by James Machell
Yunsun emerged from customs at Seoul Harbour, rocket-lagged after nine months in space. Her husband, Woojin, was waiting with flowers. The city was contaminated by the breath and sweat of millions; neon lights strobed the roads. She was used to an antiseptic cabin and the dim peacefulness of starry views.
They drove home as rain streaked the car windows and Yunsun didn’t speak, focussing on droplets like they were asteroids. A tank on the back of a passing truck reflected the afternoon showers with a mournful lustre.
One of the hundred tourist rockets glinted in the rear-view mirror, launching from the harbour with a tail of green flame. The sky had turned so red in the space-age that patches of exhaust looked like sprinkles of basil in tomato soup.
“You don’t have to talk about what happened, you know?” said her husband. “I just hope that you will stay on Earth from now on.”
Yunsun had neither the urge nor the energy to discuss her terrible journey. She didn’t even care about crushing the bouquet of flowers between her legs while resting her face against her palm with her elbow against the door.
Pictures of plum blossoms, magnolias, rapseeds, and of course her favourite, sunflowers, had decorated her sleeping quarters. They were reminders of home but now brought her back to space after so many nights staring at them. “I always thought lucum-densa was a terrible business,” he continued, though Yunsun had only sniffled since they met. “There’s no point in risking your life over a job.”
After years of processing numbers as a launch co-ordinator for merchant vessels, she decided to use her knowledge to steer a ship through volatile necks of space and retrieve the most craved substance in the universe. This fuel, so much more powerful than oil, had propelled mankind into light speed.
A few crystals sold for thousands on the international market.
But her captain had known the true value of lucum-densa, having wrestled with so many dying stars that you could still see an inferno in his flashing eyes. He used to stay up with Yunsun in her cabin, when the other astronauts were asleep, talking about how star chasers were like the whalers in Moby Dick. This had been her first voyage and it made her feel better to hear him focus on conquering the stars, rather than the chances of getting swallowed by them.
Sometimes they spoke for so long that he spent the night in her bed.
“Say something!” demanded Woojin, his voice starting to crack. Yunsun still had nothing to discuss and looked up at the skyscrapers, taking little notice of her husband because he seemed so insignificant now. “I waited nine months for you and brought these sunflowers. The least you could do is show a little gratitude!”
The captain used to call her Little Flower.
She found the nickname patronising until their target star blossomed into death with lilac solar flares and a gleaming core that outshone the surrounding galaxy. Everything seemed so pointlessly tiny afterwards.
“I just need some tea,” muttered Yunsun.
“Ok then,” sighed her husband. “I’m sorry for snapping at you. I – I didn’t know whether you would ever come home.” Yunsun hadn’t known whether she would get back either, but there didn’t seem to be much point in mentioning it.
Because lucum-densa was unobtainable, once a supernova began condensing into a neutron star, the dazzling crystals had to be extracted at precisely the right moment. The pre-launch forecasters must have misjudged the timing of the blast because the anti-vacuum
bay exploded after drawing in the first few particles.
Having lost all forms of communication, as well as the captain and half the crew, it was a perilous journey back home. A two-week expedition turned into nine months of navigating by sight. It had been easy to find the Milky Way but then frustrating to roam through solar systems until they eventually found Earth.
“I’ll be right back,” said Woojin, pulling up beside Gong Cha, where drinkers of bubble tea were as tightly crammed as her crew had been on the observation deck. Yunsun left her sunflowers on the seat, the
moment he was out of sight, and hailed a dingy yellow cab. She wished her husband had remembered to bring a mask because the exhaust from cruisers and merchant vessels was suffocating.
“Seoul harbour!” she told the driver. Her manners disappeared after months of arguing over the whereabouts of the Sun on a patchy map of the universe. Yunsun had looked forward to coming home, but
flowers, which used to be fascinating, were minuscule compared to the stars. “Drop me by a motel. I’m taking the next rocket out of here.”
James Machell is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Seoul, South Korea, with an MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh. He co-edited and contributed to the second edition of From Arthur's Seat, while his most recent stories have been published by Nanoism and Every Day Fiction. Find him on Twitter @JamesRJMachell.
Fiction by James Machell:
"Sunflowers" October 2019