The space station April, a mismatched shape of metal cubes and spheres strung together, orbited the moon of an unnamed, lifeless gas giant. Between the huge planet and the moon it orbited, April was almost perpetually cast in deep shadow, swallowed by the cold darkness of space. Every seven years or so, the station’s orbital course took it through the gas giant’s rings, and as it entered the belt today, small bits of rock battered its outer hull. In another hour or two, rock would give way to chunks of ice. Only then would the light from the local blue star finally reach the station, reflected by the ice and fractured it in a dazzling display of colours.
This would surely be a thrilling sight of beauty, yet there were no faces full of anticipation lining the exterior windows of April. In fact, most of the glass panels were shattered, exposing the living quarters behind them to the void outside. Deeper into the station, where hull breaches were not an immediate threat and warm air still circulated in the narrow corridors, the metallic echoes of belt rocks hitting the station resounded. They were much akin to the tired sighs of a person struggling to draw breath. Weak. Distant. Incorporeal.
At the very nexus of the station, the sole surviving power core emitted a muddy red glow, tucked in-between metal supports like a heart in a collapsed rib cage. The core’s light had a rhythm of its own, sending fresh power down long cables that disappeared into the thick walls. The cords stretched through the station, bringing electricity to circuits like blood brought oxygen to organs.
A particularly bigger piece of rock smashed into April and the old, rusty metal beams around its heart groaned, the power core blinking weakly. The echo of the impact travelled through the corridors and shafts, a sharp breath escaping a pierced lung. As the seconds dragged on, the shudder subsided and the core stabilized, dust clogging the air. Illuminated by the weak red light, the dust particles hovered in zero gravity like embers cast from a volcano.
Joan Gubert Sarda was experiencing some major difficulties in cutting his short hair. He had to hunch his tall body in an awkward way in front of the tiny mirror, making his glasses slide down his nose constantly. And even with the glasses in place, Joan still struggled to focus his eyes. He knew this effect of the drug would quickly subside, yet found the wait extremely inconvenient.
In the end, he put the scissors away, accepting his partial haircut.
“Between my uneven haircut and the glasses, I look like a mad scientist,” he muttered in an annoyed voice to his own reflection.
A distant crashing sound echoed down to his small cabin and Joan turned to the computer panel set in the wall. Some music would do nicely to cover all of those terrible noises.
“Hmm, what should it be? I wonder…” He skipped through a few of his favourite etudes but they were all in a minor key, unsuited for his rather upbeat mood. “Then maybe… Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata? It’s faster but still in minor… Uh. Computer – shuffle tracks.”
The panel beeped in recognition and started a random track from Joan’s playlist.
“Kreisler – Love’s Joy, performed in F major,” a metallic voice declared. “Piano and violin arrangement.”
Short violin notes and staccato piano chords greeted Joan through the single, battered speaker set in the low ceiling. The high overtones of the violin screeched and the heavy piano notes were full of static as if they were coming from light years away. The old speaker struggled to fill even this small room, leaving the song sounding thin and distant, distorted to the point it became hard to recognise.
Still, Joan enjoyed it – the song reminded him of when he’d used to play the piano, bringing along memories of people he hadn’t seen in a long time. Lost in thought, he hadn’t noticed himself moving to the small desk in the corner of the room so his fingers could tap on its surface in rhythm to the song. His eyes were struggling to focus the notes on a sheet of music laid on the desk while his hands moved in familiar patterns over the ghosts of piano keys.
After a long minute, Joan’s eyes finally adjusted and he could distinguish the written notes – they were completely different from Love’s Joy. He stopped his silent performance mid-chord and for a moment, the speaker went mute as well. Complete silence ruled temporary, the one of a man lost in his memories.
Joan turned the music sheet face down and his hearing came back alive, the violin and piano duet almost deafening him now. His eyes had expanded gradually and now all the shades of colour seemed brighter and duller at the same time. He felt more awake and aware than he had been in months.
Joan picked up his black suit coat from where it lay on the bed, carefully putting it on. He adjusted the crisp, white shirt he wore underneath, checking all the buttons, his fingers twitching along the staccato rhythm of Love’s Joy. Joan’s fingers trembled with nervous energy and anticipation as he ran his sweaty palms down his sides, making sure his clothes had no wrinkles on them. An unexpected rustling sound came from his coat pocket and he reached into it distractedly.
“What in the…” If his pupils hadn’t already been expanded so much, they would have widened at the sight of the sheet music in front of him. “I didn’t....”
Joan looked back to the desk, and fair enough, it was empty. “I don’t remember….” He walked over and put the lists on the far side of the desk. A memory was creeping in and his muddled mind couldn’t do anything to stop it.
Ice-reflected light shone through the huge panel window on the observatory deck that had been repurposed as a concert hall for Joan’s music debut. He was seated in front of a grand piano that was all curves and angles, a sharp contrast of black and white. A hush descended into the room as the audience of a hundredth people, April’s whole population, waited for Joan to begin playing.
The boy stared at the music sheet propped on the piano; it read in a bold text ‘Ballade No 1 in G minor, op 23 by Chopin.’ It was a piece Joan could play by heart, yet today he was grateful for the music sheets in front of him. He didn’t trust his trembling hands to find the right keys on their own.
“Joan?” The question wasn’t more than a hushed whisper meant only for his ears. He didn’t need to turn his head to the side where she stood to see her. He only needed to close his eyes. She was dressed in a pearly white dress tonight, long black hair swept up in a simple but beautiful hairstyle. Her violin was resting on her bare shoulder, close to the delicate curve of her neck. Never before had Joan been so jealous of a musical instrument.
His fingers hovered over the keys of the piano for a brief second, small bead of sweat trickling down the side of his face. But instead of playing the first octave of the piece, his hands shot up and snatched the music sheet from its place. Then he turned and ran, through the crowd and through the empty corridors of the station. She didn’t shout after him, but he could hear the silent accusation. ‘You promised.’
“I almost forgot!” Joan exclaimed as he blinked, shaking off the memory. He started rummaging through the desk drawers. “Where is it, where is it, it should be somewhere around here, come on, I know where I left it, there must be at least one more, I’m pretty sure, no, I’m positive I saw it just an hour ago when I… Aha!” Finally taking a breather, Joan took out a small paper roll and quickly hid in a pocket, a guilty smile on his face.
“Just in case the night wears on and I need to concentrate,” he murmured while heading for the door, ready to leave. Yet, he stopped before he’d managed more than a single step. He was forgetting something. It. He might need it. Yes, in fact, chances were, he would. His fingers started trembling again. They itched to pick up the sheets of music. But he wouldn’t play that song anymore, no matter what. Not today, exactly seven years later. Never again.
But what if she asked for it? Could he deny her only wish?
Finally leaving his room, Joan headed deeper into the station, his heart beating fast in anticipation as he walked through the empty corridors. He found himself giddy at the thought of her waiting for him. Would she smile when she saw him? Would he get to hold her hand? Would he be brave enough to kiss her, later, after they’d danced to the soft sounds of classic waltz?
Back in Joan’s quarters, Love’s Joy had finished and it’s melancholic twin, Love’s Sorrow had started – in the tempo of an autumn’s wind and with the haunting beauty of falling leaves, it echoed through the open door and down the empty corridors of April. The surface of the desk in the corner of the tiny room lay empty.
“Hey, Natalia! Wait up!” Joan almost had to run to keep up with her. Just a turn ahead, he could hear her laughter – a clear, high sound that much reminded him of a violin played with closed eyes and deep love. At the next turn he almost caught up with Natalia – he was just in time to catch a glimpse of her dark, straight hair that trailed her footsteps. With every deep breath as he walked, Joan could sense the scent of spring, an aroma that brought the image of a smiling face amid cherry blossoms. The hem of a pearly white dress disappeared around the corner, along with the echoes of bare feet padding on the metal ground and he finally broke into a run.
“Natalia, what’s got into you?” Joan shouted. “Where are you going?”
As he drew around the corner, two delicate hands grasped his shoulders and with surprising firmness, pushed him back to the wall.
“Privet,” Natalia murmured into Joan’s ear, standing on the balls of her feet to reach him. Her nose brushed his cheek as she drew back to look him in the eyes. “I wouldn’t normally say this but…” A smile tugged at the corners of Natalia’s thin mouth as she lowered her gaze in shyness, cutting her sentence short. Her black hair had escaped its styling and fell around her in waves, softening the angles of her pale face. “Sometimes I goof around too, you know, despite what you think of me.” Her eyes sparkled behind her round, black-framed glasses.
“I didn’t really mean it when I said it,” Joan said, resting his hand on her bare shoulder. He hoped she hadn’t felt the way his fingers had trembled when they’d first touched her skin.
“Oh, but it’s a special occasion tonight.” Natalia’s declared in a solemn voice, changing the topic. “I’ve been looking for you. You’ve made me wait for so long.” Her hands went around Joan, pulling him in a tight embrace. “Too long, in fact…”
Joan’s vision blurred, his thoughts growing clouded and he lost sight of Natalia. Time stretched and lost its meaning, the only clue to its passing a growing pain and weakness in his legs. His mind partially shut itself down, protecting him from his own twisted senses and perception. A single memory kept replaying in his head.
Joan was hiding. He didn’t know exactly where he was, but he’d found a place with a lot of noisy machines. He’d drifted in and out of sleep a few times and wasn’t sure if the night cycle on the station had begun so he couldn’t risk coming out yet. Whenever he ran and hid like that, Natalia would walk around the station playing her violin in a soft and comforting manner, her music echoing through the station and eventually drawing him out of his isolation. But today he couldn’t hear it and he didn’t know if he wanted to.
So Joan stayed, hidden deep in the core of the station where the machinery drowned out the piercing whine of the proximity alarm. He dismissed the distant clashing sound as rocks slammed into the station and metal whined in protests. He thought of them as mere nightmares dreamt up by his scared, anxious mind.
“…so you know, I was hoping that we could dance tonight.” Natalia was saying. “After we’ve played, of course.” Joan blinked and his walk staggered. He put a hand on the wall to steady himself and his head immediately turned to the side when his fingers touched quartz glass instead of metal.
“How the…” he murmured, staring dumbly through the glass. Spiderweb cracks ran across the glass but otherwise, it had remarkably remained unbroken, opposing the great void outside. “How did I… I-I, we shouldn’t be here. It’s too….”
“Joan, what are you talking about?” Natalia put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “We are going to the concert, remember? It’s your debut. We must hurry, you are extremely late.”
Joan turned around to meet Natalia’s eyes and he took a sharp breath – for a moment they had seemed pure black instead of the warm brown he loved. And in the dim, Natalia’s pale face had looked surreal, framed by her void-black hair. What little fractured star light seeped through the window painted her ethereal white dress in red, as if soaked in blood.
Joan was suddenly aware of the proximity of the impacts reverberating throughout the station – they had grown more frequent and powerful at some point while he’d been... out of it. Metal screeched and complained all around him, like a poorly tuned piano.
Growing impatient, Natalia grabbed Joan’s hand and started dragging him. He looked down at their clasped hands – something was bothering him, an uneasy feeling struggling to cut through his confused mind. He could feel Natalia’s skin, the pressure of her grip. The warmth of her skin… but it wasn’t like he’d imagined it would feel. No, it felt more like coldness so deep, that in its numbness it felt warm and comforting.
It must be wearing off, Joan thought panicky. He slipped one hand in his pocket, feeling for the small paper roll until it rested reassuringly in his grip, promising to make things all right. He swiftly brought it out and put it in his mouth, swallowing it before he’d had the chance to rethink. The extra dose of the drug hit him quick and hard, sending his mind daydreaming.
The concert room erupted into applause as Joan lifted his eyes from the piano keys. Natalia turned to look at him and smiled, her usual shyness melted away by their performance. He stood up and taking her hand, walked over to the edge of the stage. They bowed together and loud applause greeted them once again. Joan couldn’t help but smile. It was perfect.
Natalia never left his side while they mingled with the crowd and people came to congratulate him on his brilliant debut. Girls and women alike asked him to dance but he blatantly refused every one. He told them Natalia was special and he’d dance only with her.
Every time he denied an invitation Natalia blushed a soft red, giving colour to her pale skin. He found her reaction funny and endearing at the same time. His eyes kept secretly darting between her red cheeks and her lips, always hovering on the latter.
Later on, while the string quartet played a soft, enticing waltz and he’d had more than one glass of wine, Joan finally thought he could kiss her. With one hand resting on her slim waist, holding her close to him, he was unable to look away from her face. Her eyes held his, her lips opened to draw breath at the same time as he did. He leaned in and Natalia closed her eyes….
Something caught his attention and Joan’s gaze jumped past Natalia, to the observatory’s window that ran the whole length of the wall on the far side. The murky colours of the gas giant lurked on the horizon, a sharp contrast to the bright light reflected from its ice belt. When Joan turned his attention back to Natalia a moment later, he found her looking downwards.
“Do you ever get afraid,” she said slowly, her feet never missing a step from the waltz, “that if you stand too close to the edge you might trip over and fall into the sea of stars?”
Joan followed her gaze downwards and his step faltered, his balance overpowered by a sudden sense of vertigo. The metal floor had turned transparent and they were standing atop a sea of brilliant stars connected with blue and purple nebula that mixed in odd, complex waves.
“We are almost there.” Natalia’s calm voice brought Joan back to the present. He turned to look at her and found a ghost of a smile on her lips, her eyes large and distant but not because of any drugs. There was an emotion buried in them, but he couldn’t identify it, not without starring for too long and facing the truth. Not without accepting that her eyes should be lifeless, that her skin should be cold to the touch, her long, elegant dress plastered to her body by her own frozen blood.
A definitively negative beep sounded as Joan and Natalia arrived in front of the large, tightly shut automatic door of the concert hall. It had been painted brown, perhaps to appear wooden, and was one of the very few objects left on April that wasn’t grey.
Joan took a step closer, placing his hand on the surface of the door – it was colder than he expected, almost painfully so. The denying beep sounded again and the door didn’t budge.
“What’s the point in automatic doors if they never open on their own?” Joan laughed at his own joke and Natalia moved in front of him, gracefully fitting her slim body between him and the door. He drew a deep breath, expecting Natalia’s faint scent of spring but instead almost choked on an intense, overpowering sweetness.
“Baka. As I’ve told you, you are late,” Natalia said in a low, disapproving tone. “You’ll need to open the door manually. That is, if you still want to dance with me.” She gave him an expectant look, nodding vaguely in the direction of the control panel on the wall. When Joan didn’t reach immediately for it, she slid a hand under his coat, inching him towards her. His mind went blank as it struggled to decide whether Natalia’s skin felt warm or cold, whether he could feel her breath on his face or not. Without really thinking about it, just sensing her wish, he put his finger to the scanner on the wall.
“Please give vocal confirmation for overriding command zero-three-one-red,” the computer demanded with its flat, synthesized voice.
“Authorise,” Joan said almost reflexively.
“Initiating countdown. Five.”
Without letting go of him, Natalia put her other hand on his neck, caressing it softly.
She pulled Joan closer and tighter until his body was pressing hers to the cold door behind.
His hand reached for the back of her head and nestled itself in her soft hair.
Their noses brushed against each other for the briefest of moments as he finally surrendered and leaned in.
Joan closed his eyes, idly hoping that his glasses wouldn’t hit hers.
The kiss sucked the air out of him and his legs gave out. His brain could only focus on the unnatural softness of Natalia’s lips on his, like flower petals pressed against his skin. They were cold, so cold and most of all, welcoming...
Then they were gone. All of her was gone. As his dying mind shut down and his body floated in the depressurized concert hall, he felt something. Where complete silence was supposed to rule in the great vastness of space, Joan could have sworn he heard Natalia whisper a breathless question into his ear.
“If we’ll never play together, would you at least dance with me?”
Joan used the last breath in his lungs in a futile attempt to say, “of course. I promised.”
The space station April shook with the impacts of ice blocks slamming into its hull. Reflected by the gas giant’s belt, the blue sun illuminated the station for the first time in seven years. A dying man drifted through the huge observatory deck that ran along the edge of the space station. His body frequently collided with chairs and tables but he never lost his hold on the music sheets he held. His numb fingers gripped the pages with passion even in death.
All around him in the concert hall were the frozen corpses of the other inhabitants of April. Perfectly preserved on the outside, they drifted lifelessly in the unpredictable dance of zero gravity. In the middle of this ball of the dead, a violin spun in lazy circles, its highest string torn and broken piano keys accompanied it, much like the core of an atom surrounded by its electrons.
The body of a young woman in a flowing, white dress eventually found its way to the newest corpse in the cosmic cemetery of April. The two of them didn’t so much clash together as embraced and the trajectory of their gentle, aimless dance slowly led them towards the huge window and the jagged, gaping hole in it.
The two corpses sailed into the sea of light that lay beyond, between pieces of rock and ice. Luck would determine whether they’d fall a long way towards the looming gas giant on the horizon, fly towards the mummifying heath of the sun or drift in space forever, lost amongst the stars.
 Privet (Привет) – Hello; Hi (Russian)
 Baka – Fool; Idiot (Japanese)