You’re Cordially Invited to Crossroads Station — Chapter 3

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.

“Rationally, Anno knew the gravity jumper was one of the safest forms of travel.”

The next few days were a bizarre blur of shopping, packing, planning, and answering questions from kits who really didn’t understand what it would mean to leave their planet and fly across the vastness of space to an entirely different solar system.

Mei wanted to know if they’d be put in a cryo-sleep and wake up in an entirely different century, because one of her favorite holo-vids featured a fictional, cartoony family of humans from the distant past who had slept away the years in that way and woken up to the modern world, all wide-eyed and amazed by everything they saw.  Anno suspected Mei loved the vid so much because the cartoon characters’ amazement and wonder were relatable to a five-year-old for whom the whole universe was still new and remarkable.

Loi dug up every single toy she owned and asked about each one individually:  “Can I bring this?”

Anno started out answering, “Sure, there should be room to bring some favorite toys.”

But after enough, “Can I bring this?” from Loi, her answer started shifting to, “Only if it’s really important to you.”

Darso seemed to be suddenly filled with fears; each time they went to a store to buy something they wanted to bring on the trip, he’d cling to either Anno or Drathur and mutter goodbyes to everything around him, clearly terrified he’d never see any of it ever again.  Both parents constantly reassured him that the trip would only be a month long in total, but five-year-olds have no sense of how long a month will last.  It might as well be forever.

Finally, the day of their flight came, and each kit pulled a large, heavy suitcase behind them, affixed with a small, coin-sized anti-grav generator to make the bulky luggage hover.  They followed their father like ducklings in a row, and Anno followed along behind to make sure none of the kits dropped anything important.

They left their simple, wooden, boxy house locked, surrounded by the waving grasses and drifting breezes that flowed over the surface of New Heffe.  It would sit there, secure and solid, held down by gravity and up by the earth beneath it, until Anno and her family returned.

Anno supposed a spaceship or space station could be abandoned in a similar way, as long it were placed in a stable orbit of a large celestial body first.  She knew that.  She knew enough physics to know that.  But it didn’t feel like that to her.  Even though she’d grown up on a space station, there was something very deep in her head — something visceral and primal — that told her everything in space was unmoored, untethered, floating free in a way that meant danger, like anything you didn’t stare at and keep in your sight constantly would just drift away and burn up in the flares and flames of whatever sun it could find.  Like everything in space was just waiting for her to lose her concentration, and it would all disappear, like a universe-sized game of peekaboo.

Anno felt dissociative as they stepped aboard the gravity jumper that would take them into orbit, where they could board the freighter that would take them to Crossroads Station.  Her paws kept moving; her mouth kept saying the gentle, corrective words her kits needed to hear to keep them moving too; but it all felt like autopilot.  Like she was simply following decisions she’d made days ago, and her consciousness, right now in this moment, was simply watching in quiet horror, wanting to run away, back to her locked house, back to somewhere safe.  Somewhere solid.

Drathur and Anno got the kits settled in their reserved seats — Darso between the two girls, like a buffer to keep them from fighting with each other — and then took their own seats on either end of the row.  They were all front row seats, right in front of the big bubble window that stretched over the passenger pod of the gravity jumper, serving as both walls and roof.  The seats behind them were good too, as the passenger pod had been designed like the inverse of an amphitheater — rising upward toward the middle, like a small, mechanical hill over the gravity jumper’s bridge and engine room.  All the seats looked outward, so every passenger could appreciate the stunning view to come.

Darso would’ve preferred being next to one of his parents, instead of being sandwiched between his sisters, but Anno had a lot of practice arranging her family and knew it would work better this way.  Darso was cooperative; the girls were particular.  And Anno didn’t want to deal with any of the little ones on an aisle where they could bother anyone outside their own family.  It was better to have a parent at each end like a capstone.

Their luggage was stowed safely under their seats, and Anno only had to stop Mei, who was the kit next to her, from digging into her suitcase for toys four times before the gravity jumper launched into the sky and the ground fell away beneath them.  The surrounding windows filled with an expanding view of the horizon — miles and miles of grassy fields and forests dotted with the young, growing cities of a recently settled world.  Then the ground fell away entirely, and everything was sky, then clouds, then wispy dregs of atmosphere and brightly twinkling stars.  It happened so fast, there was barely time for the kits to gasp and exclaim.

Even as she repressed her own impending panic, Anno couldn’t help smiling at her kits’ excitement and joy.  She remembered feeling something similar — but kind of backward — when she’d taken a similar gravity jumper ride down to the surface of New Heffe eight years ago.  Three years before the kits were born.  That was the last time Anno had been off-world.

And that flight… it had been the first time she’d seen a planet like New Heffe, filled with grass and water and trees and livable ecosystems, up close.  Sure, she’d surfed the clouds of New Jupiter; she’d visited some rocky asteroids, been to a concert on one of their amphitheaters.  But she’d never been to a planet like New Heffe before — somewhere an organic lifeform could just live, without life support, without algae packs filtering the air, without artificial gravity.  All of it just happened naturally.  Everything a person needed to live.  It was just there, waiting for her to come home from the sky.  Anno didn’t understand why her people — or any other aliens — had ever left their planetary cradles in the first place.

Except… she understood a little bit as she watched her kits’ eyes sparkle, reflecting the velvet black sky with its pinpoints of light, gleaming like they never did on the surface of the planet.  They looked like they were understanding for the first time just how big the universe was, and their little bodies could hardly contain the size of that feeling.

Maybe space didn’t seem exciting to Anno because she’d already been there.  It wasn’t novel or foreign.  And when she’d finally managed to leave, she’d never wanted to go back.

Until now.  Until Am-lei sent her an invitation, renewing their friendship and reminding her that there had once been something in the sky she actually liked.  Anno focused on the blurry, unfocused images in her mind of what it would look like when Jeko and Am-lei stood together in the Crossroads Station arboretum saying some kind of vows to each other, trying to let that image push aside the other images that wanted to fill her mind — anxiety visions of the gravity jumper bursting open somehow, losing all its air and blasting them all into space, too far from their suitcases to hurriedly dig out the lightweight spacesuits she’d insisted they buy and pack for each of them.

Rationally, Anno knew the gravity jumper was one of the safest forms of travel.  She was arguably safer inside the gravity jumper than lounging on the couch in her own home, at least according to the statistics.  Abstract numbers that someone else had calculated and Anno was expected to simply trust.  She shuddered.  And thought again about Jeko and Am-lei to distract herself — would they wear traditional human garb for the ceremony?  A white dress?  A tuxedo?  There were other styles of human weddings, but that was the kind they’d seen most often among the humans on the station and in the ancient movies from Old Earth that Am-lei’s human grandmother liked.

How would those things look on a giant, stick-legged insect and a plump, solid elephant?

Anno had seen humans on Crossroads Station wear wedding gowns and tuxedos in their stark white-and-black monochrome, so she knew about them.  They were designed for human bodies, not lepidopteran and elephantine ones.

Anno’s own people had bodies more similar to human ones, but they dressed in normal, everyday clothes for their wedding ceremonies, adorned with special scarves patterned to match the weather of all the seasons they looked forward to sharing with their new spouse — a tradition from back before the original world of Heffe had been swallowed up by its own sun gone traitorously red giant.

The seasonal nature of the scarf tradition had seemed laughable to Anno as an uncouth, tactless child.  There are no seasons on a space station.  So shouldn’t all the scarves have been the same?

Of course, the Heffen refugees on Crossroads Station had clung even harder to those traditions that celebrated what they’d lost while they lived on a space station where every year was an endless tread of perfectly climate-controlled days.

It had been the space station that was laughable, not the tradition.  Anno had realized that when she was older and felt ashamed of how she’d laughed at her own people as a child.

When Drathur and Anno had gotten married, she’d worn the scarves representing New Heffe’s seasons with pride.  They’d tied and braided together wintry blue scarves; bright orange summer scarves; and soft pink scarves decorated with petals like those that fell from the parumpa trees in their region of the world during the long, temperate springs.  It had been beautiful.

Am-lei and Jeko would be beautiful when they stood together in the arboretum too, no matter what they wore.  And that was why Anno was clutching the arm of her gravity-jumper seat on one side and Mei’s little paw on the other right now — because she had to do this to get there.  That’s why she was tolerating this trip she’d never wanted to take.  That was why her teeth were gritted, her ears flattened, and her brow stabbing with the pain of a tension headache just beginning to blossom.  It would all be worth it.  It would all get easier, after this first jump.

The space freighter would have actual rooms, places where she could hide from the emptiness of the space around them, instead of feeling like she was going to tumble off the edge of the gravity jumper and float away.  The freighter would be better.  She wouldn’t keep feeling this way, terrified and stressed, for the entire trip.  She couldn’t.  Her body would relax and her mind would grow accustomed to her surroundings, and it would be a lovely month.

She just had to get past this first, worst part.

Anno listened while Drathur talked to their three kits about the approaching space freighter — pointing out its engines, armored shielding, and finally the airlock that the gravity jumper would seal itself to for docking.  Someday, New Heffe would get an orbital satellite station, but it was still under construction.  Loi expressed disappointment that she couldn’t see it, and Drathur told her it was on the other side of the planet right now.  But perhaps they’d be able to glimpse its skeletal still-in-progress structure from a window in their rooms on the freighter before it flew too far away.

All the while as Drathur talked, speaking in his calming tones, Anno just kept feeling like the windows curving over their heads and all around them were going to pop like a bubble, any second, leaving them all to asphyxiate.  She knew it was an irrational fear, and she was doing her best to hide it.  She didn’t want her kits to become afraid of space travel, the way she’d seemed to become over the last eight years.  She wanted them to be brave and feel safe when they were safe.  She didn’t want to pass any extra anxiety on to them.  So, she shoved the fears down deep.  But she was terribly relieved when their turn came to exit their seats, file and thread their way through the rows of seats in the passenger pod, and then pass through the airlock onto the other, larger vessel.

Not all of the Heffen on the gravity jumper exited to the space freighter.  Some of them had simply taken the trip for the view and would be returning to New Heffe after a leisurely orbit allowing them to see their homeworld from every side.  Loi complained that she wanted to take the orbital ride too, and Drathur promised they could do so on the way home.  It was already part of his schedule.  All three kits cheered.  Anno didn’t feel the same as them.  She was glad to leave the large bubble window behind.

Anno felt safer with opaque walls surrounding her.  Back on New Heffe, she enjoyed large windows looking out on the sea of waving grasses; that felt grounding, like every blade of grass tethered her to the world.  Up here?  She couldn’t see blades of grass, only smears of green, obscured by smudges of white.  Everything was too far away to be real.  Windows were a terror that made her feel like she was falling down a rabbit hole and back into her childhood, growing younger, smaller, and less in control with every somersault downward.  She was afraid that by the time they made it back to her childhood home, she’d be nothing more than a helpless kit again.

Continue on to Chapter 4

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