When Orbital Art was called back to earth in 2028, only four years into its eight year mission, the new government condemned the entire project as an embarrassing waste of resources. The experiment, whether culture could survive in extended space travel, was just as much a relic of the old age as the organization which had sent it, NASA.
The summer 2026 weather crisis had changed everything. Global warming was no longer a leftist issue. The debate was over. In the new political climate, coined “Earthcentric” by The New York Times in 2028, voters supported the party with the best immediate strategy for managing the earth’s resources. Funding for outer space fantasies was seen as an attempted escape from our planetary responsibilities and was protested against heavily by the new environmentally-motivated public.
The sixteen artists, musicians, and writers of Orbital Art were scattered across the United States. They were bound by severe confidentiality agreements which named treason the crime for discussing their experiences aboard the orbital station and forbade them from ever practicing their arts publicly again, as any work says more than an artist’s words. The station was dismantled and the creative output of its inhabitants was locked away and forgotten. Ten years later, when NASA was officially disbanded, the memory of Orbital Art had been all but erased from public consciousness.
The Earthcentric government of the late 2020s had used such severe measures to bury the Orbital Art project not just to keep their promise to voters to virtually eliminate non-environmental research spending. They had to act fast to cover up a mistake that, if found out, would be unforgivable to the American people. In their rush to bring Orbital Art back down to earth, the government had been responsible for the deaths of two of the three children born aboard the station.
Culture had not been the only experiment. The artists had been chosen as couples and encouraged to act as such. At three years old, Terraluna, the daughter of a poet and a painter, had been the only one to survive the homecoming. The trauma of reentry had been too much for the other two younger hearts.
Terraluna stands, with her eyes closed, on the platform of the Orlando, Florida, magno-train. She’s learning the wind. Everyone else around her, in their bamboo bermudas and thick stinking sunscreen, is “oooing” and “awing” at the palm-trees. She keeps her eyes shut because it would all look the same to her, the people, the palm-trees, even the birds.
Every landscape on this dull green blue planet has been a disappointment to Terraluna. It’s only for a few seconds during sunset that she ever feels anything with her eyes. Her colours come briefly into being on the edges of clouds and through gaps in the sky – Venus purples, Mars reds, and brilliant sunbeam yellows. After the sun sets she brings her eyes back to earth; it hurts too much to look at the stars.
She can know everything through the air. Smells, drafts, the warm dampness of a venting shower stall, changes in the air have been her vocabulary since she was born. They were the only things she could recognize after she was pulled down from her home.
Even her mother and father were different. The only constant that had made it down from the station was the warm comforting smell of her mother’s hugs, even if her body felt empty. Her parents barely spoke after the landing and split up a year later, when Terraluna was four. Her mother kept her in California. Her father disappeared. Terraluna can’t remember her father’s face, the metal walls of the station, or even the cramped quarters. She only remembers the art, the glory of what was outside the windows, and the air.
Her first introduction to the language of earth smells had been harsh. A prototype “aroma pod” had been sent up as part of the Orbital Art experiment. A molecular database of hundreds of earth odours, from pine trees to chocolate, allowed smells to be synthesized on demand then mixed into an oxygen base. The smells were supposed to calm the inhabitants by delivering a direct hit of the familiar to the emotional center of their brains.
Terraluna had faint memories of fidgeting and crying while her mother adjusted the too large nose mask on her face so she could begin to teach her daughter her world. Terraluna had hated the hissing sound of the machine and its pinching straps. It was only when her father had taken her to the aroma pod that she’d been calm. He’d talked her through the smells in his soothing poet’s voice, drowning out the machine, and held the mask gently under her tiny nose while cradling her in his other arm.
The smells had meant nothing to her at the time, and her parents didn’t realize the emotional connections they were programming into their daughter’s brain were based on her reality and not their own. Her mother’s beautiful description of roses hadn’t mattered to the toddler. Smelling the real flower in her mother’s California garden still brings Terraluna right back to the panic and claustrophobia she’d felt under the mask.
An old, teal blue, solar-electric hybrid pulls up on the other side of the platform. The driver pushes open the car’s passenger door from the inside. He leans onto the empty seat and calls out to Terraluna. He doesn’t get out. He doesn’t want to be seen.
Terraluna hears her name and opens her eyes. The man waving her over is older, and stronger than she was prepared for. She’d emailed him her picture. It was the only way she could be sure he’d respond to her messages, but he’d never sent her his. And now, with her eighteenth birthday only two weeks away, when her own confidentiality agreement would come into effect, it’s too late to find another way in. She’s spent three years researching everyday online for hours after school to get this far, and she knows it’s her last chance.
All she’s ever wanted is to go home, but she needs the world with her to get there.
The man in the car knows he could lose his job for what he’s going to do for this strange, pale, red-haired girl. He’s known that risk from the beginning, from the very first email Terraluna had sent him. He hadn’t returned that one, or the next. He still has no idea how she’d managed to track him down online, but it didn’t matter. Once she’d sent him the photo with her third message, she could have asked him to go to the moon and he would have tried his best to take her there.
It had been her eyes. They’d wanted something so badly, two green-brown planets who’s emptiness the man wanted desperately to fill. People had always projected that emptiness onto themselves. And Terraluna knows it. Only her mother is immune, because she knows the truth about what her daughter’s missing.
The man in the car waves again. He has close cropped black hair and light brown skin. He’s 26, but there are already creases on his forehead from years of labouring in Florida’s hot grow-houses. The job he has now, night security at NASA’s crumbling Kennedy Space Center, is the first where he does not come home soaked in sweat and half dead. He knows he could be back shifting hydro plant-beds tomorrow, as just another immigrant labourer, and that everything he’s worked for could disappear. But he can’t let her down. She’s been the only person in this country who’s ever made him feel that he was needed.
Terraluna’s eyes are hidden behind pink rimmed sunglasses, but he’s too busy falling in love with the rest of her to miss them. She waves back at him and smiles. She has a small mouth, with tiny perfect teeth and glossed bright pink lips. Her purple bubble-cut sundress floats around her trim body. She bends down to pick up her silver suitcase and the man catches his breath as a short gust of wind lifts the hem of her dress. Her legs are lovely and long, and so are her neck, her arms, and her burnished red hair.
He thinks her hair looked brighter in the picture. He isn’t the first to notice that Terraluna looks slightly faded in person, and that she stands with a droop at her shoulders as if she’s carrying a great weight rather than her delicate head with its pert nose and deep wide-set eyes. But Terraluna is carrying more than most. Gravity is like love, when you don’t get enough as an infant, your body never readjusts.
The suitcase is small, but Terraluna strains to lift it, as she does to lift anything on this weighted planet. She comes up to the open passenger door, but hesitates before climbing in. She stands on the pavement and fidgets with the silver tassel on the handle of her suitcase.
It’s so different now that the person is in front of her is real, instead of words and emicons on the screen. She knows she can’t let him see her nervousness. She’s only seventeen, but she knows how men change if they smell fear. She tries to remember everything she wrote to him over the last few months. She’d been so desperate. Had she promised too much?
“Jose?” she asks.
“That’s me. And you must be Terraluna.”
He clumsily holds out a hand for her to shake. It’s wet and rough, but gentle. He’s more nervous than she is, and he’s trying just as hard to hide it.
“Can I trust you?” she asks, point blank, taking off her sunglasses.
The question catches him off-guard. He’s never thought of himself as a threat before. He’s always been the odd one out, the one boy in a family of sisters, the one Cuban at his job. For a moment the question makes him feel stronger.
“Yes,” says Jose, “of course you can.”
Terraluna hands him her suitcase with both hands. He takes it with one, and places it carefully behind the seat. She climbs onto the brushed hemp seat-cover beside him and reaches up to pull the top-hinged door closed. Jose sees her thin muscles straining and leans over to help her. He’s so close she can smell his body. It’s familiar somehow. She can’t place it, but it puts her at ease more than anything he could have said. It’s a rich and dusty smell, not pungent like California boys’ cologne and everyone else’s sunscreen.
“Are you ready?” asks Jose.
He has his hands set on the steering wheel. Terraluna nods. The three-wheeled hybrid pulls out of the parking lot and makes its way to the highway, to begin the 50 mile drive East.
It’s late in the day, but the sun is still bright behind them and the air is hot enough that they keep the tinted windows up and the air-conditioning on. With energy rationing becoming more acute every year, the only vehicles allowed air-conditioners are the solar hybrids. It was the reason Jose had bought the reconditioned wreck of a car. Watching Terraluna stretch back and yawn in the breeze coming from the one narrow vent on the dashboard make all the cloudy day stallings and breakdowns worth it.
Her fingers reach back along the cloth ceiling and she kicks off her flip-flops so she can wiggle her pink painted toes in the draft over the floor mat. In California, she spent most of her allowance on carbon credits to keep her bedroom air-conditioned. Her friends all thought she was crazy and they complained they had to wear sweaters to bed when they slept over. But Terraluna has never been able to fall asleep without crisp artificial air and the gentle hum of a fan.
Jose tries to keep his eyes on the road. The hem of the purple sundress can’t keep still. It’s floating dangerously, exposing inch after inch of smooth white thigh. Terraluna doesn’t notice right away. She has her eyes closed again. She’s trying to figure out why she recognizes Jose’s smell. The air-conditioning and his anti-perspirant can’t cover it completely, even though he rolled on triple his usual amount that morning.
“I was thinking,” says Jose, his eyes straying to her legs, “we’ve got some time to kill before it gets dark. Maybe you want to go to the beach?”
Terraluna yawns again and opens her eyes.
Jose continues, “I know you’re from California so it’s not going to be a big surprise, but I thought you might want a swim after so long on the train. And, I don’t know, maybe the Atlantic might be fun for a change.”
“Oh?” says Terraluna, “but I didn’t bring a swimsuit or anything.”
His suggestion shocks her. She hadn’t come all this way for a vacation. And out of anyone, Jose should know that. After her three years of intensive research and internet monitoring in chatrooms, blogs, and anywhere her pirated spyware could latch onto, she’s made enough connections so that the photos she takes tonight will set in motion a chain reaction that could change everything. And Jose is thinking about swimming?
“Common,” says Jose, “it’ll be fun. We have to wait for my shift to start anyway. I borrowed a swimsuit from one of my sisters before I picked you up and my mother packed us a picnic for supper.”
“What!” Terraluna jerks her head round and sees Jose grinning at her. His thick eyebrows are raised hopefully. She shoves her feet back in her sandals and pulls the hem of her skirt back down to her knees. “I told you not to tell anyone, Jose. You promised. Do you have any idea how important tonight is? We’re going to change the world!”
All Jose can think about are those legs, and how good they’ll look in the green palm-print bikini he’s borrowed.
“Trust me,” his sister had said, “if you want something to happen tonight, just get her to put this on. It’s sex with strings, but in a good way.”
Laughing over his sister’s pun that morning was the first time Jose had relaxed in weeks. His family had never seen him so nervous. Of course, they don’t know the whole story. They would be furious if they knew he was risking everything he’s work so hard for, for a girl he met on the internet.
Jose stays quiet. He keeps his eyes on the road and his dawning disappointment private. Terraluna waves her pink painted fingertips in the air while she speaks. Her voice is excited and her eyes are, for one brief moment, full.
“People have no idea what they gave up when they buried Orbital Art. They haven’t seen the magic of space like I have, the beauty, the possibilities. It was just endless, so full of color and light and movement. If you had a dream, you felt like you could just point your rockets and go. People need to see the art. They need to see how creativity comes alive when you get out of this choking atmosphere. Com’on, how many different ways can you paint a tree? I remember the colours up there. They were swirling, free, and brilliant, not like anything in the galleries here. If everyone could just see what a success the whole thing was, they’d do anything to get a piece of that magic for themselves. They’d get back out there and go for it. Who wants to live like this anyway, with all the energy restrictions? And now they’re even talking about more birth restrictions. What does anyone have to look forward to? People just can’t snap their fingers and fix what they did to this planet. It’s dying. And so what? They should just accept it move on.”
Terraluna stops. Jose’s knuckles have turned white on the steering wheel. His mouth is tight and grim. Terraluna knows that look.
“I’m not crazy,” she says. “It’s not like I haven’t told you all this before.”
She’s right. She has, only Jose had spent too much time between the lines of her emails and read too much into words like “together” and “I need you” to realize the scope of her plans. And now, hearing the same sentences spoken out loud, he notices she doesn’t include herself in “everyone”. Jose has the uncomfortable feeling she’s fit him in as part of “they”, and that she may have used “we” to get into his head and into his car.
But looking into those wide worried green-brown eyes, he knows he wouldn’t hate her for it even if it was true. If he’s part of the “world” to her, then he’s part of the world she’s trying desperately to help. That’s enough to keep his hands on the wheel and his foot on the booster. If she wants to share the secret he’s going to show her tonight with the rest of the world, then so be it. He won’t break his promise to her, even if her promise is to everyone else.
He stares straight ahead down the long hot road, through the pooling mirages shimmering over the pavement. There’s no sound except for the quiet hum of the hybrid’s engines. When he speaks, it’s barely above a whisper.
“So I am going to lose my job for this,” says Jose.
Terraluna opens her mouth, closes it, then opens it again, like a little fish gulping the silence, unable to speak. What can she say? It’s true. He will lose his job and it will be her fault. After his reaction to her speech, she knows he’s not doing it for the world. That means, she realizes suddenly, that he’s doing it for her.
She turns her head quickly back to her window. The car speeds through a town of low strip malls and abandoned lots. After the town come miles of shabby suburban bungalows. Most hadn’t been worth refitting to energy-star standards and now stand empty, rotting. Their lawns are littered with car parts from old style combustion engines, rusting slowly back into the earth.
Most of the rural inhabitants of this part of the county had been relocated to shared energy housing in the cities. The forced moves had been happening quietly and efficiently all over the country for the last decade, leaving the countryside deserted and decaying. Farmers had been some of the first victims of the national relocation bill, but after the 2026 weather crisis, you couldn’t really make a living off the land anymore anyway.
Terraluna slips her feet out of her flip flops again and pushes them to the far corner of the mat with her toes.
“Let’s go swimming,” she says.
Jose is alone on the beach for as far as he can see in both directions. Terraluna is changing in the car on the far side of the dunes. Jose walks to the edge of the ocean and curls his toes into the wet sand. His heart is racing.
His eyes are scanning the horizon when a towel hits his bare brown back and a flash of white, and green, and red, runs by him and dashes straight into the ocean. Terraluna lifts her knees up to her chin with every step. Her hair is a bright flag in the wind. She spins round and laughs at him, then dives fearlessly into the waves.
Jose runs after her. The water is cold and the sharp pain of it makes him cry out. But he plunges his head under, and searches for her underwater. The salt stings his eyes and he comes up gasping. Terraluna is giggling. She splashes him from behind. Jose arches his back and yells as if shot. He splashes back, but Terraluna is gone. She pops up and splashes him again from the other side. Jose lunges at her and crashes into the water. He grabs at white flashes of leg, but he can’t catch hold. Her skin is so smooth and slippery. She wriggles out of his grasp each time he thinks he has her. Terraluna is at home in her gravity. Jose doesn’t stand a chance.
“Spread your legs!” shouts Terraluna.
Jose stands up and spreads his feet wide. She dives and swims dolphin style between his knees. Her hair is pure flaming red underwater. He feels only her current as she passes. It tickles the insides of his thighs and his jaw aches from the pleasure of it.
The sun is beginning to set by the time they leave the ocean. Exhausted, they wobble out on water logged knees and collapse side by side on their towels. Terraluna stretches out on her back closes her eyes. Swimming hadn’t such a bad idea after all. She lets the last warmth of the sun dry her body. The salty air is heavenly and she drinks it in as deep as she can with every breath. It’s one of the earth smells never tainted by her mother in the aroma pod. After living so long near the California coast, Terraluna’s built her own relationship with the ocean.
Jose’s sister’s bikini bottoms fit Terraluna perfectly, but the top is too loose. The green molded front gapes and Jose tries hard not to peek inside as her small chest rises and falls. He wonders why she’s still out of breath. But Terraluna never gets a break from her fight with gravity. It’s worst when she’s lying down. Her ribcage strains as she tries for full salty breaths under the monumental weight of the earth’s atmosphere. There are miles and miles of heavy air pressing down on her lungs, trying to squeeze her flat.
“Are you hungry?” he asks.
Terraluna sits up. When she opens her eyes, his face is right in front of hers.
“Ya,” she says. “What did your Mom pack us?”
“It’s a surprise.”
Jose jumps up and takes off at a run. He’s across the beach in a flash. Terraluna watches him climb over the dunes to the car. She’s surprised that she actually is hungry. With her goal so close she expected her stomach to be tightening up. It was in knots on the train, but ever since Jose picked her up at the station, it’s been steadily loosening. She can’t believe she’s so relaxed.
Jose’s muscles are powerful and coordinated from years of labouring. He weaves deftly between the debris that lies scattered between the grasses. The jagged bits of wood and metal are all that remain of a coastal resort overcome by the weather change. And the sand hasn’t stopped moving. It already covers half the beach’s two year old parking lot. All over the world, the oceans are moving inland. Jose doesn’t notice that the sand has crept in a few feet more since even the last time he was here. He has other things on his mind.
“Whatever you’ve got in there,” says Terraluna, pointing at the basket he’s bringing towards her, “smells absolutely delicious.”
“Of course!” Jose says proudly. “My mother runs a Cuban catering business with one of my sisters.”
He spreads out a white sheet on the sand for a tablecloth and pulls off the lid of the basket. Terraluna is nearly overwhelmed by the succulent aromas released by each of the containers he uncovers in front of her. She’s never smelled anything like it.
“I wasn’t sure what you liked,” says Jose, “so I asked her to pack a whole lot of finger foods. There’s some pastelitos, that’s those small turnovers,” he points to each container as he names its contents. “And some croquetas, bocaditos, and those bigger turnovers are empanadas.”
Terraluna points to a shallow Tupperware filled with thin yellow vegetable chips. “What are those?” she asks.
“Mariquitas. They’re made of sliced plantains, for a little crunch.”
“Oh, cool.” She takes a bite. “They’re pretty good.”
She’d always thought Cuban food would be spicy, but it isn’t. It’s rich and full of flavor. She sniffs each pastelito to try to guess what’s inside before she bites into it and discovers either meat, or cheese, guava, or guava mixed with cream. The croquetas, creamed ham shaped into finger rolls then lightly breaded and fried, smell faintly of nutmeg. Terraluna tries some of everything and washes it down with fresh mango juice. I It’s all delicious and new to her. Jose thrills at her enjoyment, and answers every one of her questions. He can’t wait to tell his mother her meal was a success. She’d looked so tired that morning when he’d picked up the basket and he suspected she’d been up most of the night preparing the feast of pastries.
But it had been her pleasure to do it. She’d never heard her son talk about a girl the way he talked about Terraluna.
“You have three sisters, right?” asks Terraluna, as she munches through a handful of mariquita chips.
Jose is flattered she remembers. He names them off for her, “Maria, Lucia, and Kate.”
Terraluna giggles. “Kate? Was she adopted?”
“Nope. She was born right after we immigrated and my mother wanted her to be 100 percent American.”
“How old were you when you guys came over?”
“Six. It was right after my father died.”
Jose shakes his head. “Don’t be. I barely remember him. He was always at work and I was always with mama in the kitchen.”
“I don’t really remember mine either,” says Terraluna. “He didn’t die though. He just left.”
She takes a drink from her plastic cup of mango juice and digs her heels into the sand. It’s an awkward silence. Jose stares out over the ocean, trying to think of something to say.
She beats him to it. “You must miss Cuba so much.”
“Not really.” Jose shrugs his shoulders. “I mainly remember being too hot and my mother going on and on about how great the States was going to be. She was always telling us ‘this year, this year we’ll get there’. She even brought home books and made us all practice English after school. But my father wouldn’t do it. I remember that much about him. He’d grumble about it and my mother would yell at him in English just to make him mad.”
“Did he want to stay in Cuba?” asks Terraluna.
Jose nods. “But my mother always gets her way in the end.”
He starts to gather the empty containers. Terraluna stands up and stretches.
“Mine usually does too,” she says with a satisfied yawn. “But not this time. She doesn’t even know I’m here.”
She turns away from the ocean, to help him with the sheet, and sees the full spread of a gorgeous sunset in the West. She grabs Jose’s arm and points. “Look at that!”
All her colours have come out tonight. The planetary purples and reds and yellows, a glowing kaleidoscope on three dimensional cloud canvases. Each time Terraluna blinks the lightshow changes. She opens her eyes as wide as she can to get the Imax view. She doesn’t want to miss any of the dreamscape.
The colors seem more real than ever before. To Terraluna, it feels like the whole sky the urging her on with her mission and celebrating it. Jose sees a sunset.
“Where does she think you are?” he asks.
“See!” says Terraluna, with the same exalted voice she’d used in the car. “Those are the kinds of colours I was telling you about. That’s why we’ve gotta do this! People have to see- ”
He interrupts her. “So where does your mother think you are?” Her animation alienates him. He can feel her slipping away.
Terraluna keeps her eyes upwards while she answers him. “I don’t know, and I don’t really care either. She went into my computer, in my room, and found out I’d been researching Orbital Art again. She grounded me for pretty much the whole summer. I had to come, though. I didn’t have a choice.”
“You ran away? She must be going out of her mind.”
“I emailed her on the magno to tell her I’m ok. But I bet she didn’t even notice I was gone. She’s always outside in her stupid garden, kneeling in the dirt and changing around plants that look like they’re growing fine to me. She used to be a painter, you know. Sometimes I catch her doodling when she’s on the phone and she can really draw, but she always throws them out. She’s just a landscape designer now because she had to sign some agreement, and she says I’m going to have to sign the same kind of thing. She won’t even talk about Orbital Art. I’ve had to do everything myself. I hate how she doesn’t care about the rest of the world. It’s so selfish.”
“But you shouldn’t have just left,” says Jose.
She brings her eyes back to earth to glare at him.
“Why not?” she says accusingly. “She wouldn’t have let me come even if I wasn’t grounded. I can’t believe you’re taking her side. I mean, we’re really trying to do something here, maybe even save the world!”
Terraluna crosses her arms defensively, and sticks out her bottom lip like a child. To Jose, her pout and little frown make her even more irresistible. He melts instantly.
“Com’ere,” he says, and puts a hand on her shoulder. He pulls gently, but she doesn’t budge. “Terraluna, you know I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t on your side.”
She moves her glare to his extended arm. He doesn’t take it away.
“Did you know,” says Terraluna, breaking another awkward silence, “that you have a mole constellation on your wrist?”
“Oh ya?” Jose scans her body quickly. He finds what he’s looking for on her freckled bare belly. “Well, you have Texas on your tummy.”
She looks down to check. Her belly is slightly rounded from the large meal and makes a globe with a map of at least five states, depending on how the dots are connected. When she lifts her head, Jose sees she’s trying very hard to keep her frown.
“And,” he says, “I bet I could find Cuba on you too.”
“No you can’t,” says Terraluna mischievously.
“Yes I can.”
Jose tackles her easily. They roll around in the sand laughing and calling out their discoveries.
“Cuba!” shouts Jose victoriously. He’s found it over her left collarbone. She’s pinned under him, struggling playfully. Sand dust swirls around them and they’re both covered in a fine layer of silt. Terraluna coughs and Jose lifts his weight off her chest so she can take a breath.
Suddenly, she places his wonderful smell. She’s covered with it now too. The emotion it triggers takes her all the back to Orbital Art, to a memory she’d thought lost forever:
Her father has her on his lap in the aroma pod. He’s guiding her through his favorite smells. He takes the mask away from her for a moment and places it over his own face. The next scent comes through and he takes a long drink of the laced oxygen. When he brings the mask back under little Terraluna’s nose, his hand is shaking. “Precious TeeLu,” he says as his daughter breaths in the brand new smell, “this is the earth.”
Jose’s brown face is smiling down at her and she knows he wants to kiss her. She looks past him and sees the last pink glow of the sunset fade out.
“We have to go,” she says.
Jose sighs and stands up. He reaches out a hand. Terraluna takes it and he pulls her up. They rinse off and change into security uniforms. The extra one Jose brought for Terraluna is five sizes too big. He rolls up the sleeves and pant legs for her, and gives her a black regulation cap to hide her long hair. Her pale face looks tiny and lost in the sea of black polyester. They pack the car and get in. They’re both nervous for different reasons, and both are trying to hide it.
“Are you ready?” Asks Terraluna.
“When you are,” says Jose.
“Then warp speed ahead.”
They share a tense smile. Jose presses hard on the booster, and the hybrid takes off out of the parking lot.
Forty-five minutes later, at the side door of Kennedy Center Warehouse #5, Jose’s finger is hesitating over the keypad. Terraluna is crouching in the shrubbery behind him. Her camera and scanner are ready in her pant’s cargo pockets.
“Is everything ok?” she whispers. “You didn’t forget the code, did you?”
“Sshhh,” hisses Jose.
He’s sure he’ll remember the eight digits for the rest of his life. That isn’t the problem. What’s paralyzing his finger is the realization that once those eight glowing green buttons are pressed, Terraluna won’t need him anymore. Everything will change. Today could mean nothing. To Jose, it’s a bigger risk than losing his job. But he’s made a promise.
He stops. Terraluna is standing right behind him. Her fingers tug impatiently at the back of his shirt.
He can feel her warm breath on the back of his neck. It makes his spine tingle and his ears burn. His finger is frozen again. He can’t do it.
Jose suddenly spins round, takes a shocked Terraluna by the shoulders, and kisses her short and hard. He pulls away just as fast and turns back to the door. His whole body is shaking. Terraluna stands stunned, with her eyes wide and her mouth hanging open.
The lock whirrs into action and Jose hears the click he’s been dreading all day. He groans inside. The heavy metal door sings slowly open into the blackness of the warehouse. Terraluna slips past him without saying a word and disappears into the darkness. Jose steps inside and finds a light switch on the wall next to the doorframe. He pulls the door closed and flicks on the light. Before he can turn around, he hears Terraluna scream.
She collapses on the cement floor in the center of a hundred canvases. Jose runs to her, but Terraluna shrieks at him to leave her alone. Her camera’s smashed and her knees are bruised, but she doesn’t care. It’s over.
Terraluna gives up her fight against gravity and lies prostrate on the cold cement. Her chest heaves and she sobs uncontrollably. The memories she’d shut out for so long, the ones that had destroyed the lives of her parents and the other 14 artist of Orbital Art, all come rushing back.
Jose steps back to take in the awful gallery that surrounds them. Every one of the paintings lining the walls is horrible, ugly, and bleak. The overlapping canvases are abstracts in grays with huge swaths of black paint. They all paint the same picture of human despair, loss, loneliness, and utter desperation. He feels nauseated and dizzy just from being in the presence of so much suffering. Where was the art Terraluna remembered? She had sounded so sure of the colors and feeling of it.
Jose walks around the room, shifting canvases and peering behind them. On the far side of the warehouse, near the bottom of a stack of particularly gruesome abstracts, he sees one small brushstroke of color peeking out on the edge of a stretched canvas. He would have passed right by if it hadn’t been the same color of purple Terraluna had pointed to in the sunset on the beach. He lifts off the covering paintings one by one, his anticipation growing. He takes off the last gray painting and nearly drops it when he sees what’s underneath.He’s uncovered a 2′ by 2′ canvas that is everything Terraluna had described. The vibrant, otherworldly, colors spiral and twist. There are living circles of complementary colors as planets and all the space between is bright and full of movement. There is no emptiness anywhere in the four square feet. Jose’s pulse quickens. His eyes are carried from one corner to the other and back again by the swirling flow of shapes. The artist was most definitely a child, but there’s no mistaking the creativity and passion in the brushstrokes. There’s also no mistaking the name written in, by a loving parent, in the bottom corner: Terra-Luna.
He finds two more rainbow canvases underneath. Their artwork is even more rudimentary, and one of them looks like it might have even been painted with sponges rather than brushes, but they both carry the same feeling of optimism and freedom as the first painting. He doesn’t recognize the other two artist’s names.
Jose looks over at Terraluna. She’s still sobbing on the floor in a heap of black polyester. His heart aches.
He knows something the NASA scientists could never know. He knows Terraluna. And he knows that she’s never had a bond with earth to break. She was born free. He looks back at the paintings. Then very slowly and deliberately, being careful to be quiet, he piles the gray canvases back up on top of Terraluna’s and the other two. He turns the pile so that the purple edge is hidden against the wall.
He walks back to Terraluna and kneels beside her. She lifts her head and looks up at him with her wet, green-brown, beautiful eyes.
“It’s all…” she whimpers.
“I know,” he says softly.
Jose reaches under her and she wraps her thin arms around his neck. When he lifts her up, she’s light in his arms.
NASA had buried the Orbital Art findings to ensure its own survival. The Earthcentric government had kept quietly funding the organization for ten more years. The government never asked questions and, in return, NASA never made public the tragedy of the two children killed by the political decision that pulled Orbital Art down too early.The Orbital Art experiment had been a disaster, a multi-billion dollar failure, not because it contradicted Earthcentric politics, but because it supported them. NASA scientists had been forced to conclude that creativity could not survive without earthy inspiration. The confidentiality agreements hadn’t just been to protect the artists and the government, they also protected humanity from knowing it was trapped.