“It’s a publicity stunt,” says Mr Miciov, and he scowls.
Everybody is talking about the news that we have all just heard: Michael Obasanjo is personally piloting the craft that the Jovians have sent out to us.
“Well, he was a professional pilot, after all,” I reply. Dauntless Battler made that very point when we talked about it earlier this morning.
“Of course, or he wouldn’t be able to do it,” is Mr Miciov’s response. “But there’s no objective necessity for him to be on that craft at all. All we need is the spare parts that we haven’t got here on board. Anybody could bring them.”
“Well, that’s true,” I agree. “But you must admit, it’s exciting.”
In the beginning I’d have been reluctant to say such a thing to Mr Miciov. I know how he feels about Dauntless Battler, and by extension about anybody associated with him. I’d have tried to avoid provoking him.
But I’m tired of taking that into consideration. I think it’s silly, and I’m fed up with it. It doesn’t mean I’m taking the side of the Jovians against the UN.
I’m not sure that I’m ready to take the side of the UN either, though. I feel no closer to knowing which side I agree with. I don’t know whether I’ll ever know.
“You’d have seen him on Callisto anyway,” says Mr Miciov.
I’m sure I would, and I’m sure I still will. But it’ll be different here on the ship; and I feel another stirring of excitement as I picture it. They’ll be here in just a few days.
“Ms Lundgren, I have to remind you that this is just the sort of thing the Secretary General warned you about. This is all about publicity. Not about the terms of any future agreement: that’s our job, of the people here in this room. The Jovians will use the festival for their own purposes, to influence public opinion, they will want to use your participation for those purposes, and they are now seeking to use the situation of this ship for the same thing. It’s all about Obasanjo posturing as the saviour in times of need: first the saviour of the Jovians, now the saviour of us here on this ship. Ms Lundgren, we must be so careful not to allow ourselves to be used.”
This is the trouble, and this is why I’m still so uncertain which side to choose. Mr Miciov makes very good points, if I can see past his obvious irritation and jealousy. He’s absolutely right. This is an unexpected, a golden opportunity for the Jovian leaders to present themselves in a favourable light. Of course they’re going to use it.
Jealousy. A thought occurs to me. I hadn’t thought of this before. Is it more than Mr Miciov’s professional concerns and ambitions? Is he not just jealous on behalf of the UN; is he jealous because of me? Have I had the same effect on him as on Val?
Oh my goodness. What a thought.
I scrutinise his face as he talks to me, and I listen to him in silence. It would explain a lot.
In fact I had the impression at the beginning that he idolised Sukie; but Sukie is here with her husband, and there are no problems with those two, beyond the usual everyday disagreements. Their relationship is strong. I, on the other hand, might be regarded as available.
Mitsuko doesn’t know about this new thought, but I have told her about the latest development with Val. Her response is exactly what I would expect from my oldest, best friend.
“What do you feel for him, Hella?” she asks. “That’s the only question that matters. You know how he feels about you; what are your feelings for him? Do you have any?”
She makes the obvious and undeniably correct point that I shouldn’t encourage Val if I don’t have the same sort of feeling for him as he has for me.
“It would be unfair,” she says, which is exactly what I told Val.
“I get the attraction of it,” she goes on. “I can only imagine what it must feel like, facing what you’re facing. Entering that tunnel; knowing where it’s leading. It will be easier not to be alone on that journey. Comforting.”
“You’re not alone,” she says. “You have me, and you have Rachel, and everyone else that you love. You know we’ll always be there for you; and you’re coming home to us, where we can be there for you.”
I know, it’s true, and it means a lot to me. But it’s not the same thing.
“But feelings for him might grow, in those circumstances,” she says. “I can imagine that too. You do like him, don’t you? You’ve always said he’s your favourite in the quartet. And, you know, I don’t know him personally, I only know what you’ve told me about him, but based on that it does seem to me that you might be suited. You’re very calm, Hella, for instance, and so is he, and that would go well together.”
That doesn’t sound like much of a basis; but I can see what she means.
Could feelings for Val develop? I suppose it depends what sort of feelings. Not the kind of elemental feeling that was stirring in me when I was plaiting Kit’s hair. Not the breathless, heart-racing kind that I felt when Dauntless Battler’s face was up close to mine and we were both looking out at Jupiter; or when he looked at me on the night of the emergency and I had nothing on in my space suit except a flimsy nightie.
It would be a more placid kind of companionship. Calmer. Comfortable, like a familiar garment or a favourite armchair.
It would be sensible. Appropriate to my age and my position. Not at all exciting.
Well, I promised Val that I would think about it, and here I am, doing it. With Mitsuko’s help. Where would I be without her?
It’s now that I begin to notice that the disease is progressing again. Dr Kirchner said it wouldn’t necessarily be at a steady pace: there’d be times when it didn’t seem to progress at all, and then there’d be relapses: times when it accelerated. Is it because I’ve been feeling stressed lately, since the meteor strike, or the plait incident? Or has it nothing to do with that?
It’s not a good time for it, with the festival now only a few weeks away.
Maybe that’s why I’m stressed: I’m worrying about not being able to play, and that worry is making me not able to play.
I’m practising in my room. I’m doing my exercises and have only just started, a few minutes ago: the same figure, over and over again, each iteration leading straight into the next one a semitone higher; all the way up the keyboard and back down again; both hands playing together, but I’m paying particular attention to the left hand because it’s so important for any rapid passages in the lower reaches to be clear and assured in the context of a real piece. Then it happens. I can’t feel my fingers on my left hand. I can move them, but I can’t feel what they’re doing. I’ve no idea how hard they’re striking the keys, until I hear the sound. My whole hand, in fact my whole left side, feels numb.
I stop, and I’m trembling. I sit at my desk and stare at my hands, and I feel panic rising. I’m losing control.
I get up, and pace. With my right hand I grasp my left arm and start to squeeze and massage it; I know this is pointless, because it’s not a problem of circulation. It’s to do with the nerves. I shake my arm, from the shoulder down to the wrist. I suppose I’m hoping to shake it loose of whatever is interfering with it.
The numbness seems to be receding. I’m sure it would have done anyway.
I always knew this was a risk: going to the festival. There was always a risk that, by the time I got there, the disease would have progressed so far that I wouldn’t be able to play at the concerts. Is this what’s now happening?
I sit down again at my desk and bring my left hand, just the left hand, to the keyboard. I play that figure, a few iterations, and stop again. It’s fine. It’s as if nothing had happened.
My pulse is calming down again. I lift the other hand, and I return to what I was doing: both hands in unison, all the way up, and all the way down again. All the way up, and all the way down.
I should do what I thought of some time ago. I should write a little speech, an announcement, and memorise it, in case I find myself having to explain at a concert. If I have to stop because I have just made a horrible noise.
I’ll explain about my condition; that it comes and goes without warning; that I regret the disturbance to the concert, but I’m fine now; and I’ll sit down and start the piece again, or the movement, and I expect there’ll be nothing wrong with it.
I’m still trembling. I realise that I had grown used to the disease not seeming to progress; I had lost touch with that feeling of finality. I had almost forgotten that this is a real thing that is really happening to me.
I find myself thinking of Jacqueline again; and later, when I’ve finished my exercises, I dig out some of those old videos in my device’s library and I watch them, lying on my bed.
It doesn’t feel the same as it did a few months ago, when I was first getting to know her. That pleasure, like making a new friend; that freshness and delight; I don’t feel it this time. I feel sombre as I watch her, with her instrument, with her friends, whatever she’s doing; looking on with that sad knowledge of what is going to happen to her, all too soon.
But it is Jacqueline that I’m identifying with again. For a while I was more interested, somehow, in her husband, the pianist; when I watched the two of them playing together it felt as if I were accompanying her on the piano, as I accompany Val and the others when we play our sonatas and trios and quintets. I don’t feel like that any more. I know I’m not him. I’m Jacqueline.
That arc idea. That idea that the arc of my life somehow exists, eternally, outside the succession of minutes and days that make it up; I think this is why I’ve been so calm and unflurried in the face of what is happening to me. I’ve felt like the performer of a piece of music: it doesn’t matter when you reach the end, it’s not the end of anything, because the piece is still there. And I suppose that’s why I was so calm when the meteor struck: my arc is coming to an end anyway; the festival will be my cadenza; and then I’ll move smoothly into the final section, at home on Mars, until the last chords sound.
Ironic, then, that I’m losing faith now in this whole arc thing. That meteor would have ripped me right out of my arc, if it had punctured the rim. That wouldn’t have been a well-balanced piece of music, with an exposition, a development and a recapitulation; it would have been like a gunman bursting into the concert hall while I was playing and taking everybody hostage. Nothing to do with the rest of the arc.
And Jacqueline’s arc is stupid. She stopped performing at twenty-six and died at forty-two. Nobody would write a piece of music in which the last third was all one note and nothing else happened. That alone shows that there is no design to any of this.
Would anybody even know what I meant if I talked to them about this?
The next day I play with the kimyona group again, at last. Plenty and Star have organised it. I haven’t spoken to Kit or Lilac since the meteor emergency.
Those two are already there when I walk into the rehearsal room and are setting up Kit’s equipment. Kit’s plait is long gone. They look up briefly and acknowledge me, but don’t say anything. Star is here too, sitting on her usual block and picking out something on her guitar, softly, immersed in what she is doing. And the others are all arriving, at the same time as me or just after. Fawn is the last.
I know what to do. I get that trestle from the storage space behind those twin bathrooms, I set it up opposite Kit’s vibraphone and I lift my keyboard on to it. Plentiful Provider and Bright Morning are playing their saxophones, warming them up, facing each other and interacting as they play, exchanging figures and ornaments and ideas. Apparently we’re having two saxophones this morning.
Kit comes over to me.
“Hella, there’s something I want to try out today,” he says. Straight to business. “It’s part of something else; I can’t really explain it yet.”
I’m all ears.
“It’s all based around one motif that Loyal Friend will be playing on the harp.” Usually he’s played the bass guitar when I’ve been there. “There are a lot of other ideas going on around it, but it always comes back to that. You’ll see once we get going.” Of course, they’ve already been playing this, whatever it is, without me.
“So you want me to pick up that motif.”
“Yes, and I want you to carry it while Loyal is moving on. I need it to underpin what we’re all doing. Without overdoing it.”
“Okay,” I say, rather dubiously. He smiles.
“Let’s just try it,” he says, and that’s what we do; but first there’s something I wasn’t expecting.
We’re all ready, attentive, waiting to start; I’m the only one who doesn’t know what’s coming, but I don’t mind: I’m used to extemporising by now.
The two saxophones start playing long, low notes, shifting slowly, that are not really in harmony, yet complement each other; somehow a little eerie. The others are standing, or sitting, waiting; Lilac has her trumpet resting on her folded arms; Fawn is letting her violin and her bow dangle on both sides of her. I notice that she’s wearing her headset, and just at that moment she starts to recite in her dark, deep voice. Evidently some poem or other; I can’t listen to the words, I have to concentrate on the music.
Beneath it all the harp is now playing: single notes, very deep; not a melody or any kind of motif, yet. I do love the sound of the harp’s lowest strings.
Suddenly Fawn lifts her arms, lifts her instrument to her chin, and while she is still saying the last syllable of whatever poem this is, she plays: loud, discordant, gorgeous. The saxophones swell in volume, and for a few moments, a few bars, the room is filled with sumptuous, rich sound; and as it dies away the harp takes over.
I glance across at Kit and he catches my eye, but he doesn’t need to confirm it: it’s obvious that this is the motif.
I’m listening, but before the motif is even finished I feel moved to contribute, and I play soft octaves in the left hand, taking up the single notes that the harp was playing at first, before that burst of sound from Fawn’s violin. There’s a harmonic connection between that sequence of notes and what Loyal Friend is playing now, and I feel that I am throwing that connection into relief.
I see Kit looking at me; I don’t know whether this is what he was expecting, but he seems to approve. I’m avoiding looking at Lilac.
This is so exciting, so stirring. It’s all coming back to me, how it feels to be part of this kimyona sound, part of this group. All in their kimyona idiom, but in my idiom too, grafted on to it. I’m at the heart of this marvellous sound; we all are.
Loyal has moved on, as Kit said he would, and I let my octaves gradually pass into an echo of that main motif; Star understands what I’m doing, and her picked notes start to interlock with my chords and change their colour; and as we watch each other and play for each other, listening to the sound of the other instruments around us, Fawn begins to recite again; but it’s individual words and phrases now, not the poem itself, though I imagine they’re lifted from the poem.
We’ve never done this before. I heard Fawn reciting the very first time I came to listen to the group rehearsing, but this is the first time when I’ve been playing. She’s using her speaking voice like an instrument, for the colour, and she and Star and I are interacting and combining and sharing, as all the while the wind instruments are weaving their own tapestry of colour, waiting for the harp to return and take us all in yet another direction.
I love this sound. I love this music. I love how it makes me feel. And I’m so excited to be part of this mysterious musical project of Kit’s that he wants me for; what we’re doing today must be part of that concept that Star was talking about, the day the captain addressed us all.
We break off. Kit wants to talk to us. He comes out from behind his vibraphone and sits down on the block next to Star’s, and we all have a discussion about what we’ve just done. Apparently this last thing was new, that interaction among Star, Fawn and me; Kit obviously likes it, he really likes it, but he wants to talk about how it fits into the rest.
I don’t contribute much to the discussion. I seldom do, because I always feel that I’m the novice in this group and I should be listening to them. But Kit draws me in: he wants everybody’s ideas, and he wants all of us to understand what we’re all doing, because we’re all part of a structure, part of an architecture, not soloists all doing our own things.
I can’t tell whether Kit has any thoughts about the plait incident. I can’t tell whether he even noticed anything at the time. This is all completely professional. Everybody is completely professional. Lilac too. Has she forgotten what happened? She can’t have done. But she’s not letting it get in the way now. Maybe she’s accepted it. Maybe she doesn’t take it seriously. Doesn’t take me seriously, in that regard.
Working with Kit is like working with a conductor. I’m thinking about it after we’ve started again. Like a conductor, it feels as though he is in charge: I defer to him, I listen to what he says and I do my best to conform to what he wants. At the same time he leaves me all the freedom that I could ask for; it feels as though he’s stepping back and letting me blossom and grow and flourish; I feel supported and appreciated, not constrained or manipulated.
It’s more complicated than that, because there are the others too. We all have our own ideas and our own contributions; and Kit isn’t really the boss. We’re all equals, and nobody is more or less important than anyone else. Kit himself doesn’t think so.
But we all have colossal respect for him. Not so much for his virtuosity as a player, though there’s that too; but for his mind. His imagination, and his organisation of his ideas, and of our ideas too. Anybody else in the group could be replaced, in principle, as painful as it is to imagine any of these young people no longer playing with us; but without Kit this would all fall apart. He is the soul of the group.
Is it true that the others are like me; that what I experience with Kit is the same as what they experience? I’m not sure. Maybe he’s giving me a little more freedom, more attention, more deference. I’m not sure; and I can’t think about it now. I really have to concentrate.
It is an inspiring rehearsal. It’s hard work; we stop many times, talk about what we’re doing, try it a different way, go back to the first way, compare them, refine and develop what’s growing here; Kit works with us, works with me, entirely professionally; I can’t tell whether there’s any memory of what happened that day, but if there is he’s ignoring it, for the sake of the music. And what music it is. I’m at the birth of something wonderful. It’s a feeling of awe and delight, and gratitude.
We reach the end of our time. The schedule is much fuller on this ship than on the first one, and we have to be sure to vacate the room on time.
As usual most of us are soon ready to go, but Kit takes longer to pack all his stuff away. A couple of them help him, and the rest of us wait near the door. The first musicians of the next ensemble are already starting to arrive.
Lilac smiles at me as I stand there, but she doesn’t say anything. I smile back, and she turns to watch Kit.
“Lilac,” I say to her, hesitantly. I want to extend an olive branch. She turns to look at me again. “I was thinking: I’d really like to look into that programming idea. You know: programming phrases and so on into my instrument. We talked about it a while ago; do you remember? Do you think you could show me how to do it?” My fingers haven’t let me down this morning, but they may do another time. It might be good to have this as a back-up, at least while I’m playing kimyona.
She considers me for a second.
“No, I can’t tell you that,” she says. “Sorry. I only know the trumpet. Kit will be able to.”
“Oh – okay,” I say, and we’re both silent for what feels like an awkward moment.
Kit seems to have heard what we were saying as he carries his last piece of equipment to the storage space, a long, pointed drum that he holds between his knees to play it. He comes up to us.
“Programming?” he says. “Sure, I can help you. What do you want to do?”
That’s a good question, and I haven’t really got an answer.
“I suppose I was hoping that you could show me what there is,” I say, “and I could see what I might be able to use.”
He and Lilac exchange glances.
“Well, it’s a broad subject,” he says. “We might be some time doing that.” He smiles at me, and as our eyes meet for an instant I feel a jolt inside me. What was that?
“But yeah, let’s make some time to do that. Doesn’t have to be here, does it; we can do that anywhere.”
We’re all passing out of the doorway on to the corridor and starting to make our way to wherever we’re going. Some of the others are talking about when to meet for lunch.
“But I should have my instrument with me, right?” I ask as I walk beside him. Lilac is behind us; Morning Star and Leaping Fawn are ahead of us and discussing chords.
“Well, yes, of course. We’ll find somewhere quiet, and we’ll talk about what you want to do, and we’ll take it from there.”
We’ve reached my door, and we remain standing for a moment as he finishes what he’s saying. He smiles at me, and our eyes meet again, and this time his gaze lingers on my face before, at last, he turns away.
Like something leaping inside me I feel it again. I knew it! I knew it! There is something. He does feel something. I’m sure of it.
My door slides shut between us and I’m standing in my room, my heart pounding. Am I imagining it? I can’t believe I’m imagining it. I can’t be that mistaken.
I don’t go to lunch today. I don’t trust myself to go among people for the moment. I’m too excited. I have a snack in my room and practise on my keyboard, trying hard to concentrate.
I smile wryly as I think about myself. Acting like a girl of seventeen. But it is how I feel. I can’t help it.
I’ve got a grip on myself by the evening and I go to dinner in the normal way; but I’m still excited, and I still am later as I lie in my bed in the darkness. It’s both things, isn’t it, that I’m excited about. I was excited already, by the music: sensing a vista opening, this project of Kit’s, my place in it, and breathlessly waiting to see where it’s going to lead. And now by this sudden certainty that Kit is attracted to me, as I am to him. Maybe not as strongly; but attracted a bit, at least. At least he’s somewhat attracted.
Maybe Lilac will be fine with it. I don’t know whether she’s protective of him like a sister, or jealous as a woman. Maybe she’ll accept me, once she sees that Kit wants it, and that I’m good for him.
None of them are involved with each other. I wondered at first, but they really are all friends and colleagues. Some of them have boyfriends or girlfriends back on Mars. Kit and I will be the first to have a relationship within the group. Will that be all right? What will it do to the group?
I think it’ll be fine. I’m different anyway, and so is Kit. We both stand out from the rest of the group. If we’re involved with each other, that’s not the same as two of the others doing the same thing. It won’t disrupt how the group hangs together, any more than my playing disrupts their music. It will change things, but not in a bad way. Not necessarily in a bad way.
I’m starting to drift off to sleep, but I have an unpleasant jolt as I remember that I’m dying. I shouldn’t be getting involved with anyone. It’s not fair on them. But Kit may be okay with it. He’s young, and resilient enough to get over that loss, when it arrives; and beautiful enough to find someone else, easily. It’s up to him. I’ll have to tell him, and see how he feels about it.
I imagine telling him. His eyes, his gaze resting in mine: compassion and warmth and affection as he listens, and then tells me that he loves me anyway, and leans forward to embrace me; and then as I drift even further towards sleep my thoughts shift, and now somehow I seem to have told him about this here in my bed, and here he is with me, naked and urgent, and intent on showing me how he really feels about me.
But the next morning, as I’m sitting on my chair, in my nightgown, brushing my hair, I feel very differently about all this. It is absolutely out of the question. I’d be like some poisonous thing, clasping to him and destroying him in my own ruin. Growing ever more infirm and less attractive, ever more helpless, ever more in need of care, and making him regret and resent more and more his choice to be with me.
Everything always looks different in the cold light of morning. My face does. Old and withered and ugly. This is what he’d wake up to; and that’s before I started to deteriorate in earnest. That long decline. I can’t possibly drag him into this. I can’t contemplate it for a second.
I mustn’t let anything happen. Even if he does feel something, even if I’m not mistaken, I mustn’t respond. I must remain professional, a fellow musician and nothing more. I mustn’t let him see how urgently I desire him.
And today is the day when the craft from Callisto arrives.
We’ve been able to monitor its progress on our devices; the ship has been streaming the view through its telescope, and I’ve had a look from time to time. It’s not very interesting, to be honest, after the first time.
The craft came hurtling towards us across space from Callisto; slowed down; stopped while it was still ahead of us; reversed its direction and gradually picked up speed to allow us to catch up with it. Now it’s close enough to be seen with the naked eye, and many of us are in one of the two night bars to watch its approach; our approach.
I’m there with the usual people: Sukie, Ari, Dauntless Battler. The other Jovians are nearby, and we’re surrounded by quite a press of people. We’re not at the front, and there are lots of heads, but I can see fairly well. Most people on board are from Earth.
Also, as the distance to the craft decreases, it’s noticeably in the upper part of the window, because it’s making for the hub of the ship, which is overhead from our vantage point here in the rim. It’s gradually rising in our field of view, and growing in size, and it appears to be rotating. Obviously I know that it’s we who are rotating, but that’s not what it looks like. We see it from the bottom, from the top, from either side, again and again.
It’s difficult to judge its size. It’s not shaped like a wheel, as the ship is: it’s cigar-shaped, with a beak at the front and two stubby wings, which I presume are just for show, as it’s certainly not designed to fly like an aeroplane. Clearly the people on board have been weightless all this time, ever since they left Callisto.
The surfaces of the craft that are directly facing us are brightly illuminated by the sunlight; the rest is in deepest shadow, growing as the craft approaches us, blotting out the stars. I suppose that’s what our ship looks like too, seen from the sunlit side. Insignia are painted on the sides of the craft that must be those of the Jovian Federation.
“Do you know all the people on board personally, Dauntless?” Ari asks, and I turn my head to look at them both in the starlight.
“I do, yes,” he replies.
“Michael Obasanjo, obviously.”
“Obviously. And the others too. The co-pilot’s a Ganymedian; I’ve known him all my life. Well, not all my life: ever since I came there from Mars.”
He glances at me as he mentions Mars, and smiles.
The craft has reached the upper edge of our field of view and is beginning to pass out of sight; very slowly now. It will be docking on soon.
“So they’ll be coming on board any minute?” Sukie asks. Ari answers her.
“On board, yes, but not into the rim yet. They’re going to unload the equipment they’ve brought and start work with our own engineers.” They are already there, in the hub, waiting for the Jovians; the wheel stopped turning, briefly, a little while ago to let them out.
“And then Michael and the others will come into the rim,” says Dauntless.
“We can’t wait!” says Sukie.
Dauntless chuckles. “Well, they’re looking forward to it too,” he says. “I know Michael very much wants to meet you, Hella.”
Everyone looks at me. I just smile, and after a moment they look away again and carry on talking about what’s going to happen.
I’m not really surprised to see that I seem to be immune to Dauntless Battler’s charm today. There has been rather a surfeit of men lately.
Most of the craft has now passed beyond the top of the window. It seems to be banking, presumably to get into the right position for docking. A tube will be run out from the ship and fastened on to the door of the craft, and the people will pass through it into the hub, with the equipment that they’ve brought. I have no idea how bulky it is.
“May as well go for lunch,” says Ari, and looks around at us.
“May as well,” we agree, and many people are having the same thought. It’s going to be crowded.
We move out of the room with the mass of people and towards the dining room next door. Other people are streaming back along the corridor from the other night bar on the opposite side of the ship. We arrange ourselves into a semblance of a queue for lunch, still out in the corridor, and very slowly we progress towards the door of the dining room and, at last, into it. Everybody’s talking, and the noise is much louder than usual. We all seem to be very excited.
I admit, I am too. I’m curious to see what Michael Obasanjo, the great Spokesman, is like in real life.
Once we’ve got our lunches there’s nowhere in the dining room to sit with them; not together, anyway; so we carry our trays into the day bar and sit in one of the seating arrangements there. Other people are doing the same thing. It’s much quieter here.
“They’ll let us finish our lunch before they switch the gravity off,” Dauntless Battler volunteers as we sit eating with our trays on our laps.
That certainly makes sense. They’ll want to have everything cleared away and in the appropriate receptacles before things start floating about in the galley.
Back in my room I check that everything is properly stowed away there too, and I sit at my desk studying the score of a quintet. When the warning comes I’m deeply immersed in it, making it clear to myself how it hangs together and what the other instruments are doing; I can hear them, of course, when we’re playing the piece, but it’s different to see their parts set out in black and white.
We’ve been asked to stay in our cabins or in the common areas and not to block the corridor when the Jovians arrive. But the ship is streaming the arrival to our devices, and feeling a little foolish I turn mine on and watch. We see the captain and several other officers standing in the corridor outside a closed door, waiting. When I first start to watch them they’re just arranged in a standing position, really, perpendicular to the floor, because we’re all weightless; but as I watch the wheel commences to spin again, the gravity returns, and the officers really are standing.
The door slides open and the waiting people stiffen. Out come two men in identical space suits, which must be their Jovian uniform, and carrying their helmets in their hands. Then a woman in the same uniform: plain beige with the Jovian insignia on the left of the chest, the same as I saw earlier on their craft. They arrange themselves on either side of the open door, and then out comes Michael Obasanjo himself: taller than the others, his ascetic face smiling, and with a movement that radiates absolute confidence and assurance. Behind him a member of the ship’s crew is waiting to follow him out of the room, but the camera is following Obasanjo as he advances towards the captain.
She extends a hand, and he takes it.
“Welcome on board, Mr Obasanjo,” she says, “and to all of you the same hearty welcome.” They shake, and Obasanjo lets go of her hand. She moves to the other Jovians and shakes their hands, first the woman, then the two men, and then the other ship’s officers shake everybody’s hands too, starting with Obasanjo. They finish, and stand looking at each other in the corridor.
“Please come with me,” says the captain, and she turns in the direction of the dining room and the other communal areas. She and Obasanjo walk side by side, leading the way, the others follow, and they’re gone.
That wasn’t very dramatic. I turn my device off and return to what I was doing.
I know that we are going to be able to see the Jovians later on: Dauntless Battler has told us their programme. After he’s finished with the captain, Obasanjo wants a meeting with all the Jovians who have been travelling on this ship, and a room has been reserved for that. They’ll have their own dinner in there too: not with the rest of us in the dining room. But after that there’s going to be a reception, a party, in all four of the ship’s bars, and we’re all encouraged to come along to that. Sukie has arranged with me to be in the quieter day bar, the one on the opposite side to the dining room, and I daresay Dauntless Battler will be there too, at least some of the time.
I go early to dinner today, and I come straight back to my room to change and get ready. I know what I’m going to wear, and I even discussed it just now with Sukie, over our salads; but when I get back and look in my wardrobe I’m suddenly uncertain. I take out that flamboyant orange dress, lay it over my arm and look at it. Do I dare?
I think about it while I’m getting undressed, and as I stand there in my underwear I’ve decided. I put that dress back and take out the one I had chosen before: a long, sleek dress in grey and silver, with a slit all the way up the side to my hip; off the shoulder, but with a chiffon wrap around those shoulders and my upper arms. I’m old, and not as proud of them as I once was. I lay it out on the bed and go into the bathroom.
First the hair. It still looks pretty good from the last time I saw Patty, but I do want to do something a bit special today. I rinse it briefly in the washbasin, dry it with a towel, briefly again, come back into the main room and sit down on the chair, and while the hair is still moist I use the hairbrush to turn it up at the ends and accentuate the curl that it already has, and then I take lengths of hair in my hand and twist them, methodically and thoroughly. I want ringlets.
It takes a while, but I’m satisfied with it in the end, and I put the brush and the hairdryer down on the desk. I pick up the dress next, because I don’t want to smudge my make-up when I’ve put that on; I squeeze into the dress and sit down again, rearrange those ringlets and turn my attention to my face. I don’t want to overdo it, but I’m certainly going to do more than I usually do. It’s a special occasion.
Shall I put mascara on? Is that too much? I decide to go for it.
A spray of perfume finishes my personal beautification; again something I rarely do. I look at myself in the mirror of my screen, turn my head this way and that and am reasonably pleased.
Nearly the last thing to do is to put on some shoes. I open the wardrobe again and kneel in front of it to sort through the shoes in the bottom compartment. There’s a pair of jewel-encrusted sandals in there; that is, they’re not really jewels, just pretty coloured stones; but that would definitely be overdoing it, with this dress. I take out a classic pair of high heels, black and smooth, carry them to the chair and force my feet into them.
Finally I pack my handbag. I’ve got a tiny clutch bag that goes with the dress, just large enough for the bare necessities. I transfer those from my usual bag, and I’m ready to go. I stand up, teeter momentarily, recover myself, and go to the door. It slides open, I go out into the corridor and make my way along it. Walking in high heels in low gravity is a skill in its own right.
I can hear the party ahead of me as I approach it. Just voices: I’m told there’s dancing on the other side of the ship, but on this side it’s just a standing reception.
Sukie and Ari are already here, near the middle of the room, and I walk up to them. Sukie is wearing a yellow cocktail dress, short and narrow, and is in heels too. She assesses my appearance.
“Very nice,” she says. We embrace.
“Thank you,” I say, “and you look very good too.”
I look around us. Half of the furniture has been removed from its slots in the floor and evidently stacked at the side of the room behind a curtain that is not usually there. The rest of the chairs and couches are still in position, but there’s an open space now across half of the room’s area, where people can stand and intermingle.
“On the other side they’ve taken out all of the furniture,” Ari informs us, “because there’s going to be dancing.”
“Where have they put it?”
“In the dining room.”
Which is just round the corner from the two bars on that side. So somebody is going to have to put it all back in time for breakfast tomorrow morning.
“Come and have a Jovian cocktail,” Sukie says, and she takes my hand to pull me towards the side of the room where the drinks dispensers are.
“A Jovian cocktail?” I go with her, and Ari follows us.
“Mind the slots,” she warns me, and indeed she’s right; I tread carefully between them.
Along the entire wall on that side of the room, as in all the bars, there’s a long counter above which an array of dispensers will give you whatever drink you ask for, assuming it’s available on board; but this evening there’s a Jovian standing there, doing service as a bar tender, behind an improvised bar with a number of containers, each, presumably, holding some kind of Jovian drink. We wait as he finishes serving someone else and then turns to us.
“Good evening, ladies, and welcome to the Jovian Federation,” he says. “You find yourselves here on Europa.”
“On Europa!” I echo, and Sukie and I look at each other and giggle.
Behind the man is a poster with a view of Europa. A gibbous Jupiter hangs in the sky above a bleak, desolate, dark landscape. The man presses something in front of him that I can’t see, and on the poster a geyser suddenly squirts out of the surface and settles slowly down on to it. We laugh again in surprise. The man regards us with a straight face, but with a twinkle in his eye.
“What can I offer you beautiful ladies?” he asks.
“I already have a drink,” Sukie tells him, “but my friend needs something of your finest.”
“What are you drinking, Sukie?” I ask her.
She looks behind her at Ari, and he reminds her: “A Slim Jim.”
“A Slim Jim,” she repeats, and she looks at me.
“I don’t know. Have a sip, it’s not bad.”
She hands me her glass and I take a sip. I stand there and contemplate the taste.
“Might I suggest,” the Jovian interjects, “as an alternative a Tangerine Cloud? A very popular choice among discerning ladies.”
“Can she try it?” Sukie asks, and he says, “Of course,” and pours a small amount into a glass.
I take the glass and sip at it, though I’m feeling a little irritated at him suggesting it because I’m a lady. His patronising charm makes Dauntless Battler appear in a better light.
It’s a good suggestion, however, as I have to admit. If I’m going to drink a cocktail, this is just right.
I hand the glass back to him and he fills it up.
“Enjoy the tastes of my Jovian home,” he says as he gives it to me again. “I hope you can make it to Europa during your stay.”
“I hope so too,” I reply, and Sukie and I turn to go back to where we were, more or less, Ari following us once more. The crowd has shifted around a little while we were at the bar.
We talk about this afternoon’s arrival. Sukie and Ari were watching it too, of course; I think everybody on board was; and we laugh at the banality of it. We talk about who the other Jovians were who arrived with Obasanjo. The two men are nobody special, but the woman is apparently very prominent too: a member of their Committee.
“Fragrant Blossom,” Ari tells us.
I recognise that name, and I remember the meeting I had with the Secretary General and his staff, an age ago. She was in that film clip of the whole Committee, including Dauntless Battler, and was sitting next to Michael Obasanjo. I didn’t recognise her when I saw her this afternoon on my device.
Why has she come out all this way?
The crowd around us is fluid, and is growing too, as time passes; we say hello to people we know, and turn to talk to them; but we remain together, the three of us, despite that, and we’re still together in our little group when there’s a disturbance at the entrance and heads around us turn to see the Spokesman himself enter the room, with Dauntless Battler and Fragrant Blossom on either side of him.
They’re not in space suits any more; they’ve evidently changed into normal clothes; and they’ve probably had a shower too while they were at it: I certainly would. Obasanjo is in Jovian style overalls, their standard costume, but tailored to fit him extremely well, and inside them he’s wearing a jersey with the Jovian insignia on the right breast, picked out in red and silver. Fragrant Blossom has similar overalls, but without the insignia. They’re both very different in their attire from us here on board, especially the women. I suppose we couldn’t expect her to bring a party frock with her. Though the party was their idea.
Obasanjo is smiling and greeting people as he moves slowly into the room. He’s not shaking hands; he’s nodding to the right and the left to acknowledge people, and they’re nodding and smiling back. The other two move with him, accompanying him, their demeanour making it clear how subordinate they are.
Dauntless Battler splits off from the group and goes to the bar to pick up drinks for all of them. The other two have come to a halt and are conversing with the passengers close by. Sukie, Ari and I turn towards each other again and pick up our conversation.
After a little while I see Sukie looking at something behind me; I turn my head and see Dauntless Battler standing there with a drink in his hand, listening and smiling.
“Oh, hi,” I say, and make space for him.
“Good evening,” he says.
“Are you not expected to dance attendance on your boss?” Obasanjo and Fragrant Blossom are still where they were the last time I saw them, a few metres away. He smiles again.
“He’s a big boy,” he says. “He can be left alone for a bit.”
“Not what I meant.”
“I know. Cheers, Hella!” He lifts his glass, and I lift mine too and our eyes meet over the rims. “I hope you’re enjoying your first taste of Jovian hospitality.”
“I am. Interesting cocktail.”
“Is it a Tangerine Cloud?”
“It is. Are there really tangerines on Europa?”
“No. Not as far as I’m aware, anyway. I suppose there might be in some experimental hydroponic unit. But what you’re tasting is an artificial flavour.”
“Well, it’s very nice.”
“You’re looking very beautiful tonight, Hella. You always do, but tonight you’re radiant.”
I can’t help smiling with pleasure. I know, it’s transparent flattery, but it’s very pleasing to hear.
“So are you, honey,” Ari says to his wife. She squeezes his arm.
“We’ve done the rounds of all four bars,” Dauntless Battler says to me. “Paid our respects everywhere. So now we can do what we like.”
“You’re off duty.”
“As much as we ever are. So, if that’s all right with you, here is where I plan to stay.”
He raises his glass to me again, and I do the same.
“You know there’s dancing over on the other side?” he goes on.
“So I hear.”
“It was in full swing when we left them. Do you dance, Hella?”
“Not tonight, I don’t think so.” I’m not going to attempt to dance in these shoes.
“People seemed to be having a good time.”
I smile, but don’t comment on that.
“What about your young friends, Hella?” Sukie asks. “I bet they’re all there.”
“The kimyonas? Could be.” I don’t think they will be: I think they’ll be scornful of our old people’s dancing, though they probably won’t say so to our faces. They’re always very polite and well brought-up.
“Have you seen the captain?” she asks Dauntless Battler.
“This evening? Sure.”
“I was just wondering what she was wearing.”
We all smile.
“She’s wearing her uniform,” Dauntless Battler says. “If anyone’s on duty tonight, she is.”
“I’d have liked to see her in a frock,” says Sukie.
“Yeah,” I say, and imagine it. “I’ve never seen her dressed up.”
“She and Michael had a dance,” says Dauntless.
“Did they really? That’s nice.” Sukie glances at her husband and is plainly thinking that she might like to do the same thing. “Did they open the dancing?”
“Like a bride and groom? No. There were lots of people on the floor already. Not just couples.”
“What were they like?” I ask him. “I mean, how did they dance?”
“Quite sedately. They were formal, and smart. Correct.”
I imagine them: waltzing, perhaps.
“Well, good for them,” says Ari. “It’s all a bit like a state visit, isn’t it?”
I have to smile at that. It is indeed.
“Hella, your glass is empty. Can I get you another?”
I look at Dauntless Battler. “That’s very kind, thank you.”
Ari decides to go with him, and takes Sukie’s glass to be topped up. Sukie and I are left on our own.
She moves closer to me.
“How long are you going to keep fobbing him off?” she asks me.
I’m speechless for a second, and just stare at her.
“I know you like him,” she goes on. “That’s obvious. And it’s obvious that he really likes you.”
“Of course he does, Hella, come on. He’s been panting for you for weeks.”
“I can’t bear to watch it,” she says. “It’s just crying out for resolution.” Like a dominant seventh. “The two of you ought to have been together long ago. It’s unbearable to look on, with nothing ever happening.”
“What do you think he wants, Sukie? Just a fling, during the voyage, or something more? What do you think?”
“Does that matter, Hella? He wants you, anyway. You can let it happen, go with it, and see where it goes. See what you both want.”
“You don’t have to decide that now.”
The men are coming back, and Sukie takes a step away from me and turns to greet them. We both take our drinks and we all go back to talking about other things, in our group of four.
Later the Spokesman himself honours us with a visit. I haven’t been paying attention to him, and I don’t notice him and Fragrant Blossom approaching us from behind me. We’re talking about Scriabin: I’m going to play one, or both, of the sonatas of his middle period, and I’m trying to decide which.
I realise that the others have fallen silent, and I stop talking too and turn to see the two of them standing behind me.
“Scriabin,” says Obasanjo. “Sounds like a skin disease. What is it?”
“A Russian composer,” Dauntless Battler says. “Michael, this is Hella Lundgren, the pianist.”
I offer my hand, and he takes it and lifts it to his lips.
“This is Sukie Reynolds, the soprano.” He does the same.
“And Ari Mandelbaum, also a pianist.”
“But much less important,” Ari adds as he takes Obasanjo’s hand. I give him a quizzical look, and Sukie gives him a look too, as if to say “Oh, you!”
Fragrant Blossom has been standing back, but now she takes a step forward and shakes our hands too. I inspect her face for a second before she turns to Sukie. I’m curious about her. I remember my reaction to her at the United Nations, all those months ago, and I wonder what she’s really like.
As in the film clip back then, her hair is short and grey. Her face is certainly plain, but it doesn’t strike me as grim or menacing, as I think it did then. She seems earnest and probably stubborn; determined; but her eyes seem not unfriendly.
My ringlets scatter and settle about my shoulders as I turn my head to Dauntless Battler. I’m curious to find out what he thinks of her; but his expression now gives no clue.
He starts to draw out Sukie, then me, to talk about the concerts that we’re giving, and he begins with Sukie’s operatic gala event. He’s focussing on the hits, and I think he’s hoping that Obasanjo will recognise at least some of them and take some genuine interest; but it’s plain to me that Obasanjo knows practically nothing about music, or at least about the music that we play, and the conversation remains at the level of polite small-talk. And behind the politeness, behind the urbane courtesy, there is this patronising air that I noticed earlier in the man serving the drinks. It’s beginning to seem like a pattern, and I’m beginning to wonder how much of an exception Dauntless Battler is. And I’m wondering what it’s like for Fragrant Blossom, living there all the time.
She does seem to know rather more about music. She doesn’t say very much, but what she does say is sensible and to the point. She knows who Scriabin is, but I don’t think she knows his music. She tells me that she’s hoping for some Rachmaninov from me.
Did Dauntless Battler realise that I might not hit it off very well with Michael Obasanjo, and did he suggest that Fragrant Blossom come too so that there’d be at least one Jovian apart from him with whom I could have a connection? Is that why she’s here?
Or am I grotesquely overestimating my significance for the leaders of the Jovian Federation?
After a few minutes Obasanjo has had enough of us. He wants to move on, and this time he wants Dauntless Battler to come with them. The three of us are left alone again, and we decide to move elsewhere too.
“Let’s go and watch the dancing,” says Sukie. She’s not fooling me, and I don’t think she’s fooling Ari either: she wants to do more than just watch. We agree, we finish our drinks and bring the glasses back to the bar, and we make our way all around the ship to the other side. It’s a long way and my feet are hurting.
We encounter a few people in the corridor: coming the other way, or going the same way, but more quickly; in one case a group of people is standing and chatting. At one point I see two pairs of feet ahead of us, all that the curvature of the ship will permit us to see of them; there’s some giggling and a muffled shriek, the feet disappear and I hear a door sliding shut.
I can hear the dance music from quite a distance, coming to us along the corridor that curves up ahead. I recognise a tune that was very popular when I was a student.
I can hear the people too; in fact they’re making a lot of noise. The crowd is overflowing out of the night bar on to the corridor. Inside it’s full: many people are standing around the edges with drinks in their hands, talking at the tops of their voices or just watching; in the centre numerous couples and some individuals, dancing in various styles and with varying degrees of technical skill, all the way down to no technical mastery at all. There’s more lighting in here than there usually is, coming from the sides and the corners, discreetly, and it changes as we watch from near the door: colour, intensity, direction.
Sukie pulls Ari by the hand.
She puts the other hand on his shoulder as she backs on to the floor and draws him along after her. He puts his other hand on her waist, and they fall into step.
I smile, back away a little from the entrance and watch for a while. There’s no Jovian here serving drinks; just the usual dispensers, and they are being used enthusiastically. Do I want a drink? I’d rather sit down. I turn, go out again and make for the day bar opposite.
It’s very different in there. All the seating is still in place, and that raises my hopes, but it all seems to be occupied. Again I stand near the entrance and I survey the room for people that I know. I know most of them vaguely, but none of them closely. I haven’t seen the young people yet. I suppose they must be in the other night bar.
Again there’s a Jovian behind a makeshift bar, and this time there’s a poster of Callisto behind him. He’s doing a roaring trade and he’s bantering with the revellers around him as he serves them.
I don’t particularly want another drink: not yet. I wander deeper into the room, keeping close to the wall, considering whether I feel like attaching myself to any of the groups here.
“Would you like to sit?” asks a man. He’s seen me standing here on my own, looking around. I turn my head and see a group of people all looking up at me, seated in one of those rectangular arrangements.
I start to say no, that’s really not necessary, but two women on a couch are already starting to shift along it to one side.
“Come on, there’s plenty of room,” says one of them, and smiles invitingly.
Well, there really isn’t, but it’s very kind of them, and I squeeze myself on to the end of the couch and manage to perch on it without falling off; feeling like Brünnhilde again and wishing I was Tinker Bell instead. They all smile at me and carry on with their conversation.
I reach down surreptitiously and slip both of my shoes off. That is such a relief. Oh my goodness, that is such a relief.
The man who first spoke to me is in an armchair to my right, across a corner of the low table. I’ve seen him around, at mealtimes and so on, but I don’t think we’ve spoken. He speaks to me now, just wanting to make conversation, to be friendly; but the others notice, break off their conversation and look at us. How awkward.
I answer him, glancing at the others around me, and I smile at them. Someone says something to me, and the whole atmosphere relaxes again and I’ve been drawn into their conversation. That was easy, and very pleasing, and soon we’re all chatting away. About music, inevitably: they’re all musicians, instrumentalists, who play in various different ensembles. I have the impression that most of them have made friends during the voyage. Of course those who have come from Earth have been on board for longer than I have.
One of the men stands up and starts to take orders for refills.
“Can I get you anything, Ms Lundgren?”
“Thank you, that would be very nice.” I think it’s time for a third drink.
“What would you like?”
“I’m not sure. I was in the Europa bar before. I had a Tangerine Cloud.”
“Shall I ask for one of those, or something similar?”
When he brings it, he doesn’t say what it’s called, and I can’t really tell what it is. I sip at it absently and carry on chatting. I’m having a nice time.
It’s not the case that this whole group is talking together around this table. At least two conversations are taking place, and I catch snatches of the other one, over on the other side, as I’m listening to the people on either side of me. It’s not easy to hear, because it’s quite loud in this bar, even though there’s no music, but I notice after a while that over there they’ve finished talking about music and have moved on to politics.
I only ever talk about the political situation with the same people. Dauntless Battler, and Ari and Sukie; and then Mr Miciov. That girl on Nereus Base was almost the only other person I’ve discussed it with. Oh, and Val, the same day.
I don’t really know how people in general think about it. I remember that one of the kimyona boys said he had family on Callisto. It was on that very first occasion that we talked, when I didn’t know any of them, and I can’t quite remember who it was. It definitely wasn’t Kit. I ought to have followed it up, really. I ought to have been talking to people all this time, building up an impression of how people feel about the Jovians and what they’re doing.
Also whether there’s any truth in those hints of tyranny. My impression of Dauntless Battler makes it feel utterly implausible that he would be involved in anything like that; but now that I’ve met Obasanjo, can I imagine that he would be? I can, yes; absolutely. And I suppose, if you’re caught up in a system like that, you go along with it, you’re swept along by it, even if you have the best of intentions and are the nicest of people. Even Dmitri went along with it, to a degree.
Will I be able to tell, once I’m there? Or will we all be in a bubble, shielded from reality, lifted from one venue and one photo opportunity to another, without ever encountering real people?
Once again I feel daunted, intimidated, by this task of making up my own mind. How on earth am I supposed to know?
And there’s another feeling, which is one of unreality. It doesn’t feel real. Here I am, suspended in this space ship for months, talking and talking, and never actually seeing it. Nothing ever actually happening. I don’t know whether it will feel any different when I’m there.
Quite some time has passed when I happen to glance across towards the entrance, and I see Sukie and Ari standing there, surveying the crowd. I turn to the woman sitting next to me.
“I’m just going to go over to my friends,” I tell her. “I think they’re looking for me.”
I put my shoes on, hurriedly, start to get up and wave to Sukie, who sees me and gives Ari a nudge. The others stop talking and look up at me.
“See you later,” I say to them. I’m not sure whether I’ll be coming back.
“There you are,” says Sukie.
“Sorry, have you been looking for me?”
“Well, we did leave you standing on your own.” Sukie is hanging on to Ari’s arm. She seems a little footsore herself. “I hoped you might be dancing too.”
I smile at that, and don’t comment.
“Dauntless Battler is in there. I think he was hoping to find you.” She gives me a meaningful look.
“Have you had a good time dancing?” I ask, and I glance at Ari, who smiles back.
“Very good. But we’re thirsty now, and want a rest.”
Sukie looks up at him and then at me again, with an expression of heartfelt agreement.
I follow them to the bar, where Ari organises something long and refreshing for the two of them and something sweet and ladylike for me, with very little alcohol. I still have something in my glass over there where I was sitting, but I’m abandoning it.
I’ve fully recovered now and am happy to stand, but Sukie is very obviously desperate to sit down. Nothing offers itself, but Ari has an idea and leads us along the wall past the whole row of dispensers to a spot near the window panel, where he gives Sukie a hand to lift herself on to the counter. She sits there with her back to the wall and her glass in her hand, facing us, and kicks off her shoes.
Later she and I go together to the lavatory. There is a public one next to the bar, but too many women are waiting outside and we decide that it will be quicker and better to go to my room. I let her go first, then she waits for me, and we go straight back to the day bar.
When we return, Dauntless Battler has arrived and is talking to Ari. They turn and watch us approach in our high heels and our dresses, feeling better for having freshened up a little in my bathroom. Dauntless Battler only has eyes for me. He also seems not a little drunk.
Is Sukie right about him? I’ve assumed all this time that he has been trying to charm me for political reasons, because he and his Committee colleagues can see, as the United Nations could, the benefit of harnessing my celebrity, of putting it to use in the service of their cause; and that any personal pleasure he might get out of my company was a bonus. Have I done him an injustice?
He’s not helping his case at the moment, though: slurring, talking thickly and a little incoherently, breaking off and starting again. I’m not sure whether Sukie and Ari realise this. They draw apart and let the two of us talk to each other on our own.
He doesn’t seem to know what he wants to talk about. He tells me a little about Obasanjo and the Committee; then he talks about living on Callisto, and the differences between it and Ganymede; he mentions Mars, where he was born, and I’m expecting him to go on and compare both of those places to Mars; but he seems to forget why he brought Mars up and he asks me about my home. I talk about my very brief visit there recently, about driving a buggy and riding in the shuttle. We’ve talked about all this before.
“I might go back in the craft,” he volunteers.
“In the craft? Oh – you mean with Michael?”
“That’s right. I might join them and go back to Callisto with them.”
“Oh.” There isn’t really anything to say to that.
“Would you like to come?”
Now he has succeeded in capturing my attention. I listen in astonishment.
“There’s room. You’d get there quicker. More time on Callisto. To get ready for the festival.”
I scrutinise him, and don’t say anything. I wonder whether he’ll regret making this suggestion tomorrow, when he’s sober.
“You can take your keyboard. Practise on board. Just as well as here.”
I have to say something.
“Oh – I’m not sure I fancy the idea of spending two weeks in my space suit!”
“Oh, you don’t have to stay in your space suit. We all wear casual clothes on board.”
He gives me an encouraging grin.
“Weightless,” he goes on. “We’re weightless the whole time. But you get used to it. You’ve been weightless before. You know what it’s like.”
“Not for that length of time.”
If I did take this idea seriously, it would at least take me away from Kit. Out of the way of that temptation, though perhaps in the way of a different one. And away from Val.
And I could get to know Fragrant Blossom better. I’m interested in her. I think I might like her.
Dauntless Battler is still telling me about life on board the craft.
“You sleep in a sleeping bag that’s fixed to the bed. Stops you from floating around in your sleep.”
“How do you wash your hair?”
“With a wet towel.”
“Yes. You massage it into your hair, your wet hair, and then you use the wet towel again to take it out.”
“Hmm.” Doesn’t sound to me as though the hair gets very clean.
It would certainly send a clear signal with regard to the diplomatic situation, if I went with them. Mr Miciov would be furious. His worst fear would have come to pass.
My ringlets would be floating about in all directions like Medusa’s snakes. I’d have to have a ponytail, at least.
“I’ll think about it, Dauntless.”
I could actually do it. I don’t absolutely need any more rehearsals with the quartet on board. We’ve played so much together already, so that a quick run-through before the two concerts will be enough. And the same goes for the kimyona group. We’ve talked about me joining in at least one of their concerts, but again, we’ve played so often together, we can easily just pick that up when we’re all on Callisto. It hasn’t been announced anyway that I’m appearing with them, so we could just as easily drop the idea.
He looks at me with a grateful and hopeful expression.
“I was talking earlier about the venues,” I say, and I turn to Sukie and Ari to say this and to draw them into the conversation.
I tell them about the discussion that I took part in while I was sitting down in here. None of those people have been to the Jovian System before, but one of them had clearly done some research into the venues and their acoustics and other characteristics. It was interesting to hear about it, and my friends listen to me with interest as I pass this on.
It’s getting late. The dancing is still going on across the way, but I have no desire to join in, neither has Sukie, and I don’t think Dauntless Battler wants to now either: not any more.
Sukie and Ari have to pass my door to get to their room. I don’t know where Dauntless Battler lives, but he comes with us, and he stays with me outside my door as the others continue down the corridor. He waits till they’re out of sight from the waist up, and then he moves up close to me and presses his body against mine, against my door that I haven’t opened yet.
I feel as though I’m equally poised, I could go either way: it turns out that I respond, I slide my hands around him and I kiss him back. His mouth tastes of alcohol.
I haven’t had an embrace like this for a very long time. I feel all those familiar things inside, how I’m stirring and rising and answering. It all still works.
He wants to come in with me. I put the palm of one hand on his chest.
“Not now, Dauntless,” I whisper. “Please.”
He looks into my eyes, and acquiesces. I kiss him again on the lips.
He squeezes me and buries his face in my hair, and then moves back.
“Good night, Hella.”
He takes another step back and lets go of me altogether except for the fingers of one hand. He lifts them to his lips and holds them there, pressed against his lips, for several seconds while he looks into my eyes and I return his gaze: tender and kind. Then he puts my hand down again and lets go, and he turns and walks away, back the way we came. I turn too, and my room opens to take me inside.
I can’t sleep. I did sleep, but I’ve woken up again and now I can’t get back to sleep.
All these beginnings. It’s ironic. No one knows how futile they are; no one on board. Except Val; he’s the only one. And Dr Dias.
And Val is the only one of whom I’m confident that he actually would stay with me and take care of me, be my companion, no matter how bad things became. He’s said so, and I believe him. He’s like that.
The others haven’t had a chance to consider whether they’d be willing to do that too. Perhaps they would.
But Dauntless Battler is here, in the Jovian System. It won’t work for that reason alone, never mind anything else. I’m not going to stay out here for however long is left of my life, away from Rachel and the boys, and Mitsuko.
Kit lives on Mars. But I have to forget about Kit. I mustn’t change my mind about him. I’d be a curse on him. Venus and Tannhäuser. He’d have to get free of me, for the sake of his own young life and integrity of soul.
And how would it look on Mars, in front of the people who know me.
Val is the only sensible choice. If I’m going to choose any of them, and it does seem as though I may have the choice among at least three men on board this ship, then Val is the only sensible one to choose.
Do I want to be in bed with Val, making love, and wishing it was Kit?
I mustn’t think about that again.
It’s only the disease that makes Val the wise choice. Only that thing, that’s come out of nowhere, like the meteor, and changed everything.
It’s shitty that I’m dying. I don’t want to die. Not now.
All these hopeful things that are beginning. The kimyona music. Viola sonatas with Val. My role for the United Nations. My grandchildren. Rose’s wedding. These romantic offers that are suddenly showering upon me. My body, remembering that it’s a woman. It all feels like one last, desperate blooming before the sap dries out altogether; because the tree is mortally wounded, someone has cut deep into it, down below, and the sap is gushing out and leaving a gaunt and desiccated trunk with bare, crooked branches, standing still and silent and black against the sky.
That arc idea is just nonsense. There’s nothing designed about this, there’s no artistic integrity in what’s happening to me: it’s just a stupid thing that’s happening for no reason. It doesn’t matter what I think about it, it’s happening anyway, and if I don’t like it, then tough.
I ought to have all the time in the world, to explore all these things and take them wherever they lead me. Or, if I believe in the arc, I ought to be drawing the strands of my life together and bringing my course, gracefully, to a perfectly formed, artistically satisfying close. Instead all I can think about is all the things that I’m going to miss, and how shitty that is. I don’t want to die.
The important thing is to be with the people you love, and to show them that you love them. That’s all that matters.
I’m not following that principle at all. What am I doing out here? What possessed me to come on this voyage? What a stupid thing to do. And all I can think of to do here is to flirt with men, and to turn the heads of men, with whom there can’t possibly be any future.
I just want to go home, and hug Rachel, and Mitsuko, and cry on to their shoulders. Mitsuko would have to stand on a box.
That’s made me smile. That’s something, at least. My eyelashes are sticking together with unshed tears, but my mouth is twisted in a wry smile.
I really am wide awake. I open my eyes now, in the dark; there’s some very faint light filtering in through the transparent panel at the very top of the door, but otherwise it’s pitch black in here; I’m lying on my back under the cover, my legs stretched out, my arms beside me, by my once shapely and tantalising, now stocky and rather disappointing body, inwardly decaying, outwardly aging: the wrong side of fifty.
No, I’m the right side of fifty. I’m glad I’ve reached fifty, at least.
Strange how there are moments of clarity. They take you by surprise. I’m not kidding myself now. Not clinging to a comforting idea. I’m going to die, and that’s all. There’s no more significance to it than that bare fact. People will see me, and then they never will again. No more to it than that.
I finish showering and step out on to the rug, where I grab the towel from the rail and start to dry myself off. My hair is inside a shower cap.
I have a bottle of body lotion in the bathroom cabinet, and I take it out and apply it all over my body. Some areas always require a little more; around my collarbones, for instance. It feels good when I’ve finished. I’m clean, soft, hairless, and relaxed.
Then the day cream for my face, and make-up. I’m going back to my usual this morning: the minimum amount, barely visible, just enough to give my face a slightly more healthy colour.
I put my dressing gown on and go into the main room. I sit down at the desk and take the hairbrush, and I set to. I’m brushing out the ringlets. They haven’t survived the night anyway. I’m going back to my usual look. My hair is curling a little more than it usually does as it hangs around my shoulders, but that is all that’s left of yesterday’s elaborate styling.
I have a rehearsal with the quartet this afternoon. We’ve been playing a whole range of quintets, mainly from the nineteenth century. We’re satisfied with the Trout and are now expanding our repertoire with no particular objective in mind. I like some of them very much, though, and I hope we can pick them up again when we’re all back on Mars. If I can still play.
I think I’ll be all right at the festival. Most of the time I can still play without any problems. If there is a problem, well then, I’ll make that announcement, and I’m sure people will be sympathetic. I have to make it some time soon anyway.
Then the long journey back home, which will be much more of a holiday cruise than the trip out. Though we may work more seriously on that concept album of Kit’s. I still don’t know much about that.
It’s like being a student again. It’s another one of those themes from earlier in the piece that is now being restated close to the end, and all the development that has gone on in between, places it in a certain light and context, and it’s satisfying to feel that it hasn’t been forgotten.
As with everything else. It all has its place in that intricately balanced architecture, that eternal shining thing. Everything that has happened to me, everything that I have done or felt or thought, it’s all drawn in and integrated into that concept, and it’s my job to understand that and to process all those things so that they do fit in, they are integrated, notwithstanding all nightly doubts and despair. Including the disease. That’s just as much a part of my arc as everything else. The way it was first announced, the first statement of that theme back at the Bergklinik: solemn and forbidding. Horns, perhaps, blasting a devastating theme in a minor key. Bruckner. Then falling back, subsiding, into a sweeter, more melancholy passage. Slow, and quiet; measured; sad, resigned, beautiful. And the other themes around it, in the orchestra; at the same time, or still in the listener’s memory from being stated just now. All combining, and finding infinitely many ways to combine, ways in which they are already connected, that just have to be pointed out by the music.
That’s what should be occupying me. Really, I’m fortunate to have enough time to work through all this: to have sufficient notice of the end of the piece. I have the rest of the structure laid out before me, I can survey it; I know what themes are being played at the moment, and I can work out which ones still need to be picked out and restated on the last few pages that are still to come. I can ensure that it all makes sense.
And what’s also laid out before me is this morning. I’ll probably see the Jovians again today. I don’t know whether they spent the night on board or whether they went back to their craft, but either way they’ll surely be around for a while. I’m going to dress smartly, but not overdo it. Some trousers, a blouse, a flimsy little scarf around my neck. Sensible flat shoes. Then out of my door and down the corridor. It’s time for breakfast.