"Queerness as the vanguard of transformation,” the woman with the pink hair was saying, “that’s what it’s about. Whereas Deepika’s latest is more about conformity with the establishment. She’s this odd little government flunky. I’d think it were performance art if it weren’t so sad. Meg, or Megan or something.”

It was the fault of her shoes, Meg thought. Sensible ballet flats with soles that made no sound on the floor tiles. Or else the fault of the damn Victorian architect who’d built this house back in the year whatever and attached the bathroom to the kitchen, of all things, so you went off to hide from your girlfriend’s tiresomely political (if not until this moment actively loathsome) friends and found yourself listening behind the door to their unvarnished opinion of you.

“It’s just”—that was Pink Hair again; Meg shut down the uncharitable interior voice wondering what profession allowed a thirty-five-year-old woman that particular shade of neon—“I never expected it of Deepika. Picket fences and homonormativity.”

And that, Deepika, Meg thought, is your cue to leap to my defence—and perhaps it was for the best, that that was when the message came, the crystal at her throat lighting up into magnesium brilliance. Meg put her hand to it, read the information scrolling across her retinas, and after that there was no choice: she strode into the kitchen on those silent footsteps and started hunting frantically for her handbag and keys.

“Meg!” Deepika turned from the other doorway. “Meg, what is it?”

“I have to go to work,” Meg muttered, “my coat, where the hell is…”

“Here,” Deepika said, holding it out for Meg to put her arms into it. “Meg, what is it? No, just wait,” she added, as Meg started to pull away. “The last Tube has gone, I’ll call you a taxi. What happened?”

“It was a train,” Meg said, her eyes blurring. “There’s been a derailment on the east coast line near Alnwick. One of my ship’s engineers was on board.”

“Shit,” Deepika said, feelingly, and picked up the phone. “I’d like a taxi as soon as you can—just across from Belsize Park. Yes, please. Thank you.”

“Where’s Alnwick?” Pink Hair asked, looking at the whole scene with interest. She had put her wineglass down on the table laden with party nibbles and was chewing her hair. Quite irrationally, Meg wanted to strangle her. She resisted the urge and threw off her shoes, looking for proper winter boots.

“In Northumberland,” Deepika answered, while Meg peered at the data scrolling across her pad, waiting for the woman to ask, Where’s Northumberland?

“Your ship?”—that was another one of Deepika’s friends, Anna or Annelise or something. “You have a ship?”

Halley,” Meg said, lacing up her boots, thinking, odd little government flunky, then losing her temper. “The faster-than-light deep space exploration craft Halley. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”

“Halley,” Anna-or-Annelise said, in wonderment. “Halley. Deepika, you never said…”

I’ve told them all about you, Deepika had said. Meg touched the crystal at her throat so it returned to its dormant state, picked up her bag and went out. “The taxi will honk,” Deepika said, but Meg kept on going.

“I’d rather wait on the pavement,” she said, but Deepika grabbed her arm.

“We’ll talk later,” she promised, her eyes fierce, and then gestured. “Meg. You said, Alnwick. Does that mean…”

“Yes,” Meg said, flatly, and when she stamped down the front path the taxi was waiting. “Whitehall,” she said softly to the driver, and they set off silently. Meg clenched her hands into fists, breathed, and watched the lights of the city slip past the windows.

 

The security guard on duty gave Meg a sympathetic look at the door, which probably said everything she needed to know about what was going on inside. In the department, the main lights were still off—civil service energy-saving measure, clearly—so all work was being done by anglepoise lamps and LEDs. The rapidly moving shadows of her people made it look faux-spooky, like a sleepover or children’s party. Meg slammed her handbag down on her desk, and noticed for the first time she was wearing a Halley ID badge over a pink party dress and a pair of snow boots. London had turned cold in the last week, so the newspapers had made jokes about the Halley crew seeking better climes. “Right,” she said, her voice clear and carrying. “What the hell happened?”

The room fell silent for a moment, and then Adrienne—Meg’s closest friend and colleague here in Interstellar Science and Exploration—sighed heavily and angled a lamp towards them both. “Well,” she said, with a studied calm, “it sort of fell out of the sky.”

Meg’s heart hit her ribcage. “Halley?”

“No, for heaven’s sake. A supply pod.” Adrienne snapped her fingers and the holograph appeared at Meg’s eye-level; Adrienne twisted her wrist and rotated the image, showing Meg the fluid lines of the thing, pyramid-shaped but with no sharp points. “It’s about the size of a transit van, I suppose. Something happened—we don’t know what—and instead of going up from Leith to Halley, it, er. Came back down.”

Meg’s mouth was open. “On top of the train?”

“Not on top of the train,” Adrienne said patiently. “But pretty close, hard enough to jolt the track. The train derailed maybe another half-mile down the line, near Alnwick.”

Meg sat down heavily on the edge of her desk. “Okay. I’m calm. Look at me, I’m exceptionally calm. What have you done about the pod?”

“A team of investigators are flying out at dawn. It was an unmanned shuttle—they’ll get the flight recorder and recover what they can of the cargo.”

“Okay, good.” Meg took a breath. “What do we know about”—she picked up the sheaf of notes presumably being prepared for the minister—“Campbell? The boy on board the train.”

“He’s a light-field engineer, one of the core team,” Adrienne said, shrugging. “They’re all on furlough, you know—three weeks till launch preparations begin in earnest. It was the King’s Cross to Edinburgh train, we think he was visiting his parents.”

“Oh, God,” Meg said, picturing them waiting for him at the station, then lifted her head. “The last Friday train, due in—midnight, I suppose?” She glanced at her watch; it was coming up on two in the morning, and Saturday, now. “Adrienne, get a team and a report together, what happens if we have to do this launch without him, what are our options, that kind of thing.”

“We can’t,” Adrienne said, “not in three weeks—the training alone would be prohibitive, and the Halley light field, it’s attuned to the minds of the particular…”

Meg waved her silent. “Just do it, Adrienne, please? Best options no matter how bad they are. In the meantime—what’s that?”

That slowly resolved itself into an image, blurred on the white projection wall. “Ms Tripathi, is that you? Good evening.”

“Good evening, Minister,” Meg said, and bit down the hysterical laugh. Apparently Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Interstellar Science and Exploration chose to sleep in natty blue-and-white striped pyjamas. As though reading her mind, he glanced down at himself on the screen, then lifted his hand. “Transparency in government is everything, Ms Tripathi.”

“Yes, Minister.” Meg allowed herself a very quick smile; it seemed like there might not be many in her immediate future.

“What can you tell me so far?”

Meg counted off on her fingers. “One. It was an unmanned shuttle accident that caused the derailment. Two. One of Halley’s launch crew was definitely on board, a Scottish light-field engineer named Leonard Ansari-Campbell, who may be injured, or”—she hesitated—“worse. Three. The train derailed near Alnwick.”

“Has anyone else been hurt?” the minister asked, and Meg took a moment to sigh for their collective human decency; perhaps she ought to have asked Adrienne that first. “We don’t know, Minister. Although I suspect our paucity of news is good news.”

“Is it possible,” the minister said, “that I’m closer to the site than you are?”

Meg shook her head. “Closer in distance but not in time.” The minister’s constituency was on the Sefton coast, not far from Camell Laird where Halley had been built. “It’s a direct route up from London. In fact”—she made the decision—“I’ll go up there myself.”

“You don’t want to attract media attention,” Adrienne was saying worriedly from beside her, and Meg nodded.

“I’ll take the first scheduled service up. I believe the line is open as far as Morpeth.”

“Good luck, Meg,” the minister said with kindness in his eyes. “Keep me informed. And let’s try and keep this from the newspapers as long as we can, please? Particularly”—his expression stilled for a moment, becoming unreadable—“the issue of the Alnwick coroner’s sinecure.”

Too late, Meg realised why he had been asking about other deaths. “Yes, Minister,” she said, and was grateful for the cup of coffee Adrienne placed straight into her hands.

The first scheduled service of the day from King’s Cross turned out to be at 5.15am. Meg called for another taxi and went home to dress more suitably for her day, discarding the pink-sequinned dress in the bathroom. “About last night,” Deepika tried, perched on the counter top, but Meg shook her off.

“Not now,” she said. “I have to go up north. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

“To Alnwick,” Deepika said, and Meg nodded, taking a minute to stand still in the quiet kitchen. Deepika had clearly been awake since Meg’s departure; it was clean and tidy in here now, with dishes gleaming in the rack, and no other sign of the party.

Meg sighed, relaxing a little. “I need to see my engineer, and perhaps”—she gestured—“keep it a little quiet, if I can. Try and avoid any inquiries into the sinecure list.”

“That sounds ridiculous,” Deepika said, and Meg took a deep breath.

“If it gets out,” she said clearly, “if some journalist figures out the right sort of questions to ask, and why wouldn’t they, about Halley and Campbell and Alnwick, then there won’t be a launch whether or not we have a full complement of light-field engineers. The scandal will kill us. So don’t tell me it sounds ridiculous.”

“Oh, not at all,” Deepika said, with a crackle of anger, “not at all ridiculous, nor political. Meg, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry you had to overhear those things last night. And I’m sorry if”—she was gesturing now, her palms overturned—“it turns out the mission, everything you’ve worked for…”

She trailed off, but Meg softened at her obvious sincerity. “Yeah. That’s why I’ve got to go.” Deepika nodded, then said, fussily, “You won’t have time to get breakfast at the station. Let me make you something”—and by the time yet another taxi arrived, she’d done two rounds of ham and cheese with chutney and a little sprig of parsley, the way Meg liked it. Meg kissed her goodbye and meant it, and ate the sandwiches three hours later as the train crossed the Tyne, feeling fragile and exhausted in the dawn light.

 

There were train carriages strewn in the fields. From her perch on the bonnet of a jeep, Meg counted five of them, some still coupled, others strange islands in the burnt-off stalks and snow. It made Meg’s stomach turn horribly to see them like that, at perpendicular angles to how the world ought to be. “Can I help, or will I be in the way?” she asked, watching as ambulances drove down the farm tracks, wheels spinning in the mud.

“Wait till they get through the side, miss, it won’t be long,” said the voice from next to her, warm and Geordie. Meg had arrived at Morpeth to find the tiny station hushed and intensely active, passengers being herded away from the misty platforms, and had not wanted to interrupt. But the first of the local constabulary she met had recognised the crystal at her throat, and not very long after that she had been brought up here along the route of the old Great North Road, the snow vivid on the trees. “It won’t be long,” PC Throckley said again. “That carriage is the last one they got to. In the dark, you know.”

“Oh,” Meg said, a little weakly, trying to imagine what it had been like for the passengers waiting hours in the pitch rural blackness, while distant lights flickered across the landscape and emergency response vehicles fought through the snow and mud. Down on the railway line, a group of emergency workers were using a cutting torch on a train carriage as though it were a tin-opener. The noise stopped, a paramedic in green and high-visibility yellow shouted into the crack, “You’re all right, you’re going to be all right!” and then cutting began again.

“You’re here from the ship and all,” Throckley said, in wonderment, and Meg turned to him sharply. “From London, actually,” she said, anxious to correct his misconception. “I’m just a civil servant, I’m here to report back to my department. I’m not that exciting, really.”

“No, it’s grand,” Throckley said, gesturing upwards, “it’s exciting all right”—and then with a welcome, harsh sound, the torch cut through the metal. Throckley started forwards and Meg scrambled to her feet to follow him, slipping and sliding on the mud on the way downhill, and as they reached the flat ground, one of the rescue workers reached inside the hole and yelled:

“Five to come out!”

It took a few more minutes, but the hole was enlarged, paramedics rushed down to the site and started unfolding stretchers, and a first passenger—ambulatory, Meg noted with some relief—was helped out. The second one had to be carried, and on his way down a paramedic skidded in the mud and Meg instinctively reached out to steady him, and then equally instinctively, helped carry the stretcher he unfolded, grateful for her snow boots. Up the hill there were vehicles disgorging more people, and for the first time, Meg realised that some of the workers were wearing dressing-gowns under the high-vis. “Leave the inside to the professionals, miss,” Throckley said to her, but when the remaining passengers were brought out from that jagged-edged hole in the railways carriage, Meg got a whiff of musty air and darkly organic smells, dissipating fast in the metallic tang of snow. The last passenger to be brought out was a curly-headed young man, curled on his side on the stretcher, and Meg watched as a rescue worker squeezed his hand on the journey up to the waiting ambulances.

“All right,” she said, turning to Throckley. “Constable, if that’s everyone, and there were”—doubt in her voice, and hope, and trepidation—“no fatalities?”

“No. At least”—there was an echo of that hopefulness in Throckley’s voice—“not yet.”

Meg nodded. “I’d be grateful if you’d give me a lift to Alnwick or wherever the injured have been taken.”

“So you’re here to make sure they still go up into space?” Throckley said, still rather hopefully, as the wheels bounced beneath them in the rutted ground. “Will they still go, after this?”

“Perhaps,” Meg said, remembering suddenly why she’d come in the first place, and the coroner in Alnwick. It seemed a petty concern out here in the snow. “What is that?”

Her attention had been caught by a point in the sky above the supply pod wreckage, keeping pace with them like a star but bright and visible even through the morning light. Throckley chuckled. “That’s your ship, miss,” he said, taking a hand off the steering wheel to wave at it, and Meg remembered his earlier gesture upwards. “You’ve never seen it?”

“Yes,” Meg said, discomfited, “but I’d forgotten”—and cut herself off by yawning hugely. She meant to keep her eye on the bright star all the long drive down to the town, and would have done, if she hadn’t fallen asleep embarrassingly against the window, her lips leaving condensation kisses on the glass.

 

"Excuse me, may I come in?”

The figure in the bed turned over, and Meg had his file to hand, knew every recorded biographical detail about him including his date of birth, but was still surprised at the degree of youth in his face. “Oh, hello,” he said, with mild surprise. “Who are you?”

“I’ve come from London,” Meg said, suddenly awkward, “from Whitehall, you know”—and in lieu of any better way to express it, touched the Halley crystal at her collarbones.

“Oh,” he said, “I’d hoped to meet my first representative of the department while wearing trousers”—and Meg laughed, grateful for the release in tension, and sat down in the chair next to the bed.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr Ansari-Campbell,” she said, reaching out a hand and then thinking better of it. There was a drip running into his arm and a suggestion that his skin was not usually so washed out and distant from brown, but nothing glazed about his expression.

“Firstly,” he said, “I don’t actually have my doctorate yet. Secondly”—this with a weary resignation—“call me Leonard, I meant it about the trousers.”

“Meghna Tripathi,” she said. “I’m one of the civil servants from Interstellar Exploration. How are you, Leonard?”

“I’ve been better.” He rolled over again, and then something seemed to occur to him; Meg watched the look of dread appear from nowhere on his face. “You’re not here to tell me I’m being replaced?”

Meg shifted in the chair. “I’d rather not have to do that.” She hesitated, then asked, “Can you tell me how you are? I mean, really.”

“Apparently,” Leonard said, “I was in that train carriage for eight hours before they got me out of there. I don’t remember it. They tell me I hit my head and had a seizure of some sort.”

“Oh, my goodness.” Meg leaned back in her chair, and wondered if he had been the passenger she had seen rescued from the last carriage. “I’m so sorry.”

He looked at her levelly. “Well?”

Meg let out a breath. “We don’t want to replace you,” she said. “It will be easier to delay the launch than replace you.”

“You’d do that for me?” He looked hopeful, Meg realised suddenly; he tried to sit up for a minute, then thought better of it. “I mean—I’m not dead. I can be treated. I can get over this. I will get over this. Can I still…”

He trailed off, his hair falling into his eyes, and Meg pushed away the urge to reach out and take his hand again, this time out of compassion, rather than formality. “Perhaps,” she said, very gently. “I don’t want to say for certain that you will go to the ball, you understand? But I’ve had a note from my team in London, and they say it will take so long to train another light-field engineer, and the circuitry in the ship is designed with your particular neurology in mind, and—well.” She paused. “I don’t pretend to understand the technical detail. But yes. It might be easier to delay.”

“Thank you,” he said, fervent and with eyes shining, “thank you, Ms Tripathi, you won’t regret this.”

She shook her head, not knowing how to respond. “Is there anything else you need?” she asked after a moment, awkward. “Anything I can do for you?”

“Actually, there is.” He looked up at her, frowning. “My parents are my next of kin—they’re coming down soon. But there’s a couple of people—I don’t want them to hear from the news outlets, they’ll think the worst, you know?” He made a confused gesture. “You know what I mean.”

“Of course,” Meg said. “Let me have their names, my department will take care of it.”

“Thanks,” he said, scribbling on the tablet she offered from her bag. “There’s Pen—she’s my roommate, she’d worry. And my, er, partner up in Leith.”

“Your, er, partner?” Meg said, with a slightly unprofessional flash of humour.

“Three weeks of furlough.” Leonard gestured. “But after that he and I have—a termination agreement. Faster-than-light communication not being, ah, at its technological zenith.” He grinned. “I’m allowed to say that, I’m gonna be the one actually pushing the boat. Ah, inshallah.”

Meg smiled back. “I’ll make sure he’s informed as soon as possible. And”—she hesitated, then went on—“I’m sorry. I suppose we all must make personal sacrifices, for the mission, but I…I didn’t think.”

He shrugged. “It’s a sacrifice, sure. But I get to go into space. I get to push a ship through space faster than light with my head.” He laughed a little, as though at his own foolishness. “I’m a light-field engineer. It’s what I’m here to do.”

“Yes,” Meg said, softly. “Thank you, Leonard. I’ll leave my card on the table. We’ll be in touch.”

She let herself out, very quietly, and when she looked back he was still staring after her, his eyes bright.

 

"And so,” Meg said, in conclusion, “that’s my formal recommendation. Delay the launch by—say, a fortnight if we can. Adrienne has put together some second-best scenarios if Campbell isn’t fit to fly by then, but we’ll hope that he is. In either case, we’re working out how to deal with the press. Thankfully, there were no other serious injuries.”

The minister nodded, and yawned. “Apologies, Ms Tripathi,” he said, and Meg couldn’t blame him; it was evening now, the city lights bright around them, and neither of them had slept since the first call had come about the accident. Meg looked across the Holyrood grounds and spotted the small shuttle waiting for them both, and up above her head at the bright lights of geostationary spacedock. “What about the supply pod?” the minister asked. “I ask this out of pure academic interest and not in the slightest bit because we’re about to trust our lives to one of the damn things.”

“It’s a different model of pod,” Meg said, amused, “and this one has a crew. Adrienne will let us have the report when it’s done.”

“Good,” the minister said, and said nothing while they were guided on board the small craft, the flight crew disappearing into the cockpit and the straps descending from the ceiling. Meg secured herself in her seat, next to the window, and wondered not for the first time why the minister had called her up to Edinburgh to begin with. She’d been investigating train times southbound when she received the message, and had come up with all due alacrity and increasing mystification.

“Now, Meghna,” he said, finally, twisting round to speak to her from his seat in front. “That was your formal recommendation. What is your informal one?”

Meg hesitated, and in that moment of silence, the shuttle left the ground, moving straight up as though hung from a cable, rapidly enough to make her ears pop. The city receded beneath then, becoming a jewellery box of shining lights. “I don’t like to say, Minister,” she said, at last, and to her surprise, he smiled as though he’d been expecting her response.

“I won’t push,” he said. “Oh, one more bit of shop-talk: I suppose it’s all lost beyond recovery, but what was the cargo in the pod?”

“Tins, sir.”

“Tins?”

“Tins.” Meg spread her hands. “There’s going to be hydroponics and food reclamation on board, but it’s a long way to Barnard’s Star. It was thought the crew might like—well. Tinned pineapple. Cream of tomato soup.”

“Tinned pineapple,” the minister said, faintly.

“But it’s all right,” Meg added. “Heinz and the other suppliers have offered to replace everything free of cost. I pushed them into it because they need it for their advertising, you know—enjoyed all the way out to the stars! and all that nonsense.”

“Meg,” the minister said, chuckling, “you’re a marvel. How’s your young lady?”

“She’s well,” Meg said, a little amused at the phrasing. “Thank you for asking.”

He caught something of her amusement, and shrugged apology. “Forgive me. When I was your age they used to ask, How’s your friend. Sometimes, special friend. Wink wink, nudge, nudge. It grew tiresome. Though, of course”—he smiled, wistfully—“friends do grow special, over the years. Meghna, it’s time we come clean.”

“About what?”

“About the sinecures list.”

“Alnwick,” Meg said, automatically, and then: “We’ll need to take legal advice. And, sir—politically speaking…”

“Not your bailiwick, Meg,” he said, a little stern. “It’s time. Thirty years ago this was the only way we could do this. Halley is…well, it’s remarkable what’s been done. Crown prerogatives will do that.”

“If the prerogative money is withdrawn,” Meg said, “we become a government department like any other. We’ll need to be funded by way of legislation. We’ll have to go before Parliament.”

“And so we should, and so we will.” The minister glanced at her. “Meg—thirty years ago, I’m sure the people in your position thought the Alnwick loophole was a gift from heaven. So inimitably British, of course. Some unknown prerogative post with unlimited executive funding! Our own Civil List! And all we have to do is make sure no one ever finds out that we’re funding a faster-than-light interstellar space programme through a twelfth-century Northumberland sinecure, administered through the coroner’s office!”

“When you put it like that,” Meg said, with regret for her brusqueness with Deepika, “it sounds ridiculous.”

The minister nodded, and Meg suddenly realised she’d been too distracted by his conversation to notice the rapid fall of the earth. Beyond the window glass she could make out the Firth of Forth laid out in the patterns of its own cartography, dusted with wisps of cloud. When Meg turned back from the view the minister gave her a small, secretive smile. “Tell me,” he said, “was that going to be your informal recommendation?”

Meg thought for a minute. “You know,” she said at last, “I met a man in Morpeth who thought my job was exciting. That it was wonderful, to do what I do, in my office in London. Leonard Ansari-Campbell was trapped for hours in the freezing cold and dark three weeks before he goes out into space, into the freezing cold and the dark, and his greatest fear is that I’ll take that away from him.”

“If we delay the launch,” the minister said, low and careful, “perhaps you will not have to do that.”

“And, well.” Meg paused, and brought a hand to her throat. “I thought we wore these little Halley ID crystals as a publicity stunt. I mean, we could use tablets like everyone else, you know? We’re not crew. We’re only logistics.”

The minister nodded. “I won’t say it wasn’t thought of in those terms, at least to begin with.” “But, maybe,” Meg said, hesitated again, and then said it. “Maybe something of us goes out there with them.”

The minister smiled at her. “Maybe it does.” He motioned beneath him at Scotland, now bright in its entirety; then at the lights gleaming out on the North Sea, and in the far distance, the terminator creeping over the earth’s surface. “Now hold onto that thought and step back. Think about the greater picture. Ask yourself why we’re not at the heart of government. Why we, of all people, and of all things, should not be funded. Ask yourself why three pence in the pound cannot go to carrying citizens into the great unknown.”

“Minister,” Meg said gently, “there’s no need for a speech. I’m not your public.”

He glanced at her sidelong. “Did you vote for this government?”

Meg grinned. “Yes, Minister.”

“Then call it your three pence in the pound.” He shrugged again, and overturned his hands. “Are you ready for this?”

“It’s what I’m here for,” Meg said, and watched Halley curve into view above, like a paper aeroplane made glorious and enormous, sharp and silver. Beyond it, there was nothing but the inky blackness of space. “Except,” she added, “I don’t know why I’m here. Why did you ask me to come up?”

At the sound of the docking clamps, and the pressure beginning to equalise, the minister looked at her as though it were obvious. “This is the ship we built, Meg. Let’s take a look.”

 

Back in London, on a Sunday morning comfortable and hushed with snow, Meg curled up under a blanket on the sofa and let Deepika bring her tea. “Masala chai, just how you like it,” she said, and Meg smiled up at her, breathing it in.

“You know,” she said, idly worrying a loose thread on the blanket, “I don’t like your friends. Especially Pink Hair. She’s a twit.”

Deepika blinked. “She has a name, Meg.”

“So do I,” Meg said. “It’s Meg. Meghna. Clouds, you know? That’s what it means. Like, up in the sky, though I suppose the Magellanic Clouds would also count.”

“Meg, is there a point to this?”

“I’m getting to it,” Meg said. “I didn’t like what’s-her-name, Annelise, either. I’m sorry I ran out on your party, but I’m not sorry I was rude to them.”

“You were rather rude,” Deepika agreed. “Maybe I should trade you in for a better model.”

“Maybe you should make new friends.”

“Maybe I should,” Deepika said, easily, and Meg was comforted by it. “Maybe I’d do worse things than that for you, you grumpy hidebound Luddite. Is your engineer okay? Did you let his family know?”

“I spoke to them myself,” Meg said, “and I think he’s doing all right. I mean”—she smiled at the thought—“I think he’ll get to go where he needs to go. Deepika, don’t make new friends.”

“Oh, really?” Deepika said, fetching her own tea and taking a sip. “Have you come round to queerness as political, then?”

“I’m just a civil servant,” Meg said, with some asperity. “No, that’s not it.”

“You’re not just anything, Meg,” Deepika said, impatiently. “Well?”

Meg leaned back into the sofa, resisting the urge to fall asleep. One day, and then it would begin: one day before the legislative reveal; one day before the department went before Parliament and all around them a change in the weather.

“Turns out she was right. I just saw some queers at the vanguard of transformation.”

“Idiot,” Deepika said, fondly, and went to fetch a plate of biscuits.

Iona Sharma is a writer, lawyer and linguaphile, and the product of more than one country. Other than speculative fiction, she likes politics, travel and land rights. More of Iona’s writing can be found at www.generalist.org.uk/iona.