Aurora, as you know, was the Roman goddess of Dawn. It was also the name of the princess in the story of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’.
A man was waiting for me outside the stage door of the auditorium. Slight build, with a short beard, spectacles and receding hair.
‘Excuse me – I wonder if I might have a quick word, Miss Appleby?’ He was nervous and I thought, probably quite harmless.
I looked at my watch, then glanced back at him. Probably an admirer wanting to compliment me on the performance. If he was a nutter I could deal with him. But not out here in the dank evening in the late fall in
. There was something earnest in his voice that provoked a feeling of, well, not quite pity, but a kind of sympathy. New York
‘That’s fine. But shall we go back into the foyer? They won’t be closing the doors for a while.’
Over a coffee he introduced himself as Max Leveson. He did indeed want to express his appreciation for the two Prokoviev sonatas I’d played that evening. But I knew there was something more pressing on his mind. He was not long in revealing it.
‘Miss Appleby – I should tell you that I work at the Jet Propulsion Unit at
.’ He paused as if in expectation of a response. Pasadena
I had a feeling about where this was leading to, but thought it best not to be drawn. I merely nodded and waited for him to continue.
‘Your daughter, Merope. She’s one of my postgraduates. Doing research for her Doctorate.’
I nodded. ‘Yes. I believe she’s doing quite well at the Institute. Is there a problem?’
‘No. No problem at all. And she’s doing … she’s doing more than “quite well”. In fact her work is outstanding. One wonders if she hasn’t inherited something quite remarkable from your father, her grandfather. We are all familiar with his work at
, you know. We were wondering if … if she keeps in contact with him.’ Cambridge
‘Actually, no. In fact she’s not seen him since she was a very small child. For some reason he seemed to have a problem with her having “followed in his footsteps” so to speak. This was the reason we – she – chose to move on to Caltech when she graduated from Imperial. My husband – her father – seemed to think that he might even try to block her progress. I trusted his judgement on that, as I did on most things.’
He nodded as if not entirely surprised. ‘A pity. Do you know, the work she is doing on life support systems is an exact parallel – or rather, I should say, a continuation of his own. I think it won’t be long before she cracks the problem that always bedevilled him, and kept the Nobel prize just out of his reach.’
‘You mean – what she calls the “reversal”?’
‘Yes. That is exactly what I mean.’
* * *
It was two years later that I met Professor Leveson again. Not in
, but at my father’s home in Cambridgeshire. He had flown together with three colleagues to pay their respects. My father had died quite suddenly two weeks earlier. I was hosting a reception after his funeral at the house where the old scientist had lived for the greater part of his career. America
Once again Leveson took the opportunity to have a few words with me on his own. I guess that I was rather dismissive of the ritual – but I suppose necessary – expression of condolences. I had few good memories of my father. In fact he had had little enough to do with me for most of my life. After the death of my mother when I was less than a year old I’d been adopted by a cousin of his and her husband who themselves had been childless. It was they who had inspired me and propelled me into my career as a pianist.
He seemed unfazed, even unsurprised by my lukewarm response. Again he spoke about my daughter: ‘I’d like to congratulate you on your daughter’s achievement. You know that her thesis has been published in ‘Nature’. It’s caused ripples right across the world.’
‘She’s really rather modest about it,’ I replied. ‘When she manages to get to
she’s more interested in getting out and about – “getting back a life” as she calls it.’ London
He nodded. ‘That’s good. A diet of pure academia isn’t a healthy one. But she must have had some feelings for Professor McKinnon. I know it wasn’t easy for her to re-arrange her schedule to be here at this time.’
I hesitated. But knowing that the circumstances would be common knowledge soon enough, I went on: ‘the fact is – completely to our surprise, that my father left his entire estate to Merrie. She is the executor of his will and the sole beneficiary.’
‘You mean to say that you … you’ve been left nothing?’ He was clearly astonished.
‘That’s how it is. But don’t trouble yourself over it. It means little enough to me. Anyway, it seems only fair that she should have some acknowledgement from her grandfather after all this time.’
‘And can I ask – how did she react?’
‘She was surprisingly unmoved. Although I know that she is anxious to access his research files. The ones he appears to have kept in his private laboratory here at the house. That may not be entirely straightforward though.’
‘I understand that he worked in the old vaults under the house. Though I’ve not seen them – I’ve never lived here as an adult – I am told that they are as secure as
. Whatever he was doing there, he wasn’t going to share it. Merrie is intrigued, as you can imagine. No doubt she’ll make it her business to get in there. But I can hardly imagine that she’ll learn anything new.’ Fort Knox
‘Well, I’m sure you’ll keep an eye on her. Of course, as her mother I know you will.’
‘Are you trying to tell me something, Professor?’
Now it was his turn to hesitate. ‘Your daughter, Miss Appleby, has an exceptional future ahead of her. Within the department, we are fairly confident that she may soon become the youngest woman ever to be awarded a Nobel prize. But more than that …’
‘As you know, she has been a leader in the development of … the process of suspended animation. Her grandfather, of course, laid the foundations of the science some years ago. She is on the verge of perfecting it. If you like, she took over where he left off. For this reason she has been in training for a … a special mission …’
I suddenly felt cold. ‘What mission?’
He looked straight in to my eyes.
‘In about two years, Miss Appleby, your daughter, will join the crew of a space vehicle. To be more specific – the first manned expedition to the planet Mars.’
* * *
Merope sat opposite me, gazing into the fire. We had both been kept busy in the ten days since my father’s funeral. I’d tried to draw her out on her role in the Mars expedition – the prospect of which frankly terrified me. She was reticent, I suppose because the whole venture was wrapped in security protocols. What she did reveal, in a light-hearted way, was that she would be away for five years. But on her return she would have aged only a year. ‘You see, mother’ she had said, ‘in suspended animation the aging process virtually stops’. If she had hoped that this would make me feel better, she was mistaken.
The various guests and well-wishers had long departed. Now only the two of us remained.
‘Something on your mind?’ I asked her.
‘Mmmm … I was thinking. What a lovely name …’
”. My grandmother’s name. How sad that you have no memories of her at all. Don’t you even have a photo?’ Aurora
‘No – no photos. No letters. Really, nothing at all.’
‘She was drowned, wasn’t she? When you were still a baby?’
‘That’s how it seems to have been. They were swimming on a deserted beach on the east coast. It was quite notorious for undertow in certain tide and weather conditions. Her body was never found. I learned later on that my father came under suspicion. But only briefly. They never found any evidence of foul play.’
‘But could he have had any reason …?’
‘The only thing that ever occurred to me was that he looked on her as an impediment to his career. He was a driven and jealous man. She was pregnant with me before they married. And things were very different then. But I’ve no business speculating. There was never a shred of evidence …’
She became thoughtful again. ‘I often wondered why you and Daddy were so anxious to get me away when I took the direction I did.’
She did not appear to expect a response. And I did not give one. By way of changing the subject I said: ‘I agree. It is a lovely name. And my father’s cousin, my adoptive mother, did tell me once that she was a beautiful young woman. When she last saw you – you’d have been about sixteen or so – not long before she died, she remarked upon how much like your grandmother you were.’
Merrie made no further comment. She was silent for a few minutes, and continued to gaze into the fire. I could see that she was preoccupied with something. I asked her: ‘So – is everything all right?’
She looked up at me. ‘Why, yes … well, it’s just that I’ve … I’ve broken the codes – the sequences on the locks to grandfather’s laboratory. There was nothing particularly difficult about it, in fact. I’m fairly certain that it is what he intended – that I should be the one to have access to whatever it was that he was doing there. I am going to go in tomorrow.’
‘Well, take care, won’t you.’
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘I’m not expecting any surprises.’
Somehow, I felt, her voice lacked conviction.
* * *
As it happened, I had to spend the next two days in
with my agent. I arrived back at my father’s house in the late evening. Merrie was in her room and did not appear for almost an hour. When she did, I could see that she was agitated. London
I asked at once, ‘have you been … down there?’
She nodded briskly. ‘Yes. And I … I was not entirely surprised at what was there.’
‘And what was there?’
‘Well, not much. Other than three chests.’
‘Uh-huh. I think they are, well, I know they are … hibernation chambers. But the design is an old one – the sort that he and his team were building right at the start of the programme.’
‘You say that you know that that is what they are. What makes you so certain?’
She looked directly at me. ‘Two of them may be empty. Or at any rate, if they contain anything then it isn’t anything alive. But the third …’
‘The monitors in the casing indicate some activity … all the parameters suggest that there is an … an organism inside the chamber that is in suspended animation …’
‘You mean – a living creature?’
‘That’s what it seems. And if it is the case, then it seems very probable that, whatever it is, it has been that way for upwards of fifty years.’
‘Is that very remarkable?’
‘Barely credible would be more like it. That is more than ten times longer than any other living thing has been kept in that state.’
‘But why so long?’
‘Probably because Grandfather never discovered the reversal technique.’
‘But you discovered it at Caltech a good two years ago. You could have told him …’
‘Mother, he never asked me. He never made any contact with me or anyone else at the institute. But I am very sure that he knew we had cracked it. He must have had a reason for keeping quiet …’
‘What are you going to do now, Merrie?’
She looked at her watch. ‘It’ll be mid-morning in
now. I’m going to call Max. I’m going to ask him to get a flight over here just as soon as he can, and bring some … equipment. Together we’ll initiate a reversal. And I’d sooner do it with him alongside me than on my own.’ California
* * *
Max needed no second bidding. He was clearly excited when he joined us just two days later. He trundled a large aluminium case on wheels into the room and made some light comment about just being within the weight allowance. ‘And don’t worry, Alison,’ he smiled at me, ‘I’ve not broken any laws so far as the contents are concerned!’
The two of them made their way down to the laboratory the following morning. They remained there for the whole of the day. That evening Max came up alone. He took me aside.
‘Alison … I wonder if … the fact is that Merope is tired … very tired. She doesn’t want to join us this evening. In fact I think even now she’s gone upstairs.’
Overhead I could hear footsteps. ‘I must go to see …’
Max put a restraining hand on my shoulder. ‘No Alison. Best not. This has all been a little overwhelming for her. It’s not turned out quite as we … she had expected. Best leave her be …’
‘But what … what’s happened?’
‘Nothing terrible. Just unexpected, is all. She just hasn’t taken it all on board. Please – let’s leave it until the morning. I promise that we’ll be finished by this time tomorrow.’
In spite of an almost overwhelming anxiety I did not demur. Had I done so I think that Max might well have physically restrained me.
* * *
I had hoped to catch Merrie the following morning before she and Max resumed their work. But she must have got up in the small hours. By the time I came down to the kitchen they had already locked themselves away in the laboratory. I found myself losing count of the time. It seemed that a whole day had passed, and yet when I looked at the clock it was still only mid-morning. I forced myself to walk for an hour in the extensive grounds surrounding the house. When I returned, it was only to an eerie silence.
It was about mid-afternoon when I heard a stirring in the passageway outside the living room where I had tried unsuccessfully to distract myself with a book. There was a knock on the door. It was Max. His face was strained.
‘Well, Alison … we … we’ve finished. It’s …’
‘Is everything OK? I mean, has it … has the reversal worked?’
‘Oh yes. We had to take it very slowly. It’s been so long, you see. But it has been a complete success. Would you like to come and see?’
‘Yes … yes, but what is it you found …?’
‘Just … come. But be prepared for a surprise … it may be quite a shock for you.’
I found myself gripping his hand as we approached to door to the stairway that led down to the laboratory.
The room itself was spacious and well lit. A fine mist partly obscured the objects in front of us. And the two people who stood up to receive us.
And I could not at first believe what I saw. There was Merope – and Merope … another woman who at first seemed to be the identical twin of my daughter. Only she was slighter in build. And her skin was like alabaster.
My daughter held the other’s hand and, tentatively, they stepped toward me.
Merrie smiled at me. ‘Have you guessed who this is, mother?’
I looked at the woman. ‘Who … who …?’
And now the other woman smiled at me. And then she spoke, her voice barely above a whisper.
‘They have told me that you are my daughter. I … I am
2710 words Henry Tegner