Today they told me that I have a grand-daughter. How that can be? But they have told me so much that makes no sense. I begin to wonder if, somewhere along the line, I have quite lost my wits.
Her name is Shenandoah.
When the expedition was launched I had … well, I had a daughter. Just a kid – five years old. So how could I have a grand-daughter? Are they playing some game with me? But surely they wouldn’t be so cruel. Rather, they seem endlessly concerned for me. And they are keeping something back. I know it.
There’s nothing wrong with my memory, I’m certain. I remember very clearly the day that the catastrophic power failure crippled the ship completely and for good. We knew what we had to do to survive. It would delay our return home, but not by so very much. I might miss Sarah’s sixth birthday, perhaps her seventh. But when I eventually made it back she would still be my little girl and, one way or another, we would make up for lost time.
* * *
The desert had a strange loveliness about it. In the light of evening it became pink. The wind-sculpted sandstone reminded me of Petra – Rose red city, half as old as Time. And I think back on it as I try to make sense of the situation I find myself in now. Why won’t they answer my questions? ‘A stage at a time’ is all they say. I think they are preparing me for a shock. A revelation of something dreadful that has happened. When I asked them if the other crew members survived it was their hesitation – and what they didn’t say – that has made me certain that they did not. Some at least must have perished and been left behind. Maybe, in some way, they think I may be to blame for that. I was, after all, the life-support officer. An enquiry – I am sure there will be one – might indeed conclude that I was responsible through a failure of duty. But I don’t remember …
I think again of the vast expanse of rust-red hills. Not so much so much John Burgon and his magical city, but Yeats and his vision of a ‘terrible beauty’. That was the truth of it.
* * *
Oh! Shenandoah. I have become increasingly curious about the child, my flesh and blood indeed, whom I have never seem. I long to see you …
They told me very gently today that my daughter, Sarah, is dead. For some reason I didn’t erupt into hysterical weeping as you would have thought any normal mother would do. Later, on my own, I cried quietly and for a long time.
I looked up my grand-daughter’s name. It seems it is an old native American name meaning ‘daughter of the stars’. How beautiful and strange.
* * *
Today the doctor – I think she is a doctor – talked to me alone for more than an hour. I think that they are preparing me for something.
‘How are you feeling since … the retrieval?’ She hesitated as if the term were somehow unfamiliar to her.
‘Why, I’m fine. Or I would be if everyone here wasn’t so mysterious.’
She wasn’t going to be drawn on that one. ‘Your memory … how well can you recall the events leading up to … the power failure?’
‘Fine. But it was chaotic, scary. For a while we didn’t know if any of us would survive. No wonder things are a little cloudy now.’
‘Hmmm – but you knew what you had to do. You’d been trained to react quickly in such a situation.’
‘I don’t know what you’re getting at.’
‘You need to accept from me that your memory of events is quite incomplete. Can you think of any other reason why that might be so?’
I shook my head. ‘You’ve lost me.’
She put her hand on mine and smiled. ‘Don’t worry. We expect a full recovery in time.’
* * *
My name is Anna Hamilton. I am – was – the chief life support scientist on the interplanetary ship Endeavour. I am about thirty three years old, although that is perhaps less certain than it was at the time of launching.
I’m thinking about the grand-daughter I’ve never met again. And that old song. The Wide Missouri had nothing … nothing … on the gulf that separated me from her when she was born. I am talking about the tens of millions of kilometres between Earth and the planet Mars. About Shenandoah they’ve told me virtually nothing. They’ve told me that she knows who I am and that I am coming home. They’ve promised that I will see her ‘soon’ but they were evasive when I asked if I might see a photograph of her. Is she ugly then, deformed even?
They are pressing me again about my recollection of what happened on Mars. ‘Did they tell you,’ asks the doctor, ‘how long it would be before a rescue mission could be mounted?’
‘Of course,’ I reply. ‘The second transit had been planned even before we set out. It wasn’t intended to be a rescue mission. It was going to happen anyway. It was due to enter Mars orbit in about two more years. But you know that.’
A momentary change in her expression, the start of a frown, quickly concealed, tells me that she doesn’t know. What’s with the woman? What else doesn’t she know?
‘What made you decide to suspend?’ I think this is a diversion tactic. ‘Couldn’t you have sat it out? I would have thought you’d have found plenty to occupy yourselves …’
I shake my head emphatically. ‘No. We’d not sufficient food and supplies to last that long. Not enough air. Nothing like enough to last two years.’
‘Then what about power to maintain the hyber-units?’
I shake my head again. ‘No – that wasn’t a problem. We had a fission-pile. About the size of asmall fridge. It could have kept us going for, well, for centuries.’
The colour drains from her face.
* * *
This time it is an eager young man who interviews me. Unlike the woman, he introduces himself.
‘Hi Anna. I’m Dr Jackson. But call me Bud.’
I guess that he is a scientist or something. He doesn’t quite come over as a medical doctor.
‘Hi Bud. So what is it you want to ask me this time?’ I think he senses the weariness in my voice. I am tired of these sessions.
‘Not very much, you’ll be pleased to hear. And then I may have something to tell you. Something we feel that you are … ready to hear.’
My ears prick up. Immediately, a question forms on my lips, but I supress it. These people always seem to react negatively to being pressured. Instead I say, ‘OK. So fire away then.’
He looks at some papers that he has taken from a small case, and then looks up at me. ‘My understanding is that you led a section at Pasadena, at the Jet Propulsion Unit.’ The hint of hesitation before his reference to the JPU makes me wonder for a moment.
‘Yes. But you must know that, of course. I and my colleagues developed the science of placing people in suspended animation. When it had been perfected it … it opened the door for long distance manned space exploration.’
Bud’s eyes open wide. Now I cannot help myself. ‘Bud – what is all this? You react as if I’m telling you something entirely new …’
He tenses, then relaxes again. He fixes his eyes on mine. ‘The fact is, Anna, that there is a lot that you don’t know.’
He takes a breath. ‘Just a few weeks after you and your colleagues … suspended, the West Coast of America came under attack. It was unprovoked, unexpected and … devastating. Much of California was laid waste …’
I am speechless. He waits for me to absorb the impact of what he has said. Then, ‘The response of the United States was immediate and proportionate. The rogue state that launched the attack was identified and … annihilated. Fortunately a global thermonuclear exchange was averted – just. But the repercussions were profound and worldwide. Recovery took … took a long time. It was inevitable that all further plans for space exploration lapsed.’
Bud will not be drawn on timescales. Soon he draws the interview to a close. I guess he has given me all the information I am going to get for now. He takes his leave. As he passes through the door a leaf of paper drops, unnoticed, from the bundle of documents he is clutching. I am about to alert him, but instead wait until the door is closed and go over to retrieve the page. I glance at it. ‘Just some stupid memo,’ I murmur to myself. This lot are certainly odd. Even the date is wrong. I mean, it is a century out.
* * *
I had such a strange dream last night. I was dreaming of my grandmother. Yes, my grandmother. She died when I was, oh, about 10 years old. I remember quite a lot about her. But in this dream I, well, I remembered pretty well everything. Her voice even. Normally old ladies have cracked, quite high pitched voices. But her’s was a sort of contralto. Low and sensuous. Otherwise she was much as you would expect someone seriously old to be – deeply wrinkled skin and glasses with lenses so thick that it made her eyes sink back almost like pin-heads into her skull. And her hair was straight, short and the colour of steel.
She spoke to me. Her voice was earnest, as if she were desperately trying to get some message to me across the years. I’ve tried so hard to recall what it was she was saying. But I just can’t.
* * *
They are looking furtively at me. Then they talk among one another again. Something of great moment is to happen today. I can guess what it is. But why are they so reluctant to come clean with me?
The doctor – the woman – has approached me. It seems to cost her such an effort. Her eyes glisten as if she is trying to fight back tears.
‘Anna,’ she says, ‘the time has come.’
‘The time for what?’ But I know what. I think I am goading her.
‘For you to meet your grand-daughter, for you to meet Shenandoah at last’.
‘ She will be able to … to answer all the questions we have not answered.’
‘The questions you were afraid to answer’.
She nods slowly, so slowly.
‘My God’, I say. ‘There you are, so high and mighty … so advanced. And yet when it comes to the things that really matter you’ve all just funked it. You have to leave it all to … to a child’.
They can be in no doubt of the contempt, the utter contempt I feel for them now. You’d think they’d blush with shame. I gaze at them for many moments, but I see no shame. Just … well, just sorrow. And an icy hand grips my heart.
* * *
The room is spacious. Tables and comfortable chairs are scattered throughout its length. At first I think, apart from the furniture, it is empty. But no – at the far end there is a figure seated. Alone. Whoever it is sits quietly, gazing out of a small window.
I see that it is a woman. She would seem not to know that I am there. But I think she is only too aware of my presence. And indeed she turns towards me. I approach her and she looks straight into my eyes.
And I know that this is she.
And I seem to return to that strange dream. The wrinkled skin.The thick glasses.The steel grey hair. And then she speaks, her voice a low contralto.
She peaks her name.
Oh God …