I was on Earth when they told me that I was dying.
I was on a concert tour that was taking me to a number of the great venues of Earth, working with some of its most famous orchestras and its best-known conductors as well as giving some recitals on my own.
I had done this before. I hadn’t expected this to be my farewell tour.
I had been noticing the odd strange thing in my playing. I expect unquestioning obedience from my fingers. Obviously it’s necessary to practise, and to work on pieces; I know that. It can be a long and painful process until I’m satisfied that I have mastered a piece. Even pieces that I know, and am comfortable playing for an audience, require work to maintain that standard, or to restore it if I haven’t played them for a while. But nothing that has ever been written, nothing that I have encountered – Scriabin, Rachmaninov, anything – has been too much to ask of those fingers of mine, in the end.
It wasn’t even in the difficult passages, particularly. It seemed to be at random points in the music, when the fingers simply didn’t respond as I expected. They were too halting, or late, or feeble, or awkward; they would stumble, and trip over each other, and make what ought to be a line of limpid, perfectly balanced notes like pearls on a necklace sound strangely inept.
I took some time between two stages of my tour to visit a place called the Bergklinik, in Austria. High up on a mountain, a couple of hours on the magnetic rail out of Vienna, where my last concert had been.
It was a fine, autumnal day. The sun was shining and it looked warm, but there was a chill, a crisp edge in the air, that seemed to spice the weather up rather than making it feel uncomfortable.
I sat outside on a wooden terrace in the sunshine, wearing my coat and drinking tea, as I waited for the results. It was already late in the afternoon; I had been there for most of the day; and some of the slopes were in deep shadow where I was looking at them across the green meadows, rolling towards the next rise or, on the other side, to where the ground fell away into the valley. It would be cold in those shadows.
It reminded me, made me think of years ago, when I was a young girl, and a young woman, when I still lived on Earth. I used to love to walk around in the mountains on a day like this, wearing my hiking boots and a sturdy, warm shirt, carrying a rucksack with a bottle of water and some sandwiches. In a group, or just two of us.
I wouldn’t do that now. This exoskeleton is witness to the fact that I’m a visitor to the Earth these days; not a native any longer.
I think the nurse was surprised to see that I was wearing one underneath my clothes when I stripped off for the scan, although, professional as she was, she made an effort to conceal it.
Even with the help of the exoskeleton, that gravity would kill me if I tried to clamber about the mountains as I used to.
Not kill me. That was an inappropriate metaphor in the circumstances. In these deadly serious circumstances.
Dr Kirchner came to collect me when the results were ready.
“Do finish your tea,” she said, standing in the doorway and looking out at me.
“I’ve finished,” I said. It was my second pot, and this half-full cup had been standing cold for some time.
I followed her through the clinic building and into her surgery.
“Do sit down, Ms Lundgren.”
I sat down in the same place as that morning, in one of three simple, rather ascetic armchairs grouped around a low table on which I placed my sunglasses. Dr Kirchner sat down next to me, not opposite.
Her tone was professional, but sympathetic, as she explained the results to me. She must have been about my age, and I liked her. She had black hair, brushed back and held together in a ponytail; a severe face, but warm, kind eyes. I looked a lot more glamorous than she did, in her white coat.
I was listening, but although I knew she was making an effort to explain all this in simple language, I was finding it quite hard to follow. I have only the haziest idea of human anatomy.
One word stood out. I looked at her across the corner of the table, and she paused. She lowered the paper she was holding and our eyes met.
“Incurable?” I repeated.
She started to speak, and stopped; she glanced at her paper and started again.
“There is a great deal that can be done nowadays, Ms Lundgren,” she said, “to help you. To ease the discomfort, to make it more manageable and perhaps less worrying.”
“But there isn’t actually a cure.”
I was looking at her face, looking to meet her eyes again.
“I’m afraid that’s correct, Ms Lundgren. There is no known cure for this condition. Not as such.”
I thought about this.
“Can you slow it down?” Maybe it could be slowed down enough to cover the remainder of my normal lifetime.
“Tell me the truth, please, Dr Kirchner.” I wonder how many patients really mean that.
I did mean it.
“Well, that’s not entirely easy to answer, Ms Lundgren. The disease doesn’t progress in a uniform way. It’s a complex process. I was trying to explain it to you.”
“I know you were,” I said, “but I didn’t understand a word.” I smiled at her. This couldn’t be easy for her.
She smiled back, a little startled.
“Yes; well, sometimes it progresses more quickly, sometimes more slowly. There will be times when it doesn’t seem to be progressing at all; but then there is always some kind of relapse. It’s not clear what it depends on. Stress may be a factor.”
“You mean, too much stress may speed it up.”
“Yes; and the other way around, too.”
“Less stress can slow it down.”
I leaned back and stared into space as I thought about this. Dr Kirchner waited for me.
“How slow can we make it?” I asked. “Can we slow it right down?”
“Ms Lundgren, that’s impossible to answer. It’s not even clear that stress really is a factor. Even if it is in some cases, that doesn’t mean that it is in all cases.”
“So you don’t in fact know whether it can be slowed down at all?”
“Not for certain, no.”
Dr Kirchner’s face filled with pity and sympathy.
“Ms Lundgren, many people live with this condition and lead fulfilling, happy lives. It can be managed. Medicine has made a lot of progress.”
But you can’t cure it.
I really only had two questions, and I urgently needed answers to them. Everything else was unimportant.
It occurred to me that Dr Kirchner probably had more difficult conversations than this one. I think I was making it easier for her. Relatively speaking. I wasn’t in tears, or panicking, or in denial, or hysterical. I was calm, and reasonable, and understanding. I’m not sure why.
I don’t think it would have helped if I had been more outwardly emotional. I was still just as calm and collected on the train back, looking out of the window as the dusk gathered.
“Is there anyone you can talk to, Ms Lundgren?” she had asked as she was finishing off the consultation. “A close friend? A partner?”
“Yes; yes, there is,” I replied, and I smiled. “Don’t worry about that.”
That wasn’t entirely true, though. Not immediately true. Certainly there was nobody on tour with me that I would want to discuss this with.
I had told them that I wanted to spend a day in the mountains on my own, for old times’ sake, before we moved on to Milan in the morning. And so it was: a day in the mountains is exactly what I did have.
I wasn’t dressed for nature. Anyone who saw me leave the hotel that morning would have realised that this day in the mountains was going to be a very civilised and comfortable one.
Pity. I found myself wishing that I was staying, as the train sped towards the darkening lowlands. A few days; a week; in a chalet, or hiking from one chalet to another, in a group of friends; cooking together in the evenings and laughing together afterwards over wine or white beer, or having a meal at a local hostelry, sitting in the shade of the trees at rustic tables on wooden benches.
Nobody to do that with nowadays, even if I had the time.
“So are we talking months?” I asked Dr Kirchner. “Weeks?”
“No, no, Ms Lundgren, goodness me, no. It won’t be as swift as that.”
“Certainly not. With all uncertainty, that we can rule out.”
She was not comfortable talking about this.
“How many years?” I asked. She didn’t respond, and I pressed her. “Dr Kirchner, I need to know. I need to be able to plan.”
Although I can’t plan without the answer to my other question. What is going to happen with my fingers? How long will I be able to play?
My schedule is always full up for years in advance. I have a long journey this year with a festival at the end of it, and many bookings after my return, on Earth and elsewhere. Will I be able to fulfil these obligations? Should I be telling my agent not to accept any more bookings?
Dr Kirchner had described the various ways in which the symptoms can be alleviated, and that is all very well; but I told her about how I have to be able to rely on my fingers; I have to know that they will do what I require of them, when I require it; I can’t be worrying in a concert about whether they will perform or refuse. I think she found this realisation quite sobering.
Recordings will be all right, in a studio. If I make a mess of a passage, I can play it again, and no one will care.
How long will I be able to avoid telling the public?
There are people that I need to talk to first, before I do that. Of course I must.
This is going to be very difficult.
In fact I’m going to have to treat the rest of my life as a farewell tour. Anywhere I go, anyone I visit, I must expect that this will be the last time. And I’ll have to find a way of telling them, and deal with their reaction. Each time.
I was leaving the Alps for the last time. I had already left them. I tried to glimpse them through the window of the carriage as we were passing through the countryside, but all I could see was lights in the distance and darkness everywhere. The mountains were invisible.
Another last time, a few weeks later, in New York.
I had played a concert the previous evening, at the Carnegie Hall. Not the whole concert: just one piece; a Beethoven concerto, before the interval.
It was routine. Nothing had gone wrong. The conductor was satisfied, I was satisfied, and the audience had applauded in a satisfactory fashion, though not for very long: I presumed they were looking forward to their pre-ordered interval drinks.
I stayed on to listen to the rest of the programme after the break. I do that sometimes. It was a Mahler symphony, and snatches of it were running through my head as I made my way across Manhattan the following morning.
I ordered a cab on my mobile device over breakfast, and the device guided me to it as I walked down the steps in front of my hotel. The door slid open for me, I stepped in and sat down, and I tapped on my screen to indicate that I was ready to go.
The cab moved off, passed the front of the building, and slipped on to the street, inserting itself between two vehicles that were going in my direction. The traffic was busy, but it was moving. It was a drab day. All around me, through the perspex bubble that surrounded me from chest height, I could see much the same things: the same high-rise buildings on either side, the columns of vehicles calmly moving, the enclosed walkways crossing and running alongside us.
The cab didn’t take me the obvious way. Its electronic brain, conferring with the rest of the traffic, had evidently found a quicker route. I wasn’t sure where we were, but I suddenly recognised it just before we fetched up in front of my destination, that site on the eastern side of the island where there has always been a UN building. The cab drew up in front of the entrance and opened itself to let me out before moving off silently to wherever empty cabs wait between assignments. I walked up the steps and into a revolving door.
I emerged from it into the atrium of the UN headquarters. On all sides transparent lifts were ascending or descending, or waiting half way up before moving off again. A moving staircase led off from the ground towards the back of the building. People were crossing the floor, or on the escalator, or visible in the corridors all the way up the sides of the atrium behind transparent walls. Vegetation from all over Earth decorated the space and softened its business-like severity, standing or hanging or spreading; some of it flowering, some of it lush and succulent, some hardy and economical with its resources, and all of it green. On the wall opposite me as I entered was that well-known display that the UN has used as its emblem for many years, huge and fascinating here in real life, showing the whole of the Solar System as it is today: all eight planets as they currently stand in relation to one another on their individual orbits around the Sun, and all of the larger moons; sometimes changing perspective to show the system from a different direction; sometimes closing in to show specific regions: the inner planets, for instance, or Jupiter and Saturn; then zooming back out to show the whole system again.
The display was just beginning to shift its perspective again as I approached the reception desk, and I was half watching it as I walked: it was as if one were moving through space, far faster than any ship could travel; faster than light, I suspect; with one’s field of vision wheeling and receding as one moved.
Behind the desk was a human being to welcome me: a young man in the uniform of a security guard, wearing a headset and with a screen in front of him.
“My name is Hella Lundgren,” I told him. “I’m here to see the Secretary General.”
He was looking at his screen. I was sure he already knew who I was and why I was there.
“Welcome to the United Nations, Ms Lundgren,” he said. “Can I ask you please to walk through the security gate just over there. Your device will show you where to go after that. You are meeting on the third floor.”
I might be a celebrity in the rest of the world, but here I was just a visitor. The security gate was closed as I walked up to it; I stood in front of it while it scanned my eyes and my body, and then the barrier opened and I walked through.
I was holding my device in one hand and glancing at it as I continued in the same direction. It directed me to the escalator, and I stood on it and looked all around me as it carried me up to the next level. There were groups of seating there and a few people using that facility, on their own and working on their devices, or conversing in groups. I passed them and entered a lift at the very back of the atrium; the door closed after me and it moved quietly and swiftly up a level without my needing to do anything. The building knew where I was going.
From the lift I could look down into the atrium all the way back to the entrance. The lift stopped and the door slid open behind me. I walked out and along the corridor, at first with a view of the atrium to the left, still, but soon moving behind that central structure with the Solar System displayed on its front, and now there were rooms on either side of me.
One of the doors ahead was open, and a man walked out of it as I approached along the corridor. He faced me and smiled.
“Good morning, Ms Lundgren,” he said. He held out his hand. “I’m Roy Bhatia. I work with the Secretary General.”
“Good to meet you.”
He stood aside to let me enter the room. It was a large meeting room with windows all along the opposite side, overlooking the river, and with several glass-topped tables pushed together to form one long table running parallel to the windows. A number of people were in the room, and those who were not already standing stood up now. The long frame of the Secretary General himself approached me, tall and slender like all natives of Mars, and with a broad smile on his face.
“Ms Lundgren, you are very welcome. It’s very good of you to spare us your time this morning.” His voice was deep and resonant.
I took his hand and looked up at him.
“No, no, thank you for your time, Mr Secretary.” I suppose that is how to address him: Mr Prosperous Fortune, a Martian-style name.
He gestured towards a seat at one end of the long table and accompanied me towards it.
“You were at the Carnegie Hall last night, Ms Lundgren,” he said as we walked.
“Yes, I was.”
“My wife was there. She enjoyed it greatly.”
“I’m very glad to hear it.”
“She has a season ticket.”
“We have two tickets,” he said, “but unfortunately I am often unable to attend. Last night my wife was there with a friend.”
“Well, I hope the friend enjoyed it too.”
I sat down, the Secretary General sat down next to me, and everyone else took their seats too, along both sides of the table almost down to the other end. Many of them had devices or papers, or both, on the table in front of them.
Mr Prosperous Fortune spoke as everyone was settling down.
“Ms Lundgren, you are about to embark on a voyage to the Jovian System.”
Time to get down to business.
“We are interested in developments in the Jovian System, Ms Lundgren. I assume you have been following them.”
“I believe you’re concerned about those developments, sir.” Is that how to address him?
“Well, yes, we are. We’re used to expressing ourselves diplomatically. But yes, you are absolutely right. Those developments have given rise to some considerable concern.”
“Do you think I shouldn’t be going, sir?”
“That’s not what I’m trying to say, Ms Lundgren, no. But I would like to discuss it with you. A visit such as yours, at a time like this and in a situation like this – well, it can have significance beyond what it would have in more normal times. Political significance.”
“I can see that.”
“I’d like to start, Ms Lundgren, if I may, by recapitulating the political situation with which the international community is confronted in the Jovian System. So that we are all starting out from the same understanding of the facts.”
“Yes, of course,” I murmured. “Makes sense.”
He leaned back and turned his head to look down the table.
“Ms Radiant Sun is an analyst in our team here, Ms Lundgren,” he said. “Political analyst. Ms Radiant Sun, would you please give us a run-down of the situation in the Jovian System?”
“Certainly, Mr Secretary,” said a woman seated about halfway down the table. “Ms Lundgren, I’ve prepared a brief presentation which I’d like to share with you.”
A screen folded out from the wall ahead of me, at the other end of this long room, and that display of the Solar System appeared on it, just like the one downstairs in the atrium. Some people turned to look at the screen, others were evidently following the presentation on their devices.
At first we were given a panorama of the whole system: all the planets, all the settlements, the Sun, surveying it from a point somewhere about the orbit of Mars, it seemed to me. In the distance was Jupiter with its moons, and as we watched we seemed to zoom towards it, past the Sun, past those of the inner planets that were currently on that side of the Sun, leaving them behind us, and halted at a point probably in the region of the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. In the centre of the screen was Jupiter itself, not to scale, I was fairly sure: large enough to recognise with its horizontal stripes, alternating red and white. Around it the four Galilean moons: Callisto, Europa, Ganymede, Io, with their names on labels that followed them around on their paths.
“The Jovian System,” said Radiant Sun from her seat at the table. “The Jovian Federation, as they choose to call themselves.”
Beside me the Secretary General raised his eyebrows and shook his head slightly.
Beyond Jupiter, far away, was Saturn: unmistakable among all the objects in the Solar System with those famous rings; it too with its moons, and particularly Titan, the most far-flung permanent settlement of the human race. Outside Saturn’s orbit is only Neptune with its moons, the only planet, anyway: out of sight at the moment: off to one side, or behind us; I hadn’t paid attention to where it was as we zoomed in on Jupiter.
“The display makes it clear why we are particularly concerned about the Jovian System at the present time,” Radiant Sun went on. “As you can see, Ms Lundgren, Saturn and Jupiter are currently on the same side of the Sun as each other. Jupiter takes about twelve Earth years to complete one orbit of the Sun; Saturn about thirty years. Saturn is twice as far out from the Sun as Jupiter is, and between the two is practically nothing.”
I nodded. I was broadly aware of this.
“From the standpoint of the Sun,” she continued, “Jupiter is currently moving in front of Saturn, and it will be effectively between the inner planets and Saturn for the next several years. That means, given the length of the voyage and the time it takes, for the next several years it will be impossible to travel between Titan and the other settlements, in either direction, without passing very close to the Jovian System. The Jovian Federation is in a position to blockade Titan; and that means that the situation there, the activities of its rulers, affect not only their own population but that of Titan as well.”
I nodded again, slowly. I hadn’t thought of it in this way before.
The display on the screen changed. The view into space disappeared, and instead we were looking at a row of men, all sitting along the same side of a long table and staring grimly straight in front of them.
“This is what they call the Committee,” Radiant Sun told us. “It has ten members, and in theory they are all supposed to be equal; but we know that, in reality, the one they call the Spokesman is in charge.”
One head now filled the screen, of a man sitting near the middle of that table. A gaunt, ascetic face; cropped grey hair; a stern expression, but with a riveting energy, even without the sound of his voice or his words. I had seen this face before.
“Michael Obasanjo,” Radiant Sun said. “A native of Callisto. A former pilot; has been everywhere in the Solar System. Returned to Callisto six years ago and has emerged as the de facto leader of the separatist movement.”
The picture zoomed out and now showed the four people seated on either side of him.
“Obasanjo’s closest associates.” One by one each of these four heads was highlighted, while the rest of the picture became dim and indistinct.
“Malcolm Jeffreys,” Radiant Sun went on. “Another native Jovian. A mining engineer, and the oldest individual on the Committee.”
The next head was illuminated, and I started as I realised that this was a woman.
“Fragrant Blossom. Despite the Martian-sounding name, she too is a native Jovian. Also an engineer.”
I studied her face, fascinated. A less appropriate name was hard to imagine. Her hair too was steel-grey and cropped short; her face grim and uncompromising. As I watched, and just before the highlight moved elsewhere and her image became dull and blurred again, she leaned across and spoke briefly to Obasanjo. He paused and listened, his eyes turned towards her; then he nodded very briefly and continued talking.
“Dauntless Battler.” The most sympathetic face yet, with a hint of a smile at one corner of his mouth. “This one really is originally from Mars. Came to Ganymede as a young man. He’s an accountant.”
The fourth face lit up. “And Hervé Richard. Was actually born on Ganymede. As I’m sure you know, Ms Lundgren, that is fairly unusual, even for a Jovian. By far the largest settlement has always been, and continues to be, on Callisto.”
“I’ll spare you the other Committee members,” she went on. “They have all been appointed to the Committee, delegated to it, by similar committees in each of the settlements in the Jovian System.” Callisto, Europa and Ganymede. “Elections were held two years ago in each of those places, and in each one a local committee was the result. Those committees now hold themselves out as the legitimate government of the settlements that have elected them, and the Committee that we are looking at holds itself out as the government of the Jovian Federation.”
“But we don’t recognise it, right?” I asked.
“No, Ms Lundgren. Those elections had no legitimacy. They are legally meaningless. Legally speaking, this Committee is a private association of the individuals who form it, and it has no kind of authority.”
The Secretary General stirred in his seat.
“Nevertheless,” he said, and his voice rumbled, “we have to recognise the political – I won’t say legitimacy: the political reality of what has happened, and is happening. These people claim to represent the will of the people who live in the Jovian System.”
“Is it true?”
The Secretary and Radiant Sun exchanged glances.
“Even if it were, Ms Lundgren,” she replied, “that wouldn’t give them the right to do what they’re doing. They are asserting that their decisions, reached in their own structures headed by that Committee, override the laws that apply to all of us, wherever we are. And that won’t do. We can’t have groups of people opting out of the rule of law and imposing their own rules. Even if they all happen to live in the same place.”
The display on the screen changed again, and now a man was shown, full length, dressed in overalls and walking across some kind of public place: a square or concourse of some sort. His face was motionless, but he seemed displeased about something.
“This man is called Omar Khan,” Radiant Sun said. “He‘s a Callistoan, and he’s in a dispute with his ex-wife about the custody of their children. There was a first hearing before the local court on Callisto, at which his wife was largely successful, and he has appealed to the next level of justice, which is off-planet. The de facto rulers of the Jovian System have announced that they will not recognise any verdict of that court, they will not enforce it on Callisto, and instead they have offered him the ability to appeal to the committee for Callisto. A political body, which would thereby double up as a court of law.”
I had a question.
“Was the hearing on Callisto – I don’t know the correct term: faulty?”
They exchanged glances again.
“Once more, Ms Lundgren,” said Radiant Sun, “that’s not the point. Mr Khan has the right to a fair hearing before a proper court of law. At that hearing he might win or lose; I don’t know. It’s not the point. He has a right to that hearing, and that right is being denied him.”
The Secretary General intervened again.
“This is just one example, Ms Lundgren,” he said. “We have a legal system, we have laws, that apply to everyone, irrespective of person and irrespective of place. Yes, there are local differences in the laws that apply, especially on Earth. Quite major differences, in fact, as between different countries on Earth. But they are all embedded in one legal system; all the authorities in all inhabited parts of the Solar System recognise the rule of law in all other regions, and enforce the judgments of those other regions in their own jurisdictions as the occasion arises. All the authorities except, suddenly, those in the Jovian System. They assert that the rest of humanity has no jurisdiction within the Jovian System. They assert the right to set their own rules, with no right of appeal, and to encounter the rest of humanity as a sovereign power. An independent state.”
“We have a system,” Radiant Sun explained, “that is self-correcting. It contains checks and balances, and it’s subject to democratic oversight. I mean both the legal system and the political system. No single faction, or grouping, or movement, can change the character of our system or alter its direction of travel. It can change, but any change can only be the result of a gradual, organic development that derives democratic, political legitimacy across the whole of humanity.”
“Those checks and balances are absent,” Prosperous Fortune added, “if we permit the Jovians to set up their own system that is independent of the rest of us. That self-correction no longer applies. And there are indications, Ms Lundgren, that its absence has already had a significant effect. That the Jovian system is not as democratic as they would like us to believe.”
“That it is tyrannical, Ms Lundgren,” said Radiant Sun.
“Tyrannical!” I was astonished.
“Indeed,” the Secretary General said. “Ms Radiant Sun has explained how their democratic theory, whereby all the members of the Committee are equal and can represent their electors equally, is a sham. In reality Michael Obasanjo is the master in the Jovian System. He controls the lower committees; he controls whom they appoint to the central Committee; and we have seen how he deals with dissent.”
A different face replaced Omar Khan’s on the screen ahead of me.
“Miranda Benson,” Radiant Sun said. “She was a member of the Committee. Not a part of the inner circle around Obasanjo, we believe; but still a member. Last year she disappeared.”
“She was replaced on the Committee by this man,” and a male face appeared briefly in her place, “she disappeared suddenly from public view, and she has not been in communication with the world outside the Jovian System since that time.”
I assumed a grave expression.
“That doesn’t sound good,” I said.
“Prior to her removal,” she continued, “we know that she had expressed views in public that ran counter to those of Obasanjo. She represented a voice of opposition. She was certainly a separatist like him, don’t misunderstand me; but she disagreed with him on how the settlements should be governed. Obasanjo couldn’t tolerate that, and he removed her.”
The Secretary General intervened again.
“We assume,” he said, “that there is also a more fundamental opposition in the Jovian System. People who disagree with the whole strategy of independence and wish the Jovian System to remain embedded in the interplanetary system that includes us all. We can only speculate about what is happening to such people. We have no reliable information.”
“The regime is monitoring and controlling all communication,” Radiant Sun added.
“And this highlights the gravity of the situation,” Prosperous Fortune went on. “It’s not just about individual cases like Omar Khan. You might think that Omar Khan is no big deal. Maybe he deserves to lose his case; maybe he’ll win on his appeal to the Callistoan committee. It’s about more than just him. It’s about the removal of people’s basic rights and their protection against being ruled by fiat.”
“But – I don’t understand,” I said. “Surely it would be easy to overthrow that regime. Aren’t they completely dependent on the rest of us for survival?”
“Yes, of course: they are indeed,” said the Secretary General. “All settlements outside the Earth are wholly dependent on supplies from elsewhere. As self-sufficient as they all try to be, none of them is really self-sufficient. We could blockade the Jovian System, and soon bring the regime there to its knees.”
“The population would be the first to suffer. This is not a band of criminals on the run and holed up somewhere. It’s a whole population of men, women and children. We all believe strongly that it would be utterly irresponsible for the authorities to take any measures that would endanger the survival or the welfare of the colonies in the Jovian System themselves.”
There were nods and murmurs of assent the length of the table.
“And they have a similar weapon in their own hands,” Radiant Sun pointed out. “They have the ability to blockade Titan, or at least to make it difficult and dangerous to supply Titan.”
“That is indeed a further factor,” said the Secretary. “And a removal by overt force is out of the question too. We are not equipped for interplanetary warfare: never have been. You probably know that Callisto has had a somewhat restless history, and on one occasion a police force was despatched to Callisto to restore order. But they had surprise on their side, and allies within Callisto who assisted in preserving that surprise. That wouldn’t work a second time.”
“They would be waiting for us,” I said.
The Secretary General smiled.
“All is not lost, however,” he said. “We‘re negotiating with the regime, we here at the United Nations, and in fact there is a Jovian delegation here on Earth at the moment. The tools of diplomacy and enlightened self-interest are at our disposal; and at theirs too, of course.”
I nodded, and considered all this. A great deal of information.
“So what do you want me to do?” I asked. “You don’t want me to call my visit off.”
“No, we’re not advising you to do that, Ms Lundgren. First of all, we don’t believe you will be in any danger in the Jovian System. If we did, our advice would certainly be to reconsider your plans.”
“But at the least you should be aware, you should be warned, that the regime will surely try to use you for its own purposes. It will want to enlist you, or portray you, as sympathetic to its aims, even as its ally. It will seek to use that whole festival at which you are appearing as a propaganda coup, both at home and abroad.”
“I was going to ask you about that,” I said. “As you obviously know, I’m not the only musician travelling to the Jovian System to take part in this festival. Why are you talking to me, particularly? Or are you talking to everybody like this?” That did seem rather unlikely. An improbable investment of time.
“No, we’re not doing that,” Prosperous Fortune replied. He glanced at a man sitting a couple of places further down the table from himself, who said:
“We’ve analysed all the performers at the festival.” Analysed! I found myself wondering what that entailed. “They are all first-class performers, there’s no doubt about it. They all have an excellent reputation. But most of them are quite specialised; they’re well-known in their own specialised areas, and not so much outside them. You, Ms Lundgren, on the other hand, are a household name. Everybody knows who you are, including in the Jovian System.”
“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” I murmured, and I glanced at the Secretary General, who responded with a wry little smile.
“Indeed,” the man went on. That wasn’t very gallant. “We believe the regime will recognise the potential for exploiting your presence there for propaganda purposes. We expect you to be their primary target.”
“And the corollary of that, Ms Lundgren,” the Secretary General interjected, “is that you also have the greatest potential, if you so choose, to influence public opinion in the other direction. On the side of law and order, and democracy, and equity.”
“Our democratic interplanetary system and the principle of the rule of law before which all individuals are equal, yes,” he replied.
I was silent as I considered this. The Secretary General waited patiently.
“What do you want me to do?”
“That is a matter, Ms Lundgren,” he said, “which, if you decide to cooperate with us, we would want to discuss with you in greater detail. We have the whole duration of your voyage to plan what should happen.” Several months. “In any case the political situation might change between now and your arrival, and so, therefore, might what we believe to be appropriate.”
“But what sort of thing?” I asked. “You must have some ideas.”
“Certainly: speaking out is one possibility,” he said. “There will be opportunities to speak out in public: interviews, press conferences, cameras observing you around your concert appearances. That is one possibility. We might want to invest you with a more formal role. Humanitarian ambassador of the UN to the Jovian System, for instance, with a defined mission and with authority to speak to the regime on our behalf. There is a whole range of possibilities. All I want to do today, Ms Lundgren, is to ask you whether you are willing, in principle, to cooperate with us.”
All their faces were turned towards me.
“Well – yes, of course,” I said. I defy anyone to say anything else, with the Secretary General of the United Nations and the whole of his staff looking expectantly at you.
There was a satisfied kind of sigh along the table.
“Thank you, Ms Lundgren.”
“I’m not sure how much good I’ll be, though,” I added. “All I know how to do is play the piano.”
“We’ll help you, Ms Lundgren,” he said. “You’ll need to have your answers ready to certain questions, and we’ll help you to prepare those answers. I should point out that this need arises because you are going there, not because you are cooperating with us. Those questions will arise whatever you decide to do. But we will help you to ensure that your responses are not misused.”
“Well, Ms Lundgren, I think that is all we need to achieve today. I suggest that my staff will be in touch with you. I believe someone has a contact list –” a staff member near the far end of the table raised a hand – “Ms Garcia will email it to you. It has the contact details of those individuals here who will be most closely concerned with this matter. And yours, of course. One of the people on that list will reach out to you and take this forward.”
“Have you any questions, Ms Lundgren?”
I reflected. “Not at the moment,” I said. “I’m sure if I have, that contact group will answer them.”
“Certainly. Don’t hesitate to reach out to any of them at any time.”
Prosperous Fortune leaned back and looked briefly down the table again.
“Well, on behalf of the United Nations, Ms Lundgren,” he said, “may I express our thanks for your willingness to help. It’s the men, women and children of the Jovian System that we’re concerned about, their welfare and safety, and you can help a great deal to protect them. Thank you for being willing to play your part.”
“I hope I can help,” I said.
Now he pushed his chair back and stood up, and so did everybody else. Once again he towered above me, though I am not a small woman, as he walked with me to the door of the meeting room. We stood there for a moment, looking at each other.
“What are you going to play at the festival, Ms Lundgren?” he asked.
“Chamber music,” I replied. “Mainly solo recitals.”
“Certainly. And others, obviously.”
“The late Romantics. What you’re best known for.”
I smiled. “Yes. But I’ll play a whole range of stuff. Mozart. Bach. Brahms.”
“Anything more modern?”
“Probably. The programme is still in flux.”
“It hasn’t been announced?”
“Only the performers, and the dates. Not what we’ll be playing.”
He smiled, and held out his hand.
“Goodbye, Ms Lundgren, and good fortune on your journey. Once again, many thanks.”
“Goodbye.” I turned to face the other participants in the meeting, who had followed us to the door and were standing in an untidy group, and I acknowledged them with a nod and a smile.
The display of the Solar System was shifting its focus again as I was riding down on the escalator in the atrium: I turned my head to look at it and saw how the Sun and the inner planets – the Earth, Mars, Mercury, Venus – grew in size as we zoomed in on them from outside and above. Mars was now not far away from its closest approach to Jupiter: the optimal point for a spaceship to leave Mars for the Jovian System.
I had to pass through the security gate again; not, this time, to check for weapons and other harmful things but, I think, so that the building’s electronic brain could verify that I and my device were really leaving.
The young man behind the reception desk was looking at his screen again, but he glanced up and gave me a little nod as I crossed the last area of the atrium. I waited for two new visitors to come out of the revolving door into the building and then entered it myself. Outside it was beginning to rain, just a little.
“Hella!” said my ex-husband, and his face broke into a broad smile. “How lovely to see you.”
We gave each other a chaste hug and kissed on the cheek.
“What a lovely coat.”
“Thank you,” I said, and I smiled back. It is a beautiful coat. I can only ever wear it on Earth.
“Come in and make yourself comfortable. How was your trip? Are you tired?”
“I’m fine, thanks.” I walked in and he closed the door behind me.
“Drink?” He handed me a hanger for my coat and looked at me enquiringly.
“I’m dying for some coffee, actually.”
“Coming right up.” He walked into the kitchen as I hung my coat up near the door. I didn’t follow him; I heard him clattering in there as I wandered into his sitting room.
“How long are you here for?” he called to me.
“Couple more days,” I called back from his bookshelves. “I have another recital tomorrow evening. Then an early flight to Melbourne next morning.”
“And that’s New Zealand done?”
”Yep.” I walked up to the windows and looked out past the balcony over the city.
“Polly says hello,” he called. More clattering. “She’s sorry she can’t be here.”
“Is she in the theatre?”
“That’s right.” His wife is an opera singer, at the same theatre where he is a theatrical director.
“Is she –”
“No, she’s not singing Isolde.” He appeared at the kitchen door with a tray.
He held the tray cautiously with one arm and his chest, and distributed two cups and saucers, a milk jug and a sugar bowl on the coffee table.
“I’m afraid it’s too cold to sit on the balcony,” he said.
“It certainly is.” It was not only chilly but quite windy too as I walked up to this block from my cab. It was summer here, theoretically, on this side of the world, but today it was no warmer than it had been when I visited the Bergklinik.
I came back from the balcony door and sat down.
“You’re looking well, Wise,” I said. “Life here agreeing with you?”
He sat down too and pushed a cup and saucer towards me. The metal tray was standing on one edge on the tiled floor and leaning against his armchair. A sound effect waiting to happen.
“I like it very much here,” he said. “Obviously it’s been a while now.”
“I know.” Wise Counsellor, my Martian ex-husband, took up this position four years ago and has lived on Earth ever since. “How are you coping with the gravity?”
He shrugged. “It’s fine. It was an adjustment at first.”
“I did a lot of exercise, even before I came. Still do; less of it nowadays.”
“Do you still wear the exoskeleton?”
“Some of the time. Not as much as I used to. If I’m going to be exerting myself.”
“You’re not wearing it now?”
“Can you tell? No.” He drank a gulp of his coffee and grimaced. “Too hot. No, it feels just fine, and it shows that we originally evolved to live here.”
“That’s not quite the whole story,” I said.
“I know. We’ve been genetically modified: those of us who were born outside.” I noted the Earth expression. “But that hasn’t prevented me from coming back to live here. In the natural habitat of my species.”
“On that argument you could move to the jungle and live in the trees.”
He smiled. “Sounds tempting.” He crossed his legs and leaned back with his cup and saucer on his lap. “How are you keeping, Hella? How do you like being on Earth for a change?”
“I’m enjoying it very much.”
“Weird, isn’t it, how you and I have gone in opposite directions.” He a Martian living on Earth; me an Earthwoman living on Mars.
“Weird,” I agreed.
“You’re bound to come back, though,” he said. “You’re bound to come back here when you retire. Am I right?”
“Not so sure about that,” I murmured.
“Well – there’s Rachel,” I said. It was Wise’s idea to give her an Earth-style name when she was born on Mars. A mark of generosity towards me: an acknowledgement that our daughter had two heritages.
I’d have been perfectly happy to give her a Martian name.
His expression became more serious.
“Yes,” he said.
“She sends her love. But you’ve probably heard from her anyway since she told me that.”
His face lit up again. “She sent me a video message just today.”
“You should really come out to Mars and visit them. I know Rachel would love that.”
“That’s not so easy. You know that.”
“I do know that. But you’re missing a lot. They’re such lovely babies.”
“They’re very sweet. As babies go. I see them on her video messages.”
“It’s not the same thing.”
I worried that I was making him feel bad, or possibly giving him the impression that I wanted him to feel bad.
“Anyway, I know you’re very fond of them all,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, and we went on to compare what we both knew, our most recent information, about the affairs of our daughter and her family. As long as I was here on Earth we were both in the same position: both reliant on video messages and emails. Instantaneous communication is impossible over such a distance.
“How’s the theatre?” I asked him once we seemed to have exhausted this topic.
Wise is not a musician at all; he never had anything to do with music until he met me. When we met, through some theatrical friends, his more literary, mine more operatic, he had quite a reputation already on Mars as a director of experimental productions, and people were beginning to take notice of him off-planet too. Since then he has become more and more mainstream and classical, and his appointment here at Wellington confirmed that development and sealed it. People here want to see the classics.
“I want to shake things up in the Kahane, though.”
“I was surprised to see you were doing him,” I said. “Wasn’t he big in our parents’ generation?”
“Yes: and that’s the point. Even though he’s not that old, he’s a classic, really. Already. I’m setting the play in one of the asteroid bases.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“I hope so.” He grinned. “We’re opening in two weeks. You’ll miss it.”
I raised them again.
“Just kidding,” he said. “I know it’s not your kind of thing.”
I suppose it isn’t. Am I too hidebound? I wondered.
“Maybe we’ll have something that’s more up your street the next time you come,” he said, and he smiled at me again.
I didn’t say anything at first in response to that. I gave him a serious look, and was silent. After a moment he caught my eye as he was raising his coffee cup to his lips and he paused, uncertain.
“I don’t think I’ll be coming back, Wise,” I told him.
“No? Well, New Zealand is quite out of the way, I know. It’s very good of you to come here at all!”
“No, I mean Earth. I don’t think I’ll be coming to Earth again.”
He looked at me, astonished. There was a long moment.
“Why?” he brought out, finally; and I explained.
It felt right to be here, visiting him and talking to him, and it felt right to be telling him about this. It wasn’t just complying with a social duty, doing what was necessary while I happened to be here in order to keep up one of my many friendships; it was more than that.
We were together for a long time. The early days, when we were both making our way: rising stars. Building our reputations and our careers, on Mars and beyond it. Then Rachel: being parents, coping with that, learning and maturing; making it work, alongside our careers, and alongside each other’s careers.
We’re divorced now, yes, and have been for quite some time. But you can’t take that away. Even if we had parted in utter acrimony and still hated each other: that time together is part of my whole life. If I survey it all now, the arc of my life, from the beginning of memory, arching over all my years, to that point just a little ahead, a little further than today: my time with Wise is part of it, and you can’t just remove it and behave as if it had never happened.
I know what it feels like. It’s like revisiting a theme in a piece of music. A theme that was introduced and made much of during the early part of the piece, but hasn’t been heard for a while as the composer has been concentrating on the other themes, developing them and changing and combining them, and exploring the emotions that he can use them to express. Now, as it feels as though the piece is drawing to a close, it feels right to be reminded of that earlier theme: to be conscious that this is a piece of music with a design, with an architecture, not just a series of notes, one after another.
And that is the feeling that I take away later, as I descend in the lift from Wise’s apartment and walk across the darkened forecourt to the cab that he ordered for me upstairs. Balance is being restored: just a little bit. It’s a contribution. I’m never going to see Wise again. I’m glad I’ve seen him now. I’ve paid my respects to that theme: I’ve played it, listened to it, reflected on it, been reminded of all it has meant through the whole development of this music: given it all the time that it required. Now it has been stated that last time, and it’s enough.
I don’t know what it was like for Wise. It was very awkward. Of course it was completely unexpected. He had no time to think of how to behave.
The hilarity helped, that erupted after a moment of shocked silence when that sound effect finally occurred. We were both grateful, I think he was more grateful than I was, for the opportunity to have a natural reaction to something: something that wasn’t fraught and awkward and dreadful.
We agreed that he won’t say anything. He can tell Polly. But not Rachel.
“Of course not,” he said.
“I’m not telling her in a video message,” I said. “I’ll wait till I get home.”
“I’ve told my agent,” I said. “She had to know. She’s not taking any more bookings.”
“How’s she explaining that?”
“Not at all, at the moment. Just saying that I’ve asked her not to.”
“Are you going to go public?”
“At some point. I don’t know when, yet.”
I smile to myself in the cab as I remember that crashing tray.
I still feel that I’ll put off going public for as long as I can. People will start asking me, sooner or later, why I’m not adding to my schedule of engagements beyond the year after next. The press will ask me. It’s good that I’ll be on the ship to the Jovian System for quite a while soon: away from those probing questions. I hope there won’t be any press on board.
There might be, I suppose. Especially if the UN makes me its humanitarian ambassador. Different kind of press, in that case.
And with that more recent theme playing in my head again I notice that we are drawing up outside my hotel where I checked in this afternoon. Time for a meal. I think I’ll eat downstairs in the hotel restaurant. I don’t want to go out again. I get out of the cab and walk up the steps into the lobby.