White Sun of the Desert

MATT ZBROG

We’d been in Earth orbit for nearly 200 days when Chris started wailing that the world was ending. He was over in the station’s biolab, and I was up in telemetrics. I ignored him. We’d stopped speaking to each other over a week ago by mutual agreement, and I perceived his wailing to be a treaty-breaking form of aggression.

An emotional breakdown was not unexpected. Even before we’d lost contact with the surface, the relationship between Chris and I had deteriorated to the point that Mission Control had considered extracting us early, at enormous cost. Further isolation worsened matters. I’d long suspected that Chris would be the first to crack, as his mind was quite weak.

The wails continued. My god, Chris cried, oh the humanity, why, etcetera. I drifted over to the EVA locker to get myself a soundproof helmet. As I did, something outside the observation window briefly flashed in my peripheral vision. I turned and looked down at the Earth. Through some irregular cloud formations, I deduced that we were over the Arabian Peninsula. I was mentally tracing the outline of the Empty Quarter when I saw my first multi-megaton blast. The shockwaves rippled out in concentric rings, a pebble dropped in a lake. Before I’d fully digested what I’d seen, another blast hit, up on the Central Asian mainland. Then another, over on the Indian subcontinent. Pressing my nose against the window’s cold fused silica and borosilicate glass, I watched explosions of varying sizes pock all across the Earth’s surface, fallout clouds spreading through the spaces in between, until my breath fogged the window and blurred the world away. 

Once I was able to pull myself out of this thermonuclear trance, I realized I’d somehow giggled myself into a laughing fit. I couldn't explain it. The sheer absurdity of my reaction only served to feed it further. My laughter grew in intensity, rising to match Chris’s wails, until the two of us were howling like coyotes over a fresh kill, our oppositely-charged sounds reverberating and harmonizing in the cramped tin-can walls of the station. 

***

In press conferences, astronauts often remark upon the unifying clarity one experiences when viewing the borderless Earth from above. This is a little bit of made-for-TV bullshit, in my opinion. At first glance, yes, you feel a few warm and fuzzies, but stare long enough and the mind rebuilds all the borders.

I’ve never considered myself a particularly patriotic man, but looking down at the Earth’s scorched surface -- no continent seemingly left unscathed -- I felt an intense yearning for my homeland: for the icy slap of wind off the Dnieper; for homemade horseradish horilka; for golden wheat fields and enormous blue sky; for deep bowls of beetroot soup, the broth drawn from blanched pig bones.

I imagined Chris had his own longings, though I could only make educated guesses as to what they were: for 99-cent drive-thru burgers; for cowboy boots broken in with beeswax and bear grease; for a Stratocaster guitar and the smell of propane; for the roar of race cars going in circles at Talladega; for whatever little thing.

The thought of our longings being in some way equal frustrated me, and the suspicion that Chris almost certainly viewed his longings as superior to mine made me hate him even more than I already did.

***

Chris and I convened in the station’s multi-purpose capsule, presumably to discuss the end of the world. We positioned ourselves at opposite ends of the cramped shared area, our arms folded, our legs floating limply in microgravity. The silence between us felt different than the silence of the last hundred-plus orbits. I could still hear Chris’s wails in my head, as I’m sure he could hear my laughter. It was hard to know where to begin.

“You flushed the aft toilet incorrectly,” Chris began. “Again.”

“Yes,” I said, “that is the most pressing issue we face.”

“This is no time to lose commitment to protocol.”

“This is precisely the time.”

“Look,” Chris shouted, and then paused for a melodramatic breath. “We don’t know for sure what happened down there.”

“One of your Yankee brothers turned a key, pushed a big red button, boom.”

“Let’s just leave the politics out of it for a minute,” he said. “We need to make preparations for evac and re-entry.”

I was aghast at his insanity. The bluntness of his ignorance, the cavernous depths of his fractured logic. Given the events on Earth, re-establishing contact with Mission Control was more than unlikely in the near-term. Returning in the re-entry pod, unannounced and unaided, to a landing zone in the middle of the barren and now likely radioactive Kazakh Steppe, was a most unpleasant way to commit suicide. 

The clear course of action was to stay and wait for conditions to improve. The station was outfitted for a long-duration mission. Our current supplies could hold out for another 100 days, minimum. If rations were halved, and if power were re-routed from non-essential functions, like the biolab, we could stay in orbit for nearly a year. 

“The work in the biolab is vital,” Chris said, interrupting my train of thought. “We’ll need to transfer whatever samples we have to the re-entry pod before we depart.”

“Should I do that before or after I restore the aft toilet’s functionality?”

“Slava,” he said, pronouncing my name, as always, with that hideous drawl on the vowels. “I’m still the commanding officer of this station.”

“Yob tvoyu mat.”

“Speak human, please.”

I made an offensive gesture with my right hand.

All hierarchies had disintegrated with the cities below. 

“Well, I leave in 16 hours,” Chris said. “With or without you.”

***

It was hard to say with certainty where my contempt for Chris began, but I suspected that the first kernel of it arrived with White Sun of the Desert. A Soviet film from 1970, nearly a half-century of tradition dictates that all departing astronauts must watch it the night before launch at Baikonur. I’d seen it before, of course, having grown up under the Soviet heel. An Eastern take on the American Western, its plot is simple: Russian revolutionary navigates an indigenous Central Asian population with blithe humor and folksy wisdom. I’d enjoyed it, as a child, viewing it as harmless fun.

Not until I was a teenager, in the cold Christmas after independence, did I hear a dissenting opinion: my father’s. He said the film was propaganda, plain and simple. I argued that it was actually thumbing its nose at the concept of propaganda, and painting a more complex portrait of an empire’s frontier than any American Western. This led to the most severe argument my father and I had ever had. He called the film a vandal's scrawl across the truth of history, a poisoned pill for the mind-bludgeoned masses. Our family had been ravaged by the same entities which conspired to make such a film, he said, and ravaged again by the audiences that had cheered them on. Genocide, starvation, war, oppression, what, met with a smirk! I’m putting his words into finer language than what was used at the time, seeing as he’d been drinking. Our debate was never settled. It ended with him throwing a full glass of vodka at our boxy black-and-white TV. 

Watching the film again at Baikonur, with Chris, was a completely different experience. He nodded wisely at the film’s commentary on the role of women in the household. He chuckled at all the right lines, even with the questionable subtitling. We cheered together as the hero prevailed in the end, and I felt vindicated over my father. It truly was harmless fun. 

But in the final scene, with our hero marching off into the distance -- the blue sky above him, the yellow sand of the desert below -- Chris elbowed me softly and, turning to me, said, “Man, you Russkies really had it good back then, huh?”

His face was frozen in a sort of half-smirk.

“Chris,” I said. “You know that I am Ukrainian.”

“Right,” he said, shrugging. “You know what I mean.”

I looked down and realized that he’d been hogging our shared armrest throughout the entire screening. Surely he must’ve noticed, too. This was but the first of several infringements upon the sovereign boundaries of my personal space, minor skirmishes against my own individual authority that would eventually flare into a full-on war. 

***

After Chris issued me his ultimatum — with or without you in 24 hours — I floated back to telemetrics to run some numbers, to get some facts, to find hard data that could resuscitate his gasping mind. 

If Chris did in fact take the re-entry pod and leave without me, I’d need to count on Mission Control financing, planning, building, and launching an entirely new mission to retrieve me. But, in light of a nuclear holocaust which surely would’ve prioritized sensitive, high-tech targets like those capable of launching a rocket, marooning me on the station would be a slow and torturous form of murder. I’d be better off tumbling down to Earth with Chris and hoping to die quickly on atmospheric re-entry. 

The only sensible thing was for both of us to stay. We’d re-establish contact eventually. Or, even if we didn’t, we’d know more in 100 days than we did at this moment. How could I get Chris to see logic? And, if I couldn’t, what was I prepared to do? As I pondered the dark and spidering decision trees in my head, a blinking savior appeared on the telemetry screens: a Chinese station, in irregular orbit, which would, just briefly, soon cross our path. 

I sent it a ping. No reply. It wasn’t clear if that mattered. Its power was on, and, from archived schematics, I was able to discern that its structure was compatible with our pod. We could dock. And, more importantly, it still had a pod of its own. That meant that even if the Chinese station had no contact with the surface, even if its whole crew was dead, Chris and I could still part ways equitably, a pod each. Everyone could get what they wanted. No matter how outrageous a scenario I envisioned -- the taikonauts fighting us off with improvised weapons -- the Chinese station still presented more options than we otherwise had, and removed none. 

One critical flaw in the plan remained: Chris was predisposed to disagree with anything I said. I knew that to be true, because I felt the same about him. A quick calculation on the dashboard revealed that the Chinese station would be out of range in less than four hours. How could that ever be enough time to change Chris’s mind, to make him see reason, to bridge the vast relational chasm between us which had, since launch day, grown exponentially?

***

While I had my suspicions as to the origin of my contempt for Chris, I was at a loss to explain the origin of his contempt for me. It could have been anything from the way I slurped my food tubes to the noises I made in my sleep. But even more of a mystery was how our shared enmity had flourished. Was isolation the superconductor of conflict and disagreement? This is what we should have been studying in the biolab instead of cancer-ridden tissue samples and the fluid mechanics of jellyfish in reduced gravity. 

After our first hundred orbits on the station, Chris and I had stopped nodding as we passed one another. Then we’d stopped saying good morning, stopped saying goodnight, and, eventually, pared our communication back to mission-critical tasks only. All of this felt like a very natural process, efficient and clean, a river into a waterfall.  

But at some point the current reversed. His minor infractions stuck to the roof of my mind like taped Polaroids, and I’d find myself staring at them, with my eyes closed, late into the night. Petty complaints became the main topic of conversation. There was always this stab of implicit blame: the faulty aft toilet and things of that nature. It’d almost come as a relief when we’d lost contact with the surface, and thus had even fewer reasons to interact with one another. Still, the very presence of one of us stirred up deep disdain in the other. No isolated event, not even White Sun of the Desert, was capable of radiating this much dark energy. Yet the frictions between us grew on their own, like the cancer samples in the biolab, until they each became their own quiet monsters. 

To my embarrassment, I’d on more than one occasion fantasized about killing him.  

***

I tracked down Chris in the living quarters, where, with his back to me, he was carefully pulling down the photos he’d had taped to the bulkhead above his Velcro-strap bunk. A woman in a polka-dot, knee-length dress. A shaggy haired dog, tongue out and slobbering. Watching him remove the photos with such delicacy, I felt a pang of emotion, likely a small dose of the same emotion that now clouded Chris’s judgment. I decided to use this against him.

“They could still be alive,” I said.

My voice startled him, and, as he swiveled to face me, I watched his eyes settle from surprise into a look of suspicion. What dark thoughts snarled behind his silence? Was he wondering the same about me? Calmly, with my palms raised, I grounded us back in reality by explaining what I’d learned in telemetrics. How we could each follow our own preferred path -- his to the surface, and mine in continued orbit -- by linking up with the Chinese.

“The Chinese?” he said. “For all we know, they’re the bastards that started that whole mess down there.”

“I thought we were leaving the politics out of it.”

He flapped his hand at me and went back to collecting his belongings.

It was time to take a different track. After a few beats, I stumbled into a stilting apology. How I was sorry for the way our relationship had deteriorated. How I was just now beginning to take responsibility for my part in it. How I understood why he felt the need to return to the surface, regardless of the astronomical risk. How I now saw the importance of the samples in the biolab -- they were his life’s work, his chief purpose on this mission, and if they meant anything they meant his wretched experiences aboard the station had been worth something. I told Chris I’d been selfishly ignorant of his views up until now, and I wanted to make amends, I wanted to try.

“Then get your ass to the lab and start packing up samples so we can leave,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” I said, giving a brief salute.

For this, I received nothing more than a grumble, a stern nod. He hadn’t believed a word I’d said. It hardly mattered. It was all a lie. I checked my watch: still plenty of time.

 

I floated down the station’s corridors and up to the biolab. In view of Chris’s continued obstinance, the only logical response was mutiny. I’d have to take the pod, alone, to the Chinese station, where I could finally convene with some colleagues of sound mind. I imagined the outcome of this scenario with some amusement — Chris, alone, marooned, doomed to the same fate he would’ve doomed me — as I un-Velcroed my trousers and took a divine, ultra low-gravity piss all over his precious biolab. 

***

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Chris floating at me with a space helmet in his hand. I was still mid-stream. Golden globs of piss hung in the air between us as he sailed closer, helmet-holding arm cocked back in anticipation of hitting me. I attempted to direct my piss in his direction. He proceeded towards me, undeterred, brow furrowed and nostrils flared. I deflected his first swing with my arm, then defended myself with a stray oxygen tube, which I promptly looped and tightened around his throat. He continued to swing at me with the helmet, bashing at my skull, occasionally connecting and sending red droplets of blood off to float. The force of our actions sent us twisting in hovered space, orbiting one another, tethered together. I squeezed tighter around his airway. By the time he let go of the helmet to pry at the tube around his neck, it was already too late. All I had to do was not stop what I’d been doing. The look in his eyes as the life left them was one of total and hopeless confusion. 

 

I held on long after he was dead. 

***

Acknowledging what I’d done felt like waking from a dream. I could hear the hum of the station again, judge my own size within its cramped frame. It was cold. Out the starboard window, countless distant suns twinkled in the infinite and expanding black desert of space. There was no one left to blame. What strange and evolutionary force is it that drives two people to violence over the mundane? I turned and stared out the port window, where the curved earth sat shrouded in nuclear winter, as saline droplets blinked out my eyelids. 

***

Those of us who grew up in the waning days of the Soviet Union know what it’s like to watch an imperfect world collapse. In such a moment, there is both a deep mourning for those left behind, and a powerful drive to look out for one’s own survival. This compound response to catastrophe is soldered into us. It’s madness marshalled by necessity.

I pulled Chris’s corpse out of the biolab, down through the station, and loaded him into the pod, where I strapped him to the co-pilot seat. Securing myself next to him, I powered up the pod, detached us from the station, and thrust our vessel out into space, towards the Chinese. There were no flaws in this plan. 

 

We were on the dark side now, and a blanket of shadow had fallen across the Earth. No urban light patterns twinkled below. This was the truly borderless world. My thoughts drifted to the Eastern philosophies, to that inner realm of transcendent monks. So above, so below.

 

I’d spent so much of my life running on circular tracks, crunching multivariate equations, studying the asymmetric gears of the English language. On those late autumn nights in my unheated dormitory, I’d looked with disdain upon my peers — could I call them peers, even? — who hustled smuggled American denim, drank vodka on concrete stoops, fought and fell in love with polka-dot women. I forsook those earthly pleasures and pursued instead a life of science, of rigor, of calculable truth. This, I’d been certain, was proof of my own superiority. But I was not so certain now. Psychological buzzards circled above my wheezing conscience. I did my best to focus on the mission at hand. 

 

“You and me,” Chris said, “are dogs of the same breed.”

 

“That is just the sort of trite thing you would say.”

 

“Antagonistic to the end,” he said.

 

“We are dogs of the same breed, wow, how profound,” I said. “Tell me then, why was our dysfunction so great?”

 

“Because dogs fight,” he shrugged, pulling a cigar from a Velcroed breast pocket. “Christ, the entire enterprise of space travel was birthed from competition between stubborn old hounds like us. Enmity for the other goes with the territory. That’s your fancy word, isn’t it? Enmity.”

 

Chris pulled out a book of matches and struck a light to the tip of his cigar. He dragged in deeply, stoking the embers and sending spirals of smoke out into the dashboard-lit darkness of the pod. I’d never seen anyone smoke in space before. 

 

“Do you have another cigar, by chance?”

 

“Sorry, bucko,” he said, exhaling rings. “Dead man’s privilege.”

 

“Of course. May I ask... what death is like?”

 

“Well,” he said, then paused to ash his cigar. A grin struck across his lips. “It’s funny.”

 

I waited for him to go on, but he did not.

 

“I’m sorry for killing you,” I said. 

 

“Yeah, and I’m sorry for coming at you with the helmet and for a million other things,” he sighed. “You know this old cosmonaut, Valery Ryumin? Did 175 days on Salyut 6. He said if you want to instigate an act of manslaughter, just go ahead and shut two men up in an 18 by 20 foot area for a month, and human nature will take care of the rest. He was quoting someone else, I think, but you get the point.” 

 

“You,” I said, “are forgiving me?”

 

“Sure, I guess,” he said, "Can’t forgive the self until you forgive the other.”

 

I glanced down at the darkened Earth.

 

“Why couldn’t we talk like this before?” I asked. 

 

“A certain border needed to be crossed,” he said. “To be erased. This is how all intimacy and knowledge is attained.”

 

“Death has made you wise.”

 

“Yeah, well,” Chris said. “I’d prefer to be alive and stupid, to tell you the truth.”

***

The klaxons of proximity alarms, which signaled our imminent collision with the Chinese station, snapped me out of my madness. I managed to veer off course in time to avert total disaster. We merely smashed off one of the Chinese station’s trillion-yuan solar arrays. I stabilized the pod’s yaw and pitch and ran a damage assessment. We’d lost partial thruster control, and, given our remaining power, I did not have long to decide whether or not to make a second run at it.

 

Glancing over at the corpse beside me yielded no insight. Chris’s face was frozen in the same expression it’d been in when I’d strangled the life out of him. The adrenaline of a practical emergency had cut through the narcotic haze of my suit’s transdermal diphenhydramine patch and flushed the hallucinations away. 

 

Why was it, again, that had I brought my dead colleague along? And why was I even concerned with reaching the Chinese station anymore, now that I had the pod, and our own station, to myself? The only practical reason for this whole unhinged foray would’ve been to pursue the hope that the Chinese station had contact, somehow, with the Earth below; bringing Chris along, on the other hand, could’ve been explained by some sort of antiquated wartime chivalry. But the most logical answer to both questions, and the most likely one, was that I just didn’t want to be alone. Perhaps I thought I could start over on the Chinese station, make friends, learn Mandarin, maybe even fall in love. I didn’t want to become a bitter old man throwing vodka at the television. But did I really have the strength to face the world, to start over in this way? 

 

Re-entry is a violent procedure, even on a good day. The atmosphere heats the returning pod to unreal temperatures, and plasma flares across the portholes in orange and red, giving off the sensory suggestion that one is crashing into the sun. When the parachute eventually deploys, any presumptive lull is overridden by the havoc experienced in one’s own body. The vestibular system is totally scrambled and you can’t tell up from down. Blood rushes to your head. The spine, which has stretched up to three inches in microgravity, compresses. Your heart, which has been working half shifts, must now thump harder and stronger to match Earth’s normal rhythms. Even if you’re lucky enough to land safely, on a dry patch of land, you will not be able to stand. The weight of your own body will be too much for your atrophied muscles to lift. Under nominal conditions, upon landing, an S&R team would come and lift you and your dead friend out of the capsule, then plop you down in lawn chairs on the Kazakh Steppe, giving you time and assistance in re-acclimation. 

 

These were not nominal conditions. We’d have to learn to do everything all over again, and we’d have to do it ourselves. That was the best case scenario, for us and for any survivors below: to learn to do everything all over again.

 

Up in the pod, we were headed into sunrise. Light streaked outward across the curve of the Earth. Rippled clouds covered the planet, rendering it a marbled milky nebula with no distinguishable borders, everything floating into everything else. Then I caught a glimpse of dry golden land peeking out, unrecognizable as any individual territory. That was it. I punched in the final commands and sent us screaming back into the world. Over the roar of our descent, I heard Chris begin to laugh.

Matt Zbrog is a Californian writer who's been living abroad since 2016. His fiction has appeared in X-R-A-Y, Little Death, Muskeg Magazine, and others. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_Says, on Instagram @weirdviewmirror, or in one of the dimly lit bars of the former Soviet Union.