A shooting star streaked through the clear mustard sky and burst apart, bombarding the plateau and the colony below with shrapnel. After a fragment with a bullet’s velocity shattered a dish on the colony’s communications tower, Arjun decided to climb the tower himself to repair the dish rather than pull construction drones away from their scheduled work.
He was glad to be out in the sunshine despite being encased in a suit. Tools in hand, he cursed in gangster’s Hindi every blasted committee that had okayed the sky-scraping eyesore he was now forced to repair. They wanted something ostentatious, a spire to pin flags to, but it was a foolish, vulnerable design for a tower. Yet, spiking out of the centre of the complex, it was perfectly at one with the colony’s oil-platform aesthetic: tubes and pipes and pre-fab cylinders welded together by the drills of drones.
Below, Kiran drove her buggy away, trailer in tow loaded with electrical-wire spindles and the spare parts Arjun didn’t need. With reception down, she hadn’t received the GCR and SEP simulation results for her next HeLa cell test, so she had volunteered to help him instead. But, if comms really would be down for —
Divots spit up around her: falling debris, pang-pang against the panelling of the colony. She looked up. Another meteor was pulling apart on entry. While she gawked, a blunt, airborne pebble struck her shoulder with the force of a cricket ball and knocked her halfway out the buggy’s side; her palm braced her against the butterscotch earth.
A contrail split the sky, and soon a flash came outside her peripheral vision, sunrise-bright, glancing. Through her helmet and the gauze of atmosphere, she heard the explosion only faintly, as if it were embarrassed. Then the ground shook. She fell completely out of the buggy, landed shoulder to the ground, then hobbled and turned to the direction of the flash. A sandstorm spread from what she assumed was an impact crater, lost in smoke thick as village gossip, out of which ejecta rose up in arcs. The air burned, as did the desert soil. Dust blew across her helmet’s visor and across the colony.
Victoria and Wilson radioed from the greenhouse in the Chinese half of the compound — concerned and seeking reassurance that they weren’t suddenly alone.
“What happened?” said Wilson. “Turn your helmet-cams on, please. Other cameras are blind. Over.”
“Another meteor fall,” said Kiran into her headset, turning against the wind. “Distance: two k-plus at Heading 289. Dust is — ”
An animated infographic of Arjun’s vitals flashed suddenly in her HUD, red with panic. His pulse was wild, his BP plummeting. She looked up sixty feet to her husband in his space suit, harnessed midway along the frame of the tower. He was dangling limp beside the dish he’d been repairing.
“Arjun! Oh, God…”
She skipped to the base of the tower, found a strap and a magnet and a carabiner somewhere on herself or the tower or both, and climbed with an alpinist’s ease, up and then around him. He was slumped backward, balanced at his hip, starfish limbs open to the sky. His helmet had split open. The side of his suit was pierced and torn, leaving only sticky red and burnt black visible. Dust flew in. His blood, smeared along his exposed skin, began to vaporize. Part of his face was shorn.
He was unresponsive. Kiran turned her headlamp on and grabbed his jaw to look down his throat: he was gurgling blood. Even if she had supplies to intubate him, he would quickly suffocate on the air’s carbon dioxide and the impact’s dust. And, thanks to her fat-fingered gloves, she had little fine motor control. She craned around the dish for grip, trying to figure out how to… She let go of the tower and leaned back into her harness. Her hands free, she could now fumble with the ties of her gloves and take them off, even if they would freeze. Worry about that later.
“What the hell is going on, Kiran?” said Victoria over the headset. “Turn your cameras on! Over.”
Kiran flicked a switch on the side of her helmet to activate the stereoscopic cameras mounted there.
“Multiple puncture wounds, presuming from meteor fragments,” Kiran said. “He’s bleeding out.”
“Shit,” Victoria said.
“Come out here!” Kiran yelled, though she knew they could not simply run out of the airlock. Nor could she remove her gloves for fear her suit would decompress like his.
Arjun’s heart-rate monitor in her HUD was flaring like desperate Morse, and its tone blared. In the cold air, his skin was turning stiff and ashen. She could not free his airway, or cut away his suit to find all the wounds or put pressure on them, or defibrillate his arresting heart.
The tone finally became one long, uninterrupted squeal. Still, she pressed her hands together on his torso. She had no leverage but started chest compressions anyway. Do not surrender.
After some minutes — she didn’t know how many — she was too exhausted to continue. Her hands fell away from him and she hung there like he did.
Almost like him. He was different now.
She swiped the outside of her visor to dismiss the flat line and silence its tone, leaving a streak of blood that quickly caked dry. To keep from looking at it, she stared at the blank sky and listened to her breathing as if through a conch. Only listen to that.
She twisted to look below. Victoria and Wilson were at the foot of the tower. She had lost track of time, and hadn’t even called the time of death.
They waved once. Kiran swallowed a breath and waved back.
“I… I need help to bring him down.”
It was their fifty-sixth day on Mars.
There was protocol for this. The protocol was in binders. Everything was in binders.
Arjun Verma’s plastic-sealed binder indicated that he wanted a cremation and a “proper Hindu burial”, and no cameras. Kiran only managed a confused, ironic laugh, for in the confidentiality of a government form, he’d revealed something he hadn’t revealed to her — that there were still traces of belief in him. In her own binder, she’d written down “cremation” and something resembling an Air Force funeral, all because she assumed he had done the same. She didn’t even know what a proper Islamic burial looked like.
She washed him and did the autopsy for the paperwork. Six iridium shards had pierced his suit, severed major arteries and punctured vital organs, and killed him. He did not have a chance.
After dark, they put him in a compartment in the reactor built for corpses, and she huddled beside its door for hours, eyes shut tightly, a palm covering her mouth.
“It’s OK if you want to cry,” Victoria said.
“Or scream,” Wilson said.
“Oh, the wailing widow, eh?” Kiran said. “Will that make you feel better?”
They fell silent and made no further suggestions.
Finally, the reactor left her with piles of his charred remains. She somehow hoped for dust so she wouldn’t have to touch pieces of him, but she knew they still had to pulverize his remains to reduce his bones to something like ash. There were machines for this, usually used for breaking apart mined ore.
When the rollers had broken him apart, she scooped up the powder and soot and shovelled it bit by bit with one of Victoria’s gardening trowels and dumped it little by little into one of Wilson’s geological sample canisters. She twisted the lid shut. It had such large, simple knobs and handles, something even a colonist with insulated gloves could tighten.
“He wrote he wanted his — the ashes — to be ‘immersed in a river’,” Victoria read while Kiran stared at the metal canister.
“His cheap sarcasm,” she said bitterly. “The man asks for a river on a desert planet.”
“So, um…” Victoria said.
Kiran sighed. She crunched up her face.
“I’m sorry,” Kiran said. “This is all…”
Victoria and Wilson looked over at each other.
“If we went to one of the gullies…” Victoria said, helpful.
“Maybe,” Wilson said, palming his own bald head as he thought out loud. “It’s fourteen k to the nearest one, though.”
Kiran looked at her watch. The sun would be up soon.
“Or, here’s another suggestion,” Wilson said. “I have data showing water ice under the impact crater is melting and pushing through to the surface. So, if you want to immerse — ”
Kiran grabbed the canister and walked off.
“Yes, let’s go.”
Morning. The dust had fallen through the thin atmosphere; the sky above the Chryse Planitia plateau was clear again. Kiran Ali Khan, Victoria Cheung and Wilson Cheung stood in white space suits at the rim of the still-exhaling crater. The impact had carved out a feature on the life-denying plain. The bowl of the crater could fit a primary school’s football pitch, or, more worryingly, the entire colony. Metallic fragments had been blasted in mosaic across the blackened pit, refracting their iridescence despite dust and steam.
Kiran stood, the sample canister clipped to her waist, and waited as Wilson took readings with his Geiger counter; he paced with measured steps around the rim. Victoria, meanwhile, took notes on her tablet and recorded helmet-cam video she would post later — after they finished repairing the communications tower.
Kiran stared. The ice vapour seethed and hushed as it escaped the soil. Her fishbowl breaths punctuated the steam’s ascent, and her breaths fought to push past constricted muscles. She rocked her jaw to keep it from clenching like her fists.
Incoming voice transmission, her HUD read. Open channel? She looked up. Wilson gave her a quaint, American thumbs-up. Kiran waved, then opened her communications channel.
Approaching the edge of the crater, she traced by sight the path she would take. Then, her right foot crossed over the rim and set down inside the crater.
“Bismillah,” she caught herself mouthing unexpectedly, how her grandfather had whenever he lifted himself out of his nap-time sofa and set a foot on the floor. Strange.
When she was eleven, her grandparents had gone for Hajj. All Kiran had known about it then was that they were running around in some far-off backwater. When her grandparents returned to Chandigarh, Kiran’s parents listened politely to their trip anecdotes because they had to. While they all sat in the living room, Kiran eavesdropped from the hallway, playing on her iPad. Her grandparents wondered why Kiran and her parents didn’t pray, and wouldn’t it be fantastic if Kiran learned to read Qur’an. She winced at the thought, then tiptoed back to her bedroom, around the geography of creaks in the parquetry, and gently pushed her door closed. She started doing her homework, of all things, if only to appear too busy and studious for her grandparents’ crotchety aspirations. Their Twentieth Century airs were unbearable, and their attempts to lure her into the faith had been transparent. They’d told her about a stone that had fallen from the heavens to mark the spot where the Kaaba should be built. To make the mythology sound more scientific they called the stone a “meteorite”.
According to her lapsed beliefs, meteorites came from Paradise to mark holy land. So, it was a reflex to invoke the name of God when she stepped into the crater. Fine, no arguments. But then she crouched to pick up a dull, black metal pebble in the pinch of her fingers. She looked up at the place from where the meteor had come, as if it had fallen from a shelf. The featureless sky offered no explanation. These things drop in uninvited from somewhere else. They come of their own volition.
“What is that?” Victoria said, approaching.
Kiran stood and raised the nugget up to Victoria’s helmet-cams.
“More iridium,” Kiran said, brushing it as best she could with stubby fingers until it reflected hues. She let it fall, then prodded the ground further with her foot. Stable. Interlocked hand-to-wrist, Kiran and Victoria crouched along the sloping wall, a crunch of fresh glass granules under each step, and they descended into the bowl of mist. They made for the mound of rebounded earth at the centre of the crater, out of which black stone jutted. The sides of the crater overtook the horizon. Kiran knelt to hastily scoop away a burial spot and unclipped the canister. But, as she was about to twist its lid open, she hesitated, then stopped altogether.
The vapour beaded and froze upon their suits. The cameras recorded. Kiran was in a stupor, looking at the hole.
“Kiran?” Victoria said.
She looked up at Victoria with a confused squint, and shook her head. When Victoria reached out with a comforting hand, Kiran bristled.
“OK, OK,” Victoria said, pulling her hand back diplomatically. “Take your time.”
Kiran held the canister, and didn’t move until she wiped her forearm across her wet, frosting visor. She still stared into the hole.
“Uh, maybe we could come back tomorrow,” Victoria finally said. “We could always do that. If you’re not ready.”
Kiran nodded, though she knew it would not be any easier the next day. She clapped her palms free of dirt and walked away.
There was too much to do. The tower was damaged, as were solar cells on the drone bay, and piping from the filtration shed, and, and, and. There wasn’t any time to sleep, Kiran said, though Victoria and Wilson suggested she should — let them handle the repairs. They even accused her of being in a state of shock, but she knew her own body, she knew what shock was, and she resented their pop psychology and their pity. None of them had slept, Kiran argued, so why should she be the only one to rest?
Despite the progress they made on the repairs, by day’s end the link to the satellite relay was still only come and go. It was the best they could do without parts from Earth — a few weeks away via nuclear rocket — so Wilson and Victoria decided it was good enough for the moment; they were all exhausted. They joined Kiran for dinner in the Indian module, hoping she would want to talk, but she was quiet. They finally turned in for the night, leaving Kiran to do the same.
After chai, Kiran fidgeted in her weighted bodysuit and lay disagreeably in a hammock with a tablet, wishing for a sofa. There was barely room in their pre-fab bunker to stretch, let alone room for such luxury. Irritated, she rolled out and paced in search of distraction, then found herself standing at a porthole looking out at the night, palm cupped against the glass. The lights were dim around the Chinese half of Centenary Base. Only the intermittence of the red beacon atop the transmission tower gave any sign of life.
She looked back at her tablet. Fifty-eight thousand messages of condolence had come through on the overnight data package. The first few hundred messages she’d already read implied she must have been feeling so guilty about failing to save Arjun — as if the Air Force hadn’t weaned her off self-doubt a long time back. Meanwhile, the friendships that had long been reduced to group chats full of emoji, Bollywood gossip, and mom-blog clickbait offered only hastily typed condolences, one-liners, as if auto-completed. As for Arjun’s mother, she was hysterical in the video message she sent, threatening to commit suicide or murder or both. And there were only contradictory platitudes from her own parents: “Take rest. Time will heal. Be strong. They depend on you.”
They: India. They were experiencing a collective paroxysm. “End of innocence for the Generation,” read one of the most-shared editorials. “After all our hope, this.” When the press weren’t eulogizing, they were speculating about when New Delhi would schedule the state funeral, and how that might be coordinated between the two planets. Meanwhile, some minister had already commissioned a memorial statue, and a sculptor had been hired, and bronze had been ordered.
Then there were calls for a formal enquiry. Why was the tower constructed in such a vulnerable way? Why had the orbital missile-defence system not detected the inbound meteoroids as threats? Why were the colonists’ gloves — particularly those of the mission doctor — not designed with an emergency release mechanism? Why didn’t she have a trauma kit? Why didn’t she lower Cmdr Verma from the tower and bring him inside to treat him? Was Kiran Ali Khan even the most qualified medical officer they could have included in the First Four? What damning details would her past performance evaluations reveal?
To hell with all of them, she thought.
Well, no. She would have to upload a thank-you video, at least. The stoic widow, resilient, graceful, and poised. Hmph.
Meanwhile, the nearby treadmill was quiet. Normally, Arjun was gymming on it after dinner, paranoid about muscle atrophy.
“Remember to take your GreyGu,” Kiran always reminded him. Accelerating into a jog, he’d only answer with huffing and panting. He would be too busy seeing Aaradhya Bachchan in another one of her overwrought dramas on his tablet.
Kiran made for the medicine locker, where she found the plastic GreyGu bottle. She swallowed two of its silvery pills of nanites with a mouthful of recycled water. That would resolve her tension headache and all the soreness.
She slid under bulkheads on her way back to her hammock, and picked up her tablet to update her mission log. Slumping into the mesh, she drew a breath to draw a thought, then wrote:
Visited impact crater. Cmdr Vicky Cheung recorded video. Remarkable, almost an ancient amphitheatre, but mind was elsewhere. Remembered Dada-ji for some reason.
She lifted her fingers, feeling a rush of sentimentality, and held her tablet against herself, and turned her head into the net, the headache only getting worse. She rubbed her temples. Let the pills do their work.
When she realized she was falling asleep, she pulled herself out of the hammock. Time to send her meagre log on its five-and-a-half minute journey home, then turn in. She checked the tablet’s network connection: Network inactive. She rubber-banded the menu. Refresh. Refresh. Nothing. She set her tablet to sleep.
Kiran stood at the crater’s edge, looking for a proper spot to bury the remains. The water had evaporated since the previous day.
Wilson collected preliminary samples with Victoria’s help. Only after the repairs were complete would he be able to spend more time collecting soil and rock samples and making topographical measurements. Two months in and the crater’s wide black bowl was the first monumental thing they’d seen. They still only called it “the crater”; the team back home was still deciding on the appropriate mythological name.
Back home: the immigrant’s reflex.
“So?” Victoria said to Kiran. Victoria and Wilson had loaded up the buggy to his satisfaction.
“If you don’t mind,” Kiran said, “I want to do it alone.”
Wilson and Victoria looked at each other.
“I was hoping to record something to send back,” Victoria said. “They keep asking about when we’re going to do it.”
“I don’t want an elaborate spectacle,” Kiran said.
It was a ludicrous thing to say, she knew, considering the entire colonization mission was a spectacle framed by two nations’ centenary celebrations. And the surveillance satellites were always recording.
“He wanted a private ceremony,” Kiran said. “I have to give him that.”
“So, what do we tell — ”
“Don’t tell them anything. I’ll speak to them.”
Victoria nodded, pressed Kiran’s padded shoulder and turned to the buggy with Wilson. They topped up Kiran’s oxygen before driving back, leaving her alone at rim of the crater, legs limp along the sloping wall, arms buttressed behind her, the canister and a trowel waiting beside her.
After a few minutes, she twisted to look behind herself. Victoria and Wilson were long gone, out of headset range. No Signal flashed in Kiran’s HUD. Searching for network… A distressing ellipsis; the icon’s animated radio waves rippled out endlessly. Dead air. Even the spray of dust from Wilson and Victoria’s buggy had settled.
Deciding it was safe, Kiran turned back to the crater. She waited until her breath slowed into permission, then raised upturned palms — that was how her grandparents had done. She held her hands by her chest, held them close. Some vestigial memory suggested she should look into her hands with demure eyes, say something earnest or profound, then blow on them with quivering breath, but her air wouldn’t get past the visor. She waited and waited for the right words. The pneumatic valves of her oxygen regulator flushed and swelled. She looked down at the canister, but didn’t open it.
Kiran Ali Khan (19:16) OT question to any Muslim commenters: prayer. How it’s done? ‘Foxhole conversion’, perhaps, ha ha. My family were never for that sort of thing. ARKHIVE has too many conflicting infos, Arabic terminology. Need diploma in religion to make sense of it! Have been thinking about it, with everything going on. Thx. TTFN.
Sometime after midnight, Kiran headed to the shower. When she finished, Arjun was not there. Normally, he was lying there stone dead, breathing like a stray dog, and she could never sleep with that going on. This peace and quiet were no better, though, and all around her were his things. She’d begun sifting through them and consigning things to piles: re-use, recycle, keep, bin. They were annexing the bedroom, the hallways, the kitchen, the floor, the shelves. She had to get out. No point waiting or standing on ceremony any longer.
Anyway, her query on the mission stream had only invited trollish nonsense. The commenters mentioned ridiculous folklore, like the rumour that Neil Armstrong had heard the Islamic call to prayer on the Moon after performing the Christian communion in the lander with Aldrin. Others called her a “Hindu-fucking whore”, and said her ignorance was proof of a Sino-Indian conspiracy to mock Islam. The ultra-nationalists, meanwhile, were fuming because the first Indian couple should have been entirely Hindu, and now there wasn’t even a single “true” Indian up there, let alone two.
Then there were the pedants who shouted back alien things, telling her that, unless she faced Mecca precisely, her sudden and insincere prayers would be invalid, but because the two planets were in constant motion it would all be impossible, and if she were really a Muslim, she would never have relocated to a place where should could not align herself with Mecca, and therefore her question was yet more proof that —
She stopped checking. She could only trust her own devices. Find a way. Be Exceptional.
After pre-breathing pure oxygen for an hour, she donned her space suit. She clipped the canister to her waist, passed through the airlock, and walked to the edge of the oasis carved out by the colony’s lights. Nothing was visible beyond them except the canopy of ancient stars. With a finger-tap on her visor’s HUD, she turned on her night vision. It bored a hole ahead of itself, even if the night resisted like a dam. She turned to Heading 289, wondering if the crater would feel different in the dark than it did in the light.
One foot dragged ahead of the other, skimming across the dirt cautiously to the place she could not see. Her boot caught a stone. She lost her balance. She fell visor-first onto another large rock, and her face whiplashed into the helmet’s inside edge. Dazed, she rolled sideways onto a bed of pebbles. She gulped air into bullfrog cheeks, and in a panic crawled back to the light, looking cross-eyed at the spot on her visor where she had fallen. Her lungs gave, but the engineered polycarbonate of her visor did not, even as the HUD projections sparked and flickered off. She tramped back into the airlock, fired the decontamination foam over her suit, then removed her helmet and welcomed the air in gasps.
Apparently her suit was invincible, unlike his. There was only a nick where the visor had met the rock. She rubbed it with her thumb but it would not go away. She smashed it with the edge of a fist, but it remained, defiant, while she relented. What a pitiful, mawkish display by the Exceptional Generation. She flung the helmet to the corner, then lowered her head between her knees. She shook like her pulse.
CAPCOM (02:38) Cmdr Ali Khan, satellite surveillance footage shows you making an unscheduled egress from the habitation module at 02:05, local time, leading to an accident. The module security feeds are still incomplete given the transmission problems, but our other data do not indicate any justification for the egress. Please explain your action and report on your condition.
Kiran Ali Khan (06:48) Just woke up. Thank you for your concern about my safety. Took a minor misstep, but am no worse for wear. Will be more careful next time.
CAPCOM (07:09) Please explain the purpose of your action of 02:05. There is no need to hide anything.
Kiran Ali Khan (07:49) Went for a stroll of a personal nature toward the crater.
CAPCOM (08:10) I caution you to refrain from further “strolls” at that hour. We need no further negative attention on the mission. (On a related note, we have closed comments on your stream.) Also, as you now seem to be replying, let us expedite arrangements for the funeral. Prime Minister’s office have a list of requests, not least of which are date and time.
Kiran Ali Khan (08:32) You “caution” me? Is that an order?
Kiran Ali Khan (09:05) Well?
“Where is the gully?” Kiran said to Wilson, who sat alongside Victoria with four tablets in Arjun’s operations room. He held up one finger and didn’t look up from the screens. His headset left him with only one free ear.
“I need the coordinates,” Kiran said.
She stood by, arms akimbo. Wilson pulled and pinched on the tablets and fed vectors to the excavators, bulldozers and cranes at the job site: the eighty-couple settlement they had to erect in time for the next close approach, two years away, well after both sponsoring nations had celebrated their centenaries.
Wilson swivelled the mic away from his mouth and turned to Kiran, but still held on to a tablet.
“Sorry, what?” he said. “The gully?”
“You said there was a gully fourteen kilometres away. I’m going.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t be dense,” she said. “I’m burying his remains there.”
“Dense?” Victoria repeated, annoyed.
“What about the crater?” he said.
“No. It won’t do.”
She didn’t elaborate. Wilson squinted at her sceptically.
“That’s all?” he said.
“I don’t want to bury him beside the thing that killed him. Is that acceptable?”
“It was an innocent question,” Victoria said.
Kiran stared back: Vicky, butt out.
“Fine,” Wilson said. “But you keep going off the grid by yourself when comms is still up and down. It’s not wise.”
“Then you come with me, Surveyor General,” Kiran said. “Two seats on the buggy, and you know the directions.”
“No,” Victoria protested weakly.
“You can stay here just in case,” Kiran said to Victoria.
“Kiran, you don’t need directions,” Wilson said. “You drive in a straight line and end up in the alcove. Then you hike, and the alcove narrows into a channel.”
“How far of a hike?”
“I don’t recall exactly. Maybe a few hundred metres — ”
“Fantastic. I am going, then.”
“Kiran,” Wilson said.
She stopped, only turning her head sideways to her shoulder.
“What is it?” she said.
“Wait for me. Don’t rush into this yourself.”
“I…” She stammered and narrowed her eyes. She faced him. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said don’t rush into this.”
“Eh, you don’t think I’ve waited long enough?”
“I don’t think waiting has anything to do with it.”
“Oh, you are so wise, you self-righte — ”
She shut her eyes, pinched the bridge of her nose, and let out a sigh.
“I apologize,” she said. She looked into him, and huffed half words, snatching, exasperated. “I don’t want any of this.”
“I understand,” he said, nodding. He set his tablet down on the brushed-metal desk. “Look, I’ll go with you, just… We’re already so far behind with everything that’s happened. Let’s just get the approval from ‘upstairs’.”
“It’s three hours,” she said, “or four.”
“I’m not arguing that, Kiran. But they still want us to meet the targets, and we’re having trouble picking up where Arjun left off.”
“He didn’t ‘leave off’.”
“That’s not… If I drop everything for three hours… Maybe if you ask them, they’ll take it more seriously.”
“I’m asking you,” she said. “I don’t need to ask them.”
He lifted a tablet and fanned it in her direction.
“They keep pestering us about arrangements for some grand state funeral,” he said. A weedy, self-deprecating smile wrapped itself around a bureaucratic tone. “You said you would talk to them. They just sent me a strongly worded memo — ”
“Dafa ho jao,” she cursed, walking out. “I’m going by myself. You needn’t cover for me.”
“Kiran!” Victoria shouted at the hallway. “Message them!”
At that, Kiran did an about-turn and marched back into Arjun’s old office.
“Take some damned initiative,” she said to Wilson. “This is important.”
He nodded, flustered.
“I know. Everything’s piling up, and — ”
“OK, you can check the schedule and tell me.”
She leaned against the doorframe with crossed arms, settling in like furniture. He shook his head and ummed and ahhed and picked up a tablet, skimmed fingers across checker-boarded schedule blocks, then set the tablet down.
“I will,” he said, “but we’re busy at the moment.”
She nodded sideways. Wilson swivelled back to the desk. Victoria fanned through a binder on drone maintenance. Kiran walked back to the lab, where her centrifuges spun away.
An hour past the blue sunrise. Kiran drove, and the driving was bad. Rocks of all sizes were littered across the undeveloped plain, and she never pushed past ten kilometres per hour. Wilson sat beside her in the roofless buggy. The spare tanks of oxygen clinked behind them, only felt, scarcely heard.
“Are you all right?” he said, thinking of the canister with the remains of Arjun.
Kiran turned the steering abruptly. Wilson grabbed the roll cage to brace himself.
“Are you sure?” he said.
“You’re very persistent,” she said.
“Hmm,” he muttered. He was trying not to fall out.
“They want you to keep a rein on me,” Kiran said, “don’t they?”
“They who? HQ?”
“I came along for you,” he said.
“I would have gone by myself.”
“And with this driving, you wouldn’t have come back.”
She discovered a smile in the middle of her mood.
“So, now,” she said, “there will be two bodies in a ditch somewhere instead of one. Or should I say three instead of two…”
“No,” he said, “you shouldn’t.”
They arrived at the apron of the gully an hour and a quarter after departure. First, more oxygen. Then, with the canister clasped to her belt, Kiran hiked up the gentle slope with Wilson, following the delta of the apron for two hundred metres until it narrowed into a channel a few metres wide. He stopped and felt the ground.
“Here?” she said.
“I’m just examining the sediments in the soil,” he said. “You go. I’ll be here.”
She waved him over.
“You’ve come this far, Wilson, so…”
He nodded, stood, and followed her. Together, they walked another hundred metres until they were a third of the way to the top of the slope where the run-off from the ancient melts had poured down. Those melts had cut a swath four metres deep into the soil.
“Here,” she declared.
Wilson waited, but she didn’t move. She only stared into the channel. The sunlight hadn’t found its way to the bottom yet. Too early. She breathed coarsely, and the static crunched into Wilson’s ear. At last, she counted the time by her HUD’s oxygen gauge as if it were a watch. It knew how many breaths she had left, and now so did she. On with it. With his help, she lowered herself halfway down the incline of the channel. She dug into the darker soil. And when she had dug a pit a foot deep, she twisted the canister open, looked at the flakes inside, and poured them into the ground. She stared, and, before she could stop herself, she shoved in dirt to fill up the hole.
She looked at the mound of disturbed soil, and patted it with one palm. Then she laid her second hand beside the first, there upon him, and lowered her head until her visor pressed into the soil. There, against the mound, she closed her eyes and whispered. Then she sat up, brought her fingertips against her visor, kissed the air between them and her lips, and patted the soil again.
When she looked up, she met Wilson’s eyes while crying freely through hers. He crouched against the edge and offered his hand. She took it and climbed out, and slumped against the ridge of the channel. There was no way to blow her nose behind her visor, so she sniffled sharply. She heard Wilson groan as he eased himself down onto the ridge a respectful distance away from her.
Her arms were perched on her knees, in front of her, hanging there. She didn’t move and she didn’t say anything. Instead, facing the gully, she at last raised cupped palms near her face. Her eyelids dropped, and her lips moved silently for a few minutes. Then she heaved a sigh and ran her palms against her visor as if she were rinsing her face. She lowered her hands and sat still. Her limbs tingled as if choked by tourniquets.
“Kiran?” Wilson said.
She turned her head. She sniffled and sighed.
“You were…” he said. “It looked like you were praying.”
“Something like that.”
“I’m so unfamiliar with Islam,” he said. “I thought you were supposed to…” He mimed, flattening his hands against an imaginary floor.
She cleared her throat.
“Yes,” she said, “but I’m only learning. Going through docs in ARKHIVE slowly.”
“You did that bowing on the… Where you buried him… His remains.”
“Maybe so,” she said. “Probably it seemed odd.”
“Well, it all feels a bit odd,” she said. She took a breath. “Actually… Actually, it doesn’t feel odd. I know I’m meant to say it does, though.”
“Does it help?”
An anxious laugh contracted in her chest. She thought about the question for a moment.
“I am still trying to answer that myself,” she said. “I only keep asking unfair and impossible questions, and I don’t hear any answer. Maybe the silence counts as an answer. So, that is helping — the quiet is helping. And…” She waited for her lips and chin and jaw to settle. “…I don’t know what else to do.” She flexed her fingers to bring the feeling back. “And it feels closer to what he wanted.”
“Close, or closer?”
“Closer. Closer than the anthem, and standing at attention, and saluting the flag.”
“You know,” Kiran said, “a few more degrees one way or the other, and that meteor would have… It would have been a grand state funeral for all of us, like Mars One.”
“Don’t say that,” Wilson said, his hand restless as if looking for wood to knock on.
“Oh, it isn’t politic of India’s Exceptional Generation to talk about the Centenary Project like that, is it? We could lift the nation to Mars, but to suggest we might end up like the Americans — comms blackout, a little smear — ”
“That isn’t what I meant,” Wilson said. “It’s a bit morbid, even under the circumstances.”
He toggled a switch on the side of his helmet, fast but as conspicuous as an amateur magician.
Kiran stared him up and down like he was leprous.
“You’re recording this?” Kiran said.
“No,” Wilson said. Not anymore.
“Why? I said I didn’t want a spectacle.”
“No, that’s not… Never mind.”
He looked away, self-conscious, but Kiran walked over to him and, standing as close as a dog’s master, grabbed his shoulder. Look at me.
“You’re recording it for HQ.”
“So you can show them what I’m doing? Because the satellite view… ‘Off the grid’ — that’s what you said.”
“I turned it off,” Wilson said.
“Are you streaming it to the server?” she said.
“How? Reception isn’t — ”
“Then delete that recording.”
“I can’t,” he said. “You know I can’t.”
“They don’t even… They want to be sure it doesn’t turn political.”
“Oh, yes, keep things neutral and safe. No risk of me inflaming sectarian sentiment and ruining the national day of mourning, the hero-worshipping, the myth — unless the footage is unfortunately leaked, right? Then they have a scapegoat.”
“What do you want me to say?” he said. “I’m not getting into conspiracy theories, Kiran. They just want closure.”
“Well, I don’t,” she said. She sniffled back mucus she couldn’t otherwise blow out. “I want to explain something to you.”
He waited for her. She paced, then stopped as if she had something to say, then finally found a spot beside him to sit. She looked at him, and he looked back. Her eyes turned to find a memory.
“There is an example I can think of, from my residency,” she said.
She closed her eyes, remembered, and then opened them.
“I was stationed at the hospital,” she said, “and we would go on rounds: visit the patients, order some examinations. Then, the orderlies would move a patient out of their room for a CT scan, MRI, et cetera. And as the orderlies pushed them around — the beds had wheels — ”
“ — the patients would go through the corridors, and other doctors and nurses and visitors were streaming in and out. And we… Normally, we walked up to the patients, and we helped ourselves to their bodies, to their blood vessels, to their stool samples. We delivered their food and we took it away. I was catching myself using a slow, condescending tone with them — not ‘Sir’ but ‘Siiiir’ or ‘Lieu-ten-nant’ — if they complained about not having enough information, or if they became restless and made a fuss. ‘It’s for your own good,’ like we were speaking to children. I’m sure you’ve been in that situation.”
“Yes. Vicky’s mother.”
“And sometimes the patients… I would see them going by… The orderlies were pushing them, and they — the patients — would have their eyes closed as they were being pushed around in the corridors. In the middle of the day, even. It’s… That was the only way they could have the smallest shred of privacy: closing their eyes. Not letting anyone else see, at least for the few minutes when they were being carted about to and from Radiology. They lie there, and someone behind them is pushing their bed, they are only passengers, and others walk by and look down on them — literally and figuratively. Unless they close their eyes. Then we have to respect their privacy.”
He drew a slow breath. When he didn’t say anything, Kiran continued.
“There are some things we should have the right to not surrender,” she said. “For God’s sake, I’m sending them labs on our every bowel movement. They’re waiting impatiently to see which one of us develops cancer first. Our every utterance is dissected like some lost letter of George Mallory’s. So, let me have something that is mine.”
“I can understand that,” Wilson said, “but you know that analogy isn’t one-to-one applicable to us. We aren’t patients.”
She stood up and looked down the slope to the buggy. She turned to Wilson.
“I just put Arjun in the ground. I don’t care about the rest.”
Kiran heard Victoria shuffle in cautiously, apologetically, and Kiran picked up the scent of cardamom and cinnamon steaming in with the fresh cup of tea.
“It’s right here,” Victoria said. The mug clacked as she set it down on the small metal nightstand — more of a foot locker, really. When Victoria sat down on the edge of the bed, Kiran felt herself sink a bit deeper into the mattress. She was curled up like a foetus, and faced away from the door and the nightstand. She didn’t open her eyes.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice hoarse. “It smells so nice.”
“No problem,” Victoria said. Victoria didn’t touch her.
“Could I ask you for a favour, Vicky?”
“Press my legs?”
Victoria shot a breath, a soft laugh, relief.
Kiran wobbled lifelessly as Victoria turned and settled into a comfortable position. And then Kiran felt Victoria’s hands, warm from the mug, kneed her muscles. She knew touch would now be brief, and only as frequent as comets and only on socially acceptable occasions, as on the successful repair of telecommunications dishes.
Her breathing sharpened, and she felt she was choking, and her face was wet again, and then her lungs buckled. She cried as loud as she could. Victoria seemed shocked — she had stopped rubbing Kiran’s legs, at least for a moment. Her hands pressed against Kiran’s shoulders and arms instead. Kiran turned and wrapped herself around Victoria’s waist, and jerked and convulsed as the cries muffled between the side of Victoria and the mess of sweaty sheets.
Kiran followed the trail of boot prints up the slope beside the gully. Where the trail stopped, she looked down, and there she saw the mess she had made and covered up. Beside it, along the ridge, she began piling rocks into a cairn, but stopped when she saw a line of flame strike the dark morning sky like a match. When the burning went out, a drogue chute emerged from the trailing end of a long cylinder. The cylinder split into six pods, each one carried by its own chute and protected by a layer of airbags: this week’s cargo drop from Earth. The pods landed three or four kilometres from the colony — the most accurate drop so far. HQ’s aim was getting better even as the planets were inching apart. Kiran knew she would need to drive back soon to help Wilson and Victoria retrieve the booty. It would not include anything for the repairs — that shipment was still six weeks away. But they would receive other scheduled supplies to help snowball the colony’s self-sufficiency: more dried food and medicine, emergency fuel rods for the reactors, batteries and tires for the buggies, cutter heads for the mining drones, nutrient-rich soil for the greenhouses. And, if memory served, the paan and namak paras Arjun had put in requisitions for.
Kiran finished piling the fist-sized stones into an irregular stack. It seemed prehistoric or archaeologically significant, not quite the geometric pyramid she’d intended, and she didn’t know how to make it better. Arjun was the engineer. Certainly, she could spend more time on it until she received some intuition that the cairn was “just right”. Then again, she simply did not feel like carrying on with it. There was a marker now, and it was done, and it amounted to an ugly pile of rubble next to a ditch, but its ugliness did not diminish her love.
No, it was not quite done. She placed a palm atop the cairn. Her breathing slowed as she waited for magnanimous words, but she also knew no one prayer could be enough. And, actually, she felt she should grab the top stone and smash it into the pile to break everything. Instead, she wrapped a fist around the stone, picked it up, and launched it far away with a force that tweaked a muscle in her shoulder. As the stone floated off, she glared at it and cursed it for being so lousy that it could not fly farther in this weak gravity.
Not feeling any better, she panted, leaned forward with her hands on her knees, then knelt beside the cairn and closed her eyes. Let it be incomplete, and me, too. Let him be safe now, and me, too. And let him see through my eyes the things he should have lived to see, what we sacrificed all for.
She opened her eyes. Around her were gullies carved eons ago by melting ice, and the horizon line they trained fourteen years to see, and the chalky trail in the sky behind the pods, and, closer than all that, her fingers powdered with rust, the same fingers he used to kiss whenever he apologized for the stupid things he said.
A transmission eventually came through her headset, choppy from low bandwidth.
“Kiran? …are you? Ov — ”
“Wilson?” she said. “Come in. Over.”
“Drop came…are you? We’re just now…to ‘pick up the kids’.”
Pick up the kids: Arjun’s tired joke, now their shared vocabulary. It eased her into a smile.
She stretched, got up, and walked down the sandy slope to the buggy. She did not let herself look back at the cairn.
“On my way,” she said as she walked. “Over.”