The light appears on the switchboard. A small fire sputtering in the dark. She tells him
straight away. Speaks quickly. He can’t see her face behind the helmet. Its featureless
mirror glass. His own suits reflects back, indistinguishable from hers. The duplication
repeats itself. Reflection in the reflection in the reflection. He lies to himself. Thinks this
is why he can’t quite take anything in. Why he has to be spoon-fed information.
It’s red, she repeats. The generator’s on red.
Okay, he says. So now what?
They move briskly across the moon’s surface. Silent. Anxiety cauterizes his mouth. Keeps his breath trapped in the growing ache of his lungs. No static escapes into the headset. He drifts mid-glide. Paralyzed by the obvious fact that it’s all come undone. She’s the engineer. His being a botanist won’t be any help. He can barely keep up. Vestigial in her shadow.
Like a tail it would make more sense to remove.
Earlier, before she put on her suit, she showered. He said she’d only have to wash again later. That they didn’t have much water to waste. She insisted. Life is small things in big ways. He can remember her words but not how she looked when she said them. It might have been his last chance to look at her directly. To see the face of love.
Everything is wrong.
They follow tubed circuits, staked to avoid the jests of low gravity, like a trail of expensive bread crumbs. The sounds of low tide, of held breath, contract inside the helmet. A distant in and out. It weighs him down. Heavy. A living skeleton in the musculature of the suit. Trapped in white plushy breastplates and oversized arms. A durable Cold War design that had become a present day joke.
It was less funny every year.
They had made do for nearly a decade. Of course, extra supplies were promised, but the promise is all that arrived. Command has since rewritten their mistakes, turned them into a mantra: utility is a virtue. Forfeit elegance for function. Make do. And she has. But today might punctuate the story. One flashing light might void her resourcefulness altogether. Then the Earth would officially be nothing more than an image projected by the glass of the station. Another idea. Their home would become a cage. It was a small stretch of the imagination. The place was already a zoo. They were just the last animals on display. Human propaganda. That’s why they were here. To prove colonization was possible. The last and final hope. Like two tigers, forced to mate, to stave off extinction. Except tigers are extinct. And she will leave him, when she can. He has known for some time. Even now, she lingers on his periphery. Eyes locked to the ground.
He doesn’t know where his love for her has gone. The last few years have casually disintegrated their bond. Left their affection to be absorbed by the walls of their home. Stuffed into the paste of their daily meal. Flushed into the vacuum of space. Bloated and frozen, circling the moon in tired motions. A broken satellite.
They were enthusiastic, in the beginning. Everybody wants to love a stranger. They met in orbit. Sold on the idea of one another. Hooked on the gimmick of their situation. Besides, sex in zero-g is strange and rewarding. Aerobic. The hygiene of it the only downside. Everything gets everywhere. Their government issue condoms would have helped, but she laughed when he discovered them.
That wouldn’t help them start a family.
He watches her cross a large crater. Tenses his legs to jump. Remembers how she used to sing over the headset. The station’s intercom. Her voice filtering through the vents, the empty spaces, even when he was working with the plants. He looks up, as if at memory. The stars glint overhead. A trillion eyes in a cave.
There is a click as he speaks into the radio. He asks her to sing for him. To pass the time. The request is a waste of breath. Her mic is off. He follows her the rest of the way. Silent.
This is what passes as conversation. It didn’t always.
When Command discussed the first supply drop, the pair were excited. Boiled over with enthusiasm. Cross-checked the inventories just to read the contents aloud. Clothes for the baby. Pre-mixed anesthetics safe for labor. Diapers. They both knew the infirmary lacked the proper equipment. None of that stopped her. She went to work making a crib from spare parts. A PVC cradle. Her personal gift to the child. All her free time spent in the workshop. He used to hum along to her as he tended the plants. Connected, even at different sides of the station. It was a joyous formality, on the day of launch, to confirm their every necessity had been loaded with care for the first shipment.
Then it exploded in the atmosphere.
Sabotage. Or so they said. He found it hard to believe someone would go through so much effort to destroy baby formula. Reusable diapers. Anesthetics. Basics. But he also knew what it represented. What they represented. Their mission. An infant as ideology. Hope.
The second shipment never even left the ground.
It disgusted him, the pettiness of these attacks. Like drilling holes in lifeboats. Everyone goes down together.
As Command prepared the third shipment, they distracted one another with baby names. Had they known the gender – had they received any of the equipment for even a single ultrasound – they might have settled on one. Instead, her stomach grew alongside the silences. A problem without a name.
She finished the crib in the interim. Somewhere between a hammock and a suspension bridge. Cables substituted for bars along the sides. She showed him how it swayed. Gave it a small push.
I hope they like it, she said.
He kissed her, then. It’s the last concrete memory he has of holding her.
Two months to the due date. No supplies for the birth. She becomes protective. Defensive. The child grows between them. Even the name divides them. They have yet to decide. Everything, an argument.
He should not have told Command about the names. He knows that now. Naive. It seemed harmless, but something sharp hid inside the white noise of each transmission. Taut. A tripwire communication. She sensed it. Grew furious as he spoke.
Command was baffled. The State would approve a name. Told them not to bother. After all, it was not their child.
Days later, the third and final prenatal resupply failed. Not sabotaged. Destroyed. An air raid leveled the launch site. War took priority.
The baby comes a month early.
Without anesthetics, he can only help the mother express her pain. Mitigate it, where possible. They are lucky. The child cooperates. Quick, in birth. A relieving cry. A girl. Her mother smiles before she passes out. The child looks healthy. Small. He shakes his head. Wipes the child’s face. All newborns are small.
He lays her in the crib. Tries to smile as he smoothes the thin hair on her head. Takes a moment by himself to cry inside the airlock. Minutes later, he returns. The cradle rocks gently by its wires.
The girls breaths are infinitesimal. Her mother will not wake.
He asks the doctor at command about medicines. Mechanical ventilators. Alternative CPR. He reads between silences. His months of practice come into play. The doctor doesn’t respond when he screams about the shipments. All the their mislaid promises. Finally, he weeps. He asks the girl’s name repeatedly. They listen to him repeat himself. Hysterical.
They won’t give him a name to whisper.
He returns to the crib. Coos his daughter through the fade. Hours later, the mother wakes to his face. She screams when she has the breath.
Days pass. They stand at the window. A tiny cylinder plunges into the void. Shoots wide of Earth. Their daughter will spend eternity exploring parts unknown.
In the next six months, her mother twice tries to follow.
He hears her constantly inside the station. In the oxygen chamber. Through the vents. It is never the sound of a song, but it is always the same tune.
Three and a half years pass. The war is not priority. It is all there is. Occasionally, someone transmits an update. Victory any day now. Soon, they can send a resupply. Or a way home. Replacements. Try again.
Soon, they say. Soon, a colony. Soon, peace. Soon, tomorrow. The war will be won tomorrow. The next day. The day after.
And now, the generator. What keeps the whole scam running. Their mechanical heart. He imagines the red light of its blood blinking on the display. Another message yet to be received. Things get very simple now. If the generator goes, they will finally leave this place. It’s all on her. Whether or not it can be repaired. Whether she wants it to be. He doesn’t know which it will be. She has not tried to vanish in a long, long time. But she has never stopped wanting to. Now, she might have to decide for them both.
They come to a slow stop outside the maintenance bay. The Earth demoted to a satellite rock in the distance. Almost as far away as she feels. He watches her through the visor. She ignores him. Stares at the world they left behind. A sunset in progress back home. At Command. The arms of her uniform rest at her sides. He knows the answer without having to ask. Resolves himself to the reality that if she has the choice, she will leave him. That she blames him for what happened.
For the fact that their daughter died without a name.
He steps closer. His approach measured. Gentle. The Earth spins slowly. He remembers this is relative. It all is. He stops beside her. They watch in a familiar silence. Ever widening. The gap between here and eternity.
Instead of speaking, he moves his arm in reference to the generator. His gesture scares her. The jolt lifts her lightly from the ground. She hovers at the apex. Floats down. A small cloud of dust gathers at her feet. It is almost cute. In another life, he would smile. She looks at him for the first time today.
This isn’t easy for me, she says.
I know, he says.
No, you really don’t.
She moves towards him. Half of the Earth experiences night. Attempts at affection spill out, stupid. The oversized suits deafen all meaning. Their visors touch. Clink. Two fishbowls rubbed together. It’s only this close that he can see her face. His body relaxes. Because this is enough. To see her, one last time, with the knowledge of what’s to come.
Somewhere on Earth, people hug.
I love you, she says.
On Earth, people say goodbye.
But I never wanted to stay here.
On Earth, people tell each other it will be okay.
You would never let me go ahead of you.
People hold their breath.
I’m sorry I made you hold me for so long.
Even when I broke between your arms.
I’m sorry we ended up here.
But now we have an answer.
There is nothing wrong with the generator.
I’m sorry that I lied.
Command told me earlier.
That early warning system.
Drops of flame spatter what continents they can see. Orange, nuclear paint ripples the world like rain in a puddle. Frightening in its frequency. A detonation for every grain of sand in an hourglass.
Time passes. The Earth is black. The clouds are black. What is not black, still burns. At some point in the apocalypse, they started to hold one another. They let go at the same time. Move their hands to each other’s helmets. The seals that will decouple them. All of it gentle. Eyes locked. He can hear her voice over the radio. She sings while she counts down. What would have been a lullaby. This is as close as they’ve been in months. He wants to touch her face. Her neck. Acting on this will be fatal.
Her mouth shapes decaying numbers. Watching keeps him from crying. Keeps his hand steady on the release.
The seals hiss. Helmets lift. One reaches for the other. Bodies in sync. Like love is a mirror. And he is thankful.
They have just enough breath to kiss.