Project Juno

by Sarah Evans

   The moon has risen, but daylight has not yet faded from the sky. We sit on a bench, its small plaque inscribed to someone’s memory, surrounded by white jasmine and abstract features in natural stone. The glass walls of the new wing curve high above us. I take Adrian’s hand.

     Somewhere in the distance, bells are ringing, early evening practice judging by the discordant notes. ‘Don’t they ever stop,’ Adrian had said, the first time he visited Oxford, that Sunday morning after the night we stayed out late watching meteor showers. Today the bells sound muted. Funereal.

     The day is slipping into cold, into darkness. The streetlights flicker on, casting a sulphurous haze over the hospital garden.

     Adrian’s fingers interlock tightly with mine. ‘Oh bugger!’ he says, the first words either of us have spoken since we said our goodbyes to the doctor, thanking him for being so open and honest, both of us dizzy from what we’d heard.


      I’d heard the advert on the radio. If you are interested in further details… I grabbed the jotter-pad with leaking biro which sat by the phone in the kitchen that I shared with four other students. I felt a quickening of blood, the pulse of excitement as I scrawled the phone number and thought of all the other people who would be doing the same. All of us dreaming a shared dream.

      Five days later, the envelope landed on the doormat with a thud. I descended the bare-boarded stairs several at a time, then ran back up to my attic room. Its dormer window looked over the slate roofs of Jericho; the skylight looked up to the stars.

     The forms were unending; it seemed so hopeless. Why choose me? But then again, why not? After all, the project already bore my name. Juno. I couldn’t help but smile. Queen of the heavens. 

     Diligently, I filled out details in black capitals. Name, gender, age and place of birth. My full history of academic achievements. Then there were medical forms, starting with the basics of height and weight, before I ticked off no to the long list of conditions I’d barely heard of, moving on to questions about parents, siblings, grandparents. Drawing up a family tree of illness and death.

      The top ten things to do before we die. It’s a game we’ve played over the years, sometimes the two of us, sometimes along with friends. Always assuming we’d won the lottery and money was no object.

     Not that we ever bought lottery tickets; we understood the odds.

      The game was just a game, a talking point, dreams discussed in the wistful way of people who know they are not for real.

      Adrian never hesitated, his answer never varied, not in substance, though the generic desire acquired a name, making it seem tangible, giving it a price-tag.

     Virgin Galactic.

     We tracked progress from initial announcement, through stages of testing, up to the point where people could sign up in advance for a six minute, zero-G, edge of space experience. We listened, dazed, to the news of the crash, the tragedy of a pilot dying, but like the space shuttle disasters before, it didn’t change our view.

      All we needed was a spare half million dollars between us. It became a standing joke.

      Going into space was always right up there at number one.

     The assessment centre was some way out, nowhere place. The atmosphere was lively as we spilled off trains to fill the car-park and waited for the buses we’d been promised. All of us were fired up on youth, optimism and nerves, exchanging backgrounds as we eyed each other up. Sussing out who looked the most super-fit.

     There were thirteen-thousand applications we were told as we sat in the horseshoe lecture hall and given an outline of what to expect. Thirteen-thousand had been narrowed down to several hundred, improving the odds, though still leaving them stacked uncomfortably high. Only a few dozen would go on to further stages of selection, of proliferating tests and interviews, of further narrowing down, discarding, until there was  one. Someone would win out against all probability. Please may it be me.

      It started so innocuously, vague symptoms of being unwell. Adrian had been working so hard. Lectures, tutorials, college admissions, his own research plus supervising post-grads, the grant applications to make and conferences to attend: he had too much on. No wonder he was getting stomach aches and feeling tired. ‘Probably IBS,’ his GP said. ‘Try to eat healthily and relax more.’ But she proposed some blood tests just in case.

     He didn’t expect the doctor to call him back. To refer him onwards to a hospital consultant and further tests.


     The tests were endless, all of us given a schedule and expected to be at different places at different times.

      I started with the written stuff, interminable multiple-choice boxes to be crossed off at speed. Plays on numbers and words. Spatial visualisation. All sorts of psychological profiling where it was far from clear what the best response was. Just answer honestly, they said.

     I moved on to the physical.

     Weight and height were confirmed. Blood pressure and resting pulse measured. Blood samples were taken, not just one but several.

      I looked away, disliking the sight of my own blood as it filled the syringe – bright oxygenated-red – though I knew I was being feeble.

     Urine samples were requested too. My chest was X-rayed. A heart monitor was attached and I was set to running on a treadmill. The route was programmed, but I could stop it any time by pressing the red button, I was told.

      Red to bring a rapid end to my dream. Not likely.


     Adrian gets easily tired.

     Our walks by the Isis become shorter; they take longer. Over dinner with friends, talk and laughter froth above the under-swirl of awkwardness and things too uncomfortable to say. He retires early.

      Making love, we’re newly cautious. I’m aware of the jut of bones, everything so close to the surface. Afterwards we lie quietly, knowledge pressing down: this may be the last time.

      And yet…

      He still seems so vital, so alive. He’s kept the buzz to his voice, his engagement with ideas, the world. It does not seem possible that, within the next six weeks, he is likely to be dead.

      My mind plays tricks. We know the facts, we insisted the doctor spoke to us like the scientists we are, with precise percentage probabilities. But there is always the outside chance, the medical aberration, the one in a thousand for whom the disease does not progress as predicted.

     Please! I plead silently to the universe, seeking out the secular god of statistics. Spontaneous remission happens rarely, but it does happen. Why not Adrian? Why not us?

      Hope is the very cruellest of things.


     I could see the guy step onto the treadmill next to mine, noting that he seemed familiar, how his timetable was a five minute time-lag of my own. He was muscular and lean with dishevelled jet-black hair. He flashed a grin my way. A tic of a flirt, or sizing up the opposition, or distracting me: it could have been any or all those things.

     I wondered how my gender might play out in this. The lesser strength, versus better stamina. Muscle efficiency versus mass. The marketing value of being not just the first Briton to go up in space, but the first British woman. We had our first female prime minister after all.

      My feet pounded, my heart rate quickened, my legs and lungs ached. Come on, come on! The two of us were synchronized for speed now, matching each other step by step. I felt the steel wire of determination, spurred on by this minor competition, giving everything I had.


     We try to carry on, day by day. He sorts out his affairs, wanting to leave everything in order, seeing his students a final time, arranging for others to take forward his work.

    We say the things we need to say, the back and forth of love, what we mean – have meant – to one another, how love has shaped and filled our lives.

      I cannot imagine my life without him; I shouldn’t have to, not yet. The chances of developing pancreatic cancer are less than one in ten thousand. Not fair! I wonder if I’ve been dealt the harsher hand, but that sounds so self-absorbed. ‘Swap you,’ he says, his smile teasing, his eyes grave.

     He gets weaker, slower; his skin is starlight pale. He starts vomiting up every meal.


     The final element of the day was the centrifuge. The vomit machine.

      A line had formed. I watched people – a man, then a woman – step forward, nonchalantly chatting to the engineer supervising it all. The machine spun them fast then faster. The same people emerged, visibly weak-limbed and green.

     The dark-haired guy from the treadmill was behind me. ‘Good luck,’ he said. I still didn’t know his name. I scrambled inside the capsule, the space made narrower still by all the instrumentation. I was wired up and very firmly strapped in. The air smelled of metal, hot rubber and stale sweat.

      ‘Look into the light,’ I was told. ‘If your peripheral vision starts to go dark, slam your feet down hard, hit the button and we’ll stop.’ I nodded. ‘We don’t want anyone passing out,’ the man added. ‘It won’t work in your favour to push it too far.’ I nodded again, my mouth too dry to speak. A sick-bag was pressed into my hand.

     The door closed leaving no outwards view. It was the most nerve-wracking thing I’d ever done, those moments as I waited for it all to start, gearing up for the unfamiliar. Not knowing how it would feel. How long I’d last. Wanting to get the hell out.

     The machine started to move, slowly at first and then faster, faster still. Time ceased to have meaning. I was thrown back into my seat and my chest was too tight to breathe. Blood pounded in my head; it was draining to my feet and my limbs were several times heavier that they should be. I felt like an insect being flung round, powerless against the laws of gravity and biology. Knowing I had to stand it as long as I could.


     ‘There’s something I want you to do for me,’ Adrian says. Time is limited, we both know that. He sleeps a lot. A cannula allows the drip-drip of pain relief. His mind remains focused, his speech clear.

     It’s bearable. Just.

     We’ve shut ourselves off from the world. He’s already said his goodbyes to colleagues, friends and family and now it’s the two of us, enclosed in our pod, our two-up, two-down red-bricked house on Observatory Street. Shelves line every room, all sagging under the weight of books.

     ‘What?’ I ask, thinking how I’ll agree to anything he asks.

     I listen carefully, my mind flooding with objections and my eyes with tears.

     ‘Anyway, it’s up to you,’ he says. ‘Promise me you’ll think about it.’

     ‘I don’t want…’ I say. ‘Not on my own.’

     His eyes close. He squeezes my hand and then his hand goes slack. His skin feels lunar-cold. I watch the fall and rise of his chest, each inhalation sounding an effort. It is Sunday morning and the peels of bells ring out from so many different churches and college chapels. They feel like they will never end.


     Waiting for the train, my legs still wobbly, I saw him again, the dark-haired guy.

     ‘I’m not stalking you,’ he said and grinned. ‘Honest.’

     We exchanged names. ‘Juno?’ he said, the way people tended to. ‘Sounds like cheating to me.’

     I pulled a face. ‘Doubt it’ll influence anyone.’

     We talked about how we’d found the day, bravado giving way to honesty. Both of us were doing PhDs in astrophysics, both studying the stars. Oxford versus Bristol. We swapped phone numbers.

     ‘Let me know if you get through,’ he said.

     No amount of preparation readies me. It’s like I’ve been spun round at terrifying speed then slammed to a face-slap stop. Gravity has been snatched away, leaving me untethered, yet my limbs are heavy as plutonium. My vision closes in. I cannot see beyond the straight-lined continuance of despair.

     Grief follows no rules, no scientific rationale. It has no boundaries, its length and depth shift and change. I am sucked into its black hole in which nothing reaches me, nothing escapes.


     The phone rang. On and on. Most likely not for me, but I took the stairs three at a time anyway.

     ‘Hello?’ I was slightly out of breath.

     ‘It’s me. Adrian. From the Project Juno thing.’

     My pulse quickened.

     Neither of us had been chosen to go any further, but the sting of disappointment was not so bad, soothed by the mutual commiseration; the future was still so open and bright.

     ‘I could come visit you sometime,’ he said.


     Grief alters the fabric of time. I have no reference frame and minutes pass like hours pass like days. Then all in a rush days have added up to months, a year, a full solar revolution. Still, I miss him. He continues as a parallel train of thought as I go about my routines.

     He is there as I stay up all night, studying suns unimaginably far away, their enormity reduced to pinpricks amidst the emptiness of the skies. I think of light rays from our planet reaching someone out there, how an alien would observe a past in which Adrian remains alive.

     He is at my side, as I lecture students who look impossibly young. I teach them about space and time, and about the stars.

     Their birth from gas and dust.

     A bright existence.

     Their eventual collapse, giving in to gravity and time coming to a stop.

     I talk to Adrian, just as I always did. He does not talk back.

     It’s up to you, he said. I made no promises. He has ceased to exist. Both of us believe – believed – that the horizon of death is absolute. There is no lingering consciousness in another dimension. He will not bear witness to my decision.


     His first visit to Oxford coincided with a peak time for meteor showers. We’d walked to The Perch and eaten bubbling macaroni cheese from earthenware bowls, sitting outside at the crumbling wooden tables close to the river. Our chat and laughter bubbled too.

     The sun went down, the long-wavelengths filtering through the atmosphere, staining the sky red and orange. We started walking back, civil twilight lighting our way along the white ribbon of path which crossed the flood plains of Port Meadow. As we reached my college, the rays of sky-glow had dimmed, night slipping into astronomical twilight, the sky finally dark enough to properly see the stars.

     We sneaked into the Fellows’ Garden. Ghost-white flowers covered the wall. The lawn was damp as we lay back to gaze into the blackness above, two small surveyors of the universe, our eyes adjusting, the stars becoming brighter alongside a crescent of moon. We fell into companionable silence, the two of us already so at ease, as if we’d known each other months, not hours. I breathed in the scent of cut-grass and jasmine.

     ‘There!’ He spotted one first, leaning up on an elbow, his hand pointing to the heavens, before gently tracing my arm. A first tentative touch.

     I was too slow and missed it. The next one we watched together, the transient silver trail across the heavens, both of us understanding the science, but that didn’t lessen the magic. ‘We’ll still get up there somehow,’ he said, his fingers interweaving with mine. And I sensed how we were at the very start of something. We had missed our chance to go up into space, stumbling instead upon a different sort of chance, a one in a million ticket for love and earth-bound happiness.


     Today is the anniversary of that night of shooting stars. I sit in our home office and gaze at the poster which fills the wall, one of several we have had over the years, all with a common theme. This one shows twilight from the Space Station: Earth captured from an altitude of two-hundred and eleven nautical miles. A diffuse shadow-line sets the boundary of night and day. Cloud tops reflect reddened sunlight sifted through Earth’s dusty troposphere, while the stratosphere scatters blue light. Then all colour vanishes into the blackness of space which is broken only by a small moon.

     I received life insurance from Adrian’s contract as a university lecturer, plus a pay out from the private policy we were talked into many years ago.

     I have my own salary, my own pension scheme. I have no need of blood-money.

     At current exchange rates, the payouts translate to approximately a quarter of a million dollars. I live my life according to reason, not the vagaries of coincidence and superstition. And yet. A quarter of a million dollars: I happen to know what that might buy.

     I sip jasmine-scented tea and I think of the Virgin Galactic sales blurb. Your journey to space starts here.

     I think about what Adrian said. How it wouldn’t be pure extravagance. The project helps advance space travel, making it more affordable for future generations of fellow-dreamers. It provides a platform for research too, a base for exploring the universe’s fundamental laws.

     ‘Think of it as my memorial,’ Adrian said, still managing a lop-sided grin. ‘A bloody expensive one, but I’m worth it.’

     In memory of how we met. Of shared passion. In memory of him, of us.

     ‘Do it for us both,’ he said.

Sarah Evans has had over a hundred stories published in anthologies, magazines and online, with outlets including The Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Lighthouse, Structo and Best New Writing. She has won a number of short story prizes, including Words and Women, Winston Fletcher, Stratford Literary Festival, Glass Woman and Rubery. She has also had work performed in London, Hong Kong and New York.