The orbital module fails to detach and we ignite in the full-mouth kiss of the planet’s atmosphere, spinning with a velocity that pushes us to the black brink of unconsciousness. G-force grinds us into seats molded for our forms. There is the view through the porthole in my periphery – of jittering flame and cartwheeling stars and the glowing edges of unfamiliar continents – and the interior of the capsule in front of me. My vision breaks, the views looping into kaleidoscopic fragments.
I do not panic. I trust in my training. Anything can be controlled: my breath as my body is buffeted by forces huge and inhuman, and the focus of my vision as it lightens with the threat of unconsciousness.
The combined mass of the disintegrating orbital module and our descent module is too much for our parachute to bear. I am calm as it shreds in the force of re-entry, incendiary rags streaking the black beyond the porthole. Sparks fall inside the module, too; orange nodes of slag burrow into my legs. There is a hot meat smell, but I feel no pain.
The planet’s surface comes rushing up, patches of harsh white vegetation rippling across its surface and I see something move beneath the earth, as if the chalky ground were a skin over something far more alive, and vast. For a moment there is the nightmarish impression of skin pulled taut over a face the span of an entire world. I am drunk with adrenaline – and I brace.
The successful firing of the landing rockets is a small mercy. The capsule finally hits the planet’s surface and my spine, elongated after months of weightlessness and beaten by the tumbling violence of our descent, breaks. There is pain – and then pride as I identify which vertebrae have shattered (they are somewhere in my cervical spine, perhaps C3 and C4, where my neck meets my shoulders). Beyond the porthole: fire.
The memory is of a hot and starry night on a date on which something is celebrated, I forget what, because in this memory you are the most important. And in this memory I clutch in my hand a little burning thing. Nothing loud or dangerous, just a sparkler, flaring fire as I draw words in the air: words I will never say to you but that I pray you can make out.
Kiss me, Brian Lowe, I write, laughingly. You always hated your name for being too dull. To me it is miraculous. Kiss me. The words hang in afterglow between us and then disappear. You are bolder than I, living a happiness that I envy. Entirely comfortable in your skin. Yours was a happy childhood, free of the scandal of your mother deciding to love women when you were in high school. You were not bullied by children as cruel and judgmental as their parents – though not as cruel and judgmental as my father, who tried to ‘beat the queer’ out of my mother until, one day, she simply left.
You would never call yourself that, would never define yourself by your most intimate desires. You are just you. You, laughing, the beautiful contours of your face lit by the sparkler as you dodge backwards.
“Stop it, you’ll set my coat on fire,” you smile, grabbing my wrist. The moment is a gentle kind of control and your breath is warm.
So I stop writing the words, and I don’t say them. I have the feeling of a moment passing. Of some kind of threshold being crossed, an alarm in my mind blaring to announce that time is up, and I don’t know why I felt that and I am full with regret.
I say this to you instead: I am moving to California for Test Pilot School and I am asking Alice to marry me. Because I can’t tell you that I am my mother’s son, as shameful and perverse as she. I won’t label myself as she did, though, giving ammunition to those who would spit out the word like shrapnel, like my father, weaponizing a private act until it signified something as far from intimacy as it can be… I just love you, and I don’t know what that means or how I would live it, but I love you anyway. I don’t say any of that.
Anything can be controlled.
Your face tells me everything I need to know in that instant and I see the lie reflected back to me. You withdraw your hand and my skin feels the loss immediately.
The horrible thing is that, still, you never looked so beautiful. I do not know if the sparks in your eyes are your own or from the sparkler I hold like a white flag, still burning, between us.
I must have lost consciousness briefly. My eyes peel open to smoke roiling across the surface of my vizor and Mikhail yelling in my earpiece. The capsule has landed us on our backs and, amazingly, the thing is in one piece. I look up at the million blinking buttons of the control panels: all red, all furious. There is a line on the computer command transcript that indicates a control override on the orbital module, but I issued no such thing. I would not. There must be a mistake. I close my eyes, seeing nothing but pulsing black. The black begins to glow orange and I open them again. Flames have now spread to a conflagration in the view beyond the porthole to my right. The planet’s surface beyond is an unlikely plain of tiny, white-headed flowers with fat stamens, and squat pills for leaves. We have burned a great black patch through them and streaked the earth with the violence of our landing. To my left: my companion, Mikhail, fumbling at the harnesses with an uncharacteristic clumsiness that is the only sign of his discomfort.
I attempt to shift in my seat. Nothing happens. My limbs do not work.
“Mikhail,” I say. My voice is a poor, croaking thing. “My back is broken.” I don’t know if he hears me so I say it again. “My back is broken.”
I see Mikhail’s eyes narrowing through his visor and I know it is bad. He unclips and peels the belts from my torso, crusts of melted polymer falling like confetti upon my shoulders. He says something and my ears ring, the sounds taking sluggish moments to coalesce into something intelligible.
“Don’t move. I need to look outside.”
I see his lips move and make out the word outside and hear it in comically slowed syllables (ah-ooh-tsai-duh). I visualize him stepping onto a planet of flame, a little David in the face of a fiery Goliath the size of a world. Perhaps it is the endorphins, the adrenaline making me feel invincible even as my insides clatter nausea.
I speak to him to control it.
“Sounds good. Check where the fire is.”
Mikhail climbs over me towards the entry hatch above my head. I peer into the polycarbonate bowl of his visor as he passes. I want to raise my hand, folding the fingers until just the thumb sticks up: the classic gesture – just to do something. I cannot. So I give him a smile instead. Bravery in the face of the infinite unknown. He returns the gesture, pulls at the hatch above my head, and crawls out into a new world.
“You have a slightly erratic psychometric profile,” they tell me.
I ask them to explain, precisely, how my psychometric profile is ‘slightly erratic.’
The Chief of Operations answers. He is a powerfully built and diplomatic man who has completed three spacewalks in his career – yet who is still, as far as I’m concerned, prone to lapses of appalling stupidity.
“Well… if you’re asking. You never admit your errors. You blame everything and everyone else: your colleagues, the engineers, the computers, equipment. You have bouts of rage – usually directed to female staffers. You –”
The Deputy CO silences him and the two exchange glances while I stand very still, crushing my lips together, because to move them at all would probably cost me my career.
A lesser man would have snapped.
A lesser man – yes, you – would have smashed both of their smug faces in, and the smug faces of everyone on the damn committee, sitting at the table like morons.
“The fact of the matter is,” the CO is saying, looking back to me with something of a smile on his face, “that despite these… judgments, you are the perfect individual for the mission.”
I leave confused: insulted, prideful. Staccato footsteps follow me down the corridor and when I turn, the Deputy CO is on my arm, her face so close I can see my reflection in the water of her eyes.
“Huxley,” she whispers. “You don’t have to accept this mission. I’m just saying. You can walk away.”
I remove my arm from hers.
“Why would I?”
“You wouldn’t be the first. There would be no shame.”
“I’m not like other people. I’m not afraid.”
She looks at me as if to say you are exactly like other people and I snap my head away before I do something I regret. Her voice wheedles behind me:
“Just… know that you don’t have to say yes to this.”
What does she know? Hasn’t my whole life been leading up to this? All of my hard work, my training, my discipline?
Of course I say yes.
I am still, packed in my chair with the interior of the capsule crushed around me. My knees should be throbbing with pain, crushed almost up to my chin. My bones should hurt and my skin should ache and burn but instead there is nothing.
I am not worried.
I am only a little lonely at the sight of Mikhail’s empty chair right next to me. Our in-suit comms work, at least, and he speaks to me breathlessly through my earpiece in lilting English.
“How are you doing in the gravity?” I croak. I wet my lips with sips of water, the straw curling over my shoulder into my suit.
There is the harsh sound of Mikhail’s breathing as he stops speaking. I watch from the porthole. I see him straining with each step, padding through the grass around the capsule, and I lose sight of him for several minutes. Then he comes hobbling back into view.
“The capsule is ok. Not going to burn. But… “
His voice trails off. Instead there is his breath, and another breath, and another, each heavier than the last.
The breaths quicken.
“Good,” I reply. I take another sip of water, swallowing hard. “But what?”
I watch him stop and force himself to stand at full height, looking around him in all directions. The sky is a rusty haze above him. Pale clouds of ammonia ice string the air like entrails. His heart rate accelerates in my earpiece along with his breathing, our spacesuits sharing biometric readings.
“What? What do you see?” I ask him.
“We – there must be some mistake,” he says.
“We don’t make mistakes.”
“This is not the planet we were trained for.”
“You’re wrong.” I say immediately. “Its mass and radius are what we expected. Same for the surface gravity. The atmosphere is –”
“Listen, Huxley. Someone has made a mistake.”
Ice-cold agony needles between my shoulder blades and burrows into the base of my skull. The pain is so great my vision greys.
“What do you mean, there must be some mistake?” I manage to say.
“This is not the planet.”
“Have you contacted Mission Control?”
He nods. “Nothing. The line is broken or something.”
The image of the command code overriding the orbital module rolls green in front of my vision, and with it the awful possibility that they know about this. The pain softens, as if something warm has nested in the base of my skull. I do not tell Mikhail. His panic would be the end of us.
I watch him kneel (the movement quick, the planet eager to bring him to its surface) and pull an instrument out of his suit, sinking the needle into the soil. “Calcium, silicon, and iron make up the highest percentage of minerals…”
His head suddenly cranes to the right. He has seen something behind him – something I cannot, no matter how fiercely I squint.
“Mikhail? Mikhail, what is it?”
He freezes, stuck in a crouch.
“I think I see something.”
“What do you see?”
The radio crackles and his words break, infuriatingly. “… someone… hell…”
More harsh breaths, more heartbeats. I do not want to know him so intimately. His pale suited body stretches, then stiffens, caught between rising and – what? Crawling? Away or towards the capsule? He is a good man but an idiot, a coward, indecisive at the worst moments.
I lose my temper.
“Be a man and tell me what you fucking see,” I roar even though it shreds my throat. The tip of the straw hits my lips. Fuck it. I snap at it with my teeth: the only movement I am capable of. I admit: here I lose a little control.
“What do you see? What do you fucking see? No, no, don’t come in, don’t…”
Then he is gone from my view, and there is the sound of the hatch being hauled open behind me and he clambers over my body and falls into his seat, babbling in Russian and hammering at the displays.
“Чужеродная форма жизни обнаружена … Слушаю … Чужеродная форма жизни обнаружена, отвечайте пожалуйста …” There is no answer, from anything, from any quarter. Mission Control is silent.
“Careful!” I shout to him as he jostles me. I know it because I can see my body moving but I feel nothing at all, not the impacts, nor the weight of his body.
I have to slow my breathing because I know I will lose consciousness; the panic will send me down. One of us has to be strong.
He falls into his seat, hammering at the controls and at the comms panel on the gauntlet of his suit until, eventually, he calms. I look back out of the porthole. The flowers billow in a deepsea waltz, white dust tumbling in the wake of Misha’s footsteps. I can see nothing beyond.
You can’t blame me for being angry.
You would be probably dead by now.
I ring my wife and tell her the news. The insults from the CO, the Deputy urging me not to take the mission – the disrespect shown – got to me, I must confess. The moment I dreamed about since childhood sours and seems banal, strangely predetermined, as I tell it to my wife. Perhaps it is because it is her I am telling it to and not you.
“Just let it go,” she says. “Focus on the positives. My God, Hux! You’re going to space.”
She is cheerful. Suspiciously so.
“Are you sure you’re ok with that? You aren’t going to miss me too much?”
There is a pause on the end of the line.
“Sure,” she says finally.
“You don’t sound convincing.”
“What do you want me to say, Hux?”
“I – never mind. Bye.”
I hang up.
I make another call.
Your voice is sleepy, as if you were sunbathing, sunblinded. I try not to visualize your body.
I tell you about the mission and the comments from the Deputy.
“Don’t worry about it,” you say. I can hear that you are beaming and I smile, too. “You’re the coolest, calmest man I know.”
“I thought so too.”
“How is Alice?”
“Oh, she’s fine.”
“Good. Is her writing coming along well?”
I realize I don’t know how to answer him. Instead another question tumbles out of my mouth before I can stop it.
“Are you seeing anyone?”
There is a pause that breaks my heart, because I know the kind of answer that is coming. “Well… yes, actually.”
Of course, of course you are. That’s what people do. My fingers lock on the receiver.
“Oh? What’s her name?”
You laugh again, slightly unsure this time. The sound is cruel to me. I am not smiling anymore.
“Jaeyoung. His name is Jaeyoung.”
Part of me is stunned, truly, for the first time in my life. Another part is not surprised at all and accepts this like a death. This: the loss that was traced in the air that night with the fireworks, when I was too afraid to say how I wanted my life to be. With you.
I want to say a million, an infinite number of things, each word a red jewel of something – what? Anger. There is only anger. Anger, anger, anger, pulsing in syllabic form and ready to fall like a meteor.
I hang up.
Mikhail is asleep in his seat next to me.
I am glad for his presence. I do not know the time; I cannot see my watch. It has been perhaps two hours or ten since we crashed.
I go over the launch, scouring my mind to find what could have happened. We checked and tripled checked the mechanisms every step of the way; I could not have made a mistake. My fingers found the keys by rote, the checklist running like a biometric display before my eyes. Everything was working perfectly. We ran simulation after simulation and it all worked, everything worked, nothing predicted this.
Someone did this to us deliberately. We were sabotaged.
The Deputy CO. It must have been her. That bitch! That’s why she tried to warn me… but why? Why?
I try and move the fingers of my left hand. Nothing.
I try and move the fingers of my right hand.
Fucking come on –
My index finger twitches. Sweat falls into my eye. I try harder. This time it moves more. The fingers almost – almost – curl a little, as if around a beer can.
I stop trying. My breath comes in gasps and the sound frightens me. It sounds like something else: less than human. Sweat pours into my eyes and between my lips. I can’t touch any of the buttons or dials inches from my face to call Mission Control, my wife, anyone. I can’t do anything.
A scream rises. I clamp my teeth shut.
I am not screaming in front of Mikhail.
I am not screaming in front of anyone.
So I wait for the moment to pass.
Something moves before my eyes.
In the quartz glass disc of the porthole, in the flowerlands beyond, under a dim sky where the stars shine brilliantly: the plants have changed. The petals of the flowers seem to have withdrawn, or closed. I squint, but the distance is just too great to see clearly, and my eyes sting from the sweat. I look out into a forest of gently undulating pearl-white fronds that move, awfully, rising up from the ground like hairs on aroused skin.
“Mikhail,” I say.
He snores and whimpers into his helmet.
The fronds move, blown by a wind I cannot fathom, and turn to gesture in the direction of – us. I feel observed.
“Don’t you dare,” I whisper. I want to make fists with my hands. “The fuck… the fuck is this?”
Yes, I am losing my cool. You always thought I wasn’t aggressive, but you’re wrong, Brian, you’re so wrong. You helped me control it. I never got angry in front of you. But you are not here. You aren’t here, supine, broken-backed, on a foreign planet and watched by things like snakes, half-alive, looking at you with pearly tips with no eyes but you know they are watching anyway –
You would be screaming by now. I know you would.
Mikhail speaks next to me and I cry out.
“Huxley,” sleep-thick he speaks, “why are you crying?”
Then he looks out of the porthole beyond me and shouts in horror.
“Go out there. Go out there and kill them,” I yell.
Instead he fumbles for the controls. Speaking to Mission Control, reporting these things in frantic Russian that cannot be true (“Nine meters – no, ten, eleven, ah, I think they are alive, yes… please send help, please help us…”)
The comm is silent. There is no one there.
While I shout and curse at him Mikhail turns away, crushing himself even further into his seat, and simply stops looking.
“What kind of a miserable fucking coward…” Rage saves me. I curse him instead of screaming my fear. At some point exhaustion shreds my voice so I, too, close my eyes.
White limbs wave endlessly in the black in front of me and I think I hear a voice from the comm, the CO’s voice – “… satisfactory… independent variable…” – and I think, What on earth can be satisfying about a forest of fronds glowing and growing and watching, without even orbs for eyes?
They tap instruments against the wet membranes of our eyeballs, testing the pressure. We run on treadmills at the bottom of an Olympic-sized swimming pool meant to simulate exercising in zero-g; the pressure makes my limbs iron and my breath come hard through my oxygen mask. They attach other masks to our faces and pump increasing levels of CO2 into our respiratory systems: 2 mil, 3 mil, 4mil. We are sat next to one another in doctor’s chairs, me and Mikhail, and he whimpers with terror as the mask is pulled over his head, whereas I take it with a grim smile. I would take anything this way. To serve the greater good.
Could you say that? You, who gave into your baser desires and who even now are probably growing fat and complacent in an unremarkable job in an unremarkable house with an unremarkable man – a man! Jaeyoung. The word circles in my head as the CO2 levels pump up to 5mil. Mikhail starts coughing beside me, eyes streaming. I hit the arms of the chair with my fists.
“Who the fuck is Jaeyoung anyway?”
The orderly looks at me.
I rip off my mask.
“Mind your fucking business,” I reply.
They hold mock funerals for us, as they do for all astronauts. Afterwards the psychologists ask me questions that I have never heard an astronaut asked before.
“Do you believe in the dignity of non-human life?”
“What aspect of death frightens you more: physical injury or the concept of the oblivion of consciousness?”
“Which is the stronger force: love or fear?”
I do not answer – I cannot answer that – because to me there is no real difference. But I do not tell them that.
I wake up to Mikhail crying.
At first I think it is something calling outside – but I know that is impossible, because all my senses are filtered through my suit and come with an underwater muteness, or with a tinny crackle of the comm, or they don’t come at all. My eyes open and there it is: the round porthole a meter in diameter, my entire world coming through this circle. The flowers are still there, fat and stupid. The terrain rolls like a crumpled bedspread. As my eyes focus, I see odd patches where the flowers have been crushed – as if something has dragged its belly across the ground in a meandering path, or a line of animals has trampled them. The paths disappear into the distance in a crazed path.
My lips work for the straw. The flesh of them feels cracked.
“What is it, Mikhail?”
At first I don’t understand what he says. Then I do.
“I have been tasted… something tasted me…”
“What are you talking about?”
“I woke and something was pushing my back like, like a knife in different places and my suit is…”
His voice trails off. I can tell by the direction of his voice that he was – is? – looking at his seat. I see his dim form hunched in my periphery. I try to move my head a fraction and am stunned by the agony.
“Чёрт!” he curses. Again and again.
“What? What? What is it? I can’t fucking move…”
“The seat!” he shrieks. “Full of holes! There is something beneath the capsule, there must be something beneath the capsule in the ground…”
The image of that titanic face returns: gaping its mouth as we fell, streaming fire, pushing up against the surface of the planet to take us, sending tendrils up to taste…
Without warning, he squeezes over me again. I can’t feel the mass of his body, but he knocks my knees and legs and I shout to him “Stop, fucking STOP,” because he could be doing more damage to me but he is over and out of the hatch again, shoving it open. And he is outside.
I hear the impact of the hatch rolling to behind my head, sealing me in. I do not scream. You’d be proud of me, Brian – I don’t scream. Out loud, at least. I want to move. I want to move my fingers and toes and pull myself out and run to you, thousands of miles away, on the planet I call home. I want to hold you in my arms and feel the warmth of your body and tell you I forgive you for Jaeyoung, and ask for your forgiveness in return for betraying you with my sham of a marriage, of a life.
But I cannot move. And so I watch Mikhail stagger over the terrain through that goddamned porthole, bent double under the weight of his own body, his breathing and heartrate alarms in my ears. And something else: a warning tone, electronic this time. A red, glowing visualization of his skeletal structure pops up in the inside of my vizor. And a numerical reading, negative 2, that I do not at first believe. Our suits perform scans of our bodies every 24 hours, sweeping us with minute levels of radiation – and his bone density reading is almost equivalent to someone suffering from osteoporosis.
The suit must have been damaged. I look from the display to the pitiful sight of him clambering over distant dunes outside, headed for God-knows-where.
Nothing makes any sense.
“Mikhail. Your bones…” I share the visual feed with him, although no doubt he has already been alerted by his own suit.
“Tasting!” he shrieks. “Tasting!”
I remember the cold finger of pain and the wending warmth at the bottom of my skull and wonder, too, if I have been tasted: if tendrils have pushed up from this planet, somehow burrowed through the combined layers of metal and insulating material that make up the outside of the capsule and pushed into my body, tearing the fibers of my suit and tasting, taking mass…
There is movement again outside. Not Mikhail, and visible through the ground-hugging carpet of white dust he leaves in his wake. A head peers up over a mound of terrain in front of him.
A human head.
And another. And another.
They move as one over the hill and come for him.
Dust kicks up in a cascade as he turns to run – but the gravity is crushing, and the creatures, backs bent in parabolas, haul themselves with horrible speed. I can see the muscles of their arms from where I lie here: they are like elderly men and women curled by age, palely human, hideous. Their eyes are big, bulging from their sockets, their heads downturned and necks craning down to the ground. Their backs are the highest parts of their bodies. The spines curve and push upward like the hulls of capsized ships. Their pupils are quick and agile, moving in their broad and horrible homogenous faces. They shamble in pursuit of Mikhail, faster than they have any reason to be. I hear their shrieks and cackles over the comm. They seem to be enjoying this.
They seem – happy.
There is screaming and screaming. I cannot see beyond the pillar of white dust that rises in the distance: the only signifier of Mikhail. Rocks clatter (or is it teeth?) and a final scream arcs up, high and womanish, before the comm goes quiet. I stop screaming as he does. I listen. His heartbeat is audible – accelerating to almost 200 beats per minute – and accelerating further. Then all readings go dark.
They must have torn him from his suit.
My heartbeat is my own.
I bring up the display of my own biometrics in the corner of my visor and find that my bone density is at negative 3 (how can that be possible? How?)
Now that I think about it: why on earth would our suits measure bone density? Why didn’t I ask?
…I have been tasted. I have been taken from.
I am alone, on my back, with the planet drinking from my spine, betrayed by those I thought I could trust. They have killed Mikhail. They will not kill me.
When the dust settles I see his spacesuit, torn in two pieces, lying among the flowers.
Perhaps there is no use but I speak into my helmet, hoping someone will answer, hoping for a human voice in my earpiece. “We are being attacked. We are dying. I do not understand what is happening…” I think of you and I start to cry and I ask for help. I beg. It is easy: as easy as I was terrified it would be. For the anger to quench and the awful weakness inside to speak its truth, raw and shameful. “Please help us. Please help me. Please. Please. Please.”
Someone clears their throat – I hold my breath for an answer – and there is an intake of breath (a woman, the Deputy CO? Will she be kind to me again?) but there is nothing, no answer.
“I know you’re listening. I know you’re fucking listening…” I can’t breathe. My chest rises and falls too fast and what I think is my screaming is the breath trying to come and not coming. I fall blackly into unconsciousness.
It is the final meal with my family and friends before we leave for Star City. You are not there. I regret that now. Isn’t that funny? Regret always comes too late. I don’t think we are capable of regretting anything as long as there is a chance of turning things back, of changing them at any moment. Or so we delude ourselves. And then the chance is gone, and there it is: regret. The most useless of things.
So we eat, and you aren’t there.
There is Mikhail and his wife Isabella, and an Italian astronaut whose name I forget, and my wife and her sister, and her sister’s husband and their children. And Mikhail’s friends, two men, and their wives, and their five children between them. We toast in our various languages, the adults laughing over vodka while the children crawl and clamor around our legs.
“I tell you,” Isabella beams at me. “You’re lucky you don’t have kids. It’s hard, leaving them behind.”
I smile and think of you and drink.
“Isn’t it funny,” my wife says, pink-faced tipsy, “that they aren’t letting our husbands dock on the Space Station? Just a shuttle up there, strapped in for the journey, and then shot back out to this very, secret planet on this very, secret mission.”
Isabella hiccups. “I heard that the planet is changing location. Can you believe? The thing is moving? Planets don’t do that.”
“Well…” My tongue feels thick and my head hurts. I wonder how much I should bother to explain to these women. “We discovered it about 20 million miles from Venus. It has an erratic orbit – which planets undoubtedly do have, and…”
A child grabs my trouser ankle and I yelp, almost spilling my wine. Isabella is no longer listening – perhaps she never was – and leans into my wife, who catches my eye across the table. I see pure wickedness in her as she speaks. “I mean, honestly, Hux would probably smash something vital the moment something pisses him off. Months of precious scientific research ruined because my husband can’t keep his temper.”
Isabella claps her hands.
“Yes, and my poor Misha would wet his suit when something goes wrong – can you imagine? Putting poor Hux through a faceful of his zero-g piss…”
The women laugh. Mikhail, to my disgust, grins like a fool next to his wife.
“It’s ok, I’ll just piss on him in the capsule,” he gestures to me.
“What exactly is your mission?” one of Mikhail’s friends asks. Mikhail shrugs, laughing like everyone else.
“Data collection, assessment of habitable environment, you know.”
The friend laughs, the sound foolish. The man’s lips and teeth are reddened from wine. “I don’t know, actually. But it’s ok. I get it.”
I stand up. This is intolerable.
“Here we go,” my wife says, leaning back in her seat.
“Yeah, here we go. I’ll tell you what our mission is. It’s advancing the progress of fucking mankind. How is the writing coming along, darling? Sold anything yet?”
The laughter stops abruptly.
“You know,” Isabella interjects. She is not smiling anymore. Her glare is sober. “I always wondered why you married him, Alice. What do you get out of it?”
“What does she get?” I can’t let her answer. “This house? An income? Freedom to write those shitty romance stories that no-one wants to publish, let alone read?”
I regret the words as soon as they come out but it’s too late, far too late. A child cackles from underneath the table.
Alice is unfazed and raises a glass to me. How I wish it were you there, raising a toast to me. About to say something kind. Not this. Not whatever is coming.
“Nicely put, darling. To the progress of mankind.”
Somehow that is worse than an insult. She did not lose control; she won.
She drinks, her eyes not leaving mine over the rim of the glass. Toddlers rough away, trampling food into the carpet around the ankles of the adults. You are not here.
I hear nothing further from Mikhail. I can see no sign of him outside, nor the ghastly creatures that took him. My comm picks up nothing. I roar and howl into it, screaming for Mission Control, screaming for someone to come and get us.
“Mikhail is dead, Mikhail is dead,” I tell them over and over and over, and then, I think it is the nighttime, but who the fuck knows on this piece of shit planet with no day or night sky but that endless, star-pricked, white-blue? I hear someone clearing their throat again over the comm and I go to scream louder – but then I am tasted again. Indisputably.
The whole capsule moves. Something is pushing up from the earth and into my bones. Through insulator fabric, through metal, through glass that has withstood the fire of a planet’s atmosphere. The view in the porthole shifts to that sky again, and the flowers… the flowers rise with me.
I think I make noises of terror. I don’t know. I watch as the white eyeless tendrils push up through the seat next to me and the console panels crack and break and the worst thing is that they are alive, they are sentient, and I know they are hungry for a body I thought was mine and mine only.
I look out of the porthole and the planet has grown a million tendrils, a million limbs, and the flowers aren’t flowers at all, and among and within the glowing forest I see the humanlike creatures that attacked Mikhail and Mikhail himself – is that him? Naked and bent, loping over the ground with an expression of such happiness as I have never seen on a human face!
The capsule jolts in the air and my head moves.
I can move! I can move! I can…
I look down my body for the first time since our landing. The tendrils have pushed through my arms and legs and out of the tops of my knees. Two heads, eyeless, featureless, white and glistening, nod from each patella, inches from my eyes. How awful it is to have one’s body violated: I think I should feel that. Yet I feel nothing at all.
What did she see in me? Why did she marry me?
The sex wasn’t there from the outset, but she didn’t seem to mind.
I asked her once, in the early days, when I felt bad for not taking her like a lover as often as I felt I should.
“It’s okay. I don’t mind. I’m not much interested in sex anyway. I just like your company.”
Why did I forget that?
She liked my company.
But I always felt hated. I always felt that hatred came from her, but perhaps it was always from me.
I hope she didn’t hate me.
I know she didn’t. If I am honest. I have not been honest for a long time. Perhaps for my whole life.
My father never believed in our marriage. I think he always knew. The cocked eyebrows when I embraced Alice in his presence, the wry smile.
“How is your friend Brian?” “When are you gonna make me a grandad, Hux?”
I avoided his questions every time. Laughing them away the way men tell a joke to hide something raw.
I wonder what my mother would have said.
Why was I afraid? Why couldn’t I be kind to the friend that Alice was, if nothing else? Why not kindness?
I have made a ruin of my life and for nothing at all, for a feeling that I am unloved and must stay that way forever. Perhaps the measure of life is how kind we are.
And I have not been kind.
I must have lost consciousness, because I wake and the capsule is on the ground and my body is whole. The flowers nod outside. The stars shine. The ground is white dust rolling between them and there is Mikhail’s suit, torn in two pieces still.
There is a voice.
“Huxley. Huxley Davis. Hux.”
It is a voice I have heard before.
The name is clarity. I feel light, as if I will blow away in the easiest cosmic wind.
“Not Brian.” A name I recognize. A woman. The Deputy Chief of Operations. This time her voice is not unkind, not mocking. Her words come quick and breathless and sibilant but not unkind. The opposite of that. “I shouldn’t be calling you but I… this is cruelty. I can’t be long. Listen to me. You were supposed to fail. You all were. That is why you were chosen. There is a creature living under the planet’s surface… the planet is a creature. A creature like nothing we’ve ever seen before, and one that feeds on human matter. You weren’t supposed to come back. You weren’t supposed to survive – because you couldn’t. You have too many weaknesses. That was the point. Do you see? That was always the point. We wanted to see the effects it would have on the weakest of us. What it wanted. What it still wants.”
A tear rolls down my cheek and all I can think of is your face. I see the sparkler. I see fire.
“Calcium,” I whisper. Bone-white light films my eyes. The creatures, brilliant men and women wrecked with the symptoms of osteoporosis and rollicking as happy and content as idiots across the surface of this monstrous world. “That’s all it wants. Calcium. I’m an astronaut. I…”
The weakest of us.
I know she is right. I know.
The mission is not so heinous, really.
Dulce et decorum est, pro scientia mori. “Why didn’t you just tell me? I would have died for this mission. My body… everything. I don’t care. I don’t have much to live for. I would have come here willingly.”
There is silence on the comm. Something like weeping.
“…There is a letter for you. From Brian Lowe. Your wife sent it to us here. Would you like me to read it to you?”
I can move my hands. Slowly, and the fingers are curled and the elbows don’t move. The creature in the planet has taken calcium from me. It’s alright. It is a good price to pay. I think of Mikhail’s face and the happiness there. I think of what is on Earth. And I think of the voice here, in my ear, about to read your words to me.
“Yes.” I don’t know if I say it out loud or just wish it, or just dream it, but there you are: in a woman’s voice, over dark space, thousands of miles away, but there you are, there you are, there you are.
I know you probably don’t want to hear from me but I had to write.
I never blamed you. I want you to know that. I never blamed you.
But I needed you to be a little braver for me. I couldn’t wait for you anymore. God, it hurts to write that, but it is true. Do you hate me for that? I think of that and I am ashamed. I can’t sleep at night sometimes. Maybe I should’ve waited just a little bit longer, until you felt safer. Maybe I should have pushed you harder when you told me you were marrying Alice. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so afraid. But now you have your life, and are doing amazing things, and I am here on Earth trying to make the best of things too.
There is so much I want to say to you. But I’ll stick to the most important because I never was good with words.
Huxley Davis: I want you to know that you are my one great love.
The afterbreaths of tears on the comm. Then the Deputy says: “…he drew a sparkler at the bottom of the letter. It’s in blue pen – the stick part – and lines scratch out of it in red pen so you can imagine the sparks. I wanted you to know that. …Hux? Huxley, are you there? Huxley?”
I can move again.
The thing has stitched my nerve endings together with the flowers-that-are-not-flowers, with the fibers that have taken my calcium like alveoli taking oxygen: just a process that happens, without malice, to keep an organism alive. It is alright. Everything is alright. Turning in my seat, sleepily, like an ancient thing coming to life, I push out of my harness. With newborn hands I remove my helmet. The effort makes me sweat, because my fingers are curled and the muscles of my forearms are thin and taut. I press my face to the glass of the porthole. That damn porthole. I do not curse it now. I was a child looking out of it. I am not that anymore.
White-red light makes dazzling lines across my vision and I imagine you out there, you like you were that night all those years ago: young, bearded, beautiful, holding that sparkler out to me. This is it: this is the second chance.
Will you come with me? I imagine your voice saying to me.
Yes, my love. This time there is no hesitation, no fear. None in the slightest. None at all. Yes.
Well come on then.
I remove my suit and undergarments and crawl out of the capsule to emerge, naked and blinking, in starlight. My back is bent and my limbs extend rigid under me but I have never felt stronger. The air is as sweet and as new as I imagined air on a new world would be.
You are not outside, but the others are, and Misha crawls forward and touches my arm. He looks delighted, delighted, happier than a man has any right to be.
“Let’s go, let’s run,” he says. Nodding. His chin tucks into his chest.
I raise a knuckle to a horizon distant and flower-filled. A million heads nod, making promises. The planet settles beneath us. Everything answers: yes.
I am doing this for you, because I know something the Deputy doesn’t. I know what this planet wants, because I want it too.
It wants to not be alone. To take a living person into its most intimate core. To take many people, a million lovers and make them happy, but make them stay. It doesn’t matter if we are the weakest humankind has to offer. Even the weak deserve a chance to be remade whole.
I’m not afraid now! I’m brave because of you. I see that now. Your love has done that.
Breaking into a run with the group who coax me on, because the gravity is stronger here, but do you think a planet’s core can keep me from moving?
Watch me run!
Faster now, howling all my regrets to the windless air (my wife, my mother, my father, I am sorry) and the children I never had and the friends I pushed away and my family who don’t matter anymore because you are here in my heart, just over that rise of earth, beyond the starlit horizon. My second chance, my angel, my family, my savior.
Watch me, loping life over the planet of a million flowers, breathless blesses from my lips dedicating each and every one of them – to you.