Sarah poured the hot melted wax into the center of the mould, being careful not to slosh the dark blue material onto the sides as it went down. Once it had filled up the feet and most of the skirt of the small figure of a princess, she stopped pouring and positioned the dowel with the long white wick over the opening of the mould so that the wick slid silently into the blue wax. She then reached across the counter to the small sand timer and flipped it over. Then it was on to the next one: pour wax and position the wick. And the next the same. Eleven times she repeated the task and then she waited; hands ready to pick up the pale orange wax the moment the sand disappeared from the top of the timer.
It was a delicate process. The deep blue wax had to harden just enough that the orange wouldn’t mix with it creating an ugly brown. But it still had to be soft enough that the heat of the orange wax would melt the crust formed on the blue and create a smooth, blended transition between colors.
Sand slid silently through the glass. Time passed so swiftly. Too swiftly. Her graceful hands, still soft and unwrinkled, shook slightly from the intensity of emotion that boiled in her at the thought. She stilled them when the last grain of sand filtered through and picked up the orange wax.
Then they were done. Twelve candles. Twelve princesses. Inspired by that strange and ancient story that remained from the ruined Earth. A tale of twelve princesses who delighted themselves in their own secret magical kingdom. As they went down every night to dance in their secret realm, so Sarah dreamed of exploring the lost world that had spawned humans.
Sarah turned off the burners that kept the wax liquid and left the room. She would peal off the moulds tomorrow. As she walked down the crowded Corridor 960, she did not see the large family laughing and talking excitedly, or the small boy, alone and weaving through the crowd, or the very old lady, hobbling along on her cane. All she saw was the hour glass and the sand sliding quickly through it.
Her time sliding through it. There was so little time left and still the project crawled forward—so slowly that at times it did not seem to move at all. Recovery. They would never recover anything at this rate. Or if they did, it would be long after she was gone. A tightness repositioned itself in her chest. The tightness of fear—of tears fought off. One doctor had said three years, another less than six weeks. But they didn’t know. No one knew. Any day the illness might take her. They had nothing to fight it. She had started treatments, but there was no way to know if they would be successful. They didn’t know what it was that was killing her.
She climbed onto a Speed-Tram. It was a long ways to her laboratory. The Speed-Tram accelerated and sped her on her way through the crowds. None of them knew who was passing them, or the burden she was carrying.
No one knew because she had told no one. It was her own private secret. And so she sped forward through life: pouring herself into her research with youth and vigour, setting her pretty face in a resolved smile, pushing the project forward with dedicated persistence. And all the while she was dying inside. Slowly, quietly, unobtrusively. How dark and cruel was her secret in comparison with that of the Twelve Dancing Princesses’. They went together to dance in a realm of beauty and magic. She danced alone the slow dance of death in the cage of her beautiful, yet frail body.
She stopped the Speed-Tram before she reached her lab. She did not want to go to her lonely lab where the dark thoughts and the sifting sand would only settle more heavily. She needed a distraction. She got off the Speed-Tram on a silent corridor and walked a few blocks to Isaac’s house. She trusted him—not with her secrets, but with her passion for the project. Whatever, or whoever was keeping the project from moving forward, she knew for certain that it wasn’t him.
Isaac took a moment answering to her ring and when he opened the door he was holding his cat in his arms and stroking his soft head thoughtfully.
“Come in, Sarah,” he said, stepping back in welcome. “What brings you here at this late hour?”
She hadn’t noticed until that moment that the day had ended. “Oh,” she said, because she was surprised that the day was over and because she wasn’t sure how to answer his question. “I just—wanted to talk. About the project, of course.” She stepped inside, suddenly feeling very silly for coming and very intrusive.
“Come, have a seat,” Isaac gestured to one of the three chairs positioned around a round table by the window. Starlight jumped out of his arms and after two circles, curled up on one of the chairs. Isaac laughed and Sarah joined him. “I suppose you can have a seat too, Starlight,” he said, taking the remaining chair.
“Why can’t this project get off the ground? The shuttle to take us was ready only shortly after a joined the mission, six years ago. I just don’t understand why everything has to take so long,” she opened the conversation and vented her frustration.
Isaac sighed. “I’ve been asking myself the same question recently. For years I believed what people said, about setbacks, and different things holding the process up. But recently I’ve begun to wonder if—” he stopped himself, and said instead, “would you like something to drink?”
“Oh, no thanks,” she replied, wanting him to continue his thought.
“Are you sure? A glass of wine, or something hot? Tea, perhaps?” He stood up and took a step towards his kitchen counter.
“Well, tea would be nice, I suppose.”
“Black, herbal, green?”
“Black please, with a spoon of sugar.”
He poured boiling water from his hot drink machine into two thick clear glass mugs and added a spoonful of sugar to one.
Once she had the warm mug in her hands, Sarah began the conversation again. “You were saying, that you were wondering if—?”
“Well, I’m probably wrong. And I probably shouldn’t even be saying this… but I can’t help but wonder if someone is deliberately slowing the project. Preventing it from moving forward. I don’t know why they would, its just that this is beginning to become unrealistic.”
It was such a relief to hear Isaac say this. “I agree. I had been thinking the same thing too. But who?”
“I don’t know. And I think we should be wary of trying to guess. Really we just need to hope that we are wrong. Because if we are right…”
“We’re in trouble?” she finished for him.
“Yes, and we can’t do much about it.”
“Well, if we bring the issue up, we will only create tension and we may create enemies. If whoever is getting in the way of the project thinks that we are on to them, we could be in big trouble. Especially if they are one of the key figures. We may find ourselves quietly out of a job.”
“You think so?” she hadn’t thought of that possibility. “Then you are suggesting that we do nothing?”
“There is not much we can do.” He seemed resigned. She certainly was not.
“But we can’t just sit by and watch as someone stops the project.”
“We keep pushing, like you’ve been doing. Keep working hard. Keep trying.”
“But we’ve been doing that for years and it hasn’t worked.”
“I know, I know.” He sighed again and took a sip of his tea.
Sarah watched him and processed the conversation. He was on her side. And yet he was willing to wait. He had patience. She would too—if she could. If she didn’t know that patience would mean her death before anything happened.
Starlight looked up from his nap, first at Isaac, then Sarah. He could sense the tension in the room. He slowly rose and stretched, then climbed off his chair and leapt onto Sarah’s lap. She stroked him between the ears and enjoyed the warm vibrations of his purr.
Isaac looked at her with his strong brown eyes that seemed to gaze straight into her soul. “I probably shouldn’t have said anything. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” she replied, tightening her jaw. “I’m not willing to sit by and watch until I become old and wrinkled. I’m going to speak up. I will not include you in my argument.”
“Sarah—I really don’t think you should take the risk. This project needs you. And you need this project.”
So he knew how much it meant to her. She was probably pretty transparent.
“I need this project to succeed. And soon. I can’t afford to keep waiting.”
“Why not?” he asked gently. Did he guess? No, he couldn’t.
“I’m just so sick of it. And if it is delayed too much longer we’ll all get old and they will replace us with a bunch of young go-getters before the shuttle leaves.” Oh, how she wished her only fear was getting old.
“If you feel you must. I will consider adding my word of support to you, but I will not promise it. But please know that I am supporting you. Even if silently. And you can always come and talk to me about it. Alright?”
She nodded and continued to stroke Starlight’s warm, soft back.
From there their conversation moved to more detailed discussion of first her work, then his research. Their tea finished, but still they talked. She was loath to leave and go back to her laboratory. And besides, there was something she felt that she was supposed to say to him, but she didn’t know quite what it was. The weight of that those unknown words kept pushing at her thoughts, but not getting out.