Those Magnificent Stars
By Clare L. Deming
EMILY HAD NEVER seen the stars.
Not until after her sixteenth birthday, at least. Emily stood beneath the pre-dawn sky and gazed at the myriad lights that speckled the heavens.
Magnificent. More glorious than she had imagined.
Her tears dried quickly in the parched air of the excursion suit. She sucked in precious breaths. The spectacle was not worth the price.
“What do you want for your birthday?”
Emily stabbed at the flat nutrition cake with a spork and refused to answer.
“Emmy?” Her father sat across the table, his own plate scraped clean.
“I told you already,” she mumbled.
“Do we have to go over this again? I’m sorry, but it’s just not safe.”
“I don’t care.”
“Isn’t there anything else? What about one of those gliders, or maybe that new V-pod import?”
“No. Karnena got to go outside for her birthday.”
Her father gulped down the last of his red juice. "Emmy, I’m worried about the storms. I think something is off track with the project.”
“Dad, please? I just want to see the stars. If it wasn’t safe, they wouldn’t let you outside. I’ve had the training, same as everyone else. I know the signs of a leak in the suits—change in temperature, change in pressure. I’ll be careful.”
“No. Not right now at least.”
Emily pushed back from the table. “It’s not fair!”
“Happy birthday, Em!”
“Yeah, whatever." It was all she could do to plod from class to class today. Every time one of her friends reminded her of her birthday, she felt more frustrated. Her dad had remained resolute in refusing to allow her excursion trip, despite reaching the minimum age of sixteen.
By the end of the day, she was sick of the attention. Emily hurried out of the school cluster, not even pausing at the racks of folded emergency grade suits with their tiny air reserves within the dormant airlock. She used to daydream of those suits. She saw herself atop a plateau in the desolation of the central Marus Tigris. The panoramic starscape stretched so far that she believed it would engulf the planet.
Today, she had no such dreams. She couldn’t face sitting between the immutable walls of home for the rest of the day cycle. She turned the opposite direction from her usual route home and walked with no particular goal other than to keep moving. The silvery interior of the myla-dome arced across the sky, bleak and confining. She knew that the colony depended on the myla-dome while the terraforming project was underway, but she had been born under the dome and had dreamt of the open skies of Tenthys for her entire life. Vid-movies and immersive news programs could not substitute for the reality of the experience.
Emily kicked at the dusty soil and trudged on. It was nearing the dark cycle when she reached the edge of the habitative clusters. Fields of soybeans stretched to the myla-dome’s perimeter. She walked among the vegetation as a light rain started to fall from the automated weather system. She still couldn’t bear returning home to whatever substitute gift her father had found for her.
By the time she reached the end of the fields, the dome’s glow had faded to its minimum radiative level, giving her just enough light to see the edge of the outer ring-road. Emily paused at the border of the road which encircled the settlement. Nothing moved upon it in the dusky air, and she dashed across.
The pylons that tethered the myla-dome rose before her. The hefty conglomerations of rock mined on Tenthys had been the first structure that the colonists had constructed after setting up their pre-fab locked clusters and industrial equipment. Once the dome’s buckywall sheets had been synthesized and erected, the inhabitants had been free to venture outside their sealed clusters. Yet even the newer buildings had been built with safety shelters and airlocks like those originals.
A narrow walkway traversed the dome’s circumference about three meters above the ground, where the thicker support vein of each buckywall sheet fused to a spire drilled into each pylon. The nano-electronics and fiberoptics that controlled the weather systems and light cycles traveled underground before passing through the spires and along the support veins. Stretching down from those veins, the buckywall sheets spread like a web and had been tethered to a wall that stretched between the pylons. Maintenance beacons shone with dirty yellow light at the base of one pylon, where a ladder descended from an access hatch on the underside of the walkway.
She was about to climb up when her comm beeped.
“Yeah,” Emily thumbed the device on her belt and answered, seeing that it was her father. “I’m out walking. No, I’m not at the excursion center. Remember, you wouldn’t imprint my waiver. Yep, I’ll be home soon.” She tapped the comm off.
The rain had stopped at the ring-road, but her clothes were soaked. She should go home. But, if she couldn’t have an excursion for her birthday, she could substitute something else. The access hatch would be secured and alarmed. Her father, with his scatterbrained nature, had often left his keycodes for work in plain view.
Emily gripped the access ladder and hauled herself up the rungs. It would only take a few minutes to touch the myla-dome. She had even done it before, when her father had brought her to work several times. That had been a long time ago—just after mom had died. She made a whispered promise to return home immediately afterward.
A pin pad hugged the edge of the ladder just below the hatch. Emily took a deep breath and punched in the last keycode she remembered.
The hatch snapped open.
The metal of the walkway felt icy beneath her palms as she hoisted herself up. She shivered.
Emily stood beside the buckywall’s support vein where it met the spire. It was rumored that the dome could become transparent to allow the light from Tenthys’ star through if conditions were right. She had never seen that happen, and it certainly would not do so at night—too much of their colony’s valuable heat would radiate into the atmosphere outside.
Emily leaned against the railing and pressed a palm to the dome. She closed her eyes and pretended that she could gaze through the wall.
Her fingers trembled, and then her arm.
At first she thought her own anxiety had overcome her, but the vibrations strengthened in only moments. She had never felt such movement within the wall before.
A storm raged outside.
There had always been storms on Tenthys. Emily realized that even if her father had imprinted her waiver for the excursion, the trip would have been canceled due to the weather.
The dome shuddered and quaked.
The storms had grown more violent in recent years. Her dad had been awfully busy at work, coming home from the meteorology station late, only to gulp down dinner and work in his office until even later at night.
She peeled her hand off the wall and returned to the ladder. The dome shuddered with the agitation of the monstrous storm outside. Emily’s heart thundered in synchrony with it, her body responding with primitive fight or flight instincts. She had no reason to fear the storm within the dome, but nearly flung herself through the hatch. As she descended and her eyes reached the level of the walkway, she couldn’t avoid glancing up one more time. The dome thrashed and the air hammered against her in intensifying waves of pressure.
Then the entire dome moved.
Not a mere vibration like before, but a definite shift in the myla-dome’s structure.
Just as she stretched her foot from the last rung to the ground, her ears popped.
Emily jumped off the ladder and scurried away from the dome. She must find an emergency suit. Flashbacks of training drills echoed in her head. Above her, the dome bucked more violently. She couldn’t help staring at it, mesmerized by the impossibility.
The last emergency lock she had seen was in the midst of the final habitative cluster she had passed. Thinking about the distance she would have to sprint made her stomach churn. There had to be something closer.
Why had no alarms sounded? Beacons should flash over any airlocks to help the colonists find shelter. Then Emily realized—could she have entered a disable code rather than a simple access keycode? Her father’s scribblings had not identified the type.
Emily sucked in a deep breath and tried to calm her quivering legs. Some of the pylons should house airlocks that workers had used when they built the myla-dome. She just had no way to know which ones, or how far away they were. Blood pounded in her ears and her sinuses started to throb.
If neither beacons nor alarms had been triggered, then no one else knew about the danger. The realization hit her like a falling star. Unless other sections of buckywall had been affected to the same degree, no warnings would reach the colony’s control center.
Emily tapped her comm as she started to run toward the next pylon.
“Dad! The myla-dome is tearing or pulling up. I’m right next to it. Yes, I’m sure! You have to warn the colony. No, I’m too far away. I’m sure there’s a suit or a lock around here somewhere. Love you too. Bye.”
The first pylon she reached was no more than a pylon. Her breath tore in and out of her throat and the air roared behind her. She didn’t dare look back. Emily raced on.
The second pylon rose in shadows on her right. Wind buffeted her face and soybeans thrashed on her left. She thirsted for air, gulping at the precious nitrogen-oxygen mix as if she could never get enough. Her vision flickered as she stared at the pylon, hoping to see the bulge of an emergency lock on its side.
The next pylon was too far. At least her father would be able to warn the colony.
The air exploded in a cacophony of shrill noise—thunderous and booming. Emily was thrown to the ground. Fiery pain lanced through her right arm and she still thirsted for air.
She bit back tears and rolled onto her back. A yellow sun burned in the sky. She rubbed at her eyes, but it was still there. The sun flashed, and Emily realized it was the massive emergency beacon at the dome’s zenith. Her lips turned up in a bitter smile.
The dome had become flaccid in the damaged section and the buckywall sheet flapped like a sail, constantly pulling on the spire that tethered it to Tenthys. Sparks danced around the pylon and the ground at its base had exploded in a surge of power. The storm had not abated and the entire dome was about to fail. Emily forced herself to her feet, fighting against terror. Her arm was broken and every movement she made jarred it. She felt the bones grind against each other, and the swelling grew worse with every thin breath she took. But the pain kept her going. Or perhaps it was the fearful certainty of a greater pain that made her persevere.
Emily turned around. A tiny brilliant beacon flashed against the wall halfway between this pylon and the next. She would have run past the shelter without the blinking light.
Wind battered her body as she cradled her injured arm and staggered toward the beacon. The dome must already be torn along the edges. She had only seconds.
Emily forced herself to keep moving. The zenith beacon failed and plunged the colony back into darkness. She kept telling herself, “Just one more step. One more, one more,” chanting like a mantra.
Her vision became a tunnel and her head felt heavy. She stumbled, but did not fall.
The sky erupted with a prolonged sickening tear.
Emily wavered and lurched forward. She felt cool metal beneath her palms. She flailed with her good arm as all the air left her. Her chest hurt and blood ran across her eyes. Something clicked and the door slid open with a whir. A puff of air streamed past her and Emily dove into the airlock. With a last surge of adrenaline she slammed the door shut and plunged into darkness.
The suit’s air tasted like dirty socks, but Emily was too grateful to be disturbed by the stale body odor that had been left behind. She had remained in the shelter of the airlock for what she figured would be most of the night. The storm should be well past.
The door slid open and vented her bubble of atmosphere. She had enough air in the suit to make it back to the center of the colony. Her arm needed treatment and she suspected that searching the outlying shelters would have a low priority for the colony.
Her father would look for her if he could. Emily bit back a sob and stepped outside.
Jagged shadows were all that remained of the myla-dome. Fractured support veins and tattered shreds of buckywall hung off spires twisted by the violence of the wind. The series of spires running into the distance looked like the ribs of a corpse. The soybeans had been ravaged, and sheets of buckywall were draped across the ring-road. On the eastern horizon, the glow of dawn threatened to show her what was left of the rest of the colony.
Emily tapped the panel on the suit that would activate her comm.
“Dad?” she screamed at it. “Dad, answer me!”
She tapped it again. This time she heard static, but nothing else. If she hadn’t been sealed inside the suit, she would have flung her comm into the dead soybeans.
Emily looked up.
In the shadowy sky, pinpoints of light sparkled and shone. Magnificent. More glorious than she had imagined. She fought her tears again, but they ran across her cheeks, hot and thin. She sniffled and blinked and sunk to her knees on the ring-road. Emily didn’t know how many had survived this catastrophe. She had been born in the dome on Tenthys, as had all of her friends. Mom and dad had come to Tenthys as children, but they had all once come from the stars, from distant Sol. She had desired the stars, but now they just looked cold and distant.
Her tears dried quickly in the parched air of the excursion suit. Emily rose and started to walk home. Or at least to where her home had once been.
She was halfway through the remnants of the soybeans when her comm chirped.
“Dad! Yes, I’m fine. My arm’s hurt,” she managed before the connection was overwhelmed by static. It was enough to have heard his voice. A trace of hope eased her despair.
She paused and stared up again. The stars shone like tiny flames and Emily had to wonder how many other colonists marveled at the sky this morning. Did they look up in confusion, terror, wonder, or hope? It would take the colony a long time to rebuild and recover. But someday they would live in the open, free under those magnificent stars.
Clare L. Deming lives in New Jersey and once applied to be an astronaut. She writes science fiction and fantasy stories with a variety of characters, settings, and themes. Her fiction has been recognized in the L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest.