It’s a light-blue, one-piece jumpsuit. Astronaut clothes. The fabric is thin but feels comfortable. On the left shoulder is the Hail Mary mission patch. Same design I saw in the control room. Beneath that is the Chinese flag. The right shoulder has a white patch with a blue chevron triangle surrounded by a wreath design and the letters “CNSA.” I recognize it immediately, nerd that I am. It’s the Chinese National Space Agency logo.
There’s a name tag over the left breast pocket. It reads 姚—the same character I saw in the Hail Mary mission crest. It’s pronounced Yáo.
How do I know—? Of course I know. Commander Yáo. He was our leader. I can see his face now. Young and striking, eyes full of determination. He understood the severity of the mission and the weight on his shoulders. He was ready for the task. He was stern but reasonable. And you knew—you just knew—he would give up his life in a second for the mission or his crew.
I pull out another uniform. Much smaller than the commander’s. The mission patch is the same, but there’s a Russian flag beneath it. And the right shoulder has a tilted red chevron surrounded by a ring. It’s the symbol of Roscosmos—the Russian space agency. The name patch reads ИЛЮХИНА, another name from the crest. This was Ilyukhina’s uniform.
Olesya Ilyukhina. She was hilarious. She could have you laughing your butt off within thirty seconds of meeting you. She just had one of those infectious and jovial personalities. As serious as Yáo was, Ilyukhina was casual. They butted heads about it from time to time, but even Yáo couldn’t resist her charms. I remember when he finally broke down and laughed at one of her jokes. You can’t be a hundred percent serious forever.
I stand up and look to the bodies. No longer a stern commander; no longer a cheerful friend. Just two empty husks that once held souls but now barely looked human. They deserve more than this. They deserve a burial.
The container holds multiple outfits for each crewmember. I eventually find the ones for me. They are exactly as I assumed they would be. Hail Mary mission patch with a U.S. flag underneath, a NASA logo on the right shoulder, and a name tag that says GRACE.
I put on my jumpsuit. After more digging in the storage area I find footwear. They’re not shoes, really. Just thick socks with rubber soles—booties with some grip. I guess that’s all we’d need for the mission. I put them on as well.
Then I go about the grim task of dressing my departed comrades. The jumpsuits don’t remotely look the right size on their thin, desiccated bodies. I even put the booties on. Why not? This is our uniform. And a traveler deserves to be buried in uniform.
I start with Ilyukhina. She weighs almost nothing. I carry her over my shoulder as I climb the ladders all the way to the control room. Once there, I set her on the floor and open the airlock. The spacesuit inside is bulky and in the way. I move it, piece by piece, into the control room and set it on the pilot’s chair. Then I put Olesya into the airlock.
The airlock controls are self-explanatory. The air pressure inside the airlock and even the outer door are controllable by the panel in the control room. There’s even a Jettison button. I close the door and activate the jettison process.
It starts with a buzzing alarm, blinking lights inside the airlock, and a verbal countdown. There are three different blinking Abort switches inside the airlock. Anyone who finds themselves in there during a jettison can easily cancel it.
Once the countdown finishes, the airlock decompresses to 10 percent of an atmosphere (according to the readouts). Then it releases the outer door. With a whoosh, Olesya is gone. And, with the constantly accelerating ship, the body simply falls away.
“Olesya Ilyukhina,” I say. I don’t remember her religion or if she even had one. I don’t know what she would have wanted said. But at least I will remember her name. “I commend your body to the stars.” It seems appropriate. Maybe corny, but it makes me feel better.
Next I carry Commander Yáo to the airlock. I set him inside, seal it, and jettison his remains in the same way.
“Yáo Li-Jie,” I say. I don’t know how I remembered his given name. It just came to me in the moment. “I commend your body to the stars.”
The airlock cycles and I am alone. I was alone all along, but now I am truly alone. The sole living human within several light-years, at least.
What do I do now?
* * *
“Welcome back, Mr. Grace!” said Theresa.
The kids all sat in their desks, primed for science class.
“Thanks, Theresa,” I said.
Michael piped in. “The substitute teacher was booooring.”
“Well, I’m not,” I said. I picked up four plastic bins from the corner. “Today we’re going to look at rocks! Okay, maybe that is a little boring.”
A chuckle from the kids.
“You’re going to divide into four teams and each team will get a bin. You have to separate the rocks into igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. First team to finish—and get every rock correctly categorized—gets beanbags.”
“Can we pick our own teams?” Trang asked excitedly.
“No. That just leads to a bunch of drama. Because children are animals. Horrible, horrible animals.”
“Teams will be alphabetical. So the first team is—”
Abby raised her hand. “Mr. Grace, can I ask a question?”
“What’s happening to the sun?”
The whole class suddenly grew much more attentive.
“My dad says it’s not a big deal,” Michael said.
“My dad says it’s a government conspiracy,” said Tamora.
“Okay…” I set the bins down and sat on the edge of my desk. “So…basically, you know how there’s algae in the ocean, right? Well, there’s sort of a space algae growing in the sun.”
“Astrophage?” said Harrison.
I almost slipped off the desk. “Wh-Where did you hear that word?”
“That’s what they’re calling it now,” said Harrison. “The president called it that in a speech last night.”
I’d been so isolated in that lab I didn’t even know the president had given a speech. And holy cow. I invented that word for Stratt the day before. In that time it got from her to the president to the media.
“Okay, yes. Astrophage. And it’s growing on the sun. Or near it. People aren’t sure.”
“So what’s the problem?” Michael asked. “Algae in the ocean doesn’t hurt us. Why would algae on the sun?”