The Coming of the Prophet
After talking about it with Robert I do start to notice the influence of the cult in my daily dealings on Callisto. Perhaps I shouldn’t call it a cult. That was Robert’s word for it.
In fact I’m a little surprised that I never noticed it before. Its adherents are discreet, yes, they don’t force their beliefs on you; but they’re not secretive either. They are quite open about it; and once one’s ear is attuned to the sort of things they say to each other, it’s very easy to spot them, for the most part.
That remark by Suresh was typical, that caught my attention at the business meeting with Robert and the bankers. It’s usually something about the way, or the path, and it’s about resting while moving, and finding harmony, and that sort of thing; and in fact, now I come to think about it, I’m reminded of my sister.
The things they say are very reminiscent of the kind of thing my sister is always coming out with; they’re just less annoying. I wonder.
Another thing that reminds me of her is this air that they have, of being in possession of the truth, and looking down on the rest of us and pitying us for being tangled up and embroiled and floundering in our confusion and ignorance. They are the enlightened ones, on a higher plane, and we are the fools.
I suppose this is why they are so calm. They give the impression that nothing one could say or do would perturb them in the confidence and peace that they feel. They know that we don’t see things the way they do, but that doesn’t worry them. It washes right over them. What the rest of us think just isn’t relevant. It’s an expression of a childish phase that they themselves have left behind.
I’m tempted to find it enviable, and to feel a little jealous of them. It must be a good feeling, to be so sure.
I know hardly anything about their beliefs. Robert was very scornful; but I think, from the little that I know and guess, that this is just the sort of thing that he would have no patience with at all.
To my surprise, Vladimir turns out to be a member of the cult. I mean, of the Way of Movement.
I run into him at a conference at which I am speaking. It’s being put on by Shanghai Stock Exchanges and some of the banks, and both Dr Chan and I are giving an address. My slot is thirty minutes long, immediately after the first coffee break in the morning.
It’s during that break that I spot Vladimir drinking coffee with several other men, one of them the speaker who has just given his talk: the chief executive of White Bear, the company that floated on Mars, two years ago now. He has been talking about their motives and experiences, as a case study. People love case studies. Not too intellectually taxing, and they can immediately see the relevance to their own situation.
Vladimir sees me approaching through the crowd and makes a welcoming gesture. The others turn to see who he is signalling to. They’re all standing around a little round table, just large enough for four or five people to put their coffee cups down, and tall enough for an Earthborn person to rest a hand on.
“Amiable Friend, good morning,” he says, and we all shake hands as he introduces me. I presume, as a matter of fact, that at least the Callistoans already know who I am. It’s more relevant for him to tell me who they are.
The White Bear manager is a Callistoan, and he does know who I am. He also knows that I am the next speaker, which greatly boosts my stock among those who weren’t aware of that. We reminisce a little about their public offering two years ago. He certainly didn’t know me at the time, but he seems to know now that I was involved; and if he didn’t before, then it has become obvious through this conversation. The others listen for a space, and then Vladimir intervenes to bring the conversation around to his own plans again.
I’d have thought that he and White Bear were competitors and wouldn’t want to help each other. In some ways, of course, they are: through the mining plant out at Mount Henrietta, for instance, though it is still not clear to me how much of what I saw belongs to the joint venture and how much is Robert’s alone. But in other ways they cooperate, it turns out, and one of Vladimir’s ventures, a technology company, is actually a supplier to White Bear. I didn’t know that. And it also turns out that White Bear has other activities than just mining, and both they and another of Vladimir’s companies are involved in the construction projects associated with the championships, which are not far off now. Not the construction of the venue up in space, but the accommodation down here on the ground.
The picture that I have been building up of Callisto’s society and its economy is gaining some depth. It is a very small place, and though it’s very entrepreneurial, inevitably it’s only a small number of entrepreneurs with a large number of areas that have to be covered in order to form a complete economy. And Callisto itself is a part of the whole economy of the Solar System, with Mars, the Earth and all the other colonies and bases: Titan, the asteroids, the Moon, and all the rest. Callisto is vanishingly tiny compared to the enormous size of that whole system, and I can see how its entrepreneurs would feel more like each other’s colleagues than competitors, in how they interact with that vast, anonymous interplanetary complex.
I sense, once again, the strength of feeling here about the championships, and about the stock exchange too, to a degree: the pride and identification, and the desire. How much they want it to be a success. That is so with those who were born here, and with those like Vladimir who have come here from elsewhere. I even feel it myself, although I’ve only been here for a few months.
It’s now that, once again, a word falls, one of those characteristic expressions, that makes me realise that there is another play going on, that I have no part in.
There’s the visible, official play, the only one in which I have been assigned a role, and in which everyone is acting; and at the same time some of us are taking part in another play, which they are acting out amongst themselves and for themselves: in front of us, but without us.
As ever, they don’t seem to mind that we can tell, or worry that we might feel excluded. Perhaps we’re supposed to feel excluded.
Here, in this little group around this table, it’s Vladimir, the White Bear executive and another man who has said very little, another businessman, as I gather.
Robert must know; and Vladimir must be aware of how scornful Robert is. Does that create friction between them? Or can they just put it aside in the interest of their business projects?
I wonder how well they know each other. How far they go back, and what they think of each other. It would be interesting to find out.
And the next time I see Robert I ask him. I feel sure enough of my ground by now to be able to do that.
We have just had another meeting at their offices. This time Vladimir was there, and he had brought one of his people along, a Callistoan called Rodney; and Robert and Suresh. No Ben, and no bankers. It was a purely internal meeting, to discuss further the implications of the report that Suresh and Ben had prepared, and to bring Vladimir up to speed. Robert left the meeting for a while to go and do something else, but he came back half an hour before the end and wrapped it up.
Now we’re taking leave of each other and going our separate ways. It’s six in the evening, and I am certainly not going back to the office. I don’t particularly want to go and sit in my apartment either, though, not yet; and I loiter, undecided, even after Vladimir and Rodney have left and Robert is giving Suresh some instructions.
He finishes, and looks at me.
“Let’s go and have a drink,” he says.
“Oh yes, that would be nice.”
Suresh picks up his tablet and his papers and gives me a little bow; more a nod, really.
“Good night, Miss,” he says.
“Good night, Suresh.”
Robert nods to him, and he departs. Robert gives me a big smile as I pick up my bag and sling it across my shoulder and he lets me go before him out of the door.
There are several tables free at the outside café on the central concourse. Robert selects one of them and allows me to choose my own seat before sitting down opposite me.
Very untypically this place has waiter service. We both ask for a glass of wine, and Robert orders a bowl of baked salty things to nibble on, which I think are made from some root vegetable. I don’t like them.
“How long have you known Vladimir?” I ask, not beating about the bush, as we wait for our wine to arrive. “Did you know each other on Earth?”
Robert looks askance at me.
“You do realise how big Earth is?”
“I know that,” I say, feeling defensive. Surely it’s possible.
He shakes his head. “No, I never saw him on Earth. We met here. When he arrived.”
“You were here first?”
“That’s right. Nearly twenty years ago. Vladimir came later with a group of Russians.”
“Where are they now?”
“Some of them are still here. Most of them went back. The company failed.”
“Why was that?”
“Why? Because it wasn’t making enough money. Can’t pay the bills, you go down.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
“Of course it is.” The waiter is just arriving with our drinks; quick work, but the place is not yet busy.
Robert picks up his glass and looks at me across it. “It’s easy enough to make money,” he says. “You just have to have the things that people want to buy. A lot of companies waste time trying to sell the wrong things. Pointless.”
His voice is as loud as ever, and anyone in our vicinity can easily hear what he’s saying. I find I am getting used to it. As long as he’s not talking about me, I don’t really mind.
Just have the things that people want to buy. There must be more to it than that.
In fact I know there is, and so does he, and I know that he knows it. Organisation, for instance, and leadership, and application and drive and energy.
I suppose he’s saying that none of that is any good if it’s directed towards the wrong object.
Robert agrees with me.
“The hardest thing for most people is to stop flogging a dead horse,” he says. “You have to be able to walk away.”
“Have you walked away before?”
And I suppose that means disappointing people; letting them down; letting them face the consequences for themselves as you walk away and cut your losses. Financial consequences, and consequences for their life planning.
But I suppose he’s right, logically. The consequences would be even worse, later on, if he didn’t walk away.
I change the subject.
“You know I met Vladimir on the ship, coming over here?”
“Yes, I do. He told me after our first meeting at the bank.”
“What did you think of him?”
“I liked him,” I reply. I did. From our very first conversation in the space elevator.
“He was very polite, and correct,” I explain, “but friendly too. They all were. I never felt I had to worry, or be on my guard.” That’s not quite true, as I remember, but I forge ahead. “It was always a really friendly, relaxed atmosphere. I felt that I was among friends.”
Robert listens with his wineglass in his hand.
“All of who?”
“What do you mean?”
“You said, ‘They all were”. They were all friendly and correct. Who are ‘they’?”
“Oh. There was a whole group of Callistoans on board on their way home. Some of them work for Vladimir.” Like Gordon. “Some of them don’t. They used to hang out together, and they were the first people from Callisto I had ever met.”
“Native-born or not.”
Robert leans back with his wineglass and looks out across the square.
“I’ve done a couple of things with Vladimir before,” he says. “This joint venture is the first really major project.”
“So you’re not friends?”
He looks at me. “What’s that got to do with it?”
“Nothing. Nothing,” I murmur.
“His company is strong on the geological side,” he says, “and the actual mining. The engineering. My team is strong on logistics and data management, and financial management.”
“So it’s a good fit.”
“Yes.” He starts to talk about how their two organisations work together, and pool and blend their expertise.
I do need to know this. This is how to get to the bottom of those demarcation issues.
You can’t really keep Robert off the subject of his business for long. It consumes him. He’s constantly thinking about it. Even when he’s ostensibly thinking about something else, it’s always at the back of his mind, not far back at all, and out it keeps popping.
I suppose you just have to get used to it if you’re in his life, in whatever capacity. This is what he’s like. He has the range of human emotions, the whole range, presumably; but his thoughts are all focussed in one direction.
It’s early evening on a Friday, after work, and it’s a time for relaxing, and here we are, talking about work.
I need a way to make it a relaxing leisure-time experience for me, while allowing him to be himself and pursue his thoughts wherever they lead him.
I’m working out how to do it. I’m leaning back in my chair, sipping my wine and looking at him or out into the central concourse; I’m listening to him, and engaging with what he says, to a degree: making interested noises, and interjecting comments and questions that keep the conversation flowing; it’s not hard to do, because I’m interested in my job, and in him, and this is all broadly relevant to what I do.
At the same time I am observing him, and enjoying seeing how his character makes itself apparent in everything he does and says, however dry and banal it may be; I enjoy sensing his personality in his words and gestures and mannerisms; I’m enjoying the fact that he is taking this time for me, here in the central square; and I am imagining what it would be like to be Mrs Georghiou.
When we finish our wine I’m expecting that our ways will now part, but that is not what Robert wants. He asks me whether I know a particular bar.
“No, I’ve never been there,” I reply. I think this may be one of the places where my colleagues tend to go later on in the evenings.
“They do a good tequila sunrise,” he says. “You should try it.”
“Oh, I never drink that kind of thing.” That is almost true.
He gives me a sceptical look, with a half-smile. If Vladimir has told him about the ship, has he told him about the margaritas too?
“Well, will you come anyway? They have good wines too.”
“Okay. Yes, I’d love to.” Are we having a date?
This bar is already quite full, although it’s still early. Robert leads the way inside and finds a place where I can sit on a bar stool, not far from the counter, next to a ledge running along the wall that is wide enough to stand drinks on. There’s no stool free for Robert, but he is happy to remain standing.
He leaves me waiting there while he goes to fetch our drinks. I put my bag on the ledge and sit with my hands in my lap, looking around at the people here.
They seem like the normal type of people that I am used to seeing here on Callisto. Perhaps a little more boisterous than I’m used to at this hour. There are a few women interspersed among the majority of men, the overwhelming majority. Everyone is wearing the typical Callistoan outfit: overalls, all blues and greys, and no distinction between male and female.
I am wearing a grey skirt today, with knee-length boots, and a sleeveless top in dark pink and black with a V-neck, that covers me up, but shows my contours. I abandoned the idea a long time ago of adapting to Callistoan style, or lack of it. Partly because it’s hideous. But I also feel, since I’m almost always the only woman in whatever group I am in, that I might as well look like a woman.
It’s the same with my space suit. I haven’t replaced it with something more sober and humdrum, as I initially thought I might. Everybody has seen it anyway, or heard about it. This can be my thing, I’ve decided.
Robert comes back with our drinks. This is a wine that I haven’t tasted before, and I think I can tell that it’s not made from grapes, but I have no idea what it is made from. It doesn’t taste bad, however, and I find that it slips down inside me very readily.
It’s getting louder. Robert’s voice easily penetrates the noise, but I have to shout quite loudly to make myself heard. It doesn’t matter. Robert is doing most of the talking, and there are periods when we are quite happy not to say anything at all. He is standing in front of me as I’m perched on my bar stool, so that our eyes are on the same level; he’s leaning, sometimes with one elbow, sometimes with both, on the ledge behind him; and I have one whole forearm resting along the ledge in front of my glass and my handbag. I feel warm, and content, and relaxed.
At one point I happen to mention that I have never tried tequila sunrise. Robert offers to let me taste his. I think it’s his second. He hands it to me and I take a sip, and I must say, it is extremely nice. It’s lovely. The orange juice is refreshing, there is a rich, sweet taste which Robert tells me is pomegranate syrup, and underlying it all is the kick of the alcohol.
“It’s not really made from pomegranates,” he clarifies. “It would be on Earth.”
“No pomegranates on Callisto,” I say, and he probably can’t hear me, but he nods in agreement.
I take a last sip and hand it back to him, and I go back to my wine. I can’t remember what we were talking about.
It’s getting more crowded. The people around us are pressing in closer to us. Robert is standing in front of me, and there’s a wall to one side of me, but on the other side and behind me I’m being crowded.
I don’t mind. I’m enjoying myself.
There’s a moment when I am laughing, uncontrollably, and so is Robert. There are tears in my eyes. I can’t remember why we are laughing.
Robert is standing closer. I think he’s being pushed forward, although he is strong and robust.
Later I have just said something and I want to know what he thinks of it. I can’t make out his expression. I peer at him, but I can’t make it out. It seems to be very hazy in here.
I am resting my forehead on my hand, and my elbow on the ledge. Robert is looking out into the crowd. Behind me I can hear loud voices. One of them is a woman. I’m not listening, but I can’t help hearing her.
I catch sight of my wineglass in front of me and I reach for it. I lift it to my lips and take a sip. Behind me the woman is talking in a scornful voice, scornful and bitter. Something about “tarts from Mars”. Is that what she said? I’m not sure.
I look at Robert. He doesn’t seem to be listening.
There’s some kind of tumult beyond Robert, way behind him in the depths of the crowd. I can’t see anything. Voices are raised and some heads turn; then it resolves back into the general hubbub, and I can hear some laughter. No idea what that was about.
I look up suddenly at one point and notice that Robert isn’t here. I assume he’s getting some more drinks. I don’t seem to have one. I suppose we must have discussed it.
There are people in my field of vision, right up in front of me. That protected space between me and Robert is no longer there. They loom right up to me. I’m surrounded by them.
“What’s up, princess?” says the woman whose voice I heard before. I look around to find her. She is in front of me. I try to focus my eyes on her.
“Boyfriend not here? Looking for another one?”
I’m puzzled. I frown as I concentrate on what she has said.
“Oh, did I say something inappropriate, Miss Everybody’s Friend? Every man’s friend?” There are some laughs.
Suddenly her face is thrust up close to mine.
“You think you’re so much better than us,” she hisses at me. “Fucking tart. Why don’t you fuck off back to Mars?”
I’m backed up against the ledge and I am staring at her. I’m too shocked to speak.
“Huh?” she says, and her face is so close to mine that all I can see is her eyes and the bridge of her nose. I can smell her breath. “Get the fuck out of here and fuck off back home. Nobody wants you here. Fucking whore.”
“Leave it, Caris,” says a man’s voice. Her head turns slightly so that I can see more of the light in the room.
“No, I won’t fucking leave it,” she says. “Look at her. Who does she fucking think she is?”
She jostles me, and a hand grasps her shoulder and starts to pull her away. She struggles, and one of her hands hits me on the chest. I don’t think she did that on purpose.
I recoil along the ledge and my bar stool teeters. For a second I think that I am going to fall on the ground, but I don’t. I catch myself, and steady myself. The woman, Caris, is struggling to get at me, and there are two men now keeping her back and holding her in the place where she had been standing. Everyone nearby seems to be moving around.
“Is there a problem?” says a voice. It’s Robert’s voice. I’ve never been so glad to hear him.
The people part to let him through. The woman subsides.
“No, there’s no problem,” says one of the men.
Robert looks at him, and at the others in the group. The woman is still now, and her friends relax their grip.
“Good,” he says. He turns his attention to me, dismissing them, and they turn away and close into their own group again.
Robert has two drinks in his hands and he places them on the ledge in front of me.
“Are you all right?” he asks me.
I nod. I still can’t seem to speak.
He looks at me for a moment.
“Come on, let’s go,” he says. He takes my hand and lifts it, meaning to help me down from my stool.
“But the drinks,” I say.
“Never mind them. Let’s get out of here.”
He is still holding the fingers of my hand. I stand up.
“Don’t forget your handbag,” he says. I give him a grateful look and sling the strap over my shoulder.
Those people ignore us, and we ignore them, as we squeeze past them and through the crowd to the exit.
It’s dark. No one is in the corridor, but there’s another bar further along, and light is spilling out of its open door on to the ground. We walk away from it.
There’s a turning, and another one, I think, and we are walking along a wider thoroughfare. I hope Robert knows where we’re going, because I don’t recognise any of this. He’s holding my elbow and seems to be steering me. I can see some people in the distance.
We’re crossing the central square. Suddenly he steers me, abruptly, a different way, holding on to both of my elbows now, passing one arm behind my back. I’m not sure whether I was going in the wrong direction, or maybe stumbling. Maybe I was stumbling.
It’s a funny, spongy feeling. Warm, and humming, and soft, and preoccupying. It’s not unpleasant.
I notice that I’m in my apartment. That surprises me. I don’t think I was expecting that.
Have we been to another bar? I have a vague memory of another bar. I can’t really be sure.
Robert is here too. He is standing very close to me. Very close indeed, and in fact we are pressed up against each other, and I am putting my arms around him and my body is responding to him. And his responds to mine, very noticeably. Very noticeably.
I knew this was going to happen. It was obvious. It’s been obvious all evening. I’m glad it’s happening. I really want him.
I’m in bed. I don’t remember getting into bed, but I must have done. I’m not wearing anything. Neither is Robert. He’s lying on top of me.
This bed is only just long enough for me. I really need to be further up, because my feet are just over the end.
He’s kneeling over me, one knee on either side of my head. I can see his testicles right above me, and stretching up from them into the gloom his penis, and beyond that the rest of his body.
He whispers, hoarsely.
“Suck my balls.”
I open my mouth, and he lowers them into it. I help with my fingers to fit both of them in. Hairs are dangling down from them into my throat. I try to retrieve them with my tongue and flatten them against his sac.
It’s dark, and we’re lying down together. He is behind me, and I feel his hands all over me.
I’m lying in bed. I can’t really think of anything.
It’s ��� light. It’s light. I have one eye open. I close it again.
I’m not feeling very well.
I’m on my own. On my own in my bed, with nothing on.
What did we do?
He was definitely here, I’m in no doubt about that. Even if my recollection is a bit vague.
Did we do the deed? I think we must have done. I feel a little sore between the legs.
My skin remembers his hands.
I seem to remember kissing. What were we doing? He definitely kissed me, and he was on top.
I feel thirsty, and sick. I might get up and fetch some water to drink, but I might regret moving.
Oh yes. Moving, bad idea.
I’m lying here with my eyes closed, trying not to move, and sweating.
I’m glad Robert’s not here to see me like this.
Although I’m also feeling a bit sad. It would be nice to feel his arms around me.
No it wouldn’t. Suddenly I realise that I really am going to be sick, and I only just make it into the bathroom in time.
I want to know more about Robert. I want to know his back story, and his circumstances. Why he is single. Whether he really is single.
Normally I would have taken steps to find all this out some time ago; but here on Callisto I have no female friends, and as for the men I know, I can’t really imagine discussing this sort of thing with them. I don’t know what to do; but suddenly it comes to me. Suddenly, as I am resting and recovering in my apartment that weekend, I think of Mr Silva.
On Monday morning, when I judge that the moment is right, I get up from my desk and walk into Mr Silva’s office. He gives me a bright smile and stands up to hold the chair on the other side of his desk for me to sit down on it. Quite unnecessary.
He looks serious when I ask him for a confidential talk, and he looks grave when I tell him what it is that I want to discuss.
Obviously there is only one reason why I would want to talk about Robert.
“Well, Miss Amiable Friend,” he says, and he leans forward confidingly so that he is resting on his arms on his desk. “I haven’t been here very long myself, and I don’t know Mr Georghiou personally.”
“But you know of him. I know you do.”
“Well – I’m not aware of any attachment.” I can’t help smiling when I hear that. “No current attachment, that is.”
“And in the past?”
“Mm, I don’t definitely know of any past attachment. But I have the impression that there have been some.”
“From the way people talk.”
“People talk about him.”
“Yes, they do. Of course they do. He is a fascinating character.”
I smile again. “Do you think so?”
“Yes, I do, Miss Amiable Friend. He is unusual, and very striking, and conspicuous in this little world here, in this little pond. A big fish in a small pond. I can understand his fascination for you.”
I can feel myself blushing.
“What do they say about him?” I ask, keeping my voice as light and as matter-of-fact as possible.
He looks at me. “Many things. But on topic, I assume there have been attachments, but not necessarily serious ones.”
“I’m not aware that he was ever married.”
“Not serious ones.” I think about that.
“I think he is a man of - appetite.” I look up and catch his eye. “Miss Amiable Friend, will you allow me to give you some advice?”
“Of course, Mr Silva.”
“Don’t give your heart away too easily.”
I am blushing more hotly. I knew he knew, but now we are being very explicit.
“I’m not sure that Mr Georghiou is the type of man for a serious attachment. It would be on his terms, if he did enter into one. I think he is too driven and focussed to be able to engage really with another human being. I think there is a risk of making oneself too vulnerable. I’m not saying that he would want to hurt you.”
And yet he already has, without meaning to, I’m sure. It’s a standing joke that men never call, and so I don’t attach any significance to it; but it was a little bit hurtful not to hear from him at all. I would have liked a hug at some point during the weekend.
It becomes more hurtful as the days pass, and one evening I record a video message to Ella and I pour my heart out to her.
Ella’s ship is on its way to Titan. Titan is a moon of Saturn and is a very long way away indeed.
Her reply arrives the next day and is full of sympathy and good, maternal advice. I slip out at lunchtime to watch it in private.
“Here comes a hug,” she says at the end, and I smile to see her miming one and then blowing me a kiss.
“Jewel sends hugs too,” she goes on. “I haven’t told her what you told me, obviously. Keep your spirits up, Amy. We love you!”
That has cheered me up; and later the same day I receive a request for a video chat from my sister.
At the time we have arranged I’m sitting in my apartment waiting for her call. I have eaten my evening meal and am on my sofa with a glass of juice, reading on my device.
A new window flashes across the screen as I accept the incoming call, and her face breaks into a broad smile as she sees me.
“Amy! It’s so lovely to see you at last. It’s been so long!”
“Since Mars,” I say. “It’s lovely to see you too.”
“We’re nearly there, Amy. I’m so excited! I can’t wait.”
“People here are very excited too,” I tell her.
“Well, they are here as well. It’s very big. But I mean, to see you, Amy. I can’t wait to see you.”
I smile, and don’t reply to that.
“Amy, I really want us to be friends. Really sisters. You’re my big sister, and I love you.”
Okay, this is embarrassing now.
“This could be a great chance. Let’s really make a go of it, once I get to Callisto.”
She pauses and looks at me.
“Okay,” I say, feeling pressured. She beams at me.
“I’m going to be there for months,” she reminds me. “We haven’t been together for so long since we were children.”
Are we going to be together?
“Oh, Amy, I’m really looking forward to it. I can’t wait to show you what I’ve been doing. I’ve been working really hard. And I want to know what you’ve been up to. What you’ve seen, and done, and the friends you’ve made. Will you show me around?”
“Of course I will. There isn’t much to see, though.”
She smiles. “I still want to see it. Have you been out?”
“Yes, I have,” I tell her, “and I’ve even been to the other side of the planet.” I tell her about my trip to Mount Henrietta, and what it was like to see Jupiter dominating the night sky.
“Yes, we can see Jupiter too,” she says. “Not now, I’m in my cabin.”
She tells me about nights on Earth in which she has seen the Moon; but I am able to tell her that Jupiter is much bigger than that in Callisto’s sky, and brighter too.
I tell her about the plant, and about Prof showing me around, and about the impression that I had when I was there. The scale of it, and the sense of dynamism and adventure that people have.
I don’t tell her about Robert, and she doesn’t ask.
She listens, and she smiles when I use the word “adventure”.
Finally she tells me about some of the events in her life, which, inevitably, are much the same as on previous occasions when she has recorded messages for me. There simply isn’t much variety on board a ship. She talks about the work she has been doing: the weightless training, and the new routines that she has been working out with her coach, but hasn’t yet had an opportunity to try out properly, for reasons of secrecy. And she tells me about her social life, the people she mingles with, some of the other passengers, some of whom are very well-known indeed. As is she, of course.
A couple of days later Robert finally does call, very briefly. I’m at work and couldn’t really talk even if he wanted to, but all he wants to do is to arrange a time to see me. From the way he frames his question it’s not even obvious whether he means a business meeting; but when he suggests a time in the evening I know that he doesn’t. We agree, and hang up.
I glance at Percy sitting opposite and hard at work. He could certainly hear me speaking, but I don’t know whether he was listening or gave what he was hearing any thought. There was a vulnerable, grateful sound in my voice which annoys me very much.
But before our date the grand arrival takes place. The ship from Earth has arrived at last and is in orbit around Callisto, and everybody here knows and is talking about it. I receive an invitation from the governor’s office asking me to attend the welcoming ceremony. Welcoming ceremony. They really are making a meal of this.
I’m supposed to be in the central square at ten in the morning. I don’t go into work first; I stay at home and get ready. I put on my best outfit. Caris can think what she likes, stupid cow. I haven’t worn a dress all the time that I’ve been here, but I’m doing it now. And I have washed my hair and spent a long time straightening and styling it, and I’ve made myself up and filed my fingernails and varnished them, and when I’ve finally finished I look at the result in my mirror, standing on a chair so that I can get the full length, though I have to stoop; and I feel extremely satisfied. I feel really good.
The square is filling up as I arrive just before ten. There is an enclosure for the invited guests, just outside the exit from the arrival hall where the airlocks are. Dr and Mrs Chan are there, Vanessa in her finery too, and many of the prominent citizens of Callisto that I have met over the past months. More are arriving. I can’t see anybody checking that only invited guests are passing the ropes; I suppose it happens electronically.
And the main body of the square is filling up too. All the tables outside the café are occupied, though I suspect that not all those sitting there are consuming the products that are on sale. Crowds are milling about, and people are streaming into the concourse from all directions.
A stage has been erected next to the enclosure where I am standing and greeting the people that I know. As I watch the governor himself arrives, whom I have never met in person, with his wife and their children. They climb up the steps and take their seats among other dignitaries on the stage. There is a rostrum at the front of the stage, empty for the moment.
Waiters are circulating inside the enclosure with trays of drinks, and after quite some time one of them gets around to where I am standing. There’s a choice between orange juice and champagne. Callistoan champagne. I’m quite curious, in fact, but I decide not to try it at this hour of the morning, and I take a glass of juice from the tray.
Vanessa Chan wants to talk to me about how exciting this all is. She approaches me with two other women that I know from her dinner parties, and there we all stand: “us girls”, as Vanessa is always saying. They are all probably old enough to be my mother.
But I’m in the mood for humouring her; and I do like Vanessa. I assure them that, yes, I have been talking to my sister, and I’ve told her a lot about Callisto and what a lovely, welcoming place it is and how nice the people are, and she is very much looking forward to being here. They smile when I say this, at me and at each other. I suppose they’ll be supporting the contestants from Earth, I say.
“No, no, not necessarily,” says one of the women. “I admire the exceptional gymnasts. I’ll be hoping for the best for your sister.”
And they all agree with this, and Vanessa presses my arm to be sure that I believe in her sincerity.
Ten o’clock was definitely early enough. I can see some people checking their devices, monitoring the progress of the landing craft. My sister told me the last time we spoke that they will be coming in several craft simultaneously so as all to be in time for the ceremony. Not everybody on the ship is worthy of being welcomed ceremonially, of course. I presume the others will be coming down later.
I’m beginning to get rather bored, and I’m wondering how long the ceremony will last and when I am going to be able to sit down. I think everybody is now here who is coming, both in the enclosure and outside it. The square is packed, and there is a lot of noise. Children are misbehaving and being admonished. I sigh, and I look around to see whether there is anyone that I haven’t said hello to yet.
Then there is a fanfare of trumpets, and the noise from the crowd subsides. Heads turn towards the exit doors.
There aren’t really trumpets; I imagine it’s a recording.
The fanfare ends, the doors slide open, and a jaunty piece begins, a march or some such vigorous thing, played by a brass band, or by a computer synthesising the sound of one. Nothing happens for a moment or two; the doors stand open and the band plays; and then the first people start to emerge. Men and women, coming out together, laughing and chatting to each other; all gymnasts: I suppose anyone who is not a gymnast, the officials and trainers and hangers-on, is waiting back in the hall.
We all applaud, and the gymnasts advance in no particular order to the area in front of the stage that has been kept clear for them. My sister is among them, flanked by two men who are as tall as she is. I recognise one of them even from this distance: he is Viktor Urban, a very well-known exponent of the more athletic style of weightless gymnastics.
Their space suits make mine seem quite subdued. One of the women has the face of an elf depicted on her back, with pointy chin and cheekbones and big, green eyes. Another has oriental decorations in deep crimson and gold and black all over her space suit. My sister’s suit is decorated, quite tastefully, I think, to recall some kind of feline animal: a leopard or something, I suppose, or a panther: I don’t know. Even the men’s suits have their own, more restrained decorations; one of them with tiger stripes across the legs.
The non-gymnasts follow out of the hall and fill up the space behind the gymnasts. Older and more soberly dressed, for the most part. I recognise Marija something, the president of the association, a very successful gymnast herself in former years, in which I was too young to be aware of her.
One man in this second group seems very striking, even in this crowd and at this distance, and in his space suit. He moves with power and grace in his suit of plain ochre, and the people surrounding him seem to treat him with deference. I have no idea who he is.
The governor has stood up and he is waiting at the rostrum for the new arrivals to settle down. He beams down at them with a paternal air.
“Distinguished visitors,” he begins. His amplified voice carries all around the square.
My attention wanders. So does other people’s, I suspect. Out in the main part of the concourse people can’t even see the governor, or maybe just the back of his head. A low hum starts to return, coming out of the depths of the crowd, as people stop listening and start to murmur quietly to each other.
The distinguished arrivals are very well-behaved. They stand quietly and smile with upturned faces, giving every impression of listening attentively to the governor’s speech. No seating has been provided for them, unlike the local dignitaries on the stage; but, as my sister pointed out when we spoke yesterday, they are athletes, after all. If they can’t remain politely standing for half an hour while they are being welcomed, it’s a poor show.
The governor finishes his address with an invitation to us all to show our welcome of these distinguished guests who have travelled so far to be with us. I think we are glad to have something to do, and we all applaud enthusiastically.
The governor applauds too, with his hands above his head and clapping for all to see; then he returns to his seat while the applause is still going on, and a man takes the rostrum away.
A line of boys and girls in leotards files up the steps and takes position on the stage. Surely they are not going to put on a gymnastics display in front of the world’s best?
A man steps up and takes up a position in front of the line of children, but at one end of the stage. He raises a hand, and music begins: not a jaunty march this time, but a quieter, more haunting piece. After the first phrase is at an end, the children begin to sing, still standing where they are; but as the song progresses, they begin to move. First their arms are raised and circle slowly with the music; then their bodies slowly turn and step; and at last they are all moving round the stage, still making the same slow, graceful movements with their arms and bodies, crossing and passing each other in interlocking patterns, and still singing.
I look across at Vanessa, who is rapt and evidently enchanted by this. It is very sweet. Some of the children are really quite small. I had no idea they learned this sort of thing. And while this is indeed not gymnastics, and I feel glad that we have been spared that embarrassment, one can see how what they are doing here might with some of them, given time and application, and talent, grow into the kind of thing that my sister does. It’s actually very appropriate for this welcome, and I think that whoever thought of it has had a good idea.
All over the square people are standing still and listening to the children’s singing and its instrumental accompaniment that fill this space, and watching what they can see of their dancing: not very much, for most of them. I think I can detect the fierce pride that they are feeling. These are their own, these children, and this planet and this colony are theirs too. Vanessa told me when I first got here that it meant a lot to them to have the interplanetary championships taking place here; and it really does. I feel it too, and I want it to be a great success, for their sake.
The performance finishes and the children file back down off the stage. As the hubbub of conversation returns, the governor and his wife stand up and walk towards the front of the stage, and another man comes and stands at the rostrum which has been carried back up and placed next to where the steps meet the stage. Down on the ground the gymnasts are starting to form themselves into a line.
“People of Callisto!” It’s the man at the rostrum speaking now. The noise dies away. “On behalf of us all and our wonderful planet, heartfelt greetings to our distinguished guests. You are very welcome here among us!”
Frenetic applause, that doesn’t seem to want to stop. The man waits for a moment, but then he presses on.
“A warm welcome to – Vivian Chakrabarty!”
A diminutive gymnast steps up on to the stage and walks past the rostrum and up to the governor and his wife, who are waiting for her with smiling faces. She gives a kind of little curtsey in front of them, in her ornamental space suit, then shakes both of their hands and walks on, to the other end of the stage where there is a second set of steps leading down into our enclosure. The next gymnast is already on the stage, and the man with the microphone is announcing her name. The others are waiting in a line down the front steps and out into the enclosure where they have been standing all this time. One by one they walk up, there is applause from the crowd as each name is announced, becoming a little more perfunctory as time passes, and they descend one by one into our enclosure where waiters with trays offer them drinks and the more outgoing among our prominent Callistoans seek to make conversation with them. At the same time the non-gymnasts are passing directly into our enclosure without crossing the stage, and the crowd in here is beginning to fragment into little groups of people socialising.
“Lucid Thought, of Mars!” The announcement takes me by surprise, because I wasn’t really paying attention. Vanessa and her two friends whoop and cheer and clap energetically; I smile at them and clap too. I suddenly notice a man with a camera which is pointed at me. I didn’t know this was going to be televised, and I don’t know how long he has been filming me.
My sister comes to a halt in front of the governor and makes a movement that she must have rehearsed: it’s a bow, mainly, but there is something in it that is reminiscent of a curtsey, without actually being one, because an ordinary curtsey would look ridiculous, dressed as she is and as tall as she is. How did she do that? It was so graceful, and so understated, and, I have to admit, utterly disarming and enchanting.
She steps down from the stage into our enclosure, and as she reaches the ground a man approaches her who seems to be the colleague of the man with the camera. He speaks briefly to her, and she accompanies him directly towards me. The cameraman films her approach, swinging the camera slowly around until she has come right up to me and he is filming us both.
Here she is at last. I haven’t seen her for so long; on another planet, in another life, almost.
We embrace. My feelings are in turmoil. I feel so guilty, about always being so horrible to her, and so unreasonable. She’s right. Why can’t we simply be sisters, like normal people?
We are quite still for a few seconds. Our heads are next to each other, our arms around each other, and our chests are pressed up against each other. She is very fit indeed.
We disengage and look each other in the eyes, still holding on to each other’s arms with our hands.
My sister smiles. “Hi, big sis,” she says.
“Hi, kiddo,” I reply, and we hold each other’s gaze for another moment.
I look around. The camera is still watching us, and so are Vanessa Chan and the two other ladies, agog.
I introduce them.
“These are my good friends,” I tell my sister. She is very gracious to them, taking their hands and putting them at their ease.
A waiter has been hovering close by and now judges that he can approach. He has a tray of canapés, which weren’t being offered before.
I’m not sure whether my sister will take anything, because I know she is very particular about what she eats; but she does, and she bites into it with a serene smile as she looks around us.
It’s obvious that Vanessa, on the one hand, doesn’t want to get in the way of our long-awaited reunion, but at the same time is dying to converse with my celebrity sister. I smile to myself, and I give the conversation an impulse or two to encourage them to talk directly to each other. It’s not hard to do, and soon Lucid Thought is answering her questions, about the voyage, her preparations, the competition, and her two friends are listening and waiting for a chance to join in.
I am listening too, vaguely, but I don’t want to join in. Through the corner of my eye I observe our surroundings. The cameraman is long gone, the announcements are over and the stage empty, the main square is rapidly emptying and even in our enclosure the crowd is slowly thinning. It’s a working day, after all.
Lucid Thought finishes explaining a technical detail of her discipline and says,
“It looks as though it’s time I was going.”
We all turn our heads to look in the same direction as she is doing. The gymnasts seem to be assembling; those who are still engaged in conversations with Callistoans are saying their goodbyes and putting their empty glasses on trays.
“Amy, I’ll call you tonight,” my sister says. “I want to meet up as soon as possible.”
“Okay.” I smile at her.
She gives me another hug and steps back with a winsome, adorable movement and an affectionate expression on her face.
“Love you!” she says.
“I love you too,” I say, although it is an effort to do so.
If it’s an effort for her too, she doesn’t show it. She says goodbye to the three ladies, gives us all a last wave and makes her way over to her group. We all watch as she goes.
The man in the ochre space suit is there too. He doesn’t seem like the other officials, who are, well, officious, and busy and deferential towards the gymnasts. A group of gymnasts has gathered around him, and they give the impression, to me, of being deferential towards him.
I look at Vanessa.
“Who is that man?” I ask her. “Do you know?”
“Who? Oh, him over there? That’s Henri Mbuka.”
The name means nothing to me.
“You know. The leader of the Way of Movement.”
“Well, they call him the Prophet.” She looks curiously at me. “Have you really not heard of him?”
“No, never.” I watch him, holding court, it seems, almost. “What’s he doing here?”
“I suppose he’s come for the championships. It does seem a bit cheeky that he’s included in the welcome reception. I wonder who decided that.”
I don’t comment on that. The visitors are starting to organise themselves into small groups ready to move off and be shown to their quarters. I see that my sister has walked up to the group around Henri Mbuka; but that group is now dissolving and scattering. Callistoans, acting as guides, it appears, are taking charge of the groups that are emerging and are starting to lead them away.
I need to change into something more practical and get to work.
“Look, Vanessa, it was lovely to see you,” I say. “I have to get going, sorry.”
“I understand.” We exchange air kisses. She looks a little sheepish. “Do you suppose –” she begins.
I look at her and wait.
“I wonder whether Lucid Thought would like to come with you to my next dinner party. It’s in a couple of weeks. I was going to send you an invitation over the next few days.”
Oh dear. How am I supposed to answer that? I temporise.
“Well, I don’t know what their timetable is going to be like,” I say.
Then I feel sorry for her. “I’ll ask her,” I say. “I’m sure she’ll enjoy herself if she can find the time.”
“Will you?” Vanessa says. “Thank you, thank you very much. Do let me know what she says, and I’ll send an invitation for her too.”
“I will.” I turn to Vanessa’s friends and shake their hands. “Goodbye!”
“Have a good day!” We all agree that we will. “See you at the dinner party!”
And we all go our separate ways; I go home first to hang up my dress and take off my make-up, with a bit of a pang, because I had enjoyed doing this for a change; and then it’s off to work. No time for lunch; those canapés will have to do.