Science Fiction Romance genetic engineering mining volcano Jupiter Jupiter moon

Brief Candle (Io, #2)

By Elinor Caiman Sands
Mar 3, 2020 · 7,835 words · 29 minutes

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From the author: Magrian is an Iod, a genetically engineered "non-person" destined to spend his life as a brutally oppressed miner on Jupiter's hostile moon, Io. But his life is turned upside down when he meets Jazri, an expert on volcanism from nearby Europa. This story is a sequel to “In Place of Darkness” which first appeared in the Strange Bedfellows anthology of Political Science Fiction, (Bundoran Press, 2014).


THE WOMAN WHO changed my life is back. She’s here on orbital station Io exiting the transport, dressed in jeans and a bright yellow shirt just like the sun. She walks down the corridor straight towards me full of starlight.

“Hello Magrian,” she says, hips swaying a bit, perfume wafting over me like a sea of blossom. Her eyes are lakes of umber and her hair onyx black just like I remember it, a dark volcano of curls. She has a few lines around her cheeks but they don’t mar her beauty.

“Hello Jazri,” I reply.

I can’t stop grinning. I grin from lug-shaped ear to lug-shaped ear. She laughs at my goofy face and pecks me on my stony cheek. If I was all human instead of the radiation-resistant manufactured kind I would surely be blushing by now. The others laughed at me before, they said an iod can’t love a human, we’re too different, we don’t share enough DNA, but I know they are wrong. My DNA may be weird and full of extremophile parts but there’s enough human in me still.

 “I got your message,” she says, coming to a halt beside me, resting a perfectly manicured hand on one of the corridor-hugging ever-leaky pipes. “Your message about the mine.”

“Yes, we are sure the mine is about to collapse but Director Backard won’t listen as usual, he won’t let us evacuate.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” she says. “You did the right thing, calling me. So show me to my cabin, sweet one, then we’ll get to work and see how bad the volcanism is.”

I take her bags, all three of them. They’re in matching blue nylon and are light for me, small as I am for an iod. I bet I could carry four or five Jazris on my granite back, no trouble.

I lead her down the dim corridors that drip drip drip constantly while she asks me how I’ve been.

“I’ve been working,” I tell her. “I’m always working.”

She shakes her head and brushes me lightly on my arm; her limbs are so small and delicate compared to mine. I ask her to tell me about life on Europa and she tells me of her travels to Callisto too and all around the Jovian system.

“I’d like to leave Io one day,” I tell her.

“Maybe you will,” she says, though she knows none of us iods ever have. We have no rights, we are non-persons.

When we reach her cabin I wait outside. She’s only closeted for a moment then she’s back wearing EVA rad-resistant underclothes that cling to her body showing all her features. I try not to notice, I try to be a gallant fellow.

“Right. Let me see this mine,” she says, hauling a large bamboo box from the room with obvious difficulty.

“Let me take that.” I lift it with one hand.

“Don’t drop it. It’s a seismograph,” she says, “To measure tremors. Have you noticed any unusual quakes down on the surface?”

“Yes, and noises. Strange hummings and buzzings.” We trudge back down the corridors, one of which is spouting puffs of foul-smelling steam now.

“Harmonic tremors,” she says. “That’s not a good sign, Magrian. Let’s not stay down there too long. Let’s get everyone out of there.”

I nod and we start trundling a little faster. When Jazri was here last she checked the stability of the new and deeper mine site. If there’s a massive eruption coming she can forecast it better than most, she has the experience. If anyone can make Director Backard see sense it’s Jazri.

Kanunjai the steward meets us at the shuttle. I help Jazri with her bulky spacesuit before climbing into mine. There’s plenty of room aboard with seating for ten but there’s no window except on the flight deck.

“I was hoping to see the view,” says Jazri. “And get my first look at this erupting volcano.”

“The view is unremarkable,” insists Kanunjai.

And it’s true; Io is blotchy and yellow, like God vomited.

I slam the airlock shut and secure the locks. I strap myself in beside Jazri while Kanunjai, the largest of us iods, squeezes his formidable bulk into the pilot seat. Moments later we separate from the station and drift into the vacuum. Microgravity takes us; my limbs float light as an ash cloud. Then we're plummeting down to Io where the beta shift still toils.

JAZRI STANDS IN the sulphur frost, snow white in her suit. Jupiter is framed at her back.

She leans over her seismograph box which churns out data as the surface rumbles and quakes. She takes infrasound readings too.

In front of her the shuttle squats. “You guys are right, the whole place could go up at any time.”

“Agreed,” says Kanunjai, standing at her shoulder. “Everyone must return to the station.”

“Director Backard won’t like that,” I point out.

“Director Backard can go throw himself in Mt. Tvashtar,” says Jazri.

Kanunjai starts to stride towards the habitat. He moves across Io with its light gravity in great bouncing steps.

We follow as best we can, me with my shorter legs and Jazri unaccustomed as she is to walking in Io gravity in a heavy rad-resistant outfit. The ground sparkles beneath our boots. Io is a giant dynamo turning in the magnetism of Jupiter, sending lightning bolts down to the gassy planet’s clouds. It’s an amazing place, it’s my home and the only place I’ve ever known though I’m told compared to most human places it’s really quite dreadful.

A column of fire blasts into the starry sky to the right of us. My mouth goes dry. The event doesn’t have the force of a major eruption—yet—but still it’s scary enough. Ash drifts across our path.

“This isn’t good,” yells Jazri, and she starts running. Soon we’re all running, Kanunjai still ahead. I can almost smell the falling debris burning as it settles on my suit. I take Jazri’s hand, afraid she’ll fall behind.

Io is always erupting somewhere, my little home never sleeps but until now the place that Jazri chose for the mine has been relatively safe.

Thankfully we reach the metal habitat—Kanunjai is already wrestling open the airlock hatch—we tumble inside and rip off our ash-smeared garments as the bottled air floods in.

Then we’re surrounded by my fellow miners in the cramped locker rooms. They sit on metal benches munching on heated Europan fish snacks. The smell makes my stomach rumble; I like fish snacks but I don’t have time to grab some. Instead I help shoo out all those on their break.

Soon the habitat is resounding with the echo of heavy feet as miners hurriedly don their exosuits. The floor shakes, partly from the feet but also from the volcano. The first iods pile into the airlock and head out towards the waiting shuttles.

“Jazri and I will go rouse the sleeping shift,” I yell, as if by some miracle I expect any to still be dozing through this.

Kanunjai nods and disappears in the direction of the shaft to alert the workers there.

“Where are the sleepers?” says Jazri, so I lead the way through the back way to the shadowed and silent rest quarters. I can just make out the rows of narrow bunk beds with my dark-adapted iod eyes. I find the light switch and illuminate the sleepers. How extraordinary that they all still sleep. An iod can snooze through the end of the world.

I seize the nearest lazy lump and pull his blanket from his shoulders. He grumbles and curses me a bit but soon there’s a dozen somewhat groggy and half-dressed iods hunched and shuffling alongside Jazri and me.

We all pile into the airlock—we just about fit. We pull on our suits as the lock depressurizes.

“To the shuttles! Quickly!” I throw the hatch wide and we run together as best we can, iods not being built for speed.

Io boils around us; it quakes beneath our rubber boots. Thin lava falls. I try to dodge it or brush it from my suit before it burns though but it’s a desperate task. “Keep running,” I shout into the comm system. I daren’t let go of Jazri’s hand. I’m afraid she will trip in the cumbersome suit, it’s really too large for her.

Beside me one of the workers falls; a piece of lava burns though his suit. His air escapes, puffing into the night. His face etched in terror gapes through his visor, an image that will surely live with me for the rest of my days.

“Help me!” I yell to the others, heart beating in my stony chest. I grab my fallen comrade by the arm as he writhes on the sparkling ground. I lift him up and others come and take his legs. We iods, we don’t leave our own behind.

We hurry on to the nearest shuttle and pull him aboard. I strip off his damaged suit and someone, I don’t see who, passes me an oxygen mask which I apply to his stricken face but his liquids have boiled. He lies helpless on the spacecraft’s floor for a few moments, then the light in his eyes goes out.

As the odour of death filters through the cabin my strength falters. Jazri puts her small hand on my arm.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

Her sweet face lightens the weight on my back.

“Let’s get out of here,” I say.

I fight my way through the assembled iods to the flight deck. The shuttle is full to capacity; Kanunjai and his group will have to take the other ships.

A couple of workers are already prepping for flight—we all have basic shuttle training but I take the pilot seat. I run no countdown—fresh lava is thudding on the roof—I just get the computer to calculate a quick trajectory then slap the ignition on the ascent engine. The thrusters fire first time and Io drops away unsteadily, pitching and yawing. But a little roll is not the main concern. The volcanic moon still flings bits of itself up at us. How high can it go? A really bad eruption could blast ash and dust clear into orbit; it could even blast a hole in the space station itself. Fortunately the station is fitted with orbital position-keeping thrusters that should be effective enough to move the entire habitat in the event of such a calamity. And yet I pray such an eruption will never take place. The technology is untested under such emergency conditions. I wouldn’t want to stake my stony hide on it.

A flaming piece of Io streaks past the shuttle window seeming perilously close and into the starry sky. I swallow and blink; more like that and we’ll be ship wrecked for sure.

As soon as I dare I fire the shuttle’s main rockets and we blast clear into orbit. Our course steadies then Jazri appears at my elbow. “Well done, I think we’re there,” she says.

“Don’t say that,” I say, “not until we reach the station.”

THE STATION HAS moved. Jazri, the iod miners and I make it safely to the dock but in all my days on Io I’ve never known such a serious situation.

“The eruption’s that bad?” I shake my head in disbelief at the docking tech in his green overalls. “You actually had to move the station out of the way?”

The tech nods. “It’s scary out there,” he adds. “Might have to move again—if we still can.”

“What do you mean ‘if we still can’?” I ask, alarmed, grey skin prickling along my back.

“I mean the bloomin' station-keeping thrusters were sluggish when we moved. Steggin from tech is checkin' ‘em, but I reckon he’s gone via the beer hall." The fellow snorts. "I don’t think Steward Joffi realises the danger we’re in.”

“Joffi,” I say. He’s been an awkward curmudgeon for as long as I’ve worked with him. “Maybe I’d better look into it.” I slap the fellow on the back, trying to reassure him even though I feel in as much need of reassurance myself.

“Kanunjai’s shuttle should be following us,” I tell the docker.

“Yes, we know,” he says, a frown on his grey features. “That’s the other calamity coming.”

I’m about to ask him what he means when the collision alert sounds and the docker hurries away, eyes wide.

“What’s wrong with Kanunjai’s shuttle?” asks Jazri. “Has it been hit by debris?”

But I don’t want to guess. We hurry to the nearest bulkhead and grasp the pipework, hunkering down behind a steel locker—we prepare for the worst. Moments later my ears ring as metal screams. The station rocks; hazard warning lights flash red.

From the shouts of the dockers it’s clear Kanunjai’s ship has a gaping hole in its side. Air has been lost, and one thruster is out. But Kanunjai has to make it and all the iods onboard. I pray for them all but especially for him. He’s the greatest of us, we would be nothing without him; at least, we would be lessened.

“He’s strong, he’ll make it,” whispers Jazri.

“You’re such an optimist,” I tell her. I love that about her, that and her intelligence, and kindness.

“Most humans are optimists,” she says. “To the point of insanity. We only see what we want to see.”

Is that true? I have to conclude that it is, although probably it’s just as true of iods.

Kanunjai emerges from the ship and I breath again, going forward to embrace him.

“I fear I just had a near death experience,” he jokes. “Let’s get some beer.” He seizes a green bottle from a nearby cargo cart and throws one to me. Jazri declines. I crack open the lid and guzzle the familiar bitter taste of fermented Europan seaweed. We clink glasses.

“Cheers!”

Kanunjai upends his bottle. “Now all we have to do is explain to Director Backard why we’ve gone against his orders and evacuated the mine,” he says, wryly, chuckling and drinking. But then Steward Joffi, leader of delta shift appears and the big iod’s mood abruptly changes.

“I have news,” says Joffi, drawing himself up to his full height. “You’re not going to like it, Kanunjai.”

“Do I ever like news you bring, Joffi?” Kanunjai’s heavy brows knit together. “What have you done this time?”

“We’ve taken the station,” says the smaller iod. “Director Backard is our hostage.”

KANUNJAI’S FACE IS a Jovian thunderclap. I keep my distance from these two and so does Jazri; the storm clouds are circling. Once, these two were friends, but they fell out over an abortive riot several years back and now every meeting is a potential dual.

“You don’t think they’re actually going to fight, do you?” whispers Jazri, at my shoulder. “O.K. Corral at sunset?”

“I hope not,” I say, though I fear they might, the tension in the corridor is palpable.

“You’ve really done it now, Joffi,” says Kanunjai.

“I’ve only done what should have been done a long time ago,” the shorter iod says.

“Has anyone been injured or killed?”

“A few,” says Joffi, scowling. “We lost two, Vanagran and Sanchas. Ten are lightly wounded. Eight guards were… despatched into space.”

“I see.” Kanunjai’s lips form a line. He cracks his knuckles in the iod way; the sound is like boulders breaking. “Take me to Backard,” he says.

Joffi hesitates but not even he will stand up to Kanunjai when he’s standing there right in front of him. Kanunjai isn’t the sort you disobey. I’ve never known the iod hurt anyone, but he doesn’t need to, people respect him like no other worker on the station.

Jazri and I follow the two at a distance back down the leaky corridors. It occurs to me I should probably tell Kanunjai what the docking tech told me, about the sluggish station-keeping thrusters, so step forward and whisper into his cauliflower ear.

Once more I watch him glare at Joffi. “What’s all these rumours I hear about the station in danger? Have you been neglecting vital safety measures?” he booms at the smaller iod.

Joffi recoils slightly. “Steggin is seeing to it. He’ll fix it.”

“You should have sent an alpha tech team to a serious problem like this. Steggin is delta, barely out of training.” Kanunjai moves to the nearest comm unit. Soon he’s issuing commands to move an alpha tech team to check on the thrusters. He also contacts Steggin who sure enough has made little progress. “It’s not his area of expertise, either,” says Kanunjai. “This is a huge delay.”

Joffi and Kanunjai do not speak for the rest of the trip, not while we troop past the mess hall with its beer-stained dinner tables, nor as we traverse the gymnasium and on past the showers.

“Don’t step on the lettuces,” commands Kanunjai as we march through the brightly lit hydroponic garden. The lights shine down warm on my hairless head. I inhale the sweet smells of dirt and fruits.

We arrive at Director Backard’s office and find him inside, tied to his bamboo chair. His arms and legs are strapped to the pale wood with electrical cord.

His face is black and blue beneath his dark hair. His lip is swollen and there’s blood on his grey cotton suit. Three burly iods lounge on his other chairs and on his bamboo sofa with its white nylon cushions and brass buttons. One swigs at a bottle of expensive brandy.

They stand when we arrive, even the one with the bottle, somewhat unsteadily.

“Let me talk to him,” says Kanunjai, pushing his way past Joffi. The other iods give up the sofa and Kanunjai sits; the white sofa groans beneath his weight.

Joffi sighs, but leaves with his henchmen and I close the door behind them all.

“You won’t get away with this,” says Backard, when they’ve gone. “They’ll send ships from Europa. They probably already have.”

“I imagine so,” says Kanunjai. “That won’t help you though.”

“Yes, it will. If you don’t surrender they’ll blast you from the sky.”

“Then they’ll blast you too.”

The Director has no answer for that. He’s always been something of a bully, a tyrant, a greedy dealer in injustice. Kanunjai in contrast may be tough, but at least he is always fair.

“The mine is being destroyed, even as I speak,” continues Kanunjai. “Io is erupting.”

“Io is always erupting,” interrupts the Director, scathingly.

“Io is erupting beneath the mine.” Kanunjai’s eyes burn like twin lava pools. “If I release you now, will you agree that next time, when we have a new mine in a new location, you’ll order an evacuation before an eruption begins?”

The Director licks his swollen lips. He grips the arms of his pale chair. He scratches his nails along the wood. Then he laughs. “No. Volcanism can’t be predicted, everyone knows that. If you predicted it this time it was nothing but a lucky guess. It’s your job to mine. I won’t agree to you and your iods downing tools at the first rumble. If I did that your tools would be permanently down.”

Jazri stirs then, she crosses her slender legs. “Actually, I can make a pretty good guess at when a volcano will blow,” she says.

“And you are?” he says.

He knows who she is, she’s the Jovian system’s leading volcanism expert after all; he’s just being deliberately insulting.

“Dr. Jazri Stewart, Europa Institute. As I was saying, there are many factors. Increased seismic activity; harmonic tremors; infrasound events; gas emissions; thermal escalation; ground movement. I could go on.”

The Director shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “Even if this is true only iods can endure the radiation environment on Io for any length of time. The magnetic field shield protecting this station is far superior to any shielding you’ll find down there. And I for one don’t trust any claims made or data gathered by the iods stationed on the moon. Who will report these tremors and out-gassings if no reliable humans can tolerate conditions down there for more than a few hours? I’m sorry Miss Stewart, but…”

Dr. Stewart.”

“As you say. I’m afraid iods cannot be relied upon to provide scientific reports.”

“On the contrary, I find the iods here are technically very proficient. Magrian here, for instance…”

“That’s enough.” Kanunjai interrupts. “This is not helping.” Kanunjai rises from the sofa. “Magrian, see that this man is fed and treated with dignity, at least that he is beaten a little less than he has been already. I’ll be in the garden.”

He stalks from the room. I can hardly blame him for his irritation.

THE FOLLOWING DAY the warships arrive. There are four of them from Europa, the new class of sensor black vessels armed with vacuum torpedoes. They surround the station and demand the release of the Director and the restoration of command to the Europan authorities.

“We are open to negotiation,” says Kanunjai, sitting in the Director’s office in the Director’s chair. A video screen is in front of him on the expansive bamboo desk next to a framed photograph of icy Europa.

Kanunjai’s talking to the Commander of the lead ship whose pale face appears on the screen. He’s already outlined the iod demands for new safety regulations, for a new Director, for more beer and better conditions.

“You should ask for your freedom. You should demand that you are the new Director,” insists Jazri, hovering at his shoulder, her silky black shirt open at the neck. “You should insist that you miners have the right to leave Io and stop working the mine if that’s what you want.”

Kanunjai holds up his hand to silence her. “Maybe. Later,” he says.

Jazri has great courage but she doesn’t really know what it’s like for us. We have no rights, not even to life. We’re not considered human. They could kill us all tomorrow if they chose. Small steps, Jazri, that’s what we need.

“Magrian wants to visit Europa,” she says.

I fidget, uncomfortable in the spotlight. She leans forward then into the microphone and the camera’s scope. She grasps the screen on both sides. “The iods demand the freedom to travel, to leave Io.”

“Please, Jazri, it’s okay,” I say, as Kanunjai curses under his breath. I take her arm and try to pull her away from the lens but she shakes me free. “Everything they say is true. The mine was unsafe. The Director was careless of their lives. They deserve better treatment.”

“Who is this?” The reply comes quickly across the vacuum.

“Dr. Jazri Stewart, Europa Institute.”

“Ah, yes… One moment.”

The channel goes dead.

“This doesn’t help us,” says Kanunjai.

“What do you think they’re doing?” I ask. Jazri shakes her head. A deep frown crosses Kanunjai’s heavy brow. “They wouldn’t do anything rash, would they?” she asks.

“No, not yet,” says Kanunjai. “At least, I think not.”

But rarely do I hear Kanunjai express doubt about anything. As the pause stretches into minutes I find his words haven’t settled my mind.

At last the screen blinks back into life. “Send Dr. Stewart across to us. Then she can tell us what she knows.”

Jazri tries to seize the microphone again but this time Kanunjai is ready. He blocks her path with an arm as uncrossable as a towering cliff face. Instead, he speaks into the mouthpiece himself: “We shall discuss the matter.” Then he clicks off the connection, leans back in the creaking chair.

“Why should I go over there? I’ve just told them what I know,” says Jazri.

“They think we’re coercing you,” says Kanunjai.

Jazri opens her mouth but no words come out. “In that case I’ll go to them,” she says, at last, “Though I can’t fly the shuttle.”

“We won’t allow them to send one for you. That could be a trap.” Kanunjai scratches at a wart on his arm.

“I can fly the shuttle,” I say.

They both look at me. “They might harm you if something happens to the Director,” says Kanunjai.

“They will harm us all if they blow up the station.”

Kanunjai purses his lips.

“I’ll protect you, Magrian,” says Jazri. “It’ll be okay. Fly the shuttle.”

“We could just refuse to let you go, Jazri,” says Kanunjai.

“But that would look like we have something to hide,” I add.

“Let him come with me, Kanunjai,” says Jazri. “Magrian is resourceful. Who knows, we might even manage a little mischief while we’re there.”

Kanunjai looks at us both then his eyes narrow, the barest of smiles crossing his lips. “Very well. Though I will add: you are both extremely resourceful.”

I’M BACK IN my spacesuit. We’re in the smaller shuttle; it only takes six persons but that’s more than enough room for Jazri and I.

“Ready?” I say, gloved hand on the ignition switch. She nods at me and I fire the thrusters. Slowly we drift away from the station and with small adjustments coast towards the waiting warship.

Its sides are onyx black and studded with starlight; the camouflage is remarkable but fortunately my iod eyes are good in poor light. I’m not easily fooled by fake suns. We approach the dock and achieve a smooth coupling.

I’ve never been in a human ship before; I take a deep breath as slowly the hatch turns. I step through and the first thing I notice is the atmosphere. It’s warm and dry here with hardly any smell. Io station stinks constantly with a mixture of tar, sulphur and beer but here the only smell is the faintest scent of gardens, just like Kanunjai’s hydroponic patch.

A small crowd of humans are here to meet us, many of them soldiers in dark camouflage suits that contrast sharply with our pale ones. The soldiers step forward and strip us of our suits. They search my person for weapons with pale pink hands and an electronic detector. Satisfied that I’m unarmed they usher us along an echoing corridor until we reach a double door made of polished red wood. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a door; it’s lined in shiny brass fitments; its nothing like even the door to the station Director’s office. It belongs in a mansion, a palace.

Inside is the largest table I’ve ever seen. A vast oval of red-golden wood. Several uniformed men and one woman sit around it with coloured braids on their chests and strange flat hats on their hairy heads. I can’t help glancing at the woman especially. There are no human females on Io station at all unlike here, only rare visitors like Jazri; us iods are all male. The woman is much older than Jazri, her hair snow white and her skin delightfully wrinkled. I wish there were women on station Io. I would like to understand them better.

Our guards show us to seats at the head of the table and I try not to stare at the woman for too long. Instead I look at the pictures on the walls. They are real paintings, I’m sure of it. Oils on canvass of the type I’ve only ever read about in books.

I think I would like to have been an artist. Sometimes when no one is looking down on Io I take lumps of sulphur snow from the ground outside and shape them into the likenesses of my friends. Or I take the dregs from a coffee cup and sketch imaginary landscapes I’ll never visit on the station dinner tables. My creations have always vanished by the following day. The snow drifts and gets trampled by boots; the coffee gets wiped away.

Jazri is speaking. She’s outlining to the assembled men what she witnessed on Io. She’s trying to justify our actions; she’s saying us iods have a right to save ourselves.

But I don’t think they want to hear her. I can see the way they look at me, the fear in their eyes. I guess I can understand that. Even though I’m small for an iod I’m much stronger than they are, much more dangerous.

“This isn’t the first time they’ve rioted,” points out one man, talking about my kind as though I’m not there.

The point he makes is true. We’ve rioted many times. People have died before.

“Maybe they have a reason to riot,” says Jazri.

“Dr. Stewart, they aren’t human, you can’t assign them human reasons,” says an older man with grey hair and more braids on his chest than most. Then he turns to me. “Magrian. How old are you?”

“I am three years next month, sir,” I reply.

“You see?” says the man. “These iods, even if they were human, are children. They have no legal capacity and never will have. Magrian, how old is Kanunjai, the oldest among you?”

“He is five, sir.”

Jazri stares at me open-mouthed. Did she not know? “That’s not fair,” she says. “They may be young in years but they’re clearly fully grown, and their capacity for learning is tremendous.”

But I know Jazri won’t win this argument. The man with the grey hair taps a key card on the table. He turns to me again. “What is the life expectancy of an iod like you, Magrian?”

“Seven, sir. The radiation…” I begin, but then I see Jazri’s face and stop. Her mouth shapes a silent “Oh,” and tears rolls down her lovely cheeks.

“I think this meeting is over,” says the human at the head of the table. He rises to his feet, walks from the room. The others follow.

I blink as I watch them go. Then I turn to Jazri. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

But it’s no use, she rests her head on her arms; her arms are folded on the table. “What a disaster,” she sobs.

I stare into the distance. I don’t see the paintings anymore.

WE’VE BEEN GIVEN a pair of side rooms, Jazri and I. I don’t think we are prisoners, there are no guards at the door, we can come and go freely but these people are suspicious of us, they’ve asked us not to wander far about the ship.

I sit on my bed on a soft grey quilt. Jazri is here with me, pacing back and forth, back and forth on the rich blue carpet.

“I don’t understand why they won’t listen!” she rages. “They can’t really treat you guys this badly. Surely they can see. Have they learned nothing from history?”

“I don’t understand,” I tell her. There are pictures on the wall here too, pictures of landscapes like I’ve never seen, green valleys and seas. Blue skies.

“Magrian, don’t you know any human history?”

“Well, I know a little art history,” I say, hoping to please her. “But us iods, we need to prioritise technical education for the mine.”

She shakes her head. “It’s all work for you guys. But listen, human history is littered with people treating other people badly, sometimes very badly, sometimes enslaving them. My own ancestors, back on Earth...” She pauses, and looks at me quizzically. “Magrian, do you even realise I’m black? That my skin colour, my race, is different from most out here. That sets me apart somewhat. Once my ancestors were like you, treated as subhuman by men like those generals out there.” She points at the door with a slender finger. “Perhaps that’s why I want to help you when no one else does.”

“I hadn’t noticed you were different,” I tell her.

“Well I am. Though I’m also not,” she adds, frowning.

Now she’s confusing me even more.

She sits on the bed next to me. “But all that matters is that they’re not listening to me.”

“I’m sorry,” I tell her. “I don’t know what to do.”

“I’m not sure there’s much you can do, not on your own.” She looks at the ceiling and sighs. “It took a long time for my ancestors to win their freedom. A lot longer than a few years.” She looks down at her knees, then up at me as she continues: “Magrian, is it true you might only live for seven years?” Her voice quavers as she says this. I worry she’s going to start crying again. It’s a fact that seems to hurt her too much.

“I… well, it’s most likely,” I say. “It’s the radiation, among other things…” I trail off once more as I’ve forgotten what I was about to say. Jazri has moved closer to me, she has her arms around me, she’s gazing up into my eyes. My heart misses a beat.

“Poor sweetie,” she says, bringing her face up to mine. “You have so little life to live. And you have so much to complain about and yet you say nothing.”

“Should I say something?” I ask.

She laughs. “No. It’s probably best if you let me and Kanunjai do the talking. And the plotting. Tomorrow maybe I’ll think of something, something sneaky and dishonest, like sabotaging this ship. Or taking a hostage. What do you think?”

My eyes widen and I shake my head, slightly alarmed.

She laughs again. She leans closer. Her lips lightly touch mine. “But that’s tomorrow. For tonight, kiss me if you want to,” she says.

I’m even more surprised by this but I do want to. She’s so beautiful. So I try putting my mouth to hers. At first it’s strange, to be this close to her or to any human.

She kisses me back. I put my arms around her. She kisses me some more. Then Io wakes in my blood in ways I never imagined. Jazri already has my heart; now she takes my body also. She strips off her clothes. We make love, she shows me how to please her. When it’s all over all I can do is lay next to her, breathing, watching her naked body shine.

“Child, my ass,” she says, smirking, flushed and smiling. I’m filled with warmth and happiness, yet a weariness too. “Typical man. Go to sleep if you want to,” she says.

So I do, I sleep, perhaps more soundly than I’ve ever done before, in the arms of the woman who more than any other is teaching me what it means to be human.

WE WAKE TO the ship’s klaxons screaming. I extricate myself from Jazri’s embrace and we fall out of bed, pulling on our clothes. We stumble out into a corridor that’s bathed in red in emergency lighting.

“What’s happening?” I say, but Jazri shakes her head. I take her hand and we hurry along the corridor. We nearly collide with a soldier dashing in the opposite direction. I seize him by the collar with one hand and nearly lift him from the floor—his eyes go wide. “What’s going on?” I ask him.

“It’s Io,” he says, squirming in my grasp. “It’s erupting.”

“And damaging the ship all the way up here?” says Jazri. “Can’t we get out of the way?” I notice she’s relieving the man of his weapon. “That must be one hell of an eruption.”

“Yes, it is, apparently. Please don’t take that.”

“Sorry, we might need it,” she says as I let him go. He scampers off down the corridor scowling back at us. Jazri hides his gun beneath her shirt.

“Do you know how to use that?” I ask her.

“No. How hard can it be?”

As she says this we’re thrown to one side. “They must be accelerating, trying to get us out of the worst of the debris,” I yell. “Hold on.” But there’s nothing to hold on to, just smooth metal walls and cold floors.

We make it to a doorway—another cabin—with a bruised elbow or two and take refuge inside. The room is much like our old one—a single bed, plastic chair fixed to the floor, soft carpet. Unremarkable. As soon as the ship steadies we continue on.

There are voices up ahead, shouting, barking orders and relaying command information.

“We must be near the flight deck,” says Jazri.

I put my thick finger to my lips. We creep closer to the heart of the ship.

“Damage to aft fuel line. Cooler three is out,” says a woman’s voice, faint through the wall. “Aft torpedo unit jettisoned. That area is now secure, sir.”

I stop creeping. Jazri bumps into me. We wait; we listen.

“What about section seven?” A man’s voice this time; a deep voice, perhaps the Captain.

“We’ve lost atmosphere, sir. Recommend that section is sealed.”

“Do it,” says the man who might be Captain. “Do we have a full analysis of the number of impact events yet?”

“Not yet sir, we’re working on it.”

I look at Jazri and she looks at me. “It doesn’t sound good, does it,” she whispers. I shake my head. It doesn’t sound good at all.

“Sir, there’s a breach in the vicinity of the fission reactor. It could blow. I recommend immediate shipwide evacuation.”

Jazri’s eyes go wide and I expect mine have too. I swallow and whisper, “We should get back to our shuttle,” just as the announcement comes over the ship’s comm system.

“ABANDON SHIP!”

The time for creeping is over: Jazri and I run. We run down the corridors, Jazri light in her bare feet, me heavy and plodding but with a larger stride.

Soon the corridors are crowded with men and a few women; running, pushing, shoving, shouting, pointing, getting angry with each other. I try to push through but then Jazri gets pushed down amongst the crowds.

I clear a path and hoist her up onto my shoulders. She ducks her head against the ceiling of the corridor and we make better progress then, barrelling down the narrow way: none can stand in my path. We might just make it. The crowds are clearing.

But we reach a sealed hatchway with a flashing notice splayed across it: ATMOSPHERIC BREACH, SECTION 14 ACCESS DENIED.

“No.”

Jazri’s single word only intensifies my despair. “There are escape pods, there must be,” I say, so we start running again.

“Just follow the crew. They must know where they’re going,” says Jazri.

So that’s what I do until we reach an array of pods and see the crewmen piling inside. There’s one left dead ahead. But only one.

“We can both squeeze in,” says Jazri, as I put her on her feet and haul open the hatch.

“No,” I say.

The space is too small.

I shove her inside. I don’t let her argue.

She screams. “Magrian!”

I slam the hatch, seal it and activate the launch system from the outside. I wait until I’m sure the pod has gone, then carry on down the corridor looking for another one.

I WALK THE corridors for it seems a very long time. Maybe I’m the last one aboard and everyone else has left the doomed vessel. I turn one more corner and there ahead waits a final row of escape pods. Hurriedly I check to see if they’ve all been used. I am fortunate; one remains. So I climb into the pod. There’s precious little space for one of my bulk, but there’s just enough. I activate the launch system and jettison into the vacuum.

Of course, I’m not safe yet. I map a trajectory back to the station. It’s only then that I realise my error. This pod has no fuel. I curse my poor luck. I send a distress call to the station even though that is unlikely to bring me aid. Already the pod is drifting, just another piece of flotsam. Without a functioning thruster unit the pod will quickly collide with Io.

At least Jazri should be safe. I comfort myself with the knowledge of this fact and try not to consider my own likely fate.

My pod has no windows but I know the moon is coming closer as the minutes pass. I can almost feel it, can almost smell the sulphur.

I’ll get no warning of the impending impact so close my eyes, and try not to think too much.

I doze for a little while. I fear the atmosphere in the pod is also compromised.

When I open my eyes I at once feel pain in my head. Everything is fuzzy, my eyelids are heavy. Am I still in the escape pod? I feel too heavy for microgravity. I must have crashed on Io, or I might have done so. I can’t get out though, I can’t do anything. But Jazri is safe so everything is fine. I close my eyes.

When I open my eyes once more my head feels better. There’s no pain, I’ve just awoken from a peaceful sleep.

“Magrian, welcome back.” A familiar face looms into view. Kanunjai. I smile at him.

“Hello,” I say through cracked lips.

He lifts a cup of water to my parched mouth and I take a sip. There’s something in the water, a bitter taste, a healing medicine probably.

He asks me how I feel and I tell him I feel fine. I feel better than fine, I’m back on the Station, I can smell it. It’s good to be home. I ask him what happened.

“We managed to capture your pod before you hit Io though you were on your way down. We rescued you with the shuttle’s robotic arm, though not without some difficulty. You suffered concussion,” says Kanunjai. “And you weren’t our only casualty. We lost a part of the station and some of our iods. We lost the Director too. The station-keeping thrusters did indeed fail just when we needed them; alpha tech didn’t have the parts. So the station was hit by volcanic debris before we could move it. And many ships were lost. Also, a couple of warship crews were rescued.”

“It’s all so terrible,” I say. So why am I not sad? “Where is Jazri? I want to see her.”

But then Kanunjai’s frown deepens. “Magrian, I’m sorry, I have some news you will not like.”

But I don’t want to hear it. My world opens up and a chasm forms at my feet. It’s full of black lava. My life stops, I don’t ever want it to start again not without the woman I love.

“Her pod was hit by a stray piece of debris. It was most unfortunate,” says Kanunjai. But I can’t look at him, he can’t understand, he’s never loved.

“There are other women in the universe, little Magrian,” he says, but as he speaks I find there are none at all. “You’ll heal in time,” he says. Perhaps he’s right though how long will it take? A lifetime for an iod.

One month passes and my wound is still so fresh it needs stitches. And yet despite my grief, perhaps because of it, I've made a momentous life decision.

A CHILL BREEZE goosebumps my granite skin as I step from the shuttle. It's a little hard to accept, but I've left Io for ever.

The Europan landing bay is enormous—a great blue cavern like nothing I’ve ever seen. Directly above my head sits the huge airlock through which we descended—a vast round disc of toughened plastic. It’s a remarkable piece of engineering; how did they manage all this in nothing but ice and glass and oil from the deeps?

Jazri won this much for us iods, this choice, this freedom to leave our volcanic world. Her pleas on our behalf didn’t go entirely unheeded. Many of the hardline generals died on the stricken warships but not all, not the woman, the older lady; she we rescued and apparently she always had sympathy with our plight as did some of the more liberal politicians. In the end their will prevailed.

Yet Kanunjai hasn’t chosen to come here to Europa and enjoy his freedom. Instead he may yet become Station director. That option is now a real possibility. I feel he and Joffi have made the wrong choice to remain, but that they have been free to make it is what is remarkable.

Leaving the Io shuttle on its landing pad I’m pointed in the direction of a taxi. I give the driver my address though he looks at me a little strangely. Perhaps he doubts I’ll fit in his car? I assure him I won’t break it as I squeeze in the back with my one small bag of luggage and soon we’re whizzing through blue ice crystal tunnels more beautiful than anything I imagined.

“So you’ll be studying at the Institute?” he says.

“Yes. I’m studying volcanology.”

When I arrive at the campus they ask me to sign my name which I’m not accustomed to doing. I hold the plastic pen awkwardly. M a g r i a n, I spell out, slowly, letter by letter.

“We were expecting you,” says the grey haired woman behind the glass window.

“I hope I’m not late,” I say.

“Not at all,” she says. She smiles. She has a warm face. “You will be teaching too. Yes?”

“Yes,” I say. “A little. I’m signed on as an engineering assistant.”

She nods. “You’re unusual. Few of our students teach in one department while studying in another.”

“It’s what I want,” I say.

“I understand.” She turns then.

Behind her is a rack bearing rows and rows of keys. She selects one and hands it to me.

“Here,” she says. “This is the one you want, I think.”

“Yes,” I say. I take the small key carefully in my large hand and study it for a moment. It’s an insignificant thing, a sliver of white plastic. “Thank you.”

I turn and follow the woman’s directions to the apartment which fits the key. My new apartment. I insert the key into the lock and step inside. I close the door; I sit on the bamboo sofa, I rest my head back for a moment.

The apartment is small for me but it’s the one I wanted. It still smells of her, of Jazri. As long as I live she will still be alive in my thoughts and remembrances. I try to hold on to that as I unpack my luggage.

At last I sit once more. I turn to a book I have already acquired from the institute's electronic library. It's a giant history of humanity.

I start to read. There is still so much more I have to learn.

END

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Elinor Caiman Sands

Elinor Caiman Sands is writing science fiction and fantasy.