by Emilie Reed.
When we crossed over into an asteroid shadow, which bent lines of radio communication, leaving us unsure if our regular pings met any destination or just spoke into the void, the excursion began to have the feeling of a dream. Kathe, who was the only other person with me, was meant to be my ideal partner for the work, assigned via a battery of personality tests, video interviews algorithmically analyzed for emotional range, and a full manual audit of our social media accounts. I used to be on that job, which at first felt like digging through someone’s underwear drawer, and then laundering endless thousands of identical pairs. This one paid better, but I was becoming keenly aware of the risks.
We couldn’t find our way out again, as much as we tried to orient the direction we pushed the survey towards in long, straight lines that we hoped would break us through to a clear angle. The worn canopy above us, which couldn’t hold on to the synthetic atmosphere to maintain it at the rate the wheezing base control system was generating it, occasionally peaked around a long-range communication structure, always out of order. I mean, of course it was. Auditors like us were only sent down to have a poke around, ensure a base was truly abandoned and there were no abnormalities or missed resource veins to go back for before the company blasted it to utter obliteration, preventing any of the proprietary terraforming tech or research materials left behind from falling into the hands of scavengers, or even hypothetical extraterrestrials with no respect for corporate NDAs.
This was one that just didn’t take, same as many others. While it was a gravitationally stable enough location to set up a partial canopy, the atmosphere was dry, the dirt a cocktail of the least lucrative elements. Attempting to grow even basic mosses and weeds in samples taken inside the initial base camp structure was futile, and the scientists reported that it basically sucked to live here, too, even if you were used to deep space exploration; the months of dim twilight from the irregular orbit and the only sound being the thrum of machines trying to force this poor rock into life wore away at your mental health. So, discovering nothing of interest, they retired it. Kathe and I stepped forward into, now, an even deeper stillness, to do the final call before shutting the lights off for good.
We tried to keep at the work despite the silence from the ship, but the nature of the work itself changed in front of us. We knew we were fumbling forward like an anxious animal subsumed in the clever malice of a pillowcase or plastic bag. Maybe the mistake was, when provoked by unplanned challenges, we both tried to act like it wasn’t a problem. The algorithm had measured something all right, that we were symmetrically compulsive in maintaining our competence, putting on an upbeat facade. Underneath we didn’t know how different we’d gotten. It was another depth radio waves couldn’t ping back from.
I felt like it was my fault, of course, and she’d say it’s so typical of me, to come out the gate blaming myself. We stopped getting the transmission from the scouting ship that synchronized our own communication console, the one Kathe always held out in front of her, in both hands, and frowned at, saying nothing when the cursor was directing us towards a fissure or up a sheer cliff. She’d shake it, rock it a bit to reset its internal gyro, and eventually it would give in and present a slightly more reasonable course.
Our particular device was late in its lifespan, battery waning, so we shut it down between data transmissions, because it had nearly crapped out before the end of the last survey. We’re not supposed to do it that way, but it wasn’t like the replacement had arrived in time. Of course, after several reports I noticed the time that blinked in the top corner of its front face had maybe remained the same, even as we were trekking hours, setting up camp, sleeping curled up against each other in habitual, unaffected professionalism, between the testing sites.
That was perplexing. Voicing the thought made me feel guilty and paranoid, so I tried to walk it back. Maybe it was a coincidence, could there have been exactly 12 hours, for example, between the last data we entered, or we mis-remembered when that was? The emergency transmitters attached to our suits didn’t keep time, they only sent location data and SOS flares when activated, so there was nothing to directly check it against. Kathe, with a posture I knew by now betrayed the sudden wave of queasiness anxiety left her with, stoically picked up a piece of plate metal that had fallen from the canopy and scratched the last time displayed on the device into it with a flinty stone.
“Ok. What do we do now?” I asked.
“I dunno, what’s the next test?”
“Another borehole sample.” I tapped on the face of the device, and handed it to her as I got my tools out. She turned it off.
Both of us had handled the device over the past few… I tried to come up with the term that seemed most appropriate as I cranked the hand-powered drill. Days? It could have been a few days by then. Maybe a week. There was no sun-up, sun-down, at least by our usual feeling for them, the approximate day-night cycle based on Earth that was standardized across most ships. Here, we were wrapped in the insulated auto-pilot of the work. I cranked, pulled up, ejected the sample into one tube, stretched my wrists and shoulders, did another, until I’d made six points along a meter radius.
When I was done, Kathe turned the device back on and started scanning each tube and recording the data in rapid succession. After three, she said “shit” under her breath and checked the time.
“Did that take me, like, five minutes?” she asked. “It takes longer than that to drill, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, like I was pretty sure, but my sense of time had gone so loose that she may as well have been asking me questions in a foreign language. It had taken me three minutes to bore a hole properly the last time I had thought about how fast I was doing it. Of course, I had done it hundreds of times since then. Maybe I had gotten a lot faster. She processed the other three tubes, turned the device off and sat it on the ground next to her, then sat, elbow rested on one of her knees and chin in the supported hand.
“Open up the pack,” she said. She let her eyes close, like she was thinking deeply. “We can count the leftover ration packs to estimate, anyways. They throw in like 30% excess in case of hard terrain, right?”
I undid the part of the pack that had the rations inside. But then I remembered a while before, maybe when the device was still working, that I’d gone tumbling down a hill and ruined a number of the packets, which we left behind on the basis of environmental contamination. I had pitched the torn ones down another steep ledge we were walking along the perimeter of, joking to cheer Kathe up, and, like there was a lead weight far beneath both of us, pulling both of our guts down into the cold dark, we realized at the same time that this was why that fact came to her mind. It was how I had tried to comfort her. I stopped unzipping the pack.
“Exactly how many did we lose again?” (we!) Kathe asked. I winced, seeing their silhouettes vanishing down into the chasm, like their sharp outlines were captured by a speed camera. But I couldn’t count them. I couldn’t know for sure.
“There’s only five left in here anyways,” I said, not bothering to think too much about how we had ended up at an odd number, how that apparently hadn’t occurred to us before, either.
“We might not have much time, then,” she said. She sighed, fidgeting with the rim of the device’s thick plastic casing. “If they can’t detect us on the surface at the official mission end, they’ll cite the clause…”
This, in the auditing business, was a euphemism now dashed off as casually as saying someone had “kicked the bucket,” and in the end the result was the same. In the employment contract was a clause that employees were responsible for presenting themselves to the recovery ship prior to demolition. Phrased harmlessly enough, it meant that if, at the conclusion of the mission period, the expected report and a detectable presence were not confirmed on the pick up ship, a search party would not be sent out, instead, presumed dead, lost, or in some sort of unexpected peril, the demolition would go ahead, “out of an abundance of caution and to reduce contingency for our valued clients.”
“Right, so they can’t even be bothered to give us a communications console that, I dunno, stays on the whole time we’re meant to be down here, but if they can’t find us at the exact moment they want to leave…” I trailed off, neither wanting to repeat the cliche nor put it more plainly.
Of course, this was a serious situation, our livelihoods and also our lives, so my comment, getting mad at the fucking piece of shit computer again, probably struck her as immature. Well, let it, I thought, indulging myself more. If that policy didn’t strike her as profoundly fucked up, if this whole situation wasn’t ridiculous to her, her entire personality was weak, pathetic, stupid. She’d just sit here taking borehole samples, each an announcement of nothing that went nowhere, and wait to die. Imagining the bombs coming down, I felt the swallowing panic of a nightmare. But it was real, wasn’t it?
“It’s possible they might be getting the data,” she went on, as I brooded. “It may not have been that long and we could start receiving data again too. We’ll just–”
“I’m going,” I said. “Give me the thing.”
“Where?” She picked the console back up and pulled it close to her chest. “What are you doing?”
“We don’t know how long it is until they’re going to destroy this whole place, probably sooner rather than later if we can’t be sure we’re getting in touch with them, right? So we should at least get clear of the canopy, and maybe we’ll be out of the asteroid shadow by then too–”
“That’s crazy. What if we get more lost?”
I don’t know Kathe! We starve to death rather than explode, then! I wanted to say something cruel, manipulative like that, just short of dragging her by the arm after me… But then I thought: why did I even want to bring her along? I realized that I didn’t know why or even if I liked her, just that statistically I was meant to, or we were somehow complimentary or something, and had been, so far, acting on that premise.
“I’m going,” I said. “I’ll figure something out.” What, in hindsight, was unclear. I took three of the rations, left two for her. She could have easily yelled at my back, you’re an idiot, but she sat on a rock, fiddled with the device on her lap, and reached over to pick up my drill. I took one brief look back, a few strides away. I didn’t want her to catch me doing it. She was still propped up on an elbow, frowning at the screen, not saying anything. A complete communications breakdown.
The lower gravity of the small planet made my strides long and bouncy, even if this was at direct odds with both my mood and the rush I felt to try and find a way out from under the asteroid shadow, or, failing that, clear of the canopy to get away from the bombs. While I was bumbling along something must have lurched, in heaven, on Earth, or, the alien ground under our boots. I had been going on for hours, then slept on the ground alone, kept walking, re-encountered my own footsteps, then slept again. I didn’t find my way out from under the canopy, but fire and brimstone didn’t fall either. The ship presumably hadn’t pulled away, they hadn’t, like I had in my panic, written our team off and brought precision-guided laser obliteration down on our heads.
Was this it? Had it been pointless to come out here, to try and get clear of everything? I sat and watched one of this puny exoplanet’s rapid-fire sunsets, which would be followed by several earth-weeks of gray twilight, semi-illumination coming from an occluded red sun. I no longer had the feeling I was going to die, imminently, at least, so I had to decide what to do with my life.
I turned and began retracing my steps, preserved like evidence of a crime by the thin, still atmosphere. Even without the trail to lead me back, in the dim reddish light the landscape became familiar, recognizable, almost romantic. Kathe must have pulled something off. That was the conclusion I had to draw from the non-event. How incredible! I would go back to her, this was just a challenge we’d look back on, maybe even fondly, as formative to our vital partnership. If we were going to live, I should marry her, or something, I thought. Plenty of work partners did get married, eventually, or at least there was a lot of company gossip about it. Reports of the phenomenon were passed around with an almost superstitious air, proof that there was something supernaturally good about the tests and sorting algorithms. The system worked. We had gone through so much. I didn’t just want it, I felt like I owed her. It was the right thing to do.
When I crested the small, rocky hill that brought the ditch I had left Kathe in back into view, I held my hand at my visor, not waving, but miming like I had to shield my eyes from the nonexistent glare of the huge sun in the sky, long gone behind me, dunking below the lightly curved horizon into twilight.
“You’re back,” she said. As I walked I had built this moment of acknowledgement up in my head so much, then realized that when it happened I wasn’t even looking straight at her.
“Um. Did you get in touch with them?” I asked.
“Yeah, they were getting our transmissions the whole time. Pulled in closer when I said I hit some water.”
“Well, it doesn’t really smell of anything else,” she unfolded her hand to gesture at a small pool near where she sat, flowing out of a fissure that formed around a borehole.
We were on the other side of it, somehow we had gotten through it. The strange mood was leaving me and I felt my thoughts returning to the straightforward routine of the work. We’d be picked up by the ship, a renewed formal research hub would probably bloom where our footprints had aimlessly dawdled around. We had come out the other end, things would go on the same as they had, but with water on another planet, in another solar system. Everything changed, and Kathe was the one who had done it.
She had her helmet off, her voice was weak and scratchy in the thinning, leaky atmosphere, and she had taken out the thin cigar she had smuggled along to every mission, rolled into a sock, in case we’d ever found water, or something else as plain but also as strange. The oxygen level couldn’t maintain a flame, even with the emergency matches, for more than a few seconds, so it sat unlit, stuck to the moistness of her bottom lip, as she breathed, deeply and deliberately, with a half-open mouth.
What could I have possibly done, what box had I ticked on some personality quiz, in a fog of pathetic self-regard over how I’d handle genuine peril, stick to the procedure, stay so level-headed, that somehow made the system think I deserved her? I made myself smile at her, it was what I wanted to convey, what felt appropriate to the moment, but she looked back at me with undisguised disappointment, boredom. Whatever would be found out about the dark pool at her feet, reflecting the bare rebar canopy and long arms of a swirling galaxy that stretched above us, unremarked upon, why it was there or how it had come about, hardly seemed to matter; it was already determined that it could not improve our relationship.