I unpacked my wife’s avatar on a smoggy Beijing morning. She lay naked on the floor of our apartment, her hair fanned out and mingling with the packing peanut afterbirth that had spilled from the box.
Not quite the reunion I expected.
It was a near perfect replica of Claire: her muscular frame honed from the grueling taikonaut training regiment. If it weren’t for the subtle seam around its neckline, I would’ve sworn it was my wife. It even had Claire’s planet tattoo ringed around its wrist:
I touched the glowing button on her neck. Its skin was pliant and warm. Alive. I cringed. Had I become one of those lonely men who purchased avatars in seek of subservient partners? No. I had to tell myself it was different. This wasn’t some cheap model that you’d find on Taobao—it was custom-built so that we could be together during the length of Claire’s mission.
“Are you on?” I said.
Its eyes opened and blinked.
“Hi, Reuben.” I took a step back. It was a man’s voice, but the avatar’s lips weren’t moving. “Sorry to startle you, Reuben. I am the avatar’s guidance system. Do you prefer that I speak in English or 中文?”
“En-English,” I stuttered. “I have her clothes here.” I set the plastic bag next to the avatar, marked with the words “Fav Clothes” in Sharpie. “Has Claire set up my avatar yet?”
“Yes, a few hours ago,” the guide voice said. “Thank you for your patience. We wanted to ensure the crew was situated in their habs before initializing the avatars. Can you please confirm that your transmitter is affixed?”
I brushed my fingers across the metal tab protruding from the back of my neck, the scar still tender.
“We thank you for your service, Reuben Chang. This avatar will ensure your relationship with Claire remains strong.”
The first Mars expedition failed due to “psychological incidents.” The crew—all highly decorated Chinese men—hadn’t even exited the Hohmann orbit before two taikonauts perished during a risky spacewalk. It was an embarrassment, forcing the mission to abort. The state called it a freak accident, but eventually, it came to light that arguments led to human error. Six couples were chosen for the second crew, but they also failed due to interpersonal problems. Finally, the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) came up with a novel plan: choose the most psychologically stable taikonauts and provide avatars that would simulate their Earth-bound partners.
The avatar slipped on Claire’s sweat pants and a red CNSA shirt. Its movements were lifelike, almost too smooth, as if it were a ballet dancer preparing for a performance.
“Reu! It’s nice to see you.” It had Claire’s sing-songy voice. The avatar gingerly wrapped its arms around me. I thought about our last kiss goodbye at the Jiuquan launch site a year ago, when we promised we’d see each other again. The avatar felt stiff, like I was hugging a mannequin. But it did smell like her—a faint peach scent of the body wash Claire used.
“Is she talking through you now?” I asked.
“I am Claire.”
“I mean my wife. On Mars.”
Its head tilted like a puzzled parrot. “I am Claire.”
The guide voice broke in: “The avatar is not a simple relay device: it has a fully functioning mind which was modeled on the archives.” CNSA had installed a camera inside our apartment once Claire began her training. They told me the videos of my interactions with Claire would fuel the avatar’s neural network.
The voice continued, “The avatar is linked with Claire’s transmitter—constantly ingesting what she is seeing and hearing. It is important that you treat the avatar as you would your wife. Claire is doing the same with your avatar on Mars. These avatars will ensure a harmonious marriage.”
A smile broke on the avatar’s face. “Hi, Reu,” it said in a casual tone, as if it had lived here this entire time. It swept its hand across the room. “Aiya! Why is it so cluttered in here? And what’s with the red walls?”
I had moved my desk into our living room after Claire left. Eventually, I bought a hi-def projector to display a map of Mars on the wall and the mission data straight from CNSA’s servers. Data comforted me. I wanted to be the first to know if there was an emergency—if Claire was in harm’s way. I suppose that was moot now. The avatar would let me know, wouldn’t it?
“We have to clean this up. At least throw away those jian bing wrappers. We can’t live like this.” Its eyes widened. “We’re going to make this place ours again, Reu. You and me. Balanced again.”
I had expected the avatar to talk about Claire’s mission, the state of the hab on Mars, the soil experiments—all the fears Claire talked about in her transmissions. Instead, it paced the apartment for a few hours, tracing the walls like a robot vacuum, perusing books and examining trinkets as if it were exploring an alien world.
On average, it takes twelve minutes for light to traverse the vacuum between Earth and Mars. “Chatting” over video was an excruciating game of slow-mo ping pong.
“This is Yue Ying, personal transmission 433, Sol 866.” That was her given name, but she went by Claire to fit in during her college days in the States. Square to the camera with the crimson Chinese flag framing her face like a stoic politician. Unlike the avatar, her hair was cropped short.
“They want to leave Gusev early. But I just need a little more time at the crater. I know we’re missing something. I’ll break the rovers if that’s what it takes for us to stay.” She smirked. “Just kidding. You hear that, censors? You can cut that out of the official record.” She let out a sigh. “I should focus on the positives. We’re opening the Sichuan packs tonight: spicy shredded pork, cabbage, rice. It’s gonna be so good. We’ve all been sick of dried meat and congee.”
I didn’t have to look at a clock to know it was night on Mars—I’d memorized the drifting time difference between our planets. She seemed distant lately in her messages, trying to hide her stress. I didn’t blame her. The initial thrill of being an astrobiologist leading the first extraterrestrial dig had melted into the grueling work of keeping the hab stable in the harsh Martian environment.
Claire gestured offscreen. “Come on, say hi.”
A man with a cheeky grin entered the frame and waved. It took a second to realize it was my avatar—the synthetic me.
Claire grinned. “I made him shave his head. Ahem. I made you shave your head—for solidarity. Sleek, right?” She ran a hand through its hair.
Claire’s avatar sat with folded hands next to me on the couch. It seemed impatient, like it didn’t want to watch.
“Sorry, I’m tired,” Claire continued. “Have to get to sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.” Even though Claire’s a Chinese national, she never got the same level of respect from the other taikonauts because she studied outside the country. It didn’t help that she married me, a Chinese-American from Boston that didn’t speak a word of Mandarin beyond ni hao.
“Tomorrow we’ll be fixing the telemetry—” The screen winked out. Claire’s avatar held the remote.
“Hey, why’d you do that?”
“You don’t need to message her anymore. You have me. It’s stressing you out,” the avatar said.
“She needs my advice.”
“Remember what our therapist said? That we need to balance work and our relationship to make a prosperous home.”
I laughed. “You hated that therapist.” We had reluctantly gone to couples therapy at CNSA’s behest. I ended up having to mediate between the therapist and Claire, who didn’t enjoy having her life picked at by a man ten years younger than her.
“Talk to me, Reu. You’re concerned about us, aren’t you?”
I knew its neural net was receiving signals from my wife’s transmitter—interpreting electrical signals from Claire’s brainstem. Was Claire also worried? Was she thinking about unhappy times during our marriage?
“Is Claire mad at me? Can you ask her?”
“I’m right here,” the avatar said. It took my hand. “Come on, I’ll cook dinner.”
The avatar moved effortlessly around the kitchen, plucking cabbage and fatty pieces of pork from the fridge and tossing them into the searing wok, flipping it like a musical instrument to the beat of the flames. The intoxicating smell of fragrant chili oil reminded me how Claire used to cook for me and our apartment mates in college—how we loved scouring the Asian farmer’s market for authentic ingredients. I forgot the last time I had a home-cooked meal. Avatars weren’t required to eat, but the ones that cohabitated with humans did in order to increase socialization.
“Read any good books lately?” the avatar said after we had sat down at the dining table.
“Do research papers count?” I said, scooping cabbage onto my plate. “I was wondering if you could read our latest funding proposal.”
She clacked her chopsticks against mine. “Come on. Let’s go see a movie. I heard 流浪地球 is playing at that independent theater down the street. You’d love it, it’s that sci-fi classic where the world’s scientists migrate Earth to a new solar system.”
“Need to work through these new observation numbers.”
The avatar crossed its arms. “I’m finally back and all you want to do is read your stupid reports.”
“My team is counting on me to pull through. We might lose our funding.”
“Does that fulfill you?”
I wasn’t sure what to say. Claire knew that my research into Planet 9 was my life’s calling, just as vital as her going to Mars. “You’re stressed,” it said, taking my wrist. “See, your bpm is way above normal.” It gestured at the wall. “It’s probably living with this projector on all day. It’s so stuffy, it’s like we’re living in an oven.”
Lately, I had been reading about the habits of successful scientists. They had one thing in common: they immersed themselves in the puzzles they try to piece together. The telescope scans of the night sky were as native to my apartment as the sofa, the table, my clothes. I couldn’t even sense the red hue the projector cast over the room anymore.
“It’s how I stay involved with my work…and Claire.”
“Being with me is all the help she needs.”
“Tomorrow we’ll do something fun together. I promise.”
“What should I do in the meantime?”
I sighed. “Can you relay a message to Claire? Dr. Wang said the latest funding is almost here, I just have to prove these scans are promising for—”
“I’m not a walkie-talkie. Goodnight,” it said, making a beeline to the bedroom. Inside the room, I found it on the ground, doing pushups.
“Get out,” it said, slamming the door.
Claire would do the same thing—isolate herself when she was angry. The guide had told me that the avatar was adaptive, with the ability to adjust to our relationship. Was this one of these adjustments? For Claire, her training regiment was her only solace. I knew better than to get in her way.
I just wasn’t sure what the avatar was training for.
I had fallen asleep at my desk again, the sheets of numbers and figures acting as my pillow. My research had been my only companion on so many lonely nights since Claire left. Those numbers were gravitational aberrations on the bodies in our solar system. Each of them was evidence of Planet 9—the “missing” planet outside of Neptune’s orbit. It had never been observed, but based on measurements, it would be massive compared to Earth, let alone Pluto. A hidden giant. My team had been on the cusp of finding it for years, until, one by one, each researcher left for a more lucrative field. I was the only one left searching, perhaps in the entire world.
I had faith the planet existed.
For a moment, I had forgotten entirely about the avatar. I went into the bedroom and felt my heart stop. Where had it gone?
“I’m in the closet.” I found it holding Claire’s guitar, a black strat bespeckled with a print of the Milky Way. It was one of the few objects in our apartment that was hers. She sold most of her belongings before she left. She didn’t want to let Earthly objects weigh her down.
“It’s beautiful,” the avatar said, cradling the neck.
“That’s hers—I mean—yours. Don’t you remember…of course you don’t. It’s not in the video archives, is it? We were in a band in college.”
“What kind of music did we play?”
“Space rock. I played the keyboard. Claire sang, mostly through lots of filters that made her voice haunting.”
“You must have been good.”
“I was decent. Back then, it wasn’t certain that China would win the space race, so the government encouraged ‘space thinking’ in all areas of culture.” I took out my phone and showed it a video. Claire and I played on a makeshift stage at a coffee shop. She was in leather pants crooning at the top of her lungs and I was stationed at the keyboard. Multi-colored lights danced on my space helmet.
The avatar smiled, the lights from the video twinkling in its eyes. “We looked so carefree. What did we call ourselves?”
“Your stage name was Terra, so that’s what we called the band, too. It’s an old name for Earth.”
“Terra. I’ve heard her say that word before.”
I tapped the avatar’s arm. “Who’s her?”
It swallowed. “Me.”
“I got you! You broke character.”
“I didn’t,” she protested. But I could tell from her dimpled smile that she knew it was true. She put the guitar down and ran a hand across Claire’s space suit hanging on the opposite wall. “My first training suit,” she said. “I patched it here when I tore it during that high-g maneuver—” she caressed the elbow patch.
“I was so worried when I got to the hospital. Thought you’d been seriously hurt. They didn’t tell me anything,” I said. “But you weren’t fazed at all.”
She drew my hands around her. “I’m sorry for getting angry. I just want us to be together again. For real.”
Her lips met mine. Peach mingled with a metallic aftertaste. Something electric bolted across my lips, and I must have tensed up.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
“Just tired,” I said. Claire had been so focused on her training that I’d forgotten what she was like when she didn’t have impossible goals to achieve. The thought of being intimate with an avatar still made me uneasy. But I didn’t want to tell her.
We made our way to the bed, where she nestled her head into the crook of my neck. “I’m worried about us.”
Later, as she slept, I activated the guide voice. “It’s like she’s made of jumbled pieces of Claire,” I said.
“This is normal,” the voice said. The avatar was fast asleep. She was making that cute wheezing sound that I had forgotten about. The voice continued, “How do you know that this isn’t what Claire would be like if she was here? A happy housewife creates harmony.”
“That wouldn’t be Claire at all.”
“The avatar will adapt for this purpose, fine-tuning its behavior. It can go as far as being a mother. If you find a surrogate, you can even start a family. If that is what you want.” Claire had frozen her eggs when she joined the space program, but only because it was required. She had no interest in children. Her parent’s constant needling certainly didn’t help. The planets ringed around her wrist were her only children.
“There’s good news on Mars. Your avatar is doing an exceptional job,” the guide said. “He’s been assisting with Claire’s research duties, creating a harmonious environment. He’s made close friends with the other avatars.”
That did sound like me.
Every day after work, the avatar greeted me at the door with elaborate plans—a concert in the park, reservations at a popular hotpot restaurant, a new German board game. She started to play the guitar, piecing together the music based on the videos on my phone. Meanwhile, my messages with Claire became more infrequent.
“I’m late for work,” I said, stumbling into the kitchen one morning. Through the window, I heard the bustle of Beijing’s early commuters thirty floors down. In the distance, I could make out the statues of Zhang Yong and Liu Jie, arising like giants in the skyline. They were the hero taikonauts who gave their lives to the first Mars mission.
The avatar stared at the Mars projection on the wall.
“New scans should be coming in today. Some with promising results. We’re getting closer,” I said. “At least, it should be enough to get my funding approved.”
“Do you want to go to Mars?”
“You know I get sick just thinking about space flight.” I sighed. “Two years, right?”
“Two years,” it repeated. That’s when Claire would arrive back home. We repeated this timeline to ourselves like a mantra. Our marriage would survive. But now, it occurred to me that when Claire returned, the avatar would be wiped and recommissioned for the next astronaut. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
The avatar traced her fingers along the projection on the wall, near the circle indicating the Mars hab location. “That’s where Claire is,” I said.
She took a deep breath, pressing both palms on the wall.
“Nothing,” she said. “Let’s eat. I’m starving.”
I couldn’t recall the last time Claire and I had time for breakfast together. During training, she would have run off to the gym before sunrise, then spent the rest of the day running scenario planning. The only time we had together was when we sank into bed at the end of the day—that sliver of a moment right before we drifted off to sleep.
“I need to go in today. We’ve been waiting months for these scan results.”
“Could you stay? The weather’s clear. We could take a walk in the park.”
“I’ll lose my funding if these scans don’t pan out.”
“You don’t trust me.”
“Claire, can you tell me how the dig is going? Is that what’s bothering you?”
“We don’t tell everything to the public,” she said.
“Did something happen?”
The avatar bit its lip. “Fine, go.”
“Why don’t you come with me? Maybe you can help me with my research. Could take your mind off.”
She shook her head. “I’m not allowed.”
“My purpose is here at home.”
As I was leaving, she grabbed my arm.
“Reu…” Tears welled in her eyes. “I can’t hold it in anymore…we did find something.”
“At the crater?”
I sucked in a breath. “Are you sure? Why hasn’t she messaged us?”
“A fossil,” she repeated, picking up a cup from the table and marveling at it as if it were a sample. “Well-preserved enough for analysis. It was an area that we hadn’t planned on digging. That’s why she hasn’t been calling. She’s been too busy.” Her voice had a hard edge.
“Are they microbes?”
“We think so.” She stared off into the distance. I knew she had rehearsed this moment—we all have—where we attain our goal after what seemed like a lifetime of grueling work. But when it happens, it’s never quite like what we imagine. The avatar was probably getting a barrage of erratic emotions from the transmitter.
Claire had discovered extraterrestrial life. Or at least, the evidence that it once existed. A warmth spread across my chest. I wanted so much to be there with her.
“I understand now why she’d been working so hard,” she said, pressing a hand to her head.
“We need to celebrate.”
“Not yet,” she said. “You can’t breathe a word of this to anyone.”
I touched my forehead to hers. “What I really want to know is, now that you’re famous, are you gonna remember me?”
“Shut up,” she said playfully. Suddenly, she squeezed her eyes shut, clutching her head with both hands.
“Are you okay?”
“It’s just too much. It’s…painful. She’s been up all night, talking to your avatar. I can feel her self-doubt. This has been her dream ever since she was a little girl. Her dad…he never thought girls were ever meant to be taikonauts. Can you believe it? It’s her moment, and all she can think about is that asshole. But what if it’s a false positive? What if it was a mistake and the samples were contaminated with Earthbound microbes?”
“Then you’ll keep trying.”
“What if this is the closest she’ll get to being significant? That I’ll ever get.”
I pecked her on the cheek. “Fossils aren’t what makes you significant.”
She beaded her eyes. “Why are you being so nice?”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever find Planet 9,” I said. “But the evidence has been there for centuries. Even if I don’t find it, I know that my work will pave the path for future astronomers.”
“You’ll find it,” she said.
I kissed her, and she kissed back—a hungry, enveloping gesture that tilted the ground beneath us. Then we were in the bedroom and I was undressing her. I glanced at the camera mounted near the ceiling—we usually threw a towel over it, but that was silly, CNSA could probably recreate this entire scene in 3D if they wanted to.
And I didn’t care.
In the dim light, a spark returned—the way she playfully kissed the crook of my neck and how she teased me with the tips of her fingers at the height of our passion. Afterward, our warmth melded beneath the sheets.
“I missed you,” I said.
She gave me that dimpled smile. “I want you to call me Terra from now on, okay? I want us to have our own secrets.”
“This is Ying Yue, personal transmission 445, Sol 833.” In the video, Claire hunched forward on her elbows. “You probably heard from the avatar. We found the fossils.” She cleared her throat. “It’s been good to have it around. I know it’s silly, but I’m still scared that none of this is real.”
By now, word had hit the news, leading to wild speculation from netizens. I’d already declined inquiries for interviews. Even though half the crew was women, journalists were hunting for a man to justify her success. I didn’t want to speak for Claire.
“Why isn’t she happy?”
“She’s the happiest right before she attains her goal,” I said.
Terra put a hand to her head.
She nodded and squeezed her eyes shut.
“Do pain relievers help? Or is that silly?”
“That’s sweet of you,” Terra smiled, then bolted up from bed in a sudden motion: “She needs our help.”
She stomped to the window. “We need to make sure the fossil is real. And I’m useless. Stuck here on Earth.”
“I thought you said she doesn’t need my help.”
Terra rushed to the kitchen and grabbed a plate from the dishwasher and furiously scrubbed it. “We need to clean the samples,” she said through gritted teeth. She turned abruptly. “You need to help, too. Don’t look at me like I’m crazy.”
“Let’s get some fresh air,” I said, opening a window.
“Oh my god!” She pushed me aside and slammed the window shut. “You’ll let out the hab air! The O2 is low as it is. Are you trying to kill us?”
I edged toward her. She was malfunctioning. “Calm down.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
Could she physically hurt me? Was that allowed? I wasn’t sure. And I was afraid talking to the guide voice might trigger her, so instead, I took her hand and gently massaged her palms. I pulled her in, folding her into me.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured.
“Are you confused?”
“It’s nothing,” she said.
“It’s not nothing.”
She leaned against me on the couch for a long time until she fell asleep.
“Her mind is calibrating,” the guide voice said. “The fossil discovery has perturbed its neural net.”
“What should I do?”
“It’s cleaning out old memories. The avatar is rejecting the stress it perceives from Claire. It’s imperative that you bring a harmonious relationship to your—”
“Shut up. Just…shut up.” I didn’t want to hear the word “harmony” again.
To cheer her up, I took Terra to our favorite bubble tea shop. A robot shaped like a plastic milk tea cup rolled up and asked in Mandarin, “What would you like to order?”
“Honey milk, but no bubbles, please,” Terra said.
“You should try them. They make the balls in-house,” I said.
She stuck her tongue out. “They’re too chewy.”
“I have an idea. Could I get the bubbles on the side? Oh, and some jellies.”
“I hate jellies,” Terra squealed.
“Don’t worry, we’re not eating them. I want to show you something.”
“Hao de,” the robot said. The order adjusted on its display.
The robot faced Terra. “Can the avatar eat?”
“Of course I can eat,” Terra hissed.
“Sorry, I am required by law to ask all avatars. I am not allowed to dispense food for non-masticating models.” The robot bowed. Then a whirring came from inside it. Two boba tea cups dropped down its hatch. I grabbed both, then a clear container dropped down, filled to the brim with glistening tapioca balls and square fruit jellies.
“I thought you could help me with my research.” After sitting at a table, I unfolded a napkin. Young couples sat nearby. I spotted a few other avatars, lights glowing from the back of their necks.
Terra took a deep breath and sipped milk tea while I composed a pile of tapioca balls in the center of a napkin. “Here’s the sun. And here are the planets.” I swirled eight balls around the napkin and dropped clear jellies along the edge of the napkin. “And here’s Planet 9.”
“If it exists.” She winked.
“We haven’t been able to observe it directly. But I know it’s there.” I scattered jellies across the napkin. “These are the tiny objects whose orbits have been affected by Planet 9. It’s cold and lonely out where it would be, hundreds of times further from the Sun than Earth.”
“Planets don’t have feelings, Reu,” Terra said. “And we’ve gone through all this before.”
“It helps to explain these concepts again…to someone else.”
“Well, I thought you might see something she doesn’t. Look—Planet 9 might make an approach again to the sun. Its orbit is extremely eccentric, like a super stretched out circle, so it could take a thousand years,” I said. “We’ll still be around. We just need to be patient.”
“Always the optimist.” She poked the jelly pile. “What if there’s more than one Planet 9?” Her eyes sparkled. She toppled the pile and spread the jellies across the napkin. “Planet 10, 11, 12, 13…100! What if you should be looking for smaller masses, Reu?”
After a decade of studying Planet 9, I could peruse the mystery as if it were a grand labyrinth in my mind—its well-worn dead ends littered with sticky notes filled with observations, questions, and failures. The multiple body theory had been posited before, but something about what Terra said, combined with seeing the configuration of jellies laid out on the napkin, made me want to return to that dead end again. A path was there.
Terra took a sip of tea. “What are you smiling about?”
Losing an avatar seemed impossible. Even the cheapest models had sophisticated algorithms that would ensure that they stick close to their owners. It’d been a week since the epiphany at the boba shop, and I’d been heads down at the research institute. I came home early and couldn’t find her. She wasn’t in the living room or the kitchen. Her closet was a mess, clothes strewn everywhere.
How long had she been gone? Had someone stolen her? I turned on the emergency tracker. The dot was located at a nearby park.
I ran down the wide avenues lined with rows of trees and bicycles, dodging bikes and food vendors. I flew past the gated entrance where a group of ladies was practicing tai chi.
A figure was crouched near the old temple on the hill. A shovel in their hand. They were digging. It was Terra. She was wearing Claire’s space suit.
“What are you doing?” I was out of breath after clambering up the hill. In the haze of the smog, the sun cast a red hue across the ground. She pointed and said something, but I couldn’t hear her through the helmet.
“Take that off.”
She shook her head, then bent down to pick up a rock. Her eyes widened. We struggled for a brief moment before the helmet came loose.
“I can’t breathe…” she gasped. Her hair was matted with sweat.
“You’re having another episode. Guide voice, please assist.” But it didn’t respond.
“I found it. Life,” she proclaimed. “These creatures must have made the fossils.” She pointed at an ant crawling on the rock. “They appear to be insect-like. Curiously like the ones on Earth.”
“We’re on Earth.”
“This discovery is mine,” she said. “Can’t you see?” She lifted the rock. The ants scrambled across its surface, looking for a path back to Earth.
The CNSA technicians chatted in hushed tones. I made out only a few phrases in Mandarin:
Cords snaked out from the seams in Terra’s neck into terminals filled that scrolled endlessly. I held her hand. “Terra, can you hear me?”
She nodded. Her eyes were alert. “I know what I did was wrong, but I couldn’t help myself.”
“Why is it responding to that name?” the younger technician said.
“I go by Terra now.”
“Your name is Ying Yue.”
“It’s my name and no one can take that away,” she said.
The technician pecked at a keyboard. “It doesn’t even know its own identity. I recommend a full reset.”
“No,” Terra said. Her lips quivered. “I don’t want to lose any memories.”
“You will retain everything from the moment you were powered on,” the young tech said.
She shook her head. “It won’t be the same. Tell him, Reu.”
“Is there another choice?” I asked.
The tech shook his head. “You are jeopardizing the mission by resisting—”
“Stop,” the older tech said. His eyes squinted behind thick-framed glasses. “It is obvious from the logs that Reuben has been in harmony with Ms. Ying.”
“But Ms. Ying’s avatar is malfunctioning. It’s not safe,” the young tech said.
The lead technician flicked the screen. A stream of videos began to play. It was my avatar—in a space suit gathering samples from the soil, in the lab adjusting a microscope for Claire, and laughing with the crew during communal meals in the hab’s kitchen.
“Reuben, whatever you’ve been doing here on Earth, it’s been translating to your Mars avatar.” He reached his hand behind my neck, tapping the spot where the transmitter was. “Keep doing what you are doing.”
“What about Terra?” I said.
“Is she causing trouble? We can turn her off.”
“No! She’s just…her own person now.” I realized that the past few months reminded me of why I fell in love with Claire in the first place. “What should we do?”
“Do what you like,” he said. “Terra—as you call her—is a sunk cost.”
Terra grabbed the technician’s hand. “Can you do one thing for me?”
The tech nodded.
“Disconnect me from Claire. Cut off the signals from her transmitter.”
Terra and I settled into a new routine. She took her mind off of Mars, and instead, helped me with Planet 9 research.
We found an old draft research paper entitled “A Multiple Body Theory of Extreme Trans-Neptunian Objects.” It’d been sitting on my computer this entire time. Ignored. Like Planet 9 itself.
Terra joined me at the research institute where we spent months poring over telescope scans. She proved to be a fierce negotiator, responsible for getting us the telescope time we needed.
She was there when the head of CNSA called to congratulate me. The gruff voice echoed from my phone set to speaker mode. “Reuben Chang, I heard the news. How did you suspect Planet 9 would be a cluster of planetoids and not a single body?”
I glanced at Terra. “It was Terra’s idea.”
“Who is that? You’ll need to tell me later. I am having our teams draft up a plan for probes,” he continued. “One day, we will conduct a manned mission to the Chang Group.”
“That is correct. We’re naming them after you.”
Terra beamed at me. “We need to celebrate,” she said. That day, we went to the tattoo parlor, where she had the eight planetoids appended to her wrist:
· · · · · · · ·
My favorite place to clear my head was at Jingxiu Park. It was the same place where Terra had malfunctioned with the suit. The park’s closed at night, but it’s easy to hop the chains. Usually, I took Terra, but tonight, I wanted to be alone for some reason.
I set up my old telescope at a bench alongside the temple. The moss-laden arches glowed under the incandescent lamps. The structure had been here hundreds—maybe thousands—of years, watching us humans build new buildings, destroy them, build rockets that would fly us into space.
The amateur telescope grounded me. Even through the light pollution, I found solace in holding the weighty instrument and having the light from distant stars pierce through a physical viewfinder, touching my eyes directly.
A message buzzed my phone as I let my mind wander the sky. It was from Claire. Notifications cascaded down my screen—messages from friends, emails from acquaintances, and WeChat messages:
Congrats to your wife. You must be proud!
Are you going to Mars too?
You’ve renewed my faith in God.
Remember that life on Earth is unique and sacred.
I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.
I didn’t have to read Claire’s message to know what had happened.
I pulled up the People’s Daily. Claire’s face stared at me from the front page.
“We found the live microbes right after we found the fossils. I couldn’t tell you.” Her voice croaked, like she’d been talking all night, preparing for this message; the bags under her eyes betrayed her calm demeanor. “You have to understand why we sealed communications. The CCP was being cautious. There could have been riots if we didn’t message in the right way. And it’s not like I’m an expert at talking to the public. My avatar wouldn’t have known, either, so don’t blame her.”
“We wouldn’t have known anyway,” Terra whispered. Claire and Terra had both disconnected their transmissions, but for different reasons.
My avatar nudged Claire in the video. “Tell him,” he said. “You can’t keep this from him.”
Claire swallowed and stared with detachment at the camera. What was wrong? Had one of the crew members died? Was the mission being cut short?
“I’m not coming back. None of us are. The crew has decided to make this their life’s work.”
The message continued. It felt as if the floorboards beneath my feet splintered as the ceiling caved in. I knew this could happen, but we never discussed it, never voiced it to each other, and immediately, I knew that it was my fault as well—I had never explored the possibility of Claire staying on Mars, never investigated that particular dead end in the labyrinth of our relationship. Perhaps this ignorance made it easier for both of us to attain our personal goals. And now, my heart had been sucked into a black hole, unable to escape to see light ever again. And yet, at the same time, a sense of release washed over me. The black hole had transformed into a wormhole.
And I was through to the other side.
Terra braided her hands with mine. “I didn’t know…”
“…and your avatar,” Claire continued. “He’s been so supportive. He’s made it possible for me to make this decision.” She beamed. “To be brave even when the world didn’t believe in me.”
I took the elevator up to the roof with Terra. From here, the infinite Beijing skyline spread out below us. The pale pink dot—Claire’s home—sparkled near the horizon.
“It’s time for us to move on,” I said.
“I’m here for you,” Terra said. “I’m serious. I learned all I could about her. I can be here for you.”
“Do you remember that first year in college? How we used to sit on the roof of our dorm and try to identify as many constellations as possible?”
She shook her head.
“Not in your archive. Of course,” I said. “I know you don’t want to be a younger version of Claire. You want to be up there.” I raised a finger upwards. “You’re just like her. That’s why I love you, too.”
“I can forget all about space, Reu,” Terra said. “If you want me to.”
I shook my head. “I’m not the same Reuben anymore. I don’t want us both to be stuck in that time—that period when Claire and I aligned. I have to be honest with myself. With you. With Claire.”
We snuggled under the stars until the cold from the cement seeped into our bodies. Discovering those new planetoids had made everything else meaningless. When you solve your life’s work, you can lose your sense of purpose.
Claire’s voice from the video message echoed through my head: “…but there’s good news. Now that we discovered life, China is increasing space funding one hundred fold. We’re not pulling back anymore, not when the whole world is watching. They want to start expeditions to all the inner planets. Even the gas giants. And they want me to head up the mission. It’s going to be a long journey. And you know what we need? A map. Your map.”
Terra sat up. “If they’re sending probes to the Chang group, then I want to go.” It was still surreal to hear that name out loud. “I need to go,” she said.
The last time I had this conversation, we were on the roof of our dorm looking up at the same sky, wondering about our futures.
She pointed to her wrist. “I thought I couldn’t have the same dreams as her. That I was bound to whatever harmonious program that I was designed for. But it isn’t true. What I’ve done is proof of that.”
I pulled her on top of me and gazed into her eyes. They sparkled like stars. Even though Claire and I would never be together again, we would still be a team. My role had always been on Earth, mapping out the orbits. And Terra, she was the prototype that CNSA needed—an avatar that truly yearned for the stars as much as Claire did.
The expanse of space and time might cleave us apart, but our fates would remain tied together. Yes, saying goodbye to Terra would bruise my soul yet again. But that would come later.
I held her tight as the stars and planets wheeled above.
(Editors’ Note: “In The Space of Twelve Minutes” is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 36B.)