Icy, enervating, lacerating winds flipped her far away from Clarence. She fell forever, screaming, dying, and then straps dug into her diaphragm, squeezing what breath remained from her lungs. She drew a breath in barely and then another. Jupiter and Io had stopped swapping places. She looked up and saw her parachute had opened.
Thank God for redundancies. Thank God.
“Clarence,” she called out. “Where are you?” The winds ruthlessly stole her words. Worse, she was approaching impact. Please miss that mountain, please miss it, please…
A miracle shoved her a little forward and shortly afterward a crusty plain beckoned and she bent her knees.
She hit and rolled and bounced and landed sideways, twisted up with her parachute, bruised and sobbing. She swabbed at her eyes and tested her legs and caught sight of an incoming silvery parachute. The skydiver hopped on the landing three times then bounced upright and weakly waved.
“Hey.” She had never been so glad to see Clarence.
“Hey,” he called back. “You alright?”
“I’m good. I can’t get through to the Constellation. Does your ring work or is it just me?”
His question sparked the return of fear. She thumbed her ring first lightly and then desperately but Sylvia would not turn on.
She shook her head. “It’s busted. What a vacation.”
They stood on a sandy, steaming plain amid a barren mountainous wasteland riddled with boulders and jagged rocks. Her brother stared up at Jupiter then turned in a circle.
“Should we write, ‘Lost come help’ in the sand or what?”
Muttering unhelpfully under his breath something about Sirius and Orion, her brother missed seeing the mountain move.
“C-Clarence, do you see that?”
“…near the north pole near Tvashtar. We were heading to Hermitage, though, so maybe…”
He winced and turned on her, face red. “You don’t have to yell, I’m standing right here. And don’t mind me I’m just trying to get us out of this mess. I’m just trying to protect my selfish guardian who couldn’t guard a bot from a spark.”
“Clarence the volcano is moving!”
“You never thanked me, by the way. You’re pretty ungrateful, you know that?” He turned disdainfully to stare where she pointed. “And of course, it’s moving, volcanos erupt…”
But volcanos, generally speaking, didn’t raise up their stacks and tilt them. Ridgelines didn’t crinkle and crunch.
A fracture opened, splitting the mountain. Yellow-red sulfurous lava slopped messily out of the breach, sizzling around gigantic teeth.
“Run!” Julia seized her brother’s arm and he didn’t need much encouragement. Running quickly turned into bounding, five-yard dashes in each stride.
She spared a glance over her shoulder. No.
“It’s gaining on us!”
“I can see that!” Her brother opened up a lead, which she hated and tried to narrow. None of her augments worked after the crash, and she found herself missing them badly. I could run so much faster with extra adrenalin.
A ridgeline crested, they bounded downslope toward a column of smoke. Half of our shuttle, Julia realized, red bits strewn around a charred husk.
“Grab anything helpful!” her brother shouted.
“What about the volcano?”
“Do you want to die quickly or slowly? Look!”
Lacking a witty comeback, she pawed through the wreckage – all almost too hot to touch. The smoke was rising from the fusion reactor, which glowed blue, too hot to come close.
Clarence stumbled and jumped back. Julia stepped on a chunk of charred flesh and, horrified, kicked half a skull.
A roar. She ducked behind a once-proud gullwing stuck like a trowel in the sand.
Another beast had joined the fray, opposite the volcano, in a gnarly mood. Appearing as an armored serpent, diaphanous gilded wings lay flush against a shimmering, ruby hide.
She wrested her gaze away from the sight. She noticed a lump in a corpse’s grasp. She pulled it loose: a backpack, mostly intact.
The serpent reared up on its haunches – shorter than the volcano, but not by much. It roared and struck the volcano’s neck, jaws ripping off rock and exposing magma as Julia made the executive decision it was time for another sprint.
Clarence was already bounding off, and she charged hard on his heels. At last after what felt like an eternity, she slowed and looked back and couldn’t see any dragons.
She staggered and Clarence caught her left arm. “Come on, lazy.”
“Where…wh…” Everything about everything was a muddled fuzz. She had never run so hard in her life.
“Sure, right,” Filling in the question she hadn’t asked, Clarence sounded a little delirious himself. “We just need to rest…for a bit.”
He collapsed and she toppled on the sand beside him, the aches in all of her limbs getting worse. Who needed legs anyway? Who needed to move…?
* * *
She awoke aware of the painful lines her rebreather had etched into her cheekbones from having lain with her face on top of it. About to rip it off for relief, she dimly considered it might be keeping her alive. Semi-breathable alien air was not doctor recommended.
She twisted her ring and tried to sync out of habit. Nothing doing. The rebreathers mostly relied on microbes but unpowered she couldn’t check how long they’d hold out.
Clarence was lying on his side and snoring. She punched him on his shoulder.
“Stop frying in the sun like an egg, dingus. Did you find anything helpful back there or was that whole spiel of yours bravado?”
“Look who’s talking about putting on shows.”
She punched him again.
“Ow! That really hurt.”
“Stop kidding around. I found a backpack. How about you?”
“I found a knife.” Clarence bit his lip. “I think.” He dug out a charred black stick from his jeans then sorrowfully stared at the plastic stubble.
“Scratch that, it’s a toothbrush.”
“Brush twice daily.”
“Thanks, Jewels, you’re a riot.”
“Am I, Clarinet? How about this?”
She proudly held out her impressive discovery. Clarence, without complimenting her, seized and studied it.
“Zipper’s melted. Have to open this up the old-fashioned way.”
“With your knife?”
In all humor and seriousness he tried to tear a hole open; failing, he stepped on the backpack and ripped.
He started pawing through the contents without even asking. “Hey, it’s my bag, too.” She shoved him aside to rummage beside him. Extra clothes, toiletries, a plushy giraffe, baby formula, disposable diapers… Julia started feeling sick. It was the baby. I heard him crying.
“Well, this is useless. Way to go.”
She had lost all will to rummage further. Lacking the heart to punch her brother again, she slumped in the dirt on the verge of more tears. From Io, the sun looked so small and helpless, a dying orange light hid by ashen sky.
“Scratch that, you’re a hero.”
She blinked. “What?”
“Ms. Mother Prepared packed a charger. Voilà.”
Clarence held up a small white box with an empty imprint for an iRing. He took his off and pressed it in, frowned and flipped the box in his hands.
“The battery’s toast for this. Looks like you could still plug it in.”
“You really don’t know anything, do you? You know how things charged before everything was wireless?”
“Sure,” she lied. “But do you see plugs or whatever anywhere?” To indict the wilderness she spread out her arms, and in so doing a spot caught her eye. “It’s all empty and useless and rocky and hot and it’s all… Oh no.”
“Another dragon? What?”
“Probably and I hate it. Dragons are stupid. They should all be dead.”
Clarence shaded his eyes, too interested to disagree. “It’s kicking up a lot of dust. It’s…”
“It’s a person!” Hope roared to life inside her. “Someone’s coming. They’re going to see us! Jump! Wave!”
Her legs did not approve of jumping but she made as big a scene as she could. Clarence joined her in the jumping and shouting as the dust cloud gave way to a bicycle, of all the strange and ridiculous things.
The cyclist saw them and swerved in close, skidding to a halt that kicked up more dust.
“Thank God,” she blurted out. “Who are you?”
The cyclist tapped their helmet and it became translucent. It was a woman: middle-aged with wrinkle-limned eyes, crop cut hiding flecks of gray, mouth obscured by a rebreather. She kicked out her bike stand and dismounted as Julia tried not to gawk at those calves.
“Are you lost?” the woman asked. “Rings out of juice?” Rifle strapped to her back with a knife on her belt, this stranger looked ready to bike the whole moon.
“Yeah, we can’t reach anyone,” Julia said. “Our shuttle crashed. We don’t know why.”
Deeper worry etched new wrinkles. “Oh, that’s horrible. Haven’t been able to raise a soul myself.” She scanned their surroundings and disapproved. “First things first, you can’t stay here. You’re right by Grumpy’s favorite salt lick.”
Julia gulped at a nearby column, not at all keen to meet a Grumpy in the flesh.
“Your shuttle crashed, you said? Are there more survivors?”
“I don’t think so. Clarence?”
Her brother shook his head. “We saw the crash site. I think we were the only ones who made it.”
“Terrible, terrible. And here I can’t raise help from a solitary soul. Electronics dead, augments toast. Any bionic bits on you two?”
“Vision enhancements. Nothing big.” She glanced at Clarence.
“Yeah. Same here.”
“Right. Well, you’re some of the luckiest ones, I’d wager, if this brownout’s as bad as it looks. Can’t tell what caused it. Maybe a solar flare. Anywho, that’s enough jabbering. Name’s Amelie.”
The woman checked for herself they were ambulatory and offered to carry one on her back. Clarence, the big baby, would have said yes if Julia hadn’t strategically coughed. So neither took Amelie up on her offer and they bounced along beside her as she biked toward distant hills.
“Were your parents with you on your shuttle?”
Clarence shook his head. “Dad’s on our liner. Mom’s dead.”
“I’m so sorry. Was she in…?”
Julia said, “No, not in the crash. It was a long time ago. Complications from implant surgery.”
Silence descended for a long moment before Amelie moved on to happier questions. She asked which liner they’d taken from Earth, how their trip had been, why they’d come for Christmas. Her questions kept the miles receding and Julia’s attention away from her legs, which, if she thought about them, screamed. After this, I am never walking anywhere again.
They took a break once Amelie saw they were flagging. She found a shaded nook by a rockslide in view of three half-shuttle-size dragons tussling around a bubbling sinkhole. These ones looked classically European, black and red and emerald green, decked out with talons, pinions, and fire breath. Their rescuer peered at them through binoculars, which she passed to Julia and her brother in turn.
“Are you a Moon Ranger?” Clarence guessed.
Amelie nodded with a smile. “When I saw this moon I knew my family belonged here. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
“That must be nice,” Julia muttered. The dragons looked so happy nipping down in that sinkhole, nipping and chirping. How hot was their breath?
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” asked Amelie.
“I want to be a pilot,” Clarence said. “Starliner or military, whatever’s fastest.”
“Starliners move like chugs, Clarinet.”
Clarence glared at her. “Commercial sublight speeds are rising. You see the NX engine promo?”
“What about you, Julia?” Amelie pressed.
“Don’t know yet.”
“She wants to be a model,” Clarence mock-swooned. “She wants to strut and twirl in clothes she wears once. She’s got her whole little swarm of bots already like she’s living in a cloud of bees.”
“Shut up,” she growled.
“Jewels wants jewels and adoring fans. That’s why she hates us coming way out here. Too far from all the oohs and aahs.”
“I’ll make you ooze, you twerp. Shut up!”
Amelie smiled at their conflict, and Julia felt her cheeks flush hot. “So where are we going?” This subject needed changing and now.
“Do you two know about Io’s bunkers?”
“What are the bunkers?” Julia asked.
“They’re set up as bases for us Rangers and fallbacks if anything bad goes wrong. There’s forty-eight dispersed across the zones, each with enough provisions to last for months.” Amelie shook her head, still smiling. “You know for all we do to tame this moon we’re never completely in charge of everything. Volcanism is a fickle mistress.”
“What about the dragons? Are you in charge of them?”
“Supposedly,” said the woman. “But not always. All that bioengineering and in the end, they’re still wild beasts. Always have redundant systems for when your perfect plan goes wrong. Anyone hungry?”
She shared her water bottle and handed out protein bars. She said the air was safe enough to breathe if you kept it to a few minutes. Rebreathers thusly came off for the snack and were reapplied thereafter. Spirits restored, they again headed out and Amelie let Clarence ride her bike solo. She asked Julia, too, but Julia didn’t care to admit she’d never learned to ride a bike, so she just said no, she’d prefer to walk. Nobody biked now with so many augments. Except for her brother, who was weird.
Fatigue made Julia soon call for another stop under false pretenses of needing to pee. Under the shadow of a rocky overhang, she tried to pick out the Constellation or any shuttle flying low. Daddy must be worried sick.
She couldn’t see through all the clouds, of course, Io’s quasi-natural atmosphere too chokingly thick to penetrate. Surely the liner was sending out shuttles – right? Was anyone looking? Did anyone care? She became entranced by the thick clouds’ movements as the layers clumped and frayed and drifted until Amelie checked on her. Enough of that.
What would it be like to be a cloud, floating and blown apart by the wind?
“How far away is this stupid bunker?”
“Couple more miles,” Amelie answered.
Julia groaned. “Having fun yet, Clarinet?” she shouted at her brother who annoyingly didn’t react to the nickname, instead cresting an incline and slaloming down. They were slowly making it off of flat land, which made walking worse with climbing. Minutes passed with all the speed of snails. At last, exhausted, she could bound no more, and had to resort to the old way of walking, one step laboriously following the next. To think some nuts would think this torture was fun.
The misstep might have been unavoidable. Starting to sway and short on breath, mustering venom to spew at her brother, she missed the loose rocks, tripped, and slid.
On hands and knees, she started weeping. A shadow fell over her. “Can you walk?”
Her ankle felt twisted. Through a sheen of tears, she shook her head.
“I don’t have ice for that but I’m going to wrap it. You’ll be alright. Don’t move your foot.”
Amelie whipped out a roll of bandages from her capacious cargo jeans. The ankle wrapping was not pleasant and Julia bit her tongue then let herself be picked up, too grateful to remain embarrassed. In two strong arms, Amelie carried her and they continued at a much quicker pace: bounding again beside Clarence on the bike.
Amelie breathed heavily but never slowed. Clarence pointed out a camouflaged dragon resembling a boulder, but Julia missed it. Sand kept getting in her eyes and stinging. Her ankle swelled and throbbed with pain. Each rough breath was getting harder. Cheap emergency shuttle rebreathers weren’t intended for extended use.
Uselessly, she twisted her ring out of habit, praying for Sylvia’s cloying voice. The AI remained silent. Julia felt blind.
I could see everything, and now I see nothing. I could know everything, and now I’m lost.