Chapter Two:


Home

That was the last time I’ll ever wear that coat. Too hot in Australia, and after Australia it’s time to go home.

I take a flight from Sydney to Singapore, from where it’s just a quick hop across the water to the space elevator. I did wonder, tentatively, whether I could get the ferry from Singapore: I liked the idea of crossing under the open sky in the sunshine, with the waves and the foam, and the shorelines, one receding, one approaching. But it was too inconvenient. It would have taken too long, and wouldn’t fit into the schedule. I didn’t press it.

We didn’t know when the schedule was being put together that this would be my last time here. I’d have organised a few things differently on this tour if I had known that it would be the last one.

So it’s just a brief wait in the terminal building at Singapore airport, and then I board a much smaller plane in which each row has only one seat on either side of the aisle. I see the shorelines and the water from the air. It’s very bright.

As we fly in low over the opposite coast I have a good view of the elevator compound, with its fortified perimeter and its artificial port where I’d have disembarked if the schedule had permitted. Security is always very obvious on Earth.

We land with a bump and brake very hard: I put my hand on the seat in front of me to hold myself steady. My magazine slips forward on my lap, but I catch it with my other hand before it slides off. It’s been nostalgically pleasant to read paper magazines again.

I don’t think everybody here is travelling up to the ship. Some of these people, maybe all of them, must work here or have some other reason for coming here. It’s a customs-free zone, and I imagine that attracts some business visitors, though I don’t pretend to understand how that works.

The exit from the plane leads into a short gangway, and at the end of that there is a security gate again, yet another one, which scans my eyes and my body, and my device, and satisfies itself that I am Hella Lundgren, resident of Mars, have a valid ticket, and am carrying nothing untoward.

Then I am in the main terminal building, and I have a little time to kill. People pass across this wide area in all directions; people are sitting and waiting; shops are wide open to customers with their displays encroaching on the walking area; there’s a door to a separate area where passengers can sleep while they wait for their ascent. I’ve been to the other space elevator on Earth, in Ecuador: not this time, on a previous visit; and it’s similar. Everything, freight and people, has to pass through one of these gateways to space.

I don’t want to sit down again. I wander past the shops, but I’m not really interested. I’ve already bought presents for my grandchildren, and they are in my luggage, waiting to travel up to the ship. I register vaguely that I like the look of some of the fashion, and I stop in front of one of the displays. I finger one or two of the garments, but without enthusiasm. This news has made me feel that there’s not much point in buying anything for myself, anything that has a useful life beyond the immediate moment. Although – actually that is quite a nice jumper. I feel my interest kindling as I pick it up and shake it loose, and regard it as it hangs from the shoulders where I am holding it.

I don’t buy it, though. I fold it up again and put it back. The shop assistant who has been watching me smiles at me as I turn and walk on to the next shop.

There is a little darkened room with low seating, just blocks on the floor, arranged on terraces descending very gradually towards a screen at the far end, and a few children are sitting on them watching a cartoon. I stand at the entrance for a little while, watching them with a smile on my face.

I decide that I may as well go and collect my space suit. There is plenty of time, but this way at least there won’t be a rush. It has been waiting for me here, in storage, since I arrived from Mars all those months ago, and now it’s here in the building, supposed to be, anyway, ready for me to pick it up again.

I go to the dispensing point and hold my device up to the scanner.

“Good day, Ms Lundgren,” says a computer-generated voice. “Thank you for your patience.” Which I haven’t displayed yet, but I know what they mean.

After a moment the belt in front of me starts to move, and a few moments after that my suit and helmet appear, laid out on a tray, passing through a curtain that masks an opening in the wall. The tray stops in front of me. I lay the suit over one arm and pick up the helmet with my other hand.

“Thank you, Ms Lundgren,” says the voice. “Have a pleasant flight. Thank you for your visit.”

The changing facilities are right next to this point. I go into the ladies’ side and find an empty cubicle. I can’t see anyone, but there are evidently people in some of the other cubicles; I can hear them moving about.

I hang my suit up and put the helmet down on the stool next to it, and go for one last visit to the bathroom. When I come out again there is a woman in a space suit standing in front of the mirror and adjusting her hair; we exchange smiles, and I go into my cubicle and close the door.

I’m already wearing clothes that are designed to be worn inside a space suit, with its waste unit, at once comfortable and watertight, so it’s not a question of changing, merely of putting my space suit on.

I leave the changing facilities and return to that crowded concourse, wearing my space suit open at the front nearly down to the waist and with my helmet dangling from one hand. It’s funny what a difference a change in clothing can make. I really feel like a space traveller now.

I still have plenty of time, and I still don’t want a coffee or anything of that kind. I decide to go up to the area by the entrance to the elevator itself. That area is on several levels, because so are the elevator cabins: there is a stack of them which at any one time are either all travelling up the cable at intervals, or waiting to do so, or all travelling down it, or waiting up by the satellite. This part of the building is a large cylinder whose wall is transparent all the way up and all the way around, except for where the elevator cabins themselves are. I take the lift up to the topmost of those levels and look out over the area that surrounds the terminal building.

Mainly I can see the enclosed compound: roads and buildings and vehicles, baking in the sun. Nobody is outside, that I can see. Over to one side the port is obvious with its cranes rising above the roofs in the foreground. Beyond it is a glare and a shimmer, but it’s plain that it’s the sea; and I am enchanted to see, on the horizon, the outline of a ship, indistinct but still unmistakable.

This is my last view of Earth: looking out from an air-conditioned building on to the brutal heat at the equator. I would have liked to visit the land where I lived as a child; but there was no time. The closest I got to Scandinavia on this trip was Berlin. Where I performed Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, and very well received they were.

I’m starting to feel that I would like to sit down now. I walk down the stairway to the level where, my device tells me, I shall be catching the elevator soon. Most of the seating is vacant, but a few passengers are here already. I choose a place close to the window, but out of the direct sunshine, and read on my device.

As I sit there and wait, the place gradually fills up. One elevator cabin, or one batch of cabins, probably, has already commenced its ascent earlier today, and those people are now somewhere in the sky far above us, shooting up the cable towards the satellite from which all ships are boarded and disembarked, and through which all freight passes. But my ticket is for this second ascent. It means less time to wait aboard the ship until it gets under way.

The seats around me fill up and the noise increases. A family with children has installed itself close by. I stop trying to read.

Finally an announcement comes, in several languages, including Indonesian, in deference to where we are.  Time to board the elevator. I stand up with everybody else and we shuffle towards the door that has now opened. I’m still holding my helmet in one hand, and I have a little back-pack with those things that I’m going to need in the elevator itself. All my other luggage is being loaded separately; I assume, as a matter of fact, that it’s already on its way up. The freight entrance is separate from this one.

One of the lift attendants is standing by the entrance to welcome the passengers. He smiles at me as I pass.

“Good day, Ms Lundgren.”

 I’m not surprised at his knowing my name; he has access to the relevant data; but something in his tone makes me look more carefully, and I realise that I recognise him.

“Hello, how are you?” I say, and I stop for a second.

“I’m very well, thank you, Ms Lundgren. It’s nice to have you back with us.”

“It’s nice to be back.”

I pass on; I don’t want to hold up the process.

The elevators on Earth are very different from the one on Mars. Far more comfortable: luxurious, even. They have the same reclinable seats as on Mars, arranged around the circular cabin with the headrests towards the cabin wall; the same individual screens and the same remote controls. But there is also a bar, and a group of seating where people can face each other and talk, and even a children’s play area, quite small, with some toys.

None of that will be usable until we reach our cruising speed. We all take up our positions on the reclinable seats which will support us and protect us during the acceleration phase at the beginning. I place my helmet in the helmet rest next to my seat, I put my back-pack down on the floor beside it, and I sit down, half lying down, with my toes towards the central cylinder through which the cable passes. All the elevator cabins are threaded like beads on to that cable and drive up and down it like a bullet train at very high speed. The satellite is a very long way up.

The attendants are helping those passengers who are less familiar with this to get themselves organised and settled. They are very patient. Finally everyone is where they are supposed to be. One of the attendants passes round the cabin one last time to make sure that we are all properly secured with our straps fastened and our belongings stowed away; then he returns to his own seat and straps himself in.

I’m now lying with my seat fully reclining. I know that this spreads the force of the acceleration most evenly across my body and makes that phase least unpleasant. I wait, and it’s not long before I hear a louder sound from inside that cylinder, muffled though it is, a vibration through the floor, and then I feel a pressure on my back and my shoulders and all along my body, that rapidly builds up as the cabin picks up speed. We’re moving up the cable at last, and it really is farewell to Earth.

*

On the desk on front of me is the keyboard that I always take with me on tour. It was with me in every hotel on Earth, and now it’s with me on the ship home to Mars. I’m doing my scales and arpeggios and other exercises: little twiddles with the fingers that repeat again and again all the way up the keyboard and all the way down again, each iteration leading smoothly, with no break, into the next. The whole collection is in the keyboard’s memory and the notes appear in the display in front of me, but I don’t really need to look at them. This has been a daily ritual for many years.

I’ve settled down quickly into a routine on the ship. I’m used to doing this. In any case it’s a relatively short trip, compared to the one coming immediately afterwards: just a few weeks from Earth to Mars. This same ship will then wait there, in orbit, for all the Mars-based musicians to board who are bound for the festival. It will take us on to one of the bases in the asteroid belt, where we’ll join a larger ship that will have come from Earth with all the others, and we’ll all travel together for the rest of the journey to the Jovian System.

The crew here know me. That’s not surprising: there are not very many interplanetary liners, and not many crews. Some do just one voyage and then carry on with other careers; those who continue as travelling crew members are few. I’ve seen these ones before, and they me. There’s always plenty of time on a voyage for people to grow familiar; not like in the space elevator.

Other than that I don’t know anyone on board. On Earth I was always with my minders, making sure I was all right and turned up on time to wherever I was supposed to be, right up until I boarded the flight to Singapore; since then I have been on my own. I’m used to it, and I don’t feel any need to strike up new friendships during the course of this short voyage.

I am sitting at my desk in my cabin on board the ship and I’m doing my exercises on my keyboard, which takes a couple of hours if I do the whole thing diligently, and I’m thinking about what I’ve been watching recently.

I’m not sure how the idea arose initially. I’ve become interested in a musician, a performer: a very old one. She has been dead for more than two centuries. She died young, a good deal younger than I am now; and she had to give up her career when she was not much older than Rachel. All her reputation, all her renown, all the love and admiration that she enjoyed, all that was accumulated in that short space of time: just a few years.

My career wasn’t anything like as successful as hers at that age. I was doing well, certainly; but not like that.

I was watching some film recordings of her playing last night. I downloaded several to my device while I was on Earth, sitting in my hotel room in some city with nothing much to do. Very primitive recordings, some of them even in black and white; poor sound quality; the playing, too, somehow rough-hewn compared to today’s polish.

I’m haunted by a recording of her playing with her friends, all of them renowned young soloists in their own right, already. One of them, the pianist, was her husband; or he went on to become her husband, I’m not sure. There’s some joking around, some horseplay, young people having fun, before they get down to the real music. She with bare arms, long hair, the only woman in the group. Her instrument between her knees, her bow sawing across it, her torso and her head leaning this way and that way as the music takes her. No idea, presumably, of the disease that was preparing in the darkness of her body. No idea that those fingers were going to refuse their service in a very short while; that the perfection of their technique would turn out to be built on a fundament that was about to be taken away.

I had an idea of making a study of her life. It’s probably a silly idea. I could put it about that I was writing a book. That might give people a reason why I was reducing my concert engagements. Taking time out to research and write. At some point, of course, they would notice the parallels.

It is a silly idea. I’ve no idea how to write a book. And even if I could write, I’m not a musicologist or a biographer: any kind of scholar. What could I contribute that would make such a book worth reading? Unless I made it really about me.

I’m drawn to her, though. I’m not really sure why. I don’t think it’s just the obvious parallel – because there are obvious differences too. Her fate was far more terrible. So young.

What were those years like for her, after she could no longer perform? It was a long time, in comparison. A significant portion of her life. Sixteen years of waiting; waiting for it to stop. Nothing to work towards. Nothing to look forward to.

That is, I hope, one of the differences and not one of the parallels.

I finish my exercises and I lay myself down on my bed. I have my device next to me, which is linked to the ship’s system, and I make it project what I want to watch as a hologram above my head where I lie. Jacqueline as a young girl, seventeen years old, playing on a studio stage in black and white with her mother on the piano. Jacqueline in concert, all grown up and in colour now, playing the great cello concertos. These pieces have passed me by, I realise. I’ve heard them, but I haven’t really paid attention to them. I’m very familiar, exceedingly familiar, with the equivalent for piano; but I’ve never really looked at other solo instruments. At my own concerts the rest of the programme is always purely orchestral: symphonies and overtures. It’s curious and novel to imagine what it’s like to partner with an orchestra, and with a conductor, as I do, but on a completely different instrument.

Actually not that novel. It reminds me of student days, when most of my friends were studying to become musicians, as I was. Not all of them were going down the soloist path; but some of them were. It reminds me of sharing with them: our plans, our opportunities, our concerts, our successes, our disappointments. Maybe that’s a part of what draws me to Jacqueline: she is young enough to remind me of myself in those days.

It’s really the footage of the chamber music that haunts me, and I think of it even as I’m watching her playing Dvorak with a full orchestra. Jacqueline with her friends, in a room, each on a different instrument, playing Schubert together. All dead people.

I’m not sure what made me think of that. Virtually all the pieces I play for a living are by people who are now dead. What is different about these people?

I suppose it’s because normally I’m concentrating on composers, not performers, and there are rarely recordings by them. There are no recordings of Liszt: I’d dearly love to hear him play. There are recordings of Rachmaninov playing his own works, and I studied them when I was younger, though my teacher warned me not to and I was in two minds about whether she was right. Find your own interpretation, Hella.  I hope I’ve managed to do that anyway.

I’m too restless to listen to this. I stop the music after the first movement and sit up. I really feel like playing the quintet that Jacqueline and her friends were playing, and that would be straightforward enough to do: I could play the piano part and my computer could provide all the string instruments. I always find that rather silly, though, pointless and frustrating with no interaction from the other instruments. That’s not what I want.

Schubert based that movement of his quintet on one of his songs, for solo voice and piano, and there is a transcription of the song by Liszt for solo piano. I search in my library for that piece and bring it up on the display of my keyboard. I haven’t played this for years. Maybe I could include it in my programme for the festival.

It’s a strange feeling. I feel close to her and distant at the same time. I’m playing the same melody as she was, but not on her instrument; in fact I’m playing on her husband’s instrument.

It doesn’t take long, though, for me pretty much to forget about Jacqueline, because my routine takes over and I start to experience the piece simply as a piece of music that I am practising. I play it through a couple of times and I let the structure sink in, and I think about, or I feel about, how its various passages fit in and how I should express them so that they do fit into that structure. I’m back to work, and I stop dreaming.

*

“Hi, Hella! It’s so good to see you again!”

Mitsuko’s face has appeared on the screen of my device and she has a broad, happy smile. She mimes two air kisses. “Mwuh!”

“It’s so good to be able to talk to you at last,” I reply. The ship is nearly at Mars now, and the time it takes for the signal to travel between us is hardly noticeable.

“Ah, I’ve missed you so much, Hella.”

“Me too.”

“I saw your concert in Milan.”

“I know you did.” She mentioned it in a video message.

“And I’ve got the Sydney concert, but I haven’t listened to it yet. Looking forward to it, though.”

“Well –” I say.

“Well what?”

“Oh – there’s a moment in the final movement.” My heart was in my mouth as I thought my fingers were going to stall altogether. I managed to fudge it somehow.

She smiles. “You’re such a perfectionist, Hella.”

“You remember that, do you?”

She gives a little bark of a laugh. She doesn’t comment, but I’m pretty sure we’re both thinking of the same thing.

“That Beethoven sonata,” I say. She gives a reminiscent smile.

“I don’t think I’ve ever hated anyone so much,” she replies.

Mitsuko was studying violin and I was helping her prepare for an exam. On the day she would be accompanied by a pianist from the Hochschule, but I was helping her rehearse, and I was being extremely critical.

“It was all for your own good,” I say.

The sunlight was flooding in through those wide windows in her apartment on the top floor in the old town; wooden floors, high ceilings, moulded plaster rosettes; I was sitting at her piano in the centre of the room, which was a much better instrument than mine, and I was maintaining my cool and my patience while Mitsuko became more and more frustrated and touchy.

“I was more angry with myself than with you, though,” she says.

“Well, you did a good impression of being angry with me,” I say, and we both laugh.

“I passed, and that’s the main thing.”

I contemplate the memory for a few more seconds, and then I say:

“Mitsuko, I’m not going to be able to come and see you this time. We’ll have to wait till I get back.”

She makes a disappointed face.

“Oh, well, I’m not surprised,” she says. “How long are you on Mars for, until you move off again?”

“Just two and a bit days on the planet,” I say. Mitsuko lives a train journey away from me, and I could theoretically do it in the time; but I have other plans.

“I need to go home, and I really want to go and see Rachel.”

“Well, of course you do,” she says. “You want to see the boys!”

“I do, that’s true,” I say.

“They must have grown up a lot since you were last here.”

“They certainly have. They’ve both said their first words; I think I told you that.” They’re twin boys, and even a mother’s eye finds it hard to tell them apart, so Rachel has stitched one boy’s initial on half of the clothes, and the other initial on the other half.

Sunlit Heights, her husband, asked in all seriousness during my last visit why she needed to tell them apart at that age. I could see the gathering storm in Rachel’s face and I explained to him, calmly, that you need to know how much milk each baby has drunk; when the nappy was last changed; which one has tummy-ache or colic or diarrhoea; and I think he understood.

“I bet you’re laden with gifts for them,” Mitsuko says. “Granny.”

“Laden is overstating it,” I say, “but yes, I’m bringing them some stuff from Earth.” I detail my presents. Soft toys and rattles and that sort of thing.

“But I really need to see Rachel,” I say, “and I need to talk to her on her own. There’s something I have to tell her.”

Mitsuko looks at me, suddenly serious.

“I need to tell you too, Mitsuko, and I’m going to have to do it this way, by video link. It can’t wait.”

“What is it, Hella?”

I look at my friend’s face, concerned and pretty, familiar and affectionate.

“Well – the fact is, I’m not very well.” I pause, and look into the screen.

Her eyes are big.

“I feel all right; but it turns out that I’m not all right. Not at all.”

“Oh, hun.”

“And that – well, it has consequences.”

I tell her about the clinic in Austria. About the tests they did; very intrusive, some of them. The results, and what Dr Kirchner said.

“You’ve known all this time?” Mitsuko asks.

“Ever since Vienna, that’s right.”

“Who have you talked to?”

“Hardly anybody.” I tell her about Wise and my agent.

“You’ve been alone with this knowledge all this time?”

“That’s right.”

“Oh, Hella.” Her face fills with affection and sympathy. “I wish you were here now and I could give you a big hug.”

I smile. “That would be very welcome, actually.” It really would. I need a hug. I feel it suddenly, very strongly.

“Should you be travelling, Hella? Should you be going on this trip?”

“I talked about that with Dr Kirchner,” I tell her. “She thinks I’ll be fine on that timescale. It’ll take longer than that to become really noticeable. I can function normally in daily life, and I should do for quite a while yet. It’s the playing that I’m worried about.”

“What’s that like?”

I describe how it happens, and what it feels like.

“It’s the unpredictability that’s really troubling. I can’t tell at all.”

“There are no warning signs?”

“None that I’ve noticed. It just happens out of the blue. You think you’re going to play something, a particular run or whatever, and then you just don’t.”

“Like pressing a button and nothing happens.”

I smile. “Yes. Actually not quite. Something does happen, but not what you were expecting.” I cast about in my mind for a comparison. “You press a button and expect something really impressive, and instead something disappointing and stupid happens. I can’t really think of an example.”

“I know what you mean, though. But Hella, that must be a horrible feeling. Not just when it happens, but not knowing whether it’s going to.”

“Well, yes, you’re right. It’s like not being able to rely on your instrument.”

“Except that you can’t change this instrument.”

“No. I’m stuck with this one.” I smile wryly. “Fortunately it still doesn’t happen very often.”

“Is it going to happen more often?”

“Inevitably, yes. But I hope it’ll take its time. And that at least I’ll be able to play the festival without anything major going wrong.”

“Can you adjust your programme?”

“You mean choose easier pieces? No, that won’t help. It’s not the difficult passages that bring it on. I don’t know what does bring it on. But it doesn’t seem to make any difference what I’m playing.”

“Everything’s fine as long as it’s not happening?”

“Yes. You heard me play at Milan. There was nothing wrong with that.”

“No.”

She leans back a little, and her face takes on an expression of heartfelt sympathy.

“Oh, hun,” she says again. “I’m so sorry. How horrible.”

I look briefly at her and don’t comment.

“The doctor here on board knows all about it,” I tell her. “The medical officer, I mean.”

“Does he? That’s good.”

“Yes. He spoke to Dr Kirchner, with me, and she brought him up to speed.”

“When you got on board?”

“No, before that. It was when I was still in Australia. Three-way video call, with Gaetano up in orbit. We couldn’t do it before because the ship was on its way to Earth.”

“Gaetano?”

“The medical officer.  Dr Zurbriggen. I know him as Gaetano because I’ve known him for a long time. I knew him as crew long before any of this. He speaks German.”

“Does he? That should help with Dr Kirchner.”

“Yes. So we did the call in German.” Mitsuko and I used to speak German to each other, like everybody else around us, when we were students. It was on Mars that we switched.

“They’re still in contact,” I go on. “He’s supposed to report to her on how I’m doing. I don’t think there’s been much to report yet.”

“She’s the specialist and he’s the generalist?”

“Exactly. So she can advise him if necessary.”

“Let’s hope it won’t be.”

“And he dispenses my medication. Dr Kirchner sent a ton of stuff up on board. Well, not a ton: you know what I mean. Enough to take me to the Jovian System and back, with a bit of a cushion.”

“Do you have to take it every day?”

“Yep. Daily ritual.”

“How does it make you feel?”

I raise my eyebrows slightly. “I don’t notice anything, to be honest. Good or bad. Might as well be a placebo, for all I can tell. Maybe it is.”

“Oh, surely not.”

I smile. “No, I’m sure it isn’t. Anyway, we’re all set for the voyage. And if things do, you know, progress more quickly than expected, Gaetano knows what to do.”

 She regards me for a moment. “I’m going to read up on it,” she says. “I want to understand what you’re facing.”

“I’ve been doing that,” I tell her, and I name some of the online sources that Dr Kirchner recommended. “But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that every case is different. So it’s not much use in predicting how things are going to go.”

“Well, that’s a pity.”

“Just the end result. The destination. We all end up in the same place.”

She gives me a sombre look.

“But I’m not thinking about that,” I say, rather more brightly. “Not much, anyway. I have more immediate things to think about.”

“The festival.”

“Yes; and the thing with the UN.”

“Yes, tell me about that. Have they been in touch?”

“I told you about the meeting in New York, right?”

“Yes, and you said they were going to advise you in more detail later.”

“That hasn’t really happened yet,” I say. “At least, I can’t believe that this is all.”

“What has happened?”

“I got a contact list right after the meeting,” I tell her, “and the covering email said I could get in touch with any of them if I had any questions. The Secretary General said the same thing in the meeting. I didn’t really have any questions, so I didn’t contact anybody. Then a few weeks later I got a call from the same woman, the one who sent me the list.”

“And?”

“Nothing, really. She talked a bit about the trip: you know, the itinerary. Then she asked me if I had any questions and said they’d be in touch.”

“Hmm.”

“I suppose there’s plenty of time. And things might change between now and then; he said that in the meeting too. But we can’t have conversations now: it’ll all have to be emails and video messages.”

“Well, that’s better than nothing.”

“True. And I’m sure they’re very busy, and probably feel they’ve invested enough time for the moment, after that big meeting.”

“They obviously think it’s very important.”

“They do; and it is. Still, I can see why they’re holding back a bit now, until nearer the time. After the Secretary General of the United Nations himself took half an hour out of his day to talk to me. I was quite surprised that he did that.”

“Maybe he’s a fan.”

“Could be.” That is quite possibly true, in fact; or his wife is. I smile inwardly.

“So how do you feel about it? It’s going to be weird, isn’t it?”

“When I get there? Yes, it is.” I contemplate it. “It’s going to be unlike any tour I’ve ever done.”

“Always watching your step. Always being careful what you say.”

“Exactly. Because, one false step, or one ill-considered statement, and there might be all sorts of repercussions. I suppose, anyway. I can’t really imagine what they might be.”

“There’s a question you could usefully put to that contact group.”

“I suppose so. I’d rather have a more complete discussion, though. I think just telling me what the repercussions might be would only make me more nervous.”

“Are you nervous?”

“Oh, totally, Mitsuko. I feel completely inadequate. I feel that I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“I get that. I’d feel the same way.”

“So I really hope they’re going to help me.”

“It’s all down to preparation, isn’t it?” she says. “Rehearsal.”

“Yes, that’s true,” I say. She’s right. “That’s a good comparison. But it’s rehearsing for something I’ve never done before.”

“But it’s something you can do.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure. Hella, you’re a confident woman and you’re a star performer. You’ve never been defeated by any challenge. You can play any piece that’s ever been written. You can play this piece too. You just have to rehearse enough.”

I look at her face on that screen with great affection. This is what friends are for. This is exactly why we have friends.

“Do you remember when we were brides?” she says.

“Of course I do. And bridesmaids.” Mitsuko and I were each other’s bridesmaids, a few months apart.

“That was new,” she says. “I seem to remember somebody being very nervous the previous evening.”

“Oh yes.” I remember. “And somebody kept me company and told me it was all going to be all right.”

She smiles. “And it was.”

“It was. You were quite right.”

At the reception after my wedding Mitsuko and I played a piece together for the entertainment of the guests. The joke was that we started with me on the violin and Mitsuko on the piano: I had taken some violin lessons as a child and even played in a children’s orchestra for a while, and obviously Mitsuko could play the piano. Half way through we pretended to notice and did a lightning-quick switch without interrupting the flow of the music. At the crucial moment she was playing the right hand on the piano and I the left, and I handed her the violin with our other hands, and she snatched up the bow from where I had put it down while I sat down and took over both hands of the piano part. Great hilarity among our guests.

“And it’ll be all right this time.”

“I expect so.” I daresay she’s right. “I just hope I can do some good.”

“Yes. It’s an opportunity, isn’t it? Not just a risk, to be nervous about.”

“Even if the worst happens and I can’t even play. Not that that’s likely.”

“I hope not.”

“That’s how I feel about it. You asked me that. As you say, it’s an opportunity. A chance to do something useful at the end of my life.” Not like Jacqueline, wasting away for years, alone.

“Hella – it’s not the end yet. Is it?”

“The last phase, I should have said. No, it’s not the end yet. I’ll come back from the Jovian System, and I’ll see you again.”

“I’ll see a lot of you, I hope.”

“I hope so too. I don’t think I’ll be travelling again.”

“You’ll be with your family.”

“Yes.” In fact it’s a pity to be going away from them now. “I’m supposed to be going to Earth again in two years’ time, for concerts. I think I’m going to have to cancel them.”

“Are you?”

“Mitsuko, the festival this year is going to be touch and go. I don’t know whether I’ll really be able to play properly. I hope I will, and I think I will. But to go on another concert tour to Earth, that much later? I think that will be extremely risky.”

“So you’re going to cancel the whole tour?”

“Yes.” I’ve been thinking about it, and that is what I firmly intend to do.

“When are you going to do that?”

“I like the idea of doing it while I’m away, on the ship. Keep the fuss to a minimum. It’ll all have blown over by the time I get back.”

“It won’t be news any more.”

“Exactly. I might see how things go at the festival, and make an announcement when I’m on my way back.”

“That sounds like a sensible idea. So you’re not going to tell anyone on the ship. Apart from Dr – Thingy.”

“Dr Gaetano Zurbriggen. No, I won’t tell anyone else. Not unless I have to.”

We exchange glances. Mitsuko can imagine as well as I can the circumstances in which I would be compelled to tell.

“You’re being very brave, Hella,” she says. “I don’t know whether I would be.”

I smile at her, but I don’t comment. What is there to say to that?

“Anyway,” I say. “We’ve talked enough about me. I want to hear about you. Tell me about Mars!”

I really do want to hear what has been going on at home. I want normality.

So Mitsuko updates me on the small doings and gossip that I always miss when I’m off-planet: her husband, her own grown-up children, the school where she’s a teacher, the settlement where they all live, and the people we both know. She’s not a grandmother yet, so I’m ahead of her there, but she has high hopes of catching up.

“I suspect there’s a wedding in the offing,” she says.

“Really? Mountain Rose?”

“Yes. I think it’s serious. He’s a lovely young man. And clearly smitten with Rose.”

“So he should be.”

I wish I could see Mitsuko’s daughter. I’ve known her all her life. I hope I’ll be back in time for the wedding, if there is one.

And this turns into a long, easy chat like all the thousands of chats the two of us have had over the years. It’s not that we’ve forgotten how we started, with my news; but it feels as though that news is embedded in everything else, and is just part of the details and practicalities of our lives that we are exchanging and sharing with each other, as we have always done. It feels that way to me, anyway; I’ve had a lot longer than Mitsuko to get used to it.

There’s one final sombre look as we’re saying goodbye. This has been a shock for her, after all.

“Give my love to Rachel,” she says. “And Sunlit, and the boys. Who obviously have no idea who I am.”

“Well, no, they haven’t. But I will. See you, Mitsuko. And thanks.”

“Send me videos.”

“Of course I will. You too.”

“See you, Hella. Love you.”

“Love you.”

And her face disappears from the screen of my device, and all is quiet in my cabin once more.

*

Just a couple of days later it’s time for the descent to Mars. The ship is really only stopping long enough to take the remaining passengers and freight on board; but there is time for me to go down to the planet with those who are staying here, and come back up with those who are joining us.

We start after lunch. The descent is timed so that we arrive early tomorrow morning in time for breakfast, or for a connection to some other Martian settlement. In my lifetime the speed of the space elevators has increased, and the duration of the journey has decreased, very considerably as the material that makes up the cable has become more durable and stable; but it still takes many hours, even on Mars, where the ship comes closer in than it does on Earth. Too long to do it in a single day, if we want to arrive on the ground at a sensible time.

I don’t need to do much packing: just the gifts that I’ve brought from Earth, and what I’ll need in the elevator. Anything else I’ll find at home; and I’ll be back up here in a few days. After lunch I pick up my things from my cabin, including my helmet, and go to the room where this group of those who are going down is assembling.

Like all interplanetary ships, this one is a great wheel, and passengers and crew spend the whole of the voyage in the rooms and corridors that are arrayed all around its outer edge; and it rotates incessantly to create a centrifugal force that feels much like gravity when you are inside it. When we started this trip it was rotating fast enough to simulate Earth gravity; since then it has slowed down to a Martian level; and it will slow down still more as we continue our journey beyond the Asteroid Belt, because the settlements in the Jovian System have a gravity that is lower even than on Mars. When we disembark there, we’ll already be accustomed to local gravity.

But the wheel has to stop spinning now altogether, very briefly, just long enough to allow us to get out. We all sit on chairs in that room, fixed to the floor like all furniture on board, and we wait for the artificial gravity to disappear.

Laura, one of the ship’s engineers, is supervising this departure. She waits for the signal that the wheel has docked on to the correct place and has stopped rotating, and she pushes herself off from her seat towards a door in what was the ceiling a few moments ago, but is now just one of the sides of this enclosed space in which we are all weightless. She opens the door to reveal the passageway behind it, and waits beside it.

We know the procedure. In the order of our seats we launch ourselves one by one towards that door, and Laura assists us to pass through it. Some of us need more assistance than others. I’m used to this.

We are all wearing space suits and are carrying our helmets, because you never know, but we’re highly unlikely to need them, and we don’t bother putting them on now. This is very safe nowadays. I pass down that tube and into the hub, where one of the elevator attendants is waiting to greet us.

He knows me too.

“Good afternoon, Ms Lundgren,” he says, and he gives me a bright smile. “Welcome back.”

“Thank you very much. It’s good to be home.” Even if it is going to be very short.

On round a corner and into a shorter tube which takes me directly into the elevator. Like the one on Earth it’s a cylinder, with the cable passing through a smaller cylindrical housing in the centre; but it’s much simpler and more spartan. Just the normal reclinable seats arrayed around the cabin.

The other attendant smiles, but she doesn’t say anything, as I pass in and make my way to a seat. They are all the same. I deposit my helmet and my bag, and I sit down and strap myself in as more passengers arrive. This whole time, all the way from the rim of the ship’s wheel to here in the elevator cabin, all we have seen is walls and floors and ceilings. Only the weightlessness suggests that we are in space; otherwise we might as well be underground.

But I saw Mars as we were approaching it this morning. There are places on the ship where you can look out, and I dropped into one of them after breakfast for a last coffee. All along the side of the room the wall is made of what looks like plate glass but is, of course, much stronger than that; and Mars was straight in front of us, one side in shadow, the rest of it that familiar red disc.

I was glad to sit down with my coffee because the floor felt as if it were tilting towards the window. Most of the deceleration was done last night, in fact, while the passengers were all sleeping, and if I had woken up in the night I’d have seemed to be lying on a steep hillside with my legs stretched towards the valley; but I slept soundly, and by the time I got up there was only a little more slowing down to do.

Now, in the elevator, I can see Mars on my screen if I want to, on one of many channels: the view directly downwards out of the cabin, which at the moment is quite similar to what I could see from the ship this morning, except that the disc looks pretty complete and free of shadow at this time of day. Ship time adjusts gradually to Martian time over the course of the voyage, as the gravity does: the time at Mars City, that is, where the elevator’s ground station is, on the equator.

The male attendant comes back into the cabin after the last passenger, the door closes, and both attendants make a last circuit to check that we are all properly strapped in and our belongings secured. This is even more important at the beginning of the descent than on the ascent. Up here we are in free fall, in orbit around the planet, just like the ship, and when the cabin moves off it has to accelerate sharply downwards until it reaches its cruising speed. Anything that was unsecured, including ourselves, would rise up and gather on the ceiling until the acceleration stopped. After that all such objects would gradually float down again as we got closer to the planet and its gravitational attraction became strong enough for the elevator cabin to have to brake against it. So there wouldn’t be objects raining down on our heads; just slowly descending around us; but it’s still a situation to avoid.

Mainly I read during the daylight hours in that seat, but I do monitor the planet from time to time on that screen. I like to do this when I’m returning from a trip: to see how the disc grows as the hours pass and I can recognise more and more features on the ground. Mars City itself is the most prominent, directly below us, in the centre of the screen, but other, smaller settlements are recognisable too, including Ridgeback, an hour’s journey out of Town, where my house is.

They serve us breakfast shortly before we arrive: a croissant, some fruit, some coffee, an orange juice. The night is over, but it feels very early and I’m not really hungry; in any case I found the evening meal quite substantial, if not particularly tasty; but I eat it, and drink it, and at least I feel wide awake when the cabin finally comes to rest on the ground.

There are a couple more cabins stacked below ours when we arrive. There is a lift to go down, but I take the stairs because I’m not carrying much and I really feel that I want to move my limbs. The ground floor is little more than a waiting room for the rail connection. Most of my fellow passengers are travelling on into Town itself, a very short trip, and their train is already here; and some of them are being met here, at the ground station, and will be driven straight to wherever they are going; but I am travelling in the opposite direction to Town, and I have to wait a little while until my train arrives.

The space empties quickly, and I am soon almost the only person left. I seem to be the only passenger. I loiter a little by the window because it makes such a pleasant change to see daylight. There is little to see. Dust and rocks, and the line of the magnetic rail stretching away on stilts into the distance. All suffused in red, in the pale Martian sunlight, cold and dangerous without protection.

One of the staff, a young woman, smiles at me as I leave the window and find a seat. I yawn, and pull out my device to carry on reading, and I wait.

Finally the train arrives. I stand up and wait for the doors to slide open. No one alights this time. There are still elevator cabins on their way down, and they can’t start ascending again until that is all finished. I think boarding is going to start tomorrow.

I walk into the shuttle and find a seat by the window. The man seated opposite wishes me a good morning and continues what he is doing on his device; I sit down and look around. The shuttle is half full, and everybody is in space suits. On Mars we always travel in space suits, even if we have no intention of leaving habitable environments: emergencies are rare, but they can happen, and if they do you don’t want to have left your suit back in the city.

I actually nod off as the shuttle travels smoothly across the plain. You’d think I’d had a good night’s sleep, but apparently sitting and lying around all day and all night takes its toll of you. I don’t sleep for long, though, and we’re still some way from Ridgeback when I wake up again. The seat opposite is empty, but the man returns after a few minutes and he nods wordlessly to me as he sits down and picks up his device again.

I don’t want to read. I gaze out of the window at this familiar landscape that I haven’t seen for half a Martian year and soon won’t see again for even longer. Craters which the railway line skirts; ridges which it climbs and descends at a slant; boulders lying randomly in the dust. The sun now well above the horizon and casting stark shadows behind those various features. Far in the distance I register an obscurity, a clouding, which the practised eye interprets as a dust storm. I can’t tell whether it’s coming our way.

A mild dust storm won’t interfere with our lives, but on occasion they can be severe and last for days, and can disrupt our various means of transport, including the space elevator, if the storm is happening there. If that happens, though, it won’t affect just me, and the ship will wait. It doesn’t want to wait too long here, because the longer it stays in orbit around Mars, the further the planet will carry it away from the best point to set off for Jupiter. But a couple of days won’t matter. In fact it would be nice to stay down here a little longer.

After a while, in the other direction, I glimpse what I have been looking out for: the first outposts of Ridgeback: so different from the urbane modernity of Mars City, whose architecture must have seemed highly futuristic when it was first built, now seems almost quaint, but still represents the commerce and the affairs of today, an interplanetary gateway to the world that I have just come back from.

Ridgeback has its central area under a dome, like Mars City, where people can walk around in normal clothing and don’t need a space suit; but a lot of it still consists of individual houses scattered around that centre, and that is the case with my house.

I’ve reserved a hired buggy to get me there, and my device takes me to where it’s standing. It tells me where it is before I have even left the shuttle; it guides me through the station to the right airlock, where I fix my helmet and wait with three other people for the air to empty and the outer door to open; and it takes me out of the building and across the Martian dust that crunches and crumbles under my feet, to a largish buggy, much too large for my needs today, painted in silver and blue, whose door unlocks as I approach it and lets me climb into the driver’s seat.

Obviously it’s been some time since I sat at the wheel of one of these. I remember how to do it, though. I can just drive off without any need to reverse or manoeuvre; I steer the buggy away from the central dome and towards the ridge that gave the settlement its name.

It’s a bumpy ride, as it always is, but the suspension cushions most of it. Being on Earth all this while has made me sensitive again to how slowly the buggy falls and bounces back in Martian gravity; and it makes me feel that I have come home.

I drive past several houses, up a short slope which the buggy can only manage at a much reduced speed, and I approach my house. I can’t see anybody about. This is the same house that Wise and I bought all those years ago when we were married. It’s fully paid off now, but we were a long time doing that. As a concert pianist I may be a household name, as the man at the United Nations said, but there’s a lot less money in it than people sometimes seem to think. And what Wise can earn in his profession is modest indeed.

The garage door slides open as I drive up to it, and I steer the buggy inside. All I have with me is my overnight bag on the seat next to me; I pick it up, climb out of the buggy and go to the airlock to enter the main pod. It’s always the same strange feeling when I come back from a long trip and walk in through that airlock: familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

I see there is something in the delivery airlock. It must be the supplies that I ordered, and it must have just arrived, because there was nothing about it on my device before I started driving. Once I’m out of my space suit and have hung it up I go to that airlock and pull the box into the room, and start putting its contents away.

The house is a bit dusty, but I was expecting that. The floors are fine, because the house cleans itself robotically, but it doesn’t deal with all the surfaces.

I don’t feel like dealing with them either at the moment. I go into the kitchen and make myself some coffee, and I sit down at the kitchen table to drink it.

I live here on my own nowadays. Rachel still lived here up until her own marriage, but her room is unused now.

Wise and I bought a home here because this is where he was from, and he had friends here. But they were always really his friends, and he is gone now; and I’m away so much that it’s hard to keep up relationships that are not that close in the first place. It would make sense to sell up when I get back from this next trip and move closer to Rachel. I wouldn’t ask to move in with them; that wouldn’t be fair; but to live close by would make sense. There’s nothing to keep me at Ridgeback.

These are not considerations that I was expecting to arise for a long time.

I finish my coffee and start to do what I really came here for, apart from a simple desire to spend one night, at least, in my own bed: I want to pick up some more clothes to take with me to the Jovian System. It’s a longer journey than the one that I have just returned from, and it’s a different character: for most of this trip I’ll be on the ship, as opposed to constantly hopping from one concert to the next as I did on Earth. Also I know that, in the Jovian System itself, people’s style is more sober than on Earth or on Mars. It’s true that I’ll be performing at a festival, and people won’t expect me to turn up in everyday clothes; but the sophisticated designer dresses that I wear on tour on Earth might be overdoing it on Callisto or Ganymede.

So I go into my bedroom and start taking some things out of my wardrobe and laying them out on the bed, and I ponder.

This is not going to take long. There isn’t in fact much that I need to do today. I will indeed wipe down those surfaces this afternoon, and I’ll make myself a meal, and another one this evening; I’ll do my exercises on the piano; and that’s really it. I could make some calls, but I don’t really want to. And I don’t want to visit anyone here at Ridgeback. I find that I’m reluctant to see anyone I know if they don’t know my news, unless I’m planning to tell them, as I’m going to do with Rachel tomorrow. I don’t want to spend the evening with neighbours today, for instance, and have them find out later when it’s in the press and wonder why I didn’t say anything.

So I’ll just spend the rest of the day here, in my house, relaxing, and enjoy the sensation of being surrounded by my own things; and then in the morning I’ll take the buggy back down to the station and leave it there as I get on the train to go to Rachel. I’m really looking forward to that. I miss her.

*

“Oh, Mum.” My daughter’s face changes, and she puts down the spatula she was holding and comes to me and puts her arms around me. I hug her back, and there we stand for a moment.

We are in her kitchen. The boys are in their playpen in the sitting room, Sunlit Heights is at work, and we are spending the day together in their home. I’m staying overnight on a makeshift bed in the babies’ room; the babies themselves will be with their parents for one night. They’re almost toddlers.

Rachel is baking cakes, and I’m helping. I hope I’m helping.

“Oh, mind my apron,” she says, and draws away. There’s cake mixture smeared on the front.

“Don’t worry,” I say. It’ll come off.

“How long has this been going on?” she wants to know. “How long have you known?”

“Looking back, I think it’s been going on for quite some time,” I tell her. “I didn’t recognise it for what it was. How should I? I didn’t know anything about it.”

She nods, and picks up her spatula again. Her face is still very serious.

“It was while I was on the way to Earth that I thought I might as well get myself checked. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it might be some kind of stress-related thing, in my hands.”

“That happens, doesn’t it?”

“Can do. Hasn’t to me before.”

“And then they had a look at you and discovered what it really was.” She is pressing cake mixture into a variety of moulds: stars and shells and flowers and other shapes. Should the boys be spoiling their appetites with cake at this age? I’m not going to interfere. It’s not my business.

“Sort of. I spoke to Dr Kirchner first, before going there. A preliminary consultation on the phone.”

“And told her the symptoms.”

“Exactly. So she could think about what to investigate when I came.”

“And they gave you the result right away.”

“Yes, at the end of that day. And that’s when I found out. I had no idea.”

She’s looking up at me intermittently as she fills those moulds.

“And since then I’ve been – well. You know.” Under sentence of death.

She moves up close to me and presses the length of her upper arm against mine. Her hands are full.

“Rachel, I’d have told you if I’d known it was anything serious. I’d have told you before I left. But it was completely unexpected.”

“Have you told Dad?”

“Yes, he knows. I asked him not to mention anything until I’d had a chance to talk to you.”

She nods.

“I wanted to tell you in person. Not in a video message.”

“Oh, Mum,” she says again, and she puts down that spatula and gives me another hug. She releases me. “I just feel so sorry for you, going around on your tour with that hanging over you.”

I’ve surprised myself, in fact. Why am I so calm about it? Why am I not utterly devastated and emotional, and frightened?

“And now you’re going off on another trip,” she says. “An even longer one.”

“I know,” I say. “I know what you mean. But I’ll be fine. The medical officer on board knows all about it, and the people who are most important to me know about it too.” Those are two things that have nothing to do with each other, it strikes me.  “I mean, I’ll be fine medically, because of the medical officer, and emotionally too, because I’ve spoken to you and I have your support.”

“And you must have spoken to Auntie Mitsuko.” I look at her quizzically. “Mitsuko,” she adds. She’s still not used to calling her that.

“Yes, I had a long talk with her the other day.”

Rachel opens the oven door, which is at eye-height. I take a step back to give her space to slide the baking tray inside. She closes the door and turns to face me.

“That’s it for half an hour,” she says. “Do you want some coffee? Or would you rather wait till the cakes are ready?”

“I’d rather wait for the cakes,” I say. “But I would like a glass of water.”

“Or juice?” She is taking off her apron.

“No, water, please. I can get it.”

“Well, I’m going to have some juice,” she says, and we both get our drinks and carry them into the sitting room. The twins are happily crawling about in their playpen, which takes up most of the available space in this small room. We sidle around it and sit beside each other on the sofa, and as we are doing so one of the twins notices his mother and starts to agitate to be taken out. She puts her drink down on the floor and gets up to lift him out. Inevitably the other twin points out the inequity of this, and I am glad to be able to stand up myself and pick this one up out of the playpen.

“Good job there was only one of you,” I tell Rachel. “That was much easier.”

“Yes, I’m glad you’re here.” There’s music to a mother’s ears. “They always want everything at the same time. And I can see their point; but I can’t do it.”

“No; well, we all have to learn to be patient.”

She looks at me with raised eyebrows. “Do you think they can, already?”

Is my daughter actually asking for my opinion on a matter relating to her task as a mother?

“Well –” I begin, and we now get into a conversation about the learning capabilities of small children, while the two subjects of that discussion are sitting on our respective laps, and not sitting still.

I’m delving in my memory, and in fact I’ve been doing this since the boys were born, or even longer, remembering Rachel reaching the various stages of her development: sleeping through the night, solid food, first words, first steps, and all the rest; and trying to remember how old she was at each of those stages.

Rachel knows quite a bit about this too, in theory; she derives her knowledge from the books she has been reading, and I suppose I have to concede that her information is probably more reliable than my memory.

It really is a pity that I’m going to miss so much of the boys. By the time I get back they’ll be so much older than they are now, and Rachel will have had to deal with it all alone; with her husband, obviously. In fact, remembering what Rachel and the other children around us at that age were like, I can imagine she’ll need my help even more then than she does now.

Still, it would be tempting to stay: to put that plan into action that I was thinking about yesterday, to sell up at Ridgeback and move to somewhere much closer to here. It would be very nice to be a part of this family story now, and not to have to wait.

I’m committed now, though. I could cancel, I suppose, and tell the world about my condition; but I find that idea repugnant. I’m perfectly capable of playing the festival, I think and hope, and I have that other job to do, for the UN. I’m flattered and pleased to have been asked, and I really want to do it, and to do it well.

The most carefree time that day is when the boys are in the bath, just before going to bed. Sunlit Heights is still at work, but is expected soon; Rachel perches on the side of the bathtub, I sit on the lavatory cover, and the boys play, and splash, and laugh, and chatter. We laugh too. It’s a carefree, hilarious time that eases the heart.

Rachel and I agreed that she would tell Sunlit Heights about me after I have gone; so there is no shadow of it that evening. She and I prepare a light meal, a salad, and we all eat it when her husband comes home, and then we sit together in the living room with the playpen folded away and enjoy a glass of wine. I’m glad to catch up with Sunlit Heights again. We’re not really close, but I’d like to improve our relationship. Maybe that will happen after I get back.

The next morning Rachel leaves the boys with a neighbour and goes with me to the ground station of the elevator. It’s another train journey, not as long as the one to my house: first into town, and then the shuttle continues on for a few minutes to the ground station.

Those sliding doors open, and we walk out of the shuttle into the building along with a number of other people. Rachel is carrying my helmet for me; I have a rather larger bag this time with the clothes that I packed at home. The building is quite crowded, with those who are about to go up and those who are seeing them off. I know that several cabins will be travelling up this morning at short intervals.

There is a bustle in the crowd and it seems that someone is making their way towards us. Rachel and I turn to see.

“Mitsuko!” I say, astonished. My best friend flings her arms around me and presses me hard. Her husband stands behind her and looks on with a sheepish smile.

Mitsuko lets go and looks up at me.

“I couldn’t let you go without saying goodbye,” she says.

“Oh, Mitsuko, you shouldn’t have wasted all that time, the pair of you; but I’m so glad you did. It’s so good to see you,” and I embrace her again.

As we disengage again I catch Rachel’s expression, and it strikes me as slightly too knowing.

“Did you know about this?” I ask her.

She smiles, but Mitsuko answers.

“I called her the other day,” she says, “and found out when you were due to leave. And she was to tell me if anything changed.”

“We thought it would be a nice surprise for you,” says Rachel.

I shake my head in mock reproof, but I am smiling, and I mean my smile. This is a lovely surprise.

“Come on, Mum, you need to go upstairs.”

“Are you coming?”

“Of course we are,” says Mitsuko. “What a question!”

We take the lift up to the space elevator. We crowd in with several other people and do as the voice tells us, to keep clear of the closing doors.

“How come you both have time to come here?” I ask Mitsuko. It’s term-time, after all.

“We have colleagues taking our lessons for us,” she tells me. They’re both teachers at the same school. “And we spoke to the principal, and he was fine with it.”

“Well, I hope you’re going to make a day of it in Town.”

Mitsuko smiles and shakes her head.

“Can’t,” she says. “We have to be back this afternoon.” All the more generous of them. I look on her with great affection.  “Oh: Rose sends her love. She’d have liked to come too, but she couldn’t get the time off.”

“Well, I’d have loved to see her, but I understand. Give her my love back.”

Mitsuko draws up close to me.

“Hella, I told her,” she whispers. “I hope that’s okay.”

I squeeze her arm. “Yes, that’s okay,” I whisper back.

That must mean we all know my secret, in this little group.

The doors open and we all shuffle out and disperse on this platform three storeys up, with the entrance to the space elevator opposite. The entrance is open and a staff member is standing outside it, supervising the boarding process; but there is little for him to do. The system has tracked my progress this morning from Rachel’s house all the way here, and now it knows from my device and from the retinal scans at various points in this building that I have arrived. As long as no one attempts to board who isn’t supposed to be travelling, there will be no need for him to intervene.

We all turn to face each other, and stand for a moment in silence.

“Well, this is it,” I say at last.

Rachel speaks first. “Have a good journey, Mum,” she says. “Be safe.” She embraces me, and we hold each other for a long moment.

Then it’s Mitsuko’s turn. She stands in front of me, up close, and I look down into her face. She is smiling, but in her eyes there’s something earnest; not quite sad.

We embrace. We’re not usually this tactile with each other, but I think we all know why we’re doing it today.

Neither of us wants to let go; but in the end we do. Mitsuko’s husband comes up next, and there is an awkward moment in which he is not sure what to do. He extends his hand for me to shake; I take it, and then draw him towards me and kiss him on the cheek.

“Bon voyage, Hella,” he says. “Come back safe.”

I smile at him, and then at all of them.

“Goodbye, everyone,” I say. “Thank you all for coming to see me off. I love you all. See you next year.”

Next Martian year. It will be a long time.

Rachel hands me my helmet and gives me a last smile; and I back away, and turn, and the attendant smiles and nods to me as I walk into the elevator cabin. I can see which seat to make for.