O2 Day (2023) – Misha Burnett
Misha Burnett has little formal education, but has been writing poetry and fiction for around forty years. During this time he has supported himself and his family with a variety of jobs, including locksmith, cab driver, and building maintenance. His first four novels, Catskinner's Book, Cannibal Hearts, The Worms Of Heaven, and Gingerbread Wolves comprise a series, collectively known as The Book Of Lost Doors. More information about upcoming projects can be found at https://mishaburnett.wordpress.com/
“Today Triton joins the community of habitable worlds, following in the footsteps of Europa and Titan and Ganymede, mighty Mars, and that big blue one, you know, third rock from the bright light.”
The project director paused for polite laughter from the crowd. There were maybe three hundred of us standing in Cargo Park, all who could arrange to be here. The rest of the colony would be watching from their duty stations.
My face itched and I tried to work a finger discretely under my breathing mask to scratch. I wasn't used to wearing a mask—personally I hadn't needed one on the surface for months.
Today, though, called for a grand gesture—a crowd of citizens receiving the official word that masks were no longer required and stripping them all off in unison.
One of my business partners hissed at me to be still and I dropped my hand. They were Europans, come to use their agricultural skills to stake a claim on a new world. They were all too young to have taken part in their home world's O2 day, and were taking this one very seriously.
Dutifully I dropped my hand. It was hard to do anything discretely when you were a head taller than everyone else. I just hoped that the speech would be over soon.
“We have faced unique challenges in taming this world—a world that some speculate may not even have originated in our solar system—”
Oh, no, I thought. If he starts in on the Captured Exoplanet Controversy we'll be here all day.
But he didn't.
“Unique challenges, but also unique rewards. For decades the Outer Worlds have suffered from a shortage of usable water.” A pause. “A shortage that will soon be a thing of the past, thanks to the brave client-workers of our Ming Fields.”
There was a ragged cheer from the side of the park where a group of those workers congregated. Being ice miners, they were undoubtedly already drunk.
The project director gave a nod to acknowledge their contribution then continued.
“One last personal note, and then I'll turn this over to the DAM. As you all know, I was hired as project director by the Office of Triton Resource Management. It has been an honor and privilege to serve in this role, following the blueprints laid down by the late Davidson Eando. Today, my work here is done.”
There was a scattering of applause that quickly grew into a standing—well, most of us were already standing—ovation. I joined in enthusiastically. I had worked directly for the OTRM on Psamathe for seven years, and everyone I knew had respected the project director as an able administrator and a cool head in a crisis.
He raised his hands for quiet and the applause died down. “I have been asked my plans for the future, and I have to admit that at the moment I don't have any. I'm just looking forward to being able to silence my phone for the first time in twenty-six years.”
More laughter, and the applause threatened to return, but he raised his voice and spoke quickly.
“Now, without further ado, Director Flivver of the Department of Atmospheric Management.”
He stepped away from the podium smoothly and ushered Annise Flivver into his place. The applause became a welcome for her and she bowed gratefully.
“Thank you all,” she said. Then she turned and gestured to a large screen behind her which blinked into life. The atmospheric stats appeared, first in red, then yellow, then turning green.
“Looks good to me,” she said, and pulled off her breathing mask. She took a deep breath and smiled.
“Yeah, that works.”
That, at last, was our signal. As one, we pulled off our masks and cheered. Many people tossed their masks in the air—I didn't, being careless with safety equipment was just stupid. But I respected the gesture, even as I stowed my own mask neatly away in my belt pouch.
My partners—Evan, Gerard, and Peter Delry—joined in the celebration for what they felt was an appropriate length of time, then started setting up our booth. We weren't here just to cheer the official announcement, we had wine to sell.
I set up the display while they unfolded the table and opened cases. I watched the masks drifting around in the air above the park uneasily. Even in Triton's .08g they had enough mass to injure me if they came down on my head.
Delry Orchards & Vintners bloomed into light above the brothers' table. I was a silent partner. Originally it was a strictly financial arrangement; I was looking for a conservative investment for my back pay at the same time they were looking for funding to expand. It turned out, though, that I rather liked gardening. I purchased an exoskeleton that allowed me to do the work of an ordinary man. It wasn't like the armored life support unit that I'd worn on the Psamathe surface, just a framework to support my brittle bones with motors to supplement my feeble musculature.
I wasn't wearing it now. I didn't need it all the time. I'd learn to enjoy long walks around the chain of artificial islands that composed Grissom City. The city's thermal bubble kept the air a constant comfortable temperature and my physiotherapist said I was gaining muscle mass at a healthy rate.
Still, the Delry boys refused to allow me to lift anything heavier than one of our sample bulbs without my skeleton on, so I stood awkwardly and handed out bulbs and fliers while they did the shifting of cases.
The crowd was about equally split between administrators from the city and workers from the outlying areas. Today they were mixing cordially, the recent political troubles forgotten, or at least pushed aside, in deference to the the spirit of our combined triumph. We'd done it, we'd taken an airless ball of dry ice and built a world where human beings could live and—we hoped—prosper. We could argue about how much was done by whom and who had earned the right to guide our future later.
Probably starting next week, I thought. Oh, well.
The Greens vs the Grays seemed to me as vacuous as the Exoplanet vs the Catastrophe theory. I was a registered citizen and I voted in the general elections, but I didn't really care that much who was in charge as long as they left me alone. The whole show was run from Ganymede anyway.
On O2 Day, though, we could forget all that and just be Tritonians together. I saw a lot Triton flags—crossed trident and sheaf of wheat against the pale blue circle of Neptune. People had dug their old access cards out of the back of junk drawers and wore them on lanyards around their necks, evidence that the wearer had lived in Old Dome. I was wearing my old Traffic Control Administration badge, although I didn't expect anyone to know what it was.
The Delry brothers had a display on the table showing the total biomass of their orchard and a running total of the free oxygen released since they'd started production. People stopped to glance at it, but they were more interested in the apple and cherry wine. I was handing out bulbs as fast as the brothers could open the boxes. At this rate we'd run out before they dimmed the streetlights.
Then the green girl came running through the crowd, laughing, and jumped straight at me.
I panic and ducked back, started to fall, caught myself on the edge of the table, then slipped and dropped the rest of the way to the ground.
Evan and Gerard rushed to me, telling me not to move, that they would call emergency services, but I waved them off.
“Give me a minute,” I said. Once I caught my breath I got back to my feet, smiling at the boys to let them know I was okay. Nothing broken. Well, I was pretty sure nothing was broken. I hadn't hit the ground hard, I'd just been startled.
“What were you thinking?” Peter demanded angrily. “You could have killed him!”
The green girl just laughed. “I couldn't hurt him,” she insisted. “I'm not even here.”
She'd been just a blur coming out of the crowd before, but now I got a good look at her. She was short and solid, built to planetary scale. Her green skin, I saw, was makeup of some kind.
And she stood hip deep in the table. I stared. She looked perfectly solid, but was cut neatly in half by the table. I ducked to look under it. Nothing.
Evan handed me my orange cane with a meaningful glare at the green girl. She looked at me leaning on my cane with a puzzled expression.
“He has EOI,” Gerard said angrily. “A fall could kill him.”
I sighed. That was very unlikely in Triton's gravity. Sure, my bones could break easily, but that wasn't fatal in most cases.
She still looked confused.
“Environmental osteogenesis imperfecta,” I explained. “My bones are brittle.” I looked over at the boys. “I'm okay, though. I was just startled.”
“Oh,” she said, suddenly sounding contrite. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt anybody. I was just having fun.”
“No harm done,” I said, waving away Gerard and Evan. Their concern is touching, but sometimes they treat me like an infant.
“So...” I asked, turning back to the green girl. “If you're not here, where are you?”
“At the moment,” she said and then rattled off a series of numbers that meant nothing to me. She saw my confused expression and clarified, “I'm running a deep bore in the upper mantel, looking for iron.”
“And this?” I asked, waving at her body rising out of my table.
She reached up in an odd gesture and vanished. In her place was a drone the size of my hand, studded with a holographic array.
I nodded at it. “Pleased to meet you.”
The drone slid sideways silently and she reappeared around it, standing beside the table now. “I'm Maia.”
“Bobby,” I said, extending a hand.
She laughed and reached out her hand to meet it. There was, of course, no feel of contact.
“I feel bad about scaring you like that,” she said. “Can I buy you a drink?”
I frowned. “Can you?” I asked. “Since you're not here?”
“Of course I can,” she said. “the drone's linked to my ID, isn't it?”
That made sense. I looked over at the Delry brothers. Gerard shrugged. Evan waved me to go with her.
I shook my cane to extend it fully and the LEDs brightened. “Okay,” I said. “Let's go.”
There were more people in the park than I had ever seen in one place before, so I moved slowly and carefully. Usually my height and my orange cane was enough to get people to give me room, but the crowd made me nervous.
Maia, on the other hand seemed perfectly at ease, smiling and waving to everyone. The illusion was excellent and I doubted that many people could tell she was a drone projection. She didn't try any tricks like running through people when I was with her.
“So, what's with the green skin paint?” I asked.
“I'm a Martian,” she said, which I had already guessed.
“But shouldn't you be red?”
She gave me a quizzical look. “Haven't you ever heard of little green men?”
A laugh. “Well, a long, long time ago, before anybody had been to Mars, people used to make up stories about what they thought they would find there, and they came up the idea of 'little green men' on Mars.”
I nodded. “So you're a little green woman.”
She twirled, showing off her body paint. She was wearing shorts and a top that left most of her skin exposed.
“Very nice,” I observed.
She turned back to me a smiled. “Let's get something extravagant,” she said. “What's the most expensive place in Grissom City?”
I thought about it. This was a working city, we didn't have many high rollers. “Not sure. Probably somewhere in the Admin Bloc.”
“No,” she said seriously. “Not the suits. Not a tourist spot, either.”
That made me laugh. “We don't any tourist spots. We don't have any tourists.”
“You don't know Triton very well, do you?”
“I haven't seen much except the inside of a drill. That's why I spent half my wages on this drone.”
“Well, let me show you.”
We ended up taking the greenway around the city—my usual walk. I played tour guide, pointing out the vents where the fusion plants pumped ionized steam into the atmosphere to create the thermal shield.
“We still don't know how deep the ice sheets are,” I told her, then broke off, considering. If she was running a boring drill...
She nodded. “Yeah, that's what I'm doing here—mapping the mantel. The latest projections are that you'll be about three miles deep world-wide once this is all melted.”
I paused and tried to visualize it. “That's a lot of water.”
She laughed. “Puts our little ice caps to shame, all right.”
We looked out over the stretch of the First Sea, our little patch of liquid water in an continent sized ice shelf. The heat that Grissom City generated was spreading across the globe. The Equatorial reactor was nearly operational, and construction had been started on Polar North. Plans called for six altogether. I might live to see them all operational.
“Building worlds is a calling for the patient,” I quoted softly. Then a thought struck me. “Are you staying? Immigrating? Or will you go back to Mars when your contract is up?”
“Haven't decided yet,” she said. “I've got five months more in the drill. Then I'll take some time off and see the surface.”
“I can show you my orchards,” I said. “I mean, you can visit while you're still—” I gestured to her midsection where the drone projected her image, “—not here.”
She smiled. “That would be lovely.”
I smiled back.
“But now I should get some sleep before my shift tomorrow, and I need to charge the drone.”
I got out my mobile and offered her the link to my contact information. She didn't do anything obvious, but a moment later I got the notification that her drone had accepted the contact.
“Thanks, I'll be in touch,” she said. She bent over, giggling, and pressed her insubstantial lips to the side of my face. That close I could see the striations on the projection.
Then she vanished. The tiny drone floated up and began making its way back to the cluster of buildings on Center Island to find a public charger.
Copyright 2023 Misha Burnett
NB: although “O2 Day” works as a stand-alone story, it is a sequel to “Fragile” from Misha Burnett's newest collection, Small Worlds.