“C’mon Edie, it’s time for Fireside. Hurry up! I don’t want to be late.”
“Oh, douse your rockets, Sophia. I’m coming already. The Elders mostly do this for us anyway. They’ll wait until we’re all there. After all, it’s your turn for a story tonight, and you’re just anxious to impress you-know-who.”
A moment later, Edie came out of the bedroom with an armload of ratty blankets. Sophia grabbed her elbow and hustled her out the front door. They strode down the footpath to the beach where a couple large pieces of driftwood half a meter across and several meters long were already blazing in a pit in the sand. A dozen or so people of all ages and races were seated in a semi-circle ring around the fire, mostly wrapped up in blankets against the quickly cooling dusk air and light but steady offshore breeze. Everyone was snuggled together in twos and threes with their feet stretched out toward the fire. A few other stragglers were still quietly materializing out of the darkness and finding open spots on the sand.
Sophia and Edie picked an open space right up front. Edie whispered, “I told you we’d get a good seat. We always do.” Sophia soundlessly mouthed “Thank you,” as Elder Mia, looking tiny and a thousand years old and yet somehow all the more powerful and strong for every last year, stood up right in front of the fire and waited for the crowd to hush before speaking.
“Welcome welcome everyone! So good to see you all here tonight. It warms my heart to see everyone so healthy and happy and together in one place.
"As you may know, tonight is an extra special night. Not only is it our Fireside Moon, but also, in the calendars of Before, the 10th day after the winter solstice marked the last day of the old year, and exactly halfway through the night marked the beginning of the new year. The biggest parties in the history of humankind were thrown on this night. Even back when it used to get really cold, legends say that billions people would flood the streets, and they would shoot exploding fires into the sky until the night was like day. The people would clap and shout and dance until the sun came up. The people of Before also used this night as a marker to remember their past and plan for the future, just like we do on the solstice. In a way, tonight’s Fireside carries a double meaning for us. Tonight, besides being the night of the full moon, is a night of remembrance and celebration, and this night has long been a night for both.
"So… we have several good stories lined up, and from a few new voices too, I’m happy to share. Now, who wants to start us off with our invocation?”
A young girl, maybe 14 or 15 winters old, barefoot and barely wearing much at all besides the blanket wrapped around her shoulders and a few wide strips of brightly dyed cloth loosely crisscrossed around her body as was the fashion, stood up and said, “Elder Mia, may I… may I do the invocation tonight?”
Elder Mia smiled at the girl and said, “Of course, you may, Persephone. Go right ahead.”
Persephone looked at her feet a moment, looking a bit shy, and briefly dug her toe into the sand. She then took a deep breath, straightened up to her full height that was a good bit taller than any of the boys her age, and lifted her chin to gaze out over the many faces now staring at her. She cleared her throat, and in a voice so suddenly loud, confident, and clear that no one present could remember ever hearing come from her – nor from anyone really, at least not since her father and the rest of the sailors left years before – she began reciting the invocation in a powerfully melodic, almost hypnotic fashion. “We, the people of the cool beach and fertile valley in the time of After, gather here together at the Fireside Moon to share our stories. These are our stories, true in spirit, true in meaning, and true as best we can remember. These stories keep our ancestors alive. These stories shine a light into the new future we create for ourselves. These stories hold our community together. These stories are who we were and who we are and who we will become yet again. Now pay attention. The moon and a trillion stars and planets watch over us tonight, listening, as it is once again time to tell our stories.”
Persephone smiled a proud little half-smile and sat back down in the sand. No one moved even a centimeter, all eyes were still on her, and more than one jaw hung open. Not a sound could be heard but the waves lapping up against the sand further down the beach. After a long moment, Elder Tristan stood up and said, “Thank you, Persephone. Now, Sophia, please come to Center and tell us your story.”
Sophia stood up, walked over toward the Elders, and sat in the Tellers Chair facing out from the fire. Elder Tristan pulled a large blue, spiral-bound notebook and pen out of a backpack. He opened the notebook about halfway and wrote across the top of a new page, “Sophia Master-Gardener, Winter-Day 10, Year 85.”
Then Sophia began telling her story. She began, “I call this story, “What Goes Up.”
“It’s getting bad up there, Thao.”
“You wouldn’t even know from here though. Just a little blue light. Our little blue light. It’s pretty even, don’tcha think?” They stood side-by-side at the rim of the deep red gorge next to base. He put his arm over her shoulders, a gesture made even more awkward by the thermal oxy-suits they’d been wearing since outpost D.
Thao turned away from the gorge, shaking Javier’s arm off her shoulders, and folded her own arms as well as she could. She looked at Javier with no expression at all on her face. She didn’t say a word, just stared at him blankly through her mask.
“Aren’t you worried too?” he asked.
“Yes, Javier, I’m worried, but it doesn’t change anything up here. And there’s nothing we can do about it, now or ever. So why waste time talking about it?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe because we have families and friends up there. We used to live our lives there. We were born there, you know. Doesn’t that matter?”
“I don’t know, does it matter? Tell me… when was the last time you got a transmission, even a single lousy ‘How’s the colony? The holidays are coming up and I’m thinking of you,” type of email from anyone earthside for chrissakes?”
Javier looked down from the sky to the ground. He kicked up a little puff of brownish red dust with the toe of his right boot. The dust quickly settled back down as if it were sand.
“A hundred fifty-seven days. Martian days, I mean. You?”
“I stopped counting when my mother died years ago.”
“So what’s your point?”
“My point is we’re not going back. We knew that when we left. Our lives are here, not there. The people inside those airlocks are our family. If people back on earth want to ruin their atmosphere, kill their rivers, and blow each other up, why should I care?”
“Yeah, so true. What I wouldn’t give for their skies, their water cycles, I mean, the pure amount of biomass. Oh man. It’s gonna take us decades to make even 1/10th of that here. Those idiots.”
“Still, it’s pretty.”
“So… have dinner with me tonight. To celebrate being back on base. I’ve got some fresh tomatoes I’ve been growing for a special occasion.” He winked at her through his mask, and continued in a singsong voice, “I know how much you love fresh veggies.”
“Ugh, Javier. No. We’re just friends. I’ve told you 20 times I’m not interested in dating you – or anyone – right now. There’s too much to do out here, and I’ve got too many measurements to take on the other side. I’m leaving again in a few days to make the perimeter readings. I won’t be back until ten-ten-sixteen. I don’t have time for ‘dinner.’” She pantomimed quotes with her thick grey spacesuit fingers. “Anyway, you’re on the atmo crew. What if there’s another explosion and you die… just like… I mean, what’s the point?”
“The point is I like you. Even if there were a dozen single women up here, I’d still like you.”
“I’m only one in a dozen, eh? You sure know how to charm the oxy-suit off a lady, don’t you?” She sighed and paused a long moment. “Javier, I’m flattered, but no thank you. If we were still on earth, and if we didn’t work together, and if if if a hundred other things that aren’t so, then maybe. But out here on the colony, if it doesn’t work out I’ll still have to see you every single day. I don’t shit where I eat, you copy? Let’s go back inside.”
Javier looked at her, then back up at the starry sky for several seconds. His mask began to fog up. “Good idea, the news transmission should be coming in shortly.”
“Earth news. Whatever.”
Thao walked over to the large corrugated aluminum and steel beam building nearby, ducked inside a red door, and turned off the large white LED lights that lit the area outside the hangar. She didn’t wait for Javier as she strode back out of the hangar. Neither said anything as they walked the 100 or so meters from the hangar back to the main airlock. Thao walked several steps in front of Javier, and Javier made no effort to catch up. When they reached the base, she hit the black door-lift button, and Javier turned to look back up at the tiny blue dot overhead while the big, greasy, metal door slid slowly, soundlessly upward. Once the bottom of the door was high enough to clear her helmet, Thao ducked inside. Javier waited until the door fully reached the top before turning around and joining her in the airlock.
45 minutes later, freshly showered, back in base clothes, and feeling a little refreshed but mostly just ragdoll tired, they found themselves heading toward the big screen at the commissary coffee bar. A couple dozen or so people gathered around, mostly looking down at and tapping the screens on various gadgets, a few folks chatting nervously with each other. One woman looked up and smiled as they approached. Javier waved and then split off toward the coffee counter.
“Oh, hey, Thao. Good to see you guys again. When did you get back?”
Thao gave her a quick hug, kissed both cheeks, and said, “Hi Janice. Just now. Why’s everyone here look so… tense?”
“Well, today’s news was supposed to start 15 minutes ago.”
“Okaaay… is the central router down again? Did Rick reboot yet?”
“No, our local station comes in just fine. That’s what’s weird. We can’t even pick up the weak sat-TV or net broadcasts. We’re getting nothing.”
“Wait, what? All earthside transmissions are black?”
“Our crew left 27 days ago and we just got back in. When was the last signal?”
“26 days ago for most wavelengths. The last ISS transmission came in exactly 14 days ago. They said it was pretty bleak on the blue-and-green, but they’d update us once a week. Haven’t heard a peep since then.”
“Most everyone thinks it’s all over up there. What it really means is anyone’s guess, but from what we saw in the last transmission, I’ll bet you a credit to fifty it’s the end for them. If anyone survives, it’ll take them centuries to rebuild.”
“Wow. Just wow. I mean, I’ve been expecting this for years, but it finally happened, huh?”
“It finally happened. Unless you’ve got a stash of rocket fuel or a handsome cowboy hidden in those research outposts, sweetie, it’s us and the little green men from now on. Which reminds me, how’s Javier? You guys sure seem to spend a lot of time together lately.”
“Yeah, I, well…” Thao trailed off and looked up at the blank screen for a long moment. “I need a minute to process this.”
Just then, Javier walked up with two cups of bio-caff, full to the brim – he had to walk slowly so as not to spill – and set them on the table nearby. Janice gave him a lingering hug and a slightly wetter-than-normal kiss on both cheeks.
Janice said, “Oh, hi, Javier. So good to see you, cowboy,” with an extra-long emphasis on the word cowboy. “Listen, I’ve got to run, but Sweetie Pie here can fill you in on the news. See you two at JJ’s soiree tomorrow? The nuke crew will all be there, and we all know how well the nukeys holds their starshine. Bones’s tests showed they never did acclimatize right. Sooo glad I’m not a nukey. Anyway, it should be another rager. Ciao ciao!” And off she went.
Javier tilted his head and cocked one eyebrow. He asked Thao, “So…what was that all about?”
Thao paused a moment, watching Janice weave and swish through the tables as she walked away. Thao looked back to Javier and touched his forearm lightly, then just as quickly pulled back. Almost inaudibly, she answered, “I’ll tell you over dinner. Your place at 1800?”
Sophia nodded to Elder Tristan to let him know that that was the end of her story. He continued to write in the notebook while she walked back to her spot in the sand while scanning the crowd for a certain face that wasn’t there. Elder Tristan stood up and said, “Sophia, what a wonderful first story. A lot to think about there. We look forward to many more from you in the future. Let’s give Sophia a round of applause.” The crowd clapped and shouted in approbation. When the applause died down, Elder Tristan said, “Who would like to go next?”