It’s another morning, two days later, when I walk down once more to the terminal, wearing my space suit again, having now vacated my apartment and spent the night at a friend’s place.
Most of my luggage is already down here somewhere, stored and waiting to be loaded separately; unless it’s been loaded already: I don’t know. I’m carrying one bag with some basic things, because I am going to spend one night in the space elevator before I reach the ship itself.
The waiting room is fuller this time: I think there must be a whole batch of people set to join the ship along with me; and as I walk inside there’s an explosion of whoops and shouts, and streamers and ribbons and coloured stars: my colleagues at work have come down to see me off.
I’m really touched.
“What’s all this?” I ask them, looking around me with a broad grin. “What’s all this noise, early in the morning? Giving a girl the shock of her life!”
They cluster around me, six or seven of them, male and female, all of them associates who work in my department except for one who is in tax. They want to be uproarious and hilarious, but it’s hard to do that on command, especially so early; and anyway, they’re lawyers. One of them blows a party whistle in my face, and Stevie, one of the associates on Green Ridge, empties a saucer of coloured stars over my head. Other passengers are smiling, I’m glad to see.
Dan is here too. He produces a bottle of champagne, someone else has some glasses, and he commences to pour.
“Alcohol?” I say. “Is nobody going to do any work today?”
“Work? What’s that?” someone says, and everyone laughs.
“I hope there aren’t any clients seeing this,” I say, and in a louder voice: “We’re all from the Bank of Mars!”
That raises another laugh. Dan is passing the glasses round.
“Amy,” he says, and people calm down, turning to face me with their glasses in their hands. “Amiable Friend. That’s what you are, to all of us. We wish you all the best, and know that you’re in all our hearts.” He looks around the group. “And do try to draft a bit more quickly, please.” Everyone smiles.
He raises his glass. “Bon voyage, Amy!”
Everybody drinks to me, and I raise my glass to all of them in turn, looking around the whole group. I take a sip and thank everyone with a little bow.
Now there is a slightly awkward moment because they have done what they came here for, and there isn’t really another item on the agenda. We stand there with our half-emptied glasses, they in their suits to go to the office, I in my space suit and with coloured paper in my hair, and we make a little small talk and try to recapture the high spirits of their welcome to me. But it’s not long before the shuttle arrives behind those closed doors, they slide open, and all those who have been waiting stand up and start to move inside.
“Goodbye everyone!” I call. “Thanks for coming to see me off!” One more round of hugs, and that is it. Dan behaves himself, giving me the same kind of hug as everyone else, though he does give me a meaningful look for a second as we disengage.
They are waving to me, Forty is waving a ribbon, as the doors slide shut again. I put on my helmet, find a seat and strap myself into it.
It’s only a very short ride to the ground station of the space elevator. We passed through the other day when I went to visit my parents, but the shuttle didn’t stop that day. I don’t even bother to take off my helmet, because we have hardly started before it’s time to get off. I stand up and move to the doors, along with only a few other people, maybe fifteen along the whole length of the shuttle; most of the passengers remain seated, so I was wrong about a large group travelling to the ship with me.
It’s a very small, bare waiting room here, and we don’t have to wait in it at all. We walk straight into the elevator, which is here waiting for us; in fact there is a stack of them, and we use a lift to reach the topmost one.
The cabin is shaped like a ring, with seats most of the way around it, their backs to the outside wall. In the middle is a cylinder, quite thick, and unseen to us, the cable passes through that cylinder.
There is a satellite in a stationary orbit, seventeen thousand kilometres directly above us, and currently there’s a single cable, very strong, carbon-based, linking the satellite to the ground station and made fast at the lower end. Beyond the satellite, further out in space, there’s a counterweight, linked to the satellite by the same cable, to preserve the stability of the satellite’s orbit. The cable is stored up there in space most of the time, and lowered to Mars City and made fast whenever it’s needed. And the elevator simply drives up and down the cable like a train, carrying people and goods off planet and on to it. It’s far more economical than using rockets, and by all accounts a great deal more pleasant.
The seats are all the same. I choose one furthest away from the entrance; only because that is where I am when I’ve seen all the seats and realised that there’s no difference. I sit down and put my bag next to me on the floor. It’s very comfortable, with head rests on either side and with an adjustable back, which can be lowered all the way down to a horizontal position: this will be my bed tonight. Even when the seats are horizontal there is space between them and the central pillar wide enough to walk past comfortably, and to push a trolley. We’ll be here for two full days and a night, so obviously there will have to be meals.
Boarding is a very informal process and is soon completed. We all take our seats and strap ourselves in, and so do the two attendants. One of them is operating the elevator and has the controls in front of her seat; the other walks around first to check that we are all strapped in, and then he sits down too in one of the empty seats.
The sound of the engine increases, still very muffled, though, and I suddenly realise from the pressure on my back that we are moving. We must have moved off very gently, creeping up the cable at first, but we are now accelerating swiftly and smoothly until we reach our cruising speed which is, I am told, five hundred kilometres per hour, vertically up the cable. This is it, I think to myself. Here we go.
The male assistant unbuckles himself, stands up and picks up a microphone, and his face appears on the screens in front of each one of us, fixed to the central pillar: although he could easily be heard in this small cabin without a microphone, because of that central pillar there is no point at which he can be seen by everybody. He speaks a few words to greet us and to explain the procedures and the facilities. As for seat belts, he tells us that we can do as we like today, but tomorrow they are going to insist that we are strapped in until we reach our destination.
And then the long haul of this first stage of my journey really commences. There’s a handheld device attached to my seat, and I scroll through the possibilities. One channel is a view out of the elevator, which is rather pleasing. One can switch between a view from a camera fixed into the bottom of the cabin and directed towards the surface of Mars as it gradually recedes, and another camera pointing directly upwards into the sky. By the time I realise this we are already very high, it seems to me, and it’s hard to recognise any details, though it’s obvious where Mars City is.
I spend most of that first day watching films, something I rarely take the time to do. I start with a film that I used to like when I was a teenager, but I get bored before long, and not because I can remember the story. I then select a nature documentary, from Earth, about living creatures in the oceans, swimming about and preying on each other. Very fascinating and very alien; and very beautiful, as well as disquieting.
While I am watching that the first meal is served, by the female attendant, because they have swapped jobs for the moment. The one in the driver’s seat has by far the easier job for most of the journey.
After the fish I watch a romantic comedy, after that a quiz show, and after that I can’t face watching any more and I stand up and walk around. In fact it takes a few seconds to walk around the entire cabin at a leisurely pace. I lean on the central cylinder and loiter.
One of the passengers catches my eye and takes off his headphones.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you,” I say. Did I look as though I wanted something?
He smiles. “Have you been to Callisto before?” Good, he wants to chat.
“No, I’ve never even been off Mars before,” I reply.
“Never even been in the elevator before?”
“So this must be very exciting.”
I smile, but I don’t comment on that.
“What about you?” I ask. “Have you been to Callisto before?”
“I live there,” he tells me.
“Yeah. This was a business trip, and now I’m done and I’m going home.”
“So have you been here before?” I ask him instead, and I smile.
It turns out that he has, just once, years ago, and we talk about how Mars has changed in the meantime. Actually he knows more about that than I do, because when he was here before I was a schoolgirl at Frobisher and had seldom been to Mars City.
“I’m from Earth originally,” he slips in at the end of one of his explanations, and that is interesting, because I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that from his speech.
So I tell him that my parents are from Earth too, and we compare where he and they are from. That doesn’t take very long, because they are not even from the same country, and I don’t know much about where my parents were born and grew up. But he can tell me about his country, and how different it was there from where he is now.
Water, apparently, is the big difference. Water, lying around on the ground, under the open sky, or falling from it. There’s none of that on Callisto, or on Mars either.
And darkness. Callisto is dark, if you go outside the colony. Which he does a lot, because like most Callistoans he is involved in the mining industry.
While we’re talking I observe him more closely, trying not to make it obvious, and even in his semi-reclining position and in his space suit I think I can tell that he is indeed shorter than me, though probably not by much, and far more powerfully built. He is, obviously, a good deal older than me, and his hair is greying, but he has a strong, clearly contoured face and grey eyes and is, I think, actually quite good looking for his age.
In the end I decide to go back to my seat. We introduce ourselves first and shake hands. His name is Vladimir. I give my name Martian-style, wonder whether it would be too familiar to give the abbreviation too, and then do it anyway.
Back at my seat I am mortified to discover several bits of coloured paper still in my hair. I had forgotten all about them. I remove them, thoroughly, and settle back for the remainder of the day.
It’s not a particularly comfortable night, lying flat out on the same seat with the cabin darkened, but not completely dark, and the noise of our ascent a steady background. I think the two attendants take it in turns to nap, so that at least one of them is always awake to deal with any emergency. Nothing happens, though, the morning arrives and the lights go on again, and the male attendant brings us moist towels to freshen up. There is no bathroom in the elevator; we have our space suits.
On that second day I can see why they want us to remain strapped in. We are high above the ground now, the thrust needed to keep the elevator moving up the cable at a constant speed is much less, and the result is that we are approaching a state of weightlessness.
I know we’re not really weightless. Physicists laugh when I try to understand it, but what I gather is this. The cable is fixed to the ground, to the planet itself, which is rotating around its centre, once a day. At the other end the satellite is orbiting the planet, at just the right height and speed to remain exactly above the ground station as it circles around with the rest of the planet: a stationary orbit. Because the satellite is so much further out, it has to travel a lot faster in order to do a full circuit in the same time as the ground station. As we travel up the cable, we are orbiting the planet too, and the higher we rise, the faster our orbital speed becomes, dragged along by the cable, until, at the end of our ascent, we’re travelling at the same speed as the satellite and are in a stationary orbit too. Up there, no thrust from below is needed to keep us from falling back on to the ground; we just keep on circling the planet, for ever. That’s where it will seem to us that we are weightless; but we’re not really weightless. We always have a weight; but we’ll be in free fall, along with the cabin that we’re in, and the satellite.
Eating and drinking are different on this second day. The trolley still does its circuit around the cabin, fixed to its rails, but today the attendant hands out tubes of food and drink, and we squeeze the contents into our mouths and swallow them. It feels more like a course of medical treatment than a meal; but it’s only for one day.
On the planet below us it’s evening when we arrive at the end of our ascent. Up here it will be light for a while longer, until the satellite and the ship too move behind the planet and are cut off from the Sun. Down on the ground an observer would be able to see them glinting in the Sun’s light like an evening star.
For safety reasons, again, we’re required to fasten our helmets before the cabin door is opened. I do so, I unbuckle my seat belt, and I propel myself very carefully towards the central cylinder where there is a rail to hold on to. I am probably the only person in this cabin who has never done this before.
The cabin door slides open and the attendants usher us through, one by one. I watch what the others are doing and try to do the same thing: I let go of the rail, push myself off and glide through the door. One of the attendants corrects my trajectory with a gentle shove, and I leave the elevator and am in the satellite. The satellite itself seems to be little more than a hollow piece of casing that envelops and holds the elevator; bumps and jolts when we arrived presumably came from its being made fast, automatically, to that casing. There is only a small space that we have to pass through inside the satellite, and we then glide on straight into the ship which, of course, has been docked on to the satellite ever since it arrived.
Once you have let go and propelled yourself into a room, or any kind of space, there is nothing you can do, if you’re weightless, to change your direction or your speed, and you can’t stop yourself turning, if that is how you start. I move through what seems to be a flexible tube, bumping into the side at one point, and arrive in a very undignified fashion in the main body of the ship where a crew member is waiting. He catches me, stops me from spinning, and turns me the right way up. I am apologetic and grateful.
This is in the hub at the centre of the wheel that forms the ship. This room that I have just entered is only a small part of that central hub: the hold is here, and I think the engine must be, and I dare say there are other sections here too that we passengers never get to see.
But we are going to spend the entire voyage in the rim of the wheel, where all the cabins and the common facilities are, as well as the galley and, I imagine, certain other spaces where only the crew goes. At the moment the rim is stationary to allow us access, but once we’re aboard it will start to spin, and the centrifugal force of that rotation will feel for us like gravity.
It will stop rotating again tomorrow, briefly, to let the remaining passengers in, who I know are travelling up the cable now, in a different cabin, the next one down on that stack; there will be a warning, and we’ll have to make sure that we and all our belongings are securely fastened while the artificial gravity disappears; and after a short time it will start to spin again, and it won’t stop until we reach Callisto.
I pass along a gangway from the hub to the rim, still fairly ungainly, and arrive at the other end in another small room where another crew member is waiting, and the passengers from the elevator are gathering on seats not unlike those in the waiting room down on the ground. The crew member helps me to reach a seat, and manipulates me into it, because I am making rather a mess of this.
When we are all seated, not strapped in, because there is no need for that, and the door is closed and the gangway disengaged, the wheel begins, very gradually, to turn on the axle that joins it to the central complex at the hub. I feel it by a definite, growing sense of being pulled down: I am sitting on that seat, as I would on the ground, not just located in space next to it.
The feeling grows, and so does a sense of normality. Everything is the right way up, and so am I. Finally the crew member takes off his helmet and stands up, and we all do the same.
“Welcome aboard,” he says, and the fact that I can hear his voice directly, not by radio, reinforces that sense of normality.
The door through which we came in is now in the ceiling, in the direction of the hub. We file out through a different door in one of the sides of this room, which leads us on to a corridor that extends along the rim of the wheel as far as the eye can see. That is not very far, because both behind us and ahead of us the floor and the ceiling curve upwards out of sight, or what looks like upwards from here; I know that, once there, it will feel the right way up and the corridor will seem to curve upwards when I look back to where we are standing now. Wherever you are in this wheel, down is always the direction away from the hub.
The crew member leads us along the corridor and shows us to our quarters. I am about the fourth person in our group to arrive at her cabin; the door slides open for me and I walk in while the rest of the group walks on. The door closes behind me.
There is a bed, a desk and a chair. That is all the furniture, and they are all fixed to the floor, though the chair is on rails and can be pushed a little way towards or away from the desk. A door leads to an integrated wardrobe, and another door leads to a separate bathroom with a washbasin, a lavatory and a shower. There is a mirror above the washbasin. There is no full-length mirror in this room, but I can use my mobile device if I want to check how I look from head to toe.
In the wardrobe, securely stowed in the bottom compartment, is my luggage. I pull it out, but I only take out a few things because the first thing I want to do is to use that shower. I take off my space suit, hang it up and remove the waste unit and flush it out in the lavatory, and then I am in the shower and gratefully enjoying the sensation of being clean again.
Once I am dressed, the next thing to do is to call my parents, because I promised I would. My mother answers.
“Hi, darling!” she calls. She’s in the kitchen. “Eamon, come quickly! It’s Amiable Friend.”
“There’s no hurry, Mum,” I say. ”Take your time, Dad!”
His face looms from the side into the picture and he gives me a grin.
“Evening, Amy!” he says. “Are you looking down on us?”
I grin back. “Well, I can’t actually see you,” I reply. “But yes, I’ve never been so high above you.”
“How was your journey, darling?” my mother wants to know, and I describe it. Vladimir was right, of course. It was exciting, even if my sister does this all the time. Most people very seldom travel in space. My parents haven’t been off planet for many years.
We don’t talk for long. We only saw each other a couple of days ago, and spent the greater part of the day together. I sign off, and then I potter about for a while in my room, unpacking my luggage and putting my things away, mindful that they need to be securely stowed this time tomorrow when the final batch of passengers arrives, and finally it’s time to leave my quarters and make my way to the dining room.
The routine is that all the passengers and most of the crew eat together at long tables that are fixed to the floor and slightly curved to match the curvature of the great wheel that we are in. Like all chairs in this ship, these chairs are fixed to rails and can only be moved forwards and backwards. The food is on a side table with the plates and cutlery, and we serve ourselves and carry our meals to our seats.
This first time I don’t know what the routine is, and I stand uncertain by the entrance while people drift in past me. A woman sees me standing there and approaches me.
“Hi!” she says. “I’m Elegant Lady. Call me Ella.”
“I’m Amiable Friend,” I say, “but call me Amy.” We shake hands.
“Come and sit with me,” she offers.
“Can I do that?”
“Yes, you can sit where you like, come and go as you like: there are no rules.”
She leads me to the buffet and explains how all this works. We each take a tray and a plate and start helping ourselves to food while she carries on explaining.
“So this is not your first time,” I have worked out all on my own.
“On the ship? No, I work here.”
“Oh. You’re a member of the crew?”
“What do you do?”
“I’m an engineer,” she tells me. “A spacecraft engineer. I used to work in one of the asteroid bases, till I got itchy feet and applied for this. You want to avoid that dessert.”
I grin, and avoid it.
“Also I’m a qualified masseur,” she goes on. She draws herself a beaker of juice and motions to me to do the same.
“Wow. How did that happen?”
“It’s just something I wanted to do,” she says. “I was studying, and doing a lot of sport at the same time, light athletics and basketball, and I just got interested in the medical side of sport. Not much call for that now.”
“No, I don’t suppose there is.”
We make our way to one of the tables and sit down next to each other.
“But I offer my services to passengers,” she says, and puts a hand on my fore-arm. “Sorry, I’m not touting for business!”
“It would be fine if you were,” I say. “I might take you up on that.”
“It’s a long journey. Anything that relieves the monotony – even a massage –”
“No, it sounds like a good thing to do.” I cut a piece off the slab of processed vegetables on my plate. “I daresay I’ll be doing some exercise.”
“Oh, yes, you have to,” she says. “Our medical officer will see you in the next couple of days and take you through your programme.”
“In the gym. You know there’s a gym on board?”
I hadn’t really thought about it, but my mouth is full, and that relieves me of needing to reply.
“And it’s even more important when you’re on Callisto,” she goes on, and spears a potato with her fork. “If you ever want to come back to normal gravity, you have to maintain your muscles and your bones.”
“Yes, I know that,” I tell her. “I have to go for a consultation as soon as I get there. They’re going to put me in touch with a doctor when I arrive.”
“So what are you going to do on Callisto, Amy?” she asks.
“Well,” I begin. “I’m a corporate lawyer.”
She very obviously has no idea what that is, and I try to explain: it’s about drafting the legal agreements that document a transaction which somebody wants to do.
About understanding the structure of the deal in its multitudinous aspects; understanding the interests of the client and those of the other participants in the transaction, and what parts they have agreed on and what they haven’t agreed on yet; helping them to reach agreement on those aspects too; and then putting it all in writing in such a way that anyone reading it later will know exactly what everybody has agreed on, and there’ll be no need for a dispute. That’s the ideal, anyway.
Ella listens, with apparent interest, and then says,
“So it’s all about money, basically.”
“Yes, pretty much,” I say. She turns to her plate and cuts a morsel off her slice of flan. I backtrack.
“Well, no, that’s not really it,” I say. “It’s about getting something done.”
I start telling her about the flotation that I worked on last year: White Bear. That deal was very public and a lot of information is in the public domain, so I don’t need to be concerned about confidentiality.
“So yes,” I finish, “you can say it was about money. White Bear needed money, and they offered their shares on the Martian stock exchange in order to raise that money. But the reason they needed money was to expand their business: you know, finance equipment, exploration, all that. So really it was about helping the mining industry on Callisto.”
I think I may be laying it on a bit thick here, and I think I can see a slightly amused twinkle in Ella’s eye.
“That is,” I go on, “I don’t mean to say we’re doing this out of idealism or anything.”
She smiles. “You mean your work is fulfilling an important economic function.”
“I’m sure it is. But you haven’t told me why you’re going to Callisto yet.”
So I explain about the planned new stock exchange, and my role in putting it together.
She listens, politely, taking a friendly interest and willing, it seems to me, to give me the benefit of the doubt; but I don’t think she really gets it. I don’t think she really understands how important it is for companies on Callisto to have access to sources of finance, and how important the new stock exchange is going to be as one of those sources.
And it shows me, as if I didn’t already know, how different Mars City is in its concerns, its purposes and its way of doing things. There really is nowhere else, apart from Earth, obviously, where people are used to thinking in these terms: finance, and economics, and getting things done in a complex, organised, interconnected society.
Ella is typical of people here. Anyone with any kind of education, even if it’s not in engineering or science, is likely to end up doing something in production, or transport: something tangible, anyway, whose purpose and benefits are obvious. It’s only in Mars City that you get law firms, and investment banks, and brokers and financial intermediaries: people who deal in the abstractions of economic exchange and payment.
I wonder what attitudes are going to be like on Callisto.
We leave this subject, and she tells me more about the ship and what she does on it. It doesn’t sound very time-consuming, and she freely admits that it isn’t, once the ship is under way.
“Most of us have some sort of project,” she says. “I’m doing a course in history.”
“No reason, really. Well, there’s some Iranian in my family, if you go back a while, but that’s not really why. I came across it as I was browsing prospectuses, and I realised that I didn’t know anything about it, and it seemed very interesting.”
So my evening meal finishes, most unexpectedly, with some information about mediaeval beys and sultans and caliphs, as I peel the lid off my dessert and spoon it into my mouth in attentive silence.
Our ways part after the meal. I walk back to my cabin, and Ella makes her way to her quarters, wherever they are. I can hear voices further down the corridor, unseen, as other people go back to their rooms too, presumably; but all that is gone once my door closes behind me. It really is quiet in my room. A slight hiss from the air conditioning, once a muffled thump from somewhere unidentifiable, perhaps someone dropping something; that is about it.
So it’s a much more peaceful night than it was last night in the elevator. I lie there in the darkness, everything still, as far as I can tell, though I know that this great wheel is turning constantly, high above the ground, and carrying me with it.
Either my head or my feet are pointing towards the ground. I try to work out which, by reliving my route from the elevator, through the central part and out into the wheel; but I get confused, trying to imagine this in three dimensions with those changing perspectives as to what is up and down; and I give it up.
I suppose the ship isn’t glinting in the sunlight any more. We must be behind the planet now. Everything will be dark around us. Just stars to see.
I’m glad I’ve made friends with Ella.
I don’t really remember any more until I wake up the next morning. There is some light filtering in, very dimly, through a panel in the top of the door. Evidently the lights are on in the corridor.
I don’t see Ella at breakfast. People are drifting in, individually, and sitting on their own. It’s obviously the same system as at dinner last night. I get myself a croissant, which seems to be freshly baked, and some hot chocolate. It’s the nicest thing I’ve had since I left home two days ago.
Back in my room, it’s high time that I did some work for the office. It’s been nearly a week since I did any. Obviously this was expected, and it’s okay; but it’s time now.
So I sit at my desk, I log in at the computer that comes with the room, and I commence the process of getting ready to do some work. It takes a little while for me to get the hang of how this is organised, but it’s quite logical, and quite straightforward, really. I get out my data stick and start uploading its contents to the machine here, and while that is going on I write an email to my group, telling them where I am and that I am now online.
For the time being I can log on at work directly. It will be a little while before we have travelled so far that the time delay makes that impracticable.
Bright calls me shortly after my email, Bright Future, the senior associate who is running the Green Ridge transaction day by day in our firm. He brings me up to date, in particular on my piece of this complex deal. I have his voice in my headphones and I scroll through the documents on my screen as he is talking about them, or he scrolls through them for me where there is something he specifically wants to show me.
There are no surprises; the matter has progressed as I would expect after a week’s absence. Bright explains what he wants me to do today, and he leaves me to get on with it.
It’s a different kind of working to what I am used to. Very quiet. Down on Mars I had an office of my own, a small one, but the door was always open, I could see people passing and hear people talking, people would come into my office and I would go into theirs, and into internal meeting rooms and over to the kitchen to stock up with water.
After three hours of this I feel that I am desperate to see another human being, and I’m grateful when it’s time for lunch. It’s in the same room as all the meals. Once again I don’t see Ella there. I do see Vladimir, sitting with another man, and we wave, but we don’t speak to each other. I eat my meal in silence, and I am starting to feel a bit sorry for myself when I return to my room. I hope Ella will be at dinner.
Ella in fact does better than that. At some point late in the afternoon there is a knock on my door. I am astounded, and don’t move at first; but then it comes again, I clearly hadn’t imagined it, so I stand up and open the door, and there is Ella with another woman.
“Now I’m not going to ask you whether I’m disturbing you, because I know I am,” says Ella, “but I just decided that I really wanted to. We’ve come to take you away for a pot of tea.”
“Oh, that’s so nice of you,” I say after a moment of astonished silence. “Look, can I just finish something off?” I gesture towards the interior of my room. “Do sit on the bed. I won’t be a second.”
They don’t sit, but crowd into the room after me and stand over me as I type a few words and save my work.
“This is Glittering Jewel,” Ella says, and she and I shake hands. “Jewel is part of the crew too.”
“I look after the food,” says Jewel, “and various other things.”
“We all do various other things,” says Ella, and both laugh.
I go with them down the corridor, between the two of them, and we are talking and laughing and gesturing happily. I’m feeling very braced; this is such an unexpected change, and such a welcome one, to the way the whole day has been going. I hadn’t spoken to a soul since my call with Bright this morning.
We take our tea in a very different kind of room from where all the meals have been. It’s much darker, and it has armchairs and couches instead of tables and chairs, and on the side facing away from the entrance there is a window along the whole length of the room. We are looking straight at Mars.
“There’s another room just like this on the other side of the corridor,” says Ella. “That looks out into space, and that’s pretty cool too; but we’ll see enough of that during the voyage, and we thought you’d rather see this.”
They were certainly right about that. I am transfixed by this view. As we enter the room, the planet fills the whole width of the window, from top to bottom; and the first thing we do is to walk up to the window and look out, and I can see the whole disc of my home planet, red and cratered, not filling my field of view by any means, but very, very prominent. One side of it is in shadow, where down on the ground night has already fallen; and around the planet, and especially on that side, I see myriads of stars in the deep black of space.
We sit down in a group of armchairs near the window. Jewel fetches us some tea, and we talk a little, but the others can tell that I am mesmerised by this sight and not really able to concentrate on a conversation. I’m sure this is what they wanted.
As I sit there with one eye out of the window I realise that I can see the planet turning.
Obviously it’s really we who are turning, not the planet; but that’s not what it looks like.
And the stars around it, of course, are turning with it. Slowly, but quite noticeably, really, once you do notice it. At a very rough guess I’d say it’s going all the way round about once a minute.
So in reality this wheel that we are sitting in is rotating about once a minute, and that is enough to simulate Martian gravity.
I think I’m surprised that it’s not more, actually. I hadn’t really thought about it, but I think I was expecting the wheel to be spinning a lot faster than that.
As it is I have leisure to watch the whole disc turning slowly about, the darkened portion travelling slowly all the way around the outside, and all the surface features turning too, even near the centre where it doesn’t seem to be turning at all. That’s where Mars City is, of course.
If we stayed here long enough, we’d see how that darkened portion grew and deepened in darkness, encroaching on the light part and gradually swallowing it up as the ship passed behind the planet and sank into night.
We don’t stay here anything like that long, though. After a very enjoyable half hour or so we stand up and start to go our separate ways.
I am absolutely delighted to have made two friends already, and I have to keep a tight grip to stop myself from gushing and embarrassing myself.
“Don’t forget the gravity’s being turned off at six,” Ella says. I hadn’t forgotten, but I thank her for reminding me.
“I’ll be at dinner at eight,” she goes on, “if you want to come too.”
“Oh, great,” I reply, “that’s perfect.” I look at Jewel, but she smiles and shakes her head.
“I’ll be at work,” she says. “But I’ll see you tomorrow.”
We arrange to do this again at the same time tomorrow. We’ll meet here, now that I know where it is.
I need to do some more work too: at least to finish the section that I was drafting when my two friends came. I check that all my things really are put away before sitting down and trying to concentrate on my drafting. Which is quite an effort, because I am feeling so buoyed by what has just happened.
When the alarm comes I don’t see why I can’t simply keep sitting here and carry on with my work. And in principle that’s true, but it is a very curious feeling when my weight gradually seems to diminish until I feel no pressure from the seat below me at all. I move involuntarily in my seat as I am re-reading what I have typed, and I panic as I can feel myself drifting off into the room; I grip the desk abruptly, and that sudden movement makes matters worse because it seems to have imparted some sort of twisting impulse to the rest of my body. I pull myself back into my seat and hold on to it with both hands, my heart pounding and my mind thoroughly off Green Ridge.
I don’t get much done at all while the gravity is off; this is just too weird and disconcerting.
I suppose you get used to it, and learn how to cope with it. Not me, though, because this is the last time before we arrive at Callisto.
When the gravity returns, smoothly and gradually as it did yesterday, nothing changes that meets the eye. Everything is in its place in my room: the bed, the chair, the desk, with the computer screen and the keyboard upon it; and I am in my seat as I was half an hour ago, looking at the screen and with my hands ready to type whenever the brain requires them to; but I’m now really sitting again, pulled into my seat as the wheel turns, I feel secure and grounded, and I am also feeling a little foolish.
It’s as if I am recovering from a sudden, irrational panic attack, looking around me and realising that actually everything is fine. And yet it was an objective event, nothing imaginary or psychological.
It was illogical to panic about it. I see that.
I don’t work all the way through until dinner time. I reach a point that strikes me as a sensible one to call it a day, and I save my work and log off. I stand up and stretch, and yawn, and wonder what to do with myself until it’s time to go. What I decide to do is to put on some music and give my nails a bit of attention.
Ella arrives in the dining room just after me and we queue up for dinner together. We spend a very enjoyable half hour in each other’s company, but Ella hasn’t much time this evening.
“It’s all hands on deck tonight,” she explains, “because we’re moving off.”
I know we are, and I am a little concerned about it, because it’s going to change the gravity again as long as the ship is accelerating: in addition to the centrifugal force of the turning wheel there’ll be the thrust in the direction of the ship’s travel, and I’m wondering what that is going to be like.
“Don’t forget to secure everything,” she reminds me as she takes her leave of me to go back to work. “We leave at ten.”
By ten the dining room will be cleared, and everything on the ship will be stowed away, and battened down, and whatever else they do to it, I suppose. I’m imagining hurried but practised activity in the galley and the other crew-only areas.
Just before ten a thought comes to me in my room, all my surfaces clear, and I get up and walk down the corridor to the room where we had tea this afternoon. When I get there I smile to myself at how many people have had the same thought.
All the seats are occupied, and the room is full of people standing and talking, many with drinks in their hands. I go in and wonder where to place myself: I want to see, but I don’t want to get in anybody’s way. I look around the room and settle for a spot near the wall, not too far from the window, where I do have a couple of men in front of me but still have really quite a good view.
Mars is almost completely in darkness now, with perhaps just a hint of red along one edge. All around it the heavens are magnificent, breathtaking: myriads upon myriads of stars, everywhere, in all directions except straight in front of us where they are blotted out by that black, almost black disc.
I used to see the stars a lot more often when I was a girl. I’ve hardly seen them since I lived in Town. There’s just no call to go out of the dome after dark, and not much call to go out in the daytime either. Frobisher was different, and it’s not just awe at this humbling sight that fills me, but memories. Memories of when I was a child.
I turn, and see Vladimir standing in front of me. He really is noticeably shorter than me.
“Come to say goodbye?”
“Yes. I wasn’t expecting so many people.” I look around.
He smiles in the shadows.
“It’s a tradition,” he says. “Anyway, it’s a spectacular sight.”
“Yes, it is,” I say enthusiastically, and he smiles again.
“Are you drinking?” he asks.
“Oh – no, I just wanted to have a look.”
“A drink won’t do any harm. Got to toast Mars one last time!”
I’m uncertain, and he goes on:
“We’re drinking margaritas. Can I get you one?”
“Oh, do they have cocktails?”
“They certainly do. Wait here, I’ll be right back.”
He disappears into the gloom. This is the second time today that somebody has fetched me a drink. I’m going to have to find out how this works here.
I think the lights are slightly less dim than they were this afternoon, I suppose because there is no light reflecting off the planet now. People are still arriving in this room, and it’s becoming more crowded and noisy.
After a very short wait Vladimir reappears with a second margarita in his hand. We raise our glasses to each other and take a sip, looking at each other over the rim. In his case, looking upward, which gives him a slightly quizzical expression.
I remember that he said “we” were drinking margaritas.
“Am I keeping you from your friends?” I ask him.
“Why don’t you join us?” he counters. “Or are you waiting for someone – sorry.”
“No, I’m not waiting for anyone.”
So I follow him into the body of the room, where a group of his friends are occupying two couches and two armchairs arranged in a square U shape and with an excellent view of Mars. Clearly they arrived here in plenty of time.
“Guys, this is Amiable Friend, from Mars, and she is on her way to visit our spangled home for the very first time.”
They actually all start to stand up to greet me. I protest and try to stop them, but to no avail. I shake all their hands, one after another, and Vladimir says,
“Guys, make some room for the lady.”
The men on the couches try to shift up, but there isn’t going to be room for me.
“It’s all right,” I say, “I’ll sit on the floor, I don’t mind.”
“You certainly won’t,” says Vladimir. “Gordon, out of that armchair and on the floor. Have you never seen a lady before?”
“What about you?” Gordon protests.
“Listen to your elders and betters, Gordon, and do as you’re told,” he says, and all the men laugh.
Gordon grumbles, but I don’t think he really minds. He gets up again and makes really quite a friendly gesture to me to take his seat. He is tall too, taller than me: I’m guessing that he is a native of Callisto.
I sit in that armchair, Vladimir in the other one next to me, and I sip my margarita. This is not at all what I was expecting when I left my room earlier; but why not. Why not.
As I sit there I have the strangest sensation that the room is beginning to tilt to one side, towards the window. Surely the margarita isn’t that strong?
I glance at Vladimir, who is looking at me with the hint of a smile, and I realise that he can feel it too.
“Oh,” I say. “Are we moving?”
He nods, and the whole roomful of people is starting to notice it too. A group of men somewhere in the shadows starts to cheer. The hubbub rises.
“Bon voyage,” Vladimir says to me, and he raises his glass.
“Bon voyage,” I echo.
The sensation of tilting increases, that incline becomes steeper, as the acceleration builds up. I am being pulled towards one arm of my chair, and Vladimir is being pulled away from me towards the window. I realise that this is actually a good place to be sitting; the men on the couch facing the window are having to plant their feet on the ground to stop themselves sliding off on to the floor.
This is very disconcerting. Sensible people are in bed.
But the tilting doesn’t increase for ever; the ship reaches the desired level of acceleration and I feel that the slope I am on has stabilised. Vladimir explains it to me.
“The thrust is about a quarter of Martian gravity,” he says. “That’s why it feels as though we’re on a steep hill; ‘down’ is still basically the same direction as it was before.”
“So how long does this go on for?” I ask.
“All night. It’ll take pretty much all night to reach our cruising speed, and then the acceleration will stop. When you get up tomorrow morning it’ll feel the way it did all day today till now.”
“Except for when the gravity was switched off.”
“Yes. Except for that.”
Day and night will soon cease to mean anything here, though. Vladimir agrees with me when I make that point.
“It’ll be day all the time in here,” he says, “and night all the time in the other bar, on the other side.”
“I haven’t been in there yet.”
“You should go. It’s very impressive. Not now, though.”
“No!” I laugh.
“Why not” is the response that pops into my mind again when he asks me if I’d like a refill. I think that I ought to get them this time, but he won’t hear of it.
“I’m not sending you to carry drinks down that hill,” he says. “Wait till you’ve got your sea-legs,” whatever that means.
At some point I look over at Mars, and it seems to me that it has got noticeably smaller, though I couldn’t say by how much. Maybe a quarter, I don’t know. I look at my device, and it’s already eleven. I have been here for over an hour.
It’s time to be sensible again. I need my brain tomorrow.
I stir in my armchair and start to stand up. Vladimir is talking to the men on the couch opposite, but he breaks off and looks at me enquiringly.
“Vladimir, I’m going to go back now,” I tell him. “Where do I put my empty glass?” I look over my shoulder into the shadows on the far side of the room.
“Leave it here, Amy, I’ll take it back with mine. No, really.”
“Thanks.” I take a last sip and hand it over to him.
They have all stopped talking now and are looking at me.
“You’ve all been really nice,” I say, and I get up now in earnest. They all stand up again and we repeat the ritual that we started with.
I stumble as I start to walk across the slope, and Vladimir catches my arm. He looks in my eyes, his expression concerned.
“I’ll be fine,” I say, and then I worry that I was unfriendly. “Thanks very much. Sorry.” I look up the slope, take a breath and start.
I weave a little, I have to admit, but I make it to the door without mishap. The corridor is much easier because it’s not uphill, though it’s weird that one side feels lower down than the other. For some reason I brush along the lower wall a couple of times.
I get to my door, it slides open and I go down into my room. The door closes again.
I take off my shoes and suddenly feel terribly dizzy. I lie down on my bed, fully clothed, and close my eyes. After a few moments I sense that the light has switched itself off. My eyelids are dark and cool.
I’m lying on a hillside with my feet pointing down into the valley. I feel as though there is a humming all around me, but I think it must be in my head. The best thing to do is just keep still and wait. So I wait. I keep still, I wait, and I fall asleep.