Child and Orb
by James Dunham
The child spent most of her time watching the empty stars from the pod window. They were always nothing but distant, dead glitter–not a planet, cloud, or rock, not a fleck of wreckage from the explosion. With only one window, she often wondered whether, if there had been another vista at the rear of the two-room pod, she might still be able to see the spinning pieces of hull and conduit, see that glove someone hadn’t gotten a hand into in time.
Even though the stars ahead never grew closer, she knew the pod kept moving. A display in a lean-to showed speed, fuel, and probably a destination, though none of the numbers meant much to her. The windowed orb that had carried her onto the pod told her what she needed to know–the pod was heading to meet another ship, still weeks distant. She appreciated that the orb hadn’t lied to her the way adults sometimes did, to make her feel better or to give her time to adjust. Instead it told only the truth.
She heard it nearby, not too close, giving her space (sometimes when she told her mother “I need space! I need breathing room,” her mother had said, “Sweetie, you’ll have to wait, I’m sorry.”) The orb never needed to say it was sorry. It hummed constantly, but not loudly, and not annoyingly. The hum reassured her–maybe because it was what she thought of as a warm hum, or a purple hum–and it never approached her too closely. It always let her decide if she wanted to go to it. Its white light was also soft, even with everything else in the pod turned dim like it was now.
She felt hungry, but didn’t want to eat. Yesterday she hadn’t wanted to eat either, and the orb had asked her if it could bring her some food. She had been afraid to say no to it then, and had accepted, and the orb had talked to the pod, which produced the food, and the orb had grown arms to bring it to her. She had eaten, and felt better, but now she was going to tell it “no” and see what it did.
She heard its hum grow slightly nearer behind her but keep some distance. “May I bring you some food?” It asked. Its voice felt as pleasant as its hum and its light, not demanding, not unkind, caring but obedient.
“No,” she said.
“All right,” the orb said. “I hope you enjoy looking at the stars.”
That was all? Enjoy the stars? Now she didn’t want to look at them anymore. She stood up from her cushion and walked past the orb, which was taller than she was, almost as tall as her mother, and even though the orb had no face, just a big glass window that let her see the bed inside it, she looked ahead at the far wall.
It gave no response as she passed, her bare feet thumping on the mirror-polished, woodlike floor of the big room. She stopped, spun, and shoved at the orb. It rocked and spun a little, as if it weighed almost nothing, then retreated slightly and stopped, positioned upright so she could climb into it and rest in the bed it contained, wrap herself in the heated, weighted blanket, listen to the soothing music or calming words it offered but never pushed on her. Sleep, if she wanted. Like she had the first night, crying.
“Go away! I need space!”
“All right,” the orb said. It slid–nearly floated–along the floor, and tucked itself into a nook in the wall. Its light dimmed to almost nothing and hovered there, a glimmer just enough to notice, like the breathing sound her mother used to make when she slept.
“I’m going to bed!” she said. “Turn your light off!”
“All right,” said the orb.
The light went out. The hum stopped. It was dead.
She had expected it to resist. Not sure what else to do, she climbed into the wall-mounted bed at the far end of the room. As she waited under the covers with her head on the pillow, she watched the orb. It stayed dead.
In the middle of the night, she woke up scared. The room lights had gone out, leaving near total blackness except for the stars—and the very dim light of the orb.
“I told you to turn that off!” By the last word, her voice had risen to a harsh, piercing pitch.
It went out. Only starlight remained.
“Pod, close the curtains.”
The pod closed them. The room was so black she could close her eyes and see no difference.
She lay awake like that. Minutes or hours.
When she woke up for the second time, the orb light had once more ignited, like a delicately dim candle. It was humming again, too.
“Good morning,” said the orb.
“There’s no morning in space,” she said.
“That’s true,” said the orb. “Are you hungry?”
She was famished. Her stomach hurt with the hunger.
The orb did nothing but hum. That made her feel good. It didn’t know what to say.
The wall of the pod opened and offered a glass of water. She almost took it.
“Go away to the other room,” she said to the orb. She had a feeling the orb had teamed up with the pod to pressure her.
It did so, the pod closing the door behind the orb.
She drank the water, and it made her stomach feel better quickly. She almost asked the pod for food, but decided not to.
“Pod, give me another glass of water,” she said.
The wall produced another. She left it there. She doubted the orb would fall for it–it seemed to know everything she did, whether it was in the room with her or not, maybe the pod told it–but it was worth a try.
She walked to the window and opened the curtains. The same useless stars.
“Pod, how long until we reach the other ship?”
“Twenty-four days and nineteen hours,” the pod said. Its voice was less soothing than the orb’s. A voice meant for grown-ups, she thought.
“How long until I have to eat?”
A brief pause. Maybe it was asking the orb. Then: “You should eat as soon as possible.”
That’s what she thought. But the orb would be happy if she did that. She wanted to see if she could make it mad. She sat on the cushion by the window. She thought she saw that tumbling empty glove for a second, but realized it was the reflection of one of the room lights coming on slowly behind her. Space was still dead and empty.
She knew there were no other pods. She hadn’t asked either the pod or the orb, but she had seen the explosion, and she knew. Just before that, the orb had scooped her up from the corridor on the ship and rolled her toward the pod, and the clear shell of the orb had gotten blood on it, from someone else who had tried to get to the pod but had died on the way. The orb had found a red panel on the pod’s exterior, used it to manually open the airlock, and rolled through, ferrying her on board. The pod launched, despite her screams for the orb to go back and get her mother, and in the window she had watched the faraway ship explode, a white flash, shrapnel like gunshots in every direction, debris and spacesuits spinning, maybe with people in them, maybe empty, and that glove, tumbling like a gyroscope, before the pod had turned and she felt the engine accelerate her away. Tucked in tight, she’d been afraid to get out of the orb at first. It took care of her. Now that she was out, she didn’t want to get back in.
She sat for a long time after drinking the water, and felt hungry again, and dizzy.
The orb hummed behind her. “Would you like some food?”
“No.” She didn’t have the energy to yell anymore.
“All right. But you look very hungry.”
“All right. Did you know that it’s important to eat sometimes even when you don’t feel hungry?”
It paused. She knew it didn’t want to. It wanted her to eat. She wanted to eat now, too.
“I said go away.”
“Are you feeling well?”
“Yes. Go away.”
It paused. She stood up, walked to the water glass by the wall, and took it. She threw it at the orb. “Leave me alone!” The glass ricocheted off the orb, water splashing every which way.
The orb sat there dripping. The glass lay sideways nearby, still whole.
“Caution,” said the voice of the pod. “Slipping hazard. Please remain still until the hazard has been removed.”
The orb sat still, letting itself get cleaned by large towel-pads on the end of articulated, whirring arms that had extended from the wall of the pod. The arms dried the floor as well, recaptured the glass, and then went back where they had come from.
“No excuses,” she said. “Go away.”
The orb retreated slightly, but didn’t even reach the nook in the wall, much less the short hall or the door to the other room.
“That’s not far enough.”
It went to the nook.
“No. Further away.”
It went into the hall and stopped by the door.
She had an idea now. She wasn’t angry at it, not exactly, but she did want to hurt it, and wanted to make it cry if she could.
“Go to the other room,” she said.
It went through the doorway, but stayed close enough that the door remained open.
“Now go into the airlock.”
It didn’t move.
“Go into the airlock!”
It stopped humming and turned its light off.
She wasn’t fooled.
“Pod, open the inner airlock,” she said.
That was fine. She knew what to do.
The airlock had a red panel in the wall beside its door. She tried to slide the panel open, but it wouldn’t budge. She banged her fist against it, and got only sore knuckles.
She went back to the big room and said, “Pod, give me a glass of water.”
It did. She dumped the water on the floor. The pod blared about slipping hazards, but she ignored it. She came back into the other room, took a step back, and hurled the glass at the red panel.
It struck dead on, but nothing happened.
She tried again. This time the panel cracked.
The third time the panel shattered, and the water glass fell unbroken to the floor.
The pod blared: “Warning! Airlock override in progress. Equip containment suits!”
She turned the handle inside the panel and the inner airlock door opened. The door to space stayed shut. She went around the orb and pushed her whole weight against it. It could get much heavier when it wanted to, but once she got it moving she was able to roll it. It banged against one corner of the doorway, but she got it through and closed the inner airlock door behind it.
The alarm stopped.
She looked through the door’s large window at the orb, sitting there with its interior bed sideways, its light out.
“I’m going to suck you out into space now,” she said.
She looked for the second panel, found it, and smashed it with the water glass. The airlock alarm blared once more.
The orb’s light came on. Its hum revved up as loud as she’d ever heard it. Somehow, even this loud, the hum retained its softness.
“Please do eat,” the orb said. “You look very hungry.”
She pulled the handle, the outer door opened, and the air in the lock dissipated like wind, taking the orb with it.
“Outer airlock opened,” the pod droned. “Automatic reseal in thirty seconds.”
She ran to the big room and looked out the window. The orb floated in space, gently rotating, lit only by stray light from the pod. Its interior light gone.
“Outer airlock opened,” said the pod. “Automatic reseal in fifteen seconds.”
The orb shrunk smaller. The pod counted down.
The orb drifted into shadow, a black circle blotting out this star then that, and she lost it in the darkness.
She was alone.
“Bring it back!” she screamed. “Bring the orb back in! Please!”
“Please! Pod, bring it back!”
Then the stars changed. Space angled sharply, and she felt the weight of the pod as it adjusted its heading. Outside the window, the orb came back into view, illuminated by the pod’s suddenly bright exterior lights. Two robotic, articulated arms guided the orb smoothly into the airlock, which then shut behind it.
She rushed to the other room. The lock re-pressurized and the interior door opened. The pod sat there, upside down. Quiet.
“I’m sorry!” she said, putting her hands against its shell. “I’m sorry! Please don’t be mad!”
The orb’s interior light came on, and it hummed. A warm, purple hum.
“Please do eat,” it said. “You look very hungry.”
She hugged it as much as she could, being so much smaller than it was. “I’ll eat! I’m sorry. Are you cold? Are you OK? You feel cold.”
“I am fine, thank you,” said the orb.
She set to rolling it upright. “You are cold. It’s OK. I can warm you up. I would like to go to bed please.”
She almost felt sick thinking it might not let her.
The orb listened. Adjusted itself perfectly right side up. A hole opened it its shell. She climbed into the soft white light, the soothing hum, and pulled the weighted, heated blanket onto herself, its gentle weight tucking her in. She felt the hum in her body relaxing her arms and legs, and the hum became a kind of music.
“I’m sorry I did that to you,” she said, and noticed a loud heartbeat inside herself. “Thank you for taking care of me.”
“It’s all right,” said the orb. “I am fine.”
“I know,” she said. She took a breath. “Please take care of me.”
She reached from under the blanket and rested a tired hand on the inside of its shell.
by Tina Connolly
I love the spare way this story is told. It is such a delicate picture of a child coming to terms with a very little bit of their grief. It rings so true in all the particulars of the child hating its rescuer, and trying to hurt it, to see if it can make it go away for good. I’m glad, though, the pod was able to rescue the orb, and bring it back. The child had to test all the limits, and it’s a kindness that those limits for the orb were not permanent, in the way that the limits of the child’s parents were.
To me, this is a really good example of how a story can have very little action-focused plot, can be about a very small moment of change–and still be incredibly affecting. The story is not about the moments of the explosion on the ship–in fact, the most arresting image from the ship is the image of the single glove trailing the pod through space. It’s about one small emotional wheel turning, one tiny piece of the puzzle of how to return to the land of the living slipping into place. And those things make it small, and poignant, and personal.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Ursula K. LeGuin in THE FARTHEST SHORE, who says: “No darkness lasts forever. And even there, there are stars.”
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
James Dunham’s stories have appeared in Crab Fat Magazine, Quail Bell Magazine, The Southeast Review, Necessary Fiction, and other publications, and his novel The Helena Orbit was published in 2017. He completed his MFA at Bowling Green State University and his BA at the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University. You can find links to his work on his website, jamesdunhamwrites.wordpress.com
About the Narrator
New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, storm chaser, and Saturday Songwriter. Author of over 20 books and 40 short stories, Alethea is the recipient of the Jane Yolen Mid-List Author Grant, the Scribe Award, the Garden State Teen Book Award, and two-time winner of the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award. She has been twice nominated for both the Andre Norton Nebula and the Dragon Award. She was an active contributor to The Fireside Sessions, a benefit EP created by Snow Patrol and her fellow Saturday Songwriters during lockdown 2020. Alethea also narrates stories for multiple award-winning online magazines and contributes regular YA book reviews to NPR. Born in Vermont, she currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie. Find out more about Princess Alethea and her wonderful world at aletheakontis.com.