Mars Ascending

Jupiter had fallen on the carpet. The basketball must have been too heavy for the twine. I picked up the planet, which had come to rest against a hardback copy of Galactic Dynamics. Its paint was chipped, a fleck missing from the centre of the Giant Red Spot. Perhaps I could fix it up.

The planetary mobile had been my gift to Jessie on her sixteenth birthday. Hoping to inspire her to apply for the Mars Academy program, I’d made the planets out of whatever I could find: fuzzy tennis balls, a volleyball I patched and pumped up, paper mache for the inner rockies. When it was ready, I’d led her to her bedroom, hands over her eyes.

She’d gasped as she’d taken in the eight planets, each hanging in a net of twine, around the paper light shade that stood in for the sun. To the ceiling I’d glued fragments of glass, which sparkled like stars. Mars took pride of place above her pillow, the white-painted colony bright against its red surface.

“Wow,” she’d whispered. “Thanks, Dad.”

Soon, images of nebulae had replaced the “save the whale” posters on Jessie’s walls. I’d added more hooks to the ceiling so I could drape a net over her bed to keep out mosquitoes and framed a picture of her mother so she could keep it on her desk. No matter how high her homework towered, it never pushed Kathy out of place.

What would I get Jessie for her next birthday? When I was a kid, my parents would buy my older sisters makeup or new clothes, but you couldn’t get hold of those now. By the time she turned eighteen next summer, my daughter might not even be on Earth.

I collected plates from the floor. We used to have a rule against Jessie eating in her room, but I’d let it slide. I’d let a lot of things slide lately. At least she didn’t need nagging to make her study. Her sights were set on Mars.

I took Jupiter to my workshop, dropping off the plates on the way. I was glad I’d moved the kitchen to what had once been the spare bedroom as the room downstairs had flooded again a few weeks ago, and this time the water showed no signs of receding. Plumbing in the new sink hadn’t been easy, but I’d hacked it together, and the house was so damp anyway we hardly noticed the leaks. Meanwhile, my workshop had moved from the garage to a floating shack I’d constructed from an old shipping container. Again, I berated myself for not having moved to higher ground while the house was still worth something. It was too late now.

There wasn’t much space in the workshop. I’d been repairing the outboard motor on our neighbour’s boat before I broke off this morning to take Jessie to school, and parts remained littered over the bench. I brushed them aside, feeling guilty. Laura would need that boat to get to her job at the hospital tomorrow. I didn’t want her to put herself at risk wading through the deep waters downtown.

Since the floods started, most of our neighbourhood had emptied, families abandoning their rotting homes to take their chances in the camps, but Laura clung on next door.

“I could never leave my neighbours,” she’d said, smiling shyly at me.

The damage to Jupiter wasn’t extensive, but mixing the paints to match the exact shade of red proved tricky. I was at it for nearly an hour, using a pin to scratch dried-up flakes from each tube, mixing them with water to bring them back to life.

While the paint dried, I tinkered with the motor. Getting it running again was a straightforward task, but the fuel tank was beginning to corrode. I’d look out for a new one next time I went to the dock. For now, I used the last of a can of WD 40 to lubricate the moving parts.

By the time I’d finished, the Red Spot was dry to the touch. I carried the planet back to Jessie’s room and hung it from its hook in a new twine hammock. Jupiter was restored.


Jessie had always been lean, but stress had made her skinny. Her mousy hair hung lank around her face—a consequence of the shampoo shortage, or a warning sign of malnutrition? I heaped rice onto her plate.

“Dad, I’m sick of rice.”

“I know, but I couldn’t get anything else. You need calories.”

Jessie looked back down at the Mars Academy brochure. Glossy pictures showed students smiling inside their helmets as they clambered over rocks, each dressed in the school’s uniform spacesuit.

“How’s the studying going?” I asked.

She sighed. “It’s really tough, Dad. There’s so much to learn.”

While politicians threw around blame, the world’s richest conglomeration had started shipping the brightest young people to Mars to work on the colonisation project. Representatives had come to Jessie’s school in her first year to encourage the best students to apply. Since then, she’d been obsessed with getting in.

“Just do your best. That’s all anyone can ask.”

“What if my best isn’t good enough? What if I have to stay here?”

Earth was failing fast. We’d stopped referring to “freak” floods and started to accept the unpredictable surges and retreats of water. News reports had become dominated by images of refugees streaming across continents, reminding us we were the lucky ones. Last year, the TV signal had shut off altogether.

My daughter had no future here.

“Of course you’re going to pass,” I said. “You’re top of your year. What did you get in your last test?”

She picked at the skin around her nails. “One hundred per cent.”

“You’re going to knock ‘em dead.”

“I hope so.”

I knew I should be proud. She was going to make it. But I’d miss her. Already it felt like there was a second hole in my chest, its raw edges catching every time I breathed.


The next few weeks I barely saw Jessie. She holed up in her room studying. I brought food, leaving it outside her door so as not to break her concentration. When she was at school, I collected the empty plates.

Above her bed, Mars twisted slowly in the breeze from the open window. I wiped my brow. It was almost too hot to bear inside the house, and the solar panels on the roof didn’t provide enough electricity to run the air conditioner. The power grid had shut off weeks ago, and no one could get hold of the company to find out if they would bother to restore it. None of the local radio stations reported the outage.

In the boat on the way to school, Jessie stared at the flooded streets, resisting my attempts at conversation. Stupid, really — all those years I spent fixing up other people’s houses, many of them now ruined, when I could have been with her, figuring out how to relate. Money, I used to tell myself, that’s what she needs. Now that the rich had their own currencies, locked away in blockchains, government-issued money wasn’t worth the polymer it was printed on. You might as well burn it for fuel.

“Exams going well?” I asked, steering the boat around a floating car.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“You must have some idea.”

“Dad, leave it.”

With strong winds from the south rippling the water, the flooded streets reminded me of the beach holiday we took when Jessie was a toddler, back when air travel was a standard middle-class luxury. She’d run in and out of the waves in a yellow swimsuit, a floppy pink hat on her bonny curls.

Unusually, it wasn’t raining today. Instead, a low-hanging sun burned orange through the haze. The hum of the underpowered motor provided a rich baseline under the cries of the gulls.

“I know you can do it,” I said.

Her shoulders hunched as she coughed. She’d been coughing a lot lately, but whenever I asked she insisted she was fine.

How much did she remember of the early days, when the warnings didn’t seem real? When wildfires raged across the news, Kathy and I took Jessie on climate marches and told her not to worry: the people had spoken, so things would soon change. Around the time she started secondary school, the floods became regular. We pretended it would all turn out alright. At first we bought sandbags, later boats.


“Yes, love?”

“What will you do if I get into Mars Academy?”

“I’ll be right here. You can call me whenever you want.”

“Will you be OK?”

“Of course.”

The motor sputtered. I whacked it with my palm, and it settled back into its steady hum.

“I won’t get in anyway,” she said. “The tests are too hard.”

“You will. And I’m proud of you no matter what.”

She frowned.

“Your mum would have been, too.”

“Would she?” Jessie’s hair streamed in the wind as she turned away. “She wanted me to look after you.”

For weeks I’d been too angry to do anything other than drink. Our second child was born blue, cord wrapped around his neck, which was bad enough. I’d never thought it possible we’d lose Kathy too.

“Let me look after you,” I said. “That’s my job.”


Over the next few weeks, a blanket of cloud settled over the city, reducing the power provided by the solar panels. The trickle of electricity they gave was just enough to run Jessie’s computer. I’d managed to connect it to the internet by rigging up an extension to the phone lines across the street, whose poles hadn’t yet succumbed to rot.

If I lived alone, I’d happily have let it go. The web was a painful reminder of how much better some people had it than us. Comparison is the thief of joy, I reminded myself often. But Jessie needed access for school, so I kept going out in the rain to fix the connection every time it failed.

Tensely, we waited for Jessie’s results to post online. She paced around the house, scraping the last traces of peanut butter out of a jar. I retreated to the workshop, distracting myself with my latest project: a wind turbine to replace the failing solar panels. Along with torrential rainstorms, strong winds were a weather trend that seemed to be here to stay. The plan was to power not only our home but Laura’s too.

Hearing a scream, I dropped my hammer and ran. “Jessie?”

When I threw open the door, tears were streaming down her face. My stomach lurched.

“I passed! Dad, I’m going to Mars!”

My heart leapt, but the joy was quickly drowned in a sick feeling. I steadied myself against the door frame. She was leaving.

I forced a smile onto my face.

“That’s… that’s brilliant.” I tried to keep my voice from cracking. “Best news I’ve ever heard.”


Jessie looked stunning in her silver spacesuit. Thanks to the superior nutrition provided by the Mars Academy training camp, the hollows in her cheeks had filled out. Every time I’d been able to get through on video calls, her smile had been wider, the creases between her eyebrows gradually smoothing out. Now, on launch day, she laughed. I realised I couldn’t remember the last time I saw her laugh. Why had I not made sure we had more fun times together? Why had I made everything about getting her away?

“Five minutes until boarding.”

It had been a difficult six months. The house was too quiet, as though it had gone into hibernation since Jessie left. Finally, it had woken with an almighty crash: the floor of my bedroom had rotted and collapsed. It wasn’t clear how much longer the rest of the house would last, so Laura had insisted I move in with her.

“Four minutes until boarding.”

I hadn’t told Jessie. No need to bring up that old argument again. Of course I wasn’t trying to replace her mother. But I needed to move on too. Couldn’t she see that? My nails cut into my palms.

“Three minutes until boarding.”

The trip to the launch site had been sickeningly comfortable. The Mars Academy team had picked me up in a shiny boat, which zipped through the water like an arrow into the future. My neighbours had glared as its movement caused waves to slap against the fragile walls of their homes.

“Two minutes until boarding.”

Parents pressed their palms to the glass, reminding their kids to call home at the first opportunity. I hung back, clenching and unclenching my fists, while Jessie joked with her new friends.

“One minute until boarding. All students to gate now.”

Jessie picked up her helmet and turned to me.

“Thanks, Dad.”

That’s all I get? I shoved the thought down. “You earned it, kid.”

As I waved, she turned and walked through the gate that would take her onto the capsule. One of the gun-wielding guards smiled at the crowd of excited teenagers. I shouted, “Good luck!” but Jessie was talking with the other young astronauts and I don’t think she heard. They disappeared without a backward glance.


On return from the launch, the Mars Academy boat stopped outside the old house I’d lived in with Jessie. The house sagged as if it knew I’d given up on it. Floorboards groaned as I climbed from the boat through an upstairs window. There was mould on the walls of what had temporarily been our kitchen. Something had recently scuttled along the counter, leaving tracks in the dust.

I tested each step as I walked along the landing, eyeing the splintery hole where my bedroom used to be. I thought of all the times I’d tiptoed this route with a plate of food that I’d leave outside Jessie’s door, not wanting to disturb her study.

The door had warped in its frame. I had to shove my shoulder against it to make it open. When I burst into her room, my knuckles white around the hammer, the planets shivered as if in fear.

I swung with all the force I could muster. The paper sun imploded. Planets crashed, Saturn’s rings crumpling as they hit the ground. Mercury rolled into a corner. Earth fell with a dead thump.

Only Mars was left. I swung again, and it toppled to the floor. Facing up was the miniature Academy I had painstakingly reproduced, dabbing white paint onto the red landscape to represent each massive dome. I brought the hammer down on top, hitting the planet over and over until it burst like an empty seed pod.

Exhausted, I dropped the hammer, sank to the floor, and sobbed among the destroyed worlds.


Laura was calling my name, but I didn’t rise. I was tired of people needing me to fix things. Tired of them expecting me to be OK.

The house creaked and groaned. A planet rolled against my foot. A hand touched my shoulder.

“That must have been hard for you.”

“It’s best for her,” I said.

“Let’s hope so.”

She put her arms around me. Her skin smelled sour with sweat. Funny, to think we once worried so much about the way we smelled and looked, buying all those plastic-packaged chemicals to hide behind. For us, there were no hiding places left.

“We shouldn’t be here,” Laura said. “The floor could collapse at any minute.”

Posters crinkled at the edges. Old clothes Jessie had been too embarrassed to take to training camp slumped in dejected piles on the floor. The mosquito net hung limply over the ocean-themed bedding we’d picked out when she was twelve.

“We should take the sheets,” I said. “I’ve been thinking of fitting a sail to the boat.”

“Do you want to bring anything else?” She looked at the planets scattered over the floor. “Where’s Mars?”

“Out of reach.” I picked up a blue paper-mache ball daubed with green continents. It was squashed out of shape. “I guess we’re stuck with this.”