Growing Roots

1.

When the shuttle left the ionosphere, Abby Huang saw bands of light playing across the poles. The earth filled up half of the silicate window, a shrinking, light-blue horizon. Abby had looked at the receding planet in the distance, and thought to herself:

That tiny blue ball—that’s Home. That’s Everything.

There was a moment of awesome spiritual terror.

Then she covered up the window with her palm and pushed the blue-green planet out of her mind.

“Xiaolu, you shouldn’t complain,” her father once told her. He called her Xiaolu—never by her anglicized name, even though she’d often pleaded with him to do so in front of her American friends. “This is where you’re from. This is home.”

She was fifteen. The air was sticky and smelled of petrol. The humidity made it difficult to breathe. Wading through the smog and heat, she could not resist the urge to pick at the acne and neon-red sweat rashes that blossomed across her face. Shui tu bu fu, her grandparents had called itthe rejection of a foreign body by the water and earth—or, the rejection of the water and earth by a foreigner’s body. Abby walked head-down along the pagoda walkways, trying painfully to keep out of the sightlines of passers-by.

“Xiaolu, do you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?” Her father asked, pointing at the pond below. She shook her head, deftly hiding her face as a group of cute boys padded by, laughing with the easy swagger of tourists. Her father was a serious man—he did not like parties or MTV or pop music, or any of the things that she liked to gossip to her friends about back home in Oregon. Their conversations would always return to the same thing: the plants, the biology; the work he could never leave at work.

Abby sighed. A crescent day-moon sat like a splash of chalk in the watergarden below. She listened disinterestedly as her father waxed on about stolons and root systems, while laowai and tourists swarmed through New Chenghuang Temple’s stifling heat.

“ . . . more importantly, water-lilies anchor themselves with roots below the waterline, while the water-hyacinths are all free-floating plants . . . ”

She stood and stared and said nothing. They leaned over the water and lazed in the Puxi swelter, glo-cubes lighting up one by one as the sun crawled lower in the sky.

That was before the cold war—back when all those things still existed. Abby supposed they must still be down there somewhere, on that fragile shred of blue that used to be home—but they were not for her. Her world was now one of underground tunnels and water rations; of wet-wipes and recycled fluids, and the sterile-white of lunar dust. The earth was just a satellite, a distant blue moon above a humbling sweep of desolation, floating like a waterflower in an endless black ocean.

She’d made her own watergarden on the moon.

No—that was not entirely true. Ownership was such an earthly idea—a conceptual luxury that had no place on Luna. Better to say that she’d simply made a piece of home for herself where it wouldn’t have otherwise existed. The colony’s patchwork of edible reeds and algae vats were reminders of happier days—iso-sealed and humid, like a Puxi summer. There used to be an entire team of eight working in hydroponics, but Abby was the only one left now: the sole curator of the colony’s living greenhouse, maintaining and calibrating the ancient equipment, making sure that the algae stores continued to pump out vital oxygen for their precious little foothold of life on the moon.

The comm-line blipped on her shoulder.

“Abs, I missed you at dinner. Are you working late again?”

She fumbled with her equipment, trying to wipe the grease off her fingers.

“That busy, huh? Listen, I’ll bring some food down. You were sick all morning; you really should take some time off.”

Abby sighed. Her free hand found her stomach. The data-tag blipped under her thumb as she ticked off another hydroponic vat from the maintenance checklist. Number sixty-six was a geriatric old thing, prone to leakage and rust—an outdated hunk of equipment that would have been replaced years ago, had the earthbound governments been able to tear their teeth from each other’s throats long enough to mind the moon.

She cracked out her aching back and bobbed through the aisles of silver-gray machinery. Her thoughts veered back towards glo-cubes and Puxi summers, and to their little house in Oregon, before the war, before their relocation to the federal camps. She came to an unsteady stop past the pH equalizers, gripping the sides of a tiny water-tank and feeling its cold, metallic frame against her palms. There, in front of her, was the jewel in the crown of her little empire: one cubit foot of still water, crowded over with lilies and hyacinths.

“Abby. There you are.”

Abby started from her thoughts. She had not heard the doors.

“Fishing for glo-flies again?”

Abby laughed and held up her grease-stained work cloth. Just taking a break, she gestured. John bobbed over to her and sidled up close, stealing a kiss from the corner of her lips. He pushed a stew-tube into her hand, and pulled out a vacuum-pack for himself.

“Brought you some food.”

“Thanks,” she said, peering into the water tank, stretching out the knots in her muscles. The surface looked much too dark for only one cubic foot of water. “I was just thinking about home. You know it’ll be eight years this November since we’ve been up here?”

“Longer, for me.” John ran his fingers across the lilies on the surface. He’d been among the first wave of domestic protesters to speak out against the federal surveillance program, and had lost his house and his job for his un-Americanism. Not quite a them, in the partisan sense of things—but something just as frightening: an invisible shadow of sedition, without even the basic decency to be visibly distinguishable from the us; a cancer of un-patriotism that could not be allowed to speak freely in the land of the free.

“You Chinese get all your censorship from your government, while we in America are expected to do it ourselves.” John once said, back when he and Abby first met. Back then, he was the immaculate portrait of the bitter exile: a sneering young man with a inexhaustible wellspring of cynicism, whose words always sounded way too old for his age. When they met in the hallways, his stance was always guarded—shoulders up, head down—engaging in perfunctory conversation with the enemy alien, whose foreignness was only blunted by their shared predicament.

But as things go, Luna had a way of breaking earthly presumptions. The moon gathered people like them: floating water-flora of questionable loyalty, unable to root in the tensile, suspicious world below. They had flitted out of the ionosphere like glo-flies, even as all the scientists of sturdy nationalistic allegiance scrambled to get home in time for the thermonuclear holocaust.

John snapped open a vacuum pack and waved it under her nose. She gasped at the familiar, tangy smell.

“Dried fruit? Real fruit?”

He smiled and nodded.

“Paul gave them out at mess. Good haul this cycle. UNJO-funded.”

Abby brought a fig to her mouth and bit down, feeling the seeds crunch and pop through their sticky-sweet insides.

“It must be thawing out down there.”

“Must be.” John shrugged, popping some raisins into his mouth. Abby frowned at that. He was too non-committal about earth politics, these days. Surely, the thawing of tensions down below was good news for exiles like them.

“Anyway, how much do you still have to do?”

She looked around the room and groaned. There were still twenty out of the eighty-six water-silos that she had not yet checked up on. Between those and her scheduled isometrics, she’d be lucky to get a wink of sleep before reveille.

John seemed to be able to read her thoughts.

“You’re sick in the mornings and tired at night. You’re working too hard, Abs. Just skip the isometrics for a day, will you?”

Abby sighed. Once again, her free hand found her stomach, strolling over the smoothweave fabric of her clothes. She sucked down the stew tube and finished up the last of the maintenance work with John peering helpless and impatient over her shoulders. They lugged her equipment down the halls, bouncing and bobbing into the walls until they parted ways at the isometrics room.

She watched John’s retreating back through the hallway. Perhaps it was her imagination, or the fluorescent lighting saturating the walls—but she could not help thinking that, in this light, he looked much thinner than usual.

2.

Morning reveille was at 7:00 AM, Lunar Standard. The corridors’ artificial lights flickered into slow-glow, a pale fluorescent facsimile of the terran sunrise. Abby was up and moving an hour before the music seeped through the speakers in its rising tune.

For breakfast: a tube of nutrient paste and another of simulated oatmeal that she’d left out to thaw the night before. She downed them quickly, over the protest of nausea in her stomach. A glass of re-condensed water went down stale and tinny, and then her daily steroids and calcium tablets, before she bobbed down the lightening halls towards the isometric rooms.

The isometrics were the closest thing she had to religion on Luna. The exercise room was her steeple; the ranging lunges, her dogma. It was a sweating and heaving congregation, in daily prayer that the earth wouldn’t crush the life out of their de-calcified bones once they returned to its gravity. It was the one thing that told the home-bound apart from the lifers—the Scrawnies and Lunies that talk show hosts joked about on primetime Earthnet.

Stretch-heave.

She gave her musculature a testing flex, strutting her full range of motion against the cables. She could tune out the creak of the straining machines, the heavy breathing of the other attendees, and the scent of evaporating sweat being sucked into moisture collectors. The contractions of tensile wireframes stretched into spiritual nihilism, as mind-erasing as Buddhist zen.

Stretch-heave.

In her vision: a sweep of dancing lights from the ionosphere, and the afterglow of a receding horizon.

Stretch-heave.

A fragile splash of blue in an all-black sky.

Stretch-heave.

Waterflowers in a Puxi haze.

Before the cold war, she had been an American. Pretty-faced and tall for her age. Perpetually heartbroken and happy, the way teenagers are.

She had been content in their little Oregonian suburb, among the quiet houses and the trees and the suburban, two-lane streets. She liked the schools and the people, the pizza and gossip at familiar hangouts. She liked the dances and the Oregonian boys, who fawned after her like exotic spices from a faraway land. Disquieting, in its own way—though, truth be told, she’d always rather liked the attention.

“You’re lucky you’re pretty and popular, you know. They can be so cruel to us sometimes.”

The only other immigrant family had lived ten miles outside of town. Their child Bo was a freshman, one year her junior, whose parents had gone through painful lengths to enrol him in a richer school. She understood their obsession with scholastic prestige because of her father—but she also knew that, well-intentioned though they were, they hadn’t done the boy any favours. He was a shy kid, quiet and shabby, who could not keep up in sports or conversations. He ate his lunches alone in a stairwell in the disused north wing of the school, and she’d laughed dutifully along with her friends whenever the popular boys tormented him in the hallways.

With her, he seemed to forgive readily.

“We’re not the same as them,” he said once, sitting on their porch, nursing a split lip for talking back to Bobby Lee at school the week before. Her father had forced her to stay at home while he hosted the boy’s parents. “I don’t think we’ll ever be.”

In the shade of suburban awnings, looking out at the middle-class cul-de-sac, Bo’s accented speech and deliberate use of ‘we’ sounded out of place. The boy bothered her; everything from his shabby clothes, to his imposition of camaraderie, to his half-smiling way of speaking, as if he was letting on less than he knew.

Abby had last heard from him when they shipped him to the federal camps for un-Americanism. The injustice of it sat like lead in her stomach. Flexing against her binding cables, she wondered at how quickly the earth had become such an unhappy place.

Stretch-heave.

The fluorescence of the isometric room came back and heliographed before her eyes. She felt a churning in her belly, cresting in a familiar wave of nausea.

Stretch-heave.

She dropped the cables and clutched at her stomach.

Vomit fell slowly in 1/6 G.

3.

“Your viral and bacterial screens came back negative.”

The pronouncement was as cold as a scalpel. Abby shifted uncomfortably as Dr. Stelman, one of the colony’s two bag-eyed, overworked doctors, frowned from the datapad to his patient.

The sterile whiteness of the room stifled her.

“You know I can’t give out anything without a solid diagnosis. Things are tight enough as it is.”

Abby contorted her neck into a nod, doing her best to ignore the anxiety that crept down her spine and tingled in her toes. Luna, she knew, was not the sort of place you wanted to fall ill. The med-lab had countermeasures for the most common lunar ailments; Zalmatox courses for immunodeficiency, steroids for muscle atrophy, cal-tabs for osteopenia, even a needlewire electrolysation kit for aortic calcification . . . But at the end of the day, the long list of things that could go wrong with a human body in 1/6 G was nowhere near exhaustive. The colony was barely a generation old—new complications were still popping out of the woodwork on a consistent basis, sending bodies to the waste dump and leaving med-staff puzzled and helpless.

Dr. Stelman pressed at her belly, giving her a start.

“What about your periods?” he asked. “Have they been regular?”

There was a beat of silence. Then Abby almost laughed out loud. She looked at the doctor, searching his face for the twinkle of a joke, but found only tired and humourless eyes. She shrugged helplessly. Her periods had been irregular ever since she came to Luna—reproductive complications and sterility were common side effects of long-term extraterrestrial life. Luna was a population built on immigrants alone; birth rates were the sole purview of terran statisticians.

Dr. Stelman stared at the datapad, brows furrowed in consternation.

“We’ll do an ultrasound, just to be sure.” He murmured. “That’s probably not it, but still . . . .”

John had been as surprised as she when he got the news.

“They want to do what?” He’d half-laughed as he bobbed uncertainly towards the pulled bed-frame.

Now, as the rising crescendo of lights and reveille music seeped across the halls, Abby could only watch with a pang of homesickness as her usual congregation filed out of the isometrics room. She nodded to the regulars as she bobbed past. John had appealed to his shift manager to accompany her to the test, but as per usual with the colony’s strapped work shifts, the response had been curt and practical: “Pregnancies don’t happen off-planet. Stelman’s been working too hard lately. You know we can’t give time off for trivial things.”

Abby sighed. Trivial things.

Next to the weight of the moon, everything was trivial.

“Hey Huang. No isos today?”

Abby shook her head and bounced by wordlessly. The woman laughed and slapped her on the rump, a little over-friendly in her endorphin high.

“You’d better not be going native, lady.”

Overhead, the fluorescent lights had reached their full brightness. The halls began to fill with activity as the lifers and homebound alike made from their dorms and began their daily buzz around the colony. Abby’s stomach bounced with every bobbing step. The nausea-suppressants she took from the med lab seemed to be working, at least. She made her way through the winding corridors towards medical, past hydroponics, past the branching northern hall that led the waste disposal unit on the far side of the colony. She’d taken a work-shift there, back when she first landed. Mostly bio-tox and bodies—archiving the ID tags of the dead and reclaiming the moisture from their bodies, before sealing the airlock and letting the pressure gradient carry the husks down the poop chute. Some of the bodies would roll and be carried by their own inertia over a crater rim. Most of them just laid there in the lunar dust and debris, shrunken and glossy-eyed, never decaying.

She’d had her own brief rebellion at the thought of drying and dumping the dead, instead of burying them—but that phase had been mercifully short-lived. Earth-born sentimentalism did not last long on Luna.

Dr. Stelman greeted her curtly as she entered the med-lab. She watched from outside her body as the assistant prepped the electrodes and laid her down on the worn polystyrene table.

“Don’t be so nervous,” came the scripted reassurance. “It’s probably nothing. Just a routine test.”

Abby almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. Routine? For whom? She thought of earthly mothers in their bracing gravity, complaining about hospital foods and commute times and the noisy birds outside. She thought of what it would be like to eat fresh foods, to feel natural humidity on her skin, to be able to unironically think of life as a blessing, rather than some vaguely fearful variable in the annals of space exploration.

As the gel-tipped sensor glided cool and ticklish across her skin, Abby Huang closed her eyes and lost herself to thoughts of home.

“Finally. I thought we’d never get out of airport security. How many times do they have to grope a girl before they’re convinced she’s not some bomb-strapped Manchurian candidate?”

In the distant past, Abby’s father was laughing, ushering a visiting Chinese couple to the living room. Their little Oregonian suburb sat in a haze of weekend ennui, sunlight flooding the house through their venetian blinds.

(The coolness of the ultrasound gel tickled her abdomen).

“Things have been tense since the Strait of Japan incident . . . Sorry it was such a hassle for you to get here. I hope people can come to their senses soon and not let things escalate any further.”

The woman nodded in agreement, shaking hands with her father for the twentieth time, laughing and dropping her glottals in a twanging Ningbo accent. The man smiled with aloof politeness. It was familiar scene in the Huang household: her father and his colleagues, sitting around the coffee table, waxing political about the latest international developments over a pot of chrysanthemum tea and a bowl of oily American snacks.

Abby observed the grown-ups as she snacked idly in the kitchen.

“Still, not the best time for visiting America, eh, Da Huang?” said the woman. “The TSA aside, I heard a few of your colleagues got into trouble with the university for un-Americanism.”

“Ah, Liu Bu. He’s never been the type who could leave his politics at home.”

The woman nodded, then threw up her shoulders in the universal what-can-you-do gesture.

“That’s how it starts, isn’t it? It’s the same everywhere. The screws are being tightened on the mainland, too. My friend from internal says there’s even talk of revoking all American business visas, if the US sanctions go ahead.”

“And a good job of it, if that,” interjected the man from the other end of the couch. His tone was terse and confrontational, cutting through the Sunday haze. Abby perked up from her Cheetos. Maybe something interesting would happen, after all.

The woman shot her companion a cold warning glance. Abby’s father only shrugged.

“I’m sure it won’t come to that.”

“Well, if it does, it’ll be your American jingoism that provoked it. We would’ve settled the issue with Little Japan years ago—you’re the ones butting into regional politics where you don’t belong . . . .”

“Damn it, honey, let’s not do this again . . . .”

Abby peeked surreptitiously over her snack-bag at the grown-ups in the other room. Something about the man’s deliberate use of pronouns unsettled her. Abby knew nothing about the rising tensions in the Straits of Japan, or the nationalistic media clampdown at Xinhua, or the hawkish electoral rhetoric being spewed on Capitol Hill—but, looking at her father, all laugh lines and a neatly-parted businessman’s cut over his traditional Han features, she could not help but wonder who they were supposed to be in this scenario—the ‘you’ or the ‘we’?

“You know, you should really watch CCTV sometime—it would be a change of pace from your imperialist American news. Why, just a week ago, Lin Xiaochen ran a segment highlighting the provocative American foreign policy . . . .”

Abby’s father waved his hand, as if slapping away an insect.

“Lin Xiaochen! That old demagogue salivates over the idea of war as if it were a spectator sport.”

“Spoken like an un-patriotic coward. When your country’s security and dignity is on the line, it’s your duty to fight!”

The man accentuated the word ‘fight’ with a solid smack on the knee. The female guest sat in her seat, rubbing her temple in mute, resigned embarrassment. Abby’s father nodded coldly.

“Let the demagogues whinge and roar. You can bet that it won’t be them or their children enlisting to fight, if war ever did break out.”

The man set down his teacup with an audible clink.

“If war ever did break out, I’d send my son to fight.”

There was an uncomfortable silence.

Abby sighed and returned to her Cheetos.

In the present, Dr. Stelman narrowed his eyes, squinting at the grainy screen of the ultrasound. The electric thrum of two parallel heartbeats filled Abby’s world with equal parts wonder and dread.

“Anyhow, I think you’re out of touch, Mr. Huang,” the man said, as the suburban tableau scattered like a breaking mosaic. “All you get here is American news, American rhetoric. Plenty of patriotic Chinese agree with me.”

The scent-memory of chrysanthemums hung in the air.

4.

“A baby? Is it true, Xiaolu, you’re having a baby?”

The comm-link blared like a runaway train. Abby smiled a little vindictively, thinking of the federal censors listening in on their line, probably grasping their coffees and cringing against the excited noise.

“Ma, please don’t gush. It’s a bit more complicated than that.”

Abby tried to smile back through the screen. She wondered how to convey the precariousness of her situation without upsetting her beaming mother; how to express the four hundred thousand kilometres of distance between her child and the life-giving earth; the political complications of her status if she were to ever return; the weeks of hushed, tearful debates between herself and John over whether to keep the child at all. Dr. Stelman’s sterile, professional words rang in her head:

“There have never been any studies on the effects of a lunar environment on human pregnancy. We’ll monitor the situation carefully, but bear in mind that there’s no guarantee that the child will come to term . . . .”

Her mother bounded back through the transmission lag:

“Oh, who’s gushing, Xiaolu? I’m just so glad to see your face again. When the government men told us, we didn’t believe them. But then the news started talking about it, and then even the army folks guarding the camp—and when they told us that we’d be able to see you again, after all these years . . . !” Wiping tears from her eyes, she continued: “I’m so happy for you. You know there isn’t a person on earth who isn’t rooting for you, Xiaolu!”

Abby smiled and took that with a grain of salt—but she had to admit that the first communiqués from earth had been heartening. The near-defunct UN Joint Operations office had gotten in touch with both the Chinese and American authorities, who had in turn located her mother in one of the internment centers and set up a weekly supervised line directly from Luna into camp. At mess, Paul had showed them clip after clip of optimistic terran pundits pointing out the reconciliatory symbolism of the moon-child in a thawing political landscape. And when Joint Operations ran their social media Q&A, the longest-running thread on Earthnet had been an outpouring of congratulations from both sides of the Great Firewall—though, she had to remind herself in her moments of overt optimism, the second-longest had been an ongoing wiki-limerick titled “The Turncoat and the Chinky Whore.”

“I’m really happy to hear that, Ma. How are things at the, uh—” She paused, re-assessing her words. ‘Internment camp’ was still a taboo phrase in the federal lexicon. “—how are things at the assembly center?”

If her mother picked up on her unease, she didn’t show it.

“Oh, we’ve mostly been talking about you, Xiaolu! We had a dance last week to celebrate the news. Bo fixed up one of the old farmhouses, the supervising officer approved it, and everybody in the camp showed up and danced. Even some of the army guards came out to join us—what were their names again . . . ?”

“That—that’s great, Ma!” Abby yelled, cutting her mother off before she could blurt them out. A bit of camaraderie between guards and internees was one thing; but openly fraternizing with interned aliens was still big trouble, even in the thawing world below.

Then, something else clicked in the back of her head:

“Wait, ma, did you say Bo?”

“Yes! Oh, but you wouldn’t know! He was transferred here after you left for Patriot School! He’s here now, in the other room. Silly boy, he said he didn’t want to intrude on our time. Xiao Bo, come out here!”

Abby watched in astonishment as the boyish face came sliding on-screen, carrying an uncharacteristic dry smirk. That Bo would somehow end up in the same camp as her mother was not unheard of—persons certified as ‘low-threat’ were routinely put in the same re-settlements as their old neighbours. What surprised her was the fact that he was still there. He had been even younger than she was when they interned him, and she could not imagine that he would have any reason to stay.

“Hey, Xiaolu.” He laughed. “You look a little shocked to see me.”

She gave a little wave into the comm-screen.

“I’m happy to see you, Bo—I just didn’t expect you to be in a camp, of all places. I thought for sure you would have taken the Patriot Exams by now!”

“That garbage?” He laughed.

Abby bit her tongue. Surely he knew it was a supervised line?

“Like I’d lie and pander just to get out.” He grinned wider. There was a tinge of desperation in it. “And anyway, I not a naturalized American, remember? I never had the option in the first place.”

John nodded knowingly from his corner. The Naturalized Child Citizens Act had applied only to American-born aliens, giving them the option to be housed and re-educated elsewhere, away from their families in the camps. When the choice had been extended to Abby, her mother had asked no questions, only kissed her on the forehead and wished her the best.

“You can have a life and a future, Abby,” she’d saida way out from the group bunks and unpartitioned washrooms of the camp; a tantalizing whiff of freedom that had stolen into the oubliette where they’d been stored and forgotten. A few years away in some government boarding school had seemed like a small price to pay.

Abby sighed and remembered a trip they took during her Patriot years—a tour of some university in the mid-west, shepherded under the shadows of neo-Georgian buildings for a glimpse of the world that they would one day inhabit as productive Patriots. Their supervising chaperones had marched them openly across the quad, and she’d felt the eyes of passersbys upon their little clique: hack musicians handing out flyers, ultimate-frisbee-ers fighting over a drink, friends out for a spring picnic on the grass; all craning their necks to stare as they passed by. And Abby watched them in her turn, her eyes connecting with theirs through a great distance, wondering at the lives and dreams of those other people from that other world.

The memory made her sad. Those were the days when she still belonged to earth—when she still believed that the other world had a place for her. Over time, she grew to be inured to the hostile looks from strangers in the streets, to the slurs and snide remarks that led to workplace altercations, and to the termination notices from mediators as they invariably sided with her harassers. She went through her days in a haze, bouncing from one potential employer to the next, watching them squint at her Patriot certificate as though searching for forgery. Some days, she found herself becoming inexplicably angry at even her own friends: their offers of financial support became jeers of superiority; their sympathetic, I’m-sorry-you-had-to-go-through-that pep-talks became increasingly underwritten by the unspoken implication, I would never have to.” Holding her rancour out at arm’s length, she grew to hate the broke, angry, and over-suspicious woman in the mirror. She was a water-hyacinth—overqualified, underpaid—dreaming of glo-cubes and waterflowers in a middle-American desert.

“I guess a lot of things have happened since then, huh?”

Bo’s words jolted Abby out of her reverie. The face on the comm-screen was grinning, but in the ugly way of someone trying to force a laugh at a funeral. She’d never seen him look so old and tired—as if the smile on his face was holding back a weight that would stretch his features to the ground, wrinkle them with liverspots, fold them up with the caprices of care and age. She ran a finger over her own knuckles and wondered if she too looked as old and tired as he did.

“Yeah. A lot of things have happened to all of us,” she confirmed.

They sat awhile in unspoken understanding. When her mother looked back at the camera, it was with the same sad expression she’d worn when Abby left the camp for the first time. Bo, to her side, watched the floor with his cracked-marble grin.

The federal reprimand pinged on her screen. They were out of time.

Her mother smiled—genuinely, this time.

“It’s fine, Xiaolu. They said we’ll get to talk again next week. And as many weeks as we want after that, until you’re able to come home.”

Her words sounded naively optimistic to Abby’s ears. The notion of Oregonian suburbs and Puxi summers fluttered in her chest, fragile and wishful, before she forcibly clamped them down again. Abby said her goodbyes to her mother and Bo, watching them watch her with identical, faraway looks on their faces.

Her finger hovered over the final disconnect key.

I’ll see you both when I come home,” she said as the screen went blank.

5.

On a clear night in the country, the star-dusted sky would have been a humbling sight. Here, on the lunar surface, it smothered and cleansed, and the terrifying one-eighty-degree sweep of unbound creation could cut straight to your soul.

The earthrise looked abjectly small and fragile by comparison.

Abby and John rarely ever visited the surface. Nobody did, unless it was for work: engineers calibrating the panels that turned the deadly, unfiltered sunlight towards the power-grids of the colony; miners and surveyors, who alternated between tunnelling underground and braving the surface in their comical suits, searching out the ever-precious lodes of water-ice sublated in the lunar geology. The people of Luna never got much leisure time—but Abby’s pregnancy had transformed her and John into instant celebrities, both on Luna and on Earth. They had the benefit of an unheard-of one week away from duties, with stipend water rations to get them through the week.

They were spending the last day of their vacation gazing at the earth.

“There’s a lot of talk about bringing Lily back there.” John’s crackling voice came over the comm—more bitter and sardonic than necessary, she thought. “The bureaucrats are practically drooling for her.”

Abby nodded invisibly in her spacesuit, which pulled uncomfortably tight around her waist. To her and John, she was Lily, their moon-girl, their beautiful child-to-be. But to the earthbound propagandists, she was a political narrative and a powerful PR coup; the first child conceived on the moon; a mix-blooded child of peace and reconciliation on a four-hundred-thousand kilometre descent from exile.

The blue planet twinkled silently in the sky.

Still, a propaganda reel for peace wouldn’t be such a bad change, thought Abby—it sure beat the nationalistic demagoguery the media had doled out at the beginning of the cold war. She looked up at the blackness, and then over at the spacesuit that contained her moon-man, bobbing twenty yards away towards the crater rim. When all was said and done, she had a more personal reason to be thinking about the earth.

Fact was, she missed it like hell.

“John, I want to go back.”

She could not see John’s face through the reflective visor, but his voice came through the comm crackling and strained.

“Now?”

“When else, if not now?”

“I was hoping we could wait a few more years. Wait out the worst of the thaw. You know how it is down there, Abs—there’s no safety on either side of that line.”

Abby sighed. Here was the conversation that she had been dreading for weeks. John turned to look back at her as the silence stretched on uncomfortably. The helioproofed domes of their spacesuits reflected only the sweep of lunar sky, two hollow-looking cosmonauts against a humbling field of desolation, surreal as staring ghosts. She measured her words carefully:

“No one’s ever carried a pregnancy to term off-world. We don’t know what it could mean for Lily.”

(Don’t you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?)

The comm-link buzzed in her ear.

“The States down there isn’t the States I used to know. You know what these people can do, in the name of God and country. Do you really want to take us back to all that . . . ?”

“John, this isn’t about you or me.” She cringed against the weight of her words, and at the half-truth that sat beneath them. She imagined his furrowed brows behind his helmet, his fear and silent indignation at having to return to country that had spat him out so long ago, without even the guarantee of change or safety when he did return. “I want Lily to be born on earth. Look around! This is no place to raise a kid. I want our daughter to grow up with all the things we had—the most basic, stupid clichés that she’ll never even know about on Luna—like taking a shower on a summer day—(Remember showers, John? Remember summers?)—I want her to know clouds and dew and flowers—sunlight that doesn’t kill you . . . .”

Waterflowers in a Puxi haze.

“John. I want to go home.”

The comm-link was silent. Abby was thankful that her suit’s visor hid the dampness welling up in her eyes. She reached up to wipe the tears away, but only thudded her hand stupidly against the dome of her helmet.

“Abby, are you crying?”

“I . . . No, I—Jesus, John . . . .”

Abby gritted her teeth. She shook her head inside her spacesuit, invisibly, futilely. The only thing that had gotten her through their tenure on the moon was the assumption that it was all temporary; that one day, somehow, she would return home. She had not counted on growing roots. She had not counted on a lot of things: not the untaken steroids and cal-tabs that she’d found in John’s medicine cabinet, nor his ever-increasing excuses to put off isometrics, nor the twenty earth-pounds of body-mass that she’d watched him shed over the past year as he waned thin and brittle in moon-G. She wanted to grab him by the shoulders and scream: You look like a Lunie, you know that? You look like a fucking lifer!

The earth twinkled silently overhead.

You’re growing roots in the wrong place.

Abby took a deep breath and suppressed the churning in her gut. She bobbed awkwardly towards her moon-man until their helmets were touching, and she could just make out the faint contours of his features beneath the helioproofed glass.

“Look: it’s thawing out down there, John. I really think there can be a future for people like us. America isn’t all there is. I’ll take you to Shanghai. We can visit the watergardens with Lily. Go to the tourist-traps. Spend a fortune on stupid trinkets that we’ll never need . . . .”

We can . . . and we can . . . .

The comm-line was silent. The sun crested over the rim of the crater, throwing jagged shadows onto the lunar foothills. Sunlight reflected heaven-white off the moondust, swallowing the tiny spacesuits below.

Finally, after a long silence, John’s voice came crackling over the comm-line:

“Yeah. Someday, I’d like that.”

6.

When the shuttle re-entered the ionosphere, Abby Huang watched the lights of the terran cities below, glinting like misplaced stars as the continents advanced against her viewscreen.

The bureaucratic procedurals for her return had been surprisingly painless. Aside from the expected posturing between the governments over where she would symbolically land, things had gone as smoothly as anyone could have hoped. The terran authorities hadn’t made any overtly cynical demands—just a few press appearances, some photo-ops with pro-peace politicians who needed an extra boost in their credibility. Shake hands with some middle-American senator; smile and pose with some smarmy Chinese dignitary.

The thought of it overwhelmed her with rage.

“And my father? We haven’t heard from him since the Americans interned us. Have you had any luck finding him?”

She remembered the last communiqué from earth, the week before she was scheduled to leave Luna. The UNJO officer had looked visibly uncomfortable in his seat, while the Chinese official on her comm-screen smiled his placid little smile.

“We are sorry that we cannot help you in that regard. Please rest assured that our thoughts are with you, Ms. Huang. We apologize, and are nevertheless anticipating your safe return with great excitement.”

As the planet loomed below her, Abby had to fight down the rage and gut-pain that wracked her stomach. Anticipating your safe return—was that what they had told her father, when the Americans expelled him, back to the country of his birth? Was that what they had said as they dragged him away in their nationalistic witch-hunt, screeching their archaic, pre-millennial rhetoric? Fangeming, han jian—foreign-born, US-sympathetic, or just caught saying the wrong things at the wrong time—thousands of men and women, lost and buried as missing persons, anomalies in the prison system. And now, as the political winter thawed, bland-faced bureaucrats smiled at worried families. Your concern is important to us, we will do everything we can to locate so-and-so, please move to the back of the line.”

Abby ran a hand over her bloated stomach, holding back the sinking feeling inside. The blue-green horizon expanded as the shuttled sailed languidly under the weight of its own inertia. A streaming feed from Earthnet buzzed on the all-comm.

“ . . . and the eyes of the nation are turned to the moon today, as Lily Johnston-Huang descends from the moon-colony Luna and is scheduled to touch down at the Swiss Space Center at 8PM this evening . . . ”

. . . 从国家利益的角度考虑,必须记住的是,瑞士既是美国的盟友, 更是北约的一员 . . . ”

“What bothers me, Susan, is that this girl—you know—that her parents decided to keep her other name. What kind of message does that send? I mean, you’re either a Johnston or a Huang, am I right?”

Abby grunted to herself. Waves broke over her, and she felt adrift in a sea of self-doubt. Had she done the right thing, bringing Lily back to all this?

The shuttle began to thrum in its deorbit burn. The horizon tilted on its axis as they positioned themselves nose-first against the terran atmosphere. Abby looked out through the exothermic glow of her viewscreen and gritted her teeth against the turbulence, her fingers digging themselves into the armrests as though they were the only things holding her up in the sky.

The fear-cramp in her gut stirred again, even as she tried to force her mind in comforting directions. She imagined her mother and her beaming optimism. She imagined John, healthy and filled-out as he once was, dancing with Lily along the walkways of New Chenghuang Temple. She imagined glo-cubes lighting up one by one in the watergarden below. An Oregonian suburb—a Puxi swelter.

Her belly contracted with pain. She looked down and pried her death-grip from the armrests. Outside, the air of the low atmosphere screeched and whined against their speeding shuttle.

“Xiaolu, Do you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?”

She clutched her sides, uncomprehending. The whinging screech of the hull seemed determined to bore a hole straight through her skull.

“I mean, I’m as much for peace as the next guy, but what kind of upside-down world would it be where Huangs dressed up like Johnstons and Johnstons dressed like Huangs? Am I right folks?”

She shook her head, no, no. It was too soon.

而且,鉴于全球对该孩童及家庭如此关注,以及对该事件付与的政治函意,这不能不让人深究:该事件的进一步发展将会有利于美国的宣传机器还是我们的爱国主义教育 . . .

Then the pain in her stomach crested, and the contractions began.

“Do you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?”

Abby shook her head against the memory. Something about stolons and root systems. Cameras snapped and faces screeched as she stumbled into the humid terran atmosphere, the welcome party on the tarmac as loud and thick as a lynching.

“Hey! Get the fucking press out of here!”

“Water-lilies anchor themselves with roots below the waterline, while the hyacinths are all free-floating plants . . . .”

The crowd milled and the sky spat and the cameras flashed.

Shui tu bu fu, she recalled uselessly as they wheeled her across the runway—(the rejection of a foreign body by the water and earth; or, the rejection of the water and earth by a foreigner’s body)—a green-blue planet smothering and spitting out an unwanted, alien bacterium.

“We are water hyacinths.”

A light mist of rain fell from the sky, cut with the scent of industrial-grade petrol. The contraction shot regular white flashes of pain through her body. Abby did not notice the rainwater mingling with sweat on her brow, nor the roar of engines, nor the yammering of press and paramedics outside. The waterflowers in her mind had become the ships of tiny explorers, drifting away on an endless ocean. Her mother and father sat in a floating pod; and John too; and Lily, her impossible, fragile moon-girl.

“We are water-hyacinths, Xiaolu. We do not grow roots.”

And one-by-one, they fell over the horizon.