No man is an island, entire of itself
Issue #30, Sunday 26 November
They came together high above the ecliptic, twin moving stars in an empty universe.
As soon as Mikhail saw the other asteroid ‑ a tiny flickering point amongst the constellations ‑ he went in through the airlock and turned on the communicator, hoping to pick up the sound of another human voice. It had been a long time.
So when her voice came crackling out of the speaker, and the first static‑filled image swam onto the screen, his feelings were of great joy.
They were still light‑minutes distant, of course, and would be so for some time yet, but Mikhail began speaking as soon as he picked up the other's signal.
“Hello,” he said,“I'm Mikhail Brinski. My asteroid's Elaine. Who's there?” Then he sat back and waited. Feelings that had been dormant within him through a long winter had stirred at the first sound of a human voice.
“Janys here. My rock's the Isolde. Who's out there? Are you a miner? That's what I am, after tin.”
Mikhail pushed himself away from the console, and stared at the distorted image on the screen. His own words, he knew, had not reached her yet.“Janys?”he said, for his own ears, not for hers. Janys?
Was it possible? Out here? An old, old pain throbbed again within him: Janys? That Janys?
Her voice came again, startled, urgent:“Mikhail Brinski? From Vostok? Do I know you from Vostok? Vostok and London?”
“Yes,” he said, again to himself. “Yes, from Vostok.”He almost turned off the screen and speaker. That Janys. It was. And of everything, it was the anger he remembered, the hurt from those days.
Vostok and London. It had been London where she'd left him. London where they had met, Vostok where they had loved. And London again. London in the quiet green park, and her walking away along an endless sun‑striped lane of trees. London.
At last, he said out loud to the wavering face on the screen, “Yes, Janys, it's the Mikhail you knew.” He forced a smile to his face. “How long is it now? And what are you doing chasing rocks up here? Weren't there enough on Earth for you?” He could not keep the sadness out of his voice. Perhaps it wouldn't show. Perhaps she might ignore it. She had been good at that sort of thing, had Janys.
To keep his mind still, he looked at the instrument readings and forced his mind to absorb what they said. The faltering pinprick of light indicating the other asteroid still trembled in the centre of the viewscreen.
Mikhail hung in the centre of a floating chaos. Since moving out into the Belt, he had become a sloppy hermit. His untidiness on Earth had always been a failing; out here it was worse. Broken pencils, papers, microfilms, cannisters of food and all the other kinds of kipple that made up Mikhail's monastic life wandered like a miniature asteroid swarm of their own around his room. Now Mikhail himself drifted there, feeling very lost, very much alone, watching the woman on the screen.
The image was slowly improving: the two planetoids were getting closer in their orbits. The time lag would get shorter, too.
“Hello, Mikhail,” came her voice. There was an expression on her face that he found hard to interpret. Was it pity? “It's been six years, I think. I've been working hard. What am I doing up here? What are you doing? I thought you were going to go back to Moscow to work on your maths? Well, you know, I got sick of trying to sniff out new ores on Earth. There weren't any!”
“Do you remember...” he said before he could stop himself. For a brief instant, he wished he could chase after his words and fetch them back. Do you remember... how it was?
It had been in London's dirty winter. The pure snow that had fallen days before had become the filthy slush that now lay in the streets. They'd met at the Technic, shared a few classes, though their majors were different, and he had started walking her home to her flat in one of the dingy, endless terraces that still existed then. And that day, walking with soaked boots through the slush, she'd suddenly stopped and looked up at him.
“I like you, you mathematical mastermind,” she'd said, “I do. Come up to my room.” And he, startled into new emotions, had gone up.
“Yes,” said Janys, from the clearing screen, “Yes, I remember, Mikhail. It is a long time, but I do. Yes.” She smiled and looked away from the camera for a moment, away from his eyes. “How do you find it up here? Gets lonely, a bit. But the view's the best for miles. When I first went mining, I became a regular tourist. You know, kept taking photos of all the stars, pictures of my very own asteroid at a distance, and all that. Then I realised I was crazy: if I stayed where I was I wouldn't need to remind myself with pictures, would l?”
He smiled a polite srnile for her.“No', he said,“no, you wouldn't.”The time delay was down to about twenty seconds, now. It would get less. “As for why I'm here... Well, I'm still working on my maths. It needs a lot of quiet, a lot of thought. I'm being a bit of a hermit, living in a kind of ivory tower to end all ivory towers.” The picture of her face was clearer: he could see new lines. But he could still not see through her face to see what she thought.
He wished for an instant he could go outside and just watch the asteroid that she had called Isolde getting closer, to use his eyes directly, to remove the barriers, somehow. In the viewscreen at least, the rock was now a tiny slowly turning pebble.
They had gone fossicking up in the hills in the spring, she looking for samples of rock, and he just for the peace, to think. She'd captured a photo of him sitting just like “The Thinker”, that statue by Rodin, chin in hand, and shown it to all their friends. At the top of a crag, he'd pulled up a flower and solemnly proffered it to her. She'd made him replant it, scolding him all the way.
It was strange. They had first talked of spacing one day on the moors amongst all the harsh glory of the Earth. Somehow the thought of space had seemed more glamorous then, more romantic. The scenes that the Brontës had described seemed of another age, past, forgotten. So, sitting on the heather, they had talked of the planets, the new expeditions out past Mars. He had been the more interested, and she had teased him about his fascination: “Two plus two is four wherever you are, isn't it? Or will we have to learn our sums again on Jupiter?”
“Maths is the same,” he'd said, “but people aren't.”
Isolde and Elaine, rocky sisters, were at opposition. The time delay on the radio was as short as it would be: five seconds.
“I'm doing some work on the Kroeger functions,”he said, seeking any trace of old affection in her face on the screen. “In another six months, I should have a paper for the Journal. I'm getting to be quite well known…”
“Well known to all your stuffy professors, Mikhail, but I'll bet there's hardly a Belter knows you're out here. But I'm glad for you. Did I tell you I'm thinking of leaving the System?”
“The Solar System?”
“I've applied to go out on the Transstar: they'll need good geologists. ”Her smile now was more honest, more open.
Mikhail stirred amongst his floating rubbish, realising for the first time she could see his littered surroundings. What he could see of the cabin she was in was very neat, everything clipped into place. He felt drained: his hands had at last stopped trembling; they seemed to have absorbed a kind of numbness.
“How have you been, Janys?” he said.
“Pretty well,” she said. “Jason went out to Callisto, did you know? I was… well, pretty lonely after that, but, well, it's gone.”
“Being on your own in space is rather strange,” he said, “but somehow it seems, I don't know, more acceptable out here...”He looked around him for a second, looking at the slowly shifting debris, looked back with a small, embarrassed laugh: “Sorry for the mess.”
“You always said that! You never got neater, though. Your mother trained you very badly.” There seemed a softness in her eyes, a look, perhaps, of understanding.
He smiled at her gentle scolding, and shrugged.
Summer had been in Vostok: Mikhail's home town. With the new government, everything was changing very rapidly. Everything had seemed bustling, busy, uncertain. They had lived together there for the season.
She would drag him along to the market each week to buy their vegetables and meat, against his protests. He had tagged behind her like a tall, shy puppy, threading his way through the crowds, trying to keep up. Then she would load him up with parcels, one on top of the other until he nearly dropped them, and he would smile at her over the top of his burdens.
Perhaps it was in Vostok, though, that here had come harsher notes into their mutual symphony. It could have been their closer proximity. It could have been the city. She had talked of going to Australia in search of the rarer minerals. He had wanted to go to Moscow to meet some of the mathematicians there. There had been arguments, and tears, in Vostok.
The delay was increasing again: the worldlets were drawing apart. He seemed to look as often at the diminishing asteroid as he did at Janys’ face.
Mikhail tugged at his chin with his hand, drifted away a little from the screen.“It's good to see you, Janys.”
There was a pause as the radio waves traversed the space between them. A little longer, perhaps. She made a small frown, scolding him a little again, and said:“It's been nice to see you, too, Mikhail. It's fun to remember old times.” A brief burst of static obscured her face, and when he could see her again, the frown was gone, “You remember that time in Vostok,” she said, “the day we bought that doll? You know the kind that fit inside one another, right down to the smallest little doll? I've still got that, here in my rock.” She went off the screen for a moment, returned with the doll. The picture was getting worse: Janys seemed to have a soft ghost beside her. The speaker was beginning to crackle.
“I've still got the photo you took of me as ‘The Thinker’,” he said. “Somewhere in here…”
He watched her silent, attentive face for the long, long seconds to pass before she responded with a smile: fresh, even teeth.
In the end they had decided to go back to London. The trees in Hyde Park had turned to gold. They went walking there, very often. But there seemed to be something that had distanced them: they touched, and it was as if they touched only a pane of glass that stood between them.
He talked more of his work to her, she more of hers to him. She needed to travel, to dig, to pick up rocks, to test sites. His need was to be still, quiet, thinking within himself.
And at last, in late autumn, he had sat still on the park bench, watching her walk away, knowing she would not turn back.
Static patterned the screen: he could hardly glimpse her face any more. It was hard to pick up what she said. He spent long minutes waiting for her replies.
“It was good,” she said, “good to talk.”
”Yes,” he said,“very good...” The minutes passed. The picture was all static now, as the asteroids moved on in their inevitable orbits. But at last, half obscured by hiss and noise, her voice came back: “Farewell, my love .
He nodded, smiled softly.“Farewell.”
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved.
About This Story
This is a very old story of mine. It was written in August 1975, so nearly 50 years ago now. It’s also remarkable in that I wrote the first draft of it, not too different from how it appears here, in one night. And I wrote it at a Writer’s Workshop hosted by the legendary Ursula K. Le Guin, who electrified our small group of aspiring science fiction writers by commanding: “Go and write a love story.”
I wrote a whole article for The Altered Eye, the book about the workshop, talking about how that evening I was desperately trying to come up with an idea I could work with (as did everyone else in the group, of course). In the end, in desperation, I asked a friend to pick a word at random from the dictionary. The word was “island”, and soon after the words of John Donne came into my mind:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
At the workshop meeting the next day we all read out our stories. There were a number of very interesting pieces of SF with robots falling for each other, of humans falling for aliens, a fair bit of lust rather than love. I think mine was the only actual love story, but as I was told later by none other than Damon Knight when I submitted it to him for an anthology, it really isn’t science fiction. It just uses SF tropes as a backdrop. Whatever it is, I think it’s one of my best pieces of writing and I hope you enjoy it.
If you liked this story, you can show your appreciation by buying me a coffee!
See you next time!