Back when NASA was forced to auction exoplanet rights in an attempt to raise funds for future missions, my grandpa Melvin, a hulking widower with a mischievous sense of humor, bid $2,500 and ended up as the “owner” of Ross 128b, one of hundreds of putative exoplanets that had been discovered indirectly via the wobble of their star’s orbit or the fluctuation of their light—or both. Turns out that 40 years later, Ross 128b was the best goldilocks candidate within reach of our latest ion engines, its hazy atmosphere—barely discernible through orbital telescopes—rich in the gaseous exhalations that could well be evidence of life.
The planet’s size was thought to be similar to Earth’s, its distance from its host star closer than we dared to admit, but sufficiently safe given that the star, Ross 128, is a red dwarf. What did that $2,500 buy my grandfather back in the day? A framed certificate whose fine print states that he or an heir of qualifying age and physical condition had won optional passage to the planet should NASA ever send humans there. It was something of a joke. A legally binding one, it turns out.
I’ll repeat that: heir of qualifying age and physical condition.
Gramps passed away quietly many decades ago. At the time, nobody in the family had given the slightest consideration to Ross 128b (Ross hereafter) until the good people of NASA discovered that they were legally bound to offer said qualifying heir of dubious physical condition passage on the mission, a mission that would soon be underway. Offer passage, let us be clear.
I will say that my fellow astronauts were not thrilled at my decision, at the eleventh hour, to proceed.
“But what will you eat?” was my mother’s response when I told her that I’d be among the first humans to colonize a new world. “They say it’s going to be a long trip, and I won’t have you starving half to death.” She wanted to send along some kasha blintzes, her specialty, and one based on a recipe that happened to have been handed down to her from my Grandma Esther, Melvin’s wife. Things tend to come full circle in my tribe. Old-world grains plus chicken shmaltz as a means of ancestral continuity, subsequently hurled 65 trillion miles, plus or minus, from Minsk, Esther’s birthplace. I’m all for it. But I felt Mother was not understanding the grandness (nay, finality) of what I was about to undertake. I tried to explain that she and my father would be long dead by the time I got to my destination, and that it was astronomically unlikely that I’d ever make it back myself.
“Well I’m sending some blintzes with you. Let them tell a mother she’s not allowed.”
As it turns out, we were permitted to bring along “touchstones” from our “home life.” So there lay a dozen kasha blintzes at absolute zero for nearly seven decades as I hurtled through space in a windy sleep.
I was the ninth crewmember on a mission designed for eight. My qualification to be on board, as fellow space traveler, triathlete, and M.I.T. physicist Dr. Wanda DeLoach, said, was that I was found in a manilla folder in a rusting file cabinet. But what had I back on Earth but a pile of debt and Anika? Ah yes, but Anika! Anika, who tasted like kimchi and green apples. At least I’d finally managed to abandon her in the manner commensurate with the drama she enjoyed. Leave her for another planet. That kind of narrative is a gift to the forsaken. You are welcome, my most aged—possibly deceased—flower.
Locked in a sarcophagus, our bodies’ rhythms slowed to a crawl, our cells englassed with tardigrade protein, our skin slathered in evoo, I felt my self—my very soul—vanish into the vacuum of space. In that state of suspended sleep the timeline makes a strange leap from the continuous to the discrete. Somehow, though courting death, you count the beats til your arrival at your destination. Loneliness is insufficient to describe that particular abyss. Loneliness assumes you are but a nobody in a universe of people. Here you are a nobody in a universe of nothing. To the one, we each came into consciousness grasping our bundles of supply tubes, as distressed fetuses have been known to hold their umbilical cords in utero.
At first arrival, it seems impossible to comprehend the decades that have passed. The mind claws back time and in vivid cinematic detail projects upon the inside of your eyelids those moments that gave comfort. Stuck in the lander in a tiny sleeping compartment, I was taken back to a summer afternoon a lifetime ago. Anika and I are out for a post-coital stroll down by Hudson Yards in Manhattan, that Garden of Shining Phalluses. As we cross Tenth Avenue, a sports car turns into the crosswalk, nearly clipping my toes and halting in front of Anika, who, with studied grace, raises her middle finger at the driver, pumping it, pumping it. In response, the driver calls her a whore, pulls over, gets out of his car.
I am no pugilist, but I can’t recall a happier moment than when the fellow—balding, a hand taller than me, strongly deodorized—shoved me to the pavement in reaction to her offense. Anika was standing behind me and was rifling her purse in search of cigarettes, as if preparing to watch a dangerous trapeze act. I rose up thinking that nobody dare call Anika a whore other than self on rare theatrical occasions, and struck this fellow between his square breasts with a right and then a left. God, I was filled with life! The wonder and joy of life! Now I recall that old smell of sublimating asphalt, as if we were heating up the road beneath us. Though of course it was the dying planet. For reference, flies had recently surpassed bees as the primary pollinators on Earth. When I struck him that second time (the left), something gave way deep in his chest with a muffled click. It’s possible, I now realize, that he had a replacement valve installed, or a pacemaker. Or the entire pump was aftermarket. I swear I didn’t know what I was doing. The man gaped at me as if I’d hurled some grave insult. He careered back, and I knew even then that this was a word one gets to use rarely. He fell against his car’s side view mirror, which snapped against the chassis, angry. Then he opened the door, tumbled into the driver’s seat, and nailed the accelerator, using his indicator before merging into traffic. That gesture of an attentive driver even when under strain told me that this was the sort of man I might have been friends with in different circumstances.
The whole momentous occasion had lasted less than a minute. An unlit cigarette dangled from Anika’s lips, and her cheeks were crimson. If she’d looked at herself in a mirror, she might have been embarrassed. But she never did such a thing. We walked on in silence, still heading south. Down the avenue we could see that the wind was wreaking havoc and heading toward us. A dust devil of plastic bags and other refuse was swirling above the traffic, high into the air. Cars were honking at it. What nonsense. As I was contemplating our strange world, Anika turned, looked at me with something like a smile, pulled me into her for a hug, and cupped me.
I could still feel the sharp imprint of her fingernails digging into me as I looked out a pinhole window past the jagged horizon, at our lukewarm star.
By now Anika will have had children, who will in turn have had children. A battalion of cuties lighting up whatever’s left of home.
My mission training, being last-minute, covered menial tasks. I was not to be an entire waste of resources after all. Much of my coursework covered chores that would help ensure that we arrived safely at Ross. After five weeks of training I was adept at purging zero-gravity toilets, at changing environmental filters and replacing air lock gaskets. Once on the surface, I was charged with maintaining the generators, draining fuel cells, digging trenches for our sewage, and refilling oxygen tanks. My pressure suit was chalk blue, whereas everyone else’s was Space Odyssey white. Supposedly there wasn’t enough time to fabricate a suit to my measurements, not to mention a backup suit. Best they could do was to scrounge up a single, tattered training number that would keep me passably alive during the journey. And if not, well I’d be one less mate to worry about, jettisoned. The suit is ill-fitting, baggy around the waist and shoulders, and bunches up around my booties. When inflated, it pinches the groin and neck and cuts off blood to both hands. But it does the trick, I’m happy to say.
Months ago, having finished dusting our little encampment’s solar panels, I decided to take a bit of a stroll. In a clearing at the bottom of a shallow crater that provided some protection from the wind, I spied Dr. DeLoach—Wanda—bent over her charge of seedlings, whispering to them. Willing things to life in an inhospitable environment wasn’t even part of her official duties, but this is who she is. At the site of her, my heart went a‑fluttering. You try to find love—you say the word over and over to yourself, you remain attuned to its symptoms. But in the end you follow the script, pursue bodily pleasure, and happily call it a day. For people like me, the fear of loneliness is perhaps not as paralyzing as it would be for a deep-feeler, a sentient, full on mentsh who understands what it is to be in the company of his fellow humans, who yearns for their warmth, their scent, who finds companionship—deep companionship—necessary. Though I have grievances like all my countrymen, in the loneliness department I’d always considered myself half a man. After all, when you convince yourself you can survive without love, you can survive without love.
Yet here was Dr. DeLoach. Wanda. Seeming to undo all that. The scrim of desolation through which I’d been viewing my life was suddenly revealed to me. Who stood in the way of building new relationships, of proving myself worthy? I did. And my ridiculous, humiliating blue pressure suit. Even in that thin atmosphere, you could hear the zizzing of my thighs as I approached my fellow pilgrim.
To place this in the timeline, we’d lost Al Hayward and Joyce McCallen a few months earlier. They’d gone to reconnoiter the ancient river delta—our intended landing site—but hadn’t returned. After a few weeks of silence, and no luck at all from their location beacon, we wrote them off as kaput. Our crew was getting smaller and more nervous even as we were making progress in expanding our local footprint.
We knew that the air was nearly breathable, needing but a supplemental kiss of oxygen. We also knew that the temperature, ranging between zero and sixty degrees Fahrenheit, was entirely doable. Yet during the first year of our occupation we were required to remain sealed inside our suits while outdoors. Rendell and Pierson, our biologist and chemist, respectively, are spending every waking hour running a battery of tests on our virgin environment to establish ecological and atmospheric baselines. The main offense we could commit by disrobing outdoors would be to destroy a vibrant civilization of sentient beings via contagion. That seemed unlikely. The place was essentially a desert, from what we could see. Second most offensive would be to destroy an ecosystem of less intelligent beings—presumably those unseen by the naked eye. I was taken to understand that Rendell had discovered the existence of a spectacular bacillus, structurally similar to what you might find back home, but with flagella that had evolved into little rotary blades; that is, the damn things could fly. Third most offensive act would be to get ourselves killed by toxins or biological predators against which we had no defense.
Thus the pressure suit requirement until we were able to sort out every last detail. Thus the ultimate frustration of my life, approaching a fellow human being on a bright-ish afternoon and wanting nothing more than to feel a bit of skin against mine, to smell her breath, yet to have a pair of impenetrable barriers between us. The crew was only now beginning construction of our more permanent shelters, enclosures that would allow us to undress without bumping our elbows into graphene panels, “homes” designed, I presume, so that the crew could eventually reproduce.
So then, back to Dr. DeLoach.
She was in her fabulous, well tailored pressure suit, and with quilted tweezers was massaging a sterile clod of pampas grass she had germinated from seed. The blades were droopy, brown-tipped, and this worried Wanda. I inferred disquiet from her stillness as she squatted before them, head cocked to one side, glass visor steaming up a bit. Her back was to me, but I knew the flapping and crinkling noises produced by my space bag had alerted her to my approach. The last thing any of us wanted was to inadvertently scare the crap out of a compatriot. A sudden spasm of fear, a micro-breach in a pressure suit seal, and suddenly the entire experiment is over. I reached a shaking hand toward her, but let it hover there, inches away from what would be, in regular nature, her thick hair resting on her dark shoulder, her adorable ear with its intimate whorls. I withdrew, grunted, most definitely alerting her to my presence. Nothing. Then I noticed some movement within her helmet, her face and jaw spasming slightly. Aha, she was listening to tunes! Music outdoors while on the clock—this was not allowed. I’d caught the good doctor being a bad doctor. Of what else was she capable?
That face of hers, when free and clear of the rhomboid enclosure, was spectral and welcoming simultaneously, as if she could see both the enzymatic reactions that made you love her, and the poetic impulse they would generate. She was incisive, too, the first to realize a mascon—that is, mass concentration—lay beneath the planetary surface as we made our harrowing entry, causing a dangerous perturbation in our trajectory; and she was the one responsible for picking the emergency landing site in less than thirty seconds. The disrupted descent had disturbed her greatly, as if Ross were dead set against us, and here we were forever in its igneous grasp. Now, too, that spectral face of hers showed signs of distress. In a word—one that has an entirely different weight out here—she seemed worried.
I backed up, swiveled on my booties, and continued on to my scheduled task, checking the lander’s No. 2 heating coil, which was behaving a tad erratically. Before we lost Hayward and McCallen, the tiny escape pod within the lander was my home for the same reason I had the blue suit: I was an addendum. But with the loss of my crewmates, I was given their modest dome-like home (we call them “interims”), though I was still on my own. The lander, however, remained a great resource for anybody in the field, a garden hut-garage-outhouse combo to which we could retreat on our breaks, seal ourselves in, and strip to our skivvies.
While I was still outside under the lander checking the coil connectors, I heard DeLoach singing to herself in the thin atmosphere. The voice was eerie and tinny and full of loss: fresh, human, and alive. I swear I felt the ground shift beneath me. The tune was Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” This was a sound I’d never heard, because none of us had ever broadcast our naked voices out on the surface.
To wit: she had removed her helmet.
Now the good doctor was being extremely bad, was jeopardizing the whole reason we’d sacrificed our lives to this distant world. I watched her, hidden behind some mafic boulders. She ran her fingers through her hair, inhaled deeply through her nose—a yogini no doubt—and then refastened her helmet, exhaling within its confines.
She was moving my way, heading for a break in the lander.
“You’re on your back a lot these days, Edmund,” she said, coming upon me.
“So much to do around here, and not enough time to take in the air,” I said.
“Anything I should know?” indicating the lander.
“One of the heaters is out. It’ll be a bit chilly in there. I’ll have it fixed in a jiff.” For reasons unknown at the time, electrical connectors shimmied out of the lander’s underside now and then, or lines would break entirely in the middle of the freezing night. Thus the dead heater.
“Much obliged,” she said, and she opened the lander’s hatch, vanishing inside with a click and the hiss of the venting airlock. The moment she disrobed, the lander would be compromised, ruining the one place, other than our little interims, we could find solace. And I was too shy, or too engorged, to stop the contamination. I could feel the lander creaking overhead as she moved about. Gravitational effects are intimate, I’ve come to learn. Back home the creek of a floorboard was annoying, something to mend. Here it is a reminder that our lives are not illusions, that the best- and worst-looking of us are equally adept at tumbling down a flight of steps. But even more so around here. Because over a mascon, gravity is a fickle jokester. Bubble levels are useless, for example. One feels an intuitive unease, as if stuck on a subway making a long, slow turn in the darkness. I heard the hard thunk of DeLoach’s helmet hitting the floor, as if tossed off with abandon, followed by the soft patter of her feet, the trickle of water going through the lines, pulling from the purification system, then heading the other way, pumping out waste to same.
An hour passed before I finally finished the repair, and Wanda had not yet emerged. I headed back to my keep to settle in for the night. There, the wind kicking up beyond the ridge and whinnying into the darkness, I did my crunches, downed a thimble of corn whiskey, and ruminated.
Though I figured it was not reciprocal, I had a sense of a growing bond with Wanda, an affection both deeper and broader than a mere crush. This is a woman who could have run the mission on her own, who wanted to establish an entire ecosystem of flora and fauna, but who, instead, was now exposing all of us—and potentially all of them—to who knows what. As mentioned, we’d already lost Hayward and McCallen. Literally lost them. Their location beacons stopped pinging and we could see not a trace of them from the high ridge, even with infrared scans.
Ross was not a cruel planet, but neither was she welcoming. Dr. Rohan Feng, our mathematician, was working on proving a hypothesis that he’d posited based on the timing of gravitational anomalies, that Ross has a dual core, a dense iron core rolling around the interior of a less dense composite core.
Feng explained this to us one morning in the mess tent. “Think of the inner core as a lead-filled ping pong ball rolling around the inside of the outer core, a cream-filled basketball, itself rotating within the center of the planet, a beach ball.” First light was arriving, and we were throwing down instant oats and, it seemed to me, itching to get outside. Feng had been working all night, his voice shaking. “And imagine here we are on the surface of the beach ball minding our business. When the lead-filled ping pong ball passes deep beneath us, well, that’s when we feel the effects of the mascon.”
Dr. Reshma Mahendru, our MD, chimed in, explaining that the sudden increase and fluctuations in gravity could cause inner ear issues, such as nausea and disorientation, and, on rare occasions, disinhibition or worse. As more episodes came to pass, Dr. Feng planned to fine-tune his model until it became predictive.
Now I understood why Wanda had taken off her helmet. She’d had a moment of not giving a damn. Her true self had poked through the carapace of genius and solitude.
Weeks more passed in relative harmony. I kept zuzzing around in my misfit suit doing my chores. I’d managed to set up the coffee machine in the lander so that the water reservoir auto-filled. While Zeno Hickman, our systems designer, was managing to excavate for, and assemble, our entire future village, including sewage treatment plants, solar panels, a comms station, and observation tower; and while Feng was fine- tuning his core-within-a-core predictive model, I was spending my time affixing a little plastic float valve to our coffee machine’s reservoir. Meanwhile I was pretty sure that Dr. Mahendru and Dr. Feng were boning. It had begun at last. Procreation.
I began to note that whenever I was under the lander (not an infrequent event) Wanda would happen by and step into the vehicle, thudding around in a manner that I began to suspect was demonstrative. Beneath her, looking up at the lander’s intimate underworkings, I could only imagine what she might be up to within it. One afternoon we were repeating the usual ritual, Dr. DeLoach caressing her pampas fronds (the plants now flourishing) while I was pitched under the lander on my back. In this instance it was legit—I was installing expansion joints on all the fittings. Feng had told us to brace ourselves for the next gravitational disruption in the coming hours, a timeframe that corresponded nicely to what I hoped would be a regularly scheduled drive-by by Wanda.
Happily for me, at the appointed time she meandered down the worn and gritty path toward me, and you could already feel the strange pulling sensation of the approaching inner core. In the right mindset it was stimulating, an all-encompassing weightiness, a planetary hug.
“There he is, the hardest worker around,” she said, cheerily enough. “Got any updates?” I’d already embarrassed myself by mentioning the miraculous coffee maker auto-fill valve to the crew. I sat up, put down my tools, and said, “Nope. Other than I’m happy to see you.”
“Is that so? Don’t tell me you’re getting sentimental, Edmund.”
“I wouldn’t call it that,” I said.
“Well what would you call it?” She had her hand on the railing and was about to take her first step up the lander stairs.
“I don’t know. A bit lonely.”
“You mean you’re a human being like the rest of us? I’m glad to hear that.”
From my vantage point, and because I was aware of the timing, I could see the lander list slightly to one side as the inner core began passing beneath us.
“What do you do in there anyway?” I asked.
“Oh, this and that.” She was lingering, running her gloved fingers along the railing.
“I’d like to join you in there,” I said. When you’re encased in a space bag and helmet you revert to unembarrassed proclamations.
Wanda turned a full 180 degrees to face me. “But that’s against protocol,” she said, “both of us inside at once.”
“Not if we stay in our suits,” I said. I started putting away my tools to move things along. I went about it very slowly.
When I finally stood up, she gestured for me to follow her up the steps.
“I know you took your helmet off out here,” I said on the way in. “I don’t blame you.”
“Well then I guess we’re ruined anyway,” she said, and sealed the door behind us.
We have since tried our best to time our rendezvous to the cycles of the inner core. Making love when the sphere of molten iron is beneath us seems to amplify the act, maybe because it’s more taxing. Even now I can’t figure out why Wanda took an interest in me. At first I thought, with a bit of guilt, that her willingness had been symptomatic of disorientation, the epic inner ear issues Mahendru had predicted. Why else would Wanda hop in bed with the itinerant from the rusty filing cabinet? But as our assignations continued, I stopped asking the question. Likely she just likes a guy who can fix things around the house.
One afternoon last week, the core having released us from its grip, Wanda and I lay on our sides staring at each other among the tangles of wires and laminated user guides strewn about the lander floor. As she often does during moments like these, she stared quietly at me, seeming to scan my face for any signs of happiness. Often she finds a scrap. She wants me to rise to every occasion, and I do my best.
“So what did you take with you all this way from home?” she asked, which is the most intimate question one far-flung traveler can ask another.
“Some kasha blintzes,” I said. “My mother’s specialty.” I expect neither sympathy nor understanding regarding my choice.
“Kasha? I love kasha.” I hadn’t expected that. I suppose Wanda was being polite. “They’re in the nitrogen freezer?”
“Right over there,” I said. For those of us who’d brought along perishable memories, the squat cabinet under the bulkhead was all that stood between us and oblivion.
“Can we have one of them?” she asked. I was a little taken aback, to be honest. To consume a portion of my touchstone was to eat a fraction of my soul. Then again my mother would be happiest if I were to share the meal with a nice girl. Even a shiksa would be okay if you’re far from home.
Then Wanda added, with a sly smile, “I happen to be extremely hungry. You see I’m eating for two.”
Well okay, I thought, and stood up, naked. I looked over at our pressure suits crumpled in the corner—one blue, one white. I felt as if I’d moulted. The next time I donned that thing I’d be a tad more serious. A baby, in this place? My baby, ours.
I’ll have to figure out what to tell the little tyke, explain my part in bringing it into this world. Let’s hope I can conjure a narrative that carries the kid through the hard times, because we’re without precedent down here, without history. Without, until Hickman gets to it, a playground.
I offered my hand to the good doctor, pulled her to me, and together we took the half dozen steps to the freezer.
Greg Sanders is the author of the short story collection Motel Girl (Red Hen Press). His stories have appeared widely in journals over the years, including in this one. His forthcoming collection, The Suffering of Lesser Mammals, will be published by Owl Canyon Press in early 2022. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, their son, and a cat named Moon. More at gregorysanders.com