Mira knew she was in trouble the second the “New Message” icon appeared. Only official messages were sent in this manner.
“Frag!” she swore.
Mira’s holo-plaid nail hovered over the button. 225,000 miles away, her Remote Control Vehicle paused, cement hose in grapple, and awaiting further commands. The other RCVs blew liquid cement into forms, rebuilding the moon’s mass.
She took a breath and pressed. The icon grew into the 3D text of “Work Status Message”.
“Dear [Mira], CyoCom is grateful to our dedicated employees for doing what’s possible, remotely. You have been chosen for an on-site Lunar Restoration Project. You will be given departure details in a separate message. Please congratulate yourself on your contribution to CyoCom, and to humanity.” A garbled list of lawyer babble sped over the screen until it vanished.
Mira was stunned. She had been selected. She had dreamed of going to space and this was her chance. Why then, did she have such a bad feeling?
Before she could consider further, the general alarm sounded. “INCOMING GEOLOGICAL EVENT” played across her screen in red.
“Frag,” she swore again, holstered the controller, and climbed out of her uncomfortable work chair. Her 25-year-old back ached from the increasing gravity, but she had no time to focus on that. She dashed to pull the shutters, choking off the orange light from outside.
The alarms frightened her robots, both rescues. -1- a drone scavenged from wreckage, hovered up at the ceiling and chirped anxious beeps. Its patchwork body rocked like an unstable top.
-0-, a rectangular-bodied service bot’s tracks clicked on the bare cement floor. Its malfunctioning chip repeated “Howdy!” as it whirred around her.
The floor rumbled.
“Seek shelter!” she commanded her nervous bots.
Objects vibrated off perches as she crawled towards her closet bunker. Each room in the egg-shaped building (The Orphanage, as she called it), came with an escape bunker, a CyoCom company perk. She pushed herself to safety through its doors.
-1- scraped around the corner and dove into the closet, -0- right after. She slammed the doors closed and curled up on the floor with her bots until it was over.
The shaking subsided enough for Mira to sit up and project her screen. The transport would pick her up at 0300, sunup, now that Earth spun so fast. CyoCom kept with the 24-hour clock, despite the 6-hour solar daytime, making a “day” out of nearly two.
She rehydrated food that never looked like the package and projected the cockpit of her favorite game. She initiated the liftoff sequence and brown gave way to black. Atop her short, pink hair, the headset read her body language and the movement of her grey eyes to control the ship. Once close to an asteroid, she held the button to charge lasers. When the gauge’s needle was a millimeter from the red zone, she let go. Mira altered the laser beam, lassoed the spinning rock, countering the rotation. Powering the coils to keep pressure, she towed it back. Her points chimed up, extra for precision, difficulty level, and beating the last player’s record (herself). With these, she could afford the new gaming chair that mimicked 0 Gs. Level 3478 began.
She fell asleep in an old blanket, surrounded by bots.
She awoke to the sound of an alarmed -1-.
Visitor, its beeps indicated.
Visitor? Who could possibly be visiting at 0300?
The transport! Mira bolted upright, barely registering the tremors had stopped. She’d missed sunup in the darkness of the bunker.
-0- hummed loudly, having been overturned. “Howdy! Howdy!” It used one of its hidden swiss-army appendages to right itself.
Mira felt the crunch of broken debris underfoot and looked down at her cutoff jumpsuit in dismay. There was no time to change. Hastily, she grabbed a sheer overdress.
She glanced at the security scanner at the left of the door. No weapons. She opened the door.
“Mira Pushevnik?” the man asked. “Transport to the Training Center.” Through the forcescreen she could see the official double swoop of the CyoCom logo on his mask and jacket.
-0- activated its vacuum attachment and inhaled rubble as it greeted everything like a cowboy. -1- landed on her shoulder.
“No drones or service bots permitted,” the driver shouted over the noise.
“They’ve had their updates! No viruses or malware! I have their certs right here!” Mira said in a wobbly voice.
He shook his head sternly. “Not permitted.”
Her heart thudded and she watched herself from afar.
“Stay,” she commanded her robots, holding back waves of sorrow.
-1- sadly complied and flew off somewhere behind her.
“Let me grab my stuff,” she mumbled and clipped her bag on. Mira donned her SCBA-mini and stepped into the oxygen-poor atmosphere. She inhaled canned air tinged with the sour everything-icide from the mask. As she gulped, she drank in her surroundings. The gritty sky was tinged sepia like old photographs. The ocean, rising a little more each year, stretched to the horizon, only interrupted by the mountain top islands of the Rockies.
Mira climbed into the transport and knew -0- and -1- were scanning her from inside. “I’ll be back,” she whispered.
The transport rose and headed northwest while she watched the domed top of The Orphanage recede into the background. She closed her eyes and ignored the two silent tears.
Arriving at the CyoCom Training Center, they touched down at the foot of a staircase. The driver opened the door, revealing a pretentious pair staring at her from the top. She unsteadily picked her way up, heavy with gravity.
The woman dressed in a lab coat, smart brown bun, and square glasses, clasped her hands together tightly, as if they might try to escape while she wasn’t looking. Her hazel eyes regarded Mira with a look she guessed lab rats would be accustomed.
The short, pudgy man spoke up. “My name is Hector Kukk, attorney for CyoCom,” he said, voice muffled by mask. He repeatedly dabbed at his receding forehead and temples. “This is Dr. Jasmine Walters, xenologist for the… Europan Transition… portion of the… Lunar Restoration…” he said, struggling to breathe.
“This way,” Dr. Walters motioned for Mira to follow.
The building featured the unnatural straight edges and right angles of the 21st century, unlike the energy efficient domes she was used to.
They waited their turn through a decontamination foyer that fogged them with blue chemicals. Something beeped and the door opened, allowing entrance to a stone and marble lobby crammed with people. CyoCom employees in their blue logoed jumpsuits all seemed to be late for something, contrasting with the custodians in orange hazmat suits, straining against the flow to pick up garbage and perform decon duty. Mira wasn’t used to so many people in one place.
Hector and Dr. Walters removed their masks, Mira followed suit. The air tasted of bitter blood.
Hector bumped into a custodian, shoving the figure to the floor. “Watch where you’re going!” He growled.
Mira watched with astonished disbelief as they pulled her to step over the human towards the front desk. Mira turned back to witness the custodian fumble to their feet, collect their things, and wander off. That’s not right. Mira’s heart sank.
“We’re checking in file #35813648, Pushevnik, Mira,” Hector commanded the receptionist.
The desk official nodded.
“I have a meeting to attend,” Hector said. “Dr. Walters will take over from here. Level 2727,” he congratulated and placed a fleshy hand on her shoulder. “You really impressed us.” His oniony sweat left a cold spot as he walked away.
“Follow me to your quarters,” she instructed. The austere woman walked with the dignified posture of someone whose spine had been replaced with a 5-foot icicle. They walked down to a metal door, buzzed through, and down a hallway lined with doors.
“Your room,” she said and pointed at 404. “I’ll be back at 0500.” She walked away.
“Thanks,” Mira said sarcastically and approached the door, it slid open.
Her room was simple, like home, but with straight walls, and a shower with actual water, not chemical wash. Such luxury! A branded uniform and matching slippers hung behind the door. She hurriedly washed before the ration sensor shut the water off.
The bed faced a blank screen. She projected a cam from her apartment. -0- and -1- were sitting in front of the door, waiting for her to return. She switched on audio. “Little Geeks, I’m not gonna be home for a while, I’m sorry!”
At the sound of her voice, they became active and scanned for her location.
“I’m not there, guys, I’m at CyoCom’s Training Center,” she said feeling bad. She missed her friends. “I can’t wait to come home and see you! Be good and stay charged!”
The door beeped and Mira switched off. Dr. Walters, right on schedule, 0500. Mira opened the door.
“Have you settled in well?” the woman asked. Without waiting for a reply, turned, and marched away.
Mira sprinted to catch up and hoped they wouldn’t see any custodians on the way. Passageways later, they entered a lab. Mira gazed past computers, test equipment, and isolation booths towards a metal structure in the back that resembled a submarine. Dr. Walter spun the structure’s hatch open with a hiss.
As they entered, Mira smelled brackish water and rotten eggs. Goosebumps rose in the chill of the room. A large white sarcophagus rested in the center, alluding basic humanoid shape. Steam rolled off the iced-over faceplate. Dr. Walters used her elbow to scrape it off. Mira read the nameplate below, Edon of Europa, and peered into the darkness. A pair of eyes opened, white irises contrasting black pupils, too round to be human. Mira’s first thought was of a squid and jerked back in surprise. The eyes focused on hers and she couldn’t look away. Surrounding skin flashed in moving blue and white stripes.
“Mira, meet the specimen,” Dr. Walter introduced in a dispassionate voice. “You’ll learn to operate their ships.”
Mira broke the gaze. “I’ll be flying an alien ship?” she asked in wonder.
Dr. Walters nodded.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Edon,” Mira hollered over the pumps.
“He’s used to aqueous, icy conditions on Europa (Jupiter’s moon), so he stays contained in either this bath or his travel suit. The pressure he’s accustomed is 240 atmospheres, roughly 10 and a half pounds per square foot. You ever seen a bottom fish pulled up too quick?” Dr. Walters motioned an explosion.
Mira turned back to Edon, hoping her eyes relayed kindness.
He blinked, his skin flashed deeper blues and greens, pattern reversing.
“We’ll leave so he can change without killing us,” Dr. Walters said and laughed.
Mira watched his pupils dilate and skin erupt in jagged red stripes.
Dr. Walters wrapped her surprisingly strong fingers around Mira’s arm, pulling her out, into warmer, drier air.
As they waited in the lab, Edon’s eyes haunted Mira. She felt he was trying to communicate, and he wasn’t happy to be there.
The pumps keyed up, feeding pressure into Edon’s chamber. She heard a hiss, the hatch opened, and Edon stepped out in his travel suit. He towered two feet above Mira’s 5’4” frame. His round helmet sloshed a turbid, yellowish fluid. The bulk of his head hung like an octopus, skin now zigzagged blue lines and green dots. Two nostrils dotted the plateau above a thin, lipless line. Two arms and two legs, maybe we aren’t so different after all?
“Can he talk?” Mira whispered.
“He has a way of communicating,” she grumbled. “We’ll see if you’re able to ‘hear’ him. First, the training module.”
Edon followed slowly, each step seemed to take effort. She worried about him.
They shuffled into another room set up like the cockpit of a spaceship. Two suit docking stations, one suit attached, a control screen, and a unique console setup she had seen a million times before. It was the exact replica of the BuilderZ spaceship.
“This is a simulator of a Europan ship with an ingenious tractor beam. We need pilots. It’s why we developed the BuilderZ game. You’ve already trained how to fly. Now it’s time to do it in real life!” Dr. Walters’ eyes blazed with zealous passion. “Don’t you see? You can save our species, Mira!”
Mira stood back and tried to absorb it all. What she had believed was entertainment was an insidious training program. She wondered if she should question any other aspects of reality.
“Your BuilderZ scores show you can pick up the signals. Let’s see if you can connect,” she said in a wide Cheshire grin.
Mira slipped out of her shoes and Dr. Walters helped her into the suit. Mira pushed her feet into the stiff, cold legs. The helmet and the top half of the suit hung forward. Dr. Walters motioned to leave it unzipped, opened a cupboard, and retrieved a dark bottle. She poured a syrupy green liquid into a dosing cup and offered it to Mira.
Mira didn’t trust her. Will they treat me like the custodian if I say no?
“Drink up,” Dr. Walters insisted.
Swallowing the bittersweet liquid, she began to feel she was floating away, detaching from herself. What was that stuff?
“Now for his part,” Dr. Walters declared and turned to Edon. “Come on!” she screeched and motioned irritably.
Edon motioned for Mira to close her eyes. She did and waited. Her mind began to wander. She thought of her childhood, the night the moon exploded, the death of her parents. The chaos following the crowds to high ground when the oceans flooded. The nice lady who brought her to The Orphanage.
Darkness. Everywhere. This was not her memory. She could feel the foreignness of it, like fingers poking into her brain.
Water. Everywhere. She felt fluid against long, webbed appendages. The sensation of liquid through gills made her cough.
Others here, too. She could feel their shapes as if she were tracing their profiles, with her mind rather than fingers. Light flashed in grand explosions and small pulsated harmonies, rivaling all fireworks.
Great discussions happening. It was their way of communicating in the darkness under the ice of Europa.
The ones who lived On Top of the ice came together with those who lived Below, where Edon’s family lived. An excess of ceremonial substances lead to The Cataclysm with the obnoxious people of the little blue dot. His mother, Head Speaker, upset with the negligence of On Top, chose to send Edon, to explain what happened. Confusing images flashed too quickly to focus: A mission of peace, capture, experimentation, torture, breath withheld.
Edon wasn’t a scary monster from outer space any more than she was; their cultures were simply alien from each other. A sensation resembling sinuses clearing pushed Mira to wakefulness.
“You’ve paired!” Dr. Walters cried in triumph.
“When will Edon be able to return home?” Mira asked.
The woman become all angles. “He knows that’s impossible. He’s simply too valuable!” Dr. Walters revealed.
“But he’s dying!” Mira begged. “It wasn’t even his fault!”
Something beyond clinical detachment emptied her face. “The specimen will train the test subject the rest of the day,” she said, avoiding Mira’s eyes, speaking instead to the wall behind her. “Learn as much as possible before he expires. The next launch window is 0700, we won’t have another chance for months!” she exclaimed then hurried off.
Mira looked at Edon knowing she couldn’t let him die. His big eyes reminded her of a puppy on death row, of -0-. She closed her eyes and thought towards Edon, If I get you aboard the ship, will you make it home in time?
She opened her eyes and he nodded, skin flashing lavender bands. She bowed back in promise, hoping she could come up with a plan.
Mira closed her eyes and began the training. She was besieged with massive amounts of information: ship’s systems, controls, even a map of the universe and known inhabitations, like a map of neighborhoods. She knew everything.
She notified Dr. Walters.
The woman stormed into the room and proclaimed, “The specimen deserves a fresh bath!”
Two men entered the room and forcibly removed Edon.
“Wait! Don’t hurt him!” Mira cried out and struggled to free herself from the suit.
Dr. Walters held her back. “It’s already 1800! Better return to your room. Eat something and get good rest, you wouldn’t want to ruin your chance to be our first successful test subject, would you?”
Mira couldn’t believe her apathy. Is there another way?
Back in room 404, Mira sat in shocked silence. She couldn’t sleep and didn’t feel hungry, despite the fresh mashed root with gravy. She took two bites, but the richness gave her a stomachache. She curled up on the bed. How could she save Edon? She projected a view of the current orbiting asteroids. One caught her eye. The same type as level 2727.
Mira switched to the camera at her apartment but couldn’t find her robots. Frag, what happened to them? Mira worried. She cycled through all available camera views. Her sparse furnishings didn’t allow for hiding spots. The front door was closed, they had to be home.
The weight of it all, the shock of the day, and now her friends were missing. Mira began to cry hot, gulping tears. How could she go on?
The door beeped. Mira wiped her nose on her sleeve. It was 12 hours from launch time. Leave me alone. She dragged herself to the security panel, and glimpsed a figure dressed in the hazmat uniform of a custodian. She’d barely spent any time here, services shouldn’t be necessary yet. Confused, she opened the door.
A muffled “Howdy!” hailed from the suit.
She couldn’t believe her ears.
“-0-?!” She pulled the weightless uniform inside and heard cheery beeping. “And -1-?!” She unzipped it to reveal -1- straining to keep them both in the air.
“How did you Little Geeks get past the guards? I’m so glad to see you!” she shouted in joy and helped her friends from their clever disguise.
Once free, -1- orbited, beeping in celebration. -0- circumnavigated her feet while repeating “Howdy! Howdy!”
She sat to cuddle her friends.
“You guys gave me an idea,” she said and stood up. “I’m gonna chat with a new friend, you’ll like him.”
She laid down on the bed and closed her eyes, unsure if they could connect this far away. Edon, are you there?
A few moments later, images entered her mind, and she knew she had his attention.
Are you okay? She asked.
Metaphors flooded her consciences, reminiscent of before her robots’ arrival.
I have some friends with me now, she told him. I think we can help you!
She sent him descriptions of her idea and he collaborated until they had something that could work.
She awoke with renewed hope and programmed her bots while eating the cold food. She tapped into the wireless security channel and displayed the hallway by Edon and watched as the seemingly invisible custodian with a noisy vacuum passed everyone.
It was just before 0700 and Mira was as ready as she could be. The door beeped. She left her empty room to follow Dr. Walters. In an otherworldly blur, she was stuck with injections and biomonitor stickers, then helped into a version of Edon’s travel suit, modified for air instead of sulfuric acid. They connected her umbilical and harnesses. She held her breath as they removed her SCBA-mini, flipped the top of the suit over her head, and zipped it closed. She stared through the helmet at the cockpit she had spent years training for. This was it.
Air hissed at the back of her head, tickling her scalp. She closed her eyes. The sinus thing happened, and she connected to the ship. She felt the heartbeat of the engine as it circulated the coolant and had to keep her pulse from overrevving.
It was difficult to see the controls through the helmet, but she knew them. Mira awaited commands for the liftoff sequence.
The countdown began. Her breathing sped up and she struggled to reduce the air intake to safe levels.
The ship rocketed through Earth’s gravity. She felt the rumbling cease as she entered open space.
Within the vessel she heard a smothered “Howdy!”
She exhaled in relief. The plan had worked.
“CyoCom Control, this is Mira, I have made it through Earth’s atmosphere,” she said. She could see the scaffolding and concrete forms shining in the solar light, not quite a tenth of the old moon’s mass.
“Affirmative, Mira, CyoCom Control has you on screen. Congratulations on a successful launch,” a CyoCom employee said. “This- ah-” his voice was interrupted.
“We have a situation,” Hector snarled. She could hear Dr. Walters curse.
“What’s going on?” Mira queried.
“The specimen and travel suit are missing,” he growled.
Mira smiled. “Affirmative,” she asserted. “I’m returning Edon to his home world.”
Dr. Walters shrieked over the line, “We don’t have time for that! Earth will become inhospitable before you get back!”
“Don’t worry,” Mira replied. “I’ve been tracking an asteroid that should help to stabilize Earth. +14° 15’ 42”, see it there? Just like level 2727, I can do it.”
“You have no idea the situation you’re creating,” Hector moaned. “Do you know how many candidates we went through?”
“How many died?” Mira asked in a whisper.
“One hundred and thirty-four,” he replied, indifferent. “We can start again, but it’s expensive.”
She felt the weight of each death. “We can’t keep doing this, people aren’t disposable!” She shouted. “What’s the use of saving our species if we lose our empathy along the way? You already deceive and abuse your own people, abduct and torture ambassadors on missions of peace, what else will become acceptable?”
“You’re edging on treason,” Hector warned.
“I see the path we’re headed down,” she told him. “It’s been repeated throughout history. Have we learned nothing? You can’t see beyond your greed.”
“It’s not ‘greed’,” Dr. Walters sputtered. “It’s self-preservation! You’re risking the death of us all for one being, whose kind almost wiped us out! They should be destroyed!”
“I told you, I can grab that asteroid and do what you asked me to do!” she avowed, determined. “Then I’m taking Edon home. The sky is our neighborhood, we should treat our neighbors with respect.”
Edon removed himself from his hiding spot, along with -0- and -1-, and connected to the passenger dock.
She didn’t respond to CyoCom’s pleading threats. Instead, she followed the sensors to the asteroid, designated 83 MF4. An M-type, nickel-iron planet-saving lump. They would be in range soon.
She depressed the button to charge the lasers as they made their approach. Just as she’d done a million times in-game, she watched the gauges for overheating. It was difficult to see, not far from the red. Not yet…not yet…now!
She let go, powered up the coils, and coaxed the large rock to slow. It wrenched back, its 1200-mile mass a lot to counter. Mira tugged, then fired thrusters for extra torque. Sweat stung her eyes and she couldn’t hear above the hiss of air. She grimaced, then yanked at the space rock. Slowly, it began to drift towards the moon. She heard cheering over the forgotten live radio. The builders met the ship, attached the dolly thrusters, and eased it into place. Its iron/nickel elements easily weldable to the framework.
She could hear CyoCom Control receiving reports that the moon’s increased mass began the smallest of recoupments on Earth. They had done it.
“Howdy! Howdy!” -0- exclaimed as it drifted in the zero G’s. -1- accompanied in a chorus of happy little beeps, gyrating like a UFO.
She turned to Edon. “So which way to your home?” She could see his big eyes through the helmet and his skin flashed a pinkish hue. He pointed to the coordinates he had already set.
“Let’s go, friends,” Mira rejoiced.
Mira knew she was in trouble the second the “New Message” icon appeared. Only official messages were sent in this manner.