by Michelle Tang
Weak sunlight glinted off the half-buried husk of a TR-31 Sparrow, a metal tombstone. Years of wind storms and abrasive sand had scoured the corporate logo off the abandoned vessel, but some Chinese characters, barely legible, survived. The engines of the Raven-44 whined as I adjusted our descent, veering past a small rise, before I slowed our speed. I activated the belly repulsors and smiled as the ship settled onto the sand. Smooth as simulated butter. I’d touched down at the very edge of the planned landing site, before the solid ground was broken up by crevices large enough to swallow us whole.
Settling dust clouds obscured our exterior cameras, filling the small monitors on our control panel like static. I unbuckled my safety harness and stepped out of the cockpit, towards the center of the shuttle to check the large side windows. The raised ridge we’d flown past was high enough to obscure the remains of the Chinese spacecraft. At the peak, a metal flagpole had been spiked into the grey rock—it slanted towards the ground, the fabric of the flag hanging faded and frayed.
Roger pushed out of his seat and caught the way I eyed the flag. “Let me guess, a bad omen. That why you landed so far from where we’d planned? Superstition?”
“She makes my kids cover their eyes when we pass graveyards,” Carmen teased. My twin stretched tall, her short, red-lacquered nails brushing the cabin ceiling. “No way she’d sleep next to a ship full of dead astronauts.”
I shook my head and returned to communicate our safe landing to Manna HQ, back on the colony. “No need to attract trouble.”
We changed into our Extravehicular Mobility Units and crammed into the airlock. After a moment of depressurization, the outer door whooshed open and we stepped onto Treia-3234’s surface. Within seconds, the upper left of my visor flashed red: Atmospheric Oxygen: 2%. Insufficient levels for human respiration. I gazed around us: empty land sprawled to the horizon, the sense of isolation suffocating. Already, encroaching night leached away the orange of our suits. The wind had picked up, strong enough that gravel plinked against our helmets.
“We could pull Oscar out, get started early,” Roger suggested.
I dodged another piece of gravel. “In this weather? One sharp piece of rock, and your suit’s useless.”
“Let’s go check out the old ship then.” Past his visor, he grinned. I stuck my tongue out at him.
The more generous businesses had drones to maintain the scout ships, but Manna Corp. was not one of them. Moving quickly, we cleaned the dirt off the cameras and the windows before we were chased back inside by the howling wind.
Even after the interior doors hissed closed and we removed our suits, my shoulders ached with tension. The sun set quickly on this dwarf planet, but it wasn’t just the darkness that prickled at my skin. I’d been sent to sample other planets whose surfaces never knew the sunlight, but the atmosphere on Treia-3234 was different. Heavier, though its gravity was one-fifth what it was on our colony. It was an unnerving but familiar sensation, and I couldn’t place where I’d felt like this before.
Like all of Manna Corp’s scout ships, Raven-44 was built low and sleek. It rocked with the force of the wind, and gravel rained staccato taps against the exterior hull. Our cabin lights must have blazed like beacons across the barren land. Silly Nora, I thought. We’re the only ones on the entire planet.
The other two didn’t seem to share in my unease. They stood by the windows, gazing out, voices loud and unafraid. I coaxed them to the bunks and tried to warm myself with their brashness.
Then Carmen hushed us, her hand halfway to the card deck. “Shh…did you hear that?”
I didn’t, at first. The storm was too loud, and our old comms panel buzzed with static. It wasn’t until Roger said, “Is that Chinese?” that my ear picked out the voices.
“Shéi zài nà’er?” A man called, his voice crackling through our speakers.
“What’s that mean?” Roger looked from Carmen to me.
“Who’s there, I think.” We spoke Common in the Beta A747 colony, and Carmen and I had only learned Mandarin at home. It had been twenty years since we’d heard it, not since our mother had left. Since I’d driven her away by not following the rules. I forced the unrelenting guilt from my head, its remnants clinging like clenched fingers. “It’s impossible.”
“Is that a message from the TR-31 Sparrow? When did that ship go down?” Carmen asked. “That spacecraft model has to be four decades old.”
Another silence, then another man spoke through the panel, shouting as if from a distance. “Nǐ zài nǎlǐ?”
Carmen translated this time, “Where are you.” Static bursts interrupted the silence that followed.
I stood up and made my way to the monitors, which showed nothing but darkness outside. Roger went to look out the window, and I gulped down the urge to tell him to move out of sight. He wouldn’t listen, anyway. Carmen slid into the seat beside me. “Turn the exterior mics on, Nora. Maybe they’re headed over.”
“And the lights.” Roger pressed his face against the glass. “There’s something out there, I think?”
The wall speakers filled our small cabin with the high-pitched whistling of the wind. I wiped my palms against my pant legs and waited, but no more voices called.
“Nora. The lights,” Roger said again.
I forced my finger to flip the switch. Instantly the monitors went from black screen to grey contours. Aside from the flag, which billowed, nothing moved. We waited, silent and still, while sweat dampened my shirt and prickled my hairline. I tensed at the intermittent static from the comms speaker, but no more Chinese came through.
Afterwards, Roger and Carmen kept watch at the windows. We spoke with hushed voices, our card game forgotten. When it grew late enough, we prepped for bed and I turned off both the exterior and interior lights. We slept.
The dwarf planet Treia-3234 had two hours of sunlight per day, which meant that when we woke, the world beyond the windows remained dark. Roger swore when he sat down to check our messages. “The storm must have jarred something. We’ve lost contact with Manna HQ again.”
“I wish they’d hurry up and upgrade the tech, like the other scout ships out there. It happens on too many missions to be safe.” Carmen shook her head and finished her coffee.
After breakfast, we headed outside to work. I programmed our drone, Oscar, to take deep core samples from the ground. A nice bonus awaited any team who first found a decent trove of Molytonite, and we’d been on a streak the last few trips. Oscar moved independently, crawling over the uneven ground on spider-like legs, and Roger followed close behind, making sure it was keeping clear of the deep cracks that marred Treia-3234’s surface. I fought the urge to ask Roger to stay close, like a nervous mother in a large crowd. Instead, I waited with Carmen, standing closer than normal. The weight pressing against my skin returned. My eyes scanned the area around us constantly.
Roger returned with Oscar after a few minutes. “I’m going to check out the other ship. Want to come?”
“The Interplanetary Alliance dictates that entering another colony’s vessel without expressed approval—”
“—If I don’t take anything, it’s not looting,” Roger argued. “It’s a gesture of good-will. I’m just checking to make sure—”
“—If you’re looking for survivors, you’re forty years late.” I was the team lead on this mission. I could pull rank and make him stay. Then I’d have to suffer through his surly resentment until we left. Anyway, what harm could come to him in this deserted place?
When I didn’t say more, he looked at Carmen. “You coming?”
She squeezed my arm over the EMU and nodded. “Worth checking out.”
Roger handed me the controls for Oscar in case its auto-pilot failed. They walked towards the crooked flag, their steps bounding from the lower gravity, and disappeared over the ridge.
They’d been gone an hour or so, enough time for the distant sun to rise, but since our comms were connected, I wasn’t worried. I sat on the ground and stared out over the landscape, but the threadbare strips of flag pulled at my eye. It felt like a bad omen—what had gone wrong with the Chinese company’s team?
Roger and my sister barely spoke on their trip towards the Sparrow. Despite their teasing yesterday, no astronaut took a failed mission lightly.
“Nothing,” Roger said.
“Black box is dead,” Carmen reported.
When they started to banter, I knew they’d left the vessel and were returning to ours. Carmen waved at me as soon as she cleared the ridge, and they settled beside me to enjoy the brief sunlight.
“Old model ship for sure,” Roger said. “It had two small portholes on the side, and both of those were cracked. Exterior and interior doors were wide open.”
“Sand had blown in everywhere. No bodies, no sign of what happened.” Carmen let the sand fall between her gloved hands, coarse grains and gravel intermingling.
“Maybe a technical glitch?” I wondered. “Doors blew open, they became anoxic, and ran outside? Maybe the wind pushed their bodies into a crevice. Or maybe they jettisoned in the escape pod?”
“The escape pod was still there.” Roger stood and held out a gloved hand to each of us. “The sun’s going down, and I’m starving. Let’s go inside.”
Carmen took his hand. “So the voices we heard last night…?”
“Nothing. Just interference on an outdated system.” I opened the exterior door, the hiss drowning out my twin’s reply.
I stowed the metal sample tubes Oscar had filled inside the floor compartment and took my suit off. The initial breath outside of my helmet always felt the best, like I’d gasped in real air after a long time underwater. We wiled away the hours of interminable darkness in the bright shelter of the cabin. Roger and I played games on our devices, trash-talking each other, while Carmen repainted her nails, the chemical smell of her red polish reminding me of the sleepovers we used to have.
The wind increased, and I put down my tablet. “Better move Oscar back.” We’d left him parked by the side of the ship, analyzing samples.
“I’ll do it.” Roger leapt up and donned his gear again.
The ship jostled as he opened the drone compartment from outside. Minutes passed, and the second jostle that signified the drone’s door closing never came. I didn’t want to close it from the cockpit—the compartment was in our camera’s blind spot, and I didn’t want to damage Oscar. Carmen rolled her eyes at me. “You know why he volunteered to put Oscar away. He never does, usually.”
I’d been too distracted to catch it. “He can’t… if there’s something out there, it’s against protocol to engage with any organisms.”
“I wonder if, somehow, after a year of working together, he figured you’d say that.” Carmen smirked, but she glanced towards the closest speaker, which was relaying sound from the external mics. The wind had changed, had taken on a tonal quality, and both of us sat upright.
“Nǐ zài nǎlǐ?” A man’s voice, faint in the wind.
“Don’t, Roger. Don’t,” I pleaded under my breath. “Don’t answer.”
“Hello?” Roger called. The microphone in his helmet was sensitive, and auto-linked to the cabin speakers. He was breathing faster. “Is anyone there?”
I hid my face in my shaking hands, dread churning in my guts like spoiled milk. Protocols were what kept us safe. Bad things happened when rules were broken.
“I’m going to drag him in.” My sister stood, and I wrapped my arms around her neck.
“Not you too. Please, stay. I don’t want to order you.”
Carmen pulled my arms off her and grabbed her own suit. She spoke into the microphone set beside the visor. “Roger, come inside. You’re scaring Nora.”
“They could need our help. I’ll be in soon.” Roger’s voice came through the helmet and the speakers both, a millisecond out of sync and disembodied. He shouted again. “Is anyone there?”
I went to the monitors and studied them. They showed nothing except Roger. His helmet turned to look back at the Raven’s door before he walked into the darkness, beyond our lights.
Carmen, watching from the window, cursed and hurried into her suit. I stepped in front of the door to block her way. “Don’t go out there.”
“We can’t leave him to go out alone, Nora. He’s being an idiot, but we always pair off away from the ship. I’ll be back in a minute, and you can yell at both of us then, okay?”
I shook my head. “We’re in danger here. Can’t you feel it? Something’s not right.” The realization dawned on me—that sense, the eerie and familiar heaviness that had raised my hackles since we’d landed, clarified. “Something’s watching us.”
“All the more reason to help Roger.” She moved for the door and I pushed her back. Carmen gaped at me, and then her eyes narrowed. She lowered a shoulder into my chest, and I crouched to grab at her waist, pushing against the wall to give me leverage. The slippery material of her suit slid beneath my grip, and she managed to reach the button to open the interior door.
“Shéi zài nà’er?” A voice cut through the cabin.
“That’s the second one.” I let go of her and straightened up the moment she stopped pushing at me. I whispered. “I can’t hear Roger anymore, can you?”
Carmen listened. “Roger? Roger, can you hear me?” She waited, and tried again. “Roger, come back. Please.”
The wind wailed from the speakers. Static shushed at us from the comms panel. Even the sounds of Roger’s breathing had ceased.
I stepped away from the door and my sister, the tremble in her body enough assurance she wouldn’t leave the safety of the Raven.
Carmen and I clung together on my bunk, the interior lights off, listening for our crew-mate and hearing only the same words from dead astronauts. I stroked her hair and tried to remember how to pray.
When most of the night had passed, Carmen pushed away from me. “If he doesn’t turn around soon, he’s going to run out of air.”
I nodded, too afraid of the bite in her tone to say what I was thinking. We stayed inside until what passed as dawn came, even though the voices had stopped hours ago. I checked the screens before we opened the door—nothing. Carmen and I walked in the direction we’d seen Roger head, but the wind had cleared any sign of his passage from the sand. In the distance, the deep crevices yawned. The sensation of something staring at me persisted, and I looked this way and that, trying to find the cause. My eye traveled uninterrupted across flat land devoid of vegetation or insects. I felt the same way when I stared out into the vastness of stars. Tiny. Powerless.
“We’ll put one more day of sampling in,” I said. “See if Roger comes back. If not…we’ll leave tomorrow.”
Carmen glared at me. “How can we leave? We don’t know what happened to him. What will we tell the team? His family?”
“We’ll tell the truth. He broke protocol, engaged with something, stepped beyond our line of sight, and never returned.”
We gathered samples for two hours in silence, stopping often to check around us.
The voices returned at sunset, much earlier than yesterday, floating like lost souls from beyond the rocky ridge. I gathered the samples Oscar had collected and hurried, awkward in my EMU, to our ship. “Come on.”
Carmen stood up, her eyes searching the grey land, and made no other sign of hearing.
“I’ll have to report you for breaking SOP.” I put steel into my words to hide the tremble. “You’re putting the mission at risk.”
That turned her head towards me, and I was grateful that the glass of our visors half-hid the expression on her face. “And who left our crew-mate at risk?
A familiar, deep baritone called in the distance, as if in agreement, and I flinched. “Please, Carmen. Please. Come inside with me.”
I shifted the crate of metal tubes onto my hip and grabbed for her arm. She allowed me to guide her in through the external door, and only when the interior door hissed closed did she pull her arm from my grasp.
She removed her suit and stood at the porthole. “Turn the lights on, please.”
“They’ll be able to see—.”
Already the sky had grown so dark that the lit cabin transformed the window into a mirror, reflecting my sister’s face. We were so identical I could pretend she was staring at me from outside, that both of us traced the letter R with short, red nails, on the glass fogged by our breath.
I flipped the switch. The exterior lights brightened the area surrounding the Raven, pushed back the darkness until my sister’s features were replaced by the rock ridge. The slanted pole and the tattered strips of the Chinese flag shifted in the wind, looking like a crooked woman with long hair dangling.
Carmen wouldn’t leave the window. Her dinner cooled on the table across from me, untouched. Every time the comms panel crackled, I flinched.
“I think I hear him,” she said.
I did too. His voice was easy to distinguish from the others, English words discernible from Chinese.
“Is anyone there?” he called.
“Shéi zài nàlǐ?” another said.
Carmen turned to me. “Maybe they’re blinded. They can’t see the lights. Maybe Roger’s helmet malfunctioned, and he can’t hear us.”
“Don’t. Go. Out. There.” My hands ached from their grip on the table edge.
She took her suit from its hook, checked the oxygen level on her tank. “No farther than the airlock, I promise. I’m just going to help Roger find us.”
“Don’t you get it? Roger’s already dead. Whoever it is outside can’t be him.”
“And whose fault is that, if he’s dead?” Carmen stepped into her suit. “I was a coward for not going out there last night. I’m doing this for you as much as for Roger. Think of what mission control will say if we go back without him.”
“They’ll say I followed protocol,” I pleaded. “That’s what they trained us to do.”
“It’s not always about rules, Nora. This is Roger’s life.” Carmen stepped through the interior door and out to the airlock. I went to my suit, running my hands over it, reassuring myself that everything was where it should be. I could never stand it when my sister was upset. Even though she was talking about a different person, a different situation, the anger in her tone was like a time machine, forcing me back to an empty bathroom, the rows of antiseptic agents and hand soaps finally gone, but not the way I’d hoped. Carmen crying as she scrubbed at the sink, as if it that would summon my mother back. “If you’d just followed her rules, Mom wouldn’t have left!” We’d never spoken of it again. Maybe she’d forgotten her harsh words—she certainly wasn’t the stickler for rules I was, but then she wasn’t the one who’d ruined our childhood. I owed her a mother.
I jumped when the speakers blared with Carmen’s screaming voice. “Roger! Roger, we’re over here!”
“Is anyone there?” Roger shouted. Closer.
My hands stopped running over the EMU. I crept to the window but saw no one. Felt eyes staring through the glass right at me.
Carmen shouted again, from the airlock. “Roger!”
I banged on the door, and a moment later my sister came in. “What?”
“Did you see him?”
She removed her helmet and wiped the sweat from her face. “I heard him. But he wasn’t alone. I could hear the others with him.” Carmen shook her head. “Who else could be here?”
From just outside the window, Roger called. “Is anyone there?”
Carmen turned to me. “I’m going to let him in.”
I shook my head. “You’ve got kids who need you.”
“Then you go.”
I took hold of my sister’s shoulders, spoke slowly so she’d hear the truth in my words. “I swear, I would go if it meant you’d return to Bobby and Bree, to Andy. I’d go if there was a chance. But Carmen, his air ran out hours ago. There. Is. Nobody. To. Save.”
She didn’t respond, but she allowed me to help her out of her suit. Roger and the others called until I flicked off the exterior mics, powered down our helmets. I tried to send a distress signal, to call command, anything, but every attempt failed. When we lay in bed, my twin embraced me, and I finally fell asleep.
I woke alone, a message from her tablet to mine reading: Roger has kids too. I have to try. I love you.
The words blurred in front of me, and I wiped my tears off the screen. “Carmen!” I screamed into the empty cabin, until my ears rang with her name. She’d left me. Whatever watched us here would never allow her to return.
As soon as the sky lightened, I searched, peering into crevices, Oscar at my side so I wouldn’t feel so alone. My eyes were raw from crying, my voice hoarse from calling my sister’s name. I wandered, until my own oxygen tank dipped low from my ragged breathing, until my mouth was as gritty as the sand at my boots.
Dusk came. “Hurry, Carmen,” I said, before I remembered she was gone. I hesitated, wondering if I dared stay beyond nightfall, but my traitorous feet were already moving, hurrying me to safety.
I felt my way around the ship’s unlit interior, not daring to turn on the lights. The Raven, shining across this dead hellhole, must have called the predators to us like moths to a flame. Though I still hadn’t seen any sign of life, neither flora nor fauna, instinct told me to stay small and quiet.
Roger shouted outside, sounding so close I could hear the rasp of his breath. I’d left the mic on, in case Carmen needed help. “Is anyone there?”
“Shéi zài nàlǐ?”
The wind began to rise. It flung loose gravel against the Raven’s exterior and rocked the small ship. The shaking felt violent. It reminded me how alone I was in this metal vessel with one exit, how vulnerable, while outside the dead echoed their last words until dawn.
Carmen’s voice joined them. “Roger, we’re over here!” She screamed, and I climbed out of the tight ball I’d been huddling in to step over to the window. If my sister was out there, I needed to see her. Her face, and not just the top of her head through the camera screen.
There was nothing moving outside but the damn flag. The strong gusts shook the metal pole, and I hoped the bloody thing would collapse. It represented failed missions, the brevity of human existence, and a trick of my eyes kept mistaking it for a person.
Where did the souls of people who died off-colony go—would Carmen be trapped here, on this husk of a rock, instead of reuniting with her family—with me—in the afterlife? I clamped a hand over my mouth and choked back a sob.
Remember protocol. If you followed the rules, no one would get hurt.
Roger hadn’t listened to me, and now I was forced to listen to him. “I told you. I told you,” I whispered at his deep voice, calling above the moaning wind. “You asshole. Always trying to be the hero.” Hadn’t he felt the heaviness in the air, hadn’t his skin prickled, as if something was studying him?
The Chinese astronauts still called out questions. What had they heard, before there were voices to hear? How had they died?
The ship rocked again. Carmen shouted for Roger, her voice half-lost as gravel hailed against the windows. I crept to my EMU and pressed the mic button. “Carmen, say something, anything else. Roger, answer me. Please. Please. Don’t leave me here alone.” My voice cracked. Maybe they could still hear in their helmets. Maybe they’d found an alternate source of oxygen after their tanks ran out.
For a moment, hope flared, and I fought against the temptation to step outside. SOP Section 43 subsection ii) The EMU must be worn at all times unless gas samples analyzed by mission control are deemed safe for respiration. Of course, if Manna Corp. had sent a certification of external air quality, we’d never know. I lay down in my cot, trying to memorize every sound of Carmen’s voice. Somehow, I slept.
I waited until dawn before stepping outside. Even at its zenith, the sky never fully brightened, but the ink-black night lightened to a dusky grey. The flag greeted me, both of us survivors of the windstorm, its red strips of cloth waving like bloody hands. The exterior door had closed behind me when I noticed the footprints. The windstorm hadn’t blown them away. They were recent. A set of boots had tread over the sand to stand at the exterior doors, and then moved to face the window. Careful, I pressed my own booted foot beside one of the imprints. They were identical.
“Carmen!” I shouted into my helmet, so loud I flinched. “Roger!”
Carmen had returned to the ship last night. That much I knew. Perhaps she’d heard me call over comms. Was I frustrated or relieved that I had locked the doors before I’d gone to bed? What had I expected? I packed up our things and cleaned up, carefully, the way my mother had drilled into me, and I tried once again to reach mission control. We had standing clearance to return as soon as we’d determined adequate sampling, or if the mission became too dangerous. I could have left yesterday, but how could I have done so, with my sister and Roger missing? How could I ever leave Carmen?
I followed the footprints. The sand faded into the rocky ridge I’d flown over, and I climbed up the small elevation and looked around. The landscape was the same uniform grey, empty and silent. The Chinese spacecraft—both porthole windows broken, door agape—leered in the tepid light like a skull. Another bad omen.
There were no visible tracks leading away from the rocky outcropping. The atmosphere was oppressive, a held breath before a wail. Suddenly I felt exposed, standing on a hill with nothing around me. When I turned to go back, I jumped at how small the low-lying Raven looked in the distance. I’d come too far.
I reached the spaceship just as the sun set. The darkness closed in, and I rattled around in the small ship that was now far too cavernous. I felt as though I was the ghost, haunting the Raven with my tangled hair and wet cheeks, while outside the metal hull the rest of the universe moved on. When the voices came, I stood by the lit window, waiting. I stared through the glass as the night fell, until my own eyes stared back, and it reminded me of Carmen. There was no storm this time, no blowing dirt to obscure my vision. When the voices sounded right outside, I turned on the external lights.
This time, I saw them. They were every astronauts’ nightmare, these creatures, with their helmets cracked open like oyster shells and their torn red suits. The light illuminated their strange gait: they seemed boneless, and yet the lighter gravity on Treia-3234 made every step look as if they were floating. From a long tear in one suit, the dull-grey of a rib-bone peeked. Not alive, then. I couldn’t imagine what animated these things, what controlled their desiccated limbs in this severe, windswept place, but my shaking legs stopped supporting me and I sank to my knees. The lack of wind made louder the crunch of gravel beneath their boots, their still young voices calling into the silence.
“Nǐ zài nǎlǐ?”
“Shéi zài nà’er?”
I laughed as I wept, forehead pressed hard against the floor, asking questions of the dead. “When Roger found you, what did you do to him? What did you do to my sister?”
I crawled to the control panel and shut off the lights, inside and outside, and triple-checked that I’d locked the doors. I wouldn’t be able to sleep, the grief too close, but I recited the multiplication table until my heart stopped racing. When I was able to take a breath without crying, I turned on the helmet’s mic again. “Can you hear me, Carmen? Roger?”
Static flooded my ears. Why hadn’t I seen her tonight? “I want to see you, Carmen. Please. One last time. I can’t leave until I… know for sure.”
The next day was a blur. Regret and memories of my mother mingled with my worry for my crew-mates, old scars giving way to deeper wounds. If I’d agreed to explore the voices as a group—if I’d done a better job at convincing Roger to return—and once Roger had gone missing, if I’d just aborted the mission and dragged my sister home. I’d failed them, disappointed them as I had my mother.
I thought I might sleep when the sun rose, but the ghosts of regret possessed me. I staggered outside instead, and circled the Raven to make sure the bobbing corpses hadn’t done any damage. This time, there were too many footprints to see if Carmen had come, and I wondered if anything of my sister remained to understand my messages. My shallow breaths whooshed loud in my helmet. By the external doors, there were new scratches on the hull. Beneath them lay small red shapes in the sand.
Fingernails, painted red and unbroken, as if ripped entirely off the nail bed.
I straightened quickly and hurried inside, my back prickling. That was enough proof, wasn’t it? Why hadn’t she knocked, or called out? What would I have done if she had?
I should leave, now. There was nothing more that kept me here, besides feelings. A part of me longed to step outside, to escape the claustrophobic, too empty ship and join the others. I’d be with Carmen. It’s all I wanted, to die as we were born, together. I could make sure my last words were important, something to warn away the next team who came to scout for Molytonite. And then I would know exactly what I had put Roger and Carmen through.
Night descended while I stood at the window, undecided. The exterior lights were on—I couldn’t feel safe knowing Carmen had tried to come in, and the lights gave me a measure of peace. I couldn’t imagine leaving Carmen. Roger. I’d barely survived finding my mother’s closet empty, knowing it was my fault. I couldn’t bear the burden of two more ruined lives. Movement fluttered at the far edge of the light’s reach, and at first I thought it was the flag again, until I saw her.
She moved like they did, eerily weightless, like a puppet on strings. The light glinted off the metal of her helmet, but the visor was entirely gone. Like the other night, she retraced her steps to the door, and tried to open it with gloveless hands. Her suit, ripped on the right side, exposed the dark-grey of her liver. No blood poured from her injury, only grains of sand. I raised trembling fingers to my lips, my mouth too dry to swallow. I didn’t want her in here. That was not Carmen. She didn’t scratch at the airlock again, instead coming to stand in front of the window.
I stared at the face I’d known my entire life, the face once identical to mine, and imagined it was me with the clouded eyes, the frost-bitten skin that sloughed off her left cheekbone. She opened her chapped grey lips, and I braced myself.
“Roger! We’re over here!” she screamed into the glass. One of her front teeth was missing.
She stared into the window, not reacting to my presence. I stared at the interior door. If I shared her fate, would it be painful? Did she have any sense of consciousness? If we both died, her twins, Andy, would never know what happened. They deserved to know. And if I could get back home, I could warn mission control to stay away from Treia-3234. Still, to leave her behind, to know this was the last I would see of my sister…
I reached for the helmet I’d set beside me. “Carmen,” I said. “Carmen, I’m sorry. I should have gone with you. I should have—” My words failed, too inadequate to carry the weight of my emotion.
An hour passed. I should leave before another windstorm came, but I couldn’t turn away while Carmen’s body stood in front of me. I couldn’t desert her while she watched.
They surrounded the ship, shrieking their words into the dark. I shivered each time the Raven moved, unsure if it was the wind or their strength. Finally, their voices faded, until only my sister remained.
“I love you. I’ll help raise the twins, and tell them stories about you, and teach them to be just like you.” No light of understanding dawned on her face. She turned and followed the others, a floating horror, away from the circle of exterior lights.
I slipped into my chair in the cockpit, but Carmen’s absence in the seat beside mine gaped like an empty eye socket. The Raven shot forward when I activated the nuclear reactor, climbing as it gained speed. As the ship flew back to our colony, dread filled me. The future was a ghost I couldn’t escape, a punishment to endure as much as the nightmares that would plague my sleep.
There was no moving on from this trip. Everything would remind me of Roger and Carmen: in their children, I’d see their faces. In their belongings, their scents. In the wind, their voices.
Michelle Tang writes speculative fiction from Canada, where she lives with her husband and children. Her short stories have been published by Cemetery Gates, Escape Pod, and Flame Tree Publishing, among others. When she’s not writing, Michelle reads movie spoilers, plays video games, and tries to get off Discord.