Welcome to the February 2020 edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.
February 14 is Valentine’s Day, so what could be more fitting than to post Valentine’s Day on Iago Prime, one of two Valentine’s Day stories I’ve written.
So follow newly-weds Maisie and Kai, as they prepare to celebrate…
Valentine’s Day on Iago Prime
It would be Maisie and Kai’s first Valentine’s Day on the newly settled Earth colony of Iago Prime.
Of course, on Iago Prime a year was only two hundred and sixty two days long. But for religious and traditional holidays, the colonists still adhered to the old Earth calendar, even if it meant that Valentine’s Day fell into the middle of summer — or at least what passed for summer here on Iago Prime.
Back on Earth, Maisie and Kai Jones — together for more than six years now and married for one and a half, mostly to fulfill the outdated requirements of the colony settlement board — had always celebrated Valentine’s Day by having a picnic on the beach.
Of course, February wasn’t the ideal time for a romantic picnic on the beach at all, not when the beach was in Wales rather than California. But it was the tradition that Maisie and Kai had established for themselves and they were determined to stick to it, even if it meant shivering together on a blanket in Aberystwyth, eating sandwiches and drinking champagne from plastic cups and hot tea from a thermos.
Kai and Maisie had met, when they were both students at the University of Cardiff, she of communication science and he in the engineering department. They shared a beer at the student union and bonded over their shared dream to go out into space one day, to become pioneers, the first humans to set foot onto a brand new world.
However, in those days, space had seemed very far away indeed, even if the university campus was plastered with recruitment posters for the colony settlement board, all of them showing intrepid pioneers posing in front of awe-inspiring alien landscapes, calling out to all those students who felt that Wales was so suffocating that they’d even board an interstellar spacecraft to escape.
And so for their first date — during the height of summer in the Northern hemisphere — Kai and Maisie drove to the seaside town of Aberystwyth instead. They took the vintage funicular railway up Constitution Hill, enjoyed the view and visited the equally vintage camera obscura, stunned that both the railway and the camera obscura were both lovingly maintained and still functional after almost three hundred years. They duly admired the vintage machinery and marvelled at the artistry of people who hadn’t even developed moving pictures yet, let alone lasers and holograms and flight and space travel. Afterwards, they had a picnic on the beach — with sandwiches and salad and a cheap bottle of wine. And finally, they’d enjoyed a night of hot and sweaty sex in one of the historical bed and breakfasts along the promenade.
It had been a truly magical day, so magical that Kai had decided to recreate it for their first Valentines Day together. Of course, neither the funicular railway nor the camera obscura were open in February — three hundred year old antiques apparently did not like winter, even if they were meticulously restored. So Kai and Maisie had simply settled for a picnic on the beach and a night spent at a bed and breakfast. And thus a tradition was born.
When Kai and Maisie got married shortly before disembarking for Iago Prime, they celebrated on Constitution Hill and had a big combined wedding and good-bye party for all their friends and family. They also had their photo taken in front of the funicular railway, Kai in a stiff black suit and Maisie in the traditional white gown with the traditional veil fluttering in the wind. The photo now sat in a silver frame on the nightstand of the rather utilitarian quarters they shared, a cheerful reminder of the world and the life they had left behind.
Iago Prime was one of the few places in the known universe that managed to be even more unpleasant than Aberystwyth in February. It was rocky all over without a single trace of vegetation. The oceans here were blubbering hellholes of liquid ammonia. The atmosphere was poisonous and even at the height of summer, the temperatures rarely cleared minus forty degrees Celsius, which made it officially colder than Wales in midwinter. In short, Iago Prime was not just the sort of world where only the really enthusiastic and/or desperate pioneers would go, it was also about the only spot in the known universe that was less suited to a Valentine’s Day picnic than Aberystwyth.
For major holidays, the colony management always organised an official celebration in the central cafeteria of the compound. But what was fine for Christmas or Easter or Halloween or Carnival or Passover or Chanukah or Diwali or Eid al-Fitr or Lunar New Year was not necessarily what you wanted for Valentine’s Day. Cause honestly, who wanted to have a romantic dinner for two — together with all the other people on the base and their respective life partners?
Never mind that there would be neither roses — the hydroponic garden was needed for more essential things such as vegetables to feed the colony — nor candlelight, candles being considered both an air pollutant and a fire hazard. There wouldn’t even be any wine, let alone champagne, for alcohol and the hazardous environment of an unterraformed world did not mix.
In short, Valentine’s Day on Iago Prime was about as unromantic as it was possible to get. Of course, both Maisie and Kai had known that they’d have to give up most of the comforts of home when they signed up for the colony settlement advance team. But no one had told them that they’d have to give up romance, too.
So Kai wrecked his brain, trying to come up with a way to give Maisie an unforgettable Valentine’s Day even within the confines of what the colony on Iago Prime allowed. For several days and nights he pondered. Then he had an idea.
He studied maps and models of the planet, talked to a member of the geological survey team, requested a shift change from the colony manager for Maisie and himself and even bribed the provisions officer as well as the man who was in charge of the colony’s vehicle pool. In short, Kai called in every favour that he could and a few that would be hard to repay. Operation: Valentine’s Day was a go.
On Valentine’s Day early in what passed for morning in the perpetual gloom of Iago Prime, Kai woke Maisie and led her to the ground vehicle hangar.
“All right, you said you had a surprise for me,” Maisie exclaimed. She looked around the hangar, which looked like it always did, barren and utilitarian. “So where is it?”
“Right here.” Kai pointed at a Rover, one of the ground survey vehicles used by the colonists. “Time for a road trip.”
“Road trip?” Maisie repeated, “But my shift in the com centre starts in twenty-five minutes and I’m not even properly dressed yet.”
“Forget it,” Kai said, “Kamala is taking over your shift today, while you’ll take over hers for her birthday next month.”
“But what about your shift?”
“I swapped shifts with Rashid, so we’ve got ten blessed hours of free time.”
“What about that Valentine’s dinner and dance at the central cafeteria tonight?” Maisie wanted to know.
“Do you really want to go there? You, me and every other couple in the entire colony?”
“Not particularly, no.” Maisie shrugged. “But that’s the way they do things here and it was nice of the colony management to set everything up. I hear they even programmed the holo-projectors to display hearts and roses and the kitchen team have prepared a special meal and afterwards, Tetsuo Watanabe will play romantic songs on his violin.”
“I’ve heard enough of Tetsuo and his violin to last me a lifetime.” Kai reached for Maisie’s hand. “I’d much rather be alone with you.”
“Me, too, but that’s just not possible here. And we both knew what we were getting into…”
“Of course it’s possible,” Kai said, “Like I said, we’re going on a road trip.”
“But Iago Prime doesn’t even have any roads,” Maisie stammered, “And besides, where will we go?”
“You’ll see.” Kai opened the door of the Rover. “Look, I even brought a picnic basket.”
He picked up two geological sample cases that were now filled with sandwiches and soy meatballs and salad jars and canned drinks that he’d bribed the provisions officer to provide in exchange for extra com time with his family on Earth.
“But how can we possibly have a picnic…” Maisie wanted to know, “…when it’s minus forty degrees Celsius outside and the atmosphere is so toxic that we can’t even breathe?”
“That’s why we’ll bring our pressure suits, too,” Kai said. He walked over to a row of lockers along one wall of the hangar, fetched their respective suits and handed the smaller of the two bulky suits to Maisie. “Time to get suited up.”
It took them only a few minutes to put on their suits. The hostile atmosphere of Iago Prime and the daily emergency drills at the compound had given them both plenty of practice.
When they were both suited up, Kai pointed at the open passenger door of the Rover and executed a gallant bow or at least as gallant as he could manage in his bulky pressure suit.
“And now hop inside, so we can get going.”
The drive through the rocky terrain of Iago Prime took them maybe two hours, about the same time the annual trip to Aberystwyth had taken them back home. And since Kai had fed the Rover’s navigation computer with all sorts of data gleaned from the geological survey team, they didn’t even get lost. And considering that Maisie had always teased him about his appalling sense of direction back on Earth, not getting lost on an alien planet that had neither roads nor road signs was quite an achievement.
After all, Kai had even managed to get lost during their first trip to Aberystwyth some six years ago now. Somehow, he’d taken a wrong turn at Libanus that had taken them deep into the Brecon Beacons National Park. And unlike Iago Prime, Wales actually had roads and road signs, even if half of them were in Welsh only.
But thankfully, the geological survey team knew their stuff and so the navigation computer directed them safely to their destination. The Rover rounded a rocky cliff and finally came to a halt upon a gently sloping hill, at least by Iago Prime standards.
“We’re here,” Kai said and sealed his helmet.
When Maisie had sealed her helmet as well and they had depressurised the Rover, Kai opened the doors and they both stepped out onto the hill, their boots sinking into the black lava sand.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” Maisie said via the suit com, “Why did we come here rather than to any of the other five billion rocky plateaus scattered around the planet?”
Kai didn’t answer. He just took a step forwards and then another, up the hill. Her curiosity aroused, Maisie followed him.
They walked maybe a hundred meters, the steep incline of the hill and the weight of their suits offset by the lower than Earth standard gravity on Iago Prime. And then they came to the edge of the bluff, looking down on sea-green waves of liquid ammonia crashing against the rocks about a hundred metres below. It was almost as if they were back on Constitution Hill, looking down on Cardigan Bay, if not for the unfamiliar stars and constellations dotting the skies above.
“Oh my God,” Maisie exclaimed, “It’s the beach. We’re on the beach.”
“This was the closest thing to a beach I could find within reasonable distance of the compound,” Kai replied, “I know it’s not Aberystwyth, but…”
“It’s beautiful,” Maisie said, squeezing Kai’s gloved hand with her own, “It’s absolutely perfect. And anyway, if I’d wanted Aberystwyth forever, I would have stayed on Earth.”
Hand in hand they stood at the edge of the cliff, watching the curiously hypnotic spectacle of burbling waves crashing against the cliffside through a haze of sea spray created by liquid ammonia evaporating in the wan sun.
After a few minutes, Maisie leant towards Kai, until the faceplates of their helmets touched, as close to a kiss as they could come in the hostile environment of Iago Prime.
“Thank you,” Maisie whispered, her voice barely audible over the static crackle of the suit com, “Thank you for a wonderful Valentine’s Day.”
“Ah well,” Kai said, blushing inside his suit, “I had to do what I could to salvage our Valentine’s Day tradition, didn’t I? Though I fear we’ll have to have our picnic inside the Rover this year, cause the temperature and the air out here are absolutely murderous.”
“And afterwards…” Maisie flashed him the secret smile that was reserved only for him. “…maybe we can get rid of those bulky suits as well. Cause I don’t think there’s a B and B anywhere around here, so we’ll just have to make do.”
That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new story will be posted.