Two months after leaving Mars we arrive at Nereus Base and this first stage of our journey is over.

The first to leave the ship are those whose final destination this is, or who are going on to some other base here: mainly Belters returning from a business trip to Mars. I haven’t spoken to them much during the voyage.

I have one last consultation with Gaetano before I go down to the base myself. The ship is already noticeably emptier at lunch, and after I’ve finished my meal I make my way to his surgery.

I sit and wait as he scans the data on his computer screen. My device monitors me at all times, and he has most of the quantitative data that he requires, but as he has pointed out in the past, you can’t be a good doctor without talking to your patient, and listening to her.

“Well, Hella,” he says finally, and looks up. “On the whole, I’m very satisfied with you. How are you feeling?”

“Not bad at all,” I tell him. “I only notice anything while I’m playing.” I describe what it feels like when it happens. I’ve told him about this before.

“It’s this strange kind of insensitivity. I can’t feel how hard I’m pressing the keys. Only when I hear myself; then I realise. But I can’t tell while I’m doing it.” It’s a serious problem. I have no control over how I’m playing those notes, for as long as the situation lasts: the attack, whatever you want to call it.

He listens, patiently as always. He understands that I’m preoccupied with the effect on my playing; but his is a different point of view: he sees me as a patient, not a pianist, and he is concerned with my whole body, not just with my fingers.

He alludes to certain symptoms that I might be starting to exhibit at this stage of the disease, and I respond that, no, I haven’t really noticed any of those. He nods, and makes a little note.

“Well,” he says again, about half an hour into our consultation by this time. “I’ve been in contact with Dr Dias.” He is the medical officer on the ship that I’m about to join. “I’ve written a report for him, which I’m going to finish off this afternoon. I suggest you go and see him as soon as possible after you board.”

“I will,” I promise.

“I’m sending your medication across, and he’ll dispense it to you as I’ve been doing. And he has the details of Dr Kirchner, in case he needs to contact her.”

“Are you sending her your report too?”

“No, because it’s not that kind of report. But I’ve been reporting back to her regularly, as you know.”

“And is she satisfied too?”

He smiles at me. “In the circumstances, yes.”

I know. We all know the journey I’m on. We all know where it will end. Satisfaction is relative. All anyone can do, really, is to ease my passage.

“Well,” he says yet again, and he stands up. I do too. “Goodbye, Hella. I hope the festival goes well, and I wish you all the best.”

I take his hand. “I don’t know whether I’ll see you again, Gaetano,” I say. Another farewell. “Thanks for everything you’ve done.”

He squeezes my hand, and lets go.

“All the very best,” he says again, and I say goodbye too now, and leave.

I might see him again, but only if he comes down to Mars one day when his ship is stopping off there. It will be a different ship that takes me back home from the Belt after I return from the Jovian System, and Gaetano won’t be on it.

The next day is reserved for the grand migration between the two ships. They timed their travel so as to arrive more or less at the same time as each other; in fact ours arrived first, but only by a few hours. Both ships are now standing off in space close to Nereus Base, and all three are effectively in the same orbit around the Sun.

Most of us, I think probably all of us, are going to the new ship via the base. I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t been here before. I packed most of my things last night, they’re waiting neatly in my cabin, and now after an early breakfast, already wearing my space suit, I go back there to pick up my helmet and make my way to the waiting room by the exit. I expect to find my luggage in my cabin on the other ship when I arrive there this evening.

Nereus Base has a whole fleet of small space craft, and one of them has come out to us this morning to pick us up. First it disgorges a few individuals who have come to do some maintenance here, possibly some cleaning; then we can board, passing down into our ship’s hub and on into the waiting craft.

This one is quite small, smaller than the aircraft that I took from Singapore to the space elevator, and its seats are arranged in a similar fashion. I float down that aisle in a practised manner and take a seat by a window, on my own. I don’t really know the other passengers this morning; obviously I’ve seen them before in the ship. I’ve arranged to meet the quartet for lunch, and I know the young people are going down a bit later too; I’ve made an early start because I’m looking forward to a morning of tourism.

The co-pilot goes all the way down the aisle and back up again, checking that we are all secured; then he takes his seat next to the pilot and we can move off. My window is looking out into space and I can’t see our ship through it, and the view that I have doesn’t change at first; just some slight vibrations that I can feel through the seat indicate that we have indeed disengaged from the ship and are moving slowly away from it. Then the view does change because the craft is altering its direction, and the starry heavens swing round before my eyes as the pilot points the craft towards the base.

I can’t see the other ship, and I can’t see any asteroids, though we’re supposed to be in the Asteroid Belt here; but in front of us I can see the base. I’m sitting near the front of this craft and have a good view, if I crane my neck a little, of where we are heading.

The Sun is paler here than on Mars, and much paler than on Earth on a sunny day, but it’s more than enough to illuminate the base. It looks a bit like the ship, in fact, but it’s much bigger, and rather than being largely a single rim enclosing not very much, Nereus Base is an almost solid disc. It does have an empty space at its centre, which as far as I can tell is about the same size as that enclosed by the ship, but the whole thing extends much further out into space. You could say it’s like a ship that has grown outwards by accreting layer after layer.

Quite possibly that is exactly what has happened. How else would a base expand when it becomes too crowded?

It’s hard to assess the size of the base, observing it like this: there’s nothing to compare it with; but as we approach it our craft is dwarfed by it. It’s huge, in fact. It must be as large as a city on Mars, or a colony on Callisto or Titan.

As we come nearer the pilot adjusts our direction so that we are approaching the disc edge on. I see it like a huge wheel in front of us, like the turning wheel of a huge cart, or not a cart but something with fat tyres, and we are like a tiny insect flying towards it from behind. Then we cross the edge and we’re flying slowly past the wheel, colossal and stately on our left hand; or we’re flying over it like a vast plain, with our craft turned over on its left side. We’re still weightless, so that either way of looking at it is equally valid.

As I look ahead past the pilot and the co-pilot the wheel gradually disappears from view, but if I look to my left across the aisle I can see it through the window opposite. I can’t see much, because the passenger sitting there is avidly watching, and obscuring most of the window. We’re moving quite slowly now, relative to the base.

The view through the window opposite becomes darker, and then completely dark. The man sitting there gives up looking and leans back in his seat. For a moment or two nothing much happens that I can tell; and then I feel a judder and a scraping through the seating, and a muffled thump as something seems to slot into place; and we have stopped. We have docked on to the base; and we have gravity. We’re no longer moving on a more or less straight trajectory through space; we’re joined to the base and we’re rotating about its centre as the base itself does. Consequently we’re experiencing the same centrifugal force towards the edge of the base, which is aligned with the floor of our craft. It feels just as if we have landed on a planet.

In the craft everybody is now unfastening their straps and beginning to stand up. I get up too and stand in the aisle waiting for the door to open. I am near the front and will be one of the first out. We’re all still in our helmets: we kept them on throughout this very short trip; and there is little for us to do to get ready to disembark.

The door opens and we start to move forwards and out of the craft. I feel heavy, heavier than on the ship, which has been keeping its artificial gravity at a Martian level. This feels stronger.

We walk into an airlock immediately outside the door, a featureless space, which immediately closes behind us once all the passengers have left the craft. We wait. Above the door opposite an illuminated sign in alarm red tells us to “Keep Helmets On”. We do.

Then, finally, the airlock is full of air and we are allowed to remove our helmets. We turn to each other and exchange friendly glances, able to see each other’s faces for the first time. The internal door slides open and we pass through it and emerge into a surprisingly wide space.

Here it is obvious that the wheel that forms Nereus Base is much thicker than the rim on the ship. There, a single corridor runs around most of the circuit with just one line of rooms on either side of it, and indeed the dining room fills the whole width of the rim. This space is as wide as multiple dining rooms end to end, and at its two ends I can see several corridors leading off it in parallel like alleyways and, presumably, providing access to the built-up areas between them.

This is a very urban space and might almost be a square in a city on Earth or Mars, except that it’s large enough for the curvature of the floor to be noticeable, and above us is not the sky, or a translucent dome as in Mars City, but a ceiling that separates us from the upper levels of the base, rising towards the hub. People are crossing the space, or standing and talking, or sitting: there are benches in a park-like area, and even a café. Apart from us almost nobody is in a space suit.

Our group now disperses and goes its separate ways. There is somewhere specific that I am intending to make for, but I have plenty of time, and first of all I just want to have a look around. It’s a pleasant change to be in this much wider space, even though we are, obviously, still enclosed. I think I’m going to find the higher gravity tiring before long, though. I hadn’t thought of this. I suppose it’ll be good for me, given that I’m not going to the gym today.

There are parks in Martian cities; there’s quite a large one in Mars City itself; and this one is set up in a similar way. If you’re from Earth you’re very conscious of the differences: there’s no fresh air in a Martian park, it’s the same temperature there as everywhere else, there’s never any weather. And there are no birds or ants or wasps. It feels more like walking in a greenhouse than outside.

This here, in Nereus Base, feels even more indoors than that. It feels almost like the atrium in the UN building, with rather more vegetation and more places to sit. I walk through, at a leisurely pace. I notice that there are labels by many of the plants, giving their species and some information about them: where they are from, when they bloom, what they can be useful for, that sort of thing. I’m delighted to see a young couple walking hand in hand some way ahead of me; they turn aside without noticing me before I reach the point where I saw them.

I come to the end of the park and decide to continue on down one of the alleyways. It’s broad enough for two lanes: one for pedestrians, one for vehicles, and there are indeed buggies, not many, moving almost silently in both directions along their lane. That makes sense, because it must be several kilometres to travel all the way round the base, at its outer edge, here on the lowest level, like a mouse in a wheel.

In the park the roof is several storeys high; here it’s lower, but still it must be three storeys from floor to ceiling. There are entrances on both sides of the passage, some of them looking more private than others, and I presume that the latter provide access for the general public to the upper levels. For the most part the walls on either side are smooth and plain, but there are some decorations: murals and lettering, and sometimes the façade around one of the entrances is sculpted to look like a separate building. Often those façades have signs indicating the companies that reside there.

This passage leads me into another wider space; much smaller, though, than the park. It’s a meeting of passages, a junction or a square. I hesitate at its edge. I could go down any one of these passages; but I see an entrance that looks particularly public and inviting, and I decide to go in there.

Inside a very small entrance hall are two lifts. I press a button to summon one of them. Nobody is here. The left-hand one arrives and opens for me, and I step inside. The display offers me twenty floors, which surprises me: there must be hundreds of levels all in all. How do you get further up? I select the topmost one and wait as the door closes and the lift rises.

 On the twentieth floor the door slides open and I walk out into a corridor, just one storey high, that stretches in both directions, left and right, as far as the eye can see, that is until it curves up out of sight. There are doors all along both walls, and it feels as if I have come on to an upper floor of a hotel. A very big hotel.

There is no discernible difference between the two directions. I choose the left and walk down this corridor, past door after door. All of them have numbers and many of them names. This must be where people live. A residential area.

I hear a sound behind me and I turn to see a man coming out of a door that I have just passed. He looks at me as he closes the door, nods briefly in greeting, and walks away in the other direction towards the lift. I carry on walking. I can hear nothing other than the muffled sound of my own steps.

After what feels like several minutes I see a different kind of entrance ahead of me, and as I approach it I recognise it as a pair of lifts like the one that I came in. In the distance the corridor looks just as it did when I first started walking along it, curving upwards until it disappears from sight.

I summon one of the lifts and take it back down to the lowest level. I emerge from it on to another passageway which feels much more like a public space and is indeed quite busy. I start to walk across without first looking in both directions and I step right in the path of a buggy, which comes to an abrupt halt.

“Sorry!” I say. A woman is driving it, and she shakes her head and drives on. In the back are two small children. Passers-by look curiously at me, but don’t comment.

I’m going to make for that place now that I specifically wanted to visit. It’s a museum, I read about it on board, and it sounded very interesting. I know it’s not far away, and I take my device out to help me find it.

The most direct way seems to be to go back to the park and cross it diagonally towards yet another passageway. I walk down that further passageway, which like the first one is several storeys high and is now quite busy at this time of the morning, and after a couple of minutes I arrive at another lift entrance.

Inside the entrance hall a sign on the wall announces prominently that this is the way to the museum, and in the lift the right button to press for the museum is clearly indicated. It’s on the fifth floor. I press the button and up we go.

On the fifth floor the lift door opens and I step right into the exhibition area itself. There are no more entrances to go through, no tickets to purchase, and there also don’t seem to be any visitors. The place is apparently deserted. I put my helmet down on the floor, out of the way, and advance into the room.

Ahead of me is a board, free-standing, showing the name of the museum and its layout. I walk up to it, past a very old-fashioned looking space suit on a pedestal, and take a look at what there is, briefly, before moving on past it and towards a stand with a model of Nereus Base itself.

As I get there I realise that it’s actually a hologram, and I find it rather pleasing. I can make it rotate, enlarge it, open it up, or make segments of it disappear so that I can look inside at a cross-section of all the floors. Little people are going about their business there, and I smile when I notice them. It’s like a very high-tech dolls’ house. I spend a happy few minutes exploring the base: the representative areas, and the residential areas, on the outer levels, and the more industrial or agricultural sections nearer to the centre.

I don’t want to spend all my time on this one exhibit, though. I move on, deeper into the room, with various displays on all sides of me, and come to a halt in front of another hologram, this one showing the position of Nereus Base in the asteroid belt. It’s clearly marked and easy to find, and so are the other bases in the Belt.

If I click on Nereus Base from the controls in front of me a voice starts talking to me. I can tell from the slightly deadened, echoless sound that it’s one of those clever loudspeaker systems that generate countervailing waves outside a little bubble surrounding you to neutralise the sound, so that you can only hear it inside your own personal space. I can use a similar tool on my keyboard when it’s linked to the ship’s system.

The voice is telling me about the history of the base, and it turns out that it’s nowhere near Nereus, which is an asteroid and is pronounced Nerroyce, apparently. It started out there, a long time ago, but it’s moved, and now it’s closest to a different asteroid in the middle of the Belt whose name consists of numbers and letters that don’t make a word.

The voice finishes talking, and I am still engrossed in this display when a young woman comes round a corner and walks right up to me.

“Good morning,” she says.

“Good morning. Er – it’s open, right?”

“Oh yes. It’s often very quiet. Can I help you at all?”

“Are you with the museum?”

“Yes, I work here.” She looks around. “There’s not much to do.” We exchange a smile. “But I don’t cost much. I’m a student really.”

“Oh, I see. What do you study?”

“Engineering.”

“And do you study here? Is there a university here?”

“I’m enrolled on Earth,” she says. “There are study groups here, and I have a tutor here. But I do most of my studies remotely.”

“That must require some discipline.”

She shrugs. “We’re used to it.”

“Are you from here?”

“Yes, I was born here in the Base. A Belter born and bred. Anyway, welcome to Nereus Base. I presume you’ve just arrived here.” She pronounces the last syllable of Nereus “use”, not “oyce”, and there’s a hint of an I in the middle: “Nerri”. Nerr-yooce. I don’t know what’s right.

“Thank you. Yes, I have.” Not hard to work out, with me wearing my space suit. “My name is Hella.” I give her my hand to shake.

“I’m Rare Delight. People call me Rare.” We clasp and let go.

“Hella,” she says. “Is that – short for something?”

“No, it’s a complete name in its own right. It’s from Sweden.” I glance at her. “A country on Earth.”

She gives me a wry look. “I have heard of Sweden,” she says.

“Sorry.”

“Is that where you’re from?” she asks.

“I was born there, yes; but I haven’t lived there for a long time. I’ve lived on Mars for many years.”

“So have you arrived on the ship from Mars?”

I have a moment of surprise, but then I reflect that, as in a harbour town on Earth, people here probably know which ships are in port at the moment.

“Yes, that’s right.” I say.

“And how long are you staying for?”

“Just a few hours. I’m transferring to another ship this afternoon.”

“And you’re using that time to learn about Nereus Base, here?”

“Yes.”

She appraises me, and I can tell that she is gratified by this, flattered on behalf of her home.

“Well, let me help you,” she says. “Why don’t I walk around the exhibition with you, and I can explain anything you want to know.”

“That would be great,” I say, and I mean it. “I don’t want to take up your time.”

“You’re not,” she says. “I might have to stop if more visitors arrive. But right now it’s not a problem.”

So that is what we do. We don’t walk anywhere at first, though, because there is plenty to talk about here, about this hologram of the region of space in which the Belt is located.

“Nereus itself is over here,” she says. She makes the whole hologram rotate and points to an object that is not in the Belt at all, but much closer to the Sun. “It’s one of the near-Earth asteroids. It was one of the first to be exploited commercially. By us, because a hundred years ago that’s where the Base was. Much smaller in those days.”

“I didn’t realise the Base was that old,” I say.

“Yes: it’s older than some of the colonies.” Colonies are always on planets or moons. “But everything you can see is more recent than that. Except here in the museum.”

“Because it’s been added later?”

“Yes, or because it’s been replaced.”

“Replaced!”

“Yes. It’s a modular construction, so any module that needs to be replaced can simply be lifted out. It’s pretty straightforward.”

“Why would it need to be replaced? It doesn’t rust, surely. Not in space.”

“Well, it’s only a vacuum on the outside,” she says, which is, of course, a good point. “Absolutely the structure can corrode on the inside, if it’s ferrous. But we replace old modules because we have better methods of construction, not necessarily because they’re falling apart. We use ceramics a lot more nowadays, for instance.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Most of your ship is ceramic.”

“Is it really!” I had no idea.

“It’s lighter, and harder, and there’s more of it.”

“Yes, I suppose there is.”

“There’s an exhibit over there which explains about the modules, if you’re interested.”

“Yes, let’s have a look at that.” I think I’ll let Rare take the lead and explain the things that she is interested in. That ought to make the whole experience more interesting and rewarding.

She really is very knowledgeable and informative. She realises early on that I know little about science and engineering, and she pitches her explanations at a very simple level so that I can easily understand them.

“Is that what you’re going to be doing later?” I ask her at one point. “When you’ve finished your studies?”

“Yes,” she says, “that’s quite likely. There are lots of opportunities out here, as you can probably imagine: construction in space. Not just here at Nereus Base. So, yes, that’s what I’m focussing on now, and that’s what I expect to be doing when I grow up.” She smiles at her own whimsical phrase. “My partner too.”

“Is he an engineer?”

“She. Yes, and that’s a good fit, because we can stay together even if we get jobs away from Nereus Base.”

“Elsewhere in the Belt?”

“Could be. There’s always construction going on here.”

“Other bases?”

“Yes, I suppose; but that’s not what I was thinking of. You remember the hologram you were looking at when we started talking? Did you see there were lots of installations throughout the Belt?”

“Are they not other bases?”

“Well, I suppose it depends what you mean by a base. Yes, they are, obviously; but not like here. Not permanent settlements like Nereus Base – which is permanent, even if it’s able to move around.”

“Mining.”

“Among other things, yes. Industrial installations in space, which for whatever reason need to be away from where people live.”

I think about this. “So you’d be out there while the construction was going on, and you’d come back when it was finished.”

“Yes, or move on elsewhere. I’d love to go further afield. I’ve never been outside the Belt.”

“Where would you go?”

“The Jovian System. Lots of opportunities there. It’s just like in the Belt, except that they have colonies on the ground. But off-planet it’s exactly the same: installations in space, exploiting rocks in orbit around Jupiter, just like our asteroids, or doing other things in space, for the same reasons as we do. Or Titan. Same thing, but those rocks are in Saturn’s rings. That would be amazing, to go there.”

“I imagine it would. Probably safer, too, than in the Jovian System.”

She looks at me with a puzzled expression. “Why?”

“I mean the political situation.”

“Oh, I see. Well, I can’t see why that would make any difference to us.”

“No?”

“Why would it? You mean, what they’re doing in the Jovian System, with their Committees and all that stuff?”

“Yes, and how the authorities are dealing with it.”

“Honestly, I don’t see what the big deal is,” she says. “If they want to be more independent, who cares? Up to them, surely.”

“That’s one way of looking at it.”

“Well, how do you look at it?”

How do I look at it? “Shouldn’t we all be subject to the same rule of law, wherever we live?”

“Why?”

I’m nonplussed.

“Well, because the system has safeguards, to protect our rights. To protect democracy.”

“The Jovians elect their own government. That’s a lot more democratic than what they had before.”

“But is it really democratic?”

“What do you mean?”

“Isn’t the power in the hands of just a few? Or just one man?”

“Only because they’ve been elected.” She looks curiously at me. “I don’t know what they say on Earth about the Jovians, or on Mars. Is it very hostile?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“It sounded like it. Or is that just your view?”

“I don’t know anything about it,” I say. I feel as though I’m getting myself into trouble. “I’m just a musician. I don’t know enough about it to have a view of my own.”

“You’re a musician?”

“Yes. I play the piano. That’s why I’m going to the Jovian System: to play the piano there.”

“Are you famous? Sorry, I don’t know anything about music.”

I smile at her. “I’m quite well-known, yes. Not for my political opinions.”

“Well, you’ll be able to see for yourself. That should be very interesting.”

I nod. “It will.”

“Have you been there before?”

“No, it’ll be my first time.”

“You’ll find the gravity takes some getting used to.”

“I know: it’s much lower. But I’ve been to the Moon a few times, and I believe that’s similar to Callisto.”

“That’s true.”

“I’m quite surprised at the gravity here, actually. I’ve been to the Belt before, not Nereus Base, and it’s a long time ago now, but I’m pretty sure I don’t remember the gravity being as strong as this.”

“Could be. Obviously we can set the gravity at whatever level we like, within reason; and we like to set it not too low, because a lot of people here come from Earth.”

“Do they?”

“Also it needs to be reasonably strong down here so that it doesn’t get too weak on the upper levels.”

I look blankly at her, and she catches my eye.

“Obviously the gravity is weaker the further up you go,” she says.

“Is it?”

“Yes: it’s a centrifugal force, really, isn’t it, and it’s directly proportionate to the radius.”

I have no idea what she means. I just look at her in silence. She considers me for a moment.

“Look, there’s an exhibit over there which explains it,” she says. “Let’s have a look.”

“Okay.”

She leads me around a couple of displays to another hologram of Nereus Base, and we stand in front of it.

“Here you see the formulae,” she says. “This is the formula for gravity on Earth: the gravitational force is equal to mass times acceleration, g, which on Earth is 9.81 metres per second squared. The acceleration doesn’t depend on mass: however heavy or light an object is, it will always fall with the same acceleration when you drop it. As Galileo famously demonstrated.”

“Okay.”

She looks at me again and I can see her wondering whether she needs to make this even simpler.

“Look, here you can see various gravities.”

She brings up another hologram off to the side of the main one, and it’s a row of people dropping things.

“An Earthman, a Martian, a Callistoan, and someone here in the Base,” she says. “See, they all let go at the same time, and you can see the objects falling at different rates.”

I have to smile at the stereotypical people, but I can see what she means. The object on Earth falls fastest; the one on Nereus Base hits the ground next, followed by Mars and finally Callisto.

“It’s slowed down,” she explains, “or it would be over too quickly to see anything. But the proportions are accurate.”

She moves the people back a bit and brings up the formulae again.

“And here’s the formula for our artificial gravity,” she says, “which is really centrifugal force. Mass times radius times omega squared. So the equivalent here of the gravitational acceleration on a planet, g, is the radius times the square of the orbital velocity.”

“I’m sorry, Rare,” I say. “I don’t know what that means.”

“Okay. Orbital velocity just means how fast the thing is rotating. Nereus Base rotates once every eighty-five seconds. You and I are going round in a circle once every eighty-five seconds. That rotation is pressing us against the outside of the disc, the floor, that is. Like if you whirl something around your head, a bucket on a string or something. Any water in the bucket will stay in it, even though the bucket is on its side.”

“Because of the gravity,” I say.

“Well, it’s a centrifugal force, not really gravity. But that force is what we here, inside the disc, experience as gravity. As if it were gravity. And the faster the disc rotates, the stronger that artificial gravity becomes. But it’s proportionate to the square of the rotation. If we double the speed of rotation, we quadruple the centrifugal force; if we halve the speed, the force is only a quarter of what it was.”

“Right.”

“And the other factor is the radius. The distance between where we’re standing and the centre of the disc. Here we’re nearly at the maximum possible radius on Nereus Base, and that rotation produces a centrifugal force which is about sixty per cent of Earth gravity, or one and a half times Martian gravity. If we went to one of the upper levels so that we were exactly half way between here and the centre of the disc, so that we halved the radius, the force would be –”

She breaks off and looks at me expectantly.

“A quarter!” I say, feeling some triumph at getting to grips with this.

“No. It’s proportionate to the radius, not the square of the radius. So the gravity would be half what it is here. Thirty per cent of Earth gravity, and three quarters of Martian gravity.”

“Right.”

“Look, the hologram shows us. If I select a level about half way up, like this –”

One of the levels in the hologram of the Base lights up.

“– the object falls more slowly when our little man in the Base lets go of it. Look.”

She sets them in motion again, and indeed, this time the object on Mars reaches the ground before the one on the Base.

“You can select any level you like. Have a go.”

I do, and while we watch how this affects the speed at which objects fall, I ask her:

“So how low does the gravity go?”

 “At the uppermost levels,” she says, “we go down to a g of 1.1. That’s only about a ninth of Earth, and it’s less than on Callisto. Those levels mainly contain machinery and other things that don’t require people to go there very often. Hydroponics too. All our food is grown on the upper levels.”

She takes over the controls again and expands the view of one of the upper levels. I can see rows upon rows of long hydroponic containers.

“The same plants as are grown in places like Callisto,” she goes on. “Genetically modified so they don’t mind low gravity. You have them on Mars too, although your gravity is not so low.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Here’s something that’s a lot of fun,” she says, and she switches to an expanded view of the level immediately below the one we have just looked at. It’s a high space, not as high as the park downstairs, but clearly several storeys, and it’s filled with platforms and ladders and tubes and nets.

I glance across at her, and she looks back and smiles.

“It’s a play area,” she says. “A low-gravity play area. I used to go there all the time when I was a child. I absolutely loved it.”

“I bet you did,” I say, and I inspect what I can see. I’m enchanted by the idea. I’d have loved it too.

After this we move into an area of the museum where the exhibits are different: not holograms any more but pieces of actual equipment. There are mining robots, construction robots, all sorts of items of machinery, some from the early days of the base, others more recent. There are several space suits from different periods, and the development is easy to see, from bulky and inconvenient to today’s suits which you hardly notice when you’re wearing them. Even the helmets have become much less obtrusive as time has passed.

There’s a cabin from a space craft, cut away at the back, which Rare assures me is real and not a mock-up, and you can sit in the pilot’s seat and work the controls. What you can then see on the screen in front of you is, obviously, a simulation, but you can imagine how it would be to operate one of these, lifting things about in space as part of the process of mining an asteroid.

Again, Rare is very informative and interesting, and it’s very clear that this is what she loves. I let her explain what she wants to explain, and I really am interested, even though quite a lot of it goes over my head.

The last section is devoted to the history of the base, and it’s holograms again. The very first base was far smaller, and in fact it looks a lot like the ship in which I have just been travelling. This really was just a place for the workers to live while they exploited the resources of Nereus, and there was no pretence of its being self-sufficient, though even then there was a hydroponic section where they grew most of their food.

Rare is a bit vaguer on the history, and she has to pass on a couple of my questions. She apologises the second time.

“No need to apologise, my goodness,” I tell her. “I’m amazed at how much you know.”

And I say much the same thing when we reach the end of the exhibition and I start to think about leaving. No more visitors have arrived all the time I’ve been here.

“This has been incredibly interesting,” I tell her. “Thank you so much. I’m really glad I came here this morning.”

“No problem,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been nice talking to you.”

“For me too,” I say, and I extend my hand.

I feel gratified, conscious of a morning well spent, as I ride down in the lift and emerge again on to that thoroughfare, which is just as busy now as it was earlier. There’s still a good half hour to go until the time when I have arranged with Val to meet the quartet, but I don’t want to walk around any more, I want to sit down, and I decide to go to the restaurant now.

It’s on the ground floor and it’s at the edge of the base, as far as it’s possible to go in that direction along these streets and alleyways, just inside the flat circular side of the disc, and it’s very striking as I walk inside and down a few steps because the whole of the floor and one side wall are transparent. We can look out into space. I can feel my brain considering whether to feel vertigo and deciding, on the whole, not to; mainly, I think, because of the furniture. But it is very strange.

There is a bar area where I can wait, and I sit on a stool, stowing my helmet underneath me, and I order a fruit cocktail. I don’t want any alcohol. I sip it through a straw and look around me.

At the side we are looking away from the Sun, and I see what looks like the usual starry heavens. The only difference is that they are slowly rotating: once every eighty-five seconds, as I now know. But what also happens every eighty-five seconds is that the Sun comes into view through the floor, and then for a brief moment the whole restaurant is suffused from below in daylight, in actual, real daylight, until the disc rotates past that point and the heavens are dark again.

After this has happened a few times I notice that the room’s lighting is programmed to take account of this. Whenever the Sun slides into view below, the electric lights are dimmed, and they burn brightly again as soon as the Sun disappears. It’s amusing to watch people’s faces as they are illuminated from these different angles.

After quite some time Val walks into the restaurant. He is early, but nowhere near as early as I was. He looks around and doesn’t see me at first, but then he does and he makes his way over to me.

“Hi, Hella,” he says.

“Hi, Val. Are you going to have a drink while we wait?”

There’s a stool free near to mine, and he pulls it closer and sits down, putting his helmet underneath it as I did with mine.

“Yes, I will,” he says. “Will you join me? I see you’ve nearly finished yours.”

“Well –” I don’t really want another.

“Will you join me in a prosecco? On me.”

“Well –” I repeat. “It’s very early for wine.”

“Ah, go on,” he says. “We’re on holiday today.”

I hesitate.

“Or a mixture, if a prosecco is too strong. How about one mixed with peach?”

“A Bellini, in fact? Yes, why not. All right.”

It is a day off, he’s right, and there’s little more to do today beyond travelling out to the other ship; though I do intend to put in some practice once I’m settled into my new cabin. I daresay I’ll have sobered up by then.

The drinks arrive, he pays for them straight away with his device, and he pushes mine towards me. We raise our glasses. I am about to say “Cheers!”, when he speaks first.

“Here’s to Aphrodite!” he says. “The Aphrodite to our Ares.”

“Aphrodite!” I snort. “A very mature Aphrodite. Aphrodite in later years.”

“Even in later years, Aphrodite outshines lesser goddesses,” he says, still holding his glass aloft.

I look at him, suddenly wondering.

“Here’s to Ares,” I say, and we drink.

“So what have you been doing with yourself this morning, Val?” I ask, setting my glass down on the counter. “Evidently not looking around with the others.”

“No, I came down earlier,” he says. I don’t know why we always say “down”. “I wanted to meet up with a friend of mine. He’s a music teacher here nowadays.”

“And what did you do with him?”

“Went to his house and had coffee with him and his wife. Never met her before.”

“What was that like?”

“Very enjoyable,” he replies, and he tells me about his friend and the wife. He and Val were students together, so it sounds rather like me and Mitsuko. The friend played viola too, and piano, but was more interested in composition and generally in the music-theoretical side. He didn’t get anywhere as a composer, however, and after a couple of teaching posts on Mars he ended up here, where he met his lady wife, as Val puts it, and has been settled here for years.

“Have they got children?” I want to know, and they have, but they were at school this morning. One is in his final year studying for his exams, the other is a year younger but two years lower down in the school and seems to be a bit of a cause for concern.

When we’ve exhausted the subject of Val’s friend I tell him about my morning, and that I have met someone of the same generation, more or less, as the friend’s children. He listens with apparent interest as I tell him about the museum and everything I have learned there, from Rare Delight and on my own.

“I’d heard about the museum,” he says. “It does sound interesting.”

“You could have a look on the way back,” I suggest.

“I might do that.”

I take another sip of my Bellini and put the glass down again. Val has finished his.

“Shall we make our way to our table?” he says. “You can take your apéritif with you.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for the others?” I say. “Where are they, anyway?” They’re late.

“Oh, they’re not coming.”

“Not coming?”

“So we can go to our table whenever we’re ready,” he says. “I’ve reserved a table, which I believe is over there by the wall.”

I look at him in silence. I would have been asking myself how I felt about that; wondering why they didn’t want to have lunch with me; but after that Aphrodite crack I’m suspicious. Has he even told the others about the lunch?

“All right, let’s do it,” I say, and I get off my stool and pick up my helmet and my glass. Val leads the way to our table, which is indeed over by the transparent wall, hard against it.

It is a fascinating place to sit. There’s a bar on the night side of the ship where you can look out at the stars; but that’s through a window, a transparent panel running along the length of the room from waist height upwards. This is different: this wall is transparent all the way down, and the transparency continues under foot, so that it really does feel almost as if we were out there in space with the whole universe wheeling slowly about us.

We don’t talk much at first because we are both enthralled by this sight. I’ve never been anywhere like this. We do remember to order food, though: we study the selection on the table’s screen, in my case very conscious of our galactic surroundings, and we enter our orders. I go for white asparagus with sauce hollandaise and new potatoes. On Earth the sauce would be made with egg yolk and butter; here it will be some substitute.

“I like that too,” says Val, “but I’m too hungry for that now.”

He orders two slices of quiche with some green salad and the same new potatoes as I am having. The screen suggests some relishes, which he declines, and then makes some suggestions for wine.

“We’re still on holiday,” Val points out.

I have to chuckle, and I shake my head, but I say, “Okay. Might as well now.”

We’re conversing normally again, our awe has worn off, when a robotic trolley arrives a few minutes later with our meals. It slides our plates on to the table in front of each of us; it presents us with two glasses of still water, which we lift off the trolley ourselves; and it opens the bottle for us. Val pours. Surely we’re not going to drink all of this.

It’s a good choice, though. It’s a crisp white wine with just the right amount of acidity to offset the buttery sauce.

We come on to talk about my morning again, and how I nearly got into an argument with Rare Delight.

“I didn’t mean to provoke her,” I say. “I was just parroting what I was told on Earth. I wasn’t expecting her to have strong views on the subject.”

Val listens, holding his wine glass and tipping it slightly so that the edge of its base rests on the table.

“What do you think, Val?” I ask him. “Should the Jovians be allowed to separate?”

“It’s hard to know, isn’t it?” he says. “At any rate, it goes against all of recent history.”

“That’s true.” The last few centuries on Earth have been all about nations coming together.

“And that was obviously a good thing,” I add.

“It was. They don’t have wars any more. No armies; just police.”

“Heavily armed police,” I point out.

“Yes, but still,” he says, and we agree that this is much better.

“On the other hand,” he goes on, “how likely is it that the Jovian System will fight a war if we let them go?”

Highly unlikely, I agree. The distances between their System and everywhere else make it practically impossible.

“They were talking on Earth about possible blockades,” I recall. “The Jovians might blockade Titan, for as long as Jupiter is between the rest of us and Saturn.”

“How would they do that?” he asks, and I think about it.

“I’m not sure,” I admit. “I suppose they might interfere with ships that wanted to take on supplies in the Jovian System.”

“But those ships don’t need to do that. They can go all the way to Titan without stopping.”

And of course they do, at times when Jupiter and Saturn are on opposite sides of the Sun.

“I don’t know,” I say, apologetically. “I didn’t ask.”

Val nods, and takes a sip of his wine.

“Where did you hear this?” he asks. “Who was saying that?”

“Oh, I haven’t told you before. I had a meeting at the United Nations while I was on tour there.”

I suppose I can talk about it. They didn’t say it was confidential.

“The United Nations!”

“Yes,” I say, and I describe the meeting that I had and who was there.

“One of them is on the ship now: the one we’re joining. I got an email from him a couple of weeks ago. He’s a cultural attaché, I think, and he’s accompanying the musicians from Earth who are going to the festival. Us too, now.” This is how the UN is going to help me prepare for the limelight when I get there: not through emails or video messages from Earth, but face to face with this man.

I’m looking forward to doing this at last. I really feel the need to talk the whole thing over with someone who genuinely knows about it. By now I have a whole lot of questions.

“Well,” says Val, and he eyes me with what looks like new respect.

“I’m guessing you haven’t had any meetings like that,” I say.

“No.”

“Maybe it’s because I’m originally from Earth,” I suggest. That would make sense; and the fact that I have left Earth and taken up residency on Mars might create some kind of affinity in the minds of the Jovians.

“No, Hella: it’s because you’re more famous than we are.”

I look across at him, worried, and he makes a wry smile and gives a little chuckle.

“I don’t mind, Hella,” he says. “You know me. One or two of the others might resent it, just a bit.”

I think they almost certainly will, if they find out about it. I’m silent.

“Don’t worry about it, Hella,” he says. “If they do, they’ll get over it. They always do.”

And that is a very telling remark, and it reminds me of how I have assessed Val’s role in this quartet from the beginning, since I first started to get to know them better on the ship. Val the peacemaker, the organiser, the linchpin, the glue. The sensible one.

He picks up the wine bottle and tops up first my glass, then his own. He picks up his glass and I think he is going to say “Cheers!” again, but instead he asks me:

“Did you talk about the programme?”

“With the UN? No.”

“They’re not trying to influence that?”

“They haven’t done yet.”

He nods and takes a sip, and puts his glass down again.

“Our agent has been talking to the Jovians,” he says as he cuts off a morsel of his quiche.

“Oh yes?”

“They definitely want the Trout.”

“Well, there’s a surprise.”

He grins. “And they like the idea of you playing one of the Beethoven sonatas with Peak or with Swift. Just one, though.”

“That’s something.”

“They don’t like the idea of the Brahms.” He means the viola sonatas. “And he didn’t even bother asking about the Shostakovich.”

“Well, no, we were playing that for ourselves, really,” I say. “What about the cello?”

“They’re happy with any of the pieces you’ve rehearsed with Grand.” We’ve played the obvious ones: Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninov, and some more obscure examples of the genre.

“That doesn’t leave much room for anything else,” I observe.

We have two concerts together, and we’ve already agreed amongst ourselves that we’ll alternate between pieces involving me and pieces for the quartet on its own.

“No.”

“But I’m glad we’ve played all those pieces together, Val, even if we can’t perform them at the festival. I’ve really been enjoying it.”

“Me too.”

“Maybe we can pick them up when we get back,” I say, ruminating. “People on Mars would be more receptive to the Shostakovich, say. I’d like to do some concerts with you on Mars.”

His face lights up. “Would you?”

“Yes, I’d like that very much.” For as long as I can still play, anyway. At some point I’m going to have to admit to that.

I push that thought away.

“Anyway, I’m looking forward to playing with all of you together,” I say. “We should definitely start doing that now.” We still haven’t played any quintets. It was a good idea to get to know each other as players first, with sonatas and trios, but it’s enough now. We know each other.

“The Trout?” Val asks.

“May as well. Actually I really want to. It’s a lovely piece, and I can’t wait to play it. And I want to hear Peak playing his bass. I still can’t believe he brought it on board.”

Val smiles sardonically to himself. I look curiously at him, and he catches my eye.

“It’s not a real double-bass,” he says. “It’s electronic.”

“What!”

“Yes. Much more compact.”

I stare at him.

“He does have an acoustic double-bass on Mars,” Val goes on. “But he doesn’t take it with him off-planet. Much too bulky.”

“Well.” After all that snobbishness about real instruments. It was mainly Grand, though, who expressed those views.

“It only ever plays along with the other instruments,” Val says. “Not much more than a filler.”

“I suppose so.”

“If you ask me, the electronic bass sounds better. An acoustic bass isn’t good on its own. It’s only bearable in an ensemble.”

“Hmm.”

“It’s true. It’s to do with the harmonics: there are less of them, or something. And with the electronic bass, because it’s an artificial sound, those harmonics can be added.”

“I see.”

He smiles. “You’ll see when we play it,” he says. “It’ll be a good sound. You’ll like it.”

I’m sure he’s right. My own instrument is electronic too, for the time being, and that sounds fine to my ears, though I’m expecting to play a real grand piano on Callisto. You never know, though, how good an instrument really is until you’re actually sitting at it and playing it. Maybe I’ll come to the conclusion that my own electronic keyboard sounds better.

“That will depend on the sound reproduction system that they have,” Val points out when I mention that. “Your keyboard on its own doesn’t make any sound at all.”

“Well, that’s true.”

We start talking about instruments, and the conversation becomes very technical. Val seems to know more about the science of building musical instruments than you would expect from a mere player. It’s not that he’s scientifically trained; I’m very certain that he isn’t; but he has taken an interest in this side of things. I can’t really contribute much to this.

Our plates are empty, and the trolley comes back to collect them. We agree that we don’t want any dessert; and we’re not going to finish the wine. There’s a good glassful left in the bottle.

The trolley asks us whether we want any coffee, and actually I do, but Val says,

“Shall we go over to the docking gate? We can have a coffee there.”

“Can we?”

“Yes: there’s a café right next to it. We’ll have to wait anyway, and it’ll be more comfortable in the café.”

“Okay.”

We settle our account with the robot; we split the bill equally; and we get up to go to the exit. I realise that I am not only a little tipsy, but really quite tired and stiff after all that standing this morning in this comparatively strong gravity. It’s an effort to walk, and even more of an effort to walk up those steps to the door.

A woman at a desk by the exit wishes us a good day and we emerge on to a busy street. Val knows the way, so I don’t need to think about it. It’s a different docking gate from the one we arrived at, but it’s not far from it, and it fronts on to the same open area. The café is indeed just outside its entrance, at the edge of the park. We find a table under a spreading palm, and I am very glad to sit down again. A human waiter comes to take our orders.

“A double espresso for me, please,” says Val. “Hella?”

“For me too,” I say. “And some still water, please.”

“Yes, good idea. I’ll have some still water too, please.”

The waiter nods and retires.

“Last sight of Nereus Base,” says Val.

“Yes, it is. Val, I’ve just realised I said a foolish thing earlier. You won’t be able to visit the museum on the way back because we won’t be stopping here.” Nereus Base will be at some completely inconvenient point along its orbit, and we’ll change ships at a different base that will be better aligned with Jupiter.

“I know,” he says. “But I might come back anyway, another time. We’ve played here before.”

“Have you?”

“Yes. You’ve played in the Belt too, haven’t you, Hella?”

“Yes, but not here,” I say, and we compare our recollections. While we’re doing that our coffees arrive, brought by a robotic trolley again this time.

A little deeper into the park I see our friends the kimyona musicians, waiting to depart as we are. They seem to be having a good time. One of the boys is waddling along like a duck, to the hilarity of the others, with his bottom close to the ground. It’s not obvious why.

Kit glances up and catches sight of us, of the old people drinking coffee. He waves to me and turns back to his friends.

I’m now beginning to feel a little sleepy. I can see myself drifting away on the craft in a few minutes, and dropping off just in time to arrive at the other ship, and having to rouse myself. Maybe the coffee will prevent that from happening.

Our conversation seems to have dried up. I smile at Val to show him that there’s no awkwardness; he smiles back, and I look out into the park again. It’s a little like a botanical garden; not really a park. I miss the fresh air.

I look up at the palm above us, and I think about all the trees and the other plants around the whole circuit of this outer level, and on the upper levels too, all the way up to the hydroponic levels near the centre. All growing towards the centre, against this artificial gravity, set out like rays of the Sun on a child’s drawing. It’s rather a pleasing picture, and I smile to myself. I don’t know what has made me think of it.

I’ve learned a lot today. It’s been an illuminating day. One of the more surprising things concerns Val. I look across at him as he sits leaned back on his chair and looks at nothing in particular. Apparently I’m still attractive. I suppose that’s good to know.

Well, yes, it is good to know. Of course it is. Even if it is only Val, no Adonis, who seems to think so.

Would I be interested, if things were different? It’s not a thing that has occurred to me, at all. What would Rachel think? I imagine her, receiving the news that Mum is going to be married again. Actually I can imagine she would be pleased for me.

It’s a completely unexpected thought, and it is obviously not going to happen, for a reason that I know and that Val doesn’t, yet.

It’s certainly true that, of the four members of the quartet, Val is the most sympathetic; just as Grand is the one I like least, as I have been realising. I find his sarcasm grating on me. It feels conceited and arrogant.

Our small talk does pick up again after a while, which is a relief. We talk a little about Mars, about home.

Our coffee is long finished, and our water too, when at last the door to the docking gate opens and an official comes out and beckons us in. There are about twenty of us who now converge on the gate; others have gone to the ship already, or will be doing so later. I don’t know what the rest of the quartet is doing.

I don’t recognise all of the passengers. Some of them must be from here, I suppose.

The young people are still giggling and chatting as they get ready to board. They all greet me as we pass into the gate, but we don’t talk. Val and I walk in together, calmly, and follow them into the craft. The seats this time are three abreast, with one to the left and two to the right of the aisle. We find a pair of seats where we can sit together, near the front, and we sit down, leaving our helmets on. We could talk, but everybody would be able to hear us now, so we don’t. Val touches my arm instead, I touch his too and nod, and we settle back.

The co-pilot passes by us all, doing his routine check, and then he buckles himself in too at the front of the craft, and we disengage and move off from the base. It’s uncanny how weightlessness is immediately restored. The starry sky wheels around as the craft finds its direction, and then we are moving towards the ship. Ahead of us, past the two figures of the pilot and the co-pilot, I can see it, glinting in the sun, hanging in space. Nereus Base is behind us.

 

Chapter Four:


Nereus Base