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BEAUTIFUL SILVER EARTH
By Marian Powell
©2013 by author

Space junk!  Airless vacuums!  All three of our parents are airless vacuums filled with space junk!  They say they’re going to kill Pixie.  It’s all because Captain died and that’s not fair! It wasn’t her fault.  If they kill her, that’ll be a solar flare I’ll never forgive.

I’ve worked out this great plan.  A ping startled Captain and made him trip and fall.  So I’ll go after the ping.  Space junk hitting us makes the ping sound.  Sometimes the dent is pretty big.  I’m hoping this one did a really huge amount of damage.  I’ll fix it and then they’ll owe me.  I’ll tell them that all I want is for them to let Pixie live. 

No point asking if I can do the repair.  They’ll say I can’t go out alone because I’m too young.

Too young!  I’m older than the brats.  I’m almost twelve!

Instead, I tried being clever.  “Can I go with you when you fix the ping?” I asked Unkybruce.

The three of them, Unkybruce, Auntymom and Unkytree looked at each other.

“We’re thinking of letting this one go.” Unkytree said.  “Over the past twelve years, there have been many such hits and none were serious.”

“That’s right, Dimitri,” Auntymom said.  “Each time someone suits up and goes outside, it wastes resources.  Bruce, do you agree?”

Unkybruce said, “Yes.  And now, Children, the death of Captain means we have serious things to talk about. Run along and play.”   

What airless vacuums filled with space junk they are!  While the three of them sat down around the kitchen table talking all serious and worried, I signaled the brats to follow me to Control Center .

Getting to Control Center is so weird, it’s half the fun. You walk down the hall with normal gravity, go through the special doors and suddenly, you’re floating in no gravity or Zero-G as our parents like to call it.  Not only can you swim through the air, if you drop something it floats instead of smashing.

Best of all, you can look at the earth, beautiful silver earth.  No, it’s beyond beautiful. I can’t think of any words to describe the great silvery ball shining and sparkling in the light of the sun. My real parents live there though Auntymom always looks sad when I ask about them.

See, years before I was born, they learned a big asteroid would hit the earth.  They started work on Habitat.  That’s this place.  Then they found it would just be a close pass so it would miss the earth. 

They still finished Habitat, but for research and to be a place for observers to watch the asteroid not hit the earth.  Astronauts, cosmonauts, journalists, tourists – I love saying that list.  I wish I knew what the words meant, really.  All I know is Auntymom and Unkybruce are astronauts.  Unkytree is a cosmonaut.

Habitat had a garden and chickens and one goat and me.  The goat was going to have twins and be the first birth in space.  I was already born.  The idea was to just bring a baby up for a week or so and then return me to earth, proving it was safe. 

With two days to go, it was realized the asteroid was going to maybe hit after all.  Nearly everyone went back to earth.  That never made sense to me.  Why not stay up here where it’s safe?  The answer is that NASA ordered everyone to come back to earth right away while it was safe to land. 

So my mother went back with the rest.  It’s complicated. Auntymom and Bruce and Dimitri stayed, talked my mother into leaving me.  She wanted to go rejoin my father in a shelter and then come back for me when it was over.  Only the asteroid crash messed up communications.  No one on earth has been heard from since that day.

I remember a time when I was very little when my parents came to Control Center every day to look at earth. They said they were waiting for the silver to go away. They said they were looking for it to change back to green and blue and brown. 

After some time, they slowly stopped coming to Control Center because nothing ever changed.  All that is ancient history and not important.  I don’t know why I’m thinking about it now.

“We have to talk,” I said to Hope and Olga, otherwise known as the brats.  They’re younger than me and Auntymom is their real mom.  I even sort of remember them being born, I think.

“Why do we have to talk?” Hope asked.

I glared at her.  She likes to argue.

“This is important.  I have to go outside and fix the ping.  And then I can say, in return for my work, they have to not kill Pixie.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Hope said.  “We’re doomed.  I’ve heard them talking.  We’re running out of food and we can’t go back to earth, so we’re all going to die.  There’s no hope.”

“If there’s no hope,” I answered her, “Then you don’t exist and if you don’t exist then you didn’t hear anything and we’re not doomed.”

Olga giggled.  Hope fell silent and I knew she was trying to think of a good answer so I hurried on before she could speak, “So, Brats, I need your help to go outside.”

“Stop calling us brats or we won’t help you,” Hope answered.

“Yeah,” Olga agreed.

So I made a deal with the brats.  Excuse me, my precious little sisters.   With their help, I’m going outside.  The brats, I mean my sisters, have never been out.  They’re too small.   I’ve been outside twice since I got big enough to wear a suit.  I went once with Auntymom and once with Unkybruce to make repairs on pings.

None of this matters now.  The non-brats, my much younger friends, are helping prepare the airlock and helping me get my suit on.  Our parents are so airless.  They don’t seem to realize we’ve played around the airlock and the shuttle all our lives.  So getting me outside is easy.  

                             *

And now I’m outside!  It’s so immense!  In every direction!    I’ve got no words for seeing the moon and the stars and the gigantic earth all swirling silver with just little touches of blue and brown. I could spend forever just staring, but I have a job to do.  I have to find the ping that caused all the trouble.

It was a ping that startled Captain into breaking his neck.  Unkybruce was jogging in the hall. Captain suddenly took off after him and next thing the ping hit the ceiling and he jumped, hit the wall and dropped dead.  They say he was old and his bones were brittle and maybe his heart gave out as well.

Anyway, I’m going to fix everything.  So I pull my attention away from staring at a thin little line of brown that spoils the silver swirls of earth. I move carefully along the side of the Habitat.  That’s sounds so formal it’s space junk, but our nicknames don’t sound right under the stars and in front of the earth.  

The earth is so awesome, I don’t understand why our parents say looking at it makes them sad. 

I don’t know why I’m rambling like this.  I have a job to do; a job I’ve chosen.  It’s just that, well, space is awfully, awfully big and I’ve never been outside alone before.

I have to focus on finding the ping.  And I see it!  Old dents everywhere but I see one that looks new.  I’ll bet that’s it.  Only one problem.  It’s just out of reach.  My lifeline isn’t that long. 

While I’m thinking, my suit radio comes to life with Unkybruce telling me to get back inside right now, or else.

No way, not in an earth year, am I going back without finishing what I came out to do.  Luckily, there’s an easy answer.  Namely, disconnect the lifeline from my suit.  I know.  I know.  I’ve been told that’s the most absolute no-no, mustn’t do, in the entire universe.  Must never, ever disconnect the lifeline.

But I’m not stupid.  I take it off my suit and I very carefully fasten it to the last rung it can reach.  And I’m also responsible.  I radio back what I’m doing.

You should hear our parents!  Auntymom says Unkybruce is suiting up.  He’s coming out.  So I have to hurry.  Once again, proof my parents are completely airless.  I’m safe so long as I hold onto the rungs.  First time I came out, it was explained to me that the space station is covered with rungs and their sole purpose is to be handholds when repairs have to be made.  So with rungs, who needs a lifeline?

So I crawl until I reach the ping and it’s nothing, a small dent with no repair needed.  Space junk!  I don’t know if this is good enough to save Pixie.  I mean, I haven’t really done anything useful and I’m going to be in big, big, big trouble for coming out and unhooking my lifeline. 

I look at where the dent is and I don’t like it.  It’s right on the edge of a hatch.  I search my memory.  I think this must be the hatch that the shuttle would exit by if we ever went back to earth.  I wonder if it’s important that it’s got a dent in it. 

I gotta get back before Unkybruce gets outside.  So I take a last look at the magnificent swirling ball that is the earth and it isn’t there!

It’s gone!  The earth is gone!  I mean, it’s still there but it’s no longer silver.  There’s this big brown splotch just coming into view as it turns.  And now I see a big blue spot.  The earth’s no longer silver.  It’s breaking up.  It’s been ruined!

This is unbelievable.   I try to tell my parents but I’m so excited my voice squeaks and Auntymom talks all worried asking me what’s wrong.  I tell her nothing’s wrong but something’s weird.  I start to say the earth’s no longer silver and then I realize in my excitement, I let go of the rung.  I reach for it.  I can’t reach it.  I’m floating away from it and the space station.

I don’t mean to yell but I can’t get back.  I kick. Out here there’s nothing to kick against.  I try and try but I’m drifting further.  Talk about a solar flare!  No, this is beyond a flare.  This is a coronal mass ejection.  No, this is beyond even that.  This is an asteroid hitting the earth.

Sorry about the obscenity, but that’s how I feel.  I’m loose and I can’t get back.  I stare down at the earth, at the big patches of ugly blue and ugly brown and wish with all my being it had all stayed silver.   I wouldn’t have let go if I hadn’t been so surprised at all the ugly color.

Auntymom says Unkybruce is on his way and for me not to struggle as I’ll use up my air.  I turn and see him climbing out the airlock and then making his way rung by rung.  He’s awfully slow.   The feeling in the pit of my stomach is truly like an asteroid hitting the earth.

Hanging there, not able to do anything to save myself, waiting to be rescued, the old stories suddenly make sense.  About how the asteroid hit the earth and us up here in the space station. 

I’ve always known the story but I never understood the way our parents talk about it.  Now I know the feeling.   I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say what it’s like to be watching myself slowly slipping away, knowing Unkybruce has to reach me before I run out of air.  What I’m feeling now must be what they felt about the earth getting covered in clouds.

At least these thoughts are distracting.  They fill the time until Unkybruce almost reaches me.  I say almost because hanging onto the rung nearest me, he still can’t reach me.  So he kicks off and got close enough I could clutch his arm. Nothing ever felt so good as feeling I was safe.  His lifeline reeled us both in like a fish. Whatever that means.  It’s just one of their weird expressions.

Actually it’s Auntymom and Unkytree all suited up who pull us in by UnkyBruce’s lifeline.

I’ll have to admit, I think, finally reaching the airlock and being grabbed and hugged was the greatest moment of my life.  Unkybruce went back out after I explained about the dent.  When he came back, he said all serious like, “You’ve done us an incredible favor.  We were wrong to let the ping go.  It’s been too many years with nothing happening and we’ve become careless.  That dent would have been a disaster and if it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t have known it.”

Right as he said that, Pixie bounded up and poked me with her head and I started yelling at them.  “I did it for Pixie!  You mustn’t kill her!  She didn’t do anything to make Captain die.  Please don’t kill her.”

My sisters joined me in begging.  Unkytree took them out of the room, talking softly to them.  There was a real awkward silence.  Then Auntymom put her arms around me.

“Bruce.  Leave us.”  He left quickly, looking very uncomfortable.

In a very gentle voice she said, “We all love Pixie.  She’s so cute.  But we can’t keep her without the Captain.”

“But it wasn’t her fault!”

“I know.  That’s why it’s so sad.  You see, Pixie’s mother gives the milk we need to live on since our supplies are running so low.  Without Captain, Pixie will never have her own babies and will never give milk.  She’s just a pet we can’t afford to keep feeding.  We’re running out of food even though we stretched the supplies as far as we could with the garden and the milk.  And while the goats and chickens eat our scraps, it’s not enough.  Already, Pepper is giving less milk than she used to and it’s because of her diet.

“We had plenty of food for some years because the station was set up for so many to live on it.  We three agreed we’re not going back until the earth’s no longer silver, but we’re running out of food and everything.”

I stared at her, finally managed to blurt out, “The earth’s no longer silver.”

Well, that created a real solar flare of excitement when I described what I’d seen.  We all rushed to Control Center and floated to the observation window.

“What are we going to do?”  I asked when the excited talk finally died down and we all went back to our quarters.  I looked at Auntymom.  She always has answers.  I was really curious to see what she would say. 

All she said was, “We have to talk it over.  But don’t you worry.”

Her last words were spoken in a very bright tone of voice that somehow made me feel scared.  I had a feeling she was about to tell me to run along and play, so I asked the first thing I could think of,

“Are we going back to the earth?”

Big silence.  All three of my parents exchanged glances and finally Unkybruce said, “Run along now.  We have to talk.”

While our parents were talking, I started thinking about the earth.  My mother and father are there.  That’s when I got a great idea.  Why not return to earth right now?   See, there’s the shuttle.  The brats and I have played in it since we could crawl. I know how to fly it.  I could take Pixie and go find my parents on earth.

I’d need a crew so I told the brats.  Hope liked the idea.  Olga did at first but then, being a baby, she ran and told her daddy, Dimitri.

I thought there’d be a really, really, really major solar flare, but something weird happened.  They said they’d about decided we’d all go back but meanwhile we have to be patient.

Now they’ve got the computer running, spitting out all sorts of incomprehensible stuff.  The three of them are saying things that don’t make sense like that Kennedy might be under water so we should land at Edwards in the desert.  Huh?  They say landing on earth will be really, really complicated but it’s time to do it.  We cannot stay here in Habitat.

Every time I ask, I get told you have to do everything exactly right.  There’s no margin for error. 

And that’s space junky.  It means that if I’d simply taken off in the shuttle, I’d have gotten me and Pixie killed. I mean, here I thought I knew everything and I didn’t.  This is way beyond a ping.  This is at least a solar flare.

I thought I was smarter than my parents and you know what?  I’m not.  They’re not airless vacuums filled with space junk.  I actually have things I still can learn from them. Can you believe it?  I don’t know everything. 

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