By Natalia Yanchak
Her body casts two shadows on the ground: one stout outline of the bulky space-suit, and a second thinner, umbric image that moves as if she were watching her own shadow elongate during a time-lapsed sunset. In the black sky a second sun has appeared, glowing blue rather than yellow, and falling down towards the horizon.
Lorna looks over at Jeong who gestures that he's seen it too. He gives the hand signal for mission withdrawal. Lorna takes a moment to collect the pieces of the sample kit. It is not a poised moment, as she cobbles the equipment together in her arms and lumbers back to the shuttle as quickly as the bulky EVA suit will allow.
Lorna engages the door, and after some tugging, the landing module's decompression hatch opens brusquely, getting tangled in Jeong's main supply line. He is standing too close, and as the hydraulic door swings open, Jeong's suit is compromised. Lorna pushes him into the chamber first, knowing they have to re-pressurise and decontaminate one at a time, knowing he would not survive that long.
Those minutes feel like a lifetime. Lorna stands idly by the door as the ground shudders. The second 'sun' has struck the moon somewhere far off. In the distance the horizon buckles, mountains shoot up and appear to cascade towards her, the moon's crust like a cresting tidal wave, a regolith tsunami.
She breathes, remembers to stay calm: Just like in training. She peers into the decompression chamber and sees Jeong's strong shoulders in his flight-suit, stumbling unusually as he hangs his EVA gear on a hook. He peers back out at her with a look of confusion and uncertainty. Jeong shakes his head side-to-side and turns to step through the inner door. She is afraid to look away from the small window, but feels the ground pulling from under her, like the drawback of a wave, the land depressing, a sinking feeling.
A green light illuminates and she jumps through the outer seal of the decompression hatch. Not a moment later the shuttle's boosters fire: Jeong has engaged the take-off sequence. She stares through the porthole as a cold, anti-bacterial mist pours over her. As if imploding on itself, the moon breaks into pieces as the shuttle rolls, her view turning to the dark velvet of infinite space.
The inner door opens to the flight cabin where Jeong is sprawled on one of the captain's chairs. The air carries a pungent smell of sweet acidity, Lorna notices the splatter of sick. Jeong? Are you OK? His head is turned, sick dripping from his gaping mouth. The smell hits hard in the thin shuttle air. Jeong's eyes are open wide, dead and bulging. His cheeks streaked with tears of dark red blood that weep down onto his powder blue shirt. Deep ruby spots seep through threads of fabric. Lorna takes a thermal blanket from the stores, draping the silver crinkly sheet over his body.
That blue sun. There was no warning, no readings of a comet headed this way. Lorna's mind races but she wills herself together: she looks to the computer console and reads over the return flight co-ordinates. The shuttle is set to rendez-vous with the station, but the auto-pilot cannot find its destination: an encircled X flashes in orange light on the map monitor where, only hours before, they left the station in orbit.
She decides message 547d best describes the situation: a standardised distress call sent out in all known languages, frequencies and bands. The auto-pilot suggests a secondary rendez-vous with another station millions of kilometres away. The machine estimates travel time at 3,892 hours. She stares blankly at the number while calculating in her head: five months. She selects this new destination and the boosters fire, turning the shuttle slowly before a controlled burn that sends her on her way. Lorna runs a full systems diagnostic as she cleans the mess beside her.
Lorna is overcome by a moment of complete sadness as she drags Jeong's body, wrapped in thermal blankets, across the floor and into the decompression chamber. She breathes deeply as the inner hatch shuts, swallowing back any emotion. She engages the outer door, jettisoning Jeong out into space. She watches his body float off into the distance, a flicker of light as the sun reflects from a fold in the metallic blanket before he is gone, forever.
She turns to face the interior of the cabin: the flight deck and two captain's chairs only a few steps to her left, to her right two folding bunks line the back wall. She folds down her bed – the top bunk she won from Jeong in a pre-mission game of paper-scissors-rock. The thought makes her smile for a moment, as she climbs into bed and falls into a deep, long sleep.
Lorna wakes several hours later to a loud buzzer: an alarm. She scrambles over to the dashboard computer where the shuttle's diagnostic monitors are bathed in a critical, red light. Radiation levels inside the space craft are reading above normal. Damn, Lorna curses, her hands pressed on the console as she leans over the controls. Her eyes dart from one system diagnostic to another: everything is failing. Her years at the Space Science Academy brought her here, up among the stars where she always wanted to be, and she wouldn't accept failure. Stay calm, remember. A buzzer to her left: the screen posts the message:
Life Support Critical.
Stasis Pod Recommended.
Engage sequence? Y/N ...
A cursor flashes, waiting patiently for Lorna's input.
One month, eighteen days, seven hours. She imagines her body stretched out, standing simply on Earth. Gravity. She hopes the thought will relax her, instead she feels a tension pulling along the length of her spine. The muscles in her legs have atrophied and could not be trusted to hold the weight of her body. She has made a daily routine of the things she believes she can do, like wiggling fingers and toes. It occupies her mind – but the movement is in her imagination. She can't feel anything anymore, can't lift or turn her head. When she opens her eyes, there's nothing beyond her peripheral vision.
She remembers to be grateful for being alive. She made it off the moon unharmed, and the escape sequence went fairly smoothly. In her mind she reviews her deep space self-preservation training. She reminds herself of every memory she has of school, of her home, of another life, of Jeong. Inside the spherical pod she floats through the cold, massive vacuum of interstellar space, lying awake, a shell of her former self.
Darkness is the most terrifying. When a sun or giant star passes before her, the controls fluoresce for a few short minutes before the labels, dials, all begin to fade to black. Dark afterimages dance for her eyes. Sometimes she closes her eyelids, taking a moment to allow her mind to get lost inside itself, but she is often taunted by visions of a blue sun falling towards her. Some days when passing a nearby star or glowing heavenly body, she sees her reflection in the concave window: her hard features now puffy and filled with fluid as her blood pressure equalises through her body. She pictures her calves and feet as robust and sprint-ready, while in reality they are bony and frail.
An IV administers all her support systems: nourishment, hydration and preservation therapies like selective hormonal receptor modulators, bisphosphonates and teriparatides. Running on minimal power, a light atmosphere is maintained inside the pod: filtered oxygen at a moderate temperature, mixed with a nitrox compound to stave off barotrauma and ebullism.
If physically capable, she would have wept, resigned to the idea that she would feel this loneliness for the rest of her days. She thinks fondly of Jeong, his coarse black hair and wiry body. She reminisces about their time together; teenaged afternoons in her parent's basement, watching action movies, choreographed fights and controlled explosions. Memories remind her to feel, to not forget herself. Now she wonders if she will ever experience love again. She stares bleakly out into the void, self pity washed away by the occasional spectacular scenery. Spurting energy of a stellar jet, smoky wisps of globular clusters, slow spinning discs of distant galaxies, the blinding dances of mass ejections or the shy tail of a crumbling comet as it swings around in orbit of an unwilling body.
A daydream is interrupted by an abrupt shudder as the pod lumbers to a striking halt. She opens her eyes and is compelled to squint in the blinding aquamarine glow. Her body hangs upside down, her long brown hair falling forward.
Was I asleep? She remembers the clock reading hundreds of hours until the rendez-vous. It couldn't have been that long. An incredible effort is required to move her arms against the force of gravity, but she raises her hand, shielding her eyes in order to read the console: the screen flashes green, announcing the detection of a positive atmosphere. The hatch opens automatically and the safety harness disengages. Her body collapses to the ground. Beyond the hatch her hands are dampened with dew, a long green-blue grass glistens in the bright daylight. Her body, weak and useless, drags itself into the soft meadow, the grasses dancing slowly in the light breeze. She begins to weep, her lungs thick with a sweet and heavy pastoral air.
She is hungry and reaches back into the pod to collect her landing pack. She unwraps and eats an energy ration in one bite. As her body adapts, her mind reels, suddenly swept by an euphoric feeling of satisfaction, an uncontrollable love for something that she cannot identify. She sees a figure approaching in the distance, a lean man, dark hair with strong shoulders. She recognizes a powder blue Academy flight-suit and is gripped by a wave of terror. Lorna's stomach turns, her face contorted with confusion and despair as she looks up into Jeong's smiling face.
“Jeong... ?” Lorna's voice is raspy from disuse. He only smiles, staring into her eyes. Jeong extends his hand to her, which she feebly grasps. He pulls her to her feet, wrapping his left arm around her waist and holding her close against his body. She feels his warmth as she rests her head on his chest before collapsing against him. In one chivalrous movement he scoops up her legs with his right arm and begins carrying her limp body across the field.
When she wakes next she finds herself lying on a large, red and white checkered blanket spread over the grass at the top of a small hill. Around her, the makings of a picnic: cheeses, patés and pickles, a bottle of red wine, a baguette loaf on a cutting board next to a small knife. Jeong leans back on his elbows, sipping wine from a short glass. Lorna closes her eyes: This can't be real.
“The commons are beautiful from up here,” Jeong suggests, his voice slightly deeper than Lorna remembers it.
“I-- I'm-- ,” she stammers.
“Don't worry. Everything's fine. You're safe here.”
“Jeong, how is this possible? I saw you-- ”
“I'm so sorry,” he says as he roughly cuts a slice of baguette before offering it to her. “You should eat.” Lorna gnaws on the bread, feeding the weeks of hunger behind her. Jeong continues: “Do you remember this place? We came out here after our first anti-gravity seminar at the Academy. You told me you needed some time apart, and I was relieved that we felt the same way.”
Lorna swallows a mouthful of bread: “But that was on Earth. I-- we've travelled thousands of parsecs...”
“It's important that you feel comfortable.”
“Where are we? I didn't see this on any map. Are you... real?”
“Do I appear real?” He gives her a sidelong glance while taking a sip of wine.
“First year logiconomics...”
“Yes! His truth tables would dictate that given the circumstances, you cannot exist.” She musters enough energy to tear another piece of bread from the baguette. “So what are you?”
“Trust me, I'm real,” he leans over her, stroking the hair away from her forehead with his hand. Lorna closes her eyes, surprised at how calming and warm his touch feels. If she didn't know better, she could easily have been convinced that that she hadn't a care in the world.
Lorna looks up into the crisp blue sky dotted with perfectly fluffy clouds. From where she lay, Jeong's square chin blocks the sun. She watches him as he pauses, gently holding her earlobe between his thumb and index finger, staring off into the distance. For a moment he seems unfamiliar, a stranger to her. She sits up. “Jeong... ”
He snaps out of his reverie: “Are you awake? Come on.” He helps her up and takes her hand, leading her across the meadow toward the tree line. Lorna, feeling oddly complacent, holds hands with the only man she has ever loved. She can't help wondering why this feels so good, when clearly something wasn't right. Was he always this affectionate? In the minutiae, she remembers him otherwise.
They wander into a thin forest of pine trees. The sun dapples down to a brown floor of fallen needles that gives softly underfoot. They approach a small clearing revealing a grey weathered house with cedar shingled exterior. Lorna is reminded of her father's old fishing cabin: a single room with an unusually comfortable fold-out couch. In the opposite corner a modest kitchen: small wood stove with kettle and a cast-iron pan that always gave a smell of lake fish when it was heated.
As they enter the one-room cabin, Lorna is struck by the resemblance to her father's place, though the furnishings are arranged differently. A fire dances behind the small window of the wood stove. He brings her to the the square dining table, on which a hot dinner of casserole and root vegetables has been recently set, though there is nobody else around.
They retire to the sofa, her head resting on Jeong's lap as they talk about the Academy and the memories they shared. He pulls a beige and cream Afghan blanket – a traditional zig-zag pattern like the ones her aunt knitted – over her. They sit in a comfortable silence. Lorna falls asleep, watching the dying fire, exhausted from the day's events.
She wakes in the middle of the night, a pillow where Jeong's lap had been. She calls to him but he has gone. Her body aches as her atrophied muscles recover, she stretches out her legs as they give a twitch, still weak. She falls back asleep, not sure what is real, what is happening, where she is, whether she is dead or alive, conscious or dreaming.
Sun beams in through the windows, making the room bright and warm. A full breakfast waits on the table as Jeong comes in from outside. He wears new clothes, a navy blue military-style sweater and multi-pocketed pants. He is carrying a bag – a standard issue book bag emblazoned with the silver-grey Academy logo. He produces a brush and a milky bar of soap from the bag, offering it to her.
She showers outdoors under a waterfall that cascades from a small escarpment behind the cabin. The water is perfectly warm. Having walked over to a stout apple tree in the distance, Jeong feigns disinterest. He picks a red fruit from the tree's branches. Yellow sunlight casts Lorna's bare shoulders in a glowing silhouette. After a few bites, Jeong tosses the apple core into some shrubbery and produces a clean, white towel from his bag. He wraps the towel around her body as she steps out of the stream, his arms firmly about her.
“I'm so happy we're together,” he utters.
“It feels pretty good.” She give a fake smile as she takes the towel from his hands, wrapping it under her arms and tucking the corner in near her armpit.
“It's incredible. I just can't believe you're here.”
“Where else would I be?” She squeezes the water from her long hair. “Since you brought me here.” She states, squarely.
A look of concern comes over Jeong's face as he searches for his response. “Did I?”
Lorna wakes, unsure of the time, but knows it is late: the high, gibbous moon casting a ghostly indigo glow on the wooden furniture. She knows she is alone, again, the cabin empty and dead quiet save for her softly padding steps, an occasional creak of a floor board. She feels isolated and peculiarly afraid.
She steps outside to look for Jeong, finding him collapsed and lifeless beneath the apple tree. “Oh...” She utters, for she cannot be sad, she has felt this loss before. She kneels beside his body, reaching for his hand, his skin pallid, almost green in the light. As Lorna touches Jeong, his skin inexplicably crumbles under her grip, as if his body were pulverized from within. She scampers back, as the form once held by his clothes collapses into dust.
Lorna stands and breathes heavily, her stare locked onto the pile of ash.
She can't sleep, though her body is tired. She sits on the floor, huddled on the woven cotton carpet, the beige blanket pulled around her shoulders. Lorna stares into the flickering light of the wood stove.
Maybe I'm still out there, floating in that bubble. Alone... She slips into a meditative trance, a state she knew too well only days before. A weakness overwhelms her body: her left foot twitches, threatening to cramp. She ignores everything, every feeling, every emotion. For hours she stares forward, into the small window of the stove, as if she were looking out into space through the escape pod's window.
Lorna is startled by the grinding door knob as it turns, the latch bolt sliding against the strike plate. She turns her head and her eyes widen – bloodshot and bulging – at the dark figure in the doorway. “Who are you?” She screams. There is no answer as the man approaches through the thin light of dawn.
“Lorna, it's me,” Jeong's voice. Soft and deep, familiar yet impossible. He stops moving, seeing her huddled on the floor. “Are you OK? I didn't want to frighten you,” he offers, but her bottom lip is trembling, tears pouring from her eyes, her face red and hot. At this moment, she feels broken.
“I should have told you I was coming back.” He crouches down in front of her, holding her thin face in his hands. He wipes her tears with his thumbs. “I'm sorry.”
“I woke up this morning knowing I had to tell you,” Jeong offers, as they walk into the woods, taking big steps through the underbrush, lifting their knees high, an occasional burr catching onto a pant leg. “This is where I come from, every morning.” He points to a very dense and strangely rectangular thicket, poised centrally in a small clearing beneath an arching canopy of trees.
“What do you mean: Come from? Where do you go?” Lorna asks.
Jeong doesn't answer, instead he pulls leaves and vines away from the mound to reveal a coffin-sized module. Dark green moulded plastic with nary a marking save for a small window: not a button, handle or latch.
“I wake up here, at dawn.”
Lorna peers inside the round window on the module's side though it is coated with droplets of condensation on its interior. Her hand on the container's smooth casing, she feels the machine rumbling from within, actuators busying themselves at some unknown task.
“I can't show you more than the shell. It only opens from the inside,” Jeong explains.
“What does it do?”
“It's a variable density printer, contained in a bioreactor oven. A cellulose alloy skeleton matching my own is heated, then a stem cell sluice pours over the frame in progressive layers, creating the three dimensional model. My body is powered by energy from the sun, so I run out of power after dusk. The organic compounds decompose into the ground and, at day break, if necessary, I will be printed again.”
“Who could have built a machine like this? I've never seen this kind of tech... ”
“As in, an algorithm?”
“Lorna, I know I'm not here alone. I'm part of something bigger, an intelligent agent called K*. It put me here and must have brought you here, too.”
“What's so special about you, or me? About us? I don't get it, Jeong.”
“I think that's what K* is trying to learn. It is self-maintaining, an ever-expanding knowledge. K* was programmed as part of the Human Cognome Theory – a failed Academy research project that sought to print working models of the human brain. The human scientists fled as K* became autonomous and difficult to control. Since then, the program has been collecting data from Earth. K* knows every bit of information stored in every human database, including the Academy's. But the mental, the emotional, the love, luck and fate: it can't be recorded. It requires physical approximation to be studied.”
“So, we're an experiment.”
“K* brought us here, Lorna. So we could be together again. Doesn't that show some kind of compassion?”
“Did it destroy that moon during our landing mission, too? What about our ship? Our base station? Just so we could be together?”
“I want you to stay. I need you,” he pleads.
“Jeong, who else has it destroyed for this experiment?”
“Without you, my bio-template will be erased.”
“How do you know? If it doesn't talk to you, how do you know anything?”
“In the capsule. While I'm in there, my first moments of consciousness come with a feeling of new knowledge.”
“Why, Jeong? Why are you doing this to yourself, to us?”
“I don't know. I've never questioned it. Since I turned up here, my mind has never felt so free. And since you arrived, my life has never felt so meaningful. Now I have purpose.”
“But it's not your purpose, is it?”
Jeong looks at her. His face shows uncertainty, doubt. Lorna realizes that since she arrived, she only ever saw optimism in him, but now there is doubt, a dark shadow.
“If you choose to leave, Lorna, I won't come back.” Jeong rubs his forehead, trying to continue but the words fail him. He grabs his bag and bolts into the forest, sending a commanding shout through the trees: “Come!”
Lorna runs after him through the forest, the underbrush gripping at her calves, sinewy branches flicking the air, threatening to whip at her eyes and face. She struggles to keep Jeong in sight, the image of his body lumbering briskly through the trees, growing farther away. She wonders if she is imagining it, if the forest canopy is thickening or if the light is failing. Impossible, she thinks, it's not even noon. Daylight continues falls unusually, leaving her alone among the trees in a lurid darkness.
And then silence. The air cool and still: not a leaf rustles. She no longer sees Jeong. Lorna is overcome with the urge to stop moving, and falls to her knees among the prickly rose and wide-leaf sedges.
“Lorna?” She looks up as Jeong's voice falls down from an empty night sky. “Lorna, you may stay and help others like you, or leave this place forever.”
“Help others? Who? Haven't you destroyed them all?” She cries, to the trees, to the sky.
“K* has saved many humans from destruction. K* is not responsible. K* cannot intervene, nor influence fate.”
“Where is Jeong?”
“His body has expired. But K* can restore those files, should you choose to remain.”
“And if I choose to leave? What's left out there?”
“K* will send you back on your journey, but there is not much that remains of the human race.”
Lorna pauses. She thinks of doomsday mythologies, ancient calendars and prophets who predicted the end of humanity. Did K* induce the apocalypse as an iteration of human history? She can't be sure. Her mind muddled and fragile, reconciles this choice between a laboratory-controlled life, or an unpredictable death.
Lorna opens her eyes to a total darkness before her. She tries to move but cannot, her body restrained tightly against a soft seat. Her limbs feel heavy and weighted. She feels her body recenter, as she spins around towards the sun. She looks away from the glare, the light revealing the tightly-designed controls among the confines of the escape pod. She sees her bare hands on the arm rests, bones and sinews perceptible beneath her blue-tinged skin.