"There’s as many atoms in a single molecule of your dna as there are stars in the typical galaxy. we are, each of us, a little universe." - Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (Ep 2: Some of the Things that Molecules Do)
It’s impossible to say if the sun ever sets here. For as long as she’s been up on the hill, the skies have been cloaked in a blanket of cloud so thick that even at the brightest point in the day there’s no hope of seeing beyond them. This planet isn’t that close to its sun, but on the way down she had counted no fewer than four moons circling it – more than enough to light the surface up like noon if they were on the right orbital patterns.
One thing she can be sure of: it never gets dark, just darker. Right now, if she had to guess she’d say its first moonrise – the largest of the four creeping in to take over where the sun left off. It’s not light enough to make out the vein of iron running up the beach, but the wreckage of the ship is clearly visible out at the far tip of the bay.
It’s been three weeks since the crash, by her reckoning. Long enough for the oxygen to run dry and the fuel cells to blow. She doubts there will be anything of use left when she gets there, but she doesn’t much fancy her chances if she stays put; the stash of freeze dried protein bars will run out sooner or later and she doesn’t hold out much hope that the two rather wilted corn stalks that managed to sprout will sustain her.
She has to go, sooner rather than later. She’s running low on uncontaminated petri dishes as it is, and the oxygen she salvaged from the crash is running out faster than she expected. That's the kind of choice you have to make at times like this, breathing easy or supporting plant life; neither’s worth it. She shoves essentials into her rucksack left and right, protein bars and purified water, one of the thermal sheets, the last unopened oxygen canister. She throws in a couple of live petri dishes as an afterthought.
The cold box is too heavy to carry, and without a power supply it’s nothing but dead weight. Mentally she’s already kicking herself for wasting so much effort dragging the portable generator out here, it doesn’t feel like it was worth it, but the time she could spend sinking through regret is better spent moving forwards. Fast. She opens the box and pulls out the single vial of blood contained within.
Precious cargo. She wouldn’t dare leave without it.
When she opens the door of the tent, the beach below rises up to meet her like some hideous bedtime story, nooks and crannies promising fairy-tale monsters and never ending nightmares to any that pass between the craggy peaks that line the shore. It takes her a long, unsteady breath and the mental repetition of some fundamental biology for her to calm her pulse long enough to strap on the oxygen mask and step out into the wind.
“It’s just rock, Yongsun. You’ll be fine,” she mutters to herself. She doesn’t think of peridotite when she says it, doesn’t let herself slip into thoughts of gypsum or moon rock. She doesn’t think about Byulyi. She doesn’t cry.
“It’ll be fine,” Cheolju shrugs, “I mean I’m anticipating a rockier descent than we first envisioned but it’s nothing I can’t handle.”
Yongsun doesn’t miss the way Hyejin’s lips purse as she redirects her focus back to the atmospheric readouts splattered across Byulyi’s screen, “is he lying?”
“Hard to say really, I wouldn’t like the look of these numbers if we were entering Earth’s atmosphere but different planets have different rules,” Byulyi replies, voice raised over the screaming of half a dozen alerts blaring from the control board.
At the helm, Cheolju’s jaw is set. He looks calm enough, then again he rarely looks anything but. Yongsun wants to shake him out of whatever apathy keeps his face in check when his ship is threatening to break apart around him, but she knows that calm pilots leave fewer dead bodies.
No one’s freaking out. Yet. Not openly at least, much as she would sorely love to stick her head between her legs and ‘kiss her butt goodbye’ or whatever the standard procedure is for these things. To her right, Wheein watches the controls with the same practiced caution she does all her work, hissing under her breath when the temperature begins to rise at the prow of the ship.
Cheolju sees her staring, “take over for a moment?”
Wheein is only too happy to accept the wheel, and as Cheolju passes her he beckons for Yongsun to follow him.
Moving around in a spaceship as it enters atmosphere is hardly Yongsun’s idea of a good time but she follows anyway. They pull themselves along the corridor out of the cabin towards the stasis chamber, stopping when they’re far enough out not to be heard.
“You’re gonna make it,” Cheolju smiles.
Yongsun checks his face for some kind of catch, he always had a sad smile whichever way you slice it. “I know, you said-“
“No I mean you. Just you. Probably,” Cheolju puts a hand on her shoulder, “we’re crashing, as you might have noticed. Given how the seats are positioned you’re the only one with a reasonable chance of getting out alive. I’m telling you now so you don’t waste any time when we hit – stay out of the fire, come back for the kit. You can still do this.”
She doesn’t know what to say, he’s so calm. “This is a joke.”
“It’s not a joke,” Cheolju makes a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob, “just…don’t say anything, ok? It’ll be easier.”
There are roughly twenty questions that Yongsun would sorely like to ask, but the ship lurches in an entirely uncomforting manner and Cheolju indicates that they should head back to their seats.
“I think that was just us breaking first atmo,” Wheein barks as Cheolju reclaims the driver’s seat, “we’re burning way too hot though.”
“She can take it,” Cheolju smiles.
Youngsun drops back down into her seat and buckles up tight. The glass hanging across the bridge shows all the planet below them, with its silver seas and burgundy continents flecked with black. The light of the smallest moon scatters across the bridge like so much stardust, blinding them all and lighting up the skies with pink.
It looks beautiful, she thinks. She thinks it so hard she doesn’t even notice when the engine cuts out.
Yongsun takes the first step down this path in midwinter, ten years before she leaves Earth for a strange planet, seven years before she falls in love. Which is not to say she only fell in love once, when she steps across the threshold of Professor Kim’s office, her heart is full to bursting with an older man who tells her she’s brilliant and sings her to sleep. He will not be a deciding factor in her future, just a casualty in his own.
“You’re very talented, head and shoulders above your peers.” Professor Kim starts out slow. He always had a knack for making people dread good news, “you’ve been scouted.”
Later in life, Youngsun will learn about parallel universes and all the fractures one leaves through the multiverse when we make a choice. Any choice. Saying yes to this offer was perhaps the most significant decision in her timeline; one day she will look back and decide that it was her last possible chance to say no.
She’s not saying she would say no, even when she’s hauling herself along an empty beach a billion miles from anywhere. It’s nice to test her powers of hindsight nonetheless.
In the present, as things stand, this is a personal triumph. Yongsun supresses her glee because she knows Professor Kim hates people who cannot compose themselves, but her hands are shaking with excitement as she lowers herself into the chair opposite him.
“Can it fit around my doctorate?”
The oxygen tank is running out faster than she was anticipating, she knew that physical exertion would burn it up quickly but she’s barely a third of the way round the bay when the gauge on the top drops into the red.
Cursing under her breath, she opens the canister and tips the contents of a petri dish into the bottom. For the briefest moment, she breathes in the planet’s atmosphere and feels her lungs scramble to get a hold on the stolid air. It’s not completely oxygen depleted, but she wouldn’t get far without the extra assistance. She still has the last canister sitting in the bag, just in case of emergency.
The lid snaps on, not a moment too soon, and when Yongsun takes a breath she’s pretty sure the gauge doesn’t fall as hard as it had done before. Those bacteria are her life’s work, they better keep her breathing.
The half-dark makes it hard to see where best to place her feet as she picks her way between the rocks, and not for the first time, when she steps forward to continue, her foot gets caught at an awkward angle. Hissing, she pulls it free before she puts enough weight on it to twist it, but sooner or later she’s going to do herself some serious damage.
She needs a light, or to get off the beach. She hadn’t had the presence of mind to bring a torch with her when she left the tent so it would appear that the only way is up. Yongsun shudders, she’d come across the ridge after the crash. The wind had been so fierce that she nearly lost her footing on more than one occasion. That was the only reason she had dropped down to the beach at all, no point pitching a tent where it can’t stand.
The tent looms behind her, unnatural and white, like some hideous dead thing flapping in the wind. Yongsun is reminded of TV footage of the last humpback whale, rotting on a beach somewhere in Australia, white flesh baking in a sun too hot for anything to live under. Esna had been so excited when she’d gotten a flesh sample from it.
“Nothing dies as long as we still have its DNA” she’d grinned at Yongsun over the top of their microscopes, “that’s why love doesn’t last forever.”
Except love has DNA, after a fashion. Yongsun carries it in the pocket of her coat even as she tries to stop thinking about Earth and the people she used to know. That particular line of thinking leads nowhere good.
“Speaking of which, how’s that guy you’ve been seeing? Wheeson was it?”
“Wheesung,” Youngsun’s smile is strained, “he’s fine, we’re…fine.”
All of this is happening eight years ago, Yongsun isn’t in love by any set of standards. She fakes it, but her eyes are wandering.
Esna sees the way Yongsun looks at the new molecular geneticist, quiet and diligent and good at his job. “He’s not even exciting,” she says with the nonchalance one can only afford when it’s not one’s own relationship falling apart, “if you’re going to start playing off the board you might as well go big. Why not Moonseob?”
Yongsun gives Esna a long hard look, she knows exactly why not Moonseob.
Esna shrugs, “Who’s to say he’s not bored of his boyfriend as well?”
‘Bored’ is the wrong word for it. Yongsun doesn’t find Wheesung tedious, he still calls her brilliant, he still sings to her whenever she asks, but she’s restless. It’s the curse of being young perhaps, no matter how desperately she wants her life to stay stable, nothing ever feels like enough unless the ground is shaking beneath her.
So she pulls the molecular geneticist into the supplies closet with her after hours one day and makes him sing for her. He’s no better than Wheesung, but he’s different, and he doesn’t bother to introduce himself properly until he’s six inches deep in her.
“I’m Kibum by the way.”
I don’t care – Yongsun doesn’t say. She thanks him when they’re done and goes home smelling of his sweat, hair a mess. There’s an argument, Wheesung cries, Yongsun doesn’t. She leaves half an hour later with a suitcase full of books and no intention of going back.
It takes three weeks of sleeping on Moonseob and Seungtaek’s floor before she finds a place of her own. They bicker like old men and grin giddy whenever they catch each other’s eye; it makes her feel better and worse all at once. Better because being surrounded by love only reaffirms that it’s been a long time since she lived with it, and worse because she has no idea how they do it.
The Project had started before all that of course, that was what they’d wanted her for in the first place. Squirreling away in the back of a Yonsei genetics lab as she tried to get her doctorate, they had picked her out of the maze of E.coli nucleotides she was tangled in and lifted her up into ‘scientific history’.
That had been the tag line – and the Project seemed big enough that if they managed it, they might just live up to the acolade. Professor Kim had introduced himself to her as Hyungsoo on the drive over but she would never quite adapt to that, so she had sat and smiled and asked all the right questions till the car came to a halt.
The first time Yongsun entered PrimeEcco, she had decided it must be the lair of a cinematic villain. A monstrosity of glass and chrome, hunkered on the southern bank of the Han, glaring menacingly out at the city. People have built skyscrapers like that for centuries, genetics labs seem doomed to be a more concrete affair.
This is what Yongsun remembers: standing in the lobby trying not to let her jaw drop; looking down at the labs through the glass ceiling and failing to understand how so few people could need so much equipment; meeting Esna in the cafeteria and liking her instantly, even if she was kind of scary; leaving the building on her own, fingers tight over the banister to stop this apparent dream opening up its jaws and swallowing her whole.
Funny thing about dreams, they swallow us all in the end. You either drown yourself in them, or they drown you.
This is what Yongsun forgets: the boy driving the cab that takes her home is kind of cute from the right angle; he looks sad; his name badge reads Lee Cheolju.
Trying to understand genetics before you’ve studied it, really studied it, is pointless, Yongsun decides; three years after she left Wheesung. She is not in love, her and Kibum go for coffee sometimes and pretend they don’t know what each other looks like naked.
We join Yongsun in the throes of scientific breakthrough, watching the world unfold in detail too minute for the general public to appreciate or understand. Her vision tunnels through the eye piece of the Infinity Microscope to gaze upon her work picked out like stardust across the slide. She sees electron clusters scurry from one side of a nucleus to another, traces the links down the phosphate backbone of RNA – she hadn’t even thought it was possible.
“And just think, twenty years down the line these things will be standard school issue and those kids won’t know how lucky they have it,” Esna chuckles darkly, “amazing how complacent people get once they get used to technology.
“Oh please, when I was at school Li hadn’t published The Origin Of Life. Imagine doing so much as a high school diploma now without knowing how to make an organism from scratch,” Professor Kim scoffs. He always has to have the last word on these things, Moonseob says he’s a Yorkshireman and Yongsun has no idea what he’s talking about.
She can play the ‘who had it worse’ game though, “Margaret Hamilton wrote the computational code that put humans on the moon by hand, Ada Lovelace developed computer coding before computers were even invented, Barbara McClintock had to work out that chromosomes cross over and recombine because no one else had thought of it yet. Imagine trying to do what we do without any of that.”
“Well that’s just the thing, no one tried what we do back then,” Professor Kim snaps. Yongsun sees the corner of his mouth twitching in irritation.
“Hey hey, no need to fight about it,” Esna says, “you done yet Yongsun? I still need to look.”
Yongsun nods and steps back from the eyepiece, “it’s beautiful. It’s like...like…”
“Like a little galaxy,” Professor Kim finishes. She can agree with that.
The first thing Yongsun regrets when she steps up onto the ridge, is that she didn’t tie her hair back before setting off. The wind tumbles in from the ocean and lifts everything not tied down, whirling it around her body faster than she can hold it. The force of the gusts up her nose makes it hard to breathe and for a moment, she thinks she might fall back to the beach.
She would die, torn apart by the rocks if she didn’t bash her brains out on them first. Nothing like that sobering thought to get her moving back inland and away from the edge.
The bag twists around her shoulders, too-long straps knocking it into her side again and again. Yongsun fumbles with the clasps and catches in her attempts to draw it in closer but winds up hugging it to her chest – the petri dishes will smash if she doesn’t, and there’s too much chance of it knocking the wind out of her if she leaves it loose.
Even now, every breath is an effort, like she’s having to suck the oxygen through a cloth. If she were being smart about this, she would switch to the other oxygen canister and drop this one before it becomes dead weight, but given the state she left the crash site in she can’t spare it yet. Maybe, when she can pick out the vessel number on the side of the ship, she can switch then. For now she makes herself small and keeps walking, holds on tight, keeps walking, sees the cloud darken, keeps walking, doesn’t stop.
Wheein thinks they’re not ready, Hyejin’s been itching to leave for six months, Byulyi doesn’t care either way. Yongsun flicks through the extensive security document they have to sign before they can fly with indifferent ease. She’s been here much longer than the others, she’d started to believe they were never going to test the Project out for real.
“I’m just saying, we’ve barely started testing, would it really be so bad of we waited a year?” Wheein says, looking up from her own form for the tenth time in as many minutes, “what’s the point in organising all this if we’re only gonna find out it doesn’t work underwater three months down the line?”
Esna rolls her eyes with the weary resignation of a woman who has had to explain herself too many times, “like we said, the flight date is provisional. Once we have all the paperwork, we can leave whenever.”
“We could leave tomorrow,” Hyejin hums. Wheein opens her mouth to argue, but Esna’s impatient tongue clicking stops her in her path.
They won’t leave till they’re ready, the chances of them making the initially proposed flight date is almost zero, Yongsun would say. There’s no need to rush, they’ve all been trained as geneticists before astronauts (Byulyi excepted) but that’s no excuse for not understanding the basic principles of space travel. They will be put in stasis, they will travel on a ship with extra-lightspeed capabilities, they will jump through wormholes where they can and take advantage of the time bending properties of black holes.
There’s still no way this trip is going to take anything less than ten years, and even then that’s assuming the planet PrimeEcco has in mind for them is as good as it sounds.
Wheein understands this thoroughly – she’s good with details. Always twenty samples used for every new batch of testing at minimum, checking and double checking chemical structure through the Infinity Microscope. Yongsun catches her falling headfirst into high res representations of her precious nucleotides most nights and has to send her packing off home.
Wheein trusts her, which is comforting after a fashion. She has none of Yongsun’s natural flare but she refuses to let that dampen her talents.
Someone squeezes her hand under the table and the form swims back into view in front of her. She still has a long way to go.
“I don’t know what to write for question seven,” Byulyi whispers in her ear.
Yongsun doesn’t giggle because she’s too old for school girl crushes, which isn’t to say she’s not smiling despite herself as she talks Byulyi through the intricacies of SpaceSafe Take Off Hazard Certification.
“The new girl didn’t make it in after all?” Yongsun can’t help but feel a little disappointed seeing the still unoccupied space at the far left work bench.
Wheein’s eyebrows flicker through expressions, managing to look as scathing as she does indifferent, “you know what university students are like.”
Of course Yongsun knows, better than Wheein no doubt. For a moment she debates telling Wheein that she was handpicked by Professor Kim (“Why do you call him that? His name’s Hyungsoo”) from the depth of a doctorate that would have rocked the genetic world and gone unnoticed by everyone else. Some days she looks around at her colleagues, listens to them flittering through conversations about this lab and that lab and all the research and all the corporate sponsorship and everything that they did before they got to PrimeEcco.
She wants to get up on the benches and remind the room that this is the only thing she ever did with her life. She wants them to know that when she talks about the Project, she capitalises, because she doesn’t have anything to confuse it with.
The world looks very different when you’re life’s achievements are dependent on the success of a single venture, Yongsun doesn’t have time for Wheein to go looking down her nose at university students like she’d have gotten anywhere in her career without a decent education.
The geologist sticks her head round the door, “got that new recruit here to see you,” she beams.
“Thanks Byulyi, send her in.”
Hyejin walks into all their lives bold as brass, no need for small talk or refractory period. She looks around the room before she looks at any of them, impressed yet laid back, “nice set up you’ve got here.”
She fits right in, of course. PrimeEcco picked her out especially. It’s been a long time since Professor Kim had any say in the running of the lab.
Slowburn, is the word she’s looking for. When that glimmer of initial attraction takes months, perhaps years, to flesh itself out into something worth acting on. Yongsun’s been thinking that she ought to say something for a few weeks, but within a crescendo it’s hard to pinpoint the moment the music swells to forte and she’s not sure if she’s got the timing right.
Byulyi sits on the sofa that occupies most of the living room in Yongsun’s tiny Sinchon apartment. Straight backed, knees snapped together and smiling in the way people only ever do when they’re in a friend’s home for the first time.
Yongsun can sympathise, at work she knows exactly how to behave around Byulyi, but taking themselves out of familiar surroundings breaks the spell.
So she offers her a beer, or some tea. And Byulyi says water will be fine. Yongsun slides in next to her, so that their thighs brush. When she hands over the glass she feels fingertips brush against hers, and all her doubts feel powerless against her complete, all consuming certainty.
“I think I better…yeah,” Byulyi grins sheepishly when she nearly knocks the glass over in her haste to put it down.
Yongsun doesn’t have time to worry about water stains on the coffee table, it only takes a second for Byulyi to lean forward and kiss her. Open and honest, she leans into it, fingers tensing on her thigh as a hand comes up to cradle her jaw. It feels like cacophony, like a little universe opening up between the two of them.
Three years before she leaves this planet forever, and Yongsun isn’t in love. She’ll be there soon enough though.
She’s just past the half way point when she gives up. Lungs groaning against the almost non-existent atmospheric pressure of oxygen, her limbs protesting every muscle movement she makes, Yongsun gives in and switches the oxygen canisters.
Traitors, she thinks, staring down at the bacteria at the bottom of the used canister. She supposes she should have expected as much, in all the old stories creations always turn against creators. Not that the bacteria were ever supposed to supply emergency oxygen at that kind of rate, but it would have been nice. It would have been affirming.
From up here, the waves are far enough out for the white horses to look like sunlight striking the tops of the waves. Yongsun is reminded of summers when she was very young, when her whole family would scramble aboard a fast train out of the capital and be at Gangneun in half an hour.
Gangneun was nicer that Haeundae, and a whole lot closer than the Martian colonies. The sea looked like one of the colour swatches her mother kept stashed under her bed in the fond hope that one day she would find the time to paint the house, a gradient of aquamarines and deep greys lying picture perfect against the yellow sands. Yongsun doesn’t think about her childhood, as a rule, it’s been so long since she really felt like a part of her family.
The ocean out here is black and grey and all the colours in between, the same with everything else on this planet save the russet veins of iron and even those are few and far between. From this angle she can’t even see the tent, and so between her and the skyline all she’s got is moonlight filtered by cloud cover to guide her.
The wind howls up from the point, so strong it’s a struggle to walk on through it. The oxygen mask covers her nose well enough that Yongsun isn’t in any real danger of finding herself subjected to unwanted smells, but she shivers just the same when she thinks of what she’ll find when she gets there.
Here’s the thing, Yongsun doesn’t think geology is even minutely relevant to what she’s trying to accomplish. Here’s the other thing, she’s wrong.
“I mean it all depends on where we wind up I guess, but trust me – no way something with that chemical makeup would survive on alkali bed rock for too long,” Byulyi clicks her tongue as she readjusts the Infinity Microscope focus, “shit…this is a really cool piece of technology.’
Yongsun’s shoulders are tense, impatient, she doesn’t like finding out that she’s wrong, “I think we need to focus on variable soil solutions.”
Byulyi frowns, “why? You’re making these things to do the terraforming, right? There isn’t going to be any soil when you touch down.”
She knows. She knows, she knows, she knows, but facts can complicate matters beyond her control and so Yongsun has been pretending that the extent of her challenge is no further than an Earthlike atmosphere. “You’re right.”
“Sorry,” Byulyi says, and when she meets Yongsun’s gaze, she looks it.
Pulling up a chair at the bench behind them, Yongsun beckons Byulyi to join her, “so what else are we missing?”
“Well I mean, you need something that’s all types of resilient. The big consideration is the hardness of the parent planet, I’d recommend going for something fluid if you can. I know hard cell walls seem like the most obvious way to make sure nothing gets damaged, but there’s plenty of stuff that can slice straight through them. Hyper fluid cells normally manage to bend around points.”
“And they give us a faster gas exchange time,” Yongsun says, pulling up a screen-pad and jotting down a couple of notes, “I’ve been in favour of fluid cells since day one but Esna doesn’t agree with me.”
“I’m just saying, there are terrestrial bodies out there that are ninety percent plus diamond, you need something that can tackle that,” Byulyi reaches over and adds some notes of her own to the screen.
Yongsun nods along, “and we have the pH resilience to consider.”
“Don’t forget possible temperature fluctuations.”
“Oh don’t worry, we’re already working on that, still though,” Yongsun sighs, “there’s so much more to be done.”
Byulyi smiles at her, wide and over enthusiastic and for the briefest of moments, Yongsun finds it hard to breathe, “it’s just rock, Yongsun. You’ll be fine.”
It’s not quite clear exactly when the other’s work out that Cheolju is lying. Yongsun rather suspects Wheein never believed him but she can only see Hyejin and Byulyi properly from this angle. The ship rockets towards the ground, the heat of their entry into the atmosphere barely receding even as the ocean comes up to meet them.
“Do something!” Hyejin screams at Cheolju, “What the fuck are you playing at, get back in control!” She’s powerless at this stage, pinned to her seat with g force, but still fighting.
Byulyi’s face is frozen in fear, her mouth hanging open in a silent scream and eyes pinched in anguish. Yongsun wants to reach out to her, hold her tight and tell her everything will be ok, but she’s too far away to touch. She doesn’t know how Hyejin manages to say a damn thing when they’re falling so fast.
Around them the cabin shrieks, flashes, creaks. It’s something of a miracle the ship hasn’t broken to pieces yet, but Yongsun doesn’t need to know the first thing about spacecraft stability to know it won’t survive landing.
Not that there’s going to be a landing, from the looks of things they’re going to plunge straight into the ocean.
She can’t see what Cheolju’s doing in front of her, but he must have managed to reroute some of the melted circuits from the control board because the nose of the ship pulls up and with a mighty roar, he give the engines one final push.
The five of them draw a collective, terrified breath. Peeling away from their seats at long last, their eyes fall upon a dark line on the horizon, getting more and more defined by the second as they race up to meet the land. Yongsun swallows hard and tastes relief, fleeting, on the back of her tongue.
“Byulyi,” she whispers, reaching out to her as best she can. They’re still too far away to touch, but Byulyi extends a hand in sympathy and smiles weakly. It feels like they’re going to be ok, it feels like they’re all going to make it, and Yongsun smiles right back at her just as wide as she can manage.
Within minutes, the land is almost upon them. “Remember what I told you, Yongsun!” Cheolju shouts over the alarms and alerts and the rushing of the wind.
For a moment, all Yongsun can see is Byulyi’s expression of confusion. Then all of a sudden it feels like she’s falling again, and as she tries to catch her breath she looks down and watches the ship make landfall without her, exploding into a plume of fire on impact.
He ejected her. He saved her. Yongsun can’t even scream. The parachute underneath the chair activates automatically, which is probably for the best as she would never have activated it herself. She drifts towards the land where she gets caught in the hot air rising from the burning nose of the ship and is forced to watch the blaze for who knows how long until it dies down.
Along the horizon, she can see mountains, but there are no rivers running to the sea.
When she finally begins to fall, breathing slowly as she goes, Yongsun doesn’t look down. She doesn’t want to see the wreckage, and she especially doesn’t want to see what lies inside. She doesn’t even want to think about it. Perhaps she’ll just wrap herself in the parachute and stare out to sea, or to the mountains, till the winds wear her down and she’s lost amongst the rocks.
The ship is bigger than Yongsun has been expecting, she says as much and earns herself a good natured scoff from Hyejin, “this isn’t the nineteen sixties.”
Obviously she wasn’t expecting the Apollo, but this looks more like the USS Enterprise than any of the commercial craft she’s ever been on.
“We took a long weekend on Mars like three months ago, and the ship we were on didn’t look anything like this,” Byulyi calls from somewhere in the back, her voice echoing of the clean chrome walls.
Yongsun smiles the way she always smiles when Byulyi talks about ‘we’, Hyejin rolls her eyes the way colleagues always do when confronted with work place romance.
Cheolju sticks his head through the door, “everything look good to you guys?”
“We love it!” Hyejin cuts in, “this is some top of the line stuff.”
“Long distance craft are always nicer than intra solar system stuff. The shuttles to Pluto are ok but really, who wants to go to Pluto?” Cheolju steps inside and heads up to the bridge where Wheein has her head stuck in the control manual.
She looks up as he approaches, “before you ask, I used to drive my dad’s old StarCruiser to the moon and back for family holidays and no, I don’t understand most of these instructions.”
Cheolju laughs and Hyejin laughs louder. Yongsun makes her excuses and heads through to the back of the ship to see what Byulyi’s up to.
She finds her sitting in the escape pod, nestled between the bathroom and the kitchen. The space is barely big enough for one but when she sees Yongsun approaching, Byulyi draws in her legs and after a certain amount of squeezing and elbows in each other’s sides, they get comfy.
“The view’s nice up front,” Yongsun says, laying her head on Byulyi’s shoulder. Back here all they can see is the back of the hangar, from the bridge you can see the sky.
“No way, the best view’s right here next to you.”
Yongsun laughs despite herself and leans up to kiss Byulyi. It’s clichéd and it’s cheesy, but it’s so very nice.
She stops a hundred metres away from the crash site, staring it down, as if mind over matter could conquer her very real fears. From this angle she can only see the front of the wreckage, a mess of scorched metal with the single pane of glass that had covered the bridge sitting undamaged amongst it. The vessel number is long gone. Yongsun’s glad the window survived, any light that hits it distorts her view into the vessel itself and prevents her from seeing anything she doesn't want to.
For a moment, the image of familiar bodies twisted around broken chairs flashes across her mind. Yongsun feels bile rising in her throat and has to squash the memory before it compels her to turn back.
And really, she should move already, there’s no use standing around wasting precious oxygen. She supposes it’s possible that now the site has cooled she might be able to find a few spare canisters lying around but she wouldn’t bank on it. She’s already lost a third of this one as things stand.
Yongsun scurries forward, head down so she doesn’t have to worry where she’s going till the nose of the ship is right in front of her. She ducks into the side of the craft, peering back down the beach to where the tent stands, a white blob sitting on the opposite shore of the bay. How long will it take for it to wear out, or be blown down? Maybe the tide will rise up one day and swallow it whole. Then this planet can return to its uninterrupted solitude.
With the ship in the way, the wind around her stalls and Yongsun marvels at the sound of her own breath, coming fast and nervous. Out of habit, she reaches up to smooth down her hair and finds it knotted and wild – she left the hairbrush back at the tent.
She knows she has to go inside to make the trek worth it but she desperately doesn’t want to, she wants to hide down here, out of the wind, and let the oxygen canister run out. She doesn’t want to see them lying there, she doesn’t want to smell them rotting, she doesn’t want to try to pretend that she doesn’t really recognise them.
When the ship crashed it split, clean down the middle. Most of the fire was limited to the engine but the whole nose burned hot, the rear of the ship was more or less undamaged save for the disruption caused on impact. The lab area was a mess of broken glass and exposed wires, but it was fairly recognisable, when she saw it last at least. The trouble is, she can’t get into the back without looking straight into the front, and certainly not without seeing Byulyi.
Yongsun takes as deep a breath as she can spare and pulls herself to her feet. She’s come this far, if the experience scars her for life, it’s not like she’ll have to endure the repercussions for long.
Esna comes in looking strangely somber, “Wheein, Hyejin, Byulyi, Yongsun, I gotta talk to you guys.”
The four of them crowd over, ignoring the jealous eyes of their colleagues. Kibum in particular glares daggers at the back of Yongsun’s head – he’s furious that they passed him over for this position. Oh well, at least Moonseob seems content with his lot.
“Why the fuck would I want to go into space?” he had laughed when she’d asked him if he minded that they hadn’t chosen him, “that’s ten years out of my life stuck on some shoebox sized rocket while my beloved pines for me back on earth.”
He’d said the word ‘beloved’ with his tongue in his cheek and his arm around Seungtaek. Yongsun knew he wasn’t joking and from the looks of the goofy grins the pair had exchanged, so did they.
Esna leads them out of the lab to one of the multitudinous conference rooms that none of them were ever business savvy enough to need to spend much time in. They walk in single file and sit side by side down the length of the table that occupies most of the free space.
“Anyone know why we’ve brought you in here today?” Esna asks.
Yongsun has no idea, Hyejin is significantly less clueless, “you found a planet!”
Nodding in affirmation, Esna hands them each a file, “Mesoplanet out in Andromeda – the Ayemi solar system. The surface is mostly basalt from what we can see and while it’s got an atmosphere it’s not much to speak of. It’s uninhabited, we’re gonna have to send you through the Blonwyn wormhole to get you there, but it’s got similar gravity to Earth and it’s got oceans.”
Yongsun flips through the file – most of the information they’ve been given is technical and specific and will take a long time for her to fully process. At her elbow, Byulyi already has her nose buried in the details of the surface make up and Wheein is frowning at the paragraph on atmospheric density.
Hyejin skips straight to the back, where the flight schedule is outlined, “so when do we fly?”
“We reckon it’s gonna take twelve months or so, just to get going with the testing and secure all the right funding, but definitely less than two years.” Esna still seems subdued, strangely unaffected by the news that the Project is finally about to hit its stride, “I just need you all to be very honest with me for a moment – when you say you’ve got something that’s 'good to go', what do you mean?”
“That we’ve got something that lives, and produces oxygen as it should. That all the preliminary testing we’ve done along the way suggests our survival adaptations have been successful, and that we can’t know for sure what else might need to be done until we can test more thoroughly,” Yongsun says. No matter how Esna made it sound, she knew that question was really directed at her.
Esna nods, and turns to mumble something into her SmartBrick. “That’s as good as we’re gonna get I guess, honestly we won’t know for sure if the thing works till you see it in action off world.”
The door eases open and a half familiar face peers in, “you said you wanted to see me?”
“Absolutely!” Esna beams at the newcomer and all of a sudden her dour attitude vanished, “come in, come in. Everyone, meet Lee Cheolju. He’s gonna be your pilot.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Hyejin is out of her chair and shaking Cheolju’s hand in an instant. He’s not especially tall, and though he seems pleasantly amused by Hyejin’s enthusiasm he shrinks into himself as he steps into the room.
“I’ve gotta go deal with some admin bullshit if you guys don’t mind. But please, get acquainted, get comfortable with each other.” Esna says, she ducks out of the room and Hyejin explodes with questions.
Cheolju answers them all, carefully and patiently, the corners of his mouth twitching upwards. Yongsun tries to remember where she might have seen him.
“I’m sorry,” she cuts across Hyejin’s umpteenth question, “but I think I know you from somewhere.”
“I drove you here,” Cheolju doesn’t skip a beat, “on your first day. I used to drive the company car.”
“And now you drive space ships,” Wheein’s voice is steely, “that doesn’t fill me with confidence to be honest.”
“Well I’ve got a year to change your mind.”
Yongsun’s still stuck on the part where Cheolju drove her here when she first came to look at the labs. Almost ten years ago. He’s been hiding in the company, out of sight and out of mind for that long, and she wonders what he knows. Maybe he knows what the CEO looks like, maybe he knows where Professor Kim is hiding.
The second she makes landfall, Yongsun cuts the parachute free and runs towards the burning ship. Then she stops. When she had nothing to do but fall, the thin atmosphere made very little difference, but trying to use her muscles is another matter. Her lungs cry out for air but there’s none to be found, or not enough at any rate, and she’s stranded out on the rock, unable to catch her breath.
In the end she crawls, which is a very slow process. She doesn’t know how long it takes but she’s very hungry by the time she gets to the ship, and her vision is growing foggy from the lack of oxygen.
Ignoring the burning half of the vessel, Yongsun barrels inside, where the life support system is still churning out oxygen and almost cries with relief when she takes a breath and doesn’t choke on it. The world around her swims into clear view, and she finds herself standing in the stasis chamber, with the heat from the fire hot on her back.
Yongsun turns around before she can think better of it and immediately wishes she hadn’t. Blood is splattered across the bridge window and without an oxygen mask there’s nothing to cover the smell of roasting meat as everything left within the bridge begins to burn. Cheolju is hidden from view but she can see Wheein’s head cracked open across the front controls, Hyejin’s spine twisted into an unnatural spiral.
She doesn’t see Byulyi at first, despite her unintentional attempts to pick her out in the wreck. She had been sat next to Hyejin, so Yongsun expects to see the two of them in the same span of vision, but there’s no evidence that there was ever a fourth person on the bridge save the extra chair, keeled over and blocking any path towards the pilot.
It’s not until she looks away that Yongsun sees the trail of blood across the floor, thick and dark and no doubt boiled dry on the hot metal. Her eyes follow it before she can stop herself, till her gaze falls upon Byulyi’s body lying in the space between the two halves of the ship.
She can’t help it, she runs forward and shakes Byulyi by the shoulder. She searches for a pulse, for breathing, for any sign of life. Her hopes raise themselves beyond reason when she feels the body still warm to the touch, but that only makes her anguish all the more acute when Byulyi doesn’t wake.
Yongsun screams. Till her throat is so raw she couldn’t make another sound if she tried. Then she sits down, pulls Byulyi into her arms and sobs silently until her brain gives her room to think.
Byulyi had survived the crash, Byulyi bled out, alone on a foreign planet and died before Yongsun could even touch the ground. Byulyi’s body has been kept warm by the heat of the fire – but she will not burn.
Heat, Byulyi’s body is warm. Yongsun draws a long, shuddering breath, she can do something with that.
Running back through the stasis chamber and the world is blurry once again. Yongsun wipes her tears with her sleeve just in time to stop herself stepping into broken glass. The lab is a mess, broken equipment scattered haphazard across the floor. For a moment, all she can think is that Esna’s going to be so angry when she finds out how much stuff they have to replace.
She tries not to think about Earth after that. The idea of home makes her stomach turn in the most unpleasant manner.
Picking her way around jagged edges, Yongsun finds a handful of sample vials intact and still sealed in one of the back cupboards. She takes them all and scoops a scalpel off the floor, then runs back out to where Byulyi’s lying.
It feels wrong, cutting her open like this, but it’s the only way Yongsun can see to get the blood sample she needs. Byulyi’s cheeks are pale so she doesn’t bother wasting her time with extremities, instead setting the scalpel on her jugular and closing her eyes when she cuts.
When she opens her eyes, a pitiful train of blood is beginning to ooze from the cut. Moving quickly, she pops the lid off one of the vials and holds it out to catch the red goo – the last living element of Byulyi. Yongsun stoppers it tight and holds it between her palms in the hope of capturing residual body heat.
She doesn’t need to keep the blood warm though, she needs to chill it. In the process of hunting for a cold box she finds undamaged petri dishes and a portable generator and a tent. She finds the stashes of food and the water purifier and when she puts it all together in a pile, it looks like something she might be able to carry.
“Well, I can’t stay here,” She mutters to no one in particular. Yongsun rummages through cupboards till she finds all the emergency oxygen canisters and a mask to go with them, then shoulders her burden and sets out across the bay.
“I mean, I get it but I don’t,” Yongsun frowns at the letter in front of her, “Wheein knows extra-terrestrial genetics like no one else, we all know Hyejin was hired for this, and what’s the point of having a geologist if you’re not going to take them to see the rocks, but me?” she shakes her head, “I don’t get it.”
Esna stares at her, nonplussed, “what do you mean you ‘don’t get it’? This is all you Yongsun! This entire project is yours.”
“It’s Professor Kim’s,” Yongsun corrects, sharply. She still hasn’t forgiven PrimeEcco for throwing him to the curb.
“Right, and he picked you. And you designed the outline for this thing, you built up its cellular functions, you made is durable, you programmed its life cycle. Hell, your method of dealing with the oxygen transfer problem is ingenious and I don’t think there’s another geneticist alive who would have worked it out. This is more your thing than anyone else’s.”
“Don’t you get it Yongsun?” Esna leans across the table, exasperated, “it was always supposed to be you. This lab, this venture…Hyungsoo didn’t even think it was possible till he found you.”
Yongsun peers down at the list of names selected to take the Project on into its final stages. She hates feeling like the centre of the universe. “There’s no senior staff on here, it’s not right.” She mumbles.
“Senior staff? You’ve been here eight years Yongsun.”
Yongsun doesn’t have to like it, and neither does Kibum, but it sounds like she’s heading off world whether she likes it or not.
Byulyi is lying exactly where Yongsun left her, looking like a skeleton draped in skin. She doesn’t look anything like the person she had been back on earth, she barely even looks like a ghost of herself. Just a bag of bones that life left a long time ago.
Yongsun’sbreath catches, but only for a moment. She’s screamed about this enough, she’s cried enough, she didn’t come back here to mourn. Or at least, not to mourn like that.
Back on Earth, the microbes and bacteria and carrion and rodents would all come out to consume a dead body, leaving holes in the flesh and producing foul odours from within the innards of the deceased. Yongsun didn’t even realise that was what she’d been expecting until that wasn’t what she saw. All that time can do to Byulyi is dry her out, crack her skin. There’s nothing out here that will ever eat her, she will be worn down by the wind.
The stasis chamber is just as she left it, save for the large pools of bacteria, glowing faintly in the poor light, that have spread out from the lab. Yongsun made them to eat minerals, nothing organic for her babies, and evidently the ship is enough for them. She did a better job than she thought establishing those digestion patters, these guys are going to be just fine.
Stepping through to the lab, Yongsun closes off the oxygen canister and pulls the mask from her face. She had anticipated needing to find a light to see by once she got in here but the bacteria have taken over every available surface and the whole room glows a pleasant, unobtrusive green. She feels bad stepping on them as she crosses the room, but there’s little she can do about it.
The Infinity Microscope had to be built into the body of the ship itself, so when the crash happened it had stayed upright and undamaged. She reaches around for the power switch and is relieved to find the backup generator is still running.
The light below the plates flickers on, and the magnification above the eyepiece reads ‘10X’. Yongsun scrambles around for five minutes trying to find clean sample plates, then takes the vial of blood from her pocket and slowly, carefully, makes up a blood smear.
It’s not ideal, seeing further than the outline of cells from a smear is a chore, but she doesn’t have the right technology to cut the blood cells down to size so this will have to do. She moves the plate into position and ups the magnification till she can see the array of cells available to her.
It’s an erythrocyte heavy sample. Yongsun spends almost ten minutes flicking from cell to cell, trying to find a leukocyte that she can use. She’s beginning to give up hope when a small, rather squashed looking lymphocyte comes into view.
Yongsun zooms in, and in, and in. She keeps the microscope focused on the nucleus of the cell, bringing it up in higher and higher resolution till her vision is obscured by a mass of DNA, then she goes in further until the world dissolves into electron clouds and proton clusters. Impossibly cluttered by the overlaying of so many DNA strands and the supercoiling of the chromosomes.
But it’s something familiar, a galaxy of atoms that Yongsun knows better than the back of her hand. She can see where the nucleotides begin to form, can even make out a section of ribose chain trying to unravel. She looks at the building blocks of life with the same reverence as she had done the first time she looked through a microscope like this, she looks down at Byulyi.
And this is all that’s left of Byulyi that matters, outside of memories and emotions. Yongsun had to see it at least once before she goes.
Professor Kim sits back in his chair, “well that’s a very easy concern to lay to rest, Yongsun. We won’t take you on till you’ve finished your doctorate if it’s that important to you.”
“Thank you sir,” Yongsun breathes. She hates leaving things unfinished.
“Though the sooner we can have you the better, this is a very complex project that we’re working on and it’s going to take all the brilliant minds we can bring together.”
Yongsun blushes at the implication that she’s a ‘brilliant mind’. She knows he’s only being cryptic to try to lure her in but she’d be lying if she said she wasn’t intrigued, and so she bites, “just what are you working on?”
Professor Kim pauses, like he’s not sure he should tell her, “terraforming,” he says finally. Yongsun is somewhat disappointed.
“I don’t think-“
“An entire planet,” Professor Kim finishes, “we want to create microbial life that can be let loose on an uninhabitable planet and turn it into arable land. We need something that produces oxygen, that turns a wide variety of rock types into soil, and that can function in non-Earth like atmospheres.”
Yongsun’s eyebrows shoot up in disbelief, “that’s a big undertaking. I mean…do you even think it’s possible?”
“We do,” Professor Kim nodded solemnly, “with your help.”
Yongsun spent eight years thinking he was just being nice, thinking that it could have been any PhD candidate and he was just trying to make her feel special.
Byulyi has to think about it for a moment, worrying her bottom lip in concentration. It’s cute and ridiculous and Yongsun giggles at her over the top of the bench.
“Don’t laugh! This is serious business!” Byulyi retorts, eyes wide in mock outrage. So of course Yongsun keeps giggling, and Byulyi keeps thinking hard.
“What are you guys doing back there?” Esna shouts down from the front bench.
“Working on the Farro 84 gene, Byulyi’s just telling me about her favourite rocks,” replies Yongsun, and tries to keep her attention at least half focused on the gene splice she’s trying to unpick.
After a long pause, Byulyi finally speaks up, “peridotite, gypsum and moon rock,” she says triumphantly.
Yongsun laughs for real then, “moon rock?” she says, disbelieving, “what’s so great about moon rock?”
“It’s like, this massive milestone for extra-terrestrial geology, you know?” Byulyi grins, “It was the first rock humans brought back from outer space. And we learned so much from it, like my degree wouldn’t even have existed if not because of it yet alone my job.”
“Ok, I can see that,” Yongsun nods. She’s still smiling wide, “what about the other two, that gypsum one?”
“Well that was used for sculpture like…way back in the day. Ancient civilisations and stuff, the Egyptians used it a lot. It’s a piece of history.”
“Couldn’t you say the same thing about jade?”
“Well yeah but…I dunno I guess you kinda get used to jade living in East Asia.”
Yongsun can agree with that, “you had a third one,”
“Yeah that one.”
“Ahh!” Byulyi wiggles her eyebrows knowingly, “that one’s just too pretty to miss.” She reaches into her pocket and pulls out her SmartBrick, clicking away on the key pad for a moment before passing it over to Yongsun.
The crystal on the screen is bright green, refracting light within itself so that it looks like the rock is shining. It’s very pretty, in a green sort of way, even if it wasn’t what Yongsun had been expecting.
“Nice,” she says, handing the SmartBrick back.
“And it’s one of the most common minerals in the Earth’s crust! We’re standing on it right now. Or rather, this building is, but you know what I mean,” Byulyi keeps on smiling. She looks so pleased with herself, so in love with her work.
Yongsun wonders what Esna would have to say about kissing in the lab. Nothing good, she imagines but given some of the antics that have gone on in the supply cupboard, it would hardly be the most shocking thing that ever occurred at PrimeEcco. She leans over and pecks Byulyi on the lips before anyone can tell her not to.
“I saw that!” Esna roars, “keep it in the bedroom for Christ’s sake.”
Byulyi looks suitably told off but her smile remains firm. Over her shoulder, Yongsun catches Moonseob’s eye as he gives her a double thumbs up. She feels so light, so happy, like her life is falling into place.
Seven years since she stopped pretending she knew what love was, Yongsun feels it tearing through her chest and singing through her blood. And it’s the happiest she’ll ever be.
It seems pointless to bother turning off the Infinity Microscope, there's no one to chide her for wasting fuel out here. The bacteria have grown so large in number that even without the oxygen canister, Yongsun can breathe freely, and she has only herself to thank for that little miracle of nature.
The door to the escape pod has been closed tight ever since Earth and so when she opens it up it’s one hundred percent bacteria free. She crams herself into the tiny space and imagines she has a familiar shoulder to rest her head on, and she does think of Byulyi, but she doesn’t cry.
The control screens flicker into life at a snail’s pace, no doubt the circuitry was disrupted by the crash. Yongsun peers at the stock information and sees that most of the fuel has leaked and the main ship has drained it of its oxygen supply. She never expected it to take her back to Earth, but she can’t pretend she’s not disappointed.
Yongsun wonders what happened to the fuel, if it soaked into the rock or trickled down into the ocean. They travelled to the next galaxy in the hope of finding somewhere they could start fresh and the first thing they managed to do was pollute. Typical.
Maybe the human race will die out on Earth, maybe it’s going to be one of the off world colonies that make it. The terraformed dome on Europa is supposed to be doing well. Maybe someone will work out how to fix all the damage they did to the planet, but not for a very long time.
There’s an interesting thought, what if it had been her? What if someone else had decided to take her on? She might have dedicated her life to the study of bio engineered waste management. In a parallel universe she made that choice, in this one she strands herself millions of light-years away from home.
Yongsun glances back towards the glowing hive of the lab, these guys aren’t so bad. It’s got to be at least eight years since they left Earth, maybe they’ve improved upon her original design, maybe they’re terraforming Io as she sits here.
She thinks about Esna, never quite in charge but more in control than any of them; Kibum, working so diligently for so long but never getting the recognition he deserved; Moonseob, to whom the job was just a job. She wonders what happened to them all, she wonders what happened to Professor Kim, and every time she thinks of someone else she left behind, it stings a little worse.
She’ll never know, meanwhile someone on Earth is going to spend years waiting for her to return home with Hyejin and Wheein and Cheolju and Byulyi and every day they’re going to grow a little less hopeful and a little more desperate. And they will never show up.
The sea and the sky meet half way up the horizon, grey on grey. Yongsun stares out at them and decides it will be the most beautiful view she’s ever laid eyes on. Drinking it in until she knows exactly when the next wave will break and how the white foam tumbling down the edges of the ocean will break the skyline.
She hits the button to close the door to the pod. It only takes a few minutes for the oxygen to run out.