THE FINAL FRONTIER
(Originally published in BLACK CLOCK: 14--Summer-Fall 2011)
The astronauts turn off their radios during their daily space walk and press their helmets together so that they can talk without being heard. “Leave me alone!” she says to the image of her own helmet, like a golden planet rising amid the warped starscape on his visor. “It’s over! Gone! I don’t remember any of it!”
“That’s not true,” he says, compressing the layers of metalized webbing, Zentex and Mylomene between his fingers and hers. “You know it’s not.”
The retraction of her hand sends her drifting away from him in a slow-mo pirouette over the top of the module. And beyond her, just over her rotating boots: the blue edge of the whole world.
The astronauts are cutting carrots. Her name is Ilka. His name is Bishop. The carrot disks wobble in the air above the cutting board like several dozen tossed coins unable to descend from their zenith. “Of course, you won’t have this problem at home,” Ilka says, gesturing with her knife at the floating disks and accidentally sending one flipping end over end toward the cabin wall.
Bishop’s hand shoots out and catches the carrot before it’s gone half a yard.
“Thanks, Bish,” says Ilka.
“No problem,” says Bishop. “Wouldn’t want one of these buggers clogging up the air filtration system.”
Ilka clutches her throat and makes a strangle-face. “One of the many perils of space exploration!”
Their mission is called The Final Frontier and is the first ever to be paid for entirely by the sale of television rights and advertising. Their cabin overalls and spacesuits are maculate with corporate logos, as are those of the other members of the team, Donald, Franz and Jim, who are jettisoning sewage while Ilka and Bishop entertain the viewers with another installment of Cosmic Chef.
The Mission Book recommends that they just be themselves in front of the cameras. But how can a husband’s kiss be anything other than ceremony with a billion viewers watching? How can a wife say ”Oh, love-of-my-life!” and actually mean it? For a while Bishop and Ilka sought refuge in irony—which was easy at first: They had, after all, been married on the gantry just before lift off, she with a veil duct-taped over her visor, he with a bow-tie stuck to the chin of his space helmet, and so it was natural those first days to call each other “shnookums” or “darling spousal unit,” their eyes lit by mischief and the belief that their charade was keeping their love sacred, along with everything else that truly mattered to them. But three months of being broadcast to the world twenty-four/seven have made it increasingly difficult to sort the sacred from the charade, and even their officially sanctioned fade-to-blacks have become sources of dismay.
According to their contract, Bishop and Ilka are allowed four two-hour periods off camera each week for “intimate relations.” Under the assumption that, as newlyweds, they might be swept away by passion at any moment, they are to signal their desire for a fade-to-black by a French kiss or by a full-frontal embrace with “genital area contact” lasting at least ten seconds. While Ilka and Bishop have never let a week pass without using all four fade-to-blacks, actually managing to be swept away by passion has never been easy, especially given the acoustical transparency their Seclusion Pod. Of late, their fade-to-blacks have involved little more than dental flossing, whispered bickering and power naps. On the rare occasions that either of them has mentioned their absent passion, they have spoken of it as only a temporary response to nonstop global scrutiny, but privately they have each begun to wonder whether those people they always thought of as themselves are, in fact, only the people they wish they could be.
Now Ilka is peeling an eggplant and Bishop is arranging the shiny, deep-purple strips of its skin in the air to spell out HI MOM! A strand of hair drifts into Ilka’s eye and she lets go of the knife so that she can tuck the strand behind her ear. The knife hovers in mid-air, trembling slightly and gleaming in the spotlight like a psychopath’s hallucination.
Afterward it would seem to them both as if they had no freedom of will. The first day of Mission Consolidation, Bishop had admired the squared-off tip of Ilka’s nose. For most of a week she confused him with Henry, who also had curly red hair. But when Bishop stood on one leg during the neurological exam, she spotted the tear-shaped bulges of muscle on either side of his kneecap and knew instantly he was a bicyclist.
“How’d you guess?” he asked. She tapped her temple with her index finger and said, “I can read your mind.”
That night, he was the only one among the dozen or so Mission Candidates who laughed when she told her joke about the penguin and the meat cleaver. And when, after a moment of disconcertion, she smiled and said, “Oh, well, guess you had to be there!” he was, once again, the only one to laugh. She glanced his way, her eyes filled with almost desperate appreciation.
Later, as she was walking out of the Community Enhancement Room with her hands plunged deep in her cargo pockets, her shoulders slumped and her gaze toward the floor, he hurried to her side. “That was great,” he said.
“What?” She looked frightened.
He quoted the joke’s punch line: “Oops!”
First she smiled, then blushed, then they each looked into the other’s eyes and instantly glanced away. That was all it took. After that, they seemed puppeted by forces neither could comprehend nor control.
It is possible in space—normal, in fact—to feel the emptiness on every side of you expanding at such a terrific speed that the words “I” and “me” will soon have no meaning, and yet to feel simultaneously the sheer massiveness of the universe bearing down on you with such force that in an instant you will undergo the radical invasion of self normally experienced only by miners in a cave-in, and that half an instant later you will be reduced to such an infinitely slender filament of being it would make little sense to imagine you exist.
Fortunately, the simultaneity of these opposing tendencies of space allows astronauts to achieve a sort of stasis that passes for sanity. But once they are back on earth it is absolutely impossible for them to explain their new reality—their sense that everything is hypothetical, for example, or their altered understandings of the words “hypocrisy” and “hope.” This is why, when you run into astronauts at parties, they always have robot eyes, and why so many show up drunk at church, and why at their memorial services their children so commonly say, “I never really knew my father,” or, “When Mom said, ‘I love you,’ it was as if she were speaking a language she didn’t understand.”
The Mission Book lists “fraternization” under “Unacceptable Behaviors” because it “de-facilitates the unity of the Unit,” and when Christina asked what “fraternization” meant the first morning of Team Candidacy, Donald, the Team Leader, answered, “It means exactly what you think it means, so don’t do it!” At first Christina looked as if she were going to laugh. Then her tongue made a small click against the roof of her mouth and she rolled her eyes. By the time she got back from her weightlessness-simulation flight, her name on the Candidates Roster had been red-stamped NON-SELECTED and everyone drew the obvious conclusion.
It was exactly a week later that Ilka told her penguin joke and, in the hallway outside the Community Enhancement Room, looked into Bishop’s eyes and saw the frightened loneliness that matched so exactly the frightened loneliness she herself had been desperately trying to pretend she didn’t feel. So of course she looked away, and so, of course, at breakfast the following morning, they sat at the same table and talked so casually over their bowls of yogurt and sliced banana, that she was able to tell herself, “There, see—it was all in your mind.” And so that night, when she sat cell-phone in hand on that bench in the cactus garden, wondering why on earth her fiancé Max’s amiable babbling about the pet store he managed so irritated her, it was, of course, Bishop who came up from the parking lot, swinging the bag of shampoo and razorblades he just bought at an all-night pharmacy. With equal inevitability she was unable to resist making the small noise in her throat that stopped him mid-step. And just when she was assuring him that he hadn’t disturbed her, that she only had been listening to the beautiful silence of the desert wind, the coyotes, of course, started their weird yipping and, before she knew what she was doing, her hand sought out his. And when she tried to explain away what she had done by saying, “I always find that sound…I get this feeling…you know…it’s like—” she realized that there was no point explaining anything at all, because in an instant her lips would be on his, and his tongue would be in her mouth and they would be breathing each other’s breath, making swoony gasps and running their hands up and down each other’s backs. And that, of course, was what happened. And when they found themselves unable to stop what they were doing, they went to his car, and he drove her out to the salt flats where the whiteness running off in every direction so matched the whiteness of the moon directly overhead that it was hard not to feel they were themselves on the moon, even though the moon shining down on them proved that impossible. And when, some hour later, he said, “What just happened?” and she said, “I don’t know, but maybe it wasn’t such a great idea,” he sighed and agreed, and then he said, “But maybe I don’t really care.” She was silent a long time before saying, “I think I’m falling in love with you.” And then she said, “This is crazy!” And then she said, “I don’t even know you.” “Yes you do,” he said, and then it was more than another hour before they drove back to the Mission Compound.
The conspiracy theorists are partly right: Our space program may not be taking place entirely on some Hollywood movie set, but we are being lied to about space. The moon, for example, is only half what it used to be. Its far side—the part always facing away from the earth—has vanished. Lopped off like half an apple. Nobody knows exactly when or how, but there are striations crossing the moon’s now flat hidden side that look alarmingly like the markings of a gigantic chain saw.
Things disappear in space. That’s become established fact—in certain circles, at least. Many people remember when Pluto was degraded from “planet” to “dwarf planet,” but few know that this reclassification was only a cover-up: Pluto had, in fact, vanished. One day astronomers could find it tumbling along its normal trajectory 3,657 million miles from the sun; the next day they couldn’t. It was that simple. The same is true with Uranus and Mercury: Gone. Nobody knows where or how. Likewise, in recent years the asteroid belt has lost nearly forty percent of its mass.
So far there has been a consensus among governments and the scientific community: Better not say anything until we know what this means. Probably it will turn out to be nothing—a data glitch, a misapplied algorithm, a new wrinkle on the theory of dark matter. The last thing we need is people running around screaming, “The end is near!” Think of the rioting that would ensue. The mass suicides! The collapse of moral systems worldwide! No, no, no, say the scientists and heads of state, better that we keep this to ourselves.
Initially the sole mission of the team Ilka and Bishop were trying out for was to conduct a top-secret investigation of these cosmic disappearances. When Final Frontier, Inc. bought out NASA, it agreed to continue the Mission and keep it top-secret, on the idea that mass unrest would have a negative effect on television viewing, advertising revenues and the economy generally. It has never been exactly clear, however, how the Mission could be both top-secret and broadcast twenty-four hours a day. The team has received contradictory directives: Never refer to the Mission under any circumstances. If anyone asks, say you are investigating “the space-time continuum.” Say you’re just doing “pure research.” Speak in code. If, for example, you discover another planet has gone missing, say, “I’ve dropped another pound.”
The most recent scuttlebutt is that top FFI execs have begun to toy with the idea of giving up all pretense of secrecy and renaming the show Who’s Stealing Our Universe? The Truth Nobody Will Tell You! Their rationale: Global strife might take years to reach full throttle; who knew how much money could be made in the meantime?
From the earth the moon appears full, and Bishop and Ilka are adrift in the cone of shadow that runs from its flat side off into infinity. They’re attending to what is essentially a mile-long windsock, designed to detect the velocity and direction of the gravity wake left by the moon’s departed half. So far, however, the windsock has detected no space-time disturbance of any kind, and so Bishop and Ilka have been directed to poke and twist its moving parts, and to change its batteries.
The long cone of moon’s shadow is so utterly dark that, beyond the oblongs illuminated by their helmet lights, it seems to have been flooded by India ink. Thus it is that when Bishop has finally screwed shut the windsock’s battery compartment, he accidentally clonks his three-foot-long titanium screwdriver against the back of Ilka’s helmet.
A metallic voice crackles through his earbuds: “You stupid fuck.”
“Shhh,” he says.
Ilka reels around, and now the only thing Bishop can see is the blue-white disk of her helmet light shining directly at his visor. Her voice crackles again inside his head: “Don’t you shush me! Are you just a total klutz or are you actually trying to puncture my pressure suit?”
“Shhh,” he says.
“Uh-oh!” says one of the commentators at Mission Control. “Sounds like a little volcanic activity on the dark side of the moon!”
The disk of Ilka’s helmet light drifts at the center of Bishop’s vision for a few seconds longer, then shrinks to a skinny lozenge and disappears. He hears the click of her helmet touching his and can feel her fingers pulling at his elbow through many layers of metalized webbing and synthetic fabric. He lets his screwdriver drift on its tether and pulls her waist until their spacesuits are touching front to front. He cannot feel her body so much as the way her movements inside her suit alter her trajectory and momentum, but he finds even such indirect evidence of her physical existence profoundly soothing, in the way that a knocking from the next cell can soothe a man in solitary. She has turned off her radio, he realizes. When he turns his off his own, he can hear her stifled sobs coming to him through the dime-size area of contact between the globes of their helmets.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I understand. You don’t have to worry.”
Her sobbing continues. He can feel how the heaving of her shoulders is causing the two of them to rotate head over heel and to drift ever further from the enormous windsock. “Oh, Bish!” she says at last. “This is destroying everything.”
“No it isn’t.” He gives the side of her suit three comforting pats, which she experiences mainly as a slight shift in the torque of their head over heel rotation. “We’re more than halfway through,” he says. “All we have to do is hang on a little longer and we’ll be fine.”
“This is making me hate you!”
“No it isn’t.”
“Yes it is! Every time I say ‘I love you’ on camera, I feel like a liar and a coward, and I hate you for it.”
Bishop doesn’t know how to respond to this.
“And why are you always so cheery when the cameras are on!” she says. “Why don’t you just say, ‘Fuck you!’ and tell them all to go to hell!”
Anger rises in Bishop’s throat. His heart kettledrums in his temples, and a featureless fog appears at the center of his visor. He almost shouts, “Well, why the fuck don’t you!” But when he finally does speak, his voice is calm: “I am telling them to go to hell. You know what they want just as well as I do. That’s why they chose us. Foster and Lavinia were much better qualified than either of us, but they had nerves of steel. Nothing could stop Foster’s avuncular winks or take that gleam off of Lavinia’s smile. Who wants to watch that kind of television! FFI is dying for us to curse each other out on prime time. They’ve been trying to engineer us into a full-scale break-up right from the beginning. Why do you think you’re the only woman on the team? Why do you think Donald, Franz and Jim all look like fucking movie stars! Can you imagine the tabloid headlines if either of us showed what we are really feeling? Star-CROSS Lovers! Hell in the Heavens! The ratings would go through the roof. And fuck if I’m going to give them that reward.”
Bishop feels an alteration in the arc of her spacesuit against his glove. Then the speed of their rotation slackens. After a moment he realizes that the tension has gone out of her body. Either she has been comforted by his words, or she’s surrendered utterly to grief.
There is a long silence. Then she says, so softly he can barely hear her over his flowing oxygen, “Oh, Bish! I keep getting Facebook messages from total strangers who tell me I should dump you for Franz!”
Ilka and Bishop had reached the fourth and final tier of Mission Selection when Donald informed all the remaining candidates that NASA had been bought out by Final Frontier, Inc. “This is great news!” he had shouted over the perplexed murmurs and not a few mocking guffaws. “FFI is willing to spend five times NASA’s annual budget on space exploration! Five times! Think what that will mean!”
Only days after Donald’s announcement, Ilka and Bishop were called before Oz Zodmah, FFI’s Reciprocal De-lateralization Coordinator: a stout man with a silver speckling of buzz-cut hair across his balding dome, and so little distance between his mouth and nose that his upper lip touched the ridge between his nostrils with every plosive he spoke. “I suppose you know that your private affair was never particularly private,” he told them.
Bishop turned pale. Tiny, trembling buttons of sweat instantly appeared at Ilka’s hairline. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.
“Our private what?” said Bishop, attempting incredulity but only managing stunned guilt.
“There’s no need to pretend,” said Zodmah.
“Who’s pretending?” Ilka said.
“You know, of course,” Zodmah continued, “that under existing regulations you can both be drummed out of the program.”
“For what!” said Bishop, finally managing something close to incredulity.
“You can’t prove anything,” said Ilka.
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that.” Zodmah remained silent a good fifteen seconds, shifting his eyes between Ilka and Bishop and smiling at their increasing disconcertion. “But that’s neither here nor there,” he said at last, “because we want to cut you a deal. We won’t court-martial you if you agree to get married.”
“Married?!” said Ilka
“Why?” said Bishop.
“You know the reputation astronauts have! That weird way they talk? How their faces are too clean? You’ll humanize the profession and it will be great publicity: Newlyweds in Space! Stars in Their Eyes! Moon-June-Spoon! You’ll be famous overnight!”
Bishop and Ilka were both silent, goggle-eyed.
“So whaddya think?”
Bishop and Ilka each opened their mouths, but no words came out.
“We’ll double your salaries,” said Zodmah. “And think of the product endorsements!”
Things also disappear inside the Mission Module: Jim’s tub of hair gum, Donald’s left, Velcro-soled WallWalker, Bishop’s watchband. One day the team wakes to find no toothpaste anywhere: no crumpled tubes in the Personal Hygiene Bubble; none in the Waste Confinement Canisters; all of the boxes labeled “toothpaste” in the Storage Facility empty and drifting. Another day it’s the same with pretzels. Then Ilka can’t find her favorite forest green washcloth. (She looks everywhere. Three days in a row. Not a trace.) But no one gives any of this much thought. Things get lost. Used up. So what else is new?
“Bish?” Ilka says.
“What?” he answers distractedly. They are on another space walk, and he has just assembled the last of the six sections of the new, housefly-green solar panel they’re supposed to plug into the side of the Mission Module.
“Uh,” says Ilka.
“What?” There is a touch of irritation in his voice.
The last time Bishop glanced Ilka’s way, her face was obscured by the brilliant reflection of the logo-spangled module, but now her visor is crossed only by bright motes and velvet black, and so he can see her eyes clearly: weirdly round and fixed—doll’s eyes.
“Ilka?” he says. Then he looks where she is looking.
After a moment, he flings out one arm so that he might turn three hundred sixty degrees to the left; then he flicks back his head so that he might do the same on a perpendicular axis. He repeats these actions four or five times before finally he has no choice but to accept the truth.
No matter what direction he looks or how often: Nothing but those bright motes, that velvet black, a fiercely brilliant sun, and the blue mass of the earth.
No Mission Module.
Gone. Without a trace.
“Meteor,” says one of the astronomers at Mission Control, when he hears the story. “Beats me,” says the other.
Ilka is able to provide no more information about the disappearance than Bishop. She glanced at the module one instant—catching sight of Franz through the porthole, idly twirling a Q-tip in his right ear—then glanced at it again an instant later, only to find that the module had been replaced by stars and a faintly scintillating void. No flash, no shockwave, no sound.
“Sit tight,” says Sodastrum, the overnight commentator (it is 3:00 a.m. in Houston). “A shuttle is on its way.”
Ilka knows this is a lie, but doesn’t contradict him. What would be the point? “Thanks,” she says.
“Back after the commercial break,” says Sodastrum, his voice replaced by The Final Frontier theme song.
Ilka turns off her radio and touches her helmet to Bishop’s. He turns his radio off too. “Do you think they did this on purpose?” she asks.
“Did what?” says Bishop.
“Got rid of the Mission Module.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Rescue in Space,” she says. “Talk about great television. Once news of this gets out, every TV on earth will be tuned to The Final Frontier—no other show will have a chance.”
Bishop cogitates a moment. “You’re paranoid.”
She is silent. She closes her eyes. Then she says, “Hold my hand.”
He does. Even when they turn their radios back on, they keep their hands linked. And thus, during the long hours they wait for rescue, they rotate as a single unit, the sun rising over Ilka and setting over Bishop, then rising over Ilka again… Again and again and again. It doesn’t stop.
Ilka can see the cloud-littered shimmer of the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles beneath the soles of her boots. For the whole of the three months that she has been in orbit, she never has once perceived the distance between herself and the earth as height, but now that distance is a yawning abyss—and she feels as if she is falling into it. Her heart is pounding. She can’t breathe. She is gripped by a wild impulse to tear off her space suit.
“You okay?” asks Bishop, pulling on her hand and touching his visor to hers.
“Yes,” she says, then: “No.”
“Don’t worry,” he says.
She hears him draw his breath to speak, but no words come. His features are like a series of pale orange half-moons behind his tinted visor.
“How long do you think it will be before they get a shuttle up here?” she asks.
“Sodastrum says it’s on its way.”
“No,” she says. “I mean really.”
He shrugs. The half-moons of his face dwindle to quarter-moons, then disappear entirely. “Twenty-four hours.” He doesn’t sound confident.
“Do you think our oxygen can last that long?”
Sodastrum goes off duty and Conrad comes on. Nobody likes Conrad. Before being hired by FFI, he was the MC of a golden oldies show at a radio station in Minneapolis and has the habit of shouting, “Out of this world!” in response to virtually everything Bishop or Ilka say, and he is constantly making jokes on the order of, “How’s the weather up there?” and “You guys better not be mooning us!”
During a commercial break, Bishop hears Ilka say, “Fuck!”
“What?” he asks.
“Turn off your radio.”
He does, and when their helmets are together, she says, “This is so stupid!”
“It’s okay.” He places his hands firmly on each of her shoulders. “I’m here.”
“I just can’t stand it!” she says. “That fucking Conrad made me so angry that I started to cry. And now my tears are floating around inside my helmet like a million tiny planets. I keep breathing them in and nearly choking!”
Bishop starts to laugh and can’t stop. He laughs so hard his visor fogs up entirely.
“Asshole!” says Ilka, pushing him away.
“I’m thinking of something,” says Bishop.
“I’m thinking of the look on your face that first time in the cactus garden. We’d been kissing and then we stopped to look at each other. You looked at me for a moment, like you didn’t know who I was. And then, all at once, I could see it in your eyes. I could see you falling in love.”
“Oh, God,” she says softly.
“Nothing. That was a beautiful moment. That’s all.”
“I saw you falling in love,” he says, “and I fell in love with you too.”
They are silent for a long time: Visor to visor. Looking into each other’s eyes. Their lips separated by inches of canned air, two layers of gold-tinted plastic, and a vacuum.
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” he says, “if we could zip these suits together like sleeping bags?”
At this she spreads her legs and pulls on his oxygen pack with both hands, compressing the front of his space suit against the front of hers. Her heels drift in the void, occasionally touching the outside of his knees.
They are rotating again. First the sun rises and sets and then the earth. Todd, the CEO of FFI, has come onto their Private Communications Channel to tell them how “personally sorry” he is about their “situation,” and that he is “moving heaven and earth” to get them rescued. “We should have a shuttle on its way any minute now,” he tells them. And then he says, “There’s just one thing…I completely understand, of course, why from time to time you guys need your moments of—you know: privacy. That’s perfectly natural, especially since you’re—well, married and everything. But you have to understand it from our side too. Since we no longer have a video image, your radio transmissions are all we have to build a show around. So we would really appreciate it if you didn’t turn off—“
At exactly the instant the earth sets behind Bishop’s right arm and the sun rises over Ilka’s left leg, Todd stops speaking. He remains silent the entire time it takes the sun to cross in front of Ilka and Bishop and then set again. But this time the departure of the sun is not followed by the return of the earth. Where the earth once occupied more than half their sky, there now are only glimmering stars. The moon has disappeared, too—not just the old, spherical moon, but the new, lopped-in-half moon.
Their radios are more than silent: no static, no hiss of dead air. The silence is deeper than when they used to turn their radios off.
Time passes and eventually the sun also fails to rise, and Ilka and Bishop find themselves entirely alone in the vast emptiness between many billions of stars.
With no stars near enough to noticeably illuminate them, they have become a form of dark matter, but remain linked, rotating, occasionally stirring their limbs.
“Look,” says Bishop after an indeterminate period of time. He is holding a pie-shaped section of brilliant blue. “It was here all along.”
“What?” said Ilka.
“The earth. I don’t know why we didn’t notice it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. Come on. Help me spread it out.”
Bishop gives the pie-shape a shake, and Ilka can see that it is actually a disk that has been folded over many times. Taking hold of what appears to be the disk’s far edge, Ilka kicks out her feet and is able to drift far enough across space to stretch the disk to its full width. Then, with a second kick, she is able to do the same with another part of the disk, and then another, as does Bishop, until finally they’ve completely unfurled the disk and the earth once again takes up half their sky.
They pirouette off a short distance so they can survey their handiwork. “Perfect,” says Bishop.
“I don’t know,” says Ilka.
“What do you mean?”
“That’s not the way I remember it.”
Bishop himself thinks the earth looks a bit blank, but all he says is, “What’s wrong with it?”
“I’m not exactly sure.”
“Maybe we need to get a little closer.”
They summersault back toward the blue disk and find that it is a lot easier to land on the earth than they ever imagined.
“Look!” says Bishop. “We did it! We’re home! Why didn’t we think of this before?”
“It still doesn’t look right,” says Ilka. “Where are all the trees? And the color is weird. It’s all light blue. And the ground is satiny. I don’t remember it being like this at all.”
“Maybe that’s because it’s nighttime.”
“How do you know it’s nighttime?”
“There’s no sun. And look at all the stars.”
“Maybe,” Ilka says dubiously.
“Of course it’s nighttime.”
She just shakes her head.
“What other explanation is there?” asks Bishop.
“I don’t know. Where’s the sun?
Bishop is silent a moment. “Probably on the other side.”
Bishop and Ilka walk until they get to the point where the earth ends and a carpet of star-punctuated emptiness begins. They get down on their hands and knees and lower their heads over the microscopically thin edge of the earth until they can see the far side. Sure enough, there’s the sun. And now, instead of blue, the earth is completely white, like the salt flats where they drove their first night.
“Oh, my God!” cries Bishop. “Look!”
Way, way out in the middle of the earth is Bishop’s battered, copper-colored Toyota Corolla. “I can’t believe it’s still here,” says Ilka.
It turns out to be easy to get around to the other side of the earth. They just pull their chins to their chests and roll head over heels onto what once had been an upside-down planet. They experience no disorientation as they stand. Walking on this side of the earth feels exactly the same as walking on the other.
It takes them a good hour to reach the car, thanks in part to the clumsiness and weight of their spacesuits, which, of course, have not been designed for terrestrial perambulation. “This is it, alright,” says Bishop. The car’s doors are unlocked and the keys are in the ignition. “Amazing nobody stole it.”
“But wasn’t your car a Honda?”
Bishop walks around to the back of the car and looks at the stainless steel lettering above its right taillight. “This is a Honda,” he says.
“Whew!” says Ilka. “I was getting worried.”
He is standing beside her again. “So what do you think?” He takes the index finger of one of her gloves between the thumb and index finger of his own glove.
She doesn’t answer, but he can see that half-shy, half-mischievous smile of hers through the reflective visor of her helmet.
“Come on,” he says.
“Oh God!” She holds out both hands, palms-up, and shakes her arms emphatically. “How I would love to get out of this fucking thing!”
“Me too.” He is smiling. But then his smile fades.
Neither of them move.
“Do you think it’s safe?” she says at last.
“Of course, it’s safe! We’re home, aren’t we?” And with that, he tugs the latches on either side of his helmet and flips open his visor. For a long moment he just stands there with both eyes tightly closed. Then he takes a deep breath. “Jesus Fucking Christ! This is so wonderful! You’ve got to do this!”
In less than a minute they’ve stripped off their space suits, their sweat-sodden jumpsuits and even their underwear. Bishop can hardly believe he is seeing Ilka’s sleek and shapely body again. He pulls her into his arms, covers her lips with butterfly kisses. After a moment she steps back, laughs and slaps his hip. “Not so fast, loverboy! Wait ‘til we’re inside, at least.”
He opens the driver’s door and she runs around to the passenger’s side. Once they are both sitting in the car, they start laughing. “Holy shit!” she says.
“Isn’t this amazing!”
“This is exactly how it was!”
Their jeans, tee shirts, underwear and shoes are scattered on the seats, floors and dashboard, exactly as they had been that first night. Even Bishop’s bag of disposable razors and shampoo is lying on the back seat. “Well, almost,” he says. “It was night then. And the moon was up.”
In fact, the moon is up. But so is the sun. It sits on the horizon, another disk, but dazzlingly bright, with squiggles of blue-red-green flickering intermittently along its rim and sword-like smears of brilliance running off in four directions like the points of a compass. “It’s about to set,” says Ilka.
“I think you’re right,” says Bishop.
They decide to sit and watch it.
But after some fifteen or twenty minutes, it becomes clear that the sun isn’t setting at all but only wobbling unsteadily along the horizon as if it has lost its way. “This is getting frustrating,” says Bishop.
“Let’s just forget about it,” says Ilka.
“No. It has to be night!” Worried that Ilka might think he is angry, he looks at her and smiles. “This won’t take a minute!”
He twists the key in the ignition, puts the car in gear, and drives across the salt flats to the horizon. The sun is no bigger here than it was when they were waiting for it to set. As he slams the door, Ilka calls out, “Be careful! It’s hot! You’ll burn yourself!”
He smiles at her over his shoulder. “Don’t worry, it only looks hot.” As he trots to the very edge of the earth, the sun skittles a bit to the right as if it were running away. Gripping the edge of the earth with one hand, he reaches out with the other, spreads his palm over the top of the sun and pushes it beneath the horizon, as he might push someone’s head under water.
When he stands, he’s wearing that crooked grin that always gives Ilka a tickly flutter at the base of her throat. He dusts his hands together. “That’s that!”
They drive back across the salt-flat and Ilka decides that it looks more arctic than lunar under the moonlight. At one point she even thinks she sees a phalanx of penguins—like bowling pins in tuxedos—in the dimness just beyond the glow of the car’s headlights.
“So, where were we?” says Bishop once they’re parked again at their original spot. Their cast-aside space suits have vanished and, on every side of the white plain, mountains now rise, black against the night sky, except for the orange glow of the Mission Compound several miles to the west.
“I think we were right about here,” says Ilka, leaning over and kissing him on the lips.
Some minutes later, Bishop lets his head fall back against his seat. “Oh, wow!” he sighs. “This is such a relief!”
Ilka lowers her head against his shoulder and closes her eyes.
“Remember how frightened you were?” he says.
“I wasn’t frightened.”
“Yes, you were.”
“You kept looking out the windows and saying, ‘Do you think this is a good idea?’”
“I wasn’t frightened. I was guilty. Only a few minutes before I’d been listening to poor Max babbling on happily about his pet shop…and then… Well, it all happened so fast. And I just kept thinking about how happy he had been, and it made me sad. And guilty. I felt really guilty for a while there.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Bishop says.
They are silent. Holding hands. Smiling into each other’s eyes.
The windows are fogged in brilliant smears and ragged patches. Here and there the fog has coalesced into tiny, glinting nodes of darkness that gradually merge into droplets. Some of the droplets have run down the glass, leaving behind jagged, night-colored trails.
“I don’t remember it being this cold,” says Ilka.
Bishop makes an equivocal grunt.
“Do you?” she asks.
“The desert gets cold at night.”
“Yeah. I just don’t remember the windows fogging like this.”
“What about the coyotes?” he says.
He rubs some of the fog away with his hand. “Look.”
Through the watery glass, Ilka makes out the moonlit figure of a coyote, not two yards from the car, head lowered, fangs bared. As she watches, one more coyote trots up, then another, then several more, all with their heads lowered, ears back, teeth gleaming in the moonlight. “Whoa,” she says. “I don’t remember them at all!”
“I do.” Bishop smiles. “But they didn’t bother us. Right?”
“Guess they didn’t.”
“Not a bit.” He leans over and licks the end of her nose. “The cold neither.”
“Guess not.” She pulls his lips down onto hers.
Sometime later, Ilka sits up. “There’s one thing missing.” She punches the knob on the radio and Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” begins to play. “Remember?” she says with a big grin.
“Not really,” he says.
“Sure you do.”
“I don’t remember any music at all.”
“Yes, you do!” She laughs. “Remember how funny we thought it was that this song should be playing when this huge full moon was shining right down on us?”
“Maybe,” he says.
He leans over and kisses her one more time.
Some minutes later they slump in their seats and look up through the windshield at the full moon. No fog anymore, the glass as clear as winter air. And it’s the real moon this time, not the lopped-in-half version.
The original moon. The perfect sphere.