Wolfrom Writes: A Step Beyond the Rain (Science Fiction Short Story)


There was no rain in Aberdeen.
I guess you can call this “classic” Regan, since I wrote it back in 2010.

A Step Beyond the Rain

by Regan Wolfrom
First appeared in M-Brane SF #19 (August 2010).

There was no rain in Aberdeen. The rain did fall outside the walls of the colony, methane raindrops falling through the orange haze of Titan, but inside there were only the replicated sunlight of the fusion artistell and the silent mist of water and nutrients for the crops.

Callista Danzen missed the rain, more than she missed the real sun or the black soil of the South Dakota prairie. There was something meditative about sitting on the front porch and listening to the frenzied percussion of a summer shower, and it was something she longed to feel again after almost eight years away.

“Is that a valid reason to leave?” her twin sister Iona asked as they sat together in the common lounge of the hab centrifuge. They were fraternal twins, in some ways similar, but not all.

“I think it is,” Callista said. “It’s not just the rain… the rain is just one of a whole bunch of things that are missing, like seasons… and songbirds, and -–”

“And good-looking men,” Sarah Yule said. She sat down beside Iona, who laughed.

Callista managed a weak smile.

“Hi, Sarah,” Iona said. “We’re talking about going home.”

“I know,” Sarah said. “That’s all Callista ever talks about.”

Callista knew that Sarah meant it as a joke and nothing more, but she still gritted her teeth. Sarah was a person best avoided, someone always looking out for herself, and just using, using, using. It hadn’t taken long to see that Sarah wasn’t equipped to be anyone’s friend, though Sarah herself still held on to the delusion. And for whatever reason Iona did, too.

“So what’s so great about home?” Sarah asked. “Aside from having people there who don’t already know every little thing about you?”

“What’s so great about staying here?” Callista said. “We don’t need to worry about making more money, so why would we stay? The contract’s up, and I can’t think of any reason to sign on to a new one.”

“This is what I do,” Iona said. “I do it because I enjoy it. I’m not going to retire in my thirties.”

“I know what we should do,” Sarah said. “We should take some of our stock and trade it in for mail-order husbands.” She laughed, and Iona joined in with her.

Callista groaned, sick of the same old jokes. Sarah Yule was reason enough to leave Aberdeen.

The work had gotten easier over the past few years. Callista could barely remember the endless pressures of the first eighteen months, as she had worked with the other seven horticulturalists to set up crop programs in the agricultural colony. There had always been challenges then, the occasional instructional error that led to malfunctions with the planting or harvesting machines, or a slight imbalance in aeroponics or fertigation; now they had a pattern of crop cycling, and there was rarely more to do but document the results and prepare for full automation.

The challenges would return, if Callista went along with Iona and signed on for the next big project. Aberdeen was only step one for Titan and the Saturnian Sustainability Project; the next colony would be three times as large, with the goal of producing enough food to expand mining operations around Saturn by a factor of five. And Callista had three weeks left to sign on; otherwise, she’d be expected to leave Titan once the original colony was left to the automated equipment.

She sat on a bench by the tomato plants to take a break from trying to keep busy. The fields of Aberdeen were a mix of soil horticulture, hydroponics, and aeroponics, with rotations planned to keep a constant rate of harvesting throughout the Saturnian year. The executives and planners on Earth had left the implementation details to the Aberdonian team, which had resulted in a variety of techniques, often for just one crop. Callista wondered if the new colony would have the same experimentation, or if there’d be a rigid policy to follow based on whatever the latest agricultural fad happened to be. Perhaps that decision was up to whoever signed on to the project.

“So you think Iona’s going to sign on?” Abdul asked as they checked where a nutrient blockage had earlier affected the fertigated tomatoes, to see if the problem had reoccurred. His eyes were shining with the excitement of new gossip. The man was a rumormonger, but Callista needed to talk to somebody.

“I’m pretty sure she will,” Callista replied. “She really loves what she does.”

“And you don’t love what you do here?”

“I do… but not like Iona does. That girl actually loves dirt. I think she’d marry a bag of potting soil if she could.”

Abdul raised one eyebrow. “And what will you marry?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s lonely here, Callista. I’m a bitter man who’s just glad to be three planets away from my wife. But you’re not like me… you must want something more.”

She wasn’t about to tell Abdul how she really felt, how she was terrified of turning thirty-five and still being alone. Or how her only recollection of anything near love was one teenage fling that didn’t last the week. “It’s not really a big deal to me,” she said. She studied Abdul’s eyes to see if he believed her.

“I don’t buy it. You and Iona are twins -–”

“Not identical.”

“And obviously Iona doesn’t want to be alone anymore.” He grinned.

“What are you talking about?”

“I don’t mean to be a gossip,” Abdul said, so of course that was exactly what he meant to be, “but I’m sure you’ve noticed that Iona is seeing someone.”

“You’re full of shit, Abdul.” There wasn’t a man on Titan who was both available and of interest to either one of the Danzen sisters.

“I am full of shit,” Abdul replied, laughing. “And Iona has a girlfriend.” He walked away, towards the potato fields.

And Callista did not move.

Iona didn’t bother keeping the secret any longer. “Yes, I’m involved with Sarah. I didn’t think you’d be too happy about it.”

Callista frowned. “You were right about that.”

“Honestly, Cal, I really thought you were a little more open-minded. You sound like you’re from the 1960s.”

That was too much. “Are you serious? This isn’t about being open-minded.”

“Then what is it about?”

“Okay, let’s see… Item one: you’ve been hiding who you really are from me… Item two: Sarah is a life-sucking bitch.”

Iona laughed. “I’m not… it just happened. I wasn’t looking for something like this. But I was alone… and Sarah is here, and I really like her…”

“So she’s just a convenience?”

“That’s not it, either. It’s not something I can explain, and frankly, it’s not something I need to justify to anyone… including you.” She didn’t sound angry or insulted, and that was enough to paint a picture. Iona wanted to be in love, just as Callista did, but she’d been willing to create love, or even just imagine it, in a place where it didn’t really exist.

“You’re right,” Callista said. “You don’t need to justify anything. You just need to be happy.” She gave her sister a hug. She couldn’t condemn her sister for trying to be happy.

“So have you made a decision about leaving?” Iona asked.

“No… have you?” she asked, but not wanting to hear the answer.

“I have… nothing’s changed. Sarah and I are signing on to stay.”

“Package deal,” Callista said.

“Very funny. It’s a promotion for me. Since Menzies isn’t staying, I’ll be the official Head of Soil and Nutrient Chemistry.”

“Congratulations. And of course almost everyone in my section is staying on.”

“That’s nothing new. Our shares are worth a lot these days, but it’s still pretty tempting to sign up for more.”

“I guess,” Callista said. “Now you’ll be able to buy two private islands.”

“And you could too, Cal. Keep in mind that we’ll be getting two liners full of new recruits… and the advance group has already landed in the East. We’ll be transferring from a hamlet to a village.” Iona grinned. “Think of how many people that’ll be who won’t know just what a grouch you are.”

Callista smiled. “Hey… some people like me.”

“We all like you… we just wish you’d stop moping around. Listen… Sarah and I are going on a hike outside tomorrow afternoon… why don’t you come along?”

It was a ridiculous invitation: Callista could join them as an unwanted third wheel, if she’d like.

Iona seemed to know better than that. “Abdul’s coming with us, too.” Was that supposed to make it any more enticing?

The planned hike was to be more intense than Callista had anticipated. When she had given into the barrage of pressure from Iona, and later Abdul, she had expected it to be an hour’s walk along the icy sand of Shangri-la, never out of sight of the colony. She had never known her sister to be a serious explorer, so it came as a surprise when Iona later gave her a list of supplies to make up her contribution, and told her to bring them over to a rented expedition rover waiting at the East Lock.

“We’re taking the Coleridge Loop,” Iona said over the comm as they stepped outside the airlock, dressed in excursion suits and pressure helmets. The automated rover trailed behind, programmed to follow behind the pack. “Nine hours of varied terrain, all the way to Xanadu and back.”

“You’re going to love this,” Sarah said to Callista. “You’ll finally see the highlands. Mountains of ice and a valley with a flowing spring of methane.” Sarah led the group, walking with Iona, while Abdul and Callista followed in the rear.

“I’ve been to Xanadu before,” Callista said, sounding a little defensive despite her attempt to stay cool. “I’m just not much of a hiker… that’s what pressurized rovers are for.”

“Not much of a hiker…” Sarah said, grinning. “Well, Coleridge virgin, it’s time to pop your cherry.”

Callista shook her head and held her stomach. Sarah made her physically ill.

“I’ve never been up to Xanadu,” Abdul said. “I’ve heard that it’s like climbing glaciers.”

“It’s kinda like that,” Sarah said. “But it’s also nothing like that.” She laughed. She was obviously enjoying her role as tour guide. Was it too late for Callista to back out?

She decided to focus her attention on the scenery. The pebbled sand flats of Shangri-la were interrupted here and there by islands of glittering ice and rock, and to the East there stood the glacial escarpment that marked the transition to the icy highlands of Xanadu. Above them, the orange haze was always there, but once in a while there would come a build-up of clouds. They reminded Callista of rainclouds on Earth, but with no liquid water in the cold and dense atmosphere of Titan, the only rain was made of methane. And when it fell, the noise was blocked out by air bladders in the walls and ceiling of Aberdeen, or in the thermal insulation of the pressurized rovers. Callista had never been outside when the rain fell on Titan; maybe today would be the day she’d hear the sound of raindrops again.

She often wondered why she’d chosen this life; it wasn’t regret she felt, just a morbid curiosity. Was it the nights as a young girl at home, when her father would take her and Iona up to the attic to look through his telescope? They’d watch the cruisers and tugs coming back to low Earth orbit, and after they were tucked into their beds she and her sister would whisper for hours about what it must be like to visit another world. Or maybe it was the money, and the freedom she’d have once her contract expired, when the company would likely beg to buy back her employee shares and make her wealthy. And the thought of that wealth, and finally breaking away from her cellmates and having new people to talk to… she knew that she wanted to return to something close to a real life.

But what was real life? She’d never had any other job, and she’d never had any close friends aside from her sister. They had both left post-grad for Titan together, as though it had been inevitable that they would seek their fortune as a pair. And now Iona had moved on, and Callista was going to be left behind.

That had never happened before.

The first two hours were hard-earned, as every low-gravity bootstep sank in the bed of tiny ice pebbles, even with some gravel of larger ice pebbles laid down as a path. It was the never-ending ice-sand of Titan, the pebbles continuing down until they met with the underground oceans of methane, sometimes over a kilometre below the surface. She’d sometimes dreamt of getting stuck in some dry quicksand and sinking down forever. That was silly, she thought, but she would still be sure to stay on the path.

“Do you see the channel?” Sarah asked. “Up ahead, there’s an old cut right through the ice. Probably carved by an ancient river of methane, but now just a dry channel. That’s how we’re going to get to the top of the escarpment.”

Callista looked ahead and saw a crack in the wall of ice; she couldn’t tell just how big the channel was. And after another forty minutes, they reached any slant upwards from the flats, much deeper than Callista had expected, more like a wide valley. With the atmosphere of Titan making everything thick, she often forgot that the low gravity had created features that dwarfed anything she’d seen at home. This channel, one of hundreds, was almost a kilometer wide, bounded by walls that gently curved upwards. The ground in the channel was smoother than the flats, a floor of hard orange sand. She could see the gravel path run upwards, where it was abruptly stopped by a sheet of ice. From that point on, it was all ice, interrupted only by the occasional boulder, which more often than not was just more ice. She understood now why their boots had crampons.

“Now we climb,” Sarah said. “About an hour up, and then you’ll see quite a view.”

They climbed the channel in silence, just as they had for most of the trip. It wasn’t a silence created by awe from the scenery, but more from the familiarity within the group. Callista knew Iona best, of course, but she had also seen so much of Sarah and Abdul and the other twenty-four Aberdonians that there wasn’t much left to say to them. Even Abdul, the master of idle gossip, seemed to have run out of rumor and speculation to fill the time.

The walking on the flat had been more of a half-run, to best conserve energy, but climbing the slant made anything faster than a walk difficult; the ice was not smooth like a skating rink, but it was almost as slippery. The slowing of the pace left Callista feeling winded.

“This is the place,” Sarah said. “Best view on Titan.” She pointed to the view behind them.

When Callista turned, she was surprised by just how much she could see. While the sky was always filled with a hazy orangeness, the view wasn’t obstructed; instead it was toned like a sepia photograph. The sand flats below them formed a dark orange sea, spreading out to the horizon. The inflatable graph-aramid vault of Aberdeen, a massive tent forty kilometers long and four kilometers wide, looked like a long bar of silver floating on waves of orange ice. It was unusual, but Callista wouldn’t describe it as beautiful.

“Who is that?” Iona asked, pointing to the front of the group.

Callista looked over to see two figures in the distance. They were wearing the same type of excursion suits, but with large metal panels strapped to their backs. The panels looked to be made of aluminum and extended two to three feet out to each side; they looked like makeshift wings.

“They aren’t responding on the common channel,” Sarah said. “I don’t think they’re from Aberdeen.”

The two strangers approached, and Callista could see they were men she’d never seen before. She wasn’t formally trained in communications protocol, but she knew enough to run a channel scan from the panel on her wrist.

“They’re using channel twenty-three,” she said. She switched her comm channel. “Hello?”

“Hi,” one of the men said. “You’re from Aberdeen?”

“We are. The Silver City with the Golden Sands.” She had always liked that nickname.

“And who are you?” Sarah said, having also switched channels.

“Your new neighbors. Mind if we walk with you?”

The men were friendly and talkative, and Callista was glad for new people to talk to. They were Simon Gandy and Carlos Santerez, two of the forward operators for the new colony. They were among the first newcomers to Titan since Abdul had arrived as a replacement worker two years before.

“We’re still waiting for the cargo tug,” Simon said. “We’ve been living up here in a tuna can for two days now.”

“Why didn’t you just come down to Aberdeen?” Sarah asked.

“No room,” Carlos said. “There are four of us, with more on the way.”

“Your living quarters can’t fit everyone,” Simon said, “and they don’t want us taking up valuable growing space. Of course, we wouldn’t mind coming for a visit.”

“Come back with us. We’re more than willing to sell you some dinner,” Sarah said with a grin. “And then maybe we can sell you a place in Callista’s bed.”

Callista blushed. Both men looked at her. Simon seemed embarrassed for her, while Carlos looked hopeful. She blushed a little more… then an image came to her mind of ripping Sarah’s helmet off, bathing the woman in poison atmosphere… and then she smiled.

“So have you used those wings?” Abdul asked. He seemed surprisingly uninterested in Sarah’s rude remark. Maybe toys were even better than gossip.

“We have indeed,” Simon said. He bent forward to show his wings to Abdul. “You see these straps? We thread our arms through so that we can flap. There’s enough pressure here to take off, even without jumping.”

Carlos strapped his arms to his wings and demonstrated, his flapping arms gradually lifting him above the ground. A few moments later he was above them, flying slowly and shakily, but flying nonetheless.

“That’s amazing!” Abdul said. “Where did you get those?”

“We made ‘em,” Simon said. “One of the benefits to having a workbench in our little tuna can.”

Abdul let out a high whistle. “I’ll bet you could make a fortune selling those.”

Sarah laughed and looked over to Callista. “A fortune?” she said. “Why that could get you a permanent spot in –”

“Shut up,” Callista replied.

Simon smiled at her in way that made it seem like he understood how she was feeling. Was he also daydreaming of Sarah falling into a cyanide coma?

As they all continued their walk to the methane spring and then to the channel that would lead them back to Aberdeen, the group began to splinter, with Iona and Sarah pulling further ahead and switching to their own comm channel; everyone else fell behind, laughing and talking, Callista trying to remember how to make new friends.

“So Iona’s your sister?” Simon asked her as they climbed down the second channel. The ice was slightly thicker here, and smoother.

“Always has been,” Callista replied with a playful smile.

“And Sarah?”

Callista didn’t really have an answer for what Sarah was. “She’s our tour guide and our contingency plan. If we get lost or stranded, we get to eat her.”

Simon, Carlos and Abdul all laughed, and Callista silently wished that Sarah would have heard her.

Callista returned to the high ground of Xanadu again the next day, with Simon. He had asked her, and she’d accepted, since it was Sunday and she couldn’t think of a reason to say no. They didn’t bother with an expedition rover, as the hike from the day before had shown it to be overkill. On the way up the channel path they talked non-stop, describing their lives from childhood until their arrival on Titan. Simon was friendly and a little funny, with a love of technology that seemed to permeate everything else. He wasn’t someone she’d have considered to be her type, but it felt truly wonderful to have someone different to talk to.

“So are you ready to try the wings?” Simon asked. He had borrowed Carlos’ set for Callista to wear, and she’d already forgotten that she had them strapped to her suit.

“I think so,” she replied. She was nervous, but she felt more comfortable trying it alone with Simon than in front of her fellow inmates. She followed Simon’s lead, placing her arms through the wing straps.

“Just stay low with me and you’ll do fine.” Simon flapped his wings and pushed off, lifting gently into the sky. He seemed to have better control than Carlos, showing off with a long glide.

Callista watched him for several minutes as he circled around her, trying to work up the courage to fly, and relieved that he wasn’t pressuring her. She knew that if Simon and Carlos could do it without trouble, that she should have no problem either. But she wasn’t flying yet…

“Take your time,” Simon shouted into the comm, from up in the air. “It took me a half hour to get up the courage to try it.”

He really was kind to her. She let the warm feelings lift her up as she gently flapped her arms. She pushed off from the ground and could feel her body rise. Her feet were light, and for a moment she felt like she was swimming, but the sensation was soon replaced by something entirely new. It wasn’t weightlessness, like being in a pool or in zero-g; if anything, it felt like the time she had stood up on the handlebars of her bicycle at home… at least until her wheel had turned and she had been thrown to the ground. But she knew that she would not fall this time; she couldn’t fall so hard in the low gravity and dense air of Titan. She tried her best to glide along with Simon.

They flew along the Coleridge Loop, over to the methane spring, where they stopped for a moment, and then on to the second channel that led back down to Shangri-la and the tent called Aberdeen. While Callista wondered why they would stick so closely to the trail, she had to admit that she didn’t see anything that could be considered a landmark for navigation.

“Do you want to fly higher?” Simon asked as they glided down the side of the escarpment.

She hesitated for a moment, but what had seemed terrifying an hour before now seemed surprisingly comfortable. “Let’s try it,” she said.

Simon glided upwards and Callista made sure to keep close. As they climbed, the ground descended, and she was soon able to look down on the silver city as a tiny speck below. Together, Callista and Simon circled down to the colony, landing not far from the South Lock. They entered the habitat and scrub room together. They stared at each other in a gentle silence as the steam removed the poison and stench from their suits.

“That was wonderful,” Callista said as she climbed out of her excusion suit, almost in tears from the experience. “Thank you.”

Simon took hold of her hand. “You’re welcome, Callista.” He leaned in and kissed her. She didn’t pull away.

The contract deadline was approaching quickly. Iona and Sarah had signed on to stay, while Abdul had already decided to return home to his wife, even though he had joked several times that since distance had made his heart grow fonder, he should be looking for a job on Neptune.

Callista hadn’t decided what to do. No matter her choice, she was now busy again. New residents for the colony had arrived, fourteen autonomous maintenance robots to care for the simple ag machines. While the new units had already been instructed on the planting and harvest cycles, as well as nutrient flow, there was a great deal of testing that needed to be done before handoff could occur. In three months, these machines would become the masters of Aberdeen, following the course that Callista and her colleagues had laid out, to keep the colony running for years to come.

Simon had visited her daily after work at the construction site of the new colony, and they had spent every minute of the past two weekends together in Aberdeen, sharing meals and walks, and Callista’s bed. She questioned her feelings, whether it was the love of friendship and new experiences, or if it was something more. They would fly together whether it was day or night on Titan, using their active infrared visors when there was not enough sunlight. It was thrilling and romantic, but when they were simply alone together in the centrifuge, or walking among the plants… at those times she felt strangely empty, as though she was just waiting for something.

“I don’t want to go back to work tomorrow,” Simon said. “I just want to stay here with you.” He had made no secret of his affection for her.

“You don’t want to watch me work,” Callista replied. “It’s boring… very, very boring. Sitting in front of a viewscreen, issuing instructions. I don’t even pull any weeds.”

Simon laughed. “You can pull my weed anytime.”

Callista decided not to reward the comment; she was past pretending that his jokes were funny.

“You know,” he said without acknowledging her silence, “I could take tomorrow off. Call it a personal day. We could go out to see the Huygens probe.”

“I’ve got to work tomorrow,” Callista said abruptly. She tried to soften her tone. “Maybe we can go outside after work.”

Simon rubbed his hands together and grinned. “It’s a date!”

The Huygens probe was too far away for an evening trip, so Callista and Simon went to the nearest lake instead. It had no name, which prompted Simon to call it Callista Lacus; the sentiment made Callista a little sick to her stomach.

Callista had never seen the lake in person, and she was underwhelmed by what she saw when they arrived. The lake was really a small puddle and did not seem to have much depth. The liquid methane-ethane was more like brackish water than anything extraordinary.

“Isn’t it amazing?” Simon asked, his enthusiasm far outperforming the puddle itself. “A lake of hydrocarbons… all this energy. You know, these ag colonies are only the beginning… it won’t be long before we have a full-fledged rocket fuel industry here on Titan. They’re planning on building a centrifuge to fill the Sinlap Crater… big enough to support a million people!”

“That’s something,” Callista said. More workers and more construction didn’t sound interesting to her anymore. It was just more of the same.

Simon reached for her gloved hand. She didn’t want to give it to him, but couldn’t think of a reason not to. “Romantic, no?” he said with a smile.

“I think we should get back.”

“In a few minutes. I’m hoping that it will start to rain soon.” He was looking out to the horizon.

Callista spent her time looking at her clock. She wanted to get back soon, so she could have some time to herself. She knew that before long Simon was going to start asking to stay over on weeknights, and she wanted to lessen the chance this time by saying goodbye a little earlier.

She still liked Simon, but not as much, and she had a feeling that she’d be a little less interested in him with every passing day. She didn’t have any frame of reference, of course; Iona and Sarah had become practically inseparable, but she considered that more of a mental illness than a relationship. She thought of her last private conversation with Iona, which had been several days before, and for only a matter of minutes while Sarah was in the shower. Iona seemed sickeningly happy, as though she actually had fallen in love, rather than passing the time with a reasonable facsimile. Callista had tried to do the same with Simon, but it hadn’t worked.

A light rain started to fall, and she closed her eyes to listen to the drops as they landed on her helmet. She could almost picture herself sitting on the front porch at home, watching a summer shower. The best ones came in the afternoon, leaving enough daylight for a rainbow to appear, arcing across the sky, with one end in the hay field and one end leading off across the river towards the highway.

“Callista, look!” Simon said, pointing out over the lake.

“I don’t see anything,” she replied without looking very hard.

“A rainbow… put on your infrared.”

She switched on the visor and looked out in front of them. In the distance, she could see the rainbow in bands of light gray, larger than on Earth and completely colorless. She’d heard of the occasional methane rainbow with the same colors as those on Earth, ones that could be seen without the infrared, but of course she had never seen one. This was her first rainbow of any kind in seven and a half years. Looking at the arc of dull gray, she realized that this could be as good as it would ever get. She looked over to Simon, who was staring out in awe, probably imagining colors where there were none.

It just wasn’t enough for her.

Callista stepped off the train in Aberdeen and smelled the air. It was the scent of pollen and sunlight, of the South Dakota prairie, of home. She was supposed to call her father for a ride when she arrived, but she felt like walking instead. As she travelled North Roosevelt Street towards the farm, pulling all she owned behind her in a single rolling suitcase, she felt the urge to sing.

She sang an old ballad from an old movie, the Wizard of Oz, and it felt oddly familiar now, just as she imagined it had always been familiar to generations of people coming home.

And as she sang about the raindrops, she could feel a summer rain begin to fall. She hurried her pace, hoping that she’d arrive home in time to watch the seven colors of her rainbow in the hayfield, as they reached across the river to the highway beyond.

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