Rajiv Banarsidass stared at the object on his bunk with a mixture of revulsion, dread, and an awful, sick longing. He hated the way the thing made him feel yet he could not look away. He wishfully imagined it somehow spontaneously combusting or otherwise vanishing instantly from his life, and yet at the same time longed for it like a thirsting man longs for water. At the moment, however, he mainly hated the thing on his bed because it had ruined the first peace (and a fragile one at that) that he’d known in his life.
As much as he loathed the object on his bed, however, he had to reserve a fair portion of loathing for himself. He was the one, after all, who had brought it here, into the dorm towers and into his room. He’d spent 172 credits out of his meager student allowance on it, for Krishna’s sake! He’d even, after bringing it into his own room, opened the case like an idiot, so that he could look at it and let the thing work on his imagination, until the compulsion to use it became too powerful to resist.
Why, why had he done this? He’d nearly escaped. He’d been so close to building a new life in Johannesburg, with new friends who knew nothing of his former life and habits. He still could, he supposed, try to continue to keep the secret, but he would only be putting off his inevitable discovery. He should have known he was doomed from the start. Sooner or later his new friends would find out, and then … then it would all go back to the way it had been before. He might as well just go ahead and buy that train ticket back to Moscow now.
Rajiv shuddered, thinking of the dismal gray and cold of the northern European city. No, Rajiv silently begged the cruel fates, anywhere but Moscow, please! Still, nothing irrevocable had happened yet, he told himself. No one had seen him enter the dormitory with the mysterious case. He could shove it under his bunk, way in the back, and forget about it. Better still, he could take it back to the shop and return it. Even if he lost a few credits in the deal, he’d be well rid of it.
He couldn’t do it now, though, as he was due in the mess hall in fifteen minutes to help cook dinner with the rest of his crew. Besides, the market was undoubtedly closed now. He’d just have to close and lock the case and stash it under his bed for now. He’d take it back tomorrow.
As he reached forward to close the case, however, his hands betrayed him. They reached out, with what seemed a will of their own, to stroke the dark, varnished wood surface and Rajiv trembled, all of his resolve crumbling. As though by accident his thumb brushed over the strings, a mere feather touch, but still they rang and the sound sparked in Rajiv an aching, almost sensual longing.
There could be no question of returning the violin now.

... ... ... ... ...

"Will you tell me," the ship asked him, "how a virtuoso violinist came to pursue a career as a space pilot?"
Thinking about it for a moment, Rajiv realized that a complete answer to this question would mean going all the way back to the beginning, but then it did seem that a long story was what was wanted, so that was what he did.
"My father used to tell anyone who would listen," Rajiv said, at last, "in fact, he probably still does, as far as I know- he would tell them that the first time I ever tried to pick up a violin and play it I played a perfect note –or at least, a very nice one- and that is true. That this is no small thing, I confess. He never tells them, though, that the violin was not the first instrument in that bazaar that I had wanted to play, on the day he took me to to find an instrument. I remember seeing a lot of instruments I liked on that day, but the violin was the only one that he let me keep and play."
The ship listened raptly to Rajiv’s tale, as though her life or sanity depended upon it –which, to some extent, Rajiv reflected, it did.
"A long time ago," Rajiv went on, "nearly everyone in my country, and especially in the Hindu holy city Varnase where I grew up, used to have astrological charts made for their children at birth, you see. It all seems very silly now, but what is even sillier is that there are still people who pay good money for some old man to come over and tell them who their newborn child should marry, and what career he’s going to have, and my parents," Rajiv heaved a sigh, "are some of those people."
"My parents are really quite decent, intelligent people," Rajiv explained, realizing for perhaps the first time that he truly believed this, " but they have always seemed to feel that they needed something to set them apart from their neighbors.” Maybe it is because when your family has been nothing but shopkeepers for so many generations you are more tempted to go to ridiculous lengths to escape the tedium, Rajiv thought to himself, as he had many times before.
"At any rate, they had a fellow come in and create a chart for my older sister when she was born," Rajiv continued. "But off course, it showed that she would be just like everyone else in my family –a competent and successful shopkeeper. It was an easy prediction to make. When it came to me, though, things were different."
"Were the predictions true for your sister, then?" the ship asked.
"Oh yes, it is just as the Astrologer said." replied Rajiv with a smile. "She assists my father in the business, taking over more duties every year. She will be running the whole thing in a year or two, and then my father will retire. She is very good at it, and enjoys her work a lot. Last year she was married and had a little son. I have always envied her."
"Really?" asked the ship, puzzled. “Why?”
"No one ever expected her to do anything out of the ordinary, for that is what the astrologer foretold for her, but what did he say about me? ‘The boy will achieve great fame and success with music,’" Rajiv intoned pompously. "’but not the music of his own place or time. His music will be heard by people from many lands, and and he will fulfill a great destiny.’" He raised his hands into the air as he spoke, waving them about in a parody of excitement. "I have long ago lost count of the number of times I heard him tell that story, and I have heard those words so many times ... Who could live up to that?"
It was one thing to have parents who have confidence in you, Rajiv had thought, many times, but it is quite another thing to be bludgeoned by a prophecy, day after day … that is what turns a destiny into a curse.
"I see." said the ship, as Rajiv paused a moment in his narrative. “And I think I am beginning to understand what happened at dinner.” Rajiv smiled apologetically and sighed again.
"I know that my parents never meant to lay such a curse upon me," Rajiv continued, "But they never knew what they were doing. They simply found the most expensive violin teacher they could afford, did whatever he asked, and believed everything he told them.” Rajiv paused, thoughtfully, and shook his head. “ I do not believe that this man could ever have had children of his own."
"From the very beginning there was no pleasing my teacher or my parents. If I did well it was because of my ‘gift’ or my astrological destiny, and if I did not do well, then I was denying and dishonoring my gift, and behaving an a manner contrary to the will of the Gods. It was never a pleasure to play in public, and soon it became like a torture to me.
"Sometimes I would meet other young musicians who seemed to truly love to play, and I would lay awake nights, wondering how my life might have been if I could have taken joy in my music. I even wondered if it was a flaw in my personality that performing was such a painful thing, since it seemed not to be for others, but I never found any answers.”
The ship remained silent, caught up in Rajiv’s pensive mood.
“I began to become ill before performances,” Rajiv went on, “ and I learned to hide it and go on and play. As my skill at covering up my distress increased, my dread of performances worsened. This state of affairs only continued when I entered into the Moscow conservatory. This was my parent’s choice of schools, because it was my teacher’s choice.
“There were some changes for me when I went to conservatory, for now I had many teachers, instead of one, who all believed that I was destined for greatness and treated me accordingly, but I had a little more autonomy as well. Now I had to endure hearing my name spoken by students and faculty alike, all over the conservatory, referring to me as a ‘rising talent’ and other such nonsense. On the other hand, through clever manipulation of my schedule, I managed to find ways delay my first recital for over a year.”
“Surely that made things a bit easier for you.” commented the ship.
“Perhaps a little,” Rajiv admitted, “though I was constantly afraid that I would be found out, as I eventually was, but besides all of that, I was truly miserable living in Moscow.”
“I must tell you the joke I was told when I first arrived in there.” Rajiv stood to walk about a little as he talked. “The joke was: Why do you see the sun shine so little in Moscow?”
“And why is that?” asked the ship obligingly.
“It is because the local government has found a way to skim the top 20 percent off of Moscow’s sunshine,” Rajiv answered, “just the way it does with all of the other necessary commodities in the city.”
“Is that true?” asked the ship.
“Well, it is true that the Moscow city government is terribly corrupt.” said Rajiv, “and it is also true that even when the sun shines brightly, which it does not do very much in Moscow, it does not give much warmth -at least, not like it does in Varnase.”
“It sounds as if you were homesick.” commented the ship, sympathetically .
“How could I not be?” Rajiv threw up his hands as he spoke. “Varnase is a city of warmth and bright colors. People there dress to be comfortable and pleasing to look at, not to keep from freezing to death. Moscow was miserable and cold and wet and gray, all the time. I cannot understand how anyone can bear to live in such conditions.”
“Well, I can’t speak from personal experience, of course,” remarked the ship, “but I have met more than a few people who speak with great passion of their fondness for Moscow, and other cold northern cities like it. They claim to find the cold invigorating and see much beauty in the snow and ice, just as they see beauty in the summer flowers. In addition,” she philosophized, “at least one of those cold loving people also told me about how he’d suffered during a stay in Rio de Janeiro, and he described the heat and tropical climate as ‘oppressive’ and ‘stifling’. So it may be that humans have an aptitude for one climate or another, as is true for so many things in the human make-up. You, Rajiv would appear to be a man with a worm climate aptitude, but this is not true of everyone.”
“I am certain you are correct,” said Rajiv with a smile, “for I do not believe that I could ever be happy living in Moscow, even without my music troubles. By the start of my second year in Moscow, my professors had caught on to my delaying tactics and forced me to set a date for my recital during midyear finals week. It was far enough away, at first, that I managed to convince myself that I would be able to just gather up my nerve and get it over with. I told myself that it would be just like playing for a jury of my teachers -which I had to do at the end of each term, but there were usually only five of them. The conservatory concert hall I was scheduled to play in had seating for fifteen hundred people.
“The closer the recital date came, the less bearable the idea was. I began to have panic attacks in the middle of the night; I lost all appetite and began to lose weight. Then, three days before my recital date, I happened to hear that my performance had been completely sold out.” Rajiv could almost taste the panic he’d felt upon originally discovering this news.
“Now, you must understand that student recitals happen every week at the conservatory,” he explained. “and they are almost never sold out. After I learned this I ceased to be able to keep any food down at all, and the panic attacks began to come far more frequently -at any time of the day or night. I began to be afraid that I would die.”
“How did you think you would die?” asked the ship, curiously.
“I had no idea.” answered Rajiv, shaking his head. “I only knew, as the hours and days passed, that I was feeling more and more certain that I was either dying or liable to die very soon. I became convinced that either the recital or the conservatory or the city was going to kill me and so finally, less than twenty four hours before the concert I ran away.”
Rajiv paused to stare out into nothing, caught up in memories for a moment. “I remember it felt like I was fleeing for my life.” he said. “It was the middle of the night when I left. I jammed a few clothes into a travel bag -I remember my hands were shaking I was so frightened- and I looked back into my room as I was leaving and saw my violin lying in its open case on the bed ... I almost could not leave ... Then I heard some voices in the hall and I fell into a terrible panic. I hardly remember how I went after that, but at the end I found myself in the Moscow train station, buying a ticket to Johannesburg.”
“Why Johannesburg?” asked the ship.
“Because it was the furthest south that the train would take me.” said Rajiv. “I wanted to get as far as I could from Moscow, and I wanted to go south -towards the sun, for I desperately needed to feel warm again.”
“Those were your only reasons?”
“You must understand I was acting only with survival instinct. I was escaping from the thing I feared the most in all the world with only a few hours to spare. I had almost nothing with me , but as Moscow began to fall further and further behind my terror began to fade away and I felt such freedom and relief as I cannot describe to you.
“I had no thought at all of my future, you see, except for to officially notify the Conservatory and my parents that I did not wish to for any of them to contact me or try to find me -which I thought would sever me from my past forever. As long as I was traveling on the train I was not anywhere and I was not obliged to think about the future at all. All I had to do was sit in my compartment and stare out the window as the land went by and all I could think was that I was rushing further and further from the only life I had ever known.”
“So what did you do when you reached Johannesburg?” the ship asked after a long silence into which Rajiv had let himself slip.
“Well, of course the Transients’ Service people found me after I had spent an hour and a half staring at the city map in the Johannesburg station’s information kiosk, with no idea of where I should go now, or what I should do.” Mostly, he recalled, he had not wished to move because the sun was shining quite warmly in that spot and he had not felt the warm sun on his skin for over a year. In Moscow Winter had just been ending, but in Johannesburg it was Summer that was nearly over, and the days were still warm and pleasant.
“The job which the Transients’ Service found me,” Rajiv continued, once he had pulled himself away from his reminiscences, “was gleaning work in farm fields around Johannesburg. I worked hard out under the sun ever day, and could not have been happier. Truly, I think it might have been one of the happiest times in my life, which, I imagine, must seem strange to you.”
The ship could do nothing but agree.

* * * * *

Certainly, it had seemed to Rajiv upon his arrival in Johannesburg, that he’d escaped the curse of his destiny and would be free of it forever. Now, he mused to himself bitterly a year later, the fact that he’d gone on to perpetuate that farce for all this time seemed nothing short of miraculous. Had he not discovered (and consequently become enchanted by) the curiously out of place little antique in that shop this morning, the gods, no doubt, would have eventually contrived to have a violin drop out of the sky and strike him on the head.
Still, Rajiv struggled tenaciously to hold onto his delusion of freedom for another thirty hours, leaving the instrument under his bed, shut up in it’s case and unplayed. In truth, however, this was only because it took him that long to find some place where he could partake in his secret vice in absolute privacy, without fear of discovery. He began his search for that spot on the twentieth floor of the forty story Mbeki dormitory tower of the Johannesburg Spaceflight Academy.
For as long as anyone at the Academy could remember, the utility floor had been openly accessible to anyone willing to enter by climbing or descending the emergency stairs from an adjacent floor (the elevators didn’t stop there) and enter by one of the four now unlockable stairwell doors. Too dusty and greasy for trysts, and too often frequented by janitorial staff for any long term illicit operations, it was perfect for Rajiv’s needs.
The six big air processing units which took up most of the utility floor were each surrounded by tuned noise dampeners, but enough noise leaked past the dampeners that the whole floor resonated with a low frequency white noise. In his explorations, however, Rajiv discovered a bubble where the noise dampeners from three of the air processing units overlapped and formed an utterly silent, acoustically perfect dead space. Better still, the noise dampeners and the leaked sound from the air processing units combined to thoroughly mask any sound generated within the bubble, rendering it inaudible only a few meters away. Best of all it was in the back, in the dark, and far away from any of the four stairwell doors.
Friday nights were often very quiet in the dorm tower, as the majority of its residents chose to party in places where the substance use code wasn’t quite so strict. Rajiv often enjoyed the quiet of the dorms on a Friday evening, but his roommate, Jamil, could be depended upon to vacate the dorm on Friday night, not infrequently staying away till late Sunday evening. Thus it was that Friday evening found Rajiv cautiously creeping up the south wing emergency stairwell, violin case in hand. Pushing open the heavy door, he stepped past the undisturbed drifts of lint in the twilit maintenance floor and entered his acoustic sanctuary.
For a long time he merely stood, clutching the violin case in his arms, his heart racing. For the whole of his life, playing the violin had been like breathing -woven into every part of his life- save for the last year. He had thought that he would be leaving every bit his old life behind and beginning a whole new one. In the end, though, he’d no more been able to give up music than he’d be able to give up breathing.
Though it had been some time since he last held a violin, Rajiv Banarsidass never had a doubt that he could make this instrument sing like a bird in his hands. He knew himself to be one of the most skilled violinists alive in the world today, but to him it was only a means to an end. When Rajiv made music with his violin he passed into a place of secret joy and almost sensual pleasure. While sharing this private pleasure with others was always frightening –and had lately become downright terrifying- when he was left to himself his music brought him to a place where he was safe, secure and utterly free.
He had not tasted that freedom in over a year and thinking about it now he hastened to take up the instrument and play. Trembling with excitement, he set the case on the floor, opened it and lifted out violin and bow. The strings and bow-hair were all in good condition, which meant that the instrument had not sat long neglected –a good thing. Rajiv plucked the strings to tune them, his heart rejoicing to hear these simple sounds, and to take part in these simple rituals again.
Caught up in the old routines, Rajiv laid the bow to the open strings to tune without even thinking about it, as though he had never given up the violin -never gone a day without practicing. The scales and arpeggios followed likewise, without a thought. He was, in truth, a little rough, but since there was no one at all present to notice, Rajiv was free to work out the rough spots at his leisure.
He lost himself in long memorized etudes and studies for a good long while, but then he came to the point where in his usual routine he would begin with what ever new piece he was working on at the moment … which, at the moment, was nothing. What should he play? Rajiv had never before in his life had he ever had the occasion to ask himself what he felt like playing. Considering the matter for only a few moments, however, brought an obvious answer. Rajiv had a whole unplayed recital in him and just because the idea of playing it in front of hundreds of strangers struck him as terrifying didn’t mean that he hadn’t gotten the pieces up to performance quality. There was nearly an hour and a half of music in that recital and suddenly Rajiv knew he wanted very much to play the whole thing. He tuned again, drew a breath, went over the performance order in his mind, and began.
The first piece was a Bach Partita for solo violin and playing it felt to Rajiv like taking wing and flying. A Sonata by Prokofiev followed, angular and brilliant, which made Rajiv feel brilliant, as though sparks were leaping from his fingers and instrument. Each piece he played took him, by their own unique routes, to that place of perfect freedom he had left behind over a year ago. He knew the joy of the exile, returning home at last.
If he was a returning exile though, Rajiv thought to himself the next day, he was returning to a land ruled by forces bent upon crushing his very soul if they ever caught him. He loved that land (too much to sensibly stay away, evidently) but it meant that he risked being caught every time he crossed the border. Strictly speaking, it meant that every time Rajiv snuck off to play the violin among the air processors he risked being discovered and outed to the other pilot trainees in the dorms.
There were other ‘amateur musicians’ among the students at the Johannesburg Spaceflight Academy, but it was the trainees who were the most serious about the business of space ship piloting that got the most respect. Rajiv wanted that kind of respect and having it known that he was ‘musical’ wouldn’t help one bit. In addition, Rajiv worried that sooner or later someone would have the wit to observe that he was no amateur at music. The world was all one big network these days, and every bit of anonymity which Rajiv surrendered by expressing some unique quality increased the chances that some of his former associates would discover his whereabouts.
These were the thoughts that plagued Rajiv as he surreptitiously slipped up the stairs to the twentieth floor every couple of nights or so. He’d have gone more often if he’d thought it safe. Having let the violin back into his life, he was almost obsessed with it now and could think of nothing else when he returned to his room after classes each day. His roommate was nearly always around during the afternoons, though, so he would try to do his class work until late at night, when his roommate was asleep or gone and there was little traffic in the halls. Then he would creep up to his den of secret solitude and play until long after he ought to have gone to bed. His studies suffered.
Because of this, Rajiv spent even more time than usual holed up in his room and ended up becoming something of a recluse. Had he not been, he might have heard the rumor about the ‘phantom music’ that residents in some, though not all, of the dorm wings’ residents claimed to be hearing. Not even when this tale escalated from rumor to building-wide phenomenon did Rajiv become aware of it, but then recent events had left him somewhat distracted.
Any acoustical engineer could have warned Rajiv that ‘acoustical bubbles’ such as the one Rajiv was using as a private practice room, are seldom as closed as they seem to be. In this particular case, the sound of Rajiv’s playing was being directed to different air ducts on the 19th and 21st floors of the South and East wings. The musical duct moved from night to night, but some of the music fans among the dorm residents had began organizing, so that when someone noticed music issuing from any duct, they would quickly alert others. Sometimes as many as forty people showed up to stand in the hallway and listen to Rajiv fool around on the violin, utter unaware of his audience.
As much as the identity of the mystery musician became the subject of great speculation among the Academy students, Rajiv remained out of the loop. Eventually, (some very bright minds having wrestled with the mystery) the location of the mysterious performances was deduced. Thus it was that as Rajiv quietly stepped down the east wing stairwell late one evening, a month or two after he had bought the violin, the door to the floor below suddenly burst open and dozens of students poured through, all of them looking up at him as soon as they came through, and shouting.
"There he is!"
"It’s Banarsidass! Hey Rajiv!"
"What is that you’re playing?"
"Why all the secrecy, Banarsidass?"
Why all of the secrecy, indeed? Rajiv froze with horror halfway down the stairs, fighting the urge to flee back up to the utility floor. That would surely only make things worse. He had been caught, fair and square and must now surrender graciously and with good humor. Rajiv forced a sheepish smile onto his face.
"Has someone been hearing my playing, then?" he asked innocently.
In the end, he had had to take the violin out and play for them all, for ten minutes or more, right there in the stairwell, which eventually came to be crammed with dozens and dozens of students, both above and below him. At last a couple of the wing supervisors had come along to see what all the fuss was and cleared everyone off of the fire stairs so that Rajiv, to his great relief, had finally been able to return to his room. His roommate, however, was there to meet him.
"Why do you hide your music?" he asked Rajiv as he came in and shoved his violin case under the bed. "Why do you keep it secret? Are you ashamed of it?"
Rajiv had always gotten along well enough with Jamil Tembe, but Jamil never seemed comfortable when they were together, as though he didn’t trust Rajiv, or thought that Rajiv didn’t trust him. He seemed to be seeing this distrust again now but he didn’t know what to do about it. On the one hand honesty seemed the best response, but on the other Rajiv didn’t very much feel like sharing his secrets with Jamil. Perhaps, he reflected, the distrust did run both ways.
He knew that Jamil’s family was from the area and that they were not wealthy. Jamil talked about them all of the time and of the unending series of crises they seemed to be heir to. All Jamil knew about Rajiv, however, was that he was from Varnase and didn’t see his family any more. Jamil, with his large and involved family could not, Rajiv suspected, fathom any decent person living without one. Rajiv also suspected that Jamil saw him as a foreign dilettante, taking up a space in an institution which had been built with the intention of uplifting the lives and ambitions of the millions of poor and working class citizens of Sowetto. He did not have enough evidence to be certain of any of this, though.
"I do not care to play in public." Rajiv said to his roommate at last, after he had finished putting his violin away.
"I play for private reasons –and it is, as you know, very difficult to find any kind of privacy in these dorms."
Jamil gave him the ‘askance’ look that told Rajiv that Jamil privately thought he was a little unbalanced. He rolled his desk chair forward to address Rajiv where he sat on his bunk removing his shoes.
"Do you know how much extra silver you could make playing at clubs after school in the evening?" he asked without expecting an answer. "Explain to me why you hide what you are so good at." Jamil waved his hand vigorously, so close to Rajiv’s face that he nearly flinched.
Roommate or no, Rajiv was highly inclined to tell Jamil that none of this was any of his business, but then he thought the better of it.
"Will you be satisfied if I tell you that it has to do with the reason I don’t speak with my family any more?" he asked with a sigh.
Jamil leaned forward and looked at him through narrowed eyes –the he’s crazy look again.
"That’s a big thing you were hiding –making music like that." he said at last. "People don’t like it when you hide big things like that. They will like it better if you explain, otherwise they may think you could be hiding other things."
Rajiv did not miss the veiled threat. Rajiv’s only ambition at the Academy had been to blend in to the upper end of the crowd. Students with secret musical skills did not blend in, however. Jamil was right in a way; he would have to come up with some explanation that made his behavior less worthy of comment or speculation.
"Jamil, there was a tragedy and a scandal in my family, many years ago," Rajiv said, embellishing, and to some degree disregarding the truth entirely, "and as a result, I swore that I would never play my music in public again. I would hope that I need not describe the details of these events?" Rajiv almost begged.
Jamil sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. "So, is that what you want me to tell people, when they ask?" he said after a moment of consideration.
Rajiv laid back on the bed with a sigh of relief, propping up his shoulders with his elbows on the bed. "I would be most grateful if you did." he said, eyes closed with fatigue, for it was late.
"People will still be curious of course," said Jamil with a shrug, rolling his chair back to his desk, "but they won’t ask any more than that."
This was, in fact, precisely what happened. Rajiv had to put forth this tale himself more than a few times, but having explained as much to most people, no further questions were asked. Since his musical habits were now public knowledge Rajiv was able to go to the building maintenance crew and ask them about an acoustically isolated practice spot and they found him a room in the subbasement once used to house now obsolete telecommunications equipment. He had to walk through the building crew’s staff lounge on his way there, but after the first week or so they took no notice of him and Rajiv was free to play in happy isolation once again.
During the pleasant months that followed it did seem to Rajiv as though he was managing to somehow have his cake and eat it too. Getting regular music sessions in without having to sneak around allowed him to balance his efforts between his studies and his violin, so his grades improved again. As he became more present in his school activities his social life picked up a bit as well. As the end of the school year drew near Rajiv even got caught up in the excitement of the approaching end-of-the-year internship voyages.
At the conclusion of each of the three years of the J. S. A. pilot licensure program, all of it’s qualifying students accompany a professional pilot on a regular interplanetary run. First year students are assigned to short, one or two day voyages, and mainly observe, second year students do a bit of assisting on a week-long voyage, and third year students get a chance to do everything the real pilot does, on a journey of a month or more. Besides getting good field experience, the end-of-the-year internship voyages were opportunities to make connections that could make a big difference in the quantity and quality of job offers one might get upon graduation. It was no wonder then, that the whole of Rajiv’s dorm hardly slept the night before the internship assignments were to be announced.
Like everyone else in the dorm, Rajiv and his roommate were up at six am, when the assignments were due to be posted, and of course the ancient school data-net was slowed down with the high number of simultaneous demands, but at last Rajiv and Jamil’s assignments appeared on Jamil’s net monitor. It was awkward, Rajiv thought to himself, that both he and Jamil were trying not to look disappointed to find that they’d been assigned to the same ship. It was a good assignment and it was only the two of them who’d be traveling with the Corsica; many first year students found themselves vying for the pilot’s attention against four or five others students. Still, Rajiv knew he wouldn’t have minded in the least having another student or two along to act as a social buffer and he suspected that Jamil felt the same.
It was when Rajiv read the details of the Corsica’s mission though, that he knew real dismay. It was a UE subsidized trip for Ed Corps and involved ferrying Ed Corps personnel to Grogan’s World, a fairly remote extractive colony, and all of that was typical. Rajiv’s problem was the identity of the personnel they would be ferrying.
Musicians were among the many kinds of cultural presenters that Ed Corps regularly sent to outlying worlds, but surely something more than just plain bad luck had placed Rajiv on a spaceship with not just another musician, but a classical one –and another string player, to boot!
Sylvia Markeridze was a cellist and not a violinist, but one of such notoriety that Rajiv recognized her name instantly when he saw it. She was the principal cellist of the OEPF Philharmonic Orchestra, which was not as famous as it had once been, but still fairly widely known. With a rush of sudden horror, Rajiv realized that one or more of the faculty must have come to learn of his musical talents and given him this assignment on purpose. Was there a hidden message in this assignment, that he’d be better off with his "own kind"?
Rajiv fumed and fretted silently in his room as Jamil went out to joyfully boast of his assignment with the other students. As much as he’d felt certain that the momentary equilibrium that had come to exist between his music and being a student pilot was never going to last, Rajiv still felt furious over how the academy directors had betrayed him in this assignment. He would never have asked for a ‘celebrity’ assignment like this and was enormously offended that they had appeared to assume he’d want it. They were meddling in his life without his permission (just as his parents had always done!) and the idea that it was being done to him again filled Rajiv with a helpless rage.
Asking for another assignment was out of the question as it would only make him look ungrateful and besides, nobody ever got their assignments changed after they were made. The only option Rajiv had was to take the assignment and act as though their passenger was just that –another passenger. The Academy staff might be sending him a message, but nobody was forcing him to accept it. He had as much right to be at the Academy as anyone else.
To back that claim up, Rajiv Banarsidass knew he had achieved some pretty high test and simulator scores. On a good day working out with the flight simulator Rajiv almost approached the same inner peace he felt while playing the violin. He was good at this piloting stuff, took joy in the competence he was rapidly gaining and remained entirely pleased at the idea of doing it for a living. He saw no reason why his past life or aptitude should stand in the way of his becoming a pilot and he knew he had every right to pursue the career of his choice.
Rajiv’s righteous indignation soon faded in the excitement of the impending voyage, though. When he looked forward to the technical aspects of the upcoming journey and didn’t think either about the presence of his annoying roommate, or their troubling celebrity passenger, Rajiv found was actually eagerly anticipating the trip. What with end of the year exams and other final projects, the remaining weeks before Rajiv and Jamil’s appointment with the Corsica flew quickly by.

* * * * *

Looking out the window of the shuttle at the Corsica, Rajiv knew that compared to other ships in her class, even other ships her age, the Corsica wasn’t much to look at. She wasn’t young and she hadn’t been state of the art when she was built, over forty years ago. From what Rajiv had been learning (as he immersed himself in everything he could find about the Corsica and her technical specs) that was not necessarily a bad thing, though. All the Corsica’s various systems were tried and true and had pretty much had all of the bugs worked out of them by the time she was built. She was also a tad overbuilt, but both of these qualities were in a large way responsible for her longevity. Most faster-than-light ships don’t continue to be commercially space-worthy for forty years and Rajiv wondered if the Corsica was proud of her great age or if, like most humans, she would prefer that it not be discussed.
It was probably not the latter, Rajiv guessed, as the messages she had sent to him and Jamil, welcoming them as new interns, had made a point of mentioning her many years in service. It made sense, too, that a ship’s EI (Engineered Intelligence) which was still psychologically sound after all this time would have to be comfortable about her age. As much as Rajiv was looking forward to learning to work with the Corsica’s time-adapted and retrofitted forty year old systems, he was also very interested in getting to know the Corsica herself.
Humans who didn’t work in space seldom got to meet or work with EIs, though there were a couple of hundred such beings who lived and worked only on earth and another hundred or so land-bound EIs on the colonies. There were no human built faster than light ships which operated without them, though. In fact, the first faster than light ship ever built by humans was operated by one of the first fully cognizant EIs ever built. Many stories were told among Rajiv’s fellow students of the legendary friendships that occasionally formed between pilots, captains, and their ship’s EIs. Every student pilot ever trained to fly with EIs and faster than light ships wished such a friendship for themselves and Rajiv was no different.
EIs were like people though; they had different temperaments, likes and dislikes and they had their moods. Rajiv imagined that an EI who elected to offer internship positions would be expected to be friendly and enjoy meeting new people, but that wasn’t always the case. Horror stories circulated among the pilot trainees, of ship’s EIs who were short tempered taskmasters, or obsessive and paranoid, making their interns’ short stays miserable at best, and imperiling their lives at worst.
The shuttle had drawn close enough now that the Corsica filled most of the window Rajiv peered out of. He could see her armaments: two ion cannons and a missile launcher. They were nothing flashy but were, like the Corsica herself, solid and dependable. Her captain, Jean Pierre Ventducor, Rajiv recalled reading, was a Space Service veteran who had flown in both the Phallarian Pirate Insurrection and the Robertsonian Uprising (the only conflicts the Space Service had ever been involved in). He had owned the Corsica for over five years, but flown with her for more than twenty, starting when they’d both served in the Space Service. When the Service had retired the Corsica, Captain Ventducor had taken the option to retire with her so they could go into business on their own. They’d spent some time operating as an independent enforcer, but did most of their work ferrying various UE personnel to some of the more remote or hazard prone human settlements.
Since most of the other internship assignments, of any year, tended to be on passenger carriers and other unarmed ships, Rajiv was sure that Captain Ventducor would have the best stories to tell of any of the stories that would be told to the many JSA interns and relayed to their fellows next fall. Rajiv found it quite pleasant anticipating this and it added to the general state of excited anticipation which he felt as the shuttle docked, with a mild bump, onto the Corsica. He had hardly been troubled by his roommate, or worries about the Corsica’s passenger for days.

Captain Ventducor and his Executive Officer and Cognitive Technician (Cog. Tech.), Leanne Washington stood just inside the airlock to greet Rajiv and Jamil as they entered. The captain shook both their hands with enthusiasm, as did Dam Washington. The captain of the Corsica was a compact, well muscled older gentleman with square, weathered face and grizzled gray hair cut in a military burr and he spoke with a distinct French accent. He wore no uniform, but a dark blue turtleneck sweater, blue slacks and a captain’s cap.
"I think you must be Dom Banarsidass." he said as he shook Rajiv’s hand. Rajiv replied in the affirmative and Captain Ventducor continued,
"So then you are Dom Tembe?" while shaking Jamil’s hand.
"Welcome aboard the Corsica, mes amis."

the captain said when Jamil nodded and then a sonorously deep, feminine and slightly French accented voice spoke from out of the air, seemingly just to the captain’s left.
"I, too wish to welcome you aboard." said the Corsica. "I’m always pleased to take interns. Captain Ventducor and I both really enjoy showing young pilots they way things used to be done."
"They are still done that way, ma cherie." said the captain. "But they are done now where you cannot see them … as long as things are working as they should. It is when things are not working as they should that you will think of us and feel much gratitude!"
"You will be hearing much more on this topic from the captain throughout our time together, gentlemen." put in the Corsica. "But now I think we had better get you settled into your berths. After that you’ll get the grand tour and a bite to eat. Is that agreeable?"
Rajiv and Jamil would share quarters, of course, but they had the option of taking bunks on opposite sides of the otherwise unoccupied room, which was somewhat larger than their dorm room and designed to berth a dozen troops. They lingered there only long enough for Rajiv and Jamil to fling their duffels onto their chosen bunks and listen to Dam Washington’s run-down of basic ship’s safety procedures. Then they were off with Captain Ventducor on their tour. Neither Rajiv or Jamil had ever been off planet before, much less gotten a look at the workings of a real intersystem ship and both of them struggled to hide the excitement they each felt. Heading out of the bunk room, Rajiv caught the captain in a knowing smile, as he looked back at his two new interns. They weren’t fooling anybody.
The first stop on their tour was the bridge. They entered the circular room at its center, having climbed a flight of stairs which curved around the bridge access lift shaft as it ascended. On the wall opposite the lift door were four large screens (fore, aft, port and starboard views) and in front of that was a long console table, with five different workstations on it. Upon entering with them, Dam Washington made her way to one and sat, immediately engrossed in a dizzying array of read-outs.
"This, of course, is the main Operations Control area, where we will be spending most of our time." said the captain as the rest of them assembled before the big console desk.
"Behind us is gunnery control, which I am certain will remain undisturbed during our voyage," he continued, "and the main cognitive systems core. If you are not familiar with the engineered intelligence, you will maybe think that this is where the Corsica ‘lives’, no? But this is not so. She is in all of the ship, just as you are in all of your body. Never forget that."
"I’m also always listening, unless you specifically ask me not to." the Corsica’s voice contributed. "I really don’t mind being told that a certain conversation is private and there are plenty of things in people’s personal lives that I would really rather not know about, so please do me a favor when you’re about to get personal and count me out."
As she spoke, Rajiv noticed that the star-fields on the front screens had been replaced by an image, in which each of the four screens showed a quarter of a larger image of a woman. She was older, dark haired and dark eyed and looked to be of Mediterranean heritage. She had a face whose beauty Rajiv could tell had grown, rather that faded with age and as he watched her Rajiv realized that she was the Corsica.
"You pay attention what Corsica say, you boys." said another voice, belonging to the older Asian gentleman emerging from gunnery control. "Every bunch of new intern forget every time and then we have to hear all about your nasty lives next day at breakfast, so don’t forget."
"Dom Tembe, Dom Banarsidass, may I introduce our weapons technician, Yuan Li Chang." said the Corsica, the woman on the screen speaking as Rajiv heard the voice seeming to emanate from nearby.
Rajiv and Jamil both politely acknowledged Dom Chang, who bowed to each of them in response. "I can’t believe that many interns here spend much time talking about their personal lives, or even thinking about them." remarked Jamil, carrying on the previous discussion.
"It’s true that I generally get more of that kind of thing from our passengers," replied the Corsica, "but pilot trainees aren’t immune to gossip either."
"I think that instead of wishing that we would not gossip in your hearing," remarked Rajiv, "you will be wishing that Jamil and I would stop thinking of more questions to ask you, Dam."
"Of that you need have no fear," said the Corsica with a smile, "for I never tire of attentions from young handsome pilots, and I never tire of talking about myself!"
Captain Ventducor rolled his eyes in agreement, while Dom Chang chuckled in response and on the screen before them the Corsica smiled so beguilingly that neither Rajiv nor Jamil could help but smile back. The captain now cleared his throat to bring everyone back to business and proceeded to give them a more detailed overview of the Operations Control area, promising to spend the whole day with them tomorrow on the navigation and helm systems. After that they moved over to the cognitive systems core where Dam Washington gave them a briefing on the Corsica’s intelligence and data processing functions.

Her accent told Rajiv that she was from North America, and he knew that she was the youngest member of the Corsica’s four person crew. Her demeanor as she spoke seemed a bit humorless, stiff and formal and Rajiv wondered if she got along well with the easygoing Corsica.
Dom Chang gave them a briefing on the Corsica’s weapon’s systems next. His cheerful wisecracking manner stood in sharp contrast to Dam Washington’s, but glancing back at her as the weapons tech joked with them Rajiv caught her in a shy smile. For the first of what would be many times, Rajiv came to marvel at the interesting assemblage of characters who made up the Corsica’s crew.

Having concluded with the bridge deck, the captain directed the two interns down the stairs a level to the crew quarters decks. In the Corsica’s old pirate hunting days, Captain Ventducor told them (Rajiv anticipated many a rousing dinnertime tale) she’d carried a crew of forty space commandos, capable of defending the Corsica from any boarding attack, or of boarding and commandeering other ships. These days the decks that had housed them stood dark and empty, except for a few on the lowest of the crew quarters decks which had been remodeled as VIP cabins for their currently more frequent passengers.
Being at the lowest of the crew quarters level put the VIP quarters just above the ships commons, which included the galley. The curving stairway which Rajiv and the others now descended terminated there, in the center of a very large open room, round like the bridge, but with a much larger diameter. The space was divided into irregularly shaped areas for food preparation and consumption, small and large social groups and for the use of various electronic entertainment and media facilities, while still retaining the sense of spaciousness thought to be important for a crew’s psychological well being during long trips. Adding to the room’s sense of openness, Rajiv noted, were the three large true windows, transparent sections of the outer hull, regularly spaced around the room’s outer wall. The entire space had clearly been designed to seem both comforting and comfortable and Rajiv, upon reflection, found it quite effective.
When the three of them arrived at the bottom of the central stair Captain Ventducor announced that they would pause here for a light meal and directed them towards the galley. As they approached, Rajiv came to notice that there were two people sitting at a low table in what appeared to be a dining area.
"Allo, Mirabel, Dam Markeridze!" the captain called as they approached, and the two women stood to greet them.
There she was, Rajiv thought, quietly restraining the urge to panic, Sylvia Markeridze, principle cellist of the OEPF Philharmonic for nearly ten years. Somewhere in her history, Rajiv had heard, she’d earned the nickname ‘Duchess of Tblisi’ and was currently occasionally referred among some music critics to as the ‘Duchess of the OEPF Philharmonic’. For this reason Rajiv had always imagined her as some stone faced old battle-ax.
Of the two women who stepped forward to introduce themselves, one was small and wiry with short silver and gray streaked curly hair, sparkling black eyes and a wide smile, who introduced herself as Mirabel Francisco-Sonoma, ship’s engineer. The other, who now extended her hand to Rajiv, was a plump, conservatively dressed grand-motherly woman. Unable to resist meeting her gaze, Rajiv found himself looking into a pair of crow’s feet framed, bright, gray eyes which seemed to hold some promise of mischief, in spite of the sweet innocence of her smile.

"Sylvia Markeridze," she said, firmly grasping Rajiv’s hand. I am very much please to make your acquaintance."
"Rajiv Banarsidass," he replied, "and you must call me Rajiv, please." To his surprise, Rajiv found it impossible not to instantly like this woman, in spite of the fact that he was still terrified that she would identify him somehow. Her likability put him at ease, though and probably prevented him from behaving like an idiot in front of her out of sheer nervousness and for that Rajiv was grateful.
Captain Ventducor invited the ladies to join them in their meal but both declared they had just been heading off,
Dam Francisco-Sonoma to the engineering decks, where they would shortly be joining her and Dam Markeridze to practice.

The casual everyday way in which she spoke of her music made Rajiv suddenly and unexpectedly ‘homesick’ for his life as a musician, but before he had any time to analyze this odd turn of feelings, events took another even more unexpected turn.
For, only a moment or two after Dam Markeridze had spoken, Jamil called over to Rajiv in an oddly loud voice and said, "Oh yes, that reminds me –I saw that you left your violin behind, Rajiv, but I grabbed it before I left. I can give it to you as soon as we return to our bunks."
"Why –do you play the violin, my dear?" asked Dam Markeridze with sincere delight.
Rajiv felt himself go cold with horror. "I…I only …I’m not so…not so great." he stammered. " I…I hadn’t meant to bring it, really."
"Well, I would be delighted to hear to you play, " said the cellist. "but you must not feel obliged. And if you would like me to play for you, you need only ask." With that, she turned and left and only then did Rajiv notice how loud his heart had been pounding. He turned to Jamil with an incredulous look as the captain addressed himself to the task of assembling their food. Jamil had a look of such satisfied smugness on his face that it was all Rajiv could do not to grab him forcefully and shriek at him with rage, right then and there. There could be no doubt at all that Jamil had planned this betrayal, and the revelation of the ill will that his roommate evidently bore him made Rajiv feel even more angry and dismayed.

For Rajiv, the rest of the day’s events were clouded over by a fog of black despair and helpless fury. Even getting to see the Corsica engage her lightspeed drive from the engineering deck did nothing to lift his mood and he took in little of what Engineer Francisco-Sonoma told them about the Corsica’s gravitics and drive systems. After all of that, though, the captain gave the two of them a couple of hours of free time to relax and settle in before showing up for dinner with the rest of the ship’s crew and passengers.
Good as his word, as soon as they had made their way back to the bunk room, Jamil extracted Rajiv’s violin case from his duffel and handed it over.

Rajiv opened the case to quickly check that all was well within, then closed it and laid it on his bunk before turning angrily to his roommate.
"Why?" he cried, "Why have you found it necessary to meddle in my life in this manner? Why does it give you pleasure to share the private details of my life with strangers? And Corsica, this is a private conversation!"
"Acknowledged." said the Corsica brusquely.
"Well?" Rajiv turned again to Jamil, "Will you not explain yourself?"
"You explain to me why you lied to her and said you were no good!" demanded Jamil. "Explain to me why you hide who you are, to her and to all of us!"
"No." said Rajiv in a simmering fury. "You explain to me why it is any of your business!"
"Because you lie!" shouted Jamil. "I see you lie to everyone -like you are hiding from something- all of the time!"
"And why is this your concern?" asked Rajiv heatedly.
"You don’t belong at the Academy." Jamil angrily declared. " You’re not here to become a pilot; you are here to hide and while you are hiding here, someone else with a mother and sisters to feed is left on a waiting list for another three years!"
"I am as qualified to be here as you are!" Rajiv refuted.
"You were admitted as a transient, isn’t that what you told me?" Jamil asked.
"Then you told them that you had nothing, when you first came here."
"Then you lied to them as well!" cried Jamil.
"What?" shouted Rajiv. "What did I have?"
"That!" Jamil pronounced, pointing at Rajiv’s violin case, where it lay on the bed.
"Jamil, I had no violin when I first…" Rajiv began, confused now.
"Not the instrument, you stupid bastard." Rajiv had never heard Jamil swear before.
"You have a gift from the bloody gods!" he shouted. "How can you come here, claiming you have nothing and then take something away from people who really don’t have anything! With talent like yours you could earn enough money to go to a private pilot academy in less time than I spent on the god-damned waiting list!"
Rajiv sank down to sit on the edge of his bunk, head in his hands. He had no idea what he could say to Jamil, particularly since he was correct about a number of things.
"But you don’t even really want to be a pilot, do you?" Jamil, unlike Rajiv, still evidently had lots to say.
"You’re just here hiding away from whatever ugly family scandal it is that you won’t tell me about. God almighty, you’re probably all stinking rich, too."
Finally, Rajiv had to respond. "My father runs a small iron-mongers shop in Varnase." he said, without lifting his head. "My sister will inherit the business when he retires in a few years and, along with her husband’s salary, will make just enough money to care for my nephew and our parents. That is all we have. We manage well enough, but we are not ‘stinking rich’."
Now it was evidently Jamil’s turn to be lost for words and Rajiv rose from his bed with a sigh, to stand and look back at his violin case.
"I suppose I must also tell you what it is that I am hiding from," he said "since you have decided that it is so important for you to know, and perhaps you will realize the depth of the misunderstanding that you have formed. That is what I am hiding from," said Rajiv forcefully, pointing at his violin, "music and most especially other musicians, like Dam Markeridze and you have very likely put her on to me with your actions."
"Why would you need to hide from the likes of her?" asked Jamil, as confounded as Rajiv had been moments ago.
Rajiv sighed. He would, it seemed have to explain everything.
"You are hardly the first person to tell me I have been given a gift, Jamil. In fact it seems to be the only reason anyone has ever cared for me. Yet all my life, Jamil, they have told me that I was not worthy of it; no matter what I did, it was never good enough. You think having such a gift is a benefit? I cannot bear to play in front of others any more. I become ill…you cannot imagine what it is like.
"So I ran away, as you have said, but those I fled -those who have come to appreciate my ‘gift’ more than I- they will want to find me again, if they can and bring me back, whether I will or no, for the sake of my ‘gift’."
"How can they force you to do anything against your will?" asked Jamil.
"They need only tell me the same thing you have –that I have a gift from the Gods, and an obligation to exercise it to the fullest." Rajiv said sadly. "How can any man refuse the Gods?"
Jamil had nothing to offer in response to this, so he and Rajiv unpacked and changed their clothes for dinner in silence. After a little while Jamil began dictating a letter to his sister into his data-com, now apparently undisturbed by their argument and Rajiv realized that he really wanted to be somewhere else. Determining that he did not want to climb the stairs to the bridge, Rajiv wandered absently down the curving stairway towards the commons, brooding over his roommate’s contrariness and over whether Dam Markeridze would manage to guess his secret.
From the bottom of the stairs he could see the Exec and Dom Chang, along with one of the Corsica’s utility bots, preparing the meal that they would be eating in an hour or so. Rajiv could smell some of what they were cooking from where he stood and it ought to have smelled good, but Rajiv found that he had no appetite. Rather than the warm lights and cheerful voices in the galley, Rajiv was drawn to the dimly lit, isolated areas on the far side of the commons. There he found a small recessed conversation area, furnished only with a loveseat, an overstuffed chair and a low table. Sinking into the loveseat, Rajiv found to his delight that the space was acoustically isolated as well, as the murmuring and bustle from the galley faded away. In the comforting, quiet solitude of the place, Rajiv strove to order his thoughts and feelings from the tumult they were in now.
There was a kernel of truth in Jamil’s accusation which disturbed Rajiv almost as much as Jamil’s ‘outing’ of his musicality to Dam Markeridze. If Jamil ever learned the truth of how Rajiv had made the decision to attend the Johannesburg Spaceflight Academy he would decry it as proof positive of his accusation.
He’d learned of the Academy for the first time while working with the agricultural gleaners crew run by Johannesburg’s Transient Assistant Services, which he’d hired onto. They were working in a maize field adjacent to one of the Academy’s small landing fields when the idea occurred to him. He’d been wondering about what to do in the fall, when the gleaning work would end and the idea of being in control of one of the marvelous craft he saw sitting on the field there suddenly seemed terrifically appealing to him. He remembered thinking at the time that this was one sure way to put even more distance between himself and Moscow and he’d made his first inquiries at the JSA’s admissions center only a week later.
He was still running away.
He did not in the least agree with Jamil’s assessment that his musical talents made him unqualified for the indigents’ scholarship he’d received, but he could certainly see Jamil’s point about his not really being dedicated to being a pilot, not the way that Jamil was at least. Rajiv had become aware lately that although he took naturally to the flight simulator from the very beginning and frequently got very high scores with little effort, Jamil worked much harder than he did to achieve nearly the same scores. The unfairness of the situation, from Jamil’s point of view, must be bitterly frustrating, Rajiv imagined.
Jamil’s bad luck, however, was no concern of Rajiv’s and none of Jamil’s righteous condemnation had convinced Rajiv that he had any moral obligation to quit the Academy, but he had brought up a point which Rajiv knew he needed to consider seriously. Was it really wise for him to plan the course of his life on the basis of what had been, in truth, a momentary whim? It was easy to see it as a good idea now, what with the aptitude for space piloting he’d discovered in himself, but he had a strong aptitude for the violin, too.
In all of his previous life, he’d never known anything but music and had never considered any other options. If he didn’t go ahead and get his pilot’s license, he didn’t have any better ideas about what he’d do for a living instead. Outside of music, Rajiv Banarsidass did not know who he was.
It was at that moment that Rajiv caught the motion of someone drawing near to his hiding place, out of the corner of his eye. It was Captain Ventducor, he saw, so he sat up a bit and did his best not to let his dark mood color his expression.
Coming to a stop at the top of the short stairway which lead down to where Rajiv sat, the captain asked for permission to join him and of course Rajiv, invited him down.
"You are to be congratulated, Dom Banarsidass," he said, "for having found the most pleasant and tranquil spot on the Corsica. It is here that I come when I wish to find a quiet place to think deeply, or not to think at all but just to relax and watch the stars fall by. Which is it for you, mon ami?"
Rajiv had not even noticed that one of the commons’ three large windows was directly behind him, but he turned now to observe how, just as Captain Ventducor had described it, the stars visible through the window appeared to be falling very slowly past them. It was like watching rain falling in very slow motion.
"I think I would like to spend some time watching the stars and not thinking, Captain," he said, "but I am afraid that I have come to be in a poor mood this evening. It will all pass shortly, though." Rajiv dismissed his mood with a sigh.
"You do not get along so well, you and Dom Tembe, non?" Captain Ventducor offered with an understanding smile.
Rajiv’s answering smile was a bit chagrinned.
"I am afraid you have assessed the situation correctly, Captain," Rajiv admitted, "but I will not allow our personal difficulties to interfere with what I am learning here with you and the Corsica, you can be certain of that." His earnestness seemed to draw an even wider smile out of the captain.
"You young pilots," he said warmly, "you must always compete, one against the other and it is the greatest foolishness. This is what I have told every one of our interns. It your own performance that they will judge when they hire you, not how you compare against anyone else’s. You mind you own test scores and grades, and set yourself as a standard to improve against; that is the way to become successful. Anything else is a waste of your time and trouble."
"I could not agree with you more, Captain." Rajiv said sincerely, "but I fear that my roommate does not see things the same way."
"You have been roommates the whole year?" Captain Ventducor asked sympathetically, the first sympathy anyone had ever shown Rajiv for his roommate misfortunes.
"Quell domage!" the Captain remarked sympathetically when Rajiv nodded.
"We had managed to keep it civil up until today but it appears that he has been much more displeased with me than I was with him. I never had any idea about it until now."
"Well, I think you will both find yourselves too busy to trouble each other tomorrow." said the captain, rising from his chair as he spoke. "We will make sure that you both have more than enough to keep you busy, and maybe you will each be kept busy at opposite ends of the Corsica. That will please everyone, non?"
Smiling in affirmation, Rajiv followed the captain in rising and heading for the galley. Encountering the appealing food smells again, Rajiv felt his appetite return and he found himself looking forward to the upcoming meal. Captain Ventducor’s kindly advice and sympathy had set him considerably at ease. It pleased him immensely to be having a pleasant conversation with the captain and Dam Washington about the merits of Northern India’s culinary traditions when Jamil came down the stairs and into the galley to join them for dinner.
Dam Markeridze followed him down the stairs shortly thereafter and Dam Francisco-Sonoma arrived from below a few moments later, completing the Corsica’s crew complement. As soon as everyone was seated the first course, which was a Mulligatawny soup from an old family recipe of Dam Washington’s, was served. It was as Rajiv had observed her putting the finishing touches on the dish, that the topic of regional cooking had come up. Dam Washington, as it transpired, had made a hobby of learning to cook dishes from as many of earth’s different culinary cultures as she could. As she’d worked on her soup, she had asked Rajiv if he knew the recipe for any of his favorite childhood foods, or knew the name of an Indian dish that he would recommend that she learn. He’d told her he’d have to think about it and by the time he finished eating his soup he’d thought of a couple of things to suggest.
Captain Ventducor had commenced the dinner’s conversation by complimenting his exec for the quality of the soup and then went on to request a brief, casual report on the Corsica’s status from each of his officers. The Corsica, Rajiv learned, was four hours away from the edges of the Grogan’s World home system, where they would drop to sub-light speed. He also learned that the engineer was planning a trip to the main settlement on Grogan’s world to search for spare parts for the Corsica, and that one or both of the interns might be asked to accompany her.
The soup plates had been emptied and carted away by one of the Corsica’s service bots and the next course, a roast carp, had been served before ship’s business was settled and Dam Washington turned to ask Rajiv if he’d thought of any recipes or dishes to recommend. It was a topic Rajiv was prepared to wax at length upon, as two years spent away from home had made him miss his native cuisine dreadfully. The recipe he knew he could remember was for a drink called a lahssi, for which Dam Washington thought they might even have the ingredients on hand. She promised to set aside some time to have him show her how they were made, if they did.
This discussion, impeded as it was with the consumption of the deliciously prepared fish, was concluded as the next course was served. This was a vegetable pot pie, with an enormously buttery crust and rich filling of peas, carrots, cauliflower and summer squash in a cream sauce. Rajiv had never encountered food like this before, but it reminded him of his mother’s samosas, which he lovingly described to Dam Washington.
"Those sound like they’d be fun to make." she commented with interest. "Do you think you could get your mother to send me the recipe?"
Rajiv had, of course, not spoken to his mother in over a year. His family did not even know he had enrolled in the Academy, much less that he was traveling in a space ship to a planet dozens of light years from the earth. Suddenly and for the first time this state of affairs seemed wrong to Rajiv and, in fact, intolerable. He knew his mother must still be suffering deeply his from his abrupt termination of their relationship, but when he had first decided to do it he had been so angry and frightened that he hadn’t cared. He felt differently about things now though, he realized, and concluded with determination that he would indeed contact his mother, somehow, and that he would get her to send her recipe for samosas to Dam Washington.
"It may take a little while," Rajiv said in reply to the excec’s request, "but I will see to it that she sends it to you."
Throughout the meal, Rajiv observed, Jamil had been making some small talk with Dom Chang and Dam Markeridze while the captain and his engineer discussed some ship’s matter. Occasionally, Rajiv had heard the Corsica’s sultry tones in their conversation, but her voice had come to him distantly, across the table, as though she were sitting there, near the captain. Dam Washington had made an effort earlier on to include Jamil in their culinary conversation but he professed no interest whatsoever in cooking, so now Dam Washington asked Rajiv if he had encountered any South African dishes in his time in Johannesburg which he thought she should look into.
Unfortunately, Rajiv had spent all of his time in Johannesburg either living in transients’ housing and eating the institutional food served there, or living in the JSA dorms, and eating their institutional food, which was hardly any different. Dam Washington commiserated.
"Man, I hate cafeteria food!" she said. "I never had food from a residence hall cafeteria that didn’t really stink, no matter where in the world it was. When I did my service term with the E-Corps, though, whenever we used to get posted somewhere new, even if I was stuck in some E-Corps residence hall, I used to try and find out what the local market day was, and get some of what the street venders were selling. Sometimes I was sorry, but sometimes I got some amazingly good stuff."
"Indeed," Rajiv replied nostalgically, "there were some wonderful foods I used to get from some of the street market in Varnase, even though my mother always scolded me and told me many times how unhealthy they were."
"How about in Johannesburg, though?" the exec asked, "Did you manage to try anything from street vendors there?"
"I am afraid I never had any money in Johannesburg." Rajiv said. "There were some street vendors I sometimes bought food from in Moscow, but they sold middle eastern food. It wasn’t very good middle eastern food either -much too greasy- but it was better that the horrible Russian food I got every where else. They can’t seem to make any kind of food in Russia without cabbage and potatoes, and they hardly seem to be able to make food out of anything else. Except beets, maybe."
This got a chuckle out of Dam Washington, and Dom Chang, who’d been listening in, but at that moment Rajiv suddenly became aware of Dam Markeridze, who was looking at him very intently.
"Did you say you’d been in Moscow, Dom Banarsidass?" she now asked.
Rajiv suddenly realized that he had unthinkingly given away a piece of critical information which he had never meant to reveal. He’d have been furious with himself had he not been stricken with fear over Dam Markeridze’s sudden interest in his residency in Moscow.
"A while back." he confirmed vaguely, knowing it would be useless to try and deny it now. "I did not much care for it, I am afraid." Rajiv’s blood ran cold as he saw her brows furrow, as though trying to recollect something.
"Why, of course!" she said after an almost unbearably long moment. "Rajiv Banarsidass! You’re the Missing Moscow Prodigy!"
The entire table fell silent at her declaration, and every face turned toward Rajiv. Within seconds he had gone from having an enormously pleasant time to plunging into the kinds of horrors he generally experienced before stepping onto the stage before an audience. He was consumed by a terrible rush of panic as his heart raced out of control and his face flamed with heat. Suddenly, not only was he not hungry, he knew he was about to be violently ill, in every possible way. He stood abruptly and then found himself lurching away from the table and fleeing the room as though one of the common’s large windows had just burst and the atmosphere rushing out.
He hurtled up the stairs and into the nearest lavatory, where he was, in fact, very, very sick. When he was at last finished with that unpleasant business he staggered over to his bunk, crawled into it still clothed and commanded the Corsica to extinguish the lights. Huddled in a miserable ball on his bunk, the horrible moment of Dam Markeridze’s public declaration played over and over again in Rajiv’s mind. It was all over. His brief, doomed moment of freedom was at an end.
The Missing Moscow Prodigy! Krishna help him, he was famous. In seeking to flee the shackles of his destiny he’d apparently only made them heavier. Dam Markeridze was probably sending a message to her conservatory friends right now. By the time he got back to earth, day after tomorrow, they’d be there in Johannesburg, waiting for him. They would all want to see him as soon as they could, he knew –his parents, his teachers, his interminable name dropping cousins. Only a little while ago he’d been thinking how much he missed his parents and had even considered contacting them. He did not want to see them now, not found out like this.
His life would be out of his hands again as soon as they found him and he could not bear even thinking about it. He could always stay behind on Grogan’s World, he thought, though that would mean abandoning his pursuit of a pilot’s license through the JSA and sacrificing the year’s student grant credits. He would be indigent on Grogan’s world too, he supposed, though he didn’t imagine that their Transients’ Services were nearly so well developed as Johannesburg’s. He’d almost certainly end up working in one of the planet’s big open quarries, which was a decidedly dangerous job, just as most extra-terran extractive operations are. Maybe he’d get lucky, he thought bitterly, and cripple his hands so that he could never play professionally again. Then they’d leave him alone, at last, and he could return to earth to live out his days …doing what?
This whole scenario was so bleakly depressing that Rajiv felt close to tears. He was backed into a corner with no escape in sight, dangerously asking himself what drastic measures he would have to take in order to get these people to leave him alone. What ever ill-considered plan of action Rajiv might have formulated, alone in the darkened barracks room was forestalled just then, thankfully, by Jamil’s arrival in the bunk room.
He asked for light as he entered, and the Corsica raised them only dimly, as she quietly advised Jamil, "I think Dom Banarsidass is asleep."
It was the natural conclusion for the Corsica to have drawn and he could easily have allowed them to continue to believe so, but Rajiv decided he’d feel stupid lying in his bunk pretending to be asleep while Jamil tiptoed around in the dark. He didn’t feel like sleeping either and decided that he might as well get up.
"I’m not asleep." he announced, throwing the covers off and sitting up on the edge of his bunk. The Corsica bought the room’s lights up a bit more in response and Rajiv could more clearly see his roommate looking uncomfortably in his direction. He seemed to be preparing to say something he didn’t wish to.
"Ah, Rajiv," Jamil began awkwardly, as Rajiv stood and combed his fingers through his hair.
"Yes?" he prompted flatly, looking up at his roommate.
"Look," he said, "I still say you don’t belong at the Academy. Everything I said to you about that, I still mean it … but … but I was wrong to bring her into it. I am sorry about that Rajiv, and I apologize."
Rajiv knew himself to be a man of even temperament. He had never, in his memory, ever struck anyone in anger, nor had he ever wanted to …until now. He found himself all but overcome with the powerful desire, as Jamil stood before him, his gaze shifting shamefully between Rajiv and the floor, to punch the man in the face, as hard as he could. He squashed the urge without difficulty the moment he thought of his hands, who’s use he did not really wish to impair.
"Apologize?" he’d barked, instead. "The damage is done, Dom Tembe! Can you undo it?"
Jamil looked away, saying nothing, and Rajiv turned and left.

Once on the landing outside the room Rajiv realized that there wasn’t really any place to go for a walk on the Corsica, so he returned to the commons for want of any better options. The lighting was dimmed down throughout the whole space, it being a little after twenty-three hundred hours ship’s time and as Rajiv arrived at the base of the stairs the only bright spot in the whole space was one small light over in the galley. He thought he could still probably find the spot where he’d sought sanctuary before but he felt like wandering some more, so he headed over to an area of the commons he hadn’t explored yet.
As Rajiv strolled along the dimly lit, labyrinthine paths through the various, multi leveled gathering spots in the commons, his gaze was eventually drawn to one of the big windows through which he could see the stars slowly, silently falling by. His gaze ensnared by the view, he found himself making his way towards a larger raised area, set against the back of the great central column where the lift and stairs ran. This would be the spot for formal banquets, Rajiv mused, with the galley hidden behind the column and the long table centered on the big window. Settling himself in a large chair at the head of the table, he let his eyes rest on the falling stars and let his mind return to the problem at hand.
If he could not run any more -and that was what it was certainly looking like- then his only other alternative to subjecting himself to his parents’ and teachers’ designs would be to openly refuse them. Rajiv was not at all sure that he could do that. It would break his parents’ hearts, his father’s in particular and his teachers would argue with his decision with great conviction. He hated disappointing them and knew that they would use his guilt to sway him, most effectively.
Of course, Rajiv had very likely disappointed everyone somewhat already by his abrupt departure from the conservatory, so at least the news that he was unhappy with music as a profession wouldn’t be a surprise for them. Still, that also meant that everyone had spent the last year thinking of ways to convince Rajiv to return. Rajiv feared very much that no matter how determined he might be to make his desires understood when he met with them, they would, by guilt and logic and flattery, eventually bully and cajole him into acquiescence.
Rajiv sighed deeply, finding that not even the gently falling stars were able to dull the wrenching anxiety he felt. It was as he sighed, his eyes leaving the window for a moment, that he saw a shadow stir at the edge of his field of vision. He observed how the shadow moved to determine it’s identity and after a moment it be came apparent that it was, Dam Markeridze.
She slowly approached the base of the short flight of stairs which lead to the raised level where Rajiv sat, and stood there silently for a moment before addressing him.
"Dom Banarsidass?" she called tentatively.
"I… Please forgive me if I am disturbing you…If…if you wish me to depart you need only say and I will go …" she paused and Rajiv remained silent.
"Dom Banarsidass, I wish to apologize for my behavior at dinner tonight … If I might come up and speak to you?"
"Well, come then." said Rajiv with resignation and Dam Markeridze climbed the stairs and walked the length of the banquet table to sit just around the corner form him at a comfortable distance.
"Who have you told of your remarkable discovery?" Rajiv asked glumly.
"Why, no one Dom Banarsidass." the cellist said. "The moment I spoke I realized that I had made a terrible mistake, and when I saw that I’d driven you from the room I felt still more miserable. If you’d wanted to know that you’d become the Missing Moscow Prodigy you’d have returned to Moscow to discover it for your self and it was surely no business of mine to let you know."
"You haven’t told anyone?" Rajiv asked, still stuck on her first sentence.
"No, of course not dear," she answered patiently, "and I’ve asked everyone else to keep it to themselves as well."
Rajiv closed his eyes, light headed with relief. "Thank you." he said quietly. In all of his dark imaginings, he had never conceived of the possibility that Dam Markeridze could be his ally and his head was spinning a bit to find it so.

She paused a moment to tuck a loose strand of gray hair back into her bun, all the while gazing at him most intently.
"Dom Banarsidass," she said after a moment, "I know that I have said that it is none of my business but, … I was, did you know, a student at the Moscow Conservatory myself once…and I was wondering if I might ask you what it was that made you dread the place so, and if there was anything I could do to help?"
Rajiv sat back to consider the matter deeply. He had never before met any classical musician who did not either share his teachers’ and parents’ ambitions for him, or regard him as a rival, but now here was the mysterious Sylvia Markeridze, a classical musician of great renown and considerable talent, who professed to be neither. Not only that, but she genuinely seemed to want to help him. Could she help him, Rajiv wondered? If he explained to her what a horror performing had become for him, and how it had come to be that way, would she explain it to his parents and teachers?
And why, Rajiv wondered with still greater astonishment, did he feel he could discuss such matters with her at all (someone whom he had met for the first time only yesterday) when he had never felt able to discuss these things with his family or teachers? There was no denying that he had come, in a remarkably short time, to trust this woman completely and he didn’t really understand why. Her most recent behavior gave him a solid basis for that trust though, he reflected. He swallowed hard and sat forward to address her.
"Do you think you can really help me with…?" Rajiv gestured vaguely with his hand, unable to find a word for the mess his life had become.
"I don’t know," Dam Markeridze said. "but I’ll do anything I can."
Rajiv stared the older woman, wanting terribly to believe in her, yet still not quite able to.
"Why?" he asked, wincing inwardly at how rude it sounded, but unable to stop himself. "Why would you help me?"
Dam Markeridze -the Duchess- did not react to Rajiv’s apparent ingratitude at all, but only responded to the question.
"No one should have to suffer for their gift." she said. "I can see with my own eyes at this very moment that you are suffering and if one tenth of what I have heard about you is true, then you have a remarkable gift. A gift such as that should give you joy, not sorrow and if I can help in any way to restore the joy to your gift, then I will, for to do so is to work to fulfill the will of God."
She was, Rajiv could see, completely serious. He did recall learning at some point that Sylvia Markeridze was an member of a extremely obscure and mystical variant of Christian Orthodoxy and as he considered this Rajiv realized that Sylvia Markeridze had, herself, been a victim of far too little personal privacy. At this very moment, Rajiv realized with shock, he knew far more about Sylvia Markeridze’s past and personal life than she could possibly know about his.
What he knew about Sylvia’ Markeridze’s past suggested that her offer of help was genuine and, in the end, what did he have to lose? There was even, he thought to himself, some small hope for a resolution to the conflicts in his life, perhaps even an end to the terrible anxiety that plagued him in his performances. If there was a hope he felt certain that she would help him find it.
He leaned forward in his chair to lay his arms on the table, stretching his left hand across it for her to take, which she did.
"I am placing myself altogether in your hands, Dam Markeridze." he said with a wry smile.
"Why don’t you call me ‘Duchess’, dear," said Dam Markeridze, "all of my friends do. Then I can call you Rajiv, if that’s all right with you?"
Rajiv nodded. "Yes, that will be fine." he said, and then he began. He began at the very beginning and he told her everything. It took some time, naturally, and at some point the Duchess had the presence of mind to ask the Corsica to send a service bot to prepare and deliver a pot of green tea for them. Throughout his lengthy account the Duchess did indeed listen and comment with sympathy and kindness. She touched him as he spoke as well, stroking or gently squeezing his hand, and once even leaning forward to brush a lock of hair out of his eyes.
Rajiv concluded his tale with his arrival on the Corsica and Jamil’s act of social sabotage when they had first been introduced.
"So you should not feel so bad for revealing me," he explained as he finished, "for Jamil used you, and he did so with intention."
"Oh, I am aware that I was used." said the Duchess, "And I made it very clear to him that I did not appreciate being treated so after you left. But I allowed myself to be used only out of thoughtlessness and for that I am most grievously sorry, Rajiv."
"You have more than earned my forgiveness, Dam Markeridze …Duchess." said Rajiv.
The Duchess paused a moment before she spoke next. "I only ask because I do not know if you are aware… Rajiv did you know that there are treatments, that a doctor or therapist can prescribe, that can help you with your anxiety when you perform?"
"I had heard of such things," Rajiv said after a moment’s thought, "But that isn’t really the problem for me, … I mean, … not the whole problem."
She nodded. "No, I think you are probably right." she said. "Do you have any notion of what you think might help … with the whole problem?"
That was certainly the question, Rajiv thought to himself. In all of the times he’d pondered the possible solution to his quandary, he’d been the only reliable resource he’d ever had to call upon. He’d never had an ally before, and he’d never imagined himself ever having one. Could the Duchess really help? How? These, however, were questions he would have to take up later because just then Rajiv’s and the Duchess’ conversation was abruptly interrupted by a very loud bang.
It was followed immediately by an ominous series of smaller bangs, crunches, pops and crashing sounds which lasted for several long seconds, then it went quiet, and all of the lights went out.
"This is not a good thing." said Rajiv in the dark and the Duchess said, "Oh, dear."
Even as they spoke the room’s emergency lights came on, outlining the various paths and highlighting the exits. Rajiv called out for the Corsica, but she did not respond. He tried again a moment later but still, only silence answered him.
"This is very much not a good thing." said Rajiv. "I think something may have struck the ship." When he considered the possible ramifications of this, one in particular struck him right away.
"Duchess," he urgently addressed the cellist, "your instrument, it is sealed in a pressure case, yes?"
"Oh, yes, of course dear." she said with a smile. "I do this far too often not to have made it a routine, and I’m certainly glad of it now. But what of your violin, Rajiv?"
He shook his head. "I don’t imagine that idiot Jamil even knew pressure cases for musical instruments existed. I have never even owned one. I never imagined that I would ever travel beyond the earth with my violin!" He shrugged. "He is probably in the bunk room with it right now, though, so perhaps he will save it for me again." That, Rajiv thought grimly, or they could both be destroyed.
"I should try to find out what has happened." said Rajiv, standing up from the table. "They may be able to use my help."
The Duchess followed him down from the banquet table and around to the base of the stairs which climbed to the bridge. The emergency telltales outlining the stairway glowed red, however, indicating that the bulkhead above was sealed. That meant that there had indeed been a loss of pressure somewhere nearby and it meant that Rajiv didn’t know how he could get to the bridge now. If the bridge was inaccessible, then the next place to try was in engineering, which lay in the opposite direction from where the damage seemed to be.
The lift was inactive, of course, so Rajiv would have to pry the doors open and climb down the emergency ladder that ran down one wall of the shaft. The Duchess watched uneasily as Rajiv propped the doors open and leaned in to inspect the shaft.
"This is probably the safest place for you to be right now." Rajiv said to her before he stepped down into the shaft. "I will tell the others you are here, and if there is a better place for you to be I will come back right away and take you there."
"Thank you, Rajiv." she said and, hearing her voice, Rajiv realized that she was afraid. He was too, but he had something to do and she did not, and might be stuck here waiting alone, in the dark, with no idea what was happening, for some time. He hesitated.
"You go." she said. "I’ll be all right."

No red lights shone on the atmosphere indicator at the engineering level (the elevator shaft continued down for two levels more). Rajiv found he couldn’t get a grip on the doors to open them, so he kicked the doors as hard as he could to attract the attention of anyone inside. After several rounds of kicks, and several long and anxious moments the doors parted and a strong, wiry pair of hands reached through it to help Rajiv off the ladder and onto the deck.
The engineer seemed surprised to see him, looking him up and down as though trying to remember where she’d seen him before. It seemed to come back to her after a moment, but she still couldn’t recall his name and made several poor attempts before Rajiv held up his hand and cried "Rajiv!"

He had to shout because a number of different alarms were sounding all at once and, glancing around, Rajiv spotted a number of readouts at various engineering stations featuring gaudy, flashing critical failure warnings. Dam Francisco-Sonoma welcomed Rajiv by slapping him hard on the shoulder, then pointed to herself and cried, "Mirabel!"
"What has happened?" Rajiv shouted as he followed the engineer over to one of the control stations. When the both stood before it, she activated a sonic dampening field over the station so that the two of them could communicate over the alarms.
"Tell me first," she demanded. "Where you come from?"
"Only one level up." said Rajiv. "I tried to go to the bridge but the bulkhead just above was sealed."
"You talk to the Corsica there?" she asked.
"No, I tried but she did not answer."
"Es muy, muy malo." muttered the engineer to herself.
"Mirabel, can you tell me what has happened?" pleaded Rajiv.
"We hit debris, which we esspect in this system and should be able to handle. That’s why we’re the ones they get to do this run."
Rajiv remembered studying the problems on this route which had been created about fifteen years ago when a particularly huge asteroid mining disaster suddenly rendered a local moon into an unusually large and dangerous debris field which now intersected with all of the planet’s common access routes. The Corsica was supposed to be equipped to deal with such things.
"That’s why, I tell the Captain, we can’t use these …" The Corsica’s engineer cursed furiously in her native tongue, "frequency capacitors! He don’t want to buy the one’s I say because they have to custom modify them for us and it cost extra, but these ones he gets…" she dropped out of intelligibility for a moment again.
"They’re not rated for the frequencies we use them for, and I tell him that, and I say the next time something hits the shield that #%@ capacitor is going to go sfffft! And then the shields go ssffftt! And then what? Then we got no shields and some piece of space junk goes right through the ship, like right now!"
Rajiv was confused. "Can’t you get the parts this ship was meant to use?" he asked. The engineer laughed.
"They haven’t made new parts for this ship since before the captain could grow a beard, mi amigo." she said. "For me, most of the time is a dream job, because I like fabricating my own parts, but then there are times like now."
"How can I help?" Rajiv asked.
"First we stabilize things here," the engineer explained, "then we go and see what damage has been done."
Stabilizing things here for Rajiv meant standing at the ready while Mirabel yanked open various panels, pulled things out from behind them and handed them to him, and then hold them until she asked for them back. This, she explained when they were done ten minutes or so later, would get the shields back up for now, "unless we hit anything else bigger than a grain of sand." She said, comfortingly.
"You know," she said, after a moment’s consideration, "I could have a retrofitted capacitor in here which would hold up much better in about twenty minutes, if you can take this hand comm and go up the lift shaft and tell me if there’s still a bridge."
"If there’s still a bridge?" Rajiv asked.
"Normally that would be my next job," said the engineer, completely missing the edge of panic in Rajiv’s voice, "But I think it better for me to work on this crappy shields now, and you go e’ssplorin’, si?"
"Um, all right." said Rajiv. "Where do you want me to go?"
"Back up the way you come, Cadet," she said, "and see how far you can go."
"But the stairway bulkhead was sealed." Rajiv puzzled, "Doesn’t that mean that there’s a loss of pressure up there somewhere?’
"Must be in mid decks" said the engineer, "otherwise you not get into the shaft the way you did. If you can’t open the door, you bang, like you do down here. If no one answers then they not there, or they dead, and you no go in."
"Right." Said Rajiv, dubiously.
Mirabel helped Rajiv force open the lift door once again and handed him a comm unit and a light as he climbed up onto the emergency ladder.
"You tell the Corsica I’m okay," the engineer shouted up at him as the doors closed between them, "and you tell the Captain I’m plenty sore!"
A heavy remnant of adrenaline made the climb relatively easy for Rajiv and while he considered stopping off on the commons level to tell the Duchess what he had learned, he decided there wasn’t enough to tell yet to merit stopping. Instead he continued on past the commons level and past the red lit bulkhead door which would have lead to the bunk room where Jamil and his violin were either trapped or dead, and climbed on to the last doorway at the top of the lift shaft, conveniently marked ‘Bridge’.
There were no lights indicating whether the bridge was under pressure or not, so Rajiv did as Mirabel had suggested. He banged with his fist as hard as he could on the closed hatch, still mindful not to injure his hand. Luckily, he soon saw the hatchway begin to part, and a friendly voice call out to him, after only the first volley of bangs.
"Qui est-ce? –Who is there?" called the Captain, and Rajiv answered, taking hold of the doorway to help pull it open.
"It is Dom Banarsidass, Captain! I am coming up from engineering."
Captain Ventducor’s hand reached down to help Rajiv up into the bridge which was, like the commons, illuminated only with emergency lights and additionally. with the image of the Corsica, who remained on the front view screens. Her expression, Rajiv could not fail to note, was one of deep anxiety and while he was relieved to see that she was still with them, it was unsettling to see the ship’s avatar so troubled. She was the ship, after all, and if she was that worried…
"What is the news from engineering, mon ami?" the Captain asked, as soon as Rajiv was out of the shaft and the hatch closed behind him.
"Dam Francisco-Sonoma says to tell the Corsica that she is all right, reported Rajiv, "and to tell you that she is plenty sore."
"It was the shield frequency capacitors, non?" asked the Captain with a grimace and Rajiv nodded. "Ah, ma belle, I was warned, true enough." he said sorrowfully to the image of the Corsica before them.
"The bastards we were buying the modified parts from, though," he explained now to both Rajiv and his ship, "they were overcharging, and I do not think they were doing everything they needed to in their modifications. They were damned thieves is what they were, and I told Mirabel we would not do anymore business with them! I have a source for the parts we need on Grogan’s world and I had hoped that these would get us there!"
The Captain now turned to face the image of his ship, wearing an expression of sincere contrition. "Mon cherie, mon amour, je suis desolet! I will make it right I promise! Dom Banarsidass is here now; can he stay with you while I go to make repairs?"
Rajiv watched the figure on the veiwscreen seem to struggle to come to grips with something, actually ringing her hands as she came to her decision.
"Of course you must go, Jean-Pierre, only promise me that you will be very careful?" said the Corsica, her unease still very clear in her voice and Rajiv’s heart went out to her.
"Dom Banarsidass, a word, s’il vous plait?" the Captain requested as he moved to the emergency gear locker to find an environment suit for himself.
"I am wishing to make clear to you the vital nature of the task I entrust you with." He said quietly as Rajiv drew near. "Do you recall how I told you that the Corsica is in the whole ship?" Rajiv nodded.
"At the moment that is not true." said Captain Ventducor most seriously. "At the moment she is only here, on the bridge, and that … " The Captain paused to consider for a moment.
"Imagine that you have awakened after a serious accident to find that you can feel nothing –move nothing- below your neck. You have no control over your own body and cannot even tell that it exists. That is what the Corsica is feeling now. She has much courage, mon cherie, but she is now very afraid."
Rajiv nodded, seeing clearly the depth of concern on Captain Ventducor’s face.
"She must not be left alone now," he continued explaining. "There is no sedative for her, no narcotic to calm her. She struggles to hold panic, hysteria at bay. For an EI …" Rajiv heard anxiety catch at the captain’s voice and he had to pause before finishing.
"These things can destroy one such as her. You are the one who must help her be strong. Talk to her, keep her mind off of her injuries. Tu comprends?"
Rajiv nodded wordlessly as Captain Ventducor sealed up the wrists and ankles on his suit and, helmet in hand, headed for the airlock.
"I know you are the right one for this task, Dom Banarsidass." He said as he opened the inside hatch. "You can open your heart to her and that is what she needs. Perhaps it is what you both need. Corsica," he called across the bridge to the image on the screen, "Mon brave, I am going to find where you were injured and then I am going to fix it. I have a hand comm with me and I will let you know what I have discovered as soon as I have discovered it. Are you going to be all right?"
"Dom Banarsidass and I will be fine, mon capitan, as long as you will be very careful while you are outside…" the Corsica responded, trying her best to sound confident and not quite succeeding. A moment later the airlock door sealed shut and they were alone.
"I meant to tell you," Rajiv said to the ship as he moved to find a seat at the front console, "Your passenger, Dam Markeridze is well also. She and I were talking together in the commons when things … went wrong." Rajiv guessed that it would not be well to dwell on the subject of the accident.
" The bulkhead leading to her quarters was sealed, so I told her it would be safest to stay on the commons deck." Rajiv was pleased to see the Corsica on the screen before him react with visible relief at this news.
"Oh thank you, Dom Banarsidass." She replied. "It is very good to know that my passenger is safe. What about her instrument though, Rajiv? Did she have it with her? Nearly all of my musician passengers seem to hold their instruments as precious as their own lives, and when traveling through space with me they are always concerned about their safety."
"I’m afraid that Dam Markeridze’s cello is in her quarters," Rajiv answered, "but she is an experienced space traveler and she assured me that she always seals her instrument away in it’s pressure case when she is out of the room. I did ask her, myself." Rajiv admitted with his smile that he was, himself, a musician, sharing these musician’s concerns. It was an easier confession to make than he had imagined.
"I do wish that I had my violin with me now." he said, making a further confession to himself, as well as to the ship. "Not just because it has no pressure case , but because I wish I could play for you. I think that it would help keep your mind off things, yes?"
"I’m sure it would have been lovely," said the Corsica with a wistful smile, "but I do hope that your violin is all right. If it is, perhaps you can play for me later?"
"Of course," said Rajiv, without thinking, "I would be delighted to."
Their conversation –and any second thoughts Rajiv might have had about what he had just agreed to- were interrupted at that moment by the Captain calling in over the comm unit. "We are all here, mon chere!" he called. "Dom Chang is stuck in his quarters in a bubble suit, but Dam Washington is out here with me working."
"Tell me what you’ve found please, Captain," the Corsica asked, not even trying to hide the terrible anxiety she felt in asking, from her voice or expression. "I mean, what … damage … have you found … and can you fix it?"
"Alas, ma belle, you will have a new pair of ugly scratches along you pretty port side," replied Captain Ventducor with great drama. "But the rest we will have put right in a few hours. We found the break, mon cher –it is in one of your main data trunks, but not too difficult to put back together again. The spot is a little difficult to get at, though, so we will need a little time. Just a little time, mon chere -two or three hours- and then you will be all of yourself again. Ce bon?"
"Oui, mon capitan!" The Corsica’s relief lent it’s force to her spirited reply, but her look, moments later, told Rajiv just how much she was dreading the next few hours. He tried, as quickly as possible, to think of some way to start up their conversation again, but before he had thought of anything the Corsica began it herself.
"Will you tell me," she asked, "how such a talented violinist came to pursue a career as a space pilot?"

* * * * *

“When you were doing field work with the Johannesburg Transients’ Service,” the Corsica asked him, some time later. “Weren’t you worried about your hands? I had always heard that musicians were very cautious with their hands?”
“ The work did harden my hands.” Rajiv answered. “But we seldom did anything that might seriously injure our hands, or anything else. The work was more boring than it was laborious, but for me it was good to have a simple task, where I wasn’t required to think about anything. We ate good food, too -many fresh vegetables from the fields we were gleaning. It was like a gift from the Devas, that time was.”
“How did you wind up a the Spaceflight Academy, then?” asked the Corsica, with, Rajiv thought, understandable curiosity.
He paused before he answered. Having listened to himself tell the tale, Rajiv was certain that the Corsica would come to the same conclusion he had, many long hours ago: the Johannesburg Spaceflight Academy was, for him, just another step on his unending flight from the Moscow Conservatory and his ‘musical destiny’ and not at all the new beginning in his life that he had dreamed of.
“It was a whim.” he admitted at last, with a sigh. “We were gathering corn, one day, on a farm near the Academy landing field where I could see the ships coming and going. I thought that it looked like fun.” Rajiv paused a moment, to let the indictment sink in, and then went on.
“The Transients’ Service does whatever it can to help anyone who wants to enter any kind of professional training program, so they helped me get signed up for the Academy’s Space Pilot Aptitude Tests. My scores tuned out to be quite high, so they found me a place that September. I did not even know how long the waiting lists are ... how hard it is for most people to get a spot. It is no wonder, really, that Jamil thinks so poorly of me.”
“Is that what your quarrel was about, then?” the Corsica asked.
“Mostly.” Rajiv answered. “Jamil sees my talent only as a means to earn a living. To him, I already have one perfectly fine and lucrative occupation, and all I am doing now is taking another one -one I don’t really need myself- away from someone else like him.”
“I wouldn’t agree that having one talent obliges you to make a living of it,” replied the ship, “but I never heard you mention that you had any opposition to making a living as a musician, you’ve just said that your discomfort makes it difficult for you to do so. Rajiv, if you could make a living as a musician, without having to appear in public, would you?”
Rajiv had never considered the issue in that light, and told the Corsica so. “No one has ever suggested that I would do anything other that give recitals and concerts. I am not certain of what else I could do.”
“What about recordings? Isn’t there a way for you to make a living doing recorded performances? That seems the most obvious answer to me.”
Rajiv stood and circled to stand behind his chair, feeling restless and wishing to move as he spoke. “If I had chosen to play modern music, then you would be correct and, to be certain, it was my choice to continue to play this sort of ancient music when I came to the Conservatory. I have no one to blame but myself for that, but this is one choice that came from my soul, and was mine alone. This is without a doubt the music I was meant to play, but so many fine recordings of this type of music still exist from long ago that no one will pay money for new ones to be made.”
“Isn’t there any modern music you would play?”
“It does not challenge me.” Rajiv answered. “Modern composers do not understand the old instruments. What they write for the violin could be written for any instrument with the same range. They do not know how touch the soul of the violin as the late Romantic classical composers could.”
“But there are still a few composers who write in the old styles, I know. Captain Ventducor listens to them all the time.”
Here Rajiv had to smile. “Have you heard of any works by Griffen or Melovidov for soloist? They write for groups of musicians -for half a dozen players or more, for there are no performers today with the skills to play the great solo parts such as were once written.”
“Except for you.” remarked the Corsica.
“Except for me.” Rajiv agreed. “But what composer would give a new work to a soloist who will not play the premier in public?”
The Corsica was spared from having to answer at that moment by a welcome interruption from her captain.
“Ma cherie!” his voice was jubilant. “Are you ready?”
“For what?” asked the Corsica with a little trepidation.
“For the rest of you to come back on line!” announced the Captain, “of course!”
“Mon Capitan! Vous avez me savoir, encore!” the Corsica cried. “I am ready.”
For Rajiv, the most noticeable effect was that a moment later nearly all of the telltales on the status board in front of him went from red to amber, to green, and that the volume of the ship’s quiet background noises increased, ever so slightly. The expression on the Corsica’s face on the screen before Rajiv showed a far more more profound effect. Just as Rajiv heard the background noise increase he saw the Corsica lift her hands to her heart and her face break into a smile of quiet ecstasy.
Rajiv waited for a few moments before interrupting her rapture, but when he saw her lower her hands and open her eyes, he asked, “Everything back where it should be?”
“Oh yes, Dom Banarsidass!” she answered happily. “I cannot express how wonderful it feels to be altogether myself again nor, I think, can I adequately express my gratitude to you Rajiv, for staying here with me and distracting me from my difficulties. Most born-folk do not understand how much companionship means to us at such times. It can truly mean the difference between life and death -or sanity and insanity- which for us is the same thing. I only wish I could have found a better answer for you, Rajiv.”
“You must not feel badly on my account, Corsica.” he replied. “I do not know if there is an answer for me anywhere.”
“My passenger, Dam Markeridze, seems quite a nice person, and she plays the same sort of music you do, doesn’t she?”
Rajiv nodded.
“Have you asked her, Rajiv? She seems like she could be very helpful.”
Once again, Rajiv nodded. “You know, I did talk to Dam Markeridze ... the Duchess, only a few hours ago.” he said. “And you are right, she is a very kind and gracious person. She told me that she would do what ever she could to help, but I still don’t know what that could be because, you see, our conversation was interrupted rather abruptly.”
“Ah.” said the Corsica. “Well then don’t you think you should go and find her and tell her everything is all right now?”
“Can’t you tell her?” Rajiv asked, checking to make sure that the Corsica was truly altogether functional again.
“Of course,” said the Corsica, reassuring him, “But I think you’d best go and tell her yourself, that way you can test run the lift on the way down.”

* * * * *

‘Duchess’ Markeridze was standing just outside of the lift, regarding the mechanism with apparent suspicion, as the lift doors opened onto the Commons deck and Rajiv stepped out.
“Is that thing safe now?” she asked him.
“All is well, Duchess.” said Rajiv, spreading his hands to encompass the whole ship. “All damage has been repaired and we will shortly be back on course to Grogan’s World. And if you have any other questions, the Corsica is once again available to take all of your inquiries from anywhere in the ship.”
“Praise be to God.” she said, with evident relief. “Does that mean I can get into my quarters again?”
“It should.” he answered.
“Would you like to come with me, then?” she asked. “I’d like to introduce you.”
“Alright,” Rajiv asked as he followed her, “but to whom are you introducing me?”
“Oh, to my cello, of course.” the Duchess replied.

The cello to whom he was introduced was a five hundred and fifty year old Guarnarius ‘Del Jesu’ which the Duchess cradled like a child as she lifted her out of her case, and caressed like a lover as she clasped her between her knees and essayed a few scales.
“What a voice.” Rajiv nearly whispered, lifting his hand to his heart as he listened. “How long have you had her?”
The Duchess continued to play, shifting into a movement from a Bach suite for a few minutes before she answered.
“She was a gift.” she said. “A life-time loan from the city of Tblisi. It was a special gesture of appreciation from the mayor, who was a good friend of mine, and a ... goodbye present.”
Rajiv remembered hearing that Sylvia Markeridze had been exiled from her home city at the conclusion of the affair during which she had earned her nickname, around twenty years ago. He listened to her play for several minutes more, until she came to stop and asked him, “What about your instrument, Rajiv? Have you checked your quarters yet?”
The indicator on the door panel of his quarters glowed green as Rajiv and the Duchess approached it, but he hesitated before opening it. He knew he would be terribly disappointed if anything had happened to his recently acquired instrument, and he did not particularly want to share that sorrow, either with Jamil, who was likely there as well, or even with the kindly Duchess who hovered anxiously behind him. Still, it seemed that there was no avoiding it, so he placed his hand on the panel and bid the door open.
Jamil was the first thing that they saw as the door opened, sheepishly collecting his belongings from where they, along with Rajiv’s, were scattered about the room. Taking in the chaos in the room, and the heap of plastic which was the empty Emergency Hostile Environment “bubble” Suit inside which Jamil had clearly passed the crisis, it was clear to Rajiv that there had indeed been a loss of pressure here. Rajiv had a long, awful moment before Jamil noticed him and moved to lift Rajiv’s violin case from within the folds of the EHE Suit.
“I took it with me.” he said. “I figured that since I was the one who brought it onto the ship, I should probably take responsibility for it.”
Rajiv took the case gratefully, thanking Jamil sincerely for his thoughtfulness.
Jamil shrugged. “I had a lot to make up for.”
Rajiv turned to face Jamil, violin case still in his hand.
“I must also be honest with you, Jamil.” he said. “It is true that I chose to enter the Academy because I was still trying to run away from my past, but I promise you that I had no idea how hard it is for most people to be admitted. If my aptitude test scores had not been so high I would have been left on the waiting list just like everyone else.
“Dom Banarsidass, if your scores were that high, then you deserved your spot.” Jamil said, in a conciliatory tone. “I just never imagined that anyone could have scores so high and not be someone who has wanted to be a space pilot all his life, like me.”
“Actually, I’ve heard that highly skilled musicians often test very high in the skills used by space pilots.” interjected the Duchess, “Though I’m not sure that anyone knows why. But Rajiv,” she continued, “You have met my Del Jesu. Might I have the pleasure of meeting the instrument which found you all the way down in Johannesburg and bought you back to the fold?”
Rajiv looked down at the case in his hands, then over at Jamil, who he knew had heard him play before, then over at the Duchess, and then thought of the Corsica, who he knew was listening, and for whom he had said he would like to play. Could he? Could he go to that special, private place with his violin here, without preparation or practice, in front of these until-recently strangers?
For an answer, Rajiv walked over to one of the less cluttered bunks and sat, placing the violin case on his lap. The moment he opened it and laid his eyes upon the dark varnish he was almost overcome in an unexpected deluge of relief. Carried on that tide of feeling, he found it easy to lose the room around him and the others in it. So easily the violin found it’s way to the embrace of his head and shoulder, and the bow fit into his right hand. So quickly the bow found the strings that Rajiv found himself playing before he realized it. He hardly had to tune it and so launched almost immediately into a series of scales and etudes, just as the Duchess had done. Feeling a slight smile creep onto his face, Rajiv decided to continue to follow the Duchess’ lead and begin with another piece by Bach- the Partita from his unplayed conservatory recital.
He let his eyes drift close as he played, not seeing the others in the room, but still aware of their presence. As he played, reveling in the music’s brilliant beauty, Rajiv came to an astonishing realization. For the first time in his life he was enjoying the sensation of knowing that others were listening to his music. He was not merely performing for them, but sharing his joy in his music, and they did not judge him or his music as they listened, but they they did share in his joy and so completed the magic circle that exists between a performer and an audience when things work as they should.
When he finished the piece, he lowered his instrument and drew a long breath as though coming out of a trance. He was gently startled into full awareness by the sound of a handful of people clapping and saw that the Duchess had lifted her hand to her face in astonishment. “Oh, Rajiv ...” she exclaimed softly.
Rajiv smiled at the floor, and then tuned to place his instrument in it’s case. “Well, it seems to have come through everything alright.” he said.
The Duchess stepped closer and laid her hand on Rajiv’s shoulder. “Thank you.” she said, “that was quite lovely, and this is a very fine sounding instrument, too, especially for having been found in a Johannesburg street market. Do you know where it is from or who made it?”
Rajiv shook his head. “Inside there is a label which says ’Nasun 2015’, but I do not know that name.”
The Duchess shook her head. “ I don’t know it either. It sounds American to me, though how it has traveled from there to a street market in South Africa would be a greater mystery still.”
Captain Ventducor’s voice conducted through the ship’s intercom system intruded into their speculations at that moment, announcing that all crew and passengers were accounted for and unharmed, and requesting that everyone not currently engaged in ship’s business report to the commons for a long overdue meal. This was indeed welcome news to everyone in the room and all acted in accordance.

There was a definite celebratory mood to the meal, in a pleasant contrast to the interpersonal tension and drama of the last one. By the end of it everyone had recounted their own story of how they had passed through the crisis, and no judgment was passed on those who had been trapped and unable to contribute to the repairs. In incidents such as this, the Captain had made clear, surviving always counted as a real and positive contribution.
It was as they were lingering over after dinner beverages and second helpings of dessert that the Corsica reminded them all that they’d be docking with the Grogan’s world orbital station, and bidding farewell to their passenger in six hours. To the Corsica’s crew this mean that it was time to get off to bed, as they’d all be needed when it came time to dock, but to Rajiv it meant he’d soon be saying goodbye to a friend -the first real friend he’d made since leaving Varnase.
It seemed that the Duchess was reluctant to part company with him as well, for as the rest of the crew left to retire, and Jamil departed to stand a watch on the bridge with the Corsica, Rajiv and the Duchess remained.
Both of them basked silently in the pleasures of satiation, relief and general tranquility until the Duchess, setting her empty teacup aside, broke the silence at last.
“Rajiv, may I ask you to play for me one more time?”
Rajiv had been watching her face grow deeply thoughtful over the last minute or so and was fairly curious as to what had sparked this request. But he didn’t ask her. Instead he stood and said, “Alright. Do you want to come back to the bunk room, or should I bring my violin back here?”
“Here, I think.” she said, “or rather, over there, by the table we were talking at last night. If that’s all right?”
Rajiv assented and went to fetch his violin. Returning to commons deck he found the Duchess sitting at one end of the long banquet table, where he had sat himself, little more than twenty four hours ago, thinking himself friendless and trapped. Now at least, he knew himself to have a friend, though how he came to feel so strongly about it after such a brief time was a mystery to him. That he trusted her enough to agree to play for her so easily was a greater mystery still. He knew better than to think that she would solve his problems for him, but it seemed clear that she had been thinking of him and he was touched to see it.
“Have you something you can play which might be a bit later than Bach?” the Duchess asked him as he stood at the other end of the long table, rosining up his bow. There was clearly some specific reason she was having him play, but Rajiv consciously put aside his speculations to focus on his music.
“How about Prokofiev?” he asked.
“Perfect!” said the Duchess with a smile.
He chose the last movement, knowing somehow that it was an audition of sorts, though for what he had no clue. And even though he knew it was an audition, it felt different from any audition he’d ever played. Instead of listening only to his errors, cataloguing in his mind the various critiques he knew he would receive, he heard, possibly for the first time, his own brilliance. He felt a swelling of pride that she was seeing his mastery of a certain technically difficult passage, hearing the depth of feeling he expressed in another. When he finished with a heartfelt flourish he wa struck with a sense of pride in accomplishment he had never before experienced. It occurred to him that, knowing that this was the kind of experience which making music could be for him, he might even be able to endure another three years at the Moscow Conservatory. The Duchess, however, had something entirely else in mind.
“Rajiv,” she said, another thoughtful moment after he finished, “have you ever considered playing in a orchestra?”

And the rest, my friends, is history.

COPYRIGHT 2004: Catherine S. Chandler

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