by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, October 2018
Lee-a-lei and her clone-daughter Am-lei perched in the Crossroads Station recreational airlock with their long spindly legs folded. The two lepidopterans exchanged a glance with glittering, multi-faceted eyes. Lee-a-lei was nervous and kept flapping her mechanical wings, but her daughter looked excited.
Am-lei didn’t have wings. She’d followed the traditions of their homeworld and had her yellow-blue-and-purple wings cut off after she metamorphosed. So, she wore a simple zero-gee jetpack like a human or one of the canine Heffens would. The jetpack strapped around her thorax, firmly secured. Lee-a-lei had checked her daughter’s straps several times.
Neither of them wore spacesuits — their exoskeletons protected most of their bodies, and a thin coating of amphiphilic goo around their joints sealed the gaps up well-enough for an hour long joy-jaunt around the station’s exterior. An oxygen mask strapped over each lepidopteran’s curling proboscis was the only other thing they’d needed to transform from planet-dwellers to vacuum-dwellers.
“Isn’t this thrilling?” Am-lei fluted inside her oxygen mask.
Lee-a-lei heard her daughter’s words through a radio strapped over her tympanal organ on the side of her thorax. The sound was muddied though by the vibration of the airlock floor under her talons. The doors would open soon.
A deep rumble, and then whoosh.
The thin air behind Lee-a-lei shoved her out the opening airlock doors. It was a waste of air, but the algae-filters on the station were extremely effective, and Crossroads got regular shipments of fresh air from the closest planet. So, a little air lost to make the ride more fun? No big deal. Life on a space station should be fun. Hell, life of any sort should be fun.
Lee-a-lei flapped her mechanical wings; there was no air outside the space station for them to push against, but the movement of her muscles triggered the jetpack function of her wings. She zoomed along the curve of the station, following her fearless daughter.
Lee-a-lei had been raised by a well-meaning but clueless human. By the time they discovered it was normal for lepidopterans to cut off their beautiful but vestigial wings, Lee-a-lei no longer felt like herself without them. So, she’d gotten specially-fitted mechanical wings — much smaller and more useful, but they let her still feel like herself. A butterfly. That’s how the humans she’d been raised around had always seen her, and it was how she’d come to see herself.
Now she was a butterfly — a cyborg butterfly — flying through the velvety blackness of space! Am-lei was right: it was thrilling.
Lee-a-lei flapped faster, and the jets in her cyborg wings pushed her forward in tiny bursts that matched the flaps. She flew away from the shiny metal walls and transparent aluminum windows of Crossroads Station until she could see its concentric rings, turning and twisting like a gyroscope, as a whole. It looked like a child’s toy, discarded on a black sand beach. The stars and planets of the local solar system gleamed with the natural beauty of seashells, and space stretched away like an ocean in every direction.
Lee-a-lei lived her life inside that toy.
Swooping back toward her daughter, Lee-a-lei fluted, “It makes you feel small, doesn’t it?”
“Not me,” Am-lei answered. The younger lepidopteran had figured out how to use alternating bursts from one side and then the other of her jetpack to fly in zig-zagging curlicues. Her six long legs waved grandiosely, as if she were trying to greet every star she saw. Their celestial light glittered on the many facets of her eyes. “I’m going to see all of it someday.”
I hope you do, Lee-a-lei thought. What she said was, “Take me with you.”
“Of course!” Am-lei spun around with her jetpack and zoomed up to her mother. The young lepidopteran grasped the older lepidopteran’s uppermost left talon with one of her own. The two butterflies — one with a jetpack instead of wings and the other with cyborg wings — flew together around the space station that was their home.