Jupiter hung in the sky like a big round lava lamp.
Two bands were dancing through my ceiling window, the northern band’s brown swirl invading the southern one’s creamy texture, reminding me of Mom’s morning cappuccino.
Jupiter’s golden light crowned my mother’s dark hair as she stood in my room, frowning. A flick of her hand had cut off the Jumping Joseph Band success that the walls were blaring.
Mom hated the JJ Band. They should have shut off the sound before she hopped in my room. Now the walls stayed silent, muted to a neutral gray.
A tinny residual hum rang in my eardrums.
“But, Mom! It will be my birthday!” I insisted.
She threw her multi-fingered hands up, as for cleaning up the ambient air. This was the wall scrubber’s job anyway, as the fresh lilac smell wafting through my room confirmed. A cloying stench of dead flowers, Mom had said the first time, a tribute to our diverging sensory inputs.
“No, Beth,” Mom repeated, crossing her arms to imprison her decision.
I hated it when she called me Beth, like taking a bet.
My proper name was Bethesda, a three-syllable melody on the lips of Uncle Gram. And my dolls, lined up in their pastel satin gowns on the shelf above my sleeping net, called me Betty, which was less offensive.
She uncrossed one arm to draw a circle in the air, her eight digits splayed like a fan.
“Maybe a mechanical model,” she said.
My own fingers dug into the threads of the carpet, which had morphed into a neutral white as soon as it sensed my mother’s steps approaching the room. (The walls had mindlessly continued to play my JJ Band compilation.)
This lukewarm concession did not appease me. I had received (and broken) oodles of mecha toys from Aunt Cally. I looked past Mom’s face to the ceiling window. A strong orange curve was inching its way, pushing off the other bands. I hoped it was the Red Spot. (The “Red” spot was more like a dull orange, egg-shaped smudge, but I didn’t get to choose the name.)
According to Ganymede’s calendar, I was 565 years old. Old enough to know what I wanted!
“Why can’t I have a real cat?” I asked. “I saw one on the news.”
The carpet shivered under me, broadcasting waves of apprehension about cat-droppings to the Domo unit. Mom felt it, too. A smile displaced her frown.
“Even the carpet agrees,” she said. “Think of the transport, the food, the vaccines, the maintenance…”
My fine-tuned ear detected the drag in her throat, a tiny spark of regret hovering under the radar.
“But I’m lonely, and you work all sort of hours!”
Mom shrugged under the widening strip of orange.
“You have your dolls.”
I pursed my lips, so tight you can’t see them.
Dolls, even the more expensive coming from Earth, had limited conversation skills, barely past a how-do-you-do, Betty? And it’s a nice day outside!
That last reply was proof of the total goof-headiness of ignorant toy designers. On Ganymede, weather in our extra thin atmosphere ranged from soft particle winds to mighty Jovian magnetic storms, with a mean temperature of one hundred Kelvin degrees and a mean way of killing you if you got outside without a vacuum suit.
As we sat for supper, me still fuming inside from her refusal, a shrill magnetic alarm rose from our Domo unit.
All light and heat from the walls flickered off. The dull Zen music they had been playing dwindled to silence. The carpet’s strands flopped down (like a wind-swept prairie, Mom had said once).
Mom sighed. She had planned to watch a drama tonight. Living close to a giant spinning lava lamp meant Jupiter’s powerful magnetic fields played havoc with electronic circuits.
All children knew the drill. I hurried to my room and slipped inside my insulated overalls sporting a Hammer Goddess figure (my favorite heroine), and put on my gloves. The room temperature was falling fast despite the layers of foam lining the ceiling.
Blue flashes lit my room. I grabbed my window’s handles and pressed my face against the bioglass.
Giant blue auroras painted the sky around the fragmented outline of Exec Tower. The tower looked like a pointed nose jutting up from Gany City, its patchwork face pierced with a thousand eyes.
Two of those eyes belonged to our tiny apartment near the face’s perimeter.
Aunt Cally told me that only the cream of the cream (one of her funny coffee expressions) lived on Exec Tower, with side windows looking over endless ice plains. Aunt Cally worked as an office helper for the execs and Dominus, Gany-City’s artificial mind watching over all Domos.
But what help a mere ten-digit adult could give I had no idea.
My eleventh birthday in Old-Earth years coincided with a Spot day. (For all its hugeness, Jupiter rotated fast — less than ten hours — but its turbulent clouds liked to play. The Spot, a stable storm, moved counterclockwise in six standard days, so its period makes one of our weeks.)
The Spot crossing the disk of Jupiter overhead signaled a day of pause for the human workers.
The robots did not mind because they had none.
The tower executives did not mind either, because they had too much of it. They were “not-all-there”, as Uncle Gram said, as they were linked to the vaster mind of Dominus.
Technically, I had no father, since Mom gave birth to me by medic-assist. But I had more than enough uncles and aunts to make up for this absence.
On my birthday, Mom’s coworkers, ice-diggers and core-digger remote pilots, crowded our living room, spilling in the hallway. Their eight-digit hands maneuvered with ease the complex handles of ice- and core-digging machines. All functioned with good-ol’ analog systems and wires and crude radio transmissions, a must with the constant magnetic lashings from the Big Lava Lamp.
My birthday banquet featured braised salmon, lots of biscuits and my favorite pudding.
As Mom was reaching for a serving spoon, the large bowl of vanilla pudding shivered. A low rumble rose, as the ground shook. Everyone fell silent as Ganymede’s ice cover shifted.
Ice quakes produced tremendous energy jolts, captured by cables plunging into Ganymede’s entrails. So, when the tremors died away, Uncle Gram, a cable-digger remote pilot, lifted his punch glass.
“To Mother Ice!” he toasted, before draining his glass.
“Movement equals energy,” Aunt Cally recited, beaming with pride.
Everyone followed suit, except Mom who looked at her pudding bowl. A skilled ice-digger pilot, she worked for Gany City Water Management. Every seism meant that she would have to repair the kilometers-long water pipes siphoning the under-ice ocean.
Uncle Gram swirled his long glass of champagne, slowly so the weak gravity wouldn’t upset the liquid. He was back from his annual vacations on Europa, and had brought lots of shiny snippets he distributed around. His face was lined like Old Mars, with reddish-brown ridges and canyons circling around his cerulean eyes.
Said cerulean eyes locked on me, as I was finishing a chocolate-chips cookie. (Real chocolate, which must have dug a hole in Mom’s budget.) Crumbs falling on the carpet were carried by slow undulations to a disposal chute near the wall. The carpet was busy, as most of Mom’s colleagues had departed for more adult pastimes. Aunt Cally who didn’t have many friends, had stayed.
“So, Bethesda,” Uncle Gram said. “Have you been good while I was away?”
Every cell of my body echoed my resounding, “Yes, Uncle!” He had used my full name; my heart could have melted Ganymede’s ice.
He presented me with a red-wrapped parcel.
I had not enough of ten fingers to unwrap my present. The gauze and padding kept shifting, the ribbon reforming its bows until I found the correct speed and gestures to open it.
It was a golden half-globe, like a salad bowl turned over, topped with three faceted eyes sparkling like dark amethysts. I took the toy in my hands, feeling the serrated edge along the rim. The domed surface was hard as metal, but underneath, the soft underbelly showed ridges and folds.
“Mind the legs”, Uncle Gram said. “That thing was just unfrozen yesterday.”
The serrated edge was moving: hundreds of tiny crochets searching purchase on my fingers. Excited, I crossed to my room and put down my new gift on the carpet.
That’s when Domo went berserk.
Red letters erupted on the creamy carpet, warnings flashing as fast as the thread photocells could follow Domo’s impulse.
“Intruder alert. Alien life form detected. Sterilization recommended.”
Every warning was repeated by the walls. (Walls were stupid, but needed.)
“Oh, you old fool!” Mom exclaimed. “You didn’t tell me it was alive!”
Uncle Gram had the good grace of looking concerned as Mom flicked her fan of fingers to tone down Domo’s voice. Another flick signaled that the warning had been taken “into consideration.”
You couldn’t ignore a domestic guardian’s warning. The safety of an entire city could be in jeopardy. But “taking into consideration” was acceptable, as long as we were unharmed.
“Well, Lucy,” Uncle Gram said, “those lava lamps are all the rage on Europa and even Titan. They were gifted by those alien visitors from Sirius-B.”
“And the microbes? We could be all dead!”
Uncle raised his hands in a placating stance, each palm wide enough to support eight long fingers.
“Naaah,” he said. “You worry too much. Nobody died from having them.”
Mom wrinkled her nose, even if scrubbers would have neutered any foul odor in the room.
“And what do those… things eat?” she asked.
Another flourish of Gram’s eight-digit hand.
“You see, they don’t need food. Just a lil’ heat, a pinch of energy, and they can light up for weeks!”
I was considering the half globe sitting on the carpet. The strands were still struggling to carry the new arrival to the disposal chute. Tiny clamps dug into the carpet.
“Light up?” Mom repeated.
Just on cue, the salad bowl’s skin glowed. Everyone fell silent. It glowed first in the reds, then the orange until it settled for a yellow-white light, the eyes’ ruby tint changing to a warm red. The carpet had ceased struggling, its threads arcing away from my present.
The half-globe set in motion.
It ponderously crossed the floor then crept up the nearest wall, stopping its ascension at eye level.
“Lights off,” Gram said.
A wave from Mom confirmed the order.
Obediently, the walls and ceiling dimmed their light. The warm golden glow of the lamp competed with the light from Jupiter overhead.
I was bursting inside, like the day I aced all the tests to qualify for additional fingers. (I would have to wait until fully grown, though.)
I could see the lines on Mom’s forehead smoothing out. She had that dreamy, faraway look, when she remembered good times from before she migrated here.
Uncle Gram was smiling, too, his eyes closed. You would say a snowstorm had smoothed over his face.
Aunt Cally stated the obvious, shaking her cloud of red curls.
“What a nice little lamp!”
“Yup!” Uncle Gram said. “It’s supposed to respond to your moods,” he said, looking at my mother.
“My mood would be to pound your stupid head against the wall to check which would be the hardest,” Mom said.
But she was smiling as she said it.
My lava lamp had acclimated itself.
After the birthday, Mom and uncle Gram adjusted Domo to ignore our new guest’s organic presence. No known pathogens had been detected on its golden shell. As for the inner flora, the organism was remarkably self-contained.
The lamp did not poop on the floor, to the huge relief of the carpet whose color returned to an earthy beige.
The lamp’s output varied, following my moods or the music played by the walls.
How it could sense moods I didn’t know. Uncle Gram talked about body heat and pheromones and limbic systems and this and that.
Aunt Cally talked about spiritual waves and Zen.
All was well on Gany City.
For a time.
The first disquieting sign was the disappearance of my lamp. One evening the salad bowl was glowing over my net, the next morning it was gone.
You couldn’t hide in a small apartment like ours. Contrary to a ton of old stories, ventilating conducts were too narrow, even for a salad-bowl lava lamp with tiny legs.
I felt down, unhappy. The uniform lightning from the (stupid, inattentive) wall was not the same.
My dolls’ boring conversations did not lift my spirits. To be honest, since the lamp shone up on my life, the dolls had receded in shadows. They were now lined on the higher ledge, assorted rainbow-like in their pastel gowns.
Uncle Gram told me pets ran away sometimes. Mom covered her face with sixteen slender fingers.
Two days later, to my relief, I found my lamp hugging the round window’s edge, its mottled shell almost undistinguishable. I wondered why it had disappeared.
Later still, before Spot Day, my left foot struck a small bump on my green carpet. You would think someone had slipped a golf ball under it, but the carpet was organically tied to the floor. You couldn’t slide a nail under it. And the floor itself was molded over the ice foundations of Gany City.
The carpet threads strained in vain to cover the mound.
The mound had grown from golf ball-sized to tennis ball-sized when Mom tripped on it.
After a long day of directing a digger under a stubborn layer of hexagonal ice to find the pesky ocean, her mood flared like a magnetic storm.
“What in the quake is that?”
She pushed herself back up with such anger that she drifted to the ceiling.
Domo could not help, as Mom’s tinkering had rendered the domestic intelligence blind to the lamp.
But she knew where to ask.
Uncle Gram bought six minutes of Dominus’ time to communicate with Europa. He couldn’t trace the guy who sold him the lamp, but he consulted with his friends there. While we waited for his buddies to come back with some answers, the carpet mound had accrued its girth to a familiar salad-bowl shape…
The carpet around it had paled from a luscious green to a dull white.
Ten days after my birthday, the carpet strands holding the half-sphere broke, one by one, revealing a dark orange shade.
I was witnessing the birth of a new lamp when I heard Mom trip and fall.
“Quaaake!” she cursed.
I rushed into the living room. Mom was tenting her scalded fingers. The carpet was absorbing the brown coffee splash, its threads carrying the (intact but empty) cup away.
Between Mom’s feet, sure enough, I recognized a small bump, like a hidden golf ball…
“Stay in my room,” she said in a stern alto voice. “I will get ahold of your uncle.”
Mom didn’t dare use the com system, not after tampering with Domo. She had to go in person. She exited the apartment and jumped to the nearest handhold. Then Mom propelled herself away, faster than she could walk.
Uncle Gram put down his useless hammer. (He was no Hammer Goddess!) Mom considered the various pieces of tools that had bent, broken, or shattered upon impact. The two of them were sweating profusely, prodding the walls to scrub harder.
Stupid walls; the powerful lemon smell they released to counter the sweat was irritating my nose.
“By Jove!” Uncle Gram panted. “This critter has the sturdiest organic shield I ever saw!”
“Can we cut the wall?”
He pivoted to face me.
“Are you out of your mind, girl?”
His voice had taken an irritated tone I had never heard from him before.
Besides being stupid, our walls were connected to Domo, which was in turn connected to Dominus. Cutting an inner wall would raise alerts and questions. (As for even touching the thick perimeter walls protecting us against frozen death, it was a big no-no.)
The last thing Mom needed was to draw the attention of the Exec Tower to her domestic worries.
A full week-long orbit later, eight lamps were variously scattered in our apartment, their shells ignoring any attempts to break them, their out-of-reach insides and/or brains ignoring any coaxing, pleading, threat, whatever.
“Uncle, do you think it’s an invasion?”
Wall-screen’s stories had invaded my imagination. Uncle Gram snorted, spilling his coffee. His Europan buddies had not talked back to him.
The carpet needed more time to absorb the coffee stains, its surface toned down to a dull gray. The adjusted Domo was unaware of its plight.
As for the walls, the anchored lamps slowed them so much I had to wait a full dorky minute to hear my favorite JJ Band song.
Our prospects were grim, as Hammer Goddess would say.
Finally, Aunt Cally spilled the beans or, in her clumsy ten-digits case, the coffee as she tripped on, yes, another rounded protrusion.
“My boss told me yesterday how funny lamps like yours were multiplying everywhere on the other worlds.”
Even if she hadn’t the nimblest fingers in Gany City, she couldn’t help noticing twelve hanging lamps dispensing their golden light around the living-room.
“Europa has declared a full quarantine,” Aunt Cally said, shivering. (The stupid walls had quit lighting up and barely kept us warm.)
She swallowed in one loud gulp the nice swirls Mom had carefully laid on her second cappuccino.
“This explains why I can’t reach my buddies!” Uncle Gram said, downing his cup.
Aunt Cally lifted her curly head to the ceiling.
“I, I think we should call up my boss,” she said.
Aunt Cally’s boss was a formidable woman, iron-haired and iron-willed, who never flinched at the words “battle ax” thrown at her by disgruntled employees.
All those formidable qualities were concealed under a chocolate pudding body that would get crushed into a chocolate puddle if she dared walk on Earth’s surface.
Big Martha waddled from room to living-room, hemming and hawing at the indifferent lamps, while Mom sat, her head hanging down like a switched-off light. Uncle Gram didn’t fare better, but he kept a lid on his emotions, his cerulean eyes gazing up at the dark face of Jupiter.
He and Mom looked like two children at fault. Under any other circumstances, the picture would have made me laugh.
Big Martha plumped herself down the sofa. When the two stopped quivering, she spoke.
“Gany City’s energy budget has declined since three weeks,” she said.
Her voice was a surprisingly cool soprano.
“I guess that would coincide with Mr. Gram Edison’s return from his vacation.”
Uncle Gram nodded, his lips pressed in a thin crack.
I had been more worried about him or Mom losing their job than any danger the lamps presented. Now, with more adults crowding the room (Big Martha had come with assistants), moving around the lamps, marking them with blotches of black paint, measuring energy fluxes and magnetic fields and shell’s photo spectroscopy), I had to reconsider.
Two cups of very well-topped cappuccinos later, Big Martha ticked off the conclusions on the stubby (but well-manicured) fingers of her left hand.
“First, I salute Ms. Calliente Almond for warning the city’s authorities of the threat.”
Aunt Cally, unused to be on the receiving end of compliments, blushed under her cloud of curls.
“Second, those living lava lamps, while bereft of hostile intention, drain too much energy from the city grid.”
Uncle Gram’s head hung lower. So much for his, “They don’t need a lot” selling point!
“Third, we suspect those lamps are part of a planned disruption of our viable colonies. Recent communications have revealed that the lamps proliferation had ravaged our sapient visitors’ own planets before they managed to put a stop to it.”
Uncle Gram sat up.
“How did they stop the lamps?” I asked.
A lopsided smile creased Big Martha’s face.
“Nuclear eradication of all contaminated areas,” she said, ticking off a finger. “Which was, young lady, my fourth point.”
Mom gaped, her cappuccino shivering. Aunt Cally let out a small gasp. Even if they were mean to us, I felt sorry for the sapient visitors. I hoped they got their people out before nuking the cities.
“Five,” Big Martha said, “the lamps sold to unsuspecting bozos (a nod to Uncle Gram who was now studying his shoes) originated from a world where they stood at the lowest rung of the food ladder. So those life forms developed a fierce passive defense, their shell incredibly resistant, while sucking sun rays, energy from landslides, quakes, natural electricity…”
“Like a thunderstorm?” I asked. “I saw those on the Knowledge Canal.”
Aunt Cally’s boss looked at an almost ripe lump on the carpet, while the technicians were muttering between themselves.
“My next point,” she said, ticking off her sixth finger, “is that the visitors, while transiting between worlds, kept the lamps on the outside hull of their vessels.”
“So, they could survive at absolute zero?” I blurted.
Uncle Gram piped in.
“In space, the mean temperature is three Kelvin degrees, Bethesda.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “The fossil radiation and yadda yadda…”
“Ahem!” Aunt Cally interrupted.
Big Martha ticked off the seventh finger of her left hand.
“According to Dominus, the City’s energy budget is tottering along, thanks to the latest magnetic storm.”
“But,” she said, ticking her last finger. “We must find a way to stop the multiplication before those critters upset the energy balance of our City in their favor.”
Two new lamps had emerged from the ailing carpet when Mom was called to the Exec tower offices.
I went with her. Aunt Cally met us at the lifts, with a reluctant Uncle Gram.
The summit of Exec tower rose a gasping forty floors over the city roofs. The transparent wall of the lift showed my pale reflection, next to Aunt Cally’s cloud of hair, dark strands swirling like Jupiter’s clouds. Mom was turned away, her arms crossed so tight her elbows were covered by white knuckles.
I pressed my nose against the insulated glass (leaving a moist oval after), taking in the long rusty cracks fleeing toward a gray horizon, crossing and re-crossing themselves like my baby drawings.
I searched down for my little round window among thousands of similar portholes, but without mapping goggles, it was no use.
Big Martha’s office was on the 39th floor. Over her floor, Aunt Cally had proudly explained in the lift, sat the com array of Gany City.
You’d think that such sensible apparatus would be kept hidden deep below ground. Except that Ganymede was made of layers of ice.
So, the heart and lungs of Gany City hovered at a lofty height, enclosed in a light metallic meshing, looking like a floating gray bubble atop a needle.
“We have sealed your apartment,” Big Martha was saying.
“But, we, my things,” Mom said, stammering.
Big Martha raised her wide palm: a screen unfolded from the desk. It was funny to recognize my X-rayed body, Uncle Gram’s long frame, Mom’s arm-crossed stance, and Aunt Cally stooped posture.
Taken while we were in the lift.
“You were all screened and found clean.”
“You screened us?” Mom said, having a great appreciation of her privacy.
“Necessary. Because those critters have spread outside your unit.”
I cringed at my birthday present called a critter. Mom uncrossed her arms.
“How many times did you go in and out while the lamps were growing inside your unit?”
A loud clap of both eight-digit hands raised another screen. I recognized the portion of corridor outside our unit. Two lumps were budding on the bare polymeric floor.
Aunt Cally gasped aloud.
“They’re spreading,” she obvious-stated.
Big Martha looked at her helper, sighed, and then showed another view of the corridor. A circle of spikes protruded from the wall abutting my room.
My birthday lamp was rooting in.
“Those little teeth at the base can cut through metal,” Big Martha said. “It will take time, but eventually they will succeed and take over Gany City.”
“We’re fortunate the critters don’t feed from our own organic electricity,” Uncle Gram mused.
“If only we could rip those lamps from the walls,” Mom said.
Martha spread her brown fan-like fingers.
“We tried,” she said. “Nada. Once they set their grip, it’s like those alligator’s teeth: no way to make them let go.”
Except by nuking them.
“So, are you, are we… (Mom paused to swallow) considering an evacuation of Gany City?”
A big lump clogged my throat. Evacuating Gany City meant leaving Ganymede, the only home I had ever known.
Uncle Gram put his fanned hand on Mom’s shoulder.
“We will find something, Lucy, I swear,” he said.
“Is there any other way besides nuking them?” Mom asked, looking sideways at me.
“If we could extract the lamps from the walls, and if we could put them in a place devoid of any form of available energy, they would die of deprivation,” she stated.
While the adults talked, I gazed at the landscape through the windows.
From this height, I could see more of the ice faults, and far away ridges, judging their relative ages by the width and color. I followed the cracks with my eyes until the moon curvature hid them, picturing their path on the other side, like a dried-out apple skin.
My eye was drawn to a big rope cutting the view. Vertical iron cables along the Tower’s hull harvested Ganymede’s powerful magnetic field, as Aunt Cally had explained.
“Movement equals energy,” she had recited at my birthday party.
And more of that energy was carried by ice cracks.
I peered at the fleeing ridges while the conversations —the one we had had before, the one occurring here— mingled in my brain.
I didn’t want to kill my birthday present. The salad-bowl lamps were not conscious of their wrongdoings. They lived; they prospered.
Their prospering would force us to leave.
And so, aimlessly looking at a crack so old it disappeared under the others, an answer rose inside me like magma spurting up a volcanic chimney.
Uncle Gram disentangled his many fingers from the hexadecimal handles. The pads at the tips of his fingers were deformed by years of use to control remote diggers.
“It’s ready,” he said.
My vac-suit hung on the communal peg, a light blue all-in-one affair with an air reserve.
“Are you sure you want to do it, Bethesda?”
I ran my fingers around the hermetic band at the base of my helmet to check for anomalies. I hadn’t been outside often, but all children of Ganymede learned to check and enter a vac-suit before the age of five, and the toddlers were trained to slither inside an emergency air bubble at the sound of an air break alarm.
“Yes, Uncle,” I said.
I lowered the helmet over my head, adding tones of orange over all the ambient colors, changing the paleness of Aunt Cally’s face, as she gripped the controls of her screen, where a single red point shone.
“After all,” I said, “they’re my birthday present.”
Mom inched closer.
“Let’s go, Beth,” she said, her numerous fingers fastening her gray helmet. “And pray the universe your fool uncle—”
I lost the rest when her helmet sealed shut.
Uncle Gram closed the airlock door behind us, his long face scrunched in a contrite expression.
I would have loved to hear the dry crackling of the ice under my boots. But the surface was so hard that my steps would not produce any sound, especially in the thin Ganymede atmosphere.
Mom and I stood on the ice, looking up at the curving wall of Gany-City.
Projectors, windows, and moving cams wove a light pattern pointing up, like those 3D grid diagrams. The exec tower pointed like an arrow to pierce Jupiter’s heart. This time, the gas giant was a dark circle blotting out the stars directly overhead.
We waited, in silence. I was afraid the plan would not work.
Mom tapped my right shoulder plate.
Here it was, a shiny spider clop-clopping towards us, ice crystals flowing away from the sturdy meshed net it was dragging. The digger stopped four meters from the wall.
Inside the meshing, a sausage-like battery bigger than my own body radiated a powerful heat.
Mom and I waited, again. The second part of The Plan had been rehearsed and refined countless times since I interrupted the adults’ conversation in Big Martha’s office.
Having been apprised of the situation, Dominus politely asked to be switched off. The last transmitted com I received was of Big Martha answering yes.
My screen went black.
The whole grid went off-line. All over Gany City, myriads of windows blinked out.
Diggers stopped digging.
Domos stopped watching.
Carpets stopped managing wastes.
Walls stopped being stupid.
(They also stopped playing music, ventilating, scrubbing, filtering and heating.)
In that state, the one-hundred Kelvin degrees drafts would batter the structures. Heat and oxygen would seep out by the tiniest unrepaired defects. I picture all citizens wrapped in their insulated suits, relocated in the big mall under the Exec Tower.
Gany City would freeze in less than a standard day.
Now, the sole energy source on all Ganymede was oozing from the heat generator in the digger’s net, plus a very faint leak from our vac-suits.
Gany City technicians had left our apartment’s door open, while closing a whole section. The quickest way out for the energy-deprived lamps would be our ceiling windows.
Mom banded her knees.
She leapt off the ice, her hammer’s long handle in hand, looking for a moment like Hammer Goddess, less the blond hair. She landed on the first row of roofs.
I followed her up. My muscles were not as strong, but I managed to grab the edge, and roll over the roof.
From my position, the city was one continuous plain rising to meet the Tower.
Mom could locate our apartment from memory, but I had no problem finding our room and living room windows. Their faint yellow glow lit Ganymede’s thin atmosphere.
We leaped toward the light. Mom was there before me.
I bent over the rim of the window.
I recognized my room’s colorless carpet, the shelf with my row of talking dolls in their muslin dresses. New lamps were hanging from the wall, dispensing their light among themselves.
Mom braced one boot on the window’s edge. As she was poised to strike, I put a hand on her arm. I looked at her, pointing at the hammer.
The tool would weight over 100 kilograms on Earth; the head was tapered to ensure a maximal impact. (Of course, Mom’s coworkers and Uncle Gram had offered to do the chore, but Mom felt that blindly accepting the gift had been her own fault, and Uncle’s nimble fingers were the best to remote-program a digger.)
Whatever. I had to go, too.
Those lamps were, ultimately, my responsibility.
The hammer handle tapped like a butterfly on my glove. Mom took one step back, a rare smile lifting her cheeks. Go first, she signed.
I grabbed the handle.
Channeling my inner Hammer Goddess, I lifted the heavy weapon high over my head. I spared one thought for the beautiful half-spheres who wanted only to make more children, and one half-thought for my dolls who wanted only to talk.
Then I brought down the hammer with all my might.
I heard only my ragged breath. I did not break anything, but a crack had appeared on the glass. (We built to last on Ganymede; the anti-meteor shutters would have closed over the window if the Domo was online.)
My arms stinging from the shock, I made another attempt. My blow barely grazed the surface.
Mom signaled with a gloved fan to back off. She closed all her fingers on the handle and hefted the thing higher that I did. In the faint light of the stars, I saw tears streaming on her cheeks.
Then she struck, her speed and strength multiplied by her anger.
In total silence, the glass shattered, a crystal fountain rising high as pressurized air escaped from what had been our home.
Many objects followed. Coffee cups forgotten on the counter; underwear forgotten on Mom’s bed…
My dolls took flight in their windblown gowns, tiny arms pointing away, disappearing amidst the stars.
Part three of The Plan would now go into motion. Uncle Gram’s digger vibrated, augmenting the call of the heated cell. The hardest part of the plan for Mom and me was to shut down our own life-systems. Our oxygen feed came from a mechanical pressure valve.
The cold began to seep in my fingers and toes.
I shivered. The possibility of losing fingers to the frost loomed over my head like Jupiter’s dark disk. We knew there would be a delay; Uncle Gram and Aunt Callie had made computation after computation, based on the techs’ measurements…
Mom tapped my shoulder.
One tiny claw at the time, a glowing lamp slowly uprooted itself from the wall.
Mom pushed me back as one, then two lamps crept up the wall, then negotiated the broken window. The odd angle let me see the underside. A reddish knot of roots or tentacles had pierced the wall as easily as moist earth.
We kept a good fifty meters away from the procession of lamps towards Gany City’s outer wall.
Mom moved. She jacked something between us, a loud click.
“Can you hear me?”
Her voice filled my ears. Only then was I aware of how the silence had made me feel lonely.
“Mom? But the power will…”
“It’s only an acoustic hose between our two suits. No power.”
The first golden half-ball reached the edge. I made out a trace of black paint on its shell, a zero. It was the primary lamp, my birthday gift!
It went over the edge and tipped down, its light wavering, failing.
I shut my eyes by reflex, not wanting to witness its demise. But then, I remembered how uncle Gram’s effort had shown their uncanny resistance. I opened wide, in time to see it bouncing back over the ice, the low gravity lending an eerie grace to its moves.
We were close enough from the edge to see it tottering on the cold ice, towards the beacon of heat calling from the frozen vastness.
Another bright lamp slid off the edge and tumbled down.
That one landed like a terrain turtle, on its shell. It couldn’t get upright alone. As more lamps came down, three of them scuttered over their comrade and lifted one side, to let it tumble right.
I checked our window, to make sure no one was left behind.
“They all went out,” Mom said. “I counted the 57 of them.”
Soon, a procession of lamps was trudging on the ice toward the digger, some trailing the very small ones cut free from the carpet.
The hungry lamps did not reach the spiderlike machine.
Its mechanical legs began backing away from the City, trailing the heat-emitter battery behind it. I felt sorry for the lamps, like those children led away from their homes by a musician in a story written so long ago.
The line of golden lights edged toward the horizon, their glow waning.
“Mom, the lamps… Are you sure…? They…”
Words failed me. A warm drop coursed down my cheek.
“You’re not killing them, honey”, Mom said.
I began sobbing, a no-no in a vac suit. I couldn’t reach for my face. I felt the pressure of Mom’s embrace.
“Your lamps won’t die,” she said. “And I’m so proud of you, my dear, sweet Bethesda.”
I blinked, hard.
The digger would lead the lamps into a deep hollow, on the other side of the moon. The gallant machine would stay with them until its own battery emptied out.
The temperatures there would never rise over one hundred K: all lamps would enter a low-energy cycle. They would feed from magnetic and seismic waves, enough for the present kid-lamps to grow, but not enough to reproduce.
They would stay alive, forever.
Or until we found a way to scoop them up and send them back to their own home.
I blew the twelve wax candles in our new apartment at the base of the tower. The wax candles were a luxury Mom could now afford. Big Martha and Aunt Cally smiled, each holding a fuming cup of cappuccino with beautiful swirls, served by Uncle Gram.
Two large windows graced our new unit, ceiling and sideway.
Every day, I gazed at the crisscrossing lines fleeing toward the horizon. Every week, while studying, I observed the Sun rising and setting. I worked hard to become an exobiologist.
A run-of-the-mill, ten-digits one.
Sometimes, as I worked on practice tests, I would glimpse a golden glow over the dark horizon line. Uncle Gram said it was the ice refracting up our thin atmosphere.
He didn’t believe it, and neither did I.
Mom came back, holding a wrapped box in all her fingers. She lowered the gift on my knees.
I lifted the box. It was heavier than I expected. I undid the yellow wrappings. Not too fast, because of what came out of this action last time.
Relieved, I fingered a square metallic box, tubes and dials indicative of a self-contained environmental unit. Two shiny copper latches held the lid.
Big Martha waved one multi-fingered hand.
“Come on, open it, girl!”
I undid the latches. Click. Clack. The lid sprang open. A visible puff of moisture and a stuffy-room smell wafted out.
Then, from inside the box, a sound rose, truly alien on Ganymede.