MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Here’s a beautifully written and ultimately quite moving portrait of the ordinary people who make up an unlikely crop of astronauts in the future—those who have accepted the government’s offer of a one-way trip to Mars.
Lavie Tidhar grew up on a kibbutz in Israel, has traveled widely in Africa and Asia, and has lived in London, the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, and Laos; after a spell in Tel Aviv, he’s currently living back in England again. He is the winner of the 2003 Clarke-Bradbury Prize (awarded by the European Space Agency), was the editor of Michael Marshall Smith: The Annotated Bibliography, and the anthologies A Dick & Jane Primer for Adults, the three-volume The Apex Book of World SF series, and two anthologies edited with Rebecca Levene, Jews vs. Aliens and Jews vs. Zombies. He is the author of the linked story collection HebrewPunk, and, with Nir Yaniv, the novel The Tel Aviv Dossier, and the novella chapbooks An Occupation of Angels, Cloud Permutations, Jesus and the Eightfold Path, and Martian Sands. A prolific short-story writer, his stories have appeared in Interzone, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Postscripts, Fantasy Magazine, Nemonymous, Infinity Plus, Aeon, The Book of Dark Wisdom, Fortean Bureau, Old Venus, and elsewhere, and have been translated into seven languages. His novels include The Bookman and its two sequels, Camera Obscura and The Great Game, Osama: A Novel (which won the World Fantasy Award as the year’s Best Novel in 2012), The Violent Century, and A Man Lies Dreaming. His most recent book is a big, multifaceted SF novel, Central Station.
From above the ecliptic the swarm can be seen as a cloud of tiny bullet-shaped insects, their hulls, packed with photovoltaic cells, capturing the sunlight; tiny, tiny flames burning in the vastness of the dark.
They crawl with unbearable slowness across this small section of near space, tiny beetles climbing a sheer obsidian rock face. Only the sun remains constant. The sun, always, dominates their sky.
Inside each jalopy are instrument panels and their like; a sleeping compartment where you must float your way into the secured sleeping bag; a toilet to strap yourself to; a kitchen to prepare your meal supply; and windows to look out of. With every passing day the distance from Earth increases and the time lag grows a tiny bit longer and the streaming of communication becomes more echoey, the most acute reminder of that finite parting as the blue-green egg that is Earth revolves and grows smaller in your window, and you stand there, sometimes for hours at a time, fingers splayed against the plastic, staring at what has gone and will never come again, for your destination is terminal.
There is such freedom in the letting go.
* * *
There is the music. Mei listens to the music, endlessly. Alone she floats in her cheap jalopy, and the music soars all about her, an archive of all the music of Earth stored in five hundred terabyte or so, so that Mei can listen to anything ever written and performed, should she so choose, and so she does, in a glorious random selection as the jalopy moves in the endless swarm from Earth to Terminal. Chopin’s Études bring a sharp memory of rain and the smell of wet grass, of damp books and days spent in bed, staring out of windows, the feel of soft sheets and a warm pyjama, a steaming mug of tea. Mei listens to Vanuatu stringband songs in pidgin English, evocative of palm trees and sand beaches and graceful men swaying in the wind; she listens to Congolese Kwasa-Kwasa and dances, floating, shaking and rolling in weightlessness, the music like an infectious laugh and hot tropical rain. The Beatles sing “Here Comes the Sun,” Mozart’s Requiem trails off unfinished, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” haunts the cramped confines of the jalopy: the human race speaks to Mei through notes like precise mathematical notations and, alone, she floats in space, remembering in the way music always makes you remember.
She is not unhappy.
At first there was something seemingly inhuman about using the toilets. It is like a hungry machine, breathing and spitting, and Mei must ride it, strapping herself into leg restraints, attaching the urine funnel which gurgles and hisses as Mei evacuates waste. Now the toilet is like an old friend, its conversation a constant murmur, and she climbs in and out without conscious notice.
At first Mei slept and woke up to a regiment of day and night, but a month out of Earth orbit the old order began to slowly crumble and now she sleeps and wakes when she wants, making day and night appear as if by magic, by a wave of her hand. Still, she maintains a routine, of washing and the brushing of teeth, of wearing clothing, a pretence at humanity which is sometimes hard to maintain being alone. A person is defined by other people.
Three months out of Earth and it’s hard to picture where you’d left, where you’re going. And always that word, like a whisper out of nowhere, Terminal, Terminal …
Mei floats and turns slowly in space, listening to the Beach Boys.
* * *
“I have to do this.”
“You don’t have to,” she says. “You don’t have to do anything. What you mean is that you want to. You want to do it. You think it makes you special but it doesn’t make you special if everyone else is doing it.” She looks at him with fierce black eyes and tucks a strand of hair, clumped together in her perspiration, behind her ear. He loves her very much at that moment, that fierce protectiveness, the fact someone, anyone, can look at you that way, can look at you and feel love.
“Not everyone is doing it.”
They’re sitting in a cafe outdoors and it is hot, it is very hot, and overhead the twin Petronas Towers rise like silver rockets into the air. In the square outside KLCC the water features twinkle in the sun and tourists snap photos and waiters glide like unenthusiastic penguins amongst the clientele. He drinks from his kopi ice and traces a trail of moisture on the face of the glass, slowly. “You are not dying,” she says, at last, the words coming as from a great distance. He nods, reluctantly. It is true. He is not dying, immediately, but only in the sense that all living things are dying, that it is a trajectory, the way a jalopy makes its slow but finite way from Earth to Mars. Speaking of jalopies there is a stand under the awnings for such stands are everywhere now and a man shouting through the sound system to come one come all and take the ultimate trip—and so on, and so forth.
But more than that implicit in her words is the question. Is he dying? In the more immediate sense? “No,” he says. “But.”
That word lies heavy in the hot and humid air.
She is still attractive to him, even now: even after thirty years, three kids now grown and gone into the world, her hair no longer black all over but flecked with strands of white and grey, his own hair mostly gone, their hands, touching lightly across the table, both showing the signs of gravity and age. And how could he explain?
“Space,” he tries to say. “The dark starry night which is eternal and forever, or as long as these words mean something in between the beginning and the end of space and time.” But really is it selfish, is it not inherently selfish to want to leave, to go, up there and beyond—for what? It makes no sense or no more sense than anything else you do or don’t.
“Responsibility,” she says. “Commitment. Love, damn it, Haziq! You’re not a child, playing with toys, with, with … with spaceships or whatever. You have children, a family, we’ll soon have grandkids if I know Omar, what will they do without you?”
These hypothetical people, not yet born, already laying demands to his time, his being. To be human is to exist in potentia, unborn responsibilities rising like butterflies in a great big obscuring cloud. He waves his hand in front of his face but whether it is to shoo them away or because of the heat he cannot say. “We always said we won’t stand in each other’s way,” he begins, but awkwardly, and she starts to cry, silently, making no move to wipe away the tears, and he feels a great tenderness but also anger, and the combination shocks him. “I have never asked for anything,” he says. “I have … have I not been a good son, a good father, a good husband? I never asked for anything—” and he remembers sneaking away one night, five years before, and wandering the Petaling Street Market with television screens blaring and watching a launch, and a thin string of pearls, broken, scattered across space … perhaps it was then, perhaps it was earlier, or once when he was a boy and he had seen pictures of a vast red planet unmarred by human feet …
“What did I ask,” she says, “did I complain, did I aspire, did I not fulfill what you and I both wanted? Yes, it is selfish to want to go, and it is selfish to ask you to stay, but if you go, Haziq, you won’t come back. You won’t ever come back.”
And he says, “I know,” and she shakes her head, and she is no longer crying, and there is that hard, practical look in her eyes, the one he was always a little bit afraid of. She picks up the bill and roots in her purse and brings out the money and puts it on the table. “I have to go,” she says, “I have an appointment at the hair dresser’s.” She gets up and he does not stand to stop her, and she walks away; and he knows that all he has to do is follow her; and yet he doesn’t, he remains seated, watching her weaving her way through the crowds, until she disappears inside the giant mall; and she never once looks back.
* * *
But really it is the sick, the slowly dying, those who have nothing to lose, those untied by earthly bonds, those whose spirits are as light as air: the loners and the crazy and worst of all the artists, so many artists, each convinced in his or her own way of the uniqueness of the opportunity, exchanging life for immortality, floating in space heels and toe heels and toe, transmuting space into art in the way of the dead, for they are legally dead, now, each in his or her own jalopy, this cheap mass manufactured container made for this one singular trip, from this planet to the next, from the living world to the dead one.
“Sign here, initial here, and here, and here—” and what does it feel like for those everyday astronauts, those would-be Martians, departing their homes for one last time, a last glance back, some leaving gladly, some tearfully, some with indifference: these Terminals, these walking dead, having signed over their assets, completed their wills, attended, in some instances, their very own wakes: leaving with nothing, boarding taxis or flights in daytime or night, to the launch site for rudimentary training of instruments they will never have use to control, from Earth to orbit in a space plane, a reusable launch vehicle, and thence to Gateway, in Low Earth Orbit, that ramshackle construction floating like a spider web in the skies of Earth, made up of modules some new some decades old, joined together in an ungainly fashion, a makeshift thing.
Here we are all astronauts. The permanent staff is multinational, harassed, monkey-like we climb heel and toe heel and toe, handholds along the walls no up no down but three-dimensional space as a many splendored thing. Here the astronauts are trained hastily in maintaining their craft and themselves and the jalopies extend out of Gateway, beyond orbit, thousands of cheap little tin cans aimed like skipping stones at the big red rock yonder.
Here, too, you can still change your mind. Here comes a man now, a big man, an American man, with very white face and hands, a man used to being in control, a man used to being deferred to—an artist, in fact; a writer. He had made his money imagining the way the future was, but the future had passed him by and he found himself spending his time on message boards and the like, bemoaning youth and their folly. Now he has a new lease on life, or thought he had, with this plan of going into space, to Terminal Beach: six months floating in a tin can high above no world, to write his masterpiece, the thing he is to be remembered by, his novel, damn it, in which he’s to lay down his entire philosophical framework of a libertarian bent: only he has, at the last moment, perhaps on smelling the interior of his assigned jalopy, changed his mind. Now he comes inexpertly floating like a beach ball down the shaft, bouncing here and there from the walls and bellowing for the agent, those sleazy jalopymen, for the final signature on the contract is digital, and sent once the jalopy is slingshot to Mars. It takes three orderlies to hold him down and a nurse injects him with something to calm him down. Later he would go back down the gravity well, poorer yet wiser, but never again will he write that novel: space eludes him.
Meanwhile the nurse helps carry the now-unconscious American down to the hospital suite, a house-sized unit overlooking the curve of the Earth. Her name is Eliza and she watches day chase night across the globe and looks for her home, for the islands of the Philippines to come into view, their lights scattered like shards of shining glass, but it is the wrong time to see them. She monitors the IV distractedly, feeling tiredness wash over her like the first exploratory wave of a grey and endless sea. For Eliza space means always being in sight of this great living world, this Earth, its oceans and its green landmasses and its bright night lights, a world that dominates her view, always, that glares like an eye through pale white clouds. To be this close to it and yet to see it separate, not of it but apart, is an amazing thing; while beyond, where the Terminals go, or further yet, where the stars coalesce as thick as clouds, who knows what lies? And she fingers the gold cross on the chain around her neck, as she always does when she thinks of things alien beyond knowing, and she shudders, just a little bit; but everywhere else, so far, the universe is silent, and we alone shout.
* * *
“Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?”
“Who is this?”
“This is jalopy A-5011 sending out a call to the faithful to prayer—”
“This is Bremen in B-9012, is there anyone there? Hello? I am very weak. Is there a doctor, can you help me, I do not think I’ll make it to the rock, hello, hello—”
“This is jalopy B-2031 to jalopy C-3398, bishop to king 7, I said bishop to king 7, take that Shen you twisted old fruit!”
“Hello? Has anyone heard from Shiri Applebaum in C-5591, has anyone heard from Shiri Applebaum in C-5591, she has not been in touch in two days and I am getting worried, this is Robin in C-5523, we were at Gateway together before the launch, hello, hello—”
Mei turns down the volume of the music and listens to the endless chatter of the swarm rise alongside it, day or night neither of which matter or exist here, unbound by planetary rotation and that old artificial divide of darkness and the light. Many like Mei have abandoned the twenty-four-hour cycle to sleep and rise ceaselessly and almost incessantly with some desperate need to experience all of this, this one-time-only journey, this slow beetle’s crawl across trans-solar space. Mei swoops and turns with the music and the chatter and she idly wonders of the fate to have befallen Shiri Applebaum in C-5591: is she merely keeping quiet or is she dead or in a coma, never to wake up again, only her corpse and her cheap little jalopy hitting the surface of Mars in ninety more days? Across the swarm’s radio network the muezzin in A-5011 sends out the call to prayer, the singsong words so beautiful that Mei stops, suspended in midair, and breathes deeply, her chest rising and falling steadily, space all around her. She has degenerative bone disease, there isn’t a question of starting a new life at Terminal, only this achingly beautiful song that rises all about her, and the stars, and silent space.
* * *
Two days later Bremen’s calls abruptly cease. B-9012 still hurtles on with the rest towards Mars. Haziq tries to picture Bremen: what was he like? What did he love? He thinks he remembers him, vaguely, a once-fat man now wasted with folded awkward skin, large glasses, a Scandinavian man maybe, Haziq thought, but all he knows or will ever know of Bremen is the man’s voice on the radio bouncing from jalopy to jalopy and on to Earth where jalopy-chasers scan the bands and listen in a sort of awed or voyeuristic pleasure.
“This is Haziq, C-6173…” he coughs and clears his throat. He drinks his miso soup awkwardly, suckling from its pouch. He sits formally, strapped by Velcro, the tray of food before him, and out of his window he stares not back to Earth or forward to Mars but directly onto the swarm, trying to picture each man and woman inside, trying to imagine what brought them here. Does one need a reason? Haziq wonders. Or is it merely that gradual feeling of discomfort in one’s own life, one’s own skin, a slowly-dawning realisation that you have passed like a grey ghost through your own life, leaving no impression, that soon you might fade away entirely, to dust and ash and nothingness, a mild regret in your children’s minds that they never really knew you at all.
“This is Haziq, C-6173, is there anyone hearing me, my name is Haziq and I am going to Terminal—” and a sudden excitement takes him, “My name is Haziq and I am going to Terminal!” he shouts, and all around him the endless chatter rises, of humans in space, so needy for talk like sustenance, “We’re all going to Terminal!” and Haziq, shy again, says, “Please, is there anyone there, won’t someone talk to me. What is it like, on Terminal?”
* * *
But that is a question that brings down the silence; it is there in the echoes of words ords rds and in the pauses, in punctuation missing or overstated, in the endless chess moves, worried queries, unwanted confessionals, declarations of love, in this desperate sudden need that binds them together, the swarm, and makes all that has been before become obsolete, lose definition and meaning. For the past is a world one cannot return to, and the future is a world none had seen.
Mei floats half-asleep half-awake, but the voice awakens her, why this voice she never knows, cannot articulate. “Hello. Hello. Hello…” and she swims through the air to the kitchenette and heats up tea and drinks it from the suction cup. There are no fizzy drinks on board the jalopies, the lack of gravity would not separate liquid and gas in the human stomach and the astronaut would wet burp vomit. Mei drinks slowly, carefully, all her movements are careful. “Hello?” she says, “Hello, this is Mei in A-3357, this is Mei in A-3357, can you hear me, Haziq, can you hear me?”
A pause, a micro-silence, the air filled with the hundreds of other conversations through which a voice, his voice, says, “This is Haziq! Hello A-3357, hello!”
“Hello,” Mei says, surprised and strangely happy, and she realises it is the first time she has spoken in three months. “Let me tell you, Haziq,” she says, and her voice is like music between worlds, “let me tell you about Terminal.”
* * *
It was raining in the city. She had come out of the hospital and looked up at the sky and saw nothing there, no stars no sun, just clouds and smoke and fog. It rained, the rain collected in rainbow puddles in the street, the chemicals inside it painted the world and made it brighter. There was a jalopy vendor on the corner of the street, above his head a promotional video in 3D, and she was drawn to it. The vendor played loud K-pop and the film looped in on itself, but Mei didn’t mind the vendor’s shouts, the smell of acid rain or frying pork sticks and garlic or the music’s beat which rolled on like thunder. Mei stood and rested against the stand and watched the video play. The vendor gave her glasses, embossed with the jalopy sub-agent’s logo. She watched the swarm like a majestic silver web spread out across space, hurtling (or so it seemed) from Earth to Mars. The red planet was so beautiful and round, its dry seas and massive mountain peaks, its volcanoes and canals. She watched the polar ice caps. Watched Mons Olympus breaking out of the atmosphere. Imagined a mountain so high it reached up into space. Imagined women like her climbing it, smaller than ants but with that same ferocious dedication. Somewhere on that world was Terminal.
“Picture yourself standing on the red sands for the very first time,” she tells Haziq, her voice the same singsong of the muezzin at prayer, “that very first step, the mark of your boot in the fine sand. It won’t stay there forever, you know. This is not the moon, the winds will come and sweep it away, reminding you of the temporality of all living things.” And she pictures Armstrong on the moon, that first impossible step, the mark of the boots still there in the lunar dust. “But you are on a different world now,” she says, to Haziq or to herself, or to the others listening, and the jalopy-chasers back on Earth. “With different moons hanging like fruit in the sky. And you take that first step in your suit, the gravity hits you suddenly, you are barely able to drag yourself out of the jalopy, everything is labour and pain. Who knew gravity could hurt so much,” she says, as though in wonder. She closes her eyes and floats slowly upwards, picturing it. She can see it so clearly, Terminal Beach where the jalopies wash ashore, endlessly, like seashells, as far as the eye can see the sand is covered in the units out of which a temporary city rises, a tent city, all those bright objects on the sand. “And as you emerge into the sunlight they stand there, welcoming you, can you see them? In suits and helmets they extend open arms, those Martians, Come, they say, over the radio comms, come, and you follow, painfully and awkwardly, leaving tracks in the sand, into the temporary domes and the linked together jalopies and the underground caves which they are digging, always, extending this makeshift city downwards, and you pass through the airlock and take off your helmet and breathe the air, and you are no longer alone, you are amongst people, real people, not just voices carried on the solar winds.”
She falls silent, then. Breathes the limited air of the cabin. “They would be planting seeds,” she says, softly, “underground, and in greenhouses, all the plants of Earth, a paradise of watermelons and orchids, of frangipani and durian, jasmine and rambutan…” she breathes deeply, evenly. The pain is just a part of her, now. She no longer takes the pills they gave her. She wants to be herself; pain and all.
In jalopies scattered across this narrow silver band astronauts like canned sardines marinate in their own stale sweat and listen to her voice. Her words, converted into a signal inaudible by human ears, travel across local space for whole minutes until they hit the Earth’s atmosphere at last, already old and outdated, a record of a past event; here they bounce off the Earth to the ionosphere and back again, jaggedy waves like a terminal patient’s heart monitor circumnavigating this rotating globe until they are deciphered by machines and converted once more into sound.
Mei’s voice speaking into rooms, across hospital beds, in dark bars filled with the fug of electronic cigarettes’ smokelike vapoured steam, in lonely bedrooms where her voice keeps company to cats, in cabs driving through rain and from tinny speakers on white sand beaches where coconut crabs emerge into sunset, their blue metallic shells glinting like jalopies. Mei’s voice soothes unease and fills the jalopy-chasers’ minds with bright images, a panoramic view of a red world seen from space, suspended against the blackness of space; the profusion of bright galaxies and stars behind it is like a movie screen.
“Take a step, and then another and another. The sunlight caresses your skin but its rays have travelled longer to reach you, and when you raise your head the sun shines down from a clay-red sun, and you know you will never again see the sky blue. Think of that light. It has travelled longer and faster than you ever will, its speed in vacuum a constant 299,792,458 meters per second. Think of that number, that strange little fundamental constant, seemingly arbitrary: around that number faith can be woven and broken like silk, for is it a randomly created universe we live in or an ordained one? Why the speed of light, why the gravitational constant, why Planck’s? And as you stand there, healthy or ill, on the sands of Terminal Beach and raise your face to the sun, are you happy or sad?”
Mei’s voice makes them wonder, some simply and with devotion, some uneasily. But wonder they do and some will go outside one day and encounter the ubiquitous stand of a jalopyman and be seduced by its simple promise, abandon everything to gain a nebulous idea, that boot mark in the fine-grained red sand, so easily wiped away by the winds.
And Mei tells Haziq about Olympus Mons and its shadow falling on the land and its peak in space, she tells him of the falling snow, made of frozen carbon dioxide, of men and women becoming children again building snowmen in the airless atmosphere, and she tells him of the Valles Marineris where they go suited up hand in gloved hand through the canyons whose walls rise above them, east of Tharsis.
Perhaps it is then that Haziq falls in love, a little bit, through walls and vacuum, the way a boy does, not with a real person but with an ideal, an image. Not the way he had fallen in love with his wife, not even the way he loves his children, who talk to him across the planetary gap, their words and moving images beamed to him from Earth, but they seldom do, any more, it is as if they had resigned themselves to his departure, as if by crossing the atmosphere into space he had already died and they were done with mourning.
It is her voice he fastens onto; almost greedily; with need. And as for Mei, it is as if she had absorbed the silence of three months and more than a hundred million kilometres, consumed it somehow, was sustained by it, her own silence with only the music for company, and now she must speak, speak only for the sake of it, like eating or breathing or making love, the first two of which she will soon do no more and the last of which is already gone, a thing of the past. And so she tells the swarm about Terminal.
* * *
But what is Terminal? Eliza wonders, floating in the corridors of Gateway, watching the RLVs rise into low Earth orbit, the continents shifting past, the clouds swirling, endlessly, this whole strange giant spaceship planet as it travels at 1200 kilometres an hour around the sun, while at the same time Earth, Mars, Venus, Sun and all travel at a nearly 800,000 kilometres per hour around the centre of the galaxy, while at the same time this speed machine, Earth and sun and the galaxy itself move at 1000 kilometres per second towards the Great Attractor, that most mysterious of gravitational enigmas, this anomaly of mass that pulls to it the Milky Way as if it were a pebble: all this and we think we’re still, and it makes Eliza dizzy just to think about it.
But she thinks of such things more and more. Space changes you, somehow. It tears you out of certainties, it makes you see your world at a distance, no longer of it but apart. It makes her sad, the old certainties washed away, and more and more she finds herself thinking of Mars; of Terminal.
To never see your home again; your family, your mother, your uncles, brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and second cousins and third cousins twice removed and all the rest of them: never to walk under open skies and never to sail on a sea, never to hear the sound of frogs mating by a river or hear the whooshing sound of fruit bats in the trees. All those things and all the others you will never do, and people carry bucket lists around with them before they become Terminal, but at long last everything they ever knew and owned is gone and then there is only the jalopy confines, only that and the stars in the window and the voice of the swarm. And Eliza thinks that maybe she wouldn’t mind leaving it all behind, just for a chance at … what? something so untenable, as will-o’-the-wisp as ideology or faith and yet as hard and precisely defined as prime numbers or fundamental constants. Perhaps it is the way Irish immigrants felt on going to America, with nothing but a vague hope that the future would be different than the past. Eliza had been to nursing school, had loved, had seen the world rotate below her; had been to space, had worked on amputations, births, tumour removals, fevers turned fatal, transfusions and malarias, has held a patient’s hand as she died or dried a boy’s tears or made a cup of tea for the bereaved, monitored IVs, changed sheets and bedpans, took blood and gave injections, and now she floats in free fall high above the world, watching the Terminals come and go, come and go, endlessly, and the string of silver jalopies extends in a great horde from Earth’s orbit to the Martian surface, and she imagines jalopies fall down like silver drops of rain, gently they glide down through the thin Martian atmosphere to land on the alien sands.
She pictures Terminal and listens to Mei’s voice, one amongst so many but somehow it is the voice others return to, it is as though Mei speaks for all of them, telling them of the city being built out of cheap used bruised jalopies, the way Gateway had been put together, a lot of mismatched units joined up, and she tells them, you could fall in love again, with yourself, with another, with a world.
* * *
“Why?” Mei says to Haziq, one night period, a month away from planetfall. “Why did you do it?”
“Why did I go?”
She waits; she likes his voice. She floats in the cabin, her mind like a calm sea. She listens to the sounds of the jalopy, the instruments and the toilet and the creaks and rustle of all the invisible things. She is taking the pills again, she must, for the pain is too great now, and the morphine, so innocent a substance to come out like blood out of the vibrant red poppies, is helping. She knows she is addicted. She knows it won’t last. It makes her laugh. Everything delights her. The music is all around her now, Lao singing accompanied by a khene changing into South African kwaito becoming reggae from PNG.
“I don’t know,” Haziq says. He sounds so vulnerable then. Mei says, “You were married.”
Curiosity compels her. “Why didn’t she come with you?”
“She would never have come with me,” Haziq says, and Mei feels her heart shudder insider her like a caged bird and she says, “But you didn’t ask.”
“No,” Haziq says. The long silence is interrupted by others on the shared primitive radio band, hellos and groans and threats and prayers, and someone singing, drunk.
“No,” Haziq says. “I didn’t ask.”
* * *
One month to planetfall. And Mei falls silent. Haziq tries to raise her on the radio but there is no reply. “Hello, hello, this is Haziq, C-6173, this is Haziq, C-6173, has anyone heard from Mei in A-3357, has anyone heard from Mei?”
“This is Henrik in D-7479, I am in a great deal of pain, could somebody help me? Please could somebody help me?”
“This is Cobb in E-1255, I have figured it all out, there is no Mars, they lied to us, we’ll die in these tin cans, how much air, how much air is left?”
“This is jalopy B-2031 to jalopy C-3398, queen to pawn 4, I said queen to pawn 4, and check and mate, take that Shen you twisted old bat!”
“This is David in B-1201, jalopy B-1200 can you hear me, jalopy B-1200 can you hear me, I love you, Joy. Will you marry me? Will you—”
“We might not make it. But I feel like I know you, like I’ve always known you, in my mind you are as beautiful as your words.”
“I will see you, I will know you, there on the red sands, there on Terminal Beach, oh, David—”
“This is jalopy C-6669, will you two get a room?” and laughter on the radio waves, and shouts of cheers, congrats, mazel tov and the like. But Mei cannot be raised, her jalopy’s silent.
* * *
Not jalopies but empty containers with nothing but air floating along with the swarm, destined for Terminal, supplements for the plants, and water and other supplies, and some say these settlers, if that’s what they be, are dying faster than we can replace them but so what. They had paid for their trip. Mars is a madhouse, its inmates wander their rubbish heap town, and Mei, floating with a happy distracted mind, no longer hears even the music. And she thinks of all the things she didn’t say. Of stepping out onto Terminal Beach, of coming through the airlock, yes, but then, almost immediately, coming out again, suited uncomfortably, how hard it was, to strip the jalopies of everything inside and, worse, to go on corpse duty.
She does not want to tell all this to Haziq, does not want to picture him landing, and going with the others, this gruesome initiation ceremony for the newly arrived: to check on the jalopies no longer responding, the ones that didn’t open, the ones from which no one has emerged. And she hopes, without reason, that it is Haziq who finds her, no longer floating but pressed down by gravity, her fragile bones fractured and crushed; that he would know her, somehow. That he would raise her in his arms, gently, and carry her out, and lay her down on the Martian sand.
Then they would strip the jalopy and push it and join it to the others, this spider bite of a city sprawling out of those first crude jalopies to crash land, and Haziq might sleep, fitfully, in the dormitory with all the others, and then, perhaps, Mei could be buried. Or left to the Martian winds.
She imagines the wind howling through the canyons of the Valles Marinaris. Imagines the snow falling, kissing her face. Imagines the howling winds stripping her of skin and polishing her bones, imagines herself scattered at last, every tiny bit of her blown apart and spread across the planet.
And she imagines jalopies like meteorites coming down. Imagines the music the planet makes, if only you could hear it. And she closes her eyes and she smiles.
* * *
“I hope it’s you…” she whispers, says.
* * *
“Sign here, initial here, and here, and here.”
The jalopyman is young and friendly, and she knows his face if not his name. He says, perhaps in surprise or in genuine interest, for they never, usually, ask, “Are you sure you want to do it?”
And Eliza signs, and she nods, quickly, like a bird. And she pushes the pen back at him, as if to stop from changing her mind.
* * *
“I hope it’s you…”
“Mei? Is that you? Is that you?”
But there is no one there, nothing but a scratchy echo on the radio; like the sound of desert winds.
THE YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION: THIRTY-FOURTH ANNUAL COLLECTION. Copyright © 2017 by Gardner Dozois. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Copyright © 2017 by Gardner Dozois