I stumble forward and fall to my hands and knees, gasping for air.
The floor is dull and grey. Concrete, is my first thought, but it's not. It's smooth and almost slippery; I have to struggle to stay more or less upright, if upright is the right word for someone on all fours. Thinking about it requires effort, so I stop and close my eyes and focus on breathing.
The air tastes stale and sterile. And dry. It's sticking to the back of my throat, making it itch.
I scramble onto my feet. It's harder than it should be, and by the time I'm standing, I'm exhausted.
I blink a few times, resisting the temptation to rub my eyes. They itch, too. In fact, now that I think about it, my whole body itches. It must be the air.
I look around me for the first time since – well. It occurs to me that I have no recollection of before. I mean, I know who I am. And I know that I should be … Where? At work? Home? What day is it? There is something in the back of my mind, something that I should remember, something about what happened, but it's eluding me. Something that I shall have to think about later, when my brain is feeling more like it should.
I look around me. And then I turn and look behind me, and my legs, still shaky from the effort of getting up, give out on me and I find myself on the floor again, gasping for air and blinking and trying to make sense of what my eyes are telling me.
This isn't the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. I'm quite certain it's not the Ministry at all.
There is a row of … of something, behind me. Boxes, or compartments, with glass doors, stretching as far as my eyes can see in both directions. I'm in a corridor with greyish walls melting into the greyish floor, and I cannot see any other doors. Apart from the one right in front of me now, an opening to the …
This must be where I was.
I stare at the chamber, the edge of its semi-transparent door still visible from where it slid into the side of it. There are tubes and wires hanging loose inside it; the space is barely large enough to accommodate a person of average size. Something is swirling near the bottom of the space. I want to lean closer and touch it, find out what it is or at least what it feels like, but I know that would not be a smart thing to do, so I don't.
There is a small plaque next to the opening. Hermione Granger, it says. >A**, 0116398.
I swallow; my throat is still dry and it's painful. I want to know what those numbers and codes mean, but there is nothing here that offers any clues. I wonder if I can find something to drink soon.
Am I alone in here? My brain is finally catching up with me, and I realise I'm surrounded by silence. Only when I close my eyes again and concentrate, there is a deep, low hum underneath it – so low that I feel it in the palms of my hands when I press them against the ground.
I look at the long line of boxes, all of them closed from what I can tell, and the thought makes me panic. I know that I should stand up again and take a few steps to the left – or to the right, it doesn't seem to matter – and look inside the ones next to where I was. The glass doors are frosted, so from this angle on the ground I cannot see anything, but it would be reasonable to assume there are people in them. Some of them, anyway; I refuse to consider the possibility that they are all in use.
I'm still sitting on the floor – it's lukewarm and gives a little when I poke it; I don't think it's metal … unless it's an alloy of some sort that I haven't encountered before, or some kind of extra strong plastic? Why am I even thinking about this? – when my ears pick up something coming from further along the corridor on my right. I struggle to my feet again and stumble towards the noise, which gets louder the closer I get. There is banging, and something that sounds like someone shouting, but I cannot make out the words.
One of the chambers is half-open, and an arm is sticking out, clad in a black sleeve. The banging is coming from inside it, as is the shouting.
I step closer, my throat drier than before, afraid of what I will see, but not to look would be inconceivable.
The glass is hard to see through, but the little I see of the shape of the man inside is enough. I don't need to glance at the plaque next to the door – Severus Snape, ^AX**, 0126174, Handle with care – to recognise him.
He's pushing at the door with one hand. Without thinking, I join him in his efforts. The door is stuck, and it takes all our combined strength to force it to slide further into the side of the compartment. Once he has enough space to turn around, he rips off the wires still stuck on the left side of his neck and wrist and stumbles out. I step aside hastily to avoid colliding with him. Only then does he look at me.
The way he says my name makes it sound dry and scratchy, and his Adam's apple bobs as he swallows the last syllable. I guess he must feel as parched as I do, especially with yelling so much before I got here.
At least that is what I try to say. What comes out, barely above a whisper, doesn't sound much like it. I try and clear my throat, realising that it was the first word I've tried to speak in this place – the first word I've tried to speak in … I don't know how long. But it feels like a very long time. Especially if these boxes are what the vague, insistent thoughts at the back of my mind are whispering to me …
'Stasis chamber,' I say. I want to say more but I don't trust my voice enough yet, not with the way my throat and mouth are feeling.
He looks around, leaning heavily on the side of his box with one hand, his face inscrutable, and nods.
'Looks like it.'
Questions burn in my mind. I want to ask what is going on. Where are we? What has happened? But I can't get the words out, and besides, I doubt he would know anyway. He looks just as lost as I feel.
He's running his fingers over the plaque with his name now, as if he's hoping to find answers there. I wonder if he knows what the codes and numbers stand for.
'Anyone else around?' he asks at last.
I shrug. 'Haven't seen anyone.' I feel stupid, sounding like a child, but if I don't get something to drink, I don't think I will be able to formulate proper sentences any time soon. It even feels strange to move my mouth; foreign, like the muscles have forgotten how to work.
I wonder again how long it has been since … since whatever happened that brought us here.
He pushes himself away from the wall and sways on his feet. Somehow that's a relief: the way I remember him, he's always been so graceful. To see that he's having the same problems I did not half an hour ago makes me feel better about myself.
'When are we?' he asks, then.
I start. Not where, when. He's obviously come to the same conclusion I have, that we've been stuck here for a while. And it took him a lot less time to work that out.
I shrug again. 'No idea.'
He looks down his long, crooked nose at me without saying a word – he doesn't have to; I know that look, the one that lets a student know how stupid they are – and turns around sharply. This was a mistake, which I could have told him. I almost catch him before he falls, but his weight drags both of us down on the floor instead. I feel a nervous giggle bubbling up, but I manage to suppress it before it escapes.
He sits up and massages his legs. I do the same, glancing at him while his head is turned away. I haven't seen him since the battle; he was still too unwell to attend his trial, and after he was acquitted, he disappeared from the public eye. That would have been just over three years ago, by my reckoning – who knows how long it's really been. Three years, thirty years, three hundred years by now?
He looks good – for Snape, anyway – or as good as a man who has just stumbled out of a stasis chamber can look. About the same as he used to, but less … pinched. There's a slightly sour smell to him. I sniff the shoulder of my jacket surreptitiously and realise the same odour is attached to me, too – must be whatever was inside those compartments, keeping us going.
I realise something else, too. I'm wearing a jacket, one I wear only when I go out to Muggle London, not the robes I wear to work. I don't know if that's significant or not, but I file the information away anyway.
I'm just glad I'm wearing something at all. That we weren't stuck inside those things naked.
He's rubbing his temples now. The air is making my head ache, too. It must be a closed ventilation system, which would make sense if we're in some kind of … I look around again. Super-secret research facility? It must be, because the only other thought I have is so ridiculous that I refuse to contemplate it.
'Wand,' he mutters.
'Have you got your wand?' he asks, enunciating each word clearly, disdain evident in his voice. I suppose some things never change.
I realise that it didn't occur to me to check, so I pat my sleeve where I usually keep it. No wand there. Not in the wand holder inside my jacket either. And it's not in my jeans pocket, or I'd have felt it already.
I look around, realising immediately how pointless that is. It's not likely that I had it earlier and dropped it when I got here.
Panic rises inside me. I don't feel as useless without my wand as I know some of my friends from magical families do, but it's become such an organic part of me, and ever since losing my original wand at Malfoy Manor, I don't like to be parted from my new one.
I look at Snape. His hands are empty.
'I take it you don't have yours either.'
His dark look is enough of an answer.
The more I speak, the easier it becomes, even with my mouth still dry. Not that I particularly relish the idea of trying to have a conversation with this man, but we're both adults; and as far as I can tell, we're stuck in this, this thing together, with no one else around.
'I think we should take a look around,' I suggest. 'We cannot be the only people here. We need our wands, and we need – I need, anyway – something to drink.' And we need to find the loo, I add to myself, but I'm not going to say that out loud. Whatever this place is, it's got to be a public building of some sort, and public buildings have toilets.
He nods slowly. 'I agree. Have you … How long have you been awake?'
'I'm not sure. Not long. Half an hour at the most.'
'And you haven't seen anyone else?'
I think of the long row of compartments – stasis chambers – I stumbled past on my way here. I didn't have the time, or the desire, to try and look inside them, or to check the names. I don't know if I want to know who else is here.
'No. I was still trying to get my bearings when I heard you and came straight here.'
Snape looks at his box. 'I don't think it worked properly. The door shouldn't have got stuck.'
Now he's stating the obvious. Even his mind, in spite of his unquestionable brilliance, needs some time to warm up, it seems. I refrain from pointing that out, though.
'Mine didn't,' I say. In fact, I don't remember it at all. 'I think the wires and everything must have withdrawn from me on their own, too.'
He looks thoughtful but doesn't say anything. Finally, he takes a deep breath and stands up. 'We should choose a direction. Left or right?'
I start to say that I don't have a preference, but then I realise I don't want to go back to where I was, so I point in the other direction. 'Perhaps there's a door at that end.' And we can check on the others while passing, I suppose. Then an idea occurs to me.
'Could we open the doors ourselves? If there are others stuck here, that is?' I squint and see a plaque next to the door just left of Snape's. The lettering is too small, but I'm sure there's a name there. I get off the floor, dust myself off – for there is dust here, if not a lot of it – and read the writing aloud: Aloysius Kennel, B*, 01174012. I see a somewhat overweight human shape inside – some of these chambers are obviously larger than others – but not well enough to make out any features.
The name is not familiar to me, but Snape nods. 'He was a few years ahead of me at Hogwarts. A Hufflepuff, I believe. Used to work in the Ministry. I don't know him well.'
I raise an eyebrow at this. I didn't expect him to volunteer information, not to me, but perhaps he's also decided that if we're in this together, then it would be best to avoid undue animosity.
He runs his fingers along the edge of the frosted panel of the door. There are no handles, no knobs, no buttons to push. He tries to nudge the door open, but I can tell his effort is half-hearted at best; his fingers find no purchase between the panel and the side of the wall.
He gives up a few moments later. 'It's probably best we don't force them open,' he says, pursing his lips. 'For all we know, we might do more harm than good.'
I agree, and we start moving along the corridor, towards the far end. It's slow going – my legs are feeling steadier now than before, but I'm already exhausted, and I need to hold on to the wall for support every few dozen steps and rest for a few moments. Snape never stops first, but as he isn't complaining, I assume he doesn't mind the breaks, either.
I glance at the names as we pass the chambers. Some I recognise, most I don't. I've spotted some of my MLE colleagues and several names I recognise from Hogwarts. No Ron or Harry, yet. I should feel relieved, but this only makes me more anxious, and eventually, I stop looking at the plaques. I don't want to know.
We keep walking.
We keep walking.
We keep walking.
Will this corridor ever end? I want to slump down on the floor and rest my back on the wall, but if I do that, I will never get up again.
So we keep walking.
The row of chambers has turned into a blur. I don't look at at the doors or the names anymore; I've stopped imagining the faces of people I know well behind these panels. I don't know how many we've passed – hundreds, certainly. I don't want to think about what this means.
Snape, who is walking a step or two ahead of me – his hearing must be good, as he always stops when I do, without looking back at me – suddenly halts, putting out an arm to stop me from walking right past him. Annoyed, I push his arm away.
I wish I hadn't, not when I see what made him stop.
One of the chambers has malfunctioned. The door is half-open, and I see enough of the contents inside that I double over and throw up right there on the floor. It's mostly bile, I think numbly; I wonder when I last ate some actual food … But the thought of food is not a good thought to have right now, so I banish it and take hold of the hand that has appeared next to me and use it to pull myself up again. Snape lets go of me as soon as I'm standing; his face looks mildly green, too, and he's keeping his mouth firmly shut.
Wordlessly, he moves away from the chamber and walks on. I follow him, but not without taking a look at the name: Miles Bletchley, B**, 01295881.
The name is familiar. Wasn't he in Slytherin, a year or two above me? That would mean … Oh. Damn. Snape would have been his Head of House.
I won't ask him about Bletchley. The sight was enough to give me nightmares – as if I didn't have enough of those already – for years to come. I don't want to know how it may have affected him.
We keep walking.
I really want some water.
We keep walking, and I keep my eyes on the floor. It's completely uniform. Seamless. I wonder if it's been cast in one piece, or if the seams are there but so narrow that I cannot see them.
'There is a door ahead.' Snape's voice shatters the silence, so loud that I jump. I raise my eyes and yes, there is indeed a door. Two doors, even. I cannot see any handles, but if there's a door, there must be a way to open it … Unless it's fully automatic, I think, but I'd rather not consider that possibility.
Snape, with his long legs, reaches the door first, and he's already looking at the keypad on the wall next to it when I catch up with him. His head is tilted and he looks thoughtful.
'We need a passcode,' he says. 'Any ideas?'
I don't have any. Except … 'Try 0116398,' I suggest. It's the number that was next to my chamber, with my name. I seem to have memorised it without any effort. I don't think it will work, but it's the only thing that occurs to me.
He puts the code in and presses a green button.
The doors slide open. We're free to leave.
I don't know what I expected. Answers, probably. Something that would tell us the where and the when and the why and the how.
I didn't expect another corridor.
Fortunately, this one is different. There are no stasis chambers, for starters. And it's much shorter, and wider, and it curves a little, and I see more doors along one side of it … and round little windows along the other wall.
I forget about everything else and rush to the first little window I see.
At first, all I see is darkness. Vast and limitless darkness, deeper than any night sky I've ever seen. Then I start noticing the details – tiny pinpricks of light clustered in some parts of it, as if someone had taken a needle with a very fine point and randomly stabbed at backlit black cloth a few dozen times. And some parts of it look a bit more black while others, still black, seem lighter, somehow, and it almost looks as if they move, crawling along at a snail's pace.
I know, of course, deep down, that it's us who are moving, but right now, I don't want to think about that yet.
Snape is standing at another porthole, for that's what these round little windows must be, staring right ahead. Even in the muted light I can see a vein pulsing in his temple. His back is stiff as a ramrod and his hands are clenched into fists. I wonder what he's thinking about.
I clear my throat. He doesn't turn to me, but the way his body tenses and then relaxes again tells me that he heard me. I've become better at reading people's body language since I started working at the Ministry; it's so boring there, and people so often pretend to ignore others, or pretend to listen to them, or pretend to be interested – or bored – that it's become a necessity of a kind … at least to those of us who intend to move onwards and upwards.
This isn't quite the onwards and upwards that I had in mind, I have to say.
I really do want to say something. This silence … It's weighing me down. I enjoy silence –sometimes, when I'm home alone – when it's a welcome respite from the constant noise everywhere. But here and now, it's oppressive. I have no idea what is going on and I hate that, and I need to talk to someone about it, but there's only Snape here and I fear that he'd hate functioning as a sounding board to me.
Why does it have to be Snape? Why couldn't it be someone else to wake up when I did?
I could really use Harry's companionship here and now, and the problem solving skills he's been developing in Auror training. Or Ron – I wish it was him here with me. In a fit of honesty I admit to myself that he probably wouldn't be of any use trying to get to the bottom of this, but at least I'd feel less alone.
Frankly, if I could choose only one, the person I'd prefer to have with me would be Kingsley – smart and skilled and brave and friendly – or Bill, for the same reasons. But I don't even know whether they're here, in one of those boxes we passed, or not.
However, wishes don't count, and all I have is Snape. Snape will have to do.
'This explains so much,' Snape mutters, so quietly that I wonder if he's even realised he's said the words aloud.
I don't know about him, but it explains nothing to me. So I clear my throat again, trying to find the best way to formulate my questions – or the way least likely to get my head bitten off – when he continues, in a louder voice this time, so I'm clearly expected to pay attention.
'The disappearances,' he says. 'Do you remember the disappearances?'
He turns to me at last. Finally, a question I can answer.
'Of course I remember. I mean, it's been front page news in the Daily Prophet for months now. There were just a dozen new cases yesterday …'
I trail off, as I realise what he means. It feels like a dam has broken in my mind and the memories start flooding back. The people – some of the names I recognised, they were names I'd seen in the news. People who had disappeared mysteriously overnight. It had started around six months ago; no one paid attention to it at first, with only a few people going missing here and there. It was only when Eos Gamp, one of the better-liked members of the Wizengamot disappeared, that people really started taking notice.
At one point, we'd all been scared. I know Harry and the other Aurors were working on finding the vanished people, and that rogue Death Eaters were suspected as the culprits, but then the disappearances seemed to have stopped and … Well, no one I actually knew had gone missing, and while it was somewhat worrying, there didn't seem to be much I could do about it personally, or at least that was what I – and others – told myself at the time.
Until people had started disappearing again, about two weeks ago. From Hogsmeade, London, and the Ministry; known Death Eater sympathizers as well as people who had fought against Voldemort. There was no pattern. And no one knew what was going on.
'You went missing,' Snape says, 'yesterday. Or at least what I think of as yesterday. The day before the last day I remember.'
I try to think about it, but my mind is a blank.
'My theory is,' he continues, 'that whoever took us also Obliviated our short-term memories. You cannot recall anything from your disappearance, can you?'
He nods. 'I thought as much.'
He doesn't say so, but I assume he remembers nothing either.
We stay quiet for a while. I'm mulling over the new information. Snape is staring out of the porthole again.
'Where are we?' I ask at last, raising my voice. I'm not expecting him to answer but I cannot keep the question inside me any longer.
'You are on board the New World 14, Class A intergalactic starship, C wing, section 34.'
The voice is smooth, friendly, female, and obviously computerised. And it makes me jump.
Snape is looking at the ceiling now. I look up, too, but can't see a thing … Oh. There's a tiny grill right above us, no bigger than my thumbnail. This must be the loudspeaker.
I'm still trying to process the words we just heard. I mean, obviously I'd already realised it on some level – the stasis chambers, the sterile corridors, the portholes, the view outside – but to have it confirmed …
This cannot be real. This must be someone's idea of a joke. This cannot be happening. Or it must be an experiment ... It would be easy enough to replicate the view and the surroundings, even the stasis chambers – Muggles could do it with their technology, never mind what could be done with magic.
Then my mind flashes back to what was once Miles Bletchley, and I gag.
Not a joke.
'Who is in charge of the ship?' Snape asks, authority in his voice.
'This information is classified. Level one authorisation required.'
He swears under his breath. 'Is anyone else … Are there any other people awake?'
'My records show two life forms currently not in stasis.'
'That's us,' I say.
He throws me an irritated glance. 'Thank you. I realised that.'
I wince. And say, directing my question to the ceiling, feeling silly as I do so, before I have time to reconsider, 'Could you direct us to the nearest toilets?'
'Certainly. To reach the nearest facilities, take the third door to your left, and then go straight ahead.'
The computerised voice is polite and impersonal. I could get used to this. She makes a better partner for conversation than Snape, in any case.
I start towards the door, when Snape asks the computer: 'Where are our wands?'
'This information is classified. Level one authorisation required.'
I don't like the sound of this. I wonder how one gets level one authorisation … Still, right now there are other, more pressing concerns. I don't care if Snape has more questions to ask; there is time for more questions later.
To my relief, the door opens automatically.
I find the loos without problems. It's a fascinating room – large and round, with a multitude of separate cubicles. The ship, if this is what it really is, must be meant for a large crew.
I'm afraid for a moment that 'the facilities' would be too futuristic and confusing, but apart from everything being automatic, it's much the same as what I'm used to. Except for the lack of toilet paper; I gasp as I find out to my surprise that the toilet has an automatic, built-in bidet. After that, the warm air, also dispensed automatically, doesn't shock me.
I wash my hands in the sink inside the cubicle and take the welcome opportunity to rinse my mouth and drink. The water tastes of nothing but smells stale, as does everything here; stale and processed. I have some vague memories of hearing about water purification and recycling systems on Muggle spaceships, which I currently wish I didn't have.
I leave the cubicle feeling at least somewhat refreshed. Snape steps out of another one at the far end of the room, a sour look on his face. My brain supplies the memory of the surprise bidet, and I try to hide a smile at that thought.
'I asked the computer about the location of the control room,' he says as we leave the toilets. 'I don't know if we'll find anything useful there, but unless you have any other ideas, I think we should start there.'
I'm still surprised at him sharing any information with me voluntarily, but I agree quickly. It's worth a try, and I don't want us to split up in any case.
The walk to the control room is long and boring. I used to dream about travelling to space as a little girl, years before I knew anything about magic being real or about me being a witch. It seemed so glamorous then – exciting, adventurous, heroic.
It never occurred to me then that travelling in space could mean endless treks through long, dull corridors.
Snape doesn't bother to tell me the directions, but as I trust him not to run off and leave me behind, I'm happy enough just to follow him. At some point, I'm sure I will insist on a more active involvement, but right now, it's more important to conserve my energy.
Eventually we reach the control room. The door slides open as soon as Snape touches the panel; I guess that if no one is supposed to be awake on the ship, there is little need for keeping doors locked. Although that does make one wonder why bother locking the door leading to the stasis chambers.
The hum in the control room is different than in the rest of the ship. More insistent. I can actually hear it, not just feel it.
The room is octagonal; the walls are completely covered with panels, monitors, instruments and machinery of every possible kind. There is a short old-fashioned spiral staircase in the middle of the room, leading up to a second level. I'm surprised; I'd have expected something more high-tech. A lift, at least. But then, I'd also have expected the corridors to have moving strips of floor, like they do in Muggle airports, considering the length of them.
There are probably good reasons for all this.
It occurs to me that I don't even know whether this is a Muggle spaceship or a Wizarding one. Looking at all the technology, I'd think Muggle. But Muggles in 2001 wouldn't have technology like this … Would they?
Snape is already hurrying up the staircase.
'Granger!' he shouts, his voice unnaturally loud in this room full of echoes. 'Come here!'
I hurry up, joining him just as he reaches the upper level.
'The view,' I whisper. 'It's amazing.'
Snape says something that I miss, because my eyes are riveted to the transparent walls surrounding us. We're standing in the middle of space, a vast darkness, separated from it only by a nearly invisible layer of glass. My head spins for a moment and I grasp the handrail of the staircase to steady myself.
It's a cliché, and I wince when I catch myself at the thought, but once my head stops spinning, my heart soars at this sight. It does. I mean, I can almost feel it leap in my chest, so that my hand goes instinctively to my breast to keep it from escaping.
I don't think I'll ever want to leave this place.
Snape is holding on to the thin railing running along the walls. His knuckles are white and his face is unreadable.
A few minutes later, he turns around sharply and takes the stairs back to the control room. I glance at him as he goes but decide to stay up here a bit longer, unable to tear myself away from the magnificence surrounding me.
When I look down again, I see Snape tapping away at a keyboard. He's standing with his back stooped, and the staircase obstructs my view, so if there's a monitor in front of him, I cannot see it. I take one last look at the space around me and climb down with a heavy heart, curiosity getting the better of me at last.
'Bastards,' he mutters. 'Fucking bastards. I can't believe they did this.'
I perk my ears up at this. Has he found out something?
Lines of text are running down the screen overlooking the keyboard. Names, nothing but names. Wizarding names. Familiar names. Names of friends; names of people I know in passing. Names and numbers.
'They're all here.' Snape's voice – the voice that has haunted both my dreams and nightmares, doling out hurtful remarks in smooth, silky tones – is cold and flat. 'Everyone. Except for a handful of high-ranking Ministry officials, including the Minister himself.'
So they didn't get Kingsley, I think in relief. Whoever 'they' are.
'Harry?' I ask then, my heart thumping in my chest, hoping against hope. 'And Ron?'
I fear the obvious answer – Which part of 'everyone' did you not understand, Miss Granger? – but Snape just nods. 'Your friends as well.'
I clench my teeth, but there is a part of me that is relieved at this. If they're here, they're alive. We can get them out and work things out together. Once we've found a way to release the people from stasis.
I am not thinking about Bletchley; I'm not.
I look at Snape again, those long pale fingers running over the keys as if he's been doing it all his life. I've seen him holding a quill, dipping it into red ink; I've seen him holding a knife and chopping ingredients; I've seen him holding a wand and wielding it with such effortless elegance. This is a man who was born to be a wizard. I could never have imagined him doing something so … Muggle.
'I didn't know you could use a computer,' I say at last.
'There are many things you don't know about me.'
He's right, of course. Still, I wonder where he learned. And more to the point, even if he had reason to learn to use a Muggle computer, that is one thing … tapping away at a keyboard in a spaceship control room is something else.
I open my mouth to ask him about it when he continues, his eyes still on the keys and the screen.
'Under ordinary circumstances, I'd never tell you this, Granger. Make no mistake about it,' he says, and I believe him. 'However, everything I've seen during the last hour … I still don't know exactly what is going on here, and why, out of everyone on board, only you and I are awake, but as it is, if we're to find answers, it might help if you knew some things about me.'
I nod; then I realise his back is still turned to me and he cannot see me. I open my mouth again, but – again – before I can say anything, he continues talking, clearly in full lecture mode by now.
'I never considered returning to Hogwarts,' he says. 'Instead, I was approached by certain people I'd known for a while, and they made me a rather interesting job offer. I agreed; it would be something to keep me busy and at the same time make sure I would stay out of the public eye.'
The wheels in my mind are whirring and turning, clicking into place. Or so I hope.
'Are you an Unspeakable?' I blurt out.
I grin, happy that I worked that out before he could tell me.
'As it happens, our department has been – had been, I suppose, for there is hardly a department left now – looking into the disappearances. Along with many other departments, of course; I'm sure that you know that the Aurors haven't been idle either. However, we have certain … unique … skills and methods, which enabled us to dig deeper. Or so we thought.'
He's standing upright now, his shoulders tense.
'We seemed to run into obstacles at every turn. The Minister himself promised us every possible assistance; he said he'd do whatever it took to help us to get to the bottom of this. However, and it pains me to say so as I used to hold Shacklebolt in high esteem, I have reason to believe that he was, shall we say, not entirely honest with us.'
I shake my head. There must be something wrong with my ears. I cannot possibly have heard what I think I just did. Kingsley, having something to do with this?
He turns and looks at me at last. 'I'm sorry, Granger. I know you and Shacklebolt were on friendly terms.'
To say the least, yes. Although of course it's been a while now, and we did remain friends.
I wonder why he'd even know that. Perhaps it was part of his job to know what the Minister was up to; perhaps it's simply his past as a spy. Information being important, all that.
'Computer, pause,' he says, and the names on the screen stop scrolling.
'So you never really found out what was happening?' I ask.
He shrugs. 'No. Only that more people were disappearing, at a faster rate, than was reported. But we haven't found out – didn't find out – what happened to them.'
'Well, we know that now,' I mutter.
He is scrutinising the list of names again. 'I think … We need to go over this in detail later. There may be something here that points us the right way.'
I like the way he says 'we'. I don't know what has happened to the Snape I used to know – it's still the same man, clearly, but he seems mellower, somehow.
Perhaps he's still recovering from the effects of stasis.
I have discovered Snape's secret for his expert handling of the computer. He asks the computer to do things, and the computer obliges. Only if it's something we're allowed to see, though – whenever we ask something that might tell us things we really want to know, we inevitably run into 'This information is classified. Level one authorisation required.' although sometimes it's level two and sometimes level three.
I don't know what level authorisation we have. That information is, apparently, classified as well. As is the information about how to get the required level authorisation.
I'm not usually one to engage in wanton violence but at times, the computer's responses are enough to make me want to punch someone – or something, preferably the computer – really hard. Except that it wouldn't help us, and it would only serve to make me feel good for a few moments. Sigh.
We've pored over the lists of names for hours, when his stomach rumbles.
This reminds me that I'm hungry, too. I'm used to working long days at the Ministry, often with no lunch, so I didn't notice it earlier, but now, it's impossible to ignore.
Snape addresses the computer again. We've found out that it's easier to get an answer when it's addressed directly, although it will also respond to general questions if it's not immediately obvious that we're talking to each other. Even rhetorical ones, or silly ones, as I found out earlier when I asked it why there are so many stars in the sky. Not that I got an answer, because that information is apparently also classified, and Snape threw me an irritated look, so I stopped.
I know that I should be focusing completely on our situation and the tasks at hand, instead of fooling around – I never fool around! – but … I blame hunger, and I blame my brain still not being completely up to speed. Spending some time in suspended animation can do that, I suppose.
'Computer?' I ask. 'How much time have we spent on this ship?'
I don't know why it hasn't occurred to either of us to ask this so far. Maybe we both thought it would be classified information anyway.
'Six hundred and twenty-eight years, four months and seventeen days,' is the calm, friendly response.
I blink. I expected … I don't know what I expected. Six months, maybe?
Snape does a quick calculation in his head. 'So the year is 2629 now?' He looks calm, but his hands are trembling and his voice goes up a little when he asks that.
'Confirmed,' says the computer.
I sink to the floor, digging my fingertips into the lukewarm, pliant surface.
It's all too much to take in. Even after everything I've been through in my relatively short life – well, a very long life now – this is just too … With everything else, with the fighting and the running and the facing of occasionally near certain death, I was always prepared, always ready; I always had some idea of what to expect. But this? No.
Snape is saying something, but I can only hear my blood rushing through my head and my heart is beating in my ears and someone has dimmed the lights – no, turned them off – and the floor is tilting and …
When I come to, it takes me a few moments to realise where I am. Still in this room with far too many computers and screens and strange devices, the purpose of which I can't even to guess at. It takes me even longer to realise that the constricting sensation I'm experiencing is caused by an arm awkwardly placed around me, keeping me from falling over. And someone is saying my name, trying to catch my attention.
As soon as I mumble something in response, the arm is withdrawn and I nearly topple anyway. I manage to put out a hand and stop the slide down.
'Welcome back.' The dry voice belongs to Snape – well, who else would it be.
I feel strong enough to get up now, so I do so. He's still sitting on the floor, looking up at me.
'How long was I out?' I ask.
'Not long,' he says. 'Ten minutes, maybe fifteen.'
I blanch. He considers that not long? A fainting spell that long is surely a sign of something being seriously wrong with me.
'Are you sure?' I ask, trying to keep the panic out of my voice.
He looks at me, confusion in his eyes, and shakes his head. 'No, you're right. It must have been less than that. I … It felt like a long time.'
'Two minutes and eighteen seconds,' the computer interrupts. I must look as relieved as Snape does!
'I think we both need some sustenance,' he says. 'I asked the computer about food earlier and I've been told there are some emergency rations on board. It's a bit of a walk from what I can tell, but we should manage.'
Walking is nice. Some fresh air should clear my head … Oh, right. Not much chance of fresh air around here. Some stale air, then.
It takes us about half an hour to get to our destination. If I never see a spaceship corridor again, it'll be too soon, but I have a nasty feeling that I'll be seeing a lot more of them.
I also feel at times that we're being followed, or watched, but surreptitious glances over my shoulder have only revealed more empty corridors. It probably is nothing.
Not a ghost, anyway; the idea crossed my mind earlier but when I voiced the question, Snape gave me that look and then the computer informed me that there is no spectral activity registered on board the ship.
It's just creepy, being here, knowing that almost all of the UK's wizards and witches are here with us – and yet not really with us – so very far from home.
Home. My brain is still reeling from what the computer told us. We're six hundred years away from home? That … How is this even possible? I know for certain that there is no way this is 2001 technology at work here, neither with this ship nor with the stasis chambers. Muggle or not. Time travel? But we don't have time travel abilities of this sort, either … and if time travel was involved, why put everyone into suspended animation?
It makes no sense and it makes my head hurt.
And Kingsley being involved with this … No, that's just not possible, no matter what Snape says. Snape's wrong, it's as simple as that. I'll have to talk to him about that later.
But first I need to get some food.
The food comes in little silvery packages, like in one of those sci-fi novels. I'm glad the cupboards are labelled, with little lists of the contents attached to the doors. It's all surprisingly low-tech – I don't know what I expected, info screens perhaps – but maybe there's a reason for this, just as there's a reason for corridors without moving floors. Saving energy, for example.
Some of the foods sound foreign to me, others are reassuringly familiar. I pick a packet from the cupboard labelled spag bol, noticing that Snape does the same. I rip it open and realise that it's self-heating. There don't appear to be any plates or forks around, which complicates things … eating this straight out of the packet is messy business, so I'll just have to be careful not to dribble any on myself. That would be embarrassing, and also, if it turns out that I have to wear these clothes for a while, although I hope not, I'd rather try and keep them as clean as possible.
We eat in silence. I wish there was background noise – music, talking, anything at all; I'm not even wishing for the wind to howl or birds to chirp outside! – because slurping and chewing are not the most appetising sounds ever.
Snape finds a packet of tissues in his pocket and offers me one. I keep being surprised by him. Who'd have known the man has manners? Although I suppose he must have; at Hogwarts, we just didn't really move in the same circles.
I wipe my fingers and mouth and realise I'm exhausted. I really shouldn't even think about sleep at this time – not when we have so many questions and still no real answers. But on the other hand, we're in the middle of space, six hundred years – six hundred years! – away from home, and it's highly unlikely that answers couldn't wait for tomorrow. Or, well, until after we've slept.
Apparently Snape has been thinking along the same lines, because he clears his throat and mentions that it might be sensible to get some rest.
A few questions to the computer lead us to sleeping quarters. There's a whole row of single rooms along a corridor; about fifty in my estimation. It looks like ships like these are meant to have a crew, although ours clearly doesn't.
I hesitate for a moment. Could I – should I? – ask Snape to share a room with me? I think it's safe, but … honestly, I'm rather creeped out by everything we've experienced today. I'd feel better if we didn't split up. But when I look up again, he's already gone through the door next to the one I'm standing at.
I sigh. I'll be fine. It's not like I wanted to share a room with Snape anyway.
I'll just have to make sure the door doesn't get locked. I don't know if I trust the door mechanisms here to open or close when they need to.
The bed is narrow and a little hard, and the blanket – made of some fibres I don't recognise – is rough, but there's an en-suite toilet and even a tiny shower, so I'm not complaining.
I lie awake for a while, mulling over everything that has happened. A part of me hopes to wake up in the morning and find it's all been a dream. Another, although much smaller, part of me hopes that it's not a dream. It's horrible to feel this way, I think; if it's all real, if it's really happening, then it means something terrifying and dreadful has happened, and of course, people have died, and home … I'll never get back home again. I'll never see my parents again. Not that they know I exist, but even so.
But that tiny part of me, which I believed had disappeared forever – the part yearning for adventure, even though I've had enough adventure to last me a lifetime or two – is whispering excitedly in my mind, and there's a mystery to be solved, and … Well, it's a lot more intriguing than an average day at my desk job at the MLE, isn't it?
I wake up to insistent knocking on my door.
Oh yes. Snape. Space. I'm on a spaceship, with Snape for company.
'Coming!' I shout and close my eyes again, just for a moment.
'Granger, get up.' This time, the voice is much closer and not muffled by the door. I open my eyes and blink. Snape's standing right by my bed, looking annoyed.
At least I'm covered, which is a good thing, as I fell asleep naked.
Of course, this also means there's a problem. 'I can't get up as long as you're standing there,' I mumble.
Snape opens his mouth as if to ask something, and then closes it again. There's a slight blush creeping up his cheeks. So he worked it out, did he? Good. Although he's not the only one embarrassed here, I realise, as I feel heat spreading across my own face.
He turns around and leaves without a word, so I climb out of bed, trusting that the door will stay closed, and make my way to my clothes. I look longingly at the shower but decide that it can wait – I'd rather not make Snape wait any longer and it's not like I got dirty during the night. When I slept. Whatever. I realise I have no idea what time of day it may be. Perhaps I should ask the computer. I wonder if we have authorisation for that.
We have a quick breakfast – the computer informed us that it's 16:27 by 21st century Earth standard time – and discuss our plans for the day. I don't particularly want to go back to the corridor with the stasis chambers, but I think – and Snape agrees – that now that we have lists, which the computer generously spat out at us, we should go and check them. Not that this is likely to give us answers, but anything else we could think of yesterday was met with a dead end.
I shudder to think of what might be waiting for us. But it's better to know than to wonder about it, which I'd do anyway.
It takes us the whole day. And it's an arduous task – checking off the names one by one with the pencil Snape procured from one of his pockets, my heart feeling heavier with every familiar name. I choke up when we reach the door labelled Harry Potter, >B***, 0116324 and nearly tear up when we get to Ron Weasley, >B**, 0116672. It may not have worked out between us, but he and Harry are still my best friends. Thinking of the boys imprisoned in there, seemingly lifeless, cut off from everything and everyone … In the end, I have to move on, but it hurts to tear myself away.
Snape and I try a few more doors, but they stay firmly closed, and there is no obvious way to open them from this side. It would probably have to be done through the computer. Maybe if we could get to our wands, then we might manage. Although we'd need to be careful – I have no idea how the system works, and I wouldn't want to kill anyone by accident.
I wonder why the two of us are awake and no one else is. Why awake? Why us in particular? Is it just a coincidence? Did the ship get bored? Was there a malfunction, but one that ended in a good way for us? Why aren't we allowed to know the answers to those questions? What's the point of having a nice, friendly, polite computer if it's not telling us these things?
Malfunctioning is certainly a possibility, as we come across several more chambers where the systems have failed. A few of those doors are closed; we only see the shape of the remains inside, slumped against the door. Some are open, and I wish they weren't.
At least it's all people I don't know at all, or at least not personally. Snape does, some of them anyway – I'm certain of that, from the way he tenses those times. He doesn't say anything, and I don't ask, but towards the end of the day I'm wishing there was something I could do. Were he one of the boys, I could pull him into a hug and tell him that it's all right (not that it is; it never will be), but he isn't, so I don't.
I must be losing my mind here. I cannot possibly want to hug Snape.
It's a depressing task, but by the time we've been at it for several hours, Snape is starting to have this look about him – the sort of look that tells you that someone is very close to finding a solution. I'm not, but then out of all these people in those chambers I can only claim to know a handful and have a passing familiarity with a few more. Snape must know so many more of them. If there is any information to be found just by their identities, he's the one more likely to discover it.
Finally we're done with this corridor, and our list. We head back to the control room in silence. I'm dragging my feet; I used to be fairly fit at Hogwarts, and the year on the run did my body good in some ways, but the three years of MLE desk work haven't helped – neither have six hundred and twenty-eight years in stasis.
In the absence of chairs, we make ourselves comfortable on the floor. Snape spreads the sheets out in front of us.
'I was wrong about "everyone" being taken,' he says, getting right to the point.
I nod. I'd noticed a few people missing. Justin Finch-Fletchley, for example, and I don't think he was high up in the Ministry.
'There are a few exceptions, and I am obviously not familiar with every single wizard or witch living in the British Isles,' he continues, 'but from what I can tell, there's a relatively high number of Muggle-borns missing, as well as several half-bloods with strong connections to the Muggle world.'
He's right, I realise. He's so very right.
I'm thinking aloud now. 'This means … Whoever did this, and whatever their reasons, they didn't want the Muggles to notice.'
Snape nods. 'Quite. With the resources and the sheer numbers that Muggles have, the searches they could have organised would have been thorough and potentially risky. They must have known that disappearances would be looked into, but as long as those efforts could be contained within the wizarding world, the risk must have been worth it.'
It's so obvious now that I'd almost want to slap myself for missing it.
'And if Muggle-borns – or half-bloods of mostly Muggle backgrounds, those that still have strong ties to the Muggle world – had gone missing, their families would not have stood by and informed only Aurors,' I say. 'They'd have notified Muggle authorities as well, if not right away, then as soon as they realised that the Aurors weren't finding the missing people.'
That's one step closer to finding an answer to the mystery. I have no idea what our discovery means, though, but at least we've made some progress. Solving this riddle doesn't seem as hopeless as it did just a few hours ago.
I look at the lists again.
'I wonder,' I say, and pause for a moment. Again, I am at a disadvantage compared to Snape who knows so much more about all the people involved. But the longer I stare at the names, and the codes after the names, the more I'm certain that there is a pattern.
Snape is looking at me, his head tilted.
'I wonder,' I say again, 'if those codes have something to do with a person's magical abilities.'
He takes the sheets and browses through them quickly, humming a few times as he does so.
'I think I see what you mean,' he says. 'There are relatively few As, quite a lot of Bs, and a high number of Cs. I think that A marks the people of higher than average intellect, with B being average, and C being, well …'
'And the number of asterisks might signify one's magical strength.' Harry is one of the very few with three of them, as is McGonagall, and to my surprise, Molly Weasley – the only one out of the Weasleys. It's hard for me to acknowledge this, but while I know I'm good with a wand, better than most even, that has always had more to do with skill and practice than raw strength.
There are no squibs on the ship. I'm quite sure about that.
'Good work, Granger,' he mutters almost absent-mindedly, tracing his index finger along a sheet. 'I don't know what X stands for, but the caret means former Death Eaters and convicted criminals.'
I wince as he says that, but the evidence speaks for itself. He doesn't seem to be bothered by the admission.
So that's another piece of the puzzle solved. And again, I don't know what this information is good for, if anything at all. It may all turn out to be completely irrelevant.
We still don't know who is behind all this, why almost the entire Wizarding population of the British Isles seems to have been kidnapped, or where we're heading to.
'Computer?' I ask, as an unpleasant thought strikes me. 'How much time is left until we reach our destination?'
If it tells me that there are another six hundred years to go, I will scream. And prepare to lose my mind. And maybe find out if there's a way of getting back into the stasis chamber and hooking myself up to those wires and tubes again.
'Six months and fourteen days.'
Snape's face mirrors the relief I'm feeling. He must have been wondering about that, too.
As I bend forward to collect the sheaf of papers from the floor, I see the corner of another, yellower sheet peeking out from under one of the computer cabinets. I tease it out, taking care to handle it gently; it's obvious from the colour that it's been there for a long time.
It's not paper but parchment, and as I fold it open, aware of Snape peering over my shoulder, I'm faced with only two words, written in ink and in handwriting I know well.
'I'm sorry,' it says.
Snape is sitting on the floor in the room I've come to think of as the kitchen, even if it doesn't offer any way to actually prepare food. Perhaps I should think of it as the pantry, but for some reason, it just doesn't work. It feels too strange to use that word on a spaceship. Too alien. Too much like home.
There is a small pile of empty packages next to him, so he must have finished breakfast already. He's leaning back against a cupboard and focusing on one of the empty packages, which is levitating in the air, about a foot from the floor.
It's an impressive sight.
I've tried wandless magic every now and then – especially as it would have come in handy a few times during our year on the run – but I haven't had the time or the patience to master anything but a wandless Summoning spell, and that only to retrieve my wand. Which, incidentally, hasn't worked here; I've tried a few times in the last few days, in various areas of the ship, but if our wands are on board with us, they must be locked away securely.
If we don't find our wands soon, as just finding a way out of here seems to be out of the question, perhaps I should use the opportunity to practice my own skills as well. I have a feeling that I'll go stir-crazy very soon if I don't find things to keep me occupied. So far, there has been enough to take in that I haven't had time to get bored, but that may change.
And another thing – if Snape and I keep our conversation to a minimum for much longer, I will scream. The silence, it's maddening. I've never been the most social of people, and I've always been more than happy to keep to myself, with only a book or three for company, but as long as I can remember, I've always been surrounded by noise. The Gryffindor common room, which made me ask my parents ear plugs for Christmas that first year, was in a class of its own, but even living on my own these last few years, there's always been the sounds of cars passing by, the crows having loud arguments out in the street, the hooting of the owls delivering the mail, the occasional rattling of the fridge.
Here, unless Snape deigns to talk to me, there is nothing. I have to concentrate to hear the ship and that takes effort. I imagine it's like being in the middle of a desert, with no life around me, except that even in a desert there would be sounds of nature.
It's for that reason that I risk his wrath and chirp a 'Good morning!' – as cheerful as I can make it.
He looks up, his concentration broken. He looks tired and his cheeks are dark with stubble. The empty package floats down on the floor.
'Good morning,' he says. 'You slept well, I trust.'
It's not meant to be a question, but I reply anyway. 'I did. At least once I fell asleep.' Or once I fell asleep again, I add to myself; the first few hours were anything but restful.
He doesn't need to know about the hours I spent pondering over that short note, so unmistakably in Kingsley's handwriting. And he doesn't need to know about the nightmares that plague me. It was starting to get better, at home, but the last few days have brought them out in droves again.
'And you?' I ask. I suspect he's the sort of man who'd loathe small talk, but I won't know until I try. Besides, he started it. Sort of.
His raised eyebrow tells me that he knows what I'm doing, but to my surprise he answers civilly. 'Well enough, thank you.'
Perhaps I should stop being surprised by him. There's clearly more to the man than the sarcastic, rude professor I used to know.
He hesitates for a moment, and then says: 'I think we should explore the ship some more today. There may be more clues around – more notes left for us, or someone, to discover. Unless you have other ideas?'
I shrug. 'Not really. Oh – maybe we'll come across our wands!'
'It's possible,' he agrees, although there is doubt in his voice. 'I have some skill with wandless magic, but only for small, simple spells. And we might need more than that.'
There's that hesitation again. 'I don't know if you've felt this, but at times, I've had the feeling that we're being followed. Watched. Obviously it may just be the ship's surveillance system – there are cameras everywhere – but I'm not sure.'
He's not looking at me as he says that. I think he's maybe embarrassed about this – talking about intuition, a sixth sense, of things he can't possibly be certain about. But as a spy, he must know to listen to all his senses.
'I have had the same feeling,' I admit. 'It may just be the cameras, as you say, but I'd feel a lot better with a wand in my hand.'
'Computer?' Snape asks. 'Is there anyone else here? Apart from us?'
'There are no other life forms currently awake.'
'What about non-life-forms?' I ask. 'Is anyone – or anything – following us around?'
'The systems have registered no unusual activity.'
I look at Snape. He shrugs. It's a non-answer, but I guess this is all we're going to get from the computer on this topic.
I have a quick breakfast – Snape is focusing on levitating the packages again – and then we're ready for the day. I pick up a bit of food and drink to take with us; Snape follows my lead and does the same.
We're exploring a spaceship. A real spaceship!
Oh, how I wish it were as exciting as it sounds. In reality, it means more corridors, some longer than others but otherwise identical in their uniformity and staleness. It surprises me that in some of the smaller side passages there is a faint layer of dust on the floor; I'd assumed from the lack of it elsewhere that it's one of those spaceship things – that dust just doesn't accumulate here.
And still the feeling of being watched. Now that we've mentioned it aloud, it's harder to ignore than before. I look around furtively, trying not to be too obvious about it, and see nothing. I think it's just our minds playing tricks on us. It must be.
We're also starting to talk a bit more than before. Mostly it's remarks and comments of the 'Nothing here – let's try the next cabin' or 'This passage here; should we turn left or go on along the main corridor?' kind, but it's better than nothing.
We explore the crew cabins first, looking for notes or other clues, but there is nothing to be found. There's also nothing of interest anywhere else, although I have to stop and admire the view every time we come to an outer corridor with portholes. It's providing a perfect counter-balance to the depressing sameness of the ship – there's sameness out there, too, but it's a different kind of sameness. An uplifting kind.
It's about lunch time – at least that's what my stomach suggests; without a watch or a wand, it's impossible for us to tell the time any other way – when I spot something else out there.
'Look,' I say to Snape. I keep my voice down to a whisper, even though I know there's no reason for it.
Out there – I have no way to tell how far away from us, as I have no sense of distance here – is another spaceship, a huge spaceship, and it's floating along in space parallel to us.
It's big. I don't know how big, but it's huge.
Did I mention it's huge?
And although I don't know how far it is from us, it's really quite close. At least close in terms of space-distances. Because not only can I tell that it's a spaceship, I can also read the name painted in massive letters on its side.
New World 27, it says.
My legs feel like jelly. I want to sink down on the floor, but I cannot, as I need to stay glued to the porthole and stare.
Snape's next to me, at the porthole to my right, holding on to the sides of it so tensely that when I look at him, I see that his knuckles are white. Then he turns to me and says, 'We have to get to the control room, now.'
We run. Well, most of the time I jog, with a sprint now and then to catch up with his longer legs. I wheeze, short of breath, as we finally reach the control room – was it really so far away? – and then we rush up to the second level. I'm nearly elbowing him out of the way on the staircase but then I remember whom I'm dealing with, so I keep my elbows to myself and only give him a slight nudge with my hip as our sides touch on the narrow steps.
The view from the observation area is even more awe-inspiring. I wonder if this other ship is like ours, because it occurs to me that I have no real idea what ours looks like, apart from oblong. It looks like it might, with its long narrow shape, a bit reminiscent of a dumbbell with both ends thicker than the middle part, but then, how would I know?
New World 27.
The meaning of this suddenly hits me and I reel from the impact.
I turn around and notice that my companion is no longer there. I peer downstairs and see him there, staring at the computer but not doing anything else, from what I can tell.
'Snape?' I call out, a little unsure how to address him, as 'Professor' is clearly not suitable any longer, but wanting to make sure the computer realises I'm not directing my questions at it.
He looks up.
'If we're on New World 14, and this out there is New World 27, then that means …' I know what I think this means, but I don't want to say it out loud.
I try and imagine a whole fleet of spaceships out there, all carrying the same cargo as ours. Witches and wizards from all over the world – if we're right, and they are all the same. Ours only has the magical population from the British Isles on it; although I have no idea if everyone from Ireland has been caught, all of my few Irish acquaintances were on the list.
'Computer,' Snape says crisply. 'That ship, the one passing us – can you establish contact?'
I roll my eyes, knowing that Snape can't see it. Even if it were possible to contact that other ship, we're not going to have the authorisation for it. And what are the chances that anyone is awake there anyway?
Still, I listen to the computer's response with interest.
'Affirmative,' it says. 'Would you like to establish contact now?'
'Yes!' I shout from up here, at the same time as Snape gives his reply in more measured tones.
I hurry downstairs and join Snape in front of the largest screen on the wall. It flickers a few times and then comes to life in a display of swirling colour.
'Contact has been established.'
At first, we see nothing, as our eyes adjust from the whirlwind of colour to the darkness that has taken over the screen. Then we realise we're seeing a control room very much like ours, except that it's not a mirror image: there are three people huddled together in front of the screen, two men and a woman. They all look middle-aged, in this strange sort of way where it's hard to tell whether someone is closer to thirty or sixty.
We stare at one another for a few moments; then one of the men on the other ship clears his throat. 'Hallo?' he asks, his voice wary.
'Hello!' I say in response.
'Are you on board the New World 27?' Snape asks.
The man says something that sounds like 'Entschuldigung', and I realise they must be German. My German is very limited – I only know a handful of words that I memorised years ago, before I ever knew I was a witch and we were on holiday in the Swiss Alps.
Snape sighs, and then rattles off something in German. His accent is terrible – even I can tell that much – but from the little I understand, he seems to be reasonably fluent in it.
The woman on the screen is pulling on the man's sleeve. She whispers something into his ear. He nods and lets her take over.
She speaks relatively good English, which is a relief.
The conversation, occasionally disturbed by crackles and the image freezing, doesn't last long. We learn a lot, though, before the connection is cut off.
They've been awake for three weeks, all three of them. No, they have no idea why they were chosen, but a week ago, another two people were awakened.
Everyone in stasis on their ship is magical, of course – no one there but wizards and witches. Not just Germans, but also Dutch, Belgians and Scandinavians, as far as they've been able to tell.
'We do not know who made this happen,' says the woman grimly. 'We think someone in our magical government is in it. Very high-level, very hush-hush. Some people, they go missing already before.'
We nod. Same thing as with us, then.
I feel a little relieved, oddly enough. Whatever Kingsley and others in our Ministry have done, it's not just to do with them. This is much bigger than them – much bigger than just us.
The greatest surprise comes when the Germans tell us that they know where we're headed. Well, where their ship is headed, but I think we can assume we're going the same way. Their computer is apparently either more cooperative, or one of them has an authorisation level high enough to know these things – either way, they know our destination.
It's Gliese 581 d.
That's a bit of an anti-climax, really. I can't say I've ever heard of it. And it doesn't sound awe-inspiring. Or inspiring in any way at all.
The Germans don't know anything about it, either, although they've chatted with their computer, and it turns out that it's a habitable planet. About twenty light-years away from Earth, they say. I wish I could say this means something to me, but really, it's been so very long since Muggle science mattered in my life, although I've always meant to read some physics books for fun someday, when I have the time … If I had been reading up on this, maybe I could calculate how fast this means we're going.
Hmm, maybe I'll sit down and try my hand at that at some point, when I'm really bored. I wonder how good Snape's knowledge of physics and astronomy is; perhaps I could pick his brain about this. I'd like to do that, anyway.
Another thing the Germans don't know is whether it's just habitable or inhabited. I'm suspecting the latter, although in that case I really don't know why anyone would name their planet something as ridiculous as that.
Oh, and they don't have their wands either.
The woman tries to add something – something to do with wands, possibly – but that's when the screen goes blank. We try to restore contact a few times but without any luck.
With all this time they've had to roam around their ship, it worries me that they haven't found their wands. What if we were really wheeled on board without them?
It's not a happy thought.
'Well, that was interesting,' I say a little later.
He's pacing the control room, hands shoved into the pockets of his trousers – he's discarded his outer robe; it's fairly cool on board the ship but all this pacing must be keeping him warm.
'So we're dealing with a global conspiracy,' I say, thinking aloud. 'It's safe to assume that there are at least twenty spaceships en route to, uh, Gliese 581 d, each carrying a number of witches and wizards from different parts of the world.'
'I agree.' He's still pacing. 'Almost the whole magical population of Earth has been kidnapped, it would seem. The question is why? And who would do such a thing?'
'I don't think the perpetrators are necessarily our leaders.' I know I might just be making excuses because I still don't want to think the worst of Kingsley, whom I think of as one of the most loyal, trustworthy and honest wizards I know, but as it's highly unlikely his power and reach would extend to other countries, I feel sure enough to say that. 'Unless all the magical community leaders around the world came together and decided to get rid of their populations, of course; but that wouldn't really leave them anyone to rule, so I don't think it's a likely theory.'
Snape snorts. It's the first time here that he's shown any inclination to laugh, and I find myself grinning at the thought, despite everything.
'Who knows,' he says. 'Perhaps there are benefits in losing most of the magical population. But yes, I agree. I'm sure they were involved in some ways, but I doubt they're the masterminds behind the plan.'
He stops pacing at last and looks around. 'Also, this technology – it's not magical. Everything here seems Muggle-made. I'd want to check it of course to make sure … it's possible to have a magical overlay on Muggle technology, joined together to provide either extra capabilities or protection. But I'm sure that you know that.'
'The Ministry's cars, for example.' I shrug. 'Or the Knight Bus.'
'Yes. Most of such items preserve their Muggle appearance, and you wouldn't know just by looking at them that there is anything magical about them.'
I'm fully aware of that, but I resist the temptation to say so. The man's used to dealing with people less intelligent than he is; I can forgive him a lapse into lecture mode.
For now. Should he keep that up, though, well then …
'Magical overlay or not, it's clearly Muggle technology here,' I say instead. 'But Muggle technology so advanced that I very much doubt it's the Muggles of 2001 that are behind this.'
'Obviously.' His lip curls, and while I bristle, my eyes follow the line of that curl.
I go up to the observation level again and look out. New World 27 must be a faster ship than ours – it's barely visible now, a fleck only marginally larger than the distant stars in the vast darkness surrounding us.
I wonder if we'll manage to make contact with the Germans again, or perhaps another ship, now that we know there are more ships out there heading the same way. It was brief, and so unexpected that it came as a shock. Until that brief conversation, I hadn't even realised how much it would mean to me – knowing that we're not completely on our own; knowing that there are others out there. Others just like us.
It makes me feel a little bit better. Just a tiny bit, but sometimes even a tiny bit helps.
At least if – when – we reach our destination (I don't even wish to consider the possibility that we're going somewhere else, or worse, never arrive anywhere at all), there'll be others there, waiting for us.
I start down the stairs again, passing Snape on his way up, when I freeze.
We're not alone.
My first thought, when looking at the round little object standing at the door, is 'Oh! So cute!' – it reminds me a little of R2-D2, from Star Wars, just more … squashed. My parents were never big on science fiction, but we had all three films on VHS and before Hogwarts I used to watch them often.
I take the last few steps and crouch down on the floor. I'm not quite eye-level with the little robot – for that's what it surely is – but close enough, and I have to resist the temptation to reach out and pet it.
'Hello, little friend,' I say instead. I don't know if it can understand me, but it never hurts to show some kindness to people. Or robots, I suppose.
It makes a whirring sound. A moment later, another one joins it, looking identical to the first one, just as round and squashed.
'Can you understand us?'
That's Snape, still behind me on the stairs, as the voice comes from higher up.
More whirring. The newcomer shuffles around a little. It has a row of blinking lights all around its body, but I have no idea what the blinking might mean.
'Are you in trouble?' I ask, not sure what to say but keeping my tone low and friendly. 'Have you been hurt? Or are you just curious?'
The robot that appeared first blinks rapidly. I shake my head. 'I'm sorry, I don't understand.'
There's a flash of light—
—and then pain, so much pain. I think I cry out but the pain is blinding my mind and I don't really know—
I focus on the pain, forcing it to become something I can deal with; it's not as bad as the Cruciatus Curse, I tell myself, because it really isn't, but oh, does it hurt—
—and then the pain is almost gone, and I'm aware of a dark body on the floor next to mine, crumpled into a heap and emitting a low groan. Snape, gasping for breath.
'Did they just,' I croak, 'attack us?'
He struggles to sit upright. His face relaxes minutely, so the worst of the pain is probably over for him, too.
'I think so.' His voice, normally so smooth, sounds like heavy boots on a gravel path. 'Computer? What the fuck just happened?'
The female voice is pleasant as always. 'Your deductions regarding the technology of this ship have not been authorised. The system is instructed to issue warnings. In the absence of crew, warnings are issued by the ship's maintenance bots.'
Snape swears. I can't blame him; exhaustion from the pain is the only reason I'm not swearing out loud myself.
Feebly, I shake my head. Someone must really want to keep us in the dark here.
'I am instructed to warn you,' the computer continues, 'that any further transgressions will be followed by incrementally more severe warnings. You are not authorised to make deductions or develop theories regarding the ship or your presence on this ship.' It pauses for a moment, and then adds: 'I suggest you stop indulging in such theories.'
I blink. I had realised, of course, that the computer must be a far more advanced type of artificial intelligence than those familiar to Muggles in our time, but this last bit … And the way it gave its warning, with an almost glee-like intonation! It makes me shudder, and from the scowl on Snape's face, I don't think he's very happy with our faceless companion either.
The maintenance bots are nowhere to be seen. I scramble closer to Snape and touch his hand to catch his attention. When he turns his head and looks at me, I lean towards him and whisper into his ear, 'I wonder how good their surveillance systems are. Perhaps they won't hear if we keep our voices low.'
Our eyes meet – this close, I can actually tell that his irides aren't quite as black as the pupils, even though they must be the darkest brown I've ever seen – and there's the ghost of a smile playing around his lips before he raises his mouth to my ear and whispers back: 'It's worth a try.' I can feel his breath on my cheek, and I struggle to stay calm; for some reason, my heart is beating far too fast.
It must be the after-effects of the attack and the pain.
It can't be for any other reason.
It's ridiculous to even think there might be another reason. I hardly know the man.
Besides, we have other things to focus on.
So I take a deep breath and stand up, offering my hand to Snape who is still sitting on the floor. He looks at it for a moment and then takes it, pulling himself up.
I give him a tentative smile and say, in a loud voice for the computer's benefit: 'No more indulging in theories or deductive thinking. No problem. Anyway, why don't we head back to the kitchen? I'm famished.'
Snape snorts but nods, his face serious. 'Food sounds like a good idea. I always like to have a hearty meal after a round of torture. Especially if it's for my own good.'
I try not to giggle. I really hope that the artificial intelligence has its limits; while my thoughts regarding our 'friend' the computer are anything but positive right now, I don't think I'd want it to realise we're making fun of it. Certainly not before I've had some time to recover.
We set off towards the kitchen. Now that I think about it, I really could use a bit of lunch, or whatever the appropriate meal might be at the moment. Snape may have been making a joke – incidentally, as long as his jokes aren't made at the expense of me or my friends, they can be quite funny – but he also has a point. Torture is exhausting, and food does help.
I turn towards Snape. 'Once we've eaten, I'd like to look around some more. If our ship looks anything like the one the Germans were on, we haven't even got close to a complete survey.'
It's hard to whisper into his ear while walking; I have to walk on my tiptoes, which is making me even more tired than I already was. Maybe we should keep the secret conversations to when we're both sitting … which makes me wonder once more why are there no chairs anywhere?
I ask Snape. He shrugs. 'Maybe chairs are seen as a luxury, on a ship with no crew. Also, have you noticed that all the equipment as well as furniture is attached to the floor?'
Oh yes, now that he mentions it, I have. Hard to do that with chairs, I suppose. Well, not hard, but inconvenient? Shouldn't really be that either, though. Hmm. Strange. But if chairs are a luxury, why do we have food? And working toilets? And beds? We should have asked the computer earlier, but now it's too late. I don't think I want to engage the computer in conversation of any kind, if I can help it.
'Maybe there's a storage room with chairs somewhere,' I say wistfully. 'Or cushions, at least.' I don't want to share this with Snape – far too much information! – but the truth is that my tailbone is starting to feel quite sore from sitting on the floor all the time.
There is something very much like a smirk on his face, but at least he doesn't laugh at me.
We have our lunch. I'm beginning to tire of these ready-made meals, especially those that taste, well, recycled – but it's better than nothing. Since whispering while eating isn't the easiest thing to do, and I'd rather not end up accidentally spitting a mouthful of spaceship food into Snape's ear, we chat about other things. Innocent things, I hope, in case the ship is listening in, which it probably is.
'Have you ever studied physics?' I ask, remembering that I had wondered about that before.
'Yes,' he says. 'And chemistry. Botany, too. Mineralogy, of course.'
I must have looked surprised, as he adds, 'Don't look so shocked. I did grow up in a Muggle environment, after all.'
'But you didn't like it much,' I say. Harry never showed us his memories, but he did tell us about them, enough that I think I have a reasonably good idea of Snape's childhood.
He shrugs. 'No, I didn't. It was … complicated. And for a while, I ignored everything Muggle.'
He pauses, and I wonder if that's as far as his chattiness goes. It's already more than I expected him to share.
'When … When the first war was over,' he continues after a few moments, 'and once I'd been teaching for a few years, I realised that it's foolish to ignore the wealth of research out there just because it's written by Muggles.'
I nod. I can understand that. When I first started at Hogwarts, all this new knowledge – finding out about all the things Muggles didn't know; finding out how much power we had that they didn't – went to my head a bit, and I decided that keeping up with Muggle sciences wasn't important. I didn't really have much time for them anyway, not with a whole library at Hogwarts that was just waiting for me to read it all.
'With magic, we do things instinctively,' he says. 'Sometimes we need to visualise our goal, but other times, we just stumble around and hope for the best. Memorise a spell, learn the wand movements … that's about it for most of our kind. And most of the time, most of us don't even care why things work the way they do, as long as they work.'
His voice is more heated now – clearly, this is something he's given thought to before. 'Muggles, on the other hand, may not have magic, but they learn things. They know how matter works. They study the relationships between different things; they find out why things work, what holds them together, why mixing certain ingredients gives certain results.'
'You know, I've been thinking along those lines myself lately,' I say. 'I imagine it would be a great help in Potions in particular, to know all that.'
'Yes. That's why I spent years reading any chemistry and botany books I could get my hands on.' A fleeting smile crosses his face. 'But it's not just Potions. Studying physics has been even more useful – especially when I decided I wanted to learn to fly.'
There had been reports in the Daily Prophet about his ability. Most people scoffed and said that anyone claiming Snape could do that must have been seeing things; must have been hit on the head during the battle. Others, those who had seen it with their own eyes, believed that it was Voldemort who must have taught him.
He looks at me. 'Don't tell me, Granger, that you also believed it was the Dark Lord who mastered it first? Do you really think he would have taught his followers something so valuable, so unique?'
'I didn't know what to think,' I admit. But my admiration for him has just gone up.
He sets the empty package aside, wipes his mouth and leans closer to me. 'I should probably mention that I don't need a wand to fly,' he whispers. 'I'd rather the ship didn't know about that, though, in case we need that at some point.'
Once again, his whisper – his lips so close to my cheek – makes my breath hitch. I'm all too aware that my cheeks must be flushed now.
I force myself to think about something else.
'Can you teach me?' I ask, keeping my voice low but not bothering to whisper. The question is innocent enough.
'Perhaps. Some day.'
I push myself up, cursing the bots for the aches in my body.
'I guess we'd better get going again. There's a lot we haven't seen yet.'
The corridors, the endless corridors, are not getting any more interesting. Still, I realise that I'm able to tell the differences between them now – for example, the narrow one we've just entered, after a sharp turn from one of the main corridors, looks like it hasn't been used in centuries, not even by the maintenance bots.
The dust makes me sneeze, and sneeze again. At least I have some tissues; I offer some to Snape, whose eyes are watering, too. He shakes his head, pulling out one of his own.
The air is worse here than in other places. It's odd how quickly one can get used to dry, stale air – when we were first awakened, I thought it was awful, but compared to the air in this part of the ship … Well.
It's also messing with my brain. I could swear that at some point, the floor was tilting downwards. Not a strong slope, but something my legs and my knees started to notice. When I tried to look in front of me, it didn't seem like the floor was sloping, though.
I have no idea. Maybe we're on a lower level somewhere. Or maybe it's just the air. Lower oxygen levels in some parts of the passage, maybe?
'I wonder if the ventilation systems have been turned off here,' Snape remarks.
'And if so, what's the point of keeping them running in the rest of the ship?'
He shrugs. 'Who knows. This whole place is a mystery.'
We walk on, and on, and on, until—
'It's a door,' I say.
I roll my eyes at him.
'It's a different sort of door.'
He looks at me, and his lips twitch. 'Obviously.'
It is a different sort of door. It's not the sliding panel most doors here are, whether they have handles or lock panels. Instead, it's a rather old-fashioned sort of door, narrow and oval and made of solid steel – something you might expect to see in a ship.
I suppose it fits – we are in a ship, after all.
I try the round wheel that should open the door, but it refuses to move in either direction. Snape clears his throat behind me, and I let him pass; he sets his hands on the wheel gingerly and tries gently at first, then with more effort and finally so hard that I can hear his teeth clench and his knuckles whiten, but the results are still the same. The wheel won't budge and neither will the door.
I hear whirring from the other end of the passage. The lights are dim here, but I can see well enough to tell what it is – it's what I feared it would be.
Maintenance bots. Try as I might, it's near impossible for me to think of them as cute little creatures now. And if they're after us again, that doesn't bode well for us. This door … It's probably not something we're supposed to be trying to open.
Now I'm really curious about the door, and especially about what's behind it.
Snape has noticed them as well. Our eyes meet for a moment in silent agreement, and then he attacks the wheel with renewed effort. I do the same, but even our joined strength cannot open the door.
He swears under his breath and pulls back.
'We have to try and unlock it by magic,' he says, his voice urgent. 'Can you do that?'
I shrug. 'I've never tried the Unlocking Charm wandless, but I can give it a go.'
He focuses on the door. 'Alohomora!'
I take a deep breath and force myself to be calm. Wandless magic is difficult under the best of circumstances; if I cannot concentrate properly on this, I'll have no chance at all.
The whirring is getting closer. I wonder what their attack range is – can they hurt us from this distance?
There's a chance, of course, that they're not here to attack us.
'Maybe they just came here to dust?' I say.
Snape's only response is a raised eyebrow. I sigh. Well, I don't really believe it either …
This whole thing is starting to get to me. I didn't ask to be on this ship. I didn't ask to get woken up. I didn't ask to be stuck here with no one but Snape for company. I didn't ask to be attacked by stupid metal dusters – attacked for things I can't possibly know I'm not supposed to be doing. And now we can't even get this stupid door open!
'Could it be charmed to be locked?' I wonder aloud.
Snape glances at me. 'It's possible, but I didn't feel anything when I tried to open it. Locking Charms have a distinctive magical signature, and unless the ship is acting as a dampener, I should still be able to tell.'
As fascinating as this is, I don't think we have time to discuss magical intricacies. Not with the whirring and clicking getting closer and closer. I look back over my shoulder. They are definitely coming in our direction. At least three of them, I think. And their little lights are blinking fast and aggressively – I'm sure I'm reading too much into it, but something in the pattern and the rate they're blinking at makes me think that they're hungry. Feral and hungry.
No magical barriers. Only an old, rusty Muggle door to get through. Surely we can do that? They may be efficient, these bots, and determined, but they're not very fast or agile. Probably designed more for the housekeeping – shipkeeping? – tasks, not for chasing people around.
I close my eyes for a moment, inhale deeply and then concentrate on the door again.
I really hope there's more of the ship behind that door. Not just the endless vaccuum of space. I don't think so – there's that gut feeling again – but I might be wrong. It's happened before. Rarely.
Right now, I think I'm willing to take my chances. So I concentrate.
Fuck. It's hopeless. Come on, door! I wish I knew what the mechanism inside looks like. I know the theory: without a wand, visualisation of the desired outcome is more important than when using the accepted wand movements. It's just hard to visualise something I've never seen.
Instead of trying to think about the clogs and wheels inside the lock, I just focus on the wheel turning.
This time, somehow we're saying it – practically yelling it – together, perfectly synchronised.
And the wheel starts to turn. It creaks and groans, and it's incredibly slow, but it's turning. It's almost too slow to see, but as it turns, flakes of rust are floating down, crumbling away from the place where the wheel is joined to the door.
I look at Snape and grin.
'Not bad, Granger,' he says. The corners of his eyes crinkle, and I find myself staring at those little lines. I tear my eyes away a moment later, conscious of not having the time for this now.
Maybe getting stuck here with Snape wasn't the worst thing that could happen.
And then the whirring is almost right here, right behind me, no more than a dozen metres away, and I feel the heat of the sparks as they shoot past my leg – the leg that would have got hit if Snape hadn't pulled me away at the last moment.
We make a frantic grab at the wheel, which is still heavy, still nearly impossible to turn by force, but nearly impossible doesn't mean it's not possible at all – it's turning, and we heave at it with all our strength; and then, with one last creak, the wheel stops, and the door starts to open.
We tumble through the crack in the door, stumbling and falling over each other, in our rush to get away from our pursuers.
I don't think either of us had the time to check what's on the other side; I certainly didn't. From the shock in Snape's widened eyes, as he floats above me, I doubt he did, either.
I see the floor below us, but my feet cannot reach it. The wall to my left, curved metal, is only a hand's breadth away, but it could just as well be a mile. My eyes are watering, and I gasp for air – at least there is air, I think, or I would be suffocating by now; but the air is thin and I have to struggle to force myself to calm down.
The door is still ajar. Of course it is; neither of us managed to hold on to it in our panicked efforts to get out of there – to get out here.
The bots cannot be far now. There are more sparks shooting past us, but at least the door is between us now.
I wonder if they can shoot around corners. Or worse, what if they're equipped to handle weightlessness?
Snape seems to have overcome the shock already. At least there's a concentrated, serious look on his face now, as he moves his right arm minutely, turning his whole body as he does so. I stop flailing around in the air, half-expecting to fall down on the floor as I do so, but of course this doesn't happen.
He's manoeuvring himself closer to the door now. It's amazing to look at – that complete control he has over his body. I suppose it's all that flying he's been doing; not the same as weightlessness, for this is what my brain is telling me we're experiencing, but at least he has some idea on how to move around suspended in the air, without a broomstick, propelled by nothing else than his body and his limbs.
He's holding on to the door now – or rather to the wheel attached to it, identical to the one on the other side. And I guess he's just realised the same thing I have: it's not going to be easy to push the door closed.
Not easy at all, to put it mildly.
'Yes?' I ask, wary of what he might want. I can't come and help him push – I've barely managed to work out how to stay stable and not go into another spin. I don't want to risk floating into the robots' field of view.
'We need to close this door,' he says. 'We can't use a locking charm before it's closed.'
I resist the temptation of pointing out how he's stating the obvious. Another time. Not when there are whirring, clicking, armed maintenance robots just on the other side of that door, set on hurting us – at the very least.
I look at the crack in the door. It's narrow – Snape and I are both skinny people and we didn't push the door open any further than we needed to get through – and the bots were wider than that, I think. So we should be safe. Safe-ish. Unless they can shoot around corners, which they probably can.
Push. Pushing charm? Do I know any pushing charms? Moving charms … yes, I do know moving charms, but they're all so specific … have to name the thing I want to move, but all those moving charms seem to want the thing named in Latin, and my Latin is spotty at best. It's yet another of those things I keep thinking I should learn but just haven't got around to.
'Uh? What's "door" in Latin?' I ask.
Snape sends me a puzzled look. 'Ianua, of course.'
Of course. I roll my eyes. It's obviously my shortcoming that the Hogwarts curriculum for some reason never included Latin. Although, now that he's said it, I do think I knew it; it's just hard to try and remember things when floating mid-air. On board a spaceship.
I really need to come to grips with the idea. I've been awake for … three days now? Four? Long enough for my brain to adjust, surely. I can't spend all my time thinking that it's a dream and I'm going to wake up (properly, not from some cryogenic stasis) and everything is going to get back to normal.
'Mobiliianus!' I try. It sounds silly, and is probably all wrong – in fact, I'm pretty sure it's wrong; my Latin vocabulary may be lacking, but I did read a few grammar textbooks when I was trying to come up with some new spells at Hogwarts, and it would probably need to be in Accusative or something, maybe something else but a real case, which ianus probably isn't – but it's worth a try. Not like the majority of the spells in wide use are grammatically correct Latin anyway. I think.
But it's the intent, more than the actual words, which counts – and intent is something I'm not short on right now. Snape catches on at once, and it only takes one more try, together, for the door to close. He adds a quick 'Colloportus!' and turns around, still holding on to the wheel with one hand.
'That should keep them at bay,' I mutter.
'Let's hope so.'
We listen at the door for a few moments. I can't hear a thing. I hope it means that the bots have given up and are not trying to break through, not just that the door is properly soundproofed.
When I turn my head, I see that Snape is looking at me, his head slightly tilted. There's that ghost of a smile playing around his lips again.
'What?' I ask.
Oh yes, that's definitely a smirk he's sporting.
I can't believe it. We've just escaped some bloodthirsty robots, and he's practically laughing at me.
'Try and turn now,' he says. 'Carefully – don't make any sudden movements.'
I lift my left arm experimentally, taking care to keep the rest of my body as immobile as I can. The movement tilts my right side downwards. I consider this and move my arm out diagonally – a ha! I think I'm starting to understand how it works. Sort of like flying on a broom, which I've still not learned to love, although I can manage passably well; a bit more complicated, as there is nothing to hold on to and no gravity to work with, but I think the principles are simple enough.
Emboldened, I make another swift push at the air, and spin around in a circle – and another circle, and another, and … How do I stop this? I can't grasp anything, I can't hold on to anything—
'Here, take my hand.'
I make a wild grab at the hand stretched out in front of me, but that just pushes me into a new spinning pattern. I close my eyes and force the nausea down, spinning and spinning and spinning, until something gets hold of my sleeve, and I stop.
Snape, of course. He's wearing that intense look of concentration again, still holding on to the wheel with one hand and to me with the other.
'Thanks,' I mutter.
'There's a railing running along the wall,' he says. 'If I hold on to you, can you try and reach it?'
I look around and see that he's right. The light is very low here; dimmer even than in the corridor we came through, which is probably why I didn't spot them before. That, and the flailing and spinning.
I reach out, slowly and carefully, but the railing is too far. With a sigh, I take hold of Snape's hand; he lets my sleeve go and gives my fingers a reassuring squeeze. His hand feels nice – big and strong and smooth.
This time I have a bit more reach, so I manage to grasp the railing. I let go of Snape's hand almost regretfully.
Now, holding on to the railing with both hands, I finally breathe a sigh of relief. We're safe for the time being, and the world has stopped spinning. Snape joins me a moment later, passing around me. I resist the urge to lean back into him when he's behind me.
I really need to sit down and think about these wholly inappropriate urges I've been having lately. This is Snape. And we're stuck together on a spaceship, apparently kidnapped by someone, with robots shooting at us.
And we're weightless. No, not an appropriate time, or an appropriate place, to have these thoughts in my head.
On the other hand, he's Snape, but he's … well, not as bad as he used to be. And he's got these adorable little wrinkles in the corners of his eyes, and …
Damn, he's moved so far ahead of me already. Pay attention, Hermione!
I follow him somewhat clumsily, pulling myself onwards with just my hands. It's not complicated, once I get the hang of it, but it's not the most elegant way of moving.
I have a fairly good idea of where we are now – the German ship had a narrow part in the middle, joining the two larger cylinders together. If ours is of a similar build, this has to be the narrow middle part. I've got no real understanding of spaceship physics, but I guess that whilst there is artificial gravity in the big cylinders, there isn't supposed to be any in this tube in the middle.
In any case, if I'm right, there should be another door on the other end of this tube of weightlessness, leading to the rest of the ship.
'I wonder if there are any killer robots at the other end,' I say.
'They're maintenance bots, not killer robots.'
I roll my eyes. 'They were shooting at us.'
'They only wanted to cause us pain. I doubt their intention or, indeed, their instruction was to kill us.'
I wonder idly what would happen if I kicked Snape. Would he lose his hold on the railing and float about, thrashing around helplessly?
The thought makes me smirk.
We keep moving. As with every other corridor in this place, this one seems never-ending, too. Why is this ship so big? I mean it; it's easily many times as large as Hogwarts and all it's being used for is transporting a few thousand frozen witches and wizards.
I'm so dreadfully bored.
Which makes no sense, really; not after everything we've just been through. Maybe it's an after-effect of the adrenaline rush that kept me going before; now that it's gone and we're safe, for the time being, it's a struggle to try and stay interested in the surroundings.
'What do you think we might find on the other side?' I ask after a while.
'Impossible to know.'
I sigh. Of course it's impossible to know.
'More people?' I wonder aloud. 'Dragons? Merpeople? Centaurs? The Giant Squid? More killer robots? The computer must have noticed what happened.'
He stops and turns around to look at me. 'Have I ever given you the impression of enjoying small talk, Granger?'
'Speculation and theories are not small talk.'
Well, they are, at least they were meant to be in this case – I just cannot stand the silence. But perhaps a more reasoned argument might win him over.
'Theories, perhaps, are not. However, speculation about the Giant Squid, when we have nothing to base it on, most certainly is. It's idle chit-chat.'
I roll my eyes and draw a deep breath. If there is anything out there in the universe around us that could grant me some extra patience right now, I could really use it.
'And what exactly is wrong with idle chit-chat, as you call it?'
Snape considers this for a moment. 'It's a pointless waste of time.'
'So have you got any better ideas on how to pass the time?'
Oh dear. That did not come out quite right. I wince.
His dark eyes scrutinise my face, and I'm thankful for the dim light. I'm all too aware of how close we are again, our shoulders almost touching.
'I have plenty of ideas,' he says at last. Is it my imagination or did he just change his voice to make it sound almost … well … purr-like? It's certainly a good thing I'm not standing on solid ground, because my legs are feeling decidedly weaker in the knees.
I'd only need to lean forward a little and our lips would meet.
Do I want that? Does he want that?
I'm not yet quite ready to admit it, but … well, never mind, I might just as well be honest with myself and say that yes, I do. Even if I barely know the man. Even if he's Snape. And I think he might not be entirely averse to the idea, either. Except that I refuse to give in to the temptation while he's berating me for simply wanting to fill the silence. He might not be the nasty professor that I used to know, but he's still an infuriating man.
Besides, I do want to know what's waiting us on that other side.
I just hope that there is actually a door there. And air. And gravity.
'Your ideas can wait,' I say curtly. 'For now. After you.'
If only because right now, I don't trust myself enough to try and climb around him to lead the way.
His eyes linger on me for another moment, and then he nods. 'Very well.'
We go on in silence, but it's not long before he clears his throat.
'I suspect we may find a storage area.'
He attempts a semi-shrug. 'We haven't yet come across anything like that. And a ship this size … If they're already transporting thousands of people, which only take up less than half the ship, it would only make sense to stock up on something else as well.'
'Something that would last for a few hundred years without rotting,' I mutter.
'Fuel,' he says. 'Minerals – perhaps raw materials needed but not existing in our destination. Technology isn't likely; it would be far too dated, not for us but for whoever it was who built this ship, but maybe wood. Furniture.'
'Chairs,' I say.
He laughs – a sudden, warm sound that nearly makes me miss the railing. 'Chairs, yes.'
It takes us perhaps another five minutes, the time filled with idle chit-chat and speculation, to reach the door. I slump on the railing, exhausted. It's not that pulling myself along the railing was physically hard as such, what with being weightless – my lower body and legs are floating quite happily in the air – it's just … everything. The stress. The robots. The thin air. The unusual form of moving. The man next to me.
Snape is scowling at the door. I grin at him.
'Would you like some help?'
'If you have a moment to spare from all that unsightly grinning.'
This time, it only takes us one try to open the door. Snape pulls it towards us, careful to keep the crack narrow, in case there's a welcoming committee waiting for us on the other side. We take turns at peeking around the door. It's dark out there; darker than in the passage we are in and much darker than on the other side, so we have to rely on our ears. Snape puts a finger to his lips – as if I was going to risk drawing the attention of anyone, or anything, by saying something!
We listen for a while. I don't hear anything apart from Snape's quiet breathing, stable and regular. Satisfied that there are no killer robots – or simply sadistic maintenance bots – waiting for us, we heave ourselves out of the tunnel and tumble gracelessly to the floor.
I'd forgotten how heavy I was.
My legs feel oddly weak. We can't have spent more than twenty minutes weightless, twenty-five perhaps – I still cannot tell the time accurately here, in this place with no day or night or life, and what I think of as fifteen minutes might in reality be five or forty-five – and yet it's as if I've forgotten how to use them completely.
I hope I'll get used to my weight again quickly. This weakness is not a pleasant feeling.
Once my eyes adjust to the dimness, I see that we're standing in a corridor. Where else? It looks a lot like the ones on the other side, although … Yes, on closer inspection, there are obvious differences. It's dusty here, dustier even than in the side corridors on the other end of the ship. The air is even staler, smelling a bit like stagnant pond water in summer. And of course there's the light – there's almost no light here; its only source are tiny bulbs fastened to the walls. It reminds me of emergency exit lighting in places that are generally not supposed to be lit.
It's odd, but I feel safer here, somehow, even though anything could be hiding in the dark. Maybe there aren't any maintenance bots around here, but there might well be other dangers. Automated defence systems or whatever; something to keep intruders away.
I look at Snape, who is standing next to me, leaning on the wall with one hand. He wrinkles his nose.
'I don't think this place is meant to be used as living quarters,' he says.
'I agree.' This isn't good news; we can't really go back to where we stayed before. 'What are we going to do if this half of the ship is unsuitable?'
He rubs the back of his neck. 'Then we'll need to go back. But let's worry about that later. First, we should explore.'
There is a definite note of enthusiasm in his voice. It makes me smile.
We turn right when a passage crosses with ours. Snape, who is half a step ahead of me, sets our pace – it's brisk, but not hurried. We don't talk much, except to point out details we notice, such as a small, oddly placed grille in the middle of a wall or a bump on the uneven floor.
It's hard to see anything clearly, so we have to trust our other senses, keeping our ears sharpened and fingertips ready to feel the walls. I hope nothing is going to jump out at me and bite my fingers off. But that's just paranoia talking. I hope.
We've wandered around aimlessly for a while, not finding anything useful or interesting, when Snape stops. He stands completely still, his arms hanging at his sides. Even in the near-darkness I can see the tenseness in his face. His nostrils flare and his back is rigid, and when he turns around to face me at last, there is a curious mixture of emotions playing on his face. Excitement. Worry. Hope.
'There is magic here,' he says. His voice trembles. 'Not right here, but close.'
I try and reach out with my senses, but I don't feel anything. I wonder if sensing magic is something one is born with or something one can gain with practice. It would be a useful skill, at least potentially.
I might not feel anything, but it doesn't occur to me to doubt Snape.
'It's like … It's like a crackle,' he says. 'I felt it when we passed it, just over there. And there is more here. It's old, I think – it's not been used for a long time, but for the residue to linger after all those years, the concentration must have been high.'
'Can you tell if magic was actually used here, or if it's simply magical energy in the air?'
He turns slightly, raising his hands and feeling the air around him.
'It's difficult to say. Almost impossible. It's been too long.'
'But if you had to guess?'
He considers for a moment. 'If I had to guess, I'd say it's residue of magical energy – a lot of magical energy – being present, not necessarily as the result of spellcasting.'
I'm having an idea. I like that idea. And I very much hope I'm right.
'Could it be … Do you think our wands may be somewhere around here?'
'Yes,' he says then. 'It's possible. Quite possible indeed.'
We search more carefully now. I let Snape take the lead, as he can follow the trail of magic – or at least sense it; I'm not really envisioning him as a bloodhound – and following the trail of magic is something I cannot do.
The search comes to an end surprisingly quickly. Snape slides open a door in the wall and I follow him. And right there in front of us is a massive cabinet, filling half the room from one wall to another. It's metal, and we cannot see what's in it, but here, in this room, even I am feeling the tendrils of magic reaching out to me.
And as if that isn't enough proof, there is a label on the door of the cabinet.
I wonder, not for the first time, why the signs we've seen are in 21st century English, or at least something not distinguishable from it. Did the Germans get a ship with labels in their language? Are the people behind all this, the ship and the kidnapping and everything, people from our time? It just doesn't seem likely – the Muggles wouldn't have the know-how, and I just can't believe it could all be wizard-made.
I wish I could ask the computer. Even if I still wanted to, it's not like we'd get answers.
Snape's palms are pressed against the doors of the cabinet, his slender fingers splayed. I step closer and see that his eyes are closed. He's tilted his head slightly, twisted it so that there is only the narrowest gap between the door and his left ear. As if he was listening to something inside.
I know without asking that the cabinet is locked.
The strength of the magic around me, whispering to me, calling out to me, tells me that the cabinet is locked magically. With spells too strong for us to break.
Too strong for me to break, without a wand.
Snape's lips are moving, almost imperceptibly. There's a deep crease between his eyebrows; as he shifts his hands, the crease deepens further.
I'm burning with curiosity. I want to know what's inside. I want to know what spells Snape is using, and why he's not saying the words aloud.
Perhaps it's something that only Unspeakables are supposed to know. But he's shared some things with me already. It's surprisingly hurtful, his keeping this spell from me.
Or perhaps he can concentrate better like this. I make a mental note to ask him later.
I want to step even closer. I want to do something to help. But I don't dare to break his concentration, so I stand back and watch him work his silent magic.
I imagine the contents of the cabinet. Are the wands kept in boxes, sleek and elegant, the way they were stacked in Ollivander's shop? Or are they standing in rows, row after row after row, like an army of thin wooden soldiers? Or have they just been piled up randomly? Are they labelled? Will I find mine? Is mine even there among them?
My hands tremble. My palms throb with hunger; it's coursing through my veins and makes my fingertips tingle with anticipation.
I miss it so much – the feeling of a wand in my hand, ready and willing to do my bidding, sparkling with the live, raw magic that flows through me, transforming it into a controlled force more powerful than most people could even dream of.
I didn't even realise, until now, just how much I've missed it.
Snape is standing so still. If it wasn't for his lips moving and his eyelashes fluttering, I could almost take him for a statue. A very lifelike statue.
I look at him, taking in his appearance. It's the first chance I've really had to scrutinise him like that; I haven't exactly wanted to stare, but now, when his eyes are closed and he doesn't seem to be aware of my presence, I use the opportunity and really look at him, this man who has invaded almost all of my thoughts these days.
He's older, of course; older than he was at Hogwarts. I imagine what he'd say about that thought – Stating the obvious again, Granger? – and I smirk. It's funny how his words, which once upon a time would always have been meant as an insult, can sound almost teasing these days; it's in his tone and in his eyes. Oh, he's still horrible at times, and yet … There's so much more to this man – so much that never occurred to me to wonder about before; and it's this that makes the idea of spending the next several months alone with him, here, almost attractive.
Attractive. Is he? I let my gaze wander across his face, or at least the side of it that is turned towards me.
Not attractive in a traditional sense, at least. His nose is still hooked, his lips are thin, his hair is limp. On the other hand, his ear – barely visible through his hair as it is – is of a nice shape. And his nose, well … it adds character. And his lips, thin as they are, are oddly enticing. I remember staring at them earlier, in that tunnel of weightlessness, and wanting to kiss them. I still do.
His hair … I sigh. Probably a lost cause. And that stubble would have to go.
Once we get our wands back, it should be easy.
I fidget. I'm not used to standing by and letting someone else solve problems. I've always been the designated problem-solver, the one with all the answers. I hope he either gets through the protective spells soon or asks for my help.
He's got a nice body. He's wearing only shirt and trousers now that he's discarded his robe, and while I can't tell exactly how fit he is, he's obviously lean and well built. Really nice for a man his age. He must be over forty now.
It's been a while since I've been with anyone – a very, very, very long while – and it's obviously having an effect on me. Oh dear.
I so would, though.
I really hope he can't do Legilimency with his eyes closed and his concentration elsewhere.
Actually, maybe a bit of Legilimency wouldn't hurt …
Ack. I must stop this train of thought before it derails and takes me with it. We have other things to do here. Like getting our wands, deciding whether to stay here or go back to the other side of the ship, immobilise the evil bots and force the computer to spill its secrets.
And then what? We can't just turn the ship around and go back home, can we?
Snape stirs and I avert my eyes hastily. He doesn't seem to have noticed.
'We have a problem,' he says, massaging his forehead. 'The cabinet is locked.'
He looks at me and raises an eyebrow. I smirk at him. His lips twitch in response, but then he grows serious again.
'I can't open it. I tried every spell I know and then some, but without a wand, I can't even hope to begin to unravel the layers of protection placed on the locks. I dismantled the top layer, I think ... It's impossible to know, and I'm afraid that if I stumble on blindly, I may trigger something unpleasant.'
I consider his words. With layers upon layers of protection, spells weaved into one another, the two of us working together – stumbling along blindly, as Snape says – wouldn't really help either.
'Locks,' I say slowly. 'You said the protection is placed on the locks.'
I bite my lip, trying to make sense of the tangled mess that is my brain.
'Just the locks?'
His eyes widen as he realises what I'm saying.
'I think so. I focused on the locks, so I'm not absolutely certain; give me a moment.'
He presses his palms against the doors again, moving them around slowly, hesitantly, but with a confidence on his face suggesting that he knows what he's doing. I'm reminded of a doctor using a stethoscope to listen to someone's lungs or heart.
Several long moments later he stands back from the cabinet.
'Just the locks.'
'And the doors are metal?'
'Yes. Some sort of alloy – the texture and smell are not familiar to me – but it's not magical.'
'Can we blast through it?'
Now he's grinning. 'We can try.'
He shows me the areas where the spells have been layered. We consider the doors for a moment and then decide that attacking the hinges is our best bet. We don't want to risk destroying the contents, after all, and besides, the hinges are the parts furthest away from the protected bits, so there's less chance of triggering a trap.
After the struggles with the doors leading to and from the tunnel, we seem to have an unspoken agreement now to coordinate our wandless spellcasting. Which is not as easy as it sounds, not in this case: I think we should use Bombarda; Snape favours Confringo. We both agree that Expulso is too much under the circumstances, so at least there's that.
'I don't think I could control Confringo with enough care,' I admit at last. 'Not wandless, in any case.'
'And Bombarda is easier?' Snape's face mirrors the incredulity in his voice. 'Have you ever tried controlling Bombarda without a wand?'
'No,' I mumble. 'But it's less powerful than Confringo. There's no telling what that one might take with it.'
He sighs. 'If you can't do this, Granger, then perhaps I should try on my own at first.'
'I didn't say I can't do this. I'd just prefer us to try Bombarda first. If it doesn't work, we can move on to something stronger.'
My head hurts. I've done more wandless magic today, successfully, than ever before. It's starting to take its toll on me. I just hope we can overcome this one last challenge, no matter how much effort it takes; when we've blasted through, we'll have all the wands at our disposal that we could ever wish for.
I really just want mine back.
'Let's tackle the upper one first, the one on the right,' I suggest.
Snape nods. He puts his hand on my upper arm and guides me a few steps away from the cabinet. 'Be ready to duck,' he says. 'I don't like standing as close as we are now, not without knowing how strong the blast will be, but—'
'—but the further away we are, the more difficult it is to focus the magic,' I add.
His hand is still on my arm. I don't want to shrug it off, but it makes it impossible to concentrate on the task ahead.
When he removes it, I miss the warmth.
I visualise the hinge in my mind. Metal, cold and brittle, ready to be blown apart at my will. It wants to be blown apart, I tell it; it wants the freedom that one word from my lips can offer it – the freedom to stop doing its duty. It's done it for such a long time. It's enough.
The hinge cracks, and breaks. A few metal shards float lazily down to the floor, no threat to us.
I beam at Snape, breathless from the effort and exultant at our success.
The hinge in the middle splinters as easily as the first one, but it has taken so much out of me that I ask Snape to stop for a few minutes. He nods and slumps down on the floor, where I join him after a moment's hesitation.
We're sitting close enough to one another for our shoulders and arms to touch. When he turns and looks at me, his eyes, exhausted as he is, sparkle.
I jump up again, cursing silently as I waver on my feet. I reach out a hand to use the wall to support myself, but Snape's fingers clasp mine before I can do so. I clear my throat, not looking at him.
'Shall we try the last one?'
'If you think you are ready.'
I'm not, but if I'd spent another moment on the floor with him …
Focus. Visualise. Cast the spell. It's harder than it sounds, but together we manage. There is a crack, a very fine fracture, in the metal, but it should be more than enough.
Snape lets his fingers run along the side of the door.
'We need something to pry into the gap here,' he says, indicating the narrow line between the door and the wall.
He's right, of course, but we don't have anything that we could use. Unless … I pat the pockets of my trousers. I had a tiny Swiss knife once; it was a present from Uncle Peter many years ago, and I've got used to carrying it around with me whenever I've remembered, just in case I needed it in a situation when magic was out of the question.
Luck is on my side. I dig the little knife out and offer it to Snape.
He weighs it in his palm for a moment and flips the blade open.
'It should do.'
It looks so small and flimsy, when he inserts it into the gap. I hold my breath, hoping the blade won't break.
He takes infinite care with the knife, sliding it back and forth, trying to find purchase. I follow the movements of his fingers, caressing the door so gently, and shiver.
'Here,' he murmurs.
The gap widens, and Snape flashes a triumphant grin.
I join him, and together, we push and pull on the door. I hope that whoever it was who cast all those protective spells didn't take a sneak attack from the side into account.
With one final heave, the lock mechanism breaks and the door is off.
We were right. Wands are the source of the magic Snape felt.
I fall to my knees in front of the cabinet, taking in the sight before me. I've never seen so many wands – not even at Ollivander's. All he had was boxes. They could have held anything. But this, here, thousands of wands stacked and piled in heaps ... it's a treasure trove of magic.
'Careful,' Snape says when I reach out. 'Wands may be just conduits for magic in their natural state, but these here have been imbued with the magic of their owners, the spells that have been cast with them, and now that they've been here for centuries, letting all that magical energy mix and intertwine ...'
I withdraw my hand. He's got a point.
We peer inside. It's dark in this room and even darker inside the cabinet, but from what I can tell, the wands are labelled. I'd know mine in an instant, of course – vine, 12 inches, dragon heartstring; it's very much like my original wand, just a little longer and even better for charms – but still, it's good to know, somehow, that they haven't just been crammed in here in an anonymous pile.
I wonder if I could Summon my wand now.
Snape's obviously had the same thought as he's crouched down next to me and is trying to nudge me aside. I clear my throat and send him a reproachful look.
'Accio Hermione Granger's wand!' I say clearly, holding out my hand.
I am dizzy with exhaustion, and I really don't know if I have enough left in me to be able to manage even this simplest of wandless spells, but then I spot movement in the heap of wands on the second shelf from the bottom and barely manage to catch the wand as it's shooting straight at me.
I have it. My wand. I hold it and caress it and very nearly kiss it, before I remember it's been lodged between other wands for an eternity. Dirty wands. Wands full of dark magic, even. I shudder and cast the first cleaning spell I can think of on it before it even occurs to me to test it with something simpler.
To my relief, it works, effortlessly at that. I glance to my left and see Snape holding his own wand, a familiar-looking black length of wood. He's devouring it with his eyes.
He pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and starts cleaning the wand. I'm mesmerised by the way his hand moves – to and fro, firmly and yet gently – as if this is something he's done thousands of times. Which he has, of course.
I blush and avert my eyes. There is something so acutely private about this, the way he's completely focused on his wand, that it feels wrong for me to watch.
'Do you still have the note?' he asks abruptly a few moments later.
'Shacklebolt's note. The one we found in the control room.'
Oh, right. That note.
I take it out of my pocket and unfold it. 'Here.'
Snape takes the note from me. 'Specialis Revelio!' he says, as I shuffle closer. A quick Lumos and the tip of my wand is glowing; at least now we can see well enough to read the words on the parchment.
At first, there is nothing – nothing beyond the apology that was there before. Snape curses and tries some other spells, which I haven't encountered before; he is saying them aloud, probably for my benefit, but the words and the wand movements are unfamiliar to me.
Finally he lets the parchment fall on the floor and sits back with a groan. 'I was so sure there would be more to it,' he says. 'It makes no sense; why should Shacklebolt simply write that he's sorry and leave it at that?'
I shrug, disappointed as well. I'd been thinking along the same lines.
I pick the note up again and look at it carefully. The parchment is old, yellowed and frayed; whatever secrets it's holding, if any at all, must be on the surface.
I don't hold any real hope that it would respond to me, when it didn't to Snape, but to my surprise, words start forming on the parchment.
'It was keyed to you,' Snape says.
'So it would seem.'
I don't know how I feel about that. On the one hand, there's a part of me that delights in this – knowing that Kingsley cared enough – but on the other hand, if I, and only I, was meant to be able to read the note … Well. That can only mean that Kingsley knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I would be here, among everyone else, on this ship.
We wait until the parchment is covered with inky lines, and then I start reading it aloud.
If you are reading this, I am sorry. I tried to keep this from happening, but one man against them – and they came at night, so fast and unexpected – there was nothing I, or anyone else involved, could do.
Yes, I realise this makes no sense. I cannot go into detail. I'm constantly kept under the and was forced to . Writing as much as I am doing now is all that I can do; it's agony, even if I scratch out the worst, and I can only write this now that you've all been loaded onto the ship.
All I can say is that they, and I don't even know who they are, came from and for some reason, they want wizards and witches. I don't think they intend to harm you; they just want a magical population. They have but couldn't use it to transport so many people at once; hence the ship.
I'm really sorry. I did what I could to guide the Unspeakables, in the hopes that they would work it out and stop it before it was too late, but my hands were tied.
I've tried to convince the ship's computer to wake you and one other person before you reach your destination. I don't know if that worked, or what use it will be, but if it works, at least two of you won't be caught unawares when you get to .
I drop the note.
'That's all?' Snape asks.
I shake my head. 'I guess it answers some questions.'
He picks the parchment up and looks at it.
'I don't suppose we can find out what's been blacked out, can we?' I ask.
'I don't think so,' he says. 'But we can make some educated guesses. Such as that he was being held under the Imperius Curse. It's either that or another method of surveillance that he was kept under, but he wouldn't have tried to write "the surveillance" and besides, anything else wouldn't have been a problem for a former top Auror to deal with.'
I nod. 'And he was forced to take a vow – either an Unbreakable Vow or something similar – while under it, just in case he would have managed to throw off the Imperius.'
'Quite. And he must have done, to write this.'
I sigh. 'So now we know that someone came from somewhere and wanted witches and wizards for their own purposes. What do you think that third black bit stands for?'
He re-reads the note. 'The future, maybe? It could be the year, although I doubt it. Too long.'
'Or the name of their planet.'
'Also possible. Either way, I'm more interested in the next one.'
I take the note from him and look at the part he's indicating. 'They have … something. I suppose it could be a mode of transport; something faster than this slow spaceship, but I have a feeling it's something else.'
'Time travel,' I say. 'It has to be, really!'
Snape looks at me and grins. 'If they're from the future, it's the only thing that makes sense. They must have made the ships, and sent their emissaries to our time – with a very advanced Time-Turner or some similar technology—'
'—but while it's good enough for a handful of their agents, it's not enough to transport thousands upon thousands of people back with them,' I finish the sentence for him.
The implications of this make me reel. I have no idea what's waiting for us – I have no idea who they are or what they want with us – but if they have time travel, then …
'We can get back home.'
It takes me a moment to realise the words come from him, not from me.
I doubt they've left Time-Turners floating around here. We have to wait until we reach our destination, and then we can make our move.
The sense of relief makes me dizzy. I grab Snape's hand and pull him up from the floor.
We have a ship to explore, but we also have months for that; for now, we have some trigger-happy maintenance bots to neutralise and a computer to have some serious discussions with. Maybe we can even convince it to wake up some more people, although we need to check our supplies first. I wouldn't want to wake everyone up and then run out of food.
I avoid thinking about how there might not be enough Time-Turners for everyone. I'm sure they can think of something else. And who knows – perhaps we will actually like it there? There will be a whole new world waiting for us, after all.
In the meantime, we have months to fill and nothing to do but wait. But we have each other. The thought makes me all giddy inside.
And we have our wands.
We have hope.