Daddy knocked on the door to her quarters. “Merry Christmas Eve, sweetie. You awake for breakfast?”
“Coming!” Julia shouted, which was true enough. She’d be there in ten minutes, maybe more, not less. Her hair was not behaving this “morning” no matter how her swarm arranged it. One would think in the age of spaceflight someone could discover a cure for bedhead.
“Shoo,” she ordered the blue cloud of microbots hovering around her snarled locks. She checked her face in the mirror and touched up her makeup manually, though that wasn’t necessary. What was necessary was her brush, which she retrieved and applied to her hair with all the force necessary to make it submit. “Alright, touch it up,” she directed her bots – butterflies as she liked to call them – and while they buzzed, she thumbed her iRing.
A screen projected on her retinas popped, cluttered with the usual litany of notices all demanding swift attention. She twitched her pupils over to her calendar where a fluttering red flag informed her the Constellation had completed a Europa flyby. Shuttles would land on Io by noon.
“Took us long enough.” She appraised herself again in the mirror, spun to check all angles. Not bad. She posed for a picture, touched it up and filtered it, checked the auto-caption, and winced.
“Here’s me twirling in my spacesuit! No better present than Christmas dragons!”
She sighed. Not a creative caption from Sylvia, and a big white lie to boot. She wasn’t happy about Christmas dragons. Not happy in the least.
“Looking forward to Clarence getting eaten,” she muttered.
Sylvia, her iRing’s AI, purred. WOULD YOU LIKE TO CHANGE YOUR POST?
“I’m thinking about it.”
TAKE AS LONG AS YOU LIKE, DEAR. YOU HAVE AN INCOMING CALL.
“Don’t call me ‘dear,’ bot. Answer audio only.”
Her brother’s unwelcome voice flooded her eardrums, made worse by his scratchy attempt at singing:
“Good morning, good morning
She’s gabbed the whole night through.
So good morning, good morning to youuu!”
“What’s that song even from?”
“Ask your bot, Jewels, no hurry. I’ve still gotta eat your strawberry pancakes.”
“Don’t you dare!”
“Maybe I will. Maybe I really will. Mmm….” The sounds of exaggerated chewing made her gag. “Ahh, that was good. Hey, what are the four hemispheres of Io?”
“Are you serious?”
“What? You don’t know?”
Julia mockingly cleared her throat. “Ahem. The four hemispheres of Io are No One Cares; I Really Don’t Care; Why Are We Doing This; and Shut Up, Twerp.”
Clarence made a noisy wrong-answer beep. “That’s a zero out of four for a zero percent. Remember to do your homework, kids, or you won’t start your day off right!”
Her ring chimed merrily. THE CALL IS ENDED.
Fuming, Julia threw her brush in the trash bin. She’d fish it out of there. At some later date.
“‘Looking forward to Clarence getting eaten on Io.’ Post it, Sylvia. Check my feed.”
Ready to spit fire, she stormed from her room and zoomed up a lift to the flight deck. Everything was festively decked out for Christmas from red and green tablecloths to pinecone wreaths to strings of flashing lights and candy canes to an artificial tree in the corner presiding over nobody’s presents. Expansive bay windows looked out on space, which was usually starry and boring, but now they’d finally made it to Jupiter, the gassy planet served as backdrop for a lonely shadowed moon: Io in volcanic glory choking on its plasma torus.
She looked away from the windows, searching for pancakes. Someone had badly pilfered the options, leaving only a few sorry brown scrambled eggs.
She noticed her father waving in his navy blue suit. Just like Dad to wear a suit on vacation. “We saved you a plate,” he said when she joined them.
“Told him not to,” Clarence sighed. Her pudgy middle school brother’s bright orange T-shirt loudly advertised Io, volcanos, and Dragon Park.
Julia shot him a glare and dug in. The promised pancakes had gone cold.
“We’re forty minutes out,” Dad said. “The captain’s going to make an announcement.”
“Whoop dee do. I’m so excited.”
Dad’s face tightened; she’d hit a nerve. “Julia, now is not the time for this.”
“When would be the time for it?”
His lips pressed tight. His eyes stared through her. “Julia, do you have something to say?”
She ate another pancake. It tasted bitter. A part of her knew she was being irrational to complain about this trip now, 500 million miles from Earth. This was Clarence’s Christmas present and, pressured, she’d gone along at first, never mind that now at the end of two weeks, she felt desperately stir-crazy. Her friends were skiing and hiking and taking cruises and so out of sync with her posts, that most had stopped commenting mid-last week.
Space was terrible and no one should go there. She wanted to smell grass and feel the sun again. She wanted to not have to take so many pills: for muscle and bone loss and radiation, for supplemental multivitamins. Space was constantly trying to kill you, which you were constantly reminded about.
“No,” she lied, and took another bite, saved from having to continue by the captain’s booming voice.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we are ninety minutes from shuttle descent.”
The captain had appeared as a hologram in a jolly sweater beside the silly Christmas tree. There was actual cheering at his appearance, weary fellow travelers clapping and hooting. Two squealing boys high-fived.
“As a matter of ISA procedure, take some time in the next few minutes to finish up your delectable breakfasts, ensure all your personal belongings are secured, then head to the shuttle bay on your ticket. Cabin crew are on hand to serve you. If you need anything, give us a ring!”
Mr. Hologram Captain bowed and vanished in a festive cloud of sparkles. Julia rolled her eyes at the show.
“You gonna finish that?” her brother asked.
Some ten minutes later she was back in her quarters and dumping everything into her suitcase. Seconds after she zippered things up, a hostess in orange-and-red Dragon Express livery slipped in to check on her and pick up her bag. Not an android, as far as Julia could tell, though the newest models were pretty advanced.
Dad and Clarence came knocking and they became a trio two-thirds excited for the impending adventure. Her iRing buzzed. Sylvia was full of momentous ideas: Would she like to livestream her trip on the shuttle? Share a rendered visualization with her friends? Did she have any quotes or inspiring words?
She subvocalized ‘no’ to all suggestions. The historic moment was being broadcast enough, not least by her brother who, once they entered Shuttle Bay 5, started interviewing random strangers, snapping selfies, and goofing off. His antics caused a mother to shush her crying baby. The shuttle, which looked like a flaming red dart, rumbled on the launch pad and a hatch sprouted open. As everyone crowded around to get in, a hunky teenager and his girlfriend kissed.
Dad’s iRing buzzed and he intently subvocalized, eyebrows furrowing into a ‘v.’
Clarence noticed. “What is it, Dad? Who’s calling you here?”
“Hold on.” He finished the call, then shook his head. “Travel halfway across the system…”
“Is it work?”
“It’s work. Julia, can you and Clarence go ahead? I’ll take the next shuttle. Meet in the hotel lobby, okay?”
“Sure, Dad. I’m not five.”
“Act your age, then. Look after C.” And he was already slipping out of the shuttle bay, exchanging words with a cheery attendant.
That was unfair. Julia felt a pang in her heart at his words and took it out on her brother by punching his arm. “Slug, I’m your guardian now. Behave.”
Their shuttle seated thirty-six travelers arranged in pairs bracketing an aisle. A safety briefing preceded launch in which an attendant demonstrated how the buckles and straps and emergency parachutes worked and how to put on your rebreathers. It was boring, redundant, unanimated drivel anyone could access through rings or implants. Brimming with excitement, no one listened.
Legs blocking the aisle, Clarence turned to her. “Bitpenny for your thoughts?” Clarence had practically begged her for the window seat. To spite him she’d stuck out her tongue and said “No.”
“You owe me if I tell you.”
“I want to see it.”
Clarence thumbed his ring and hers buzzed. YOUR ACCOUNT HAS RECEIVED ONE BITPENNY, announced Sylvia.
Julia raised an eyebrow at her irritating brother. “You’re nuts, you know that?”
“Nope. I’m a Dragon Scout of my word.”
“You’re not a Dragon Scout.”
“Will too be a Dragon Scout!”
“What about the field component, hmm? Just because you took some stupid online test—” A jolt of acceleration cut her off. The shuttle was off, roaring and away, and there were oohs and ahhs from the passengers as the fuselage faded translucent and they looked out on the stars.
Her brother was grinning. Despite her intention to remain jaded, Julia’s rebel breath caught. Here she’d thought their views would be restricted to the portholes pocking the side of the shuttle, but there was far more now to see; not only the vast expanse of stars glinting like diamonds by the thousands but the rim of massive Jupiter. And Io: terraformed.
Prior to extensive geoengineering, the fourth-largest moon in Sol System had been inhospitable at best. In less than 43 hours on Earth, Io orbited all of Jupiter, generating tremendous tidal heating made worse by the other Galilean moons. Convulsing volcanoes spewed plumes of sulfur rising hundreds of toxic miles while 3,600 rems of radiation pelted the moon on a daily basis.
To make the place even semi-livable the magnetosphere had had to be strengthened and an effective ozone shield cannibalized from Jupiter and the plasma torus. A new mostly breathable atmosphere over decades had been installed as trillions of remorseless nanobots tinkered with tectonic chaos. Io’s volcanoes had been tamed and water ice imported at great cost.
It had all been done for the dragons.
Harry Gregorman, first quadrillionaire of the twenty-second century, after pouring a fortune into resurrecting dinosaurs, switched gears into hatching mythological beasts after the real things eluded animation. The first dragons had died in labs, versions 2 and 3.0 spindly and weak. Yet evermore outlandish genes were inserted and the creatures grew stronger and scarier until, after an incident with an escape, the N.A. Pact slapped him with sanctions and suits. Harry, never a man to give up, had then bought Io from the ISA and established Dragon Park. The moon’s grand opening had come last year and after no one had been devoured, press obsession and ticket prices fell to affordable levels for plebeians intent on ruining holiday vacations as per the whims of younger brothers.
So here by all the misfortunes of the universe, here knifing into Io’s stratosphere, here on the edge of nowhere, sat she.
“Pull up the map,” her brother elbowed her.
“You seriously haven’t looked at anything have you? On the park portal website. Fine, I’ll share.”
Clarence twisted his iRing and a hologram of Io popped up from it, correctly in synchronous rotation with Jupiter, which was only partially shown.
“So where do you want to go?”
“Haven’t the foggiest.”
“Come on. We’ve only got five days. We can’t see the whole moon.”
“Wow. I’m heartbroken.”
“You will be if you’re back on dumb Earth and regret things. Come on, pick any dragon you want to see.”
Julia waved her hand over the globe. She drew her fingers apart to zoom. “The Chinese dragons. Those look interesting.” The snake-like four-legged creatures with antlers looked like a deranged kid’s darkest nightmare. They also seemed the least appalling option.
“Yeah, we could check those out. Sure. But they’re not half as cool as these guys.”
He flicked off her selection and zoomed in by a ridgeline.
“Tremor beasts? What the heck are those?”
“They’re big as mountains. Harry made them up. Even with gravity five times weaker on Io, they can’t fly because they’re so enormous and when they move the whole moon shakes for miles.”
She gulped at a creature resembling a basilisk pawing canyons through sulfur dioxide. Why would anyone want to come close to that?
“Find ten more for me, okay?”
Trying to calm herself, she closed her eyes, flicking through her virtual feed. Yesterday she’d taken a picture of lunch, which only two of her friends had liked. And no one had commented on today’s big events, what with the sorry slow speed of light laboring forty-five minutes one-way just to reach anyone back on Earth.
She flicked through what her friends had posted and it induced more jealousy than yesterday. Ashlye was on a cruise in the Bahamas. Natalie and Emma were playing golf on the moon. Stacy had posted an interactive mosaic of every stop on her tour of Australasia. She’d included a sickeningly gorgeous panorama of the New Barrier Reef at sunset.
The shuttle jolted her stomach with delightful turbulence. Tasting bile she opened her eyes. Her iRing was buzzing. Off she subvocalized. Yes, I mean it.
Orange safety lights turned on. The captain’s voice crackled over the intercom. “We’re flying over a dust storm, folks. Stay in your seats and keep those straps buckled tight. If you’ve taken out any personal items, take a moment to check they’re still where you left ‘em.”
Clarence popped off the hologram. “Think it’s serious?”
“They do this every day, twerp. Everything’s fine.”
Echoing her sentiments, the captain’s voice returned. “It’s going to get a little bumpier but there’s nothing to be concerned about. We should be out of this in the next ten minutes and I’ll update you on our approach.”
She heard a few complaints from fellow passengers, annoyed that their arrival was likely delayed. Whatever, she thought. Dad’ll catch up to us faster and…
She never managed to finish the thought.
A piercing, rising, horrible whine lanced through the shuttle. The lights turned off.
Julia gasped. A baby started crying and someone screamed. Fear pounded with her heartbeat. No light or backup light glowed anywhere. The air was thinning and growing cold. Something bumped her face – a rebreather? A stewardess shouted vainly for calm as Julia’s stomach leapt into her mouth.
The shuttle had fallen into a nose-dive.
She was suddenly weightless, floating, screaming. “Put it on!” Clarence shouted. “Put it on, you idiot!”
He was holding out something – a mask, maybe. He put it on for her and she could suddenly breathe again. She could make out her brother in silhouette, his own rebreather hiding his lips.
“Parachute!” he shouted in her face, and the word meant as much to her in that moment as pre-Rosetta hieroglyphics.
He reached under her seat and pulled a strap, yanking out something he started tying onto her.
“Put on your parachutes!” Was that the captain shouting? “Put on your parachutes! Put on your masks…”
The shuttle flipped suddenly into a barrel roll. An exit door opened and started slamming the fuselage. Air whooshed past roaring out of the cabin. Weightless no longer, Julia was sucked toward the breach, barely held back in her seat by her harness.
Clarence was shouting but she had just seen darkness. Her insane brother undid his harness, leaving only a final buckle. He fumbled against her, checking her parachute. The world was spinning, everyone screaming. Someone tore loose from their harness, slammed an overhead bin, and fell screaming through the hole.
“Hold my hand!” Clarence shouted. “Hold on!”
“No, don’t,” Julia begged, eyes wide with horror at what he was doing.
Protests melded into a scream as he popped her last buckle and his and the massive vacuuming winds ripped them instantly out of the shuttle.