illustration by Jeff Ward

To Touch The Sun Before It Fades

Aimee Ogden

Science often requires great sacrifices, and the quest for discovery and knowledge often takes a toll on relationships in the lives of scientists. Aimee Ogden's "To Touch The Sun Before it Fades" is set on Pluto—cold and distant—but the heart of the story is back home on Earth. I particularly like the way the triad family relationship complicates what could have been a more traditional narrative of loss.

Mariam watches a week of night roll toward her.

On Pluto, the Sun is only a spectacularly bright star. It’s easy to pick out, hanging low in the sky—only just visible in the domed window in the hub of Sagacity Station. If Mariam could reach up and hold back the Sun, if she could slow its progress down the sky, she would. She can’t, of course. Just another bead to add to the strand of impossibilities hung around her neck.

A scuff on the floor behind her breaks her gaze from the starfield overhead. Captain Valencia stands there, waiting. The pale fluorescent light from the station walls disappears into the hard, dark planes of his face. His forehead is Tombaugh Regio, the deep valleys of his cheeks are the shadows at the foot of Wright Mons. All the contrast of Pluto’s surface, but not nearly so cold. His eyes are molten puddles in the shadow of his brow and Mariam realizes he’s talking to her: “You don’t have to go out today. You can stay by the radio, if you like.”

She could. But she’s not sure what would be worse: to miss the call, out on the ice. Or to sit there with folded hands while the hours unwind, waiting for a message that never comes.

She’s not sure either that she even wants them to call right now. What could she possibly say to Jef and Baily? Her own husband and wife are very nearly strangers to her now. And what could she tell Annika: to buck up, be strong, stiff upper lip? Mariam doesn’t know how to talk to two-year-olds at all, let alone under such circumstances. There are no words that would help them right now anyway. Four billion miles between her and earth mean that she’s useless to them no matter what she does, no matter where she goes. They have each other, and that will have to be enough. Isn’t it? Sometimes Mariam thinks it’s too easy out here to let the distance and the silence speak for her. She is no better of a wife out here than she was back home.

But at least Mariam can help the rest of her crew today. That would be something of worth. “I’ll go out,” she says. Her voice is steady, and her gaze too. Valencia’s head jerks, a quick nod. For a moment she thinks he’s going to say something else, and she braces for impact. But then he turns his head and walks away, and air hisses from the seals in his helmet hisses as he snaps it into place.

Today is Char’s turn to stay behind at Sagacity, and they promise to patch any calls through if they do come in. Inside her helmet, Mariam nods, then realizes the gesture is invisible to Char. She thanks them for the gesture, but Char only shrugs her off. “It’s nothing,” they say, but that’s not true. Char’s good at knowing the right words, and reaches out to others when Mariam would stay quiet. Mariam has poured out enough silence over the years. She wonders how Char always just knows, but she has never found the words to ask.

Cool starlight rains down on the crew as they drift through the airlock and out into a Plutonian twilight. Cool starlight, and one frozen chip of sunlight mixed in with the rest as it slides down toward Pluto. Six days of day, then six of night; not that there’s much difference between night and day out here. The crew keeps Sagacity’s clocks set to the same time as what they left behind in Cape Canaveral, where it should currently be a hazy eighty-five degrees. Here, it’s two hundred and seventy-five below. Sometimes Mariam imagines what would happen if her suit ruptured. She pictures herself as a pillar of ice, tipping forward. When she shatters inside her suit, Pluto’s empty atmosphere does not carry the sound.

Mariam helps Captain Valencia and Yance pack the Pilgrim’s engines with frozen methane, and then buckles in for the rough ride over the frozen surface of Sputnik Planum. Where are Baily and Jef right now? What are they feeling? What were they doing four and a half hours ago? Mariam can’t imagine they would take the time to sit down by a microphone on the Cape. Not right now. She stares into the bright diamond of sunlight that hovers over the horizon and wonders if they’re thinking of her at all in those interstitial moments. She knows she’s thinking of them. But do they know that?

Captain Valencia and Yance want to check the cameras while they’re way out here on the plain anyway; Camera 7 has begun to tilt on its axis and needs to be stabilized if they’re going to capture the glacier flow that Mission Command is so keen on. They find the entire apparatus listing pitifully. One of the joints in a tripod leg refuses to latch. Yance blames the cold, the shoddy manufacturing, the quality of the materials, the long transit from Earth. Anything could have caused it—a simple accident, a stupid trick of fate. But Yance fixes it ably enough. Mariam stands off to the side and looks up at the stars while Valencia helps Yance align the camera to get the desired view across the face of the glacier. The ice flows too slowly for Mariam’s eyes too see, but the camera’s patience is infinite.

They climb back into the Pilgrim and set off. Mariam’s teeth rattle together with the motion. The teeth lining the Pilgrim’s treads dig into the ice beneath, grinding away with the forward movement. The treads cling to Pluto’s implacable face, lest a bad bounce send the rover and its cargo flying astray in the microgravity. Mariam focuses on the off-kilter rhythm of the Pilgrim beneath her, and not on the pervasive cold.

And not on Baily and Jef, their soft warm arms, the press of hot bodies in a bed only just big enough for the three of them. The too-small Orlando apartment that was never in all their time together too cold. Far too small a world to bring a child into, she thinks, then flinches away from that thought before it has a chance to burn. It takes four and a half hours for radio signals to travel all the way from Earth, but pain jolts along those billions of miles in half a second.

Unloading the equipment at the designated drill site on the plain relieves the ache in Mariam’s belly. Distracts her from it, at least. Mariam sucks water out of the straw inside her helmet once the drill is in place; her stomach refuses an attempt to suck down the apricot-flavored paste from the food tube. She checks the sun’s position before turning on the drill to take her first sample. Then the vibration of the drill, buzzing through the ice under Mariam’s feet and up into the hollow space under her ribcage, drums out the thoughts in her head.

The drill yields an ice core sample two meters long and eight centimeters in diameter. Old ice, laid deep. Mariam will figure out just how old it might be based on what kinds of deposits it contains, based on the secret folds and faults that lie hidden inside. A message from Pluto’s past, and a heavy one at that. It takes her, Valencia, and Yance all working together to maneuver it onto the back of the sledge. They take three more samples altogether. Mariam straightens her back after the last one is secured onto the Pilgrim, and scans the horizon.

The sun is gone.

Mariam’s knees tremble. She locks them in place and checks the display inside her helmet in case she missed a call from Char. Nothing.

Six days of Pluto’s slow-turning bulk with its back turned to home, to sunlight, to Jef and Baily. Six days of radio silence. Six days is forever, because in six days it will be too late to say goodbye.

Not the first thing Mariam has missed on the five-year-long mission, won’t be the last, but it will be the worst. Five years out and back: a lifetime. Not Mariam’s lifetime, not Jef’s or Baily’s. Annika’s lifetime.

Mariam follow Valencia and Yance up into the Pilgrim, checks that the samples are properly secured. Inside her helmet, tears carve lines down her face. They feel cold enough to freeze, but of course they won’t, and she can’t wipe them away. They evaporate slowly into the dry air in her helmet and leave salt tracks on her face as the Pilgrim shudders to life beneath her feet.

“Lieutenant,” says Valencia. His voice snaps across the radio in her helmet. “Buckle in.” Mariam complies.

“Maybe there’ll be a message waiting for you on the other side,” says Yance, over the open channel between the three of them. Mariam looks at the back of her helmet. That’s all she can see of Yance; the rest is hidden behind the driver’s seat. “I’m sure they’ll get something queued up for once we cutover again.”

Valencia tells Yance to focus on driving.

Mariam stares out at the twin beams streaming from the Pilgrim’s headlamps. She searches for answers, and when there are none to be had, she searches for questions. But there is nothing out there but the white gleam of light on the empty plains, punctuated by the odd long dark streak. Pluto’s bones.

The ride back to Sagacity is silent. Once the airlock cycles them through, Captain Valencia pulls off his helmet and waits for her to take off hers before he says, “I’m sorry, lieutenant. I know what she meant to you.” Does he? Mariam isn’t sure she does.

She puts away her spacesuit and retreats to her pod, where pictures flicker on the wall. Some are old, and some are newer, beamed along a radio wave to Mariam during her journey out into the universe. Here is her and Baily and Jef at city hall, signing the paperwork; Baily and Mariam have ribbons in their hair, and Jef’s only ornamentation is one of his rare smiles. Here is the party they threw when Mariam finished her PhD, all empty wine-boxes and streamers. And here is a newer picture, grainy from its flight across the solar system, of Baily’s big round belly and her big warm smile. And here is that baby, now an infant, now a toddler. Annika.

Annika is: two years old. Annika is: dark-haired like Mariam and tall like Jef and full of Baily’s smiles. Annika is: Mariam’s daughter, and she isn’t. Wasn’t. She’s Jef’s sperm, Baily’s womb, a host of chemicals and a small army of doctors. And of course Mariam’s egg, carefully collected and left behind in a lonely freezer.

But all that’s just the recipe, not the reality. To Annika, Jef and Baily are dad and mom. To Annika, Mariam is a crackle of sound, a glossy smile in the pictures taped to the apartment fridge.

And what is she to Jef and Baily now, frozen and far away?

They waited less than a year after Mariam left. Annika would have been four by the time she returned. Should have been. She couldn’t have turned down the trip, though. That would have meant kissing her career goodbye. Her work would not wait for her, but somehow she had thought her family could. Would hold still like a photograph, or the contents of a silent freezer. “Not much longer now,” was the last thing she’d heard from Baily. “A week, maybe less.” That was six days ago now, when Pluto had first rolled over to tentative daylight.

And now, six days of silence.

Was it Mariam who contributed the fatal flaw, or Jef? It shouldn’t matter, but of course it does. To Mariam, if not to the others. She could find the words to apologize for a crooked strand of DNA. The rest is so tangled, the threads of Jef and Baily and Annika’s lives twisted together and frozen in a core sample that goes all the way through Mariam. She doesn’t know what to say, and she needs someone else to say it first.

Why didn’t they call?

Mariam knows why. She knows that she’s a flickering candle in the incandescence of their grief. She knows that it’s wrong to resent the distance that she’s imposed, that she’s created. She resents it anyway.

The sky is dark through the little viewport in the curve of Mariam’s wall. Her fingers spread on the thick glass, cool despite the many layers of insulating gas between her and the vacuum outside. If she could have reached high enough to touch the sun before it faded—what then? From Pluto, the sun is scarcely a speck, but the Earth is missing entirely. And no one on that hot green-blue world can look up into the night sky and see Pluto’s frozen face, either.

Mariam reaches for her tablet, puts it on the desk in front of her. She wraps her arms around herself and closes her eyes. Words drag out of her slowly, chipped from the ice. Maybe the ice will melt one day, and maybe it won’t, but for now it’s enough to excavate what she needs. The words come out wrong, all wrong, but they come, and that’s all that matters. Mariam has six days to get them right.

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