My class went on a field trip to a history museum when I was ten. We walked through exhibits with pictures of Earth while our teacher told us about the first space colonies and the people who built them. Ours was the 28th colony, so there was a lot of history to go through, but we had heard it all by the time we reached the last exhibit of the museum, a giant room with shiny walls. I particularly recall the sound of our voices in that place. They echoed off the metal floors and filled the entire space, clusters of noise ricocheting every which way until our teacher silenced our giggles and whispers.
The ceiling was connected to the very edge of the colony so that when we looked up we saw, not industrial metal or ceiling lights, but space, all of it, black with bright little stars gleaming.
“That’s what space looks like all around us, in every direction. The constellations might change, but whichever side of the colony you look from, you’re always going to see this blackness,” my teacher said. “You can’t see Earth from here, but if you could, it would look like one of those stars.”
A glass window like that is rare on a colony. Most people want to forget they’re in space at all, want to forget how little separates them from infinity. Not me. I loved it. I was still staring up long after the other kids had started to shift restlessly. I stared at the burning constellations until my vision split, tilted inward, turned kaleidoscopic so that everything was just colors and shapes that crashed together like shards of glass.
I didn’t realize until later that that was my first attack.
Growing up, I always wanted to be a part of making colonies, of designing the layouts and creating new space and fixing any problem or inefficiency that came up. But the more I got into it, the more I began to love the actual process of making and maintaining something like an airlock chamber. I switched from civil engineering over to that – hands-on engineering, I like to call it – because a lot of the equipment that I was in charge of could only be fixed by someone who understood how it was made and could improvise ways to make sure it didn’t break again.
On my last day of work, I was standing on a ladder, peering up at the twisting wires that I had exposed by removing a metal panel from the ceiling. They connected to part of the weather control system and I was examining them for any signs of wear because people had been complaining about the sudden drops in temperature that we’d been getting all week. I was standing there, balanced on the topmost step, one hand braced against the wall and the other shining a flashlight against the shadows the wires were throwing at each other.
There wasn’t much to differentiate the wires, just white serial numbers printed along the black rubber. That’s why I didn’t notice at first when my vision crumbled into dark, fractal shapes turning in on themselves. It was when I glanced at my hand and saw the glow from the flashlight blur together with my light skin, breaking down into shifting triangles, that I realized what was wrong.
I remember squeezing my eyes closed as hard as I could, then opening them again and seeing that nothing had changed. Then I remember the panic, and the fear. My first instinct was to grab the wires that I knew were there, to prove through touch that they were still separate from me, that I was still separate from everything. I lunged and had a blink of relief when I felt them solid against my palm before I was falling, the ladder tumbling underneath my feet. I felt myself fall into the ladder, that solid, too, and after that I remember opening my eyes to see the wires hanging from the ceiling, torn out from one another, and then I remember the pain. I snapped my right forearm, which was the worst of it. Except, of course, for the realization that I was sick. Really sick.
It’s called schizopic vision, officially. People tend to get it when they’ve lived their whole lives in space. No one really knows what causes it, so there’s not any treatment. They just hand you a new ID with a handicap icon on it and a collapsible red cane that you can pull out whenever you have an attack. For a while, you can keep on living normally, but eventually your vision starts to deteriorate. Some people are fine until their fifties and sixties, but some are basically blind by their mid-twenties.
Officially it’s called schizopic vision, but everyone calls it kalopsia. When the first reports of it went public, one doctor theorized that it was a mental disorder, caused by living away from real sunlight. He nicknamed it kalopsia because the word used to refer to a mental condition in which things seem more beautiful than they really are, and I guess to him, the effects of this disease sounded beautiful. I tend to agree with him, although not always during the attacks.
Hardly anyone remembers that story. They just call it kalopsia because that’s what everyone calls it. I don’t think anyone really envies my position. The condition is rare enough to still be considered a tragedy.
After the second attack, my supervisor explained that they needed to let me go, that it wasn’t safe for someone with my condition to be working around the kind of equipment I specialized in. They switched to just commissioning me for consulting work, a job that was nothing more than money to me. In my free time, I wandered through my colony.
I’ve always found it beautiful. The main sectors have these high, curved ceilings covered with lights that are brightest at noon and slowly dim into twilight as our artificial night comes on. The sectors themselves are basically giant rooms crowded with colorful buildings – offices, apartments, recreation centers. More than anything, people here group themselves into communities so that you get little pockets of different kinds of people living together. Each community takes it upon themselves to paint their area their own way. You see, the buildings here aren’t like in the pictures they show of Earth, with so much space in between. To save room, our buildings are built right against one another so that the only way to know where one ends and the other begins is to see where the paint changes color. People like to have fun with that, hiring city painters to do a certain color scheme or design.
I loved to watch them paint. Simple color blocks, great swirls that looked like air from the vents had taken on hues and plastered themselves on the walls, wildflowers – I watched them paint just about everything in every corner of my sector. I would sit down across from them on a bench and watch the way the shapes unfolded themselves when my eyesight went, watch the different kaleidoscopes that came from the different murals I was looking at. I wondered if there could be a way to paint my block so it looked like what I saw almost every week. They learned to recognize me, the painters, waving before they started their work, shouting jokes across the street to one another and giving me a nod when I laughed along with them.
Sometimes a whole day would pass and those painters would be the only people I had spoken to. I have friends here and extended family, my parents’ brothers and sisters, but the more I worked as an engineer, the less I saw them. That job was my life and my connection to the colony. I knew I belonged there because I could stand on any roof and point to dozens of places that I had personally worked on. When my eyesight began to leave, so did that sense of belonging. I guess that’s why I watched the painters. I envied them. Their work was completely different from mine, but their connection to Colony 28 was the same. They still had their handprints all over it.
It reminded me of when I was a kid, the way the other kids and I would run through our grungy little colony, how we’d wrestle and everything was gritty and loud, from the ventilation fans that needed to be cleaned to the constant hum of electricity running under our feet. The noises and sounds of the colony were in my face, in my head, in every part of me, and it always made me feel like I was fighting for something, just like my home, fighting to exist up here in space where we couldn’t forget what a small little speck we were, even compared to Earth, which to us was only a star. I was inescapably part of something, dangerously close to flickering out, all of us.
But they started to fix things up, started to press back the threat of space, and I started to feel safe, comfortable. I began to feel like I had room to breathe and live. We were still communities, but we all took a step back, grew up, guarded our privacy. My brother moved; we designed better technology that let us hear silence for the first time in most of our lives; I started having attacks and I realized that I was unexpectedly alone.
I would wake up and six hours later I still wouldn’t have decided what to do with my day. I would climb onto the roofs of houses and watch the painters coat the streets in blocks of color, separating one place from another.
When I helped improve the air and water filtration systems, the temperature controls, the airlocks between the new sectors – it was for the people here. It was because I loved the colony that I was a part of, even on the days when it no longer felt that way. I’ve gotten my hands on most of the things that keep people alive here. Not being able to work on any of that made me forget why I wanted to stay.
After two months of wandering like that, I was done. I had seen all that I needed to see and I had memorized all that I wanted to remember. I called my older brother David, who moved to Earth when I was still studying to be an engineer, and told him what was going on. I was already having attacks twice a week at that point. My doctor predicted that my vision would be gone within the year. Well, not gone. Just distorted. A permanent kaleidoscope.
David listened quietly. Then he asked, “What are you going to do?”
I folded my hands and squeezed my palms together, but it didn’t stop their shaking. I wondered if he could tell from the grainy video feed. “I’m going to move to Earth with you. If it’s okay. I thought I could stay in your spare room for a while.”
He looked sadly at me from the other side of space. “Of course. If you’re sure. Do you want me to come get you? We could visit some places. You know – our old places.”
I shook my head. “I’m done here.”
David enveloped me in a hug when he picked me up at the shuttleport and then held me at arm’s length, checking me over the way parents do when they think their child might be injured.
“I’m glad you’re here, Elise,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. We got my luggage and walked outside into the widest space I’d ever been in. Outside. It means something completely different on Earth than it does on a colony.
David saw my face and laughed. “I got sky-sick the first time I stepped out here. Big, isn’t it?”
More than the sky, I remember the cars pulling up, the people walking by like it was nothing that the horizon was spreading out into infinity behind them. It wasn’t a rural airport by any means, but it was in a small town, not a city, and we stepped out to a stretch of sidewalk that turned into a street, then a parking lot, and then just trees. I felt like I understood the word ‘open’ for the first time in my life.
“Come on.” David led me to a car, describing the area around his lab like he hadn’t already sent me a hundred photos of it all. His company had placed the lab he worked in out in the country so that they could build and plan and make noise with their research as much as they wanted without bothering anyone.
David took me to his house, which was in a building just next door to the lab. It wasn’t much different from what I was used to. Bigger, with fresh fruit on the table, and the furniture didn’t fold into the walls to save space, but it felt familiar enough. David had notebooks scattered everywhere and a full sink of dishes.
I raised my eyebrow at him and he just smiled. “I ran out of time. There were a few things at the lab that I wanted to finish before you got here.”
“Of course,” I said. That was like him. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had worked every day during my first month there, but I also wouldn’t have been surprised if he hadn’t set one foot in his lab. David was like that, all or nothing.
There was a lot to love about Earth. The air, the fresh food, the beach. I’d never seen so much water in my life. David took me everywhere he could think of, showing it all off with a childlike excitement. He loved Earth the way a traveler loves a new place, still captivated by its singular beauty, its otherness. I could see that clearly.
Of everything I saw, my first sunrise stands out most in my memories. David pulled me out of bed at four o’clock in the morning and handed me a sweater as he led me outside.
“This is what the middle of the night is like,” he said in a quiet voice as we stepped out into the shadows. The sky reminded me of home, although the constellations were different and fewer. That was one thing that was less beautiful on Earth. I loved the stillness, the feeling that the whole world was sleeping as we settled into the chairs David had brought. He handed me a thermos filled with hot tea.
We waited for a long time in the darkness, reminiscing quietly about our parents. They died in an accident when I was fourteen, an air leak, and David raised me after that. We didn’t talk about it often, but I remembered plenty and David was able to tell me stories from when I was younger. His voice sounded sad when he told them. After our parents died, I knew he would leave for Earth, where he would never have to be afraid of running out of air.
The sky gradually lightened until I could see the silhouette of the mountains in the distance. It was still cold and there were great, heavy clouds spread across the sky like spilled mashed potatoes.
“There might be a storm coming,” David said. “I can smell the rain in the air.”
I took a deep breath, but it just smelled like grass to me. Of course, I had never experienced rain. I didn’t know what it would smell like.
“How much longer?”
“Maybe eight minutes.”
The sky had been brightening so subtly that the sun’s appearance seemed abrupt. Its light spilled over the tops of the mountains, staining the clouds a bruised purple. I had already seen the gentle gradient of red and blue that a setting sun presents, but this was different. Great streaks of pink and butter yellow cut through the sky, revealing the thick layer of clouds that were broken only by rays of sunlight. It had a darker beauty than I expected, tumultuous and disparate like something ready to break.
The silence stretched as the sky lightened. Watching the last of the stars disappear into the morning made me miss space. Isn’t that strange? Space took away my life. Living up there took away my vision, my career, everything. It must have just been nostalgia, a yearning for the familiar past.
It reminded me of something my brother had told me when we were younger. He took me onto the roof of our unit. We lived near the sector wall, and it curved close enough for even a child to place her hand against. He set my two hands next to each other and, pulling a marker from his pocket, traced their outline on the cold steel.
“You would never be able to do this on Earth,” he said. “There are no ceilings there. No limits. Only sky.”
And for me, that’s when it clicked, how different Earth was from my colony. I think I loved the fantasy of it, the idea of a place where you could keep walking and never hit a wall, where even the ground was alive. I understood then why my brother was always poring through files on biology and why he talked about leaving someday.
For him, when he had that clicking moment, probably years before, it meant that he was never going to rest until he got to Earth. For me, it was different. I loved the fantasy, but I loved my reality more. He hated the thought that we gave ourselves limits by building a cage in the middle of space; I loved that we broke those limits whenever we needed to. The boundaries were always an illusion. We built new sectors branching out from the old ones until the colony became a shapeless cluster of our needs, a map of the ways that we had spread out since we came.
Even so, I wondered what it was in me that still yearned for space, yearned for clanging air locks, for cold, dirty air and patches of artificial grass. I shiver just thinking about it, even now, and try to remind myself how far short of Earth my colony falls, and still something in my heart cries for it, the way some people must cry for home. I don’t understand it.
We say that falling is a matter of perspective. In space, that is. On Earth, things are more clear-cut. Seasons always come in the same order. The sun rises and sets without fail. If you take care of your plants the right way, they’ll give you flowers or fruit or whatever it is they’re supposed to give you. And when you fall, you fall down.
In space, though, it all comes down to the way you want to see things. Tipping yourself over the edge of a cliff is maybe just a way of rising up towards the ground. And if rising is the opposite of falling, then we’re rising all the time, even when we’re just standing still, because gravity says that we are perpetually falling and yet here we are, upright.
Maybe that’s what sent us into space in the first place. The possibilities. Once I moved to Earth, I never left, but I still remember the desire that burned me that night when I stared at the sky and thought of my old home. My vision split, cascading into streams of pink and blue that ran together like water funneling down a drain.
That’s how I remember my colony.