The first thing that hit Calendula was the smell. As she had boarded the Fluorescent Lightingale the odour reminded her of an elevator shaft: oily and metallic, with a grating edge that perfectly matched the clanging and sparking noises of the shipyard. The ship’s long corridors had initially been cold and unwelcoming, echoing with an unfurnished hardness, and a throat-biting smell of fresh paint.
Her personal quarters hadn’t been much better – at least until the journey to Gliese 682b was under way. Once the engines fired up and the reactors reached full capacity, the rooms had slowly warmed with the excess energy and a steady, tingling thrum ran through the hull as though the craft were alive.
As Calendula lay in bed, the sounds now provided a small measure of comfort, but not enough to give her a good night’s sleep – it must surely be the middle of the night.
‘Mm, computer, what time is it?’
‘Oh four fifty,’ replied the synthesised female voice.
‘Christ.’ She rolled over, felt for the glass of water on the bedside shelf and drank it down in almost one gulp. ‘Is Malcolm still working?’
‘One moment.’ The computer paused for a second, presumably to work out to which Malcolm she was referring. ‘Malcolm is presently located in the infirmary.’
‘Good. Call him please.’
A faint beeping came from the wall-mounted console and several seconds later a soft, well-rounded African voice came over the comm.
‘Hello Clen, what are you doing up this early?’
‘I can’t sleep, Malc. You know what it’s like. It’s not the same without Nell. I miss her.’
‘Do you want something to help you sleep?’
‘No, it’s fine. I think I’m just worried about things.’
‘Do you want to talk about it?’
‘Not right now. Over breakfast, maybe. I’m working in the mess hall this morning, so after that.’
‘I’ll see you there.’ The comm fell silent, to leave Calendula with the sound of her own breathing, the thrum of the engines, and her thoughts.
Eventually she drifted off, to be gently woken by the faint twittering of birds – her alarm.
After washing, and pulling on her overalls, she made her way out into the corridor where the bustle of early-morning ship duties was already beginning to take place.
Pine-scented detergent brought a momentary pang for the woodlands of home – a sharp reminder of her walks with Nell. As she ran her hand lightly along the brushed metal wall, she kicked a trailing cable: another reminder of the accident. A brief surge of panic gripped her and she nearly turned to go back into her room. No, people were waiting for her. She, too, had duties to perform.
Her thoughts drifted back to the last conversation she’d had with her cousin back in 2042, before the ship had begun the slow acceleration to near lightspeed. ‘You’ll do fine,’ Stephen had said. ‘You’re a great cook – you can work miracles with tofu and hydroponic veg with the right herbs.’
‘I can’t help feeling I’ve been quangoed, you know? It’s not like they really need me here. I just got the job because I’m related to one of the project leaders. I’m not qualified! They don’t even need a linguist for space exploration.’
‘But you can cook, and you’re great with people, too. Besides, isn’t working in the mess hall the best place for a linguist aboard a ship with a multinational crew, when half of them can’t speak a common language? Who else do they expect to stop the bar fights?’
Calendula had laughed at that, but it hadn’t alleviated her feelings of inadequacy on the mission. To her, the conversation had been only weeks ago, but Stephen would have now forgotten it – to him, it would have been nineteen years.
The breakfast shift in the mess hall was mercifully short. The only reason she’d accepted the assignment was for the variety of aromas it afforded – there was only so much oily metal and warm plastic you could endure. It was also the same for her love of the hydroponics bay and the small arboretum: the scent of fresh, growing things brought back memories of home like nothing else.
Except for Nell …