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Written In The Stars

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By Alana Andrews

She told me she was named after a cluster of stars.

This was probably stretching the truth, although by the time we met we were both pushing sixty and there was no-one left to verify her claims. One thing was certain, though – she was endlessly fascinated with space and all that existed there. Planets, moons, stars, asteroids… even man-made objects like rockets and space stations. So if she wasn’t named after a constellation, she may as well have been.

We were so different, Carina and I. When we first started dating, I was much more interested in the situation right here on Earth. Politics, economics, healthcare and so forth. Things that mattered. Things that affected our lives here and now.

Not Carina. She would pretend to snore loudly if I tried to discuss the political climate or suggested that we re-evaluate our choice in superannuation provider. Her complete lack of interest in the goings-on in the world around us exasperated me to no end. But I loved her, all the same.

Our story begins in October, 1997. I was contemplating retirement from a fairly successful banking career, but nervous at the prospect. And that’s when we met, at some ridiculous Bingo night or charity function – I forget which. I only remember Carina – her long, red hair streaked with silver and glowing like fire in the restaurant lights.

We were nothing alike. She had travelled the world and now had her sights set on the stars. I had travelled nowhere except within the pages of a book. And yet somehow, we worked. I often regret that we didn’t know each other sooner. I imagine what it might have been like, meeting at twenty, or thirty, or even forty years of age. Would we have married and had children? But Carina just laughed, recounting her years backpacking through Indonesia or volunteering at a school in Africa.

‘I wouldn’t have settled down for anyone,’ she declared. ‘No, not even for you!’

We came from different worlds, and yet we settled into an easy companionship.

Our first date started off as a disaster, however. I had booked us into a fancy restaurant named Leopold’s – I look back now and cringe. She was very polite, but I could tell that she was uncomfortable, and the conversation seemed forced, despite our easy chatter at the fundraising event just a few days earlier.

We had just finished our main course when she turned to me and asked, ‘Do you want to go on an adventure?’

The simple question threw me.

‘Don’t you want dessert first?’ I had responded feebly. I had already decided that after dinner, we would have dessert – the tasting platter of exotic ice-creams – and then I would take her for a drive along the waterfront. It was already sorted, planned meticulously. I wasn’t the adventurous type.

She had laughed her musical laugh. ‘We can get ice-cream afterwards, I want to show you something.’

I nodded, of course – who could argue with Carina – and tried to look eager while my insides clenched uncomfortably.

For half an hour, she directed me up one road and then down another, snaking gradually towards the western suburbs. I snapped at her after she sent me the wrong way and told me to perform a U-turn on a busy suburban street.

‘If you just tell me where we are going, this’ll be a lot easier.’

But she either didn’t hear the edge in my voice or chose to ignore it. She was good at that.

‘It’s not as fun if you know where we are going.’ It’s not as fun if we crash while doing an illegal U-turn, I thought to myself, biting my tongue.

But all of a sudden she figured out where we were, and directed me up the winding, narrow street called Mountain Road. There was a restaurant about halfway up, but she just waved me on, telling me to go all the way to the top. The night seemed to consume the beam of my headlights and I could barely see the turns ahead. Carina chattered happily all the way up, seemingly oblivious to my concern.

Right at the top there was a little car park, a patch of grass, and nothing else. I looked at her, aghast. But she was already out and halfway across the small field. I unclipped my seatbelt and followed, muttering under my breath. Just as I reached her, she flopped down onto the grass and lay back with her head cradled in her hands. I just stood, staring at her. She looked ridiculous, a grown woman in an evening dress, lying prostrate on the ground. She looked gorgeous, and wild, and unpredictable.

She patted the grass beside her, but I just folded my arms.

‘I’ll stand, thanks,’ I said coolly, hoping that this whole ridiculous date would end sooner rather than later. I was wearing a good suit and didn’t plan on getting grass stains.

‘Suit yourself,’ she replied, gazing up into the night sky.

I had stalked back to the car, planning to sit there in comfort until she was finished staring at the stars. But then I noticed the blanket which lay across the back seat, and changed my mind. I returned to the spot where she was lying, blanket in hand, and laid it out on the ground next to her. I was rewarded with a radiant smile. And then we lay down next to each other – I felt ridiculous – and she introduced me to space.

‘See that star there,’ she said, pointing. ‘The brightest star in the sky? That’s Sirius. And that one,’ she had pointed elsewhere, ‘the second-brightest star? See it? That’s Canopus, in the constellation of Carina. That’s how I got my name.’

And then she rolled towards me, onto her side, and I felt the warmth emanating from her supple body.
‘Do you know what’s happening, right now, somewhere up there?’

I had forced back all of the sarcastic remarks that floated into my mind and waited for her revelation.

‘A probe was launched a couple of hours ago, and it’s heading off to explore Saturn for the first time.’

Her eyes were so close to mine, and in the moonlight I could see them glinting with excitement. But I couldn’t help myself.

‘And how much did that cost?’ I asked pointedly.

She had rolled onto her back, away from me, sighing and saying something about material costs versus the unparalleled reward of knowledge.

I had pushed her. ‘Twenty million? A billion? More? Imagine how much food that could buy these kids living in poverty. What about houses for the homeless? Or researching the cure for cancer?’

‘What if the cure for cancer is out there,’ she had countered, gesturing upwards. ‘What if we find a new habitable world, just like Earth? What if one of Saturn’s moons could sustain life?’

It was all idealistic, theoretical nonsense – and I told her so. Even if one of Saturn’s moons could sustain life – not that I thought it could – it would take decades, and even more money to set up the type of infrastructure which already existed right here on earth.

‘But doesn’t it fascinate you?’ she had asked, dreamily.

‘No, not really.’

I was lying, though. Somehow she had agreed to a second date, and a third, and I began to enjoy our midnight outings. We saw the silver rain of a meteor shower dancing above us. We tracked a glowing satellite on its lonely journey in Earth’s orbit. Even just observing the full moon on a cloudless evening felt magical when I was with her. I was fervently against funnelling money into space exploration, but I figured I wasn’t fundamentally opposed to a bit of amateur stargazing.

For thirteen years we explored earth, space and each other. Those thirteen years were the best years of my life.
And then she had a bad fall, and I had to put a stop to it. We were getting too old to traipse around the countryside, huddled together on hilltops in the early hours of the morning. I can only imagine what the paramedics thought, getting a 3am call-out to the middle of no-where and finding two seventy-year-olds and a picnic blanket! Carina laughed it off, as she always did, but three operations later, her hip still hadn’t healed. After that, I stopped looking at the stars. And so did she.

‘I’m sorry for interrupting your story, Mr. Brown. But she’s asking for you.’

I looked up at the nurse with weary eyes.

‘I’m sorry, I had quite forgotten that you were standing there.’

She led me down the familiar corridor and I found Carina lying in the bed as usual. But this time they had set up a laptop and her eyes were fixed on whatever was on the screen.

‘She asked us to set it up. The Cassini mission.’ The nurse shrugged and I smiled in thanks.

Cassini. The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.

Every time I saw her, she seemed more fragile than the last. Her skin was so thin, like the little paper lanterns the Japanese send off into the sky.

There was no red left in her hair now. Even the fire in her eyes rarely sparked anymore.

I eased myself into the seat beside her bed and peered into the screen. It wasn’t showing space, as I had imagined, but a group of scientists or engineers perhaps. I placed my hand over hers and marvelled at the way her skin had become almost translucent – I could see the blue veins pulsing within.

She was trying to say something, so I leaned in towards her, straining to hear.

‘It’s Cassini,’ she whispered. ‘Her final plunge.’

I settled back into my seat and stared at the screen, trying to clear away the fog in my mind. I had spent seven years deftly ignoring anything that lay outside this world. The nurse sensed my struggle.

‘Cassini, Mr Brown. The spacecraft that was sent to explore Saturn all those years ago? They are flying her into Saturn. She’s going to burn up in the atmosphere.’

Cassini. The shuttle that Carina had told me about on our first date.

I leaned forward. The screen showed a close-up view of the probe plunging towards Saturn against a backdrop of gigantic rings the planet is renowned for.

‘Amazing,’ I muttered, breathlessly.

‘It’s just a simulation, Mr Brown,’ explained the nurse. ‘We won’t be able to see her final moments, so that’s just an example of what it might look like.’

I nodded, feeling foolish, and she left us. The simulation was now showing Cassini breaking apart, slowly, and then finally disintegrating altogether as it plummeted through Saturn’s atmosphere.

I heard a little sniffle beside me and noticed the rivulets of tears flowing down Carina’s face. I reached for a tissue from the bedside table and dabbed softly at her pale cheeks.

‘Honey, it’s just a shuttle.’ But the tears didn’t stop flowing and I abandoned my attempts to mop them up.
Her lips moved and I leaned in closer to hear.

‘Four billion,’ she said softly.

I raised my eyebrows. ‘Would’ve fed a lot of kids,’ I laughed, and she smiled good-naturedly. We settled into an easy silence, watching rows of people in blue uniforms radioing information about Cassini’s final descent. I must have dozed off, because when I opened my eyes again there were images of lime green radio bands projected on the screen, and the mission controller was saying that they had crossed zero time. I turned towards Carina, but her eyes were closed.

‘Honey, you’re going to miss it.’

She didn’t move.

‘We have loss of signal,’ announced the flight director.

I squeezed her hand, but if felt colder than usual.

‘This has been an incredible mission.’

‘Carina.’ I shook her lightly.

My vision blurred and I kissed her on the cheek as the NASA workers clapped and cheered. Then they hugged and cried. Interspersed with the feed from mission control were images taken by Cassini over her thirteen years orbiting Saturn. Incredible close-ups of glowing rings. A massive storm the size of Earth. An ice volcano on one of Saturn’s moons.

‘Okay, you got me,’ I admitted. ‘It’s pretty fascinating.’

That night I shuffled outside to look up at the stars for the first time in years. It took a while to find her, but I remembered what she told me. First, I found the brightest star in the sky. Sirius. Then I looked for the second brightest star. Canopus, in the constellation of Carina.

I thought of her, and all of our adventures together. Actually, I thought of both of them – Carina and Cassini, their twin fates oddly intertwined. And I smiled, remembering the final exchange I had heard before turning off the laptop screen. It was between two NASA employees discussing the mission, but I liked to imagine it was really Carina, talking directly to me.

‘This was a moment of transition, it was not the end,’ she said, bravely. ‘And so let’s go forth and explore the solar system together.’

‘Okay,’ I said aloud.

Was I imagining it, or did one of the stars glow a little brighter, just for a moment?

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