Frosting


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We called it ‘frosting’, because the ice crystals looked like a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Not what frosting actually is, or how it looks when you squeeze it out of the tube, but one kid says it wrong at the right time and that was that. Should have called it powdering, like I suggested, but we didn’t have too many powdered things back then, for obvious reasons.

We’ve got linguists and sociologists here who study how language developed – Zola has interviewed me at least ten times – and she says there are all these complicated dynamics going on, but there are so many of them (different groups of varying cohesion seeding each other words, different forms of media from home getting passed around, etc.) that the sudden ubiquitous adoption of a new word can appear completely random. Surely there’s a pattern, Zola says, but it takes a lot of study to even make a guess at what it might be.

Sudden, universal adoption is what happened with frosting, both the word and the act, and the name does make sense the more that you think about it. But so does powdering, so I still think it could have gone either way. I forget who showed me, but one week I had never heard of it, and the next week we were all sneaking around after classes.

Our generation ship was as big as a small city – we were told – with a few enormous open-air, no-gravity zones that took twenty minutes to swim across, but any space can feel claustrophobic if you can’t leave. It was built for a trip that would take generations – hence the name – but thanks to a better engine design halfway through, we’re the only ones who spent most of our lives on it. We’re the only generation born here, that grew up on our way to somewhere else. A liminal generation. The next ones remember the ship, but they have a sun, a sky, and some moons in their childhood too. I still meet new people around my age at the reunions – the ship was that big – and we all remember trying frosting once, at least.

It was simple enough: all of the suits had alarms at every joint, for safety, and the airlock wouldn’t open if an alarm was going off – once again for the safety of all involved. Each joint had two metal rings that fit together snugly and when the joint was properly closed, the two metal connecting rings pressed down on a sensor that silenced the alarm. So, you just had to tape something down on the exposed ring tight enough to kill the alarm, and you could open the airlock. The designers hadn’t thought to include much in the way of an anti-tampering mechanism with the alarms. Who would tamper with something meant to save your life?

Hands were the easiest – though I heard of an attempt with a foot, which did not end well – we used bracelets we made in a jewelry class. We had our pick of a diverse set of elective educational opportunities thanks to the general state of boredom among both children and adults.

The first time I did it, I was scared. I held my breath as the pumps removed the atmosphere form the airlock, and the interior cushion in my suit conveniently expanded and plugged the gap at my wrist. My heart beat strong enough to make me shake. My exposed hand felt tight.

You can’t mentally prepare for space, not the cold, or the vastness. Think of jumping into an cold pool at the sauna, or touching the frozen metal inside the freezer: a flash of intense cold that overloads your senses, then either your skin numbs, or your brain shuts off that particular line. The void is a thousand times colder, but the human body can’t easily understand extremes like that. Frosting started immediately.

For whatever reason, eight minutes was the agreed-upon time limit. I think five is probably more realistic, but we rarely stayed past four. I spent the first minute watching the ice crystals spread over the back of my hand. A sparkly white coating formed around each little hair, making them stand straight up like tiny ice obelisks. I flexed my fingers and each little movement caused flecks of ice to tumble through the void. Crystals quickly formed again and my hand felt tight: blood urgently flowing towards bodily trouble and then slowing and sloshing around, trapped by the relentless cold.

We would walk on the surface of the ship, always a surreal experience, and wave our frosted hands at the thousands of stars suspended all around us. I held my blue-white hand out and watched it glitter, like some of those stars were now adhered to my frozen skin. Mark and Ramon did try a high five, causing their skin to crack and adding some frozen globules of blood to join the larger universe. After a few minutes we all got scared and headed back in – we did have a healthy respect for the danger of space, after all. Getting frosted was a quick burst of intense pain, but defrosting your hand was an excruciatingly drawn-out period of extreme pins and needles. Didn’t stop us from going back in a week, though.

Mostly we just goofed off, glad for a break from our world inside the ship. Twice, we ran into another group of kids outside and spent a minute waving to each other, like we were each watching the other group in a parade.

We couldn’t use the radio, because that would give us away to the adult crew, but we would take pictures and send them to each other over the line-of-sight suit laser comm. You could add a little text or recording, like ‘I need a hand!’ or ‘Gotta hand it to Ruiz!’ Clenching most of your fingers into a fist was also popular. I still have some of those pictures.

The adults found out after a few weeks. No one was seriously hurt – I did hear someone got frostbite and that’s what tipped their custodians off – but we all had to ‘volunteer’ for maintenance shifts for the next year. Then they made all teenagers sign up for vocational classes and shifts, and we didn’t have time to concoct any more dangerous new methods of interrupting our boredom.

After landfall, they let any of us who were born on the ship keep living up here. We had trouble adapting to life in a consistent gravity well – you have to work out basically all the time! So there’s a sizable group of us ‘space babies’ up here, living out the rest of our time where we grew up. It’s nice, we understand each other. As for frosting, I did hear that a group was going to try to revive it for special events. I don’t think I could do it now – the safety latches are much better, anyway – but I do see the appeal: it was a fun way to add something new to another night under the stars.

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