BY IAN HOCKING
When the ash cleared, Yuri glimpsed the daystar Butiya. Six solar months ago he had abandoned the remains of his crew and walked from the landing site with Butiya at his shoulder. Now, he was returning by its light and the bobbing, ruby glint atop the backpack of Anastasia, his new companion. Rovers followed them both, seven in file, quiet as afterthoughts.
‘Mother told me a story about how the Northlanders explained the Earth. You know, how the Earth was created.’ His breath fogged the visor and its telemetric projections. He looked up. ‘So the stars above Earth are hanging inside a tent that rests on a great pole—the North Pole—and around it the stars spin like horses on a carousel. The Earth is flat, of course. Its warm edge is where the birds overwinter, and when they return in spring they carry new souls for the babies of Northlander mothers. Dead souls, meanwhile, travel alone to the North Pole and spiral up it like fire motes into the roof of the star tent. Imagine that, Anastasia.’
‘How do the souls move?’
‘They just know how, I suppose. They know where to go.’
A flurry of ash separated Yuri from Anastasia. He continued in the blind until her backpack light appeared on his left. He approached, seeing she had stopped to look at her handheld detector. A blue dot pulsed on its screen. The dot represented his old seismograph, which had to be nearby.
‘Yuri, do you recognise this place?’
‘Of course. Not that it looks much different from anywhere else on this empty cinder.’
‘Where, precisely, did you leave this seismograph?’
They both knew he had left it near the wreck of the February.
‘Princess, if I knew the location precisely, we wouldn’t need the detector.’
In the days after Anastasia’s appearance, Yuri had dogged her with questions. Why had the February crumbled to nothing on the day he lost his crew? Did she know why the orbiting communications satellite was unresponsive? Was the ash truly ash? Yuri had been desperate to plot the deaths of his crew on some graph of understanding, to engineer himself out of ignorance, but she either knew nothing or could not say.
‘Yuri, I see metal.’
Ahead, Yuri saw a spade handle poking from the ash.
‘Earth manufacture,’ she continued. ‘Russian. Do you see it?’
‘Do I see it, she asks me.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘It’s mine, Anastasia.’ Those six months ago, Yuri had driven it into the great blood stain of his crew. His voice grew quiet with memory. ‘Their bodies were… spread. I walked the edge of the mess and spaded ash onto it, making a red star. You understand why?’
Anastasia knew him. ‘A sign, Yuri Nikolaevich.’ Her mirrored visor reflected the sad caravan of rovers moving into view. ‘You hoped it would be seen from orbit. And perhaps it was. What else could trigger the seismograph but the landing of a large craft?’
The grey sky was darkening. He thought, not for the first time, If something saw the red star six months ago, why land now?
Anastasia moved the detector left and right. Absently, she said, ‘Yuri, I’m glad you’re able to talk about it. For months, you wouldn’t.’
‘Couldn’t. But there’s no sense holding back now we’re here, now we’re reaching the end.’
Her voice was fearful. Yuri almost laughed. He wondered how something like her could fear anything.
‘After I put that spade in the ground, I said farewell to the crew.’ Yuri crouched and put his hand to the ground. ‘That’s when I named the planet Sushnyek. Where I come from, sushnyek is the bone-dry ache you get in your throat when you wake up after a heavy night of drinking. As though your throat is full of ash.’
He moved his hand in a circle, feeling the ash spread.
Sushnyek: a diamond revolving in a forgotten groove of spacetime on the edge of the Orion–Cygnus Arm. When its star Butiya set, as it did now, the ash flurries weakened, and noctilucent clouds silvered above the horizon. The sky was cut by the blazing edge of the galactic plane.
Yuri could span this plane with his thumb. The gesture had been an evening ritual since Day Thirty-Two. He supposed he was giving the galaxy a thumbs-up. Letting anyone up there know that, for now, he was OK.
The February had come to Sushnyek, or Butiya Four, to establish the precedent of settlement. Five solar years’ occupation conferred the right to call the planet a Russia and stake a claim, dig for minerals, or terraform. Yuri didn’t know if the principle applied when eleven of the crew were dead, and the twelfth marooned. He doubted it.
Faithful Anastasia walked on regardless of his thoughts, following the detector as though it had picked up a scent. It was the thirteenth hour of the fifteenth. Close of day on Sushnyek.
Yuri counted his years. Forty-one. By now, he probably had the legs of a person twice that. He could ride in a rover but walking gave his thoughts a certain cadence. On his old man legs, minding their beat, Yuri would walk. This he did now, letting his thoughts fall into the gaps between his steps, thinking of them as stones dropped to mark a journey.
Minutes later, a warning light pulsed at the base of his visor. He turned, wondering if the front left wheel of Grisha, their life support rover, had buckled again.
He was right. Even from here, he could see the wheel had a cartoonish slump. A malfunction diode was blinking weakly on the arch.
‘Anastasia? It’s Grisha again.’ He touched his helmet to switch frequencies. ‘Rovers, camp.’
The starlit vehicles made a circle that accommodated Grisha. Yuri opened a compartment in the broken rover and removed a sphere of fabric. Knocking the compartment shut, he rolled the fabric to the centre of the rover circle, where it expanded to a large, rigid habitat shaped like a blister.
Anastasia touched his shoulder. ‘We’re only a few minutes from the seismograph.’ In her visor, he could see himself and the faded advertisements of the mission sponsors on Grisha’s flank. ‘There might be a rescue shuttle from the December less than a mile away, and you want to settle down for the night?’
‘Fetch me the life support unit, would you?’
Yuri had long since memorised the checklist for habitat assembly. He started by running his fingers along its struts, feeling for dislocations.
‘Yuri, I don’t want to wait.’
He could rebuke her, flex his authority, but he knew it wouldn’t work.
‘Grisha needs repair. The procedure requires the hab to go up first in case the repair job takes a while. We never make the hab when tired.’
Her laugh was rendered perfectly by his helmet speakers. Yuri ignored it and attached the hab to the hoses of the life support unit, one by one. The pad of his thumb itched. Likely the scar from his interrogation.
‘We can leave the rovers, Yuri.’
‘We never leave the rovers.’
Three months before launch, hard on a Wednesday midnight, two bears-on-hind-legs from the KGB had turned him from his bunk and marched him over the desert steppe to a black car. It was a short drive to the far side of the Cosmodrome.
They asked no questions until the weekend, but by then he was wounded, hungry and cold. He was asked to sign a statement denouncing his wife Anastasia as a subversive. He bristled at that. The fools had opened the accordion of her name to the full Anastasia. Yuri had only ever called her Ana. She hated Anastasia.
‘I’m no fucking princess.’
On the Saturday, he would not betray Ana. The Sunday brought an interrogator called Oleg. He was old, perhaps eighty, and wore the peasant smock made fashionable by General Secretary Shukhov. His belt was hung with twenty-one stars, one for each decade of the Soviet Union.
The first thing Oleg did was light a rolled paper photograph of Butiya and place the burning end on the fleshy part of Yuri’s thumb.
As though narrating this moment, Oleg said, ‘The more an idea works, the more truthful it is. The statement on this table works for one Cosmonaut Junior Lieutenant, only months from a mission to the fingers of a spiral arm in the good ship February. Understand? It works for young Yuri that our suspicions of Anastasia Ivanovna Vavilova should be confirmed, in writing, by him, in the way we require.’
Yuri took the fountain pen in his left hand. As he signed the statement and its three copies, he told himself that the truth was between him and Ana.
Her last message reached him well after launch, when the February was accelerating past Io.
I am somewhere in the Outer Belt. The sun is dim. Friendships are keeping me alive. Write to the General Secretary on my behalf! Appeal for clemency. Tell him that you failed me. This happens.
Of course, it only purported to be from Ana, and there was no sense in writing to the General Secretary. Yuri would be charged with perjury by the February’s enthusiastic Political Officer and invited to spend the remainder of his commission in the brig. He would forfeit his settlement riches. At that point, Ana was not yet lost. Perhaps they could rendezvous in old age.
Later would come the bitter thought, That’s a truth that’s useful to me.
When Yuri considered the ash creature calling herself Anastasia—the creature that looked, sounded and smelled like his wife—he thought of Ana, true Ana, working the frozen methane and ammonia bergs. For all he knew, she was still swinging her pick, eyes darkening and teeth glassing, waiting to die of toxaemia or be released in clemency on the Secretary’s birthday, only to wander Arkhangelsk another ruined, Amnestied Outer.
Cosmonaut Junior Lieutenant Yuri, along with one hundred of his Company, had paraded on the Kazakhstan steppe prior to boarding the February. The General Secretary had quoted, ironically, an American historian on Western dreams turning to ash in the mouth. The quote itself, like battle, had faded; but the meaning, like blood, had stained.
Yuri looked at the life support unit. He was at habitation installation checklist point twenty-two, sub-point one.
22.1 Turn the tap on the inlet valve clockwise through ninety degrees
He thumbed the tap. With a hiss, the lighter air of Butiya escaped from bleed valves at the top of the hab as the air of Earth replaced it.
His crew had been his family. Even Peter, the enthusiastic Political Officer.
He was leaning on his knee, the better to stand, when he noticed that Grisha’s compartment door was open. On the inside of this door, there was a white outline where his rifle should have been.
She was no longer within the circle of rovers.
My dreams have turned to ash, he thought. And the ash has become my dreams.
Yuri swallowed. Anastasia was impetuous. It was very like her to set out alone. He walked through the rovers and looked beyond their encampment. Sure enough, Anastasia was a distant, running figure. The rifle was secured to the side of her backpack. Before Yuri could make sense of what he saw she unslung the rifle, crouched and fired. The muzzle flash was a brief, blue feather.
Yuri couldn’t see what she was firing at. He tapped through the visual modes of his visor until he reached infra red. There was a dull, shapeless glow in the direction she had fired.
Something crossed the glow. The visor focused on that something: It was Anastasia. A moment later, Yuri saw a filament of light strike her chest with such intensity that his safety filter darkened.
Yuri just ran. He blinked a sequence that activated eyetracking mode. He saccaded through the command menus, instructing his suit computer to turn off his heart rate alarm, order all rovers to form a circle around Anastasia and change his atmospheric mixture to accommodate his exertion.
She had never spoken about the weapon. Yuri, for his part, had last used it on Day Thirty-Two, when he decided to kill himself.
Mission days were twenty-four solar hours in length. Day Thirty-Two was November 23, 2107. A Wednesday. His birthday. Since losing the crew, he had been marking the Earth days with knife cuts to the fleshy part of his forearm. Starting at the elbow, the slices weren’t deep enough to kill but he was moving towards his wrist, towards a day when the cuts would sever a vessel of greater importance.
That day was Day Thirty-Two, but despite the train of cuts, the sharpening memory of his father had spoiled his resolve. Sodden old Rostislav had put his head into a circular saw while gunning for a productivity bonus, back when they might have put you on a poster, let you join a shorter queue.
Yuri decided to shoot himself.
It was a Sushnyek night when the darkness around the galactic disc was emptier than ever. He had opened his collar seal and lifted his helmet part way. That risked unconsciousness before he could fire, but he could touch the unprotected flesh with the long barrel.
Failure. The atmosphere of Sushnyek was a nightmare settling on his chest. Its poisons reacted with his spit and, tasting this bitterness, he fell to one knee and fumbled the rifle. It struck the ground and discharged over his shoulder. Tumbled away. He crawled after it.
The galaxy bore down upon him like a circular saw.
His heart misfired. He collapsed, curled on the ground and put fists to his head. Through frosting eyes, he saw a red, flashing light. It was the rifle’s safety catch indicator. He reached out, aware that was dying, interested in the sensations, and a hand burst upwards through the ash.
The hand scooped and scratched with a desperation that mirrored his own. Then another hand speared out. Someone screamed, but it was muffled, like a mouth gloved over.
Not me, he thought, astonished. I didn’t scream.
The hands rose on ash-streaked arms. He heard a clear, close scream and then a woman was heaving herself from the ground, her chest muscles cording with effort. Ash trickled from her blonde hair, the pits above her collarbones, her mouth.
At first, Yuri was glad that this dying hallucination should be of Ana, true Ana, but soon he was overtaken by a vision of birds at the warm edge of the world turning north with souls for the expectant mothers in snow-smothered huts, straining and screaming by firelight.
He lost himself to the pain. Video feeds recorded what happened next.
He was convulsing by the time she dragged him to the medical rover. It was mostly automated, but she knew what to do. Inside, she recycled the air in his suit and attached the collar of intravenous needles. His poisoned blood was flushed out. His ruined eyes were sucked from his head and replaced.
When he awoke, this copy of Ana was wearing a spare suit and sitting next to him in the hab studying the hard copies of his mission documentation.
And she was like the true Ana in every respect except one: her memories stopped at the wedding, nine months before he left Earth, when Ana was ahead of him on the cosmonaut roster and not yet denounced. It was as though the planet had wanted this copy to have no memories of the trial. To be pristine.
The solar days turned like hour hands on a clock face. The Sushnyek days like minutes.
His new companion was as reluctant to talk about the planet as he was to talk about the death of his crew. But she knew something.
He avoided her physically and never got used to her presence in the hab. Her sleep was a sham. She was closing her eyes and thinking all night. Those thoughts had to be about him. What else was there?
He named this ash creature Anastasia. It was a mark of divergence from the true Ana that she acquiesced. And, if he called her ‘Princess’, sometimes, she smiled.
He was gasping. Ahead, Anastasia was a motionless blemish in the ash. His visor display told him that Anastasia’s suit had lost integrity.
‘Rovers,’ he shouted, ‘emergency speed. Form up around her. Form up, fuck your mothers!’
Anastasia was still thirty metres away when the communications rover, the fastest, overtook him. Ash churned from its wheel arches. The medical rover followed, then food.
Yuri was nauseated by the time he reached her. Sweat stung his eyes. In the red groundlights of the rovers he could see that Anastasia’s right leg was missing below the kneecap. Sealant foam had expanded to cover the stump. There was no sign of the lower leg, or the rifle, but Yuri wasn’t looking for them. He was transfixed by the glassy, frozen blood around her knee.
Blood. Anastasia had blood.
Yuri had never known for sure what lay beneath her skin; flesh, ash, or an exquisite system of mechanical structures? Once, during a week-long storm when she had suggested they make love, he had refused not only because her resemblance to the true Ana was unsettling, but because of an underlying disgust. Was she even alive?
‘I’m here, Anastasia.’
She opened her eyes.
‘You called me “genie” when I appeared, remember?’ Her voice was quiet. Young.
‘And I said that you got my first wish wrong.’
Yuri felt the ground shift. It was accompanied by a steady hum, not loud, but persistent. He felt himself sink a little into the ash. Was it liquifying?
He said, ‘I need to get you into the medical rover.’
‘Yuri Nikolaevich, wait. The planet is listening to you.’
Yuri used his eyes to select a visor command. The medical rover opened its gull-wing door. ‘Listening for what?’
‘For what you carry in your head. Your knowledge of how the universe works physically. It uses this knowledge to create an envelope of your reality here on the surface of the planet.’
Yuri gripped the handle at the top of her backpack and pulled her, gently, towards the medical rover.
‘Reality can’t be simulated if it’s to remain reality, Anastasia. The thing doing the simulation is the reality. You’re talking about non-ontological reality, which makes no sense.’
‘That’s what another creature told me,’ she replied. ‘More than eighty thousand Earth years ago.’
Yuri stopped. They were nearly at the rover.
‘And what did you tell it?’
‘Her. That reality is not the same everywhere.’
The Political Officer on the February had a way of steepling his fingers when he spoke of Marx. Yuri felt himself snarl. He said, ‘If it’s creating an envelope of my reality, my science must have got something right.’
She turned to him, took his hand. Her strength hurt. There was human blood inside her, but more than that.
‘Only you, Yuri, and what you need to survive, are protected.’ She coughed. ‘By me.’
Yuri couldn’t remember why, on the morning of the first day, he had gone on a lone reconnaissance. Perhaps the planet had given him the thought, an inspiration, to remove him while it destroyed his friends and his craft.
‘Are you and the planet the same thing? Do I have to blame you for the death of my crew?’
‘I’m as much part of this planet as you are part of Earth. All I know is want I want, and I want to help you.’
He looked into the bright bay of the medical rover. There was a diagnostic scanner. He hoped it would work on Anastasia.
‘The planet is waiting, Yuri.’
‘Let go of my hand. I need to prepare the scanner.’
‘It’s waiting for the truth.’
Anastasia released his hand. As he thumbed switches on an overhead panel inside the rover, she said, ‘There is a space craft over there unlike anything you can imagine. It arrived after you, Yuri, and that means the planet has turned it attention from you. Soon you’ll be unprotected, subject to its reality, and you’ll die like your crew.’
‘Unless the alien knows more about the universe than I do. Maybe the simulation will work. Maybe, this time tomorrow, we’ll all be drinking to wives and sweethearts and may they never meet.’
‘Yuri, no simulation has worked. Thousands have come before you and failed. Imagine it. Each civilisation an ember, no, two embers glowing together… until now.’
‘What would happen if a visiting alien came here with the right ideas?’
‘That would unlock something bigger than you, me and galaxy. It would speak to something beyond us. Yuri, you have to find the alien and kill it. This reality needs to remain yours. Do you hear that distant rumble, and feel the liquifying ash?’
‘What do you feel, Princess?’
‘It’s the end of the world.’
Yuri took an intravenous ring from the medical rover. He checked that the tubing wasn’t tangled, then clipped it shut around Anastasia’s upper arm. She gasped.
Yuri had his visor replay the video of the light filament striking her. He slowed the video and watched the rifle spinning away. It would have landed ten or fifteen metres south east. He looked through the gap in the rovers. Sure enough, there was the reddish glint of the rifle’s safety catch indicator.
He left the circle of rovers for the greater darkness. The ground was vibrating again. When he reached the rifle, he took it and began skirting the rovers clockwise, looking for the alien craft.
Yuri was switching his visor through its filters: nothing on infrared, nothing on microwave. But the craft had to be close.
He stopped. Ahead, by the light of the galactic disc, he could see something. He crouched. It was a black, indistinct shape against the ash.
He disabled his visor filters.
The alien craft comprised two interlinked swirls of darkness thirty metres long and eight high. The hull, or skin, was glistening. The right-hand swirl had a large, triangular hole. Yuri reactivated his visor to scan the edges. They were frosted with uranium salts, consistent with the Q-metal in the rifle projectiles.
Anastasia’s shot had struck home.
Yuri crept closer. The craft was covered with tiny, crawling versions of itself. That explained the glistening. It was fractal; perhaps one of the Julia sets.
He turned back to the hole, raising the rifle and turning on its torch. The interior of the craft was veined. The veins had a peristaltic throb to them, but before Yuri could investigate further he saw a shimmering, black surface. Oil? There was a square, moving shape in its centre. It was growing like a salt crystal in time lapse.
The ground below the hole was darker. It looked as though some of the oil had already spilled out. If the oil was part of the life support system inside the craft, its crew had to be dying. Or was the oil the alien itself?
Did you see my red star? he thought. Is that why you came?
‘Yuri,’ radioed Anastasia, ‘talk to me.’
The craft was transforming. Its glistening surface moved faster. In it, Yuri could see hints of geometric shapes. Was the craft powering up for another filament of light? The two halves of the craft joined and sprouted new, thicker stalks.
This technology is beyond ours. Their physics will be more advanced. Better. Closer to the truth.
The craft turned a deep crimson. The transformation had narrowed the hole but not closed it. Black oil still wept.
He said, ‘Anastasia, it wants to communicate. Maybe it is communicating.’
‘Did you see a crystal?’
‘How do you know about that?’
‘It’s not the first time for them, Yuri. They came a long time ago. They think unlocking the planet will be a prize.’
‘Is the alien the crystal or the oil? Or the craft itself?’
‘Crystal.’ She sounded relieved. ‘They are liquid but crystalise on contact with the atmosphere. For them, that means death. We might be alright.’
Alexei Leonov had first walked on the moon one hundred and fifty years ago. Since then, no evidence of alien life had been found until Yuri met Anastasia.
Now I’ve met this creature.
‘We’re two embers, Anastasia. I can’t kill it.’ He opened a channel. ‘Rovers, to me. Form a perimeter around the new craft.’ He cut the connection and said, ‘Anastasia, I’ll set up the spare hab and use the life support unit to pump it full of that black liquid, or what’s left of it. Then we’ll transfer the creature. It’s the best we can do. Maybe, once the thing is separated from the atmosphere, it will recover.’ He waited for her reply. ‘Anastasia?’
He did not see her approach. One moment he was turning to the rovers, the next he was landing on his shoulder, sliding against his backpack. A nerve blazed in his neck.
Anastasia was sprawled where he had stood. She held the rifle with one arm while steadying herself with the other. Arterial blood was foaming at her knee; the sealant had been compromised.Before she could fire, Yuri reached her and kicked the rifle away. He stumbled on, scooped the rifle, pointed it at Anastasia, then the alien craft, then Anastasia. She was a ragged, collapsed star. The attack must have taken the last of her energy.
‘It’s me or the thing in the craft, right?’ he said.
Anastasia did not reply.
‘Right?’ he shouted.
I’ll be the first human to kill an alien.
Anastasia lifted her head and looked a little to his left. He turned.
At first, he thought the horizon had moved closer. No: something vast was approaching. Starlight glistened from the topmost edge of a huge, monochrome wave. The ground shook ever harder and Yuri felt himself sinking. The thirst of hungover Sushnyek was about to be quenched by an ocean. A black sea: the oil in which the alien swam.
The rovers trundled into view. They made a loose circle around Yuri, Anastasia, and the alien craft.
‘I get it, genie. It’s not me I’m saving. It’s us.’
He aimed dead centre of the craft. Squeezing the trigger, he felt the ground heave more violently, but Anastasia had clawed over to him, holding the stock to steady his aim. The wall of black oil towered, but it was too late to save the alien. The trigger had been pulled and the projectile was travelling according to a human law, Newton’s Third. Yuri saw the projectile strike the centre of the star-shaped craft. Its red pieces sparkled as they fell.
Wintery branches of ash were growing up the wall of oil. By degrees, they overwhelmed the blackness. The wave lost its forward motion and ossified to a huge, teetering dune. The ground became still.
Yuri heard his breath. His visor locked on the solid edge and gave him a range of five kilometres; a height of three. When the range decreased by fractions, Yuri saw that the dune was collapsing under its own weight. Great fields of ash were sliding down the face. The ground shook once more.
The edge of the airborne wave reached them in seconds. The rovers rocked and Yuri had to lean against the gust for balance. Behind it, he knew, there would be another wave: the transformed oil. An avalanche of ash.
The medical rover had rolled onto its side. No shelter there. He scrambled instead to communications rover, opened the largest compartment and pulled out the solar charging array, tossing it away. He looked for Anastasia but she was already by him. He motioned that she should get into the compartment. There was no way they would both fit inside.
Instead, Anastasia took the handle on his backpack and flung him into the space. She gripped his hand. Over the wired link, he heard her shout, ‘I’ll come back for you,’ but he had no time to reply. She closed the compartment door and then the ash wave struck the rover. It tumbled, throwing Yuri against the interior. He heard bodywork crunch and the compartment twist. It maintained its shape, however, and when the rover stopped rolling, there was no sound beyond that of his mouth, and nothing to see in the emergency headlamp other than a steady, slantwise trickle of ash from a split above him.
An hour: a solar hour, fractal with Sushnyek minutes.
He remembered the interrogation at the Cosmodrome. Then, he had been cold. Now, he was hot. In a rover buried in ash, there was no way for the suit to cool efficiently. He passed through a period of sweating, then being nauseated and dizzy, until the hallucinations came: Oleg was here, telling him about the truth, holding the lighted end of a rolled photograph against his thumb.
I am somewhere in the Outer Belt. The sun is dim. Friendships are keeping me alive.
He knew that, soon, she would come. She would pull him from the rover onto the cold surface, her long hair snapping like the flag of the Russias. Her arms would be folded and goosebumped, her legs long.
Ash would fall from her mouth when she smiled.
He would call her his true Ana.
Ian is a senior lecturer and researcher specialising in psycholinguistics and artificial neural networks at Canterbury university. When not putting AIs to the Turing Test, Ian writes science fiction exploring the themes of memory, identity and the individual in a digital world. his novel Déjà Vu was published by unsung in 2014.
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