Jeff VanderMeer
Dead Astronauts


“Anything is better.”

But without the Company, they could not have fought the Company.

But this made them at times suspicious of their own three selves.

But they had no choice now but to go on.

In this version, birdsong filled the City, but it was just an echo of nanites created to give the illusion of bird life through ghost calls.

“What will you miss?” Grayson would ask, already knew the answer.

I’ll miss you.

vi.

no one should feel responsible

for the whole world

Grayson’s past lay very far from home, always sending data and signals without knowing if they made it back. Just one of three vessels forging ahead. Two destroyed by asteroid strike. Her crew dead from all the ways space could murder you: lack of resources, bad decisions, disease, freak injury, the cosmic scale, sun flares, infighting.

Reaching the outermost point, or at least the farthest Grayson could bear. In a suit, looking at rock, rock underfoot. Caressed the outline with one thick glove. Unsure if the formation was the fossil of some alien intelligence, the suggestion of a helmet, of a face. Or just a coincidence, an outline she wanted to see. Would never know.

Feeling in an irrational way that she was looking at her fate if she continued outward bound. Weary. Sick of no grass, no trees. No horizon other than the dark or artificial light. Paltry samples. Paltry evidence.

Knowing that humanity was alone. That even a sea of water could not produce advanced life-forms unless the exact conditions were right. That she didn’t in the end care for the microscopic depiction of life. That bacteria warring with bacteria could not evoke in her any kind of awe, that she should stop taking samples of water traces.

She tried to feel for a tremor or warmth in the stone beneath her glove, but the fabric was too thick for anything but the pulse of her own breathing.

Time to return.

Only to then spend a century finding her way home, through all the strange wormholes in the universe. Come to think of it as a useless mission. Come to think of herself as a ghost during that time, lost among the stars and star matter, haunting herself, haunting dead space, haunted by her many selves. Left behind: the dead crew, buried beside the fossil that might be in her head.

Did she deserve to live after the death of her crew? She had no answer, had decided for no good reason that the atoms of which she was made were not yet ready to disperse to form someone or something else.

Thus, Grayson wandered alone and in her own thoughts, at times in danger and at times held in thrall to such cosmic places full of wary (cold) wonder that she could not find the words, and so words fell away from her for a time … because they were useless.

Fell away along with so much else that by the time she found the moon base, she would not have recognized rescuers as fellow human beings.

If there had been anyone living on the moon base.

If it wasn’t clear all the astronauts were dead.

If she hadn’t known home still lay below her.

Grayson returned to a version of the City that held no life. The blackened, flame-eaten forms of people and animals were strewn everywhere. Caught in mid-flight or huddled in corners. The runneling of flesh that forced some flush against the ground, as if returning to the earth might save them.

Fire and chemicals formed a kind of haze over the bodies, an unholy mist. Hiding and revealing and hiding again as it lingered over the dead. As if the Company had sent the mist to hide its crimes.

Roamed that landscape in shock, unaware of just how much time had passed since she had gone into space. Roamed the City as an astronaut might, still in her suit, in constant contact with the life pod.

Grayson had had perhaps a decade of solitude and air left at the base to look down on Earth’s ravaged face and try to convince herself that all would one day be better. But instead she’d returned to Earth, burning enough of the pod’s remaining fuel on reentry that she could never go back. Her reasons were sound enough: She felt too alone, more alone than just being one person. Too much carnage in memoriam there.

Eye reporting data dispassionate, she had sorted through the City’s wreckage much as a parent might go through a child’s messy room. A child missing or passed away. What was valuable. What had been cast aside. What overused. But unable to put it back in order.

In space, discipline meant life or death. Here, there had been no penalty for freedom until the end.

In the twisted remains of the Company building, Grayson found evidence that some had survived and fled west. So she had taken her life pod west, headed for the coast, adrift and aimless. Or maybe not so aimless. What Grayson had planned to do there, she did not know. Perhaps she would have explored until the pod’s fuel ran out. Perhaps she planned to die. Perhaps she had some better idea that never came to pass.

But it was there she found a treasure, beneath the broken pink stucco archway that once greeted tourists to a marine amusement park. In its crumbling state, the broken-down cement walls and rising seas had conspired to create artificial tidal pools full of strange life.

Tending to them was Moss.

Grayson found Moss early in the morning, the air fresh enough that she had taken off her helmet. Moss crouched by a tidal pool, cataloging its contents, regulating temperature, encouraging some organisms, discouraging others.

Moss presented ethereal. She presented as naïve, with green eyes that blazed at Grayson as she turned from her crouch, startled at the appearance of this sudden visitor.

Moss had not spoken to another person for months. Grayson recognized a fellow explorer; she saw in those tidal pools an infinity. Stars reflected there.

“You don’t come back often,” Moss said. “Sometimes I search for you. But most times you die up there.”

“I don’t know what that means.” Soon enough, she would.

“And I’m sorry,” Moss said. Staring so nakedly at Grayson that she looked away.

“For what?”

“That you’ve seen so much you loved destroyed.”

“Hasn’t everyone.”

“You’re an astronaut,” Moss said, turning back to her work. “The scale is different.”

“We each handle what we can.”

“No one should have to feel responsible for the entire world.”

Grayson had no answer to that. She considered Moss again. There was a hard edge to Moss, she decided, despite her empathy. What some might call hidden depths. Nothing simple about a person who loved the sea so much she couldn’t live without it. Nothing simple about Moss, as Grayson discovered over the next few weeks: cheerful, bright-eyed, optimistic. All of that was difficult; pessimism was easy.

But Moss was purely tactical, tending to her tidal pools. Perhaps Grayson could convince her to be strategic. Once she understood the woman. Although, for a time, it was Moss who convinced Grayson. For a time, Grayson was content living by the sea.

That first day, when Grayson couldn’t meet Moss’s gaze, she already knew she had fallen in love. Didn’t know Moss had taken human form that first day just for her.

And, in the end, it was Moss who found the way, who had always known the way.

Who was the way.

vii.