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The Last Astronaut

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"Detach in three...two...one...disengaging cable."

Land neither felt nor heard the cable tethering her to the ship detach, but when she turned her bulk to face in that direction she could see it slowly winding back into the bay. Her last physical connection to the ship carried a heavier symbolic weight than that single cable; she might be in radio contact, but she was alone now. She was separate. Land watched the cable until it was sealed back into the hull and let the loss sink in when it was gone.

She didn't reply to the voice in her helmet. It was only a recording, after all.

Kaplan used to call him Fuzzy, the man at the other end of the line, maybe because of the terrible sound quality of the audio transmissions but probably because of the scraggly beard he'd been trying to grow the last time they'd actually seen him, a year before their departure from Mars. Kaplan also used to call her Red, for the colour her ever-changing hair'd been the first time he met her, so Kaplan didn't have the most profound imagination. He stopped calling him Fuzzy the day the departure order came, saying people who killed the space program didn't deserve nicknames. Land might have told him he was shooting the messenger, but she bit her tongue and got used to him saying Fusco instead.

Her landing ship had never been designed for a side trip to the moon, and the calculations that brought her to this rock instead of continuing on to Earth with Kaplan and the rest of her crew had been done on the fly. She wondered if Fusco'd helped with them after all.

Land's destination, the very purpose of this journey, wasn't visible from her landing site but she'd been told in which direction to go—it must lay somewhere just beyond the short horizon, somewhere beyond her ken.

The gravity here was even less than it had been on Mars and she gave herself some time to get used to it, her first steps more hurtles than glides until she sorted out just how much pressure to kick off with, at what angle she should incline her body to move smoothly across the terrain. By the time she looked back, she'd already moved beyond a rocky rise and could see only barren moonscape on all sides.

It didn't matter. This journey was all that stood now between life as she knew it and going back to Earth for good, and as uninviting as the path looked, it was better than the alternative.

The writing had been on the wall for a long time, but the decision when it came still felt sudden and reckless. In response to the crash of the Erebus, a consortium of space agencies came together on one simple, heartbreaking decision: with a lack of recent progress and the flood of recent setbacks, their collective budgets would be better spent on resource management on Earth than on resource extraction elsewhere.

And now Land was set on the course of the Erebus crash site, the failure that caused the final collapse of everything she'd worked her whole life towards. It was not the first failure but it would be the last, and Orlanda Levine the very last of her kind, too. It was because of the Erebus that those few future missions she had to look forward to were reclassified as future failures and left to rot before they ever got off the ground.

A part of her wished that someone else had taken the call—no, the calling. That Fusco's disembodied voice had said someone else's name. Another part of her was glad it was her, that she at least had this. When the rest of them were acclimating to Earth gravity again she would still be here, the last astronaut.

Where she walked now, for a definition of walk that included elegant gliding leaps, had been the swath of most promise for decades, mission after mission seeking the lunar El Dorado, trying to extract secrets from the landscape that remained furiously locked away. Land was alone on this world, but she was not alone on this path.

She didn't need the readings inside her helmet to spot a glint of metal off to her right, and for a ridiculous moment longed for the companionship of what Earthly microbes might still cling to it. But she chose not to tempt fate for a bit of debris, an empty and discarded O2 tank, a piece of expended landing gear. This wasn't what she was looking for, and her own resources would run very thin as it was without taking a side trip on a side trip.

A crackle sounded in her helmet, not a communication but the lander going through expected and routine maintenance, making sure that she would theoretically be able to unland when her last mission was done. The ship seemed to be more interested in that than Fusco and the rest of mission control. The ship might actually be more interested in that than she was.

What was the point, she wondered, of finding the Erebus if the space program was already done for? What could she possibly learn from it that would be useful anymore? Maybe the truth was there only been enough resources to get Kaplan and the crew minus Land back home to Earth, and when she returned to her ship she would realise that this whole charade was to leave her behind.

And maybe it wasn't a terrible thing, if it had been.

This was what Land did, she put her feet on other worlds, went those places where others feared to tread. On Earth she was in a laboratory or teaching or talking to schoolchildren. It would never, could never, be this, looking at the world from the other side, looking at the stars from another angle, looking at other skies.

Land was the last astronaut and the most external validation she was going to get out of it was to one day be the answer to an obscure trivia question. There was only going forward from here.

A dark smudge appeared on the horizon just when Land had nearly given up hope, wondered if the crash site had been misidentified or someone had somehow got there before her, dismantling the ship for parts or maybe giving the space program the respectful burial it deserved instead of being buried in paperwork and the dashed dreams of countless people. But there is stood, just a mile away now, give or take. Her helmet gave her the exact distance, down to the centimetre. Land didn't care.

Would there be bodies, she wondered, of the crew that crashed here? Did they survive the crash, only to perish as resources dwindled and no help ever came? There might be nothing left for her to salvage for the journey home. There might be nothing at all. She might reach the dark wreck and take her place among the fallen, low on oxygen and ready to take this triumph for what it was.

It was both more and less than she imagined. It was not the shattered wreck it might have been, but in being intact it also seemed diminished. Small and insignificant against the landscape. There were tests to run and diagnostics to perform to give Fusco what the team back on Earth asked for, some meaningless numbers from a meaningful trip, but right now she just looked at it. Just stood there and looked at her own life and what it had come to. This, a moment on a dim and stony satellite.

She called in her arrival over the radio, to dead air from which she expected no response, like sounding a horn in the wilderness.