4380 words, short story
After it was over, they pulled her from the sea.
Even as they lifted her into the rescue boat she was saying, “No, no; we could have made it.”
She was cradling the hand the Captain broke.
The first time Marika saw the night sky, she was terrified.
(Strange she wasn’t terrified sooner. They’d escaped the city because of the water riots. The city wouldn’t last long; the night swallowed it up one time too many, and then day just never came.
Maybe that’s what happened to her — one terror swallowing another.)
The night sky was a battle of stars, a violent seam tearing through the center like a wound badly sewn up. The points of light marshaled in ways she didn’t understand; the constellations she remembered were devoured by the hordes. Everything bled.
(This prepares her, a little, for what comes later.)
(What comes later:
A star dropping out of sight, a ship that holds three, a scattering of gold.)
It is impossible, from the ground, to look at a star.
The atmospheric interference muddies the light, drags it through the sky faster than your eyes can follow. If you’re lucky—if you’re at a high altitude, on a clear night, in a lonely place—this interference is perhaps a few dozen arcseconds out of alignment with reality. If it’s windy, or you can’t escape the summer, or you are trapped by people and lights, your problems multiply. You fall away from the truth by full seconds; you are hopelessly lost the moment you turn your face to the sky.
By the time you look up, nothing is true anymore; the ghosts of the stars only flicker and shine.
Astronomers call this measurement Seeing. (Science has run out of more complicated words to explain the ways the universe has outwitted us.)
What it means: you can’t trust your eyes. You can’t trust your instruments. You can’t trust a thing, from the ground.
They made it to a boat. At night, Marika slipped from her mother’s arms and climbed to the deck to watch the sky.
Once, an old man was sitting on the railing. He was staring at something—a steady, bright star that was already setting.
The water that night was calm, past the ship’s wake; the edges of the sky were mirrored clean. The star, reflected in the water’s edge, looked like twins moving to greet one another.
The old man didn’t turn to look at her. He didn’t move at all. He watched the star setting for a long time.
When it slipped into the water, so did he.
It seemed rude that some places survived when others didn’t, but Marika and her mother found a city where lights still came on. (Her mother didn’t last six months there; too used to running.)
The city drafted for sciences; better than a war that only drafted cannon fodder. When the city came for Marika, she didn’t argue.
(They had privatized water. Mission Control got it below market price. Marika even had enough to bathe in. She still hoarded, took furtive gulps like she didn’t know when the next one was coming. It gave her away as a refugee, but she couldn’t stop. Some thirsts you never get over.)
They teach Marika how to measure light.
In some ways it’s interesting to discover that light has measures other than Safe and Not Safe, that there’s still a world in which mathematics are of any use at all. But the more she learns about candelas and albedo and gravitational lensing and seeing and the impossibility of ever knowing anything for sure, the more thinks that every light should just be classified Not Safe.
(You know as little about light as you know about why a man would slip away into the water when the shore was in sight by morning.)
But still she negotiates the unlikelihood of Gaussian distribution in phase fluctuations, and calculates probable intermittency to gauge turbulence strength, all so that someone standing at the telescope can point the lens at the sky and know where it’s really looking.
Konstantinova heads up the observation banks, and Marika tries not to look over her shoulder at the star map there. (It doesn’t matter. Not her business. Not Safe.)
When Gliese 581-d transits its star, Marika is the only one still awake working, and Konstantinova says, “Well, it might as well be you—come look at this.”
Marika leans in and watches the screen; it’s a grainy, stuttering image replaying in a slow-motion loop, tucked into a corner and drowned out by a crawl of numbers underneath. She recognizes the numbers at the very bottom edge; the initial readings are run through her model to peel away the seeing and get as close to exact locations as their numbers allow.
“It’s beautiful,” Konstantinova says.
Marika knows she’s only looking at the numbers.
Numbers are universal, Marika gets it. You have to rely on mathematics if you’re going to get anywhere, because the universe conspires against you the moment you lift your face to the sky in some warm place on a windy plain, the atmosphere sluicing across the nightscape, your meager vision blurred by tears. Marika understands.
(But she knows, she knows, you can’t tell a thing from the ground.)
This moment is their first point of contact.
(Only Konstantinova would know what that means, what will happen now; but it’s a measurement she never takes.)
Konstantinova has a knack for transit.
She watches the map they’ve made, piled with F-through-M stars (warm enough to heat a planet, cool enough to last). They’re tagged; the closest ones have telescopes dogging them, just in case.
(They won’t be able to stay here very long. They have to pick somewhere to go where they stand a chance.)
Sometimes one of the stars has a drop in luminosity, the intensity of their light suddenly dimming. This happens sometimes when one is dying, or a flare ends, or when debris comes between the telescope and the far-off star.
But Konstantinova has a knack, and she can watch the numbers sinking and know she has a transit even before the alarm sounds.
Every time it comes she flips the switch to record, replays it in slow motion, marks the points of contact: click, click, click, click.
Every time, she thinks, Let this be home.
(By now the numbers are practically shapes; she can look at a column of numerals and see the corona of a star.)
During a planetary transit, there are four points of contact, moments where the circumference of the planet touches the edge of the star in only one place.
1. Just before the transit begins, when the outermost edges meet for the first time.
2. As the planet moves closer to the center, when the trailing edge of the planet has just come within the circle of the star.
3. As the planet passes the center of the transit, its leading curve touches the far edge of the star.
4. At the end of transit, the trailing curve of the planet moves closer and closer to freedom; then there is a single point of contact with the edge of the star; then the transit is over and they are parting.
(This has no real scope if you are close to the event; schoolchildren gather with shoeboxes to peer into the eclipse, that’s all.
This has no meaning until you are watching your new home become a black pearl against a far-off disc of light.)
Gliese 581 is a red dwarf star, warm and small, twenty light years from the Earth. It hangs in Libra, if you’re watching from the ground. It has four planets ringing it. One of them transits at the right speed; it’s close enough to Gliese for light, far enough for water.
(The classification is Gliese 581-d; when people begin to pin hopes on it, it shrinks to “Gliese Dee”; to “Dee.” Marika calls it Gliese 581, never mentions Dee at all.)
There is a chance Dee is an ocean planet.
In the ops bay, there is construction on a small-scale human transport. There are calculations being made.
It is a very slight chance, but these are desperate days, and people must put a lot of faith, sometimes, in very slight chances.
Sometimes when they were still running from place to place, it was a comfort for Marika to watch the sky and see there was no balance there, either. The stars you knew would roll beyond your sight and be replaced by strangers, and there was nothing you could do.
After a while she couldn’t breathe in cities, wanted only to be in the wild, watching a war she couldn’t win.
(The sky is a battle; stars are always falling.)
Seeing can be mitigated on cold, clear nights. From a refuge on top of a mountain, the seeing is so clear that, if you didn’t know better, it might not occur to you that the star is even moving.
(You know better now; you can’t trust your eyes.)
Sometimes there’s no such luck, and even the Moon wavers like a coin submerged in shallow water. When seeing is at its worst, the Aristarchus crater on the Oceanus Procellarum can suffer so much distortion that it’s only intermittently visible. If you know what you’re looking for, and you know your numbers, you can calculate the seeing from that.
Marika doesn’t learn this until it’s too late. For her, Aristarchus is always just a pale dot in a black sea, washing in and out of sight; a star on dark water, or a drowning man.
Maybe the old man held out a hand as he toppled—a reflex, second thoughts—but Marika never remembers. Maybe he called for help, or tried to pull himself up before the water took him, but it might be a lie.
This moment always blurs when she tries to recall it; it wavers like the Moon, sneaks sidelong into her imagination when she’s running checklists on the three-seat ship that will carry them to Gliese 581.
(She doesn’t think she was terrified watching the old man drop into the water, but she must have been; whenever he appears in her thoughts she freezes, fumbles for something to hold on to.)
When she’s drunk enough and dreaming, sometimes he holds out his arm and the star-wake catches him, pulls him smoothly across the water until he disappears into the sky.
But it was only Jupiter, she thinks, not a star; you know that now.
She wakes up grieving, doesn’t know why.
Marika calls it Gliese 581 because she doesn’t ever want to pin her hopes on a planet by mistake.
Their spacesuits are molded in the Orlan model—a thick skin they can pull on and clamp shut—and Konstantinova thinks it’s remarkably like wearing an elephant.
Apparently it’s not as bad as it used to be. The gloves are more articulated, the legs less bulky. There’s still no joint at the neck; the chest is stiff to support the oxygen and coolant strapped to the back.
Before Alkonost I, she and Zeke and Marika run drills until they can all get in, attach the water-coolant hoses, and seal up in five minutes; in four; in three.
Konstantinova always hears an exhale over the mike when Marika’s fastened in. For a long time she thinks it’s relief. Exertion, maybe. Panic, maybe. (Marika is a liability; why they’re sending her up is anyone’s guess.)
But once, Konstantinova sees Marika’s face as Zeke seals her in: Marika frowns, brushes at the helmet’s gold-coated visor like she’s cleaning a dirty glass.
(The sound is a sigh. It hurts.)
Konstantinova’s life support system whirrs awake.
“Clear,” she says, turns her mind to important things.
“The life support system isn’t active in the pods,” says Zeke. “Shit. Mission Control, are you reading me?”
An acknowledgement comes back over the static; then a plan. Marika and Zeke fish around in the toolbox and do as they’re told. Konstantinova takes comm, passing along a series of orders that become wild guesses.
No one panics until they realize the ambient heat from the launch melted a circuit in the outer hull that can’t be set right again.
Mission Control goes quiet for a long time.
Marika and Zeke wait, holding the handrails to keep from floating away; at the comm, Konstantinova is bent over like someone punched her in the stomach.
Then the Director says, “At full speed, it’s forty years to Dee. Operations calculates that it’s possible to make it, without suspension, on the existing lift-support.” A pause. “There’s not enough for a return.”
He doesn’t say, We might not have this chance again, if this ship comes down in pieces. He doesn’t say, You might as well take your chances, things aren’t any better on the ground.
Konstantinova’s visor trembles against the net of stars.
“You’ll have some life support after landing,” comes over the line. “A day, maybe, maybe a week. Depends how much oxygen you use on the trip. But even a day is long enough to find out if Dee is really habitable.”
The Director clears his throat. “This isn’t a call we’re going to make, Alkonost. It’s up to you.”
After a long time, Konstantinova says, “No.”
Zeke says, “And I’m a No. That’s majority—we’re no-go, Control. We’re inputting a new trajectory. Confirm.”
Konstatinova curses under her breath, until the roar of the atmosphere swallows the words.
After it’s over, Konstantinova pulls Marika out of the hatch.
“My hand hurts,” Marika says, absently.
Konstantinova says, “We broke your fingers.”
(This is the second; it is nearly the eclipse.)
Marika doesn’t remember anything until they play the recording.
Then she listens as Zeke orders her more and more sharply to let go of the handhold and strap in for re-entry, where are you going, the decision’s been made, this is an order, don’t touch the hatch, have you lost your mind, that’s an order, answer me goddammit, move back now or I’ll make you move.
“Why didn’t you answer?” they ask her.
She says, “I did.”
(Not then—when Zeke blocked the hatch and broke her fingers, it was Konstantinova who yelped.
But on the recorder, as soon as the Director said “It’s possible to make it,” she said “Go.”)
They put Marika back at the computer bank, and she gauges wind resistance and plots angles and tells the telescope where it should be pointing.
(She’s still good at it; she just doesn’t look behind her anymore where the map is, where the ghosts of the stars flicker and shine.)
It’s a week before anyone talks to her.
The first person who does is Konstantinova.
“Can you move your fingers?”
Marika says, “Yes.”
A week later, Konstantinova hands her a screwdriver, says, “Prove it.”
Konstantinova makes her do mechanic drills at night, after the others are asleep.
So Marika drills: into her suit in two minutes, alone; flicking switches to a full-speed metronome; screwing and unscrewing panels until the pads of her fingers have no skin left.
She doesn’t understand why, until she hears rumors that the techs are making modifications and repairs; that it will be going back up as Alkonost II, with three chairs up for grabs.
“They’ll never crew me again,” she says.
Konstantinova says, “You have fifteen seconds. Go.”
It takes a year for Alkonost II to take off.
Zeke gets water-fever and dies. No one offers to replace him.
Walters gets drafted out of the pilot pool. He’s surly to the techs; he can suit up in two minutes; he cries in his bunk.
Konstantinova wishes for one, just one, to be the sort of person you want beside you when you stand on a new planet.
But no one else comes, and that morning on the launch pad, it’s Marika standing on her other side.
(This is the third; it’s almost over.)
The launch succeeds. The pods register nominal. The life support system holds.
They make it through the asteroid belt with only one bump (a fragment of meteorite, so small that when it strikes the hull it makes a soprano ping they can hear inside).
Decision point comes after that, with the inner planets behind them and Jupiter filling the viewscreen. Along the top edge, a shadow is passing; a moon in transit.
“We are go,” says Konstantinova; her feet go numb just saying it.
“Godspeed,” says Mission Control.
On the ground, they’ve already started to leave notes, to write things down and lock them up safely in case the war gets worse while they’re gone. They’re making a covenant of things for their children to do when they’re grown and staring at the dusty computer banks, greeting three far-away strangers.
“When we wake up,” says Konsantinova, “we won’t know a soul. Imagine that.”
She glances behind her, but Marika’s looking out at Jupiter with a crestfallen face; a moment later, Marika closes her pod like she’s glad to go.
(Walters went into his right after launch, even before the asteroid field. He’d better be as good at landings as they swear he is. She doesn’t put much faith in people who are surly to techs.)
Konstantinova stays up long enough to watch the ship accelerate to full speed, just in case.
Jupiter drops away, and Uranus and Neptune roll past in the distance like blue marbles, and there’s a brief bright string of stones along the Kuiper belt (Haumea whirling by), and then they’re in deep space and it’s nothing but her star map, as far as she can see.
It’s so familiar, suddenly, that she has to calculate the luminosity of Vega from memory before she can breathe again.
(Some thirsts you never get over.)
They wake up three days shy of Gliese 581.
Konstantinova wakes a day before the others to check out the comm. The Captain should be first, she feels. Zeke would have agreed.
When Dee comes into sight, cloudy and blue and welcome, Konstantinova holds her breath, runs some numbers.
(It’s an afterthought. By now the numbers are practically shapes, and she knows what home looks like.)
Walters wakes next. He looks out at the planet, sighs, and starts to dress.
Marika wakes last. As her pod cracks open she knocks it away with outstretched arms, leans out the edge and takes a few gasping breaths.
“I dreamed we hit the water,” she says.
Konstantinova doesn’t answer. People’s dreams are their own business.
The navigation system is working and the life support is as expected (enough air to get home, and Konstantinova tries not to shout with relief).
There’s a message from Mission Control, only twenty years old, which catches up to them on the second day. A few of the old voices from Mission Control send good wishes, and introduce some new voices.
“We’ve been monitoring your trip, Alkonost,” says one of the strangers. “Everything looks good; watch fuel usage on your way in, so you can make it back up all right if the gravity’s stronger than estimated. Let us know when you wake up. Good morning, and Godspeed.”
Konstantinova sends a message back. Beside her, Marika looks grimly through the viewscreen, where Gliese 581-d is spinning in the glow of their new home star.
They suit up and take positions for landing; it’s so instinctive now that Konstantinova smiles.
(She spent forty years dreaming of setting down on Dee, and after all that practice the comm switches feel like her own fingertips.
She never got to the part where they step out on a new world; not enough imagination left over.)
The checklist goes well until the very last moment, until Dee’s gravity has already caught them and they’ve begun the slow, inevitable fall.
“The third shock absorber isn’t running,” says Konstaninova. The words sound distant; disbelieving.
“We can land with two,” Marika says.
Walters says, “Not on water; if we’re off by more than a few degrees the surface tension will knock us over before we even touch down. We’ll slam into the water and be pulverized by impact.” He’s not disbelieving; he sounds like that’s just what he’s expected all along.
“Then you’d better do your job, I guess,” Konstantinova snaps.
“What’s wrong with it?” asks Marika. “It froze?”
Konstaninova frowns at the diagnostic. “Doesn’t look like it. The mechanism still registers. Something must have broken loose while we were sleeping. Maybe we can open the nav panel in the back and—”
“In the asteroid belt,” says Marika. “Something hit the hull.”
“After last time, there better not be a fucking thing wrong with that hull,” says Konstantinova.
“But it sang,” Marika says quietly.
All at once Konstantinova has a vision like a reel of film, as a sliver of rock careens into the hull, as a few grains slice through the hull and nick the fuel line, as forty years of a microscopic accident converge on them at once when there’s not enough pressure in a valve.
She tries for words, and for a moment fails.
“We can’t access that now,” Walters says. “We’re heading into the atmosphere, we’ll burn up if we go out there. Let’s pull out, we’ll look at it from a steady orbit.”
“If we pull out now,” says Konstanitnova, “we’ll burn the fuel we need to launch from the surface of Dee and go home. So we take our chances in the water, or we take our chances on the ground.”
This shouldn’t be such an agony; this isn’t the first time she’s been here. It should get easier. This should have an answer, by now.
“All right,” she manages, “pull out and circle back on a one-way trip. This is the go/no go. Vote.”
She waits without turning for them to weigh in. She has a new respect for Mission Control, forty-one years ago; this is a silence that’s hard to allow.
At last, Walters says, “No go. We’ll take our chances in the water.”
Marika doesn’t say anything. Konstantinova frowns at the comm, wonders if she missed it; if Marika answered while Konstaninova was still talking.
(Marika has that habit, and her answer is always Go.)
But she waits for an answer a long time, until there is the sound of something sealing; Konstantinova sees the warning light go red under her fingers before she registers that Marika is opening the outer hatch.
(The transit is over; they are parting.)
The hairline crack is in the hydraulics panel. As Marika approaches it, moving hand over hand along the side rails, one bead of gasoline pushes through it and away.
“You won’t get home,” she says into her mic. “You’ve lost too much already.”
She doesn’t know if the connection is still live; she forgets if she turned it on or not, and her heart is pounding too loudly for her to hear a thing.
She grips the screwdriver in her free hand and gets to work. It’s familiar by now, and the screws come apart one by one, cling gently to the magnets in the fingertips of her glove.
The suit warms up with her work; her visor fogs. She tries not to panic. There’s not enough air to panic. (She disconnected—there wasn’t time for anything else.)
If she lets go of the handrail, she’ll vanish.
She imagines a darkness like the darkness of the boat on calm water, imagines stretching out a hand as she falls.
The screwdriver shakes; she clamps down with numb fingers to keep it from escaping, drags off another screw.
But it’s useless. Her helmet is fogging up from the inside now—she can’t see, she can’t see, and there’s not enough time left to hold her breath and wait for equalization, not enough oxygen left to hyperventilate and turn it into droplets big enough to see around.
She shoves the pick in at an angle, to avoid her eyes.
Three stabs before the visor cracks; another three before she can wedge the pick inside and wrench it out.
The shield winks once and spins gently out of sight, knocks away a scattering of gold where the coating has flaked off under the chisel.
She exhales, so her lungs don’t explode from the decompression, and turns to the bulkhead with shaking hands. She has to work fast—she forgets how long you can last before the darkness swallows you.
(You have fifteen seconds. Go.)
The last screw opens; the panel opens.
She slices the fuel line where it’s torn, shoves the healthy end of the hose back into the joint, throws the clamp shut. Stray gasoline floats past her in black pearls.
(She’s freezing; her lips are numb; when she blinks her eyelids crack, snap off, go flying.)
The panel begins to vibrate as the system kicks in.
She slams the bulkhead shut, fumbles three of the screws back into place. It’s all she manages before her fingers freeze.
Far away, Konstantinova is saying something about re-entry, about being out of time, she’s panicked, she’s screaming—but the last of the air escapes the suit, and then there’s silence.
(Marika breathes in; her lungs collapse.)
The ship is accelerating now, dragging her.
She pulls free.
The motion spins her slightly, away from the planet towards the sky. For a moment, the full view stuns her.
She thinks, It’s beautiful.
It’s the first time in her life she’s ever thought it.
(This is why: there is no seeing.
Now there is only the sky; she’s looking, for an instant, straight to the stars. This is the true geography.)
The Milky Way rips through the black at a different angle; this sky is a stranger, a ceaseless riot, sharp and steady-bright.
It’s a lovely war.
After it’s over, Konstantinova will emerge from the sea.
She will stand on the deck of the Alkonost; pull off her helmet; breathe.
The night will be deep. When she turns her face to the sky, to search for a place to begin with her numbers, the ghosts of the stars will flicker and shine.
Genevieve Valentine is a novelist (her most recent is near-future political thriller Icon) and comic book writer, including Catwoman for DC Comics. Her short fiction has appeared in over a dozen Year's Best collections, including The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy. Her nonfiction has appeared at the AV Club, NPR.org, The Atlantic, and the New York Times.