The first of our team we sent down the stream into the lake was Arthur. He’d died just before the turn of the shifts and McKenna had found him half sunken in a radioactive pocket a 100 feet from the claw cyclotron and the furnace. The feed showed us he’d stupidly crossed the threshold marked by the red indicators but there had been a low rolling mist so his visuals were probably obscured. He always complained he was sweating too much inside his suit when near the furnace. We were extracting Astatine in those days.
I am reminded of this because now, seven years later I am standing by a different lake in spring, some immeasurable hours before a person I know or knew is to be lowered into the ground. It seems foreign to me this ritual of returning to soil. What they return has not been given by the earth but nonetheless they ground a vessel empty of what was vital, they anchor it so it would remain there as a return point for them in years to come. There is a hint of love in that, a melancholic one. Later, when I stand beside the casket set deep within the grasp of wet and wormy dirt, I might admire the boundaries the earth creates around it, because I know it will be there forever and I know that each time I venture to the cemetery and search for its marker, the grey gravestone, I would produce a set of memories. They would be different each time and I would be sad or happy thinking back to them. I would speak as if to the rotting skeleton hidden underneath the heaviness of unspoiled earth an in my mind it would speak to me and I would see the person it once was. It’s almost a luxury now that I think about it.
On another mission years before the Astatine one a colleague had been struck by a metal tube cracking his visor. In his confusion he’d detached himself from the line and had floated into deep space within a hands reach of his anchored partner. There are many ways to describe a body floating slowly, unreachably away, arms and legs flailing, the lack of oxygen after the backup compartment has been emptied coloring his cheeks purple and blue. He disappears fast, the rotation of his body engulfed by distance and darkness. It’s happens in quiet. Within moments there is no marker that he’d ever been present with us. No grave to return to, to mourn and talk to.
There are swans in this lake. I don’t know if they come because of the quiet or the ludicrous amount of bread crumbs the keeper feeds them from a plastic bag. We are an ordinary occurrence to him fumbling with words of condolences and thin alcohol glasses held between slippery fingers. The house behind me is unsteady with grieving voices, the occasional hoarse laughter. You can hear the tears in the dialogues, a common tongue with different nuances to it. There are trays neatly arranged with food almost like a cocktail party. Everyone takes small bites from the small pieces chewing through grief or sheer uncertainty as to what else to do. A wake is a time when people form a bond through the sharing of stories. I’ve heard most of them that they were willing to share. The stories are all the best ones and they gathered together faces that would intentionally avoid one another. The body rests in the middle of all, oblivious. It’s quiet within it.
“Soren, come inside you’ll freeze out here. It’s bollocks weather.”
Greggory, my brother in his thin rental suit, is shivering by the door of the house, cheeks red from the brush with the wind. When I returned home, I had a difficult time remembering how to accept the wind against my skin. On Epos the wind is almost non-existent, a planet that was initially audible with barely a whisper.
When we pulled Arthur out we had to decontaminate the body if we were to bring it home with us. A stage of necrosis had begun on his lower torso and after twelve hours muscles in the lax body had become animated. There were frowns all around, a shared unfamiliarity with the side effects at play. The reaction reminded me of the work of some endoparasite sparking extra neurotransmitters in its host. I wonder of the creatures co-existing with poisonous gases, living in the deep dark of the pockets.
“What about the lake?” Alexandria asked when we gathered huffing and puffing in the heavy red hazmat suits.
“What about it?” McKenna mumbled. He’d been staring at the chamber where Arthur’s spasmodic body lay on the med tray. We had quarantined that section of the base in the first hours.
“We could put the body there.”
It was my suggestion picking up on Alexandria’s unspoken wish. The lake was like a biodegrading organism. The substance in it wasn’t water, it was heavier, the color of molten silver and the first truly alien material we encountered on Epos. We’d taken probes to distill but the samples evaporated too fast, a process of a hybrid hard and liquid state to gas in the matter of minutes. It existed solely as one. I knew it would chew right through Arthur’s suit down to the bones leaving no skeleton. It had done that to our equipment when we first tried dipping a camera. It’s only honest to admit that our tech was far too primitive for what was on Epos. Aside from our digging and extracting mission we didn’t tamper with anything else.
“What bullshit are we going to sell to the Mother Base? Because you know they’d be sticking their noses in this.” Janeck was Arthur’s bunk buddy. “They’ll ask about reason of death. They’d want it entered in the system and the body shipped back with the first batch.”
I knew what to tell them, what to lie. The return of the body was going to kickstart an investigation into the nature of the parasite and our work was going to be hindered, the company hiring us was going to lose millions of credits and we our jobs unless another contractor took us in risking we were carriers of some virus out of deep space. The Mother Base was going to send Specialists and they were going to close down Epos marking it a red zone. Quarantine. But after they saw the lake for what it was, I knew they would try to drain it. So I lied.
Later, the supervisor of the second extraction team on the other side of Epos, Piermont contacted me. One of his crew had suffocated in his suit after failing to secure his gear. After leaving the body in the med bay it too had reanimated to an extent correlating to Arthur’s case. Fewer hours though. Six or seven to the twelve we had with Arthur. I remember asking whether they had a lake on their side.
“A big silvery one, yeah. Nero nearly lost his fingers trying to stir it, the damned fool. I don’t think it’s actually a lake, more like a spill from something.”
“Put the body there, suit and all.”
It was that simple. Like we had sent Arthur down the thin sleeve of the silver river and watched the lake rise up to catch him and drag him down into a grave of sorts, below that reflectionless liquid to be anchored in a way. In a way through this returned to origins belonging to something else, a ritual mimicking that which I’m attending now. Funerals don’t differ much from one another as long as there is a place. It made Epos that, a waypoint to return to like a person returns home and goes to visit those who are no longer there.
I place my hand around Greg’s shoulder and let him take me back inside.