PATHFINDERS

Chen was outside, blowing the dust from the mirrors of the solar collector. The sun was low and distant and gave no warmth. The ground was hard and barren. The job he was doing was tedious and pointless. The damned solar collector barely worked, a failed experiment that was already half-forgotten by the engineers at Earth Control.

     Everything was made more complicated by Chen’s suit. The gloves were stiff and hard and Chen had already lost one fingernail to their predations. A little stream of sweat burbled between his shoulder blades, an itch he couldn’t scratch though he twisted and shrugged in an effort to get some relief from the growing discomfort. Chen would have been happier in one of the old Orlans he’d lumbered around in while training in Star City and on the ISS. He was going to write another memo about the Mars suit to the design committee. Maybe they’d listen this time.

     When his suit radio buzzed to life and Commander Arsenyev told him to stop what he was doing and come to the living quarters, Chen’s first reaction was a sigh of relief… which distracted him from the peculiar tone of the commander’s request. By the time he registered that there was something wrong, Commander Arsenyev had cut the connection.

     Chen thought about contacting Brad and asking him what was going on, but he decided against it. The commander had said he was calling the whole crew together. That had never happened before. The commander liked his schedules, and if he was breaking them it meant there was something urgent he felt they all needed to hear at the same time.

     So Chen did his best to hurry back to the base, but nothing was easy or quick. By the time he’d secured the solar collector’s mirrors and struggled back over the broken ground to the airlock, stowed his gear, gone through the recompression cycle, climbed out of his suit and put it in place, set the life support pack aside for recharging and pulled on a pair of blue overalls, almost an hour had passed. He arrived to find the rest of the crew already bored from waiting and his apologies met with a chorus of friendly barracking. He caught Brad’s eye as he went to his seat and was rewarded with a broad smile and a wink.

     The dining hall was the only large open space in the base. The long table at which they ate their communal evening meals had been opened out and the crew were settled around it. Despite their various poses of exaggerated relaxation, Chen recognised an unusual brittleness in their chatter and a tautness in some of their expressions.

     Commander Arsenyev climbed into the room from the corridor that led to the communications centre. He was a tall man, his hair the colour of steel, his blue shirt and chinos neatly pressed. Fourteen months into their mission, the commander still took meticulous care of his appearance and remained cautious of the effect his easy charisma still inspired amongst most of the crew. Roman Arsenyev had been in space a handful of times before Chen had been born. He had held records for the longest spacewalk and the longest time in orbit, and he’d trained most of Russia’s working cosmonauts. And yet he had always seemed unaware of the awe he inspired in those around him.

     Today, though, his expression was tightly controlled and his movements brisk. The crew recognised the stiff formality in their commander’s attitude and responded almost at once by settling to stillness, the chatter and laughter dying away.

     Maheesh Sahni, the Indian communications specialist, followed Arsenyev into the room. He was nervously rubbing one hand on the side of his jeans and refused to meet the eyes of anyone at the table.

     “I’m sorry to pull you all away from your work,” Arsenyev said. “But I wanted you all to hear this directly from me.”

     The crew straightened up in their seats.

     “Approximately six hours ago we stopped receiving signals from Earth Control. The orbiter crew is reporting the same break in communications. Neither base has been able to establish a cause but we’ve been able to rule out the most obvious problems at our end. We don’t have any reason, at the moment, to suppose this is anything other than a technical glitch that will be sorted out by Earth Control; I propose we stick with existing protocols and to continue the mission schedule as planned.”

     The crew nodded automatically. They were all used to taking Arsenyev’s orders without comment.

     “I want to make one exception,” the commander went on. “I want Chen and Yohan to devote some of their time to working with Maheesh on this problem. I’ll post a revised rota for domestic chores, I’m afraid the rest of you will have to pick up some of the slack.”

     Brinkmann, the German geologist, groaned theatrically and the rest of the crew laughed, releasing the tension they all felt. Even the commander grinned, briefly.

*

Chen was sitting on the edge of the bed when Brad knocked lightly on the door and stepped inside. Chen shuffled up and Brad sat beside him, kissing him softly. Chen ran his fingers across Brad’s cheek and into his tightly-curled hair.

     “You need a shave,” Chen said when they eventually pulled apart.

     “That’s not all I need.”

     Chen smiled and they kissed again.

     They made love quietly, as was their habit. They didn’t suppose any of the rest of the crew would have cared much but they’d made the decision to keep their affair to themselves almost unconsciously. Privacy was a rare commodity on the base, so to have something that was theirs’ alone was precious and part of the pleasure. But, also, Brad was married with children and neither of them had ever pretended that the relationship had a life beyond the mission.

     It was fun but it was best to be discreet.

     Later, Chen lay with his back to Brad, enjoying the heat of the other man’s chest pressed against him in the narrow bunk and the security of being wrapped in his heavy arms. He marvelled, again, at the contrast between his own pale, narrow fingers and Brad’s teak-stained hands, which seemed massive by comparison.

     “What do you think has happened?” Brad said.

     Chen shrugged, knowing instantly what he was talking about. They’d spent two days and two nights trying to re-establish contact with Earth Control, so far to no effect. The longer the problem persisted the more it began to fill up the thoughts of the crew. Chen suspected that Maheesh had been right from the start, there was no problem at their end, but he was also coming to suspect that whatever had gone wrong was much more than a simple malfunction at Earth Control.

     “I thought it might be someone’s idea of an exercise. Control is always throwing us curveballs to keep us on our toes, but they wouldn’t have stretched things this long without letting the Commander in on their games.”

     “Do you think it…” Brad trailed off, unable to bring himself to say what he was thinking.

     Chen’s mind had started conjuring up disaster scenarios almost from the moment they’d learned about the breakdown and they had been growing bigger and more intricate ever since. He assumed that was true for everyone.

     Chen shuffled around in the bed, turning awkwardly to face Brad, and rested his palm against the bigger man’s chest.

     “We don’t know anything,” he said. “The simplest explanation is that it’s a technical fault, and Occam’s Razor is usually the best rule to follow.”

     Brad bowed his head and Chen leaned forwards and kissed him on the forehead.

*

Maheesh was sitting at the communications console. Chen wasn’t sure, in the four days since they’d lost contact with Earth Control, whether he’d seen the soft-faced engineer move from that desk for longer than it took him to walk the length of the living quarters to the lavatory and back. Yohan was outside working on the communications array and swearing softly at his colleagues through his suit radio. Most of the swearing was in French but every now and then Yohan got creative and threw some English and Russian into the mix. Chen was working on the code for the communications software.

     An hour passed, Yohan completed his checks and came back into the base, his Tt-shirt sweat stained and his mood foul. The communications room was cramped and hot with the three of them in there, and it was doing nothing for their tempers. They ran some more tests.

     “Nothing!” Maheesh sat back and slammed both hands down onto his desk, sending the accumulated detritus of their work marathon—coffee cups, paper, food packaging—swishing and clattering to the floor. “There is nothing wrong.”

     “Maheesh?” Commander Arsenyev stood in the doorway. His expression was firm but something in the way he took half a step forward suggested concern. Chen noted that he’d taken to wearing the formal mission uniform. His blue overalls were spotlessly clean and neatly pressed.

     Maheesh straightened up.

     “Yes, commander?”

     “I take it things are not going well?” The commander smiled gently.

     Maheesh snorted. “We’ve replaced every component from here to the satellite dish. The satellite is responding, but beyond that is a black hole.”

     “Are you ready to take down the filters?”

     Maheesh looked at Chen.

     “Yes, commander,” Chen said. “But I’m not sure it will make any difference.”

     “Can it hurt to try?” Arsenyev flashed a smile.

     “No, commander.”

     “Okay then,.” Arsenyev leant against the door jamb. If he was tense, there was no sign of it. “Let’s do it.”

     Maheesh spoke briefly to the crew on the orbiter base, letting them know comms was going offline, then nodded. Chen took his cue and, with couple of taps on the screen and a rattle on the keyboard, he shut down the base’s communications software, changed the system settings and flicked away a cloud of warning dialogue boxes. He hit the power button.

     “Resetting the system,” he said.

     They waited for a moment.

     White text scrolled down the black screen as the system re-initialised. Chen watched carefully as the code slipped past. The screen blanked for a moment and then the operating system popped into life with a soft chime. The communications software interface came online. Chen checked it carefully then looked up at Commander Arsenyev.

     “Filters have been removed. The buffer was empty, and has been disabled. It contained no incoming messages. We have direct access to the satellite.”

     “Thank you, Chen,” Arsenyev smiled. “Maheesh?”

     But Maheesh was already eagerly battering his keyboard with heavy fingers.

     They waited, but it didn’t take long and Maheesh didn’t have to say anything. They could see his shoulders slump as his hope and enthusiasm quickly faded.

     Commander Arsenyev didn’t wait for Maheesh to turn around.

     “I think we need another crew meeting,” he said, turning to leave the communications room, and climb through the tunnel back towards the living quarters. “Get in touch with the orbiter and arrange a link up.”

     “Commander?” Yohan spoke softly. Arsenyev stopped but didn’t turn around.      “Commander, we need to discuss the protocols.”

     It was Arsenyev’s turn to allow his shoulders to slump slightly. He raised a hand and rested it on the back of his neck.

     “I know.”

*

The meeting had gone badly. The crew had split three ways over the crisis. The Americans—Brad, the red-headed engineer Killen, and Harding, the commander of the orbiter crew, all wanted to take action now. Brinkmann sided with the Americans. The Russians, led by the commander, with the base doctor Komolov and Manev on the orbiter argued that they had air, food, power and water for as long as they needed it and that it made sense to sit tight and keep to the mission profiles. Maheesh sided with them. Chen, Yohan and the Englishman, Bryant, also on the orbiter, found themselves caught in the middle.

     The dread that had been gestating inside every member of the crew over the last four days began to push its way to the surface as the debate went on. After forty minutes of increasingly pointless bickering, it exploded into the room in bright bursts of rage and recrimination.

     Chen had found himself the focus of the Americans’ anger when it became clear they weren’t going to get their way. Although he was officially on the mission as an Italian citizen he had been educated at MIT and had worked at NASA before joining the European astronaut programme. The Americans had assumed he would be on their side. Killen had said some nasty things.

     Commander Arsenyev had been forced to end things by restating his ultimate authority and making it clear that, for now, the mission protocols remained in place. Nobody had been satisfied. The commander’s final words were firm but it was clear he was disappointed with the way things had gone. Harding, however, had been furious and had cut off the orbiter link with a snap.

     Afterwards, Chen went to the gym.

     He turned on the treadmill, starting slowly but steadily ramping up the pace until he was working hard, feeling sweat prickle his forehead. Soon he was in a rhythm and the regular beat of his feet on the rolling track began to soothe him.

     He was just passing the six-kilometres mark when Brad slipped into the room, closing the door behind him. Chen signalled his friend to wait and changed the programme, finishing his run with a brief sprint before winding down to a gentle halt.

     Chen grabbed a towel and took a long drink from his bottle. Brad had stayed by the door, leaning against it, his hands behind his back.

     “What’s up?” Chen walked over and, rising up on his toes, kissed Brad lightly.    Brad didn’t respond.

     Chen stepped back.

     “Brad?”

     “Why are you doing this?”

     Chen was startled by the coldness in Brad’s eyes and the harsh edge to his voice.

     “I don’t—”

     “I can’t believe you’d be so selfish.,” Brad cut him off.

     Chen wiped the sweat from the back of his neck, draping the towel around his shoulders.

     “Don’t. Brad, please.” Chen wanted to go, to get back to his room, lock the door and pretend this wasn’t happening. He tried to get around Brad but the bigger man grabbed him by the arms and shoved him back across the room, pressing him against the cool outer wall. Brad’s grip was powerful and Chen had to force down a yelp of pain.

     “You can’t keep me here,” Brad said. “I have to get home.”

     Chen refused to meet Brad’s gaze. He just stood there.

     “I have a wife and daughters,” Brad’s voice was rising. “We don’t know what’s happened to them.”

     Chen said nothing.

     Brad released him with a shove.

     “Damn you!”

     “Brad…”

     Brad raised his hand, clenched into a fist, but didn’t strike. There were tears in his eyes.

     “Brad, you know I’m not trying to keep you here,” Chen said. “Even if I wanted to keep you away from your wife—and I don’t—I wouldn’t let that get in the way of making the right decision now. Our lives might depend on this.”

     “I’m scared,” Brad said.

     That caught Chen by surprise. Fear wasn’t something any astronaut liked to admit. You left fear behind in training, that’s what they said. Brad caught the change in Chen’s expression.

     “Not for me,” he said. “My girls…”

     “I know,” Chen said, and then regretted it. They both knew Chen didn’t know what it was like to have kids. “But we don’t have enough information to make any decisions yet. We don’t even know if there’s anything really wrong.”

     “We can’t just sit here and do nothing.”

     Brad turned away. Chen raised a hand to rest on his shoulder, but stopped himself. His hand hovered over his lover like a benediction.

      “Yes we can. We have to,” Chen said. “Anything else could be suicide.”

     “Harding said—”

     “I heard what he said, but what if he’s wrong? What if it is just a glitch and all Harding’s half-thought-through bravado achieves is to leave your girls without a father?”

     Brad slumped onto the bench used for lifting weights. He sat, head down, his elbows resting on his knees, his palms together as though in prayer.

     “Komolov said something to me earlier,” Chen said. “He said the difference between Americans and Russians is that when the Americans went west to find their wild frontier they found Iowa and California and they conquered it and tamed it. When Russians went East they found Siberia and it was never conquered and never tamed,; they could only ever come to a compromise with the land.”

     “What the hell are you talking about?” Brad looked up. The anger was draining from him and, perhaps despite himself, a smile flickered on his lips.

     “Komolov was saying that Americans expect to conquer everything. Russians expect to live with it. The Russians will wait things out, wear things down and survive. Americans want to do everything now. They expect to keep moving forward.”

     “And you?”

     “Well, my Chinese grandma had an old saying—”

     “Chen!”

     “No, really, she always said: Qí lǘ zhǎo mǎ!”

     “What the hell does that mean?”

     “I have no idea, I grew up in Florence.”

     Brad laughed. Chen liked that sound. He sat beside Brad on the bench, resting a hand on the other man’s knee. Brad tensed for a moment, then relaxed and put his hand over Chen’s.

     “The translation is something like: when you go looking for a new horse, ride the mule you already own.”

     Brad stared blankly at him.

     “It means that even when you’re looking for something better, you shouldn’t neglect what you’ve already got,.” Chen nudged him back. “We’re safe here. We have time. We’ll work out what’s happening. But we can’t do just something stupid because we’re scared. We mustn’t panic. We’re no use to anyone—neither your daughters nor to my father—if we’re dead.”

     Brad bowed his head again and clenched and unclenched his fists then he leant over and kissed Chen on the cheek, but there was sadness in his eyes.

     “You might be right,” he said. “But I don’t think it will matter.”

*

The crew argued amongst themselves for another week. The European team wavered back and forth, unable to agree a joint position and caught between two blocs who seemed unshakeable in their determination to follow different paths.

     In the end it was the orbiter crew who broke the deadlock and shattered the mission protocols.

     It was just after midday on the tenth day of radio silence when Chen, not long after finishing a nightshift in the comms room, was woken by shouting in the corridor outside his room. He staggered drowsily to his door and looked out to see Komolov, the Russian doctor, red-faced and screaming insults in a crude mix of Russian and English. It took another few moments for Chen to recognise the object of the doctor’s tirade.

     It was Harding, the American commander of the orbiter base. Behind him trailed a sheepish looking Bryant and, further back, Manev stood with his head bowed as though in shame.

     Chen could smell something familiar but it took a moment to place it. It was soft, damp earth. They hadn’t smelt that since the mission had started nearly four hundred days ago. Then he noticed the breeze. The airlock doors were open.

     Komolov was still shouting, but there were less swear words now and he was being more coherent—though he was still switching freely between English and Russian. Chen caught the words contamination and breach.

     Brad and Killen came out of their rooms. They were both dressed in uniform. Chen tried to catch Brad’s eye but he looked away, embarrassed or ashamed.

     He knew, Chen thought. He knew and he didn’t tell me.

     Chen was surprised by the intense and intimate sense of betrayal that swept through his body.

     Harding nodded towards his countrymen but ignored Komolov as he made his way towards Commander Arsenyev’s room. His expression revealed no emotion but there was something triumphant in his movements and the way he threw back his shoulders.

     Komolov stepped in front of the American and tried to shove him back up the corridor, towards the airlock.

     Harding, bull-chested, thick-shouldered and blunt-headed, didn’t even take a step back. The look on his face remained blankly calm but he brought his fist up fast and hard into Komolov’s midriff. The Russian gasped and doubled over. Harding walked past him.

     Commander Arsenyev’s door swung open.

     The old man stood there. He was in uniform. His mouth was a thin line of contempt, his blue eyes glacial. He took in the doubled up Komolov and the swaggering Harding.

     “Idiot!”

     “I think we need to reconsider the mission protocols,” Harding said. His tone was flat but there was a noticeable pause before he added: “Sir.”

*

Chen closed the airlock door. Killen snorted something about that horse having bolted, but it made Chen feel better. Even so, he knew there was no going back to their cosy old routines now. They gathered in the dining hall. The Russians hugged one wall, the Americans the other. The Europeans sat at the table. No one spoke.

     Eventually Arsenyev and Harding came in. Harding looked pleased with himself.

     They both sat at the head of table.

     “We have decided—” Harding started.

     Commander Arsenyev lowered a hand onto the table, palm down. It was a slow movement but it drew the attention of the rest of the crew. Harding, noticing that he’d lost his audience, stopped and turned to the commander. Then he nodded and sat back.

     Commander Arsenyev smoothed the front of his uniform, pausing for a moment over the roundel of his mission badge—a red Mars encircled by eagle wings. The word Pathfinders picked out in gold letters with translations in Russian, German, French, Italian, and Urdu running around the circumference. The commander looked up, taking in each member of the crew. Chen noticed that many of them could not meet his gaze, only Killen looked him squarely in the eye.

     Harding shifted impatiently as the silence lengthened. At last the commander spoke.

     “The ongoing communications situation and the…” the hesitation was brief but pointed, “… action by the orbiter crew requires us to reconsider our situation. It seems clear that the mission protocols are no longer relevant and there is nothing in the emergency mission procedures that covers our current situation. I have agreed to Commander Harding’s request to bring you together so we can discuss our next step.”

     Harding tapped on the tablet in front of him and an image blinked to life on the wall. There was a map. Ross Island, McMurdo Sound and the dry valleys. A red line tracked a route from the Mars Base, in Beacon Valley, an isolated outcropping of rock to the east, down the Ferrar Glacier across the New Zealand territory via Lake Fryxell and down to the coast via Camp Chocolate, the Bratina Island Refuge and then over the ice shelf to McMurdo. Having reached its destination the red line reset and started all over again. It looked so simple.

     “I propose that we make for the base at McMurdo and—”

     “How far is that?” Komolov asked.

     Harding’s irritation at the interruption was obvious. He looked over his shoulder to the map.

     “On foot, if we don’t get too sidetracked on the glacier, about one hundred and eighty miles.”

     Brinkmann whistled.

     Komolov sat back and folded his arms.

     “With winter closing in?”

     “You’d rather wait six months for the possibility of nicer weather?”

     “How long do you think it will take?” Yohan asked.

     “I believe we can make at least ten miles a day,” Harding said. “We managed the four-mile crossing from the orbiter base in five hours.”

     Chen shook his head.

     “We can build sleds, our suits are insulated, we have emergency survival gear.”

     “And what happens when you get there?” Yohan asked.

     “We get in touch with home. We find out what is going on.”

     “There’s no one there,” Maheesh said.

     Attentions shifted. Maheesh kept his gaze on the table, refusing to look up.

     “You can’t know that,” Harding said.

     “There’s no one there,” Maheesh repeated. He put his own tablet on the table and started an audio recording that played over the room’s speakers. “This is from McMurdo, five days ago.”

     There was a muffled sound. It might have been the wind or it might have been someone sobbing. Then there was a crack that could have been a gunshot or a door slamming and then there was silence.

     “The radio channel is still open, there’s power, but no one is broadcasting.”

Suddenly everyone was shouting.

     Chen looked to Commander Arsenyev. He did not look surprised.

     “Where did you get that?” Chen asked.

     Maheesh cocked his head, unable to hear over the noise.

     “Where did you get that?” Chen shouted. The others turned their attention back to the table. Everyone looked at Maheesh.

     “I instructed him to use the emergency short wave radio,” Commander Arsenyev’s spoke softly but everyone heard him.

     “Radio?” Harding voiced was suddenly high pitched. “Why didn’t you tell us there was a radio?”

     “There wasn’t any point,” Maheesh said. “I tried to contact the other bases—”

     “We should have been told!” Killen was leaning over Maheesh, practically screaming into his face.

     “He was acting on my request,.” Commander Arsenyev stood up and raised his voice just a notch. It was enough to restore a semblance of order. “The radio was provided for use in an emergency. When we shut down the buffers on the communications array and still could not contact mission control, I gave Maheesh permission to use the radio to try and contact the local bases. I asked him to keep the recording secret because I didn’t want to damage morale.”

     “Damage morale?” Harding stood up. “So what was your plan? Were you going to lie to us forever? Or did you only care about keeping your little empire in one piece?”

     “I was going to tell you when we understood what it meant,” Arsenyev said. He sat down again,and began to gently massage his temples. There was something very like resignation in his voice. “Something bad has happened and it has happened quickly over a very wide area. The radio is picking up nothing except some official automated alerts and the occasional number station, which I’m also assuming are automated. There was nothing to report and little to be gained from further feeding all the useless speculation that has been going on.”

     Harding walked to the door of the living quarters.

     “You should have told us,” he said, and left.

     Killen, Brinkmann, Bryant and Yohan followed.

     Brad paused to look at Chen.

     Chen shook his head. Where was there to go?

     Brad left.

*

Three days later, the three Americans and three Europeans left Mars Base to make for McMurdo. They’d decided amongst themselves that the radio communication changed nothing. They needed to know what was happening. There were some angry exchanges about the division of equipment and food but Chen kept to his room. Brad did not visit him.

     Yohan and Bryant visited him once and tried to convince him to come with them. Chen wished them luck, but said no.

     On the final morning, Chen helped with some minor changes to the communications software. As the time for their departure approached resentments cooled and some of the group’s old camaraderie re-emerged. The Russians and Europeans exchanged hugs, and Harding shook hands with Arsenyev and said he was sorry about how things worked out.

     Brad and Killen stood apart from the rest and did not speak to anyone.

     The commander wished them all good luck, and then the Russians went inside and Maheesh followed.

     Chen watched them walk across the rocky, broken floor of the dry valley towards the distant white line that was the glacier. It was early and the sun had yet to rise above the wall of their valley but the ice was already bathed in morning light.

     Their progress was slow. They would dip down out of sight and then rise again on the undulating landscape, each time slightly further away, slightly smaller. And then they were gone again.

     Chen watched, but Brad never turned to look back.

*

They stayed in contact for almost a week using the base’s communication system before they were out of range and the signal faded. When they reached Lake Fryxell they got in contact again using the research base radio. The camp was deserted, but that was normal with winter edging in. There was still no response from McMurdo.

     They got in touch again when they reached Cape Chocolate.

     The weather was worsening and they spent three days in the small refuge; it was cramped but they were in good spirits. They were making better time than expected and though the huts, which weren’t in regular use, were battered, they were intact and offered good protection.

     On the fourth morning the weather cleared and Chen listened over Maheesh’s shoulder as they got ready to make for the Bratina Island Refuge.

     Chen heard Brad laughing in the background. It made him smile.

     They never heard from them again.

*

“We’re almost finished,” Chen said as he came in to the living quarters. “Komolov asked if you’d like to say a few words?”

     Commander Arsenyev didn’t look up but he nodded. He’d been sitting with the lights off, his face lit from below by the tablet screen he was pretending to read.

     They were silent for a while. Chen drank a glass of water and tossed a meal pack into the oven—he didn’t even bother to check what was inside. He watched it slowly turning and then, when the oven pinged, he ate it from the packaging, standing up, leaning against the work surfaces. The food was salty and sour, the chicken rubbery and the vegetables overcooked.

     Eventually the food was gone. Chen waited a little longer then turned to go.

     “Do you miss Flight Engineer Washington?” Arsenyev said.

     Washington? Chen had to stop to think who the old man meant.

     “I miss them all,” Chen said. “I miss Brad.”

     “You were close.” Arsenyev looked up. The light from the tablet screen highlighted every crease and wrinkle on his face. The Commander looked tired, he had become very old in the six weeks since they’d last heard from the rest of the crew.

     Chen nodded.

     “I miss them all too,” Arsenyev said. “Do you suppose there are others, like us, waiting?”

     Chen came back and sat next to the Commander.

     “There must be.”

     “You are an optimist,” Commander Arsenyev smiled and patted him on the shoulder.

     “Maheesh thought he’d picked up faint signals,” Chen said. “People babbling in languages he couldn’t understand.”

     “Maheesh was working too hard,” Arsenyev said.

     “Did he say why he did it?” Chen nodded to Arsenyev’s screen. Maheesh had left a message for the commander’s eyes only before he’d opened his wrists.

     “No,” Arsenyev said. “He just wanted to say goodbye.”

     A deeper loss revealed itself on the commander’s face. Chen felt a sudden shock of recognition.

     “You and Maheesh?”

     “If I had not been commander…” Arsenyev smiled but shook his head. “But I have always been too ambitious…”

     “Ambitious?” Chen couldn’t imagine what the commander still hoped to achieve.

     “They promised me Mars. It would be a one-way ticket, just me and some equally useless old American, sacrificed to beat the Chinese. But Mars!”

     It seemed as if a new light had been ignited behind the commander’s eyes. For a moment the old man was gone and the cosmonaut re-emerged.

     “But what about the base? Our mission?”

     “This? This was always impossible! This is all far too grand and too expensive for these mean times. This was a show, a distraction. But I don’t suppose it matters. None of us shall touch that rusty soil now.”

     The old man coughed. He was suddenly frail again.

     “All my life, I dreamed of space,” the commander said.

*

The Russians settled in to wait, a routine took shape and weeks passed. They monitored the radio in shifts, they ate meals together and watched films—though most of the Russian films left Chen bewildered, even with Manev’s running commentaries. They even kept some of the science projects going, though the solar collector was quietly abandoned without discussion or protest.

     Then one morning the commander did not wake up.

     Chen helped Manev carry the body outside. The old man seemed weightless and Chen had thought of the buzzard he’d once found injured and stunned beneath an electricity pylon in his father’s fields. Chen had marvelled at how something so huge and fierce could be so insubstantial. His father had scolded him for bringing the wounded bird to the house, blaming it for killing his lambs, and broke the raptor’s neck.

     They laid Arsenyev next to Maheesh. The ground was too hard to dig a grave, so they covered the bodies with a cairn of stones. No one spoke.

     When they went inside Komolov pulled out a bottle vodka. He said it was medicinal. Chen sipped from his glass while watching the Russians get drunk, sing old songs and then slump into sleep.

The door of the airlock rolled open. The wind, cold as a blade, sliced through Chen and he began to shiver at once. It was dark outside. The days were shortening fast and, though it was still early in the afternoon, the sun had long dipped below the valley walls.

     He stepped out onto the valley floor.

     The sky was bright and clear.

     Chen tried to ignore the cold but it was already biting hard at his nose and fingers, the wind ripped at his flimsy blue overalls. His feet numbed, the frozen ground sucking the heat from his body. It took a conscious effort to control his breathing, the air was so sharp that he gasped with each breath and wondered if his lungs might freeze and shatter. The shivering shook his whole body. Chen wrapped his arms around his ribs.

     He looked up and took a moment to identify some of the unfamiliar southern constellations. There was Centaurus and Reticulum and the Southern Cross. The syrupy band of the Milky Way was a reassuringly familiar blanket. He would have liked to look at the Moon once more, but it had not yet risen. He couldn’t see Mars.

     He thought of Brad, out there. Would the ice preserve his body? There was a kind of immortality in that, and yet it seemed impossible to Chen that the last heat might have been sucked from that broad chest. It was ridiculous that those powerful arms might be forever still.

     Chen wondered how quickly his tears would freeze. How soon would grief blind him?

     He turned away from the stars and walked into the night. He found that being alone was not so frightening. He felt as though he was emerging from a deep cave that had kept him safe and warm but that had also kept him in the dark and had prevented him from seeing the world as it really was. Everything that had gone before had been fake, shadows flickering on a wall.

     He stumbled over a rock, but kept walking.

     How far could he go?

     Chen looked up at the stars one last time and smiled.

“Pathfinders” was first published in Rocket Science: Science Fiction and Fact, published by Mutation Press, edited by Ian Sales

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