I start violently out of sleep and have for a moment no idea where I am or why it’s so bright, and so loud.
I realise that I’m in my cabin on board the ship, and I’m sorting out whatever I was dreaming about from the reality that I can see and hear. Fragments of dream are falling away and being forgotten.
"Put on your space suit immediately and fasten your helmet. This is not a drill. Put on your space suit immediately and fasten your helmet. Wait for further instructions if your surroundings are undamaged. Put on your space suit immediately.”
What’s going on? I get up hastily out of bed and go to the wardrobe where my space suit is hanging. I’m wearing nothing but a nightdress. I suppose immediately means immediately. I take it off its hanger, step into it and pull it up over my body, and then I take my helmet out of its compartment above the shoes and put that on too. I can still hear the voice, but muffled now. What is happening?
“Meteor strike. Please remain where you are, and remain calm. Await further instructions. Put on your space suit immediately.”
I can do all those things, but they don’t really occupy me. I step across the room and sit down at my desk, calmly. At least it’s making sense now.
I sit there and listen. He’s not saying “if your surroundings are undamaged” any more. That sounds encouraging.
“Please respond on your device if you are able.”
It’s been a few minutes now, already. My device is on my desk and I pick it up and look at it. It wants to know where I am, whether I’m all right, whether I’m wearing my suit and helmet with the air supply switched on, whether I can see any damage to the ship, whether anything is not working. I answer all of those questions, and put the device down again and wait. I see it’s two in the morning.
I adjust the temperature in my suit. I think it’s the time of night making me feel cold; it’s not really cold. My nightdress is ruffled up inside the suit and it’s a bit uncomfortable. Do I dare take off the suit and adjust it, or put something else on to wear inside? Best not to, I suppose.
“Attention,” says the voice. “Attention. The gravity will be switched off temporarily in five minutes. Please take the usual precautions.”
What’s happening now? I don’t need to take any precautions: my room is tidy and everything is securely stowed away, apart from my device on my desk, which I can easily reach. I stay where I am and wait. After a few minutes I feel how the pressure of my body on the seat lessens and finally disappears altogether, as the rim of the ship rotates more slowly and then stops. I suppose they want to let some people out to have a look at the hub. The gravity returns, and I wait.
A notification flashes up on my device, and I take it and read. It’s from the captain, or purports to be, and it’s explaining what has happened and how it’s looking.
The ship has been struck by one or more items of something or other, apparently; or the ship has struck them: we were probably travelling faster than they were. Some damage has been sustained, but it’s nothing to worry about; there are no casualties; and if we like we can leave our rooms, but we should definitely keep our suits and helmets on until further notice. And we shouldn’t worry.
It’s the middle of the night, but I can’t simply sit here and wait, or even go back to sleep, with all this going on. Even I am not as calm as all that.
I go to my door and peer out on to the corridor. In both directions it stretches until it curves up away out of sight. I don’t see anybody at first, but then a door opens a little way along, on the opposite side of the corridor, and at the same time I see feet much further away, at the edge of sight, growing to become shins and then legs as the person advances along the corridor towards me, around the rim of this giant wheel.
A man comes out of the open door and looks in my direction. I can’t see who it is in his helmet. I come out too and go towards him.
“Is that Ms Lundgren?” I can hear his voice in my helmet; he’s using close-quarters intercom.
“Yes.” I approach, and recognise him through his visor as someone I’ve seen around. I don’t think he’s a musician, or has anything to do with the festival.
“Simon Bailey. Is everything all right with you?”
“Yes. I thought I’d take a look and see what was going on.”
“Me too.” We both turn to face the third person, who is just arriving where we are standing. It’s a woman, and I think she plays in the wind band; I don’t know her name.
“Do you know what’s happening?” she says, and looks from one to the other of us. She is evidently very nervous.
“Not really,” I say, and at the same time the man says, “Meteor strike.”
I take the woman’s arm and say, “Did you see the message from the captain? It sounds as though they have everything under control. I thought I’d go to the communal areas and see if there are more people, and if I could find out more. Do you want to come with us?”
She gives me a grateful look and says, “Yes.”
More people are emerging from their cabins as we make our way down the corridor. The gravity has lessened a good deal since we left Nereus Base; we’re about half way to Jupiter now; and we’re already having to adjust the way we walk, because we float down so much more slowly after every step.
A few people are already in the two bars when we arrive, and more arrive with us and after us. The lights are on in both: there is no difference between night and day bar at the moment.
I go automatically into the day bar because that is where I usually go, and the two others go with me. It’s hard to tell who people are in their helmets. It feels very strange to see all these people here in space suits.
There is one tall figure that I’m sure I recognise, and indeed, I identify Dauntless Battler through the clear plastic of his visor once I’m close enough to see. He’s with a couple of his Jovian colleagues from their delegation; I haven’t spoken to them before, but I know who they are.
“Good morning,” he says, and I smile at that. What do you say, in fact, at this time of night?
“Good morning,” I reply. “Everything all right?”
“We haven’t heard anything yet,” he says, and I meant, everything all right with him, but he’s taking the question to refer to the general situation. “But I get the impression there’s no damage anywhere in the rim. Any damage is elsewhere.”
“We’re waiting to be told we can remove our helmets. The air supply seems to be intact.”
“Just routine precautions, I suppose,” I say, and he agrees:
“We won’t have to abandon ship?” asks the female wind player, who is still with me, along with Simon Bailey.
Dauntless Battler looks at her in astonishment.
“Abandon the ship?” he repeats. “Why would we do that?”
And how, indeed. There are no lifeboats on a space ship.
“There won’t be any need for that,” I tell her. “On board is by far the safest place for us.”
Only to an Earthling could it occur to abandon ship in deep space, and quite honestly I’m amazed that even an Earthling can be so ignorant.
You abandon ship on Earth because it’s sinking. A space ship doesn’t sink.
The woman smiles gratefully at me again.
“That’s a relief,” she says.
“Honestly,” I say, and I take her arm again, “I’m sure there’s no need for us to worry. Whatever’s happened, the crew seem to have it under control, and we’re all safe as long as we follow instructions.”
It would be like abandoning the house and going to camp in the garden because there’s been a spillage in the kitchen. Worse: it would be like abandoning the house and trying to walk through the desert to the next city.
People are starting to sit down, and we do the same. The wind player sits next to me on a couch; the Jovians sit in armchairs in the same arrangement; Simon Bailey goes off and joins some of his own friends.
“I was awake,” Dauntless Battler tells me. “I was reading in my room.”
“I was asleep,” I say, and I tell him how startled I was when the alarm came. The woman is listening.
“Does this often happen?” she asks. “You all seem very calm.”
“It’s never happened to me,” I say, and Dauntless Battler adds,
“It’s not unusual for there to be some kind of collision. We’re travelling very fast through space, and though it’s almost a vacuum, it’s not quite, and sometimes we’ll run into something. But generally we don’t notice. The ship is built so that most objects glance off it and don’t do any damage.”
He explains, and demonstrates with his hands, how the ship is shaped in the direction of its travel. I didn’t know this myself.
“And the material is extremely hard.”
“And yet it’s transparent?” I say, glancing over at the window.
“You wouldn’t think, would you? You’d never guess how thick it is.”
“No,” I murmur, and I continue to look at the window. The lights are bright in here and I can’t recognise much, but I know what it’s like in the night bar, where there’s only a little dim lighting close to the drinks dispensers and otherwise nothing to mask the splendour of the heavens outside.
It’s true that, on Earth, even on the clearest of nights we’re still peering through scores of kilometres of atmosphere at the stars.
I recall that Dauntless Battler is an accountant by profession, though he probably doesn’t do much accounting these days. I suppose that, living somewhere like Ganymede or Callisto, you pick up a lot of knowledge in fields of engineering, knowledge that is relevant to forging a life in such an environment: to survival.
We’ve been sitting there and talking for a few minutes when someone comes into the bar who is not wearing a helmet, and I recognise one of the ship’s officers.
“It’s safe to remove helmets now,” he says in a loud, clear voice. “The ship’s life support is intact. Thank you for your patience.”
I think I can tell from how quickly Dauntless Battler turns to look at the officer that he’s more nervous than he has been letting on.
We all start to take off our helmets and put them on our laps or down on the floor beside us.
“Can you tell us any more?” someone asks, and those who are still standing begin to crowd around the officer. After a moment we stand up too and move in the same direction.
“Of course. The ship struck a group of objects at one forty-eight this morning. There have been multiple impacts, and a certain amount of damage has been sustained, but no immediate threat to life or safety. Our systems have examined the whole construction, and we’ve verified it by personal inspection, and we’re satisfied that there is no damage to our living areas. Our life support systems are intact and functioning duly, and our lives here on board can continue as before.”
“So where is the damage?” someone wants to know.
“The main impact appears to have been on the hub, and we’re working to ascertain the extent of the damage. The gravity will be turned off again from time to time to allow our engineers to pass back and forth; we’ll give plenty of notice each time that happens.”
That seems to be all he wants to say about it.
“I ask you to understand that our first priority has been the rim, to ascertain that there are no casualties and no lives are in danger. And it is the middle of the night!” He gives a wry smile. “Our engineers are at work, and they’ll continue through the day, and whatever needs to be repaired they’ll attend to in due course.”
“Will they be able to repair everything?”
The officer makes a spreading gesture with his hands.
“Please, let’s give the engineers time to do their jobs. We know that there is no immediate danger, and the important thing now is to assess the extent and the nature of the damage diligently, and that is what our engineers are now doing.”
“Yeah, that’s fair enough,” someone says. “Thanks, Mr Mukherjee.”
“Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“So we can go back to our beds?” someone else asks.
“Oh yes, yes, no one needs to stay up. We’re all quite safe.”
The knot of people around him begins to drift apart, and Mr Mukherjee himself leaves the bar. We move back to where we were sitting and look at each other. Some people are already leaving to return to their cabins.
I glance at the woman beside me, and she looks back at me. She doesn’t seem ready to be on her own yet. Now that I see her without her helmet she looks older than I had thought.
I sit down on the couch, the woman sits next to me, and after a moment the Jovians sit down too. Here we all are again.
I yawn suddenly, and that seems to be infectious, because one of the Jovians then yawns too, and we exchange a little grin.
It feels as though we ought to be sitting here in pyjamas and dressing gowns, and clutching mugs of cocoa.
Actually cocoa is a tempting thought. I stand up and suggest it.
“Yes, please,” says the woman, and she comes with me to fetch it. Nobody else wants any.
On the way back I can see who is in the bar with us and I am relieved, once again, that the kimyona musicians are not here. I haven’t spoken to any of them since the day I plaited Kit’s hair.
The Jovians glance round as we return to our seats. Dauntless Battler looks up into my face. I’m suddenly conscious that I’m hardly wearing anything inside my space suit.
Stop being silly, Hella. We both sit down where we were and hold our cocoa with both hands in front of us. It’s still a bit too hot to drink.
So how worried should I be? Dauntless Battler did seem to me to be worried, and he seems to know his stuff. Better not talk about that now, though, with this wind player here, whom we have only just managed to reassure. I’ll try to talk to him later. I don’t want to be reassured; I want to know the truth.
A group of men walks by us on their way to the door, and Mr Miciov is among them; he gives a fierce look, without catching my eye, as he passes and sees me talking to Dauntless Battler. I ignore him.
None of us really wants to be here, I feel, and I can see that the bar is emptying. Some men over by the window have got themselves alcoholic drinks and appear to be having a good time, but they are a minority. I turn my attention to my cocoa and make an effort to finish it.
My cabin is on the way back for the woman; I still don’t know her name. We stop for a moment outside my door.
“Will you be all right?” I ask her.
“Oh, yes,” she says. “Thanks. I’m sorry I’ve been a pain.”
“You haven’t,” I tell her. “It’s all very new, und unfamiliar, and scary. I get that.”
“Thanks,” she says again.
She turns to continue on up the corridor, and I open my door and go in.
I’m standing in my bathroom and looking at myself in the mirror. I’ve been sobbing, but I’ve stopped now. My breast is still heaving, but I’m quiet. I’m leaning on the washbasin with both hands.
What was I thinking? What?
Stupid, stupid woman.
What world did I think I was living in? With my stupid, old, diseased body. With my thickset, pallid midriff and my heavy bust and my mannish hands and my old skin and my white hair.
In what world could I be attractive to a boy half my age? I should be like a mother to them. To them all, not just him; and I feel myself starting off again as I imagine Rachel finding out.
A boy who might have been her husband instead of Sunlit Heights, if they had ever met. We might have been waiting for him to come home from work as we bathed their children and put them to bed. I might be listening to Rachel talking about him and about her marriage to him, and giving her good relationship and parenting advice from a mother’s perspective, and a grandmother’s.
I wail as it comes home to me, and I take a long, groaning breath and stare at myself in the mirror as I try not to sob again. I want to puke at the sight of myself.
How could I talk to Mitsuko about it? How could I tell Mitsuko that I have feelings, that I’m horny for a boy who is quite possibly younger than my own daughter?
Well done, Hella. Now there’s another thing that you can’t talk to anyone about.
They’ve treated me with nothing but kindness, all those young people. They’ve accepted me in their group, been friendly and kind to me, although I’m so different from them, and so much older; they’ve let me make music with them, and spend leisure time with them, as if I were really part of their group; and I repay their kindness – like this.
I can’t stand to see my face any longer and I turn away. I could sit on the lavatory; but I pace into the sitting room and look wildly around.
What am I going to do? I can’t even go away and hide. Stuck on this ship, and then stuck at the festival, in whatever hotels and concert halls and whatever else they send us to.
I can’t believe what I’ve done; and I feel a wail coming again as I realise it, yet again, and I remember Spring Lilac’s face.
Did Leaping Fawn know too? I can never tell what she’s thinking. I’ve thought about it time and again and I can’t decide.
But Spring Lilac must have talked about it. If not to her, then to others. She’ll have talked to Kit. Warned him about me.
He won’t believe her. I can imagine his face, listening to her as she tells him this utterly implausible thing. Come off it, he’ll say. Hella Lundgren? That’s ridiculous. And indeed it is. Who would credit it? No man would, at any rate; and a woman would believe it, and despise me for it.
I haven’t dared to speak to any of them. I’ve seen them across crowded rooms; and I look away before I meet any of their eyes. I haven’t dared to suggest another rehearsal.
I can’t avoid it for ever. I have to face them. I don’t know what I’m going to say or do. How on earth am I going to behave with them?
Here in my room nobody can see me; and I find myself sitting on the floor with my back to the wall, in a corner, with my knees drawn up and my arms and my face resting on them. I should be doing things. I can’t stir.
A video message has arrived from my daughter. She’s heard about the accident. It’s another day, and it was there as I came out of the shower after the gym. I have her on hologram above my head as I lie on my back on my bed and my limbs recover.
“They told us there was no need to worry,” she says, “and I hope that’s true. Are you all right? How are you coping with it? It must have been scary at first, but I hope things have calmed down now and everything’s under control. They told us it was all fine, but still, it can’t be much fun when you’re actually there. Out in space, so far away from anywhere. Still, it’s not too long now till you arrive where you’re going. Have you got your programme sorted out now? Auntie Mitsuko told me you’d been going over it with her. I mean Mitsuko. Someone wants to say hello.”
She backs away, and at the same time the picture zooms out, and beside her I can see her husband with one of the boys on his lap. He keeps picking and poking at his father’s clothing, and his father keeps lifting the boy’s arm away and putting it down, and they’re both laughing.
“Say hello to Granny,” says Rachel. She says it again, but the child is ignoring her, and she disappears for a moment, presumably to get his brother. While she’s away, Sunlit Heights points at the camera, and the child’s head turns briefly to look towards it.
Rachel comes back and sits down with the other twin on her lap.
“Say hello to Granny, Bold,” she says. That means the other one is Fearless. “There she is, look.” Evidently she has a picture of me on the screen.
This one is more cooperative, and he does produce something that with some good will might be “Annie”.
“Well done, Bold,” says his mother. “Good boy. Granny will be happy when she sees that. Now you, Fearless. ‘Hello, Granny.’ Come on, Fearless, there’s a good boy.”
I want to interrupt and tell her not to bother, that it’s fine. That’s the trouble with these video messages.
Sunlit Heights begins to support her efforts, out of a sense of conjugal duty, clearly. He picks his son up and turns him round so that he is facing me, sitting on his father’s lap with his back towards him. Fearless is protesting, but Sunlit takes one of his arms and waves it at the camera.
“Hello, Granny!” he says, and then he takes the other arm, waves that too, and says “Hello, Granny!” in a different voice. Fearless giggles. Sunlit does it again, assigning the right voices to each arm, and Fearless doesn’t want to stop. The situation has been saved.
Good for Sunlit. I’m impressed.
And how could it be otherwise: Bold wants to do it too, and so Rachel turns him round and lifts one of his arms after the other and says “Hello, Granny!” in two different voices. Soon both parents are lifting their children’s arms at random and saying it, not necessarily in the right voices, the children are laughing uproariously, their parents are laughing too, exchanging glances behind their backs, and so am I, watching the screen in my cabin with a smile on my face. In the end they’re shaking all four arms vigorously at the same time, the boys are yelling “Hello, Granny!” at me, and Rachel and Sunlit are joining in and laughing at the same time.
Later Rachel apologises for the initial difficulties.
“You know what kids are like, Mum,” she says. Oh yes. “They love you really.” Well, I’m not so sure they even remember me. It’s been over four months since they saw me. But I appreciate her efforts.
That has brought a smile to my face and a glow to my heart, and I’m still feeling it as I walk down the corridor for lunch an hour or so later. We still haven’t been told anything about the damage to the ship. Maybe I’ll hear something now.
Dauntless Battler gives me a wave as I enter the dining room. He’s just sitting down with his tray, along with a couple of other Jovians, and I make my way over to them when I have collected my food. There’s a potato salad that I’ve had a number of times on board this ship, and I’m looking forward to it.
“Hi, Hella,” he says as I sit down with them. “How are you?”
I assure him that I’m very well, and I tell him about Rachel’s video message by way of justification for feeling very well. He listens with a half-smile.
“Have you got children, Dauntless?” I ask. I’m not sure how old he is, and I’ve wondered this before. He doesn’t look old; but he can’t be that young either, as senior as he is over there, in the Jovian Federation. “Grandchildren?”
“I have a son,” he replies, “who’s grown up, more or less. No grandchildren that I’m aware of.” He smiles, and I smile too, although it is a very old joke.
“What does your son do?” I ask, and he tells me. He’s doing an apprenticeship in one of the plants there; something to do with machinery.
“Not following in my footsteps at all; but he’s found what he’s good at, and that’s great.”
“And your wife, what does she do?”
“She raises her other children.”
“Oh,” I say, after a moment. He smiles.
“She’s married again. But we have a good relationship; and I get on well with her husband. He’s a nice guy.”
I nod. Sounds familiar.
“Does your son live with them?”
“Not any more. Not since he started at the plant. He has his own place on Callisto.”
“Oh, and your wife is –”
“Your ex-wife, I mean.”
“Yeah. Ex or not, you can’t erase your own history.”
I look at him, startled.
“That’s exactly how I feel,” I say.
“Especially in a place like Ganymede, where everybody knows each other.”
Oh, I see. I see what he meant now.
I eat a couple of mouthfuls in silence.
“And are you mainly on Ganymede too, or mainly on Callisto?”
“My home is Ganymede,” he says, “but since I’ve been on the Committee I’ve spent most of my time on Callisto. Except recently, obviously.”
“You’ve been on Earth.”
“So you probably see more of your son nowadays than your wife does.”
“That may well happen; but he moved to Callisto while I was away. We’ll see how that works out.”
I ponder. “What’s it like for him, I wonder, being the son of such an important politician?”
“What’s it like for your daughter, having such a famous mother?”
I smile. Touché.
“On the whole,” I say, “she’s dealt with it very well. It’s been like this for as long as she can remember, and she’s used to it. Though I didn’t travel as much when she was small.”
“It’s a new thing for my son,” Dauntless says. “Though the politics has been around for a long time. At first I was just an activist.”
I wonder whether the activism was part of the reason for their divorce. I can’t ask that.
“You must be looking forward to seeing him again,” I say. I miss Rachel.
“Certainly am. I talk to him by video. We’ve always done that.”
“Oh, that’s nice. I’m glad you’re close.”
We eat in silence again for a little while. The other Jovians have been talking amongst themselves, and they continue doing that.
“I wish they’d tell us about the ship,” I volunteer. He gives me a meaningful look, and I ask, “Have you heard anything?”
“Nothing official. But I was talking to one of the officers this morning.”
“And what did they say?”
He drops his voice. “I’ll tell you after lunch.”
Our eyes meet. What does that mean? It sounds as though he doesn’t want to start a panic. And as though he thinks he can rely on me not to panic.
We talk about other things as we continue our meals, and we join in the other Jovians’ conversation. I’ve been getting to know them too a little over the course of this voyage. They seem nice enough; I don’t think we have much in common.
They all come with us for coffee after we’ve finished. We bring our trays back to the hatch where the belt carries them away behind the wall, and Dauntless Battler leads us around the corridor to the other side of the ship. We chat intermittently as we go, about nothing in particular; we meet a few people coming the other way and greet them as they pass.
Dauntless Battler chooses the night bar. It’s dark in here, as always, but there’s enough light to see that there is nobody in here. Some light from the corridor spills in near the entrance, but there is something of a corner, which shields most of the room from that light.
I don’t usually use the night bars, because I prefer to see who I’m talking to, but each time I do, I am awed by the sight that it presents. We walk with our coffees to the far side of the room, by the window, where it’s lightest because of the starlight. The view rotates with the ship, but otherwise it’s the same unchanging vista, into deep space, out into the universe, away from the Sun. And, more immediately, towards our destination.
We sit down in one of those seating arrangements, open towards the window. It feels rather like the restaurant on Nereus Base, but it’s significantly darker here, and I’m far more conscious of the stars outside. Not least because I’m looking straight at them.
“So I was talking to Mr Mukherjee,” Dauntless Battler tells us. Our seats are at right angles to one another and he is turned to face me.
“The ship’s main drive is damaged. This is where the main impact was, apparently. It seems to have been a freak accident, because it’s well protected, but they think there may have been some kind of ricochet off another part of the ship.”
Two of the Jovians now intervene with a brief discussion, which I don’t really follow, about how that ricochet may have happened. It seems very speculative.
“Anyway,” Dauntless Battler resumes, “the engineers have been trying to repair the damage, but they’re finding it very difficult. They haven’t been able to make the drive work again, and it seems that, unaided, they don’t think they’re going to be able to.”
He gives me another meaningful look, and I try to work out what the meaning is this time.
“So can we not continue the voyage?” I ask. “Is that the problem?” Are we going to be stuck out here; stranded?
“Well, no,” says Dauntless Battler, and he sounds surprised. “We’re not using the drive at the moment. We haven’t done since we left the Belt. The ship just carries on in a straight line through space. Newton’s First Law.”
So what is the problem?
“We need the drive to slow down,” one of the other Jovians explains. “Without the drive we can’t stop; we’ll overshoot Callisto at high speed and continue past it.”
“If we don’t crash into Jupiter,” another one says, and another brief discussion ensues about how unlikely that is.
Then one of them tells me we’ll continue for ever into interstellar space; another one isn’t sure whether the ship is travelling with the necessary escape velocity to leave the Sun’s gravitational field; and a third speculates that it might pick up speed from Jupiter through a slingshot effect; and I can’t believe they’re having such a pointless discussion, because we’ll all have starved to death long before that will matter. Who cares whether a ship full of corpses will leave the Solar System or go into orbit around the Sun somewhere near the Oort Cloud?
Dauntless Battler calls the meeting to order.
“So they’ve asked Callisto for help,” he says, “and a ship is going to come out to us with all that’s necessary to carry out the repairs.”
Right. Couldn’t he have said that at first?
“Well, that sounds all right,” I say.
“Yes. It’ll be here in just under three weeks. It’s being loaded up at the moment, with spare parts and equipment, and some Callistoan spirits to celebrate our meeting in space.”
Of course: Dauntless will know. He has access to anyone he wants to talk to in the Jovian Federation.
“And we’re putting a crew of engineers together who will help the ship’s engineers to resolve all issues.”
“It can travel much faster than this ship,” one of them says. “That’s why it’ll be here so soon.”
I think about that, and I realise that must be right. We’re just under eight weeks away from Callisto, travelling at our current speed.
“It’ll be quite some braking manoeuvre,” another Jovian observes, and that’s true too. The two ships will be hurtling towards each other at unimaginable speeds, and then the smaller ship will have to come to a halt, reverse its direction and pick up speed again so as to bring up alongside us.
“And they’re sure they can repair the drive?” I ask.
The Jovians exchange glances.
“Well, you never know for sure until you’ve done it,” Dauntless Battler answers. “But we assume so, yes.”
“And if they can’t?”
“They could probably start taking people off now,” one of them suggests.
“They’d have to send out quite a number of craft to take everybody off,” says someone else.
“Not many fast enough.”
“I don’t think there’s any need to worry about that now,” says Dauntless Battler. “There’s absolutely no reason to think the drive can’t be repaired. We have the best engineers and the best equipment in the Solar System.”
The other Jovians nod.
“Anyway, Hella,” he goes on, “you’ll appreciate that I’ve told you this in confidence. The captain wants to avoid rumour and needless worry. I’m pretty sure she’ll be making an announcement shortly.”
“I won’t say anything,” I promise.
“Have you seen Jupiter?” he asks, and I look at him, startled. He stands up.
“Over there,” he says, and gestures towards the centre of the window panel. I stand up too and join him by the window.
He explains how to find it, and it’s not difficult: naturally it’s in the centre of our field of view, because we’re heading straight for it.
“Our home,” he says.
I look at his face in the starlight, and then at Jupiter. It’s still only a little disc of bright light, but it’s easy to see: far easier than it would be from Earth, because we’re so much closer to it here. Beyond it the void.
I stand there and gaze at it in silence for a little while. Dauntless Battler is silent too, standing next to me in the shadow.
He explains about Jupiter’s moons.
“We’re close enough to see Callisto with the naked eye,” he says. That’s the largest moon, and it’s where we’re heading, provided the drive can be repaired. “To be honest, I’m not completely sure which one it is, but I think it’s that quite faint one to the left of Jupiter: do you see it? About this far from it.” He shows me the distance with his finger and thumb, and smiles a little sheepishly.
It’s to the left now, but it appears to be gradually rotating around Jupiter as the ship turns.
“That’s where the craft will be coming from,” he says, “with the spare parts and equipment. And it’ll meet us a little less than halfway there.”
“Will we be able to see it coming?”
“Not until it’s very close. But yes, we will: the sunlight will reflect off it just like a planet.”
I suppose they won’t be able to see us, because our dark side will be facing them. But it won’t matter; they’ll know where we are.
He’s standing very close to me now, and he’s stooping so that his head is right next to mine and he’s looking at the same view as I am.
Then he straightens up and takes a step to the side, and that’s when we all seem to decide that it’s time to go on our various ways. We’ve finished our coffee, it’s the middle of the day, and we all have things that we ought to be doing.
“When are you going to play with us again, Hella?” Plenty has made his way over to me at lunch, Plentiful Provider, one of the saxophonists.
I don’t know what to say.
There isn’t a seat free next to me, so he crouches down to look at me. I turn on my chair to face him.
“I’d really like to explore those chords some more. You know: what we were doing last time.”
I was playing something vaguely Rachmaninov-like, using the tune that we were all taking as our starting point, casting it into that voluptuous, late Romantic form; and Plenty was inserting long saxophone notes into my chords and changing them, prodding the harmony each time to go in a different direction. It was quite fascinating.
“Well – so would I,” I say.
He smiles. “Well then: when can you join us? We play together pretty much every day.”
“Are you sure the others want me to?”
“Of course: why wouldn’t they? We were all talking about you yesterday, and how much we miss playing with you.”
“Absolutely. We’ve never had anyone like you playing with us before. Classically trained, yes, obviously; but not like you.”
“I’ve never played with anyone like you before.”
“So let’s do it some more.”
I regard him as he squats there beside me.
“I’ll have a look at my schedule,” I say.
“Great.” He straightens up. “See you later, Hella. Looking forward to some more cool music.”
Later the same day all the passengers are called into the dining room. It’s an hour before dinner is due to start, the tables are bare, and we all crowd in. Most of us are standing.
The captain is sitting with a couple of other officers in the middle of the room, and when it seems as though no more people are coming she stands up. She’s wearing her uniform, and she looks around the room at us all. We fall silent.
Basically she tells us what I already know from Dauntless Battler. She begins by confirming what we were told on the night of the accident: that there is no damage to the part of the ship where we live.
“We’ve inspected everything exhaustively,” she tells us, “and I’m glad to be able to state categorically that there is no damage to any part of the rim, inside or outside. Everything is intact and in full working order.”
We listen, waiting, because we have, of course, all picked up the restriction of that statement to the rim; and in any case rumours have been circulating.
“Now to the hub,” she goes on, and again she explains what I already know. Damage to the drive; certain parts and equipment are needed to repair it; a craft is on its way to us from Callisto bringing those things. It sounds a good deal less dramatic when she describes it.
“The craft is expected to arrive in sixteen days from now. In due course we’ll repair the drive and it will be ready for use long before we need to use it. Probably in better shape than it was when we started this voyage.”
There are some smiles at that.
“So basically my message to you all, ladies and gentlemen, is that everything is under control and there is no need for anyone to be the least bit concerned. I know that for some of you this is your first time in outer space, and it’s unfortunate that we’ve encountered this accident on your very first trip. Unfortunate, but not really that unusual, or unexpected. Space is not completely empty, and as we travel through it at high speed we do occasionally encounter small particles and objects that can’t be detected at a distance and so can’t be avoided. But as the experience of the last few days shows, our ships are built to avert most potential damage, and on the rare occasions when the ship does sustain some damage, we’re well able to deal with it. We can have complete confidence in our engineers, who are all extremely competent men and women.”
That’s all she wants to say, and really it’s all that needs to be said. One man has some questions: he seems to know something about ships’ engineering, or perhaps he likes to appear so; and he wants to know more about the actual damage. But the captain fobs him off, politely but firmly, saying this is not the right place for a technical discussion; and then she takes her leave of us, telling us that she has to get back to the bridge. Which, as I know, is a control room here in the rim where the crew who are on duty monitor the ship’s situation on screens.
All has been said, the officers all leave, and we begin to disperse. As I shuffle with the crowd towards the exit, Morning Star approaches me.
“Oh, hi, Star.”
“Plenty told us you weren’t sure whether we wanted you to play with us any more.”
I don’t deny it.
“We do, Hella! Definitely. We love our sound when you’re with us.”
“Yes – that’s what Kit always says, isn’t it? That Romantic colour that you bring to our sound. Oh, I see.” She stops. “When we say our ‘sound’, we mean our music. Not just the way it sounds.”
“Ah, I see what you mean.” Kimyona jargon, or young people’s jargon. “I knew that, actually.” I’d noticed them using the word that way before. “I was forgetting.”
“No problem. Yes, it’s more than just the colour. We love what you give to our music. You really understand our music. How we play.”
And that’s how I felt about it too, until that day. I do understand how they interact with each other, and I’ve learned to interact with them in the same way, but contributing my own sound. I love doing it, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve been feeling so bad. I hate to lose that.
“Kit is very impressed. I don’t know whether you know how impressed he is. The way our music becomes when you’re with us – I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s unique.”
We’ve reached the door now and pass through it into the corridor.
“He was talking about putting an album together, with you. A concept album.”
“I don’t think he really wants to talk about it yet. Not until it’s more firmed up in his mind.”
An album is a historical concept, from long ago. How interesting that Kit would think of it.
“I know he really wants you to keep on working with us. He says you’re the most exciting thing that’s happened to us on this voyage.”
“Even more exciting than the meteor strike?”
“Even more exciting than that.”
We exchange a smile, and I’m still smiling when we reach Star’s door, she goes inside, and I carry on down the corridor to my own cabin.
The next day another issue, a much older one, seems to begin to approach resolution.
“Hella, I want to apologise to you,” says Val. We’re in the rehearsal room, the others have all left, and I’ve remained behind with Val because he wanted to do something to the settings of my keyboard. That may have been a pretext, it now occurs to me.
“What for, Val?”
“For my behaviour, since we were at Nereus Base. I’ve been very unpleasant, and I’m very sorry for it.”
I look at him.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Yes. I do.”
I make as friendly and as encouraging a face as I can. It would be good to pull up chairs and sit down together, but you can’t do that on a ship. My keyboard is still on the desk here, I’m standing beside the chair where I was sitting all through our rehearsal, and Val is on the other side, facing me across my instrument.
“I don’t want this left hanging between us,” he says. “Nobody knows what might yet happen. We might all die, and I don’t want this left unresolved.”
I wonder whether there’s a particular reason why he’s concerned that we’re all still in mortal danger; whether he mistrusts the captain’s reassurances; but I don’t want to change the subject. I listen.
“I admit that I had something in mind, that time on Nereus Base,” he goes on. “I don’t know whether you knew. I don’t think I was very subtle.”
“What did you have in mind, Val?”
“I wanted –. I was attracted to you. I was in love with you, Hella.” Was? “I couldn’t stop thinking about you. I was obsessed with you. I was always watching you when you were playing, always thinking about you; dreaming about you. Imagining, hoping, that you might – that you might feel something for me too.”
I’m listening. He’s agitated, seems to want to pace up and down and gesticulate, seems to be making an effort to keep himself under control.
“That’s why I planned that whole thing on the Base. I wanted to get you alone, away from the others, away from everyone who knows us, and I hoped, in that romantic atmosphere, you might –. It was all building up to that: to that moment. I really hoped that you might show – some kind of feeling for me.”
His eyes flick towards me at that, and then away again.
“I know I haven’t got much to offer,” he says. “I’m nothing special, at all. Nothing to look at, nothing to be attracted to. It was stupid of me to even imagine –.”
“You’re a very nice man, Val,” I tell him, and I emphasise it. I don’t want him to feel that he’s worthless.
Some bitterness enters his expression. I’ve confirmed what he thought.
“I know you don’t reciprocate my feelings,” he says. “I don’t blame you. I can understand why you don’t. There’s no reason why you should. There was no reason for me to hope that you would.”
I listen, and do my best to look as sympathetic and caring as I feel.
“I took it badly,” he says, “and that’s what I want to apologise for. I was so disappointed. I couldn’t think straight. I was even angry. Angry at you, can you imagine? So stupid. So wrong.”
His eyes meet mine again, and then he lowers them.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” he goes on. “If you even noticed me. You’re a beautiful, unapproachable being, far above some stupid idiot who thought he might be worthy of you. Of course you didn’t reciprocate. How could I even hope that you might?”
I need to stop this. Whatever I am, I’m certainly not the goddess that he’s depicting.
“I’m just an ordinary woman, Val,” I tell him. “I can play the piano, but apart from that I’m a very ordinary woman. A human being who happens to be female.”
“Of course you don’t see it,” he says. “That’s part of what makes you so special. You have no idea how special you are.”
How can you argue with that?
“I’m really not,” is all I can think of to say. He ignores it.
“I was jealous,” he says, “when we got here from the Base. I was jealous of everybody. Jealous of Peak and Swift; that Jovian guy that you’re always with; everybody. It was ugly and unworthy, and I apologise for it, and I hope that now you know the reason for it, you can understand me and forgive me.”
“Val, of course I do. I don’t hold anything against you. I’m very touched at how you feel about me. I think you’re wrong to put me on a pedestal like that; but it’s very sweet that you do. And I mean what I said: you’re a very nice man. A good man. You deserve to be happy.”
He looks at me in silence across my keyboard. Then he turns his head, and starts to pick up his sheet music that’s lying on the desk in front of him. He’s said his piece, laid open his soul, and got nowhere.
I feel a pang; not sure whether it’s pity, or what it is.
He stops, and turns his face towards me again.
“Val, let’s be friends again. I like you very much, you know. And I miss playing duos with you.”
He looks at me, holding his sheets of music in his hand. His face is quite impassive; no sign on it of what he’s feeling inside.
He turns away again.
“When would you like to play?” he asks, and lets the stack of papers in his hands slide edge first on to the desk to align them and make them into an orderly pile.
That pang again. I think it’s guilt, mingled with pity.
I’m worried that I’m about to make a big mistake, but I think I have to tell him why it could never be.
The ironic thing is that, when he was intending to make his ploy, and apparently funked it, he might have stood a good chance. I wasn’t entirely unfavourably inclined. Since then there are two other men on board this ship who have stirred my desires, as Val hasn’t, though one is clearly out of bounds on the grounds of age alone, and the other is probably a politically unwise choice.
It could never be anyway, with any of these three.
“Val, there’s something I want to tell you.”
He stops again, and listens to me.
“I haven’t talked about this to anybody else on the ship.” Except Dr Dias, but it would be needless pedantry to mention him.
“Val –” How do I explain it? This is not like telling Rachel or Mitsuko, or even Wise.
“Val, I’m dying.” A certain sardonic satisfaction that, this time, I have managed to provoke a reaction in his expression. “I’ve known since I was last on Earth. I went to a clinic, and they diagnosed me, and – well, I probably have a few years left. I don’t know exactly.”
His face now shows all the reaction I could desire.
“Please don’t tell anyone else. I’m not ready for everyone to know yet.”
“Of course not,” he promises, and his voice is hushed.
“This is going to be my last tour. I hope I’ll be able to do it all; and then I’m going home to Mars, to my family, and that’s where I’ll stay. I won’t be leaving Mars again.” His eyes are fixed on my face. “I said I’d like to do some concerts with you on Mars. I meant it; I still do. That’s if I’m still able to play.”
He’s silent for a moment, and then it breaks out of him:
“Hella, I feel so bad about bothering you with my stupid feelings, when you have this to – to think about. To deal with.”
Oh no. I should have known that this would be his reaction.
“Val, there’s nothing stupid about your feelings.”
“But there is. In the circumstances, there is. Acting like a disappointed schoolboy, when all the while –”
“You couldn’t have known.”
“No. But still.”
“Don’t worry about it, Val. It’s fine.”
He makes an anguished face. “Oh, Hella. I’m so sorry. So sorry this is happening.”
“I’m not that enthusiastic about it myself,” I say, and I smile.
He tries to smile back, but doesn’t do very well.
“What is it that you have, Hella? If you’re able to tell me.”
“It’s fine, I don’t mind telling you,” I say, and I do. I describe my condition: how I first noticed it, how it makes itself felt, where it’s taking me. That familiar story; I describe it all, and I don’t spare him anything. There will come a time when I can’t even walk, let alone play the piano. All that is coming.
“So you see,” I finish, “that’s why it could never be.” It’s not you, it’s me.
He’s been listening with a face full of sympathy, considering it’s him: little difference to the expression he always has, in fact, but in it I can see the warmth of his feeling.
“I could look after you,” he says.
“I would consider it an honour to look after you, Hella. You’re going to need help. I would love to give it to you.”
That I wasn’t expecting.
“I’d be a terrible burden,” I warn him.
“I would love to shoulder that burden. Hella, I love you. I would do anything for you. I’d love to look after you, to support you, help you, take care of you. Be there for you; for the rest –“
Of my life. I am silent as I look at him, at his face: so animated, really, if you know how to read it.
“For as long as it takes,” he finishes.
I’m still not saying anything. I don’t know what to say.
At any rate it’s a very generous offer.
“Val, I couldn’t do that to you,” I say at last. “It wouldn’t be fair.”
“That’s for me to decide.”
“No. No, Val, it isn’t. It’s for me.”
“Of course it is, Hella, you’re absolutely right. It’s for you to decide.” He’s panicking that he’s done something wrong again. “I just want to say that I’m ready to do whatever I can. But it’s your decision. Of course it is.”
“Val,” I say, “I appreciate this very much.” I really do. In fact I’m bowled over by it. “You’re a very kind and very generous man.” I consider him as he stands there, his face full of hope and anxiety. “Too good to waste on me.”
He wants to speak; probably he wants to reiterate that it’s for him to decide whether it’s a waste, but he knows he’s not supposed to say that, and he’s trying to think of something else to say instead.
“You’d be throwing years of your life away,” I tell him. “For nothing.”
“Will you at least consider it, Hella? At least think about it?”
“I’ll think about it,” I promise, and his face lights up. Thinking doesn’t mean any kind of commitment. Though I’m encouraging him, and risking hurting him.
“Val, I wasn’t expecting this at all. You’ve surprised me. And whatever happens, I – respect you.” There’s a hint of a wince at that word. “Admire. I admire you. I have admiration and respect for you. And affection.”
I’ve never seen his face so expressive as in this short time. Now it becomes tender.
“I love you, Hella.” His voice is very soft.
I don’t respond.
“It wouldn’t be a waste, Hella. It wouldn’t be for nothing. It’s what I want.”
I think we need to leave it at that.
“Val, let’s get going. Our rehearsal slot is long over.”
I close the cover of my instrument and start to fasten the clips.
“Whatever happens, I’m very grateful to you, Val, for your offer. It means a lot to me.”
“It means a lot to me that you’ll think about it.”
This really is enough now. Even with the most positive feeling that I can muster towards him, he’s not going to make any further progress today. Time to shelve this subject.
“So let’s play some duos again,” I say. “Have you got anything else like the Shostakovich?”
“Not quite like that,” he says. “But I’ll think about it.”
“We still haven’t played the Brahms,” I point out.
“True. Do you want to?”
“I’d love to. If you would.”
“Yes, sure. They’re lovely pieces.”
“They are. We should think about putting a programme together for our concerts back home.” I’ve finished packing my instrument away now, and Val helps me to lift it down on to the floor for me to pull it behind me. “Shall we put some times in the schedule?”
The door to the rehearsal room slides open and we walk out on to the corridor.
“Will you tell me what you’d like to play in time for me to have a look at it first?”
“Of course. I’ll make some suggestions later today.”
“That would be great.”
We carry on in silence down the corridor until we reach Val’s door. We stop outside it.
I don’t know what Val’s going to do now. It’s the middle of the afternoon and there’s plenty of time to work, or practise, or go to the gym, or do all sorts of useful things. I think I feel like recording a message to Mitsuko. It’ll help me sort my thoughts out.
“See you later, Val.”
“Bye, Hella. See you later.”
He is about to go in.
“I’m glad,” he says. I raise my eyebrows. “I’m glad we talked.”
“So am I, Val. I really am. See you later.”
And I walk on, and he turns to go into his cabin.