The Blue Woman
by Leah Callender-Crowe
Editor’s note: This story has intentionally retained its British spelling forms. The work is in part inspired by the British mining conditions that led to industrial action in the 1800s and 1900s.
* * *
The furthest moon from the gas giant is made of silver.
The supernova that gave birth to the star system it belongs to was massive enough to produce it. Now that the people who evolved in this star system are sufficiently advanced, workers from another moon, New Okeanopolis, have been sent to Argyros to mine.
Joelle is proud to be one of the first.
It is dark when she arrives on Argyros. The stars are out, and they appear much brighter than from her home moon. She is shown to her pod.
They give her a tour of the nearest mine the next day. It is underground and lit by lamps. The deposits gleam. Joelle is asked if she would like to look around the area, to get her bearings, but she would rather start work that afternoon. The more she works, the quicker she will be able to return home. She is keen to be an excellent worker.
* * *
Joelle is from a working-class family on New Okeanopolis. There, she lived in overcrowded flats with no electricity and unreliable running water. Money and aid do not reach her moon’s coastal cities—the inner planets take everything from them. Joelle knows this from the revolutionary posters that adorn the city walls.
Having left school at fifteen, Joelle had been working in water sanitation for a year when the call to serve arrived. If she could have refused, she wouldn’t have; her family will receive provisions while she is gone, and Joelle will bring glory and a pension when she is called home. Still, her brother cried when she donned her uniform, and before she boarded the ship to Argyros, her mum had hugged her so hard that it hurt.
The silver will revolutionise New Okeanopolis’s economy. The government has spent its resources accordingly, putting much of what New Okeanopolis has into the mining programme. The silver will conduct electricity, and the darker parts of the moon will finally light up. It will be used in medicine and construction. Poverty will end.
New Okeanopolis will finally be in a position to challenge the tyrannical hold placed on it by the inner planets.
This is worth any price, the miners are told.
* * *
One day, Joelle notices that her fingertips are turning grey.
* * *
Joelle descends into the mine for the thousandth time. There are lamps everywhere; her night vision, and that of her colleagues, is almost gone. Her eyes are blue (not just her irises).
Every day she drills. Every day she breathes in the silver dust.
Her kidneys are already failing. Joelle has not been told this, but she knows. Her health is monitored infrequently by doctors who visit Argyros at irregular intervals and are always glad to leave. These token appointments are perfunctory—there are hundreds of patients for them to see. It has been over a year since Joelle’s last check up, during which she was told nothing. But she can feel it. She isn’t stupid.
Her blue hands shake a little as she readies explosives in the mine.
She accepts these consequences in the hope that, one day, her work will be done. She will be sent back to her own moon a hero, a pioneer, having sacrificed her health for the greater good of her people.
When she finishes her work, Joelle goes back to the surface. She walks below the night sky. She can no longer see the stars, but New Okeanopolis is close tonight. She can just see its oceans, its continents. She misses it dreadfully. The moon provides just enough light for Joelle to make her way back to the pods. Around her, workers load ships with extracted silver, ready to be launched.
Joelle hopes for a message on the computer. Her call to return home.
There is nothing.
She stands in front of the mirror and examines each part of her in turn. She does this to observe how the pigment has advanced. Her skin was once brown, but now it is like her entire face has been tattooed, down to the whites of her eyes. Of course, she has blued and darkened slowly. It has taken years to get to this, and she looks no different than how she looked yesterday. But this has become compulsive, a daily ritual.
She knows she will never look the same again. Even when she returns to New Okeanopolis, she will be forever marked.
She wakes, coughing and trembling, but she rises.
* * *
Joelle’s messages to her family, when they get through, are brief. She cannot tell them how she really is, so she lies. Their messages to her are both grateful and sad. They are no longer hungry, but they miss her.
She misses them too.
* * *
The practice, really just a row of tents, has now been erected a mile from the mine. It is one of two on Argyros. Supposedly, appointments will now be more frequent, but this is Joelle’s first appointment here. They are by invitation only.
The doctor looks at her sternly, and Joelle stares back. It is so unusual to see someone so unmarred by silver that she has almost forgotten what natural skin looks like. The last doctor she had was light-skinned, but this woman is dark. The sudden remembrance of natural human variation temporarily stuns her.
After weighing her, the doctor ushers Joelle impatiently to a chair, placing a stethoscope to her chest before she has fully sat down.
She is in a hurry, as they always are. She seems uncomfortable.
It occurs to Joelle that this doctor is equally unused to seeing blue skin. She is young. Perhaps this is her first time on Argyros. Junior doctors are strongly encouraged to complete at least one tour here.
Perhaps I should make small talk, she thinks, as the doctor flashes a light into her eyes. Perhaps a kind word would make her feel more at ease. But it has been so long since Joelle has spoken to an outsider that she is not sure how to begin.
“How is your vision?” the doctor asks.
“Declining, I think.”
It is hard to tell how much without a proper acuity test, but miners only get those once every two years, unless their vision is so shot that they can no longer work efficiently. Joelle’s superiors haven’t expressed any concerns, so this question is really a formality.
The doctor now inserts a needle into Joelle’s vein, which she finds by how much the vessel protrudes rather than by sight. She extracts blood, which Joelle is almost surprised to see is still red.
She is about to test Joelle’s air flow when there is a sharp knock and a shout at the door. The doctor flinches.
“Time’s up. Be sure to ask the doctor to test your lung function next time.”
Joelle wonders if this is how she will be treated when she returns to New Okeanopolis.
* * *
Joelle passes two blue bodies on her one thousand three hundredth walk home to her pod. Her legs shake much of the time, so the walk is slower now. It gives her more time to look at her home moon, now a blue-green blur.
It still comforts her.
She arrives home to a government message. There are words that she can’t quite make out, but there is also audio. Her weak heart beats a little harder.
“This is a message for miner #1043.
“We have not forgotten you, worker. The silver you have been mining on Argyros has been, and will be, the most important resource that New Okeanopolis has ever seen. Your labour will improve the quality of life of millions. This is your legacy.
“However, our work is not done. Millions still go hungry, and many are without medical care. The inner planets, to whom we are little more than a backwater colony, still exert their power over us under the guise of charity.
“We will break free from our bondage. We are making weapons, and armour, and ships. We will need the silver to do this. Both for trade, and for construction.
“Your contribution to this end is valuable to us, and we thank you for spending so many years doing the good work. One day in the future, you will come home, and you will be a hero.”
Joelle taps the screen to turn it off.
Not a call to return home, then.
* * *
Joelle has another appointment with a doctor from New Okeanopolis. The tents are still there, but some are unoccupied. This is often the case. Doctors come and go. They never stay and rarely return.
So this doctor is another that she hasn’t seen before. She is again shocked by the outsider’s appearance. This one has brown skin. It occurs to her that he might even look similar to how she once did. Years ago, now.
He guides her gently to the chair. She places the stick she uses as a cane across her lap as he places the stethoscope on her chest.
“I am supposed to have my lungs tested today.”
“Of course,” he says. She thinks he smiles.
The doctor does as he is bid. Joelle exhales as hard as she can into the machine he presents her with, and her breath ends in a hacking cough. He checks the numbers on a screen but doesn’t say anything, then continues to examine her more thoroughly and with greater care than previous doctors have.
He seems kind enough, so Joelle asks, “When can I return home?”
The doctor freezes at the question.
Eventually, he looks up from his chart. “It is not up to me to say. The government is building warships, and it needs the labour here. Are your pills helping?”
“A little. What is it like back home? Is the silver revolutionising New Okeanopolis like they said it would?”
“It takes time.” She feels him shift in his seat. “I can also . . . put in a word about your health. But I must tell you, not many workers have returned.”
“But when I do, I will return a hero?”
The doctor is silent again before responding with a sigh.
“You may find it difficult back home.”
He guides her out of the tent.
* * *
Joelle lies on her bed and listens to the news, as best she can over her coughing.
New Okeanopolis is launching its first warships into the inner system. Someone states that ‘the blues’ have made this possible. A returned miner is on the air, describing her experience on Argyros, but she is cut off. The news anchor does not hide his horror or disgust.
Joelle barely made it home from the mine today.
A beeping noise comes from the pod’s computer, and the screen lights up with a message.
“This is a message for miner #1043.
“Your medical records show that you are ready to return home soon. We thank you for your service. You will hear from us again in due course.”
The computer beeps again and the message ends.
Joelle records a short message for her family and then sleeps, exhausted.
She wakes coughing and trembling all over. After she coughs, she struggles to breathe back in. She tries to rise, but collapses.
Joelle reminds herself that the silver is worth any price.
Leah Callender-Crowe is an evolutionary scientist and has published several nonfiction pieces covering science-related and skeptical themes. She is currently working on her first science fiction novel and is interested in writing fiction that addresses issues facing people of colour and the working class. In her spare time, she enjoys martial arts, music, coding, chess and learning languages. She currently lives in London, UK.