The first thing that I want to do on the new ship is to meet up with my old friend Sukie Reynolds, lyrical soprano, and it seems that she has the same idea.

I’m in my cabin that same afternoon, I haven’t unpacked properly yet, I’m in my dressing gown and am drying my hair, when there’s a knock on my door. I pull the dressing gown more tightly around me and open the door, and there she is.

“Hella!” she says. “There you are.”

“Sukie, come in.” We kiss on the cheek and she comes into the room. “Bear with an old woman trying to make herself look slightly less hideous. Do you want to sit on the bed? I’d offer you the chair, but I’m using it.” I’m using the desk as a dressing table and the computer screen as a mirror.

“Just sit down and carry on,” she says. “And if you’re fishing for compliments, you look very good.”

I stand in front of her, still for a moment, and look into her face.

“You’re looking good, Sukie,” I say seriously. “You’re looking well.”

“Well, I feel well,” she says, and she spreads herself on my bed with a flourish. “I’m back on the road.”

“So I see.” Sukie was not well at all, for some time, but a hysterectomy seems to have sorted everything out, and she has been giving concerts again for several months now.

I sit down again and pick up my hairbrush. On the screen I can see her in the background behind me.

“How’s Ari doing?” I ask her over the noise of the drier. Ari is her regular accompanist and also her partner.

“He’s fine. He’s been a great support, Hella, through all of this.”

I catch her eye on the screen. “That’s good. Good for him.”

She stands up. “Let me help you, Hella,” she says, and she takes the drier and the brush from me. “You really need three hands for this.”

I settle back and sit still as she gets on with it. She’s doing very well with just two hands.

“You need to do your colouring,” she says, lifting a handful of hair and looking at me on the screen.

“I know. It’s high time.”

“You should see Patty as soon as possible. Unless you’d rather do it yourself?”

“No, I’d rather get it done,” I reply. “Is Patty the hairdresser?”

“That’s right. And something else, something technical.” The crew all have a variety of jobs.

“Is she good?”

Sukie looks at me thoughtfully.

“Not really,” she says. “I don’t think so. But she’ll manage colouring.”

“That’s a pity,” I say, “because I’d quite like to go to a good hairdresser. I was thinking I’d like to grow my hair.” I’ve had my hair relatively short, above the shoulders, for many years, but I used to have it much longer.

Sukie considers me.

“Well, have a chat with her about it,” she says, “and see what you think. I’m not saying she’s no good at all.”

“Right.”

She carries on drying and brushing my hair, and I watch her on the screen as she does it and we converse for a while about people and places that we know. Finally she switches off the drier.

“So are you up for a coffee or a tea down in the bar?” she asks. “More comfortable than here.”

I turn in my seat and look up at her.

“Sukie, I really need to put in some practice,” I say. “I haven’t had a chance all day. Can we meet for dinner instead?”

“Okay, we can do that. I’ll come and collect you, and we can go in together.”

“Really?”

“I’m just a few doors up. I have to pass here anyway.”

“Okay, sounds good.”

“Seven work for you?”

I agree that it does, and at seven she knocks again. This time she has Ari with her, and this time I am ready: dressed and made up, a little, and quite hungry now. Also completely sobered up after today’s lunch.

We’re both in a good mood, and we chat cheerfully, her husband following us, as we walk down the corridor and into the dining room. It’s very busy. These ships are all much the same, but they do differ in size, and this ship is quite a lot bigger than the one I came in; and it’s full of passengers, and everybody seems to want dinner at the same time this evening.

We join the queue for the buffet. Ari has found someone he knows and has gone off to talk with him; Sukie and I stand in the queue and move slowly towards the table with the food, chatting to each other and waving to the people we know. As I expected, I recognise a lot of the passengers, and they recognise me.

A number of those that I don’t know are evidently Jovians; their style of dress makes that obvious. They seem to form a group of their own: standing together, talking to each other, not interacting much with the others. One of them looks vaguely familiar, and I furrow my brow as I try to remember where I may have seen his face before.

We consider ourselves lucky to find a table where we can sit together; there’s no point in being selective about who we’re sitting with. Some of the people around us seem to be musicians; others clearly aren’t. It’s quite loud.

We’ve been there for a few minutes when I see Peak and Swift standing nearby, holding their trays and looking around for somewhere to sit. A couple of people nearby are just finishing and getting ready to leave; I call to the two of them and we all rearrange ourselves a little to let them sit down next to us. They both know Sukie.

“I remember when you came to Mars,” Peak says, unscrewing the lid of his soup. “I remember going to one of your recitals, that you did with Hella.”

She and I look at each other.

“That was quite some time ago,” she says. It was. It was Heinrich Heine’s centennial, and we gave recitals of Schumann and Schubert, settings of Heine’s poems.

“And you were at the Theatre of Mars that season,” Swift adds.

“So you were,” I say. I had forgotten that. Now I’m trying to remember which opera she appeared in.

“Mimi,” says Sukie, looking at me.

“Yes: you were Mimi,” I say. In La Bohème. I went too, I remember, one evening.

“So what are you giving them at the festival, Sukie?” Peak asks. “Will you be giving them opera?”

“Yes, certainly,” she says, and we go on to discuss the various programmes that we are all gradually putting together: my solo recitals, the quartet’s concerts, the two concerts that we are doing together, and now Sukie’s series of recitals.

We’ve been careful to pick the hits, like the Trout quintet and the Moonlight sonata, but there are no barnstormers like some of Sukie’s numbers in our various selections. She’s doing one gala concert of favourite operatic arias, with Ari on synthesiser in lieu of an orchestra.

“Why don’t you do that, Hella?” Peak asks.

It’s true: I could. I could play some of the really popular pieces: the Emperor concerto, or Rachmaninov’s second. I daresay that would go down extremely well.

I suppose I’m too much of a purist too.

“Well, I’ve never done that,” I say. That’s not quite true, because I remember doing it as a student, when appearing with an orchestra was financially quite unrealistic. I understand the technology has advanced a great deal since then.

Peak gives a little half-smile, and I know what he’s thinking: that they and I are on the same side in looking down on this commercialised and popularised spectacle that Sukie is describing. What annoys me is that this is indeed how I automatically feel about it, my automatic reaction; and my reaction to that is to want to take my friend’s side.

She’s not just doing this, though. She and Ari are putting on some lieder recitals, with Ari presumably on the same grand piano as I’ll be playing, and they will surely be much more intimate and thoughtful and sensitive. I’d very much like to go and listen myself. I wonder whether that will be possible: I know a lot of the events are already sold out.

“I’m sure they’ll let you in,” says Swift. “You of all people. They’ll give you a chair with the ushers, or something.”

“I’m sure they will too,” says Sukie. “If all else fails you can turn Ari’s pages,” and we all laugh at that idea.

Later Sukie suggests going for an after-dinner drink in one of the ship’s bars. I don’t usually do this, but I agree. Ari has come over in the meantime, having finished his meal with his friend, and he is standing behind Sukie with his hands on the back of her chair.

We all get up, bring our trays back, and follow each other out of the dining room. There are two bars right next door, on opposite sides of the corridor: one looking out in the direction of the ship’s travel on its journey from Earth and called the night bar, the other looking back towards the Sun and consequently called the day bar. The ship is in orbit around the Sun now, alongside the base, but it still has that orientation.

Both bars are very full, but the day bar is a little quieter and we decide to go in there.

“There are two more bars,” Sukie explains, “on the other side of the ship.” Are there? There weren’t on the other ship. “They’ll probably be quieter. Not tomorrow, though, because they’re showing sport.”

“Are they?” I say without any real interest.

Peak is interested, however, and he discusses it with Ari. It appears to be an international football match.

Nobody seems interested in going to a quieter bar. We get our drinks from the dispensers along the inside wall and find a place to stand together in the body of the room. Sitting is completely impossible tonight.

Even though it’s quieter than the night bar opposite, it’s still fairly boisterous in here and we have to talk loudly to make ourselves heard. At least it’s easy to see: it’s daylight, as in the restaurant in Nereus Base whenever the Sun passed underneath. I can’t in fact see the Sun, but that’s because people are in the way; I know it’s easy to see from here, through the window panel, smaller than when seen from Mars but still unmistakable.

We’ve now fragmented into two groups: Ari and Peak are still talking about football, I think, with Swift listening to them, and Sukie and I are chatting about people we both know. Rather exuberantly: I think the fact that we have to shout is making our mood more exalted than it was. Sukie’s face is flushed.

I become aware that someone is standing close by and watching us. I turn to face him. It’s very obviously an Earthman, middle-aged, shorter than me, soberly dressed and with a small beer in his hand.

“Good evening,” he says.

“Good evening,” I repeat, wondering who this is. Sukie’s laughter dies away and she faces him too.

“I’m Jerry Miciov,” he says. Mitchoff. “From the UN. I sent you an email.”

“Oh, yes, hi,” I say, and I extend a hand. He shakes it, and then Sukie’s.

“I was at that meeting in New York,” he goes on. “Do you remember? I was seated a little way down the table, on your left.”

“Of course I remember,” I lie. “Good to see you again.” I have no memory of him at all. Unless he is the man who said he had looked at all the performers at the festival. What was the word he used? Inspected, or something.

“You had a meeting with the UN?” Sukie asks me.

“At the UN. Yes, that’s right. When I was last on Earth, a few months ago.”

She appraises me, and turns to the newcomer.

“Good to make your acquaintance, Jerry,” she says. “What brings you out here?”

“It’s Jiří really,” he says. “But nobody can pronounce it.”

“Jiří,” Sukie says promptly, and he makes a surprised and impressed face, which transforms the rather glum, dour expression that he has had till now.

“Do you speak my language?” he asks.

“Almost certainly not,” she replies, and she smiles at him. “But I have to sing in many different languages, whether I understand them or not.”

“Well, that was very good,” he says. “You asked me why I’m here. I’m travelling to the festival, as you are. I work on interplanetary cultural affairs, for the UN.”

“And you’ve been on board all this time, haven’t you?” she says. “I’m sure I’ve seen you around.” I think she’s making that up.

“Probably,” he agrees. “Though I spend a lot of time in my office.”

“You have an office on board the ship?”

“Yes. There’s a team of us here, and we keep normal office hours.”

“Very diligent.”

I can’t imagine what a whole team of them finds to do all day, on interplanetary cultural affairs.

“I’m very much looking forward to hearing you sing, Ms Reynolds,” he says. “I’m a great admirer. I saw you recently at the Met.”

“Did you?”

“What were you singing, Sukie?” I ask her.

She turns to answer me. “Frau Angelika,” she says, the title role in a modern opera about mediaeval art, with a twist.

“It was very moving,” says Miciov.

“Thank you.”

“Alessandro was my countryman,” he goes on. “I was able to speak to him before he returned to Europe. It was very interesting.”

“I remember him,” says Sukie. “Vacláv is his name, right? His English is not very good. Not as good as yours. Do you know the opera, Hella?”

“Not really.”

“Alessandro is one of the bad guys. He threatens Angelika in Act Two. But I get the better of him in the end.” She smiles. “Not that that helps. It all ends badly. I die, tragically.”

“Sorry to hear it,” I say, and we exchange grins.

“Very movingly,” says Miciov. “I felt angry on your behalf.”

“On Angelika’s behalf.”

“Yes. It was so unjust.”

“It was. It’s quite a political opera, Hella, in a way. Though Angelika herself is very innocent and has no idea what’s really going on.”

Sounds like me going to the Jovian System, I think; but I don’t voice that thought.

“Mr Miciov,” I say, “should we have a meeting? It would be very good to follow up from New York.”

“Yes, we should,” he replies. “That’s why I approached you tonight. Can you come to my office? Does tomorrow morning work?”

It does, and we agree on the time and he explains where his office is: way over on the other side of the ship.

Sukie is looking intently at me. I can see that I am going to have to explain all about the United Nations and what they want from me.

Not now, though. The men of our party have finally noticed Mr Miciov, and they turn to join our group. They want to know who he is, and he introduces himself again. They are all polite and friendly, but I see Ari looking at him with a thoughtful expression. He doesn’t say anything.

Swift is interested in what Miciov and his team are doing, and they embark on a conversation about cultural bureaucracy. The rest of us are bored by this after a while and we start to fragment into our own conversations again.

Inevitably we talk about music, and Ari is interested in hearing about the pieces I am playing with the various members of the quartet. Peak does most of the talking here, together with Ari, the conversation becomes quite technical, and it then moves on to other musicians they both know who have performed the same works, and how badly, laughably badly, they have done it.

This kind of chat is boringly familiar to me, and soon Sukie and I are talking together again, without the others. By now it’s so crowded and loud in here that we have to stand right up close to each other and shout in each other’s ears, so that I’m sure no one else can hear what we’re saying; and this is when Sukie asks me about the United Nations, and I explain.

“I just want to do what I can to help,” I shout, and she nods.

“You should talk to Ari,” she says.

“Why?”

“Because he’s been taking an interest. In the Jovian System.”

I think she would tell me more, but it’s such hard work talking and listening that she gives up and makes a dismissive wave with her hand. I laugh, we catch each other’s eye, and we sip our drinks in silence.

I take my leave shortly afterwards. I finish my drink, take my beaker back to the counter and put it in the hatch to be taken away and washed, and I say good night to them all. It’s been nice to catch up, but it’s not much fun to stand around in this noise and this crowd, and in any case I want to be in my bed before the ship moves off.

It’s not one of those absolute ship’s rules, that you have to be in bed at those times, and in fact many people stay up: they congregate in the bars, and drink and say farewell to whatever planet the ship is departing from. But it’s not recommended, and I don’t enjoy it. It’s like standing or sitting on a very steep slope, because the whole ship seems to be tilting down in the direction from which we are coming; and it goes on all night, for as long as the ship is accelerating, until it reaches its cruising speed, which is indeed thirty kilometres per second: I asked, and verified that item of information.

The next morning I walk around that long corridor to Mr Miciov’s office. I’ve had my breakfast, I’ve put in an hour or so of exercises on my keyboard, it’s now mid-morning and it’s the time that we arranged. The door is open as I approach it, which is unusual and surprises me.

It’s a large room, not quite as large as the rehearsal room on the other ship, and it has four desks in it, with four people sitting at them. Three of them are at work; Mr Miciov stands up when I put my head around the corner and comes to meet me with an outstretched hand.

“A very good morning, Ms Lundgren. Please take a seat.”

“Thank you.”

I sit on a chair on the other side of his desk. Like all furniture on board it’s fixed to a short rail in the floor, permitting it to be moved forward or backward a little, but otherwise not at all. I push it back as far as it will go and cross my legs.

Mr Miciov doesn’t seem to do small talk or niceties. He launches straight into a discussion of the political situation, and he begins by giving me an update.

“You’ll remember that we’ve been conducting negotiations for some time with a Jovian delegation. The Secretary General mentioned them when you were at New York.”

“Yes.”

“We have made a certain amount of progress. Not as much as we would have hoped; but a certain amount. Together we have worked out a set of tentative points of agreement, some more tentative than others, and the Jovians now feel they want to involve their senior leadership more directly. So they are returning to the Jovian System.”

He breaks off and looks at me, and I suddenly realise what he means.

“Oh – they’re on the ship now, with us?”

“Correct. Their whole delegation is returning home, and the individuals you see in this room are the delegation from the United Nations which is authorised to continue those negotiations on Callisto.”

“So you don’t all do interplanetary cultural affairs.”

“No. Just me.”

“Are you negotiating now?”

“Not as such. The talks are officially on hold until we arrive in the Jovian System because, as I said, their senior leadership wants to negotiate with us directly. But of course we speak to each other, here on board, informally.”

“I suppose you could hardly avoid doing that.”

“That is correct. And in fact, on certain technical points we’re still making progress, occasionally. Always subject to confirmation by their leadership once we get there.”

“The Committee.”

“Yes, and its spokesman.”

“Michael Obasanjo.”

“That’s right.”

I think about this.

“That sounds encouraging, though,” I say. “It sounds as though you expect to reach an agreement.”

“We hope so.”

“And are they going to be allowed to separate?”

Mr Miciov winces a little.

“It’s more complex than that,” he says. “It’s about the extent to which the rest of the interplanetary community recognises their local structures and the decisions they take, and how we can ensure that their local structures comply with the law.”

“I thought they didn’t comply.”

He explains it patiently.

“It’s about finding a way to incorporate Jovian structures into current law so that, in future, they are in compliance, and their actions are subject to the same legal oversight as elsewhere in the Solar System. And that every individual in the Jovian System can ultimately have the same kind of redress as everywhere else.”

“Isn’t that exactly what they don’t want?”

“There is only ever any point in conducting negotiations,” he says, “if both sides accept that they are not going to get a hundred per cent of what they want.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

“But that acceptance is greater in some areas than in others, and it’s true that redress for individuals is currently one of the more difficult issues.”

I think about what he has said.

“So does the UN accept, too, that it’s not going to get everything it wants?”

He considers me for a moment.

“Let me put it this way, Ms Lundgren. We can see that the Jovians have some legitimate concerns. It’s a natural desire of human beings to feel that they are in control of their own lives, in some sense; that they can determine, or participate in determining, what happens around them. I understand that. We understand that. I’m willing to accept that we’ve perhaps been negligent, complacent, for too long, and it would have been better to recognise that sooner. We’ve been guilty of assuming for too long that people would always be content to continue with the old structures, the way it has always been, even when they live in unimaginably remote colonies which most of them never leave.”

“Are you saying the Jovians are right?”

His eyes flicker to a point behind me. Evidently the others are listening to this. Of course they are.

“We have to ensure that order and justice are maintained wherever humanity lives,” he says. “A rule of law that everyone can rely on. That is the limit beyond which we cannot retreat. But there are always different ways of achieving those objects. The task is to find a way, within that limit, of taking account of the Jovians’ legitimate concerns.”

“And that’s what the negotiations are about.”

“That is what they have always been about.”

“Well, that does sound encouraging,” I say once more, and I uncross my legs and cross them the other way. “It sounds as though you’re well on the way to sorting all this out. Do you even need me?”

“Absolutely, Ms Lundgren,” he says, and again he glances behind me. “Your contribution can be invaluable.” He leans forward on his desk to underline the urgency of what he is saying. “It’s one thing to work out technical solutions among specialists. That’s what we’ve been doing all this time, and it’s the only way we’re ever going to resolve this. But ultimately it’s public opinion that will decide. We know the Jovian leadership is appealing over our heads to their own public opinion, and to public opinion outside the Jovian System. They’re bound to continue doing this, and they’re bound to use the festival as a tool for it. That’s why this is so important. That is why you are so important.”

I am silent. I sit there and look at him, at his face, now so animated, so different from the unmoved, unemotional, almost morose expression that it seems to have most of the time.

“Well, I want to help,” I say. “I promised to when I was in New York, and I still want to.”

“We appreciate that.”

“But I don’t feel prepared, at all. I’m really hoping you can help me to prepare for this. Rehearse.”

“That’s exactly what I want to do, Ms Lundgren,” he says, “and why I’ve asked you to come here this morning. Here, I’ve prepared something for you.”

He takes a folder from where it was lying next to him on the desk and hands it to me. He has one too.

“This is just meant to help us in structuring our discussions,” he explains. “It’s not supposed to be a set of instructions or something you have to learn, anything like that.”

I look at the first page, which displays a list of themes, like a table of contents, and I leaf through the rest, which seems to consist of detail backing up each of those themes.

“What I suggest,” he goes on, “is that you and I meet up regularly – once a week, say -  and we discuss one of these subjects at each of our meetings. You can look at the documentation here beforehand, if you like, and if you have time; if you don’t, it’s not a problem; and we’ll talk it through, and consider the kinds of questions that you might be expected to have an answer to, when we get to the Jovian System.”

What a terrestrial thing to give me. Actual paper.

“This is exactly what I was hoping for,” I tell him. “I want to get this right.”

He smiles. “That’s very good,” he says. “And let me stress once again: we want to inform you and help you, not brainwash you or manipulate you. When you answer those questions, it should be your own opinion that you’re giving. Not echoing something that you’ve been taught. Your own honest, informed opinion.”

“Sounds good.”

“Shall we make a start with the first subject?”

I look at the cover page. “The Arts,” I read.

“I haven’t read it yet,” I point out.

“That doesn’t matter. It’s just back-up detail, in case you’re interested. You know plenty about this subject anyway.”

That’s true.

“Okay,” I say, and we start.

Earth has always played a big part in encouraging the performing arts in the other settlements. Even on Mars, which has been settled for longest and is far more populous than the other non-terrestrial planets, there is still a good deal of support, both as direct subsidies and through the centralised organisation of visits like that of Sukie all those years ago.

The festival in the Jovian System is an example of how this works. The Jovians themselves are contributing a lot, obviously: they’re providing the venues and the equipment, my piano, our accommodation; the tickets cost money, which will help to cover the cost; but a large slice of it is being paid for by the UN’s Cultural Commission.

It’s true that this shows the importance of interplanetary cooperation and good interplanetary relations. Without that support from Earth, the festival couldn’t happen. The travel alone would be far too expensive.

“Can I ask a question?” I ask. “Why is Earth still paying for this, if we’re all so at loggerheads with the Jovians?”

“Well,” Mr Miciov explains, “for one thing, this festival has been in the planning for a long time.” That’s true: it’s been in my schedule for a couple of years at least. “It’s far easier not to start a project in the first place than to cancel one that is already planned and agreed.”

“Fair enough.”

“It’s not just Earth, by the way, paying for this. It’s the UN, and other planets pay into that fund too. Mars, for instance.”

“Right. But most of the money must come from Earth.”

“It does, yes. Without Earth’s contribution, it wouldn’t be possible in this form.”

Which means that what I said was a perfectly reasonable way of putting it, Mr Miciov.

“There’s private money too,” he goes on. “Corporate sponsors.”

“Yes, I’ve seen them named in the programme.”

“Though that money depends on the political situation. Private money is flighty.”

“They might pull out if the situation deteriorates?”

“If they can; or at least be less cooperative, less proactive. Less willing to do additional things voluntarily.”

I nod.

“But as far as the UN is concerned,” he says, “we have a firm commitment, and we’re keeping it. There were good reasons for making that commitment, and those reasons still apply.”

“Cultural development, all that.”

“Yes.”

“But it does seem weird.” I think about it. “Somehow paradoxical. There’s a diplomatic crisis, that’s been going on for ages, the UN is deeply concerned about the situation there, you say it’s undemocratic and tyrannical and illegal; and yet at the same time you’re funding this event for their benefit. It’s weird.”

“For the benefit of the Jovians, not their leaders. That’s not the same thing.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

“As you know, we want to avoid its misuse for the benefit of the Jovian leadership.”

“This is where I come in.”

“Exactly.”

I pause, and ruminate.

“There must be a limit,” I say. “You wouldn’t just carry on as before, as if everything was all fine, no matter how bad things got. Surely, if you weren’t getting anywhere with the negotiations, if it was all headed down a road that you absolutely don’t want and you couldn’t stop it, surely you’d pull the plug on it at some point.”

He gives me a serious look.

“That is not a weapon which we are considering using,” he says.

Hmm. I look at him, and am silent.

“On the contrary, Ms Lundgren. The festival demonstrates, it’s one example among many, of how important it is to the Jovians themselves to remain embedded in our interplanetary system.”

“For those who care about music.” I’m thinking about Rare Delight.

“Even people who don’t appreciate music themselves ought to be able to comprehend what it means to society at large. And most people do like some kind of music.”

“If it’s not classical music, it’s kimyona, or something else.”

“That’s right.”

Those potential questions that I might be expected to field when I get to the Jovian System all seem fairly obvious. How do I feel, coming from the inner planets to their System, or Federation. How do I like the festival. Its reception by Jovian audiences. What are audiences here like compared to those on Earth. How important is it to me to be able to play here. How about the other performers. These questions and their answers all point in one direction: music is universal, music lovers are the same everywhere, and it’s really, really important to have events like this.

Mr Miciov said he didn’t want to brainwash me, and I believe him; but I am certainly being coached.

But I’m not being coached to say anything that I don’t agree with. All this really is what I think; he’s simply helping me to structure it clearly in my brain and formulate it when I’m asked. This is what I’ve been hoping for.

I return to my cabin after about an hour of this and I’m feeling encouraged. If I’m honest, I don’t feel that I have made a great deal of progress; but I think that is because we’ve started with a very easy subject. As we move on to more political themes, and legal themes too, I suppose, the material will become more challenging and the answers much harder to work out on my own.

That evening I see the whole quartet again for the first time since we joined this ship. I’ve been wondering about Val. On Nereus Base it seemed clear to me that he was working up to making a pass at me: getting me on my own, plying me with drinks, paying me compliments; and then nothing happened. Did he lose his nerve? Did he pick up some kind of negative signal from me, or think he did? Or did I simply misunderstand the whole thing? It’s puzzling.

There’d be no future in it anyway. But I’d like to know.

Grand is his usual witty self over dinner. Sarcastic, snide, superior; not about anybody present. About the Jovians, as usual; about other musicians; about bureaucrats and people doing their jobs. As ever he finishes each sarcastic comment with a glance at Peak, who sniggers and makes a sarcastic comment of his own, backing him up.

Swift doesn’t join in the sarcasm. He brings the conversation back to its subject and sees that it progresses along sensible lines.

Val is very quiet; but he usually is. I glance at him from time to time as the rest of us talk. Our eyes don’t meet. Is he avoiding my glance?

As I leave the dining room to go back to my cabin I see Ari at the edge of the room, leaning on the wall and talking to the Jovian that I thought I recognised yesterday. I still think he looks familiar, and now that Mr Miciov has told me that this is the Jovian delegation to the UN, returning home to consult with their leadership, it dawns on me. He is one of the Committee members who was shown in the presentation by that lady; I’ve forgotten her name. I’ve forgotten his name too. He was the one whose face seemed sympathetic. Handsome, and slightly amused. Charming, even debonair; at any rate compared to the others.

If life has taught me anything, it’s that he won’t be anything like that in reality.

His eyes flicker towards me as I pass in the distance, but he and Ari don’t stop talking together. I’m still greeting people in the crowd, musicians that I know from Earth and am now encountering for the first time since joining this ship. It takes a little while to reach the exit, but I get there in the end. One or two of them want me to come with them to the bar.

“I won’t tonight,” I tell them, “but I might tomorrow.”

And I do; but before that I make my introductory visit to Dr Dias. He’s a swarthy little man, very hairy, a good deal shorter than me, and he doesn’t speak very much. When he does, there’s an accent that I can’t quite place.

I’m not sure that he’s as well informed as I’d like, if I’m honest. Maybe I’m being unfair to him. I hope so.

He examines me in silence; fairly thoroughly, as far as I can tell. He studies his screen; I can’t see what he’s looking at, but I presume it’s the data supplied by my device, and the older data that Gaetano has passed on to him. He doesn’t ask me anything. I volunteer some information after a while, about how I’m feeling and what I’m noticing; he is staring at his screen and it’s not necessarily clear that he is even listening to me.

How this makes me feel is that it brings home to me that I’m on my own. All the people that I love are far, far away from me, and I am speeding further away from them with every second that passes. The only person on board who knows about my situation is Dr Dias. There’s nobody here to sympathise with me, to listen to me. Nobody to give me a hug.

I catch myself thinking that I have done an incredibly stupid thing in not cancelling this journey when I found out about the disease. Why am I spending this precious time with a shipful of people who don’t mean anything to me?

I record a video message for Mitsuko. I don’t say anything about this black mood that I’m suddenly in. It’s a cheery, chatty message, and it’s a long one, because I have a lot to talk about: Nereus Base, the new ship, Sukie and Ari, Mr Miciov, my preparations for being asked questions; many things. When I reach the end of it I’m feeling quite pleased with myself; this was one of my more interesting videos.

I can’t wait for her reply. I want to hear her voice.

I’m feeling a bit more cheerful that evening; I suppose the routine helps; and I do what I said I might: I go into the bar after dinner. At dinner I sat with some people that I only vaguely know: some singers who are members of a vocal ensemble and will be performing motets, as they report, by Bach and others; and an organist who will be playing on his own, and also with a trumpeter who in turn is part of the wind band.

As I pass the entrances to the two bars I glance inside and realise that I crave company. I choose the day bar: the night bar is spectacular with its view of the starry heavens, but I generally prefer the day bar where I can see where I’m going and the faces of the people I’m talking to.

People ignore me as I walk in and make my way to the dispensers along the wall on the inner side of the room, with the corridor behind it. I want a glass of wine. There’s a whole array of choices, which I scroll through on my device. Most of them are synthetic, made here on board with recycled water; a very few, much more expensive, have been lifted up from Earth and really are made from grapes that have grown there in the traditional way. Even on Mars our grapes grow in hydroponic containers.

I’m not enough of a connoisseur to justify spending that sort of money. I select a synthetic white wine that I’ve had before and that purports to be a sauvignon blanc, and I stand holding it with my back to the dispensers and survey the room. There are several people scattered about it that I could join, talking in little groups; none seems a more pressing choice than any other. It’s much quieter than it was in here the first evening.

Around one arrangement of armchairs I see the young people, all together as usual. Some have found seats, the others are standing around them. I’m normally hesitant to intrude into their group; but as I am just about to move off elsewhere Kit catches sight of me and smiles; Spring Lilac turns to see who he is looking at, and when she sees me she smiles at me too; and I feel encouraged, and decide to go over to them.

“Hello, Ms Lundgren,” says Kit. “How are you?” We haven’t spoken since the last ship.

“I’m very well; how are you?” I look around at each of them, and they all acknowledge me with a friendly nod or a murmur, and a smile. One of them, Morning Star, makes as if to get up and offer me her seat, but I protest, and I put a hand on her shoulder.

“Please don’t get up.”

It’s easier to talk to people on your level when there’s this amount of background noise, so the ones with seats are having one conversation, while those standing are having another. They include me in the latter, and in fact we resolve into at least two standing groups. Kit and Spring Lilac turn to face me, and we have a conversation together.

I find myself telling them what I learned the other day from Val about Peak’s electronic bass, and they listen to me with serious expressions. I’m not sure what gave me the idea of telling them that.

“I suppose it seems quite normal to you,” I say, “and you can’t really see why it would be such a surprise, such a shock, to someone like me.”

“Well, you know,” says Kit, “we’re all classically trained, originally. We know what attitudes are like in that world.”

Spring Lilac nods.

“Does he programme it?” she asks.

I look blankly at her, and they exchange a glance.

“With an electronic instrument,” Kit explains, “you can programme it so that it plays itself. Not just a whole piece, necessarily: just one phrase, if you like, or one bar, or one figure.”

“If there’s a phrase you’re having difficulty with,” Lilac adds, “you can teach it to play that phrase exactly as you want it; you keep trying until it’s exactly right; and then you save that to the instrument’s memory, and when you play the piece later it takes over when you get to that phrase, and you pick it up again when it’s played the phrase for you.”

I look at them both, astonished.

“I’m sure he doesn’t do that,” I say.

They glance at each other again and seem amused.

“Lots of classical musicians do,” Kit says. “In an orchestra, or some other kind of ensemble. And, really, if you’re at the third desk of the first violins, all they want from you is that you play the piece properly, the way the conductor wants you to. If you use electronic programming to help you do that, nobody cares.”

I’m flabbergasted. I had no idea.

Obviously I knew you could programme an electronic instrument. I can do that with my keyboard: I can get it to play the other parts in a quintet, for instance, while I play the piano part. But I had only ever thought of this as a help while learning a piece, getting to know it, or maybe while composing. I never thought of anybody using it in a concert. Not a serious musician.

“I daresay you’re right about Glistening Peak, though,” Kit goes on. “It’s not likely that he does it. Not in a quintet. Even if he is only playing the bass.”

“You wouldn’t necessarily know,” Lilac says.

I look from one to the other.

“It’s possible to mask it,” Kit explains, “if you don’t want people to notice. You can fool most people. Even on a stringed instrument. Especially if they’re not looking for it.”

“Which they wouldn’t,” says Lilac.

“Probably. But you can always tell if you know what you’re looking for, especially if you get a close-up of the player’s hands.”

I can imagine that, and in fact I’m finding it hard to imagine how you would mask it at all.

“But presumably Glistening Peak has no need for that,” Kit says. “He doesn’t even play an electronic instrument most of the time.”

“I’m sure he has no need,” I say. Consummate musicians as they all are.

I think I said that in a slightly stuffy, snooty way, without meaning to. Revealing my prejudices. Lilac and Kit know what those prejudices are.

They exchange a little smile, very briefly, which I notice.

“So in your world,” I ask them, “how is this looked upon?”

“It’s normal,” Kit replies. Lilac nods and turns to face me as he continues to speak. “Everybody does it. I do it.”

I try to look non-committal; non-judgmental.

“But why?” I ask. “I’ve seen you play. Your virtuosity. You don’t have any need, any more than Peak, to mime to a computer.”

“I don’t mime,” Kit says. Have I offended him? “In our music we don’t try to hide it.”

“And people are okay with it?”

“The people who listen to our music know that we can play our instruments,” he says. “We don’t need to prove it every time they come to see us.”

It really is a different world.

“It’s very practical,” Lilac says. “It frees you up.”

“For one thing,” says Kit, “it means you can have more than one thing going on.”

“You’re playing one thing,��� I say, “and your instrument is playing something else at the same time?”

“Exactly.” So I suppose it creates the illusion of more players in the group. “And, as Lilac says, it’s liberating. It lets you focus on what you want to. You don’t have to concentrate on reproducing stuff that isn’t going to change anyway.”

I think about this. I’m doing my best to maintain an open mind.

“So what do you concentrate on?”

They exchange a look, and it’s the same look that Kit exchanged with Loyal Friend that very first time when we all spoke together, over dinner. What to say when faced with such ignorance?

“You’ve heard us play, Ms Lundgren,” Kit begins. “In rehearsal; but it’s not really any different in a concert.”

“Except that we don’t stop and try again in a concert,” Lilac interjects.

I smile at that.

“We’re each responsible for our own parts,” he goes on. “They’re all based around the same material, but we’ve changed it; each one of us has varied it, but so that it fits together with what the others are playing.”

That’s not really any different from classical music, except that with us only one mind has composed all those different parts.

“So we’re all listening to each other, and watching, and we react to each other, and they react to us, so that it all goes together.”

I nod. This is very familiar too.

“But it’s more flexible than in classical music. Although it’s all agreed beforehand, it’s not set in stone. We can vary it. We can dwell on things, make more of them, or introduce new thoughts, or do things slightly differently. And we’re watching each other constantly to see what the others are doing, and see whether we get any ideas for ourselves from what they’re doing.”

“Yes, that is more flexible,” I say. “But how does that tie in with programming your instrument? Isn’t that exactly the opposite?”

Another exchange of looks between the pair of them.

“When you press a key,” says Kit, “on your keyboard, Ms Lundgren, you know what sound is going to come out. It’s programmed. It’s pre-determined. But it’s up to you how you use that sound. And it’s the same thing with these pre-programmed bits that we use. We use them to create the music that we’re making. We choose how to use them, in the moment.  Mostly we use them the same way each time. But we don’t have to. We don’t have to use them at all if we choose not to.”

I feel dawning comprehension on my face.

“You’re at the controls of something,” I say. “It’s not like me playing: having to pay attention to every tiny detail of the sound. You’re freed from that, because you’ve done it already: prepared it beforehand. You can take a step back. It’s more like driving a vehicle.”

“Well, it’s more expressive than driving a vehicle.”

“Yes, of course it is; I didn’t mean to suggest that it wasn’t.”

“But yes, you’re right, I can see what you mean. I can’t really explain it very well. But you seem to have understood it anyway. You’re very good.”

“I think you’ve explained it very well indeed,” I say, and I am thoughtful and don’t say anything for a moment.

“And playing together is like being part of a larger consciousness,” says Lilac.

I look at her, and consider what she means by that.

“Because of what emerges when you’re all creating the music together?” I ask.

“Exactly. Nobody designs the music. We all contribute, but what comes out goes beyond what any one of us could imagine. It’s as if we’re all part of a larger mind.”

I’m comparing this to my own experience, and Kit is apparently doing the same thing.

“Not like in classical music,” he says, “where everything emanates from one mind.”

“Well, it’s not quite like that,” I say. “Not when I play.” I’m thinking of when I play with an orchestra, a concerto: Rachmaninov, for instance, and that theme from the beginning of the second concerto is sounding in my head as I speak. “It’s still more than one mind contributing.”

“Really?”

“Yes.” I’m trying to be accurate, and fair. “It’s a partnership. A partnership between me and the conductor.”

“Not the orchestra?” He has a little sardonic smile.

“Not really. The orchestra musicians are there to do what the conductor wants.” I respond to his smile. “Mostly. But that partnership is only about the interpretation, you’re right. Interpreting the piece. The piece itself is set in stone, as you put it.”

I’m thinking about this collective mind idea.

“It’s fascinating,” I say, and I catch the expressions on their faces and realise that they don’t know what I mean. “The way it works with you,” I explain. “All contributing; all part of the creative process; no one in charge. It’s hard to imagine.”

“You should try,” says Kit. I look at him, puzzled. “Come and jam with us. See for yourself what it’s like.”

Lilac’s face acquires an expression of astonished delight.

“Oh, that would be amazing, Ms Lundgren,” she says.

I’m as astonished as she is, and don’t know what to say for a moment.

“What about it?” says Kit.

“It would be a disaster,” I say. “I wouldn’t have the first idea what to do.”

They both smile.

“That’s what everyone thinks at first,” says Lilac. “It’s easier than you think, once you try it. Oh, do say yes, Ms Lundgren. It would be fantastic.”

Kit looks at me with an expression that says, Yes, it really would.

“Well,” I say, and I look from one to the other. “If you think it can really work.”

“Of course it can,” says Lilac. “You’ll see. Oh, this is going to be amazing.”

“Amazingly bad,” I say.

Kit smiles. “It won’t be,” he says. “Lilac’s right: you’ll be surprised how well it goes.”

“I hope so.”

“What I suggest is, you don’t jam with all of us at once at first: just a few of us. Give yourself a chance to get used to it.”

Lilac nods. It’s sweet to see this enthusiasm. It’s been a long time since I was like that.

I realise that some of the others have heard what we have been discussing. Kit has been resting his hand on the back of an armchair some of the time, and the man sitting in it, Plentiful Provider, one of the saxophonists, has turned his head to listen better.

“That sounds like a pretty cool idea,” he says. We all look down on his face.

Several of the others are agreeing. Leaping Fawn watches us from another armchair, not commenting, with her black hair and her red lips and her much more heavily made up face.

“So let’s fix a time,” says Kit, and we compare diaries. That’s soon done, because I haven’t even got any rehearsal times with the quartet in my diary yet, not on this ship, and that reminds me that I need to reserve the rehearsal room for us.

The young people have been more efficient, they’re already in the schedule for that room, and we agree that we’ll use one of their slots.

We discuss briefly who will attend, but agree that they’ll make up their minds themselves between now and then. I’ll wait and see who comes. Obviously Kit will be there, and I’m sure Spring Lilac will too. Percussion and trumpet, together with my keyboard. What other colours do we definitely want? I’m remembering all their instruments, how they sounded together when I heard them rehearsing, and I’m imagining how they will sound with my piano.

When I get back to my cabin and glance at my device, there’s a message from Mitsuko. That was quick. I stop getting ready for bed and sit down to watch it.

It’s obvious that she has sensed the mood I was in when I recorded my message. All my jaunty cheeriness didn’t fool her. This is why she has responded so promptly.

Mountain Rose is with her, and Mitsuko calls her across. Her face appears on the screen.

“Hi, Auntie Hella,” she says, and she beams at me. “Missing you!”

She holds her hand up to the screen to show me her ring, and I smile when I see it. The date isn’t fixed yet, but they have had an engagement party. Rachel was there.

I still haven’t seen her young man. I make a mental note to be cross about it in my next message. Pretend cross.

Mitsuko concludes very affectionately.

“We love you, Hella!” she says.

She and her daughter arrange themselves in front of the screen: Rose has her back to me, and Mitsuko is looking into the camera across her shoulder.

“This is me hugging you, Hella,” she says, and as I see them hugging it does almost feel as though it’s me there with her instead of Rose.

It makes me smile as I remember it later, lying in my bed with the lights out. And it makes me want to communicate with her again, and I actually get up out of bed and record another message to Mitsuko in my nightdress, in the middle of the night with a beaker of herbal tea, telling her about the kimyona musicians and that I am going to play with them.

“I’ve seen that lots of times,” she says in her next message to me, with regard to playing programmable, electronic instruments in an orchestra. “I bet it happens all the time in your concerts. Dear, innocent Hella!” She gives me a big smile.

I’m sure it never used to. I suppose this is another area in which technology has advanced a lot.

A couple of days later I have been having lunch with Sukie, and she suggests going for a coffee afterwards.

“Not here,” she says. “The other side.”

“Why?”

“Oh, I’ve arranged to meet Ari. Do you mind? I know it’s a bit of a walk.”

It’s all the way round to the other side of the ship; but no, I don’t mind. We set off around the corridor, and I carry on telling her about my visit to the hairdresser the other day.

“We had a good talk about growing my hair,” I report. “I know you don’t think she’s very good, but she was making a lot of sense to me.”

“I see she’s only cut around the edges, and she’s given you a wave on top.”

“That’s right: to absorb it as it grows.”

“And then you’re going to unleash it when it’s ready.”

“That’s the idea.”

“On an unsuspecting world.”

I grin at her.

“It’s going to be pretty obvious,” I say.

“Anyway, she’s done a good job with the colouring,” Sukie says.

“She has; and it’s a great relief.”

“I can imagine.”

I’ve made appointments with Patty every few weeks for the rest of the voyage, to maintain my colouring. I hate seeing those white roots.

Ari is in the day bar on the other side of this ship, and there is hardly anybody in there at the moment. He’s with that Jovian again, and they both stand up when Sukie and I walk in.

Ari kisses his wife briefly on the cheek and then takes my hand.

“Hi, Hella,” he says. He’s wearing his trademark thin grey jersey with a polo neck over slacks; he affects an unshaven look around the lower half of his head, which is in contrast to the shiny nudity on top. I can see it well because he is a little shorter than me.

“This is Dauntless Battler,” he says, and the Jovian advances and holds out his hand. He is much taller and, though like all Jovians he is in overalls, open at the neck to reveal a sturdy, work-like shirt, the cut of those overalls, and their material too, have an elegance that is unusual.

“Good to meet you,” I say, and I take his hand and introduce myself.

“Are you both having coffee?” asks Ari, and when we both say yes he goes to the side and starts to run coffee into two cups. In the meantime the rest of us sit down: Sukie and I sit next to each other on a couch, the two men have armchairs, all grouped around a square space across which we can look at each other.

“Ari and Dauntless have become great friends on this voyage,” Sukie tells me, and the Jovian smiles.

“I’ve seen you before,” I say to him. May as well come right out with it. I’m sure Sukie has told Ari what I told her about the UN, and I daresay he has told Dauntless Battler.

“And I’ve seen you before,” he says, and he looks me in the eye. “In fact I was at one of your concerts last year.”

“Were you really?” I wasn’t expecting that.

“I’m very much looking forward to hearing you play on Callisto.”

And it may be a bit silly, but I find that gratifying, and disarming.

Ari brings us our coffees and sits down, and he and Sukie now speak very little, while Dauntless Battler and I talk about music.

I ask him whether he plays an instrument, in case he wants to talk about that, and possibly tell me that he could have gone in for a career as a musician if he hadn’t chosen instead to do what he actually does. But he doesn’t want to talk about that, and in fact he doesn’t talk about himself at all, or about the music that he likes: instead he is very informative about what is likely to go down well in the Jovian Federation, and that is very interesting and helpful for me. My programme has been taking shape all this time, but it is far from being settled.

I tell him about the Shostakovich, the viola sonata, and how the final movement is based on the famous Moonlight sonata.

“Everybody knows that piece,” I say. “Maybe that might give people a route into appreciating Shostakovich. Especially if I play the Moonlight sonata itself too, at the same concert. But I suppose Shostakovich is probably still too obscure. Too unapproachable.”

Dauntless Battler is listening to me; he is serious, and concentrated, and looking straight at me all the time.

“Don’t underestimate the Jovian public,” he says. “I’m sure there are people there who would be interested in the piece. I’d like to hear it myself. Your description is fascinating.”

“Would you?” Perhaps we could play it for him, as we did for Kit.

I push that thought away.

“Do you not think we should concentrate on the hits, the well-known pieces, to attract people?” I ask him.

It’s very interesting that he said that, though, and I carry on thinking about it although I have changed the subject. I’ll mention it to Val; he’ll be pleased.

I want to talk to Val anyway. I’m concerned about how things have been between us since the Base.

“Your concerts are all sold out, aren’t they?” Dauntless Battler replies, and he smiles. “No need to attract anybody. You could force them to listen to whatever you think will be good for them.”

I smile too.

“We have a mission to educate as well as to entertain,” I say, echoing what I was taught all those years ago at the Musikhochschule.

“Precisely; and that’s what the festival is for. I don’t know whether you can imagine what it’s like for us out there. It’s very rare that we get to hear really world-class performers.”

I remember that Dauntless Battler is originally from Mars. But even Mars is very provincial, as far as culture is concerned.

“That’s not only what it’s for, though, is it?” I say, and I look at him meaningfully.

“Of course not. I’m looking forward to the festival atmosphere. It’ll be as if normal routine is suspended. All those exotic visitors. Concerts every night. Parties and receptions. Fraternising in the streets of the colony.”

That’s not what I meant; but I’m sure it’s true.

“It’ll be a big change, won’t it?” I say, and I imagine it. I know what festivals are like on Earth, how they transform everyday life for their duration: suspend routine, as he said; and yet there is far more going on at the same time in any city on Earth, that has nothing to do with the festival, and that dilutes and dissipates its effect. In the Jovian System the whole festival will be contained in that austere, humdrum, grey place, and I bet it will be like nothing they have ever experienced.

“And Callisto will be making an effort to show its best side. I know what efforts are being made.”

“And Ganymede,” I say, because I know there are concerts there too.

“Of course: Ganymede too. But most events will be on Callisto, and Ganymedians will be coming there. Europans too.”

Europans, is that what they’re called? Not Europeans.

“You should try to get to Europa while you’re there,” he says. I’m already going to Ganymede because I’ll be playing there.

“What’s it like?” I ask. Is it worth seeing?

“It’s covered in ice,” he says, “and there are geysers of water, which you almost certainly won’t see, unfortunately. And it’s much closer to Jupiter than Callisto is, so Jupiter is much larger in the sky. If you’re on that side of the planet.” By which he means Europa, not Jupiter, though technically it’s a moon, not a planet.

“Will I be?”

“On Callisto, not necessarily,” he answers, “because the colony is on the side of the planet that’s always facing away from Jupiter. But on Europa the colony is built on the side that is leading on Europa’s orbit: it’s turned at a right angle away from Jupiter, so that Jupiter is always visible in the same place, low in the sky. Day and night.”

“It never rises or sets.”

“No. Europa, and Callisto, are tidally locked: they always turn the same face to Jupiter.”

I know that, in fact. It’s the same with all moons in the Solar System, as far as I know.

“So is it very bright?” I ask.

“Jupiter? Yes. Well, it depends what you compare it to. It’s much brighter than the Moon on Earth. It waxes and wanes like the Moon, it does on Europa, anyway, but it’s always much brighter. So our nights there are brighter than a moonlit night on Earth.” Our nights.

I’m intrigued by the idea. That desolate, hostile, frozen landscape, bathed in silent moonlight – except that the landscape is on the moon, and the light is coming from the planet.

“But our days are much darker than on Earth,” he goes on.

“Yes, I’ve heard about that. What was it like for you, being on Earth? Was it your first time?”

“Yes, it was,” he replies, and immediately I feel guilty about asking him a question that he must have been asked a million times before. I spoke without thinking. He doesn’t show any irritation, though. “You can imagine that it was all very new and strange.”

“I’m sure it was,” I murmur.

“The strangest thing was to be outside, to be walking around in the open, without a space suit.”

“And weather,” I suggest.

“Yes. You’re right.” He looks thoughtfully at me. “You do know what it’s like,” he says. “You live on Mars. It must be similar for you.”

“It’s not as unfamiliar for me,” I say. “I grew up on Earth. But, yes, I live on Mars now, and that helps me appreciate what it must feel like.”

“And our colonies won’t seem as strange to you as they will to Sukie and Ari.”

We glance at those two, and they smile back at us.

“Probably not,” I agree; but we return to talking about Earth. He and the rest of their delegation were there for a long time: many months; and though they were diligent in pursuing their negotiations on behalf of their government, they had plenty of opportunities to look around.

“Mainly I travelled in America,” says Dauntless Battler. Naturally; they were based in New York. “But I was able to travel further afield too.”

“Europe?”

“Of course. It would be madness to come so far, and then not bother with that last leg.”

It would indeed.

And we compare the places that we have both seen. Dauntless Battler visited Norway in the summer, and I hear it with a pang: I would have liked to see Scandinavia one last time.

He and the rest of their delegation have travelled to other capitals around the world, because they wanted to hold talks with individual governments, not just the United Nations: China; India; Indonesia; various places.

We exchange a glance, and I think we are both thinking that, if we wanted to, we could now start talking about the reason for those talks.

We choose not to, for the moment, and carry on talking about tourism.

“That’s the other great impression,” recalls Dauntless Battler, “for a visitor like me. It really brings it home to you how huge Earth is.”

“Yes.”

“You could spend a whole lifetime journeying through it, and at the end you’d still hardly know it.”

“That’s true.”

Sukie chimes in. “Even for a native,” she says. “I’ve spent my whole life on Earth, and it’s true: there’s so much that I’ve never seen.”

We all look at her, and Ari agrees; and that sets the note for the remainder of our conversation this afternoon. All of us can talk about beautiful places that we have seen. Ari has been diving around the Great Barrier Reef, and climbing in Borneo. Sukie reminisces about the Caribbean, and about Italy. Dauntless Battler has been up in the Rockies and the Himalayas, and he has stood on the Great Wall of China. And I talk about the Alps, and about the lakes and islands of Sweden.

Even so, there are gaps: obvious, wide ones. Nobody mentions a desert. Nobody talks about Africa or South America, or the open ocean.

I bring it up the next time I speak to the quartet.

“Where have you guys been on Earth?” I ask them. “Do you just see concert halls and hotels, and taxis? Or do you look around?”

Swift answers for them, after a glance at the others.

“Mainly hotels and taxis,” he says. “And restaurants and bars.”

“Studios,” says Grand.

“True. And hospitals.”

“Hospitals!” I repeat, and the two of them grin.

“Val was taken ill one time,” Swift explains.

“And it was bad enough to have to go to hospital?”

We all look at Val, who looks up from his plate where he is cutting off a morsel of pie.

“It was fine,” he says. “Lot of fuss about nothing.”

I try to draw him out, but he obviously doesn’t want to talk about it, and the rest of us go back to talking about the sights of Earth.

Grand is most forthcoming of them all. He is interested in Earth’s culture, no surprise there, and he has been to many of the famous galleries and museums, and monumental buildings; almost all in Europe.

“What’s your favourite?” I ask.

“Favourite! Where to begin.” He is silent for a moment, and seems to be considering.

“It would have to be Italy,” he says, finally. “Rome, I suppose. Or Venice.” Venice, behind its sea-wall.

“Ah, yes,” I say, and we talk about Michelangelo and Leonardo.

Now that Grand is on a subject that he loves, he is almost a different man. No trace of sarcasm or wounding superiority, though I’m sure it would be back if we came on to talk about those who have no appreciation of these things.

Swift and Peak join in. They don’t quite share Grand’s enthusiasm, but they have been to many of these places too; Peak brings up Florence; and I find myself learning from them, because I am not particularly well-informed on Renaissance painting, though I certainly like it.

Val is almost always very quiet when we’re all together, and he’s quiet now; but I get a bit of a jolt when I glance across at him while Grand is speaking and I am listening attentively. There’s something in his expression that I haven’t seen before. Is it resentment? It’s something new, at any rate. Something new, and disturbing.

I haven’t been able to speak to him alone yet; and now that I actively want to, I realise how difficult it is to engineer on this ship. Apart from our rehearsals, the first time ever was our lunch on the Base; and I am now certain that Val did engineer it, because why else would he now be having this reaction?

I still don’t get an opportunity in the days that follow, and I feel that I’d like to talk it over with someone, but I’m not sure how. I haven’t told Mitsuko yet about what I suspect, about Val’s feelings; I’d have to explain all that first; and in any case she doesn’t know him and can’t see him now, so she has no observations of her own to base any advice on.

Sukie, on the other hand, who does know him and does see him, is not a close enough friend for me to feel comfortable discussing this with her.

In the end I decide that I will consult Mitsuko, but I’ll leave it for now, because I want to think about how best to explain it to her. And also, I suppose, to become clearer about what I myself want; though that might just as easily emerge out of our discussions.

Companionship would be nice. I haven’t really felt like that for a long time, but I think I’m feeling it now, all this way from home. On the other hand, would it be fair, would it not be cruel, to encourage him, knowing that it could only be for a short while?

Not long afterwards I have my rehearsal, my session, with the kimyonas. I asked Kit whether there was anything I should do to prepare.

“No,” he said, and he looked at me, wondering. Fine. Silly question, apparently.

It’s in the morning again, and I make my way there around the long corridor, trailing my instrument in its box behind me. I did my exercises on my keyboard after breakfast and feel as prepared as I can hope to be. I have no idea what to expect.

Kit and Lilac are already there when I arrive, setting themselves up. It’s the same layout as in the rehearsal room on the other ship. The idea is that Kit and I will sit facing each other across our instruments, and Lilac and anyone else will stand wherever they’re not in the way.

“Are we waiting for anyone else?” I ask, just as Morning Star walks in through the door, and I smile.

“Just Plenty, now,” says Lilac, by which she means Plentiful Provider, who plays one of the saxophones. “Hi, Star.”

“Hi, everyone.”

Kit and Lilac have already set up a kind of trestle for me to put my keyboard on, and I busy myself now with unpacking my instrument and getting it ready. Val has already adjusted the settings for me to adapt to this room, but I’m not sitting in the same spot as I was when I played with the quartet the other day. I don’t know whether this will matter.

“Let’s see how it sounds together,” says Kit when I mention it.

Morning Star has taken out a block from the storage compartment and is sitting on it now between me and Kit’s vibraphone, her guitar on her lap, and she is playing some notes, very quietly, seemingly absorbed in what she is doing.

“Where’s Plenty?” says Kit, exasperated. He looks at Lilac.

“Well, he doesn’t have anything to set up,” she says. Neither have you, I think, but don’t say.

Morning Star glances up, but doesn’t comment.

“Well, let’s make a start,” says Kit, and he walks over to the door and makes it close with a wave of his hand.

“We need something to play around,” he explains as he walks back, “something to base our improvisations on, and a good starting point is usually a tune that everybody knows. It has to be an interesting tune: one that we can break up and change around and play with; and I’ve thought of a couple that we might all know.”

Especially me, he evidently means: I won’t necessarily know the tunes that they do.

“So how about this one for starters,” he says, and he plays a snatch of melody on his vibraphone. It’s already somewhat changed from the original context, but I recognise it: it’s from a choral work by Red Dawning, a Martian composer of the last century. What an interesting choice.

Lilac picks up the melody and plays it on her trumpet, while Kit continues without stopping, quietly hammering on one note to underpin what she is playing. He had played it vigorously and forthrightly; she now plays it softly, her sound muted and breathy, and more slowly and contemplatively.

Star contributes some low notes on the bottom two strings of her instrument, based on one figure in that melody.

My turn. What on earth am I supposed to do? Lilac has finished the melody, Kit plays a kind of bridging figure on his vibraphone, Star is still picking out those notes, regularly, and I launch into playing that tune, with a feeling of jumping into a pool with my clothes on.

I play it with the full harmony, in the style of Rachmaninov, voluptuous and sensual.

Kit’s face is laughing as he carries on playing.

“Wow!”  he says.

Lilac joins in again, with notes that ornament and embellish what I am playing. I repeat the tune, still with both hands playing those rich harmonies, and the others respond and share, and somehow something is growing here, like tendrils in a jungle.

The door slides open and Plentiful Provider walks in; I can see him through the corner of my eye. We don’t stop immediately, but our playing peters out, starting with me.

“Sorry, guys,” says Plenty. “Am I late?”

“Ms Lundgren, that’s really cool,” says Kit. “Feel free to change it around. Listen to what Lilac is doing.”

Lilac and I exchange glances, and she smiles at me.

“We were listening to each other, weren’t we?” she says.

“Let’s do what we were just doing,” says Kit. “Star, can you turn up your volume slightly? Plenty, just pick it up.”

Plenty has been taking his saxophone out of its case and he walks between us to stand next to Star, where we can all see him. By this time we have started again, Kit first with some abstract and mysterious-sounding runs in the lower reaches of his range, and Lilac and I are now more overtly duetting: giving each other leads and picking up strands from each other, while the others are providing a backdrop. The rhythmic context is coming from Star with those picked notes on her guitar, and it’s striking how they are not in the same harmony as what I am playing, yet go eerily well with it. I recognise the typical kimyona style.

Plenty begins as part of the accompaniment, playing long notes that complement Kit’s vibraphone, but as time passes he and Lilac start to interact more, and I feel that I am receding more into the background: providing a harmonic context for the two wind players.

After a while Kit stops playing the vibraphone and pulls out a completely different instrument: one that I have never seen before. He steps forward with it and sits on a second block next to Star, already playing as he does so. It too is gourd-shaped, like the other strange instrument that I once saw him playing, and it’s obvious that it’s the hollow belly of it that resonates to produce the sound; but he doesn’t strike it, he draws a wooden scraper over its fretted surface, like a washboard. Unlike a washboard, though, it produces a different note depending on where he is scraping. I’m fascinated by it, and have to force myself to focus on what I’m doing.

I know why he has done this. There’s enough harmony with me on the piano; the vibraphone as well is too much; and this instrument now contributes a rasping, more masculine sound that offsets the perfumed headiness of my Rachmaninov impersonation.

But he had to start on the vibraphone until he was sure that I could sustain the music on my piano.

I feel that this is going extremely well; and Lilac was right: it’s easier than you would expect. We’re not subject to the strict rules of classical harmony; we can play what we like, as long as it sounds well together; and it turns out that all kinds of juxtapositions of notes sound great in this context, although in a classical piece they’d be regarded as discords. It’s liberating, and invigorating.

We don’t all play together at all times; there are five of us here today, and sometimes just three or even two of us will be playing, while the others listen and wait patiently until the music seems to call them back in.

We stop again and again, talk about what we’re doing, how we can make it more coherent and responsive. It’s very much Kit who chairs this discussion; but nobody thinks, including him, that his views are more valid than anyone else’s. He’s a facilitator.

“Do call me Hella,” I tell him at one point, after he has called me Ms Lundgren again. “All of you. We’re all musicians together.”

I hope they all will from now on, not just today, in this rehearsal.

Our exchanges are all entirely technical and practical throughout this session, but afterwards as we’re packing away Kit comes up to me and is very complimentary.

“It’s like when Lilac started playing with us,” he says, “and brought those jazz colours to our sound. You’re doing the same thing with this Romantic style.” Rachmaninov.

Lilac is listening as she helps pack Kit’s equipment away, and she nods.

I’m feeling extremely buoyed after this, and I go back to my room feeling very excited. We’re going to do this again, and will probably expand the group next time. It’s a bit like me getting to know the individual members of the quartet first, as players, before we all played together; but it’s much more of an adjustment here. It’s very interesting, and impressive too, how the young people take up my contribution and absorb it into their sound, so that it enriches rather than ruining it.

I find myself picking up the theme of Jacqueline once more: dipping into those materials that I downloaded, watching videos, listening to recordings. I had lost some of my interest, to a degree, during the latter part of the journey on the previous ship, but it’s rekindling now. It’s odd, though, that I seem to be more interested in her husband this time round, more aligned with him than with Jacqueline herself. Is it just because he played my instrument? Maybe because he survived.

After that first introduction by Ari and Sukie, Dauntless Battler seems to me to be deliberately seeking me out.  He greets me through the crowds at dinner; stands next to me in the queue; joins me in the bar if I go for a coffee or a drink after one of the meals. He doesn’t do it all the time, but often enough for me to start to notice.

I’m having my sessions with Mr Miciov once a week, and it turns into a weird kind of three-cornered conversation. I talk with Mr Miciov about some issue, he presents the view of the United Nations, and it all makes perfect sense to me and I think that this is my view too. Then I speak with Dauntless Battler about the same thing, and it’s all quite different, according to him. I listen to him and I don’t know what to think; and when I report back to Mr Miciov next time he does his best to mask his exasperation and sets me right, from his point of view, countering Dauntless Battler’s points with points of his own.

I never see the two of them speaking together: only through me. Mr Miciov very obviously doesn’t like me talking to Dauntless Battler and doesn’t approve; Dauntless Battler doesn’t seem to mind that the UN has chosen me to cooperate with them, but it’s plain to me that he doesn’t think much of Mr Miciov. A mere mouthpiece, evidently, though he doesn’t expressly say that.

“What about Miranda Benson?” I ask him one afternoon in the day bar. Sukie and Ari are listening, and we’re having coffee.

“What about her?” He is evidently taken aback. We’ve been talking about freedom of expression in the Jovian Federation.

“Hasn’t she been silenced?” I’m remembering what Radiant Sun told me all those months ago in New York. “She was on your Committee, and your Spokesman removed her, and she hasn’t been heard from since.”

“Hasn’t been heard from since?” he echoes, and he looks honestly baffled.

“Isn’t that right? That’s what I was told. She was deposed from the Committee, and nobody outside the Jovian Federation has had any contact with her ever since.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” he says, and he frowns. “I know she retired from the Committee, that’s certainly true. It happened while I was on Earth. I’ll find out.”

That strikes me as strange for a moment, because he was shown as a Committee member in the film clip that Radiant Sun showed me, and Miranda Benson had already been replaced. I suppose someone must have edited the film so as to show me the current members.

Dauntless Battler is as good as his word, and the next time he sees me he has a video message from Miranda Benson on his device. We’re in the same place as we usually are: in the day bar on the far side of the ship from the dining room, where it’s quieter.

He kneels next to my armchair and plays it to me. I can’t tell where she is: in some nondescript room. Her manner seems natural and unforced, as far as I can tell with someone I have never seen before.

“Tell your friend,” she says, “that she doesn’t need to worry about me. I’m back on Europa, and I’m busy with local affairs. I was disappointed at first to leave the Committee, I admit that, but I’m over it. I go to Callisto sometimes, naturally, and I see Michael, and we’re good.”

“Well, of course she would say that,” Mr Miciov says during our next session. “She wouldn’t go on record criticising Obasanjo.”

And again I don’t know how to counter that, and I’m uncertain again.

“Why did she leave the Committee, then, if she was disappointed to do so?” he goes on. “She was elected. She had a term to serve.”

I put that to Dauntless Battler the next time, and this time he looks as exasperated as Mr Miciov.

“Miranda was recalled by her own committee,” he says. “By the committee on Europa. There’s a process of review, which Mr Miciov doesn’t seem to know about, and by that process the committee on Europa decided to assign Miranda to other duties and replace her on the central Committee. With Per de Vries, who you saw. Mr Miciov doesn’t understand how Jovian democracy works.”

I listen to him, and at the end he seems to switch off his exasperation with Miciov and gives me a smile.

“Will you tell me how it works?” I ask him, humbly.

“Sure,” he says, and he does.

Miranda was elected to her local committee by her local residents. It’s the same with all the local committee members. She was responsible for her particular group, and was supposed to represent their interests and views on the committee, and report back to them in regular meetings with activists and ordinary voters. And it was the same principle one level further up. One of the jobs the committee on Europa had to allocate was their representation on the central Committee on Callisto. Miranda was their first appointment, and in the same way she had to report back regularly to the committee on Europa so that they could see how she had been representing them, and give her instructions for when she returned.

At each level, at all times the local group can decide that it would rather have someone else look after its interests, and it can recall that person and appoint someone else. Miranda is still employed, her recall has no effect on that, she still has her income and her security; but she’s not on the central Committee any more.

“So does that happen often?” I ask Dauntless Battler.

“No. Our whole political system has only existed for a short while. Most people are still in the positions they were first appointed to.”

“So what made them recall Miranda?” I ask.

“Hella, I don’t know. It’s not for us to question. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that anyone was dissatisfied with her. Maybe they thought she was the one person to do what she’s doing now.”

I probably look sceptical at that.

“But I mean it,” he says: “it’s not for us to question. That’s the central principle of our democracy: local decisions, local accountability, local power. We have good reasons for holding up that principle.”

I can see why they would. I can see how they would have felt powerless, disenfranchised, the object of anonymous, mysterious power structures far, far away.

“And transparency,” he adds. “It’s vitally important that there’s visibility at all levels. That everybody can see how decisions are made, how money is spent, who benefits. That it’s fair. That there are no opportunities for private deals in secret.”

I look at him, and I think I can guess what he’s alluding to.

“Oh,” I say. “Have you got good reasons for that too?”

“Yes. The individual cases are sub judice. But it’s been known for a long time. Everybody knew. Everybody knew what was going on and who was involved. But there wasn’t a thing we could do about it, until we took matters into our own hands.”

“That system is a machine,” Mr Miciov says the following week, “for Obasanjo to secure his control over the whole hierarchy.” He doesn’t want to talk about the corruption claims. “There’s no possibility of a sudden power change. Any change has to start at the bottom and work its way gradually up the structure. As long as he controls the top, it’s easy for him to control the bottom too.”

I can see how that could be right.

Weeks are passing, it feels as though two forces are tussling for my soul, and I’m no nearer now than at the start to determining which is the good and which the bad force. I’m making a big effort to remain impartial and fair in this contest, because it hasn’t escaped me that Dauntless Battler is trying to charm me; and if circumstances were different, my circumstances, I could see it working.

It hasn’t escaped Val either. He’s never spoken much, but he speaks even less now. He doesn’t scowl, that’s not his style; his face is expressionless; but I know what he’s thinking, and I know he’s angry with me.

I honestly think the others in the quartet haven’t realised that anything is wrong. For them, Val is the same as always: the quiet, pedestrian one, on his pedestrian instrument, the one they like to disdain a little.

In our very first rehearsal, months ago now, Swift and Peak were behaving like little boys showing off. I remember it, and I remember being startled and amused by it. They’re still doing it. They don’t mean anything by it; they don’t know they’re doing it; but they are. These days, though, we’re all rehearsing together, playing quintets, the Schubert and others, and this boyish rivalry happens in front of Val.

He’s furious; but I’m the only one who can see it. He doesn’t do anything or say anything in the situation, but he carries it forward to the next situation, where we might be having lunch or taking coffee, and then he’ll make some comment through which his bitterness and anger shine.

The others look at each other then, and shrug, and carry on.

It’s bizarre. So surprising. I never would have expected it. I’m a grandmother, for goodness’ sake. How did I become this femme fatale, bringing tension and jealousy into a group of men who were perfectly content and functional and peaceful until I arrived?

It’s always one’s first thought to wonder, Is it my fault? Did I make this happen?

But I really don’t think I can blame myself. I don’t owe Val anything. I’m not responsible for his feelings. I don’t owe it to him to feel the same way.

Mitsuko agrees with me.

“He sounds like an idiot,” she says. I’m watching her on my device, in my cabin. “What’s his beef with you? You haven’t done anything wrong.”

Indeed, no, I haven’t, and thank you for confirming that.

“I think all you can do,” she goes on, “is to carry on behaving normally around them all. Practise your pieces, and meet them for meals, and pretend you haven’t noticed anything. Hopefully he’ll get over it.”

I’m inclined to agree with that. At first, after we’d boarded this ship from the Base, I wanted to talk to him, because I felt there were unresolved issues, and it bothered me that nothing was happening about them. Now I feel it’s too late for that. He’s become too hostile and bitter, and I’m afraid of doing more harm than good. And it’s also made him deeply unattractive.

When I’m with Dauntless Battler, usually together with Ari and Sukie, and Val glimpses us across the dining room, or wherever we are, his jealousy screams out at me, such that I wonder the whole room doesn’t notice. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to know that he can see us, and to know what he’s thinking.

*

I’m in the day bar near the dining room with the young people. It’s five in the afternoon, just gone, we’ve just had a very good rehearsal, the whole group, and we’re all in such a good mood that we’ve decided to stay together and relax for a bit. The time is just at that cusp of the day when you might still want a coffee, or you might think, actually, a gin and tonic wouldn’t go amiss.

We’re using up two of those groups of armchairs and couches. Two of the couches are back to back, the other items are arranged around them, and we’re all seated or sprawled so that we can see each other.

I help Loyal Friend carry the drinks for everybody to where we’re sitting. He looks at me holding several glasses in a cluster with both hands.

“They really are a good size,” he says, with approval.

He remarked on my hands during the rehearsal just now, and it’s true: they’re slender and shapely, but they’re large, they have a wide span, and that is very useful for a pianist.

They’ve kept an armchair free for me, and I sit down in it after I’ve put the drinks down on the table in front of it and people have taken them. I have a gin and tonic.

I have Spring Lilac and Leaping Fawn in armchairs to my right, Kit is on the sofa to my left, and the others are in the seating arrangement behind him.

I’ve had to think about what to wear when I’m with the young people. Obviously I can’t wear what the girls are wearing, even if I had anything like it. In fact I think I could carry off a dress like that, but how would it look if I suddenly started affecting their style?

I have a dress in my wardrobe that’s similarly flamboyant: flame-red, nearly orange. I’ve always thought it suited me very well; but I’m reluctant to wear it now. I’d feel like an old woman trying to look young.

So I’m wearing black slacks and an understated top in a light salmon colour up to my neck, that covers up and, I hope, doesn’t draw attention to my slightly heavy bust; and above that a thin and elegantly cut jacket in dark red. I think it works. It’s been a long time since I felt so self-conscious about my attire.

Morning Star is on the other sofa behind Kit and is sitting turned half towards us with one leg underneath her.

“I really like how your hair’s turning out,” she says to me across the backs of the sofas. I smile.

“Oh, thank you!”

It’s grown long enough now to be let out of its confinement on the top of my head and it’s hanging freely around my shoulders. I saw Patty yesterday, she gave me a quick trim and renewed my colouring, and I’m feeling very good about how it looks now.

They’re all listening. I see Kit appraising me.

“Who does your hair, Kit?” I ask him. It’s long for a man’s; still longer than mine.

There’s general laughter at that question. “I do,” he says, and grins.

“You cut it yourself?”

“Sure.”

“I go to Patty,” Morning Star volunteers. “I like what she does.”

I look at her hair, and she turns her head so that I can see it.

“So do I,” I say, and I smile at her again; and we all share our views on Patty. It’s interesting how their opinions of her differ from Sukie’s. Most of them go to her and seem to be entirely satisfied. There’s another crew member who can style hair too, and some of them have tried him out. I’m not going to do that. I’m quite happy with how Patty has been doing.

The conversation moves on, and after a while I’m joining in less: listening more. I like the atmosphere in this group. I feel accepted and at home. I know I’m much older than them: their parents’ generation; I can’t altogether forget that, and I’m sure they don’t either; but it recedes, it doesn’t make itself felt, it doesn’t feel important.

The gin is doing its work, all those hours after lunchtime. I’m not drunk, far from it; but I feel relaxed and warm and convivial. I’m enjoying myself just listening.

I watch Kit as he talks and laughs with the others. I’m looking at his hair. I suppose he grabs a handful of it and pulls it around his head so that he can see it in the mirror, and then hacks off what he regards as too long. Obviously that’s why he wears a headband, so that it stays in place although it hasn’t been styled in any way.

He sees me watching him.

“Wouldn’t you like to do something with your hair?” I ask him.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Anything. A plait.” I used to give Rachel a plait sometimes, especially when she was off to school, so that she could look after her hair more easily without me. She used to board sometimes for a few nights when I was away: not off-planet, but elsewhere on Mars.

“A plait!”

“Sailor-boy,” says Plenty.

“Ship’s Biscuit,” says someone else, and we all laugh.

“Why not?” says Star, and there’s a pause while we all seem to be contemplating that thought. Kit looks a little startled.

“Go on, then,” Plenty says to her.

“Oh, I can’t do a plait,” she says, and I find that hard to believe. Surely everyone can tie a plait.

“What about you, Hella?” he asks, and I admit that, yes, I know how to tie a plait.

There’s a general clamour for me to get up and do it. I resist at first, half-heartedly, but I see Kit grinning and apparently not wholly rejecting the idea, and I stand up. The others all settle back to watch, making sounds of approval and encouragement.

Since having my hair down I’ve taken to carrying a hairbrush in my handbag. I take it out now and hold it in my hand, looking at Kit. There are a few golden hairs in it.

I go around the two couches and climb on to the one behind him, next to Morning Star. Kit turns and sits straight, facing away from me, and I kneel directly behind him, facing in the same direction and looming over him, feeling like a figurehead on the prow of a ship. More Brünnhilde than Aphrodite.

I take his headband off and put it down beside me, and I commence brushing his hair. It needs brushing. It doesn’t need washing, though. It’s clean, and soft to the touch, without being at all slack; it’s auburn and has a natural wave, and as I brush out the knots and tangles and note the random length of a lot of it, I think that something could be made of this.

I brush all of his hair, from his forehead all the way to his neck, and I brush all of it to the back. Finally it’s all free, I can pull the brush without hindrance all the way through, wherever I start, and I put it down and open my handbag again to look for a couple of hairbands. I’m pretty sure I have some in there, and after a moment I find them; I gather his hair together and pass as much of it as I can through one of the hairbands, which I turn over itself a few times to fix the bunch of hair to the back of his head. Then I pick up that bunch and divide it into three equal parts, ready to start plaiting. Everybody is watching me at work.

I haven’t done this for years. Rachel is grown up, she does her own hair, and she doesn’t wear a plait. But you don’t forget how to do this. I’m engrossed in my work, and I’m doing a good job: the three strands are all the same thickness, I’m weaving them tightly and evenly together, and the plait as it grows is centred nicely at the back of Kit’s head. I forget that I’m being watched, and concentrate entirely on this hair, and on how it feels in my hands.

It’s not just my hands. I’m feeling something else too. A stirring, somewhere deep inside, which I don’t even notice at first. Something quite unexpected, and yet at the same time somehow familiar and natural and not unexpected at all. Something warm and burgeoning; and as Kit sits there, perfectly still, letting me weave his hair, I’m certain that he feels it too. Am I imagining it? How can I possibly tell? It’s impossible. But somehow I’m sure. I’m sure that he feels it; that this feeling is linking us together.

Morning Star is sitting next to me, her face turned up to watch me. In front of me, opposite, Spring Lilac and Leaping Fawn are watching too. Leaping Fawn’s face is impassive. Spring Lilac’s expression is hard, and she is staring right at me, at my face. She knows. She knows, and she doesn’t like it. She doesn’t like it at all.

I start in confusion, and I look down again at the growing plait, that is nearly finished now. I fumble, but I regain control of myself and finish it off; I pick up the other hairband and tie it round the end of the plait, many times, with trembling fingers and not daring to look at Spring Lilac.

“There!” I say, and I try to make my voice sound easy and jolly. “All done.”

Kit looks around and up at me, and turns to face Morning Star and the men behind us.

“What do you think?” he asks. Plenty stands up and approaches to take a closer look.

“Good work,” he says. “You can tell you’ve done this before, Hella.”

“It suits you,” says Morning Star. “It’s new. Takes some getting used to. But it looks good.”

“Here’s your headband,” I say to him. “But I don’t think you need to wear it now, unless you want to.”

“Kit without his headband?” says Plenty, and there is some laughter.

“I only wear it to stop my hair from flopping about the place,” says Kit. “You’re right: I can do without it for now.”

“Until you take the plait out again.”

“When should I do that?”

“Now, if you want. But if it were me,” I say, “I’d probably take it out in a couple of days. Because your hair’s growing, and the plait will get loose, and you can’t really brush the rest of your hair as long as the plait’s there.”

“He doesn’t brush anyway,” says Plenty, and Kit looks amused.

“Not really true,” he says.

He puts the headband in his pocket and looks around at us all.

Loyal Friend stands up.

“So who wants another drink?” he asks. He has an empty glass in his hand.

There’s general approval for the suggestion, but I don’t want another.

“I won’t, thanks,” I tell him. “There’s something I need to do, back in my cabin.” I want to take flight. I don’t even want to sit down where I was and finish my first drink, so close to Spring Lilac. I haven’t looked at her all this time.Nobody raises any objection, or seems at all surprised. They’re used to this, to the fact that I’m not really part of their group: with them sometimes, not with them the rest of the time. As they all discuss what they’re going to have and who’s going to help Loyal Friend fetch the drinks, I take my leave; I tell them all that I’ll “See you later!”; and I leave my gin and tonic unfinished on the table and go out of the bar. I walk along the corridor, and all I want is to get to my room where I can blush unobserved




Chapter Five:


Diplomacy