3860 words, short story
It starts how it always starts, with a kiss on the cheek, goodbye.
All my life my mother had pushed for this, and now here we are. I look down and see her scalp through her thinning gray hair. Her hands are spotted, the veins are blue and raised, and the knuckles are swollen and sore. She is not well, but she will not go into suspension. She has told me so. She will not wait for the world to renew. She will not see the sun through the clouds. Mulch, she says. I want to mulch, and then I want you and your daughter to plant flowers on my grave.
Oh, mama. I have no daughter and I never will.
I leave her at the door with damp eyes and a beatific smile on her face. Her daughter has achieved—is achieving—greatness. Her daughter is going to save the world. I wave as I step into the copter. She waves back as we fly away.
“Are you ready, Field Captain Mair?”
I steal a glance at Hijo, who will save the world with me. He is calm; his eyes give nothing away. “I am, Field Captain Hijo,” I say. “I am ready.” I have been ready since I was four years old.
In these last minutes before the real work begins, I have time to reflect on the path that brought me here. This is not something I allow myself very often. Long reminisces waste time. I am where I am, I always tell myself. How I got here is done. Where I'm going—that is what matters. But now I'm confronted with it, I feel the need to acknowledge that I wouldn't be where I am if it weren't for her.
My mother pretends to recall a time when the sun shone and the flowers bloomed and the planet wasn't covered in ice. When I was a little girl, she told me stories about trees—how they filled the atmosphere with clean oxygen for us to breathe. She told me about the sun, a bright gaseous ball of light in the sky that warmed the soil and nurtured life on our now frozen world. I believed every word, even though I couldn't imagine what a tree was. And then she sent me to the Academy, because she wanted me to put flowers on her grave.
There I learned that my mother’s landscape was long vanished. I was crushed, but she'd done her job too well. Already, I was ready to do anything to melt the ice and see my world covered in the trees my mother did not, could not, remember. I, on the other hand, finally understood what a flower was.
When I graduated from my first year, my mother was there. She held my hand as we walked between the instructors, thanking them for their hard work. When I tried to run away because I'd failed a test, my mother—ill at the time—came to comfort me. When I graduated from my third year, there was no holding of hands. She stood proudly in the audience, tears of pride on her face, and clapped louder than anyone else in the room. Every time I fell, she picked me up. Every time I went home, she tended my wounds before sending me back again. She has only ever asked for flowers in return.
I will give her flowers, even if I can't be the one who plants them on her grave.
As Hijo steers us over the black rooftops of the city, I wonder how many people care about, or even know what we are going to do on this very ordinary and yet extraordinary day. I hook my little finger in the corner of my mouth, a nervous habit I can't seem to break even though I know I do it. Of course I am nervous, I tell myself, but that's no reason to look foolish. Thankfully, Hijo doesn't notice. Stone cold, that man is, and deep as the frozen sea. In a different life, I might have loved him. Whether or not he would have loved me is another matter, but I sometimes like to pretend, too.
Above us, the sky is gray. It is always gray, in varying shades, unless it is white with falling snow. I am grateful it is not snowing now.
We arrive. We are greeted by the members of our crew: Captain Ahab (his idea of a joke), Captain Verma, Field Captain Durant. Hijo and I shake their hands, and then we go in for our final briefing.
Once on the ship we’ll be equal in rank, but we have chosen to defer to Ahab. He is the oldest, has studied the longest, and has the largest family and therefore the most to lose. We have worked this out amongst ourselves, breaking rules even before departure. We are reminded now, in a stern lecture, that we are equally responsible for the success or failure of our mission.
The briefing, if I'm honest, is boring. We've heard it all before—we’ve heard it since the day we five were chosen for this mission. “A great service to humankind.” “Our survival rests on your success.” Etc. What no one wants to admit is that our going to the sun is little more than a bureaucrat’s whim. We are setting off on what must be the most ridiculously thin hope ever conceived in the minds of men. And we know, all five us, that none of us are coming home.
It will take us precisely two hundred and fifty-one days to reach our destination (assuming everything goes well on the way there). Most of those days will be spent collecting data. Very few of those days have anything to do with the sun. None of us have ever seen the sun, not with our own eyes. We are quite excited.
Captain Verma is anxious to depart. She does not like long-winded ceremonies, and she hates the word goodbye. Captain Ahab is happy to shake hands and play the star during these last moments. He is a very social man. Hijo and I stand back and let him get on with it. FC Durant smiles when she needs to, but we who know her can see she’s had enough.
When the briefing ends, we are led through a brightly lit hall full of dignitaries, celebrities, politicians—anyone who could afford to see the spectacle. We are not expected to stay and chat, thank goodness. We are all ready to go. Finally, after what feels like forever, we are ushered into the loading room to prepare.
No one speaks. Captain Ahab has sweat on his brow. We don our suits and seal them up tight. I wish my mother was here to draw her thin hand across my forehead, to tell me everything is going to be fine, just fine. Don't you worry yourself none. I wish I could see her one more time.
Last minute checks are carried out by the technicians, and then we are shuttled to the ship. We board.
We want the sun to burn bigger, to burn brighter, to burn hotter. We want it to warm the ice our planet has become. We know this is not how it works, but we have tried everything from our tiny rock among the stars, and this insanity is all we have left. We are dying. We need the sun to warm the oceans; we are running out of food and we are running out of the means to produce more. We are running out of the means to heat our homes. If we do not succeed in our mission, the ice will encase us. If we do succeed, the sun might crisp us all. When you are dead anyway, you are willing to take such a risk.
Day 21: I hear my mother's voice on the comms. “Hello?” she says. She will have sent this message moments, or hours, ago. My mother and I no longer exist in quite the same time. “Have you seen it yet? Is it as I told you it would be? I am so proud of you.”
I am crying. “Yes, it is everything you said it was and more,” I say, even though she cannot hear me.
The sun is white, and immense, and beautiful. We can see it through one, tiny window. It looks hot. It looks like it should be hot enough, without our intervention, to burn our planet to ash. In the future I'm sure it will. It is only we who are tired of waiting. And I will do anything to get those flowers on my mother's grave.
At the Academy I learned about how we sent men to the moon. Then we sent men and women, and finally we put someone on Mars. Shortly afterwards, the snow began to fall. It didn’t stop for a hundred years. The world as my ancestors knew it vanished. Not everyone survived. The ice age came upon us. We do not know when or if it will ever end.
Hijo has taken to smiling at me. I don’t know what he’s thinking and I’m not going to ask. Captain Ahab has gone silent. It is very unlike him.
Day 45: Hijo, for one brief moment, holds my hand. I think we’re all feeling cramped and claustrophobic. No one is sleeping well. FC Durant has taken charge. She tries to make us laugh by taking off her boots and doing cartwheels. I think she’s gone a little mad. She sends our reports back to base once every twelve hours. Today she almost forgets. I do it for her. A message comes in as I’m sending out. It is for me.
“Your mother,” the voice says, “is very ill.”
I panic. Was this sent a day ago? A week? How is she now? The disconnect is killing me. I don’t want yesterday’s news.
My mother was already old when she birthed me. Impregnation doesn’t come easily to us these days. Even this most primal urge is stunted by the cold. I always did have a hard time believing there were fifteen billion people on earth when the ice came. There are only a few hundred million now. Old maps show land where we have ever only known a frozen ocean. What will happen when the ice melts? Will the old cities rise up with towers broken, streets cracked, entire districts swallowed by sinkholes? Will we find bodies, preserved by the cold? Suddenly I’m glad I won’t be there to see it. I am not sure humanity is prepared.
And my mother is ill. I send a short message back with the reports: please update me on her condition. There is nothing for it now except to wait, just like they are waiting back home. I can see Venus. It looks like it is covered in snow.
Day 92: Captain Verma is dead.
We each have a kill-pill. Things might become unbearable, there at the end, but whether we bite the pill or not is our choice. This is a difficult journey. The small cabin, the low ceiling, the hard bunks into which we strap ourselves for our sleep shifts are minor inconveniences compared to what lies ahead. We spy on each other, checking for symptoms of despair. We have all been trained—we know the right words, we know how to bring a shipmate back from the brink, and we know how to keep our own thoughts from traveling down the darkest paths.
Verma had shown no signs of depression. We are all surprised to find her gone. We put her body in cold storage so it won’t smell. Captain Ahab says a prayer—non-denominational. None of us have gods. He files the report in silence. What we often require is silence, both from ourselves and from others. No one speaks for the rest of the day.
I have heard nothing about my mother. It is only natural, I tell myself, that I’m thinking about her now. Loss cuts close to the bone.
The other day Hijo cornered me. He put his arms around me and we shared a long, intimate hug. I pretend we are falling in love, even though we’ve only shared that one moment. I remember how my hand felt in his. Captain Ahab and FC Durant both saw us. I expected Ahab to lecture me on the futility of romance, but he did not. FC Durant seems more stable these days. Her face is always stern and she keeps herself occupied reading data, or staring out at the stars.
Day 121: I feel unsettled. We have no privacy here, and our suits never come off. I want to take Hijo into my bunk and lose myself in his body. I crave the feeling of his flesh against mine, but there is no way for me to reach him.
It is Hijo who brings me the latest message. “Your mother,” he says, “has advanced signs of dementia. She has been moved into a clinic.”
I stare at him, wondering how such a beautiful mouth could have spoken such foul words. He shocks me by leaning forward. He takes my head in his hands and kisses me. “I’m sorry,” he says.
“Do you think she still knows my name?” It is not the thing to say after a kiss. It is not something anyone ever wants to say.
On a planet of ice, disease is taken seriously. Old resistances are gone. New illnesses have arisen where ancient ones are unable to thrive. My mother will at least be safe in a clinic. She will be taken care of. If we are lucky, the doctors will be able to suspend the dementia long enough for me to hear her speak my name again.
I send a message back: ask my mother to contact me. I hope she remembers who I am.
Mercury is beautiful. It is much smaller than I thought it would be. Its surface is cratered and blue veins pour out of the pockmarks. A dead god has scrawled its name there in a language we have forgotten.
Day 147: this is when things change. Captain Ahab is efficient and steadfast. He is immersed in the reading and transmission of data. He has taken to shouting “I don't give reasons. I give orders!” even though there are no orders to give. What has felt like a long stasis is over. We will now begin our orbit around the sun.
FC Durant pulls me aside. “Things are getting real. I’ve seen you and Hijo. You know it can’t end well.”
I almost laugh at her. Does she really think I expect a miracle? But perhaps I have been brooding. She is simply concerned. “I know,” I say. “Don’t worry, it won’t affect my performance.”
She does laugh. “We’re beyond performance. This ship could fly on its own.”
“But the data,” I begin to say. She cuts me off.
“The people back home need heroes. We are here to keep the fires burning, nothing more. You know how it goes.”
No, I don’t. Durant drifts off and I immediately reach out for Hijo. He has heard the conversation, I can tell. “Do you think it’s true?” I ask him.
“Does it matter?” he says. He has a wistful look on his face, as though he is thinking the same things I am. Opportunities lost. Friends forsaken. Love never able to bloom. He will not be thinking about my mother, but I am.
Day 162: finally. Captain Ahab calls me over to the comms. Her voice is faint, but the first thing she says is my name. Anna, can you hear me? I am so very cold. I can’t wait to see you again.
I won’t cry, not this time. There are too many miles between us. I am too far gone.
Hijo has told me he loves me. He told me it happened the day Verma died. There was a look on my face, he said, that broke and mended his heart at the same time. At first, I was upset. He should have told me immediately—we have lost precious time. We have so very little of it left that my anger did not last for long.
We meet in corners and steal kisses. We let our hands brush against each other’s hips, or rest gently on each other’s backs. Our love, just like our lives, is confined to these small moments. These moments are all we have.
I tell Hijo about the flowers. He holds me, but I still do not cry.
The message I send to my mother is simple. I will bring your flowers home.
Day 191: we are halfway around the sun. I wish my mother could see it now, but even we can’t look directly at it without our helmets on. The flares look like molten light, spiraling and cresting waves of light crashing into a hydrogen sea. Comets speed toward the gaseous mass and vanish in plumes of fire. I almost believe I can feel the heat of it on my skin.
Solar models haven’t changed much since the ice came. We have the old data and images, but the much of the technology itself was lost. In many ways, our ancestors had to start again. Our ship is a result of two hundred years of painstaking research and cautious allocation of resources. The theory is a simple one: if we can decrease the core’s hydrogen, we will increase the output of energy from the sun. It seems outrageous to me, but I was not trained in these things. I was trained to read numbers and codes, to withstand solitude and a lack of gravity, to eat composite foods, and to wear a stifling suit for most of a year. I know what has to be done to keep our ship going. What happens when we reach our destination is a mystery. I’m not sure even Captain Ahab knows.
In many ways our ship is as primitive as the legendary Vostok 3KA. It has been hundreds of years since our ancestors launched that into space. So much time has passed I must know how Valentina Tereshkova felt. She is my hero—the first woman in space. I wonder if she ever worried about her mother, and the risk of never seeing her again. I think she was very brave. I would not have undertaken this mission alone.
Day 210: FC Durant is unwell. I often find her looking out the window, talking to herself. At least, I think she is talking to herself. Sometimes it seems she believes there is someone standing beside her. I wonder if she misses her family. She has a younger brother back home. I never disturb her when she’s in these moods. I keep watch, just in case she needs someone else to talk to.
We become Ouroboros in twenty-five days, when the head of our orbit eats its tail.
Hijo and I are in my bunk. He is strapped in on top of me. We are crowded, but I find his mass comforting. The flares are soaring and his breath is hot on my face. His kisses are deep and sharp. Captain Ahab watches us, but I don’t think it’s us he sees. During his sleep shifts, he calls out for his wife. All of those years together—how can he do it? Why did he accept this mission? I cling onto Hijo. I inhale him. I run my hands over as much of him as I can reach. These fires are a mere precursor. For now, they are enough.
All too soon, our time is up. FC Durant calls to me from across the cabin. It is time to send the reports. “Why don’t you do it?” I say to her, but she turns away.
“I can’t be bothered.”
There, that is what we were told to look for. Despair creases her face. She looks as though she has aged twenty years since we left base.
“It’s nearly over,” I tell her. “Just hold on for a while longer, and we’ll be done.”
She laughs hysterically, and then begins to weep. Day 230.
This is the last day we have to send or receive communications—day 235. Our orbit has come to a close. We’ve collected as much data as we possibly can. From this point forward, we are on our own. I refuse to leave the comm console. Not even Hijo can pull me away. All I hear for hours is static, and then . . .
“This message is for Field Captain Mair. We regret to inform you that your mother’s condition has deteriorated. She has been placed in a secured unit for her own safety and for the safety of others. The diagnosis is terminal. She is very frail. We wish you all success on the completion of your mission. End.”
I feel suddenly empty. Hijo approaches. I raise my hand—no. I want to be alone with this. I want to be alone with my mother, the woman who was always there for me, who tended my wounds, who cheered for me, who wanted me to plant flowers on her grave. I should be there. I should be there right now, taking care of her. I have left her in the hands of strangers, and I am too far away to do anything about it now.
Captain Ahab tells us all to strap in. We are about to begin our descent.
Our ship has been fitted with autocatalytic recombiners housed behind carbon-composite heat shields. It is one of a kind and why shouldn’t it be? We fondly call her The Last Hope. She is, in fact, the only hope humanity has. It is day 251 and there is no hope left in me.
I hear my mother’s voice everywhere I turn. Anna, she says, are you there? Yes! I want to shout. I am there.
I am in a great house made of metal. It has one room, and four occupants. FC Durant hasn’t spoken since we left orbit. Captain Ahab has been muttering about the whale. Our ship is his harpoon.
Our ship will pass through the chromosphere, the photosphere, and the zones. Inside, the recombiners will begin the work of depleting the core’s hydrogen. All of this will happen without our assistance. We are heroes. We will save the world.
Hijo comes to me; he holds me. He whispers love songs in my ear. I begin the arduous process of unsealing my suit. A zipper here, a snap there, five buttons at the chin—my fingers fumble. They do not remember their way. Hijo helps me. His eyes are determined. He is stone cold, just the way I like him.
I am at gravity’s mercy. Her words grow fainter, and their pull stronger, with every stroke of his hand. He grows bigger, and brighter; he blots out the sun. I want both and can be with neither, and I will not plant flowers on my mother’s grave.