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I fasten my skates. The ritual soothes me, dozens of eyelets all pulled tight. Fasten my breathing mask, cool against the skin of my face. Hoist my daily pack over coat-padded shoulders. Then I push off, out through the airlock, out from the research centre’s squat silver bulk into wide white space.
My fingers twitch, a curl of joy traveling from pinkies to thumbs. I force them still for a moment, out of long habit, before letting myself go. Europa’s black sky stretches out over me, lit by glittering stars and the long red curve of Jupiter. Cold wind whips at me, muffled by the breathing mask and safety hood. This moon appears lumpy and wrinkled from space, full of tectonic icefalls and treacherous canyons, but between them new, smooth icefields stretch like this one. Plenty of space to skate, to spin and jump in whatever direction one chooses. Behind me is the research centre: a square building, neatly labeled with our research team’s name, everything straight and strict. And in its clutches, rising half a mile high, is an ice-blue pyramid. The massive, ancient alien structure that we came here to investigate. Before me, an ice-lined path stretches out, as straight and level as the research center, leading back to the dormitories.
I am skating home for the night. I have something new to tell Sharmila, something that fills my very bones with the urge to leap, dance, spin.
On Earth, my teachers always told me not to spin. Sit straight. Eyes on me. Quiet hands. Even when the effort of it filled me to bursting, a trapped desire pounding so loud that it drowned out the lesson.
Sharmila says, It isn’t like that here. Out here, they only care if you are useful. They don’t care if two women like you and me love each other, and they don’t care if you move and think a little differently. I have never been sure if that’s true, or if it is only what Sharmila believes. It’s true, fewer people holler insults at us as we pass. When I flap my arms in the middle of my work, sometimes no one says anything. Out here, I’ve only gotten those familiar scornful looks once or twice—that I’ve noticed, at least. But moving the way I do is not useful. That is what the teachers always said.
When I am calibrating instruments or running deconvolution on our seismic processing data, I sometimes forget myself and start to flap my hands, to hum. I just get so excited thinking about what we’re studying. Real aliens, who were once right here! The silver-haired woman who supervises me never says anything about it. She does not slap my hands or take away my tablet. But I still feel ashamed. I stop myself, still my hands, trying to work the way other people work.
But out here on the ice, I do not stop. That is the deal that I made with myself. Alone with Sharmila or alone out here, I can move whatever way I like.
When the research base is out of sight, I jump. In Europa’s low gravity, a trained athlete can rotate five, six, seven times in the air. I can sometimes manage two. I take off from my back inside edge and land almost clean, wobbling a little. I try a second time and lose my balance. My rear end thumps against the ice. Falling is not so bad, here. I pick myself up, my pack undamaged. There is no one to herd me away, to say, Slow down, Neela, this kind of skating isn’t for you. This isn’t the place to be silly. Let’s just get you home.
Here is what I want to tell Sharmila:
Today, we finished scanning the inside of the pyramid. We finished interpreting our data into a visualized, three-dimensional map of what lies within: all the hollowed-out rooms and corridors, though we don’t dare go into them, not yet. My supervisor waved her arms and called everyone over.
We had pictured long, straight halls like our own. No wasted movement. That was what we all assumed an advanced alien culture would be like. But what we saw, when the app finished rendering, was a looping labyrinth. Curves everywhere, curves and branches and circles. Round open areas, with spirals carved into the floors. Spirals like when I’m spinning wildly, out of control, the spins of sheer exhilaration that only Sharmila ever sees.
The aliens moved like me.
I am not an alien. My body, with its tan skin, flat nails, dark eyes, and heavy curves, is as human as they come. But if aliens moved like me, then it is all right to move like me. They still came to this moon with technology we can scarcely imagine, built structures that should have been impossible. They moved like me and were more advanced than we are, not less. It means Sharmila was right all along. It means everything.
I glide along the ice, following the flat and straight route home, until the tallest greenhouses rise over the small horizon. Sharmila is here, in her own thick insulating coat and breathing mask, waiting for me by the greenhouse door.
Seeing her sends a burst of joy rising from my toes to the tips of my fingers. My hands raise, flapping like wings. I want to throw my arms around her and tell her everything. Normally, in this final leg of the journey, I’d tamp that response back down, mindful of who from the barracks might be watching. No flapping, no wriggling, no spinning, no stimming until I was safe in my quarters with no one but her.
Today, I spur myself forward, and let my body move on the way as it pleases. I step into position, fling out my arms, and spin, and spin, and spin.