There is a planet on which you cannot speak. It is a desert with a breathable atmosphere, speckled with oases. Three astronauts crash-land, and when they emerge from the wreckage the first one who speaks, Arerianov, is consumed in a ball of fire. From then on Gurov and Lapushkin must stay silent, and are tormented day after day with the fear one of them, in a moment of desperation or madness or simply without thinking, might speak.

So far this is a nicely excruciating scenario. But it’s used as a situation for Gurov to how realize how little he knows about his crewmates. When looking through Arerianov’s belongings he finds references to a past he never knew she had. Awakened to this concern, he wants to learn all the things he never asked Lapushkin, and the sense that it is too late – that Lapushkin walks beside him, but for all Gurov knows about his life he might as well be dead – permeates the story.

A Birch Tree, A White Fox by Elena Arsenieva (translated from the Russian by Michael M. Naydan & Slava I. Yastremski

Availability: print only

Word count: 4,500

First published: Kartina ozhidaniya, collection, 1989

First English translation published: The SFWA European Hall of Fame, edited by James Morrow & Kathryn Morrow, 2007, Tor

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