Alexei and Alden stand at the porthole, eating freeze-dried ice-cream. The two men are naked apart from the magnetised boots that hold their feet to the floor. The unreal glow of the Horsehead Nebula streams through the triple-reinforced glass, bathing the fronts of their bodies in light, casting the rest into shadow. A faint smear of Alexei’s semen glistens on Alden’s belly.
‘Which one you like best?’ asks Alexei, crumbling ice-cream between his wide lips.
Alden squints at the purple diffusion of hydrogen gas swirling in space, the clouded mass of interstellar dust that resembles a rearing horse. In the twenty weeks they’ve spent up here, measuring the radiation emitted by collapsing stars, supernovae (though the finer points of their technical duties have been somewhat overlooked in recent weeks), they’ve seen so many wonders he feels he has lost the capacity to judge.
Alden touches his forehead to the glass. He stares at the universe. ‘I can hardly tell them apart anymore,’ he says. His breath mists the porthole. ‘Once you get past a certain stage, seeing beauty like we’ve seen, you reach a kind of saturation point. I don’t think I can say.’
‘No. Which ice-cream flavour you like?’ The burly cosmonaut starts to laugh. Specks of powder detach from his lips and spin frictionlessly away. Alden starts to laugh as well. He slips his fingers round the Russian’s waist, where the sweat has cooled.
Alexei heaves at the rowing machine while Alden checks the charts. Each man is wearing a white vest and a pair of lightweight, silvery trousers. Now and then Alden can’t resist looking up from the screen, his face awash with blue light, to watch Alexei’s arms at work, the muscle flowing beneath the skin, his jawbone’s perfect line.
When Alexei works out, Alden has observed, his eyes become immutably fixed on one or another opposite point: a distant star system, a bolt in the wall, once on the bump of Alden’s knee as he stood in the doorway, watching. The man’s concentration is absolute. He cannot be distracted.
‘You know how muscle builds up, right?’ Alden asks, watching the big man’s shoulders heave and roll, heave and roll.
Alexei’s brow wrinkles, he scowls, but he doesn’t break his rhythm.
‘You’re aware of the physiological process going on in your arms? You tear the tissue a little bit every time you pull. You gradually rip the muscle apart. And then new tissue grows to fill it in. The more you damage it, the more it grows.’
‘Body wastes quicker in space,’ grunts Alexei, pausing for a second to flick sweat off his brow. The sweat falls to the metal floor. The gravity is on. ‘Some spacemen, when they get up here, they let themselves go. I’ve seen it. Me, I like to stay strong. Disciplined is better.’
‘Disciplined, huh? Is that what you call it?’ grins Alden, moving close.
‘You think I work out in order to look good? Up here, where there’s no-one to see?’
There’s me, Alden thinks, but he doesn’t say it. Then he says it. ‘There’s me.’
‘You?’ says Alexei, heaving at the chain. ‘You, I think you have seen me already.’ He hurls himself into each pull as if he’s trying to escape his own body. His triceps look like the moving parts of some complicated instrument, a church organ made of muscle and bone, but the only two notes the organ can produce is the suck and whistle of his breath.
Alden listens to the cosmonaut’s fugue and returns to his screen. He cannot bring the data into focus. He is thinking of the power and concentration of Alexei’s stare. His vision is like a laser beam. That time his eyes fixed on his knee. As if it had been nailed to the wall. He almost expected scorching.
‘Seriously, which one you like best?’ Alexei’s voice rises from below, breaking the artificial silence of night. Alden is lying on the top bunk and Alexei is lying on the bottom. The bunks are so narrow and cramped the two men never think to share. Besides, it wouldn’t feel quite right, somehow.
‘Nebulae, or ice-cream now?’ Alden is almost asleep, about to start dreaming of trees and kites, things blowing around in the sky. Wind is something you don’t feel here. Wind is one of the few things he misses.
The lights are down, and the cabin is lit by the nebula’s eerie purple glow. At first they used to pull down the blinds to help maintain a notion of night, but lately they’ve taken to leaving them open, this protocol, like the rest, having diminished in importance now, so they can look out at the stars.
‘Most people, when they see pictures, they say they like Horsehead best. Horsehead is something that looks like something. It is something they recognise. But to me, it just looks like chess piece. Resembles only symbol of horse, not horse itself.’
Alden listens to the familiar voice, the only voice he has heard in twenty weeks. He can feel the deep bass rumble in the frame of the bed.
‘Al-den? Are you listening?’
‘I’m always listening,’ says Alden. He enjoys the way Alexei pronounces his name, splitting it into two parts. As if it is something to be divided, measured.
‘Same with Cat’s-Eye Nebula. Looks a bit like eye of cat, or maybe, the symbol of eye of cat. People down there, they are always trying to look for things they recognise. Saying this collection of stars is like bear. That one is like twins. Twins? Me, I always thought that was dumb. I could join them up myself and say it’s like submarine.’
His voice goes silent for a time. Alden wonders if he’s gone to sleep. He listens for the sound of his breathing, but can only hear the tiny clicks and muffled bleeps and hisses of the ship, sounds as familiar to him now as the Russian’s voice. Every single sound he hears he can trace back to its source. Every single sound happens for a reason.
‘Crab Nebula I like best,’ resumes Alexei, as if no time has passed. ‘You know why? You know why, Al-den?’
‘No,’ says Alden. ‘Tell me why.’
‘Because it doesn’t look like crab.’ Alexei sounds satisfied at this. There’s a soft thump from below as he rolls onto his side.
‘You know, when I was a kid,’ says Alden, ‘I preferred the clouds that didn’t look like anything. I guess that’s kind of the same thing. Seeing faces and animals and stuff made me feel kind of claustrophobic.’
‘So, which ice-cream flavour you like?’ Alden can tell from the sound of his voice that the Russian is grinning down there. This makes him grin as well. He pictures the lines around Alexei’s mouth, the feeling of his stubble.
‘They all taste like fucking chemicals. Which one do you like best?’
‘Raspberry ripple,’ says the Russian. ‘That one is the best.’
The two men make love without gravity, gently bumping off the walls. They schoon from the ceiling to the floor, getting wedged in the narrow doorways. They put the ship on standby mode, disconnect communications. There is no hurry up here. There’s no time at all.
The first few times, ridiculously, Alden found himself drawing the blinds before they took off their clothes. Alexei laughed so hard his belly shook. Now they do it in the nebula’s glow, in the pulsing luminescence of the stars. Sometimes Alden tries to calculate how long the light that illuminates them will take to travel back to Earth. Will people exist to see it then? Will there be anyone left to understand?
When Alexei comes, his semen forms a whirling galaxy of pearls, pale planets and moons, perfect spheres, finding their own orbits. Alden blows a stream of air to channel them this way and that. Sometimes he spends minutes at a time, until the globs are as cold as chilled water, arranging them in recognisable formations, to test the cosmonaut’s knowledge.
‘Which solar system does this represent?’
‘If that big one’s Jupiter, and that speck is Io, what’s this medium-sized one over here?’
Alexei laughs. ‘Do I look like God? Do you think I look like God, Al-den? If I’m God, what are you? You must be Holy Ghost.’
When Alden comes, it sometimes feels like the walls of the ship have disappeared. That everything is rushing out of him, into the vacuum of space.
If technology would only permit, Alden would like to make love outside the ship, their breaths clouding the screens of their helmets, surrounded by nothingness. But their suits haven’t been designed for this. The access points are in the wrong places. So they content themselves with mere floating, holding hands through bulky space-gloves, connected only by umbilical cords of air.
‘It’s always reminded me of frogspawn,’ says Alden once afterwards, sharing a thin regulation blanket that’s more like a paper tissue. ‘Come. It’s like frogspawn. Don’t you think?’
‘What is frogspawn?’ asks Alexei.
‘You know, the stuff that frogs produce. Eggs, I guess. It looks like the tapioca balls they put in pearl tea. You see it in ponds when you’re a kid. At least, you do when you’re a kid in the States.’
‘What is pearl tea?’ asks Alexei. He is resting his big head on the metal shelf that runs along the length of the bed. He has the ability to make himself comfortable in any situation.
‘Never mind,’ says Alden. ‘It’s just a thought.’ His own head is resting on Alexei’s stomach. He can feel the contraction and expansion of the muscle wall. He wonders if they have frogspawn in Russia. They must do. They must have frogs.
Back there on Earth, there’s a room somewhere in which the data they collect is compiled and analysed. Where streams of figures, binary-encoded, pour down flickering screens like rain. Teams of scientists translate these figures into graphs and models and charts, drawing conclusions about radiation, half-life, temperature, the speed of stars, the lifespan of planets, the collapse of galaxies. In deserts thousands of miles apart, in Kazakhstan and Nevada, combined control rooms make adjustments to the course of their ship measured in hundredths of degrees, where the slightest error could send them hurtling helplessly into space, into vast uncharted regions from which they would never return. Alden thinks about these things sometimes, but none of it seems real. He thinks about his old colleagues, his apartment, his neighbours, his dog Dog-Star, who’s in kennels now. None of that seems real either. He can hardly even remember the faces of his friends.
They are eating bowls of instant noodles at the brushed steel table. The noodles are topped with sliced carrots, pak choi, water chestnuts and rehydrated pork. All of it comes from shrink-wrapped packets with codes that indicate the day of consumption. There are little sachets of soy source. They eat the food with plastic chopsticks. This sort of thing is meant to provide variety, to stop them getting bored.
Alexei complains about the food, but Alden doesn’t mind it. These artificial meals don’t bother him. It isn’t really so different from what he eats at home.
‘You realise we’ve only got twenty days left?’ he says, after they’ve finished. They are drinking tiny shots of sake now. This was another inspired stroke to stop them growing despondent up here, one 5ml (CHECK) tot of alcohol in every twenty-four hour period. There’s a timer system on the alcohol sachets, so only one measure is dispensed per day. Of course, if they wanted, they could stockpile spirits and have a big session in a fortnight or so. But they’ve never felt the desire for this. Getting drunk in space feels strange, like it will never stop.
Alexei grunts. He licks his lips, getting the last taste of sake.
‘It’s not long. Three weeks. And then back down.’ Something is tugging at Alden’s chest, an impulse he knows he should ignore.
‘I know that,’ says Alexei. ‘It’s long enough. Days don’t feel like days up here. Everything gets stretched out.’
‘It’s not long, Alexei,’ says Alden stubbornly. The cosmonaut has got to his feet and thrown the plastic plates and food containers into the vacuum-crushing unit, which compacts them to the size of grains of rice and fires them into space. ‘It isn’t very long at all, not after the time we’ve been up here.’
‘What do you want me to do about it?’ says Alexei, turning back to him. There is no harshness in his voice, just a simple question.
‘Well nothing, I guess. What can you do? It’s the end of the mission, right? That’s that.’
Alexei hovers uncertainly, frowning. It’s strange to see such a big man uncertain. It doesn’t suit him. Alden doesn’t know what he wants to say, or if he wants to say anything at all, but now Alexei seems to be expecting something.
‘So what’s going to happen?’ he says at last.
‘What’s going to happen when?’
‘When we get down. When we get back home.’
‘There will be a big party,’ says Alexei, folding his arms across his chest and standing with his legs splayed wide, like some kind of circus strong-man. ‘A big party, with champagne and caviar. No more fucking little sachets like this. Our presidents will shake us by the hand. They will take our photos for magazines. Women will put their arms round us. But only for a few weeks.’
‘You know what I mean. After that.’ Alden wants to stop speaking, but he can’t stop now. He knows his voice sounds sulky, juvenile. But all he can do is go on.
‘After what, Al-den?’ Alexei’s voice jumps up a level. It rings off the steel walls and ceiling of the tiny dining area. ‘You know what. We talked about this. Two times, we talked about this. Why do you want to talk about it again, this same thing?’
‘I know we talked about it before, so what? Are you keeping score?’ Alden’s voice is rising too, but he quickly drops his tone again. ‘I just want to know, okay? It’s just, three weeks. It isn’t long. I need to know what happens next. After we get down.’
Alexei sits. Rests his arms on the table. The hairs on his forearms look like they’ve been combed.
‘Alright, I tell you again,’ he says. His voice is quiet now as well. There is no hardness in it, but it’s firm. Alden raises his head to look at him, and Alexei’s face suddenly looks like the face of an older man’s. ‘Down there, on Earth, I have my wife. I tell you this many times. I have two beautiful little girls. Lisaveta and Natasha. Twins. I tell you all this.’
‘I know,’ says Alexei. ‘I saw their pictures in the paper.’
‘So. That’s what happens next. You will go to the United States. I will go to Russia. That’s what was always going to happen. You understand. You know this.’
They sit opposite one another for a time. The thing that Alden hates the most is the embarrassment he feels. All of this was unnecessary. He didn’t need to start this conversation. He’d known that from the beginning.
‘Al-den. You should have someone too.’
‘What do you mean, have someone?’
‘Down there. A woman. You should have a wife. I tell you this, as a friend.’ For a second, Alden thinks that Alexei is about is to reach out to touch his arm. But he doesn’t do it. Alden knows the feeling of his hand so well, every callous, the soft parts of his palm, that he can feel it anyway. Even when it’s not there. ‘A man should have a wife, Al-den. Otherwise, what reason to return to Earth? What reason to come down?’
Later it’s a long time getting to sleep. They lie there on their separate bunks, Alden above and Alexei below, with the ship making its regular noises, and the sound of their separate breathing. Alexei turns over three times, as if he can’t get comfortable. Alden listens to the sound of him, and when he knows he’s fallen asleep he can’t stand listening any more, so he gets up and climbs down the ladder and turns the air dispenser on, which covers every other sound with a gentle hum. In the morning he tells Alexei he was cold.
‘It’s a man’s universe up here,’ Alexei was saying a month or two ago. ‘A man’s universe. But it’s a woman’s world. You know what I mean?’
‘No, I don’t. What do you mean?’ They’d just finished imaging another nebula. Now they were sharing a chocolate bar, which didn’t really taste like a chocolate bar, and filling out the requested questionnaire. That was another, smaller duty, something to do when there was nothing else: giving feedback about the food, the taste, consistency and so on, to improve future missions.
‘What I mean is man’s eternal urge,’ said Alexei. There was chocolate round his mouth. ‘To send the rocket into space, to hit the moon. The sperm and the egg. Men get out and put a flag in the ground, like planting a little seed. How many sperms get to the egg, whenever a man comes? One in twenty million. See, that’s us. We’re the successful ones.’
‘Right. I guess,’ Alden said. The cosmonaut’s philosophies amused him. The seriousness on his face made him want to laugh, but he knew that Alexei would get offended. Their senses of humour sometimes weren’t compatible. Alden would laugh at things that filled Alexei with honour and importance. In return, Alexei would laugh at things that Alden actually found quite sad.
‘That’s right. We are only following a pattern. We are going with the flow. The flag sprouts up. We must plant new flags. Look at how many eggs out there, we can’t count, there are billions of them. So, more phalluses shooting out. Man can never stop.’
‘Phalli,’ says Alden.
‘It’s phalli. Not phalluses. Like cacti and cactuses.’
‘You think I am not being serious. But everyone knows, Al-den. We keep thrusting forward. Into this void. Because we must. There is nothing else. A man’s universe, and a woman’s world. Phalluses, phalli, however you like. But have you ever seen a space-rocket shaped like a vagina?’
Alden had to admit that he hadn’t.
They make love twice, after that conversation they had as they were eating noodles, but nothing about it feels right. It feels like something mechanical. Like another function of the ship, something that has been pre-programmed. Alden has an image of two flesh-like robots, thrusting away at one another in a capsule millions of miles from any living thing. With no-one to see it and no-one to care. The image makes him want to cry.
Even worse is the way Alexei acts towards him afterwards. He acts as if he’s done something wrong, as if weakness made him commit some mistake that needs making up for. Alden doesn’t want him to be apologetic. He wants him to be like he was before, without a flicker of shame or contrition. Heaving a contented sigh and stretching his limbs out luxuriantly, grinning, rubbing his stubbled chin, like a lion after a feast. With pearls still orbiting in the air, splashed against dashboards, screens. It’s like he feels pity for him now. Alden can’t bear that.
He wishes he’d never been so pathetic, starting that conversation. They are still weeks away from Earth. Anything could happen up here. Alexei was right, three weeks in space is a long time, much longer than three weeks. The days and the nights could have stretched out endlessly, like matter sliding into a black hole, like one of Einstein’s elastic bands. It could have been like it was before. They could have wrapped time around themselves, stretched those few weeks into a lifetime. But, by starting that conversation, he ruined it all.
Alexei acts differently now around the ship. He is less booming, less strident. He makes less noise when he moves from place to place. His manner is slightly withdrawn, almost cautious. It’s like he’s already pulling away, Alden thinks bitterly, re-acclimatising himself, preparing to plunge back through the atmosphere. Getting drawn into Earth’s gravitational field. Back to that woman’s world.
Up until now, when Alden thought of Earth, he hadn’t really felt anything. He missed the wind. He missed his dog, but mostly he didn’t miss his dog. The planet was just a speck in the blackness, one of untold millions. Now, when he thinks of Earth, it casts a feeling of dread. Dread and dullness. Disappointment. Nothing will have changed down there.
They still work together, eat together, drink their sachets of alcohol together. They do their jobs as they did before. Where else could they go?
‘I’ve been thinking,’ says Alden one day. It’s afternoon, according to the system of time they follow on the ship. But really, of course, it isn’t afternoon. Or, perhaps, it’s always afternoon. Night-time, morning, midday, afternoon and evening are conflated here, and it’s always all time at the same time, or no time at the same time. It doesn’t feel like afternoon. It just feels like space.
‘Thinking about what?’ They are putting some final reports together, making sure the data’s in. Alexei is eating a freeze-dried banana. It looks clownishly small in his big hands.
‘That it’s fine. You’re right. That’s the way it has to be. I’ve been thinking about it, and it’s fine.’
‘What is fine?’ asks Alexei, frowning. He eats the freeze-dried banana whole.
‘About us. Sorry, I don’t mean “us.” About the situation. This mission. You’ve got a wife down there, a family. I understand. You’re right, that’s the way it is.’
‘Okay. Good,’ says Alexei. He continues clicking away on the keyboard.
Alden watches the side of his face. He doesn’t want to look like he’s watching him. Before, he could have stared for hours – he could have reached over to feel his rough skin, or the very soft skin behind his ear – but now, if he looks too long, he feels like he’s being demanding. Like he’s acting in a childish way. Like he’s making some unreasonable request.
And Alexei doesn’t look at him, not the way he used to. Not with the same laser-beam stare, like the time it felt his knee had been nailed to the wall. It’s as if he’s scared that his eyes actually might do those things. Like they might fix Alden in a certain place, and he wouldn’t be able to pull him free again.
‘But,’ says Alden, moving his gaze from the side of Alexei’s face to the screen, where the numbers are falling into place in neat, decimal-pointed rows. ‘But, let’s keep it the way it was, huh? For these few weeks. Like a holiday. Let’s try to forget about Earth just a little longer. Earth is Earth, and space is space. We’re still up here, after all.’
For a time he thinks the Russian hasn’t heard, or is pretending he hasn’t heard. When he speaks he hardly moves his lips. ‘Space is space,’ he says.
They make love that night, on the bottom bunk. It still feels like robots.
They are two weeks from the end of their mission when the message comes.
‘It’s a request for assistance,’ says Alexei, bending over the screen. He is bare-chested, wearing only navy-blue boxer shorts patterned with little silver stars and moons. Alden knows these were a gift from his daughters, Lisaveta and Natasha. He also has another pair that shows a rocket blasting off, surrounded by clouds of smoke and flames. These ones are from his wife.
The transmission signal woke them both from sleep, clambering from their bunks. Alden had been dreaming about flags, washing-lines. Things flapping around in the wind.
‘Assistance? What kind of assistance?’ he asks, trying to focus on the message. His eyes are a long time concentrating, as if they are full of dust or smoke.
‘Chinese space-station,’ says Alexei. ‘Only twenty hours from here. Something wrong with their power supply. It’s manned by a single astronaut.’
‘What? They want him to evacuate?’
‘Control room wants us to bring him aboard. We’re taking him back to Earth.’
Twenty and a half hours later, Alexei and Alden are standing side by side at the air-lock doors. For some reason Alden has felt the need to put on his cap, which he’s never worn before, emblazoned with the logo of the mission. Other than that, both men are still wearing their vests and silvery trousers. The stubble is thick on Alexei’s chin. It makes his body look even larger, somehow.
A light comes on above the door which indicates the pod has latched on, safely suckered to the outer wall of their ship. Then another light comes on, which tells them the outer door is open. Then these first two lights go off. Thirty seconds after that, a third, brighter light comes on, and a siren sounds from the ceiling. And then, with a sigh, the door opens.
Alden realises, stereotypically, that he’d been expecting a little guy. But the Chinese astronaut is tall. Almost as tall as Alexei, though slimmer, not nearly so broad across the chest. He’s wearing a sky-blue t-shirt and sky-blue tracksuit bottoms. On his feet are a pair of plastic flip-flops that look like they come from a cheap beachwear stall. His hair is cut in a buzz-cut, like an American marine. He has a warm, easy smile.
He gives Alexi a firm handshake, then he high-fives Alden. After that, he bows from the waist, and straightens up with a grin.
‘You’ve got all the bases covered,’ says Alden.
‘Space is a celebration of diversity,’ says the Chinese astronaut. ‘That’s one of my mission slogans.’
The Chinese astronaut is called Hu. He’s been up here for eight months. Originally he was one of three men manning the Chinese space-station, but the other two were recalled to Earth and he elected to stay up alone, to carry out additional research. ‘I like it up here,’ he says. ‘I would have stayed half a year longer.’ But there had been damage to a solar panel, and he had been running on emergency power, and without a partner there was no way he could fix it.
‘So now they want me back on Earth. Thanks for letting me hitch a ride.’
‘What will happen to the station?’ asks Alden.
‘They’ll blow it up,’ says Hu.
They are sitting at the table in the dining area. Alexei and Hu are eating hamburgers, dipping them in barbeque source, while Alden is eating something that’s meant to taste like duck a l’orange. The food units were only programmed to dispense two portions at a time, but they’ve managed to rewrite the code to get three meals out. The duck a l’orange was meant for tomorrow’s dinner, which means that tomorrow the unit will dispense one duck a l’orange along with two different meals, and the sequence will go on like this, always an odd one out. Alcohol sachets they will share: the coding on that dispenser is harder to interfere with.
There are only two chairs in the dining area, so Alden is sitting on one of the crates that contain medical supplies. For a second, when they took their seats, he thought of sitting on Alexei’s lap. What would the Chinese astronaut do then? Probably he’d be too polite, and pretend not to notice. But Alden didn’t do that, of course. He didn’t think Alexei would like it.
The three of them make space-talk until bedtime. Hu is lively in conversation, but the lines around his eyes and the purplish shadows in his skin hint at a deep inner exhaustion, an after-effect of long hours alone, working in stressful conditions. He starts yawning at eight o’clock. They make him up a bed beside the bunks, a foam mattress covered in spare insulation blankets from the survival kits.
‘Seems like a nice enough guy,’ says Alden, after Hu has gone to bed.
‘He’s done a good job. Professional,’ says Alexei approvingly.
‘It’s kind of a shame though, isn’t it?’
‘You know. Three’s a crowd.’
Alexei doesn’t say anything. Maybe he doesn’t know the expression. They put the empty food containers into the vacuum-crushing unit, where they will be compacted into rice-sized grains.
That night, Alden lies awake and listens to the sound of a whole new breath. A whole new respiration system, labouring away in the darkness. Hu’s breathing is pitched higher than Alexei’s, and sometimes his throat makes a kind of click, as if a string of mucous is catching somewhere. Alden concentrates on the rumble of Alexei in the frame of the bunk. It reminds him of when he was kid, living in the house behind the railway line, with the sound of the trains going through the night, shaking the window-pane. But now there’s this Chinese astronaut, whistling and clicking. It sounds disturbing and unfamiliar. It’s a sound as ominous to Alden as if the ship had started making new noises, whistles and clicks it shouldn’t be making, some subtle shift in the mechanism. After a while Alden climbs down, steps carefully over Hu’s sleeping body, and turns the air dispensing unit on. It hums.
They carry on with their work as before. Hu watches their procedures with interest. Sometimes he discusses his work at the station, without revealing too many details. Much of it is classified, of course. But their conversations are convivial.
After one meal, a meal in which Alexei was the odd one out, eating ravioli with tomato sauce while Alden and Hu ate beef stroganov, the Russian brings in a portable viewer and shows Hu some of the images they’ve made of various nebulae. Hu is delighted by the pictures. He says the colours are clearer and cleaner than any pictures he’s seen before. He says that in all his years of space-work, immersed in equations and complex mathematics, he’s never lost his simple amazement at the aesthetics of the things he sees. He says the knowledge that these colours are caused by the mere diffusion of gas, by the way hydrogen reacts with light, has never undermined his appreciation for the beauty of the universe.
‘I think that’s what all spacemen feel,’ says Alden. ‘Otherwise we wouldn’t have chosen this job. Otherwise we wouldn’t be up here.’
‘Which one you like best?’ Alexei asks Hu, pointing to the thumbnail images.
‘I like them all,’ says Hu.
For dessert they eat freeze-dried ice-cream. Alden has strawberry. Hu has vanilla. Alden hands Alexei raspberry ripple, but Alexei doesn’t seem to notice.
Alden is in the shower unit, listening to them laughing. The shower is not a lot of fun. It seems to involve more procedures than going on a space-walk. It involves airlocks, double doors, a complicated system of nozzles that suck the water droplets away, to stop them dispersing around the ship and damaging electrical components.
Alden and Alexei made love in this shower, one time long ago. The space was so cramped, with two people in here, that they could hardly move. They did it very slowly, and the limited space seemed to amplify the tiniest movements. Alden felt it was like having sex under a microscope. Afterwards, they’d dried each other’s bodies using the suction nozzles, carefully removing every drop of water and of sweat.
They have been laughing for a while. He can’t hear any of their words. Alexei’s laugh is a deep vibration, while Hu’s is like the sound of a spoon clinking round in a coffee cup. Alden has this feeling in his gut. It reminds him a little of the feeling he gets about ten seconds after blast-off, when the world is getting left behind.
He comes into the dining area smelling of lemon soap. Alexei and Hu look up as he enters. Alexei is leaning back in his chair, with one of his bare feet up on the table, his arms crossed on his chest. Hu gives Alden a friendly grin. He is still chuckling.
‘What’s all the laughing about, guys?’ asks Alden, feeling stupid.
‘I always thought Russians had no sense of humour,’ says Hu. ‘This is what people told me. They said, Chinese people are always laughing, and Russians are always scowling. Now I find it isn’t true. I look forward to telling them this, when I get back down.’
‘We were talking about women,’ says Alexei. The lines of his laughter are still on his face, even though he’s stopped smiling.
On a ship this small, in such cramped conditions, it shouldn’t be possible for one man to feel like he’s ever alone. Alden discovers now how easy it is. Alexei and Hu talk like he’s not there. Joking, wisecracking, comparing experiences. They get into humorous arguments about conflicting points of protocol, the best way to make minor repairs, methods for reducing gravity sickness. Their language is the language of space, the same language that Alden speaks, but he cannot enter these conversations. He hovers on the margins.
He concentrates on his work. He makes sure all the information is in order. He rechecks data he’s already rechecked, backs up files he’s already backed up, tries to memorise figures he already knows.
There’s a kind of steady buzzing in his brain. It seems to crackle when he moves his eyes, when he turns his head. It’s a bit like when he was a kid, back home, and their TV signal was so bad that if you stood on one part of the floor, the picture would fuzz up with static, and if you moved to another place it was fine. He doesn’t know why he keeps thinking like that, about these times when he was a kid. He left it all behind long ago. He left it back down there on Earth, on the woman’s world.
The first time he sees them brushing hands, he turns away and goes to the porthole and looks at the stars a long time. He thinks about constellations, the imperative to put a name on everything, to join the dots into bears and twins and crabs. He closes one eye and sketches lines across the black, from star to star, covering millions of miles of empty, lonely space. ‘This one’s a cactus. This one’s a gun. That one’s a submarine.’
The first time he sees their fingers lock, he goes to the computer and starts to type messages for Earth, which he knows even as he writes he will not send. ‘I am writing from the Combined Space Mission to report some changes to our night sky. The moon isn’t shining anymore. The stars have all gone out.’ It’s pathetic. ‘The planets have stopped orbiting their suns. Everything is getting further away. It’s cold up here, it’s dark up here, and everything is fucked.’ He’s ashamed. He deletes it all, watches the cursor gobbling the words. Like it’s going back in time. He sits with his head in his hands, not moving. He stays like that for a long time.
The first time he hears them kiss goodnight, he makes himself wait for fifteen minutes, then scrambles down the ladder and shuts the door behind him. He knows they didn’t mean for him to hear. It was only a light peck. But he has become an expert now in every creak, every hiss, every small vibration of the air.
He goes into the storage area and takes out his space helmet. He puts it on, adjusting the straps so it fits snugly on his head, eliminating all sound. His head is immersed in a heavy bubble. Nothing can get in. He makes his way to the dining area, bumping the helmet on the doorframes. Then he opens up a survival kit and drags out one of the insulation blankets, lays it down on the chilly metal floor.
When Alexei and Hu come in the next morning, after six hours sleep, they find Alden sprawled out on the blanket, wearing his vest, his boxer shorts and a space helmet. It takes him some time to get the helmet off, he can hardly see through the tinted visor, and he gets it jammed for a moment underneath the table.
‘Morning, campers,’ he says when he’s got his head free at last. His arms and legs are goosepimpled, trembling from the cold.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ demands Alexei. Hu turns away, confused.
During his training, Alden was put through endurance tests of every description. He was made to crawl through metal tubes so narrow that if he got his elbows jammed, they would have to cut him out with special equipment. He was suspended upside-down for up to two hours at a time, wearing headphones that blasted out white noise. He was forced to hold his breath under water until a red mist rose in his brain, spots of blackness blooming and dancing sickeningly across his vision. They spun him round in a gyroscope and made him subdivide equations.
He’s a highly-trained professional spaceman, one of the few. ‘The successful ones,’ as Alexei said. He’s been taught to carry on, to function on only ten minutes sleep, to keep his mind clear, to operate when the air supply drops to dangerous levels. He’s used to being starved of oxygen. He’s used to induced sickness.
But no-one ever trained him for this. Not this sinking in the gut, not this constant pain.
When Alexei moves off his narrow bunk and starts sleeping on the floor with Hu, Alden loses it.
Alexei wakes from a heavy sleep, his arm draped across Hu’s chest, to find Alden tearing at his hair, kicking at his body. Hu tries to roll from under the blows but Alden claws him back by the arm, chopping at his stomach and ribs with an open hand. It’s like he can’t decide which one of them deserves the force of his blows, which one he wants to hurt the most. Alexei launches himself from the floor and grabs Alden in a powerful squeeze, trying to pin his arms. But Alden is going at it like a madman. He gets his leg free to kick Hu in the ear. He has Alexei by the hair. He fights in silence, not making a sound apart from vicious exhalations of breath that sound like a front crawl swimmer. Alexei slams him down to the floor, and Hu hangs onto his feet. Alden lands one good, solid punch in Alexei’s eye. But now they have him heavily pinned, and it doesn’t last much longer.
‘I hate you,’ says Alden calmly, fifteen minutes later.
‘You shouldn’t say that,’ says Hu. ‘It’s a very strong word.’
‘I wasn’t talking to you,’ says Alden. ‘It’s got nothing to do with you. You shouldn’t even be here.’
They are sitting at the steel dining table, onto which has been emptied out the contents of a first aid pack. Alexei is holding an ice-pack to his eye and is bleeding a little from the head, where a clump of hair was torn out. Hu is holding an ice-pack to the swollen cartilage of his ear. Alden is pretty much unscathed, apart from some light bruising.
‘We should eject you back into space,’ Alden says to Hu.
Alexei suddenly starts to laugh, although it makes him wince. ‘Shut up, Al-den,’ he says. ‘Just shut up. You’re the one we should eject.’ His eye looks like a burst fruit. It’s already turning livid.
‘Why did you do it?’ asks Alden, later.
‘Do anything. With him. Didn’t you think about how I’d feel?’
Alexei frowns and looks confused, as if he doesn’t understand the question. He removes the ice-pack from his eye and touches the swelling with one finger. It puts his face all out of balance. It almost looks like he should topple sideways.
‘Space is space,’ he says after a while. ‘Space is space, Al-den.’ He looks at Alden for a few seconds that feel much longer than a few seconds, as if the ship has got snagged somewhere, caught itself in a fold of nothing, and then passed out again.
When the air-lock light comes on about an hour afterwards, Alexei and Hu are at the table, watching a nature documentary. They’ve been watching it for half an hour. It’s about polar bears getting in trouble, because the Arctic has melted. They aren’t watching it because they think that polar bears are interesting, they don’t really think any animals are interesting, it was just the first video file they found. And there’s nothing else to say. Alexei has one foot on the table, and Hu still occasionally dabs at his ear with ice. Their bodies aren’t touching.
After clearing away the medical supplies, they sat at the table and ate two chicken kormas and one cottage pie. None of them was really hungry, but they got most of it down. Then Alexei made a flask of coffee. They got two measurements of Polish vodka, and put the vodka in the coffee. Earth is only six days away now. The clock says it’s the middle of the night, but it feels like another afternoon. They pulled up the video screen.
When the air-lock light comes on, neither Alexei nor Hu notices at first. They continue to watch as a polar bear flops around on a lump of half-submerged ice, slipping off and clambering back on. Then they become aware of the siren. It’s a sequence of sounds they both have ingrained. Alexei frowns. Hu opens his mouth. They turn to look at one another, puzzled. Hu’s mouth is pink inside, like a cartoon frog. They turn their heads, and register that the dining area is empty. They stand up almost as if synchronised, and make their way quickly, profesionally, along the passage to the air-lock doors.
Alden is standing at the porthole, staring into space. He is leaning forward so his forehead is resting against the triple-reinforced glass. He is gazing hard at something that is out there.
‘Look at ‘em go,’ he says.
Alexei and Hu take their places at the porthole either side of him. They are just in time to watch the packets of freeze-dried raspberry ripple ice-cream rushing into the vastness of space, into the infinite black.
‘What are those?’ asks Hu, confused.
Neither of the other men responds.
‘You are like a fucking child,’ says Alexei, some time later. With a cautious finger he is mapping out the new scab on his hairline.
The three of them are still standing there, in the same alignment. They can make out the packets, but only just. They look like a scattering of tiny comets.
‘I’m sorry,’ says Alden, after yet more time has passed.
‘I’m sorry,’ says Hu.
‘I’m sorry,’ says Alexei, finally. The comets are not visible now. The three men turn away.
Alexei, Alden and Hu stand together, on the podium. Behind them hangs a blue velvet curtain, spangled with silver stars. The words ‘Welcome Home!’ are written in red, white and blue letters, and below those words hang the American, Russian and Chinese flags.
They wear fresh uniforms, pressed so sharply the creases down the legs are like blades. They have fresh-shaven faces and fresh haircuts. Spotless moon-boots are on their feet, boots they never had a reason to wear. Each man holds his space helmet, its visor polished to a dazzling mirror, under his right arm.
Every so often, one of the three men raises his left arm, or gives the thumbs-up, and smiles at the cameras. Their smiles are tight, economical, because they’ve been smiling for hours now, since the second they climbed down off the ship. Hu keeps flashing the V for Victory sign.
Alexei’s black eye, which has faded to yellow, or purple, or something in between, has been artfully covered with foundation, dusted with powder to match his skin. You can hardly see it now. It just makes his face look larger, uglier. You can hardly make out Hu’s swollen ear, especially if he keeps his head dead-centre, and he distracts from it with a baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of his mission.
Alden smiles, waves, thumbs-ups. He has to squint his eyes. All he can see is a barrage of flashbulbs, light pulverising his eyeballs. The camera flashes are like the bursting of a hundred suns.
There is champagne and caviar, just as Alexei said. The three men stand in dinner jackets, trying to balance tiny plates and champagne flutes in their hands. They wear bow-ties. Hu still wears his baseball cap. On stage a silver-tuxedoed band plays lounge jazz versions of themes from sci-fi shows.
Alden holds out his hand for people to shake. He allows them to slap him on the back. Some of the Russians even kiss his cheeks. Every time anyone approaches him, a camera flashes somewhere. The American president shakes his hand. The Russian president shakes his hand. The Chinese president shakes his hand, and Alden feels embarrassed that he didn’t know who he was.
His colleagues are there, people from training, the guys from the control room. Former astronauts and cosmonauts punch his arms and say, ‘good job, kid.’ Old generals from the army are there, stuffing their bulldog faces with canapés, military chiefs-of-staff rubbing shoulders with world-renowned astronomers, astrophysicists, Nobel Prize winners, experts in international relations. All of them want to shake his hand. All of them want their photo taken with him.
The three men are standing on another stage. A final photo-shoot. There is a rosette pinned to each of their chests, at the centre of which lies the emblem of two hands joined in front of a satellite. They have never seen this symbol before. It must have been invented for the occasion. Alexei holds a huge spray of carnations. He looks like he wants to put them down, but can’t find anywhere to put them.
They are all standing some distance apart, waving and thumbs-upping. Alden doesn’t want it remembered like that, with each of them standing alone, in their separate places. So he gets between them, pulling them close. He puts his arms around the other men, around Alexei’s big familiar shoulders and around Hu’s skinny back, squeezing them tightly together. The audience swells with applause. Alden squints at the cheering crowd, invisible behind the camera flashes, and he smiles and smiles.
Then all kinds of people come on stage, to shake their hands and slap their backs and pretend to wisecrack in their ears all over again. Alexei’s family come on stage. Alexei hands his wife the carnations. There are whistles from the audience. Alden gives Alexei’s wife two quick kisses, one on each cheek, but afterwards he doesn’t remember her face, not even remotely. What he does remember is the two little girls, Lisaveta and Natasha. They are wearing new frocks, one bright red and one midnight blue, and they look confused and thrilled by everything.
‘I’ve seen your dad in his boxer shorts,’ says Alden in a stage whisper. ‘He wore them all the time in space, the ones you gave him. To remember you by.’
The twins giggle and cling to each another, falling about the stage.
Alden kisses them both on the forehead. They smell of soap and flowers.
Dog-Star has put on weight. He always does in kennels. Alden decides to walk him twice a day from now on.
Alden’s apartment hasn’t changed. He paid someone while he was away to drop by every week or so to open the blinds, water the plants, sort through the junk mail.
He lies on the sofa for a long time, looking at the ceiling. He listens to Dog-Star padding about. This is the first time Alden has been alone for seven months.
Later, he gets up and opens all the windows, to let the air circulate. His apartment is on the thirty-second floor. He feels the wind on his face and neck. He closes his eyes, standing there.
Later still, when it’s dark over the world, he takes his telescope from its case, the telescope his parents gave him as a kid in the house behind the railway lines, and spends a long time carefully fitting all the parts together. He aims the telescope at the night sky and gazes at the emptiness where, in the future, their love affair never ends.