The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.
He made his way to the entrance, knocked on the door and waited until Ndege opened it. For a moment she blocked his entry, standing with her arms folded across her chest, her head cocked to one side, her expression betokening neither warmth nor welcome. She was still taller than him, even in their mutual old age. Mposi had spent a lifetime being looked down on.
‘I brought greenbread.’ He offered her the paper-wrapped loaves. ‘Still fresh.’
She took the package, opened the paper, sniffed doubtfully at the contents. ‘I wasn’t expecting you until later in the week.’
‘I know it’s a little unexpected, but I promise this won’t take long.’
‘Good. I have reading to be doing.’
‘When do you ever not have reading to be doing, sister?’
After a moment, Ndege relented and admitted him into her house, then led him to her kitchen. She must have been sitting at the table, for she had her black notebooks laid out on it, open to reveal their dense scribbled columns of strange symbols and the sketchy relationships between them. Except for the notebooks and a small box of medicines to counter oxygen toxicity, the table was bare. Mposi took a chair opposite the one Ndege had been using.
‘I should have told you I was on my way, but I couldn’t keep this to myself a moment longer.’
‘A promotion? Another expansion of your powers?’
‘For once, it’s not about me.’
She looked at him for a moment, still not sitting down. ‘I suppose you’re expecting me to boil some chai?’
‘No, not today, thank you. And save that greenbread for yourself.’ He patted the plump padding of his belly. ‘I ate at the office.’
Before easing her tall, thin frame into the chair, Ndege gathered the notebooks off the table and set them carefully on her bookcase. Then she faced him and made an impatient beckoning gesture with her hands. ‘Out with it, whatever it is. Bad news?’
‘I’m honestly not sure.’
‘Something to do with Goma?’
‘Only indirectly.’ Mposi settled his hands on the table, unsure where to start. ‘What I’m about to disclose is a matter of the highest secrecy. It’s known to only a few people on Crucible, and I would be very glad if it remained that way.’
‘I’ll be sure not to mention it to my many hundreds of visitors.’
‘You do receive the occasional visitor. We went to a lot of trouble to allow you that luxury.’
‘Yes, and you never let me forget it.’
Her tone had been sharp, and perhaps she realised as much. She swallowed, creased her lips in immediate regret. In the silence that ensued, Mposi found his gaze wandering around the kitchen, taking in its blank, bare surfaces. It struck him that his sister had begun to turn her life into an exhibit of itself — a static tableau reduced to the uncluttered essentials. His own government had made her a prisoner, but Ndege herself was complicit in the exercise, happily discarding her remaining luxuries and concessions.
Somewhere in the house a clock ticked.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, finally. ‘I know you worked hard to help me. But being here on my own, knowing what the world thinks of me—’
‘We’ve picked up a signal.’
The oddness of this statement drew a frown from Ndege. ‘A what?’
‘A radio transmission — very faint, but clearly artificial — from a solar system tens of light-years away that no one from any of the settled systems is supposed to have reached or explored yet. Interestingly, the transmission’s strength definitely tailed off the further you moved from the system’s centre — meaning it was aimed at us, not broadcast in all directions. More than that: it appears to concern you.’
For the first time since his arrival he had at least a measure of her interest, guarded and provisional as it was.
‘Quite unambiguous. It mentions your forename.’
‘There are lots of people called Ndege.’
‘Not lately there aren’t. It asked us to send you.
‘A system called Gliese 163, about seventy light-years from us. Someone or something there went to the trouble of lining up a radio transmitter and sending us this message.’
Ndege absorbed the information with the quiet concentration that was so thoroughly her own. Over a lifetime together, Mposi had learned to recognise their differences as well as their similarities. He was a speaker, a reactor, a man who needed to be constantly on the move, constantly engaged in this business or that. Ndege was the reflective one, the thinker, taking little for granted.
She opened the medical box, plucked out one of the hypodermic sprays and touched the device to the skin of her forearm.
‘The oxygen gets to me these days.’
‘I’m the same,’ he said. ‘It was hard in the early years of settlement, then for a long while I thought I had adapted — that I could live without medical assistance. But the blood carries a memory.’
She put the hypodermic back into the box, snapped the lid down and pushed the container aside.
‘So who sent this signal?’
‘We don’t know.’
The clock kept ticking. He studied Ndege, measuring her visible age against his own, wondering how much of her frailty was the direct result of time passing, of the physiological stress of adapting to a new planet, and how much the consequence of her imprisonment and public shaming. She was thinner in the face than Mposi, and there was still an asymmetry there from the minor stroke she had suffered three decades ago. Her hair was short, thin and white — she cut it herself, as far as he knew. Her skin was a map of old lesions and discolorations. She looked tremendously old to him, but there were also days when he caught a glimpse of his own reflection and stared back in startled affront, barely recognising his own face.
Then again, the light could shift, her expression could change, and she was his sister again, just as she had been during their brave young years aboard the holoship.
‘You think it might be our mother.’
Mposi gave the slightest of nods. ‘It’s a possibility, nothing more. We don’t know what became of the Trinity — Chiku, Eunice, Dakota.’
‘And you reckon they want me to go out there and meet them?’
‘So it would appear.’
‘Then it’s a shame no one told them I’m a decaying old crone under permanent house arrest.’
Mposi smiled sweetly, refusing to rise to the provocation. ‘I’ve always held that every problem is also an opportunity. You know of the two starships we’re building?’
‘They do let me look at the sky sometimes.’
‘Officially, their intended function — when they’re completed — is to expand our influence and trade connections to other systems. Unofficially, nothing is set in stone. Feelers have gone out concerning a possible expedition, using one of the two ships. Given the specific nature of the signal, there would be a certain logic to having you aboard.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘Then you understand less about politics than I thought. I’m a pariah, Mposi — hated by millions. They’ll have my head on a stick before they let me leave Guochang, let alone the system.’
‘For now, it’s all hypothetical. The expedition won’t be ready for four or five years even if we accelerate the preparations. But if you agree to join, and I work to make it look as if you’re offering yourself up for… I don’t know, the selfless betterment of Crucible, there could be an immediate improvement in the terms of your detention.’
‘Working on people’s opinions — you’re good at that.’
‘I have my uses. My point, though, is that even by agreeing in spirit, you would not be automatically obliged to go on the expedition itself. Any number of things might happen between now and then. We may run into problems with the ship, or lose the argument to reassign it. We may discover that the signal is a fluke. You may fail the medical criteria for skipover. You may even—’
‘I was not going to put it in such blunt terms.’
‘I’ve had my share of adventures, brother. So have you. This is where mine brought me — locked up and hated.’
‘You made a single miscalculation.’
‘Which killed four hundred and seventeen thousand people. You reckon one act will atone for that?’