Just after she’d closed the office door, but before she could finish her first sentence, Mr Sharples, in an ignorant fashion, interrupted Willa.
“Willa, before we get into this conversation, I have some bad news. It’s been decided, the decision taken and confirmed as final: you are too old to go out into space and travel to Mars, and you’re off the project, with immediate effect.”
“What? What are you saying to me?” Willa staggered, overcome by a sense of disbelief, frantically trying to absorb and process what she’d just heard. Despite the short notice, she had readily agreed to the request for an early morning one-to-one. Now, she found herself plumped in a seat opposite her boss, speechless.
“The insurers, they don’t like it, As a result, the space board unanimously voted you off the mission. Add to this, the fact you’ve become increasingly unpopular with your fellow scientists and astronauts.” Mr Sharples threw his hands up in the air in exasperation. “You know, I probably shouldn’t divulge this, but even your ex-husband wrote in, saying he thought you unsuitable, at the delicate age you have reached.”
While her exterior remained as cool as a chilled cucumber, Willa’s interior burned like a raging furnace, able to fuel the flames in Hell on an exceptionally busy shift.
“Well, what-do-you-know? You’ll take the word of a man who’s lived out the latter half of his life embittered by my choice years ago, to swap him out for the stars.”
“Willa, it’s not like that.” The project director for the ‘Go Get Mars!’ expedition scrunched-up a piece of paper he’d doodled upon earlier, lobbing high over Willa’s head. Despite aiming for the wastepaper bin located in the corner of his modest-sized office, he missed by a fair country mile. “You are too old and you are not going. For Christ’s sake, how many different ways do you want me to say it?”
“Edgar, you know how much work I have put into this, devising an innumerable amount of the experiments, the logistics and goals. I’ve invested – no, sacrificed the last twenty years of my life for this project!”
“I do know Willa and that’s the problem, don’t you see? Time’s run out on you, you just took too long.”
“I took too long? I took too long? It’s been me who’s been pushing this piano up a mountain, while you lot have been wringing your hands over budgetary considerations.”
“Willa, that’s not entirely fair and you know that.”
The aged astrophysicist looked into her lap, searching for inspiration to convince and reseal her inclusion on the first ever, peopled flight to Mars. “There must be some way.” She half said to herself. “Edgar, we’ve known each other for years, we’ve always had a special connection, right from the start. Why, I even felt a little chemistry between us, and that lab Christmas party, twelve years ago! Do you remember? We’d both got a little light-headed in the gas cylinder storeroom. If I recall correctly, you – “
“Now Willa!” Mr Sharples’s cheeks flushed deep red. “Stop, right there. That all happened a long time ago, I was relatively new on the scene and still finding my feet. I looked up to you back then, respected you. A lot has changed, a whole river of water has flowed under the bridge since then. What’s more, you’d more than likely be in trouble for a harassment case if something like that happened these days!”
A sober, electronic tone pulsed in partnership with a small, flickering blue light on the communicator clipped to the lapel of Mr Sharples’s jacket, bringing a sudden halt to the conversation.
“Commander Sanchez is here to see you sir, she says it’s important.”
“That’s fine Jocelyn,” Mr Sharples gave Willa a withering look, “send her in please.”
“Commander Sanchez, good morning, let me introduce you to Professor Willa Carver, she’s worked on ‘Go Get Mars!’, I am sure you’ve seen her around.”
Commander Ariana Sanchez, twenty-one years old, wunderkind of the United States Air Force Academy, of Puerto Rican descent, gave the professor a solid handshake. “Ma’am, I’ve read all your prep-work on this expedition and found it illuminating. It is an honour to have shared the project with you.”
“Thank you Commander Sanchez.” Willa couldn’t help but admire the sense of discipline, confidence and magnetic attraction immediately apparent in the young woman. “And, what is your role on the project, exactly?”
“Well ma’am, I am part of the crew, brought in just six weeks ago.”
“Six weeks ago?”
“Yes ma’am, it has been a steep curve, but I am there now and, now is what I am here to see Mr Sharples about. May I?”
“Be my guest.” Willa rolled her seat backwards from the desk by approximately one metre.
Sporting a reassuring, cheerful, toothy smile, Mr Sharples encouraged the commander to speak. “Please, Ariana, tell me what you’ve come to see me about.”
“Well sir, I have made several calculations, working with the meteorological team and also alongside the trajectory navigation boys. With the weather systems we have closing in around us over the next few days, I recommend we go for lift-off tonight, at zero-two two-six hours, to be precise.”
“But, that’s almost two days ahead of schedule!” Willa exclaimed, “Mars won’t be where we need it to be when you arrive!” Letting out a sigh, the older spacewoman scientist folded her arms across her front and raised an eyebrow to the project director.
“I know Professor, but if we don’t go tonight, the weather will prevent a lift-off in two days and our window of opportunity for a landing in the preferred Gusev crater at Columbia Hills, will have closed. In which case, we’ll not be able to make it there for another six hundred and eighty-seven days.”
“What will you do with an extra two days in space, improve on your chess?” Willa’s brow furrowed together.
“Sir,” the young commander turned her attention to Sharples, “by our latest calculations, we’ve worked out that across two days, we’ll have an unprecedented opportunity to observe Phobos and Deimos in orbit around Mars resulting in detailed surveys of each moon’s surface, such as never seen before. And, that’s not all sir.”
“Sounds good so far Commander, what else have you got?”
“I’m awaiting confirmation of observations I’ve taken, during some recent down time.” Sanchez paused briefly and pulled the front of her uniform jacket straight. “If my figures are confirmed, then asteroid 2079 Sagan has broken free from the belt and begun an epic journey suggestive of a transformation into a comet. If I am correct, it’s going to fly right by us.”
“I love it!” Mr Sharples sprang out of his padded leather office chair, “Do it Ariana, tell the boys we’re good to go, on my say so, for zero-two, two-six. Assemble the crew, go through your checks procedure and I’ll see you on the launchpad later. Well done Commander, great call!”
Willa held an unsteady hand to her forehead, while Commander Ariana Sanchez saluted and dismissed herself, striding out the office and closing the door behind her.
“You see, Willa?” Mr Sharples slumped back into his chair and spun around three-hundred and sixty degrees. “This kid knows her stuff and there’s plenty, plenty more like her out there. They’re all so full of energy, foresight and enthusiasm.”
“I’ve got enthusiasm too,” Willa pleaded, “that’s why I’m sat here, humiliating myself in front of you.” She wiped a tear from her eye.
“Willa, please, go now, take the spacesuit off, return it to supplies, and go home. The time’s come for you to relax, find a new hobby. After all, everyone here believes you’ve earned it.”
“I can still do this,” Willa wanted to argue her case again, “You don’t seem to understand, I’m not ready to be retired!”
But, Mr Sharples had the last word. “No, Willa, no.”
© Brinkinfield 2020 All Rights Reserved
Part of the Ekphrasis Project (story inspired by a collage)