Ursa Major by Shelly Jones
Danica had been asleep until the light from the control panel jolted her awake, an alert echoing within the station. Bleary-eyed, she scanned the monitors, detecting the presence of an asteroid field.
“Activate shields,” she commanded and braced for impact, her eyes pinched shut, as she heard the shuttering of metal as the bulwarks powered into place.
“Commander Bahr, are you all right?” a voice called over the intercoms, static corrupting the message.
As mineral fragments buffeted the satellite, Danica thought of her daughter Artie. In the latest video message, Artie had described laying in bed frightened, pulling the covers taut around her face.
“It’s dark, Mama,” she complained.
The dust storms had blocked the moonlight that once filled her room, and Artie’s imagination crept along the darkened walls, ever alive. Danica missed tucking Artie in at night, smoothing back her hair, wiping rivulets of dust from her stained pillowcase. Some nights, before the expedition, she’d lay next to Artie until she fell asleep, her breath hot and smelling of bubblegum toothpaste.
“There’s something out there,” Artie had insisted in the video. “When are you coming home?”
“There’s no power source for the thrusters,” a voice reported over the radio. “The asteroids have broken off the solar array. I’m sorry, Commander Bahr. I’m afraid,” the voice stammered, unwilling to form the words.
“I know what it means,” Danica spat, flicking off her comms device.
There had still been starlight when Danica would walk with her as a baby, Artie never tiring even as her nose wrinkled with yawns. Danica would stand at the window, bouncing the bundled infant for hours, looking up at the sky.
“There’s Cassiopeia,” she’d say wearily, pointing at the fading stars, reciting remnants of constellations she had learned as a child.
As she got older, Artie grew fascinated with stars. Homemade sky charts of black construction paper and crayon stretched across her ceiling. On the rare clear days, Artie demanded they go to the planetarium so she could sit in the dark, eyes wide, and announce, “My mom’s an astronaut!” to a chorus of hushes, giggles, and whispered scoldings. Danica would squeeze her hand and watch Artie fidget in the oversized auditorium seat, her excitement uncontainable.
In the wake of the asteroid field, Danica swam, weightless, the length of the station and stared into the void outside the station. She tried to imagine Earth, before its desiccation, before the rust-filled air had swallowed the sun. In the days before her launch, she remembered struggling with Artie over wearing a mask when they went outdoors.
“No, no, no. It feels like someone putting their hand over my mouth,” Artie would cry as Danica adjusted the straps around Artie’s small ears, brushing her hair away from the elastic bands. She wondered where Artie had come up with that image, but shrugged, holding her hand tightly as they went outside into the reddish brown haze.
“Hold on tight. Like I was Alfred,” Danica had instructed, pretending she was Artie’s favorite stuffed bear, ragged and worn, eye threads loose.
“Will you live on a star?” Artie asked a few weeks later, when Danica’s mission was scheduled.
“Not exactly. More like, near them.” She looked around Artie’s room at the pile of stuffed animals on her bed. “If you’re the satellite I’ll be stationed on, then this is a star,” she positioned Alfred next to her and tilted his head to examine Artie, an eyeball button drooping. “And this is a star,” piling on a stuffed moose. “And this,” placing a toy cat on her lap. “And this, and this, and this!” she said, smothering Artie with stuffed toys as her giggles filled the room.
As she drifted, Danica was grateful the agency had insisted she create a post-mortem video, something to play on the news in between updates on the fires and the ongoing war. She had made two videos, one for the public, squirming as she still adjusted to her spacesuit, her hair splayed around her as though electrostatically charged, and one for her daughter. She couldn’t remember exactly what she had said in either now: something vague and heroic for the public, something about how much she loved Artie in the other.
“Can’t you just come home?” Artie had asked again, her eyes pleading. Danica replayed her daughter’s video message over and over, Artie’s voice encasing her as she floated through the station. She refreshed the video a tenth time and watched Artie’s eyes, darting off camera, as though looking over her shoulder. She tried to remember Artie’s room, mapping her surroundings in her mind. She clicked on the image and zoomed in. Rows of dirt-crusted teeth bit at the window pane behind Artie, an open maw swelling the perimeter of the frame.
“There’s something out there,” Artie’s voice stuttered and distorted as Danica played the video slowly, her eyes fixed on the window behind her daughter. “When are you coming home?”
Warmth gathered in her belly as she thought of Artie alone in the dark. Her skin cracked, fault lines of light fracturing her body.
“Commander Bahr, are you there? We’re getting a reading of a sudden flux of energy from the satellite,” the voice called again over the comms. “Commander?”
As she shattered, rays splintering the station, Danica imagined Artie’s face beaming, awash in the glow of a new constellation, the darkness fading behind her.
Shelly Jones (she/they) is a Professor of English at a small college in upstate New York, where she teaches classes in mythology, literature, and writing. Her speculative fiction has been published in Podcastle, New Myths, The Future Fire, and elsewhere. Find them on Twitter.