The Marshalls of Mars

Tim Major

Illustration by Martin Hanford

When the host returned her attention to the camera, Rich remembered to reinstate his broad smile. He glanced at Meryl: hers was genuine. 

‘Thank you both once again,’ the host said. ‘Now. Do we have time for one or two questions from the audience?’ 

Excuses ran through Rich’s mind. Maintenance. Scheduled provisions check. Fatigue, which was closer to the truth. 

Before he could settle on one in particular, Meryl said, ‘Absolutely.’ 

Rich stifled a groan. He tapped out a message on his sketchpad: oh god kill me now. Meryl read it and squeezed his knee. 

The image on the screen changed to show the audience. Around forty of the two hundred or so children had their hands in the air. They raised themselves up on their crossed legs, straining to reach higher than their neighbours, directing silent appeals off-camera.

One child leapt to her feet, responding to an unheard invitation. She stared wide-eyed for several seconds before managing to say, quietly, ‘Will you do experiments?’

‘Will you do experiments?’ the host repeated.

‘Oh sure, a few,’ Rich replied.

When he didn’t elaborate, Meryl said, ‘Conducting experiments isn’t our main objective, but it would be a missed opportunity if we didn’t do as many as we could. We don’t have a lab or any specialised equipment, but we do have complex organic mechanisms that we can observe during the journey – our own bodies. Most of our experiments will be simple observations about how our bodies respond to prolonged space flight. How does microgravity affect growth? How does the stress of lengthy periods of space travel affect the immune system? How does it affect circadian rhythm, the unconscious understanding we all have about what time of day it is? Poor old Rich is already getting muddled. He was up at four o’clock this morning.’

That had been nothing to do with circadian rhythms. How Meryl could sleep so soundly in the capsule, braced against the wall like a mountain climber against a sheer rock surface, Rich would never understand. 

‘Okay. Next?’ the host said.

A boy stood up. He was younger than the first child. Printed on his red T-shirt were three cartoon rockets, their flames making parallel diagonal streaks. His hair was an untidy mop. 

‘I don’t have a question,’ he said. ‘But I named my turtle after you.’ 

‘How lovely!’ Meryl bent closer to the screen. ‘Just one turtle, then? Whose name did you use?’ 

‘Meryl, of course,’ the boy replied indignantly. ‘Her full name is Meryl Marshall of Mars. She can do loop-the-loops underwater.’

Rich beamed, this time for real. It rang true that the public would focus on Meryl. Meryl Marshall of Mars: it suited her. Rich was only along for the ride.

Meryl chuckled, then said to the boy, ‘And what’s your name?’


Rich turned from the screen to look at his wife. She had stiffened, but nobody watching would have noticed. 

‘Thank you, David,’ she said, her voice no less pleasant. ‘I’m honoured and I feel very proud. Give Meryl the turtle our best wishes, would you, please?’

‘I love you!’ David blurted, before he was shushed by somebody off-camera.

Rich felt for Meryl’s hand. Her fingers danced on his upturned palm, but then she pushed him away gently.

‘I think we’d better wrap things up there,’ the host’s voice said. 

But a red-haired teenaged girl in the audience had already clambered to her feet. She appeared sullen and a little surprised, as if her outstretched arm had lifted her against her will.

‘You guys are married,’ she said bluntly. ‘So have you had sex up there in your rocket?’

Snorts of laughter rippled through the audience. Several of the children glanced to one side, presumably at a teacher attempting to regain control.

‘That’s all the time we—’ the host said.

Meryl interrupted her. ‘It’s okay. That seems a fair question, in the circumstances.’

Rich’s cheeks began to burn. It really was hot in here.

Meryl turned to face him, stuck out her tongue, then returned her attention to the screen. Rich’s stomach tightened. He could not love her more than he did at this moment.

‘The answer is yes,’ she said. ‘But it isn’t easy, let me tell you. Rich, how about you fetch one of the suits?’

Rich’s eyes widened. He shook his head. ‘Lucia already said our time was up.’

Meryl smirked. ‘Quite right.’ Rich imagined she was relishing his red cheeks and the knowledge of his acute embarrassment. She had always enjoyed pushing him beyond his comfort zone. To the girl onscreen, she said, ‘I can describe them to you perfectly well. We have two special flight suits, each with a special front flap that unzips. Inside there are lots of little straps – harnesses, I suppose you’d call them – which can be fastened to one of the benches or a wall. There are enough harnesses that some of them can be used to fix one person to another.’

Slowly, Rich pushed himself away from the terminal. In the miniature screen within a screen, he saw himself edge out of shot. 

Meryl reached out and pulled him gently back into position. 

‘So that just means that we don’t go whizzing about all over the place every time we’re in the mood – that’s Newton’s Third Law at work.’ She beamed. ‘And, you know, it’s sort of sexy.’

‘Thank you, Meryl,’ the host said, stern as a headteacher. Her voice sounded more nasal now, with pitch-flattening artefacts. ‘And thank you, Richard. We—’ 

The communication cut.

‘You’ll get us in trouble, talking like that,’ Rich said. ‘The parents of those kids won’t take kindly to it.’

Meryl grinned. ‘What are they going to do? Come up here and scold us?’ She double-tapped the screen to turn it off. ‘Anyway. All that talk about space sex…’ 

She propelled herself from the wall with both feet, lunging at him, and he caught her instinctively. Their hug sent them spinning head over heels across the length of the capsule and bumping gently against storage units and bunks. 

It had been Meryl’s idea, of course. Rich had seen the initial appeal on social media, and the idea had fascinated him, but it was in his nature to assume that such adventures occurred to other people. One married couple required to perform a return trip to Mars. When Meryl had joked about it, he had joined in with the game happily enough. When she later revealed that she really had submitted the application, and that they were not only viable candidates but their names were on a shortlist of only twenty-four couples, it had seemed less funny. But Meryl’s confidence and calmness had always been infectious. And Rich would follow her anywhere in the world or, in this case, beyond.

Rich frowned at the blank page displayed on his sketchpad. Outside the box room he could hear Meryl and David playing. There was a high-pitched roar, then a crash. On his second birthday Colleen had presented David with a set of blocks she had sculpted herself. Now every day he played the same game: he built the highest tower he could, then tiptoed around it, trying not to disturb the teetering structure, his hands curled into claws and his teeth bared. Neither Meryl nor Rich could determine whether their son was playacting at being a careful monster or an angry construction worker.

His fingers hovered over the screen of the sketchpad. Perhaps he might write about them, Meryl and David. 

‘Rich?’ Meryl called, her voice muffled by the door. ‘I think we might head out for a bit.’

‘Okay. Where?’

‘Dunno. Colleen’s just rolled up. She’s cleaned the car and it looks spanking new. David could do with a change of scene. You know, show him the world a bit.’

Rich looked up, but there was no window in the box room. ‘How does the sky look?’

‘Hold on,’ Meryl called. ‘Kind of dark.’

‘Could be a storm coming. Don’t go too far? And—’ 

‘Roger that, Rich. We’ll wrap up warm.’

Comms were down until late the next day. Rich darted over to the screen the moment it powered up.

‘Control?’ he barked. ‘Darmstadt? Are you receiving? You had us worried. Thought you’d abandoned us.’

But it wasn’t a live link, only the arrival of a digital package. Hurriedly, Rich downloaded and uncompressed the files. Some official correspondence, some personal, a handful of html transcripts. The usual selection. 

‘Anything interesting?’ Meryl said, slipping her arms around his waist and peering over his shoulder. She pointed at one of the list items. ‘Oh! Flip that one over to my pad, would you?’

Rich scrolled through the ESA documentation on the main screen as Meryl tapped at her sketchpad. By the looks of it, the comms outage had been expected – or at least, not unexpected. He exhaled with relief.

‘Meryl Robinson, you skinny bitch!’ said a recorded voice from Meryl’s sketchpad. Colleen’s Australian-Irish hybrid accent was unmistakeable, and she and Meryl had known each other their whole life; Colleen had never made the transition to using Meryl’s married name. ‘Those flunkies told me I wouldn’t be able to call ‘til next month, but you know what I said?’

‘Fuck you,’ Rich said.

‘Fuck you!’ Colleen echoed. ‘So they said I could record a message instead. Course, it isn’t the same, but then nothing’s the same as having you in the flesh anyway, is it? I’ll just pretend I’m talking to you, okay?’ A pause. ‘Good. Then how the hell are you?’

‘She’s ridiculous,’ Rich said. 

Meryl flashed him a smile. ‘And I wouldn’t change a thing about her.’

‘Very glad to hear it,’ Colleen said, almost seamlessly. Then, after another pause, ‘Yeah, I’m not bad, thanks for asking. But you know that guy I told you about? Turns out he wasn’t a famous concert musician. Turns out I misheard his mate who was just referring to him as – get this – a well-known penis. Penis, not pianist, you see? Fuck me.’ 

Colleen’s face crumpled. She exhaled a ragged sigh and rubbed the back of her hand across her mouth. ‘I miss you, Meryl. Sorry, Rich – you too, but you know what I’m saying. There’s an empty fucking house at the end of my street and I keep finding myself veering onto the driveway every time I take Bigly for a walk. Tell me you’re both coming back?’

Rich and Meryl exchanged looks. Meryl’s eyes were wet. 

‘I’m waiting,’ Colleen said. ‘I’m waiting for you to say something reassuring. I don’t want to lose my best friend, or even her uptight husband, come to that. Tell me you’ll be coming back.’

Meryl was still looking at Rich. He cleared his throat. ‘We’re coming back.’

When Colleen didn’t respond, it took Rich a moment to remember that this wasn’t really a conversation. 

‘We’re eighty-two days in,’ he said, to fill the silence. ‘So, uh, four hundred and nineteen days to go.’ 

He cleared his throat again; it had become very dry. The capsule was so hot. Meryl put his arm around him and leant her head on his shoulders.

‘Okay. That’ll have to do,’ Colleen said. ‘Thanks for trying. I love you more than Earth and Mars put together.’

Rich found himself checking their stores every morning after coffee. It was galling to continue amending the manifest and only ever see the values decrease. He reassured himself with the numbers that remained unchanged: bandages, antiseptic creams, hypodermic needles, blood-thinning pills, as well as blandly-named items such as multi-purpose filters, outer binding agents, patch packs. If they ever had need of these things, he would have to trust that the ESA, or the capsule itself, would advise them about their use.

Meryl often huddled before one of the portholes, the sketchpad balanced on her knees but her attention on the starscape outside. She complained of the heat, and claimed that the coolest area changed location every day. 

She was becoming quieter, Rich noticed. They made love, sometimes using the flight suits and sometimes not. He loved her no less, and she was as tender towards him as ever. But he wondered whether they had done the wrong thing, coming here.

One day he said, ‘He’d have been very proud of you, you know.’

Meryl turned from the porthole. Outside, the stars looked like a frozen whirlpool. She didn’t respond. 

‘Did you hear me?’ Rich said. 

‘I’m too warm,’ Meryl said. ‘Budge out of the way. I’m on the prowl for the nice chilly bit.’

‘I said David would have been proud.’ 

She shook her head. ‘Please, love. I don’t want to talk about him.’

The temperature in the cabin increased a little each day. Rich checked and rechecked the manifests and tapped on the terminal screen, trying but failing to access thermostat controls. 

They hadn’t heard a word from Darmstadt in more than a hundred days. The data packages kept coming for a time, but contained only bland updates about their trajectory and a few video notes from friends. None of the ESA memos acknowledged their inability to converse. 

‘Something’s wrong,’ he murmured. ‘We should be just about to turn back for the return journey. Why haven’t we seen Mars?’

‘There’s nothing wrong,’ Meryl said in a soothing voice. ‘Anybody would feel nervous.’

Her cheeks were flushed with the heat. 

‘I’m scared,’ Rich said. 

Two hundred and eighty-two days.

‘There,’ Meryl said. She pointed, her fingertip flattened against the surface of the window.

‘What? Can you see Mars?’ Rich listened, trying to determine whether the engines had kicked in, whether they were finally turning around.

‘I don’t know what it is. But no. Not Mars.’

Meryl shuffled aside but kept peering out, so that their heads were touching. Rich had a compulsion to kiss her, to ignore whatever was outside the capsule for as long as possible. 

But he looked, all the same. He saw nothing but black ink and white grains of salt. Then a grey shape gradually became visible, darkness clinging to its surface. It was ovoid and plain. 

‘A ship?’ he breathed.

‘We should say hi,’ Meryl said. ‘Do we have a way to do that?’

Rich smiled. How like her, for her first instinct to be a cheerful hello. He shook his head. ‘I’m pretty sure the only comms line is to Darmstadt. If they’d only answer.’

‘What do we do, then?’

He stared out at the craft. It wasn’t fear he felt, either. Since they had passed the hypothetical halfway point of the journey – in terms of calculated flight time, at any rate – he had experienced a strange sense that it wasn’t only their route that was predetermined, but also their fate. 

‘Our course is locked, love. There’s nothing we can do to change it.’ Then, ‘Wait.’

Meryl gazed up at him, her cheeks pink.

‘You don’t feel that?’ Rich said. He put his palm against the wall of the capsule to feel the vibration.

Meryl’s expression was a complicated one: it expressed exhilaration, anxiety, nervous anticipation. Rich thought of their wedding day, and the moments after Meryl had made her slow procession into the registry office to stand beside him. They had turned to look at each other, and then their seriousness and the audience’s expectant silence had made them both start giggling at exactly the same moment, and then they couldn’t stop.

Now Meryl’s mouth twitched and she began to laugh. Rich’s hands clenched, but then he laughed too, at first because he wanted that to be their mutual reaction, and then because it was only right that they should be laughing, two hundred and eighty-two days and who knew how many miles from Earth, facing the unknown together. Meryl took him by the hand and spun him into an embrace. 

Her skin was hot all over.

When the capsule docked it barely produced a jolt. Rich and Meryl had dressed in the same smart blue boiler suits they had worn during the launch, and stood waiting as the door slid open. Meryl wiggled her fingers in Rich’s grasp and he realised he had been gripping her hand far too tightly. 

There it is,’ Meryl breathed. Cool air rushed into the capsule from the long, dark corridor ahead. ‘Now I’m positively glad that we don’t have stuffy spacesuits. Come on – let’s see if they have air-con, or a fridge.’

‘Are you serious?’ Rich asked. 

Beads of sweat dotted Meryl’s forehead. ‘Danger be damned, Rich. What I need is a cold shower. And a cool beer – imagine that!’ 

Rich peered into the darkness. ‘This can’t be protocol. None of this seems right at all. Shouldn’t there be an airlock? Something between us and the inside of whatever this place is?’

She shrugged. ‘Let’s go and ask at the front desk.’

He allowed his wife to drag him over the threshold.

Meryl had insisted that she would be the one to carry him over the threshold.

‘Honey, we’re home!’ she called out, only very slightly breathless beneath Rich’s not inconsiderable weight.

The doorway of the cottage was narrow, and Rich’s head struck against the frame upon entering. But he didn’t say anything.

When she had reached the centre of the sitting room, he said, ‘You can put me down now, love.’

She pulled him close for a long kiss, and then in a fluid motion she swung him around and set him on his feet. He looked around. The familiar surroundings had been made alien because of their changed circumstances. It seemed a lifetime ago that he had last seen the framed pictures taken on their travels in California, France and Spain, the rudimentary portraits they had painted of one another one Christmas when they had been too hard up to afford real presents, the sofa with one of its cushions torn after having been worn away by the bottoms of innumerable guests.

‘I’ll fix us drinks,’ Meryl said, ‘and you’d better welcome the lodger.’

Rich snorted softly and turned. Framed by the doorway, he saw David outside, a little way from the house, bent double at the waist to poke a stick into a strange knothole in the ground.

Rich woke with a start. He was at a table, sitting opposite Meryl. The only illumination came from six candles.

‘What?’ he said. His tongue was furry and he could taste red wine.

‘I was just going to say the same thing,’ Meryl said, rubbing her eyes. ‘How did we get here?’

‘What do you remember last?’

She looked around. The room in which they sat appeared vast, though the candlelight made everything beyond the table indistinct, and Rich noticed that their voices didn’t echo. 

‘We came aboard,’ she said. ‘That’s all I know. Did we look around already?’

‘Of course,’ he said uncertainly. ‘That’s the first thing we’d do, isn’t it?’

She raised an eyebrow. ‘You don’t remember.’

He looked down at the empty plate before him, upon which were a few uneaten carrots and peas, and traces of a dark sauce. His stomach told him he had eaten his fill.

‘So how about let’s explore all over again,’ Meryl said, ‘to refresh our memories.’

Rich reached for his glass and took a gulp of red wine.

Rich laughed until his sides ached. Then he stopped.

‘Hoi, what’s so funny?’ Meryl asked. She was sitting directly opposite him again, but this time her stockinged legs were tucked up beneath her as if she had been folded carefully into the wing-backed armchair. Her hair was loose, and seemed longer and lighter than usual. Her cheeks glowed with good health.

Rich looked down at a chessboard on a low, square table halfway between their armchairs. Between the thumb and index finger of his right hand he held a chess piece, a bishop.

‘Oh fuck,’ he said. ‘I don’t know, Meryl. I don’t know why I was laughing. I don’t even know how we got here.’

They stared at one another.

‘What was that?’ Rich murmured. He rolled onto his back and listened, staring upwards into the dark.

He heard it again. A cry.

‘Meryl. Meryl,’ he hissed. He reached for the light switch, but found only a blank expanse of wall. ‘Meryl. Are you there?’

He reached out blindly, patting the covers of the bed. The sheets had been thrown back. 

He heard the cry again.

He stumbled out of the bedroom and along the wide corridor. Its ceiling was so far above him that it might as well be the night sky. He passed doorway after doorway, tracking the sound. Eventually he saw a glow of light spilling into the corridor. 

At first, he only saw Meryl. She was bending with her back to him, wearing her favourite David Bowie T-shirt in lieu of pyjamas.

‘I heard—’ he said, but he stopped as she turned around.

She was holding a child in her arms, nestled up against the Ziggy Stardust on her bosom.

‘He’s okay now,’ she said quietly.

Rich could only stare at her. Finally, he turned his attention to the room. On the walls were pictures of octopuses and sailing boats. A mobile with a dozen felt fish on strings hung from a cord above a white wooden cot.

‘Put him down,’ he said. Then, more forcefully, ‘Put him down, Meryl. We don’t know what that is.’

She gave a lopsided smile. ‘I’d say we do. Come closer. He’s awfully cute. He has your frown.’

Rich shook his head, and he was still shaking it when he stood with his shoulder touching hers, gazing down at the baby, whose eyes were scrunched tight and whose right hand clawed ineffectually at Meryl’s chest. 

He found himself reaching out with an index finger. The tiny hand grasped it.

‘Do you remember?’ he said.

‘Not as such.’

‘Meaning what?’

‘Meaning that memories aren’t everything.’

He turned to face her. ‘Yes, they are. They absolutely are, Meryl. If we don’t remember how we got here, or where this even is, or how we came to have a child, for God’s sake… how on Earth can we…’

Meryl shook her head. She held up the child.

Rich continued gawping at it.

‘Here, hold him,’ she said.

‘No. It’s not safe.’

‘It’s safe.’


But he raised his arms and allowed her to slide the tiny body to him. The baby’s thin arms lifted briefly, like an ape reaching for a branch. Rich froze, terrified that the head would slide away from the crook of his elbow. Then, gradually, the posture began to seem less foreign. He turned at the torso, back and forth.

‘He’s really ours, isn’t he?’ he whispered. It occurred to him only now that the child wasn’t a newborn, but perhaps two or three months old.

Meryl said, ‘I think we should call him David.’

They moved the cot to their own bedroom. They played with David and they cooked, and in the hour-long periods when David slept, they talked or played chess or read. The ship contained plentiful supplies of food, facilities and activities. Its corridors were not labyrinthine, but the vastness of each room resulted in doors and entire areas being missed during their explorations. Eventually, Meryl discovered a small swimming pool and took to bathing there every morning. Rich discovered a library filled with books he had always intended to read.

David grew quickly. Following one of the blackouts, which were becoming less frequent, Rich found himself calling out frantically to Meryl, hurrying her to come and see their son smile for the first time.

They returned often to their capsule, at first only to fetch their clothes and sketchpads, then making trips to check on the communications console, which remained inert. 

One day, they found the door to the capsule closed and could find no means of opening it again. Upon its surface was a glistening web.

The only window was in the area they had dubbed the conservatory, an enormous warehouse space filled with foliage. One wall was entirely transparent from floor to ceiling.

Meryl looked up as the internal lights changed again, this time to a vivid green, then back to red.

‘Perhaps the lights are the only means of conveying information,’ Rich said thoughtfully. ‘Like some kind of an alert.’

David tottered from plant to plant, which grew directly out of the soil covering the floor. He was becoming increasingly steady on his feet. 

Suddenly, Rich felt as though he were falling – upwards – and his arms rose as though he were performing a star jump. He saw Meryl and even David perform the same odd motion. His feet left the ground, but then they returned, and everything was normal.

‘It’s definitely trying to tell us something,’ Meryl said. 

She stood directly before the window and placed both her hands flat on its surface. The silhouette of her body was haloed with stars.

‘What’s wrong?’ she said, addressing the ship in a quiet voice. ‘It’s okay. We’re here.’

Then she said, ‘Oh.’


She pointed along the flank of the ship.

Rich joined her at the window, pressing his cheek against the pane to look. ‘Is that—’

‘Yup. Whatever it is, it was us that brought it.’

It was the first time since leaving Earth that Rich had seen the outside of their capsule – though it was barely recognisable now. The silvery webs had spread over the entirety of its surface, distorting its shape, giving it the appearance of a puffball ready to burst. The cobwebs stretched beyond the capsule, all the way to the back of the ship.

Meryl addressed the ship. ‘Is that what you were trying to show us?’

The lights flicked from red to a warm blue.

‘Does it… hurt?’

The lights dimmed entirely, then pulsed orange.

‘Are you afraid?’

Rich felt himself rising from the ground again. He turned to David, saying, ‘It’s okay. It’s okay,’ but David only chuckled as he began a slow somersault. 

The refraction of the helmet visor made Meryl’s face appear bulbous.

‘Now I feel like the real McCoy,’ she said. Disconcertingly, her voice was now transmitted from a speaker on the wall of the ship, the real sound muffled by the suit. ‘All these months in space and it’s only now that I get to be a real astronaut.’

The suits were mint green, with no identification markings. Rich and Meryl had found two of them laid out on the floor when they had approached the rear of the ship. 

Meryl bunny-hopped towards him, startling him with her sheer bulk. ‘Give us a kiss, then,’ she said. 

Obediently, Rich placed his lips on the curved surface of her visor. ‘I don’t want you to go.’

‘I’ll just take a quick look, then I’ll be right back.’ 

She bent to lift up David. His little hands pawed at her helmet, and he grinned and stuck out his tongue. 

‘Stay cute, buster,’ she said.

She plodded into the next chamber and closed the door behind her. Rich watched through the circular window as she approached the hatch on the outer wall. 

He gripped the door frame as gravity lessened again. It was different this time: on and off, rapidly, making his guts churn.

Meryl turned and marched back to the doorway.

‘Sorry, Rich,’ she said once it had opened. She pointed at the second suit lying on the floor. ‘Looks like you’ll need to come too.’

‘No,’ Rich said immediately. 

‘I know you can be brave.’ 

‘It’s not about bravery. What about David?’

‘Go down the corridor, first left, look on the table.’

Rich did as he was told. He returned several minutes later with the hibernation pod under his arm. It was far shorter than the others. 

‘This behaviour isn’t going to win us any parent-of-the-year contests,’ Rich said.

Meryl shrugged. ‘We have a responsibility to show him the world. The universe, even. Anyway, this is just what we have to do, isn’t it?’

It was only when the gravity flicked off and then on again that Rich realised that the question hadn’t been addressed to him.

David didn’t complain as Rich lifted him into the seed-shaped pod, and he was still chuntering happily as the curved door closed. Meryl entertained him by pulling faces and playacting moonwalks as Rich struggled to pull on his suit.

‘All right then,’ he said as he pulled on his helmet. ‘But I want you to know I still think this is suicide.’

Meryl grinned. ‘Well, if it is, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you were right.’

They passed into the next chamber, and waited before the hatch, each holding one of the handles of David’s hibernation pod.

Rich looked up and groaned. ‘It’s not just this one – look. All three, totally covered.’

Each of the thrusters was the size of a roundabout in a children’s playground. At first he had been wary of approaching them, but Meryl had insisted the ship wouldn’t fire up its engines while they were outside – though on this occasion her uncertainty was more evident than usual.

‘Don’t fret,’ Meryl said. ‘Here, I’ll need a hand with this one.’

Before he bent to wind his fat fingers into the knot of white cobwebs, Rich turned to look at David’s pod. They had discovered that its base was magnetised, like the soles of their boots, and so it stuck immediately to any flat part of the ship’s surface – but, even so, Rich had been reluctant to stray more than a few metres away. 

‘He’s okay,’ Meryl said softly. ‘Aren’t you, Davey?’

David continued making soft popping noises with his lips. 

‘One… two… three,’ Meryl said, and together they tugged the cords of the web free.

They worked methodically, and took it in turns to plod back to David and make faces through the curved glass. 

Despite it being the furthest from their capsule, the webs that covered the third thruster were the densest and the most tangled. Each strand required both of their strength in order to snap it, and even then it was no small matter to disentangle each thread and cast it aside. 

‘Almost there, and then I’m having a steaming cuppa,’ Meryl said. ‘Maybe a bath when David’s down. You’ll hop in too, won’t you, Rich?’

Rich almost burst into tears at the suggestion. He was exhausted, and his lower back ached terribly. He nodded his heavy head, his throat clogged.

Meryl placed her gloved hand on his arm. ‘Not long now. I’ll just tug you off one more time.’ She laughed at her own dirty joke. ‘Heave ho!’

Rich just wanted it to be over. He pulled sharply at the final strand of web without first checking the placement of his feet. Instantly, he understood that he had made a mistake. He made a gulping sound as his body jerked away from the surface.

He flailed around, uncertain which way he was moving. 

This is it, he thought as he spun away from his wife. Nothing more profound than that.

But then his hand struck something, and he realised that his pace had lessened. Panting, he swung his feet towards the ship, using the object he had caught to balance him. It was at precisely the same moment that the soles of his feet clicked safely into place that he recognised that the object that had halted his trajectory was itself now moving, and that it was the hibernation pod containing his son.

He glimpsed Meryl, propelling herself away from the ship, a giant leap for mankind.

The pod spun above him, already out of arm’s reach and receding as though bobbing on an outgoing tide. 

Meryl arced gracefully to meet it, both her arms outstretched so that when she reached the seed-shaped structure, she caught it in an embrace that seemed natural and calm.

‘Meryl!’ Rich cried.

The only response was her panting breaths.

He looked around. They had spooled the cobweb threads around projecting parts of the ship to avoid them floating free. He stumbled over to one of the spikes and, with fumbling fingers, pulled at the strands.

This isn’t how space works, he thought as he gathered the strands and swung them in a clumsy lasso.

So maybe it was something other than physics that ensured that the silver thread reached his family and allowed him to pull them slowly back to safety.

The ship landed on the planet without so much as a sigh. It hadn’t spoken to them since they had resolved the issue with the thrusters. The journey had lasted another month, and they had experienced no more blackouts.

When they approached the hatch, they discovered that the suits were no longer there.

‘I think we have to trust it,’ Meryl said.

‘Easy for you to say,’ Rich scoffed.

‘Why’s that?’

‘Because you’re a trusting sort of a person.’

She put her arms around his waist. ‘No more than you, love.’

Rich lifted David and together they watched as the hatch opened. 

The air tasted sweet.

They walked for an hour. Rich realised the ship was out of sight over the green hills. Perhaps they might follow the river to return to it, but something told him they wouldn’t. They climbed over a wooden stile and continued on.

It was another hour before the first building came into view, at a point where the track became a narrow, tarmacked road. A sign above the door read The Open Arms. They stood at the roadside for several minutes, debating whether to enter. But David needed a change, and they were hungry. 

The landlord greeted them warmly, and served them two halves of bitter and two packets of crisps. 

Afterwards, they walked slowly through the village, hand in hand, David trotting before them.

‘A lot of this seems familiar,’ Rich said. 

Meryl squeezed his hand. ‘It’s hard to put your finger on, isn’t it?’

Rich reached out to the drystone wall before the nearest low house, and pulled away a hunk of moss. He rubbed the soft substance between his fingers.

Soon, people began to emerge from the houses. They didn’t make a song and dance about Rich’s and Meryl’s arrival, but it was clear that they were pleased to see them. Most said hello, and children watched them pass or raced around excitedly in circles. One elderly man sitting on a plastic chair outside his front door applauded.

When they reached their little cottage, they found a post-it note stuck to the front door. It read: You were out but I’ll be back soon. Gone to stock up the fridge. Welcome home, Marshalls. Beneath, Colleen’s name was written in her unmistakeable scrawl.

Meryl wept, right there on the pathway of their house. Rich knelt, hugging David in one arm and his other encircled around his wife. 

Meryl recovered quickly, and then she insisted that she would be the one to carry him over the threshold.

‘Honey, we’re home!’ she called out, only very slightly breathless beneath Rich’s not inconsiderable weight.

The doorway of the cottage was narrow, and Rich’s head struck against the frame upon entering. But he didn’t say anything.

When she had reached the centre of the sitting room, he said, ‘You can put me down now, love.’

She pulled him close for a long kiss, and then in a fluid motion she swung him around and set him on his feet. He looked around. The familiar surroundings had been made alien because of their changed circumstances. It seemed a lifetime ago that he had last seen the framed pictures taken on their travels in California, France and Spain, the rudimentary portraits they had painted of one another one Christmas when they had been too hard up to afford real presents, the sofa with one of its cushions torn after having been worn away by the bottoms of innumerable guests.

‘I’ll fix us drinks,’ Meryl said, ‘and you’d better welcome the lodger.’

Rich snorted softly and turned. Framed by the doorway, he saw David outside, a little way from the house, bent double at the waist to poke a stick into a strange knothole in the ground. ∎

Tim Major’s recent books include Hope Island, Snakeskins and Sherlock Holmes: The Back to Front Murder, the short story collection And the House Lights Dim, and a British Fantasy Award-shortlisted monograph about the 1915 silent crime film, Les Vampires. His short fiction has been selected for Best of British Science Fiction, Best of British Fantasy and The Best Horror of the Year. He blogs at and tweets @timjmajor.

Martin Hanford lives in Ledbury and has been an illustrator for over 25 years, mainly sci-fi and fantasy, although he was once asked to draw a cow! As well as illustrations, Martin has produced numerous album covers and novel covers, and doesn’t get mistaken for the Where’s Wally guy too often.

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