That was the thought that kept going through Catherine’s mind as she showered and dressed for her last day in isolation. The room was small, ten by ten, with a twin bed, a desk, and a pocket-size bathroom. Once she’d made contact with Houston, the ship had felt more confining than ever, and the three months it had taken her to reach Earth interminable. She hadn’t thought anything could be more frustrating, but these past three weeks in isolation had almost been worse. She was so close to her real life, to the outside world, yet she was still trapped. Knowing it was just feet beyond her reach made the wait all the more maddening.
But one more briefing, and then she’d be able to see Aimee and David for real, without layers of heavy glass between them. She could finally hold them both.
Now she knew: nine years. Nine years had passed since the launch, and Aimee was nearly eighteen, almost all grown up and looking so much like Catherine’s mother, Nora, that Catherine had choked up on seeing her. Nora was still alive, now in hospice care near Catherine’s sister in Chicago. A decade after Nora’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, that was still better than Catherine had hoped to find.
Not all the surprises were pleasant ones.
She tried to push aside thoughts of Maggie, someone Catherine had known and loved as a friend. Maggie, who’d been in their wedding, who’d been one of the first to show up at the hospital after Aimee was born. Who’d sat at Catherine’s dining table for countless dinners.
Maggie, who had always been prettier than Catherine, more poised.
Maggie, who was now stepping aside but who somehow still felt so present.
It was no one’s fault in the same way that a hurricane was no one’s fault: even without anyone to blame, the damage was immense. So now there was nothing to do but try to rebuild what was broken, put the pieces back together.
There was a knock at her door. Aaron Llewellyn was a tall, tanned cowboy of a man. As flight director of Sagittarius II, he was her new boss by default. He was a good man, but she desperately missed Michael Ozawa, Sagittarius I’s flight director. He’d been a friend, and he hadn’t deserved to die thinking he was a failure.
Catherine took a deep breath to clear her thoughts. Her flight commander Ava Gidzenko’s voice in her head was a steadying presence. Keep your shit together, Cath. Tell them what you know, one last time, and then you can go home.
“You ready?” Llewellyn asked. “I know you’ve got to be sick of telling your story, but thank you for humoring us. Cal and I just want to dig into a few more details that might relate to Sagittarius II.”
Cal Morganson. There was another unexpected—unpleasant—surprise. From the gruff voice, the barely there Texas accent, she would have expected someone who looked more like Aaron Llewellyn, NASA’s version of the Marlboro Man, not the tall, wiry young guy who’d introduced himself on her first day back. She’d since learned he was a NASA prodigy of sorts, a fixer. In several briefings, she’d caught him watching her with cold, blue, wolfish eyes behind tortoiseshell glasses (oh God, were those trendy again?), studying her as if she were a problem that needed fixing. If it weren’t for those eyes, for that expression, she would’ve said he was cute.
“I’m not sick of it,” Catherine said truthfully. “I keep hoping that if I talk about it enough, I might start to actually remember more of it.” She was the only person alive who had set foot on a planet outside Earth’s solar system, and she couldn’t remember any of it. What sort of massive cosmic joke was that? Even the parts of the mission she did remember felt like something that had happened to someone else. Dr. Darzi, her psychiatrist, kept saying this was normal.
Normal. She was already sick of the word. It didn’t feel normal. Nothing about this felt normal. She was forty-three years old, and a huge chunk of her life was just . . . gone. From shortly after Sagittarius and her crew entered the wormhole until six months after Catherine left TRAPPIST-1f alone, there
was nothing but a blank spot on the recording in her mind. She was forty-three, but she’d never been thirty-seven.
Of course Claire Tomason and Richie Almeida would never see thirty-seven either, but for a different reason. After nearly six years alone in space, Catherine thought she was through the worst of the grief for her crew. Coming home had reawakened everything. It was like losing them all over again.
She hadn’t expected that so much about coming home would hurt this much. The pain of understanding the scope of her memory loss. The pain of learning about Maggie. The pain of returning without her crew. And the pain of just being. Even stepping out of her quarters into the hallway hurt.
The lights of the hallway stabbed into her eyes, and she reached for the sunglasses she now carried everywhere. The lights on Sagittarius had been designed to acclimatize the crew to the perpetual twilight of TRAPPIST-1f. No doubt there’d been a similar acclimatization program planned for their trip home, but Catherine had never found it. Since her return, she’d been wearing progressively lighter sunglasses. The lights in her quarters had started out dim, slowly brightening, although they were still low. The lights in the hallway were not.
Llewellyn noticed her squinting. “I’ve had them turn the lights down in the conference room. It shouldn’t be so bad there.”
“Thanks.” The lighting wasn’t the only physical difficulty. The gravity on TRAPPIST-1f was weaker than that on Earth, and Catherine hadn’t kept up with her exercise program on the way home. She’d been badly deconditioned when she’d landed. Walking across a room had left her winded and tired. Even now, despite extensive physical therapy, her body still didn’t feel like her own. She’d felt the same way after giving birth to Aimee—that her body was forever altered in ways she would keep discovering for years.
“Here we are.” Llewellyn looked down at her and gave her a reassuring smile as they reached the door of the conference room. “You ready to get this over with?”
“Hell yes,” Catherine breathed. After this, she could go home, go back to work, and resume her interrupted life.
The conference room was taken up by a long table, a little ridiculous with
its single occupant down at one end with water glasses and a pitcher. Cal didn’t look up from his tablet as they came in. Only when she and Aaron took their seats near him did he glance at her. “Good morning, Colonel Wells.”
“Good morning.” Catherine poured herself a glass of water. She took off her sunglasses, then folded her hands on the table, clasping them tightly to suppress the urge to fidget.
Cal fiddled with his tablet and started the recording. “This is Cal Morganson, here with Aaron Llewellyn and Lieutenant Colonel Catherine Wells.” He stated the date and time, then pushed the tablet forward, between the three of them.
Aaron started. “You’ve said in prior briefings that you have no memory at all of the time between roughly Mission Day 865 and Mission Day 1349, a gap of four-hundred eighty-four days. There’s still absolutely nothing you recall from that period?”
“No,” Catherine answered, wishing she could say otherwise. It was as if she’d talked to Ava right after they entered the wormhole, and then a moment later she was alone on the ship, with all the evidence telling her she’d left the TRAPPIST-1 system six months earlier. “All of it is still a complete blank. Dr. Darzi says that some memory loss is to be expected. I understand the last astronaut who went through ERB Prime also had some memory issues.”
“Iris Addy didn’t forget sixteen months,” Morganson commented, looking through his notes.
Everyone around NASA knew about Commander Iris Addy. She’d been the first to go through the wormhole, nearly ten years before the launch of Sagittarius. Just a quick trip through and back. Except Catherine heard the rumors that she’d come back wrong. Hearing voices. Claiming to have no memory of parts of the trip. All Catherine knew for certain was that Addy had gotten violent with another astronaut and washed out. No one had seen or heard from her since. No one talked about her officially anymore. It was as if she’d never existed.
Llewellyn stepped in before Catherine could respond. “Commander Addy’s trip was much shorter. And we know now there may have been a few . . . additional factors related to her problems after returning home. I think we can agree that Colonel Wells’s experience is unique. There’s no way
to compare it to anyone else’s.” He turned to Catherine and gave her a reassuring smile. It was a smile that said I’m on your side. You can trust me. Which automatically made Catherine suspicious.
“Tell us the last thing you remember before the gap, and the first thing after,” Llewellyn said.
You can do this. Would this be the time she remembered something new? “The mission was going as planned. We were on schedule traveling through ERB Prime, and the planned experiments were going well. The last clear memory I have is of a conversation with Commander Ava Gidzenko about adjusting our ETA, since we seemed to be ahead of schedule. That was sometime around Mission Day 865, because Commander Gidzenko commented on it in the ship’s log.” The logs were the only reason she knew for certain that they’d even reached the TRAPPIST-1 system, but the entries stopped shortly before they landed.
Cal spoke. “Commander Gidzenko’s private logs mention some tension among the crew around that time, but she didn’t go into specifics.”
That was new information. Had Ava been referring to— She hadn’t written that down, had she? She’d promised. Cath, I’m not even calling this a verbal reprimand. Call it being a worried friend. Deal with it before it blows up, and I’ll keep pretending I don’t know anything.
A sudden paranoia grabbed Catherine by the throat and shook her. Each of the crew had written private log entries. She had reviewed the public entries, but she couldn’t access the private ones. Her own personal log entries had been wiped sometime during her blank period, leaving nothing before Mission Day 865. She had no idea when or why they’d been deleted. It wasn’t as if she’d written anything incriminating . . .
But what had the others written? What had they seen? How much did NASA know? Breathe. If they knew everything, you’d know by now.
“Sorry, sir.” She clenched her jaw. It galled her to call him “sir.” “That’s news to me. Commander Gidzenko didn’t talk to me about any problems among the rest of the crew.” That was the absolute truth.
“And the first thing after the gap?”
Catherine shook her head. “It was like waking up from a dream. There are snatches of memory, doing some of the planned experiments, making a meal . . . Day 1349 was the first day it really came to me that I was alone, and that I shouldn’t be. I thought the ship’s mission clock had to be wrong at first, but there was so much evidence on board that we’d landed—the Habitat module wreckage, the depletion of the supplies, the missing rover . . . That’s when I first realized things were terribly wrong.”
She could still feel that panic clawing in her mind even six years later, and remembered how she’d run blindly from one crew quarters to another, praying she’d find her missing colleagues there.
At times it felt as if she might drown beneath a massive tsunami of delayed grief. Every time she sat down to retell her story in yet another debrief, there were ghosts behind her, pushing at her, needing her to tell their stories as well. But how could she tell their stories when she couldn’t even remember her own?
The questions came from both men now, fast and hard.
“And so nothing out of the ordinary was going on before Sagittarius left the wormhole, nothing that was kept out of the logs?”
“No sir.” Another technical truth.
“You have no memory of Mission Day 1137, or of any of the circumstances around it? Nothing about what happened to the rest of the Sagittarius I crew?”
“No, sir. I wish I did.” God, I wish I did. How can I ever face Ava’s kids and tell them I don’t know what happened to their mom?
“What about the Habitat debris on board Sagittarius? Do you remember anything about that?”
“No, sir. All I know is what I’ve been told since coming home. On Mission Day 1137, all contact between Earth and TRAPPIST-1f ended abruptly, and all life-support signals from the crew ceased, including mine.” She survived; what if the others had as well? Had she just abandoned them? No, she wouldn’t have. She couldn’t have. “I’ve thought about it, and all I can figure is that if the Habitat was destroyed, I would have tried to bring the debris back with me, for analysis, to figure out what happened.”
“Colonel Wells.” Morganson spoke up again, and he lifted his head to look
at her. She was struck again by how attractive he might have been, with his messy brown hair and boyish features, if there’d been any hint of warmth to him. “What do you think happened on Mission Day 1137? Surely in six years, you’ve formulated a theory.”
“I—” Catherine looked at Aaron, but he seemed interested in her answer as well. “I’ve asked myself that question every single day.” It was more than that. The question tormented her. Over the six years that she was alone with nothing to do but think, she’d come up with a thousand possible scenarios, some more improbable than others, most of them—at least to some degree—her fault. Coming home, she’d hoped that maybe, finally, someone at NASA might be able to help her find the answers. She took a breath and gave them her least improbable possibilities. “There might have been a problem with the Habitat, or an accident of some sort. I know now that we did find signs of microorganisms in the water there, so there could have been an illness that hit us, but given how suddenly everything stopped, and that the Habitat debris shows signs of fire, my best guess is that something catastrophic happened to our life-support systems in the Habitat.”
“And the others?” Morganson asked.
Catherine couldn’t meet his eyes. Instead she focused on her hands. “The logical assumption is that whatever happened on Mission Day 1137, I was the sole survivor.” She hated that answer. That for some unexplainable reason, she survived and the others didn’t. “I can’t think of any other reason why I would have come back alone.”
“Oh, I can think of a few,” Morganson said.
“Cal,” Llewellyn said sharply. “You’re out of line.”
“I’m sorry, Aaron, but no one else around here seems willing to say it,” Morganson said. “It’s incredibly convenient that Colonel Wells ‘doesn’t remember’ anything, and that all information from the Habitat, including public logs and telemetry, stops abruptly three days prior to the Event, not to mention that all of the crew’s personal logs after Day 865 are gone. All we have are Colonel Wells’s personal logs after Day 1349.”
The Event. NASA had always been fond of euphemisms for tragedy. The fear and anger and frustration that had been simmering in her for years
bubbled over. “Well, it’s pretty damned inconvenient for me. Especially since you seem to be implying that I’m lying.”
“No one thinks you’re lying,” Aaron said, looking pointedly at Cal. “No one. We’re in awe of you. You went through an unimaginable experience out there and the fact that you came back is a miracle, yes, but it’s also a testament to your strength and resilience. No one has ever survived alone in space for as long as you did. You’re a goddamned hero.”
The word rankled her. She’d spent years training for a mission she couldn’t even remember. And she couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow whatever happened up there was her fault. How else was she the only one to return?
“I think that’s all we have for now.” Aaron stood up. “Come on. Your family must be waiting for you. Let’s get you to them.”
“Thank you.” Catherine stood as well, reaching for her sunglasses.
Aaron accompanied her from the room and down the seemingly endless corridors that lead from the depths of the building to the waiting area. Escaping the room felt like escaping prison, and now for the first time in nine years, she was going to find out what it was like to be free again. Her heart thudded painfully in her chest, and her mind raced with the thought of seeing Aimee and David for real, without any barriers between them.
As they rounded the corner, Catherine could see them standing on the other side of the glass doors. David was pacing the waiting area, his arms folded across his narrow chest. Aimee was chewing on her thumbnail.
She was the one who spotted Catherine first, looking up with a bright smile and waving enthusiastically. Aaron touched Catherine’s shoulder and smiled. “Go on. Get out of here.”
Catherine started out walking down the long corridor but wound up running. Her eyes stung and her throat ached long before she got to the door. Finally. Finally. Her heart beat that one word over and over as she stepped through. David and Aimee rushed to embrace her, and she wrapped her arms around both of them fiercely, burying her face in Aimee’s hair and letting the tears fall.