Bend Back the Shadows
By Michael Reid
Month 669, Day 10
When I was a little girl, Grandma used to tell me scary stories about the day the lights went out on Earth. Back then, she said, there were lots of people on our station. People would come and go from Earth all the time in little gray capsules. And then, one day, the capsules had stopped coming. Soon after that, the messages had stopped coming on the radio. Everyone on the station had hovered by the windows like ghosts, watching day after day as plumes of smoke erupted from the hearts of the cities, their trails snaking across the continents.
“But that wasn’t the worst of it,” Grandma would tell me. “Not by a long shot.”
“What was worse?” I asked her once, between lessons on medicine and aquaponics.
Grandma looked away when she spoke. “The worst part was watching the night sweep across the Earth and seeing that the darkness was empty. No more lights. Just shadows.”
Grandma used to live down on Earth, a long time ago. She was a doctor–a brain doctor. She said that one of the reasons she came up to the station was to see Earth from space with her own eyes. She loved the day side with its browns and greens and blues, but I think she loved the lights on the night side even more. I’ve seen pictures from back then, back when the whole Earth was covered with cities that glowed yellow at night. The pictures reminded me of the diagrams of neurons Grandma used to show me on her slate: nuclear cities connected to dendritic suburbs, all bound together by axonal highways. Then the end had come. Night after night, the web of neurons had disintegrated, like a brain consumed by Alzheimer’s. Grandma and the others had watched it all happen, watched each city flare brightly for a few seconds, then disappear forever.
Our station orbits Earth once every four hours: two hours over the day side and two hours over the night. Grandma said that, every time the station caught up to the night, she would go to a window and pray that there would still be lights. One orbit, she had gone to the windows and there had been only one light left on the whole dark side of the planet. One tiny light, smack in the middle of the big continent–Africa, it was called, when there were still people on it. Orbit after orbit, she watched for that spot, prayed the whole time it was in daylight that it would still be there when the night returned. She would wish on it like an ember, praying for it to spark and spread. But one day, less than a year after the last capsule had come to the station, darkness swept over the place where the light had been and the light was gone.
Grandma said that was the single worst day of her life. Worse than leaving Grandpa behind on Earth. Worse than watching the city where he lived go dark. Worse than watching all those plumes of smoke circling the planet. She said watching that last light be engulfed by the shadows was more fearful than losing all of the rest combined. “But it won’t always be this way,” she told me. “Someday those lights are going to come back. Someday you’ll see just the tiniest flicker down there, but that one tiny flicker will spread and soon it will bend back all those shadows.”
Nowadays, the only flickers on the night side are the lightning storms and auroras. Mom loves to look at auroras. She says that auroras are the only things left on Earth worth looking at.
Grandma died six years ago, when I was only eight. Just before she died, she called me to her. She was all scrunched up in her sleeping sack, so tiny and frail. Mom said Grandma was in a lot of pain, that she was being eaten alive by a tumor or some other horrible thing. Her breath smelled like ammonia and her mouth was crusted with yellow gunk because she had stopped drinking. I loved her, but I was scared to get too close. I tried to stay back a bit, but she grabbed me with one shriveled arm, pulled my ear to her mouth so she could whisper to me. She said, “Suyin, promise me one thing.” Of course I said I would. “Every day, you look for those lights,” Grandma said. “Every time the dark passes over the Earth, you look down and you check for those lights. Will you do that for me?” I said I would, and I have, and I do. But there have never been any lights.
Month 669, Day 10
Grandma said that, when the lights started going out on Earth, there were forty people on our station. I can’t imagine forty people up here. Where would you put them all? I can only really imagine me, Mom, and Grandma because, since I was born, that’s all there ever have been. Unless you count Milo.
Sometimes I wonder what Milo would look like if I could see him up close. His station orbits closer to Earth than ours, so it goes by too fast for me to track him with the telescope. He just looks like a blur. Milo doesn’t have a telescope, so I’m just a voice to him. And I’m not even that anymore, since the radio broke.
I miss talking to Milo. We used to talk all the time, before the radio broke for good. Grandma was the last one who could always get the radio working again. When it broke after Grandma died, me and Mom spent weeks trying to fix it, but we couldn’t figure it out. Grandma taught me lots about plants and biology and medical stuff, but not enough about machines.
Now if I want to talk to Milo I have to flash out the message with flashlights. It was me and Milo who worked out the flashing code and we’re better at it than anyone. We don’t even need to write the flashes down to figure out the message. And we have our own shorthands, like ‘U’ instead of ‘Y-O-U’ and ‘L’ instead of ‘L-O-V-E’.
Mom says I spend too much time at the window, talking to Milo. “I can’t run this station by myself, Suyin!” she likes to say. Mom only uses my name when she’s angry. That’s the only time I hear my name said out loud.
Two people is barely enough to run this station. When I think about all the work that has to get done, that’s the only time I can imagine there being forty people up here. There are lots of little things to do every day: prime and fire the ion engine to keep the station from de-orbiting, scrub the grime off the air filters, check a million dials and gauges in the control cabin. But most of the work is tending the plants. Grandma said that all of the plants used to be in one compartment, one special room for growing a little bit of fresh food to supplement the stuff they flew up from Earth. Now those plants are all we have to eat, so we have to let them grow wherever they want to. Grandma said it’s like a jungle in here. I guess she would know.
Month 669, Day 12
Milo has what Mom calls a ‘lack of tact.’ I just say he can be a jerk sometimes. Today he asked me how many times I think we’ve eaten Grandma over and over again.
“Think about it,” he flashed, only he really flashed ‘T-H-K A-B I-T’. “You used to have lots of people and just a few plants. Now you’ve got the reverse. Where do you think all that water and carbon came from?” I told Mom what Milo said. She got real serious and told me not to talk about that kind of thing anymore. “Once someone is dead, they’re just matter,” she said. “We put it in the composter and we don’t talk about it again. Understand?”
“Yes,” I said.
“And when I die, that’s what you’ll do to me, right?”
I hated when she talked that way. I wanted to plug my ears, kick away from the wall, and fly into a dark corner somewhere. That’s what I’d done after Grandma died, while Mom had recycled her. I’d gone as far from the composter as I could get and covered my ears with my arms. Mom’s hands had been stained red for a week. I didn’t let her touch me until all the red was gone. I still don’t like having to stir the compost.
“Promise me, Suyin,” Mom said, grabbing my head to make me look at her.
“I promise,” I said. She was hurting my head a little. “I promise! Now let go!” Of course I promised. It’s not like she’d even know whether I kept my promise.
I shouldn’t be angry with Milo. He can’t help talking about food. Him and his parents don’t have a lot to eat. A fire on their station three months ago killed a lot of their plants. They put the ashes in their composter, but it’s going to take a long time before they turn back into plants. The blur that is Milo gets thinner every day.
Month 669, Day 13
Grandma said that, back when she was young, everyone had someone, like she had Grandpa. Even up here, Mom had Dad. I only have Milo and he’s not even on the same station as me. That’s okay. Milo is enough.
One day, me and Milo are going to find a way to live together. Milo thinks I will come to his station, but I want him to come here. We have better plants and we can’t bring those with us to his station, can we? Milo says he wants to have lots of kids. Someday, he says, we’ll find a way to hook the two stations together and the whole inside will be all plants. There’ll be so much food we’ll have to have lots of kids to eat it all. They’ll all have lots of brothers and sisters, so none of them will ever get lonely. Mom says that’s not a good idea because even if we could hook the two stations together and have lots of kids, those kids might try to have kids with each other. She says that would be worse than not trying at all. I didn’t tell Milo that.
Month 669, Day 14
Mom had to leave the station today. The radiator stopped working. That is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to us, except an air leak. All together, me and Mom and the electrics make a lot of heat. If the radiators don’t bleed the heat away into space then the station gets too hot and the plants start dying. Then we start dying.
It was already hot when we woke up. Mom shook me awake. I could see the beads of sweat glistening on her forehead. As she moved, some of them broke off and floated in a little circlet around her head. She was pretty that way.
Mom never sleeps well. The littlest things wake her up. She worries that every tiny noise is the station coming apart around us. Today, her sleeplessness probably saved our lives. She dragged me out of my sleeping sack and told me to get ready for a spacewalk. Not that I was going to be the one out walking in space. Mom had been teaching me how to spacewalk since I was old enough to fit in a suit, but she barely ever lets me go outside.
She suited up and cycled through the airlock. I wish she had let me go outside with her. I love being outside. Inside the station it always feels cramped, like the walls are just past the tip of your nose. But when you’re outside, you feel like there are no walls in the whole universe. You can turn your back to the station and see the entire Earth spread out below you and it’s terrifying because it feels so immense and so irresistible that you think you should be crashing down into it but instead you just fall forever and forever around it, with nothing in your way. When you’re outside, you can see the stars and you wonder how many of them there are and how many of them might have planets like Earth going around them and how many of those might have people like Mom and Milo and Grandma living on them.
Anyway, Mom fixed the radiator by herself and things started cooling down again by bedtime. The plants were fine. No chance for me to go outside.
Month 669, Day 16
Mom is gone. Just like that. She’s gone.
I cried all day yesterday and I’m still crying. I haven’t talked to Milo since it happened. He must be worried.
She was gone so quickly. Mom always warned me that it might happen fast like that, that death wasn’t always slow like with Grandma. She told me I would have to be strong, only I’m not strong at all. I can’t stop crying.
Yesterday when we woke up, it was even hotter than the day before. The radiator was obviously broken again. You could see some of the plants starting to droop. Mom was already getting into her suit when I swam out of my sack.
“Get your suit on,” she told me. I was pretty scared. If she wanted me actually in my suit, it meant she thought we might be about to die. We had talked about this before, about how, if things went really bad, we might have to try to jump to Milo’s station. We knew it could basically never work, that it would be impossible to get the timing right. Even if we made it, why would Milo’s parents let us in? They didn’t even have enough food and air for themselves.
Now that I’m all alone, jumping to Milo’s station is all I want to do. Be with Milo or die trying.
But yesterday Mom wasn’t trying to get me to jump. She just wanted me to use the suit’s little air conditioner to keep cool.
“The gauges in the control cabin show a slow ammonia leak,” she told me, as she checked and re-checked the seals on her suit. “You remember how to read them?”
“Yes,” I said. As if she wasn’t the one who drilled me weekly on every gauge, dial, and readout.
“I’ll have to go outside to fix the leak. You watch the ammonia gauge and tell me what it does.”
Ammonia is what keeps us cool. There are tubes all over the station with water pumping through them. The water sucks up the heat and takes it outside to the radiators. You can’t run water through the radiators because it would freeze, so the water exchanges heat with ammonia and the ammonia loop runs outside the station, bleeding heat into space. I know all of that because Mom taught it to me ten thousand times, like Grandma had taught it to her. That stuff meant everything to Mom. That coolant system is what she died to fix.
Mom is not–was not–a touchy-feely kind of person, not like Grandma. Mom never really did hugs. Grandma used to give her heck about it. “Lighten up,” she’d say, “maybe give your own daughter a little affection once in a while.” Mom would glare at her when she talked like that. The only time Mom got a little sappy was when she had to go outside the station.
“I should be gone for less than an hour,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, helping her connect all of the hoses and tubes that would keep her alive. I wasn’t worried. I’d watched her do dozens of spacewalks.
“If anything happens to me out there–”
“Mom, I know,” I protested. It made me uncomfortable when she got sappy. It’s stupid–I wanted her to be sappy, but she almost never was, so I had to pretend I didn’t like it, like the reason she never hugged me was that I didn’t want her to.
“If I get in trouble–”
“If you get in trouble,” I interrupted her, “I’m not supposed to try anything heroic.” That was one of Mom’s rules: only she was allowed to be a hero.
She stopped, helmet in her hand, and really looked at me. She swept some of my hair back behind my ears.
“I’m so sorry,” Mom said.
“For what?” I asked.
“For bringing you into such a messed up world,” she said. This, I think, was her big sadness. When she got really mad at Grandma, especially when she didn’t think I was listening, she would tell Grandma off for bringing her into the world. I think she hated Grandma a little for that. And I think Mom expected that I would hate her for the same reason.
She put her helmet on and clamped the visor down over her face. “I love you,” she said from behind the mirrored visor. And then stepped into the airlock.
Even though we couldn’t talk station-to-station, the suit-to-station radio still worked. We were talking when she died. She found not one but two slow leaks in the ammonia loop and had just patched the second one when she spoke her last words.
“Okay, I’m just about done out–”
And that was it. Suddenly her audio cut out and she was spinning away into space. I swam to a porthole just in time to see the last wisps of air rushing out of her suit and turning into a snowy spiral in the vacuum.
I couldn’t believe it at first. I had just watched my own mother suffocate. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to get into my suit, to go after her. Only she was already so far from the station that I’d never be able to get to her. I just sat there, like an idiot, watching her body spin slowly away into the distance.
I guess I cried. I must have cried. I think I blacked out a little bit. The first thing I remember clearly was freaking out that I wouldn’t be able to keep my promise to recycle her body.
Month 669, Day 17
I’ve been alone for two days. Before now, I have never been alone in my whole life. I never noticed all the scary sounds, the creaks and the groans and the tap-tap-tappings that the station makes all day long. Or maybe I did notice them but they didn’t seem scary before. I keep thinking it’s Mom outside the station, trying to get back in.
Month 669, Day 18
Milo’s parents think it was a meteor that got Mom. Milo made me talk to them after I finally flashed him about what had happened to Mom. I didn’t want to talk to them. All day yesterday I just refused, just ignored his flashes when he tried to make me talk to his parents. I curled up and floated, watching Milo’s light blinking on and off against the leafy green wall across from the porthole. I tried not to notice his flashes, not to read what he was saying. It didn’t work.
“W-Y U N-O A-N-S-R”
Milo never bothered to spell out my whole name. He must have been so worried. I felt awful. This morning, I gave in and talked to his parents. They told me how sorry they were. Big deal. What does it matter how sorry they are?
The truth is that we live in separate universes, Milo’s family and me. Nothing they do in their universe can help me in mine. And they certainly don’t want me in theirs. Milo suggested it, but they shot him down fast.
“It wouldn’t be safe for you to make the crossing,” they said. “If it was a meteor that killed your mother,” they flashed painfully slowly, spelling out every letter of every word, “we should wait until we are sure that there aren’t any more coming.”
I said I didn’t care if there were more coming, I just didn’t want to be alone anymore. They gave me a whole lot of “we know what’s best for you” garbage. Because clearly what’s best for a fourteen year-old is to have to run an entire space station by herself.
Milo tried to apologize for them, flashing faster than they could follow.
“W-L-L T-R-Y C-H-N-G T-H-R M-N-D-S”
I just want to see him. I don’t care about anything else anymore. I don’t care if I die. I just want to see Milo.
Month 669, Day 19
Milo’s parents are freaking out. They saw me out spacewalking without a tether today. They made Milo flash me right in my helmet while I was outside, which scared me so much I just about lost my grip on the station. When I realized it was them talking through him, I turned my head away so I couldn’t even see their flashes. If they don’t want me on their station, good luck telling me what to do on mine.
Month 669, Day 20
Mom was right–she should never have had me. I wish I had never been born.
I’m going to lose Milo.
When I woke up this morning, I went to the porthole to look for his station. It was there, but it was in the wrong place. I’ve watched that station go around and around so many times that I could tell you if it was even a smidge off course. It was a whole lot of smidges off course.
I looked for the window on their station that I normally flash and that’s when I realized that, not only was their station not in the right place, it had spun a little bit. It was still spinning. It wasn’t spinning fast, but it’s not supposed to spin at all. It would mean their solar panels and their radiators would be pointed in the wrong directions a lot of the time. It was bad.
I had to wait a long time for the spin of their station to bring a window into view. I flashed Milo right away and he flashed right back, like he’d been waiting for me. He must have been sick with worry. He knew how bad it was for a station to spin like that.
Something had hit Milo’s station hard enough to set it spinning. Another meteor, probably. It tore a hole in their outer wall and they lost some air before they could patch it. It doesn’t really matter what it was. Milo’s station is de-orbiting faster than they can correct for. That means Milo is going to die.
Month 669, Day 21
Milo’s station is much lower today. It looks so tiny and far away. His flashes are getting dimmer and harder to see.
I heard pock-pock-pock on the outside of my station today. More meteors. No holes yet, but the power from the solar panels is dropping.
Month 669, Day 22
I can still see Milo’s station, but there are no more flashes coming from it. It’s just a dot now, barely visible against the big blue-brown Earth. Milo and I flashed for hours and hours yesterday. I was crying so hard I could barely read his flashes. They got slower and slower and sadder and sadder until his parents took him away from the window.
I went outside again today. I hung onto the outside of the station and just stayed there for a long, long time, watching Milo die in slow, silent motion. His station is slipping into the atmosphere. It’s going to burn up soon. Milo and his parents are going to be cooked.
Month 669, Day 23
One of the solar arrays stopped working today. More meteors, I guess. There are probably more coming. Grandma and Mom used to worry about that a lot, about what we would do if we got hit by a meteor shower. I guess we’ll find out. I guess I’ll find out.
The last thing Milo flashed to me was just two letters, flashed out really slow, like he was struggling to press the button on his flashlight:
Month 669, Day 25
Milo is gone. His station disappeared around the far side of the Earth and didn’t come back.
Month 669, Day 27
Something flew past my station today. Something big and shining bright white, like a four-cornered snowflake. I think it was Mom.
Month 670, Day 2
Grandma used to spend hours at the porthole, staring down at the Earth, watching for those lights.
“Someone had to have survived,” she would say, pointing out the window, teaching me the spots where all the cities had been so I would know where to look. Ever since Grandma died, I’ve checked them all every day, like I promised. Yesterday was the first time I didn’t check. There are never going to be any lights.
I’m spending more and more time outside. It’s the only place I can stop crying. Today I tethered myself to the side of the station facing away from the Earth and just hung there. I don’t look at Earth anymore. Mom was right about Earth: it’s just a big dusty graveyard.
Month 670, Day 4
I fell asleep outside today. Mom would have killed me for doing that. You fall asleep outside the station and maybe you don’t wake up. But I did wake up. I wasn’t even scared. Only, when I looked up, there was something different. There were lights.
At first, while I was still drowsy, I thought the lights were stars. I started making constellations out of them, the way Mom and I used to do. Only, as I watched them, trying to find the pictures they made, I saw that the lights weren’t stars at all. Stars are white pinpricks, but these lights were yellow and just the tiniest bit fuzzy. Were they meteors? No, meteors didn’t glow until they hit the atmosphere.
I tried counting the lights, but I was too excited and kept losing count. Besides, every time I started the count over again, it looked like there were more of them. Hundreds and hundreds. Thousands, maybe. They grew brighter as I watched, getting closer and closer. There was no doubt they were aimed for Earth, either trapped by its gravity or, just maybe, charting a deliberate course. I looked down and saw Africa splayed beneath me. Had we been wrong about Africa, about the place where the last lights on Earth had been seen? Were there still people down there, people who had somehow summoned these lights? My belly froze as a different interpretation hit me. All around me, green and red navigation lights blinked all over the station. My station was literally lit up like a beacon. I’d never thought of it that way, but of course it was true. Could these new lights be aiming not for Africa, but for me?
Grandma watched the Earth every day for nearly fifty years. She needed to believe that the lights down there were going to come back, that the end hadn’t really been the end. And maybe she was right, maybe the lights were bound to come back one day, just not from the direction she expected.
I think I found them, Grandma.
About the Author
Michael Reid bookends his days working to perfect his method for turning cups of tea into stories. His work has appeared on Escape Pod and in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review. In 2015, he attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, from which the main take-away was that he should stop trying to solve story problems by randomly inserting volcanoes. He lives near Toronto, Canada, with his husband, a big white dog, and a volcano. During the middle bits of the day, he teaches astronomy to anyone who will listen.
About the Narrator
Summer Brooks is a story addict who watches way too much television, and enjoys putting her encyclopedic knowledge to the test in discussions and interviews about scifi, horror and comics, which she has been doing as host, producer and editor of Slice of SciFi since 2005, and as The Babylon Podcast co-host since 2006.
Summer also does voiceovers & narrations for Tales to Terrify, StarShipSofa and Escape Pod, among others, and is an avid reader and writer of scifi, fantasy and thrillers, with a handful of publishing credits to her name. Next on her agenda is writing an urban fantasy tale, and a B-movie monster extravaganza or two.