The Absolute Temperature of Outer Space
by Sandra M. Odell
Dwanda watches her dad bound across the lunar landscape and shivers inside her jacket. The Moon lifts him higher than anyone on Earth could jump and sets him gently down again, a kangaroo in a space suit. Sunlight flashes bright white across his helmet. She chooses not to notice the ragged tear down the right side of his bulky suit, or the way she can see through him to the gray, airless expanse beyond.
The shuttleport crowd paces around the clear observation dome to make room for their excitement and boredom. They talk softly amongst themselves or watch the swarm of service bots making a final safety check on the shuttle Io. A few browse the souvenir stands for last minute gifts or keepsakes from their lunar vacation.
Her mom settles beside Dwanda on the couch. “Brought you some cocoa.”
Dwanda reluctantly turns and accepts the drink bulb. The warm plastic molds to her fingers. She takes a sip. “Thanks.”
Mom stretches out her legs and crosses her ankles. “I talked to Grandma Harlow before I turned in our chits. She said they bought a whole pig for the barbecue. Remy’s all set to put it in the ground once we get out of grav training.”
Dwanda zips her jacket up to her chin and turns back to the lunar landscape. Her dad squats, leaps high in the air, and lands with a skip and a jump. He waves to her. Hello! Hello! Dwanda barely lifts her right hand and waves back, hoping her mom doesn’t notice.
“Aren’t you excited about seeing Selena in person? You two talk about that all the time.”
Another sip of cocoa. On Earth they use cow milk to make cocoa instead of soymilk. Gross. “I guess.”
“Grandma says Selena’s excited to introduce you to all her friends. You’ll fit in. . .”
Dwanda lets the words drift away. Mom always talks about such dumb stuff since, since, well, it makes Dwanda crazy. Besides, what does she care about new friends? They won’t have anything in common.
The hum of the air recyclers pauses as the new filters are locked in place. Dwanda clenches her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering.
Dad crawls up a pile of boulders near the lift pad. He sets down his left hand, the rock crumbles, and he tumbles backwards in slow motion, head-over-heels. He lands on his back. The gash in his suit opens onto a gray and lonely nothing.
Dwanda’s breath tangles in a scream. Something hot and wet splatters over the back of her hand. “Ow!”
She drops the drink bulb.
Mom catches the bulb before it hits on the floor. “Careful with that.”
A woman with short gray hair and the leg braces of a first settler pauses to snap images with her spamera. Dwanda cranes her neck, trying to see around the woman. Is Dad okay? Please be okay. Please be okay. Dwanda’s ready to knock the woman out of the way when she drops the spamera back in a jumper pocket and continues her circuit around the dome.
There he is. Dad stands at the top of the boulders, arms raised in triumph. He bows to the service bots, bows to Dwanda, then turns again and bows to the Earth hanging like a big blue marble in the sky.
Dwanda sighs with relief. “He’s okay.”
Mom dabs at the splatter of cocoa on the carpet with a tissue. “Hold on. What was that? I didn’t – ”
“Why don’t you take your jacket off? You must be roasting in that thing.”
Dwanda shivers and slides down in her seat. “I’m fine.”
So. Damn. Cold. Mom won’t let her cuss, but she can think it all she wants. She stuffs her hands in her jacket pockets. She wouldn’t be so cold if Dad were still here, but wishing won’t bring him back or make the cold go away. Nothing will ever make the cold go away.
Two shuttleport employees in yellow jumpers begin to remove the first level of dogging from the airlock, locking the heavy metal fasteners into the frame. The man wears walking socks and moves with the casual grace of 1/6th gravity. The woman has work boots with thick black soles and takes heavy, careful steps like she’s afraid she’ll fall and float away. Probably a recent arrival from Earth.
Outside the dome, Dad hops across the moonscape and waves to Dwanda again. Come on out! There’s so much to see! I can take you on that moonwalk I always promised I would.
“What do you think?”
Dwanda doesn’t look away from Dad out there alone, with no one to help if he had a problem. “About what?”
“About taking a few days to ourselves after we’re settled, maybe visiting the Grand Canyon or something.”
The female employee steps carefully over to the airlock, passes her ID bracelet over the sensor, and punches in a six-digit code. The light above the airlock changes from red to yellow, and the shuttleport employees make their way out of the dome.
Everyone on Mare Imbrium Base knows the code to close an airlock, but opening one takes an additional identifier code given to authorized personnel only. What had the woman pressed? Five-Eight-Seven-Seven-Four. Then what? One or another Four? Had to be one of the two. The identifier code is always entered twice, a holdover redundancy that used to drive Dad crazy. If Dwanda can get the airlock open, she can get outside before anyone can stop her. Give Dad a hug. Say good-bye. It can’t be any colder than she feels deep inside.
The airlock would close before anybody got hurt. She could do it.
Mom sighs. “Dwanda, don’t be like this.”
Four. The woman had most likely pushed Four.
“Honey, I only want – ”
Dad hops on one foot and flaps his arms the way he used to in the bubble pool. Dwanda misses swimming with him, splashing and racing to the edge of the water. Last one there is a flat soda bulb. “I don’t care.”
“I know it’s hard, but your father would want us to make the best of it, and we will.”
Dwanda looks back and forth between Dad and the keypad.
Mom puts a gentle hand on Dwanda’s shoulder. She shrugs it away. Dad dances across the gray moonscape to the service bots as they seal the Io’s ports. She has to be certain; enter the code wrong and the airlock will lock down until cleared by authorities. Five-Eight-Seven-Seven-Four-Four, right? It is almost time to start boarding. She doesn’t have much time left.
“Baby, look at me.”
A six-wheeled tractor bot rolls forward and Dwanda loses sight of her dad.
Mom continues, “Command needs to fill your father’s billet and they only have so many family allotments available. We have to go Earthside. We don’t have a choice.”
Please be okay. Please. Please. “We do so. We could apply for emergency quarters until we find a smaller apartment.”
“We’ve talked about this before – ”
Dwanda turns on Mom. Every moment screaming, sobbing, begging for Dad to come home, rushes out at once. “No, you’ve talked about it before!”
“You need to – ”
“Talk, talk, talk!”
Mom winces. “Please, baby. People are looking.”
“Let them look! I don’t care! All you ever do is talk anymore, and I don’t want to talk! I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to go to Earth, and I don’t want to go to the stupid Grand Canyon!”
Dwanda launches herself out of the chair and bounds over to the dome. She puts her forehead to the insulated glass, willing the cold of the airless horizon to fill her heart and take away the pain. She wants to be cold, numb, unfeeling. Feeling means loving, and loving means hurting forever when someone dies, but she’s begun to melt and the tears won’t stop.
Outside, Dad waves to her. The gash in his suit gapes wide.
Five people stand between Dwanda and the airlock keypad. One man glances at his palm pal and steps away to take a call. Dwanda wipes her face, takes three steps to the right. She can’t leave Dad alone; he would start to miss her, or forget her, and Dwanda can’t bear to be lost to his memory.
A woman cradling a sleeping baby returns to her seat. Dwanda wipes her face again and takes another step right. One hug, that’s all she wants. The keypad status light flashes yellow, awaiting the final confirmation. Five-Eight-Seven-Seven-Four-Four.
Someone comes to stand beside her on her left. Dwanda moves a half-step away before she realizes it’s her mom staring out at the Io, picking at her eyebrows one hair at a time. Mom started picking after Dad died, making her brows swell and sometimes bleed. “It’s nothing,” Mom would say before wiping her hands on her pants and changing the subject.
Cold guilt settles in the pit of Dwanda’s stomach. She wants to apologize for causing a scene, but the words can’t make it past the icy fingers wrapped around her throat. They used to be a family. Now, Dwanda can’t do anything but lay in bed during night cycle and listen to Mom cry, wishing more than she’s ever wished for anything that she can bring Dad back and make it all right again.
Another woman wanders away, leaving two people. Dwanda sidles another step closer to the airlock.
“When your dad suggested a marriage contract, I had no idea we’d end up on the Moon,” Mom says as an automated track-tug maneuvers the Io into position. “I hated it at first. You think the new arrivals look funny? You should have seen me. I looked like a drunk goose.”
The last woman moves away from the wall, leaving only an elderly man standing between Dwanda and the flashing yellow keypad. She chews on her bottom lip. Warm blood slicks the tip of her tongue.
Dad climbs onto the track-tug and jumps to the nose of the shuttle, a massive boulder of silicone and metal. Mom doesn’t move.
“And we were so happy when you were born. You looked like a little brown bean. We named you after your dad’s favorite auntie. I told you that, didn’t I?”
“Yeah.” Dwanda had even seen a picture of her great-aunt sitting with her dad on the front stoop of his grandparents’ house.
“Now I’m going back to Earth, but it’s like your dad’s still here. I can go back to the apartment and he’ll be there at his comp ready to share some silly, stupid comment on his latest vidamation. He’ll always be there, even when he’s not.” Mom touches her fingertips to the clear dome wall. “I miss him so damn much.”
A trio of chimes sounds over the intercom followed by a pleasant feminine voice: “Attention outbound passengers. Fueling is complete and we will soon begin the boarding process. Please remember to weigh and check your bags. Sleep aids and nausea inhibitors are available from the personal products kiosks located near the restrooms.”
The man by the airlock hurries to the kiosks with a handful of other passengers. Any minute now the service workers will return, the bots will extend the boarding bridge from the airlock, and she’ll lose her chance to get to Dad.
“I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to you, too.”
Dad does a slow somersault off the nose of the shuttle and lands on the far side of the track-tug. He raises his arms, dances a little jig.
Tears roll slowly down Mom’s cheeks, meltwater runoff. Not once does she raise her voice or turn from the dome. What is she looking at? Does she see Dad, or Dwanda rushing through the airlock to reach him?
Dwanda catches the reflection of a yellow jumpsuit in the dome. Something sharp and cold cracks inside her heart. “I miss him, too.”
Mom reaches out a hand. “I know, baby.”
What does she want Mom to see?
The shuttleport employees reach the airlock. “Need you to step aside, please,” says the woman.
After a moment, Dwanda steps left.
She and Mom board the Io with the other passengers, finding their seats in the shuffle of bodies. Mom takes the bulkhead seat, leaving Dwanda the aisle seat. Dwanda unzips her jacket. A crewperson checks their ID bracelets and safety harnesses. “Heading back to Earth?” he says with a smile.
Dwanda ducks her head. “We’re moving to Chicago.”
He nods – “Great city. My sister lives there.” – and moves onto the next row.
As the massive engines roar to life, the screen at the front of the passenger compartment fills with a final, up-close look at the barren lunar landscape. “Thank you,” Mom says without taking her eyes off the screen.
Neither does Dwanda. “For what?”
Mom takes her hand. “For not giving up.”
Dwanda holds on tight.
Good-bye. Good-bye. Dad waves to the departing shuttle before the screen winks out.
About the Author
Sandra M. Odell lives in Washington state with her husband, sons, and an Albanian Miniature Moose disguised as a dog. Her work has appeared in such venues as Pseudopod, PodCastle, The Drabblecast, Crossed Genres, Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE, Daily Science Fiction, Ideomancer, and Galaxy’s Edge. She is a Clarion West 2010 graduate, and an active member of the SFWA.
Her collection of speculative fiction holiday stories, The Twelve Ways of Christmas, is available from Hydra House Books . Her second short story collection, Broken In Beautiful Ways, is scheduled for release from Hydra House Books in early 2018. She is currently hard at work on plotting her second novel. Or world domination. Whichever comes first.
About the Narrator
Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her family. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times, she juggles, none too successfully, the multiple other facets of her very busy life.
Khaalidah has been published at or has publications upcoming in Strange Horizons, Fiyah Magazine, Diabolical Plots and others. You can hear her narrations at any of the four Escape Artists podcasts, Far Fetched Fables, and Strange Horizons. As co-editor of PodCastle audio magazine, Khaalidah is on a mission to encourage more women and POC to submit fantasy stories.
Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to immortality.
About the Artist
The Artemis Rising 3 image was commissioned from Ashley Mackenzie. Ashley is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, CA she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing she can be found reading, playing videogames or thinking about her next project.