for Alice Munro
‘If you take the Rolling Stones and maroon them in the swirling vacuum of space, stranded with nothing but ether, that imponderable stuff of the universe, to play with, they’ll take that ether and mold it into a spaceship and come chasing back after you, and they’re the only rock group that can do that’.Crawdaddy Magazine, 1967
I’m amazed to think how young I still am. I’ve been around long enough to remember when people didn’t have cell phones, much less interplanetary travel. Or when few people believed in life in other galaxies, before the first visitors brought warp drives and cold fusion. Even the Space Virus, which the visitors also brought, used to feel like an automatic death sentence. Now it’s streamlined and shrunken to a treatable condition, provided you have access to the right antidote.
One of my first off-planet jobs was attending to someone with a bad case of the stuff. I was just turning eighteen, at least in Earth years.
Vilnius was from a small system not far from Alpha Centauri. He wasn’t a Centaurian, but his home planet had been seeded by them within a couple of million years of when they first left DNA on Earth, though his planet had advanced much more quickly and peacefully than ours.
Vilnius ran a mining vessel, but he was sequestered in a sealed air chamber until the cell-sized vacci-robots could be shipped from a quadrant halfway across the universe. In the meantime, I was to act as a gopher, bringing him anything he needed from the non-sequestered parts of the ship.
His wife, Radia, was also on board, sailing the vessel. These were the early days for Earthlings in space. I was picked up because I was relatively close and cheap.
Mostly, Vilnius wanted records brought up from the ship’s library. When I say records, I mean albums, usually 33 rpm LPs, though he sometimes listened to 45s and even—a couple of times—brittle, old 78s.
When I told my father about this, he laughed and called Vilnius ‘the Space Hipster’. He wondered why, with their interstellar travel capacities, they hadn’t switched to digitised music.
I told him that it had something to do with the quality of sound.
“Then why don’t they just get better speakers?”
This showed how little my dad knew about music or aliens.
Vilnius’ wife was deaf, or at least unable to hear physically, but she was telepathic, so she experienced sound and music vicariously, which is to say through the filter of someone else’s brain. One of my side duties was to allow her (as if I had a choice) to listen to whatever Vilnius was spinning through my head. I have no idea if what she heard corresponded to what was actually recorded on the wax, but I suppose that’s true for any of us without the ability to read minds. None of us knows the distortions consciousness imposes on reality. All I knew was the experience of listening to music knowing someone else was listening to my listening was unnerving.
My father’s transmissions were intermittent at best, especially after we left the solar system, so our conversations were stilted and delayed by distance and speed—more or less the opposite of the telepathic ones I would have with Radia. Whereas she responded to my questions with an extremely loud voice in my head before I’d even had a chance to finish asking them, my father’s questions would sometimes have to linger weeks for us to pass a communications relay so they could get answered, and even then I sometimes wouldn’t find a response waiting for me.
But I was travelling at light speed, which meant years were passing faster for my father back on Earth. It was all a bit confusing to me back then. Einstein tried to explain it with the famous story about twins and rocket ships—time is relative and things moving quickly age more slowly than things standing still.
I saw the changes in my father with each new video transmission, his hair going grey and his forehead creasing, as if each planetary orbit we passed was mirrored on his face. “We’re all fine here,” he’d say, cold and distant. I got the feeling he wasn’t telling me everything. I could see things seemed to be deteriorating back on good old planet Earth. Even the walls behind him were crumbling. He claimed he was worried about me, though he was the one who had found the position and encouraged me to go.
Vilnius, for his part, seemed little concerned for my well-being. He left me to my devices, or rather his devices, when he didn’t need a pile of records brought up to his chamber. I started going through his record shelves myself during my downtime. Vilnius’ tastes tended toward the obscure. He was partial to dub reggae when I worked for him, especially African Head Charge and what he called ‘that wobbly On-U sound’. But I was intrigued by a beat-up copy of Some Girls by the Rolling Stones, a band, I admit, I hadn’t listened much to with any focus before. They were too old, too white bread for kids of my generation. At that point, so far from home, I felt like I could relate to Jagger and Richards. We came from the same place, after all.
But Vilnius listened to all kinds of music. He sometimes had three or four albums playing at once, creating a din that could be heard throughout the ship. There was no real pattern to it. Out to Lunch. Sorry, Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash. Old and in the Way.
One day I tried talking to Vilnius about the Stones, since he seemed to know so much about music. He was playing a doo wop record backwards.
“What do you think of Keith Richards?”
Between the air lock and the reverse music, maybe he didn’t hear me. But he smiled and nodded, as if I were a piece of stardust floating past.
There was chatter back at the Departure Point that Vilnius shouldn’t be taking the trip in his condition, that it was putting not only his wife and crew (me) in danger, but also any other civilisations he came into contact with. The costs of the Space Virus spreading would be much greater than any profit made by the voyage.
Weirdly, my dad defended Vilnius in this case, saying that interstellar mining had to go on, that there were risks in all space work. He always defended industry, even though he never really had much of what you might call a job.
* * *
When Radia heard me listening to the Stones, she asked if it was something Vilnius requested. I told her it was something I wanted to hear. She seemed bothered by that. I don’t think she cared if I listened to Vilnius’ albums on my own, but I think it was something about the Stones that put her off, felt alien to her.
“WHATEVER,” her voice boomed in my head.
She was pilot of the ship only nominally. Mainly, computers did it all, but she spent much of her time on the bridge, studying her charts, which were made of a glowing liquid. She was an iridescent blue and blurry around the edges, as if she were surrounded by a thin cloud or mist.
Radia had a robot called K13 that assisted her with the star maps, pouring new liquid into them regularly. K13 was designed as a kind of house pet, with four legs and a tail and even covered in microfibers designed to look like fur. She or someone else had outfitted it with hand-like gloves on its front legs so that it could adjust controls and carry the containers of sparkly map juice. It looked like a large cat with opposable thumbs.
Once, I couldn’t resist crouching down to stroke K13’s back. Radia cried, “WATCH” in my head. It was too late, and I was thrown halfway across the bridge from the electrical shock.
There was a rumour that Radia wasn’t Vilnius’ first wife, that she was from a different planet. She had tiny horns and her fingers weren’t webbed the way Vilnius’ were. My father mentioned, “They must be cool, you know, racially,” but I didn’t know how to respond to that. The truth is, I didn’t see them interact with each other directly too much.
She gave me my own little pool to study the stars with, but it just looked like a black stagnant puddle.
“THAT’S MOSTLY ALL THERE IS OUT THERE,” I heard her say. “NOTHING.”
It was always like that with her. Her answers came too fast and loud. She was always a step ahead of my mind and body, as if she were waiting for me to catch up, and because her expressions never changed, I never learned what to do better.
* * *
I was given a couple of days off every week, though the concept of weekends, or night and day for that matter, was artificial. On one of my ‘Saturday’ nights, I noticed a small shuttlecraft approaching the bay on our starboard side. I left my room and went down to the record stacks to pretend to do some filing and see if I could find out who was boarding. I wondered if it was the vaccine arriving from deep space, when I heard a voice in my head that wasn’t Radia’s.
“Who the hell are you?” it said.
I couldn’t tell if the voice belonged to a male or female. I said, to the empty room, that I was Vilnius’ assistant and that I was from Earth.
“Thanks, I’ve already scanned your mind,” the new voice said. “I know exactly what you are.”
And who are you? I thought.
“I am Claudine. Vilnius’ child,” the voice said. “From his first marriage. And I’m not male or female, yet, to answer your earlier question.”
I didn’t like a stranger being in my head so quickly. I didn’t say it, but I must have thought it.
“Pretty sensitive for a primitive,” Claudine said.
I saw a tall, thin humanoid pass by the portal of the library. The figure turned and smiled at me for a moment as it passed. She was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.
“They not she,” this new arrival’s voice said. “My species manifests gender only in the twenty-eighth cycle.”
I didn’t know how long a cycle was for them, but I was plenty familiar with non-identifying genders back on Earth. I went out into the corridor to see if I could help Claudine.
There were several colourful pieces of luggage in the hall, but when I reached down to pick one up by its handle, it stood up on two birdlike legs and scuttled away from me like a hen.
“Don’t touch what you don’t understand,” Claudine said in my head. Then aloud, “Curiosity killed the cat on your planet, if I remember right.”
K13 came around the corner and rubbed its head against Claudine’s leg. Some kind of motor clicked on in the unit, emitting a low hum. Claudine was clearly at home there, much more than I ever was.
This child of Vilnius had dark skin with white spots, like they were one with the cosmos. If Claudine had stood in front on one of the bay windows, their body would have disappeared.
But it was the shape of their legs, the curve of their buttocks, the wide stretch of their shoulders that I couldn’t stop looking at. I tried to clear my head, and I wondered if my sudden sexual longing was a result of long distance space travel or, worse, a symptom of the Space Virus. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of this new arrival.
“Daddy?” Claudine called.
“He’s in his chamber on the lower deck,” I said.
“Like I didn’t know that, mammal. And just because I don’t feel the need to wear clothing isn’t an invitation to ogle me.”
I looked down at my jumpsuit and felt ashamed, like I was a child who’d been caught diddling itself.
“Leave me, creature. Go file some records and wait for Father to call you.”
Claudine wandered on down the corridor, the fowl-like luggage skittering nervously behind.
Even though there was nothing to be filed at the moment, I did as I was ordered and headed toward the library. There was a monitor so that I could check on Vilnius. I took the chance of switching it on. Claudine and Vilnius were facing each other, wordlessly separated by the oval window of the airlock chamber. They were communicating telepathically, no doubt.
Suddenly, Claudine bent over and did a handstand. What followed was the most complex series of cartwheels, flips, and spins that I’d ever seen. I wondered if it were a formality of their culture, a performance for the father by the child, though whatever Vilnius thought about it was lost on me. He stood there with that faraway expression on his face he always had. Claudine’s elegance made me feel leaden, as if I were trapped in a piece of grey meat. It was like watching the stars and planets themselves dance. A pulsar covering a shoulder. A meaty thigh of starry space. I saw comets and what might have been a supernova in lieu of tattoos. I felt if I stared long enough I might see the beginning of it all, but then I thought what a stupid idea that was. I was just learning about time back then.
I realised how familiar the music was. It was ‘Miss You’ by the Stones, only mixed strangely. The vocals were gone, the instruments all sounded as if they were pulled into separate bubbles.
In the middle of the dance, Claudine turned toward the monitor and smirked for a second. There was a flick of the wrist that looked like part of the dance, and the screen switched off. “Mind your own business, worm,” a voice said in my head.
I tried to pretend everyone on the ship couldn’t hear my thoughts and put Some Girls on my own sad turntable. It was set up on ancient milk crates, and the tone arm didn’t seem to be covered by the artificial gravity field that governed the rest of the ship. I found an alien coin in the galley to weigh it down, though I worried I was ruining Vilnius’ records. It sounded tinny compared to what I heard while Claudine was dancing.
The ship’s computer announced it was entering sleep mode—how we measured days as we travelled—and Mick Jagger’s voice descended from a falsetto to a slurred baritone as the power of my turntable cut out.
I went up to my room. I didn’t like to use the shade over my bay window. I preferred to stare at the stars and pretend I could tell which one was my sun, my solar system. But now the view just reminded me of Claudine.
I heard something in the corridor outside, then, suddenly, my door slid open. Claudine walked in and sat on the edge of my bed.
“So this is where you hibernate.”
I must have looked alarmed at the intrusion. No one had been in my room before, not even K13. The walking luggage entered the room and proceeded to squat down.
“Relax. I told my step-mom I’m going to bunk with you. I haven’t met an actual Earthling before.”
I wondered what Claudine was carrying in the waddling luggage, since clothes didn’t seem to be a factor for her.
“That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
* * *
Claudine began to follow me around after that. I didn’t see the point, since my duties weren’t very interesting, but there seemed to be great interest in the littlest of my actions. “This alphabetical order that’s so important to you makes no sense whatsoever,” they said once. “The letters have no logical progression, except arbitrary accident. Why not arrange the records by aura, or along a sonic spectrum? Or in order of violence to Being.”
I looked down at the row of records that Claudine arranged on the floor in front of me.
“Your kind will know what I’m talking about eventually,” they said.
I found their idea of instruction insulting. To me, Claudine just experienced the world differently, not for better or worse.
The fact Vilnius was probably dying in an air pressure container several levels above us should have been a reminder that no one had all the answers. In fact, Vilnius’ condition seemed to have worsened since Claudine’s arrival, as if this new presence was draining him of his life force. He was looking grey, and his wrinkled skull looked like the shell of a walnut. No one acknowledged it—aloud or telepathically—but there was a tone as powerful as feedback from an ungrounded speaker.
* * *
A few nights after, in what was at that point our shared bedroom, Claudine asked me what I did with my time.
“Listen to records, I guess.”
“But that’s what your job is. What about while you’re doing this thing you call sleep?”
I didn’t want to say I hadn’t been doing much sleeping lately, that I mostly lay there with my heart beating, trying to ignore how aroused I was. But, as usual, my mind was already read.
“There’d be nowhere for you to put anything in me, anyway.”
“What do you mean?” I said, mortified and a bit confused.
“I mean, I don’t have those kinds of orifices. Yet.”
Again, I didn’t say out loud what I was thinking, but it was useless trying to hide anything.
“I have no excrement, you dirty beast. Our species is much more efficient than yours.” Claudine rolled over on their stomach, displaying a shapely rump. “Sorry, no black holes for you here.”
I just lay there trying to keep my mind blank.
“You need some entertainment. Do you like to play backgammon?”
“There might be a set in the record library.”
There was a bunch of junk on the shelves that weren’t stuffed with records. Dusty jigsaw puzzles, board games, weird artefacts that looked like they belonged in a rec room from the 70s. As in the 1970s on Earth. It was strange how specific Vilnius’ ship felt, right down to the threadbare olive-green, wall-to-wall carpet everywhere.
I went down and came back with a small briefcase that opened up into a nice backgammon set with a red felt background.
Claudine set the board up on our bed—I had never shared a bed with anyone before, so this was all so strange to me—and we played. I had to get help with the rules from the ship’s computer, but it was clear right away I had a great advantage over Claudine with the game. The tone of superiority Claudine had exhibited faded away. In its place was a deep uncertainty about what to do with any given move. The difference was structural between our brains: pieces kept moving in the wrong direction, and simple arithmetic was impossible. We just didn’t experience gameplay the same way. As I kept winning, the rift between us depressed me.
Then I worried I was wrong. Maybe my impatience with their gameplay was evidence of how little I was aware. Perhaps with inferior lifeforms—and I was starting to accept that about myself—advanced species like to pretend they’re stupid sometimes.
Claudine smiled at me with their eyes, which were as dark as their skin. “Are you as excited from winning as you were before?”
“Claudine,” I said. “Do you know that’s a girl’s name on Earth?”
“So, what?” Those eyes were far away from me again.
“It’s confusing for me. I’m sorry.” Before I got on that ship, I never would have said such an essentialist thing. What the hell was a name, anyway?
“Oh, really?” Claudine said. “Because your species has gender so figured out?”
I noticed Claudine had pulled the thin, silvery blanket up over their crotch while we had been playing. Their hand was under it, apparently caressing something, though I had no idea what.
* * *
Eventually, it became clear that Claudine’s walking luggage contained clothes. After those first few days of nakedness, Claudine started to wear these long flowing things—robes, I guess—that didn’t so much cover anything as accentuate shapes. I was offered one to wear, but when I tried it on, I looked like a plucked chicken that had been swallowed by a giant jellyfish.
Claudine seemed as clueless about my ways as I was about theirs. They always wanted to know what I was thinking about while listening to music, even when I told them to get out of my head.
Why did ‘Miss You’ make me feel both sad and dirty at the same time?
Why were the lyrics of ‘Some Girls’ so offensive to me?
Had I heard that the reference to Zuma Beach was about Bob Dylan’s divorce? (I hadn’t.)
Like their step-mother, Claudine didn’t always wait for me to formulate answers. They were mostly rhetorical questions, marking an observation about my emotional reactions to the music.
Claudine would work on a sensitive spot, double down, then dig into my mind for the things that would turn me on.
“It’s cute how much your species fixates on sex.” Claudine suggested it was because we didn’t really know what gender was, since it happened so early for most of us. “So few of you get to really choose.”
I resented being an open book to Claudine, and yet—as I was reminded—I knew so little about anything. I’d try to push back, mentally, but Claudine would smirk and stare at me with those faraway eyes. I was falling hopelessly in love.
I gave up trying to be virtuous and let my imagination run away with me. I was eighteen years old and horny.
Claudine told me about their life, how Vilnius had left their mother after he’d discovered she was having an affair with the Supreme Leader of their home world. Claudine had become royalty at fourteen, a prince/princess with the pick of the system’s breeders. Instead, they ran away on a transport and hooked up with a mining federation on the outer rim of the universe. Claudine became good at it and worked up to running a whole crew.
Meanwhile, Vilnius had remarried and started his own transport business to make ends meet. Though they were both exiled, Claudine had never contacted him, until his ship (it actually belonged to Radia’s family) stopped for a load of diamond gas in her mining zone. Claudine was told that the captain was sick with the virus and wouldn’t be greeting them. It was only after they saw Vilnius’ name on the registry that they figured out who he was. They arranged for a leave and tracked the ship to its current coordinates. The dance I’d witnessed was a form of apology, or at least that was as close to the concept as I would be able to come in my language.
I still didn’t know how old Claudine was, or when they would become female or male. But they seemed to be thinking about it more and more.
“Why is the male of your species so cruel to the female?” Claudine said.
They were back on ‘Some Girls’—the song, specifically, though the whole album defines that time for me. It was always on repeat. Claudine wanted to know why men like Mick Jagger were so fixated on some girls—some women—just as I was starting to not care about any difference between men and women. At least, in terms of Claudine. I began to see that gender, or my own proclivities toward one gender or another, didn’t matter. Not when the person’s skin had stars in it glowing like the light of heaven inside.
I couldn’t tell if my newfound open-mindedness was what Claudine was thinking about, despite our apparent mental connection. Telepathy sucks when it’s one way.
* * *
Vilnius watched Claudine from his chamber with less and less response. Claudine’s dances seemed to make him sad more than anything else. He would sometimes sit with his back toward them, and put another six or seven records on at once, while I watched Claudine’s rear end orbit around the front of his chamber’s window sumptuously.
Claudine spent half their time paying tribute to Vilnius, the other half with me.
I had so little to offer, intellectually or physically. I felt like a beast in their presence, a kind of burden.
* * *
One day, Radia called me up to the bridge to tell me Vilnius was feeling worse. She didn’t look up from her water charts.
“I’D LIKE YOU TO KEEP CLAUDINE AWAY FROM HIM AS WELL.”
“I don’t think I am Claudine’s handler.”
She looked at me and was silent a moment, but I could feel her digging around in there, examining my memories and feelings. She raised two of her four eyebrows.
“CLAUDINE ISN’T HERE TO SEE HER FATHER,” she said. “SHE’S HIS FIRST WIFE.”
I didn’t understand.
“I KNOW THE STORY SHE’S TOLD YOU, AND IT IS A COMPLETE LIE.”
She. Was that a slip on Radia’s part, a language problem because of Earth’s pronoun limitations, or did she know something I didn’t?
“I SUGGEST YOU NOT TRUST A WORD SHE SAYS,” Radia projected. “IN FACT, IF YOU’RE NOT GOING TO HELP, THEN JUST KEEP AWAY FROM HER.”
I wanted to challenge her and tell her she’d misunderstood Claudine, that she’d misunderstood us. I wanted to tell her what we said about the Rolling Stones, but what was the point? Radia was already way ahead of me.
“Do they—does she—at least feel the same about me?” I said.
Radia turned back to her maps. K13 hopped up on the platform next to her. “EMOTIONS ARE CONSTRUCTED BY SOCIETIES,” she thought-said. “THERE’S NO PLACE FOR THEM IN SPACE.”
I had to defend Claudine somehow. “For your information, I don’t care if she’s a boy or a girl.”
Radia turned her head, in mock surprise, and waved me away with the back of her hand.
“YOU HAVE MUCH TO LEARN.”
* * *
I wasn’t sure if that meant Vilnius wasn’t also her father. I didn’t know what other species thought about incest. But why had she lied about her gender? I began to think these aliens were even more confused than Earthlings were.
* * *
We were on the final stage of our journey. Star systems were few and far between. We passed a school of comets moving away from us, in the direction of what I had started to think of as back in time. Communication was spotty, and there was no word from my father.
Vilnius was getting worse. I didn’t see Claudine visit him, but I was limited by my need for sleep and my own moodiness. There was no chance of any vaccines being delivered to us way out here. He played his music less and less.
The original plan was that I would be left at the port where they were making their delivery. Very few earthlings had made it that far, so there was little doubt I’d procure another job as soon as I arrived.
I continued listening to music with Claudine and sleeping in the same bed with her, but I didn’t hide my feelings of being betrayed. Once, I woke up and she was curled up next to me.
“Wake up, sleepy girl. You don’t get to escape me that easily. You know I can’t read your dreams. What if I did this?” She put her hand under the blanket and rubbed me between my legs. I thought I was doing all right until then. Her eyes looked like two spinning discs of vinyl.
* * *
Our destination was fast approaching. We were landing on a planet much, much larger than Earth’s sun, and I had been told in training I would feel a gravitational pull unlike anything I’d ever felt before. Radia wasn’t on the bridge, which was strange, and Claudine wasn’t in our room or the record library. I found both of them standing in front of Vilnius’ chamber, their arms spread and their hands against the pressurised glass. Vilnius was sitting by his main turntable, looking pale and listless. All of their eyes were closed, and none of them seemed to be aware of my presence.
“Play the record,” Claudine said.
She must have been talking about Some Girls, my record—our record—which I could see was now in Vilnius’ chamber. She was talking to him, not me.
“I DON’T SEE THE APPEAL OF IT,” Radia thought-said. “THERE ARE MUCH BETTER RECORDS, EVEN BY THESE STANDARDS.”
“Relative, like everything else,” Claudine said.
“WE DON’T KNOW IT’S GOING TO WORK.”
“You know that it will. He does, too. It’s our best chance before—”
“YES. BEFORE GRRAVITY PULLS HER DOWN. BEFORE SHE DROWNS IN TIME.”
Who was going to be entering gravity and drowning?
Me. They meant me.
Claudine was wearing one of the shimmering watery gowns, as if she had tried on one of Radia’s liquid maps. “It’s supposed to cure it. Everyone who’s had intercourse with a Terran has shown complete remission. Yes, it’s still in testing stage, but the results are unequivocal.”
“THEN PERHAPS IT’S TIME THEY SPENT SOME TIME TOGETHER.”
“That’s why he should put the record on.”
They turned and looked at me without surprise. I realised they knew I was there all along. Of course. Why else would I have heard their voices in my head? This was their way of telling me what my purpose was on this ship all along.
Both of them left me alone in the outer chamber with Vilnius. I don’t think I’d ever been around him without music blaring from his room. He looker sadder than ever.
“Now you know,” he said. “We should have been more honest with you earlier. Certainly sooner than the end of the voyage. It wasn’t meant to be a secret.”
I wondered if everyone back on Earth, my parents, knew. From the look on Vilnius’ face, I knew the answer.
“I want you to do something for me now, all right?” he said.
I thought it was a little late to ask for my consent, after taking me thousands of light years from home.
“I want you to go over to the depressurising panel for me.”
I put my hand on the large old-fashioned metal wheel I assumed opened the airlock to Vilnius’ room. It looked like the lock on an old bank vault.
“Turning the wheel counter-clockwise will release the bay doors at the back of this room,” he said.
He wanted relief from the virus all right.
He didn’t want me or anyone else to touch him after all. He wanted to be sent out into the vacuum of space. “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes,” I said again.
He looked so tired, but also calm, the way he looked the first time I saw Claudine dancing for him.
“I want you to let me out.”
“You want me to let you out,” I said.
“Claudine and Radia will know you were just following my wishes.”
I turned the wheel and suddenly everything that wasn’t bolted down was airborne. Then Vilnius and all the records he’d piled around him were gone, sucked out into the vacuum in an instantaneous whoosh. I turned the wheel clockwise and the bay door closed again. After the chamber pressurised, the door to Vilnius’ chamber clicked and opened slowly, almost comically.
I stepped into his room and pushed the door closed. The lock was controlled from inside. The only thing left in the room was a large record player, one that had been secured to the floor. Some Girls was still on the turntable. I put the needle on the record so that Radia and Claudine would hear it—or hear me hearing it, I guess—wherever they were on the ship.
Apparently, only Vilnius had the power to open or close the chamber, and there must have been some kind of telepathic shield, because neither Claudine nor Radia responded to my mental attempts at rousing them. So I sat down on the floor and just waited for one of them to return.
They stayed away a long time. I was shocked that Claudine in particular would respect anyone’s privacy, even for something like that.
Finally, the door opened and I saw Claudine’s head peek in. “Everybody decent?”
Decent. What a strange way to put it.
She must have been saying something to me with her mind, but I couldn’t hear her anymore. In fact, I realised, even with the Stones blaring, it was more silent than it had been in a long time.
Finally, she started pounding on the glass to the chamber, but even that looked like some kind of beautiful choreographed dance to me.
Eventually, she stopped moving.
“Open the chamber,” she said out loud. “Come out and tell me what happened.”
I sat there, listening to the record.
“Why did you open the bay doors?”
I shrugged my head.
“So he wanted it?”
“Did he tell you why?”
“He thanked me.”
“And why are you in there now?”
Radia came in and looked at me first, then Claudine. They were communicating. It was odd how neither of them seemed particularly distraught that Vilnius had killed himself.
“Radia says you should come out of there. It isn’t safe.”
But I knew they weren’t going to open the bay doors on me, and I knew I wasn’t going to catch the Space Virus.
“If you don’t come out, then we’ll be forced to break in there.”
There was no way for them to do that. For the first time, I was in charge of something on the ship.
“You lied to me,” I said, referring to the virus, but also meaning more.
“Don’t blame me because you can’t read minds,” Claudine said with a shrug and left the room.
Radia stayed behind and continued to stare at me, though she had to have known I couldn’t hear her voice in there. She still showed no emotion, though it seemed like her hue had changed just slightly, a little more green than blue.
“I’m sorry about Vilnius,” I said, finally. “He seemed at peace when he left.” Then I remembered she couldn’t hear me.
She left, and I was alone in the chamber with my Stones record. I turned the side over again and listened to “Miss You” for the third time since Vilnius disappeared into space.
Later, Claudine brought me some food and put it through the disinfecting chamber, the same way I used to deliver records to Vilnius.
“You’d better think about coming out of there while you still have a shot of ever getting a ride back to Earth again.”
She started to leave again but then stopped.
“If you think you’ve been mistreated somehow, you’re mistaken. Both Vilnius and Radia took you in. You’re not the captain of this vessel. Or of anything.”
We were approaching the giant planet, and I could feel its gravity competing with the artificial one on the ship. I had been warned about gravity dilation during my training, but no theoretical description could prepare me for what I felt now. I knew I would feel heavier, and that time would seem to crawl to a stop. What I didn’t know was how sad it would make me feel.
I worried that Claudine would just laugh at me for being weak.
I thought about Radia telling me emotions didn’t belong in deep space, and I wondered if that maxim only applied during the journey. Now that they were feeling gravity’s pull, were they both still so cold? Did they at least miss Vilnius now? I lay on the floor—it was all I could do—and listened to the record skip, the needle playing the same groove over and over. Even the Stones were pulled into a rut.
I decided to leave the chamber and go find Radia and let her in my head again. She had told me the truth about Claudine, as far as I could tell, so maybe she would tell me if my father knew what he was getting me into out here. I wanted to know if my family had pimped me out.
It felt like it took weeks to get up to the bridge. The gravity field from the giant planet had slowed everything down to a crawl. Everything felt frozen.
I found her with her water maps as usual, though the ripples in the liquid looked like folds of sand, or ice. The aura she usually gave off had stilled and I could see her shape more clearly than ever before.
I didn’t want to be the pilot of the ship, despite what Claudine had said. I respected Radia, and I wanted her to know I would have gone ahead with it if Vilnius had wanted to.
All the same, I was scared.
I stood at the edge of the bridge and waited for her to finish scanning my mind, to see what had really happened between Vilnius and me. When she was done, she waved me off slowly without looking at me.
* * *
Claudine was in my room—our room—when I finally got down there.
She had managed to get Some Girls from Vilnius’ chamber while I was on the bridge, and she was playing it using a strange seashell-looking contraption sticking out of one of her walking bags, dancing the same dance I saw her perform for Vilnius that first night. But something was happening. Her skin-tight suit—she’d never been naked after all—changed from black to white. What were once stars became poppy seeds.
I stood there in the doorway and watched her motions, now slowed by the time dilation.
We were both crying. They couldn’t have known back on Earth what extreme gravity felt like when they coined the term ‘crush’.
I listened to the last notes of the record, but it didn’t sound like Mick and the boys anymore. It was too slow for me to make any sense of it. The black dots on Claudine’s skin were frozen too, as if they were periods putting a full stop to anything between us.
When she finally finished, she asked, “Where is Radia?”
“Back on the bridge.”
“I should probably go talk to her.”
I’d never seen her go to Radia’s deck before. I wondered if it was a sign of the emotional pull of the planet or if it had something to do with Vilnius’ departure. Either way, she looked sad after she came back.
“I suppose you should know that Vilnius is alive,” she said. “He was wearing a pod-skin when you opened the bay. And we’re going to find him. What you did hasn’t changed anything. But you were very disloyal and need to get off this ship. Are you scared about that?”
“I’m not. Are you?”
“Of what?” Then she wiped a tear from her cheek.
Claudine accompanied me in the shuttle to the gigantic planet. As we were docking, she said, “I don’t think he really wants to die. You know, the virus does odd things. It turns people against those that care about them the most. My sister and I only wanted to help him. Do you see?”
I made a point of thinking that maybe Vilnius wasn’t the only one on the ship with the virus, but she didn’t acknowledge it if she did hear me.
My sister. Why was she calling Radia that now?
Had anyone told me the truth when we were on that ship?
I don’t believe Claudine knew what truth was.
* * *
I saw Vilnius one more time, years later. I was on a return flight to Terra, hauling dark matter for a Vegan trader. We were stopped at a delivery station and I saw him in the cantina. I recognised him at once, but I didn’t turn around or acknowledge him at all.
He was out of isolation, looking healthier than I’d ever seen him. I suppose he’d found someone to cure him, or let someone cure him. I wondered if Radia and Claudine had ever found him, and the possibility that Claudine might walk into the dark bar any second brought all the old excitement and confusion back to me.
But I didn’t see her. Vilnius seemed to be alone, as he was when I watched him disappear out the bay doors, leaving behind me and his record. He ordered a bottle of something from the section of the bar that was poisonous to humans, then sat down on the other side of the cantina.
“Stellar winds, honey,” said the bartender. “They blow in some rough customers.”
“There is no wind in space,” I said. To me, Vilnius was no different from the other beings sitting in the way station, stopping for a moment in time before hopping back into light speed.
* * *
I pretty much came to terms with what had taken place between me and Vilnius and Radia, but it still did strange things to me to think about Claudine. I didn’t know how or if she fit into the bargain made with my parents when they sold me. I was still new to power, to the way two or more feelings can be felt at once, especially when sex is involved—be it the pangs of love or the calculations of prostitution.
My father stopped leaving messages for me altogether, and I assumed that he died along with the rest of his beleaguered generation.
Radia grew her shipping company into a large fleet with her name, not Vilnius’, embossed on the sides of her vessels.
Claudine became an ambassador and helped broker a deal for Earth, of all places, protecting it from exploitation and sex-trafficking by more advanced lifeforms.
I never slowed down, and stayed so young.