Orbital Lullaby by M. Douglas White

“Please, I’ll do anything you want,” I begged. “Just please, oh, please, stop.”

That seemed to get her attention. Phoebe went silent and lay still in my arms. She squinted up through bloodshot eyes and seemed surprised to see me, somehow. Then confused. And then suspicious. She started crying again, even louder than before.

My child had been at it for over an hour.

I had tried everything I could think of to soothe her. She pushed aside the bottle of formula. She ignored the cartoons on the viewscreen. She had no interest in watching Earth drift by when I switched it to porthole mode. She even threw her favorite stuffed animal—a purple monkey—to the ground in frustration.

I was so tired, I could barely keep my eyes focused. As Phoebe cried, I bit my lip, fighting my own urge to scream. This wasn’t the reality I’d imagined for us, and it certainly wasn’t the one I wanted.

“I suppose you just want your mother,” I sighed.

Right on cue, Shandra emerged from our bedroom and walked into the common area.

“Hey, sugar. Need a hand?” Shandra said.

She was wearing her grey work coveralls, wrinkled after a double shift, and her long, dark hair hung disheveled around her shoulders. She was exhausted. But she forced a smile through puffy eyes and swollen cheeks, and reached out with both arms to take Phoebe from me. I hesitated, so Shandra started singing softly.

“My dear, little star, up high in the sky,

How do you shine so brightly?

Nighttime is here, and so sleep is nigh,

Rest your sweet mind, my darling.”

Before Shandra could start the second verse, Phoebe stopped crying.

“Mama?” she murmured.

“No!” I snapped, twisting her away from Shandra. “Sorry, I’m on edge. It’s okay. I need to learn to do this myself. She can’t rely on you all the time.”

Shandra put her palms up in a defensive posture.

“Hey, no worries,” she said. “I understand. You can try singing to her sometime, you know.”

“No, that’s your song. Like I said, I need to try some things of my own.”

“Suit yourself. But it always works.” Shandra gave me a wink. “Anyway, I just came out to see if you needed me.”

I did need Shandra. I wanted so desperately to pass Phoebe to her, to crawl into bed and finally get some sleep, and to have just one moment alone with my own thoughts. But I knew that I couldn’t, and that I needed to bond with Phoebe. I yearned for the day when my child realized that Shandra wasn’t her only parent, and that I was here to comfort her and raise her aboard this place.

“Look, I’m sorry,” I told her. “I never thought this would be so hard—”

“It’s okay,” Shandra interrupted. “You’ve got this, right? I’m just going to head back to work.” She stuck her thumb behind her.

“Yeah, okay,” I said shakily. “I’ve got this.”

Shandra smiled and tip-toed backward into our bedroom. I took another deep breath and reveled in the momentary silence, tainted only by the soft hum of the air circulator.

“M-m-mama?!” Phoebe wailed when she realized Shandra had left, and fresh tears streamed down her cheeks.

I collapsed into the recliner, Phoebe still in my arms, and bowed to the inevitability of another sleepless night.

***

The alarm blared at 0600. Mercifully, Phoebe had knocked out some four hours beforehand.

I turned off the alarm and twisted myself out of bed, rubbing my eyes. Shandra was there, as usual, sitting at the tiny desk in our bedroom, fingers poised above the keyboard of her sleek and shiny workstation—the latest model, given only to officers aboard the station. Her eyes were glued to the screen. A workaholic, to the bitter end.

That’s fine, I thought. Wednesdays were always mine, anyway.

I stepped into the hallway and peeked inside Phoebe’s room. She lay curled in a heap, clutching her purple monkey in both hands. I stared at the slight rise and fall of her chest for a few seconds, hypnotized by its steady rhythm. Then I crept silently toward the common area.

Our cozy quarters weren’t much by earthbound standards, but they were downright palatial aboard the station. Only family units were allotted quarters with multiple rooms, and our place was even bigger than most. It was a perk of Shandra’s prominent position, and a bonus for our commitment to raising Phoebe in orbit for three more years.

Earth’s population had been exponentially rising for generations, and the planet had been irreparably changed. Soon we’d run out of both room and resources. Small-scale beta colonies on Mars were showing potential for mass sustainability. Lunar ones, less so. Ours was the first orbital station designed to house a major city’s worth of occupants in conditions that mimicked the type of life our grandchildren would have to leave behind. This included the rearing of a new generation, which had been the deciding factor for Shandra being chosen as part of the station’s command crew—and me, by proxy. Though ours was the first, there were seven more experimental stations launching over the next year, each with different environmental variables.

Creating a better reality for our future generations—that was the spirit of our mission.

Our common area housed a kitchenette with all the comforts of home in miniature form. I pulled out a mug and switched on the thermofountain, then swiped through the various drink options and selected “Coffee.” The machine instantly dispensed a hot stream of golden brown liquid.

With energy quite literally in hand, I walked over to the room’s antiquated viewscreen. Rather than using the voice command and risk waking Phoebe in the adjacent room, I ran my finger along the screen’s face. The default porthole mode activated, showcasing an expanse of blackness nestled against a half-circle of blue ocean and swirling, white clouds. I swiped the screen again to switch feeds, ignoring the glitches while reminding myself to call Allocation and attempt to procure a newer model.

The commander’s face—that of an older woman with cropped, gray hair and wrinkled, ebony skin—appeared. She stared at me while reciting the day’s announcements from a teleprompter. Luckily, I had muted the screen before shutting it down the previous night. I activated the captions and eased into the recliner.

Emergency fire drills will be scheduled for Ring 3, Bravo Quadrant on Friday, 1300.

Agriculture anticipates a surplus of potatoes during the next harvest cycle, meaning that rationing plans are expected to be revised one month early.

Lieutenant Avery will soon be leading a team of engineers on a spacewalk to repair a malfunctioning communications array. This will be only the group’s second extravehicular activity since the ill-fated…

I turned off the captions, then took a sip of burnt coffee and sank deeper into the recliner. I had just booted up my tablet to start grading some work from my middle-graders when Phoebe began to stir in the other room. I successfully ignored her for a whole minute, then stood up, placed my mug and tablet onto the kitchenette counter, and walked into my bedroom to dress.

Phoebe was pleasantly docile when I lifted her from the crib and outfitted her in a fresh diaper and a set of tiny, pink coveralls. Then I brushed out her curly brown hair and carried her to the kitchenette.

“I push,” she mumbled, knowing our routine.

“Sure thing, little one,” I replied.

I leaned her toward the thermofountain and guided her tiny hand toward the glowing rectangle and let her swipe at it until the screen read, “Formula.” The machine dispensed the lukewarm, cloudy liquid into a cup, and I screwed one of Phoebe’s sippy tops onto it. As I handed her the beverage, she looked quizzically up at me, hoping yet again that I’d changed my mind in transitioning her away from baby bottles and rubber nipples. After a short staring contest, she began reluctantly guzzling down the formula.

I sat her onto the floor in front of the viewscreen and then swiped to an interactive children’s show. A trio of holographic animals appeared in the center of the floor, beamed down from the room’s auxiliary projectors. The green dog and pink cat were both life-size, while the orange mouse was grossly enlarged for visibility. All of their features were cartoonishly exaggerated, with enormous eyes and sparkling white, human-style teeth.

They bounded toward Phoebe. Their outlines seemed to vibrate slightly, and every so often one would glitch out of existence for a half-second, like the old viewscreen’s other feeds. The projection system also had its share of bugs.

Phoebe dropped her cup to the floor, squealed with delight, and stood up to greet the new arrivals.

“Heeeey, kiddos!” the green dog said with a Southern twang. “Are you ready for some playtime fun?!”

“Yay!” Phoebe yelled, jumping up and down with excitement.

“Let’s start off with the numbers song,” the pink cat said in the voice of a young woman. “Here we go!”

A harmonica materialized in front of the mouse’s snout and began to play a catchy tune. Phoebe did her best to mumble along as the animals counted from one to ten. It was times like these that she looked most like Shandra, smiling with delight and her eyes crinkled in concentration. It was only when Phoebe was sad that she looked a bit like me, her eyes rounder and her face stretched thin.

When the song reached its crescendo and the animals faded away, Phoebe threw her arms into the air, shouting, “Again! Again!”

A new group of cartoon characters materialized as I began making us breakfast.

***

Later that night, at yet another unknowable hour after I finally completed my lesson plan for the coming week, Phoebe woke up screaming. Bleary-eyed and exhausted, I hauled myself out of bed. Shandra was at the desk, of course, hands atop her keyboard, oblivious to the noise.

I conjured a cup of formula from the kitchenette, then walked into Phoebe’s room. She gripped her purple monkey tightly as I picked her up and lay her head on my shoulder. Then I stuck the cup’s spout into her mouth as I carried her into the common area. She wiggled out of my grip and onto the floor, dropped her monkey, and waddled over to her toy bin. While still sucking on her cup, she poked lazily at a few plastic figurines and her miniature viewing tablet. But when the final drop of formula vanished, she began wailing again.

I scooped her into my arms and started to rock her back and forth, but she would have none of it. I tried bouncing her up and down, but it was of no use, either. We were both so tired, so I simply stopped trying.

“Fine, cry if you want,” I said as I adjusted her in my arms so that her weight rested on my hip.

I hung my head and pulled on my hair with my free hand, as if the action would release some of the tension coiled around my mind. But Phoebe kept crying, and I remained frustrated.

“Yeah, I get it,” I said harshly. “You want your mother. But listen, I’m here now and—”

“Hey, sugar. Need a hand?”

Shandra had walked out of the bedroom, wearing her grimy work coveralls. She looked haggard, barely conscious, and appeared to be in desperate need of a good night’s sleep herself after a long day of work. But she smiled courageously and held her arms out toward us.

My dear, little star, up high in the sky,” Shandra began singing. Phoebe stopped crying and reached out to her.

“No!” I told Shandra, who halted her song. “I didn’t want you. Just leave, please.”

“It’s okay, I’m here to help you. You’re not alone.”

It might have been the uncountable sleepless nights. Or my own sense of inadequacy. Or facing the vastness of existence alone, here, on what could one day prove to be the last refuge of humanity. But I knew it was all of those things, and more.

“Yes,” I said, slowly. “I am alone. We, Phoebe and I, we’re alone.”

Shandra’s smile shifted into a quizzical look as she processed my statement.

“I am here now,” she said. “We’re in this together.”

I bit my lip hard, and felt a metallic taste creep into my mouth.

“Please, not now.” My voice rose steadily. “Just please go away.”

“I am here now,” Shandra repeated. “We’re in this together.”

“Not anymore,” I seethed. “I signed up for all of this because of you. Six years in orbit. Your dream, to be part of this grand experiment!”

Shandra finally registered my anger.

“I’m not having this argument with you,” she said calmly, then turned away and walked toward the kitchenette. Then, upon realizing she had nowhere to go, she began pacing in a small circle. But I wouldn’t let her walk away. Not like the last time we argued. The last time we ever spoke.

“We could have enjoyed a perfectly normal life back on Earth!” I yelled. “You could have let other people chase salvation. But no, you always wanted more. And what did it cost you? Everything! It cost Phoebe and me everything!”

Spit flew from my mouth. Phoebe screamed, terrified to be in my arms.

Shandra just kept pacing in a circle, not looking at me. She was glitching, stuck in some kind of loop.

“You didn’t have to take that spacewalk,” I cried softly, tears streaming down my cheeks. “It wasn’t even anything vital. You could have assigned it to someone else on your team. Why did you always think you were the only one who could fix things and—”

Shandra disappeared out of existence.

Phoebe continued to sob uncontrollably. I joined her, both of our bodies racked with convulsions. That was when the futility of it all hit me. And the shame.

“M-mother,” I said softly.

When nothing happened, I called into the void of our home, “Mother!”

Still nothing.

“MOTHER!” I yelled.

Our quarters remained still and silent. Even Phoebe had gone quiet, her supply of tears completely spent.

I sat her onto the ground near her toy bin, then raced into the bedroom. Shandra’s sleek and shiny workstation, one of the brand-new models given only to station officers, appeared to be functioning normally. I rebooted it, though, and double-checked the link to the apartment’s projection system before frantically typing several commands on the keyboard. Then I rushed back into the common area.

Phoebe had picked up her purple monkey and was clutching it tightly against her chest. She looked up at me, confused and scared, and we locked eyes.

“Mother,” I said into the empty space between us.

Shandra emerged from the bedroom wearing a set of freshly laundered coveralls, her dark hair clean and pulled tight into a bun at the back of her head. She appeared well rested, as if eager to start a new day after a full night’s sleep.

“Hey, sugar. Need a hand?”

Shandra reached out with both arms toward me, ready to take hold of Phoebe—who still sat on the floor.

“Mama!” Phoebe yelled, excited and relieved. She stood up from the floor and ran in her waddly fashion toward her mother, her purple monkey flopping in one hand. When she reached Shandra, Phoebe passed right through the hologram’s legs. The edges of light glowed bright where Phoebe’s tiny fingers cut through the projection. Surprised, Phoebe stumbled and collapsed onto the floor. The purple monkey flew from her hands and skidded along the ground. Shocked and betrayed, Phoebe began to wail.

I ran over to her and picked her up.

“Oh, sweetie! I’m so sorry. Shhh, shhh! Everything will be okay.”

She cried more than I thought was possible, her fragile little body shaking and her head bobbing atop my shoulder. I cried, too, my tears dripping onto her mop of curly hair as I carried her to the recliner. I sat down and leaned back. Phoebe lay her head down on my chest and wrapped her arms around my ribs, and I began to rock her.

I’d never been able to carry a tune. And I’d never wanted to sing Shandra’s lullaby to our daughter. It was something special between them, and if I sang it, then it would have meant acknowledging that Shandra—our Shandra—would never sing it again. But in that moment, with Phoebe relentlessly crying out for comfort, I knew that Shandra’s death was no longer my own trauma.

My dear, little star,” I croaked, sniffling and squeezing my eyes shut tight. “Up high in the sky—”

How I ever ended up with a woman like Shandra is one of the great mysteries of the universe. She was the artist in our relationship. And the brains. And, well, everything else that was positive between us, and everything that I’d want Phoebe to inherit from us. 

After I’d finished the last verse, I heard Phoebe softly snoring. It wasn’t long before I fell asleep, too.

***

When I awoke, Phoebe was still passed out, sprawled atop my chest. I glanced around the room, and saw Shandra still standing patiently with her arms outstretched, shifting her weight slightly in a simple, repeating pattern.

I stood up from the recliner slowly, carefully adjusting Phoebe’s weight in my arms so as not to disturb her. As I carried her toward her crib, I paused next to Shandra and whispered into my wife’s ear.

“I’ve got this.”

Shandra lowered her arms, smiled, and then turned and walked into our—no, my—bedroom.

I lay Phoebe down into her crib and stared at her for a while. When my eyelids started to droop, I snuck away and happened to spot the purple monkey on the floor of the common area. I picked it up, then placed it into the crib so that it snuggled against Phoebe’s side.

When I entered my bedroom, Shandra was sitting at the desk, staring at the screen of her workstation, her hands hovering over the keyboard.

I raised my arm toward her and resisted an old urge to rub her back reassuringly. Instead, I plunged my hand through her body. The light of her hologram refracted away from my skin, all the way past my elbow. I rested a finger on top of the workstation’s power button. Then I leaned in close, my face near Shandra’s hair, and I inhaled deeply, trying to recall the scent of her. But I could only smell stale, recirculated air.

Living aboard the station was Shandra’s dream, but it had become my—and my child’s—reality. I owed it to my wife to make it the best one I possibly could. That was always the spirit of the mission.

I took one more deep, shaky breath and powered off the work station. Shandra vanished. Then I crawled into bed, eager for a night’s rest that I knew would still be hesitant to come, and allowed myself to grow excited for a new day ahead.


M. Douglas White is a former sports journalist and magazine editor, and a current marketing professional. But he’s always preferred getting lost in tales of speculative fiction to any regular job. He holds degrees in English and History, as well as an MBA with an emphasis on business writing. An avid outdoors enthusiast, he lives in Southern California with his wife, two daughters, and dog. Find him online at his website or on Twitter.