You’re Cordially Invited to Crossroads Station — Chapter 14

by Mary E. Lowd

An excerpt from You’re Cordially Invited to Crossroads Station. If you’d prefer, you can start with Chapter 1, return to the previous chapter, or skip ahead to the next chapter.

"Loi was already on the far side of the airlock with her spacesuit helmet's faceplate pressed right up against the glass, jumping up and down, excited and ready to go."
“Loi was already on the far side of the airlock with her spacesuit helmet’s faceplate pressed right up against the glass, jumping up and down, excited and ready to go.”

The next morning, Anno awoke to a lot of messages hemming and hawing over whether her various siblings were interested in joining her family for the day’s activity:  it was space-walk time.  Anno wasn’t surprised by the switch from her siblings aggressively courting her attendance at their activities to their lukewarm response to the activity she’d countered with.  They all had lives of their own, and they all lived on Crossroads Station.  Doing a spacewalk around it wasn’t exactly a high priority on a random Tuesday, with only a few hours notice, when they could do it any day.

The only response that really surprised her was from Kya.  Anno’s trans feline sister sent a simple three-word message:  I’ll be there.  And then, to Anno’s even greater surprise, there Kya was, outside the Space Tours airlock, waiting for them when she, Drathur, and their very excitable kits all arrived, spacesuits clutched in each of their paws.

“Hi,” Kya said.  She already had her spacesuit pulled over her normal clothes, and her helmet was positioned comfortably under her arm, ready to be put on.  “All the others sent excuses with me, but I didn’t bother remembering them.  If you care what they were, talk to them yourself.”

Anno laughed.  Kya had always been spunky, but somehow, it had been annoying when they were little and had transformed into being charming and funny now.  Maybe Anno had more patience for it, or maybe, Kya had learned how to direct it better.  Maybe a little of both.  Either way, Anno was surprised at how well she was getting along with her feline sister.  Maybe cats and dogs didn’t have to fight after all.

“I don’t need to know their excuses,” Anno said, matching Kya’s snark.  “I can guess most of them anyway.  But what’s your excuse for actually being here?  You could do this any day.  Why bother joining us for an activity where we’ll all be too busy oohing and awing over the view to really interact with each other?”

Kya shrugged, but the way her eyes gleamed with amusement at the sight of Anno’s kits batting at each others’ tails while waiting for the adults around them to stop being boring was answer enough.  Kya clearly liked Anno’s little family.  Anno was torn between bewilderment — it wasn’t like Kya didn’t have plenty of other family around — and smug pride, because of course, she agreed that her own little corner of their shared extended family was the best corner.

“Okay, kits,” Drathur said, stepping up to get the little ones under control.  “It’s time to pull our spacesuits on.”

“Don’t wanna,” Darso complained.  “It’ll be too hot with so many layers.”  His little ears splayed in a clear sign of true distress.  Back at home, he liked to run around in the lightest clothes possible and had often stole his sisters’ sundresses during the summer, since they were so lightweight and strappy.

Kya knelt down and held her paws out toward Darso, indicating she wanted to look at his spacesuit.  Wordlessly, the kit held it out for her to examine.  Kya turned the small garment over in her paws, looking at each sleeve and leg before saying, “This is a good spacesuit, Darso.  Do you know what that means?”

“No,” Loi answered for her brother, who looked too cowed by Kya to respond for himself.

“It means that it has climate controls built right into it, so as soon as you put it on, you can turn on your own personal air conditioning.  Isn’t that cool?”  Kya handed the tiny spacesuit back to Darso whose ears were still flattened, but his fluffy tail had started swishing behind him.

After that, all three kits were quick to pull their spacesuits on.  Anno and Drathur took slightly longer with theirs, being taller and older, they weren’t quite as willing to tumble around on the floor in order to get the suits on as fast as possible.  Whereas speed was clearly the top priority for the young ones.  In fact, as soon as Mei and Loi both had their suits on, they immediately started squabbling about who had got theirs on first.  A lot of impromptu races happen when dealing with a litter of three five-year-olds.

“You know you didn’t have to do that out here, right?” Kya said.  “They have a whole lobby with chairs and changing rooms inside.”

“They do?” Anno asked.

“Sure, and they rent and sell spacesuits now too.”  Kya’s eyes narrowed at her older sister.  “You really have been gone a long time.  Did you… you thought it was still just the rinky-dink operation where they slap a pre-programed jetpack on you and shove you out the airlock?”

Anno nodded mutely, feeling foolish.  She’d thought she was so on top of everything — getting spacesuits picked out and fitted to the kids before even leaving New Heffe; arriving entirely ready for the spacewalk tour; just like a local.  But she hadn’t checked any information about whether the operation had changed at all in the last eight years…  Why would she?  It had been basically the same deal through her whole childhood.  But she had changed; she supposed she should have realized the space station would have changed too.  It wasn’t the same place she’d known as a child anymore, and she wasn’t a local.

Kya shook her head and tutted.  “There’s a whole gift shop in there now.  So, you know, be warned.”  Kya’s eyes darted towards the kits in a meaningful way.  Apparently, Kya had spent enough time around her other nieces and nephews to realize just how dangerous a gift shop could be around children.

Fortunately, Mei, Loi, and Darso had been pretty much shopped out the previous day, just wandering around the station, and all three were excited enough about the idea of spacewalking that Anno didn’t think it would be too hard to rush them past whatever enticing offerings the gift shop had in store.  Unfortunately, even though Anno spent every day with her children, she was still able to underestimate their endless desire to look at, fiddle with, and beg for new toys.  And the gyroscopic figurines of the space station — complete with matching, tiny spacesuit-wearing action figures! — were utterly charming.  Honestly, Anno kind of wanted to buy and play with one herself.

In the end, to get the kits through the gift shop — a tiny, crowded space, absolutely cram-packed full of mementos and souvenirs that the kits couldn’t seem to help picking up, as if they just needed to lay their little paws on each and every one — Anno and Drathur had to promise to bring the kids back again.  Later.  After the spacewalk.

Once the kits were pried away from the gift shop, Anno gathered her little group up at the back of the lobby where a sign said to wait for a Spacewalk Tours employee to help them when they were ready.  They were ready.  And fortunately, given the kits’ limited patience, the wait wasn’t long for a shiny, metal, humanoid android to show up, look them over, check all of their spacesuits, and declare them space-worthy.  The metal android pulled six pre-programmed jetpacks out of a locker where they were stored beside the actual inner airlock door and passed them around.  Kya had no trouble putting hers on like a backpack and latching the safety straps around her middle — she’d clearly been here somewhat recently and knew the drill.  Drathur got his arm stuck for a moment but managed alright.  Anno got herself all twisted up — she thought she remembered how the straps worked, but either her memory was wrong or the build of the jetpack had changed in the last eight years, which given the changes to the lobby wouldn’t actually be surprising.

The android helped Anno get her jetpack untwisted while Kya and Drathur helped the kits get safely strapped into theirs.  Next, the android gave them all a rundown on how the jetpacks worked, had them all check their suits’ internal radios, and declared them ready to fly.

Anno felt giddy, returning to an exciting pastime she’d enjoyed as a child.  There was a lightness in her chest and swish in her tail as she stepped toward the airlock door.  She reached down and took hold of one of Mei’s paws and one of Darso’s.  Loi was already holding her daddy’s spacesuited paw.  Then the airlock door slid open, and the airlock itself loomed in front of them.

A small chamber with a windowed door on its far side — that far door was a single layer of glass and metal separating Anno and her kits from the brutal nothingness of outer space.  Her grip tightened on her kits’ paws, and she felt the vertigo, the panic, and the abject terror from the ride aboard the gravity jumper come rushing back to fill her up at the idea of letting her children — her precious, erratic, unpredictable children step into that tiny, unprotected room.  A room where the door would soon open, shooting them all into space.

A moment before, Anno had felt the jetpack on her back like a comforting weight — she’d trusted it, known that its programming would safely steer her around the most scenic views of the outside of Crossroads Station, allowing only a small amount of variation from its planned path.  And rationally, she still knew that everything about Spacewalk Tours was so incredibly safe that it was arguably safer than spending the next few hours aboard the station itself.  And yet…

She just didn’t know if she could lift her paws and take a step forward into that small room that would soon open up onto a space so large that a mammal like her couldn’t truly comprehend its size.  Space just goes on and on forever, and if you lose your path… if the jetpack fails and shoots you off in a random direction and all the locator beacons attached to you fail as well… you could fly into nothingness forever, without anyone ever finding your body, let alone getting to you in time to save you from a slow, drawn out death.

Mei stepped into the airlock and pulled at her mommy’s paw, trying to get her to follow; Darso though stood beside Anno, waiting for her to take a step and show him it would be safe.  Loi was already on the far side of the airlock with her spacesuit helmet’s faceplate pressed right up against the glass, jumping up and down, excited and ready to go.

Anno looked down at Darso.  The little child was looking up at her, his eyes wide behind the glare on his helmet’s faceplate.  She didn’t want to teach him to be afraid.  So fighting every instinct in her body, Anno lifted a shaking foot and took a wobbly step forward.  Darso stepped forward too.  They stepped again together.  And then, somehow, all six of them — three adults and three kids — were in the airlock together, and the door back into the station whooshed shut behind them.

Anno heard the soft hiss of the air draining out of the airlock, preparing for the outer door to open.  Then a green light switched on beside the outer door, and Loi clapped her paws.  “Can I push it?” she asked.  “Can I be the one to open the door?”

Neither of Loi’s siblings were competing for the honor, so Anno said, speaking with a tongue that had gone entirely dry, “Whenever you’re ready, love.”  She didn’t feel like she’d ever be ready.  But she would always stay with her kits, and she’d told her kits they were doing this.  So, she supposed, she had to be ready when they were.

Loi smashed her gloved paw against the big button beside the green light, and the outer door whooshed open, sliding out of the way and disappearing into the walls, leaving Anno and her family facing empty space beyond.

Loi gasped, and the sound traveled over the networked spacesuit radios so all the members of her group could hear.  “I can’t,” she said, whispering the words.

“Can’t what?” Anno asked, all of her other fears brushed aside in an instant by the tone in her daughter’s voice.  The frightened, uncertain tone.  Loi never sounded frightened or uncertain.  Angry, frustrated, annoyed, confused…  She could sound so many ways, but Anno’s bold little girl — the daredevil of her litter — never sounded frightened.

“It’s easy,” Darso said, letting go of his mother’s paw, in spite of Anno trying to grasp on tighter, and taking a step toward his frightened sister.  “Here, you just start the program like the metal person told us and then—“  He stepped right up to the edge of the airlock and without the slightest hesitation kicked himself off into the void.  “—step out of the airlock.  Easy!”  The little boy was already giggling and gasping, except from him it was a happy sound, a sound that meant delight and amazement.

Anno had never seen Darso, the most cautious of her children, be so brave before.  It was like her two children had swapped personalities, for just today, for just this outing.

Drathur followed Darso — he and Anno had five years of practice at this point, and if their kits split directions, breaking up the group, the two of them could instantly, automatically niche into which parent belonged with which set of the kits.  And right now, calming Loi down, getting her to take a step out of the airlock, was a job best suited to Anno.  But you don’t just let a kit float off into space alone, even if he does have a preprogrammed jetpack that will safely guide him.

Mei followed her father, and Kya followed Mei.  So then, it was just Anno — filled with an irrational terror of outer space swallowing up her children and refusing to ever spit them back out — and Loi in the airlock.  And Loi was panicking, but Anno couldn’t imagine why.

Until the very moment that the airlock door slid open, Loi had been the kit who was most excited about this outing.

Anno stepped forward, took Loi’s paw, and said, “It’s okay.  We can do it together.  We’ll step out of the airlock at the same time, holding each other’s paws, and it’ll be okay.  Okay?”

Loi looked up at her mother with eyes so big the seemed to reflect the entirety of outer space in them.

“Look,” Anno said, pointing with her free paw toward the others who were already jetting in formation along the closest curve of the station.  “See?  Daddy and Mei and Darso are fine.  So’s Aunt Kya.  We’re gonna be fine too.”

Loi looked at the others, jetting away, and they both listened to Mei and Darso’s exclamations of delight and Drathur and Aunt Kya’s gentle reassurances flooding their ears over the networked radio channel.

“It’s just one step,” Anno said to her daughter.  “Then the jetpack will take over.”

Loi nodded mutely.  She still looked stricken, and Anno felt so confused and conflicted.  She felt terrible about the idea of trying to force a kid to do something that she — herself in this moment — found equally scary.  And yet, she knew Loi, and she knew that Loi had wanted to do this.  She didn’t want Loi to miss out on an amazing — and perfectly safe — experience because of sudden last-minute jitters.

So Anno stepped a foot out of the airlock and watched Loi closely, waiting to see if she’d follow suit.  Anno wasn’t going to pull an unwilling child out into the void of space.  But when Loi stuck her own foot out of the airlock, balance took over, and the two of them toppled into the zero gravity of outer space.  Immediately, the airlock began to fall behind them, spinning away with the centripetal motion that gave the station its simulated gravity.  Next with a soft roar and pressure against their backs like a hand pushing them forward, the jetpack’s programming kicked in, steering mother and daughter in the same direction as the rest of their group.

Loi whimpered; Anno’s heart clenched.  What was she doing to this child?  And yet, over the radio, she heard the joyous exclamations of her other children, not far ahead:

“Look at those windows!  We can see right in!” cried Darso.  “People are waving at us!  Can you see?  Can you see?”

“It looks just like the toys in the gift shop!  But soooooo much bigger!”  Mei giggled, an infectious sound.  And yet, not infectious enough to work its way past the terror shielding Loi from enjoying any of it, any of the view, any of the breath-taking, awe-inspiring freedom of gliding through the emptiness of space.

Even with her daughter whimpering beside her, Anno was starting to enjoy the stomach-flipping sensation of letting the jetpack guide and steer her in carefully calculated curlicues around the outer ring of the station.  “This is fun, right?” she said tentatively, hoping to prompt Loi into agreeing with her.  “A little like a rollercoaster?”

But Loi didn’t answer.  Her little body had gone completely still, like a tiny spacesuited statue.  Up ahead, the little spacesuits with Mei and Darso in them twisted about, pointing at things they saw, playing with the jetpacks by jetting a little off course one way or the other until the program kicked in and shoved them back to where they were supposed to be.  Loi wasn’t doing any of that.  She wasn’t thawing out and having fun.  And Anno couldn’t force Loi to keep doing something that was terrifying her.

If Loi wasn’t enjoying the trip by now, she wasn’t going to.  Someone needed to go back with her.  And it had to happen soon, because the farther they traveled away from the airlock, the longer the trip back would be.

Continue on to Chapter 15

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *