1. The Back Seat Kids


08:30, 24th March 2029 – 46, Culpepper Drive, Huddersfield, Yorkshire

Whenever retired science teacher Malcolm Brimble got a ‘bad feeling in his water’ it was usually a pretty accurate portent of doom. For eight months, in spite of some powerful antibiotics, the feeling had been worsening.

“It’s going to be a disaster, Barb,” he moaned through the open door of their en suite bathroom.

“They’re saying it’s looking good,” Barbara countered. She was perched on the end of the bed, nursing two freshly made mugs of tea and staring at the TV. The pictures from Mayflower III, in orbit above Mars, showed the crew of Britain’s first manned mission to the Red Planet high-fiving one another.

Malcolm looked up from his ablutions and caught sight of the shaven-headed Mission Commander Flint Dugdale. “No, I can’t look at him!” He nudged the bathroom door shut to block the offending view of Dugdale spraying the contents of a can of Stallion lager into the zero-G atmosphere.

“People change,” his wife called through the door.

“Not that one. Not him. Five years I had him. Bottom of the bottom science set.”

“Come on, he was a teenager. The mission’s so close now; what could possibly go wrong?”

Malcolm cracked the door open. “I think you’re forgetting the Beagle 2 disaster.”

“You don’t know for sure he was responsible.”

Malcolm snorted. Flushing the toilet, he strode out of the bathroom and across the bedroom, pausing only to grab a pair of oily overalls as he took himself off to the garage.

“Don’t forget your tea,” Barbara shouted after him. Too late, he had already made it downstairs and out the front door.

As she followed her husband with his mug, the TV transmission cut to a commercial break. An astronaut holding a can of lager was perched on the back of a rearing horse, set against the backdrop of a red desert. “Stallion, sponsors of Who Wants to go to Mars,” said the voiceover. The handsome space-cowboy lifted his visor and took a gulp from his can before thrusting the label towards the camera. “Stallion extra-strength lager. Putting men on Mars.”

In the garage, Barbara found Malcolm in familiar pose: on his back with his Hush-Puppied feet poking out from under the jacked-up MG Midget Mk III sports car that was his pride and joy.

“No use hiding under there, you silly old goat,” she said, heading for the business end of the car.

The sound of his wife’s approaching flip-flops made Malcolm retreat even further under the protective mass of the vehicle.

She toe-poked his protruding feet. “Listen. You should be proud of yourself. In a few hours’ time, one of your former pupils will be the first man on Mars. You’re a neighbourhood celebrity. I’d milk it if I were you.”

“Celebrity, my foot! What happens when the mission goes pear-shaped because Dugdale doesn’t know one end of an Ion Drive from the other? What will they say about his science teacher then?”

Barbara sighed. Peering through the open bonnet, past the high tension leads, spark plugs and coolant hoses, she could just make out the oily scowl on his face.

“That school trip to Stevenage in 2002 still haunts me, Barb.”

“That was twenty-seven years ago, dear.”

“Single-handedly, he destroyed Beagle 2. I know it.”

Malcolm’s mind drifted back to the Airbus, Defence and Space Establishment in Stevenage. The trip to see the construction of the Beagle 2 Mars lander had seemed to go off smoothly, despite the continual misbehaviour of the thirteen-year-old hoodies in his charge. Back then, before cynicism had set in, Malcolm believed he could turn even the roughest of Grimley Comprehensive’s pupils into potential scientists. In particular, he’d regarded Flint Dugdale as something of a Challenge.