09/27/2021

Greg Sanders ~ A Blintz on Ross 128b

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