A little girl finds a piece of home on an alien planet.
|“Mommy, they’re outside the window again.”
Lucy leaned against the door of her parents’ bedroom, her blue eyes looking forlorn in the dim yellow light spreading from the globe above the bed. Behind her, the darkness crept up her spine with chilly fingers, raising goose bumps which had nothing to do with the endless cold outside.
“Oh, sweetie,” Mother said, looking up from the computer on her lap. “You know there’s no one outside. It’s just those crystals we told you about! They don’t even know you’re there.”
“Well, of course they move,” added Father, setting aside a textbook with pictures of splotches he told Lucy were bac-ter-i-a. He patted the bed between himself and Mother. “Come on up.”
Lucy bounded up onto the bed and flounced into the comforter, trying to hide her face as Father played hide-and-seek with her. Peals of laughter escaped the mound of synthetic wool as Father’s hands quested for the six-year-old. Mother set aside her computer and joined in until Lucy lay breathless, and ready to slumber.
As she lay drifting, she could hear Mother and Father begin one of the adult conversations she could only vaguely understand.
“I finished the spectrometer series today,” said Mother.
“Oh? So what are the newest insights into this planet’s lithosphere? Some new process for liberating free oxygen?”
Mother sighed. “Sorry to disappoint the biologist in you, but no such luck. I did find something strange, though.”
Lucy saw the computer resume its place on Mother’s lap.
“Trace amounts copper, iron, zinc, sodium, potassium, and molybdenum. If we keep searching, I think we’ll find more trace elements like these.”
Beneath the covers, Lucy tried to mouth the word “molybdenum.”
“Well, that’s not surprising. Doesn’t nearly all atmospheric moisture come from the southern geysers? The ice crystals are going to be heavy with the stuff.”
“That doesn’t explain their strange behavior. Did you see the formations that grew out of the roof?”
“I did. They almost look like biological constructs. Hey, maybe I should be looking at your snow for life signs! It’ll be more than I’ve found so far.”
“You know it’s good news if you don’t find life here. The colony will be able to do an unrestricted terraform.”
“I know, but this planet’s been so damn boring so far.”
Lucy pulled the comforter from her face.
“You said a bad word, Daddy.”
Father ruffled her hair, mussing it until it covered her eyes.
“I sure did. Sorry, Lucy.”
“Mommy, Daddy, when can we go home?”
“Oh, Lucy. You know it will be while,” replied Mother. “We have to make sure this planet is safe so other people can come!”
“It’s so cold all the time! When’s spring?”
“Not until your ninth birthday,” muttered Father.
“Nothing. Go to sleep, honey.”
“I miss Lady.”
“I do too, Lucy,” said Mother.
“I wish we could bring her.”
“I told you, there’s no grass for her to eat. And there was no room for a horse on the starship, Lucy.”
Lucy began drifting again.
Distantly, she heard her Mother speak.
“I don’t want our daughter to grow up here.”
“She won’t. This planet’s atmosphere and lithosphere are as simple as they come. You’ll have it figured out before the year is out. As for me, the biosphere is nonexistent. I have all life forms narrowed down to a few thousand symbionts, some edible vegetation, and three humanoids. Right here in this box.” He thumped the wall behind the bed.
Lucy fell asleep and dreamed.
She left the habitat behind and was on a green field with trees waving gently in the breeze. Lady was there, a tan and mustard-colored pony. She was the gentlest animal Lucy had ever met, and carried her to any place Lucy could imagine. Tonight, she dreamed castles of ice, standing on craggy mountain ledges. Lady galloped through the magnificent hallways of glittering walls and vestibules, racing up the transparent towers which sparkled and refracted the sun, and trotted along battlements like a sentry. All the while, Lucy sat upon her back and screamed in delight as the wind tore at her hair.
A pale suggestion of a sun pushed fruitlessly through the murky clouds. The sky threatened to shed more snow upon the habitat, but held off for the time being.
Lucy stared out the window at the endless white drifts, trying to spot what she had seen moving the past three nights. But there was nothing, not even markings in the snow. She turned back to her breakfast of sliced cantaloupe and watermelon, grown in the habitat’s hydroponics pod.
Mother was at her machines again, looking through a silver tube at something very small. Father was outside digging in the snow. He was looking for bac-te-ri-a.
Mother turned from her machine and smiled at Lucy.
“Lucy, do you want to see something neat?”
Lucy grinned and nodded.
“Come, and look in here.”
Lucy ran over and was lifted up until her eye just reached the silver tube.
She saw something that looked like a snowflake with rainbows inside. As she watched, the snowflake changed, and was somehow different. The colors changed too, going in different directions. As she continued to watch, the snowflake changed again.
“That’s one of the snowflakes from outside, Lucy.”
“Why’s it keep changing like that?”
Mother lowered Lucy to the floor.
“I don’t know, sweetie. I’m trying to find out. It’s really strange what the snowflakes do here.”
“Like those crystal people outside?”
“Now, Lucy. I told you, there are no crystal people. The snowflakes sometimes clump together into large objects. And when they change together, they seem to move. They’re not really alive, Lucy.”
Lucy pursed her lips, eyeing the microscope with suspicion.
“Can I play outside, Mommy?”
“Okay, Lucy, but remember, always keep the habitat in sight. And if the white-out comes, just follow your beeper back, okay?”
Lucy checked her wrist for the beeper, which would guide her back home. It was a tiny black bracelet with a small screen and blinking LED. She ran for her parka.
Outside, Lucy turned in a complete circle. Even in the dim light, the snow sparkled like iridescent jewelry. It shimmered and seemed to move around her. Her footsteps vanished as she walked, and she made sure to keep the habitat in sight.
Lucy turned her attention to a smaller, lumpier snowdrift a few feet away. There was nothing to look at but snow and the habitat, and Lucy found herself thinking of Earth, as she usually did.
Right before her eyes, the snowdrift shimmered, became fuzzy, and then suddenly it solidified into a clear cube-shaped structure. Lucy almost fell down in astonishment. She recognized the cube – it was a perfect model of the habitat! She turned and ran.
“Mommy! Mommy!” Lucy burst through the door. “The crystal people made a habitat!”
Startled, Mother almost dropped a sample she was putting into a machine.
“What do you mean, sweetie?”
She grabbed her parka as Lucy fairly dragged her out the door.
“It’s right here! Right . . .”
The cube was gone, and the snowdrift with it. Lucy cast her gaze around in frustration, trying to find the ice structure.
“Lucy . . .”
“It was right here, Mommy!”
“I believe you! Look, sweetie, I told you the snow behaves like this. It makes shapes, kind of like your daddy’s printer.”
“It was the crystal people, Mommy.”
Mother took her hand.
“Come on inside, where it’s warm.”
The smells of eggplant and pasta cooking on the stove filled the habitat with cheer and appetites.The wind beat against the habitat’s walls, as if trying to join the trio.
Lucy stared out into the darkness, straining to see where no light penetrated. She thought something stared back, but she couldn’t be sure.
Father’s voice brought her to the table, where Mother was already setting up.
“I wish I could cook eggplant the way you do,” said Mother. “It’s one of those things . . .”
“I grew up with this dish,” Father replied. “Don’t worry. You know I can’t cook much else.”
As the three began to eat, Father spoke around mouthfuls.
“You know, I’ve been thinking. We’ve been looking in the wrong places for life.”
“How do you mean? This region has the highest probability for lifeforms.”
“I mean, we are proceeding from our own premises of what a biosphere should be. We’re looking for chloroplasts, or some other mechanism for converting the oxygen we see here. But maybe . . .”
Father trailed off, and his fork lay still.
“Why does life have to conform to what we know on Earth? For all we know, your active snow crystals could be responsible for all of the strange chemistry we see here. It might not be life the way we know it, but it could explain a lot.”
Mother looked doubtful. “You’re the biologist. But are you really ready to tell the Academy of Sciences that my crystals are alive?”
Lucy listened with intense interest at the idea of living ice crystals.
Father shook his head.
“There’s a lot more study that needs to be done. Years of research, more time than we have here.” He looked disappointed.
Lucy felt sorry for him. She always wanted father to be happy, especially since he had gotten Lady for her.
Later, she thought about how much she missed Lady as she lay on her bed in the light of the LED glowing near the light switch.
That night she dreamed of Lady again.
This time the pony came trotting up to her through a snowdrift, clouds of white puffing from her nostrils. Lady looked down at Lucy, and her eyes shone forth with the light of a million silver suns.
Lucy awoke and sat up. She looked out the window into the darkness. At first, she saw nothing. Then moving shadows, like snowdrifts being created and destroyed at a rapid rate. She saw the vague glow of sparkling light among them, like fireflies.
Lucy got out of her bed and pulled her parka from its hook on the wall, leaving the beeper behind. She went to the door and opened it, letting loose snowflakes blow in. The wind was rising, and with it, the snow.
A whiteout was coming.
She stepped out, and saw little snowdrifts, like the one earlier that day which showed her the habitat. But this time there were ten of them. As she watched, she saw her own face appear in one, etched in ice in meticulous detail. Her expression was one of wonder and surprise, the expression she had when she first saw the habitat sculpture. Then she saw other faces, Mother’s, Father’s. She saw Mother’s microscope appear, a crystal tube with attachments. She saw Father’s coring tool. Then the snowdrifts moved together, and formed one big drift. It glowed with bluish white light deep within.
The voice which came from inside was Mother’s. Lucy had forgotten to close the door.
“Lucy, did you open the door?”
The snowdrift rose, becoming something huge. A head, a tail, flanks, withers, legs, and hooves. A pony.
Lucy’s heart leapt.
It was Lady!
Only different. Instead of tan and mustard, Lady glittered like a million jewels. She turned her head and looked at Lucy, a living sculpture in silvery splendor.
Mother’s voice had become frantic.
Lucy looked back, but the rising snowfall had hidden the habitat from view.
Lady tossed her head and snorted, white puffs emanating like incandescent smoke from her nostrils. She kneeled.
Lucy hesitated only for an instant, then climbed upon her back.
“Lucy! Where are you? Come back here, now!”
It was Father. Lucy could hear him kicking aside the snow which had built up in front of the door.
Lady tossed her head once more, and with a bound, bore Lucy away into the eternal winter.
Word Count: 1989