Friday, September 19, 2008

Gradisil by Adam Roberts

The moment he began to concern himself with such questions, the primitive thinker must have asked himself why the heavenly ­firmament, with its sun and stars and the waters above it, did not fall to earth like everything else within his knowledge.

J. H. Philpot, The Sacred Tree in Religion and Myth (1897)


Take this printed page, the very one you are looking at now. Take away all the letters, and all the commas and the dashes, and take away the apostrophes, and leave only the full stops, the colons, the dots over the “i”s. You will have a star map, cartography that describes precisely the sky of my imagination. I want to go there, you’ll say. So do I.

I’ll tell you about my father. In the, let’s say, 1970s he would have been the sort of man who played with model aircraft, building and flying in miniature, because the technology in those days was too expensive to allow anything but that. In the, let’s say, the 2030s he would have been the sort of man who built and flew real aircraft, propeller planes, primitive slow-jets. Indeed, it so happens that my father was such a man, before he married my mother, before I was born. That was his hobby in those distant, impossible days before my own arrival in the world: he flew his own aircraft, little one-seater jets. But by the 2060s, when my story begins, he was the sort of man who flew into orbit as a hobby. But of course it was more than a hobby.

I have reached that time in life when the need to fix one’s memories becomes more urgent than it once was. A person has more time, more empty gaps in their life. This is also the moment, passed, when the prospect of personal extinction becomes more real, and it comes to a person, one cold blank morning, that if they do not scatter the words upon the blank sheet, grain on a ploughed field, then they will leave no harvest at all except their own nerveless body to be decomposed or turned to ash. But I want more than that. So I shall look back, though that perspective is as vertiginous as looking down a great distance, a tremendously long way down. Many things have happened in my life, and it has been a long life, and it has gotten me to the point where I can think things such as: am I in orbit about my life now, my past that great planet, pulling at me with its crushing gravity? Or would it be fairer to say that it’s my life that is in orbit around me? Something of ego in that, I suppose. I suppose that something has tied me to this life, like one of Newton’s cords with which he used to illustrate the inverse square law: such that if four strings hold an orbiting body at distance x, then at distance 2x only one string will hold it. You know about that, but there are things you don’t know. In all that shrinking perspective of history, it matters less than it once did that I killed her, that it was I who killed her; but that before I myself die I want to claim that glory to myself. So—


This is where the story starts: in the spring of 2059 an American woman called Kristin Janzen Kooistra came to my father and offered to pay him a significant sum of money. In return, my father agreed to hide her in the uplands, a country, unique in our world, in which there are no extradition treaties to the USA or Europe; a country without policemen and without taxes. This agreement between my father and Kristin Janzen Kooistra was where our difficulties began.

She was, of course, in some sort of official trouble. She was on the run from one set of authorities or another. Why else would she have wanted sanctuary in the uplands? But we didn’t enquire too closely.

My father took her to the uplands. She paid him a fee of 35,000 euros beforehand, and agreed on a rental of eleven hundred euros a month whilst she was up in hiding. We didn’t ask her any questions. This was clearly a No Questions sort of deal. Dad said to me: “This will clear us for the year. She’ll schlep us the purchasing power to do tremendous things with Waspstar.” I was as excited as he was. I was sixteen that spring. Waspstar was a craft that I called “our spaceship”. My dad was more restrained. He called it an “orbital plane.”

Here is my dad, talking about NASA: “That was the problem, right there, right at the beginning. Is where the rot set in, with the initial premise, and everything subsequent was poisoned by it. If your premise is faulty, then necessarily everything that follows is faulty. Oh, NASA. After the Second War last century, the Euro-Asiatic-American war, the Nazis were defeated, but one Nazi, called von Braun, he was given sanctuary by the Americans: he lived in the US the rest of his life, and changed his name to von Brown. And because he had been in charge of Nazi military missiles, he steered the America space programme in the direction of rocketry. He became head of the programme that developed enormous liquid fuel rockets to shoot men into orbit—can you imagine it? That was the only way into orbit in those days—on the apex of these great rockets, like a fairy on top of a Christmas tree. Great rockets, big as the Giza Pyramid. The waste! Then the Russians copied the Americans, out of a spirit of envious emulation, and soon the world was spending twenty to thirty billion euros a year building these rockets!” My father would shake his head in great, mournful motions, left to right, right to left, as if full of pity for the idiocy of twentieth-century humanity. “And because von Brown was so influential, nobody explored other means of flying to space. And the irony is that the twentieth century was the great century of fixed-wing flight! All the great advances in actual flying happened then. But oh no” (emphatically sarcastic emphasis), “for fucking NASA it was rockets, only rockets, always rockets. They’re still committed to fucking rocketry. A hundred years later and they’re still launching their junk and their robots by rocket.” His tone of voice was eloquent with his contempt. I learned to hate rockets early. When I was eleven I went to live with my father full-time. At the beginning of that period, I did not understand his hostility to rockets.

I would say: “But what’s wrong with rockets, Father?”

He would roll his eyes, and tug at his doughy earlobes. “Oh, very pretty fireworks they make!” he would say. “Oh such bright lights! What’s wrong with them? Wrong? Klara, I’ll tell you what. Or, better, let me ask you. Is there a more expensive way of moving material into orbit? No. Throughout the last century, it cost as much to move a kilo of anything into orbit as it would have done to build a replica of the thing in solid gold. Imagine that! Imagine it. When NASA planned to fly a hundred-kilo man into orbit, they could have taken the money they were going to spend on doing that and instead spent it on building a replica of the man in solid gold, that’s what the costs were. This century the cost has come down a little, it is true; but that only moves the metal from gold to platinum, to silver. It is wasteful—oh! Wasteful. So, here we are, and how few people travel into space? Tell me—how few?”

I didn’t know.

“Two men last year,” he said, disgusted. “This year, nobody. Nobody from NASA, at any rate.” Father had various code-names for NASA. He would refer to them as “No sir,” as “Nil-ascension sad-acts” and “Nada” and other such waggishnesses.

My father was always asking me questions of the following nature: what is the most expensive way of raising a person to orbit? What is the escape velocity? How much heat must a shield process to withstand reentry? When I was a very small child I did not know the answer to these questions. But I was not very old when I knew as much as he did of the technicalities of fixed-wing flight into space. I worked with him on Waspstar, converting an old Elector private jet into a spacecraft, which was simply a matter of mounting a generator and running the Elemag coils the right way around the wings and under the belly. Soon, I was seeing the world in a different light, as he did. The curve of the horizon around me, when I occupied a vantage point, seemed to me to trace out a ballistic trajectory, an arc rising from the left and falling away to the right. I’m thinking of a particular vantage point when I say this: specifically, the west coast of Iceland where we stayed for a year. It was a beautiful land, though bleak, very hard compared to what I had known as a child. I remember a storm; the weather was such that we had been unable to fly, I think, and so my father stomped off on a walk in the foul weather, and of course I tagged along behind him, like a faithful dog. His temper swirled up from nowhere when he was frustrated, and raged all around him like thunder and lightning; but, equally, he could be so very tender, so very loving. Nobody knew him as I did. I remember that walk very precisely. We walked the cliff walk. The Atlantic wind was enormous, a pressure on the skin like gravity, with sparkles of rain on my face and the sound of distant but tumultuous applause on my waterproof. The sky had turned purple and black, the clouds were great clusters of plums and grapes, great undulations of black cloth, great bulging muscles of black cloud flexing and flowing. As we walked back towards our home the weather worsened. It was as if the wind was trying to pull the sea up by its roots, the water moving in heavily shifting masses and shouldering up against the rocks at the shoreline. And the sky seemed much closer, so low I might almost have reached up my hand and touched it, the ceiling of clouds heaving like a great upside-down flood.

Back inside our ground house, Father was calm again, as if the weather had effected a catharsis upon him. He tinkered with a canister of lithium hydroxide catalyst, and hummed to himself. “The problem with this place,” he said to me, twitching his head a little to the left to take in the whole of ­Iceland, “is that it doesn’t have forests. Where I grew up” (he meant in ­Hungary-EU) “there were great conifer forests, hundreds of acres.” I didn’t say anything, because I was think­ing of the forests of my own childhood, on the southern coast of Cyprus.

“Do you know what a tree is?” he asked me, another of his many rhetorical questions. “A tree is a seed that wants to get into orbit. Its trunk is evolution’s strategy for overcoming gravity. It is rocket-thrust solidified as wood, much more efficient than ballistic flight. If it grew tall enough then we could climb it to space.”

This was one of his favourite themes. After I left home to be with him he took over my schooling, in an erratic sort of way, and made sure I read many books on space flight. “Only,” he would say, “ignore the equations for ballistic flight. That is humanity’s great wrong-turn, right there. If it hadn’t been for NASA, and von Brown, and Korolev in Russia, and their mania for rockets, mankind would have colonised the planets by now. Instead of, what? Two men in space last year, and both of them on three-day repair missions. Nobody scheduled to go up this year, nobody at all. We fly robots up there these days, and precious few of those. Man has turned his back on space. Why? Because they were fooled” (he was riffling the pages of one of my school books, from the last pages back towards the first) “because they believe that.” He pointed to a passage about escape velocity. “Eleven kilometres a second, that says. Ignore it! That only applies to free ballistic flight. Ignore it! Imagine a space elevator—imagine a tree tall as orbit—imagine a great tower, like the one in the fairy tale, with a princess at the top. Imagine it reaching hundreds of miles into the sky!” (I was eleven; I’d read plenty of science fiction; I knew that such a structure would have to reach up to the geostationary point above the earth, and up beyond it as far again.) “Imagine a staircase winding up and up inside that tower,” my father continued. “Like stone DNA, curling and curling all the way to the top. With such a prop, we wouldn’t need to reach eleven km a second—would we? We could walk into space, slow as we liked.”

“It would take us a terrible long time,” I said.

“It would take longer,” he conceded. “That is not the point. Speed is where all this went wrong. Humanity became hypnotised by eleven kilometres a second, and all its space research was oriented towards achieving that ridiculous speed. Only rockets could do this, so rockets were what the space programme became. But the tower—that’s a thought experiment, you see? Eisenstein used to do thought experiments.” Father was never very precise with names. In this case he meant Serge Einstein, the physicist. “We’ll use them. What does the tower teach us? That the key to getting into space is not speed, but having something to climb up—having somewhere to stand, having what the Greeks call pou sto. That’s the key.”

“Building a space elevator would be as costly as the rocket programmes, wouldn’t it, though, Dad?” I said.

“Oh, building an elevator would certainly be costly—certainly. Too costly, certainly. Yes. But why not grow a tree? A great tree, like the Yggdrasil itself, its branches reaching into space. Then we could climb up, couldn’t we?”

“No tree would grow so high,” I said. I was thirteen, and my mind was logical. “Higher up its branches would die in the vacuum. And what’s gradisil?” I had not heard the word before.

“It,” said my father, “is a mighty tree from Viking myth. But don’t worry about that. We don’t need to grow such a tree. The Earth has already provided for us. The Earth possesses something called a magnetosphere, created by the differential in rotation between the Earth’s molten core and its solid mantle. Really—think of it like a bar magnet, though on a huge scale. The lines of magnetic force run out from the North Pole in a great sweep through space, and in again at the South Pole. Ions from the sun stream down the branches of this tree, my princess, at the north and the south poles, to create the auroras. Better, we can climb up the same branches to space.” He put down what he was doing and came to hug me. Can you genuinely take this as a symptom of disintegration? Naturally not.

That night I dreamt about forests. There is a great deal of pine forest on Cyprus, and it is very lovely. Calm and fragrant. You should go there, visit it. Inside a pine forest it is cool on a hot day, and silent. The tall trunks, like the masts of ships, stand in stately congress. It shrinks you to the size of an ant amongst grass-stems without diminishing your spirit. You’re walking between them now: close your eyes. The sound of your footfall is muffled by the spread of pine needles under your tread. The air is aromatic and soothing. The storms of northern latitudes are fine, almost sublime, but I prefer the blue skies of the Mediterranean. Now that I am an old woman I prefer blue skies to any other. I can point up and say I’ve been there.

We were almost a year in Iceland. At the end of that time Father was summoned to appear in an Icelandic court to speak to a case brought by my mother’s family, and rather than face that judge we left for Canada.


In 2059 my father and I flew Kristin Janzen Kooistra into orbit in Waspstar. We had a small house up there. I was the one, actually, who settled her in there, showed her how everything worked: how to turn the house around on its axis when the sun was on it to stop it overheating; how to vent waste; how to cook; how to recognise and plug leaks; how to scrape and spray the mould that kept growing in the danker corners; and so on. I was a child, but that was alright because it’s a very simple procedure, maintaining an upland house. A child can do it. I did it often. The house was, in effect, only a large metal cylinder with a window at one end. We dragged it up empty to orbit one flight in ’58, emptying everything possible out of the plane to reduce weight and even then it was a strain. Father thought of hiring a friend of his to tow it up for him, a man who operated an adapted 777 to the uplands, with a more powerful pulse motor that generated more amp; but that would have been expensive. Uplanders don’t do things for free, even for good friends. They’ve got to make a living, after all.

In the end we managed it, although only into a very low orbit. We had to fly down straight away and load up with solid burners, fly back up, fit them to the outside of the tin can, and shoot it up to a higher, slower, safer orbit. After that, my father pressurised the house himself. As with most of those sorts of early-day colonial upland adventures (read the history books) it was a hand-to-mouth, see-how-it-goes procedure. He chatted with friends, checked the Web, but in the end he just flew up and did it.

This is what he did: he rendezvoused with the orbiting object, by hand and eye rather than any fancy space-tracking or -docking software. I know that everybody uses the software now, but manual docking isn’t as hard as you think, after the first couple of times, after you get the feel for it. I’ve done it many times. He nosed into the hole at the end of the tin can until it was a tight fight. When he first bought his jet he’d sawn off the nosecone and refitted it so that it opened outwards three ways, and then he had fitted some retractable spikes so that he could lock Waspstar into the hole.

Then he opened some nox cylinders inside Waspstar until the air pressure inside the plane was much higher than usual. Then he just opened the nose. I’m sure he was bashed about as the air rushed through and the pressure equalised; in zero gravity it doesn’t take much to rattle you around like a dried pea in a maraca. But you can strap yourself down if it’s a thing you’re worried about. Then he opened some more cylinders until the pressure was comfortable again, and drifted through.

The next task was to seal all the holes and gaps in the tin can, which Dad did by puffing a little mist into the air from a handheld perfume atomiser filled with water and watching the directions in which it was drawn. Seal the larger holes with patches and sealant; seal the smaller ones with rubber, with cycle-repair-kit components, with whatever you have. The far wall of our house was one great circle of reinforced glass, and provided a really super-splendid view. The only problem was that the frame leaked air very badly, and Father spent a long time sealing all along it, and then repairing his seals, and then fixing his repairs. This process was, doubtless, made much harder by the fact that venting gas into space can cause the house, and the attached plane, to rattle around like a rodeo horse. It’s not easy to apply glue to a patch, or to press malleable rubber sealant to a crack with such wild bucking about. But Father managed it all “without hiccough” as he put it in English, a phrase he had picked up in Aberdeen, UK-EU, where he had lived for several years. Finally he fitted the airlock, bringing the pieces one by one from Waspstar and assembling them around the open nose hatch. After twelve hours’ constant work he was done, and our house was airtight. He slept.

Ours was, perhaps, the fortieth house built in the uplands. We were not the very first people to move there, but we were amongst the very earliest settlers and that is a fact of which I am proud. In those days it was like a small village. Everybody knew everybody else. Forty houses in many billions of cubic kilometres of clear space.

It took, I suppose, a dozen flights, over a month and a half for us to fit out the house properly. The trickiest task was strapping the various solid-fuel sticks to the outside, which we did with a radio-controlled waldo (the most expensive piece of equipment of the whole project, apart, of course, from Waspstar itself). I tried to hold the plane in a stable position whilst Father fitted the rockets: the two large ones, initially, to repair orbital decay; and then on subsequent flights the various smaller ones used to move and roll the house. But the waldo’s gusts of directional gas kept nudging me out of alignment, and it took a long time. Later, as Elemag technology became more sophisticated, uplanders would rig their houses with Elemag coils and position their houses by riding the turbulent electromagnetic medium. But these were early days. We positioned heat-transfer piping to generate some electricity. Then we rolled metal tape around the whole house; or, rather, we rolled the house beneath us spooling out metal tape, like a spider cocooning its kill in myriad reflective structurally binding strands.

Furnishing the inside of the house was easier: some plants, some air scrubbers, some cylinders, some canned food, some dried foods, some lights, a microwave, kegs of water, radio equipment, microwave transmitter, three pumps, books, clothes, all the paraphernalia of a house.

It was cosy. It was home.

We lived in the house together for several weeks, just to settle in, just to experience upland living for that length of time. I was happy then. After that we flew down, and restocked, and Father flew back up alone and lived there for two months by himself. He didn’t like to leave the house unoccupied: without somebody inside to turn the house in the sunshine the temperature differential outside becomes too great whenever the house orbits in sunshine, and the whole warps. Cracks can appear, and the air can all drain away—not a fatal eventuality because a house can always be reaired, but a circumstance that kills all the plants and might damage the more sensitive electrical equipment. I was worried about the window—if that broke, then everything inside would be sucked into space and we’d lose all our stuff. But Father was never worried by this. It was a special weave-glass, not cast like traditional glass but woven of transparent square-profile strands, and so it had more flexibility than conventional glass. “It’s tough,” he would say. “It’ll hold.”

But over the following year we were not able to spend as much time in the house as Father would have liked. We came and went as much as we could, but it was never enough for Dad. He fretted that the house was wracking and ruining as we sat around at the plumb of the gravity well. He was happy, therefore, to acquire a tenant. “She’ll look after it for me,” he said, “and she’ll pay for the privilege.” At that time I agreed with my father. I suppose I had notions of us turning the house into a extremely lucrative form of hotel, with guest following guest, paying us riches, and stringing our income generation out indefinitely into the future. That was wrong. Of course, looking back I would rather we had never been introduced to Kristin Janzen Kooistra. I would rather our house had fallen out of the sky and crashed into the ocean. Such is the wisdom of hindsight.


I have said that there were forty other householders in the uplands when we first moved there, and I’ll now say something more about them. Some of these forty were very wealthy. Some were moderately well-to-do, technophile middle-classers, retired businessmen or stockbrokers. Only one of them was a woman. None of them were poor. Twentieth-century Apollo had cost NASA eighty billion euros over two decades—huge wastage of money, as my dad would say. The uplanders got into space for a tiny fraction of that enormous cost, but that tiny fraction still meant—[item] enough money to buy and convert a jet, [item] enough money to buy such expensive toys as solid-fuel rockets to attach to your plane, [item] to buy cylinders of nox and canisters of lithium hydroxide, [item] to buy jet fuel, [item] to buy waldoes and other devices. My father was one of the poorest of the original uplanders. One of the richest was Giangiacomo Spontini, heir to the energy baronetage and one of my father’s friends. It was he who suggested to Kristin Janzen Kooistra that we might be able to offer her the sanctuary of an upland house.

“She’s a friend of mine,” he said, “and she needs a place to hide away for a little while. She’ll pay rent.”

“Great!” said Dad.

We flew from northern Canada, the three of us squashed into the cockpit. Waspstar was packed with luggage and supplies. The plane was sluggish on the runway, lifting off uncertainly and climbing more slowly than usual. She reached her flight ceiling at a lower level than was usual too, and when Father got out of his pilot seat to go aft and switch on the conductor relay, he put his elbow, inadvertently, into my face, “Sorry sorry.” Kooistra looked on, amused. It didn’t help that she was such a large woman. She seemed to fill the already crammed space to the point of popping the rivets and bursting the compartment. She was a conspicuous human being, obese, extrovert, with a shotgun laugh, and creases and folds in the flesh of her face and neck that seemed to chew when she moved, as if the skin of her body were devouring the space around her.

We flew due east; Father turned on the current through the wing resistors and I squeezed a few seconds of burn out of the side rockets to give us the necessary upward inclination. Then, cutting into the lines of force of the magnetosphere, our counterfield gave us purchase, and the phenomenon of magnetohydrodynamics (I had spent a whole evening at age eleven learning how to spell and define the word, to please my father) kicked in. Without wishing to bore you, I will explain a little: the added torsion caused by the interaction of our wing current and the magnetosphere creates this effect at relatively low speeds. The aerodynamics of flight become an electromagnetic phenomenon rather than a matter of air currents, but the effect is the same. Our wings mark a differential of electromagnetic potential, beneath and above; or, if you like, think of electromagnetic fields as fluids—for they are like fluids: not compressible, true, but flowing, variant in intensity, and (with electronic fields at any rate) drawn into sinks and expelled from sources. So we dug our fins into this tenuous medium by firing rapid pulses of lightning-strike intensity through the cables of our wings, and flew upwards. Or, if you prefer to think of it this way, we jagged ourselves into the branches of the Yggdrasil, we stuck our heels in and we clambered up through the sky.

And so we climbed, and climbed, circling in great arcs through the magnetosphere, each rotation bringing us higher than before. We flew no faster than four hundred klims-an-hour, one hundredth of NASA escape velocity, but fast enough to move us up. And the sky darkened and darkened around the cockpit, like a late winter afternoon, until it was purple-black and the Earth below us showed a lens-shaped curve. “Hell,” my father called from somewhere in the back of the plane. “There’s a new leak. I can hear it hissing. I can’t hope to find it with all this junk back here—we’ll need to open a new canister until we’ve emptied the hold.”

He was speaking English, for the benefit of our passenger, and so did I, turning towards her and reassuring her: “It’s OK, we always discover new leaks when we come up. It happens every time. It’s nothing to worry about.”

“I wasn’t worried,” said Kooistra, smiling broadly.

Father was trying his best to locate the leak by pulling items out from the wedged mass of objects, cursing and having no luck, so I was the one that lifted us to our house’s orbit, picking out the radio beacon and accelerating towards it. I had done this on several previous up-flights, but it was always an exciting thing. The sky is black and unimaginably vast, and the Earth turns its face as if spurning you, which means you are free. Then you see the bright star in the distance, and you give the plane another double burn and the star grows brighter and brighter and thickens in brightness until you can make out its shape. The trick with docking is not to try and do it all in one go. Fly up until the house is big enough to fill the cockpit windscreen, then stop applying the bursts. Without thrust you won’t accelerate, and because both you and your destination are hurtling in the same direction, you won’t get any closer without acceleration. Then it’s just a question of orienting yourself at the right end, and nudging forward until the nose slides in and you can release the clamps. Father had fitted a manual release, and it was hard work tugging the lever that brought out the spikes. I wanted a hydraulic release, which would have been easier on my skinny arms. “So do I. I want lots of things, my princess,” he told me. “We can’t always get what we want.”

We opened the nose, and there was immediately a breeze in the cockpit, air blowing from behind us through the hatch. You always lose a bit of air from a house if you leave it unoccupied, but it’s not usually anything serious. Pressure equalises when you redock. So we waited for the breeze to settle. Then we unclipped the seats and stowed them, and Father started hurling great packages from the hold with that illusory super-strength that zero g gives you, those bizarrely straight trajectories that the objects follow when you chuck them, that ant-with-a-leaf disjunction of your small arm and your huge burden. I slipped into the house and took the luggage and tried to stow it, but there was too much stuff for the storage straps that Father had in­stalled so I had to leave various things just floating around. Kooistra squeezed through the nose into the house—she only just made it, I remem­ber, because she was so fat. Father, in the plane, was squirting gas from a coloured aerosol into the air, following the curls and draws it made to the leak. “Found it!” he yelled. “Got it. It’s one of the bolt holes.” He meant the holes he’d drilled in the fuselage to fix the pencil-rockets. They hadn’t taken very well to resealing afterwards. We’d often had trouble with them.

Then what happened? It’s a long time ago, now, and my memory’s not what it used to be, but I want to get it right because it’s so very important. Father fixed the hole in the Waspstar, and we all had some food together. Then Father flew back down to Earth, riding the electromagnetic surf, ducking and squirling down with his metaphorical hands and feet firmly on the branches of the Yggdrasil, never accumulating enough speed to overheat the fabric of the plane. He went down below, leaving me to settle our tenant in.

“Oh, it’s spartan,” she said. “But oh, it’s got a marvellous view.” She floated her bulk to the window, where the sun was lining the Earth’s nightside horizon with white, as if a great arc-shaped lid were about to be levered off that side of the globe and the light inside was spilling free. “So these are the uplands?”

“First time up?” I asked, nonchalant in my sixteen years, as I squeezed some water into the base of the plants that were fixed to the wall. She didn’t look at me.

“First time. I must say, this lack of gravity is very pleasant indeed. For a woman of my weight. I mean, of course, mass.” She laughed with disconcerting vehemence.

“It’ll make your hands and feet cold,” I told her. “Even when it’s real warm, you never quite get warm in your feet. But you get used to that. Also you’ll feel heady to begin with, the blood will swell in your head until your body sorts itself out. That takes a day or two.”

I showed her how the house worked. “In about five minutes,” I said, “the sun’ll come up. We can switch off the lights then, it’ll be bright enough. I usually wear shades, actually. But when we’re in the sun you got to turn the house, which you do by firing the jets a bit, for a second, or less. You do that with little little turns of this handle—” showing her “—and it’ll tumble.” A little jarringly, it did. “Catch hold of something. You get used to it, it’s only a very slow turn, you get hardly no g out of it, but it stops the wall getting too hot on one side.”

“Does it get hot in here at all?”

“Yeah-huh,” I said, with that inflection of voice that conveys teenage disdain of another’s ignorance. “It’ll get hot. You might want to undress, it’s up to you. You get used to it after a little while, leastways I always do. It does cool down after you go into shadow again, but not much. Vacuum’s the best insulator and we’re surrounded by it. More-or-less vacuum.”

I suppose, if I’m honest, that my English was not as good as I’m here reporting it. It was school English, not the decades-familiar day-to-day idiom I use these days. But it was good enough to communicate.

“I’m surprised,” she said, in an absent voice, “you don’t fit a cooling system.”

“Sure we’ll do that,” I said. “When we get round to it. When we got the money. It don’t really matter, I think. The heat don’t bother me.”

She didn’t reply, because she was watching the art-deco splendour of a sunrise from space, the smile-shape of light widening and then the spearbright sun—not yellow up here, but blue-white—pulling itself clear from the Earth’s body, and all the stars dimming, as if in homage. I fumbled for my shades.

I showed her how to vent waste, by putting it in the airlock, pumping as much air out as the puny little pump we owned could manage, and then hauling the lever to open the outer hatch. When I did this, the house trembled and shook, bucked a couple of times, shuffling free several items of luggage inside. “It’s best not to do that too much,” I said, “or you can mess up our orbit.”

“I see,” she said.

Later I plugged in the microwave and we ate some hot food together, and drank some water. She spilled a fair bit, but all the crumbs made their gradual way to the corners as the house slowly turned. “I had no idea,” she confided in me. “I mean, I heard of the uplands of course, on news shows and such. But it’s quite another thing to actually come up here. I really had no idea how—liberating a feeling it is.”

“I like it,” I told her, ingenuous. “Yeah, it’s free. It’s a free land. Give me liberty or give me death.”

“No police,” she said, musingly.

“None of that. No government, no taxes.”

“Except that you have to return to the Earth from time to time. For ­supplies.”

“We do,” I said. “But a friend of ours called Olsen, Åsa Olsen he’s called, he lives up here all the time, don’t ever go down. His house is on a similar orbit to ours, and he just pays people to bring his food up. Pharmaceuticals, I think. I mean, that’s how he made his money. HIV medicines, Dad says. But he always was a space nut, so he lives in a big house in the uplands and people make money bringing him food and things. He’s got enough money to just live up here all the time, you see.”

“Really,” said Kooistra, excessively interested. “Have you seen his house?”

“Last month Dad and I brought him up some water, some scrubbers for his air, some hams. His house is five times our size—it’s got different rooms, and everything. Heating and cooling. A gym. Very nice. He gave us tea. He said he was getting another room flown up in the autumn.”

“He must be wealthy.”

“Oh—loaded, yeah.”

“Doesn’t he get lonely?”

I shrugged. “He’s in touch with everybody by radio and webline and such. He gets visitors from time to time. He likes his own companionship, Dad says, or he wouldn’t have moved here in the first place.”

We finished our meal. After a long pause, Kooistra asked me, with a sly tone, “Aren’t you curious why I’m here?”

“Dad told me,” I said carefully, “not to pry. You’re a customer, you see. In Europe they say the customer is always right.”

“In America,” Kooistra said, “we say the customer might have a gun. It amounts to the same thing. Well, you can guess that I’m in trouble with some governments.”

I shrugged again. Shrugging in zero g is a different experience from shrugging on the ground. It shuffles the whole body. If your shrug is lopsided (not something you usually think about on Earth, but space is different), it’ll even rotate you a little.

“There’s no need,” she said, smiling and showing her enormous twin rows of perfect teeth, “for us to be coy with one another. I’m your guest. We can be friends. I’ll be frank with you: I’m what the European government calls a political undesirable, and the American government calls a defined person within the counterterrorism act. I’d more or less run out of countries on Earth in which I could safely have stayed. But up here, they can’t get at me. Up here I’m untouchable. Aren’t I!”

I stared at her. I’d seen enough action films to have preconceptions about what terrorists looked like, and they didn’t look like her. They looked like slim men with sideburns and expensive plastic suits of black or purple. They were bald or had dyn-stripes. They wore shades and moved with drug-enhanced rapidity. They said things like the best place to crack the ribs of the state and get at its heart—is from within, hah! hah! hah! They certainly didn’t look like a one-eighty-kilo white woman with a massy tangleknot of blonde hair on her head and creases all over her body as if she had originally been an even larger balloon woman who had been partially deflated. She didn’t look the part at all. But I kept my cool.

“Oh,” I said.

“It’s alright,” she said, turning from me again to watch as the Earth—majestically rotating in our window now, as if we were looking into a cosmos-sized clothes drier and the globe were being slowly tossed—came between us and the sun. “I’ll be no inconvenience to you. I’ll stay a few months, until the police who are looking for me are properly confused, and then I’ll go down again. No more than a few months. Three months at the most. But I’ll tell you this, my dear. I’m seriously thinking of buying a house up here myself.” The sun went behind the Earth, and it darkened abruptly inside the house. I lit up a bulb. “How beautiful it is,” she said, still facing the window. “I could watch it for days!”

Perhaps I should have taken her more seriously when she said she wanted to move to the uplands. You’re thinking that, now, as you read this, because you can view the scene with the benefit of hindsight. But I naturally didn’t see it that way. I was tired after a long day, so I said to her: “There’s a thing about sleeping.”

“A thing?”

“Yeah—when you go to sleep you need to make sure your own breathing-out-gas (I knew this was CO2 but in my teenage arrogance I wasn’t sure she would know) doesn’t pool around your head. Here, you need to wear one of these sleeping tubes, like this—you wrap the elastic bladder around your chest and fix the tube’s end on your cheek with its sticker, then when you breathe in the bellows action will puff spurts of air over your mouth. It’s enough to stop the buildup.”

“Why, thank you, my dear.”

“Everyone wears them up here,” I explained. “When they sleep.” I unrolled a sleep-bag; it was warm in our house and the sleep-bags were made of silk. I fixed it to the Velcro patches on the wall, put my elasticised eye-muff on (the sunlight would wake me otherwise), climbed in, and went to sleep. I woke a few hours later, because our spin had slowed down, the loose baggage knocking against the walls probably, and we were getting too hot; so I sponged myself with cool water and took a long drink and gave us a little more spin and tried to get back to sleep. Kooistra was snoring in her sack, her arms and her breasts—(she was naked)—hanging over the lip of the material and floating in front of her, so she looked like a stationary sleepwalker. Or like Frankenstein’s monster. But, when I say so, maybe my own hindsight is colouring my impression of her.

In the morning I upped the air pressure inside from a cylinder and checked the scrubber. I didn’t really need to do this, after only one night, but I wanted to show Kooistra how it was done. The new air cooled us a little. The two of us had breakfast and made more small talk. Soon Father came on the radio, letting us know that he’d cleared the auroral zone and would soon be with us. I pumped the lock and opened the outer hatch so he could fit the nose in. Then we waited for his arrival.

About an hour after this, the whole house shook as violently as if we were experiencing an earthquake (spacequake, I should say). Both Kooistra and I were flung lengthways and smacked into the bales of supplies that were stacked loosely at that end. There was the loudest noise, as if the whole house were breaking in two and we were being spilled into space. This was the Waspstar hitting the docking hole. There were more cracks and bangs, and soon enough there was a little breeze, a taste and smell of different air, and after a few moments father came floating through.

I don’t want to dwell on the recollection of this time, because it still hurts, so I’ll hurry along a little. We stayed, all three of us, in the house for another day. Then father flew me back home, to Canada. There was little point in me staying in the house up there, consuming supplies, breathing out carbon dioxide, getting in the way. Besides I was taking a university course (distance learning) in Web topography and geography, and some term papers were due. I’d pestered my father to help me gain a little more education, seeing as how my schooling had been so heavily interrupted up to that moment. This particular college course had been my idea. I mention this, I suppose, to explain why I stayed downside, when my father flew back to the upland with more supplies and some trading cargo he hoped to sell to some of his neighbours and make money. He could have stayed on the ground with me, I suppose: there was no pressing need for him to go back up to the house. Kooistra was settled in alright. But he loved flying up and down; loved doing little trades with upland neighbours. He felt good doing it. He felt free. So he went.

I spoke to him that night; a brief and crackly five minutes conversation on the radio phone, curtailed by him passing over the horizon. We didn’t say anything very much. I didn’t say “I love you, Dad.” I was sixteen, and that wasn’t the kind of thing you say when you’re that age. Anyway, I was going to see him in only a few days.

For several years afterwards I used to have a recurring dream about that conversation. Presumably my subconscious was trying to rerun my life, to make things better. To make it work out all right. I had the conversation again and said different things. But the odd thing is what I didn’t say, in this dream—I didn’t say “I love you, Dad,” or “Quick, get in the Waspstar and fly home!” or anything like that. Instead I said, “I’ve got to play the violin in front of the whole school later, Dad.” And he said, “You can’t light a candle up here, but you can play the violin all you like. Light doesn’t propagate the way sound propagates.”

A strange dream.

The next day I tagged my term papers and e-mailed them to the tutor. It was about Internet geography—tree-locations, and Web-leaves—old-­fashioned terms, now, to today’s youth, I have no doubt: but that was where the subject was in 2060. Then I radioed the house, because I knew it would be in the sky over Canada. The radiophone buzzed and buzzed, and that was odd—strange that he didn’t pick up the phone straight away. There was no way out of the house, except by the Waspstar. You couldn’t pop out into the garden; you couldn’t go to the east wing and not hear the phone. It was right there, beside you, all the time. I wondered if Dad had flown away from the house for some reason, and if Kooistra, feeling herself a stranger and a guest, was reticent about answering the call. After a little while the receiver was picked up and I heard a woman’s voice say “yes”?

“Hi, Kristin,” I said. “It’s Klara.”

Without pause she replied: “How lovely to hear your voice again, Klara. I wanted to say how much I enjoyed our little time together. It was like a slumber party. The two Ks, yes?” Her voice was perfectly warm, perfectly natural-sounding.

“Yeah,” I said. “Great. Could I speak to my dad?”

“Oh, I’m afraid he can’t come to the phone.”

“What you say?”

“There’s been an accident, I’m afraid.”

I coughed with surprise. “What? Is he hurt?”

“Oh, yes, I’m afraid so. In fact, it’s worse than that.”

“Are you joking? Are you making a joke? This isn’t a very funny joke.”

“It’s no joke, I’m afraid,” she said in her fruity, thrumming voice. “I’m terribly sorry, of course. You know, I’m not sure I can pilot the plane without him. Is it a plane? Is that what uplanders would call it? Or is it a spaceship?”

“What? What? Tell me what happened. What’s happened? Put my dad on. I want to speak to my dad.”

“Oh, he can’t speak, I’m afraid. He’s dead. It’s a shame. But accidents will sometimes happen, even in the best regulated homes.”

“Let me speak to him!” I was crying, suddenly, with the shock and the fear of it.

“My dear,” she said, her voice never varying its balanced, melodious tone. “I’m not sure you’ve been listening to me. He’s dead, as I explained.”

“Did you hurt him?” I said. “Put him on the phone, you fuck.” My voice was high-pitched and unsteady. “What did you do to him?” I was almost shrieking. You can imagine what I was like.

“It’s unfortunate, I know,” she said. “But everybody dies, you know, eventually. Oh, did you think he’d live forever because he was your father? Is there a manual or something?”


“A manual—for the plane, you see. I have flown a plane before of course, but never,” and she laughed a little self-deprecating laugh, “in space you know.”

I put the phone down. My head was burning. I couldn’t believe it. I walked round and round in a tight circle. I couldn’t believe it. I phoned again, thinking “This time Dad will answer the phone,” but once again I got Kooistra. “Hello again, my dear,” she said warmly.

I howled.

I didn’t know what to do. I called some friends, an elderly couple called Eric and Deborah de Maré who lived half an hour away. Eric had been an upland-traveller, flying up a few times, although he never built a house there; but then he’d had a cancer in his sinus and the treatment had left his head too sensitive to pressurisation and depressurisation to allow flight. I called their house in tears, and they drove straight over and comforted me. At first they didn’t believe it. They called the police for me, and a squad car came over, and a policeman took a statement, two policewomen tried to comfort me. They gave me sedatives and I slept eighteen hours. When I woke a different set of policepeople were in the house. They wore the dark blue uniforms of UP. “Tell us everything,” they said. “From the start.”

I repeated everything.

They seemed surprised that Kooistra had given us her real name. “That was bold of her,” they said. “Usually she uses a false name. Didn’t you recognise her name?”

I told them that neither of us had recognised her name.

“I guess you don’t follow the news too close,” one of them said.

One of the UP officers said to me: “You shouldn’t worry that he suffered.” By he he meant my dad. “She usually kills quickly, cleanly. She doesn’t make her victims linger.” I think he believed it would make me feel better to hear this.

It didn’t make me feel better.

Later, maybe a month or so later, another UP officer during another interview told me how lucky I was, to have spent a whole night in a small room with Kooistra and to have lived to tell the tale. “I wonder why she didn’t kill you?” this one mused, aloud. “Maybe it was because your father hadn’t brought up the shuttle, so she was worried she would have been stranded. But he would surely have come up anyway, even without hearing your voice on the radio?”

They asked me how she had come to contact us. I told them, again, that the billionaire Spontini had given her our name. She’d called us, she’d told us that Spontini had recommended us, that she needed a little help, somewhere to lie low for a while. “Spontini,” they said, knowingly. “He doesn’t come down from orbit any longer. He’s got plenty of contacts in the world of crime and terrorism.” I thought of saying he’s our friend, because he was. But, after several weeks of close contact with them my sense of hostility to the police was a continually growing thing, and I was behaving in an increasingly uncooperative manner. At one point I threw a tantrum. It wasn’t exactly play-acting, because I genuinely was upset: but it was partly a set-piece because I was bored and wanted to rattle them and wanted an excuse to get out. I screamed, “My dad’s dead, and you don’t care a bit, I hate you all, I hate you all,” and I ran out of the house.

The irony was this: Dad loved the uplands because they were free from the police interference and harassment that had plagued his earlier life. He believed in individual liberty; he disbelieved in organised government. I believed the same things; but there were fewer and fewer places on our overregulated planet where it was possible to live as a free human being. He was drawn to the possibilities of the uplands for that reason. But, now that he had been killed, the police disclaimed all capability to help. They couldn’t apprehend the killer unless she came down again, and more or less presented herself to the authorities. “Our squad cars don’t fly that high,” they told me, as if it were a joking matter. They were worse than useless.


Let me tell you a little about my father, Miklós Gyeroffy. He was born in Hungary-EU. But he had come to Cyprus as a young man when he was travelling around the world in his restless way. There he had fallen in love with a Cypriot woman, and had married her in the teeth of her family’s disapproval. I was born six months after that wedding, in May 2043. In ’46 Dad wanted to move to Scotland, but my mother’s family would not permit her, or me, to accompany him. He flew planes he’d built with whatever money he could accumulate, but there was never enough money, and my mother’s family hoped, I think, that he would crash and die, and then Mother could fast-forward through a decent period of black-clad mourning and marry a nice Cypriot man. But he did not die, and when he was offered a job as a satellite consultant in Aberdeen, my mother did not go with him. So he gave up that job, and stayed in Cyprus, poor. Late in 2046 my mother died of what my family call “an infection,” but which may have been a hangover from terrorist bioweaponry of the ’20s, one of those phage-plague things. It was sad that she died, but, of course, I was only three and not much affected. I do not remember my mother. I do, however, remember my father arguing with my Cypriot relatives, a few years later. I remember a court case when I was seven (or thereabouts; I think I was seven), a case about custody, in which a Cypriot court awarded me to my maternal grandmother, and her multitudinous relatives and allies. So I had to go and live with them. Instead of calling me Klara, which had been my name all my life, they called me Kassandra. My grandmother wanted to call me Eleni, after herself, but I was registered in school as K. Gyeroffy. My violin (I used to play the violin in the school orchestra) had “K. Gyeroffy” written into the varnish with a heat pen. I had labels holo’d into my clothes that said “K. Gyeroffy.” So, rather than go to the bother of changing all that sort of thing, they kept my initial. But they changed my name. Grown-ups understand the importance of names.

My dad went to Finland to work and I did not see him for four years, although he e-mailed me frequently. After that, from time to time, as I grew up, he would come visit, and my grandmother would tolerate him: but he would stay in a hotel, never in the guest room; and he would take me out for a meal to a place with plastic seats and plastic tables. He was never invited to join the family at their evening meal at home. As I got older and had all the fantasies that children have, my father became a talismanic figure to me. I did not resent the fact that he was away so much, but I loved the weekends when he came to stay. It’s funny how perfect he was in my secret imagination—I say funny because my Cypriot family did their best to poison me against him, telling me how terribly he had acted towards my mother, how you could never trust a foreigner and such stories. It puzzles me, in fact, that they failed to persuade me. They were persistent and eloquent, and sometimes I found myself half-believing what they said. But some inner part of me held back; and that inner space opened fractally before my closed eyes, and there was my father swooping and flying on wings of chrome through the blue-painted immensities.

My father came back to Cyprus for my eleventh birthday, and the day after the birthday he took me out for a drive in a hire-car. He drove me right across the island, from Greek-EU into Turk-EU. In the car he said “Klara, you are my daughter and I love you. You are my whole life. Will you come with me?”

Understand this: I had not been unhappy with my Grandmother Eleni. Life had been ordinary, and ordinariness is what a ten-year-old most craves, even if she does not realise it. But I was tugged by the gravitational pull of my father’s love. He moved in his orbit about Europe, finding work where he could, and he drew me after him, I moved in an orbit about him. He was the most important being in the world to me. I said, “Of course, Dad.”

We flew from Cyprus to Ankara, and then to Roma, where we lived some months; then to Bristol in England-EU for a year, then to Lille in France-EU for six months. Then we left the Union and moved to Reykjavik, where we lived two years or so. We only left in ’57 because Iceland signed a new accord with the EU granting more extensive co-legal access, and that brought Father under the same legal jurisdiction as the Cypriot judge who had awarded me to my Greek family. So we moved on again, in ’57, to the Canadian Republic.

I loved Canada. There was a large community of uplanders living there—twenty, or more—flying from the northern counties, from airstrips at high latitudes, up through the magnetosphere and into a North Pole–inset orbit. The only ground-based orbital community of comparable size lived in Tierra del Fuego and flew from a privately maintained base on the Antarctic coast. What you must understand is that these people were all amateurs: men of moderate or comfortable means who had grown up watching SF screenshows and reading SF stories, men who were in love with the idea of flying in space. A particular friend of ours, an American called Jon Snider who was living in Canada at that time, pursuing his space flight hobby, told me: “I applied to join NASA, you know. I wanted to be an astronaut ever since I was a kid. Couple of decades ago I thought, “I’ll be like John Glenn, I’ll be like Piper Harrows, I’ll join the government agency.” They strung me along, strung me along, until eventually they owned up. “Hey it’s really really unlikely you’ll get any flight time.” Hah! They barely send up any people these days. They’re too busy trying to make a profit selling launch opportunities and fine-tuning comsats. You know for how much money the EU government sold the latest mobile netlink rights? Bandwiths were going for a billion euros, minimum. Thirty billion euros for the whole bag! That much! I’ll tell you” (he was getting quite heated now, his bald head blushing damson from cheeks to crown), “I’ll tell you, they’ll make that money back from consumers in two years. That’s just from EU consumers, never mind the rest of the world—spending so much on mobile netlink that companies can clear more than thirty billion in profit, in profit alone, over two years. Think of the gross! So you tell me—is that the best way of spending humanity’s money, webbing friends, playing games on the bus? A fraction of a single percent of that money, we could have bases on Mars in five years. Destiny—possibility—glorious—but, no, we’ll keep frittering our money on games, on cosmetics, on flim-flam, and we’ll turn round in five hundred years and still be right here where we are now.”

As you can see, Jon was very much like my father. Most of the original generation of uplanders, including my father, and including Jon, shared certain traits: they revelled in their technical competence and curiosity, independence—sometimes to an antisocial degree—and in a kind of restlessness, a refusal to simply take what fate had given them. Gather together three or four uplanders in a room drinking whisky, and the conversation would be about sixty percent technical discussion of the practical problems of space flight (swapping stories and ideas, passing on corner-cuts and good practice, cackling over the incompetence of some third party), and forty percent rants about the stupidity of the world, similar to the speech I have just put into Jon’s mouth.

I don’t want to give the impression that my father and these others had a grand plan for the colonisation of the solar system. They didn’t. Not at all. They were really only interested in getting themselves into space; theirs was a fundamentally selfish dream. But their DIY culture was in part created by a sense of the futility of state-sponsored space flight. “DIY” was a one-syllable word in their patois, “die-y.” You may remember this: in 2055 EUSA put together a solar probe, with complex and weighty magnetic shielding to enable it to penetrate a fair distance into the Sun’s penumbra. They paid a South African company to launch it, on a rocket (of course), and fired it towards the Sun. It stopped transmitting data two days into the mission. It was barely out of Earth orbit. Nobody knew what had gone wrong; some malfunction, screw-up, random accident, impossible to be sure. But the whole enterprise was a dead loss. The EU news media roasted their own agency for this: money thrown into a black hole, they said. The cost of the mission was forty-five million euros, and it was indeed wholly wasted. But, worse than that, EUSA suffered permanent harm: their funding was cut, their mission schedule reduced, their chief executive sacked. The same year Cosmos II: The Void was produced, starring Jenny Open and Pablo Stilmandole. It cost ninety million euros, an average budget for an A-league movie in those days. It earned back five million. It wasn’t even the biggest flop of the season. The studio shrugged their shoulders, and went on to commit a budget twice the size for Swimming in the Mainstream the following year, which also flopped. As my father said at the time: “It’s like a punch in the face, the stupidity, the aggressive stupidity of it all.” Think what the space programme could do with a fraction of the money spent on media entertainment—on teenage cosmetics, narcotics, and communication—on clothes that are designed to melt off the body after one wearing—on specialist food. Billions and billions wasted every year on these pointless nothings. A fraction of this money would give humanity a genuine future.

I hear myself. It’s arresting: I sound exactly like my dad.

When my father died I was sixteen years of age, two years beneath legal majority for EU and therefore two years shy of Canadian legal jurisdiction. I applied to stay with Eric and Deborah de Maré, who were kind enough to agree to take me on—solidarity between uplanders, I suppose. They were good people. In fact, I did live with them for nearly two months, until a Canadian court ruled (Eric and Deborah and I were present virtually) that I must return to my mother’s family in Cyprus, and so I had no choice, I went back. I hated it. I was placed back in a Cypriot school, two years below my ability level because I had not been following the official syllabus. I had to share a room with the Somali maid my grandmother had hired to help her around the house, although there was a spare room in the house (“we must keep that for guests,” grandmother said). I had no friends, and the family were chilly with me because I had, in their eyes, deserted them to follow my father. There was no sympathy expressed by my Cypriot relatives for his death. As far as they were concerned it was, as they say in England, a “good riddance.” I was miserable. I stayed nine months, and took to cutting my arms with a sharp knife. I can no longer remember why I did this, except that it proceeded from a deep and nebulously suicidal sense of misery and self-hatred. I used to curl up under the duvet and score red lines into the skin of my forearms, not minding the pain, in fact darkly welcoming the hurt of it. Then I would wrap my wounded arm in loop after loop of tissue paper and try to go to sleep. Sometimes when I woke the mattress would be sticky and wet beneath me with my own blood. I failed the year’s school classes and was reentered the same year. I had visions of repeating the same miserable cycle in my life forever, of being stuck and trammelled. I was possessed by the hopelessness of it. I wept for my father every day. Sometimes I would lie in my bed weeping and, simultaneously, I would think how astonishing it was that a person could be so profoundly unhappy and not simply expire of the sensation. It was unhappiness as acute as the pain of a newly broken bone, as consuming as influenza, a grey and utterly devouring affliction.

My grandmother soon became alarmed at the scars on my arms, and took me to an expensive clinic where they fitted drug-release sacs into my scalp. This eased the acuteness of the mental distress, but did nothing to relieve the blankly oppressive underlying pressure. I moped. “Cheer up!” my grandmother exhorted me. “It won’t come easily, but you must work at it—you must make the strenuous effort to be cheerful. You think happiness comes to people like the leaves to the trees? It doesn’t—it’s work, not nature. You say I’m unhappy, and what I hear is: I’m too lazy to cheer up. Don’t do it for your own sake, but for other people.” But I did not cheer up. Perhaps it was indeed a sort of emotional idleness, as she said; sinking into the quicksand rather than trying to pull myself out, but there was no fight left in me, no fight of that sort at any rate. I shaved my head, which was the fashion in those times, and fitted plastic carbuncles into the skin to mimic plague symptoms. Many teenagers across Europe were doing this sort of thing, listening to atonal thrash music, wearing clothes made of black strips that sagged to reveal more than they concealed. I didn’t like the music, but then liking wasn’t really the point. I hung out in bars downtown with scary teenagers. My grandmother despaired. “I despair,” she said. On a few occasions she hit me, slapping me on the face or across the back of my legs, but this had no incentivising effect upon me. It was only a small pain, and a larger humiliation, and I believed at that time that pain and humiliation were my proper due. I pulled the drugsacs from my head, breaking the skin of my scalp to get at them. I took to smoking a tobacco pipe, as was the fashion for women at that time, and sometimes I would dip my fingers’ ends into the glowing bowl of the pipe and burn the skin. My fingers’ ends acquired thimbles of scar tissue.

Grandmama, yielding to advice from other branches of the family, paid for me to attend a psychotherapist. This was a last resort for her. She didn’t believe in the practice, because (as she put it) psychiatry had been so thoroughly exploded as a medical science, exposed as mumbo-jumbo. But what else could she do? There were still small groups of believers, cadres of Freud-enthusiasts (or is it spelled “Frued”?), and there was a practitioner in our town. So I sat through a dozen sessions with a stocky, craw-bearded man in a blue hoop-suit who dipped his head, as if in respect, every time I spoke. Some of his questions were fatuous: “Why do you cut your arms with a razor? Why do you burn your fingers?” Others were more thought provoking. He had a theory, something I came to understand over several sessions, that I had suffered a psychic trauma because, in effect, my “mother” had killed my father. Of course, Kooistra was nothing at all like my mother: home video showed a small, precise, dark-faced, black-haired woman with a clear laugh like a door-chime. Kooistra, in contrast, was an enormous tent of a woman with snow-pale skin and yellow hair like a tangle of cloth offcuts. But this did not deter the psychotherapist. He said: “Of course, you must have recognised her name when she first introduced herself to you—she used her own name, after all.” I said: “But we didn’t recognise the name.” He refused to believe this. His theory was that I must have recognised the name of one of the world’s most famous serial killers, but that I had repressed this information in my subconscious, and that this was now making me feel responsible for my father’s death. I don’t think it had, until this moment, occurred to me that I ought to feel responsible for his death, but once the psychotherapist had put the idea in my head, of course I started to believe it. “It’s natural,” he murmured, “for a daughter to feel both love and murderous hostility towards her father. You resented him for taking you away from your Cypriot family, and dragging you all over Europe, for disrupting your life, for flying you up into space when all you wanted was to keep your feet on the ground.” This, I now believe, was almost exactly the opposite of the truth, but then, seventeen years old, crying, picking at my skin with dirty nails, slouched in the therapist’s chair, I half-believed it.

He said: “Once you acknowledge your sense of responsibility, your aggression towards your father, your sense of complicity with the woman, Kooistra, then you will start to feel better.” I made this acknowledgment, or I tried to. Genuinely I did. But I didn’t feel better. I was aware of no sense of complicity with Kooistra. I fantasised about spiking her onto the metal spire that was on top of the school tower, impaling her, of running her through the heart until she spat out her own blood from her mouth like vomit. I didn’t tell the psychiatrist this violent fantasy. I assumed he would misinterpret it.

One day my psychiatrist made this little speech: “The essence of good mental health,” he said, “is to be found in a grounded existence. Too many people seek constantly to escape their unhappiness by running away, by flying away, but no matter how rapidly you fly you will not escape your unhappiness, because it is carried inside you, inside your head. Instead of the pathological urge for escape, instead of the restless compulsion to travel, you must root yourself in one spot. You must confront your demons, purge your subconscious conflicts, and centre yourself.” So many theories of happiness! As I look back, after a long life, this theory seems to me to possess less merit than my grandmother’s theory. But I thought about it a great deal at that time.

I thought about it. I lay in my bed that night, with the maid snoring in the other bed, and I thought about it. I thought about flight, and about stasis. I thought about escape, and acceptance. I shut my eyes and imagined the video image of one of those great rockets from the 1970s, hurling out millions of kilos of thrust from its tail and rising into space. You know the image? It’s kind of a famous one. It seemed to me, as I thought of it, that it was not so much that this building-sized rocket was rising, but rather that it was the still point of the world of flux, that the cosmos was moving around it. As if the power of the rocket was forcing the universe out of shape around it. Then I thought of Waspstar, floating up like a leaf in an electronic hurricane, and it seemed to me a more natural mode of travel altogether. A more natural mode of travel.

I got out of my bed then and there. I dressed without waking the maid, stole some money from my grandmother’s chip, and left the house carrying a loaf of bread and some cheese. I walked five miles to the station, hired a cab to take me to the airport, and flew to Italy-EU. From there I used the de Marés’ family name, address, and co-don card (I’d memorised the number when I’d lived with them) to borrow money for a flight to Canada. I justified this to myself by telling them that I’d pay them back when I got to Canada. I’d get a job or something and pay them back. I lied to the airport staff, telling them I was nineteen. I was going to say “eighteen,” but then I thought to myself that a bigger lie is a more believable lie, provided only that you don’t go too far.

The de Marés were kind, and, frankly (it seems to me now) they deserved better than the angry, graceless teenager who descended upon them. They explained, patiently, several times, that they couldn’t take me in: that the police would simply return me to Cyprus. There was nothing they could do. I cried, howled, shouted at them, called them appalling things, but they were quietly adamant. So I calmed myself, and went to see Jon Snider. He lived sixty klims away, and to get to him I took the de Marés’ energCar, without asking their permission, and without ever returning it. So selfish! I look back on my seventeen-year-old self and I think: she is another person to me, a stranger. Am I really connected to her? A mere chance of timelines. But there was an animal drive for self-preservation, a strength of will, in me then.

The energCar only ran on state highways, and Snider—like most of the uplanders—lived away by himself in the wilderness, with his own runway and his own adapted farmhouse. I left the Car sitting in a two-hour-maximum siding and hiked across country. When I reached his house, I must have been a sight: mud and dead leaves glued to my shoes and calves, wearing one of Eric de Maré’s too-large overcoats, my head covered only with a layer of black fuzz where the baldness had grown out a little, the petite constellation of scars from my old treatment still visible through the suede of it.

“Hello,” said Jon, as he opened the door. “It is Miklós Gyeroffy’s girl, as I live and breathe.”

He took me in, suggested I had a shower. After I had cleaned up he found me some fresh clothes, gave me some food. After I’d finished eating, with him sitting opposite me watching, I told him my whole story, and he sat silently throughout it. In fact he said very little; he only sat and looked at me with a quiet intensity. I was not so jeune that I didn’t know what it meant, and not so innocent that I didn’t think I couldn’t exploit it. But I didn’t think I could simply come out with it and ask, so I said. “The psychiatrist—my grandmamma sent me to him—said that happiness was finding your roots in the ground, and not running away from your fears and anxieties. My grandmamma, though, she said that happiness is in making the effort to be happy, for the sake of other people. What do you think it is?”

He sat for a long while, thinking about this: a fifty-five-year-old man taking this teenage girl’s question as seriously as if he were testifying before the House Committee on Terrorist Activities. His head, empty of hair except for two pale beige eyebrows and two rows of filigree eyelashes, was crossed and marked all over by a higgle of creases. These didn’t follow the normal pattern of old people: laughter lines bedded in where the person had been wont to laugh, worry lines huddled in at the brow where the person had been wont to wrinkle their brow, that sort of thing. Jon’s lines went seemingly in defiance of the process of ageing: two deep ones running diagonally across both cheeks like duelling scars, making a great V across his face; lines horizontally and vertically on his brow and head, lines on the back of his neck. He looked, I used to think, like Callisto, his skin like the cracked and refrozen ice-skin of that Jovian moon.

“Happiness,” he said eventually, with his soft Missouri accent. “Only one place I’ve found that, and it ain’t on this planet.”

“Take me upland,” I urged him, grabbing his forearm with my two hands. “Eric and Deborah say the police will take me back to Cyprus, and I can’t go back there.”

He thought about this. “You could live in my house for a little,” he said, slowly. “Sure. Would you mind it? It’s only a bachelor pad, but it’s bigger than your dad’s place.”

“Oh yes, oh please, oh please, yes.”

He nodded, and stood up. “We’ll go up tomorrow morning,” he said. “I’m too tired to pilot tonight.”

“We can go straight away. I’ll fly,” I told him, in my eagerness.

He considered this. “You only flown your dad’s old Elector, I reckon,” he said. He meant I had never flown a modified Flight Master, bigger and more powerful, and he couldn’t trust me with it. He was right, of course. Then he said, “I was sorry t’hear about your father.”

“Me too,” I said, uncertain how to respond to formal expressions of condolence.

I didn’t think I was going to be able to sleep that night, I was so excited, so keyed up with the thought of returning to the uplands. But I must have been more tired than I realised, because I fell asleep as soon as I saw the bed, not even undressing simply flopping onto the mattress, I woke once that night, sometime after three am. There was a strange cooing noise, very distant and eerie, audible through the open window-casement. I thought to myself that it was probably one of the ferals, as they were called; domestic dogs and cats adapted by animal rights activists to grow bigger and act more savage and predatory, and then released into the wildernesses. Have they all been culled now? I don’t know. There had been a craze for these things in the mid-’50s, but now they had been mostly rounded up by the authorities as a danger to civilians. But a few still lived out there, I think; and their calls were strange and otherworldly, because although their bodies were hormonally enhanced, many of their internal organs, including their voiceboxes, were still original size, giving them a falsetto edge to their calls. I fell asleep to the music of it.

Gradisil © Adam Roberts


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