I’m about to blast a Grunt when the game freezes. Mom’s commandeered the link, and now she appears, in her old chinos and a tee-shirt, among the rubble of the Axis bunker.
“Mom! Get off!” As long as she’s on, my avatar is frozen like an idiot and open to attack. I text Katya my situation although it should be obvious.
“Don’t speak to me in that tone, Ian!” Mom says. “Log off and come to the kitchen.”
There’s no point in arguing. I shut down my avatar and sign off. I hope Katya makes it to the next level. If not, no way is she partnering with me again, or sitting next to me at lunch.
The 3D shuts down, sucking the setting sun up to the foreground rubble. The wall fades to beige. I flop back on the floor. It’s always startling how small my room is when the screen is off. My toes touch the wall where the screen was, and when I stretch my hands up over my head, I can feel the curved join where the opposite wall becomes the floor.
I get up, slide the door open and yell, “What do you want?”
“I’m in the kitchen,” Mom insists. I walk the six steps down the hall to the so-called kitchen.
“I’m kind of in the middle of something, Mom.”
“Oh, give me a break; it’s Saturday,” Mom says. She’s scrubbing at the tiny rectangle of countertop, not a good sign. “I have got to get some cleaning done. Could you take your sister out for a couple hours?”
“Stop ‘Momming’ me.”
“But everybody’s on! You know Saturday is the only time we get to game on the primary comms!”
“That doesn’t mean that you have to spend every Saturday morning in your room, playing those shooters. A boy your age should be spending more time outside.”
“Why can’t I just go at twelve-hundred?”
“Here’s your choice: either stay here and help me clean the house or take your sister outside.”
“Fine. Where is she?” I ask her back. She’s already rummaging in the utility closet.
“Look around, she can’t be far.”
I head for the main room. When the door opens Nona’s music blasts me. I find the wall control and turn Happy Puppy Space Dream off. Her head snaps up.
“Hey!” She says. She’s got her NanoNellie dolls out with, like, a billion tiny pieces all over the floor.
“Outside,” I say.
She squeals and jumps up, scattering tiny plastic dresses and NanoNellie body parts in all directions. I pick my way carefully across the room because they really hurt when you step on them, especially the arms. I punch in the code to the vestibule and the door isn’t even all the way open before she crowds past me.
“Come on Nona. You know it’s small in here.”
“Get my boots! Get my boots!”
“Long-Johns first,” I say and get them down for her. She sits and starts tugging them on. I pull mine on and get my boots. By then it’s time to rescue Nona from the tangled mess she’s made of everything. Finally we’re suited up. I snug her helmet on, activate our audio then start the safety checks running.
“Ready?” I ask.
“For adventure!” Her voice comes through the helmet speaker, loud and attenuated, distant and too close at the same time. Then Mom comes on, her voice in my ear.
“No hunting, Ian.”
“Don’t bring any junk back.”
“I mean it. I’m not paying another citation.”
“Okay!” I know she can’t see me rolling my eyes but I do it anyway.
“Have fun out there.” She signs off.
Nona’s beacon flashes green, I check my own. We’re both green/go. I snap the short rope onto her belt, the other end onto my own.
“Okay, let’s go.” I initiate the exit sequence. When the grav switches off we both pop into the air and I get an ear-piercing squeal from Nona. “Quit it!” I shout back.
I pull the exit lever and the door rolls up. We jostle together before Nona caroms off the doorway and spins out into space still squealing and tittering. The short rope snaps tight yanking me out after her.
A million stars whirl around us, streaming and jittering across black space. I grab the jets off my belt and lock them onto my gloves then punch a couple quick bursts to kill our spin.
“You ready, Farter?” I ask.
“Ready?” I repeat.
I get a trajectory from the computer, hold my arms out in a “T” formation and hit the jets. We shoot through the inner courtyard’s protected space; surrounded by the six massive apartment vessels that make up our co-op. Thousands of bright portholes wink down at us as we pass by.
There’s next to no traffic since everyone I know is still inside gaming. A few dual-seaters coast through the courtyard, a couple repairmen work on the hull of our apartment. On the far side it looks like someone’s towing their kid to the playscape.
We accelerate and this time Nona’s scream sounds only slightly more delighted than terrified. My external mic picks up the dust scrubbing my helmet and arms. The larger particles flash into plasma on the suit’s shielding. I pull Nona in a wide arc around the courtyard but veer away from the playscape, flying us instead through the alley between the last two apartments.
“Hey, where are we going?” she asks. Instead of answering I boost the jets and speed us through the alley before reversing to break.
“Look down, Farter.” Clear of the co-op, we can see Earth. The sun shines across the Pacific. The algal blooms are brilliant, green and orange, the brightest I’ve ever seen. Blue smoke smudges the coastline’s jagged edge merging with twilight. Sparse clusters of light illuminate the darkness east of California.
“Hi Dad!” Nona shouts in my ear. I look over and she’s waving like an idiot at the whole coastline, the motion of her arm sends her legs flailing around behind her.
“Quit it, Nona.” I almost say more but don’t. She was just three when he re-upped. I try to picture him down there on patrol, to picture California but all I can see is the landscape of imaginary rubble from this morning’s game.
I fire up the rockets and point us out toward the nearest debris field.
“Mom said not to -” She starts.
“Mom said to go outside and play,” I counter. We continue toward the massive flotilla of random junk that orbits beyond our living complex. A couple big hunks are recognizable satellites bristling with broken antennas and whatnot. I off the jets and we drift into the debris field. I give a twisted piece of metal in front of us a push, sending it on a different course. Nona spots several small O-rings glittering close by. I pulse one jet to tug her closer. She manages to capture a couple clumsily in her glove.
“Oooh,” she says, “Can I keep them?”
“Fine with me.”
“They can be for NanoNellie’s house," She says pushing them into a pocket on the front of her suit. “You won’t tell?”
“I won’t if you won’t,” I say. Even Nona understands our family’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. Mom always states the official line on the public comms about no scavenging and, as long as I don’t get caught, we all benefit from the sales. Even with Dad’s active duty bonus our credit rating is so low that she can’t really afford to complain. Besides, I think she knows I’m good at it.
A distant flash catches my eye. A searing reflection off what must be a solar panel - a big one. I hit the jets.
“Come on,” I say. The short rope snaps tight squeezing another squeal out of Nona as we bungee into each other. I get up to speed and weave us through the junk using the top of my helmet as a battering ram on the smaller pieces. I can see more of it now. It’s bigger than a satellite, and old. Battered and scarred with scorch marks, there are some dark areas that look to be holes. A way in I hope.
“Is that a space station?” Nona asks.
“Do you think there’ll be astronauts?”
Nona means dead astronauts. “Don’t be stupid,” I don’t want her to think I’m even entertaining the thought. I speed up and navigate around a couple of the bigger pieces of junk to make it like a ride again but an uncharacteristic silence fills my headset.
“I don’t want to go in,” she says.
“Okay,” I say. It’ll be easier if I can leave her outside.
“Wow,” Nona whispers when we finally reach it. “It’s big.” I agree. Even without the panels it’s at least as big as a transport. I start around it looking for a hatch. One solar panel is half retracted in a crazy zigzag. The other one is outstretched, its foil ripped and pocked with holes. There are only three hatches that I can find and they all look sealed. The impact craters reveal gobs of tangled wires and random insulation. I’ve just about given up when I notice a big scorch near the aft hatch that is blacker than the rest. I change course toward it and line us up with what turns out to be a hole. Something glints inside the blackness. I get up close and get a grip on the torn metal that curls away from the opening. This was blasted from the inside, probably by scavengers. I snap on my lights and duck in.
“Hey!” Nona complains. “I thought we weren’t going in.”
“I’m just looking.” It’s cramped inside. Every square inch is covered with instruments, panels and buttons, even the ceiling. “This is old,” I say. “You sure you don’t want to check it out?”
“I don't know. Mom – ”
“How’s Mom going to know, Farter?” I say. “Besides, I bet Dad would.”
“Sure, he’s always checking out old ruins earthside. Recon. It’s part of his job.” I don’t know if she’s going to buy that but it’s not like Mom’s going to say anything, now that she and dad aren’t talking.
I start working my way in moving frayed wires aside. The short rope tightens, and through my earpiece I hear Nona’s helmet clunk against the hull next to the opening.
“Ian!” she whines. I try to turn but that just winds the rope around my waist locking us even closer together. I roll away from her again. “I don’t want to go in,” she complains.
“Oh, come on. Just a little further. Don’t you want to see what it looks like inside? This thing must be, like, a hundred years old!” I’m still facing in and can’t see her face but I can feel her straining against the rope. I turn my head from side to side swinging the beam across the interior. The inside looks way smaller than the outside.
“I don't want to,” she repeats. I get a toehold on the hull and kick back out.
“Okay. You stay out here,” I say as I find the lock on my belt clip.
“No!” she says. Her eyes go big and round as she watches me unhook the rope.
“You’ll be fine. I’m just going to go in for a minute. I just want to see what it looks like.”
“But what if I float away!” I clip her onto one of the exterior handholds.
“You’re not going to float away,” I say. “Look there are a ton of handholds on this thing. You can hook on to any of them.” I sweep my hand up past the barrel of the hull to include the deployed solar panel. “You could even climb up and get some of that pretty foil.”
“I dunno,” she says but I can tell that she wants to.
“It’ll be easy.” And keep her busy, I think.
“Our comms are on so if you come off just call me and I’ll jet right out and get you.”
She reaches out for one of the handholds. “Promise?”
“Promise.” I say. She looks up at the shiny gold foil hanging off the outstretched panels above. “Just pretend you’re on the inner playscape,” I add. Finally, she starts up along the hull, grabbing the next handhold she unclips and clips in to the one above.
“See? Easy!” I say and spin around to dive back through the hole. It’s a tight squeeze, which opens out into a central area. Everything is curved, even more than in our living unit, like a tube. The walls must be super thick. The inside feels cramped despite being totally picked over. Tiny crystalline shards of something glitter in the headlamp’s light. I push over to a plastic container filled with what looks like tiny green plants. I poke one and it shatters.
“Ian?” Nona’s voice sounds unsure.
“What’s up, Farter?”
“Duh,” I say. “You at the panel yet?”
“Almost,” she says puffing into her mic. “You see any ghosts yet?”
“No such luck.”
I spin around and head for one of the ends. This is definitely one of the oldest places I’ve ever been in. Of course it’s completely cleaned out. There are, like, a million cubbies and little storage spaces. The ones with doors intact are open and empty. More wires bristle from the places where scavengers tore instruments out. I pull myself into what looks like the galley. Oddly, nobody wanted the tiny old microwave still fitted into the wall. I pop the door and there’s even some food crusted inside. I reach into the cubbies above checking around for food packets. The old ones with some weird vegetable matter rendered into paste can resell for a lot. I get some dust moving, which drifts out across my light, but that’s it.
Nona has been puffing away in my earpiece the whole time, but as I head to the other end of the station, static thickens around the sounds of her breathing, engulfing it completely by the time I reach the far wall. There must be some heavy insulation back here. I hope she’s not hearing it on her end.
Straps float out from where they are attached to the back wall. It takes me a minute to realize that this must have been where the astronauts slept, tethered in like ships bobbing at a dock. Smaller particles sparkle in my light, water vapor maybe. The shower, or the head, must be close by. I look around some more but there’s nothing here, nothing left. I didn’t really expect anything anyway.
I’ve almost forgotten the constant static in my ear until it breaks for a moment letting a high squeal through. Sounds like feedback, maybe a passing transport on our frequency. Still, I should be getting back to Nona. I reorient and set my feet to push off when I notice a piece of paper in a seam in the wall next to me. I just manage to pinch it with the big rubberized tips of my thumb and forefinger and work it out slowly. A picture. It’s printed on paper, a photograph. The colors aren’t quite right, faded. A man, a woman, and a boy stand by what must be a grill. Sunlight filters through the trees behind them. They all wear bright summer clothes. The man’s arm is slung around the woman’s shoulders. She’s very pregnant. The boy grins and holds up a hot dog. The light from my headlamp shines on the scene as if it were the sun itself.
What a find! Better than a petrified food packet. The resale value won’t be much but it’s almost like finding an astronaut. I’m not sure how I’ll get it home. It looks too brittle to risk trying to get it into one of my pockets. Finally I just push off, navigating carefully the short distance through the station with the photo between my thumb and fingers. I’m at the hole when the static clears and the long whine resumes, it’s pitch slowly descending. It’s Nona. After a choking sob she starts again, like a siren,
“I I I A A A N N N!”
I yell at her even though I’m sure she won’t hear me over her own racket. I wriggle out of the blast hole and push away from the station for a better view but I can’t see Nona anywhere. Our proximity alarm starts to chirp, its yellow light flashing in the corner of my visor.
Gripping the photograph, I grab a jet with my free hand. Instead of aligning and locking into my glove it skitters out of my hand and away. My face flushes as I watch the jet drift away joining the debris. Sweat tickles my hair. I slide my hand over to the other jet and carefully lock it in before disengaging it from my belt. Our proximity alarm goes from yellow to red.
I give the jet a pulse to get a longer view. It’s a sloppy maneuver. Unlike the goofs at recess freewalk sessions, I haven’t spent a lot of time practicing trick moves or one-handed jetting. Now I wish I had.
Finally, she takes a breath and I shout her name into the sound of her gulping in air. My heart is racing.
“Where are you?”
“I don't know.” She chokes out. I keep backing out scanning the debris. Finally I see her, arms and legs flung out, turning huge cartwheels at least three hundred yards beyond the station and moving fast.
“Nothing.” Carefully, I slide the picture into a pocket on my thigh. I imagine I can feel it crumbling into dust under my glove.
“How’d you get way out there?” I mute the proximity alarm and try to sound conversational as the computer calculates an intercept trajectory. All I hear from her is sniffling as she spins away getting smaller and smaller. For some reason I picture mom on her knees picking all those NanoNellie parts out of the carpet. Finally the computer comes up with a trajectory. I lock it in, hold the jet with both hands, and fire it up.
“Hang on, Farter. I’m coming.” My voice is shaking.
Almost immediately a second warning sounds in my helmet, now the suit doesn’t like my speed. I mute it. Thank God I disconnected the acceleration safety lock. I boost the jet to full and concentrate on not colliding with anything too big or sharp for the suit’s shielding. I can’t see Nona at all. I can’t afford to look. I just have to trust the trajectory and hope nothing nasty collides with her either.
I arrive at the spot she was when the suit ran the trajectory and I’m closer but not much. Something flashes off her suit as she continues wheeling away. This time I have the computer calculate our speed differential and eyeball a trajectory. The jet’s heat warms my gloves but I’m gaining on her. I switch it off and hope I have enough velocity.
Our proximity alarm goes yellow and suddenly she’s rushing up on me, snuffling and sobbing in my earpiece. I lock the jet on my belt and hold my arms out, reaching for that last Hail Mary pass and grab her boot as she cartwheels by
Together we spin off in a new direction. Hugging her leg I grab the jet and pulse it to correct our spin. It seems to take forever and I realize only slowly that it’s not just her ragged breathing that I’m hearing but my own. Tears float out from my eyes speckling the visor.
Once we stop spinning I manage to climb up her suit until I’ve got a hold of her shoulders. I get a look at the inside of her helmet and it’s pretty dramatic. Tears and strings of snot float around her head, smearing the inside of her visor.
“Aw, Farter. Why’d you let go?”
“I got this really big piece and it just tore off.” She unfurls a sheet of foil the size of a pillowcase. I start to laugh and almost can’t stop. She starts giggling along with me.
“Okay. You’re okay.
“Yeah.” She nods obediently, like she is because I said so. My heart is still racing and my fingers hurt from gripping her shoulders. I find the short rope on her belt, pull out the line and hook us back together.
“Hey, I got something to show you.”
“What?” she says, shaking her head like a wet dog sending more bodily fluids spattering against her visor.
“Can you even see?”
Tenderly, I reach into my pocket and ease the photograph out. The edges are torn but it survived after all. I release it, letting it hang right in front of her visor. Her eyes go big.
“Wow! Where’d you get it?”
“Inside, where do you think?”
“Is that Dad?” She pokes at the man in the photograph. I reach up and we trap the picture between our fingers.
“No way,” I say. “It’s a photograph. It’s, like, ancient.”
“It could be,” she insists. “And that’s you, eating the hot dog.”
“She doesn’t even look like Mom,” I say.
“And I’m in her tummy.”
“Nona.” Even through the mess in her helmet I can see her smiling.
“I know. But it could be.”
I give up. “Sure,” I say.
“When’s he coming home?” Nona asks.
“I don’t know, Farter.”
“I wish he could see it,” she says.
We both look at the picture for a while: the green grass, the dappled sunlight shining through the faded blue smoke that rises from the grill.
I am looking at ghosts, I think. Then I know what to do. “Come on,”
I look around for a good-sized piece of junk and spot one of those old round satellites. “Hold on to it,” I say pushing the photograph into her hands. “Careful, it’s fragile.”
“Where are we going?” She asks.
“Not far,” I say. I grab the jet and tug her over to the satellite. Nona reads the letters on the side.
“What does C-C-C-P mean?”
“I don’t know. Probably some old company.” I grab a bubble pack of adhesive from my belt and squeeze a blob onto the metal then point to the photograph. “Stick it on.” She does and I get us lined up above the satellite, arms braced. I hold the jetup over our heads. “On three we’re going to push it out of orbit,” I say.
“Sure. Straight to Earth.”
“Will it go all the way?”
“It should, eventually.” We shimmy around a little more until our feet are planted on the satellite. "Ready?"
“One...Two...Three!” And I hit the jet. The satellite pushes against our feet as it changes direction. The family in the picture looks out at us, then recedes into a pale square before turning away as the satellite begins a slow spin.
“Is it going?”
“Yeah. Good job, Farter.”
“You think Dad will see it?”
“Sure,” I say, and in my head I can see Dad looking up. He’s tracking a shooting star as it burns up across the sky.
This story originally appeared in Cast of Wonders.