A Story About Goodbye

This week's prompt at Sunday Scribblings is Goodbyes. It chimed with various things I've been thinking about, in particular, at the forefront of my mind was a colourised version of this image, as presented in Olivier de Goursac's Visions of Mars (although this particular image is a vision of Earth). To see the colours of a Martian sunset, look at this image.

Evening Star

The sky is a murky, ruddy pink and the sun sits on the horizon: small and blue. Descending with it, imperceptibly, down beneath the world, is the bright evening star.

"Does it look any different?" a voice asks softly.

I stop looking over my shoulder, turn from the small window to the dim, electric-lit room around me. "I woke up sitting here," I say. "It wasn't a dream, was it?"

Yelena shakes her head and slams the door closed, checking that it seals properly. Now more than ever, it feels like we live in a soap bubble. Bulging with air and ready to pop.

The television, fixed to the paint-scabbed metal wall, shows nothing but static.

Yelena sits next to me on the couch and picks up the remote.

"Don't," I say suddenly. "Turn it off. I've had enough of it."

She nods and stabs the remote with her thumb. The screen blinks to black. "Is he okay?"

I look at Michael. Sitting on the couch opposite, head thrown back, staring at the low, domed ceiling. He lifts his head, looks first at Yelena, then at me. "I'm fine," he says flatly.

"Does it look any different?" Yelena asks me again.

"Does what look any different?"

She gestures out the window, at the setting sun and the evening star. "Earth," she says.

"It looks about the same. How's Abel?"

"Sedated. Chen is staying with him."

Like a powerful magnet is pulling on me, my head turns until I'm looking back out of the window. "I thought it might get less blue," I say. "If the ocean's are getting covered with dust and smoke."

"Maybe it will," Yelena says matter-of-factly. You can't really be anything but matter-of-fact in this kind of situation.

"We don't know that it was nukes," Michael chips in.

Yelena shakes her head unenthusiastically. "What else would it be?"

"Bio-terrorism," Michael says, slowly, if parcelling out its import into more manageable monosyllables. "Some lethal disease cooked up in a terrorist's basement. I bet it spread across the world in less than a day, on airliners."

"You're an American," I tell him. "Someone sneezes and you see bio-terrorism."

"Well, yeah. You say that, but I bet they were sneezing."

"It wasn't bio-terrorism or bio-anything else," Yelena says firmly. "We'd have heard something about people getting ill. And look at the logs: we lost Baikonur, Kennedy and Jiuquan within minutes of one another. A virus wouldn't do that."

"Al Jazeera's still broadcasting every hour," I chip in. "They were talking about mushroom clouds and radiation sickness. It's pretty unequivocal."

Michael grimaces, as if literally having difficulty swallowing the idea. "But who would nuke us?"

I laugh mirthlessly. We three are all wearing the same uniform but for the flags on the sleeves. "What makes you so sure that 'we' didn't nuke anyone ourselves? If not to start with, then in retaliation?"

"But why did it start?" Michael asks.

Yelena sighs. "I doubt anyone actually wanted it to happen. It probably started as a mistake, but once it got underway, they were fighting for their lives. No-one would stop."

"That's bullshit," I snapped. "You're saying that because they started killing everyone they had to keep going, or else - or else what? The other side would kill everyone instead? It's bullshit."

"It's those Russian missiles," Michael muses. "A wire sparked or a program crashed or something and the missile was launched. No offence, Yelena."

"Check your own house is in order before you start throwing accusations like that around. You've got that nuclear place in America that's always catching fire and worse."

"That's not a nuclear facility."

"It is a-"

"That's not a nuclear weapons facility," Michael interrupts, correcting himself.

"What does it matter?" I ask. "I don't care who started it. It happened. And Baikonur, Kennedy, Jiuquan: they're silent."

Michael rubs his unshaven chin. "Maybe they're still there."

Yelena stretches, creakily. I notice that her eyes are red. "Even if they are," she says, "you think they care about us right now? Not their families? The people dying right in front of them? You think they have enough food to stuff it into a rocket and send it to us?"

Michael clicks his tongue. "I guess the space programme's going to take a bit of a back seat over the next few years, huh?"

"Decades probably," Yelena says. "If human civilisation on Earth can even crawl back up from this."

I finally say what's been on my mind all this time: "We're pretty fucked."

Michael just shrugs.

Yelena turns to face me, fixes her eyes on mine. "We are not fucked. We're lucky. Would you rather be in London right now?"

"If it was a full nuclear exchange, I'd have died instantaneously last night."

"Right," she says, as if that settles it.

"But instead, we, Yelena, Michael - all of us - we are going to starve."

Yelena slides forward, to better face me. I think this is turning into another argument, and I'm not sure I can be bothered. "I don't think so," she says.

I shrug. "We eat more than we grow. Food is the problem. It's the only thing we can't get from Mars. I don't see how we can be more fucked than that."

"Food is the problem," Michael agrees.

"We would be more fucked if food wasn't the only thing we don't have here," Yelena says. "We have water from the ice, we have oxygen from the water, we have fifty years of power from the reactor - more than enough time to find more uranium, I might add - from the power we get heat, light-"

I look down at my crumpled uniform. "And yet, if we starve, all that oxygen and water and power and heat and light won't make us less dead."

Yelena shakes her head vehemently. "We're not going to starve any time soon. And in the meantime we can try to find ways to increase our food production. We've got the material to build more pressurised glass houses. Chen thinks we may even be able to use cling film, tent poles and old heaters, if we keep the partial pressure of nitrogen high and the overall pressure low. We got some Frankenstein seeds in the last supply, part of an experiment - they might grow in Martian soil, with a few added chemicals."

"None of us are old, Yelena. We could live another forty, fifty years. Do you honestly think we can consistently produce enough food in all that time, with cling film greenhouses? It's going to be a constant battle."

"I didn't say it would be easy. But we don't have any choice but to try. We've got better odds than certain death. We've got better odds than the people back home."

"In the short term, yes. But when the nuclear winter passes, those that survived - eating rat meat or one another, whatever - they'll still have a world with liquid water, one bar of air pressure and food."

"Contaminated food."

"As opposed to our sickly, half-starved crops. Chen's still finding those bloody aphids lurking around. Now he thinks they're adapting to the lower gravity."

Michael laughs unexpectedly. "Chen says they come to him in his dreams and taunt him in Mandarin."

I had something to say, something angry and powerful that would leave Yelena's argument shattered into pieces, but Michael's comment, his laughter more than anything, has interrupted my flow. Yelena just raises an eyebrow and ignores him. He covers his mouth with his hand to stop the incriminating sound: laughing while everyone is fucked.

Yelena sighs. "Look, we've been split in two. Pockets of people on Earth and one on Mars, we're all going to be struggling for the next few years, perhaps for the rest of our lives. I guess a lot of us won't make it. But we have to try."

"I'm not saying that we shouldn't. I agree with you, it's hard but we have to try. It's just…."

She leans forward, resting her elbow on the back of the couch. "What?"

I look out of the window. The sun has set, and the blue evening star is low on the rocky hilltops. Soon it will be gone too. "I just wish this hadn't happened. It's going to be really hard. We need the people at home."

Yelena reaches over to squeeze my shoulder. "I know," she says. "I feel the same way. There's nothing to say, except, I feel the same way."

The conversation has deflated. Michael gets up then, says he needs to check the pressure sensors. We're leaking again, he thinks, losing precious air from our little soap bubble. Yelena follows after him, squeezes my shoulder once more in parting.

I stay staring out the window until the evening star sets. Best to get back to work after this, I think. Back to the business of staying alive.

"Goodbye," I tell the little star, under my breath.


paris parfait said...

Now THAT's an interesting take on goodbye! Dark and scary, but well done.

Terri /Tinker said...

Oh, wow - just wow. You've really gone and done it this time, Pacian - got me completely hooked on it. What a scary idea - yet maybe a hopeful one in its own dark way. At least someone might survive. Well done.

Frances said...

I have to agree with terri/tinker.
Oh, wow - just wow.
I never could have come up with anything like that.
Applauding loudly from New York

gautami tripathy said...

I love this story, Scary butwhat the hell?

Geosomin said...

You made a terrible thing a hopeful one and put a number of views together at once- andthe thing that I enjoyed was the dialog...it was very *real*.
You've really got a knack for writing characters and conversational dialog.