On the Sunlit Side of Venus29 min read
“Thirty-one,” she whispered. “Thirteeeeee one-un-un-un-un. Doris?”
“It’s my birthday.”
“Happy birthday, Leesh.”
She laid in bed and stared at the bottom of the bunk above her, riddled as it was with sticker and tape residue, which was stubborn as piss. The human race could contrive to send her to Venus, but it had not been clever enough to figure out how to remove sticker residue.
“Would you like me to make coffee?”
“Yes, please.” She rolled to sit at the edge of the bunk. “Actually, no. Can you do hot chocolate with a little coffee and a marshmallow on top? My father used to make it for me that way.”
“Would you like to speak with the counselor?”
“No,” she sighed. “I think we’re past that now. Are we past that now?”
“It’s up to you, Leesh. I am here for you any time you need it.”
She took the coffee-hot chocolate mix, grinned at the misshapen white marshmallow lump that Doris had fabricated for her coffee, and came to a stand next to the forward window to look out upon the expanse of Venusian clouds that roiled pleasingly in front of the blimp lab, aglow with the sunset that would deepen over the next few weeks.
She used to stand here with Jorn, her husband. What was it now … six … seven months ago? He’d made it all of three weeks after Earth went silent, the poor emotional, beautiful wreck of a man, weeping nonstop for days.
It was a process of knowing oneself, of finding oneself, Doris had told her. Counselor Doris, not hot chocolate maker Doris. She, Leesh, astronaut and astrobiologist, had not known that while her husband spiraled ever deeper into depression—a depression that they’d both begun together—that at some point, she’d find the ground floor of her own. That there were no deeper levels, no basements of basements, tunnels, and sewers underneath. Her husband’s loss had been bottomless.
A Venusian day is 240 Earth days long, so she kept to her Earth schedule. Routine is a kind of crutch, and she leaned on it all she could.
She knew it was absurd to ask a ship what its daily agenda was, but she asked Doris every day regardless.
“Oh,” Doris hmm’d, “maintenance routines, course corrections. I’m going to sift through the weather data for anomalies and update our projections, and I’ll analyze the data our ground probes sent.”
“Usually, you say …” Leesh started. “Usually you radio Earth?”
“That also. I apologize for leaving it out. I did not want to trouble you with it.”
“That’s kind. But I like to know anyway, you know.”
“If I ever make contact, I will tell you first,” Doris said.
Doris made her interpretation of a chuckle; she favored a downward-sliding, complex tone over any human-like sound, which Leesh assumed was a private joke of her own deriving. How does an AI laugh? It beeples.
A yellow glow pervaded the room, and the view disappeared into a haze as the ship began to bounce and sway. They’d entered a turbulent cloud, a big spire that rose miles above them.
“Standard pressure anomaly,” Doris said calmly, “but a good idea to sit down for the next five minutes.”
With Jorn, it’d been a separating process. He saw no reason to live. And she—heartbroken, yes, stunned and devastated at the implications, also found vast reassurances and micro joys in the routine of her days, tending the plants, running the tests, maintaining the blimp, observing Venus.
He’d proposed they suicide together. For if there is no human race left … or if the Earth had been so horrifically changed … why live at all?
And so, when she found the note from him and saw the missing suit, it’d been no surprise.
It was a thirty-mile fall to the surface. She thought of him often.
The crew quarters were roomy and attached to them were the multitude of compartments used for food generation. Both the plants and they—or just her, now—were part of the experiment, after all. There were separate rooms in the blimp’s cabin for the kitchen, bathroom, rec room, and lab. But most of her work could be done from the crew quarters.
“And the last thing I’ll do, if you like,” Doris said belatedly, “is sing you happy birthday.”
“Aw, really? You are such a darling.”
“Any voice you’d prefer in particular?”
“Just yours,” she said quickly. If Doris sang her happy birthday in her dead husband’s voice, she did not know how she’d react. She had her floor, sure, but no need to prod it for weakness.
The rendition was classic. She wondered if perhaps it might be the last sung happy birthday in the history of her species.
After the turbulence passed, she went about her chores. She took her vitals and recorded them. She made a pass through the entirety of the ship, checking gauges and doing a visual inspection to back up Doris’s instrumentation. She pulled each large drawer of plants out one at a time and inspected the bounty of the things whose origins were of Earth. Tomatoes were ready for harvest. Greens were overflowing. There would be corn and berries and artichokes soon, red beans and quinoa. As always, she felt a wealth upon their inspection.
“We should do some canning,” she said.
“Shall I heat water?”
“No—no, I feel lazy.” She sighed and leaned on the edge of her desk, wondering what she wanted to do next. She scanned the windows, broiling yellow below, purple skies and bold orange-white Sun above. Then, as she knew she would, she headed back toward her bunk. “I’m just going to have a little alone time,” she said.
“I’ll man the ship,” Doris said, and despite having made the joke a hundred times, loosed her soft doppler-toned chuckle.
Leesh drew her curtain and laid down, staring at the sticker residue above her. Then she pulled on her VR goggles. Blind, she fumbled her hand along the shelf next to her bunk until she found her tool, which just last week she’d 3d printed a revised version of—it was expert-level now. Were there any other women left in the solar system she’d be looking at a serious market opportunity? She set the VR to play a familiar fantasy: an unknown, average man, not her husband, not anyone she knew, not anything fancy, just a suggestion, and the erotic build was slow and pleasurable.
Afterward, she lay in bed and felt sorry for herself. It was her birthday. The first birthday since the Earth went dark.
She could feel the floor just there, the presence of it, a barrier keeping her from slipping through to the other side.
After a while, she pulled back her curtain and stood up. She clenched her fists and made a resolve to … whatever. Onward, et cetera. A sense of industriousness poured back into her, her normal state, truth be told. She started a pot of lentil soup by hand, though Doris could have made it for her. She checked the harvesting systems: nitrogen, carbon, water, oxygen, and the solar energy systems to make sure all was on par, though assuredly Doris had already done this as well. They had enough solar energy to power a dozen ships. They had enough raw elements for a legion of blimps. But what did any of it mean without the species behind you? All of the meaning attached to discovery and science and furthering her species felt like sand slipping through her fingers. Still, and here she smiled grimly, if ever there was a person well-suited to being the last of her species, it was her. For soon she forgot the emotional pothole she’d fallen into and busied herself.
Some tomatoes responded better to her growing technique than others, and these she observed. She split them off, harvested their seeds, purified the strains. For is that not what they were doing here? They were hardening to the planet they were on. Whether it be tomato or Doris the ship or the one sole human. The parts that were weak, she shorn from herself. The parts that were strong, she gave love.
She knitted. She painted. No musician, not by the longest stretch possible, she hummed softly to herself. She proposed studies and tests and prioritized them in her database of potential avenues for science. She pranked Doris.
“Oof, I feel woozy. Hey, this gauge says carbon dioxide is reading four percent—can that be right?”
“Leesh? Sit down, please, right away. I’m checking.” She heard Doris’s voice fabricate the strain of human anxiety, an automated filter, to communicate tension and expediency to humans. She couldn’t help but giggle. “My sensors must be wrong. I’m getting a reading of less than a tenth of a percent. Please, hold up your gauge to my camera, Leesh?”
She laughed and Doris swore at her, poorly, it should be noted, and promised to get back at her next time, and all of it made Leesh feel happier.
She watched the time. Her day was bracketed between 0700 Earth hours and 2300. The day was running out, and she felt it. She packaged up the remains of the soup and cleaned up the kitchen.
“Another day, hey?”
Doris declined to answer.
“You sleep well, Doris.”
“You as well, Leesh. Hey, Leesh?”
There was a pause, and then the ship said, “Never mind, let’s address it tomorrow.”
Were she a human, Leesh knew this might be duplicity, that she ached to say something, but could only hint at it. But with the ship, inevitably it would be some niggling detail too unimportant for her notice which would cause her to miss her bedtime. She yawned, did a quick Sun salutation in the direction of the ever-fading sunset, and climbed into bed. As always, the gentle motions of the ship were a powerful soporific.
She groaned, then drew back her curtain an inch. The yellow light poured in. Her watch said that on another, dead planet, it was 3:18 in the morning. “Hey?” she said huskily.
“I am receiving a signal.”
Leesh swallowed, her heart suddenly thundering along in her chest, her throat, her ears. She slowly pivoted out from under the bunk above her and came to a stand.
“What does it say?”
“At first it was so weak I wasn’t sure what it was.”
“What does it say?”
“It says: ‘Hello? Is anyone out there?’”
“Oh, God,” Leesh said.
“How should I reply?”
“Say yes, say yes. Say we have received—whatever. Say anything.” Leesh hurried to the communications panel on the wall. She wanted to be closer to the sound. “Can I hear it?”
A fizzling, raucous sound emitted from the speaker on the console. There must be terrible interference or technical difficulties for the sound to come across so bad, or the speaker was roving through frequencies, emitting the same message over and over. The message repeated: ‘Hello? Is anyone out there?’
“Are you responding?”
Leesh sat slowly in a recliner and found she was holding her breath. The messages repeated. Earth and Venus were about one-third of their max distance from each other. There’d be about a four-and-a-half-minute delay in communications. She set a stopwatch and retired to the bathroom to urinate. She didn’t want to think. She didn’t want to let her mind speculate. She stared at herself in the mirror. She’d not cut her hair in months. She smelled of stale sweat. She returned exactly nine minutes later and sat slowly back into the recliner. The plaintive, crackling message continued.
“Fuck.” She paced to the windows and stared down at the yellow, eternally writhing clouds. She counted in her mind. She tried not to let her mind wander. Another five minutes went by, and then another, and then another. She began to despair. The ability to receive signals was horribly damaged, an amateur or hostile nation sent it, or worst of all, it was only a dumb recording somewhere, the humans behind it long dead and gone.
The speaker’s crackle changed: “I hear you! I hear you! Oh, thank the stars, I hear you.”
It was a woman’s voice.
“She hears us,” Leesh whispered. Any louder, and she knew her voice would crack.
The woman still spoke: “I need help. I am so, so happy to hear you. I am the last surviving member. The satellite was disabled for reasons that were not entirely clear. Why didn’t anyone contact us? We rigged up a replacement relay. Or I did, after the backup, anyway —” The sound began to fuzz out.
“This person seems somewhat unwell,” Doris said. “As if she’s experienced a large trauma, which of course we all have. Might I recommend that we suggest structuring responses for ease of communication?”
“Yes, do it.”
“OK, here’s my message. ‘We have received your message. This transmission will be roughly thirty seconds. We suggest structuring correspondence to reduce confusion. Please signal that you have heard my previous correspondence by starting your correspondence with the word ‘Alpha’. We will use words with alphabetically subsequent letters in each correspondence thereafter. If you can send a video message, please do. What are your coordinates, over.”
They waited. The babbling from the first message had dissipated into static. She looked for something to occupy her hands and found herself staring at her paintings. She practiced deep breathing. “Why does it take so long?”
“I don’t know, Leesh. I think it’s healthy for us to resist speculating.”
She sorted her paintings from most favorite to least favorite. The speaker came to life: “Alpha. So, I think I reply with Beta? And you’ll start your message with beta? Thank you for your cool head. My coordinates are 77.456° by 18.433°. My name is Alicia Jakes. Can you please tell me your status? Over.”
“Hey, she has my name,” Leesh said. “That can’t be Houston, those coordinates?”
“No,” Doris said. “Those coordinates are in the Arctic Ocean, off the coast of Svalbard.” A map appeared on the comm panel showing a pin in the water
“That can’t be right. She inverted the latitude and longitude.”
“Inverted,” Doris reported, “the coordinates point to the Indian sub-continent, roughly one hundred and fifty miles outside of Hyderabad, India.”
“Hm. Let’s be cautious. Tell her—”
“—I received a video.”
Leesh glided up to the console just as it began to play. A brown-haired, pale-skinned woman of roughly her age sat at a close distance from a camera. She was dressed in heavy winter clothing. Her eyes appeared bruised and tired. Behind her, a soft-looking wall curved out of sight in a dimly lit enclosure.
“Play it again.”
She was struck by the woman’s eyes, haunted and yet just now so happy, grinning as she spoke.
After Doris had done so, Leesh said: “Can’t possibly be Hyberabad, right? With clothes like that? Why would she be on Svalbard.”
“Not exactly on Svalbard. The coordinates have her in the water, off the coast of Svalbard.”
“On a ship? I don’t get that at all.”
Leesh paced the length of the crew quarters, stared out into the clouds, and then paced back.
“I have another theory, Leesh.”
“Well, don’t hide it away.”
“She’s not on Earth.”
“No,” Leesh said.
“She’s on Mars.”
Leesh sat with this information for a while, slouching into her recliner and staring out toward the clouds. It would explain the communication delay. “Fuck,” she whispered. “You have those coordinates?”
“Correct. They are coordinates of a landing site on the planet.”
“Do you …” Doris began cautiously, “do you wish to speak to the counselor?”
“No. No! We need to get a message back. I’ll send a video. Send this, OK?” Leesh stepped in front of the console.
“Beta. Reply with Comely. My name is Alicia Tozen. I am an astronaut working for NASA. I hope this does not come as much as a surprise as your message did to me, but I am stationed on the planet Venus. We have not heard a single transmission from Earth—or from anywhere—for over half a year. We think … we think you’re on Mars. Over.”
They received no message twenty minutes later. Nor an hour later. By the time her 0700 hours alarm beeped on her watch, she’d received no reply. She curled up on her bunk and quietly wept, while Doris fretted and asked if she’d like to speak to the counselor, or if there was something she could make her. She wasn’t sure she was ready for this. She’d resigned herself. She’d allowed herself only so much, only so much hope and emotion and everything else.
Finally, after Doris’s third query, Leesh admitted that some birthday cake would be nice.
A moment later, a message came. “Comely. Reply with Dashing. I am very sorry to hear that. I am on Mars, like you guessed. I work—I worked for Mars Corp. What happened? Do you know anything about what happened? How many of there are you? What’s your facility look like? I remember the Venus missions; you can’t possibly be in a blimp? Over.”
“Dashing. Reply with Exceptional. Yep, this is my blimp! Ta-da!” She stood aside, and Doris panned the camera across the room. “I don’t know anything. Earth just stopped talking. No TV, no Internet, no contact. As for my crew, it’s just my ship, Doris, and I. How about you? I’m so happy to meet you. Over.”
As she waited, Leesh ate the cake Doris made and sat at her desk, watching the sky. She couldn’t slow her heart down.
“Exceptional. Reply with Fantastic. That’s a sweet blimp! Hi Doris! Here I’ll show you—”
Alicia was apparently on a laptop, which she picked up and walked with through an ugly warren of tunnels. A dim, red glow emanated through a few hazy windows. “That’s the grand tour. Not much to look at now, dust storm yesterday. It’s so good to meet you, too! I haven’t spoken to anyone in three months. It’s been—I had a … I’ve had a—” The video jumped, and Leesh realized it’d been stopped. There was a second of blackness. When it re-started the woman looked as if she’d been weeping, her lips trembled. “It’s just so good to talk to someone. Over.”
“Fantastic. Reply with Grateful. Same—” Leesh paused her video. She stood there with her finger hovering over the record button. “I don’t know what to say.” She ambled into the kitchen and began to make coffee. “We can’t—like there’s nothing we can do for her, Doris?”
“Not physically, no, nor to my knowledge is there anything she can do for us,” Doris said. “But my understanding is that communication and a feeling of connection are quite vital to humans. Do you feel like that would be welcome for you?”
“Yeah,” she whispered. “That’s something, I guess.” She could feel the seconds ticking away. She didn’t want to delay the response, but she could think of little to respond with. She was out of practice. “I just feel so sad for her.”
“You are in a substantially similar situation.”
“I guess so. But I mean, I have you.”
“That means a lot, Leesh. You also have more energy and light and heat. And because of the probes, very likely a larger array of raw materials to work with.”
“But we can’t, like, build a ship or any nonsense like that.”
“I’m afraid not, no.”
“I mean, I knew the answer. So, we’re like just two chicks ten million miles away from each other.”
“At the moment, you are one hundred and five million, six hundred and fifty-one thousand miles, measuring from surface to surface.”
“Not helpful, you dork.”
Doris beeped her laugh.
Leesh returned to the comm and clicked Record. “Doris just informed me we’re over a hundred million miles away from each other. How’s that for a long-distance relationship? It’s hard to wade into this, but here’s my story in a nutshell. We’d been here nine months; I’m talking about my husband and I. Jorn … Jorn was a geologist and physicist. We were here on a two-year mission with a possible extension. We didn’t know what to make of the news we were getting from the planet beforehand, but it didn’t sound great. I mean, you know. But we were shocked when Earth went dead. He despaired. He thought the worst—I … I don’t know what I thought.” She hit pause again and took a deep breath, and then hit record. “He lasted three weeks. He didn’t feel like it was worth continuing on if our species … anyway. He didn’t … make it. What would be nice now is if I could end on a happy not?? This feels like speed dating or something weird like that. Speed dating in a psych ward. By video terminal.” She hit pause again, shrugged, then started the recording again. “Over.”
“Grateful. Reply with Handhold. I am really so sorry to hear about Jorn. He must have been an amazing man if you—”
Leesh jammed the pause button and scowled. “Oh my God, Doris. What the fuck am I doing? I don’t want this.” She sat at her desk and held her face in her hands.
“I’m sorry, Leesh. Do you want to speak with the counselor?”
“No, thanks. I just—I’m just going to do some chores for a bit. Tell me when thirty minutes is up. I don’t want to keep her waiting.”
She strode through each of the rooms and monitored the controls. On her laptop, she checked in with each of the probes in turn. One was due to come up from the surface and meet the ship at 1515 hours Pacific Time, from the polar region of the planet below.
Then, slowly, she made it back to the comm and pressed play: “… must have been an amazing man if you planned to stay alone together on such a mission. I’m so awed, I always wanted to go to Venus. I came as a team of six. I’m a fabrication designer, 3d extrusion on a big scale. We were going to lay the groundwork for a larger colony here.” Leesh could see that Alicia was weeping openly, tears ran in glistening rivulets down her cheeks. “After Earth went dark, we tried to reach out to other Mars stations. We made contact with one. Two took a rover and headed south. I see them on GPS, halfway to where they were headed. They never responded, I guess they never made it. Earth was, you know, sending regular shipments, and so some of those stations ran out. My friend Kalah got hypothermia after an extended outdoor period, then fever, then her heart stopped. It all seemed so fruitless. We didn’t know what we were doing. We all argued, the remaining three of us, Dan, Enrique, and myself. Then when we were attempting to fix our solar array outside, they argued and fought, and they caused …” She looked off-screen for a moment. “Well, it’s just me now … I see what you mean about ending on a joke. I am sad all the time, I think about killing myself constantly.” The screen went dark, and when it re-started, she’d wiped the tears away. “Why did the elephants get kicked out of the pool?” She grinned disorientingly. “Because their trunks kept falling down. Over.”
“Handhold, reply with Join. Doris and I were so sad to hear your story.” Leesh hit pause and stared toward the front of the ship. “I don’t know what to say again.”
Doris hummed, then said, “If I were you, I might tell her how brave she’s been and how happy you are that you’ve discovered each other. Tell her you’re confident that there are others out there, or that eventually we’ll hear from Earth, and you believe together you can help each other weather the particular situations each of you are in.”
“Is it not appropriate, Leesh?”
“It’s perfect, Doris. Do you really think there’s a chance we’ll hear from Earth?”
“What do you think?”
“I think that if the DSN is down and no one’s been able to fix it in all this time, then they have major problems, major major major fucking problems, and that if we do eventually hear from them, they may be in a lot bigger pickle than us.”
“That seems an apt assessment to me, Leesh.”
“But for complete silence, it’s either a total loss of technological infrastructure or, much worse, a total loss of life to operate that infrastructure.”
Doris hummed again, a thoughtful sound.
“I’m worried that Alicia is sitting and waiting for a reply in her dark cave thing.”
She picked up a mobile camera and stationed it in the middle of her tomato bed. She frigged with the positioning until she was pleased with the lighting, yellows and greens, the vibrance of verdancy. She didn’t know what she wanted to say. Perhaps—here, look, here’s a thing from that glorious middle planet, not a reminder of what we cannot return to, but of who we are. She chatted into the camera, combatting feelings of superficiality and banality. Oh, but these too, she knew, were survival skills.
When she signed off, she could feel the emotional exhaustion. She looked forward to the brute chores of docking the drone, harvesting the samples, and putting them through the analyzer.
She did her work through the afternoon and into the evening, quieted by the exchanges, waiting for a reply from Alicia. Had she sent too simple a message? Had Alicia resented the garden? No reply came.
She finally had enough carrots in cold storage to begin the project of making spirits. Improvised tubing and plastic made a handy airlock, the carrot mash and yeast, a twenty-liter food storage container acted as a carboy. All the while she thought of Alicia, waiting for a message to come in. Twice she stood blankly in front of the comm console, on the verge of sending another. Please, she thought.
Finally, her alarm tolled 2300 hours west coast time. She checked her carrot concoction and saw the merest hints of active fermentation. She experienced a surge of utter joy. “Can you see this, Doris? Look!” She found the mobile cam and oriented it toward the top of the container where bubbles were beginning to percolate. “These little guys have been hibernating for who knows how long. If that isn’t a —whatever, metaphor, I don’t know what.”
“I see it, Leesh. What is it a metaphor for?” Doris asked.
“For how we’re going to get a nice little drink of wine later, am I right? The finest vintage, baby. It’s a metaphor for, for like life, doing its motherfucking thing.”
“But why won’t she message me?”
Doris did not reply to that one, for which she was grateful. Leesh brushed her teeth and rinsed her mouth and washed her face, and then she stood in front of the comm panel. “I don’t get,” she said. “I don’t get how, the moment I actually have a friend is when I feel most lonely.”
“Good night, Doris.”
“Sleep well, Leesh.”
She tucked in and pulled her privacy curtain and stared at the sticky underside of the bunk and could not find the will to sleep.
In the morning, she whipped back the curtain and walked directly to the comm panel.
“Good news,” Doris said. “This came two hours after you went to bed.” A video showed on-screen.
“Join, reply with Kaleidoscope. That is a beautiful garden, my friend, which I assure you is the envy of this planet. What a delicious bit of green to wake up to. All we have here is red and pink and tan and brown and grey, pale skies and dim light. Look what I’m eating, to celebrate our friendship.” Alicia held up a brick of something that looked suspiciously like a thin cake fashioned of the surface of Mars itself.
Leesh hit pause. “Ooh.”
“That is an emergency Mars ration,” Doris informed.
She hit play and Alicia continued: “But I eat it with relish knowing you’re out there making love to the tomatoes.”
She smiled brightly and impulsively Leesh hit the pause button again and grinned back at the frozen image. The smile on the screen was a weird and wondrous thing. It was odd how in seeing this stranger’s teeth she felt it all through her own body, from her scalp to her loins. Suddenly she wanted to show her everything. How the clouds spun and spiraled out the windows, the golden glow of her world, the drones approaching and leaving like little babes come to suckle a breast, every drawer of her garden, her artwork.
“Doris? Can you print this screen please?”
A moment later she had a picture of that smiling face. She taped it to the underside of the bunk above her.
“Kaleidoscope, reply with Lover. I cheers your Mars cake back at you. We’re eating gruel on the second planet this morning. I forgot about your night and worried, and now you’ve had my night. I want to take you on a tour.”
Leesh showed her everything. Every room of the ship. The spiraling, twisting weather, with its two-hundred-and-fifty-mile winds. The drones approaching and leaving. The ever-present sunset.
In return, Leesh saw the quiet passages of Alicia’s design. The big 3d printers which toiled away, expanding the networked Mars colony for its sole occupant. The storm which enveloped everything. Then she experienced a Mars walk itself, as Alicia took the cold, shivery journey to sweep the dust from the solar panels.
She felt her first bit of jealousy then. To touch one’s foot down on solid earth, to roam.
She stood in front of the comm and bit her nails as she worked up the courage. She took a deep breath and hit record.
“Queer, reply with Relish. I bet you’ll never guess who the most sought after, the most brilliant artist is on the planet.” She turned and shouted over her shoulder, “Sorry, Doris!” Then she held up her paintings, showing them in order of her top ten, giving each a five-second viewing. “She’s shy, of course. Turns out she’s never shown her work to anyone. But you’re the only audience in the solar system she knows, so apologies there. She’s self-taught and makes her own paints and canvases. An outsider artist. The art, as you can see, is out of this world. Over.”
She finished her hokey demonstration and found she could do little until Alicia replied, that old, dumb anxiety of sharing one’s work twisting her gut into knots. When Alicia did reply it was with such praise as to make her blush.
That night when she drew the privacy curtain and picked up the VR glasses, she realized that in her mind she saw only Alicia. She hungered to have her beside her, to feel her flesh, real flesh, against hers, to kiss her lips. She ached to think that the feeling of another’s flesh was something she may never feel again. She set aside the VR glasses and instead stared at the lovely smiling face taped above her. She wanted to hold her, to stroke her skin, to warm her in her own bed.
In the days that followed, the starkness between their situations became clearer. She watched the food that Alicia ate and observed her tired eyes in the dim, cold background. She was self-conscious of every video in which the lustrous colors out the window were visible, or in which she sat down to chat, a bowl of fresh salad in her hands, her fingers splattered with homemade paint. It was incredible the quality-of-life differences ample power could provide. Only water was a concern for her, but her reserves, the small amount of hydrogen they pulled from the atmosphere, the recycling systems, and the continual resources the drones fetched, all set her up well into the future. Alicia’s situation, on the other hand, had never intended to be self-sufficient. It had relied on future missions, replenishing stocks from the wild abundance of Earth. Alicia’s co-workers had burned through a good store of that when Earth had gone silent. Though their deaths had extended those reserves. The dwellings remained half-furnished and mostly inhospitable, to Leesh’s eye.
“Banner, reply with Care. I totally agree we should make our own flags. Are we not our own countries? Maybe that’s something you can paint us. Paint mine up and ship it over, first-class mail.” Alicia’s face was as cheerful as ever. Leesh impulsively reached out and touched the screen in front of her, against the image of her cheek. But she did not look good. She looked pale and fragile and anxious. Her collar was torn for no reason she’d divulged, and Leesh imagined she could see the brown of dried blood. She continued: “Hey Leesh? I need to try and reach the other settlement.” She stopped talking on camera and stared to the side for a full thirty seconds, and Leesh wondered if she weren’t already nutritionally deprived. “I have limited food left here. It’s not too far. Three days. Like … that’s like driving from Barcelona to Krakow, I have done that drive plenty. What is it for you, San Francisco to Chicago? That doesn’t seem too bad. I don’t know what I’ll find there. If there’s a, you know, working setup, I’ll message you when I get there.” She stared off-screen again, and then finished with “Over.”
Leesh imagined the sheer length of that journey and felt overwhelmed. Stuck in a tiny cockpit, in a space suit, the dust and the cold omnipresent. Most of all, she thought about the days of radio silence that would follow.
Don’t be selfish, she thought. The mission was not about her, even if she felt desperate at the idea of three or more days without word from Alicia.
“Care, reply with Drive Safe, my dear friend. I love you so much and I wish, I just wish I was there to sing road songs with you, to take a spell driving, to do all the shit that only we two out of the entire solar system know how to do anymore.” She could feel herself on the verge of weeping. Saying ‘I love you’ had never been easy before, but now it came without a thought. She paused to take a deep breath and calm herself. “You will do fantastically. I predict the other settlement will have better living quarters and, you know, probably a swimming pool and valet parking and all the stuff. Over.”
No answer came. Perhaps her cheeky goodbye had caused Alicia to sour on their whole affair. Or maybe she was in far worse condition than she’d imagined.
In the interval, life felt devoid of meaning or worth. Doris and she spent most of the first day in silence, going glumly—at least for her part—about her chores. The plants she so relished to show off to Alicia seemed dull and gross, a cruel wealth. The drones dutifully retrieved samples of the planet’s soil, barren and toxic. Even the view outside, which had seemed so wondrous and exotic now seemed little more than a rarely-changed fantasy.
On the second day, she asked, “How are you doing, Doris?”
“I think I’m doing okay,” Doris said. “How are you, Leesh?”
“I’m lonely and scared,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Doris said. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Thanks, Doris. I don’t think so.” She paused. “Why doesn’t Alicia have something like you?”
“My records show that the officials in charge of the Mars Corp. missions were skeptical of artificial intelligence.”
“Ah-ha, I remember that now.”
They talked little more the rest of the day. On the third day Leesh painted—she worked on Mars landscapes, all the while thinking: is there anything more outsider artist than this? Making her canvases and paints, painting landscapes of a planet she’s never visited? She painted Alicia’s rover zipping through the red landscape, imagined her in the cabin singing and thinking of her. She felt her devious brain twisting the images; she imagined the air running out, the tires going flat, the sandstorms overtaking her, and each time, with effort, she righted the image, steered the imagination into success. She dared not allow herself to think that she may not hear from her. She recorded a few videos for Alicia and sent them.
Another day passed, and she found her productivity had come back. She could multitask. She worried about Alicia all the time, but as a background process. She worried about her while shucking corn and picking berries. She worried about her while discussing the course corrections with Doris that would see them perform a swipe along the edge between the light and dark side of the planet—good science to be conducted there, where the atmosphere was lit but the ground was dark below—before maneuvering into the wind currents that would see them skate back along the lit side. She worried about her even as she delighted in sipping at the carrot wine, yeasty and gross and deliciously intoxicating. She worried about her in bed, staring at her face above her.
On the sixth day, the message came. A gaunt-looking Alicia appeared on screen in an unfamiliar room.
“Gusto, reply with Hanging On. Here I am. I have re-inhabited this colony. It had de-atmospherized, so I had to fix a hole and wait in the rover while it … I have found only one dead body, not ten meters from the entrance, a hole in her suit. She’s frozen solid. It’s very haunting. Food reserves are substantially better. In quantity if not quality. But this happened.” Alicia held up both her hands and she could see the ends of most of her fingers were blackened and swollen. She looked pitiful and despairing. “Frostbite. I bet that doesn’t happen there. The med station here recommends I wait a week to see how much is necrotic. The necrotic parts need to be amputated, of course. Of course. My toes are worse, much worse.” She stared at the camera for a beat longer and Leesh found her heart thudding, her body tensed. “I could really use a joke to end this, but I can’t for the life of me think of one. Over.”
When the screen went black Leesh sank against the console and wept. Then she wiped her eyes carefully and composed herself and hit the record button.
“Hanging On, reply with Itemized List. Oh, buddy, shit shit shit. I would give you some of my fingers. Let me be the first to say: Fuck necrosis. I am happy to hear you have more food, thank the stars for that. I think you should dress up your door guardian in a nice dress, as a way to give the middle finger to adversity. Joke. The bartender said: Sorry, sir, we don’t serve time travelers here. A man walked into a bar. Over.”
It was twenty-four hours before another reply came. In the meantime, a drone had scooped a fascinating sample from the dark side of Venus. The payload of gravel and sand had traces of carbon. A dozen different times she stood in front of the console to send something. Finally, she recorded a very simple ‘I’m thinking about you’ type message and retired to her bunk for the evening, where she stared up at Alicia’s smiling face. She lightly touched Alicia’s cheek, in the photo, and just then shivered. She felt as strong a sense of foreboding as she’d ever felt.
The message came first thing in the morning.
“Jubilation. Hello my friend. You have made the last month so entirely different than it would have been. I love you so much. I am so thrilled to have gotten to know you, and I’m so pleased to know that you will be keeping on, a hot babe circling hot Venus, making art and science, and singing god-awfully. I have considered this carefully, I assure you, as I’m sure you have considered it too, and I do not at all care to sully our correspondence with my tired machinations. Jubilation is what I feel for you.” She slowly touched the screen with her blackened forefinger and smiled a chap-lipped smile. “Forever.” Then the screen went dark.
“No,” Leesh said. She screamed. “No!” She punched the record button and recorded a hurried message. But Alicia’s message was already six hours old. She made another video. And then another, imagining her desperate rants queuing up unwatched on some dull machinery a hundred million miles away.
Finally, she returned to her bunk and pressed her face into her pillow and held still for a long time. When she turned over, she found Alicia’s smiling face staring back at her from the underside of the top bunk. She wiped her eyes, and then slowly reached up and pulled the photograph off, crushing it in her fist and holding it to her chest. She stayed this way all day long, letting her chores pile up.
Doris said nothing. When 2300 hours rolled around, she drew her privacy curtain closed and rolled into herself, the crumpled photograph damp in her fist.
She slept little.
When the 0700 alarm beeped, she let it continue unabated, hearing it from a faraway distance, as if it rang from a distant land.
Leesh stretched her arm up and stopped her alarm. “Yes, Doris?”
“I am going to make you some coffee.”
Leesh nodded. Then she rolled out of bed and slowly walked over to the trash incinerator and inserted the crumpled photograph into it. She fetched the cup of coffee from the kitchen and stood at the head of the ship, looking out at the purple sky of Venus, where already the Sun, the same Sun they all looked at, Alicia and herself and every other human that had ever lived, slowly climbed the sky as they receded from the dark side of the planet.
“I am going to want to speak to the counselor.”
“Of course, Leesh. Whenever you wish. Make yourself comfortable, and we will begin.”