Homeworld by Lisa Short
Night was falling across the Torus Zero arm of the Wheel. Rose, halfway out the Sunside maintenance airlock, wedged a suited knee under the hatch lip and gripped both sides so she could hang still and watch. The Wheel, geosynchronous, was the stable point in Rose’s frame of reference; it was the Sun that was moving, sinking behind Earth’s massive arc, limning the midnight blue of Earth’s endless oceans in molten gold. She could feel the Sun’s searing heat even through her faceplate’s polarizers; unconsciously, she reached out a hand towards that last blazing glimpse of it. But by the time she completed the motion, the Sun had already vanished behind Earth’s now-dark, gloomy bulk — her suit’s thermostat, confused, blasted her face with freezing air instead.
She would miss the Sun! — but she wasn’t going to dwell on that now; she wasn’t going to waste her last trip Outside for an entire year brooding over things that couldn’t be helped. And it wasn’t as if she wouldn’t see the Sun down there, too — her mouth compressed. She had seen footage of the Sun from the Earth-based reclamation labs before — a faint, blurry greenish-gray disc, clogged with sullen clouds and hard-working swarms of aerial algae. That would be almost worse than not seeing the Sun at all.
With the Sun gone, the Wheel’s Sunside solar panels were barely discernible, all their silvery beauty lost in shadow. Rose blinked the repair manifest to life on her faceplate display. Mycelarium panel 0351 interruption in circuit — she guessed the panel itself must have cracked. Normally, the mycelium lab’s Semi-Autonomous Machine Intelligence would simply have shed the panel and pulled up a new one from storage without bothering to notify anyone. For whatever reason, it had instead decided that the problem might be too complex for it to resolve on its own. Rose could have just sent a drone out herself to assess if an actual human needed to don a pressure suit and go Outside — she could have, but she hadn’t.
The repair was easy — just a stuck gear in the panel shedding mechanism, easily fixed even through the clumsiness of pressure suit gloves. Rose lingered Outside after she’d finished replacing the panel, her gaze greedily soaking up the broad sweep of the Wheel as it vanished around Earth’s Nightside curve. Tens of thousands of kilometers in circumference, it had been designed as a source of nearly limitless solar power for the planet beneath it, but by the time it had been completed, the increasingly desperate planetary population had needed it for far more than that.
Rose’s suit beeped irritably at her. She blinked rapidly to cycle to the alarm setting, then groaned aloud in the close confines of her helmet. The party! She hadn’t wanted to go in the first place, and now she was missing it — Campion was going to kill her.
Torus Zero had a small personnel airlock a few hundred meters from its main airlock. It was seldom used unless the latter was clamped to a visiting shuttle. Thanks to the party, that was the case now. Rose, emerging from the personnel airlock’s tiny ready room, nearly fled back inside it at the eruption of light and sound from Torus Zero’s main disembarkation corridor. The corridor was packed with several times its usual number of occupants, all in various states of noisy and gesticulating emotional upheaval — but she should have anticipated that.
“Rose, Rose, Rose-Red!” Hands clutched at her arms, swinging her around — or would have, if their owner hadn’t been far shorter than Rose. Rose clutched back, half in affection and half to re-aim the incoming sloppy, ethanol-soaked kiss at her cheek instead of her lips.
Campion somehow found space for them both in a lift full of cheerful visitors wearing the formal costume of one of the other Toruses, though Rose couldn’t identify either the costumes or the clipped consonants of the accented chatter surging around her. Campion wasn’t actually wearing her Torus Zero costume, but she had at least made an effort to dress up. Rose tried to hide herself and her utilitarian maintenance coverall behind Campion’s skirts without much success.
Campion didn’t let go of Rose’s arm until they made it into Torus Zero’s Atrium, the largest enclosed space anywhere on or around the Wheel. Tonight, its walls were packed with tempscreens feeding straight from all twenty-five of the other Toruses’ Atriums, all looking similarly overcrowded with their own residents — a lot of waving, clapping and cheers were being exchanged, and Rose made an effort to get into the spirit of things by determinedly smiling down at Campion’s beaming face.
“I know, isn’t this great?” Campion shouted up at her. “We’re so lucky to be alive now, right now, today! Can you believe it?”
“Excuse me!” boomed a voice over the Atrium’s speakers. “Attention, everyone, please — yes, thank you. I know we’re all very excited to be here, but we need to get started now — thank you. Welcome — welcome, Torus Zero residents, to the Atrium, and welcome, visitors, to Torus Zero!” Polite applause rippled around the room. “I am pleased, more pleased than I can express, to share with you the official confirmation of all those rumors you’ve undoubtedly been hearing. It’s true — our fifty-year meta-analysis has finally been completed! And the results show the best possible outcome. The Earth’s atmosphere is in full recovery!”
The applause this time went far beyond polite — it was a titanic roar of sound, interspersed with shrieks of glee. Rose thought her eardrums might pop, but she managed to return Campion’s exuberant hug. And she was glad about it, truly — that over a century of hard work had finally paid off, that the damage their ancestors had done to their homeworld wasn’t permanent after all. Life on Earth, what little was left beneath those searing, deoxygenated skies, would have the chance to recover something of its old population and diversity. Rose relaxed a little, her fixed smile softening into something more natural.
“I can’t believe we’re leaving for Earth tomorrow!” Campion snatched an aperitif off a passing tray and waved it frantically under Rose’s nose. “And I want to try real food down there, not this stuff — I want to eat a plant! A real plant! People didn’t evolve eating nothing but mycelia, you know. And, think about being outside! I mean, not Outside like in a fucking vacuum but someplace where you can actually walk around and see things, and touch things, and things are alive and growing and — “
“Still while wearing rebreathers,” Rose noted dryly. “And depending on which surface lab we end up assigned at, probably coldsuits too. Except for the constant one-gee…which I wouldn’t necessarily call a benefit…it won’t be that much different than working in the mycelarium.”
Campion rolled her eyes. “Why do you always have to be so, so — ” She sputtered out, clearly unable to find just the right word. “You know, it’s almost like you don’t even want to go!”
Rose felt her expression twitch and fought to subdue it, but it was too late; Campion had seen. “I — ”
“You…don’t want to go?” Campion stared up at her in blank astonishment. “It’s all we’ve ever wanted — it’s all we ever talked about since we were little!” You always talked about it, Rose thought, but couldn’t quite bring herself to say. And the child she had been had in fact been fascinated by those ancient aud-vids of old Earth…much the same way she’d been fascinated by the tattered, cracking hardcopy books of fairy tales their mothers had treasured, that she and Campion had read to rags growing up.
“Maybe I’ve changed,” Rose muttered finally — and knew the instant she said it that it was the entirely wrong thing to say.
Campion’s face whitened, nostrils pinching. “Have you? Has anything else changed?” Rose drew breath to speak, found to her horror that she couldn’t. Unexpectedly, Campion surged past her, her shoulder knocking hard into Rose’s arm in her wake. Rose staggered back, completely off balance, and only saved herself from a fast trip to the floor by clutching at the nearest startled partygoer. By the time she’d disentangled herself from them, apologizing profusely, Campion was gone.
The next morning, the mycelarium lab SeMI informed Rose that her supervisor wanted her to stop by his office before she began the work shift. “Why?” she asked grumpily, but the SeMI correctly inferred that it was a rhetorical question and didn’t answer. Rose abandoned her workstation and trudged over to Coeus’s tiny office.
“I’ll be very sorry to see you go,” said Coeus as she entered, smiling benevolently up at her from behind his desk. “But I’m sure the Earthside labs will appreciate your hard work, and it’s only for a year, after all.”
“Is it?” Rose couldn’t stop herself from saying. “Aren’t we all supposed to permanently move down there at some point?”
Coeus raised his silvery brows. “Eventually, dear, eventually. Not for years at the very least. Though you’re correct in supposing that more and more Wheel residents will be encouraged to make at least a part-time home of the place.”
“The place?” Rose couldn’t help zeroing in on that. “The place doesn’t sound very, very… affectionate?”
“Oh, I find Earth quite fascinating. It’s where the ancestors of all our mycelia came from, isn’t it? And our own ancestors too, of course.” His smile thinned to irony. “Did you know…” He paused, gazing thoughtfully up at her. “Toruses Eight and Twenty-Five have submitted a petition to Central Wheel Administration to slow their rotation.”
Rose blinked at this abrupt change of subject. “What? Why?”
“Why else? To lower their gravity. Savings in power consumption, wear and tear on the Torus’s mechanical parts — they don’t want to go entirely without, of course, but they’ve proposed a modest seven-eighths gee instead. The perfect balance of medical and longevity benefits with the fewest drawbacks, they say…They’ve quite the piles of data to back up that assertion, too. They even say their Torus SeMIs are on their side.”
“On their side? SeMIs don’t take sides — ”
“Well, the Torus Eight residents think they do. I admit, I’ve never noticed Torus Zero’s SeMI doing anything more than dim my cabin lights when I stay up reading too long!” He laughed heartily. Rose managed a faint smile in return. “Though I wouldn’t be surprised if their Health and Safety SeMIs do agree with their conclusions. One-gee is quite arbitrary.”
“Arbitrary?” Rose was starting to feel like a broken playback SeMI herself. “One-gee isn’t arbitrary if you’re planning on someday going…down to live on…” Rose trailed off. “Not planning on — ?” To say it aloud seemed the rankest heresy.
“I wouldn’t think they are planning on it,” said Coeus. He seemed to be actively enjoying himself now. “You never did do a Wheel year, did you, Rose?”
“No. I wanted to,” said Rose, awkwardly. “But — ” But Campion hadn’t, and that had been the end of that. Campion had only ever cared about traveling to Earth.
“It’s a shame you didn’t. Torus Zero is very conventional, you know. I highly approve of the custom, for our young people to take a year off after their basic schooling is complete and travel to at least two or three other Toruses, the farther away from their home Torus the better.” His dark gaze rested gently on her troubled face. “Not everyone believes the future of humanity is tied to Earth, Rose. Or at least, not only to Earth.”
A loud thump from behind Rose sent Coeus’s eyebrows winging up his forehead. Rose glanced back over her shoulder and stifled a wince. Campion was standing just outside Coeus’s office viewport, glowering in at them. “Your partner’s in a hurry today, I see,” said Coeus mildly, though Rose thought he probably knew it was more than that, and just as obviously he wasn’t going to try and make her talk about it. She smiled gratefully at him and hurried out.
“Cam, I’m sorry — Coeus called me in on my way — ”
“It’s fine,” said Campion shortly, and stalked off towards the mycelarium access lock. Rose trailed unhappily after her. Maybe it was just a hangover — if history was a good predictor, the daily drinking marathons Campion was currently engaged in would soon dwindle to a more reasonable trickle. But Rose was finding herself increasingly unwilling to suffer through those inevitable, miserable weeks.
The ready room exit cycled open and even through her quickly donned suit envelope, Rose could feel the wet heat of the mycelarium beyond — the access tube doors had to cycle open and closed so often that they were never quite airtight on the mycelarium end. The very pores of her skin seemed to strain towards that soft, enveloping warmth. As the access tube disengaged from the Torus and spun out towards the gravityless Wheel, she leapt lightly for one of the brackets lining the tube wall and pulled herself forward.
The door to the mycelarium cycled soundlessly open and Rose soared through it even before it had fully retracted into the walls. In the seconds it took the rebreather’s faceplate to shift into low-light mode, she saw only darkness — nearly as intense a black as the universe of star-studded vacuum just outside the Wheel’s curving walls. Then a faint click from her faceplate, and the dreamlike beauty of Torus Zero’s mycelarium leapt into sharp focus all around her.
Rose drifted lazily through the open center space — the mycelia tended to cling to the walls, lined as they were with nutrient-rich jelly, though some fruiting stalks were brave enough to thrust a meter or two out towards the mycelarium’s central axis. The faint blur of color resolved through the faceplate’s filters into vivid, shining hues — argon-blue, sodium-yellow, krypton-green — outlining the delicate embroidery of the mycorrhizal network, its filaments shimmering faintly through the dark jelly.
Then a loud curse startled Rose out of her reverie; she twisted around, careful not to do it too fast and send herself into a hopeless spin. “You okay?” she called out, firmly suppressing the edge that wanted to sharpen her tone, as Campion came into view several meters to her left.
Campion appeared to be stabbing away at something with a probe, rather more violently than Rose thought necessary for sampling, but she paused long enough to look up and shout “Fine, I’m fine!” back at Rose, then returned to her hacking. She sounded angry, not hurt, so Rose stifled a sigh and called up her own sampling protocol. Time to get to work —
But she had trouble focusing — not on the tasks at hand, the day’s sampling assignments were entirely routine — but on the usual sense of peace, almost communion, that she always experienced when working in the weightless, shining dark of the mycelarium. Periodic snarled obscenities kept erupting from Campion’s location on the opposite wall, interspersed with sighs loud enough to be audible through both her rebreather and Rose’s helmet even at a distance of several meters. Rose finally gave up, hurried through her last few sample plates, then headed for the door. She was irritated enough to let Campion finish on her own.
Alone in her tiny cabin, Rose sat crosslegged on her bunk, holovue in hand. Images flickered through it, then froze as she tapped the holovue’s side: Campion, aged ten, caught mid-guffaw, arms wrapped painfully tight around a tall skinny Rose, both of them entangled in the curly explosion of Campion’s hair. Rose tapped the holovue again, twice in quick succession; obediently, the holovue began to replay in slow mode. The holocam had zoomed in on Campion’s face — Rose-Red! her lips formed, silently. Rose’s own young face was suffused from squeezing until it was nearly as red as her hair, red enough that her usually invisible eyebrows stood out like pale parentheses on her freckled forehead. Rapunzel! holo-Rose’s lips shaped, that old and well-beloved game. Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!
As if in response to her silent thoughts, her cabin door slid open; Campion stood framed in the doorway, the light from the corridor behind her casting her face into deep shadow.
Just say it, just say it, coward — ! Rose sucked in a deep breath. “I don’t want to go down to Earth,” she said — too loudly; her voice echoed out into the corridor and she felt her cheeks grow tight and hot with embarrassment.
Campion stepped inside. The cabin lights switched on automatically, but only to the dim yellow of the late evening setting. But it was enough for Rose to make out the glaze over Campion’s eyes, the faint reddish sheen obscuring their clear whites and dark brown irises. Tears, or booze, or both? It was impossible to tell.
“I spent all evening telling myself you weren’t going to say that.” Campion’s voice was low and husky. “But I think I knew you were anyway. Why, Rose? Just tell me why?” Rose groped for words, words that would make sense to Campion — that would even make sense to herself — but Campion quickly tired of waiting. “This is about the goddamn mycelarium, isn’t it?” Campion’s voice had risen, too loud for the close confines of the cabin. “You just can’t give it up — ”
Unbidden, the mycelarium leapt to life in Rose’s mind. The darkness, the damp heavy heat of its life, its deep and lovely silence, the endless mystery of its own self-communion. And herself, free of the constraints of Torus gravity, drifting in its center like a child in the womb, trembling on the threshold of some newer, greater rebirth — “But this is where I want to be, Cam,” she said pleadingly. “I’m glad the Earth is finally recovering, I am. But I don’t — ” She took a deep breath. “I don’t want to be a part of it.” Her head swam with the relief of finally saying the words aloud, as much to herself as to Campion. “I don’t.”
“And what — ” Campion cleared her throat, a harsh bark of sound. “What about my future? What about our future? You don’t want to be a part of that either?”
Rose’s eyes stung. “I do — I do — if you want to stay here too, we can try — ”
“No! We agreed we’d go down there, together! You promised!”
There was no point anymore in being anything other than completely honest, about everything, now. “Cam — your drinking — ”
“Is that what this is all about? I can stop it anytime!”
“I don’t want you to stop if you don’t want to,” said Rose rapidly. “If it’s not any of my business — ”
“No.” Campion’s lips had drawn back from her teeth, her small round fists clenched tight at her side. Rose looked away. She hadn’t forgotten that last shove in the Atrium — she’d tried hard to believe it had been just an accident, and maybe it had been…but maybe it hadn’t. “No,” Campion snarled. “I’m going, and you’re going to be sorry when I’m gone, and then you’ll realize how wrong you are, and I’ll be waiting for you down there, I will be waiting for you, Rose, when you pull your fucking head out of your ass and realize how stupid you’re being!” She whirled around, banged a fist on the door which slid obediently open, and ran out into the corridor.
The abrupt silence Campion left behind her roared in Rose’s ears. “Revoke access,” Rose whispered. “SeMI? Revoke cabin door access for Torus Zero resident Campion, close personal contact. Revoke all access. Revoke.”
Rose floated, weightless and free, only the unseen safety tether spooling out behind her, keeping her tied to the Earthside maintenance airlock. The last dregs of momentum from her leap outward had left her with a lazy rotation, perpendicular to the solid bulk of the Wheel-end terminus of Torus Zero’s space elevator. The elevator itself was flashing its yellow disembarkation lights. As Rose watched, the lights shifted to brilliant, unblinking green, and the thick graphene cable beneath the terminus snapped taut as the elevator began its ponderous descent down into the gloomy darkness of Nightside Earth, waiting below with all the uncaring patience of a sleeping leviathan.
She had checked the elevator manifest before she’d given in to the impulse that had sent her out here without a maintenance call, or any other real justification for suiting up and exiting the Wheel — Campion was indeed listed on its personnel roster. Campion was in there, buried somewhere in the bowels of the elevator, securely strapped in with all she’d need for a year’s duty rotation on Earth — without Rose —
A notification flared to life on the side of her faceplate. Startled, Rose blinked it open before she had time to reconsider. The thought that it might be a message from Campion, some last-minute plea or demand, sent a belated surge of adrenaline through her, and not the pleasant kind; her stomach cramped painfully in response.
It was a message, but not from Campion. Voluntary Personnel Reassignment Alert, Rose read. Your request, logged at 0500 today, for a work-based transfer to the Torus Eight mycelarium lab has been approved by your current supervisor. If you are still interested in this opportunity, please notify the Torus Eight Personnel SeMI.
Personal message appended: Do try to stay in touch, dear! Coeus.
As Rose read and reread the letters, eyes tracing the shining crimson outline of each one, they abruptly vanished, replaced by Warning! Torus Zero SUNRISE in: 5:00 minutes! Rose quickly tapped the tether respooler, bracing herself against its sharp backwards yank. The elevator was already gone from sight, lost in the shadowy depths of Earth’s atmosphere, its graphene cable now invisible against the darkness. Rose’s heart throbbed sharp as a bruise, leaving her hunched over the safety tether like an old woman as it reeled her back in.
Not everyone believes the future of humanity is tied only to Earth, Rose.
Rose blinked her stinging eyes hard to clear them, then scrambled back up the Wheel’s curving side, hand over hand, to the maintenance airlock. As she slid her booted feet down past the hatch lip, the vast midnight curve of Earth’s far horizon began to coruscate electric blue and gold; she paused for just a moment, gloved hands gripping the hatch. The familiar click of her suit’s thermostats triggering full cooling, the faint whine of the faceplate polarizers engaging a split second later — then the first blazing light of the Sun rose over the shining silver curve of the Wheel, and Rose — the ache in her heart briefly subsumed in wonder — quickly ducked down into the shielded safety of the maintenance lock.
Originally published in the June 2023 issue of Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.
Lisa Short is a Texas-born, Kansas-bred writer of fantasy, science fiction and horror. Lisa currently lives in Maryland with her husband, youngest child, father-in-law, two cats and a puppy. She can be found online at lisashortauthor.com and on Twitter and Instagram @Lisa_K_Short.