Escape Pod 711: Carols on Callisto
Carols on Callisto
By Deborah L. Davitt
On the surface of Callisto, Rebecca Fox struggled with tangled, 3D-printed branches, her fingers clumsy inside the bulky gloves of her suit. The swollen belly of Jupiter dominated the horizon, a swirl of muted white and orange, and the Great Red Spot stared like a baleful eye. The landing lights of ships crossed the planet’s face, heading for the port. The vibration of their engines in the regolith rumbled underfoot as they landed.
“This is idiotic,” a voice broke in over the radio as her companion bounce-walked to her, holding another set of printed branches. “It takes us twelve years to orbit the sun. Why do we need to celebrate Earth’s holidays here? We should be creating our own.”
“The kids like it,” Rebecca defended. She had this conversation with Dieter at least once every three months. “They enjoy designing their trees at school, which is a good use of their CAD skills. They like seeing something they’ve made go up. The plastics get recycled, so it’s not a waste.”
“It wastes time.”
“You get to charge hours for this,” she reminded him lightly. “Hush.”
Silence as they worked, assembling the trees. Rebecca held the kindergarteners’ spindly, asymmetrical creation in her hands. It might need reinforcing wires.
Dieter had the high schoolers’ far more realistic creations. “You do know that the tree is a pagan tradition that’s been adapted to Christianity?” he asked as they bounced back towards the airlock.
Rebecca regarded the row of trees lining the rough-cut road, already lined with the horizontal marks of caterpillar tread. Industrial and harsh, without grace or beauty. Someday, I’d like to see it faced over. Humanity’s made plenty that’s beautiful—why not here? “That might be where it started, but now it’s here.”
“I don’t understand why you like the holidays,” he muttered. “They’re a chore. Family arguments. Having to endure each other in the name of false cheer.” He waved a hand at the dark expanse of space. “Some of us came out here to get away from all that.”
She stopped. Put a gloved hand on his shoulder, not that he could feel it. “My son was born on Christmas Day, 2074,” Rebecca replied, putting a smile in her voice to cover the sudden, hollow ache in her heart. “I always tried to ensure that his birthday got remembered in and around all the holiday stuff.” A shrug. “He liked the season. He liked his birthday. I must’ve done something right.”
She didn’t add: Up until I divorced his father. Haven’t heard from him in seven years. Guess he hasn’t forgiven me yet.
To her relief, Dieter stopped griping once they were back through the airlock. And inside, Callisto Station bustled.
Bubble-like caverns formed the matrix in which humanity lived here, linked by crisscrossing tunnels at regular intervals. People bounced past in those narrow tunnels, hustling and jostling to reach their next destination, or speeding by on electric carts. Here, the jerky, over-corrected movements of a Terran or Mars native. There, the slow, sliding gait of an asteroid miner. Dull khaki coveralls on the roughnecks who refueled ships or worked the H3 mining stations that skimmed gas from Jupiter’s atmosphere. Neon pink and greens worn by miners from the Belt, as if they needed to make up for the gray of their cramped quarters in some other fashion.
As locals, Rebecca and Dieter had a better way through the crowds. They leaped for the netting overhead and flung themselves from handhold to handhold in long, lazy arcs, till they reached Compartment A-4—the Fox’s Rest Hotel and Medical Spa.
As the owner, Rebecca glanced over the front desk’s notes, nodding to herself. “Twice as many guests as normal,” she noted to the receptionist, a recent Terran immigrant. “Did I miss something?”
“Jupiter’s radiation belts look worse than usual,” Danita Mizrah replied in her light Israeli accent.
Rebecca’s head came up. “We usually orbit faster than the radiation belts. What’s up?”
“They’re going to catch us this rotation, and there’s a spike in the radiation itself.” Her lips pulled down. “All the H3 mining crews are being pulled, and flight control can’t guarantee solid communications, so they’re grounding all outbound flights.” Danita exhaled. “Mered, my husband? He’s bringing in one last ship, and then he’s grounded, too. I told him to stay out on Ceres, but they’ve got medical-necessity passengers.”
“Not good,” Rebecca muttered, mentally tallying their supplies. We usually keep enough food on hand for a standard number of guests for two weeks. Water can be filtered, reverse-osmosis systems. We have our own greenhouse, both for oxygen reclamation and for food. But our protein stocks for the 3D printers will go fast with so many mouths, and with no inbound shipments . . . ? And there will be more, as people come in, but can’t leave. Damn. Rebecca tabbed her communicator. “Dieter, get the staff together. We need to sort some things out.”
By noon, she and her staff had taken the banquet facility and started placing cots and hanging hammocks in a room that still smelled of Hanukkah and Eid-al-Fitr foods from last week. The two holidays had overlapped for the first time in over a decade, and Rebecca had opened the banquet room to everyone on the station who wanted to attend. People had bustled through, some bringing home-made doughnuts and cardamom-spiced custards. Nut-stuffed ka’ak and potato latkes, kofte kabobs and braised brisket. Rebecca had sampled it all, barely able to tell imported delicacies from items sprayed from a protein printer.
The odors taunted her now with the recollection of laughter and cheer as overflow customers began to trickle in. Miners, for the most part, men used to cramped quarters on the stations that hung just above Jupiter’s churning maw. Men used mostly to the company of other men; roughnecks, but educated ones. They had to be, to run their ships. They moved slowly. Headed for her medical facilities to have their eyes checked for micro-g acuity issues. Their bones scanned for calcium depletion. And then settled into their cots and hammocks, staring at the walls blindly.
“You all right?” she asked, pausing by one of them.
He blinked. Focused on her. Managed a smile. “Yeah. Just out of place.” Light Afrikaans accent. “You get in a routine, you get used to the same four walls and the same faces around you, and then you’re out of that routine. Out of your spot. I’ve always hated hotels.”
“I’ll try not to take that personally,” Rebecca replied with a smile, and caught his expression shift. “Nah, I get it. At the brainstem level, you’re not in your territory. Nothing smells right, down to the detergent, and nothing’s in its spot.”
His face lit up with a grin. “You do get it.”
“Anything I can do to help?” She paused, glancing down at the nametag on his jumper. “Mpho?” Keeping a crowd of people this big calm during a crisis sometimes boiled down to the simplest things. Acknowledging the roots of unease. Making the offer to help—even if there wasn’t much that could be done. Remembering a name.
Letting people see that you cared.
His smile turned rueful. “Nothing I can think of. If you spray air deodorizer here for me, the person the next bunk over will sneeze. I’m fine.”
Rebecca gave him a pat on the shoulder. Human contact, something so many people pulled back from these days. “You change your mind, you holler, you hear?”
Back in her office, another huddle with her team. “I’m not going to charge for the cots or the hammocks,” she told her staff.
“That’s fine,” Dieter muttered. “But we’re going to need to replace the food they eat.” He’d been a quartermaster for Zeus Integrated Energy’s mining fleet, in between shifts moving hydrogen, before working for her. Currently, he kept her books and handled ordering off-world supplies.
“And we will, when shipments come in. If they can demonstrate financial need, I’m not going to charge them for the food, either.” Rebecca shrugged. “It’s Christmas, or close enough.”
Dieter opened his mouth to object, then sighed and nodded. Rebecca looked over at Naheed Farhad, one of the doctors on her small medical staff. Callisto Station had a hospital of its own, but her ‘medical spa’ generally handled non-urgent issues—repetitive stress injuries, toning and rehabilitating muscles and bones injured by long-duration microgravity assignments, and so on. “Any problems with the clinic so far? I heard we’re getting a shipment of ‘medical-necessity’ passengers in before they close the port. Are we getting them, or does the main hospital have enough beds?”
The doctor shook her head. “Hospital’s full because of hotel and barracks overflows. We’re trying to encourage the miners we’ve got here to use the physical therapy equipment to work on their conditioning while they’re here. About a third of them were due to rotate here for precisely that, anyway. Physical exertion should help with their restlessness, too.” She adjusted her blue headscarf.
“I’ve got vid channels streaming to the banquet area,” Danita offered. “Education, sports, and so on. Have to keep them entertained, or they’ll be trouble.”
Bored, restless people, used to constant occupation of mind and body. Yeah. Trouble. Rebecca nodded. “Sounds like you’re ahead of the situation. Keep me posted.”
Mered, Danita’s pilot husband, arrived just past noon with the promised passengers. Rebecca looked out of her office off of the lobby in time to see a very pregnant, dark-skinned woman being helped out of a sled-chair by her husband. Both wore the eye-blinding colors of asteroid-dwellers, and Rebecca winced internally. Medical necessity, indeed. Damn. They’re going to need to stay here or the hospital.
Long-duration micro-gravity had proven to be an issue for humanity’s exploration of space. It caused visual degeneration and loss of bone and muscle fiber density in adults. But what it did to children? Even gravity as low as Callisto’s was better than nothing. Children grew up on moons and planets with their vision intact. Learned to crawl and walk. The few children who’d been born inside hollowed-out asteroids in the Belt, and who’d spent their first two years out there, never learned to walk quite properly. Most of them were born blind, needing ocular implants.
She saw Dr. Farhad approach the young couple, smiling and offering her hands in greeting. Thinking the matter settled—that pair’s headed straight for the main hospital, for sure. We’re not set up for obstetrics here—Rebecca turned her attention back to the issue of supplies and housing.
At station midnight, several loud whumps shook her room, carved from the bare bedrock, waking her. Alarms sounded, and her wrist-unit buzzed even as she jolted upright so quickly that she hovered in air for a moment, slowly descending towards her own sheets. “What’s wrong?” she demanded, answering the call on her wrist.
“Radiation at the surface is the highest ever measured,” Dieter returned, his voice harried. “Several of the H3 conduits along the surface have cracked. They suspect there was already materials fatigue, because radiation can cause materials to become brittle.“
Rebecca’s mouth opened. Closed. “Oh, crap,” she whispered. “And once the pressurized gas inside the line started to escape—“
Dieter winced. “Concussive force. They’re trying to shut down the flow, but several sections of line are severely compromised. Damage estimates still pending. And power’s down except for backups.”
She exhaled, realizing that even the ventilation in her room had stopped moving air. Callisto Station’s energy grid took its power from two sources: solar panels in the craters aboveground, and hydrogen cells, refilled when mining crews made H3 supply drops from Jupiter. The station usually had enough hydrogen banked to fuel a fleet of ships for a year, and refilled ships as they came in, and turned around for the Belt, or headed out towards Saturn. That same H3 also fueled half of Callisto Station’s needs, sent in long conduits across the surface from a depot kept at a deliberate and safe distance
Conduits that the radiation spike had compromised.
She started getting dressed, pulling on coveralls. “Would’ve happened eventually, but those lines would probably have been caught in the next maintenance cycle and replaced. Damn it.”
Not your job, Rebecca. Can’t do everything yourself. Let the frustration go, and deal with the problems you can deal with. She was her door now, hoping that her part of the complex had enough power to operate the basics. Safety precaution—every chamber has a pressure hatch in case we have a breach. Except if we have no power, we can’t open the damn doors.Crap, where’s the manual override—she raised her wrist-unit, using its light to find the emergency controls. The door slid open and she stepped out.
To her surprise, she almost ran into Dieter outside. “Was heading for environmental controls,” he explained, shrugging. “You were on the way. Save batteries on the comms.” A glance past her into the dark confines of her room. “Someday, you will have to explain to me why you have a penitent’s cell cut out of bare rock, and everyone else on staff has at least wallboard up to cover the stone.” He shook his head.
Rebecca shrugged, sealing the hatch behind her. “Psychological measure,” she replied easily. “If you all feel comfortable, you can forget that we’re living on a knife’s edge between us and near-vacuum, and you’ll work and play better.” She rubbed at her eyes as Dieter gave her a patient look that suggested he didn’t believe a word.
“Our backup supplies of hydrogen won’t last forever. We need those to maintain the three-D printers for food. The lights in the greenhouses. The ventilation system.” His lips turned down at the corners as Rebecca pulled herself up effortlessly into the ropes that lined the ceiling. Hand over hand, feeling as if she could fly, though her heart felt like lead inside her.
“We’ve got our own solar panels topside. Make sure we’re patched in. Station officials will probably want to siphon some of our power to get necessities running.”
He held up his wrist as they skimmed through the ropes. She could see the text messages already rolling in from Station Control. “They’re asking, yes. Problem is, once we rotate behind Jupiter. . . .”
She caught a rope, halting her motion entirely. Callisto orbited Jupiter once every sixteen days. A quarter of its rotation was spent entirely behind the gas giant, out of the light of the sun. “Crap. I’ve lost track. How many days till full dark?”
Her stomach tightened. “And the radiation belts? How long before they’re past us?”
“A full week.” Dieter’s voice was subdued as he leaned into the rope web. No banter for once about how useless the calendar of Earth was out here.
She absorbed it all. Swallowed. “Nothing we can do about that for the moment. I’ll handle Station Control.”
“You pay me to monitor those inboxes for a reason. Can’t do everything yourself, as you say.” Clipped, dry words as they resumed their progress.
The remorseless mantra of survival beat through her head as she exhaled. Oxygen, heat, water, food. “No, I can’t. But they need to hear from the person in charge right now. I’ll handle them. You get our people up and moving. If ventilation’s down, we need to get air circulating. This isn’t zero-g . . . the carbon dioxide won’t build up as a bubble around people’s heads in their sleep. But if the air isn’t moving, we can’t filter the carbon. It’ll get bad, fast.” And then heat. Pack everyone in like sardines. Get low-wattage portable heaters in place so we only have to heat a few spaces . . . could work.
She could almost feel the pressure of dozens of meters of ice-silicate regolith overhead, thousands of tons of frigid matter, and the chilly barrier of bedrock between them and the looser surface. All cold enough to sear skin from bone if the human body were exposed to it for more than an instant. Food and water were my biggest concerns, till this moment.
“Boss. Rebecca.” His tone softened, calling her back from where her thoughts had spun. “I’m on it.”
She exhaled. “We both are. Let’s get moving.”
Within hours, they had cobbled together old-fashioned box-fans to move the air around. The 3D printer stocks for plastics, at least, were holding steady. And because her facility had its own power, and the hospital was on limited backups, station medical attendants scrambled to move non-critical patients to her facility, which had been designed for rehabilitation and therapy, not for long-term occupancy. “We’re not set up for this,” Rebecca apologized to hospital staff and to Dr. Farhad, feeling helpless. “We’ve got space and power,” for now, she thought, “but nothing else you probably need.”
“We’ve got the staff and the supplies. Just give us a hallway to stand in,” clinic workers told her, and Rebecca found a ceiling web to grip, pulling herself out of the way. As she did so, she spotted the pregnant asteroid miner and her husband. Poor thing. Well, Dr. Farhad wouldn’t take her in if she didn’t think she could handle the situation. She’s doing her triage. You? You do yours, Rebecca, and keep moving.
The first two days were bad enough. She could almost feel the waning daylight above. She watched the bulk of Jupiter loom on the screens before they shut them down for power conservation. Callisto was tidally locked; she’d never seen a sky here that didn’t feature Jupiter’s bulk. But at full dark, the planet blocked light from the sun almost entirely. Only a few forlorn stars twinkled at the very periphery of the horizon, leaving the rest of the heavens black. She didn’t like going topside at full dark. It felt too much as if she might be sucked up into that abyss, swallowed forever by eternal night.
“Which do you want first, the bad news or the good news?” she called to the dimly-lit banquet room of hydrogen miners, crammed in cheek-by-jowl. No vid streams at the moment to keep them occupied—her staff had found chess boards and decks of cards and dice, however.
“The bad news first!” came a few shouts.
Rebecca sighed. “You asked for it. Okay, flight control reports that the radiation levels remain too high to allow ships in or out. Io, in reaction to the increased radiation, has started a series of violent eruptions, clogging the area with a sulfur plume that’s disrupting instrumentation even further. And with radiation levels being what they are, Station Control won’t send people out on the regolith to repair the lines between us and the fuel depot. Even sending bots out is problematic, because the radiation’s disrupting radio control, so they can’t just remote-operate the repairs.”
Groans from all around her. So many people in close, urgent proximity to each other. Swimming through the air as close-packed as a school of baitfish in Earth’s distant seas. The constant press of voices and flesh. “What’s the good news?”
Rebecca squinted. Identified the face as the man she’d spoken with on the first day. After a moment, she managed to bring his name to mind. “Mpho, right? The good news is that there are supply ships in wide orbit, backed up to sometime last Saturday, waiting to drop off supplies. They just can’t get to us. They’re not rated for this kind of radiation.”
A hand shot up from the sea of humanity in front of her. “We can take a ship up. Go get the supplies, and bring ‘em down! “
Murmurs of vigorous assent. They’re just not used to sitting on their hands. “Don’t be in a rush to catch radiation poisoning,” Rebecca replied firmly. “Your ships aren’t rated for this load. None of them are, which is why we’re all grounded.” She put on a smile she didn’t feel. “Why such a hurry to leave? Aren’t I doing a good enough job of making you feel at home?”
Mpho spoke up, an unexpected ally, “Yeah, it’s starting to smell enough like dirty socks that it feels like I’m back on the Madcap right now. Home sweet home. I’m in no hurry.”
Rumbles of laughter, and Rebecca let it sweep the room, relief loosening her shoulders. The last thing I need is for bored, restless people to try something stupid and dangerous. “There’s one more thing—the kids at our local school are pretty bored and scared right now, so we’ve got them organized into a little pageant. They’re going to come by and sing, so if you want to attend their concert, you’d probably cheer them up. Better than just seeing their parents and siblings out there in the audience, you know?” Always make it sound like they’re the ones doing the favor. Not that this might be something good for their morale, too.
The dependency of all these people on her began to wear on Rebecca as she watched their supplies dwindle. Heard the kitchen staff joking grimly about rebranding powdered eggs as chicken caviar for the concert night. And protein stocks were down to ground mealworm—which, without the 3D printers, couldn’t be rendered any more palatable by dint of cooking or spices. But it was food, fuel for hungry bodies.
She did the best she could for them all. Arranged for one cookie for each of the kids from the local schools—sugar, powdered eggs, mealworm flour, and dim light. They shuffled into the banquet area in and sang for the guests, many of whom joined in—even the people whose holidays had already passed, sang their own songs. A glorious cacophony of voices, from many different places, in many different languages, for a little while.
And at the very end? “Oh the rads outside are frightful, but inside it’s so delightful,” the kindergarteners sang, twisting their jumpsuits and skirts in small fingers. “And since we’ve go nowhere to go, let it glow, let it glow, let it glow!”
Rebecca couldn’t help it. She started to laugh, great, whooping chortles at the pure relief of tension. And everyone around her began to laugh with her as the children sang on, verse after verse, “The storm shows no sign of stopping, and the Geiger counter’s popping. The power’s down real low—let it glow, let it glow, let it glow.”
Out of breath from laughter, she turned to Dieter in the audience, asking, “Who came up with that? One of the teachers?”
He raised a finger. “I did, actually.” A lopsided smile. “And then Dr. Farhad told me to send it to the teachers, and they liked the idea.”
Somehow, that made the whole scenario funnier.
Some of the children, as they filed out, thanking her for the cookies, shyly asked what she wanted for Christmas, and Rebecca laughed, bending down to hug them. “I don’t want anything,” she told them, putting on her best smile. The one that made other people feel good, calmed them down, reduced their stress. The public, needful one. The one that let her hide her own holiday melancholy, buried it under everyone else’s cheer. Fill other people with joy, and your own burdens become lighter. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? “There’s nothing that anyone could give me. Seeing all of you happy is the best present of all.”
But after the concert, she headed to her office and sagged down in her chair. “What do I want?” she repeated softly, looking up at the ceiling. “For the radiation spike to drop before the expected seven days. For supplies to come in. Oh, and while I’m asking for miracles, a call from my son.” She glanced at the deactivated tablet on her desk, where his college graduation picture usually sat.
The next day, Christmas Eve, they slid entirely behind Jupiter’s bulk. She couldn’t sugar-coat it for anyone anymore; they were down to batteries and what little hydrogen Central had stored. One LED per room, except for the greenhouse, where the plants they needed for oxygen reclamation, the algae tanks, needed light and heat to live. Hand-cranked fans to keep the air moving. People huddling close for warmth, keeping their children inside the circle of bodies. Like penguins on pack ice, Rebecca thought, listening to the sound of prayers in many languages. Hebrew from Danita and Mered. Arabic from Dr. Farhad and her husband. Hindi. Urdu. Mandarin.
She didn’t pray these days. She preferred to believe in people. But she did send a thought into the void over her head. One word. Please.
A tap at her office door, where she and Dieter were pulling on their exosuits for the added warmth, and a harried Dr. Farhad poked her head in. “The pregnant woman from the Belt? Vitoria Costa? She’s in labor,” the doctor informed her. “The main hospital doesn’t have space.”
“Then I guess she’s going to have to have it here,” Rebecca replied tightly. “Pretty hard to say ‘stop having contractions—and you, baby! Get back up in there.’”
No answering smile from the doctor or from Dieter. “Looks to be breech. I’ll do my best, but we’re trying to get one of the OB-GYNs in from the main clinic. Also, they have no insurance.” Farhad sighed. “They’re independent contractors.”
Rebecca put her face in her hands. So many people, once they were out in the Belt and had gotten enough money together, split off from the corporation that had gotten them out there in the first place. Found an asteroid to call home. Set up isolated city-states, or plain lived like hermits, barely connected to the rest of humanity. “There’s romance in isolation,” she murmured. “Living alone, out in the black, doing for yourselves.”
“Till you need other humans,” Farhad muttered, smoothing her headscarf. “Then society suddenly becomes important.”
Rebecca looked at her desk. So what else can we do? She’s not going to not have her baby just because it’s inconvenient. “I’ll cover the cost of the delivery.”
“My fees aren’t the concern,” Farhad answered tightly. “We need more light. Power. Heat for the nursery. If it’s a C-section, we could lose her and the child without monitors.”
“I know. I had one myself, once upon a time.” Rebecca turned away. The weight of so many people depending on her felt as heavy as depleted uranium. And she wasn’t entirely in control. Central was doing their best, but it wasn’t enough. “I can’t make Callisto move any faster,” she whispered.
“I know,” Farhad replied, her voice taut.
“We can move some of the lights from the banquet hall. That will leave the miners in the dark, though, and they could…” Rebecca didn’t say the words. Riot. Revolt. As people who feel trapped, alone in the dark, facing death, have done before.
She hadn’t allowed herself to think the word death before. It snuck in, and then began to loom larger in her consciousness, hanging like the dark void that was Jupiter itself overhead.
“Give them something to do,” Dieter said abruptly. “I’ll take them through the conduit tunnels to the hydrogen depot. We’ll get more fuel for the generators. They’ll feel better for doing something. And we won’t make it without power.”
Rebecca licked her lips. “I can’t send you to do something I won’t do myself,” she told Dieter, her voice wavering. “The conduits are damaged. Radiation-fried.”
“The regolith itself will shield us from the radiation except in the damaged areas. We’ll move fast through those. Take rovers back to haul the hydrogen. It’ll work.”
She swallowed. “If anyone goes, it should be me leading the volunteers.”
Dieter shook his head. “Tell me, do you know how to decouple a hydrogen line without blowing it up? How to fill hydrogen cells? Pilot a rover?”
Rebecca wanted to argue. But she couldn’t. He was right.
She exhaled. “I’d tell the person with experience to do it.” She hesitated. “I mean, I read directions like a champ. But … training counts.” The words tasted like salt and ash in her mouth.
Dieter waggled his fingers. “That’s me. And the rest of the guys from Zeus Integrated.” He gave her a level glance. “You keep saying, no one can do everything on their own. Let us help. If the conduits are irradiated…” he shrugged, “what’s a few more rads lifetime among friends?” A glance at Farhad. “We do have stockpiles of potassium iodide, yes?”
A bare nod from the doctor. “Won’t cover all the types of radiation you’ll encounter.”
Dieter nodded. “I know.” Another look at Rebecca. “Let us go. To hell with Central’s safety directives. Let us make a difference.”
Rebecca swallowed. “All right. Only volunteers, though. And no one with a family. I mean that, Dieter.” She glanced at Dr. Farhad, “Mr. Costa?” A quick nod indicated she’d gotten the name right. She looked back at Dieter. “If Mr. Costa volunteers, you tell him no, you hear me?”
Dieter nodded, then left her office. She watched the miners suit up, hearing in her mind the ghostly voices of the children’s choir just last night, let it glow, let it glow, let it glow. And to her exhausted eyes, they did glow in the dim LED light. Maybe it was just the look of excited gratitude in their faces as they pulled on their helmets.
Maybe it came from within.
They had to crawl through the conduits for miles. Her knees and back ached in sympathy as she watched their transponder blips inch away on the map. No radio contact—they were conserving batteries. And while she waited to hear from Dieter and his team, she waited, too, to hear from Dr. Farhad and hear if they’d have to perform surgery before the hydrogen supplies arrived for their thirsty generators.
And there was nothing she could do to help any of them.
At one o’clock in the morning, Christmas day, the lights flickered on in her office, almost blinding after so much dimness, waking Rebecca from where she drowsed at her desk. “You made it,” she said, sitting up straight. “You crazy German bastard, you made it!”
A message from Farhad at her wrist followed, indicating that João and Vitoria Costa had had a healthy baby boy.
Rebecca covered her eyes from the overhead lights, which suddenly seemed as bright as some angel’s jubilant annunciation. And after a moment to compose herself, headed downstairs to check on the returning miners. To clasp their hands and thank them, and direct them straight to the clinic for radiation medication. “It’s fine,” Dieter told her, sounding punch-drunk as she chivvied him towards the clinic. “We’ll get through the dark. We’ll make it through to sunrise.”
Two more days, she thought. Two days we didn’t have before.
And seven hours after that, João Costa arrived at her office. “Dona Fox? Vitoria wants to go home. So do I.”
“The radiation spike won’t last forever.” A relief to be able to say those words, and mean them. “But with the baby, are you sure that’s the best decision?” She trailed off, watching his expression.
His face looked harried. “Someone could move into our asteroid. Squat there, take over our drones and mine our claim. But the doctors, they say we have to stay here on Callisto until our son is at least two Earth years old. I must work. And we must repay you for your kindness.” His heavy brows knitted in a worried line over his eyes.
“You can help in the kitchen for the time being,” Rebecca replied gently. “But with your experience, you’d be better off working for Zeus or with the refueling crews here on Callisto. I’ll have Dieter see if any of them are hiring. For now, don’t worry about the medical bills. The holidays are a time for families. For being together.”
Relief shone in his eyes. Smiling, Rebecca asked, “So, what did you name your son? Navidad? Or is that only good for girls?”
“I thought we’d name him Raposa. Which means Fox.” A faint, embarrassed shrug. “For where he was born. Your hotel.”
Rebecca’s mouth fell open. “Well, a fox is a clever creature,” she finally replied. “It’s a good name. I’ve worn it for a few years, and it’s treated me well.” A lopsided smile followed. “Though if you were going to name it for anyone, the miners who went for the fuel might be a better choice. Though it could be a bit of a mouthful, given there were ten of them.
He laughed, as she’d meant him to.
Finally, finally, the radiation spike faded down to normal levels. Crews departed, leaving debris in their passage, the smell of human flesh in close proximity still stifling in the banquet room. The looks of relief as boredom, fear, and frustration turned back to industry.
Drained, Rebecca let her staff go about their business. Stayed out of their way, except to collect her suit and head back out to the surface to retrieve their ersatz Christmas trees, checking them with a Geiger counter for residual radiation. Most were faded and their needles oddly friable, shattering under the touch of her gloved fingers, but no lingering radiation. They could be safely recycled once she got them indoors.
Tired beyond belief, she pulled the branches down, collecting the pieces into a large bag. Maybe Dieter’s right, she thought. Maybe this is stupid. Maybe it really is a waste of time and energy.
Her communicator beeped, and she thought about not answering. It’s probably hotel business. I’ve been on-call for everyone for over a week. I can have a moment’s peace, can’t I? But the beep inside her helmet pinged again, and she gave in. Answered it.
“Mom?” a voice said on the other end of the line. Distant, crackling. “Mom, it’s me, Stephen.” As if she wouldn’t have known his voice among seven billion others. “This message is on time delay. I won’t get your reply for another half hour here on Earth. I just… one of your staff tracked me down. Guy named Dieter Seidel? He said you guys had been dealing with some kind of radiation crisis on Callisto. I’m sorry. I hadn’t heard. Are you all right? Radiation sounds bad.” His voice wavered. “If—when you can, could you call back? I love you. I shouldn’t have put off calling you for so long.”
Tears stung in her eyes, and she hovered between pain and delight, anger and confusion. She wanted to smack Dieter for intruding into her business. She wanted to yell at him for manipulating her son into calling her out of fear for her safety.
She wanted to kiss him for bringing her son back into her life, for however long it lasted.
Rebecca trudged back through the airlock, composing her reply along the way. Reassuring him that she was fine, that the radiation hadn’t penetrated the underground habitats. That a baby named Raposa had been born on his birthday.
That she hoped he’d stay in touch.
She headed to the clinic, where she found Dieter undergoing radiation treatment. “Did you have something you wanted to tell me?” she asked.
He blinked, clearly feigning incomprehension. “Oh, right,” Dieter replied after a moment. “Happy New Year.”
Rebecca smiled. He’d never accept public gratitude. Saying the words would embarrass him, but they lingered in her heart, unspoken: Thank you for giving me a new start with my son. “And a happy new year to you, too, you stubborn, stubborn man.”
About the Author
Deborah L. Davitt
Deborah L. Davitt was raised in Nevada, but currently lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and son. Her poetry has received Rhysling, Dwarf Star, and Pushcart nominations, her short fiction has appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Compelling Science Fiction, and Pseudopod. For more about her work, including her Edda-Earth novels and her poetry collection, The Gates of Never, please see www.edda-earth.com.
About the Narrator
Ibba Armancas is an Inland Empire PBS writer/director and TV host whose COVID-themed educational kids show “Pandemic Playhouse” airs Friday starting January 2021. You can find out more about her, it, and her puppet pals at https://www.