by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, May 2021
When the snow began falling inside Crossroads Space Station, all of the aliens stopped what they were doing and held very still. The snowflakes caught on long fuzzy manes and feathered wings; they pinged lightly against hard insectile carapaces and shimmering reptilian scales. The white flakes hung in the air, stirred by the puffs of breath from snouts and beaks. The breaths themselves crystallized in the sudden chill.
It was as if an angel of winter had kissed the air inside the spinning wheel space station. So cold, so beautiful, so unexpected.
And so very, very dangerous. When the climate controls fail inside a space station, life support is hanging from a thread. Snowfall is one step away from frozen death.
One moment more, and panic would have spread throughout the space station. But loudspeakers came on, announcing throughout all the corridors and across every deck, “The life support systems have experienced an unexpected reboot; it will take up to one week to return the climate conditions aboard the station to normal parameters. Rest assured though, everything is under control, and everyone is safe. Please, until then, enjoy the snow.”
Throughout the Merchant’s Quarter, customers whispered to proprietors, and groups of aliens murmured among themselves — no one believed the official story. Most of them believed someone had hacked the government computers and was playing a practical joke; some of them believed the space station’s life support systems had grown so old and wonky, the whole system would break down over the next few years. A few doomsayers believed the life support nodule had been knocked out by a rogue comet, and they’d all die by day’s end.
But they didn’t die. Everyone went about their business, a little colder than usual, walking through the drifts of freshly fallen snow.
By the second day, bands of children had taken to the station’s hallways. Small uplifted lapines chased each other, hopping through the white drifts and throwing snowballs. The occasional stray snowball smacked into a random adult, but by and large, the adult would look down and chuckle at the little lapines with their long ears and twitchy noses.
By the third day, a group of teenaged canids had built snowdogs at the end of every hallway and designed a giant snow fort in one of the station playgrounds for the younger alien children to hold their snowball fights inside.
By the fourth day, the snow was becoming normal, accepted. And many of the aliens aboard Crossroads Station found their thoughts turning to traditions they’d almost forgotten, winter holidays they’d celebrated while growing up, back on homeworlds with seasons and snow.
The fifth, sixth, and seventh days saw aliens in the Merchant’s Quarter decorating their storefronts and stalls with twinkly lights, colorful garlands of winter flowers woven into evergreen boughs, and totems of solstice gods from their individual cultures. A few merchants began offering free hot drinks, rich with spices and thick with cream, to offset the ever-present chill.
And yet, even in the cold, and faced with the uncertainty of a malfunctioning life support system, a sense of happiness pervaded Crossroads Station. There is nothing so cheerful as snow. Perhaps, it’s the brittle cheer of a folk who don’t know if they’ll survive the winter, and winter in space is the most dangerous winter of all. But that cheer is still so strong, it can seep down deep into the bones and through the exoskeletons of aliens of all species. Staring death in the face, life smiles and goes on.
By the eighth day, the beginning of the second week, a visiting human scientist from Wespirtech brought a batch of unusual eggs to the biggest playground on the station and let all the children watch as the eggs — of every size and color — began to crack open.
“It’s from an old Ancient Earth song,” the scientist, a woman named Keida said to the eagerly gathered alien children. She sang the lyrics, “Gone away is the bluebird, here to stay is the new bird.” And then she explained how humans had celebrated every new year by genetically designing a new species of bird.
The eggs cracked open like presents unwrapping themselves, and brightly colored fledglings and goslings and cygnets flapped their wings for the very first time. “I’ve enhanced their aging process,” Keida added. The alien children delighted at watching the colorful birds — one like a golden flamingo, another like a red-and-green Christmas-colored macaw, all of them fantastical and entirely new — fly through the station, brightening the view of the star-studded black sky through the space station’s long arching windows.
By the twelfth day, a pair of the station’s resident roboticists unveiled their latest creation, something they’d been working on since the snow had begun to fall: a robotic reindeer, complete with metal antlers like silver trees, who could pull a sleigh up and down the station’s snow-covered hallways, giving rides to all the children.
Some say that the roboticists — a human woman named Maradia and a humanoid robot named Gerangelo — had a twinkle in their eyes that was a little too proud, a little too mischievous. They say that a robotic reindeer would have taken more than twelve days to design and build. And those same aliens point out that Keida’s birds would have taken longer than a week to gengineer. They say that Keida and Maradia knew each other from their Wespirtech days, and Wespirtech scientists are tricksters; they love a good prank.
The snow stopped shortly before Keida, who had been visiting Maradia, left the station, taking her gengineered birds with her. The robotic reindeer retired to Gerangelo’s storefront window, where it greeted customers of Robots 4 Robots with a friendly mechanical snuffle for years afterward.
And little uplifted lapines told glory day stories of the time it snowed inside Crossroads Space Station to their grandbunnies many decades hence.