In Space No-One Can Hear You Play Alto Sax


Hesper Leveret


The departure lounge feels like it stretches on forever in all directions, echoing in the sterilized air with the voices of thousands of people waiting for their assigned shuttle up to the ships. We’re sitting in loose groups, strangers thrown together by their shared dream of settling a new world. The Stardust Company never wavers from the official TOI-700e designation, but we call it Goldy – after all, it’s a Goldilocks planet in the Dorado constellation. We’re wearing identical easy-wash easy-wear practical greige jumpsuits issued by the company for our hundred-plus years of sleep, and all of us carry identical aero-gel insulated cases that are the only personal luggage we’re allowed.

It’s amazing how different people are, no matter how the company tries to make us all the same. Rolled-up sleeves, unzipped zippers, scarves, luminescent jewellery, holographic tattoos, hairstyles with embedded colour-changing nanos, armbands – everywhere I look there are pops of colour and personality. Only one person, a woman curled on a seat opposite me, clutches her case close and fades into the background gray of the terminal.

Some people have opened their cases, showing each other the contents: clothes, old-school books made of dead trees, framed photographs, tchotchkes of every description. And then –

‘So what’s in your case?’ asks a voice, and I look round to the man sitting next to me. He has long locked hair and a necklace of wooden beads. I almost tell him to mind his own business, but since we’re all leaving our home planet and everyone we’ve ever known, perhaps I should take whatever human connection I can get.

‘I’ll show you.’ I lay the case out carefully on the grey floor tiles and pop it open.

The man’s eyes widen as he sees the sealed cold pack containers marked biohazard.

‘It’s earth,’ I tell him. ‘From Earth. And these containers are seeds. Don’t worry, it’s been cleared. I’m going to plant a garden. In one of the secure domes at first. Outside later if the environment is suited.’

‘Good choice,’ he says. ‘So, fruits and vegetables?’

‘Mostly flowers – whose seeds will survive the trip, or whose tissue will survive to be grown in vitro. I figure we’ll need some beauty where we’re going, as well as nutrition. It’s going to be a hardscrabble life, starting from scratch.’

He nods and leans over to examine my hand-written labels, reading some of them out loud. ‘English roses, lavender, silene, acacia, sunflowers, lotus, date palm, campion, dandelions… wait, dandelions? Aren’t they a weed?’

‘A beautiful weed that spreads seeds everywhere and thriving wherever it lands. Seems like a good emblem for humanity.’

‘I hope we live up to it,’ he says.

‘Me too. So what’s in your case?’

He opens it up to reveal-

‘What is that?!’ says the woman sitting on the other side of him. ‘A weapon? Weapons aren’t allowed.’

‘No, it’s a plumbing fixture,’ says someone else, very confidently. Everyone in the vicinity is now looking at it — even the woman with no apparent personality is peering over the top of her case.

‘Don’t be stupid,’ says somebody else. ‘It’s a kitchen gadget for cooking noodles.’

‘You’re all wrong,’ I say, as something in the sinuous shape of the object sparks a very old memory of my school’s music room, many years ago and miles away. ‘It’s a saxophone.’

‘Correct,’ says the man, smiling. ‘An alto sax. It was my grandfather’s.’

‘What does it do?’ asks the woman who’d thought it was a weapon. She narrows her eyes at him.

In answer, the man takes it out of its case, attaches the mouthpiece, and blows a few notes. The woman startles, and more people gather round.

‘What are you planning to do — spread jazz standards across the stars?’ I ask him. ‘In space, no-one can hear you play alto sax.’

He smiles. ‘It’s a family heirloom. My grandad made a living playing the London clubs. I was never as good as him, but I did busking when I was short of money. This sax got me through some tough times. It’s got a sentimental value, and -’ he flashes me a grin – ‘I figure we’ll need some beauty where we’re going.’

He starts playing a tune, and the rich warm tone makes more memories spark in my mind, and words come bubbling up to my lips, and before I know what’s happening, I’m singing, and the woman who’d thought it was a weapon is tapping time on the top of her own case.

The words of an ancient song ring out in the departure lounge

When Whipporwills call, and evening is nigh… I hurry to my… blue heaven.

My eyelids drift half-closed as I relax into the song and the memories of summer nights.

Turn to the right, there’s a little white light

Will lead you to my Blue Heaven

I break off when I realise that everything has gone quiet. Opening my eyes, I see a pair of guards in the dark-blue uniform of Company Security, and for a wild moment I think they’ve come to arrest me for singing.

But no, they’re standing over the woman opposite — the one clutching her case a bit too tight.

‘Ma’am,’ says one of them. ‘We’ve had an alert from the security scans. I’m going to have to ask you to open your case for us.’

‘No,’ she whispers, holding it closer . ‘It doesn’t have anything we’re not allowed.’

‘Then there’s no reason not to open it for us, is there?’ says the second guard.

The woman looks round, as if one of us might help. Nobody meets her eye — we’re all busy pretending we don’t notice what’s happening. With the air of someone about to be executed, she lays the case on the floor, and opens it up.

I can’t help looking. Neatly packed clothes, in bright colours and patterns, completely at odds with her drab appearance.

And – oh. They’re small, these clothes. Much, much too small for her.

The first guard crouches down and carefully moves some of the clothes. First she finds a cuddly walrus toy, then a small sealed container. She holds it up, and asks softly: ‘What’s in here Ma’am?’

The woman opens her mouth, and for a moment it seems as if her throat has dried up like a riverbed. Then she rasps out: ‘It’s sealed. You can see that it’s sealed.’

‘I’m sorry Ma’am,’ says the guard. ‘I really am. But the rules are clear. Human remains are not permitted in personal luggage.’

‘That’s not —remains!’ she says, tears trailing down her cheeks. ‘It’s my Lysa. She has to come with me.’

I turn away, unable to look any more. We’ve all lost people. We all have reasons for leaving the planet, making a new start. I’m sure we all have sympathy for her, but there’s nothing we can do.

I hear the second guard now.

‘To transport cremated remains off-planet, luggage allocation in the secured area of the vessel must be purchased!’

‘I can’t! I spent everything on this trip. There’s no risk of — of contamination.’

‘I understand, Ma’am,’ the first guard says, ‘but protocol, policy, is human remains are absolutely not allowed in personal luggage.’

As if reciting from a rulebook, the second guard adds “It’s a safety precaution m’am. Gamma radiation induces photoluminescence and matrix defects in calcium phosphates, defects which might…


“Um, the cosmic rays of space effect the ashes, not in a dangerous way in the short term, as far as we know, but over more than 100 years of exposure… ” The guard shrugged. “The company just wants to take every possible precaution. They’re entrusted with thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, so… ” The guard shrugged again. “I’m sorry.”

‘How can I leave her behind? My Lysa, my beautiful baby girl…’

She’s openly sobbing now, in the middle of the departure lounge, everyone carefully not staring. I wish there was something I could do, but I don’t have money to spare any more than she does, and I think everyone here is the same, we’ve all spent just about everything on getting off-planet, and what’s left will barely cover initial expenses for starting our new lives…

My eyes roam hopelessly around the terminal. The people, the cases, the too-small clothes in her case, the earth and the seeds in mine, the space where the saxophone had rested-

An idea comes to me, and before I can think better of it, I ask the guards to wait a moment and turn to the man with the alto sax. ‘You used to busk?’

‘Yeah…’ he says, and then his eyes open wide as he realises what I’m suggesting. Shakily, I approach the sobbing woman. ‘I don’t have much,’ I say, ‘but I can spare a little towards the transport of— of Lysa. And maybe others will contribute as well,.’

The woman looks up at me in confusion, but her sobs stop. ‘Really?’

The man with the saxophone approaches her, and pats the instrument. ‘I’ve done this a good deal. I’ll wander around, play a few old tunes, ask for whatever people can spare. They’re all nervous and restless, with any luck they’ll be ready to part with a few credits.’ He turns to me. ‘You can sing, if you want.’

‘Yes, I do want.’

The woman who’d been sitting next to him stands up too. ‘I can’t sing, but I’ll clap my hands, and spread the word down the terminal.’

‘You’d better be quick,’ says the second guard. ‘Luggage loading to the secured area starts in less than one hour.’

‘I’ll make the first contribution,’ says his colleague.

Astonished, the woman opens up her neurotab tip-jar to public access, and I can see her look of gratitude as the first tip arrives, and she wipes her tears on her greige sleeve. I send over my own contribution —a pittance, but if enough people put in a pittance each…

‘Let’s get going,’ says the man with the sax. He slings the strap around his shoulders, and starts playing My Blue Heaven again. The woman starts clapping in time, and I pick up where I left off.

You’ll see a smilin’ face, a fireplace, a cozy room

Little nest that nestles where the roses bloom

And off we go, three strangers wandering around a vast terminal, on a mission to persuade a thousand other strangers to part with a tiny sum of money to transport the remains of a dead girl off the Earth, so another stranger can stop crying and start her new life with something other than despair.

Molly and me, and the baby makes three…And as we go, echoing down the vast terminal I can hear singing, clapping, even a harmonica, and a resounding…We’re happy in my, my blue Heaven

On Earth, everyone can hear you sing. And where we’re going, we’ll need to bring some beauty with us, so we can sing there too.



** “In Space No-One Can Hear You Play Alto Sax” is one of our 2023 Kepler Award short short category winners  **

“In Space No-One Can Hear You Play Alto Sax”, © Hesper Leveret,  First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores,  March 28, 2024

Hesper Leveret writes speculative fiction about beauty and heartbreak, magic and imagined mythology. She was born and raised in Southampton, then read Ancient & Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford. She has done a variety of jobs including SEO writing, project management, procurement, writing questions for TV quiz shows such as Mastermind and The Weakest Link, and selling books in Waterstone’s.
She lived for several years in Derby, where she enjoyed exploring the Peak District but missed living near the sea. She is now based in Liverpool, UK, where she lives with her rock-climbing husband, two young sons, and chronic pain. Her stories appear in venues including Fireside, Interzone, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, and Luna Station Quarterly. From 2020 to 2023 she was a slush reader for Apex Magazine, and in September 2022 she had the great pleasure of accepting the British Fantasy Society Award for Best Magazine on behalf of the Apex Editors.
Her interests include visiting museums and historical properties, reading books, baking cakes, scrapbooking, board games, jigsaws, and escaping rooms.

Story comments:  ‘This story was inspired by imagining how ordinary people would experience a future exodus from Earth: the sort of personal items they might want to take with them as they left the planet, how some of those personal items might cause unexpected problems, and how people could come together to solve those problems. I am thrilled for my writing to be recognised for this science fiction award, and I hope my story inspires others to think about how science interacts with our humanity.’



Illustration by Fran Eisemann.  Stock courtesy of NASA and Omnia.

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