Houston, Houston, Do You Read James Tiptree?
by Rachael K. Jones
After two hours of work, Daria got the space station’s recycler back online without Hugh there to help her. If he had just waited ten minutes while she tried resetting power. If he had let her double-check his gear before his spacewalk, like he was supposed to by all protocols.
If. If. If.
Now her only brother drifted away from Station Mars One, a fragile floating bubble on the void. He brought to mind the time Daria packed her goldfish in the front seat for the drive to college. Glass bowl swathed in bubble wrap swathed in a blanket, set in a flimsy taped-up cardboard box. The thinnest sliver of shelter against a sudden end.
She pressed both palms into her eyeballs until stars blossomed, and with great effort, focused on her last obligation: to keep him company until he died.
The intercom crackled to life. “Your turn, Daria,” said Hugh. He sounded weary, but in good spirits. Like they were still parked together with their e-readers in the control room, passing the long, boring hours caretaking Station until their six-month stint ended, and the relief shuttle arrived.
“The Martian Chronicles Ray Bradbury,” she said after some thought. “Non-fiction. An alien visits Earth to write the definitive intergalactic biography of the science fiction master.” Hugh had taught her to play this game. You mashed up a novel title with its author, then invented a short synopsis.
“Ha. Not bad.” He hummed to himself. “How about… Harlan Ellison’s Watching Harlan Ellison? Comedy. Harlan’s newest addiction is a reality TV series starring himself.”
Four unbroken hours of this, and Hugh could still pull a laugh from her. “Lock In John Scalzi,” Daria shot back. “Crime. The world’s best prison architects match wits with a Hugo-winning escape artist who slips out of all restraints.”
“Ha. Pretty good. But I said that one an hour ago,” said Hugh. “Think of something different.”
“Sorry. I suck at this game.”
He snorted, a sound like tumbling pebbles over the radio. “You have the e-reader. No excuses. Just browse the index until you see something good.” He paused. She could hear him breathing, in and out, slow and rhythmic. “Not like I’d catch you doing it.”
“I’m not going to cheat, Hugh.” Daria believed in following the rules, even if it didn’t matter much anymore. She tried to speak, to tell another joke, but she looked out the window and saw him out there in the distance, his suit reflecting sunlight, and her voice hitched.
“Hey,” Hugh said gently, or maybe it was just the radio signal dying, “hey, I’m sorry, Daria. Sorry about rushing the repair this morning. About that prank I pulled with your suit last month. Sorry about… well, all of it. If I’d followed protocol, you’d have everything you need to rescue me, but now, because of me–”
She didn’t want him to say it, to make it real. “Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy John Joseph Adams. Erotica. A collection of science fiction shorts starring a sexbot programmed to be the man of everyone’s dreams.”
Hugh’s belly laugh sent feedback squealing over the line. “Hey, we didn’t say we could use anthologies! Good one, sis! Except you should’ve used Gardner Dozois. He invented this game. That would be hilarious.”
Daria let the ringing laughter wash over her, and did not allow herself to flinch away from the sharp pain of the feedback. She wanted that sound burned into her synapses. He was Humanity itself, laughing into the abyss as he hung suspended in his ridiculous, wonderful, bubble-wrap suit holding back the cold and dark, defeating the howling loneliness with the only weapon that ever worked.
“Hey, Daria? I’m getting tired,” said Hugh. Six hours unmoored now. “But you’ve only got two months until the relief crew gets here. That’s not so bad. You’ll pass the time. You’ve got all those books.”
Her resolve broke. Daria groped for her damaged spacewalk gear. Hugh had destabilized its joints when he turned it into a balloon for his birthday, but at least he wouldn’t have to die alone. “I’ll come and get you. You’re not that far away. We can make it work somehow.”
“No.” It was so final, so firm. Her brother was never one to give orders. “Can’t risk it. Someone has to be there to wake the relief crew from stasis when their shuttle arrives. Otherwise you’ll lose more than Mars’s worst prankster.”
“Two Sisters Gore Vidal,” she began. “It’s about– about minotaurs–”
“I love you, okay?” His voice was definitely fainter. From weakness or distance, she couldn’t say. Out the window, his body was just a suggestion against the bright dome of Mars, a word on the tip of the tongue.
“Remake Connie Willis!” she shouted. “Feed Mira Grant! The Sky That Laps Jay Lake!”
Daria called out into the void for a long time, shouting for her other half like a title missing its author, because without it, nothing made any sense.
by B. Morris Allen
Earthlight sends jags of shadow crawling across the floor of the viewing bay, intangible reminders of the blowout that took #7 Arc, sent its occupants out into the dark. Killed my friends. Killed my parents. Killed my brother. They were at an Earthview, back when it was still a sick curiosity. No one comes here now, not in the year since the accident.
I miss Asil. He was pretty good, as brothers go. I’ve only had one, and now I wish I had him back. We were fighting, that night. We were always fighting. He was joining the EngineCrew, those idiot steampunk kids who go around pretending they can fix the station with rubber bands and tin foil. I was telling him what an idiot he was. I was always helpful, like that. He didn’t appreciate it. I guess that’s how brothers are. It’s hard, being a sister all on your own.
The EngineCrew lashed up a workaround, closed off the #7 viewing bay and its ragged shards of plex, plastered off the bulkheads where the cracks were thin, filled the passageways with plastic tunnel where they’re large, dug part of the route through the comet chunks still lashed to the outside of the station. You can still get round the circle that way, if you don’t mind zigging and zagging through a maze filled with signs saying “Vacuum! Do not open!!” The #6 and #8 Arcs are lonely places these days.
I’m supposed to be checking for stress-fractures, or some shit like that, my weekly chore for the Committee for Space Station Renewal. No one really cares, though. They know it, and I know it, and if I want to spend my time looking out at the sharp plexteel petals of #7, no one’s going to ask. Just like I don’t ask why Marta spends a lot of time alone with a viewer and a feelie chip, or why Joaquin comes back bruised from #3 Arc, but goes back every week for more. We all know where the stress-fractures are. We just don’t talk about it.
The Earth is a rich blue in the background, when I remember to look at it. I told the Moms I had memories of it – playing in the sand, swimming in the water. They liked that. I told Asil I had memories of their vids. They said that was me, running and splashing. I said I remembered. It doesn’t matter now.
I don’t even remember where it was supposed to be. Somewhere on the West side of Earth, I think, which is the simpler, plainer side with the wiggly bits. I don’t know. The Moms used to complain about how it had all changed since the war, but it all looks the same to me – lots of blue, and some blobs of brown. I guess the night side is different, now that it’s all dark.
They’re taking bets now, whether we’ll fall into night or day. I don’t see that it matters. When the blowout happened, I don’t guess Asil was thinking, ‘Hey, at least I’m dying in Earthlight.’ You never know, though. He was a romantic.
There’s only so long you can stare out at disaster. Even teenagers have their limits, and I’ve met my quota for the day. I tap the “No stress-fractures” icon on my wristpad under #7 – viewing bay. I’ve only looked through the ceiling plex, toward the station hub. I figure if the floor has fractures, I’ll know about it soon enough. Besides, that side’s toward the sun, and the plex is opaqued. Nothing to see there.
We keep all the hatches closed these days, when we remember. As I’m dogging shut the door to the viewing bay, my pad throbs. It’s Jon, of course, sending a big smiley face and a note. ‘Thanks for checking that out, Ef!’ If there’s any one thing about the EngineCrew that annoys me, it’s the enthusiasm. What happened to plain old ‘Tx’, or just a check mark, or nothing at all? But hey, what’s orbit decay when you have a smiley face?
It could be weeks, or months, even years, if the Crew can find enough rubber bands. Juana keep saying we could lift the orbit by using the Crew as reaction mass, but after the first hundred times, no joke is funny.
The hallways are empty at this time of day. I don’t really know what ‘time of day’ means, but the Moms liked to say it. It’s 02:34, which probably means some of the oldsters are sleeping. They sleep as much as they can, because, what else can you do? My group is probably down in the lounge, and I head that way. Probably, I can find someone for a quick fuck. I don’t much feel like it, but it’s something to do. Maybe one of the guys, because I don’t feel like doing any work.
My luck’s in, I guess, because Vanya’s around. He likes me, and he’s up for it. He takes his time, and it’s a good half hour before I have to confront my bleak existence again. Vanya talks like that – all poetry and existentialism. I figure we’re all going to die anyway, and ‘we’re all going to die in a fiery crash to Earth’ is not much different from ‘we’re all going to die in a blowout’.
“So, what do you think?” The afterglow of sex is starting to dim, but Vanya’s question still catches me off-guard, and I go with an old standard.
“Oh man, you were the best. Dick big as a shuttle. Unstoppable. And that payload!” Vanya’s thorough, but sometimes he needs a little hand-holding afterward. It’s not my strong point; it always comes out sarcastic.
“Yeah, yeah, funny.” I can see it working, though. He’s squaring his shoulders unconsciously, as if a little sarcasm made him a better man. “No, I mean about joining the Crew.”
“What, me?!” It’s absurd, even offensive, and he should know better.
“No, me.” He did a little talking during sex, and it’s coming clear that I didn’t pay enough attention. “Were you listening at all?”
“Uh…sorry, big boy. Caught up in the moment.” I was, too, in the sense that my brain was turned off so I wouldn’t have to think. “Why, uh, why would you do that?”
He blinks slowly, sighs, rolls onto his back. “Forget it.”
I’m tempted. There’s nothing I like less than talking about the Crew, but Vanya’s a good guy, all in all. He’s between me and Asil in age, was friends with both of us. So, alright. “You don’t like the Crew anymore than I do.”
He shrugs, and I can see it’s on me to dig a little. I roll forward a little so that I’m up against his side. He’s nice and warm, and a little sweaty. “So, what changed?” I ask. “Tell me.”
That’s all it takes. He shoves away a little, then rolls back so we’re lying face to face, and he pushes one warm leg between my knees. I squeeze a little to encourage him.
“Here’s the thing,” he says. “I was talking with Jon, the other day. You know, scheduling chores, and all.” I do all that by pad, but Vanya’s a programmer, sort of, so maybe. Plus, he’s a lot more sociable than I am. Everyone is. “He said they’ve got a new idea.”
“Oh, come on, Van.” Now I’m on my back, and I’m looking for my panties out of the corner of my eye. The damn Crew always have a new idea. That’s why they’re so fucking optimistic. “Not one of those plans has ever worked out. Remember when urine venting was going to push us higher? Until they decided we need to retain the water? Or when they were going to slingshot us round the old Mir, as if we didn’t outmass it by about a hundred to one? Or -”
“Yeah, okay, I got it.”
“Or when -”
“I got it.” He’s irritated now, and the whole post-coital bliss thing has melted away into sticky rec-room pads and cold air. “Look, he’s just saying that we have these little comet chunks stashed all over the rim. We can use them. Jon says that if we fire them just as they’re perpendicular to the orbit, we’ll be adding our rotational velocity to the mix. More velocity, more reaction.”
There’s something wrong with that, I’m pretty confident. “If we needed the water in urine, we sure as shit need the water in ice. Besides, how is it different than venting the piss to begin with?”
“I don’t know. Nira did the calculations. Something about being a single mass, I think. And, yeah, we need the water, but only if we live.”
I laugh. When was the last time any of us thought seriously about living? But Vanya’s face gets tight, and I can see that he is thinking about it. That this severely stupid scheme is enough to give him hope, that he wants to believe it. That maybe believing it is his way of focusing, like for me it’s sex, or staring out at #7 Arc.
Hope. The worst of Pandora’s box of evils, except it wasn’t her box at all, but a jar belonging to Prometheus’ brother, and what the hell he was doing with a jar of evil stuff is anybody’s guess. I’d damn the Greeks and their stupid stories, but I think someone already took care of that.
Vanya’s no smarter than I am, and Jon’s mostly just got the enthusiasm thing down. Nira’s pretty sharp, though, even if she is a year younger than I am. So maybe the idea’s not entirely stupid.
“You think dropping ice is going to save us? You think that’s going to give us a future?” I get up and find my panties and cami in the corner. “You think anyone here has a future? Anyone?” I’m shoving limbs into underwear as fast as I can, so I can leave. Because if it isn’t stupid, and if there is a chance, then it’s just crap, all of it. Because Asil wanted the chance, and he worked for it, and he’s dead. And I’m still here, all alone.
I can hear Van calling as I grab my jumpsuit and booties and shove my way out of the room, but I can’t hear him because I’m afraid of what he might say.
I’ve been spending time in #7 Arc. It’s as far as I can get from Van, and as close to Asil and the Moms. I know they’re not here. The Moms died of collapsed lungs and bubbles in their blood, and burned up in a tangle of arms and legs in Earth’s atmosphere. Mom Edith’s arm was caught up in Mom Angele’s belt. I don’t know if it was on purpose. The monitoring vids don’t show that. Asil died the same way, but he got hurled up into higher orbit. The Moms bounced off the hub. Asil’s still out there, somewhere. Maybe he’s already come down. Maybe he reached escape velocity, and he’s orbiting the sun all by himself. I like to think so. The Crew could probably tell me, but I’ve never asked. If he hadn’t been hanging around with them… he’d still have died, I guess. I can’t pin it on them. Just like I can’t pin my survival on my stupid argument with him. I won’t carry that guilt. I won’t.
The #7 viewing bay itself is closed, of course. I went in it once, just to see. Wasted a whole lock worth of air, getting to it, and got a lecture for my trouble. Several lectures. There’s nothing to see. Just a ceiling of clear plexteel with huge hole in it. They say a micrometeorite probably weakened the plex a day or so earlier. Nothing big. Just enough to cause a stress-fracture or two. Then, who knows. Faulty timing on a spin-jet, maybe. Or imbalance in the station rim. Maybe just loud music. Anything, really. That’s what killed my family – anything.
Eventually, of course, they track me down. It’s not tracking so much as finding. My pad’s powered from the net, so if anyone who wants to find me, they know where I am. They’re just giving me alone time. How much more alone can you get, when 99.99999999% of your species is dead, along with your whole home planet?
They send Nira, for some reason. I’ve never liked her much. She’s smart, and she was Asil’s best friend in the Crew. That’s it, really. We’re both pudgy and brown and tall. She’s smart, I’m … not as smart. She cares whether we live.
“Hey,” she says. “People are worried about you, Efigenia.” No pretense that it’s her, at least.
“Oh well.” Never give a centimeter, that’s what Asil used to say. He said it sarcastically, but hey.
“The oldsters asked me to check on you.”
“Van, too.” She lets that sink in for a minute, like it’s some kind of magic password to happiness, like I’ve been curled up in the corner waiting for Prince Charming to come kiss me. “Jon too. A bunch of folks, in fact. And the oldsters, of course.” Because the oldsters aren’t quite sure what to do with kids whose world has gone to shit, but they’re sure it must be pretty traumatic.
“Well, gosh, thanks. Tell them I’m all sympathy-ed up now.” I get up and wander over to a chair in the middle of the room, just to make clear that I use the whole space, not just the corners. “Dog the hatch when you go, why don’t you?
Nira snorts, and it doesn’t sound any cuter on her than when I do it.
“Sympathy! What the hell for? Oh, wait, are your folks deader than my uncle, or his two kids, or Ms. Abramovic from down the corridor, or Mr. Luce, who taught me algebra?” She took me by surprise at first, but I see her dash a few tears off with one pudgy hand, and I can see she’s just getting started. “Or maybe your life is harder than everybody else’s? ‘Cause, you know, all that sulking and shit you need to get done. So, yeah, sympathy. ‘Cause you’re the only one who lost Asil, aren’t you?” The tears are streaming now, and the snot is starting to run. She wipes it on her sleeve, leaving a shiny trail down her cheek as she bends to put something gently on the deck. “Here’s your sympathy, Ef. I hope you choke on it.”
And then she’s gone.
I’m not entirely insensitive. It just takes me more time. Asil told me that once. I know, because it’s right here on his wristpad, along with all the other stuff he ever texted me. It’s tagged with ‘LiS’, which stands for ‘Little Sister’, though I can’t see it right now because of the whole weeping thing.
I didn’t know Nira had his pad. I don’t know why she would. I wanted to be angry that she didn’t tell me, but then I read the stuff tagged with heart emoticons. Plus, I suppose that since the accident, I’ve been a touch on the bitchy side. So, fair enough, I guess.
I never knew they were so close. In the first years after the war, we still thought the station could survive, or the oldsters did. Things moved along about like usual. It was only after the accident, really, that it sank in. That’s when things got loose. No classes, no rules. For me, no parents. We all put a lot of living into that time. It’s hard to remember, sometimes, that things were different. For Asil and Nira, they were. He never had sex, I guess. Not with her. Maybe not ever. It’s not in the wristpad, anyway. I don’t know why it matters, but when I think about it, it hurts. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s life. That’s what Asil would have said. That’s life. ‘Cause life is what it’s all about.
I want to apologize, but when I make my way back to #7 Arc and Nira, the rec room is full of her EngineCrew friends. More than I’ve ever seen. It looks like all the youngsters in the station, and Van waves at me from one corner. Of course, Nira’s right at the center, spouting off about orbits and mass and stuff, and why it won’t work after all. And they’re listening, nodding. Coming up with new ideas, like they haven’t just been sentenced to death again. Asking what she thinks.
Like Asil did, I remind myself. She may be a genius, but she’s not all brains. There’s something else in there. She’s still a kid, though, and she makes me walk all the way in, pretends not to see me until I’m standing at the edge of the circle like a supplicant, Asil’s pad held in two hands to give back to her.
“Ef,” she says at last, and I keep my anger in, because I’m being the bigger person here, and because I know that beneath all that bright exterior, she’s hurting just as much as I am.
“Nira,” I say, and that’s as far as I get for a moment. She just watches while I get myself under control. I see Van getting up, and I know that if he puts an arm around me, I’ll lose it for good. “I’m sorry,” I manage at last, and offer the pad just before he reaches me.
Nira takes it, and I can see from her eyes that she’s close to the brink too. I take her by the arm and pull her to her feet, and then I draw her in and hold her tight. I can feel her shaking, and I bury my face in her shoulder to hide the tears I just can’t stop.
“I’m sorry, Nir,” I whisper, and I don’t know whether that’s right, since that’s what he called her. She just shakes more, so I guess it’s alright. “I didn’t know.” About either of them. About Asil before he died, with my idiot questions about what he saw in the Crew. About Nira after he died, alone with her formulas and orbits and comet bits. “I didn’t know.”
She says something muffled, but it doesn’t really matter, because I can’t stop now. I whisper in her ear, as if the whole Crew isn’t listening. “I’m so sorry. I just… I feel like I’m falling apart sometimes, without Asil and the Moms to hold me together. Like any moment now I’m going to start flying off in different directions. Like -” But now she’s stiffening, and I’ve done it wrong again. “Oh, god, I’m sorry Nira. I’m so sorry.”
I let her go and stumble back through a blur of tears. Someone’s got me by the arm, and I just want to be alone, and I can smell Van’s sweat as he wraps his arms around me and lets me cry.
“That’s it!” Nira says, but she’s excited, and I’m confused. “We break it up! We break the station up!” And then they’re all yelling and clapping, and the noise cuts off, and Van and I are outside in the corridor.
“Well,” he says, as he wipes my cheek and plants a kiss on my forehead. “Want to join the Crew with me?”
And somehow, despite the odds, despite the stupid human race, and the Crew’s stupid optimism, I do.
About the Authors
B. Morris Allen grew up in a house full of books that traveled the world. Nowadays, they’re e-books, and lighter to carry, but they’re still multiplying. He’s been a biochemist, an activist, and a lawyer, and now works as a foreign aid consultant. When he’s not roaming foreign countries fighting corruption, he’s on the Oregon coast, chatting with seals. In the occasional free moment, he works on his own speculative stories of love and disaster.
Morris’ fantasy novel, Susurrus came out in May, 2017. It’s a dark, lush look at magic and why one sorceress ends up evil.
Find out more at www.BMorrisAllen.com and follow him on Twitter @BMorrisAllen
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is now out with Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android.
Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and is an Escape Artists Worldwalker, having been published at all four podcasts.
Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
About the Narrators
Larissa is an actor and filmmaker living and working in Vancouver, BC (Canada). She’s a big fan of make-believe and will find any excuse possible to dress up in costume. No stranger to independent productions – or being interviewed on video or audio formats – she has a passion for sharing stories she loves with the world.
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.