“Earth's coming. Ten minutes.”
The announcement vibrates in my isolation helmet despite my privacy setting. I sigh at the interruption. Can’t argue, though. I wouldn’t want to miss it. No one does.
I close my eyes and unbuckle the helmet in a hurry, coming out of my little humidity bubble into the prickly sensation of over-dry air. After a few seconds of bright red behind my eyelids, I squinch open one eye to see the other two bustling in the small room that has been our living situation for months. Carin is folding their table up against the wall as Gert slowly closes his storyfile, worrying the edge of the cover. I wonder what he was reading that he lets go of so reluctantly.
I place the helmet back on its pedestal and rub my shorn head to re-acclimate to the tinny sounds and leek-like smells of cohabitation. Rotating my chair, I flip on the cold-shield for the hydroponics closet, then set the heating system for the irrigation pipes.
Carin opens a drawer and hands each of us a silver blanket.
“Cover your head this time, Bohn.”
I nod in agreement. The edges of the blanket get in the way of the view, but last time I was shivering for another hour after. Even the heat from the re-exposed grow lamps didn’t help. We all bundle ourselves, Carin sliding on the precious single pair of insulated gloves we were allocated.
Gert nods. I smile. Carin takes a deep breath and pulls the triangular heat hatch down to reveal the miniscule circular window. We gather around it, holding our breath for fear of steaming the window and missing it.
The bright blue star blinks into visibility on the left side of the window, dazzling against the blackness. We hold our breath until we can't any more, pulling back from the window to take quick gasps of frigid air before leaning in again. We watch it for the precious 20 minutes we know it will be visible, then Carin exhales, lifting the hatch back over the window.
Our communicator cracks to life, plural voices rich with the joy of a moment of sky.
“Did everyone see it?”
“Everyone recheck their hatches?”
“Do you think next time we'll see the moon, too?”
Gert and Carin talk enthusiastically to the rest of the team among our little web of tiny orbiters. I tune out the babble—I need more privacy in the isolation helmet before I can be social. I glance down at Gert’s storyfile.
Water Reclamation in Terraforming, a Primer.
I blink in surprise. Gert’s adding a new skill to his electrical engineering proficiency, instead of waiting for the terraformers to fix whatever endless problem is happening Mars-side. I could be doing the same thing; learning something that would get us down from here. I could learn about pressure seals, or materials resistant to sand-scour, instead of devoting all my time to maintaining our atmosphere-generating plant lifecycles.
If I tried, though, I’d have to interact with the teams in other orbiters. To get the right lessons in the right order. I might even have to interact with people visually.
I shudder and take the isolation helmet again, settling it over my head. Once I get enough privacy, I’ll learn something else. After all, I can’t half-ass it. Doing things half-assed is the reason why we can’t go back to that gorgeous blue star.
Besides, everyone stuck in the orbiters agrees: as brief as it is, the view is more beautiful than any of us expected.
I wrote my first draft in an Amtrak quiet car. I was sitting next to someone who was drawing with broad strokes, and wished I could block my peripheral vision. That led me to wonder how I, and people like me, would ever manage space travel, with its necessary closeness.
Risa Wolf is a neurodiverse multi-gendered water elemental disguised as an ink-stained lycanthrope. (Don't tell their spouse or their dogs; the disguise is working.) They imagine houses for book-ghosts for a living. Find their writing in Apex, Clarkesworld, Diabolical Plots and others.