I began to get the impression during dinner on the evening before our departure, it strengthened in the bar later that night, and it becomes certainty over the next day or two: I am the only female passenger, and Ella, Jewel and I are the only women on board this ship. I didn’t give it any thought in the elevator, but it suddenly makes me wonder what that signifies for Callisto.
I can see why Ella and Jewel wanted to take me up. I’m glad they did. We arrange every day to meet for at least one meal: always Ella, and sometimes Jewel too, who feels able to let things run on their own some of the time now, as routines settle down on our voyage. And we meet for tea in one of the bars, sometimes on the day side, sometimes on the night side. I don’t go there in the evening again.
We train in the gym together, sometimes Ella, sometimes Jewel, sometimes all three of us. That makes a very big difference to me. I’m supposed to train every day, the medical officer said, an older man with an Earth accent and a paternal manner. During the course of the voyage the wheel will gradually turn more slowly and the gravity will be lowered from Martian to Callistoan level, which means hard exercise to keep my musculature and my bone structure at the level they should be at. It doesn’t really matter much now, with the gravity only imperceptibly changing, except that it’s important to establish a routine early on.
I do talk to other people: Vladimir and his friends, and other men that I get to know over meals. But it’s always in company, often with Ella or Jewel, and it’s always in situations which I can end simply by standing up and saying I have to get back to my room.
One thing is different, and that is to be surrounded by people who don’t know me as the sister of Lucid Thought, the celebrity weightless gymnast. That is a welcome change, and I want to keep it that way.
It’s possible that some of the passengers from Mars know who my sister is. If they do, I hope they keep quiet about it.
Dan sends me chatty emails every day or two, though we’re not working on anything together and there is no need for him to do this. I’m a little surprised when the first one arrives, but I soon get used to them and I rather enjoy reading them. It’s a voice from home.
After we’ve been travelling for a week or so I glance at my device over lunch and see that I have received a video message from my sister. What does she want, I wonder.
I switch the screen off and carry on with my lunch. The man next to me is talking to the two sitting opposite, and I make a point of joining in, although I haven’t contributed much to the conversation till now.
I don’t keep it up for long, though, not least because they have nearly finished their lunch anyway. I clear my things away and go back to my room, and before logging back on at work I start up the video message.
My sister’s beautiful face fills the screen of my portable device.
“Hello, Amy,” she says. “I want to wish you serenity and peace on your journey.”
That’s the sort of thing she’s always saying.
“May your voyage be safe, and may your time at your journey’s end be fruitful and bring you further along your path.”
“I know it’s your first time in space. I’d love to share it with you. It’s so wondrous and beautiful.”
I listen with a stolid expression.
“Unfortunately I can’t. It’s a pity. But we’ll see each other again before too long.”
“And you can tell me about it, and we can share some of that wondrousness then. Amy.” She smiles. “I really wish you all things good, from the bottom of my heart. May you grow and deepen, and reach true joy and peace.” Her smile becomes even more beatific, and then she leans back a little.
“Some news of me. I know you saw my message to Mum and Dad. I’m still at Moon Base. The competition is over now. I didn’t win, but I’m quite satisfied.”
She won bronze. I think she is actually disappointed; but it wasn’t one of the really important competitions, as these things go. The big one is next year, and that is where we’ll see each other next time.
“I’ll be staying here for a while longer. Mandy is here,” that’s her artistic coach, “and we’re going to work on some new ideas. And then I’m going down to Earth for a little while.”
I raise my eyebrows.
“I hadn’t planned to, but the opportunity has come up, and it fits in quite well. I was there once before, if you remember.”
I do remember. It was a couple of years ago, and she came back strangely different.
“It’s a chance to improve my general fitness and strength, and my stamina. In some of those longer routines I need all my reserves of strength right up to the very last, and it makes sense to top those reserves up while I’m here. I’m going to Sydney. That’s where I was last time.”
She won’t go straight there, though. She’ll go down in a space elevator, and they are always on the equator, on any planet; and then she’ll fly to Sydney in an aeroplane. I wonder what that is like.
She told us about swimming in the ocean, and how restful that is, because the water carries your weight and it’s almost like being in free fall, except that there’s no confusion about which way is up or down. We listened to her describing it, and I could tell that my parents were remembering. Of course, they used to do that too when they were young.
And it felt, once again, like being left out; like not being a member of their club.
I hate feeling that I have to compare myself. That I am being compared.
I’m my own woman. I’m very good at what I do. My firm thinks that I’m very good at what I do.
They’ve sent me on a special assignment across the Solar System, trusting me to do my job well and represent the firm in that unfamiliar environment, all on my own, so far, far away from home.
What a vote of confidence that is.
Why do I feel that everything I do, or am, only has meaning in comparison with her?
I hate it. I hate feeling like this.
How can I compete with her anyway? With the Martian champion in weightless gymnastics?
She’s a fine one to criticise me for being focussed on my career. Her career requires utter dedication, far more so than mine. Everything she does is subordinated to that ideal of complete physical perfection and control.
You wouldn’t find her drinking margaritas with men in a late-night bar.
Now she’s talking about physical training in space, and she means mine, my training programme that I have commenced here on board.
I do pay attention, slightly unwillingly, because she is, after all, an expert in these matters.
She’s guessed pretty accurately what my programme consists of, or maybe it’s always the same, and she talks me through the different exercises.
“And keep the movement smooth,” she tells me. “Remember, Amy: in the movement is the spring.” What’s she talking about? What’s that supposed to mean? “It’s a curve. The movement is a curve. A smooth arc. As the planet curves around the Sun and comes ever back to the same point, and rests ever moving in its motionless path for eternity, so the movements of your body plot out a celestial path, and your task is to find the harmony of that path and resonate with it.”
And she is always spouting this sort of stuff, and it’s really annoying.
She could simply advise me to do my exercises smoothly and not too abruptly, and that would make perfect sense to me and I’d try to do it.
Why does she have to talk about celestial paths, and resonating, and try to create an impressive effect with apparent paradoxes? Clothing her utterances in what she thinks is deep, philosophical language, but just sounds like pretentious nonsense to me.
I wish she would strip her thoughts down and just say in plain language exactly what she means. The way I do when I draft an agreement.
And the other thing I hate is feeling annoyed, every time. Nobody else makes me feel like this. I can take advice from other people, I can listen to them, discuss things with them, I can agree with them or disagree with them, and it’s all fine: no need to be annoyed. But Lucid Thought talks to me, and straight away I resonate, that word: she hits that frequency without fail, every time, and sets me off again.
I hate it.
It’s tragic, really. Because, to give her her due, she is honestly trying to help. Giving me the benefit of her experience so that I can better cope out here. And that is the final level that I hate: knowing that I am being completely unfair and unreasonable, and that I’m letting my irrational feelings get in the way and spoil what is supposed to be a positive, sisterly moment.
It’s all such a mess.
I’m still sitting there, thinking about my sister, after the video has ended and my device has gone black again, propped up on my desk.
I must annoy her too, but she never lets it show.
It’s all so petty. So pathetically, contemptibly petty.
I wonder how we would perform in a real crisis. If there were something genuinely important to worry about.
Would we rise above all this and work together to confront whatever it was? Or would we still resent each other and score oblique points off each other for an imaginary panel of judges, even in the face of death or disaster?
No idea, and we’re unlikely to find out. It’s most likely that nothing will ever change, our relationship will stay the way it is for ever, no matter how old and mature we grow.
I know it makes my parents sad, but they know there is nothing they can do. Not that we have ever spoken about it. But I can tell.
I’m going to have to think of a response to my sister, and record a message to send to her. Not now, though. I’ll think about it later. For now it’s time to get back to work.
The next thing that happens is not good, and sends me emotionally reeling.
The Green Ridge deal has been progressing, more or less according to its timetable, though, unsurprisingly, somewhat delayed. Its various pieces are falling into place, its stages succeeding each other, guided by those in the various firms involved, like Bright in ours, who are responsible for steering this craft into its docking module.
Then there is a flurry of activity about one particular aspect, something about the intellectual property rights of the target company. I don’t pay much attention to it at first. I’m not taking part in the team meetings any more: the time delay is already nearly two minutes from Mars to the ship, and twice that to permit a reply, so it’s not practicable for me to participate in real time. I’m copied into emails, and I monitor the master documents on the server that record how the transaction is progressing, and I take care of the pieces of work that they send me to do. Beyond that I feel quite detached, nowadays, from the deal team.
Then I begin to see how trouble seems to be brewing. It’s all about one of the guarantees in the draft share purchase agreement, and it seems quite obscure and technical to me. As far as I can make out, our side is asking for the language to be changed and extended, and the other side is objecting that all this was negotiated and settled weeks ago, which seems like a fair point to me, because I think it was, too. Discussions recently have focussed on quite different areas, and it seems strange to be dredging this up again now.
I begin to be interested because, as it happens, I was responsible for a good deal of the due diligence on this part of the target, weeks ago, when I was still in the office; meaning that it was my job to check the licence agreements and other legal documents that underpin the company’s business and that it relies on to do that business, and identify any legal risks that might affect the company’s ability to do that and thus reduce its value for our client.
It’s a serious matter if a law firm, in doing its due diligence, fails to identify a risk that was, in reality, identifiable; because if that risk later becomes reality, after the target has been purchased, the client will lose money, and it will be the law firm’s fault.
I’m beginning to get quite worried. I can’t see anything on the system that indicates why our side is suddenly reopening the area of guarantees; but it looks as though we have become aware of something, some weakness in the target’s intellectual property, something that wasn’t turned up in the due diligence.
It’s not easy for me to find out what’s going on. I can’t call someone and talk to them, not with a four-minute delay between each exchange in the conversation. In the end I write an email to Forty, who is also working on this transaction; a chatty email, but towards the end I mention what I have noticed and ask her whether she knows anything about it.
I send the email off and am on tenterhooks for the rest of the day.
There is still no word the following morning, and I’m still nervous as I sit at my desk plodding through the matter I am working on, which at the moment has nothing to do with Green Ridge.
Half way through the morning there is a notification on my screen and a little bell sound, and my device buzzes and vibrates at the same time. It’s a video message, and I bring it up on my computer screen.
Digby Rollins, of all people, appears in front of me. He is in his office. I think he is making an effort to be friendly.
“Hello, Amy,” he says. “We haven’t spoken for a while. I hope all is well with you and you have settled down well into life on board the ship. I know you’ve been working on a number of matters for the office, and I’m glad to see that’s working well. I was sure it would. I know we can rely on you to get on with your work and contribute just as reliably as if you were in the office.”
I know he hasn’t recorded this message to tell me that. I listen and wait.
“Now I believe you’ve already heard,” he goes on, “that there’s been a bit of an issue on Green Ridge, about the IP.” The intellectual property. “Now, I don’t want you to worry about it, Amy. We’re dealing with it. It’s under control. I won’t hide it from you that it’s created some excitement here, on the client’s side; but it’s going to be fine. We’ll get over this patch as we’ve got over others in the past.”
He has been looking away from me during his last few sentences, but now he looks straight into the camera again.
“We all make mistakes, Amy,” he says. “Including me.” A self-deprecating smile. “The important thing is that we’re a team. The team is always better than the individual lawyers. The team is responding to the crisis and dealing with it, and this is really why I’m calling you, Amy: you’re still just as much part of the team. We haven’t lost confidence in you. You’re one of us, and we’re with you, and we believe in you.”
He pauses for a moment.
“They say that everything is for a purpose, and even mistakes have a purpose, so that we can learn from them. And one of the things we learn from them is that we have colleagues who are on our side.”
He gives me an encouraging smile.
“Keep up the good work, Amy,” he says. “Let me know if you want to talk. You know what I mean. Talk by video message. All the best, Amy, and don’t worry. Bye, Amy.”
And the window with his face in it disappears from my screen, and I am sitting there horrified.
Digby surely thought he was being really nice, but I am horrified. I don’t even know what I have done.
Around lunchtime there’s an email from Forty.
“Sorry I didn’t reply before,” it begins. “Bright didn’t want me to until Digby had spoken to you.”
She explains what the issue is that has got everybody so excited. There’s some doubt about whether one of the company’s patents ought to have been granted in the first place to the person the company originally acquired it from. There’s a claim that the process to which the patent relates was actually developed somewhere else, by somebody else, and it’s they who ought to have the patent, not our target company. And, most unfortunately, it was through enquiries made by our client, triggered by their knowledge of the market and the various players on it, that this has now come to light.
You pay a law firm to do due diligence for you, they miss something, and you have to point out to them what they have missed.
I can’t understand how I could miss it. It was all in the file, apparently: not in one place, but easy enough to collate and draw the obvious conclusion.
I actually remember looking at this particular patent, along with many others.
Maybe I went home one evening without tying up all the loose ends, and when I returned next morning I thought I had.
I don’t know. I feel sick.
Forty’s email finishes with a smiley face and two kisses.
All afternoon I find it very difficult to concentrate on my work. I feel quite numb.
What do Digby’s kind words really mean, if one is realistic? He had no alternative. I’m on the ship, on my way to Callisto. Impossible to call me back. Pointless to sack me. The only thing to do is to let me carry on with what I have been sent out there to do, and hope that I’ll be more careful in future.
In the evening I meet Ella again for dinner, and as cheerful as I try to be, she can tell that something is preoccupying me.
“Let’s go and have a drink,” she suggests at the end of the meal. I look at her in surprise.
“What, in the bar?” I say. She nods.
“Come on, I want to talk to you.”
We go into the bar on the day side, because that is emptier than the other one. Just a few people are sitting scattered in the room, talking quietly, or reading, in one case. We find a group of armchairs out of earshot of anyone else.
“What’ll you have, Ella?” I ask her. It’s my turn.
It’s easy enough to work this. You go to the dispensers along one of the walls, key in what you want on to your device, out it comes, and the money is debited from your on-board account.
We sit down in two armchairs forming one corner of this group and we start to talk. Ella only needs to prompt me a little, at the start, because I discover that I really want to unburden myself to this woman that I have only known for a short while. She listens to me, in silence for the most part, her face sympathetic and kind, even a little maternal, or like an older sister, and I talk. I start by telling her about what has happened at work, sparing her the technicalities, because she won’t understand them and they’re not important anyway; but quite soon I find myself telling her about my sister and my relationship with her, and how that makes me feel.
Wretched and unhappy with myself, at the moment, after what has happened.
I skirt carefully around what my sister does for a living. I’m relieved that Ella doesn’t ask.
“It’s this smugness,” I tell her. “She’s so certain that she’s got it all worked out. She’s so certain that she knows everything and that I don’t know anything.”
Ella protests. “Surely she doesn’t think that.”
I pause, and look at her for a moment.
“She knows that I’m successful in my job,” I tell her, “and that I have a lot of knowledge and expertise to do with my job. But she doesn’t think that’s worth anything. She doesn’t think any of that is important, at all. She thinks she can neutralise anything I say by some – I don’t know - mystical sounding statement that doesn’t make any rational sense at all.”
“I can see how that could be annoying,” Ella says thoughtfully.
“And she’s so patronising when she does it!” I am getting excited, and I break off and look at Ella with a rueful smile. “Sorry.”
“Not at all. Look, Amy: how do you know that your sister doesn’t admire you and respect you for what you have achieved? What makes you so sure?”
“Well –” I’m not sure how to explain it. Because it’s obvious, Ella.
“Is it possible that she just wants to help, by sharing her own insights with you, that you wouldn’t necessarily come up with on your own?”
I’m listening. I hope she’s not going to take Lucid Thought’s side.
She covers my wrist with her hand.
“I know what it’s like to be patronised,” she goes on. “Anyone who does engineering is always patronised by the mathematicians and physicists. To be fair, we patronise them back.” We exchange smiles. “And when I became interested in sport medicine I felt patronised, because I was only an athlete and not a human biologist. But the point is, we all have our own paths and our own experiences, we learn and gather experience and knowledge as we go down our individual paths, and what we need to learn as well is to respect the experience of others.”
“So you think my sister respects my experience?”
“I don’t know whether she does, Amy, but I know she ought to. Knowing someone who is on a different path is an opportunity.”
“So I ought to respect her experience.”
Ella smiles. “I think you know that’s true.”
She leans back and is suddenly brisk.
“When are you going to come for a massage, Amy?”
“Oh – I hadn’t thought about it.” I had almost forgotten she had told me about that. But she’s right. I would like that.
“How about tomorrow? Tomorrow after lunch?”
I think about it. Yes, why not?
“How long is one session?”
“As long as you like, within reason; but I’d suggest starting with half an hour.”
“Yes, that sounds good. Okay. After lunch? When exactly?”
“I’ll meet you for lunch at one, if that’s all right with you, and we’ll go together as soon as we’ve finished.”
“Sounds good!” We raise our glasses to each other and smile.
“Do you mind if we join you?”
I look up, startled. Two men are standing over us, drinks in their hands. Have they been eyeing us, waiting for a suitable moment?
“Oh – I think we were just going,” I stammer.
“Oh, be a sport,” says one of them. They both sit down on the couch opposite me and lean forward. “We’re very nice, you know.” They glance at each other and grin.
My eyes meet Ella’s. In her eyes is the tiniest hint of a shrug, as if to say, “Fine!”
It’s going to be a long journey to Callisto, surrounded by men. I’m going to need to have my wits about me.
But I can’t just avoid all contact with them until we get to the other end. That’s not practical. I have to be polite, and friendly, and a reasonable human being. I have to make a bit of an effort from time to time, and this may as well be one of those times. Sitting in this quiet bar, in broad daylight, despite the late hour, in respectable armchairs, with Ella providing protection, and me providing the same to her.
I haven’t spoken to these two men before, but I remember seeing them around. Obviously they have seen us too. I am under no illusion about how conspicuous Ella and Jewel and I are.
We allow them to get us another drink; that creates a certain social obligation, potentially, or expectation, but there will be opportunities to return the favour as the voyage continues, and anyway these drinks are quite inexpensive. Largely because they are free of duty out here.
But one drink is enough. Ella and I time ourselves to finish at the same time, and we both get up to leave. I’m wondering whether they will stand up too, to say their farewells, as the Callistoans did on the night of our departure. They don’t at first; but then they do, and then I wonder whether I have, in fact, caused them to do this: whether they have sensed that I was hanging back waiting for something.
“It was nice to meet you,” I assure them as we shake hands, and we all agree that we’ll see each other around. Not much of a prediction, really, in the circumstances.
Back in my room, I feel glad that I have done this. Ella and I have been friendly and normal, we have proved that we’re not stand-offish or mean, and we’ve escaped without any real obligation, beyond owing somebody a drink at some point. And I am glad that I’ve had that talk with Ella.
Sitting on my own in there, not really feeling like getting ready for bed yet, but not really wanting to watch anything or play anything either, it does come back to me: the situation that I have put myself in at work.
But I feel less bad about it now. I still feel bad, but I’m not panicking. I’m on the ship now, nothing can be done about that, the next months are mapped out ahead, ineluctably; and Digby Rollins is right: we’re all on the same side and we pull together, and I have a job to do that I should just get on with. Everybody makes mistakes, including me.
Dan continues to send me his occasional emails, and I am surprised at first that he never mentions the crisis on Green Ridge, although I’m sure the whole office knows about it and has been talking about it. Every time I see that a message from him has arrived I’m nervous to see whether he mentions it; but he never does.
Sometimes he sends me video messages, interspersed with his written ones, which he is evidently recording at home. He has a much larger place than I have. It’s the house in Mars City where he used to live with his parents; but his father died, and his mother married again, and he took over the house. It’s quite grand. I’ve been there a couple of times, but only for parties; never on my own. There has always been far less going on than Dan would like to think.
And I reply from time to time, as the weeks pass, and later the months: not to every message, but quite frequently. Always in writing. After a while I do start to wonder whether I am being mean never to let him see me in a video message; but by this time I feel that the routine is well-established, and I’m not sure what message it would send him if I suddenly recorded something on camera.
I’m quite surprised that he keeps this up so tenaciously, even a little impressed. I wasn’t expecting it.
I reply to Lucid Thought too, after some time. It’s after the conversation I had with Ella in the bar. Again, I write an email rather than recording a video. For me it’s actually less work that way, compared to preparing a script for a video recording. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.
I think I’m friendly in my email. I thank her for her advice, and her news, and I give her some news of my own. Not really news, though: a description of what it’s like to be here. Although I know that she is exceedingly familiar with travel on an interplanetary spacecraft.
So I’m settling down into my various routines, and one of those routines is my regular massage sessions with Ella.
I do indeed take her up on her offer, and it turns out that this time slot after lunch is very convenient. The work day is interrupted anyway, by the lunch break, and the massage session fills up what might otherwise be quite a soporific time in front of my screen.
There’s a room that she uses, a passenger cabin that is not currently needed because the ship is not full. Either the bed is raised or it has been replaced for the duration with a specialist massage couch, I can’t tell. And I lie on it, face down, and she stands beside it and massages me, and we talk.
She tells me a lot about her life, and it is very interesting. Obviously she’s older than me, I knew that already. She has never been married, but she has had relationships. Never with anyone on board her ship.
There is an off-on relationship with someone on Mars, in fact. Not really a relationship so much as an understanding, an expectation, that they will wait for each other in some form. There may be very long intervals between the times when they see each other; and there will be this time.
“What about you, Amy?”
And I tell her that there has never really been anybody, and there isn’t now. In a later session I mention Dan, and I stress that there is nothing to it.
Ella has spent a lot of her life in the asteroid belt, that band of irregular rocks encircling the Sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, with several bases at various points within it whose purpose is to exploit its mineral resources. They are called bases and not colonies, because they’re not supposed to be permanent, and consequently their number changes from time to time; but people, including children, do spend significant periods of their lives there, and so did Ella.
The bases in the asteroid belt are different from the others in the Solar System, the Moon, for instance, or Ganymede, because they are in space, not located on any kind of rock at all. Any gravity they experience is entirely artificial, like here on the ship, and in principle they can set it at whatever strength they like.
I am fascinated to listen to Ella’s description of growing up in one of these bases. I think back to Frobisher and my own childhood; I thought life there was rugged and self-reliant, closer to the edge and more exposed, compared to life in Mars City, where people live cushioned and shielded from the hostile environment; but life in space is exposed on a different scale altogether.
She has been to Earth, she tells me one day as she manipulates my shoulders and back. It was connected with her sport, and I began to realise a while ago that she was quite a serious athlete in her day. That is obvious in the gym, where she effortlessly moves weights that I would struggle to shift at all. Fortunately Jewel is like me.
“You’re not trying to win a competition,” Ella tells us one morning as all three of us sit panting and sweaty between exercises. “Your purpose is to be in tune with your body. Find your potential and coax it out, and enjoy the wellness of living in a body that is at rest in its natural movement.”
Curious turn of phrase, really.
Another time she mentions dance as a thing to do with my body. I think the first time is one afternoon while we are having tea in the day bar, but she comes back to it during one of our sessions.
“I’m not talking about dancing at a party,” she says. “Meditative dance.”
I have no idea what she means by that.
She looks at me, considering. My head is turned and I am looking up at her from the couch.
“Well, rather than explaining it,” she says, “I’d love to show you. Why don’t I show you during our next session? I won’t charge you for it.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” I say, feeling awkward and embarrassed.
Next time I arrive at the room, Ella is already there and has prepared it for us. The bed is covered with a long cloth of deep, dark blue, reaching to the floor, which seems almost black in the dim light. The room lighting is turned down about as far as it will go, and little lights like candles are placed around the room, on the bed, on the desk, and on the floor. Soft, soothing music swells from somewhere, and there is an unfamiliar but very pleasant scent in the air.
“Ethereal oils,” Ella explains.
She closes the door and turns to me.
“Now take your shoes off,” she says. I see that she is in her stockings, and I slip off my shoes and place them next to hers at the bottom of the wardrobe.
I glance around the room. Is there going to be enough space in here for a dance?
“Now stand here,” she orders me, and we stand face to face in the middle of the room, surrounded by those sources of light like candles. “Do exactly as I do.”
And she begins to show me the moves.
They are very slow, deliberate, quite simple moves. A movement of the arms; a step backwards; a step sideways; a turn, perhaps; and they are repeated. Each dance is to a particular piece of music, and each consists of a particular sequence of some of these moves: steps and gestures and turns; repeated over and again in time with the music. My favourite is an instrumental piece in a slow three-four time, that sounds a little bit like an old-fashioned music-box. We stand facing each other, mirroring each other’s movements, and we gradually circle each other as the steps take us more in an anti-clockwise direction than clockwise.
“Close your eyes,” Ella tells me when she is sure that I have mastered all the moves.
I feel a bit nervous about doing that, but I trust her and close them, and I carry on with the dance. Slow, easy, deliberate, the music all around me, and nothing in my head, really: just the sensation of moving and listening and being here.
I feel a hand on my arm, and I open my eyes and realise that I was about to bump into the desk. Ella has been watching me. I smile at her, she smiles at me, and I step back into the middle of the room and close my eyes again.
I still have to think about the steps, but less so as time passes. And I am getting better at staying in the centre of the room. I move smoothly, evenly, easily, each step and each gesture flowing into the next, and I feel serene. Serene and at peace.
“Yes, I totally get it,” I tell Ella later, when she has switched off the music and turned up the lights and we are drinking tea which Ella has brought with her. “Except that I’m not sure about the meditative part. What am I supposed to be meditating?”
“You’ve never meditated before, have you?” she says. “You don’t meditate about something. It’s not like sitting in front of your computer with your brain all busy and a deadline to meet. It’s the opposite of that.”
“The opposite,” I echo, not comprehending.
“Just go with it,” she says. “Just let your body do the movements, and never mind about your brain. Just be in your body.”
As if I could be anywhere else; but I think I can see what she means.
“Anyway, well done, Amy,” she goes on. “You’re a quick learner.”
“Oh yes. I didn’t know whether we’d even manage to master one dance in the time, and you’ve learned three.”
I take a sip of tea and think about what we have been doing.
“So do you teach this?” I ask her.
She smiles. “No, not exactly; but I’ve shown a couple of people, the way I’ve shown you.”
“So who wants to learn it, and who does this, anyway?”
“Well,” she says, “normally we do this in a group of people. Ten or twelve people, perhaps, that sort of size. So we form a much larger circle.”
“Not face to face.”
“No. Not usually. And sometimes we hold hands. And when we do a turn we let go, turn, and clasp hands again. And sometimes we move around the circle and hold hands with somebody else.”
I am picturing it, sitting here on this bed, my eyes looking over the rim of my cup into nothing.
“So who does this?” I ask her again. “I’ve never heard of anybody doing meditative dance.”
“Well, it’s originally a religious practice,” she says.
“Yes. The Sufis used to do it, for instance. They were mystics in Arabia.”
“You mean, did they dance like we were doing? I don’t know how they used to dance, to be honest.”
I contemplate this.
“I’m not really sure what a mystic is,” I realise.
She sits still on that chair between the bed and the desk, and is obviously thinking about how best to explain this.
“A mystic is a kind of religious person,” she begins finally, “who is not interested so much in doctrine or precepts, or organisation or proselytising. They want to open themselves up, open up their inner being, and become one with the cosmic consciousness. That’s why the Sufis used dance. It’s an aid to meditation.”
“So is meditation a religious practice too?”
She regards me again, considering.
“There’s more than one way of answering that,” she says. “I could say, it can be. Some practitioners are overtly religious, others aren’t. Or I could say, it depends what you mean by religious.”
“What do you think?”
“I think, yes, it is.”
I think she is blushing, very slightly.
I’m fascinated. I’ve never met a religious person before.
“Are you religious, Ella?”
“I believe – I believe there is a cosmic consciousness.”
I’m listening, reserving judgment, waiting for her to explain so that I can understand what she means.
She leaves that statement standing there at first, but she sees me looking at her and feels the need to elaborate.
“I believe that we can be a part of that consciousness, and that is what we are experiencing when we meditate.”
She begins to gain in fluency.
“When there’s a group, I feel at one with the whole group, all doing the dance together, and at the same time I’m also aware that all of us are at one with the cosmic consciousness, that transcends us and embraces us and takes us up into – something bigger than us.”
I’m trying to make sense of this.
“So is this cosmic consciousness a separate entity?” I ask. “Or is it something that you produce by meditating on it? Is it there even when you’re not meditating?”
“It’s a mystery,” she answers. “It’s not something that it’s possible to get scientific information about. All I can tell you is what I experience. And what others experience who do the same thing.”
This is not really very satisfactory. Not to the way of thinking that I am used to.
“Listen, Amy: you don’t have to agree with me. You asked me how I felt about it, and that’s how. But not everybody feels the same way, and that’s okay. How did you feel when we were dancing?”
I think about this.
“Uncertain, at first,” I say. “And a bit self-conscious. Never having done this before.”
“And then, after I had got to know the movements and felt more comfortable with them –”
“I’m not sure,” I finish, lamely. “I’m not sure how to describe it. I liked it.”
She smiles at me and leans back in the chair.
“Well, that’s a good start,” she says. “Would you like to do it again, another time?”
“Very much, if you would.”
“Yes, I think I would,” I reply. I’m remembering that tune, the one I particularly liked, and how it felt to hear it all around me, with my eyes closed and my body moving, slowly, assuredly, and knowing that Ella was here too and feeling the same thing. I suppose, anyway.
“I have a confession.” Ella says.
“I’ve suggested this to Jewel, and she seemed a bit reluctant to give it a go. But if she knows you’re doing it, she might be more willing to join in. Would you mind?”
“No, that would be very nice,” I say. Would it? I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about more than two of us doing this.
“Thank you. I’ll suggest it to her. I’ll need to find a larger space; but that won’t be a problem. I think you’ll like it. It’s more authentic. We’ll have a proper circle.”
“Yes. But we can imagine a circle.”
And we do this, a week or two later; but it doesn’t go particularly well. Jewel finds it quite difficult, both to remember the movements and to carry them out in a fluid, natural manner. She never reaches that stage where she can turn down the concentration and give herself up to the dance. And she catches my eye from time to time and makes me feel that she finds all this a bit silly.
Ella perseveres for a while, but she can see what is happening: she can see that it’s having an effect on me too, and on Ella herself. I feel a little sorry for her, and annoyed with Jewel.
In the end she gives it up. She turns the lights back up and we have tea again out of a flask that Ella has brought with her. We sit and chat for a short while, inconsequentially. Ella is very gracious, but I know she is disappointed.
So we go back to our previous routines: training in the gym; meeting for meals; massage after lunch once a week; tea in the day bar or the night bar in the afternoons.
I get used to going into the night bar, as the voyage wears on, at all times of day. The clocks on the ship show Martian days, more or less, and the lighting is programmed to reflect that; but the two bars are the only places where we can look outside, and there it becomes obvious how artificial these days and nights are.
On the day side we see the Sun in the sky, always, getting gradually smaller as the months pass and we travel away from it, and so very gradually becoming less bright, but still bright enough to illuminate the bar.
On the night side, in our direction of travel, deep space. Unimaginable numbers of stars, set in perfect blackness, gradually turning to our eyes as the wheel we are in rotates, but otherwise unchanging. There is no atmosphere, and no other sources of light; in fact there is some dim lighting in the depths of the bar to allow us to find our way around, but if I am standing at that window along the whole side of the room and looking out, I don’t notice that lighting, and it’s as if I have an unimpeded view.
Ella shows me Jupiter one day.
“That’s where we’re heading,” she says.
She shows me how I can locate it, starting with a really obvious star that even I can’t miss, and hopping from one to another until suddenly I can see it.
I gaze at it. I’ve never seen Jupiter before.
“Can you see its moons?” I ask.
“Not without a telescope. But with one, yes, easily. Would you like to?”
“Yes, you can come on to the bridge.”
“On to the bridge!”
“Yes. Everybody visits the bridge at some point. It’s a perk of space travel.”
“I didn’t know that,” I murmur.
“Well, you do now! Come with me, I’ll give you a tour. Not now: I have to go to work in a minute. Tomorrow, if you like.”
“That would be great,” I say, and I mean it. Wow. “Where is the bridge?” I’m imagining a mysterious region in the central part of the ship, where there is no gravity, and you have to float through tubes, weightless, to get there, as we did when we came on board.
“It’s just a room. A short walk down the corridor from here.”
“It’s in the wheel?” I’m surprised. “What about, you know, looking where we’re going?”
“We’re looking at electronic screens.”
“Of course you are,” I say, feeling foolish.
There is a hint of a smile on Ella’s face.
“It’s not exactly spectacular to look at,” she says. “Just some people sitting around doing their jobs. But you might find it interesting. Most people seem to.”
It is indeed just a room, though not like any I have seen on board. It’s fairly large, similar to the two bars, but smaller than the dining room. Four people are sitting there at work when Ella and I walk in; they glance up briefly, but don’t say anything.
We stand by the door and look across the room. Each crew member is in a complicated looking seating unit. The seat itself is obviously reclinable and looks rather like the ones in the space elevator, though probably more comfortable; and there is a screen with a keyboard and various other bits attached to it. It looks a little like a dentist’s chair.
The whole arrangement can swivel and tilt automatically, Ella explains, to match the ship’s acceleration. So while we were sliding off our seats in the bar that evening, the crew were sitting comfortably in these padded chairs with their backs leaning into the thrust.
“Your own fault,” says Ella. “Should have been in bed.”
We exchange a grin.
“Come, I’ll show you what it’s like,” she says, and she leads me to an unoccupied one of these seating units.
“Sit down. Go ahead, it’s okay.”
It really is very comfortable. I can feel it supporting my back in all the right places.
“Whose seat is this normally?” I ask.
Ah, that makes sense, because Ella and I are of a similar height.
She crouches beside me so that she can see what I am seeing. She switches the screen on and types a few commands that I don’t follow.
Up comes what looks like a generic picture of the night sky.
“This is the view directly ahead of us,” she says, “in our direction of travel. It’s normalised to the ship’s system of coordinates, so it’s not affected by the turning of the wheel. And this,” and she types some more, “is where we have come from.”
This is effectively the view from the day bar.
The picture changes as it zooms in; the Sun moves across and out of the screen, there are just a few celestial objects remaining, then even fewer, until just one of these points of light grows and takes shape and becomes, recognisably, a planet.
Ella rocks back on to her heels and looks up at me.
I am looking at my home.
During the months since we left, Mars has continued on its orbit; it’s off to one side of the Sun now, from where we are looking, and so I see it illuminated from one side, with the other side in darkness.
Not a view I would ever have expected to get of my home planet.
A little red crescent, lonely in the deep blackness around it to the edge of the screen that it nearly fills.
The image is fairly indistinct, and I can easily recognise the cubes that each individual pixel produces. We are at the limit of resolution of the ship’s telescopes. It’s really only the colour that makes it obvious that this is Mars. Where I was born and grew up, and worked and ate and slept, where all my belongings are stored in boxes, and where everybody I have ever known is now; except for my sister, who I think is still on the Earth. Everybody else is on that little red rock, and all the immensity, the unimaginable, oppressive immensity of the universe is around it, everywhere else.
Ella is watching me.
“I know,” she says. “Makes you think, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah.” I turn my eyes towards her, and back to the screen. “Can we see your home?”
“You mean where I grew up? No. It’s far too small to show up on this. But I can show you where we’re going.”
She reaches across and brings up the first picture again, and zooms in with a practised eye to where we saw Jupiter yesterday. The familiar view of the gas giant fills the screen, familiar from pictures, in my case: that huge globe, crossed by lateral red stripes, and with the famous red spot.
We feast our eyes on this for a few moments, and then Ella makes the image smaller again and is obviously searching.
“There, that looks like one of them,” she says. “I don’t think it’s Callisto, though. Wait a sec.”
The image shrinks and turns and shifts a little, until she is finally satisfied and rocks back again.
“There. All four Galilean moons. And that one there,” she says, pointing to the one furthest away from Jupiter, “is Callisto.”
I am really surprised.
“Is it that far out?” I say. It’s a long way from Jupiter. You wouldn’t think they had anything to do with each other.
Ella smiles again. I’m always saying stupid things.
“If you want to know,” she says, “it’s about two million kilometres away from Jupiter. Which is well over ten times the diameter of Jupiter itself. Yes, they are a long way apart.”
I can see Jupiter like a little ball, close to the centre of the screen, and four little points of light: little, but larger and brighter than the stars that I can also see behind them.
“Have you been there before?” I ask.
“No. This is my first time so far out.”
I am wondering what Jupiter looks like from Callisto, if it’s so far away.
“You won’t see Jupiter at all for the most part,” Ella says when I voice this thought.
“Eh? Why not?”
“Because the colony is built on the other side of the satellite. You’ll always be looking away from Jupiter.”
“Oh. I didn’t realise that.” That makes me a feel a bit disappointed. “But – I don’t understand. Doesn’t Callisto rotate?”
“Yes, it does; but the time it takes to rotate once around its own axis, is the same as the time it takes to orbit Jupiter once. So it always turns the same side to Jupiter; and the other side is always facing away.”
Facing outward, with its back to Jupiter. It really is as if it didn’t want anything to do with the place.
Suddenly I can’t wait to get there at last. This is taking such a long time. Months and months on this ship. Which is very pleasant, certainly; but I want to get there, I want to finish this journey and start the job that I’ve been sent there to do.
It’s still a good while to go after my visit to the bridge, even though this was well into the second half of the voyage. Our routines continue. My involvement at work has become more sporadic, and less time-consuming on the whole; I think it’s an effort for people back on Mars to identify self-contained pieces of work that they can send me to do, and so they are sending fewer of them. I have kept myself busy, though: I’ve drafted the whole of the legal documentation for the new stock exchange, by taking the Martian documentation and adapting it to Callisto: not very difficult; and that is now with the client, having been reviewed by my supervising partner in Mars City. And I’ve read up a lot about Callisto and its companies, its economy and its businesses, and its legal system.
The artificial gravity on the ship has reduced a great deal over those months and is now approaching Callistoan strength, which is only a third of that on Mars, and is similar to the gravity on the Moon. It takes much longer to float down to the floor again after every step, and I have had to learn a new, adapted way of walking, which everybody does as they walk along the corridor or fetch their food from the buffet at mealtimes.
I keep having to increase the weights that I use on the machines in the gym. It’s getting steadily easier to lift the same weights, so I have to keep piling additional weights on; at the same time those exercises that don’t rely on lifting things, but on pushing them apart, for instance, remain unchanged. I find it quite confusing, and I have to take expert advice from the officer in charge of the gym.
Ella and Jewel and I venture into the bar from time to time in the evenings, not too late. We always go as a group, but we’re friendly with the men we encounter there, which is most of the men on the ship, by the end. I can tell that some of them would like more, sometimes; but we never have any problems.
Once one of them insists on walking back down the corridor with me afterwards; in fact it’s young Gordon from Callisto; I’m a little nervous as we approach my door, but his behaviour is unimpeachable, and he wishes me a good night with a slightly dopy, tipsy expression as the door closes and shuts him out.
They’re all good boys, really. I feel quite fond of them, thinking about them as the voyage at last approaches its end. I don’t know what they say when we’re not there, but to our faces they are always correct and polite, yet also friendly and relaxed, and we banter and joke in those armchair arrangements, or standing in a huddle by the window in the starlight, with our cocktails or our soft drinks.
I’ll probably see most of them again when we get down on to the planet, either because they live there, like Vladimir and Gordon, or because they’ll have to wait at least until the next ship arrives to return to Mars. And I am painfully aware that this will not be the case with Ella.
When it’s time for me to leave Callisto to come home, this ship will have just arrived back at Mars, I think. By the time I arrive back on Mars, Ella will be long gone, on her next voyage or the one after that. Who knows when we’ll see each other again, or whether we ever shall.
“I hope we keep in touch,” I tell her, feeling troubled.
“Of course we will,” she says, giving me an encouraging smile.
“It’s really meant a lot to me,” I go on. “Making friends. I really hope we stay friends.”
She places a hand on my forearm, which I am conscious is sweaty, because we are in the gym.
“I’m glad we’re friends,” she says, and I have a choking feeling as I look up at her with what feels like a vulnerable, appealing expression.
“Come on,” she says briskly. “I want to see you swinging those weights.”
And only a few days later, one afternoon, most of the passengers gather, or maybe all of us, in the night side bar to watch our approach.
Jupiter is clearly visible a lot sooner than Callisto. It is huge: seeming many times larger than the Sun, seen from the bar on the other side of the corridor. Which in turn has about a third of its apparent size seen from Mars, I am told, diameter, that is, though I can scarcely remember what it used to look like from there. It has been imperceptibly shrinking ever since we came on board.
Then, much later, Callisto comes into view. A strange, pitted surface, much darker than Jupiter, with many, many craters whose edges glint in the sunlight, pale though it is, compared to home.
The approach takes some time. Not many of us stay here the whole time. Vladimir and his friends are in that same horseshoe of armchairs and couches and are clearly set for a full session of drinking. I don’t join them this time. Like most people I drop in from time to time to see how things are progressing, and then go back to my room to do some work or do some other thing that seems more compelling.
But as Callisto grows in our field of view most of us are drawn back, and the bar fills up and becomes more crowded than I have ever known it. I find a place to stand where I have a reasonable view, not just of heads. It feels as though I am looking downhill again, because the ship is decelerating, though not as strongly as it accelerated away from Mars all those months ago; so it feels like less of a slope.
And Callisto grows, and blocks out more and more of the starry sky behind it, as Mars did; but it grows even more, because the ship is approaching more closely to Callisto than it came to Mars, and there comes a time when the whole window is filled up with that rocky landscape, half in sunlight and half in shadow as we approach, and then moving slowly across our field of view as the ship passes over the surface. We are in orbit around Callisto, and we have arrived.