Cast of Wonders 518: Simons, Far and Near (Staff Picks 2022)

Simons, Far and Near

by Ana Gardner

Days after a solar hurricane fried Western Europe, nations across the world gathered their brightest grade-schoolers, and they launched us into space with promises of glory and cake.

Solar storms were worsening ahead of schedule, said government men in wrinkled suits, as they pulled us from our underground shelters and stuffed us into armored tanks. The exodus ships, forced to launch early, weren’t ready to sustain endless space travel. They’d need places to land, shelters for their thousands of passengers, far from our ever-deadlier sun.

And someone had to travel on ahead and build those shelters.

Fortunately, we learned as we marched up the launch ramp, Earth had a few shuttles ready for immediate departure. Sure, they had poor radiation shields and leaky engines, but wouldn’t you know it? Shuttle travel damaged the body worst after puberty. Kids had great odds of surviving a trip across the solar system.

‘Great odds’—those were the words they used, and they loaded us into hastily-cobbled ships and chucked us from burning Earth like spores from a coughing fungus.

I went up at the Black Sea site, on the Aral Crosser, part of a team of twenty kids from every nearby nation who still had the resources to travel and communicate. A crew of scientists and engineers volunteered to train us—while radiation slowly killed them—to survive and build. Like all builder shuttles, we carried in our hold ten state-of-the-art habitat pods, to one day turn, on faraway, icy rocks in the Kuiper Belt, to temporary shelters for fleeing humanity.

We did the math quickly: ten pods, twenty of us. We’d pair up: each pair on its own moon, building our habitat together. Two of us alone for years, while the slower exodus ships journeyed from Earth to our empty shelters.

While the Aral’s crew talked of duty and glory and humankind’s future, we cared only about one thing. Who will we pair with?

Pairs were sworn and broken weekly, social ranks turning on habitat designs and gear-fixing scores, on fitness tests or the intricacy of tattoos we solder-penciled on our wrists at night. I was a mediocre pick, at best: short and pimply, with teen-onset anxiety the Aral’s docs could neither medicate nor train away. Correcting everyone in my thick accent when they mangled my name. Ru-ks-ana, not Roxanna. Instead of Ruks, they called me Looks—as I had none to brag of.

We were, for all our quickly-flagging teachers’ efforts, a gaggle of middle-schoolers unchecked in the void, bearing humanity’s future no more responsibly than the biotracker bracelets we swapped and hacked and shot into space through unguarded evacuation tubes.

Until three years into the journey, when Milena got sick.

As the Aral neared Jupiter, we crowded in the hall outside infirmary. Major Ban, our chief medical officer and fitness trainer, came out with a grim set to his stubbly jaw.

“The radiation,” he said, and Sanuthi, tall and fearless, pushed herself to the front.

“No.” Her chin tipped up, like it did when someone got bullied, or a shelter design’s evac routes couldn’t fit accessibility aids. “We’re not supposed to get radiation-sick. Milena couldn’t have been exposed to more than a half-Sievert. At her age—”

“It happens at every age.” Major Ban sighed. “The odds are in youths’ favor, yes—until they’re not. Arguing won’t make her less sick, or any of us safer from the same fate.”

He passed a hand through his slick, balding hair, then held it up, fingers splayed.

“You know the drill. Five minutes, each—make good use of them, and be kind.”

“Five minutes isn’t enough,” whispered Sanuthi. Her hands worried into fists; she had pianist’s hands, long and delicate, the crescents of her nails decorated with pink glittery stars.

“Five minutes is for teachers,” she said, which was unkind, but not really. Aral’s crew kept separate from us, outside of teaching. When one grew ill, we thanked them for their service and swore to build the best shelters in their honor, and five minutes was plenty, for that.

Not for Milena.

“We stay with her,” said Sanuthi, speaking for us all.

“It gets ugly,” Major Ban warned, and she pushed out her chin.

“This whole mission’s ugly. We’re not children anymore.”

She was thirteen. Most of us twelve, still. But that day, we were no longer children.

We learned, taking shifts with Milena, that our great odds surviving shuttle travel were closer to fifty than a hundred percent. Earth had sent twenty of us in each ship so ten might reach the destination.

The pods we’d dreamed to pair in weren’t meant for pairs.

When Sanuthi and I shared an infirmary shift, she asked if I’d sit with her, if she took ill. I said yes, and, in a voice barely louder than the beeping ventilators, she promised me the same.

“I’ll read to you,” she whispered. “So you have a voice to fall asleep to.”

I never knew she’d noticed. Most nights, anxiety and a pounding heart kept me from sleeping, so I stuffed in earbuds and listened to books, the narrators’ voices blunting the panic.

“What’s your favorite book?” Sanuthi asked, and I wanted to pick something clever and worldly, but my head was strangely empty, so I told the truth.

“The Russian fairy tales of the Countess of Ségur.”

It only confirmed how uncool I was—but Sanuthi didn’t seem to mind. She asked for my favorite story, and I told her of The Seven Simons, about seven brothers with different skills, who saved the world and each other.

She laughed at the end, when the Simons tricked their evil king into falling into a giant vat of beef stew and drowning. “Why do you like this one best?” she asked, and I didn’t need to think of the answer.

“The Simons were never alone. No matter what happened, they showed up for each other, and never left one of their own behind.”

Sanuthi nodded. Like everyone on the Aral, she’d seen firestorms and famine fracture kinships. Whether by death or self-preservation, sooner or later everyone left loved ones behind.

But not the Simons.

Sanuthi had no favorite fairytales, but she told me of her old home in Almaty, its violin halls and the apricot-shaded parks. Her gravelly voice built pictures in my head, and listening, I nearly felt the scent of ripe summer fruit, the breeze of Almaty’s mountain lakes on my arms.

We paired on shifts more often, after that.

After Milena, others grew sick. We stopped debating who’d pair up, and our wrist tattoos became words. I remember. я помню. They became names: Milena, Tolya, Daniel. When the Aral entered the Kuiper Belt five years later, fourteen of us remained from the original twenty. Statistically better than predicted: we’d have four pods with pairs.

And six of us would launch alone.

From an unpopular pair pick, I’d become one of the likeliest: my best friends, Mathi, Tilda, and Sanuthi all lived. We called ourselves The Four Simons, and we knew we’d pair up, though we hadn’t decided how. I loved them all, Mathi with his mismatched eyes and Paris accent, Tilda’s tales about Georgian soccer, and Sanuthi…

Sanuthi, I loved in a different way.

The months before our destination, the four of us crammed our cots together and slept entangled, taking comfort in each other’s warmth. When Mathi and Tilda drifted off, Sanuthi and I breathed in silent unison, shoulders touching, hands interlaced. When she fell asleep, her fingers always twitched against mine, making me smile.

“Ruks,” she whispered, the night Major Ban passed. “What if we all fail? If none of the Aral habitats become sustainable? We’ll be stranded, all of us.”

“We won’t fail.” I nudged her. “You could grow a garden in a bowl and pull oxygen from barren rock. Mathi can fix any machine. Tilda’s a geology genius.”

“And you?” Sanuthi squeezed my hand, and I was so distracted squeezing back, I forgot her question. “You’ve got the best designs. Built for people not just to live in, but to thrive. Be happy.”

“Until their plumbing evacuates into the cafeteria because I messed up pipe flow. Good thing I’ll have one of you to stop me from building the world’s largest exploding space toilet.”

She elbowed me, laughing. “You’ll make the best habitat. The one every exodus ship will want to pick. You’ll be the top real-estate mogul…”

We could be.” Cheeks burning, I clenched my free hand into a tight, terrified fist, and breathed out: “Pair with me?”

The words hung in the air, round and clear like sweat drops in the zero-grav drill room.

Mathi or Tilda had better skills, more complementary to hers. She didn’t need nice floorplans, or maybe she liked boys better; I’d seen her kiss Xingkai in the tech workshop—

“I’m scared.” Sanuthi shifted, but her hand stayed in mine. “Two people alone, for so long. I’m scared things will change…We won’t like each other, anymore.”

“I’ll never not like you.”

“I don’t think seventeen is old enough to know,” Sanuthi said, with a superior tone, like she wasn’t just eighteen, but fifty.

“We’re launching next week; seventeen’s as old as I get, to choose. And I choose you.” My fear vanished, replaced by certainty. “I choose you. Always did—and if we had another ten years, I still would. And if things change—when they change—I’ll still choose you, every time.”

Sanuthi turned to me, her arm reaching over my torso. I pressed my cheek to the pulse spot in her neck, my arm too heavy, too uncertain to move over her waist…

“Oy,” Mathi groaned. “Will you save it for the habitat pod?”

Sanuthi kicked him, and Tilda threw a pillow at my head.

Next morning, Commander Jalan, our last remaining supervisor, announced we’d draw lots to pair up. Fair deal, she called it: everyone wanted to pair, so a computer would pick for us.

Tilda and Mathi’s numbers got picked. Sanuthi’s and mine weren’t.

Eight years on the Aral, we’d grown used to loss. But that one night I’d known Sanuthi and I wouldn’t be making a home together on some floating space rock after all—that loss, I’d never get over.

Tilda and Mathi launched their pod at Charon. Sanuthi and I picked Nix and Hydra, two smaller moons also on Pluto’s orbit, so we’d all four of us remain close. An illusory closeness, though, millions of miles away and out of real-time comm range; but if we looked up, we’d see each other as distant glints in the night sky.

The day Sanuthi launched, I walked her to her pod, my hand on the ridged glove of her habitat suit. She must’ve felt me through the haptic sensors: when I squeezed, she squeezed back.

Before the pod bay doors, I tried to burn the image of her wet smile into memory.

Our hands parted, and she dropped a silver cylinder into my palm. “For you. Just… something to fall asleep to.” She took my face between her gloved hands. “I chose you, too, Ruksi. Always.” And, lowering the visor of her suit helmet, she pressed her lips to mine.

They tasted like salt. I held in my sobs; Sanuthi’s lips deserved better than a sobbing kiss.

I gave her, instead, a promise. “I’ll make a viable habitat. In five years, an exodus ship will come, and I’ll find you.”

Such was the rule—those who built a viable shelter and welcomed an exodus ship got one trip, as payment. A way to motivate us to build well, so we might one day rescue our teammates whose habitats failed. A way to give us hope.

“I’ll wait,” Sanuthi whispered, and she kissed me again. Then she walked into the pod bay, and she was gone.

Hydra looked heart-shaped, on the pod’s descent survey.

The irony made me sob louder. Landing the pod haphazardly in the first clear field, I curled into the sleeping cot, exhausted, wishing I might awaken to find it all a bad dream.

I woke up instead to micrometeorites hammering the hull. With a clearer head, I searched landing surveys for a sheltered spot among Hydra’s pockmarks, until I found a small divot at the base of a rounded cliff nearby. I drove the pod to it, then radioed out.

Aral Crosser’s Pod Seven, Hydra Base. Ruks here.” My voice rang oppressively loud among the padded walls. “Landed safe. Surface condition viable. Starting deep surveys.”

I wondered if anyone was left alive out there to hear me.

“I’ll set up long-wave antennas soon, and I better have a bunch of voicemails. Ruks out.”

My heart pounded. Desperate to escape the stuffy pod, I donned my helmet and stepped outside, into barren, piercing silence. The black sky glinted, unhindered by atmosphere or surface gasses. Pluto hulked above, huge and brown, Charon peering behind it like a second moon. Nix, far to their left, was a tiny bright spot.

I waved silently to my Simons, scattered among the stars.

Three weeks later, as I finished deep-ice surveys, I heard from Commander Jalan. She’d launched the last pod and was circling back to assist anyone who needed it.

She sounded bad. When she didn’t radio again in two weeks, like she’d promised, I knew the Aral had been left rudderless, to drift the Belt on autopilot tracking pod signals and putting out regular reports for the exodus ships.

And all of us builders were on our own.

I did my daily half hour of crying, over that. I’d set myself that rule: thirty minutes of misery allowed daily, and all bad thoughts after that could wait until the next day. A strange strategy—but it worked, kept me barely functional in the oppressive, anxious solitude.

I distracted myself scanning for mineral deposits and setting up the pod’s component-printer. When tired, I fell asleep to audiobooks, clutching Sanuthi’s drive. I’d decided not to view its contents until she checked in, and I tried not to count each day that didn’t happen.

I hid from her silence in my work.

The printer could use any available ore to make wall sheets, pipes, and assorted joinery. In theory, it could print all components for the habitat; in practice, between no gravity, wacky magnetic fields, and my user error, it printed mangled sheets and short-circuited twice before I figured out how to adjust it. I spent weeks building a tiny test habitat, the size of a shed, to check the strength of wall sheets and joints and the viability of my oxygen-generating system.

Somewhere in those weeks, the radio received another message.

—Pod One, Charon Base. Six weeks since landing—” Static garbled Mathi’s voice nearly beyond recognition. “Surface—viable, with reservations. Working on mitigation.

‘Viable with reservations’ was code for ‘barely better than burning Earth’. In theory, all the Kuiper objects we’d picked had good building conditions, but that was the problem when you launched into the edges of explored space: theory rarely survived on-site experience.

—storms as we near perihelion. No stable surface region to support pressurized habitat…Underground surveys ongoing—better temperatures and potential liquid water two kilometers under the crust…

I breathed relief. Mathi and Tilda could handle this; they’d build their habitat, even if they had to stick it underground. It didn’t need to last forever: just a generation or two, while smarter folks than us improved the exodus ships and found better spots for a permanent home.

—storms hampering reception. But Ruks and Sanuthi, we want regular news. Once we’re done building this thing, we’re printing a shuttle and coming to visit.

Listening to that last part over and over, I broke my thirty-minute crying rule.

“Bring cake,” I responded at last, masking my sobs.

It had been seventy-nine days with no word from Sanuthi.

Every night, I squeezed her drive in my dry, chafing hand, and whispered goodnight. Whispered where are you, sometimes. Get in touch.

I finished my test habitat, now a sturdy shed with an oxygen supply connected to underground ice sheets and an exterior chassis in case of depressurization. I’d even worked out plumbing. The practice had cost me months and tons of hard-mined ore, but I’d gotten my basic mistakes out of the way, and my final shelter would benefit from it.

Yet, though I drew plans every day and ran endless simulations, I couldn’t start building.

Tilda’s second message confirmed they’d started an underground habitat. I heard from Xingkai and Diego, too, our farthest pod, and from Zane, who swore he’d built his habitat already. Anamaria checked in at the five-month mark: she’d found her moon too adverse for long-term habitation and improvised a single-person survival shed until someone could come for her. Zane promised he’d use his trip to get her, when an exodus ship picked his habitat.

The seven of us exchanged messages, first once every few weeks, then more frequently, as we set up better antennas and learned to avoid the worst of weather and debris disruptions. About a year in, Xingkai and Diego received an automated transmission from the Aral, listing four pods that had failed to signal in six months. We knew what that meant. They were gone.

Sanuthi’s pod was on the list, but I refused to believe it.

With each broadcast, I begged her to check in. Her silence left me stuck, wanting to build but paralyzed by dread. If I made a viable shelter and an exodus ship came my way, I could get a ride to Nix. I could go find Sanuthi—and then, I’d know.

I stalled.

I tweaked my tiny habitat. Increased oxygen capacity by tiny percentages, and reduced heat loss through rounded walls rather than corners. Tested out pedestrian traffic patterns and lighting intensities, and drew hundreds of plans, each more fantastic, with indoor pools and a terrarium, impossible suspended gardens, sunroofs for a sun barely visible in a corner of the sky.

But I built nothing.

My heart raced whenever I lay down to sleep. Audiobooks didn’t help anymore. I began to break my thirty-minutes crying rule more often, and I quit checking in with the others—until one day, I received an automated message from the Aral Crosser, asking if I was alive.

I hadn’t made a transmission in six months: its autopilot had put me on the dead list.

I reached for the radio console, but rather than signal back to confirm I lived, I put on the headset and stuck Sanuthi’s drive into the computer.

The drive contained two audio files and an unnamed folder; I opened the smaller-sized file first, closing my eyes as Sanuthi’s raspy voice came through the headset.

Hi, Ruksi. I was going to save this ‘til after we launched our pod, but—well, you know.” Her quiet chuckle clawed fresh pain through my chest, and I ripped off the headset and threw it across the pod.

I’d never believed much in divinity, but I screamed, then, at a God I wasn’t sure existed. Why had we lost that pair lottery? Why, after losing so many things, couldn’t I keep Sanuthi?

Curled in the pilot seat, in as tight a ball as my suit allowed, I sobbed myself to sleep.

I dreamed of Sanuthi, pressed against me in our cot on the Aral. Her fingers threaded through mine, but when I tried to squeeze them, I had no strength.

I’m still waiting,” she said. “I want to see those suspended gardens you’ll build.

You’re the one who makes gardens grow. I can’t build anything, without you.

Don’t be silly.” She smiled, kissing my cheek. “You’ll make the best habitat of all.”

I woke up crying still, my hair tangled and wet under my cheek.

“I can’t make anything alone,” I sobbed. But my only answer, in the silence, was the buzzing headset I’d thrown away. Sanuthi’s voice still spoke, on a loop.

I picked up the headset.

We’ve just a week before launch, and I want to spend it with you, so I’ll keep this brief.

She must’ve recorded this right after the lottery draw. No idea when: we hadn’t been apart at all. Showered together, eaten together, fallen asleep together.

Been working on this surprise a while, with Major Ban’s help. I thought you and I would listen to it together…” Her breath hitched, and grief tightened my throat. “I was working up the nerve to ask you, too, Ruks. To pair up. You just beat me to it.

I remembered her face, outside the pod bay. Her words. ‘I chose you’.

I’ve put an audio file and a folder on this drive,” Sanuthi said. “Check them out before you start building—I think you’ll like both. Just…know I’m thinking of you.” Her voice softened. “Wherever we are. I’ll think of you all the time.

“I’m thinking about you, too,” I whispered, as her message restarted from the beginning. This must’ve been all she’d had time to record.

I clicked the second audio file, and Sanuthi’s voice filled the silence once more.

The Seven Simons,” she said, “by the Countess of Segur. Once upon a time, in a cold steppe kingdom, lived seven brothers, all named Simon. The eldest Simon was a builder of unparalleled skill. The second Simon was a runner, swifter than wind. The third Simon…

I laughed through my tears.

Sanuthi’s recording went for hours—she read not just The Seven Simons, but the Countess’s full book. I had no clue how she’d found it. Major Ban must’ve asked for a scanned copy from Earth, at some point. It would’ve taken ages to track down.

She’d have worked on this for months, years. Long before I asked her to pair with me.

I chose you.

I’d promised Sanuthi I’d choose her, too, no matter how things changed. That I’d come for her.

I reached for the radio.

“This is Ruks—Aral Crosser, Pod Seven. Sorry about the silence… had technical difficulties. But I’m good now. Habitat underway. Should be ready on schedule.”

That would take nothing short of a miracle: I was fifteen months behind in building. But I’d make a miracle. I needed an exodus ship to come. To bring me to Sanuthi—no matter what.

I reviewed my hundreds of discarded plans, looking for something I could build fast. But short of a dreary square box in which people crammed like canned asparagus spears, nothing worked. None of my nicer plans were even feasible, let alone within an accelerated timeframe.

When my eyes started watering, I took a break and checked the folder on Sanuthi’s drive. It contained a long list of text files, which confused me, until I processed the titles.

Fumihiko Maki: Nurturing Dreams: Collected Essays on Architecture and the City. Harini Nagendra: Nature in the City. AbdouMalik Simone: New Urban Worlds.

The Aral’s crew taught us basic construction and engineering, but when I asked about urbanism and civil planning, they said we couldn’t afford the time for those, and it wouldn’t matter, anyway, since our habitats were temporary. Planning had to focus on keeping as many people alive for as long as we could. Comfort, beauty, and accessibility were irrelevant.

Sanuthi had agreed with my dissent, back then. She’d suggested I ask Earth for more books than those in the Aral’s databases, but I’d never worked up the nerve to call.

She’d called for me.

“I’ll make the best shelter,” I promised her, out loud. “And I’m coming.”

Clicking the first file, I began to read.

My habitat folded into the cliff, curved and awkwardly hulking. It spanned two kilometers in diameter—less than the two-point-five theoretically needed for the ten-thousand minimum occupancy, but the folding shapes and rounded corners gave me extra space. Living quarters fanned along pinwheel edges, broken up by common areas and winding metal tubes that looked like abstract sculptures but helped improve airflow. I even had a hot spring, at the center, dug out laboriously with advice from Mathi and Tilda, the underground-ice-sheet-experts.

Diego taught me to heat the pool using conductive wires. Xingkai provided soil tips, and Zane sent formulas for new alloys he’d invented that made better-isolating wall sheets. I’d tweaked those alloys into odd shapes and spiral staircases, until my habitat looked like a metal cave formed naturally around Hydra’s cliffs. A weird, haphazard-looking design—but its sustainability and comfort scores beat anyone else’s.

With Sanuthi’s books, I created my miracle.

She’d picked books from all over Earth—The Ecology of African Cities and A Study of Tokyo and Planning Canberra, and everything written on Barcelona and Gaudi. I had, inside my whirly metal cave, every piece of urban architecture wisdom from six continents, from lighting in the Vatican to ventilation in ancient Yazd.

One problem, the books hadn’t solved: my hydroponics bay was a sad vision of wilted beans, and the hot-spring terrarium bloomed only dust mites. But everyone struggled with this—even Xingkai and Diego had only middling crops—and the exodus ship seed vaults would help.

I messaged ships, while tweaking my habitat and daydreaming about sharing it with Sanuthi. Every wall knew her voice: I listened to The Firebird welding metal sheets and laughed at The Frost Morozhko digging out the spring. I fell asleep to The Seven Simons every night.

When an exodus ship nearing Saturn radioed back, I sent them my data and waited to hear they were coming. But the commander deemed my design too unusual and chose to settle on Titan, instead. I sent other transmissions, specs and blueprints and every evidence I had that my habitat was viable—not just viable, good—but struck out with three more ships.

“You’ll get someone,” said Tilda, in her now-weekly message. “If not, we’ll make our ship get you. We won’t leave you stranded.”

Tilda and Mathi’s habitat had been picked—even underground, they’d built a sturdy box that could support thousands. Diego and Xingkai, too, had succeeded, and they’d use their exodus-ship trip to retrieve Zane, whose shelter was failing structural integrity tests. If I failed, too, Tilda and Mathi would use their trip to get me to Charon, with them.

But no one would ever reach Sanuthi.

I’d wobbled in my promise to her once, already. Our second year, Anamaria had reported worsening storms, and for all our ideas on how to reinforce her survival shed, she’d eventually gone silent. The loss had sent me into a tailspin. I thought: better not to know, better to think Sanuthi forever waiting on Nix…

But Simons always went back for each other.

I kept messaging exodus ships, until one responded that they were coming.

“I’m scared,” I told the others, in my weekly message. I didn’t have to say why. They knew my promise, and we’d all felt Anamaria’s loss, and every loss before it.

“We’ll be here,” said Mathi and Tilda. “We love you.”

“We’ll be here, too,” said Xingkai and Diego. Zane, too.

We’d become, the six of us, six Simons, different and far away, but bound, inextricably.

And I had to go lay my seventh Simon to rest.

At last, six years after I’d landed on Hydra, Commander Jones arrived in the Prometheus, to a habitat as welcoming as I could make it. It still lacked sustainable crops, let alone my imagined verdant terrarium, but I hoped the exodus ship carried greener thumbs than mine.

“This looks like a crushed-up soda can,” was the first thing Commander Jones said when I met her, in my space suit, outside the shelter.

I grappled for a clever retort. But I hadn’t seen a person in six years; her presence overwhelmed me. My throat closed and I started hyperventilating, and she had to drag me into the pressurization corridor and pat my knee until I could breathe again.

“That’ll teach me to be a smart-ass,” Commander Jones said, when I was done sobbing. Walking to the end of the corridor, she stared up, through the inner hatch, at the ten winding floors I’d built, sheet by sheet, with my own hands. “This is the most beautiful build I’ve seen.”

I burst into tears again, and she gave me a protein bar.

She was older than I’d imagined, in her sixties. Scientists had fitted exodus ships with better radiation shields—which filled me with bitterness at the thought of Aral’s lost crew. For all her tough, military attitude, Commander Jones read my feelings; taking off one of her flight suit gloves, she showed me neat rows of little black lines on the back of her hand. The ink was glossier than what we’d tattooed on the Aral with solder-pencils, but I understood its meaning.

“Ninety-six hundred and nine people in that ship up there,” she said, “out of ten thousand. One of the best rates in the exodus fleet. But I remember every passenger I lost.” Her finger brushed her lined skin. “I can tell you a name for each of these.”

I took off my own glove and showed her six names on the back of my wrist, and she read them out loud with me. I added Anamaria’s name, at the end. But not Sanuthi’s.

Commander Jones requested formal permission to settle her passengers in my habitat, and when I asked, in exchange, for a shuttle trip to Nix, she nodded and squeezed my shoulder.

“I know. Other builders ask this, too.”

I wasn’t the only one with a missing Simon.

We agreed I’d help her passengers settle, first, which took weeks of awkward mingling with thousands of people suddenly filling my space. Days passed in swift swings between joy and panic; but the nights dragged on, filled with heartrending, quiet dreams of Sanuthi holding my hand and smiling. They weren’t nightmares; rather, they felt like soft, loving goodbyes.

Shaking, I boarded Commander Jones’s shuttle. Its pilot and crew knew to leave me alone.

We found Nix an unstable rock marred by storms and tremors and eruptions of deep ice and methane. Scans found Sanuthi’s pod wedged inside a crevice, badly damaged. A misshapen, banged-up metal roof covered a few meters of the crevice beside it; but no one answered radio calls, and scans detected no energy emissions.

The pilot hesitated. “Scanners might miss signatures from an underground shelter—”

“I’m going to check it out,” I said, and no one stopped me.

I crossed the short, unsteady ground to the roof. Up close, I recognized metal from the pod’s external walls, folded over the crevice in a rudimentary dome. There was no visible door: whatever lay below must’ve been accessible only through the pod. A survival-shed design.

Had Sanuthi, like Anamaria, sheltered in place and waited in vain for rescue?

I climbed awkwardly through the pod’s top hatch to its cramped, messy inside. The lights didn’t work; my flashlight showed char marks and blackened metal. The radio console was in pieces, its backup burned to a crisp. The rough landing must’ve caused a fire.

I closed my eyes. Aral’s crew had trained us to handle all sorts of dangers, but fire inside the pod was a nightmare scenario.

Pieces of wall were missing inside the pod, too. Sanuthi must’ve removed them to pad her shed: an emergency trick in case the component-printer failed. But printers were the sturdiest object on board; the only reason they’d fail would be if the pod’s energy cells died—

My elbow knocked something over. I pointed my flashlight to see a small metal pot, dirt spilled from it onto the floor. A planter.

My vision swam. Failing power was the worst-case scenario. All we could do if that happened was message for help and wait, conserving heat until rescue arrived.

Seven years was too long.

I sank to my knees beside the metal planter. Wispy green stalks lay among the dirt; I lifted them gently in my glove, sobbing at the sight of these fragile living things that Sanuthi had grown, that had outlived her. The planter had sat on the burned radio console; she’d kept it for company while she tried in vain to get out a transmission.

I placed green stalks back into the pot. Then, straightening, I opened the pod’s door.

Beyond it sat a short, cramped corridor, dark save for a trace of dim green light at the far end. A door waited there: the access point to Sanuthi’s survival shelter.

Once I opened it, I couldn’t go back. I’d know

The door creaked open, and a suited silhouette filled the doorway.

We watched each other, frozen. At last, the silhouette raised an unsteady hand, beckoning me closer, and numbly, I lumbered over. The door closed behind me, leaving me in a small, uneven metal cave, surrounded by water basins on all sides that glowed deep, electric green.

Algae, a small part of my brain said. On the Aral, we’d toyed with the idea of energy-generating micro-organisms. But no one could grow them in large-enough quantities. No one—

The silhouette took off her helmet, and Sanuthi’s dark hair spilled over the grey suit.

Her eyes were huge, her face longer, somehow, gaunter than the one I saw in my dreams.


Her voice was the same I listened to every night.

My hands shook too hard to take off my helmet. I stumbled—and before I knew it, hands tugged at the helmet, and I took a deep breath that smelled like dust and oil and herbs—oxygen, the distant, rational voice said, there’s oxygen in this survival shed clad on all walls by algae.

My vision blurred again. I put my hands on Sanuthi’s shoulders. I wasn’t sure she was real, or just another soft, heartbreaking dream. The metal pot clanged to the floor—the timid little herbs grown in the void, grown as only Sanuthi’s unparalleled botany skill could—

I squeezed her shoulders, like I never could, in dreams.

“You came,” she said, and her voice broke. Her long fingers, callused and rough, trembled as they touched my face, and I made a garbled noise and pressed my lips to hers. In the cramped, seaweed-smelling survival shed, I gave her the sobbing kiss I’d held back seven years ago, while her lush, oxygen-producing algae glowed over us, bathing us in green light.

Host Commentary

The first story in the year is always a special one for Cast of Wonders, and this story was no exception, but if you ask me what makes it my favourite story of 2022, well, that’s harder to settle on. I love the scope of this story – it doesn’t shy away from the challenges of living and working in outer space, but neither does it scrimp on the sense of wonder. The kids in this story are artists and engineers, scientists and storytellers. They’re also, just kids. Growing up. Trying to work out what their dreams are, and who their dreams are with. We see how friendship and community can strengthen us as individuals, and how even when we’re separated from our friends and loved ones, the meaning and weight we place in those relationships is something that can sustain us through the dark, cold and lonely days ahead.  Sometimes, those connections can be faint, fragile, tenuous. Sometimes, on our journeys through the darkness, it can be hard to find reason to continue.  But in spite of that, both Ruks and Sanuthi go on. They have hope, and love, but no guarantees, and perhaps that’s the most human thing of all in this story: the sheer bloody-minded stubbornness that love is worth it. That friends are worth it. That the future is ours, and waiting for us.

About the Author

Ana Gardner

Ana left her Black Sea home for the windier shores of New England, where she now works as a brain science researcher and full-time puppy wrangler. In her free time, she writes about anxious badass ladies finding happy endings (and occasionally eldritch-devouring their enemies). Her stories have appeared or are upcoming in Apparition LitDSFPlanet Scumm, and others.

Find more by Ana Gardner


About the Narrator

Tanja Milojevic

Voice acting has been my passion ever since I can remember! I bring my truth and sincerity to each role. Acting allows me to freely express myself and put voices to diverse/complex characters. Recording stories on my tape player was a large pastime in my childhood; I also improved stories for fun with a friend as a teen (to stretch my imagination’s muscles.)

Now-a-days I get behind the microphone to voice characters for radio dramas, adds, commercials, stories, museum exhibits and games from home. Working with various producers for the past decade has allowed me to meet so many creative friends and coworkers.

Examples of shows I’ve been involved with include: Games (the gate, Flippd, and others in development), Audible (Baby Teeth), Pseudopod, Podcastle, Podscape, Radio Dramas (Edict Zero, What’s the Frequency, 11th Hour, You Are Here, A Scottish Podcast, Koach Studios, Electric Vicuna Productions, Campfire Radio Theater, All’s Fair, Organism, Greater Boston, Twilight Radio Theater, Misfits Audio, Darker Projects, Brokensea Audio, 19 Nocturne Boulevard, Audioblivious Productions, Icebox Radio Theater, The Grey Area, The No Sleep podcast, and more…)

My affirmation before each recording session is: It’s not just the voice that matters; it’s how you tell the story

Find more by Tanja Milojevic