Will I wait?
I pause, and look at him.
Dan looks back at me, with his harmless, collegiate, bookworm’s sort of face.
He’s standing in my office, where he has come in to talk to me. I’m behind my desk, sitting down, where I have been sorting through my drawers. My shoes are under the desk, and there are piles of paper on the floor next to me. And biscuits and hand cream and other random stuff.
Clearly the question arises, about waiting. I suppose it does.
He has just said that he will wait for me, and will still be here when I get back. That is, obviously he’ll still be here, but he means he’ll be ready to carry on.
It would be churlish not to say the same thing back. It’s not a legally binding undertaking.
Carry on, though. Carry on what? We’re not together. Even if he seems to think we are.
He’s a colleague in the same department. A little senior to me, and a little older. Not particularly good-looking, or amusing, or interesting; not much of a catch, really, as men go. Just an ordinary male associate in the corporate department of this law firm.
Intelligent, hard-working and diligent, obviously, or he wouldn’t have this job. Ambitious, too, and articulate and persuasive. Clearly on a partner track. I imagine he’ll be up for partnership in two or three years, if he stays with the firm; and I’m sure he expects that. Whether he’ll get it, is another story.
I can’t keep him waiting like this. I have to say something.
“That’s really nice, Dan,” I say. “Thank you.”
There’s an almost imperceptible reaction in his expression. A stillness, really, rather than a reaction. I’ve disappointed him.
“I’ll wait too,” I say. I feel compelled to say it. Shouldn’t have done, really.
His face relaxes.
“Amy,” he says, and his voice is low and husky.
Amy, that’s short for Amiable Friend. My parents gave us both Martian-style names, although they were both originally from Earth. Maybe because they were from Earth.
Dan is an Earth-style name.
“I’ll miss you,” he says, and he looks at me with puppy eyes.
My brain is casting about for phrases that Dan might have been short for if it were a Martian name. I pull myself together and stop it.
“You’ll soon forget about me,” I tell him, and I smile. A pencil is rolling towards the edge of the desk, and I catch it before it falls, and I screw it together so that the graphite is no longer protruding.
He shakes his head, but he doesn’t reply to that.
“Taking plenty of work with you?” he asks. I’m glad of the change of subject.
“Yes, I’m working on the Green Ridge deal.”
“I know you are. Half the department seems to be.”
“Closing’s supposed to be in three weeks.”
“Is it going to be?”
I shrug. “Maybe.”
He smiles. He knows how it is.
“Anyway, that’s what I’ll be doing the first few weeks on the ship,” I tell him. Until the time delay becomes too great to make discussions with the rest of the team practicable.
When I’m half way to where I’m going, any message to me will take twenty minutes to travel from Mars to the ship, at the speed of light. And any reply from me will take another twenty minutes to get back to Mars.
Once Green Ridge closes, I’ll really be working remotely. The office will send me complete assignments to do, and I’ll work on them on my own until I’m ready to transmit them back to Mars. It’ll be like submitting essays at university.
I’m not taking any of this paper with me. Anything I need, I’ll take on a data stick and copy it to the ship’s computer once I’m on board.
Better to take too much than too little. Data doesn’t weigh anything.
“Just a few more days to go now,” I nearly say, but I don’t want to rub it in. “Are you coming to my send-off?” I ask him instead.
He smiles. “Sure.”
“If you’re not on the phone, or working to a deadline, or anything else like that.”
His smile becomes more rueful. I know how it is too.
In a way, I almost hope he is stuck in a meeting or on a call and can’t make it. It’s that air that he exudes, of rightful possession. The evening will be easier to handle if we’re all just work colleagues and nothing more.
“That’s you all over,” I know my sister would say. “Playing him along, when you have no intention of giving him what he wants.”
I don’t think I’ve been playing him along. Just not particularly resisting.
I’m aware that someone observing us from outside might think I have.
This secondment is coming at just the right moment, as far as that goes. It takes away the need to do something about Dan.
I don’t want to drift into a relationship with him, or a marriage.
Of course he’ll forget about me. It stands to reason. He’ll have enough to occupy his mind at work, busy as we always are; and at some point he’ll find some other female associate to take under his wing. He’ll be dropping into her office, and sitting next to her at lunch, and forwarding her amusing emails. And I can concentrate on what I’ll be doing at the other end of my voyage.
“Exactly,” my sister would say. “Career, career, career. What about his feelings? What about yours?”
My feelings? Well, the fact is, I haven’t really got any feelings for Dan, one way or the other. He’s just something that happens to be in my life at the moment, like my office at work, or my chair, or a pair of shoes. I’m used to him, I’m used to him being around; but it won’t be at all dramatic when he’s no longer around. I don’t expect to miss him.
“Anyway,” he says. “Speaking of working to a deadline.”
“You have to run,” I finish.
Another rueful grin.
“Supposed to be turning a document by tonight,” he says.
“Well then,” I say. “Chop chop!”
“It was worth it to come and see you,” he tells me.
That’s enough of that now, Dan.
“See you later, I hope,” I say, and I swivel on my chair ready to bend down and pick up one of those piles of paper. “You know where it is?”
“I think so.”
“It’s where it always is.” The bar downstairs and opposite. A corner of it is reserved from six o’clock for those who want to come and wish me well on my journey.
I smile at him again. “Thanks for dropping by!”
It’s quite a tiresome task, sorting out my drawers. I try to give an impression of order and efficiency at work, but the interiors of those drawers, especially their deeper reaches, tell a different story. I don’t even remember some of these items. Others do revive some vague memories. Seminars I’ve attended, whose printed materials I shoved into a drawer afterwards, meaning to look at them later. A novelty pen with a pink fluffy ruff from a motivational course. Some ancient toffees, that go straight into the bin.
I’m glad when it finally gets to about ten to six and I call it a day. I tell myself it’s a hostess’s duty to be there before anyone else arrives, but the truth is, I can’t bear to engage with this rubbish any longer. It doesn’t matter which order we arrive in. It’s a bar.
I haven’t been there very long, and there aren’t many people there yet, when Digby Rollins arrives, the head of department.
The first thing he does is to get a round of drinks in for everyone. There’s always a question mark at these events, whether the firm will pick up the tab. Usually it does; but you can’t necessarily rely on it. People’s ordering tends to depend at first on how confident they are that it will. With Digby’s arrival, the likelihood has significantly improved.
It was Digby who first spoke to me about this possible secondment.
“Callisto,” he said when I first walked into his office. I had no idea why he wanted to see me. He motioned to me from behind his desk to sit down, with his hands behind his head as he leaned back in his very comfortable-looking, black synthetic leather chair. There is a lot more space in his office than in mine.
“I assume you’re aware of what’s going on there. Speaking purely in terms of business.”
Callisto. I thought, and I remembered a matter that I had been acting on last year.
“Mining. It’s about mining. That’s what they do there.”
“Yes, indeed. Callisto is all about mining. In fact it’s a hotbed of innovation and growth.”
“White Bear is based on Callisto.”
“So it is. You ought to remember that company.”
“I do. We were acting for the brokers.”
White Bear Planetary Mining Corp. floated its stock on the Martian stock exchange last year, along with what we call an echo listing back on Earth.
We acted for one of the local financial houses that facilitated that transaction. It’s the kind of matter in which I have most of my experience, in fact: flotations, de-listings, rights issues, takeovers, reorganisations of publicly traded companies. It’s comparatively rare that I get involved with an acquisition of a company like Green Ridge, which is unlisted and privately owned.
Our client was underwriting the issue; so on the one hand it was advising the company, White Bear, which wanted to place its stock and raise the capital it was seeking; at the same time our client had its own interests because of its financial exposure as an underwriter; so there was a balance to be struck in putting the deal together.
I was too junior to be really involved in the negotiations, but I drafted a lot of pieces of the legal documentation of the deal, instructed by the senior associate who was in charge of the matter at our firm.
That senior associate is sitting next to me now, as it happens, here in the bar downstairs.
“I’d like you to consider a secondment to Callisto,” Digby went on, and fixed me with his eye.
“A – what? We haven’t got an office on Callisto.” Stupid thing to say.
“No. The secondment would be to our client.”
“Yes. The client is Shanghai Exchanges, and they want to set up a stock exchange on Callisto, as an extension to their main exchange on Earth.”
“Indeed. The rationale is basically the same as when the Martian exchange was set up all those years ago: there needs to be a marketplace where players can respond in real time to events as they happen, not minutes or hours later when the exchanges on Earth find out about them.”
“There are lots of young, capital-hungry firms on Callisto, all playing a role in the mining boom. A lot of them technology driven, or logistics, or whatever it is they do there.” He grinned at me. “Anyway. The exchange will be mainly automatic, so kind of like the one here, only more so. Shanghai have a team out there already, working on setting it up.”
“How do I come into it?”
“The exchange will need a legal framework, and someone will have to write it.”
“Sorry, but – couldn’t we do that here, and just send it to them?”
“Well – frankly, yes, we could. We can roll out what we have here, pretty much.”
“But some things will have to be adapted to local conditions, local peculiarities; and that will be much easier to do if you’re actually there and see what things are like on the ground.”
I nodded again.
“And, frankly, there’ll be a lot of explaining to do. Entrepreneurs are going to need to understand what this means for them, how it works, what they need to do. The opportunities. The risks. We need someone there who can talk to local people and help them get their heads around what all this means for them.”
I could feel my face acquiring an expression of dawning comprehension. I leaned back a little.
“Callisto. Wow.” I’d never even been off Mars before.
“The secondment will be for a Martian year.” Two Earth years. One sixth of a Callistoan year: Callisto is a moon of Jupiter, and Jupiter orbits the Sun once every twelve Earth years.
That makes sense, actually, as even I, a humanities graduate and a lawyer, could work out.
I presumed that Mars and Jupiter were currently at that stage in their orbits when they were both more or less on the same side of the Sun; so the ship, when I took it, could travel directly away from the Sun and would be heading pretty much straight for Callisto. And when I returned, in two Earth years’ time, on a different ship, Mars would be back here again, having gone once around the Sun in the meantime.
“Allowing for travel in both directions, that will give you about nine months on Callisto itself.” It’s a very long trip; but it’s a very long way from Mars to Jupiter, even when they are at their closest. Twice as far as to the Sun, as I didn’t know then, but I do now.
“Why me?” I asked, honestly puzzled. Digby smiled.
“No need to be modest, Amy,” he said. “You’re the stand-out candidate for this assignment. Your experience, your communicative skills, your reliability and independence, your dedication: you’re the obvious choice.”
He paused and looked straight at me. “There was very little discussion. There are a couple of other possibilities in the Earth offices, but we all agree, if you want to do it, it’s yours.”
“They know me on Earth?”
“Of course they do, Amy, what do you think? Your record speaks for itself.”
I didn’t know what to say.
I wasn’t sure how much of this he really meant, and how much of it was motivational talk.
Still, it was nice to hear.
“This project is hugely important to the firm,” he went on. “This is only the second time an exchange has been set up off Earth. You know that. And Callisto is a very exciting market at the moment. This is a huge opportunity for the firm, to create a reputation and a real presence there, before our competitors. And it’s a huge opportunity personally for whoever goes there.”
I ought to have been overawed and intimidated by this responsibility; but all I could think of at that moment was that I really wanted to go.
His description of what I’d have to do there had made perfect sense to me. I can do this, I told myself. He’s right: I am just the person for this. I know I can do the drafting: that’s what I’ve been doing since I started as a lawyer. I know I can explain it to those involved and affected: I’ve done that before too, and I’m good at it. The only new aspect will be having to take decisions on my own, without a supervisor to discuss them with, or simply to ask. But I have to start doing that some time.
And that is what I’m thinking of, once again, in the downstairs bar, as people around me are talking and shouting and laughing and the music underlies it all, and I am taking a moment just to sit and sip my drink in peace.
Dan has arrived in the meantime, but there’s no room for him near me, so he’s sitting at a different table with some other associates, where he can see me, but only if he turns his head.
I watch them conversing, maturely, professionally, with their suits and their haircuts, but now and again relapsing into studentlike hilarity.
I don’t want to get involved with anyone at this stage of my life. I can feel my mental muscles, how they have been growing, I can feel in my whole body how I can do this thing that they want me to do: how I am ready to take this assignment on and make it a success. I really want to do this, and I want to focus on it completely.
The eyes of the firm will be on me. If they knew about me before, they’ll definitely be watching me now.
Before it got too noisy here I was speaking to Judy, the associate who supervised me on White Bear. It’s nice that she is here at all, because she has a small child at home, and a husband who works too.
She was canvassed, apparently, when they were considering whom to send to Callisto, and she was able to tell them how I had performed on that matter.
I don’t blame her for telling me that. Some people might, but I don’t. She did me a favour, as well as simply answering questions and doing her job. I can see why she’d want me to know, and I’m glad that I do. It’s good to have things clear.
Digby Rollins doesn’t say any of that when he gives his little address down here. None of that praise and flattery that he had lavished on me in his office. This time he talks about Callisto and about how exciting it all is. A distant world, far away in space, close up against the largest planet in the Solar System, huge and overwhelming to see, but for ever unapproachable. An alien world, dark and frozen and pitted with ancient craters. An ocean of water, bitterly cold, under its surface. Valuable minerals, on Callisto itself and on other satellites of Jupiter nearby. The boom-town atmosphere of the colony, its pioneers and mavericks and rebels, its change and growth and innovation, destructive and constructive at the same time.
I know for a fact that he has never been there, but you wouldn’t think so.
He finishes by wishing me well, and promising that they will all be following my activities and looking forward to my return. They all toast me, and quite soon the hubbub resumes, from our tables and from the other patrons of the bar who all fell silent, more or less, when the music was turned down and Digby stood up to give his speech.
The evening draws on, and some of the associates start talking about moving on to another place. I can see Dan glancing intermittently across at me, obviously hoping that I’ll come along, and I decide to forestall any of that.
“I think I’d better be going,” I announce to Fortitude, Forty, as we call her, who is now sitting next to me: Judy left a little while ago and people have shifted up to fill the gap.
“It’s getting late,” she agrees. “I think I’ll come with you, if you don’t mind.”
Heads turn as I scrape my chair back and I use the table to push myself upright.
“Thanks, everyone, for coming to send me off,” I say to my table, and I see people at the other tables noticing what’s going on and turning to look.
“Thanks, everyone,” I repeat, a little louder, and I give a little wave. “I’ll miss you all.” I’ll come round once more, probably tomorrow, to finish off clearing out my office and take my stuff away; but this is the last time I’ll see most of my colleagues until I come back from Callisto.
In the end a whole group of people decide to go home, now that their hostess is leaving, and those who were talking about going on to another bar are clearly thinking they might as well do that now. I can see Dan considering which group to be in, realising that I am leaving in the company of several others, and deciding to go with the other group. Just the result I was hoping for.
My apartment is not far from the office, and it only takes us a couple of minutes to get there, four or five of us, once we have finally left the bar. Forty and the others give me hugs and air kisses before moving on towards their own places, and I let the door slide shut behind me. I’ve made a start on packing up those things that are going into storage, but I am far less advanced here than at work.
There is one more thing that I absolutely have to do before I leave, and that is not a chore at all: I’ve been looking forward to it.
My parents are semi-retired and live out at Frobisher, an hour’s land journey away from Town.
Town is the name we prefer to give to Mars City: it sets the natives apart from those visitors who haven’t yet picked up on this kind of coded message.
Town, these days, is the largest and most important settlement on Mars. It’s where I live and work, and it’s where pretty much all companies with an interplanetary connection are located. It’s the only settlement that has buildings with more than two storeys above ground – not many of them, but it has some. It is sleek and modern and urban, and it’s a magnet for ambitious young Martians like the fresh graduate that I was a few years ago.
Frobisher is much more rural. It’s not even all contained under one dome, as Town is. There, people regularly put on their space suits for little errands and visits, they ride in buggies and walk on the surface, outside. It’s where my sister and I grew up, and our parents are still there, after all these years.
At an hour when most people are making their way to work, I make mine down to the rail link, feeling self-conscious in my pink and white space suit and with my helmet dangling in my hand. I don’t know why I feel like that. It’s obvious what I am about to do.
The rail link is at the edge of town, naturally. You go in through a stile that checks that you have a valid ticket, using your mobile device, and you wait until the shuttle is ready for boarding. It’s just a room, quite nondescript, with rows of seating and a drinks outlet. I sit down, on a bench on my own, and wait as a few more people arrive and sit down too, wordlessly. Not many, this morning.
On one side are two long sliding doors, opaque, sealing off the airlock where the shuttle will wait while we board. Exactly behind those doors will be the shuttle’s own sliding doors, opened up to let us in; and then both sets will close, one end of the airlock will open, and the shuttle will move out on its journey across the surface of Mars.
It’s a single magnetic rail, elevated on stilts above the surface with its rocks and craters and ridges. The shuttle is suspended from the rail, like a sloth clinging on to a branch in a jungle on Earth, and it doesn’t move particularly fast, though it’s certainly faster than a buggy. The rail links all of the permanent settlements on Mars these days; it’s only certain mining operations and research outposts that are too far away or too temporary, and to get there you either drive in a buggy, often a long and uncomfortable journey, or you have to fly. Which with our thin atmosphere means rockets, and that is not an option for most trips. Mainly the rail is used for freight, but there are passenger shuttles too, and this is one of them.
I’m sitting in the shuttle and we’re moving through the sunlit plain when my device bleeps and vibrates. It’s my mother.
“Amiable Friend? Hi. It’s me.”
“Are you on your way?”
“Yes. We’re on time.”
“Good. Look, Lucid Thought has sent us a video. We thought we could all watch it together when you arrive.”
“Oh, that’ll be nice.”
“Yes, won’t it? It arrived in the night and we saw it this morning.”
My sister is off planet, as she frequently is, in a place where night time or daytime in Frobisher has no meaning.
“Are you hungry?”
“Er, not right now,” I reply, “I’ve just had breakfast.”
“I’ve made fresh bread.”
“I’m making a salad. I’ve got some lovely tomatoes. Really tasty.”
“Hmm, that sounds delicious.”
“Mrs Chang grows them. You remember Mrs Chang? Over on Sullivan Height.”
“Yes, I remember her.”
“Well, I must be getting on. See you soon!”
“Looking forward to it.”
I watch the countryside passing and think about the morning that lies ahead. I knew my sister wasn’t going to be here, but now with her video message she is going to be, effectively, after all.
We skirt a large crater which I can look down into through the clear panel along the whole side of the shuttle, and then the rail begins to climb. The shuttle slows down appreciably.
On my side the slope falls away steeply, deeply cleft, merging with the edge of the crater. Rocks lie where they tumbled an age ago. Red dust lies all over the ground where it settles anew every time there’s a storm.
The atmosphere on Mars is very thin, but it’s enough to whip up some impressive dust storms.
They are a lot more impressive out in Frobisher than in Town, where there’s no reason even to notice them.
I remember days when the school used to close for a storm.
We reach the top of this ridge, and the shuttle continues along its crest for a space before descending again on the other side. I can see for a long way up here, all the way to a mountain range, distant along the horizon. Between it and us I can make out the breast-like dome of Mars City, smooth and glistening in the fractured and dusty desert all around.
Then we begin our descent, and all I see on my side for a while is rock and shadow. I turn my eyes back to the news feed that I had been reading on my device before my mother called, but my mind isn’t really on it. I stare at it blankly, and around me the other passengers, scattered through this largely empty shuttle, read too, or chat in subdued tones.
At last the announcement comes that we are shortly to arrive at Frobisher, and we all stir. I pull on my helmet: it’s the rule, purely for safety; and we all wait in our seats until the shuttle comes to a halt and the doors slide open.
Both my parents have come to meet me, which is nice. I see them waiting as I walk into the anteroom and take off my helmet again, having now complied with the safety regulation. Both embrace me, my mother first. They have the diminished stature of the Earthborn, squashed together by that immense gravity, and both my sister and I tower above them, even my father.
They too are in space suits because they had to drive here. We walk down a few gangways towards a different airlock where the buggy is parked, my mother chattering away about the day she has been having, and the one she had yesterday, and my father walking behind with a tolerant smile on his face.
This airlock is small and unattended. We do up our suits and fix our helmets again, close the inner door, wait for the outer door to slide open, and I am out in the sunlight once more, but directly this time, unshielded by the wall of a vehicle.
Outside this central pod a wide range of ground has been cleared, and a number of vehicles are standing there in the smooth, crunchy dust. My parents’ buggy is just a few steps away. It’s the same vehicle they had when we were children: things are made to last on Mars.
My father drives, as usual, and my mother and I make ourselves comfortable on the back seat. We leave our helmets on and talk by radio, using the vehicle’s wireless network. My mother has forgotten my date of departure, and I explain it to her again.
It’s a very short drive to my parents’ house, in a group of very similar pods on a gentle slope which allows them to catch the sunlight, such as it is, and shelters them from the dust storms which tend to come from one direction more than others. It’s not the house where we grew up: it’s both smaller and grander, more luxurious. My parents were well-paid geologists for many years, and it’s good that they can afford a comfortable retirement.
My father drives into the port and the door closes behind us. There’s still an airlock between us and the living area of the house, so we leave our helmets on as we crowd into that little space, my father carrying the bag that I have brought, with my farewell presents for my parents inside it.
And then we are finally indoors and can take off our boots and our suits, put on some slippers and relax in normal clothes. My father, no dandy, is in overalls and a roll-neck shirt; my mother goes into the bedroom to change and emerges in a skirt and a printed blouse; and I am wearing a fitted pair of black trousers with a pattern like a chain stitched on the back pockets, and a loose shirt of orange and silver with the sleeves rolled up past my wrists, as the fashion is at the moment.
While my mother was next door, I went straight into the kitchen and made coffee, and my father and I are sitting enjoying it when she joins us. She’s carrying something.
“Now don’t say anything,” she says to me. “I was looking through some old things the other day, and look what I found.”
She sits next to me on the sofa, places the thing she has with her, which turns out to be an album of sorts, on her lap and opens it to show me a child’s drawing.
“Look!” she says, and passes the whole thing over to me.
It’s a little hard to work out what it’s meant to represent, but I can clearly see some human beings, and what might be a box. I have no memory of this drawing.
“Do you know who drew this?” she asks me. I shake my head.
“You did! You must have been about six.” She shifts up closer to me and looks down on the paper with me. “Look, that’s me, and that’s your father.”
I look more closely. I’m going to have to take her word for that.
“And that’s you; and look. Little Lucid Thought.”
She beams down at the drawing, her expression one of tender satisfaction.
Four stick figures look out at us. Mummy and Daddy standing next to each other, close together, smiling up out of the picture, with Mummy’s face coloured in with black crayon. A tiny child standing between them, her head coming only half way up their legs. She has her arms upstretched, as if she is about to hold their hands.
On the other side of the picture, beyond that box affair in the middle, the other figure is standing: me, clearly. That figure is smiling too, but to me its smile seems rigid and mechanical. Its hands are down by its side, and neither it, nor the group of the others, seem to be acknowledging each other or to have any connection with each other.
“So what’s this box thing?” I ask, pointing, and trying to distract myself from a feeling that I can sense emerging in me.
“Silly, that’s the house,” my mother says, and she turns her head to look at me, surprised.
“Oh. Why is it so small?”
“Well, it wouldn’t fit on the picture if it were to scale, would it?”
I suppose that makes sense. I look down on the picture, in silence.
“Anyway. There you are!” she says, and she pats the drawing where it lies on my knees.
“What do you mean?”
“There you are! You can keep it.”
“With you off on your voyage,” she goes on, “the best thing I can give you is something to remind you of your family! Of all of us, at home.”
Is that why she was looking through some old things?
She beams at me.
I don’t want this picture.
I suppose I’m a bad daughter, but I really don’t want this picture.
“Oh, no, Mum, you keep it.”
“No, really, it’s yours, darling. You take it with you, and it’ll be a reminder of home when you’re all that way out in space.”
“Oh, that’s really sweet, but look, it – it won’t be safe. It’ll be much safer here with you.”
She knits her brows.
“Look, I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” I say, and I fumble for my device. “I’ll take a picture of it, and take it with me that way, and the original can stay here with you, where it’s safe.”
I have the device in my hand, and I am tapping it to make it ready for photography.
“Well – are you sure?”
“That’ll be much better,” I tell her. “It’s much too precious to go on a journey like that. I’ll feel much better if it’s safe, back here with you.”
I glance across at my father. He is looking out of the window with his coffee cup in his hand; I’m not sure he is even listening to us.
“There,” I say, and I show my mother the picture I have taken of the drawing. I expand it to slightly more than actual size, so that only about half of it will fit on the screen at a time.
“You can’t really see it properly,” she objects.
“I can put it on my computer, and have it life-size, or even bigger if I want. Perfect!”
I pick up the drawing and place it back on her lap.
“There, now you keep it safe for posterity! It’s really sweet that you’ve kept this all those years.”
“Oh, I’ve got more than just that.”
I’ll bet she has. It is sweet, there’s no denying it.
“But that’s enough of the past,” she goes on, and she closes the album. “We have a video to watch! Eamon, will you do the honours?”
My father stirs.
“Sure,” he says, and he fumbles in turn for his own device.
“Don’t forget your coffee, Mum,” I say, and I gesture towards the little table near to her. She looks round, startled.
“Oh, I didn’t notice it. Thank you, darling!”
The screen on the wall lights up, and we see a still of my sister, talking. Someone couldn’t wait.
My father zaps it back to the beginning, and we see her smiling into the camera.
“Hi, Mum; hi, Dad. Here I am, back in Moon Base.”
That’s the actual, original Moon: the one that orbits the Earth. My sister is there for a gymnastics event. She is a gymnast: a professional gymnast, in effect, though she has a token job with her sponsor, something in accounting; a role that doesn’t seem to suffer from her absences of many months at a time.
“We finished our heats today,” she goes on, “and I did fine. You probably saw that.” Indeed, it was reported.
“I made a bit of a mess of one of the turns, about half way through. But it was fine. I managed to carry on, and it didn’t matter. Poor Svietliana crashed into the wall when the same thing happened to her. She was eliminated. I saw her crying as I was leaving. It’s horrible to be eliminated by something like that.”
She should know: she’s been doing this all her life. Not that she is eliminated very often. My sister is seriously good at this.
She has evidently described the Moon Base before, in an earlier video, because she is now talking about her evening after the event has finished for the day, and she‘s referring to things that I don’t recognise. The event itself is always out in space, but the contestants and the officials spend their free time on planet: on the Moon, in this case.
“I went swimming this afternoon,” she’s telling us now, “and I had a bit of a pampering session afterwards. That was nice. You probably can’t tell any difference.”
Her face looms up close to the screen; there really isn’t any difference, but I think she is doing it ironically.
She looks healthy, though, and happy.
“I’m going to lie down now and listen to my soundtrack,” she says. I know she likes to do this before an event, to run through her routine in her head so that it’s second nature and she doesn’t have to think about what she’s supposed to do next when she’s competing.
You’d think she’d be sick of the music by now, and apparently that is indeed what used to happen; but nowadays she doesn’t really hear the music as music, she’s told us: it’s a tool for marking out the time in which she carries out her turns and twists and leaps and dives. All in free fall.
She’ll lie down on her bed, in her room there at Moon Base, with her headphones, or with her device on room volume, her eyes shut, and her body almost imperceptibly twitching as it remembers the moves. I’ve seen her doing it.
She’ll have a bite to eat later, probably in her room. She probably won’t go out, despite the possibilities that Moon Base offers, like everywhere else, though it’s only a base, not a proper colony: bars and break-out areas and what-not. My sister does like to socialise, but she prefers to do it during the day: breakfast, or a café in the afternoon.
I imagine she has a free day tomorrow: free from competing, anyway. I think there may be some more heats to come, and the final isn’t for another couple of days. After which she’s free to come home; but she’ll miss me, obviously. The Earth is a great deal closer to us than Callisto and Jupiter, especially now, with all three planets happening to be more or less on the same side of the Sun. But it will still take her several weeks to cross that distance; and by that time I shall be long gone.
The hopes of Mars are resting on her. She is reigning Martian champion, not for the first time, in her discipline of weightless gymnastics, and we all expect her to do well in this competition, at the Moon.
The big event will be next year: next Earth year.
The video is coming to an end. It wasn’t a long one. My mother is beaming at the screen, sitting upright with her knees together, the album still resting on them. My father is leaning back in his armchair with his legs crossed, and his expression is of peaceful contentment. He picks up his device as the message ends, and he switches the screen off.
Inevitably the conversation now centres on Lucid Thought. My mother tells me about other messages that she has sent them from this competition, calling on my father to fill in details that she has forgotten. My sister has been there for several weeks now: the contestants always arrive in good time in order to acclimatise themselves. My parents haven’t seen the heat that she was describing, though they could certainly find it if they went online; it was only last night; but training sessions have been shown, and my parents have seen some of those.
I rarely have time to follow these things.
In the end my father remembers the bag of presents that he carried into the house. I get up and go to the entrance where he put it down, by our spacesuits as they hang next to the door.
I’m not very good at choosing presents. I’ve got my father a shaving brush; it was a novelty that I saw online a while ago and ordered: for him, but with no particular occasion in mind. I had never even heard of such a thing before, but apparently men used to use brushes like this, made with animal hairs in those days, to apply their shaving foam. Fine gentlemen did, anyway. I don’t know why that’s better than using your fingers, but apparently they thought it was. My father likes old, stylish things of a masculine bent.
I hope he likes this. I watch with some nervousness as he unwraps it, and am relieved when he smiles. He dabs at his face with the brush and gives me a grin.
“Thank you, Amy. That’s very nice. I like it very much.”
I give him a wide smile.
For my mother I have brought a picture. In fact it’s a framed screen, with a memory to which one can upload any pictures one wants; but I have installed a picture of Callisto. It’s a genuine photograph, probably taken from a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter, or passing it; looking away from Jupiter, with Callisto in the foreground and a number of points of light in the background, most of which are stars, but one of them is Mars. Home.
I point it out to my mother, because you wouldn’t necessarily know just from looking at it.
The picture reminds my mother that she really ought to ask about me and my voyage.
“So what’s Callisto like, do you know?” she asks, peering at the rocky globe in the foreground.
I could have told her a lot, because I have been finding out about Callisto; but I’m not really in the mood for talking about it now.
I say something about waiting and seeing, and finding out when I get there, and holding myself ready for everything to be different there.
I change the subject to lunch. I know she’s making a salad, but that presumably means most of it has yet to be done. I offer to help.
“Oh, darling, you don’t need to do that. You stay here and talk to your father, and I’ll finish it off.”
“No, I want to help. Dad can talk to us in the kitchen, can’t you, Dad?”
He grins and nods.
“Nothing like watching other people working,” he says, “to help a fellow relax.”
So my mother and I go into the kitchen together, and my father stays in his armchair, where he can see us and hear us, but doesn’t in fact talk.
My mother has already made the dressing, but there is lettuce to tear up, tomatoes to wash and slice, strips of cheese to cut, soya cheese, and all the other ingredients, before my mother puts it all in a big bowl and tosses it with the dressing as my father watches. I go to the bread cupboard and take out the two loaves that she baked this morning, long, white loaves, still a little warm, and I carry them to the table on their wooden board, ready for my father to slice them. My father goes and washes his hands and sits down at the table to wait for us.
My mother was right about the tomatoes. They are juicy and sweet and have a dark, rich taste to them. They are just at the point of perfect ripeness.
That’s something that I’m definitely unlikely to get on Callisto.
It’s a very pleasant meal. The food is light and tasty and healthy; the conversation is light and easy; and it really is nice to spend these last few hours with my parents, with no distractions.
I’m not going to see them for a long time. I know I’ll send them regular video messages too. Even if I am unlikely to have anything glamorous to report.
There’s only one shuttle back to Town today, and my father drives me down to catch it a couple of hours after lunch. My mother comes with us, and as she sits next to me on the back seat she is less garrulous than usual. Maybe she’s starting to feel how long it will be until she sees me again.
There are tears in her eyes, unshed, when she stands in front of me in the terminal pod. She flings her arms around me and buries her face in my chest, giant that I am, next to her. I look over her head to my father, who is waiting his turn.
He gives me a hug too, and a much longer one than ever before, that I can remember; and then he astonishes me.
“Bye, Amy,” he says. “Bon voyage. Make us proud. I know you will.”
I stare at him; and then my mother flings herself at me and hugs me once more. When she disengages herself again and looks up at me, still holding on to me with her hands, I see that she has shed those tears.
“Call us as soon as you’re on the ship, darling,” she tells me.
I promise that I will; and then it’s time to step into the shuttle. The doors are long open and the other passengers are all sitting down inside already.
I walk inside and stand there facing my parents as I pull on my helmet for the safety protocol. I give them a last wave, and the inner doors are sliding shut as I turn to walk to an empty seat. And my next trip of any kind will be the one to Callisto.