She wanted me to be the first to know.
We’d met so she could tell me she was leaving.
It shook me. I wanted so badly to run out of there and never go back. But you can’t run when your feet feel rooted to the floor.
This is what you wanted, right? Ok. I ramble sometimes.
I spit out my congratulations over my coffee. I forced myself to smile. I can only imagine how easy my front was to see through. I’m not exactly an actress, in case you can’t tell.
When I finally looked up, she was clutching her arms, making herself small. She always did that when didn’t want me to be angry. That was how she was: obsequious, a people-pleaser, the kind of person a lot of low-level ISEA people didn’t respect. They thought that space was all about stone-faced suffering.
It wasn’t my place to be angry. She was better than me. She passed the flight test. She’d called me up to tell me the news in person, which I never would’ve done.
I put down my coffee, trying not to meet her eyes again. I was staring out the window when I felt her take my hand. We sat like that for a long time, searching for grip.
“The bases in Tharsis only call for a three-year tour,” she said. “I’ll be helping them set up new geothermals. Then I’ll be back here.”
I took my hand away. “Rowan, come on.”
“Ayla,” she said. “It’s not everything.”
I took a sip. The coffee was getting cold. Over the cup, I said: “For people like us, it is.”
That was the truest thing I’d said in the years since we graduated. None of us were content to sit around in the cradle. We’d grown. Try and keep cassava in a standard growpod, you can always trim it back; try and keep Series Six Corn in one, and it will smash the pod to pieces.
She knew I was right. She was going to Mars, and I was staying behind.
I wanted to tell her I would’ve done the same thing in her shoes. She had nothing to hold her here on Earth, not when Space was waiting for her.
They taught us the mission was everything. Rowan believed that. So did I, as much as a washout could.
Then, a bomb:
“Ayla,” she said. “Don’t you want to leave too?”
When she said those words, I felt like I hadn’t timed my regulator right, and I was running out of oxygen.
I had tried to tell myself that I wasn’t built for Space, that there was plenty to do here on Earth. Arcologies, ag systems, Earth needs those too. I was trying so hard to bury my failure and she took a bore system to it, and pulled it out of the ground.
I couldn’t tell you how many times I failed the flight exam. Some ISEA archivist can, but I can’t. I got up there, past the stratosphere, and I wasn’t prepared for it. The simulations never prepared me for the real thing. There was just too much, the stars too bright, the expanse to big. Some could fight through it. Rowan did. But I wasn’t her. To get off this planet you needed more than I was. I had given my all, and still Space wanted more from me.
“I won’t be leaving for a year,” she said. “I can help you. We can do it together.”
She was always doing stuff like that: trying to drag me along in spite of myself. Trying to make me something that I wasn’t.
A person who fails like I did is supposed to keep moving, find some other source of meaning. I never did. I just let everything turn to shit. It felt good to do it. People underestimate that: how good it feels to wallow in your own self-hatred.
When you’re in that spot, it’s easy to confuse pity and faith. I thought Rowan pitied me. It hurt almost as much as my inadequacy.
She reached out a few times, but I didn’t see much of her after that. I busied myself with nothing. I gave up my calisthenics, which I’d been doing since I could remember. I stopped reading. I let myself wash into screens.
I barely remember getting the invitation in the mail.
It wasn’t glittering or anything like that. It was woven steel, meant to last forever. You couldn’t tear it or crush it. Left by itself nothing short of a smelter could break it down. We made only the best books out of it back then, the stuff we pondered for centuries rather than a screen-cycle.
Rowan was leaving on January 27th. The shuttle was bound for Mars. It would then be broken up to move on to the Gas Giants and the Ice Giants, collecting people from Mars to help build the furthest outposts, moving ever onward.
When the day came, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t remember. In school Rowan and I had watched every one, wondering when our turn would come. I didn’t think much of them anymore. But I knew that January 27th was a day I was supposed to remember.
That day, I saw the ship explode. It was all over the feeds. Even I couldn’t avoid it.
It was a failed launch, a one-in-a-million shot. I can’t even remember why. But I do remember tearing apart my paper piles to find the invitation. In steel, it was still there, with the launch number and the date. I matched it.
My hands started shaking. I collapsed. I was so weak at that point, I broke.
When I got back up, I turned the screens off. My head was pounding for days afterward.
I got the invitation to the funeral the same way I got the invitation to the launch. It was paper.
The funeral was the first time in a long time I’d been outside. I looked at myself in the mirror before I left. I wouldn’t have been surprised if somebody put me on an info-feed so people could gawk at my translucent skin.
Rowan’s family had an old space-farer tradition where you pass the ashes around. Rowan remains were in a steel canister, no bigger than a coffee cup. A human being, reduced to ash, is only three pounds. Even in life her body was built like a sparrow. She was a perfect fit for it.
When I took hold of that canister, I felt a shock pulse through my body. I realized she never made it to space.
In the months since I’d failed, I was so sure I wasn’t enough. I was never enough for the mission. But in that moment, the mission collapsed inside me. In its place was something small, pulsing in the depths.
Rowan gave everything. She was all-in. Nothing held her.
I wanted that too. I wanted to follow the path she’d laid out for me. Even if I’d rejected her when she wanted to help me walk it, I wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
I wish I could say it was easy after that. I was still ISEA, I could roll with the best of them. But it would be another fifty years before I would make it up here, before they would need arcologies on Io.
When I found myself up here, I could see some truth. What exactly that means, I don’t know. You’ll have to come to my funeral to figure that one out.
But I do know you can’t mourn a person like Rowan. You can be sad she’s gone. But to mourn somebody is to think they’re not still adding to this story. And she is. Through these hands, she is.
So when you ask me about Rowan’s life, and how sad it was that she passed, I can’t help you. She’s the reason I’m here, the reason I built myself into something better than I was.
Put that in your report.
International Space Exploration Agency Archive Record 670127