I dream of Mars

31/01/2015 14:32

The latest prompt from Blackship Books was to write a story around the them 'only a dream' - you can get the details here. Here's my response. I hope you like it!


When people asked Charlotte what she wanted to do when she grew up, she told them, “I want to be the first human to walk on Mars.”

And they always said, “Yes dear, but that's only a dream, isn't it? What do you really want to do?”

Then Charlotte would smile sweetly and walk away, wondering why they had bothered to ask if they were not really interested in her answer.

The dreams we have as children are funny things. Some of them fade as we grow older and our interests or perspectives change. But others get stronger and stronger, until they burn within us hotter than the sun. Charlotte's dream of walking on Mars was one of the second kind.

She studied hard at school, taking a maths and science route. Whenever there was a school trip to the museum, she always made her way straight to the space display. Her bedroom walls were decorated with glow in the dark stars and she had a scale model of the solar system hanging from her ceiling. While other children were searching for cat videos on-line, she was searching for Mars Exploration Rover videos.

After graduating with first class honours in astrophysics, she thought that people would stop asking her the same old question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”

But her answer still received the same old comment, “But that's only a dream!”

The sweet smile still appeared on her face but inside she blazed with irritation. Why were people so determined to treat her dream as if it were nothing more than a fantasy? People turned dreams into reality every day – why should hers be any different?

When the acceptance letter arrived from the European Space Agency inviting her to basic training, she thought that now, surely, people would start to take her seriously. But there were still no plans to begin a manned mission to Mars, and the “only a dream” comments continued.

When the year of basic was finished, she was accepted to begin full astronaut training. With every new skill, every new scrap of knowledge, every new challenge overcome, she felt her dream growing nearer. The only real obstacle was that she seemed to be the only person on Earth who thought humans should be going to Mars.

After completing her full training, she went on her first mission to the International Space Station. There was a time when even this would have been a dream, she thought, as she returned from every space walk. Some people found working outside the relative safety of the space station oppressively lonely but she relished the absolute blackness all around her, stretching further than her eyes could possibly see.

Thirty years and countless missions later, she still loved nothing more than floating free in the inky blackness. Sometimes, if she stared hard enough and everything was in alignment, she could see the tiny red dot that was Mars. But every year, her dream edged just a little further away.

On her last but one mission, she pulled herself inside the space station after a routine repair trip and closed the outer door behind her. Once the airlock had filled with the mix of gases that would keep her alive, she removed her spacesuit and entered the space station proper. After writing up her report, she went to the communal area to get something to eat.

Her colleagues were all gathered around the main viewing screen watching an announcement from headquarters.

“Here she is!” cried Nganda as she entered. “We all know who's going to be the first to sign up for this, don't we?”

Charlotte stared at the screen feeling her heart flip over. They were announcing a mission to Mars! They were actually planning it. But the mission would not set out for another five years at least and she was due to retire in less than two. The moment of elation passed, leaving behind only an aching disappointment.

“That was only a dream,” she muttered and headed to her cabin.

Back on Earth, she tried to avoid the news but of course that was impossible. All anyone could talk about was the manned mission to Mars. Why did it have to happen now? If it had been five years ago, she could have been part of it; if it was five years into the future, she would have been enjoying her retirement. But for it to happen now...

One day, just before she was due to begin preparations for her final mission, she got a call from the leader of the Mars mission. At first, she thought it was just a cruel joke but as the conversation went on it became more and more surreal. By the time it ended, she was certain that she was dreaming.

Colonel Ichita had informed her that she had managed to gain a special dispensation for Charlotte to postpone her retirement in order to be included on the mission. Her wealth of experience in space alone more than qualified her to be part of it, Ichita had explained, but there was a general agreement from whoever she happened to be speaking to that there was nobody on Earth who knew more about Mars.

She sat in her living room staring at all the familiar objects trying to connect with the reality around her but feeling her thoughts drifting free, just as if she were taking a space walk outside her own body.

“Only a dream?” she said out loud and began to laugh.