The therapist was pretty, if bookish, and young; though not young enough that he couldn't take her seriously. She began, "Are you comfortable, Mr. Edgewater? I'm sorry: should I call you 'Colonel'? It's 'Colonel', isn't it?"
As he sat down, he answered, "You can call me Frank." He reached down and brushed at his trouser cuff with his hand.
"What can I do for you today, Frank?"
He waited a long moment before answering, "Well, I guess I've just been feeling a little unsettled lately. The NASA doc keeps saying that it's just 're-entry' problems. They always think that's so goddamn funny."
"You know, 're-entry'? Astronauts having problems re-adjusting to a normal life on Earth. First comes re-entry, and then there's re-entry."
"I can see how that would be annoying. Do you think the NASA doctor is wrong, that it's more than just... adjustment issues?"
"Hallucinations aren't really part of that whole deal, usually. From what I understand."
"No, I wouldn't think so. What kind of hallucinations, specifically?"
Again, a long pause. He fidgeted in the chair, recrossed his legs, brushed at his trouser leg. Finally, he said, "Mars: being in the Module; landing; driving around; walking on the surface; the dust; liftoff and ascent."
"The planet itself; not the trip out or back?"
"Why do you suppose that is?"
He laughed. "We were the first people on Mars. It's the single most important moment of our lives. I make a living flying around the country — the world — talking about it. It's what I'll be remembered for. The trip was just getting there."
"Is that what brings you to Phoenix; your speaking tour?"
"What was it like, walking on the surface of another planet?"
"I never actually did. I wasn't one of the ones who got out onto the surface. Hell, three out of the full crew of ten never even landed: they had to stay in the orbiter. Seven of us went down in the Module. Richardson and I stayed inside, Module crew, while the science team went out and explored. You know, did their thing."
"But a minute ago, you said 'driving around'."
"The Descent Module itself was tracked, like a tank. It could make ten klicks per hour over flat terrain. We were down there a month, they wanted us to be able to transport the science team from feature to feature. It expanded our range, not being tethered to a fixed position."
"What was the science team looking for?"
"Water. Microbes, living or fossilized. Anything that proved that life had once existed or that it exists now."
"And they found it?"
"Oh, yeah, they found it. That's how we lost Rajesh Mehra. The science team found subsurface water, took samples on-site, found all sorts of microbes swimming around in it. On the last day they were hurrying to get more samples from other parts of the deposit, and Mehra punctured his suit while digging for soil samples. He got exposed to the water, contaminated. They patched up his suit, but he was already feverish by the time they got back to the Module. Richardson wouldn't let him in."
"Just wouldn't let him in?"
"Letting him into the module would have exposed everyone else. There was no way to isolate him."
"...and he died?"
"He was still alive when we lifted off. We left food and O tanks, and one of the emergency enclosures. But he can't have lasted long: he was half out of his mind, delirious."
"How did it make you feel, leaving him behind?"
"I felt awful. We all did. I had to push the launch button. Richardson offered to do it, to take responsibility given the circumstances, but it was my job. It was a terrible thing to have to do."
"Wasn't Mehra the Module pilot? Second-in-command to Richardson?"
Edgewater shrugged. "So?"
"Earlier I asked if I should call you 'Mister' or 'Colonel'—"
"Isn't it also 'Doctor'? 'Doctor' Edgewater?"
"And in what field did you earn your PhD?"
"So my question is: why were you, a geologist, waiting inside the Module while Mehra, who had no science degree, is out taking Martian soil samples?"
He looked out the window. "I don't know. It just worked out that way."
"Colonel, if I understand these things correctly, every aspect of a mission like this is carefully planned, scheduled down to the minute where possible, with maximum efficiency and best practices in mind, isn't that right?"
"Sure, but in—"
"You're brushing off your trousers again. Is there something on them?"
He realized she was right, his hand was on his ankle. He sighed. "Dust. I keep seeing dust on my pants leg and my shoes."
"What kind of dust?"
"Just dust. Dirt."
"What color is it?"
"Frank, what color is the dust you keep seeing on your trouser leg and trying to brush away?"
He spat, "Red. It's red dust." He took a deep breath and regained his composure. "Well, more of a butterscotch tan. It's Martian dust. Iron Oxide. All right? I keep hallucinating that I have Mars dust on me. It would get all over you if you went outside; they had the same problem on the moon."
"But you never went outside, you said. In spite of the fact that you're a geologist, sent to Mars as part of a mission to look for subsurface water, you never set foot onto the surface..."
"...but Mehra did; and because he did, he was left to die."
"Yes." He reached out and took a long draught from his water glass. "You think I'm having hallucinations because I'm feeling guilty about Mehra? That maybe subconsciously I think he died in my place?"
"We haven't addressed why was he out there instead of you."
"It was his assignment."
"You're a geologist, but you were inside crewing the Module. He was a pilot, but he was out on the surface digging in the dirt. Why?"
There was dust on his pants leg again, and he automatically reached down to brush it away. When he realized she was watching him do it he abruptly stopped, embarrassed. "I don't have an answer for you."
"I think you don't have an answer because you don't really think that's what happened."
"This is ridiculous. I'm wasting my time." He rose, bumping the table and causing water to slosh out of the glass; it pooled against the high shine of the finished wood and dripped from the table's edge and onto the carpeted floor.
Frank mumbled an apology and was making his way awkwardly to the door when she called out, "Who pushed the button? The one that launched the Module's ascent stage?"
"Me, I did. I told you already."
"You're not a pilot, you're a geologist. Digging samples is your job."
His hand was on the doorknob. He wanted to leave, but something held him back. He looked down at his trouser legs.
She said, pityingly, "You can't brush the dust away, it's always going to be there, you know that. Frank, who pushed the button?"
He found himself staring out the window of the therapist's office at the bleak Arizona landscape. It looked like a postcard, or something he'd seen on the front of a travel brochure. "Mehra. It would have been... it would have been Mehra."