Jopari's Choice

Copyright © Ceres Wunderkind 2003

Bedminster Down, Bristol


'Yes, Mr. Parry?'

'Stop here, please.'

'Yes, Mr. Parry.'

The hired car sighs to a halt in a lay-by at the edge of the road, next to a bus stop. John Parry turns in his seat.

'I must go on from here by myself. You know.'

His wife nods. 'Yes John, I know. Don't be too long.'

'I'll try not to be. Everything will be ready for us, I hope.' He pauses.

'Sue - you do know that I must do this all by myself, don't you?' Susan nods again.

'Go on, Jopari. We'll wait for you here.' Susan calls him by his grandfather's name to signify that she longs for him to return, as his grandfather did not, and also that she believes absolutely in his fidelity.

Their daughter Mary is lying in her travel cot, securely anchored to the back seat. John leans over and kisses her on the forehead. 'Daddy won't be long, sweetheart. You wait here with Mummy. I'll be back soon.'

The casket rests on the floor, between the front seats and the back. Carefully, John picks it up and steps out of the car. He stands on the pavement and asks the vehicle to wind down its passenger window. Susan leans out of it, they kiss briefly, and then he is gone; striding up the hill with his collar turned up, clutching his precious burden with both hands.

Nine-month-old Mary, seeing her father walk off so purposefully and so intent of face, believes, as babies do, that he is going away for ever and she sets up a desperate red-faced wail. Susan takes her in her arms, opens her blouse and gives her child a breast to suckle. Mary's sobs slowly die away and she rests content in her mother's arms, eyes half-closed. Together they wait for John's return.

John has deliberately told the car to park itself half a mile short of the place where he must go. Why, he could not say; but if someone were to suggest the ideas of pilgrimage or penance to him he would probably agree that yes, simply to roll up in the comfort of a private car would seem disrespectful somehow; a dereliction of his duty. It feels right that he should make the last part of this journey on foot. His Persian-daemon Rosalind agrees with him. She walks by his side soft-footed, nearly invisible, even to him. Behind them, the car stands by the roadside. Its windows have been opaqued and a gentle bubbling sound murmurs from its idling fuel cells. Susan and Mary will wait for him; as they have had to wait so many times before. Mary is too young to know it yet - the way it is when one's life is dedicated to service. Susan knows it all too well by now. Elaine Parry would have explained it if Susan had asked her; how it is when you marry an explorer and a military man. It is a life which is made up of periods when waiting is all that a wife or partner can do; disguise it as she may with busyness and cheerfulness. The pattern is the same every time – first there is John's announcement that he has been selected for transvergence, then the inexorably increasing tension as the Insertion date approaches; tension mingled with her pride in his achievements and her resentment at its exclusion of his family and their needs. Then, after a slow age of anticipation, the day comes suddenly and there is only time for a skimped farewell before he turns and goes away from her again. They have gone through this mechanical cycle many times already and it is likely that they will have to go through it many times more; unless there is a failure - of man or machine - and John does not return.

'Why do we never say goodbye properly?' John asks Rosalind, but his daemon is mute. They both know the answer to that question.

The traffic is heavy this morning; it labours up the hill out of Bristol in a rumble of wheels and a whine of overloaded inverters. A pungent whiff of ozone invades John's nostrils as a poorly shielded lorry clatters past. The smell is familiar to him from his work; nevertheless he gags briefly, covering his nose to protect it from the corrosive fumes. Not far to go now.

As they walk, John and Rosalind remember another time and place; a Midsummer's Day in Oxford many years ago, when they said goodbye to Professor Lyra Belacqua. Then the weather was warm and dry. Today it is cool October, with clouds flying overhead and moisture in the wind which swirls around them. Another time and place; but the same sad duty to perform.

Bridgewater Road levels out as it reaches the end of its climb. It continues southwards to Somerset, Devon and the land of Kernow; past the airport where John and his family will soon have to check in for their flight back to Africa when his present task is done. But first... there are a wide entrance and a pair of wrought-iron gates to pass through and a flower-bordered pathway to walk down.

It strikes John and Rosalind – as it does every time they visit the South Bristol Cemetery – how very wide the sky becomes as they pass through the gates and enter the grounds. They leave the entrance – chapel buildings, crematorium and car park – behind them and as they walk the volume of air around them expands, growing in scale and reminding them of that greater space to which they will soon have to return when this job is finished. The ground slopes – gently, to begin with, then increasingly steeply – down towards the gorge of the River Avon, and there is a great gulf between them and the suburb of Clifton on the opposite bank, almost a kilometre away. It is as if the boundary between earth and sky had become disputed territory and they feel that if they ran fast enough and jumped high enough, they could take off and fly over the Gorge and across to the far side, buoyed up by the rushing wind that shakes the trees and agitates the lawns.

And now they are there, at the graveside, and John stops and stands next to it with his head bowed. The time has come to him at last, as it has come to so many sons and daughters before. It is the time when he must bury the ashes of his father, Doctor William Parry. The grave's memorial tablet, familiar from the previous visits he made with his father, bears a new inscription now, carved beneath the old one. Many a passer-by, going to or returning from the place where their husband's, mother's or child's remains lie, has stopped and wondered why, next to the name of Judy Parry, beloved wife of Will and loving mother of John, there should be carved the image of a jackdaw, and beneath it the unusual name Skaven. Now the tablet's inscription is doubly mysterious, for it bears the newly-chiselled name of Will Parry, and next to it there is the graven picture of a cat, which appears to have been called Kirjava. The stone lies on the ground next to the open grave, where a newly dug space lies ready for John to place the casket which contains the material remains of his father.

Now is the time; now is the point of decision. And still he does not know what he should do.

John had been in Insertion when his father died, so he had not learned of what had happened until nearly a week later. It was appended to his debrief, almost as an afterthought.

'Oh, there's just one other thing, John,' the officer had said, looking up from his data tablet. The use of Commander Parry's first name in this official context had been a warning to him that bad news was coming. 'I'm terribly sorry to have to tell you your father died last Thursday. Cardio-vascular problems apparently, but I expect you knew about that. Deepest sympathy to you and your wife. Any other surviving relatives?'

No, there were none.

'You'll be wanting some Downside leave, I expect. Take a week if you need it.'

A week! That would mean missing the next Insertion slot...

'Two days will be enough, sir. If you don't mind I'll go and pack my things now.'

'Very well, Parry. The next Down elevator leaves in forty-five minutes.' John stood up and left the debriefing room, closing the door behind him with a click. His face was rigid with grief.

From the Up Station to the Base by Elevator; from there by air, Tube and surface transport to England, a rental car to his father's care home in Camberley where Susan and Mary were waiting for him. Always waiting. Then the simple, dignified, secular (his father had been very insistent on that point) ceremony, fitted into Commander John Parry's busy and important schedule, and at the end of it a wooden box, twenty centimetres on a side, containing Doctor Parry's ashes for burial next to those of his wife Judy in Bedminster Down, Bristol.

His wife Judy... It has only been since his own wedding day that John has become fully aware of the tensions in his parents' marriage. There have been Will and Kirjava, and Judy and Skaven, and later John and Rosalind. But ever-present in the background have been Lyra Belacqua and Pantalaimon, with whom Will and Kirjava first fell in love and whose love was denied for the sake of all the people in all the worlds of life. If she had merely been his father's first girlfriend then perhaps they would have been content to let each other go and treasure their time together in a sweet memory of love's first awakening. But there was more, so very much more, to it than that.

How did Mum and Dad do it? How did they manage to stick together all those years, with Lyra always there with them in the background? John remembers vividly the time – he was only fifteen – when Lyra Belacqua and Arthur Shire – that funny, wise little man – suddenly appeared in his world. And Peter as well; chubby, fresh-faced, fair-haired Peter Joyce. So naïve, so good-natured, so eager to learn everything he could about John's world. So obviously in love with Lyra, too. John wonders, as he has often wondered, what happened to Peter after he returned to his own universe. How did he get on there? Did he live or die, prosper or struggle? We never made contact again.

Lyra. It all comes down to her; this doubt that makes John hesitate before his parents' grave. He knows his duty. It lies plain before him. He must place his father's casket in the grave next to his mother's and say a final farewell to them both. That is clear, and simple, and right. But is it? Should his father's ashes lie here, or be scattered in the Botanic Garden in Oxford? Who has the prior claim – Judy, or Lyra?

It is an impossible choice. There must be another way. John stands by the open grave, casket in his hand and looks to the sky. 'What shall I do?' he cries.

Up Station Three and beyond

Look to the sky… It was an asteroid once, orbiting freely between the paths of Mars and Jupiter; one of the many fragments of interplanetary matter which never coalesced to form a greater world. It had floated in space untouched, hardly observed for thousands of millions of years, and it might have been expected to stay there until the sun, swelling to the size of a red giant star, baked it to atoms. But men observed it, judged it suitable for their purposes and came to it in their ships. They attached ion thrusters to the worldlet and stole it from its orbit, steering it down towards the sun and placing it a precisely defined distance above their own planet. It now hangs in the sky over equatorial Africa, clearly visible to nearly half the world, a second moon.

It is sixteen kilometres long and eight kilometres in diameter, composed of rock and iron, and it would, in a more gracious age, have been given a name taken from one of the ancient gods or a work of literature. But the purposes for which it has been colonised are strictly practical and so, consequentially, is its name – Up Station Three.

Beneath the surface of the asteroid are deep tunnels and great caverns, full of titanic machinery. On the surface it has grown fungal clusters of silver domes and, crucially, the anchorage point for the Elevator which leaps from the centre of an enormous artificial crater and plummets to the earth below. The Elevator is the reason that the Up Station was built. Rockets and shuttles are obsolete now; instead cargoes and people ascend from and descend to the homeworld by means of the vehicles which cling to its fifty-metre diameter shaft and are driven by its in-built linear accelerators.

The Station was built as humanity's first permanent foothold in space. The discoveries that the scientists made there promoted it to something much more than that, so that it is now a jumping-off point to the stars. For the physicists found something new there; something alive, streaming between the worlds of life and the stars themselves. Here it is called Dark Matter. In other worlds it is known as Hiy-la, or Krsich, or Uosst, or Sraf, or Dust. During the time of the Subtle Knife it lay in abeyance, hiding in the gaps between the quantum states of the universes. Perhaps it was afraid of something.

John Parry lies comfortably on his bunk in his quarters, securely strapped down in this almost zero-g environment. Rosalind, mass-less, rests by his side. Through the window to which Commander Parry is entitled as a consequence of his rank and his importance to the success of the Mission can be seen the huge golden sails of the Dark Matter collectors and behind them the slender thread of the Elevator, curving 37,000 kilometres Down to the earth below where he is, as ever, waited for. John is waiting too, for the inception of his next mission or, as it is known in the Service, Insertion.

Up Station Three is the point of departure for the next stage in the exploration of the universe. Dark Matter is the key to this exploration - it can be freely scooped up from this position in geosynchronous earth orbit and used to power the transvergence generators which occupy the heart of the Station. It was noticed early on in his career that John Parry had a close affinity with Dark Matter; a substance whose remarkable properties have been the subject of intensive post-Incident research in high-energy laboratories around the globe, and beyond it. Will Parry's involvement in the Culham Incident, and the resulting alterations in the underlying structure of the universes, is little known and would not have influenced his son's selection for the Mission in any case.

John Parry's cabin is cramped despite his status, and its metal walls are painted in bland pastel shades. To use bright colours would be to promote claustrophobia, the psychologists say. And, John reflects, what artificial colours could compete with the green, white and blue glory of the earth below or the pinpoint jewels of the destination stars above?

'It's beautiful,' Rosalind says. She sees what John sees, but she also sees further than he can. She sees the earth and the stars but more, she sees the Dust as it swirls and sparkles against the backdrop of space and marvels at the way it clings to the Collectors, as if it wanted to be caught, as if it knew that life was here waiting for it.

Susan and Mary wait Downside at the Base; John waits too, for the phone call that will summon him to the suiting room and the Insertion Chamber. This next Insertion is only one in an ongoing series that make up the grandiosely titled Mission To The Stars itself.

John and Rosalind have often wondered if it might not be possible to modify the transvergence equipment so that, instead of enabling the instantaneous transmission of matter from one part of this universe to another, it would send it to another universe. Peter Joyce's universe, for example. How wonderful it would be – to see the worlds which his father told him about when he was a boy. Armoured Bears, Gallivespians, the Witches of the North, the great trees of the world where the strange wheeled creatures live. Especially daemons! To be able to see everyone's daemons and know that his own beautiful Rosalind was visible to them. Am I the only one left? The only human in his world who can see his own daemon? All the others are dead now – Mum, Dad, Aunt Mary. At these times John finds that he is fighting back the tears and that his thoughts are overwhelmed by feelings of separation and loss. They are still meditating on the ways of the worlds, and the spaces between them, when the call comes, as a flashing message on the room's screen and a soft voice in his ear. It is time to go to the suiting room and prepare for the next Insertion.

Despite its gargantuan proportions, the installation can project only a limited amount of mass across space. The upper limit at the present state of the art is four hundred kilograms, which is barely enough for an unmanned probe, let alone a man together with all his life-support systems. John Parry will not travel in the security of a spacecraft, but in a specialised spacesuit. Many of the mission engineers argue against sending a man rather than a machine and their arguments are very sound, but at the end of the day the desire for a human to actually be there and see what is to be seen with human eyes rather than the camera's lens, overcomes the requirements of cold reason. So men and women travel to the stars protected by little more than a thin layer of plastic and titanium and, usually, they return safe and sound. John knows the risks and Rosalind and he are happy to take them. Susan calls him Jopari, as her father-in-law did, and waits, as the first Jopari's wife did, trusting that he will come back. John knows that Elaine Parry's trust was both honoured and dishonoured by his grandfather's death. He was faithful unto death but, still, he died and did not return.

'We have chosen right, haven't we?' he says to Rosalind as he walks, attached to the carpet by the soles of his Velcro slippers, to the Despatch Suite.

'I hope so. I believe so.'

'We will be judged one day.'

'By them...'

'And by us.'

'Look at me, Jopari.' John stops and looks into his daemon's eyes. Glimpsed through a corridor window, the blue and white Earth hovers behind her, spectacularly beautiful. 'We made a choice,' she says. 'We'll stick to it. We made it honestly, didn't we?'

'Yes. Yes, we did. And the destination is right. That wasn't a coincidence was it, the choice of our destination for this Insertion?'

'Who can say?' Rosalind's expression defies John's attempts at interpretation. Even a daemon can sometimes keep a secret from her partner.

Later, after the final briefing, suited up and protected so far as is humanly possible from the perils of deep space, John lies in the Insertion Chamber awaiting his despatch and his journey into the high heavens. Already his body is lightly scattered with particles of Dust. Soon he will be completely coated with living golden light and the transvergence apparatus will be ready to fling him to the farthest reaches of space.

His daemon Rosalind will travel with him, unknown to the mission controllers who sit, bent over their monitor displays, in the adjacent room. Also; some extra mass, concealed in the thigh pockets of his suit. More waiting, and more; and then, with a gentle hiss of displaced air, he is gone.

* * * *

Days pass. John is isolated from humanity as few have been before and yet he is not alone, for his daemon Rosalind is with him. A killing airlessness surrounds him; but space is not empty, nature abhors a vacuum. There is no air, indeed, but there is Dust – Dust in greater quantities than either Rosalind or John have ever seen before. This is a place of Life, and they breathe it in with the oxygen from the suit's reservoirs and are glad.

'This is it,' says John to his daemon. 'This is exactly the right place!'

'Yes,' she replies. 'This is the place.'

They cast themselves into the Dust-Stream and rejoice.

* * * *

There is a flash of viridian light and John Parry reappears in the cradle. All the status lights on his suit show green – he has survived yet another foray into deep space. It soon becomes clear that this mission, to the field of stars commonly known as the Summer Triangle, has been a resounding success. Commander Parry, floating safely in his armoured suit, has taken a great number of scientific observations during his three-day tour of duty, aided by his daemon. Some day, when the transvergence technology is sufficiently advanced, it will be possible to send ships full of people to live on the Earth-like planets that he has identified.

They will not be the first, however.

For drifting through space and slowly mingling with its Dust is the precious burden which John Parry has carried with him from Bedminster to the Down Station; from thence to orbit and the Insertion Chamber, and finally, Dust-shielded, to the region of space where the stars describe the shape of a harp.

The ashes of Will and Judy Parry slip gently into orbit about the great star Vega, in the constellation of Lyra; splendour of the northern sky.