Every night around 1 a.m. Earth-clock, I'd see the shadows of the camp's dead children on the windows as they walked by in silent single-file. The fiery light of the moon Akir cast them in sharp relief. The children that cast the shadows weren't zombies or vampires. They were nothing more or less than our dead children. They walked with the somber discipline of boarding school students, not the shambling gait of something decaying or the insectile crouch of something malevolent.
I watched them from our cabin every night, paralysed by fear, hoping they wouldn't stop to tap on the bunker windows, or god-forbid, speak through the panes, no mouth-fog blurring the glass because there was no heat in their bodies to make it. They never did.
Our child, the camp's children, will never reach the age or height of the ones that walked on Akir's World, will never develop those fingers which had sometimes squeaked across the bunker windows, will never grow out those strong downy limbs that had blocked the light of the moon on our windows or the hair that stirred around those dark heads in the sub-zero atmosphere.
Even now, back on Earth, I see their shadows on the curtains when I'm on the cusp of sleep, their bodies now silhouetted by the halogen glare of the city instead of an alien moon. But it's nothing but a ripple of light and dark across the fabric as it moves in the breeze.
I like to imagine that the children we saw on Akir's World were something like these phantoms conjured by the shimmer of electromagnetic radiation and projected thought on my curtains. But back then it was the ripple of alien gravities, of light and dark matter across what we've named reality, that made them appear to us when Akir rose on the horizon and painted the windows with its light, while below us its world turned through the inhuman dream of its long night.
On Earth, Teresa holds me when I jolt up in bed, staring at the bedroom window.
"Shh, they're not there. They're not there. You're on Earth. You're back home."
I anchor myself to her presence as I did during the visitations on Akir's world, placing one hand on her rounded belly, flat back then. In the street light from the windows, her abdomen looks like the orange crescent of a moon. I shake this image off, bringing my hand to the lit curve so all I can see is the intimacy of our flesh.
"I'm sorry," I say.
"Vir, don't," she says, her voice tense, expectant.
"No. For waking you up again."
She's silent, alarming me for a moment. Then she gives me a forceful kiss on the side of my mouth.
"You can wake me up any time, okay?"
"I wonder which one is our baby?" I said once, as Teresa and I watched the children walk by the windows set high in the walls. Her breath hitched. Despite it being cool in the camp bunkers, a film of anxious sweat connected our skins. It broke as she pulled away, leaving me clammy.
"I didn't—" I stopped talking as she got off the bed. The frame lifted me an inch as it adjusted to the loss of her weight. She turned her head to the windows, Akir's light right in her eyes, drawing out the contours of her face and neck in gentle strokes. The shadows of the children washed across her, making her features vanish. I watched her for a moment and not them. I watched her and held my breath.
She turned and disappeared into the tight cubicle of the bathroom. I heard the hiss of the door.
"I didn't mean that, Teresa."
I thought I heard a soft laugh, or a whisper. It was just her and not from outside, but a spasm of fear shot through me anyway.
"Then why the fuck did you say it?" Her words were harsh, hollow, amplified by the small space of the cubicle. I winced as the bathroom light flared on behind the half-closed pull-door, a strip of antiseptic white in the dim room.
"All right. I'll tell you. I wish they were out there, alive, invincible, breathing that thin air, surviving in that temperature. All grown-up as if we raised them right here, on this shitty damn world, surviving it better than we can."
This time Teresa did laugh. As my eyes adjusted to the brightness, I could see her bare arm in the mirror, hand on the steel sink, her dark brown hair against the edge of the shoulder.
"And you think I don't wish that?"
I closed my eyes, shaking my head. "Of c—"
"Yeah." The tap turned on, water splashing on the sink. Her arm moved as she bent down and began washing her face. I felt at that moment so afraid to be alone in that room without her next to me, even though she was just a few feet away.
"Don't forget that we chose to try and bring a baby into this shitty damn world," she said.
The red digits on the clock below the windows read 1:06. The 24-hour Earth-cycle on clocks was to help preserve our circadian rhythms, prevent depression and insomnia. On Akir's World the long days and nights are similar, the thin atmosphere doing little to leach away the cosmic black of its skies. During day the white sun illuminates arcs of water spewing from the crust, glistens on towering mining constructs. At night Akir reflects the sun like a blazing eye, its terminator a dark eyelid blinking slow through the lunar phases.
With the intensity of Akir rising behind them and the bathroom light reflecting on the thick windows, the shadows of the children became less distinct. From their height, they all appeared eight to ten years old. Looking at their silhouettes, I could tell that they were wearing—as always—gowns that rippled slightly in the thin air, glowing in the moonlight like trails of ectoplasm hanging from their bodies. No bunker jumpsuits, no helmets and bulky surface suits.
Our night-vision cameras had revealed them to look like human children, their faces painfully lovely in their normalcy, all with long hair and no visible signs of sex or gender, each reflecting the population diversity of the colony, their skin different shades reduced to a spectrum of ghostly green under the cameras, their features different as if coalesced through a generational relay of genes—so, so familiar, so human. Just five human children sleepwalking on an alien world. Every time I'd seen the footage, I had to resist the horrible urge to search that line of children bizarrely walking on the inhospitable surface of this planet for the one that bore the strongest resemblance to Teresa, to me.
The tap in the bathroom turned off. Water glimmered on Teresa's arm, making hair stick in curls to her shoulder. A blur of mist had formed on the mirror.
"Our baby isn't walking out there in that line," she said.
"I know," I said.
From the way Teresa's hair moved against her shoulder I could tell she was shaking her head. "I'm not sure you do. And it really scares me. Even, more than those—things—do."
Her arm came up to her face in the bathroom mirror. I wanted so much to go and comfort her. I knew she wouldn't want to be touched right then. Akir arced across the night sky, tortuous and slow. The tilt of the shadows was changing, the position of the moon's light shifting on the walls.
The children had gone. They might be back, once they'd wandered around the bunkers, on and on til Akir was hidden once again behind the world. If we stepped out onto the surface, they'd vanish as abruptly as they had appeared.
When Teresa spoke again, her voice was steady, though changed, as if she had a cold.
"I felt it happen as they came out, Vir. Like the baby was no longer a part of me, even though they were still attached to me by the chord." The words were familiar, but every time she said them it felt like I was hearing them for the first time.
"I was there, sweetheart," I said.
"Not in the same way," she said, almost inaudible through the half-closed door.
I gritted my teeth, hating myself for my silence. I wished I could tell her about the abortion when I was nineteen, my final year living as a woman. Over and over I wished I could tell her, explain the primal dread I felt when I saw those children outside. But I'd never shared the experience with her, and after so long, the concealment felt like a lie. A betrayal.
Teresa was the fifth and final woman in the experimental birthing group to deliver a stillborn baby on Akir's World. Not long after, the children were spotted out on the surface by camp cameras recording geyser patterns and meteor impacts. Soon, we saw them with our own eyes. Five children, always under Akir's moonlight.
Teresa’s palm whined on the wet glass as she wiped the mirror. "If our child was really out there, I'd know. Somehow."
I'm walking down Russell Street when I stop to stare at a priest sitting in front of a pixellated colour picture of Akir, likely swiped off the internet and spat out of a home printer. The photo is pinned to a tree growing out of the pavement; a makeshift shrine like many others by the streets of Kolkata, usually to ancient Hindu deities rather than one so freshly borne out of space and mind. The moon looks nothing like it did from Akir's World, where it loomed huge, stunning and bright because of its high albedo. In the low resolution picture it's an amber circle on a black backdrop. Just one among millions of exoplanets and satellites out there.
The priest seems like any passerby, dressed in a faded white dress shirt and trousers. But his shaved head and bare feet, the string necklace with a single topaz bead wrapped around one hand, the streak of bright yellow turmeric paste on his forehead, indicate that he isn't. Instead of a bright, painted idol in front of him, there's just the photograph, fluttering in the breeze because of the flimsy paper. Two incense sticks smoulder in a copper holder, nestled in between the thick roots that disappear into the concrete platform at the tree's base. Next to the incense is a wire cage with a large grey rat in it. Also propped in between the roots are several chicken eggs, brown and white, left by devotees who have visited the shrine. Hindus might have called them prasad, offerings of food made in worship, though in the context of this religion they're more like the rat in the cage.
I've seen the shrines before, but I still stop to look at them. It's a strange feeling, to have lived under the glow of a new god.
The priest breaks his meditative pose to open the cage and take the rat out. It doesn't struggle or try to bite—sedated in some way. With his other hand, he produces a long straight-razor from his trousers and cuts the rat's head off. It takes a few seconds, and the animal doesn't squeal or protest. It's not a very bloody killing, but the priest squeezes a spatter of crimson over the roots of the tree and puts both head and body back into the cage.
On Earth, Akir is now a god of death; the afterlife, fertility, rebirth.
I wonder what the priest would do if he knew I'd been one of the inhabitants of Akir's World. Would he collapse at my feet, calling me a prophet of a new age, asking me to describe the divine light that showed us the souls of the dead unchained from linear time? Would he spit on me, call me one of the punished, tell me that our children-to-be were taken from us to show us that we couldn't do on Akir's World what we did on Earth, that we couldn't stain another planet with our viral presence? Would he attack me, chastise me as one of the foolish apostates who came too close to Akir, a true spacelight of the celestial godhead, and reaped the rewards of trying to bring human life into the celestial kingdom of the dead? I've read all these new mythologies and more on the feeds, always careful to wipe my online traces so Teresa doesn't know.
I walk towards him, and stop. Pedestrians shrug past my still body.
I don't know which sect this priest belongs to. I say nothing and he doesn't even look at me. He takes a rag from his pocket and wipes the razor and the necklace, then puts the blade away and wears the necklace. The eggs wait amidst the roots, embryos given to Akir, waiting never to be born.
Teresa wanted to split up when we got back to Earth. We were in the Recovery Centre when she told me, in the exoplanetary research and training campus where we first met. I was sitting in the lounge, watching the rain lap against the transparent walls, absorbing the soft bubbling of hushed conversations around me. Outside, the drenched evergreens of British Columbia shimmered with water, alive to me in a way they never had been before.
I remember the rain, not just because of the coincidence of it falling at that moment, but because I was marveling at the density and richness of Earth's atmosphere, the fact that it could produce such beautiful inclement weather. I couldn't believe the others around me in the lounge could tear their eyes from it and talk to each other. The stillness of Akir's World has no equivalent on this planet. It never rains there, though Teresa and I have watched the starlit jets of its geysers rise and fall like lazy whiplashes against the sky, feeling for each others' hands through the thick gloves of our surface suits. Our baby had still been a potential life then, a memory of the future that Akir would steal from us and show us a fleeting glimpse of.
Teresa came into the lounge and touched my shoulder, sank into the sofa next to me, leaning her crutches on the side. Our atrophied bodies had yet to get used to Earth's gravity after Akir's World and the long, weightless voyage back.
"You alright?" she asked me.
"Yeah. This is just so beautiful, you know?" I pointed to the rain outside.
She smiled, but wasted no time.
"Listen, I need to tell you this now."
I nodded. I wasn't surprised, though I still hoped she wouldn't say what she was going to.
"When we leave here, I don't think we should still be together," she said, soft, so no one around us could overhear.
"Say something. Please," she said, placing one hand on my weakened thigh. I took a deep breath.
"This isn't Akir's World, Teresa," I said.
"I know. But you remind me of what happened, and. I know I must remind you too. We can't just be crippled by each other. I'm too hard to live with right now."
"I want to try to have a baby again. With you. Here, like we wanted," I said.
I saw her hands twitch. I reached out and held them in mine, like I'd done on the surface of Akir's World, watching the prismatic spume against the sky. She didn't resist.
She looked down at our interlocked hands. "I didn't know you'd still want that."
"Do you?" I asked her.
She looked away, at the rain. "Yes."
"I'm. You don't know how relieved I am to hear that." I wanted to hug her but stopped myself.
"Wait. Please. Wait. I don't know if I can, anymore," she said.
"We've been checked," I said, as gentle as I could be. "You're fine."
"I don't know if I can wait again, to see if our baby lives this time."
"I know. I know. If you don't want to go through that again, I understand. But I could reverse my surgery, if that's what you want."
Teresa stared at me.
"If that's what I want. If that’s what I want?" she asked. "God damn it, Vir, what about what you fucking want? You've been a man since you were twenty. You'd just change that, for my sake?"
"I. Don't know."
"Fuck. I don't deserve this," she said, shaking her head. "You don't deserve this," she looked up at me. "Do you want to be a woman again?" she asked.
"No," I said, truthfully. Teresa's shoulders betrayed her relief. I continued. "If you're okay with it, I could bring the baby to term as a man. It's not unheard of."
"Vir. Listen to me very carefully," she said, looking into my eyes. "Is carrying a child something you want to do."
"What I want is a child. I'm willing to carry that child."
"If I'm not," she whispered. She put her hand against my cheek, briefly.
I nodded, my throat dry.
"You don't have to," she said. "I'll do that, sweetheart. I might need some time, but."
"Thank you," I say.
"Stop that, now," she said and wiped the moisture from my cheekbones.
She lowered her hands to mine, ran her thumb against my knuckles, one bump at a time.
"I want to move somewhere that's the opposite of Akir's World to wait. Somewhere crowded, and bright and noisy and hot. Like Kolkata. It would make your parents happy. No one would care, there, if we added another life to the crowd," she said.
She placed her head against my shoulder. My heart thundering, blotting out the sound of the rain, I gathered her to me and kissed her head. We watched the rain.
I look out over the sea-wall to the grey expanse of the Gangetic Delta. It's cloudy but bright, dispersed sunlight soaking the clotted clouds and making me squint. The sea-walls weren't there when I was last in Kolkata. The tide has risen since.
"Do you want to?" I ask Teresa. Her bump pushes against the bright red kameez she's wearing. It's not too obvious yet. She looks at the capsule in her hand. It's transparent, like an oversized pill the size of a phone. I suppress the memory of small bodies looking alien in their stillness, as if Akir's light had marked them as its own species. The capsule is surprisingly heavy. It holds the remains of our baby, who was born on Akir's World. We brought the ashes of our children with us, so they didn't have to be sown in the quartz-dusted soils of their homeworld.
Teresa drops the capsule over the railing. I'm surprised by how abrupt it feels, but also relieved. The capsule disappears into the swell of the waters with a small splash. Its sheath will dissolve, its contents forever subsumed to the tidal skin of our world, untouched by the light and intersecting gravities of Akir and its world. Our child is hidden in the Earth's oceans, so whatever potentiality of them that Akir conjured no longer has to walk the limbo of that moonlit world.
This is my mythology.
The rhythmic call of a man selling puchka startles Teresa and she puts her arm around mine. We look at each other. She takes a deep breath.
"I'm fine," she says, answering my unasked question. "You?"
I nod. She pulls me away from the railing.
I watch a little boy skipping along the sidewalk, making glittering splashes of sunlit puddles with his gumboots. I see the inevitable fall right before it happens, hear the muffled slap of him hitting the sidewalk. The distant vision of a child playing solidifies into the reality of a living, breathing boy falling down.
His parents are several feet behind him, but I don't wait to see their reaction. I run to the boy. He's about four years old, face crumpling, about to cry, both hands on the damp ground. I hold him under the armpits, lift him to his feet. He's so light I almost pick him up off the ground as a result. My own surprised breath blows a black curl of hair away from his face. He blinks in stunned surprise.
He doesn't cry, though his expression wavers on the edge of tears. "Hey. You're fine," I say. I want to hold him against my shoulder, comfort him. I squint as sunlight glances off the puddle he almost fell in. Noticing his soiled hands, I rub my thumbs across his palms. He is silent and grateful.
I hear his parents thank me as they catch up and gather him into their embraces. I smile, nod, and keep walking, feeling like an interloper.
This is the first time I've interacted with a child since coming back to Earth. I've seen them everywhere; begging for change by car windows; chasing each other past the corrugated walls of slums; playing cricket by the parking lots of apartment buildings; pouring out of school-buses in uniform; window-shopping in close-knit groups or lining up to rent private theatre booths to watch movies from their phones in malls.
I walk faster, eager to meet Teresa at the old College Street coffee house, where she'll show me what bound antiques she's found exploring bookstores with my parents.
I clutch the sheets and will the humanoid shadows on the curtains away. They stay for a few seconds then melt back into the interplay of light and dark on fabric. My hand has gone to Teresa's hip, gripping her flesh hard. I let go, and flinch when I see her open eyes looking at me.
At my reaction she cuts off a laugh with her hand, shaking with helpless giggles.
"Fuck," I blurt out, and shake my head.
"I know, babe, it's not funny," the laughter is gone as quick as it appeared.
I touch her mouth with my fingertips, trying to will the laughter back. Her lips move under them. "I was watching you sleep. My back woke me up. And I felt a kick. I didn't mean to laugh."
She seems near tears now. "No. It's not. You saw them again. I thought it was getting better," she says.
I take a deep breath.
"Reza. I have to tell you something."
"What is it?"
"I had an abortion when I was nineteen," I say.
She looks at me, silent, like she's about to say something. Her throat clicks. I go on.
"When I think back, it feels like I was daring the universe to—shake me up, somehow. And boy, did it. One way or other, it's probably what led to my transition. I don't know why I didn't tell you earlier. I wanted to on Akir's World, to share your pain. I know it's not the same thing at all. I thought it would be selfish of me, to share that memory, at that time. But I was selfish anyway."
Teresa moves closer to me, her belly pushing against mine.
I start to speak, but she puts her hand over mouth. "No. I'm sorry, Vir. That you had to go through that at nineteen. That you had to go through that at all."
She removes her hand from my mouth. "You may have dared the universe, and then gotten pregnant with a baby you didn't want. That doesn't mean the universe answered you. Back then, or on Akir's World."
Her jaw clenches, muscle pushing skin. "If it was shapeshifting aliens it was fucking shapeshifting aliens, if it was a big group hallucination, it was that. But our child is not stuck in some half-lit purgatory light-years away for no fault of their own, for anything you or I ever did. I'll never believe that." She's trembling under my hands. "We've lost one baby. They're dead. This one's alive," she says. I bring my face close to hers, the smells of her body and breath sour from sleep, familiar and soothing to me.
"I don't believe our baby's still on Akir's World. I promise," I tell her. In this moment, I believe it. My mythology in flames. Whether gone to ashes, I don't know.
Today, the Union's new team will scorch the sky above Kazakhstan, hurtle out of Earth's orbit, and vanish into spacetime to voyage to the invisible helix of Akir and its world drawing a path around their sun. As we once did. I wish them luck, in silence.
Teresa kisses me. I can feel the words still burning in her mouth, like cinders against my teeth. They're dead. This one's alive.
Crows caw harshly outside. The curtains flutter, and through the gaps I see the dim blue cast of dawn behind the tint of streetlights.
"The baby kicked?" I ask.
"First time. Getting some early exercise," says Teresa, smiling. I place a hand on her belly. I can't feel any movement, aside from Teresa's own breathing. I drown a sudden panic, shoving it deep.
"Asleep again," I whisper.
Her stomach moves up and down. Goosebumps on her skin. I move the blanket over us. It's getting cooler in the mornings now, as monsoon turns into winter. Teresa turns to face the morning light leaking past the curtains. She pushes her back against me, so we bleed our warmth into each another. I watch the windows over the smooth horizon of her neck, til she falls asleep, her body rising and falling in rhythm with the billowing of the breeze against the curtains. Sunlight has replaced the streetlights behind them.