she replied, waving Elham to one of two armchairs that she kept for more relaxed conversations.

Elham pretended to ignore the gesture. “Yes,” she said drily, “you can almost see Al Awir between the electrical towers. And smell it, too.” She began talking about the afternoon's meeting.

Nowal's secretary, a young woman named Ishraq, popped the door open and informed her with a slight frown that she had a visitor: one of the Mars mission crew-in-training. Nowal nodded, and Ishraq beckoned for Cameron MacDonald to enter.

Cam still wore the Mars suit, but had left the helmet behind and his ginger goatee was visible. His face was flushed pink and his pale eyes shone. He wetted his lips before speaking.

"Ma'am, I'm sorry to disturb you, but you did say we could drop by and have a wee chat if need be." The sudden intrusion of English into the office changed the atmosphere and dispelled some of Nowal's discomfort. She knew that her English was better than Elham's.

"Please, it's no problem, Mr MacDonald. This is Elham Salman, a member of the SSI governing board." Nowal smiled at Elham. "Mr MacDonald is not only an accomplished space systems engineer, but also our most experienced Mars settler, and that's even before he's left the Earth." Elham looked politely impressed. "Would you like a seat? Tea or coffee?" Nowal went on.

Cam shook his head. "Thank you. I came to talk about the state of the crew training program." He frowned to himself, obviously gathering his thoughts.

"And have you finished today's simulations already?" asked Nowal politely.

With a tilt of his head that was neither affirmative nor negative, he said, "I'm supposed to be on walkabout. Dusting down the arrays, while the others overhaul the ECLSS. I finished my work early."

He took a breath and dived in. "Today there were several gaps in the simulation. We don't have real CO2 scrubbers. We don't know what to do if the Hab is breached. The procedure for removing particulates from excursion suits is vague and keeps changing. The fire extinguisher." With a great shrug of frustration, he expelled his breath. "I could go on. I know the training staff are working flat out to improve things, but to me it looks like this crew will not be ready if we carry on like this."

Nowal nodded and turned away, stepping around her desk until she faced him across its tidy expanse. Then she sat down. "Actually I'm aware of all these details," she said. "I appreciate your concern." Elham, meanwhile, lowered herself into one of the armchairs and picked up a glossy magazine. But it was clear that she was listening intently.

"It's more than concern," he continued in a slightly subdued tone. "What we need is an overhaul. Look, I prepared some suggestions." Cam produced from a pocket a printed list and placed it on the desk, turning it so that Nowal could read it. "Immediate review of training schedule and procedure. Revision of milestones with all subcontractors – most of them are so far behind it's not funny. Plan a conference with our technical advisors and management consultants on how to make this project pick up some speed."

Nowal carefully placed one index finger on a corner of the paper to steady it, and silently read the remainder. "I see," she said at last, serenely, looking up at him. "You have two very good points. The others I am not so sure about. You know how we've all worked to turn this project around several times already just to get where we are now. So I will bear your suggestions in mind."

"Please do," Cam replied. "I'm willing to give all I can give to make it work. I'm committed to this. But with launch only a matter of –"

Nowal stood up abruptly. "That will be all, Mr MacDonald. You'll need to get back to your crew."

Cam winced, nodded, and turned to leave. "Thank you for listening," he said as he turned the corner of the office door.

When Cam reached the simulator area again, he found the crew emerging from the Hab after a successful session.

"Nailed it? Me? Annika's the one. She hammered it, I'd say, changing out the catalyst bed like that," Steve was telling everyone. They looked up as Cam approached and there was a moment's lull in the conversation. Cam's brow creased for a moment.

Ahmed beamed at him. "The crew handled very well a failure in the closed-loop air system," he explained. "You are all doing very well."

Cam glanced at Abdul Qawi, who was directing the three Dubai University students into the post-simulation routine.

Abdul Qawi looked up and noticed him. "How is cleaning of the solar array?" he asked in rough English, with a slight, knowing smile.

Cam just shrugged, scowled and followed the rest of the crew towards the debriefing room.

Abdul Qawi sighed and let the students get on with the tidy-up. They had to strip down several components that were due for refit or replacement. He didn't look at Ahmed, but spoke so that only he could hear. "Aghh! We all share the same air, so why am I suffocating?"

Ahmed chuckled and shook his head. "Al Fadhi ya'mal qadhi. That one is not the son of a duck, I think."

They both busied themselves at their consoles with the tasks of saving and editing the recorded session data, typing notes furiously into procedural documents and flicking off emails left, right and centre.

Without looking up, Abdul Qawi said, "How did we end up like this, Ahmed? You and I go way back. You've been in this project from the start, even before I was. Do you remember how you showed me around the construction yard when this place was just a pile of sheets and girders?"

Ahmed didn't reply for a while, so intent was he on tagging a video session. Finally he hit 'Save' with a flourish and nodded. "Yeah. You started out by calling me 'Ya 'Am' and I thought you were a bit weird. As far as I was concerned, you were an educated soldier who was insanely desperate to live on Mars and would do anything to get there, including flattering the engineers like me. The dust of Yemen was still thick on your flip-flops. You could talk the hooves off a goat. But I never guessed that we really were related until Nowal told me. Well, not your uncle, but close enough."

"Close enough for me, ya 'Am. Did I tell you that I met your uncle Amir in Taiz, way back when I used to run away from the village to the city? I don't think I was much older than ten. He took me in, showed me around, and got me working in his tiny corner kiosk when he was off at the qat market or visiting his shady friends."

Ahmed had stopped work and gazed at Abdul Qawi. "No, really? Amir Salah Al Habashi? He was a crook, you know. He used to smuggle whisky up from Al Mocha port."

"For sure he did."

"Or so I heard. I don't know."

Abdul Qawi laughed, loudly and freely, bending and slapping the desk. "For sure! He used to take me along for a cover story, and taught me how to pack the cans of booze into the truck and work the checkpoint guards. I learned so many things from him, but none of it was legal!"

Ahmed nodded to himself. "This explains so much!" he said, and chuckled. "I thought it was the Civil War, I mean the war of the Saudis and the Houthis, which made you the way you were. Now I know."

They got back to work for a while, then Abdul Qawi said, "Some changes are coming down the track. Not just in my department. You've done well here. I heard you can pick your next assignment."

"What? You want to be rid of me so quickly?" cried Ahmed in mock indignation.
"Aha! No, brother, look. There are many better departments opening up in the great Sabir Space Industries now. Broaden your horizons! Get with Operations. Get with Launch. There is so much happening, you know?"

Ahmed directed a curious gaze at Abdul Qawi. "You're up to something, am I right? You're the one who boasted he would be the Emperor of Mars one day. You're always plotting or dreaming or studying when the rest of us are fast asleep or picking our teeth. What is it?"

Abdul Qawi seemed a little offended. "What are you talking about?" His face brightened. "Are you thinking of the time I put laxatives in your kabsa?"

"Oh yeah. That and a hundred other little moments." Ahmed finished with the computer and leaned back. "So tell me, what position would you recommend I apply for? I mean, if I was thinking of moving. Just hypothetically."

With a show of deep thought, Abdul Qawi stood up and began pacing. "Well, there's Payload Integration. They need a Duty Manager. But that's pretty technical. Clean-room, multi-discipline, it's a new department. You have to almost invent your own job from scratch. Very hard work." He glanced quickly at Ahmed. "What about Development? I heard that they're working with the University on a medical emergency device which holds you in an induced coma for long periods, as well as a next-generation Mars rover. Probably better is to work in Flight Control. High-stakes, lots of action and a little more vacation time. It's not so much Mars and science. You know? A bit of a break for you. Probably would look great on your resumé."

Ahmed shrugged. "Ahh… I don't know. That doesn't sound like me. I think I'll find out more about the Integration work."

"Suit yourself."

"Wait a minute. I know your tricks." Ahmed raised an accusatory finger at his relative, but just then Abdul Qawi's phone rang. His ringtone was an excerpt from some sort of old folk song, accompanied by a ten-stringed oud, and sung in a high, warbling, nasal voice.

+ + +

Nowal and Elham stared at each other across the desk. "So do you have any suggestions for how we could deal with the delays in the project?" Nowal asked tightly.

Elham didn't need time to think. "We need some new people on the Board," she began, pleasantly. "Some more financial experience would help us enormously. Money makes things happen, right? Big money will make big things happen. These enthusiasts of yours were fine for the visionary stage, the start-up, but why else are we floundering now? We should have done this two years ago."
"So did you have anyone in mind?"

Elham plucked a sheet of paper from her slim case and pushed it across the desk, smiling. "Yes, I do. Here's the shortlist. I suggest we choose two and replace Michaels and Ravi. A few of us can discuss this later, after the Board meeting. OK?"

Nowal eyed the paper and stirred restlessly. "That doesn't seem right. I'd rather discuss the whole issue with everyone present, then take a vote. But I'll consider what you say about a change of Board members."

Rather than glaring at Nowal, Elham settled for pursing her lips as she gathered a riposte.

At that moment, Abdul Qawi entered the office to bring his report in response to Nowal's text message. This time, Elham didn't retreat to a couch.

He told Nowal candidly about the gaping holes in the equipment and simulation procedures, and about how each of the trainees handled their roles, from a technical point of view.

"But what is your evaluation of each one?" asked Nowal. "How are they holding up under the accelerated schedule?"

Abdul Qawi pulled out his phone and transmitted a couple of files to Nowal's tablet. "Basically fine," he said, "considering what I've put them through. It's the group interactions that are the most obvious problem. But first have a look at this medical report. It's for Chase, our ex-NASA star, and it's not good news."
Elham came and read over Nowal's shoulder, and both of them grimaced. "Really?" said Nowal, obviously distressed. "Did anyone confirm this? A second opinion?"

"This is the second opinion. It was Dr Ibrahim who sent Steve back to the States for this medical. It's totally clear. Vascular dysfunctions leading to atherosclerosis. I'm not medically trained, but the studies in astronauts who have been on deep space missions point to problems like this. It's not too surprising."

"But how can this have happened? Steve Chase is the fittest member of the crew, even if he is the oldest." Nowal's frustration was obvious.

"Leaving the Earth's magnetosphere, like on his lunar tour-bus trips six or seven years ago is what did it. He and his passengers took around fifteen or twenty milli-Sieverts each time, despite all the shielding on the Dragon. I've checked the solar activity records for those periods. It was higher than the forecast. And then there's all his service in LEO."

Elham stepped back a pace and gestured. "So what does this mean? Is he finished? Off the program?"

Nowal clenched her fists and released them. "I hate it. I hate what space does to them. But if his heart and arteries are starting to get like that, just think how he'll be after a five-month trip to Mars and a few years there. The rest of them are younger and haven't faced that level of radiation. But we may need to replace Steve. I hate this!" She spoke forcefully but without raising her voice – almost a stage whisper.

Abdul Qawi shrugged. "But why not let him carry on? He won't complain. He's our one experienced astronaut, and he's totally committed to this. He has no family ties, and he-"

"No, no," Nowal said wearily. "It wouldn't be fair to him, or to the rest of the crew when they have to nurse him. There would be no treatment and very little by way of painkillers. It would be a horrible death, or a sudden one, perhaps when he was operating machinery or piloting."

With a reluctant nod, Abdul Qawi relented. "So we need a new astronaut."

"And what do you think about Mr MacDonald?" Nowal peered intently at him.

"Oh, he'll make a great Martian, no doubt about it. The question is about the team chemistry, the way he's such a strong leader. I would rather say what I think about the other three, and the way they don't challenge him or take a lead. Even Chase. He's such a team player, highly trained at avoiding clashes of ego. I don't think he's had to face this before."

"Yes, I've seen the recordings. I've watched them. I think I know what we must do." She sighed and took her seat. "Thanks, Abdul Qawi, you are doing an excellent job. I will digest your report in detail."

When the Director of Training had left the room, Elham turned to Nowal. "Could you copy me the training report?" When she had received it and read it through on her phone, she sat opposite Nowal and fixed her with a determined look. "It's just like I was saying, Nowal. We have to allow outside investment if we're going to survive. The changes that your man Abdu recommends could be very expensive, as well as changing one or more of the crew. We always knew that Mars would be expensive, you and I, ever since we opened the office in downtown Dubai years ago. And just because you inherited all that money somehow doesn't mean you can carry the expense alone. You've done very well in winning some of the small satellite trade and the space tourism business, with the help of all those Russian and American and Japanese and Korean engineers I recruited for you, and then the foray into NEO mining support paid off handsomely. All great. But it's not enough to get us to Mars. It's just small change! Don't you agree?"

While Elham was speaking, a frown had been deepening Nowal's brow. At first glance it could have signified irritation or insecurity, but as she spoke it was clear that she had been thinking hard and fast, digesting Elham's message and trying to match it against her own values and the business framework that she had worked so hard to build. "But any further outside investment would mean losing executive control. We have always had enough influence to keep on course, until now. If we open the door to these big investment houses – the same ones that now dominate NewSpace and, to some extent, Blue Origin – then we will face constant interference. These people have totally different goals from us."

"But don't you see?" Elham appealed. "We need this investment, or the project will fail! What is the use of staying in control of a sinking boat?"

"Look," said Nowal, standing up and spreading her arms wide, palms open. "We didn't get into this to become a cog in the Big Money machine, did we? Did you? I know I didn't.

"That kind of money is a plague. Return-on-investment is their god, their goal. It overrides every other consideration. Look what it's done to the world. Ecology? Politics? Science? Human rights? Job security? You name it, they've corrupted or destroyed it. Their consumer system feeds on our greed, our ego, our vain desires, our lowest intellectual level. And you want to hand this project to them on a plate?

"Think of how the world was: the beautiful ecosystem and the huge diversity of cultures, the hope in the eyes of children like… like birds taking flight. These big corporations are tearing it apart. It didn't have to be this way, Elham. We can start again on Mars, without all that. But only if we can stay free. Only if we can plant our settlement on the Red Planet and keep it independent of outside control."

Elham locked eyes with her, breathing heavily. "You're making a big mistake. You will lose control anyway, if this carries on!" Then she turned on her heel and stalked from the office.

Nowal inhaled deeply, eyes closed. Then she hurried through her preparations for the Board meeting.

+ + +

Ninety minutes later she stood before the assembled board of Sabir Space Industries. The preliminaries dealt with, she thumbed through her tablet screen to her much-annotated copy of the agenda and addressed the eighteen people before her. Five were Arabs, four Chinese, four were citizens of Europe or North America, and the origin of the remainder smattered across the rest of the globe.

"As Ravi noted, we had a late addition to the Order Of Business, and this concerns our annual practice of revolving one or two of the membership of this Board. And it also concerns the vision and goals of this company, in particular the Mars project." All eighteen pairs of eyes were latched onto her, including Elham's. She was seated halfway along the left side of the long conference table, and her mouth was a tense line.

Nowal plowed onwards, trying to maintain eye contact with each one. "We have come to a point in our journey when the Mars training system, the flight hardware and the sub-contracting system all need a radical revision. All this will cost either a great deal of money, or a great deal of delay. The details are in Appendix F of the agenda." Several people prodded their tablets or phones to find this, scanning the budgets and summaries.

"Now, our respected colleague, Elham Raythan, insists that we could solve our problems at a stroke by inviting several well-known investment houses to participate on the Board, in exchange for a large injection of funds. And I know that one or two others have voiced this opinion.

"However, I know that many others here would agree with me that we must retain our independence at all costs in order to keep to our vision of a free Mars.

"So, in brief, I would like to propose two things: First, that we delay one of the Phase Two crews by twenty-six months, which will earn us enough slack in the schedule to make the changes; second, that Elham Raythan, with all due respect to her experience and hard work, has come to the end of her service on this Board."

There was an immediate murmur of reaction, and Elham herself shot to her feet and began shouting, "What do you think you are doing?"

Nowal raised her voice over the noise. "Can someone second my proposals? Thank you, Ravi. Now let's discuss, and then vote."

+ + +

Later that evening, Nowal walked over to Abdul Qawi's office in the airy hangar which housed the simulation and training facilities. She trod the wide, empty floor with a weighted step. Every footfall echoed back to her. A few fitters were working far across the hangar on a mock-up of the Mars Descent Vehicle which was required for a sim the next day. She looked up, interested, as they lowered the main external hatch into place.

She knocked on the door of the prefab office which clung to the outer wall of the hangar. Upon hearing a voice, she entered, and found Abdul Qawi hunched over a mass of parts, wiring and tools that had colonised his desk. He looked up and grinned. He wore a pair of thin-framed glasses, looking every inch the eccentric Arab professor. "Ah, you're just in time to see a trial-run of this." He put his glasses down and moved aside to reveal a structure less than a metre long that resembled the exoskeleton of a cybernetic dragonfly. Its folded legs numbered four, and a complex of flasks and piping took up the bulk of the rear half. Solar panel wings completed the insectile appearance. "Of course, it won't operate correctly here, but we can scale the performance to get an idea of how it would do."

Nowal peered down at the contraption. "What do you think you're doing? I needed you to overhaul the training manuals!"

"Oh, I finished that last night and this afternoon. It's sitting in your inbox. This is my other job." He scratched absently at his crooked nose. "That is, apart from my other job, which seems to be solving NewSpace's problems for them. We're working on reprogramming the Mars comms network to listen for any noise the crew of the Smaug might be emitting. A friend of mine in California called me up."

As he spoke, he disconnected a hose from the dragonfly's middle flask and picked up the whole machine in one hand. It appeared to be surprisingly light. "Do you mind if we try it now? Just one hop."

"But… what have you built? And where is the budget for this coming from?"

"All discarded parts, or bought with my own money. Scavenged, begged, borrowed. Don't worry!"

By this time they were out on the floor of the hangar. Abdul Qawi placed his invention on a large, open area and stepped back several paces to where Nowal stood with arms crossed. He took out his phone and tapped the screen for a while. "Now the recorders are rolling, and the Flea is warming up." Nowal glanced around and noticed three video cameras on tripods aimed at the vicinity of Abdul Qawi's odd machine.

"The Flea?"

"One of God's creatures which jumps about eighty times its body length, sometimes much more. I'll be happy with thirty or so today. Watch!"

One more tap on the phone screen, and the cyber-flea compressed its legs as if hunching down, then with an explosive thunk of noise it sprung two metres into the air, puffed even more loudly and shot forwards across the warehouse about ten metres. As it hit the ground, the legs attempted to absorb its fall, but it fell on its side and skidded a further metre or so, supported by one of the solar 'wings', before laying still.

Tapping his screen a few more times, Abdul Qawi said, "You have just witnessed a little history in the making. One day these babies will be all over Mars."

"But what are they for? Surely a wheeled rover or a balloon is more economic and effective?"

Abdul Qawi scratched his head, which was beginning to bald on the forehead. "Hmm – that's debatable. This can jump across canyons, up cliffs, over boulders – isn't subject to wind direction – can carry spectrometers and drills and so on, or sensors for inspecting pipes and remote installations. I'm using compressed air for the rear jet, but of course the real thing will use compressed carbon dioxide. The larger crewed designs could have methane rockets and could refuel themselves. And they will carry more solar cells."

"That's really a clever device. And you've been working on this how long?"

"On and off, I'd say about three months."

Nowal shook her head. She was quite used to her relative's eccentric diversions, and knew that this behaviour was part of the package. "If we had five of you, we could make this project really move. You're indispensable.

"But I came to talk about the outcome of today's Board meeting. It was quite hard work, but I think you'll be interested. In fact some of it concerns you directly."

Abdul Qawi's head went up at this, but he stayed silent. They stepped back into the office, leaving the Flea lying where it had fallen. "I have a list of changes we'll be making right here. Some of them you'll love, and some are tough ones that I hate to make.

"First: Elham Raythan is off the Board, effective the beginning of next month." She noted Abdul Qawi's surprise and quick comprehension with a nod. "I think you would have done the same thing, but long ago. Next, changes to Crew One: We have to take Chase out, as you know, but there are many departments that would eagerly snap him up, if he will go. Also, sadly, Mr MacDonald. He has to go, so that the others can shine. We want to recruit a whole crew especially for him, because of his strengths. We're thinking of the first Amlaq crew. Imagine it: his leadership skills should be enough to keep fifty people on course. And he'll be the deputy flight director for the first crew launch – that is, if his ego can manage that."

Abdul Qawi bowed his head briefly to absorb all this, then asked, "So we have two vacancies. Would it be possible for me to –"

"Yes, I've thought about that already. I think you're going to like this." She beamed at him. "You've done such a thorough job as Director of Training, preparing the crew as well as the back-ups for each mission. That's why I think that Marco da Silva will be the best replacement for Mr MacDonald. He, too, is a mechanical genius, he has experience in the Mars analog station in Utah, and his skill with solar power systems fills a similar space to the one we're losing."

There was no way to tell what Abdul Qawi was feeling at that moment. He merely took a moment to think about it, then replied, quietly, "That sounds like a good idea."

Nowal looked more closely at him. "Really? Do you have some reservations about Marco? But he was your favourite – you prepared him carefully. Are you sure?"

"Oh yes, I'm quite sure he will do an excellent job. And what about a replacement for Mr Chase? Do you have anyone in mind?"

She looked away, thoughtful. "I'm working on that. Or I will be, when I have the chance. There are one or two possibilities. It's not easy to find experienced astronauts at the right stage in life who are willing to give it all up for a one-way trip to Mars with a recent start-up like us."

There were plenty of other changes to discuss, and it was late when they finished. When Nowal had left the office, its sole remaining occupant stood still, staring at a patch of floor and breathing deeply and slowly. Then with a brisk Bismillah he sat before his laptop and got to work.

-- + + + --

Onwards to: Annika

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