This story contains references to terminal illness.
We knew, with the pale certainty of childhood, that our summer days would end. The sunlight, golden and dying, would wend its way toward dusk, and we two would sprawl among the tall grasses near our lake. We would count the sunset clouds, then the fireflies, then the stars. We talked lightly of sisterly things, ripe with the knowledge that summer would pass into something more autumnal, more mature.
Every night, we would kick off our sandals and dig our feet into the wet sand. We laughed as the fireflies cast themselves upward to disappear among the stars. We knew of death, but we did not yet know we were subject to it.
I pad down the aisles of our Martian greenhouse, monitoring the plants as they struggle to become something more than imperfect copies of their Terran selves.
Life here is an imperfect replication of what we had dreamed it would be. The rote and the mundane replaced the adventure of our imaginations, and the sky here is not nearly heavy enough to bear the weight of gold. Even our cells cannot replicate themselves properly here.
But, I have Renata with me, and for me that has always been enough.
We grew up next door to each other. Our mothers worked at the same university; one of hers lectured in astrophysics and mine taught ecology. Surrounded by witty, powerful women of science, it was inevitable that I would join their ranks.
I would beg my mother for science tidbits — about the stars, about the life cycles of worms. However, my mother would scold me whenever I wriggled like one at the table.
Unfortunately, we didn’t eat together often. Our parents were often busy — our professor mothers with their research, my father with his workshop, and her Mama with line upon line of poetry. Instead, we shared our lakeside adventures with the drone my father had made. If I were to trawl through its memory banks, it would regale me with a thousand videos: bugs held up to the lens, the shrieks of girls slapping the mud with their feet, miniature rockets shooting into the sky — or sputtering and failing. Even Renata’s cries as I carelessly climbed our weeping willows.
I can still feel the roughness of the willow’s gnarls beneath my feet.
One afternoon, Renata had tired and gone inside. I wedged myself into the crook of a willow’s branches and picked at its bark to scratch the itch of my boredom. From the world below, I heard my mother’s voice.
“I didn’t think this was how my life would go,” my mother said.
I was careful not to shake any branches; I became a silent, still bird perched and ready to sip in any words I could overhear.
“What, eating week-old birthday cake on your deck?” Renata’s mom, Maria, teased.
“Well, it’s not half bad,” my mother said.
“It’s not half good, either,” said Renata’s Mama, Val.
I listened as the breeze played a quiet counterpoint to their laughter.
“I’m sorry. You were trying to be serious. What do you mean, Naomi?” Maria asked.
A small silence and the sound of plastic dishes clinking against a glass. “Watching Renata and Hibiki just now. You would swear they were sisters.” A pause. “You two can’t ever move away, okay?”
There is a secret urgency to the conversations a child overhears from her parents — an urgency to tuck those stolen words away in a dark place that no other can access. They become our heartbeats, the air in our lungs.
I counted the leaves on the branches and plucked them as I went. With each leaf stripped, I said to myself, “Sister, sister, sister,” and I felt the words echo back.
I have always felt safest when I could see myself from the outside; seeing my perceptions, my narratives replicated, whether it be in the stories told of me or in a video taken from one of my father’s drones, reassured me that I still existed. That I was real.
My drone followed me everywhere as I grew older. It circled around the schoolyard while I daydreamed in my classes. It was nearby as I ran cross-country through the late autumn heat. It searched the night sky with me.
I do not know what someone would see if they were to watch the videos of my teenage-verging-on-adult years. Would they see the friendship between Renata and me grow stronger as we both cast our lots with the space program? Could they interpret the hope on our faces as we learned that we would be on the next exploratory mission to Mars? Maybe they would see what I thought of as the truth: two friends along the lake’s shore, one leaving blurs of footprints in the sand and the other who had always carried her sandals home.
Two childhood friends, unable to be separated even by space. I can’t help but imagine that the poignancy of our story earned us our positions, and the people in charge understood its importance, too. Everyone watching from Earth would find a bit of themselves reflected in our story, and thus every one of them would adventure among the stars.
It is, after all, in our stories that we find ourselves.
Mars is more drudgery than dream. The soil is toxic (I never felt the compulsion to spread my toes in the dust), and the light never heightens its pitch to golden; the yellow it achieves is matte, dull. The romance we had dreamed of when we were young dried up in the day-to-day.
I am an agriculture specialist; I spend my day in the greenhouse, digging and mud-squelching as I did in my childhood. Renata is an engineer. She’d spent our childhood building forts and terrorizing the neighbors with potato guns. Becoming an engineer in a Martian colony was the logical next step.
She did not come to visit the greenhouse often; she joked that the sweet potatoes of Mars made her miss her Mama’s awful cooking too much. But one day she walked in and tenderly stroked one of the plants.
Her brown eyes lit golden. “Hey, do you want to go for a walk?”
Walks were rare for us. Neither of us had jobs that led outside often. After we had climbed into our Mars suits, we exited through the airlock and attempted a Martian stroll.
It almost felt like our childhood days. We hadn’t needed words then; laughter, tugging at sleeves, and head tilts had communicated enough.
We wound our way up a small cliff. When we arrived at the top, we paused. We turned to a private audio channel so that we could talk as we used to. Like sisters.
I tried a joke. “There’s nowhere to sit. But it’s okay. We forgot the picnic basket anyway.”
After an uncomfortable silence, Renata spoke. “I feel lost here,” she said. She began crying.
The dimness of the sky tricked me for a moment; I’d seen Renata’s pain — I’d felt it. But she had always been the strong one, the buoyant one.
After she collected herself, she continued. “I came here knowing what this was. Years of my life being an alien. Being bored. Not quite alone. But knowing and living it are two entirely different things.”
She kicked at some pebbles at her feet. I sought desperately for words to pull her back.
“Hey, Ren? I’m glad you’re here with me. I don’t think I could be here and still be me without you by my side.”
She sighed. “Thank you, Biki. I just wish that I could see the ocean again. Or a lake. Or even that little stream that was actually a drainage ditch.”
“Or water steaming in a bathtub?”
She laughed at that one. “That too. But mostly, I wish I could see this become home. I wish that I could see an ocean roaring on a Martian shore.”
This was as close to poetry as Renata ever came. I said, “Ren? Do you just want to stand here with me for awhile and imagine what the tide would look like?”
She did. I hugged her as best I could with our suits in the way. We looked for the end of the horizon, like we used to as children.
“I love you, sis. Here. There. Always.”
I have spent hours on this document. Time I could have been writing reports or enjoying the simple pleasures of the greenhouse. Time I could have spent joking with Renata. Why, when my life is already reflected and refracted in so many directions?
Why? Because Dr. Brown tells me that I am dying. The radiation of the sun has broken through my cell walls and convinced my body to begin a cancerous rebellion. It was inevitable. It was certain. It is the death that I felt in the sunlit days of my childhood.
And though the sun’s radiation is killing me, I want the golden light I saw in my childhood to live on forever.
Telling Renata was the hardest part, harder than telling our parents. The golden sparks in her eyes dimmed when I told her; those glints now matched the dull yellow of the Martian sky.
I remembered her tone on our walk and wondered: How could I keep her hope alive when I wouldn’t be physically there?
“I guess you shouldn’t have tried to fly that thing into the sun,” Renata said.
We stared at the wreckage. This hadn’t been the first crash since my father had relinquished control of the drone, but it was the most dramatic.
She prodded the disaster at our feet. “I guess we’re going to have to hold a funeral.”
We spent the afternoon preparing. Renata started digging the hole and arranged a gravestone; I cried. When they got home, Renata told my parents what had happened.
My father took the drone to see if he could resurrect it; my mother, more realistic, went inside to make food for the wake. As the afternoon wound down, Renata and I began to reminisce. With high school graduation coming soon, each parting took on a new meaning for us. The pathos of it led us into more vulnerability than we usually allowed ourselves.
Renata kicked at the grave’s dirt. “I remember when we were six or seven, I thought you were a little weird with that thing always following you. But, now I can’t imagine you without it. It’s a part of you.”
“I always wanted to be a cyborg,” I said.
“That’s not what I meant!” she laughed.
My father came out with my drone’s coffin. Renata finished digging the hole, and we placed the cardboard box in the ground. After a few recitations of silly childhood memories, I threw the first ceremonial shovelful of dirt.
Afterward, as my mother and I were fetching the last platters from the kitchen, she pulled me aside and gave me a small gift-wrapped box. Golden.
“Your father and I were going to give this to you as a graduation gift, but we thought that maybe it would be better if we gave it to you now.” She kissed my cheek and stepped back.
I never once unwrapped a present slowly. When I opened it, a small chip lay inside. It looked like the memory cards we used for our cameras, but it was clad in gold.
“Have you heard of Doppels? They’re these robots that can travel just about anywhere. If you install this chip,” and here she tapped the slot near her temple, “you’ll be able to experience whatever it does. Every sight. Every taste. Everything it feels. Obviously, the further out you are, the more lag time, but you’ll still experience it.”
She hugged me tight, careful of the box. “And it will keep every memory of your experience safe for you. We thought that since your drone is dead, this might make a nice substitute.”
“Mom, you shouldn’t have! Those are so expensive!”
“Well, you only graduate high school once.” She paused. “The same for killing drones, I hope,” she said.
I bit back my protestations. Mother and Father had been coaching me the last few months to be gracious in accepting others’ generosity. I forced a smile. “Well, if that’s the case… what kind of robot is it?”
“We thought you would like a bird. We got you a heron.” We both smiled at the memory of me in a tree, flapping my arms and screaming “I’m flying!” as I fell. (Diagnosis: broken wing.)
I spent that evening chatting with everyone as I flew my Doppel around the yard. I could taste the starlight on the wind. When I said this to Renata, she told me that I probably was just tasting bugs.
But I could see her smile as she said it. Though I didn’t use the Doppel often as I progressed through college and the preparations that led me here, I kept it with me. It was a promise to sometime feel the night breeze again as I cruised the stars.
I even brought the chip here as a memento. A bit of self, made real and whole. My memories were inscribed on its silicon.
I unburied it from my possessions and held my finger above it, tracing its patterns. As I did so, I knew that I was tracing the pathways of the experiences I had had in the past — the hours in the air, the cascade of fragrances as I flew from one destination to the next, the delicious transition from self to self. I was wrapped in this web of gold.
If I couldn’t be there for Renata, I had a plan to protect her from the pain of grieving, even after I was gone.
I have never been content to limit that “I” to one version of myself, anyway.
Renata tried to cheer me up as she walked me to the doctor’s office. I carried the chip in my hand secretly and with it a new emotion. It didn’t have quite the lightness of joy, but it chased away my worries as a nightlight chases children’s nightmares.
After Renata said her goodbyes, I laid my head back and listened to Dr. Brown’s instructions. I slipped the chip into its slot. If I couldn’t bring her hope myself, then perhaps the memories I would create could do it for me.
When Renata and I had left for Mars, I had left the Doppel with my parents. We had all laughed and cried; they had reverently placed it on their mantle. I was sure it remained there.
When I closed my eyes on Mars, I opened them to see my parents’ living room. It was dark, and I could hear my parents and Renata’s from the patio. I managed to flap my way off the mantle and through the open patio door.
The yearning to stay — to become a child again — tugged at me, gently pressuring me like Mars’s gravity. I asked myself: Could I stay with my parents? Could I spend one evening with them to soften the grief of my passing?
No. In their intensity, some joys make the heart grow brittle, and I didn’t want to shatter. I couldn’t complete my mission if I let myself fall to pieces. Instead, I crept away and silently took off.
Once I became re-accustomed to the sensations of the breeze underwing and night sluicing over my body, I coasted to the lake — Renata’s and mine. I caught its broad curves in my eyes and descended to its shore. The Doppel was waterproof, not merely water resistant, I recalled. I slid my long, thin leg into the water.
A particle of happiness burst inside me; I remembered (and felt) the satisfaction of gently pushing against the lake as the water tension broke around me. I must have been a beautiful sight: a heron tenderly lifting first one leg and then the other from the lake, alive with the experience of water.
With the cool water coiled around my heron legs, I felt a connection with the girl I used to be.
I knew Renata would feel the connection, too.
In my Martian life, I started returning to the dorms a bit earlier. My time was running out, and I wanted to catalogue more memories for Renata. Though I could not bring an ocean’s roar to Mars, I could fly to the coast and tumble in the outrageous sea-song of the waves there. My Doppel’s legs, though fragile, were sturdy enough to stand against the tugging of the tides.
I spent that night on Mars feeling the brine dry on my legs.
Some nights, I skimmed across the broadness of a river, listening as the fish jumped through moon shadows, their waves disturbing the minnows in their wake. Some mornings, I would stand in the mists of a valley pond, letting the calm grayness coalesce around me. I would memorize each variation of sunlight scattering through the mists, so that one day, Renata could see this beauty for herself.
Mars may never become home for her, but there will always be a part of her that resides here, amid the seas and salty breezes. I hope that if she feels this life, she will be able to live on with purpose. Happiness.
On my last night as my Doppel, I will fly home. I will return to the long, tall grasses and the placid waters that bind my childhood memories to the Earth. I will watch the fireflies spiral into the sky, and I will feel Renata alongside me.
It cannot be otherwise.
I will leave this document and the chip for Renata. Though the chip may not contain me, the echoes of me will live on through it. The Doppel will remember all we have seen together and lead Renata through my journey. Ours.
I believe that when she slides this chip in, I will live again. I will echo back to her, “Sister, sister, sister.”
I look down at the coruscating patterns of this chip, its valleys and its rivers, and I know that there is certainty in gold.