by James Van Pelt
Listen to the audio version
The boy sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor, chanting names: Metis, Adrastea,
Amalthea, Thebe . . . He said them to calm himself. His Mom had told him, "Facts fight fears."
He climbed into Dad's chair by the communication console and surveyed the buttons,
toggles, sliding switches, small joysticks and an array of lights. Some blinked, some were green.
One was red. A countdown timer clicked off numbers methodically: "0D, 2H, 12M, 8S." The 12
became 11 while he watched.
He pressed a button. His Dad always pressed buttons when he sat here. "Ethan to Dad
and Mom," he said. The speaker above a small video screen that displayed nothing remained
silent. Ethan tried his call again. Dad made calls too, except he said, "Captain Ramis to Relay
Central," to talk to his bosses, or "Base to Mobile One," when he called Mom. She said the same
thing when she sat in that seat, but she'd be calling Dad. Someone always answered when they
called. Mobile One would answer on its own if Mom and Dad were in the habitat. It could
explore independently. "It has a bright AI," Dad said.
But no one answered. He was sure he pressed the right button. He'd seen Mom and Dad
use it a thousand times, but they also adjusted dials before making a call. He didn't know what
the settings were. He murmured, Io, Europa, Ganyemede, Calisto.
Through the tiny port beside the communication array sat Mobile One, eighty yards away
on Io's uneven surface. Something had happened to it: The six-wheeled car was canted to the
side, lying on its single door, the top pressed to a rock, crushing the communications array.
"Ethan to Mom and Dad," he said again. "Are you okay?"
Behind him, Mom had hung a "Happy Birthday" banner over the dining room table. She
and Dad had been figuring out how to make a cake for him before they'd left. They'd wrapped a
present that sat in the table's middle. "I'm five today," thought Ethan. "Today's my birthday."
Mom would hold him close and call him her "little miracle." Dad bounced him on his knee when
he sat at his workstation. He played games with him. He read to Ethan and said he was their
"science project." He said, "You, my child, are a 'misappropriation of resources,'" then laughed
and hugged him.
"Station, why aren't they answering?"
The station said, "The Mobile One Rover appears to be incapacitated."
"What it they're hurt?"
"My medical facility is top notch. It can print skin, major organs, eyes, and other desired
replacements. It can also diagnose and treat most known illnesses."
"Call Relay Station. They'll help."
"Relay Station will not be within range for four more days. You will have to be brave."
"Shut up, Station." Ethan hated AI pep talks. It was always telling him to work hard or be
happy or to "solve the problem."
Ethan went back to the port. In the distance, one of Io's numerous volcanoes spewed
sulfur dioxide into the sky. Sunlight caught the flume, turning it into a sparkling fountain.
If he could call Relay Station himself, he would, even though Mom and Dad warned him
to never talk to them. They sent him from the room when they called. "They don't know about
you," said Mom. She told him when he went to bed about their journey to Io, about how they
were to man the station for seven years before coming home. "We were too lonely," Mom said,
"So you came along. You're our secret child. You're a treasure and twice as precious."
Ethan checked the countdown timer again. 0D, 2H, 7M, 49S. It was the air supply in
"Are they okay? How's their telemetry?" No one told Ethan that he had a strange
vocabulary for a five-year old. In fact, it wasn't unusual for someone raised the way he was. He
knew words like silicate, caldera, Colchis Regio, and he knew that Io was subject to tidal
heating. He could disassemble and reassemble a space suit, and he could sort and store rock
samples. He could name Jupiter's sixty-three moons.
"No telemetry data is available from Mobile One."
"Is there air in the rover? Has it ruptured?" Ethan swallowed heavily. He knew about
vacuums. He understood that outside the habitat was beautiful but empty and deadly cold.
Jupiter filled half the sky, white, grey and orange striped, always changing and always huge.
"No telemetry data is available from Mobile One. Your parents wear space suits when in
the rover, though. Even if there were a loss of pressure, they could survive."
Ethan grabbed handholds and propelled himself through the living area and work area,
barely touching the floor in the light gravity, past hydroponics and the power plant until he was
in the garage. Mobile Two stood under the lights, a duplicate of the rover marooned outside the
station. Access covers were open. Wires led to panels on the walls. "Can we fix Mobile Two?"