Kepler-186F The Keplerians tracked Earth for generations with advanced telescopes and scanners. When they found it was still habitable, even with billions of lifeforms and all the waste they produced, they sent out a message. Now, Nurit is on Kepler-186F, an entire planet dedicated to garbage. It’s making her sweat, even in her biohazard 3000 suit, built to withstand planets colder than Pluto and orbits closer to their suns than Mercury. She taps her right wrist and sets the internal suit fan to high. She closes her eyes and breathes deeply. It’s in these limited moments that she thinks of home, the desert kibbutz she spent so much time on. Rayén’s voice brings Nurit back, billions of light-years away from her small country. “Nur, what’s your status?” her captain’s voice echoes in her helmet as she holds her breath. Nurit winces at a sharp pang in her back. She straightens up and scans the towering piles of radioactive waste in the Kepler-186F.c landfill. Kilometers and kilometers of canisters holding all of the Kepler star system’s trash and materials deemed too dangerous for the habitable planets. It reminds her of landfills back home, which became overfilled and hazardous. That’s how Nurit got her start in sanitation — she quickly moved up the ranks because of her engineering background, and her willingness to try wild ideas no one had thought of. During today’s EVA, she’d classified which canisters held the most radioactive materials and which were more biodegradable. She pulls up her spreadsheet with a tap on her wrist. “Hola, Rayén,” Nurit says. “It looks like 80 percent of this section needs to be contained. The rest we can use for the terraform.” “Yofi!” Rayén exclaims, using Hebrew even though she grew up speaking Spanish. They’d absorbed each other’s vocal tics and common phrases long ago. “You should head back to base now, we need help over here with dinner.” “¡Ya voy!” Nurit smiles, using Spanish for her captain. When they first arrived, she’d started cooking a semblance of Shabbat dinners for the interplanetary sanitation worker crew. Shabbat has a way of bringing people together, even across cultures, even across light-years. It makes her miss her kibbutz less, slightly. Something in the saltiness of the astro-challah, the sweetness of the wine they ferment and hide from the United Space Agency. It doesn’t slip past Nurit that anything the U.S. gets involved with ends up having the familiar acronym — U.S.A. Chile and Israel sent the first ISW’s, so with that eternal honor, they let it slide without much of a fuss. The United Space Agency packed hundreds of thousands of pads, tampons, and menstrual cups for the interplanetary sanitation workers. There’s no way they’d use half of them. That’s how Nurit knows a man was tasked with the oh-so-foreign concept of period containment. Once they’d arrived, they sorted the tampons out — it would be too easy to get toxic shock syndrome on their long EVA’s and putting one in while wearing an exoskeleton was near impossible. Nurit programs a robot to unroll them and save the cotton. Maybe she can use it to soak up trash juice. The agency wanted to avoid any chance of sexual abuse on the mission — trying to learn from previous lawsuits — so they only sent women. Not that women can’t commit atrocities, Nurit thought. But the Chileans and Israelis acquiesced and sent their top recruits. There’s Francisca, a doctor and indigenous Mapuche; Pía, a physicist and mathematician; Rayén, their captain and chemist; Ayala, a talented botanist who loves the challenge of growing plants in crazy environments; Nurit, a disabled, versatile engineer; and Tal, a trans woman and computer whiz who was an army captain for years. They call themselves the sparkle sisters — a sort of challenge to see if they can terraform Kepler-186F successfully. They don’t know yet if they’ll be able to make the planet trash-free, or at least contain the garbage.
Back at base, Nurit takes off her biohazard suit and showers in her exoskeleton. It keeps her spine straight and reduces herniation compression. Nurit was born with skeletal dysplasia, a condition that makes her prone to herniated discs and vertebrae deterioration. After showering, Nurit joins Rayén in the kitchen and braids strands of astro-challah, then pops it in the microwave she built once they’d tired of food paste. It’s small and low-powered, but does its job. Rayén uncorks a bottle and inhales deeply, her eyes closed. She pours six cups and brings over the rest of the meal: soy-lentil soup, teriyaki tofu, and fresh vegetables they harvest kilometers from the trash. Ayala tells them that living things always seem to find a way to grow. She wishes they could have smuggled some bees with them on the trip. She misses the way they sound, that soft happy hum. Even though when she was just a girl, she’d taken a sip of soda and swallowed something fuzzy. The bee had stung her throat from the inside. She’d had to eat ice cream for a week. The ISW’s gather around the table, say their versions of prayers or thanks, and eat. Nurit savors the meal. Sometimes she wonders if any of them will get pregnant on the Kepler landfill planet. Will they pass on ancient, crazy Earth traditions to their children? Will they grow up alien to them? Nurit wants to have children one day. Francisca and Rayén could figure out how to replicate IVF on Kepler-186F. She wonders if the captain wants kids too. For months, they’d tiptoed around their obvious attraction. Nurit would get nervous around her captain, not just because of her authority. Rayén stared at Nurit’s EVA-cam, picturing them exploring the trash planet, hand in hand. She hadn’t felt this foolish since middle school. One afternoon, after Nurit tweaked their shower pressure, Rayén thanked her for always coming up with small improvements to their base. She didn’t realize she’d placed her hand on Nurit’s. When Nurit looked up, smiling, Rayén took a chance and kissed her. Her stomach flipped and she apologized, saying she overstepped her role as captain, she’d change her schedule and go on EVA’s while Nurit is at base. “I can tell U.S.A. what I did, if you want,” Rayén said. “I don’t want to get you in trouble.” “Even if I complained or you wanted to admit something, they wouldn’t receive our messages for 500 years, you know that,” Nurit laughed. “Anyways, I liked it.” When Nurit suggested they go somewhere more private, Rayén led her back to her room, Nurit squeezing her hand tightly the whole time. She’d never slept with a woman on Earth, never allowed herself to fall for one before. Nurit feels so vulnerable with Rayén, but the captain makes sure she’s comfortable with everything they try together. She savors the taste of Rayén’s vagina on her tongue, slightly salty, slightly metallic, like the faintness a key leaves on her fingers. She likes running her fingers over Rayén’s strong arms, feeling her flex while they fuck.
Some days, the job seems impossible. Like now. Their olfactory-filters aren’t functioning, the scent makes their nostrils flare. Pía worries that she’ll vomit inside her suit from the rancid stench of millennia of trash. Tal tells them a trick: hold your nose closed by shutting your throat a certain way, no hands needed. “It dries out your throat, mamash,” she says, “but cuts the smell in half.” They work in silence for hours, breathing through their mouths instead of noses. They categorize the waste, add notes to their spreadsheets, and set up different colored laser borders depending on toxicity. In the quiet, the towering canisters transform into the Golan Heights. Nurit is back at Kibbutz Merom Golan, taking out the trash. Saying hello to all her neighbors who she’s grown up with, going over their houses for birthdays, to the nearby school with the kibbutznik kids, hanging in the mo’adon until late in the evenings, when the flowers smell the strongest. “Nu?” Tal is shouting at her. She’d been wandering through the rows of waste canisters, past the ISW’s, past Tal, who saw her vacant expression. “Ma, you think you’re back home? Sweetie, we need you here.” Nurit sighs, stretches her back in her exoskeleton. “We all miss home,” Tal says quietly in her headset. The sparkle sisters can always tell when Nurit’s having a high pain day. Her sentences shrink, her lips sit in a thin line on her olive face. The reduced gravity of Kepler-186F makes Nurit’s vertebrae looser, less stable. They shift around in her spine, rub on her nerves. Fran offers her instant-hot packs and natural opioids that no longer addict. Nurit rubs anti-inflammation gel all over her body. Sometimes, Tal massages her thumbs deep into Nurit’s muscles. Tal seems to reach into her very cells, and afterwards Nurit dozes. Mostly, Nurit doesn’t bring it up. Pain is weakness in so many government’s eyes. She’d passed the space tests with her exoskeleton, even finishing with higher marks than Rayén. She found work. What’s the point in dwelling on something she can’t change. After sorting radioactive waste all day, she soaks in a bath of astro-Epsom. Reads short stories by Amos Oz, drinks tea with nana. She stays in for so long her fingertips look like dates.
A storm’s been blowing around base for a week, which is more like a month on Kepler-186F. The planet rotates slower than Earth, so days sometimes last weeks or months. The crew stick to a simulated Earth 24-clock, to keep up their sleeping, eating, and exercising patterns. Pía classifies the storm as a Nia-5000 — 30-feet high, 80 mph wind. It sounds like thousands of people angrily whistling in unison. If they whistle any louder, Nurit wonders whether the astro-fiber of their base will hold. Tal stays up at all hours, running tests and analyses. At what pitch will their camp fall apart? How many weeks can the systems hold with low sunlight? With the solar panels covered in dust, their machines aren’t recharging as quickly as they need them. She programs hoverbots to clean off the solar panels in shifts. Francisca reviews her medical manuals. She wonders how Kepler-186F’s gravity affects medication and blood flow. Fran has rows of caged holo-animals to study. They have various algorithms and genetics programmed in, giving her more options to play with. She records letters back home to her daughter and son. She’ll never see them again, and they won’t receive her letters for 500 years. The exercise is completely futile, Pía reminds her again and again. But it calms Fran. Maybe her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will one day know what she did here. Pía pours over literature about Kepler. When the U.S.A. agreed to send a fleet of ISW’s, the Keplerians transmitted thousands of data on Kepler-186F’s atmosphere, star system, Keplerian lifeforms. Now, Pía searches for weather and storm patterns. She wants to plug numbers into equations, find the averages, see if this Nia storm is out of the ordinary for the planet. Numbers help her make sense of things, especially when she’s anxious. Ayala dictates lists to her wristlet. She checks incessantly on her plants. With the lack of Kepler-186F’s sunlight, weirdly the cucumbers are thriving, the tomatoes grow cubed and small, the protein batches are unfazed and bland as ever. She experiments with adding cumin and paprika when they’re mixing and forming into solid pastes. But the process seems to strip out any taste. In the mornings, Rayén checks if the storm’s still going on outside. Then she exercises by hanging upside down on a pull-up bar and doing crunches. She feels like Vincent from Gattaca, one of her favorite ancient films. In the afternoons, after she’s wheezed through a workout and stuffed her face with three protein pastes, Rayén wanders the base and samples their internal atmosphere. She notes the amounts of chemicals and trace elements, runs a few tests on her own breath and blood. One day, Rayén finds there’s too much CO2 in the air, so she makes everyone wear breath regulator masks. They all curse her out, but know it’s for their own good. It pisses Rayén off that she can’t pinpoint the error. Eventually, she and Nurit engineer a way to oxygenate the ventilators. Only then does Rayén let them take off their masks. Nurit visits Francisca daily now. The storm causes the air pressure to plummet, and Nurit feels it in her bones. They click and swell, it’s hard to bend. Fran gives her pain reliever. Nurit’s pain tolerance is so high, the meds don’t tend to do anything. Fran offers more natural opiates, and Nurit swallows pill after pill, tries to dull the static electricity sizzling through her body. On Saturdays before Shabbat dinner, Ayala, Tal, and Nurit gather together in a section of the base where they built couches out of extra pads and astro-fiber. They pull up a holo-Torah and put on holo-kippahs. Typically, reform or conservative women don’t cover their heads at synagogue. But there’s nothing typical up here on Kepler-186F. The women bow their heads together in prayer, ask Adonai to make the storm dissipate, to protect their home. They sing the Kaddish for all their lost loved ones back on Earth, guessing at who may have passed recently. Nurit grew up on kibbutz, she was never very religious. But being thousands of light-years away from home makes her long for something familiar, a thread tethering her to her starflung people.
At the end of another week, when the storm finally settles, Rayén gathers them together for a speech. They’ve done well clearing trash, even with their failing olfactory-filters. Nurit has ideas for how to create better ones. To take their minds off homesickness, Rayén has them perform skits and read poetry in their languages. Tal tells jokes that leave them clutching their stomachs. Ayala brews them strong mate tea, and they sit up telling stories about their homes. Several of them grew up in deserts, continents apart. Ayala and Rayén lived near the Negev and Atacama, so they welcomed Kepler’s heat. Nurit lived in the Golan, and Fran with other Mapuche in Valdivia, near the south of Chile. Tal and Pía grew up in Tel Aviv and Santiago — very different cities, but the pace of their lives matched. After dinner and the performances, the women scatter. Tal works on upgrading the computer systems. She and Pía are sure they can cut the message lag between here and Earth in half, if they get the quantum equations just right. Rayén gets drunk with Nurit. They slurp glass after glass of their illicit wine. And Nurit confides that hiding her chronic pain is one of her biggest regrets. No one knew about her exoskeleton outside of the Israeli army and the ISW’s. “Don’t blame yourself,” Rayén slurs, putting her hand on Nurit’s wrist. “Look where you got.” Nurit nods. She’d swallowed her pride and pain and was chosen for the mission. But she wanted to show the little girls and boys back home with wheelchairs, breathing tubes, hearing aids that they too could be an astronaut, could travel to faraway places and find meaningful work. “Chaval,” she sighs, resorting to Hebrew for the lifelong letdown she feels. Rayén pulls up a copy of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems on her wristlet. “Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche,” her captain reads drunkenly, the poem bringing tears to her eyes. Nurit closes her own eyes and lets the Spanish wash over her. She’s here on Kepler-186F with her sparkle sisters and someone she loves. Somehow, she was chosen to travel light-years with them in the blackness to this trash heap, to clear it for the Keplerians, to prove terraforming is possible. To show Earth she, an exoskeleton-wearing woman, can make anyplace shine.
Note: a shortened version of this story was featured in 2019 in Paper Darts’ Cleanliness micro-fiction contest (“The Interplanetary Sanitation Workers Get Sent to Kepler-186F”)
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Marlena Chertock has two books of poetry, Crumb-sized: Poems (Unnamed Press) and On that one-way trip to Mars (Bottlecap Press). She uses her skeletal dysplasia as a bridge to scientific poetry. A 2020 Pushcart Prize nominee, Marlena serves as Co-Chair of OutWrite, Washington, D.C.’s annual LGBTQ literary festival, and on the Board of Split This Rock, a nonprofit that cultivates poetry bearing witness to injustice and provoking social change. Find her at marlenachertock.com and @mchertock
**This story was nominated for Best of the Net in 2021.