by Ronan Frost
Copyright 2017 Ronan Frost
Mica stood nose to the glass, eyes focussed into the distance, hues of the spectrum shifting across her face. Roiling clouds massed over the sere landscape, bellies gorged with lightning. Such was the illusion of depth she could imagine she was looking out of an actual window and forget for the moment she was under twenty storeys of fractured rock.
The lights in the room gave a flicker, and the ever-present background hum of airflow stuttered. Mica’s gaze shifted focus; behind her, in the reflection from the glass, the open maw of her pod waited.
Something warm and soft brushed up against her leg and she jumped, flustered and suddenly embarrassed.
“How did you get in here?”
The cat seated himself calmly upon the carpet, tail wrapped around his legs. His tiny jaw remained firmly closed, yet it was obvious from his aspect that he spoke the words sounding in her head.
“Are you going under?”
“Do I have a choice?”
Arran licked one paw in a study of abstracted distance. “There’s always a way.”
Mica laughed, then instantly regretted it. She could practically feel the haunches rise on Arran’s back; no cat likes being laughed at, even if it was just a bunch of wiring, silicon chips and servo motors. Mica dropped into a crouch, bringing her face-to-face with the creature, cupping her hand tenderly beneath his chin.
“I’ve done all I can.”
Arran shook her hand away, walking a slow pacing circle around Mica, evaluating her from all angles.
“Stay with me,” said Arran.
She bent her neck forward in a vain attempt to work out a crick in her spine that stubbornly refused to pop.
“For the entire winter? There’s no way she would allow it.”
The room lights dimmed, plunging the room into a warm semi-darkness of feeble orange standby lighting.
“Speak of the devil,” quipped Arran.
A moment later, the wall-screen displaying the stormy landscape shrunk to a pinpoint and vanished, and Mica found herself confronted by her reflection upon the blankness; her white skin, as flawless and pale as a geisha, stretched tight over bones at her shoulders and neck. How long had it been since she last slept? Unnerved, she drew the neck of her gauze gown tighter and put her back to the apparition.
“Time for me to go.” Mica closed her eyes and heard the blood in her ears.
The sound of her name, spoken with such tenderness, caught her hard in some vulnerable spot deep in her chest and her eyes sprang open. She reached down and caught Arran about the midsection, lifting him so that she may look deep into the yellow moons of his eyes, searching for a glimpse of the ghost within those slashed pupils of night.
Was this just Arran, or something more?
Her tongue felt suddenly dry and thick in her mouth. Arran continued to stare implacably back at her.
No. She’d run enough tests. She was fooling herself.
With firm resolve she carried Arran, hanging with limbs extended, towards the door.
“Take good care of yourself while I’m gone,” she said as she put him down. “When winter is over, we’re going home.”
Arran stretched, forelegs out and claws raking the carpet, tiny mouth yawning, his attention seemingly elsewhere already. Mica hesitated, then caught herself, shutting down that fluttering feeling deep and low in her gut. She stepped backward and closed the door between them before she could have second thoughts, then crossed the carpet in two long strides in a gait well practiced in the low gravity. Her pod waited upon its rails, contoured to her form like a well-worn pair of shoes, hood hinged open, a gleaming capsule of glass and silver.
Mica sat upon the lip of her pod, hands in her face, feeling the visceral enormity of her loss wash through her, the pain hitting her like something very real and very physical. In the dimness there was no sense of the passage of time as she breathed, expanding her chest against the weight that threatened to crush it.
She became aware of a soft beeping and shook her head, drawing her from her reverie and bringing herself back to the present. She straightened and reached a hand behind and lifted the tangle of plastic tubing from the bed of the pod, holding the strap in one outstretched hand and letting the rest dangle like some rubbery sea creature. She strapped the device about her forearm, with the mechanism that would fire the needle poised just inside the crook of her elbow, and the beeping noise stopped.
With stiff motions Mica swung one leg and then the other into the pod, remaining sitting upright, fists clenched tight with the strength of her loss and guilt, raised to her temples as if she could wrench the gossamer thread of thought from her mind. Her mind continued to swoon into the cloying mire, working way deeper and deeper yet not going anywhere for all its dodging and linking and nagging. She marvelled, in a kind of dread fascination, how a jump in the flow of life can shift everything, the course of the river downstream now running along an entirely different bed. She felt herself a weakened husk, alone and floating, the very beating pulse of her thoughts a scarlet salt dissolving into that liquid vastness.
Who was she, now that it was all over?
Suddenly, the humming of air conditioning ran down, and the new silence that fell was suddenly unsettling; ominously heavy and infinitely lonely. Her skin rose in a rash of goose-bumps all over her body. Mica lay back into the chill cushions that pressed her shoulders inwards, as snug as a coffin. The needle shot into her forearm and the trailing plastic tubes filled in arcing dance with the bright red flow of arterial blood. The lid eased closed, and the pod withdrew into the rear wall along rails with a gentle side-to-side railway car sway.
Through the partially transparent hood Mica saw the carpeted room cupped by the void, a framed window of reducing light, as her pod drew back into the silo. A brief twinge from her eardrums signaled the rising air pressure within the pod. To reduce psychological stress, the process had been designed to be fast, and before she could even process the discomfort in her ears, the spark of her being folded into velvet nothingness.
Deep sleep was a misnomer; it was nothing like sleep. Regaining consciousness felt like the silver scissors of anesthesia had been taken to the timeline of her memories, some indeterminate length removed, and the two ends of the spool, slightly mismatched, spliced together. What remaining between was nothing, no fading pieces of dreams, no sense of time passed; it was falling hard into reality.
Gathering together wretched shreds of sensation she became aware of the damp press of cloying material under her skin, tacky with old sweat, and a bright light that screamed rusty nails inside her skull. There was an emptiness in her chest, that feeling of a missed step in the dark. No matter how many times she woke from deep sleep that feeling of a lack of heartbeat never got any better.
She could have sworn she felt the treacle of her blood squeeze through her circulatory system with the strained beat of her awakened heart, long emptied, now filling with blood.
The sound boomed from inside her head, against her eardrums, throbbing against her temples.
Her heartbeat was accelerating now, picking up pace like a flagging runner at last spying the finishing line and trying to find stride. She lay there for some time, eyes squeezed tight against the acid-whiteness of the lights that some genius had programmed for the wake cycle of the pod.
With a soft electronic chime, the plastic hood of her pod slid popped, the rubber seals making a sucking crusty sound. She waited for some time before opening her eyes, laying there and tasting the stale heaviness to the air, and the studying feeling that somehow something was not right.
She directed her mote-thought into the nearby space. Soft relays clicked overhead in response and the silence of the room lifted. The air moved, cool at first, but warmed within a span of seconds. The blaring white lights in her pod faded and the room lights bled into gentle, natural daylight hues.
Mica took in vital stats from her mote-feed. The base was quiet. So far, only a handful of people were awake. Yet something in that silence felt wrong, out of joint, as if she had peeked behind the scenes of a puppet show and seen the wires hanging slack.
The urge to vomit came upon her suddenly, her body reacting at a primal level that overrode conscious thought, guts twisting into a ball clawing up the constriction of her throat. Mica tore the strapping and needle from her arm, discarding it in a heap towards the foot of her pod, and stumbled out like a loose-limbed corpse, her bare soles flattening lightly against the carpet, barking her shin against the doorway into the adjoining shower room. Her whole body convulsed as she doubled over into the stall, yet all that came from her hanging jaw were strings of spittle and the foul taste of stomach acid. In that space of thought-emptying dizziness she felt she were merely a by-product, a means to an end to her enteric nervous system. Her mind itself was nothing but a passenger, helpless and useless.
The tiles of the shower room were cool beneath her hands. The spasms eased, and Mica pressed her fingers to her temples, trying to centre herself, to place the facts in her mind.
Seven earth-years had passed. Winter was over. The thought gave her some consolation; sooner or later the Governess had to relent and let her go, even though the trip to Titan was theoretically a one-way ticket.
The shower activated automatically and she walked into the rising clouds of steam, dropping her light gown at her feet, the fine jets of water slicking back the jet black bob of her hair, eyes closed in forced relaxation.
The flow suddenly spluttered, weakening, and then came out ice cold. Mica jumped away cursing, switching off the tap with a mote command and retrieving her gown from where it had fallen. There was no denying it – something was not right.
Returning to the pod room she hoped to find at least two or three people defrosted, yet oddly all was as she had left it. Her pod remained open, the carpet at the base stained with the growing puddle of water condensing as it warmed. It should have retracted by now, giving room for the next pod to emerge and thaw, yet nothing stirred in the vast machinery behind the wall. The veins on the sides of her head gave an aching throb and the room started sway, forcing her to close her eyes until the dizzy spell passed. Her stomach gave a twinge, diaphragm muscles feeling like overstretched elastic. She drew the collar of her gown tighter as she leant forward over the top of her pod. With the flat of her hand against the back wall she stuck her head into the small space leading back into the vast space of the silo. The chill ached in her lungs as she breathed a hint of the cryogenic air within.
“Hey!” she croaked, slapping her palm against the wall. “Hey! Wake up!”
She called up image enhancements, saw the unstirring outlines of the three hundred other pods within like berries upon a stem within that heavy, frigid air, all as silent and unmoving as corpses. She gave a shiver, and a feeling came over her that this was all somehow a strange dream.
She withdrew her head and strode to the centre of the room, issuing a mote-thought, and the full-wall display flickered into life. In stark contrast to the colourful vista of the landscape she had witnessed before going into deep sleep, this time there was nothing but racing shadows of black upon heavier black, beads of wet vapour carried by fierce winds jumping in stop-start motion across the screen.
By chance, Mica saw the date, and her attention doubled back, focussed in.
Four months, two weeks, one day and seven hours since she had gone under.
Titan’s seven-year winter was only just beginning.
A graph appeared offset from her central line of sight, fixed to her vision like an afterimage of the sun, displaying several spiked traces signalling confusion and rising panic in her brain chemistry. Mica forced herself to calm, focussing on deep breaths, a conscious relaxation before rising stress levels triggered the automatic procedure that would flood her bloodstream with neutralizing chemicals. It was old-fashioned of her, but dammit, at her age she was entitled to her quirks; she did not want to be calmly sharp and alert, buzzed up or wound down as the program saw fit – she wanted to be herself.
She called for a feed from Earth. The channel was disconcertingly empty, the silence of a bucket of binary zeroes.
A distant shudder echoed through the structure, transmitted through the carpet and the soles of her feet, a thrumming up her spine. Instinctively she drew her mind back into herself, her own body somehow feeling alien to her, her ears stuffed with cotton wads, senses dulled. The walls in her room suddenly felt claustrophobically close, and more than ever she felt their vast, impossible distance from Earth.
Mica checked the status map, saw Galen’s trace, and called the laboratory.
The room lights dropped and a low hum sounded in her ears, a small grey sphere appearing in the centre of the room, spinning with pulsar rapidity, a chink in its core emitting a lighthouse beam of light that strobed the room. In a moment it resolved itself into the acronym of Fujino Heavy Industries, glowing with a surge of emphatic and granite-carved boldness before fading away into a three-dimensional image of a man seated upon a long desk that ran outwards, fading into ethereal nothingness out of the camera’s view.
Robin Galen looked up.
Mica composed herself and forced a smile. Her first attempt at speech faltered and she coughed and tried again.
“Good morning, Galen.”
“What are you doing awake? I was informed that not scheduled for thawing until after winter.”
“I know. My pod, something happened. A malfunction, I think.”
There was a moment’s delay, Galen’s brow furrowing.
“I see. I hope everything is okay.”
“I’m not sure. Galen, is there something wrong with the Guardian Tempest?”
Galen’s reply was a long time in coming.
“I’m sorry, you did retire, Mica. As such, you are no longer classified as operational staff of this lab. I can’t give you any information.”
You snivelling little sycophant. Mica bit down on the sudden acidity, withholding her anger lest her thought bleed into the mote-channel.
“It was my lab.”
“Not anymore.” Galen smiled indulgently and a little condescendingly.
“And you are welcome to it. But one favour, just this one, for everything that I’ve given you.”
“Given? I worked just as hard as –”
“Galen, just tell me. Is there something going on?”
“Something? Like what?”
“Something… a little off.”
Galen drew in breath and chewed on his lower lip as he shrugged. “Nothing particularly unusual. We’ve lost contact with Earth a little earlier than expected.”
“Even the long range sensors?”
“Everything is under. The storms have become extremely strong.”
“And the power? What’s going on, why is it so unstable?”
“A couple of days ago the fusion plant suffered a damage from a wind strike. It’s going to be offline until the Icarus gets here.”
“And when is that?”
“Come on Doctor Fischer, you’re wasting my time.”
“You’ve lost it, haven’t you?”
“Look, even if the Icarus doesn’t show, we can still make the base work – we have planned for exactly this scenario. We have more than enough food to last decades, plus we can grow proteins to last indefinitely. We have a team working on jury rigging a backup fission plant. This place was designed to handle everything short of a direct meteor strike, and even then it would probably keep on limping along until help could come along. Wait a moment.” Galen’s eyes switched focus, watching a projection off-screen. His mouth moved and he gave a brief nod, then his gaze switched back to Mica. “Look, I’m getting a message from the Governess, she’s been eavesdropping. She wants you to go back on ice immediately.”
“I was just about to,” said Mica, unable to keep the curtness from her voice. “Sorry to disturb you.”
“Oh, and Doctor Fischer?” asked Galen. “Please, don’t call here again. This is no longer your lab.”
“Goodbye Galen,” said Mica, and terminated the connection, the image dissolving into particulates funnelling into a central vortex.
“You bloodsucking parasite,” she said into the empty room.
Mica sat for a moment in the freshly silent emptiness with her eyes closed, then shook her mind of the mystery. Whatever was going on, she wanted no part in it. She hugged her gown tighter about her chest, staggering back to her pod where it still sat waiting, humming quietly to itself like an old-fashioned refrigerator. A display panel lit across the board with a row of green. Whatever had caused the malfunction appeared to have been rectified.
Mica let out a breath and steadied herself upon the hood of the pod, feeling the vibration through the palms of her hands. She opened her eyes, head still hanging between her shoulders, and noticed something at the base of the pod, near the manufacturer logo. Her eyes narrowed as she leant forward, tucking strands of her bobbed hair behind her ear, studying the handwriting scrawled in a tight bunch in blue marker pen. She resisted the instinct to upload the image to the mote network for image enhancement; it hadn’t been mote-fed to her, so someone had gone to the trouble of keeping it out of the eyes of the Governess.
Meet me in HC-3, she read in a quiet whisper to herself. She knew right away what the letters referred to. One of the surface airlocks.
The message was written low upon the hood, as if, she thought dryly, a pen had been held within the awkward forepaws of an android cat standing upon hind legs. She gave a sharp exhalation and dug her fingers into the corners of her eyes. Well, the ‘pod malfunction’ was explained now – that flea-ridden piece of mech garbage had woken her!
What the hell was he thinking?
It wasn’t in his programming to panic when things started to go sour, but lately he’d started take fuzzy adaptive logic to the extreme. She laughed sourly, thinking that even his handwriting had gone to hell.
If it was really computer logic, and not something… other?
Mica shook her head savagely, telling herself it was a false hope, but she couldn’t help but cling to it.
She closed her eyes and called up the mote feed for an active map of the entire base. It appeared in her mind’s eye, a wire-framed schematic of the Guardian Tempest; two great bores straight down into the rock of Titan. At the base of the larger bore, surrounding the docking bay, was a ring of tunnels and habitation rooms, with only a handful of markers indicating active personnel. Below the hab levels spread the exploratory roots of the mining tunnels branching like the roots of a tree, empty for the moment save for automated and remotely operated diggers. Running parallel to the central bore was the sleepers silo; self-contained and at minus one hundred and eighty degrees, all was quiet within, a cluster of pale blue personnel markers. Mica twisted the map in her mind and zoomed topside. Sure enough, she found a marker near an upper airlock with his ID tag switched off.
Did Arran seriously expect her to go running off after him?
She had to let it go. One thing was for damned sure, she thought, there was no way in hell she was going.
She stood before the stencilled lettering of the airlock door, drawing together her strength as she inhaled and held the breath. One minute, she promised herself. One minute for the Arran to explain himself.
This close to the surface, nothing was designed for aesthetics: exposed piping, grease-stained where it had leaked around joints; elevated catwalks over spools of tangled wiring; broken equipment sulking in the shadows, awaiting repairs that never came. Over a score of years, the corridors had taken on a patchwork of serviceability of their very own, devolving to bare functionality, a form documented in no manual. The air rang with fury of the gale now thrashing so very close; a canned banshee howl eerie in this lonely place. The entire floor under her boots bucked and shook despite deep affixing bolts plunged into the soil.
She shivered, the slimline battery pack of her helicasuit on near-maximum power, and her face, the only flesh exposed, felt that painful chill. Her breath came out in thick clouds of vapour that rose to the ceiling like some over-boiled kettle, the air heavy with oils and exhaust.
How she had found the strength to fit her helicasuit, strap on boots, and navigate through the labyrinth was beyond her; she was a walker among the sleepers, and did not belong. It had seemed like crawling through the abandoned appendages of some a gigantic insect shell, the echoing shell of corridors with lights humming on at her approach and dimming in her wake like dancing phosphoresce. Even the rise up the inside edge of the central bore had chilled her, for the windows of the elevator looked out upon the yawning blackness marked only occasionally by a strip of guide lighting. Everything had been locked down and secured for winter, and no more spacecraft would be lowered down to the hangers for years.
Now, standing here in one of the radial arms of the upper corridors, one hand upon the wall for support, she couldn’t tell which was worse; the shaking of the tube tossed about by the storm, or the weak trembling in her legs. It had been a long time since she’d eaten anything. Months, in fact. The foreboding bloated her mind, the guilty knowledge that she should not be here, and for a moment she almost turned back for her sleep pod. It was only Arran’s words that came back to her and held her, and again came that thought that perhaps they were not the actions of a mech.
She looked around, feeling like a sleepwalker suddenly awakened, not knowing how long she had been standing like a zombie, staring at the closed airlock. Her lips felt alien and apart from her, dry and cracked as she breathed the frigid air. Mica found herself hitting the squat red button to the side of the airlock with the flat of her hand in a moment of dramatic finality.
She hit it again, harder. This time it blinked green, and the door sections split into four and retracted like the jaws of some metallic kaiju. The blast of noise was a physical force, a dumping wave of Brownian motion. Her helicasuit thrummed as it kicked in another useless notch as the temperature plummeted.
She expected to find Arran, sitting neatly with tail wrapped about his legs waiting. Instead, there was a man of squat and powerful build perched upon a crate with his back to her, bent over some task, in a helicasuit that was clean but well worn, scuffed around the seams. The hair on the back of his head was close cropped, greying at the temples, despite the anti-aging procedures he had retained that, perhaps by choice, perhaps thinking it lent him some air of maturity. He peered over his shoulder as the door opened, his eyes sparkling without the least trace of surprise.
“Doctor Fischer!” the man exclaimed, smiling. “At last! Do come in, come in. Please excuse me for not standing, I’m in the middle of something.”
Mica stepped into the confines of the airlock. Dimly lit, the walls were painted in a dark green hue, with a row of gaunt helicasuits dangling like larvae from pegs upon the wall, and matching plexi-helmets hanging over them. It was not a big space, made smaller by the stacks of metallic cartridge crates and seemingly haphazard wiring tracing across the floor.
The empath mote feed was patchy here so Mica had to raise her voice to a hoarse shout over the swell of noise. “Who are you?”
“Sebastian Thaler. We have met.” His lips raised in the slightest of secret of smiles as he spoke.
Mica shook her head. She knew him, as she must, but only in passing, a face in the crowd. There was nothing memorable to his features. “I’m not good with people.”
Thaler laughed once. “Oh, we’ve met, believe me. And Arran did mention you would come, but I’m afraid you’ve just missed him. He really couldn’t wait any longer and roped me into this.”
“I don’t understand, what’s going on?”
Thaler had his back to her again as he tapped away at the tablet he had propped up upon a makeshift desk of stacked cases. “Please, come in,” he said.
Mica took another step forward and the jaws of airlock closed at her back, a symbolic severance from the safety of the base, and she was suddenly aware that only a single door separated her from the atmosphere of Titan.
“Where is he?” She couldn’t help it, but her words faltered and cracked over the last word.
“He didn’t tell you?”
Mica clench her jaw into a firm line, irritated beyond reason by his clipped and ostensibly polite tone.
“No,” she said.
“You know the power is failing?”
“Answer my question.”
“Without power, the drilling operation will have to be scaled back, pushing back the timeline for at least three or four years.”
“I know the fusion plant is out, but we have the backup.”
“True enough,” nodded Thaler, tilting his head, his deep-set eyes dancing. Somehow, that made her nervous.
“What is it? Dammit, would you look at me? What the hell is going on?”
“There’s something the Governess isn’t letting on. The backup isn’t enough. We need repairs. Repairs only the Icarus can bring.”
“And soon enough we’ll have her. Now tell me where the hell Arran is!”
“We have no comms beacon to guide her down. The mainframe computer has deduced the problem is a physical – the dish is out of alignment. If we can’t get the Icarus down soon, there’ll be a power shortage and possibility of delaying the wake cycle until next summer. The Governess already has the plans in place. Please, if you will excuse me…” Thaler returned to his tablet, tapping at the keys, occasionally bringing up something visible only to his eyes via his retinal implants and swiping this way and that.
“What are you talking about? A shutdown for an entire Saturn year?”
“Everyone will be kept on ice… Without consent,” added Thaler.
“There are number of issues still up in the air, nothing is decided yet, and so far, there’s nothing to say she’ll do it.” Thaler spared a quick glance up at her. “Yet.”
“So what is Arran doing?”
“He decided to try the beacon in the Haustorium. It’s got better range and –”
“The tunnel is blocked. The landslide.”
“Indeed. And will be for some time I would imagine.”
“Then how can he possibly get there?”
Thaler simply raised his brows and with a darting of his eyes indicated towards the airlock. Mica’s eyes traced the slender white tether cord that led from the boxes and out through a sealed outer port. She felt a moment of sudden knowledge, and in her shock couldn’t help her voice from rising to a shrill curse.
Thaler nodded and gave her a limp smile that did not reach his eyes. “He calculated the timing, it gave him fifteen minutes between peaks of the storm. Forecasts are only set to worsen, he feared this was his last chance.”
The tether cord snaking through the sealed port in the hull gave a shudder and fed out a few more metres.
“The Governess –”
“Would never allow it, that’s right. Arran has been running in stand-alone mode, independent of the mainframe and of the Governess. He needs someone to rig the airlock and coordinate the console, and when he couldn’t get you in time, he called me in, told me that you might be coming along later.” Thaler’s attention was still on the console but she could see his lips rise in a smile. “So here we are.”
“You goddamn fool! There’s no way you should have let him go!”
Thaler shrugged. “He’s rigged himself up into a TIG. He’s mobile enough.” Then, as a sober afterthought, he added, “Although without the data link to the mainframe his inbuilt control chips don’t provide much in the way of fine motor control skills…”
“I don’t get it. Why did he go? So what if we have to sit tight a little longer? The models predict the storms peak at the equinox, if we wait –”
“We only have limited statistics. If it’s anything like last winter, then things will only get worse.”
“It’s not worth the risk!”
Thaler stopped and looked hurt.
“It was his idea. He wants to do this, before we have no other choice.” His eyes softened. “Look, I know you two may have formed some… relationship. But as soon as you were on ice, he has other responsibilities. He’s just a mech.”
“You know nothing.”
“He’s doing fine so far.” Thaler indulged her with a warm smile. “The short-wave comms have been washed out, but he’s almost to the Haustorium. I’ve got a land-line. Would you like me to patch him through to you?”
“Damn right I would.”
“You’ll need to give me access to your mote.” Thaler glanced significantly towards the corner of the airlock ceiling. “Don’t worry, precautions have been taken. You won’t be picked up here. Not yet, anyway.”
She did so, and a moment later the feed into the auditory processing part of her brain crackled into life, a shower of white noise that, with her eyes closed and mind focussed, sounded like the sound of rain lashing against stone.
“Arran?” she tried.
“Give him a minute,” Thaler said, feeding out a little more of the tether like some fisherman playing out line to a game fish.
There was a break in the static, a few clicks, then silence.
“Arran, Arran, is that you? I can’t hear you!” said Mica, her voice almost breaking. “Get back, I repeat, get back!” She turned to glare at Thaler. “If it’s a landline, why is it so crappy?”
Thaler hunched over the tablet, his hands busy pushing and flicking away commands visible only to his eyes. “Precipitation static. Flying ice and dust particles creating an electrical charge on the line, discharging, swamping the signals. Should have used a cable with thicker shielding…”
Mica glared at Thaler. “Bring him back, haul on that line and drag him if you have to.”
“He’s doing okay,” Thaler said, so softly Mica barely heard him. “Look, see, I’m starting to get a signal.”
Mica ignored him, grabbing a loop of the line. “You’ve got thirty seconds. After that, I’m going to start bringing him in.”
Thaler did not answer. She tensed herself, bracing her feet against ridges in the airlock door, the tether in both hands, high under her right arm as if she were about to face off in a tug-of-war. The wind continued to shake and roar, the floor at her feet vibrating.
“TTM pings starting to come back…” Thaler said, holding up the flat of his palm.
Mica checked the elapsed time on her retinal display, exasperated that only a handful of seconds had crawled past.
“No more. That’s it Thaler, time’s up!”
“No wait, not yet. You’ll put him out of balance. Wait… Wait…”
“Arran,” Mica shouted, not sure if the mic link was still on, suspicious that Thaler had switched it off. “I’m pulling you back now.”
The audio feed was static in her head.
“Give him a few more seconds, please.”
She held on, holding that pose, swooning in fear and desperation. And then a familiar voice, nebulous yet as clear and private as one’s own thoughts came into her mind.
“Mica. You came. Thank you.”
“Arran! Thank God! What the hell are you doing?”
“I can fix the dish.”
“Forget the goddamn radar. Get back here, right now. That’s a direct command.”
“It’s close. It won’t take long, please, don’t worry. I’ve got it under control.”
“No, get back here, right now! Hey, do you hear me? Arran?” She glanced over at Thaler’s open console, watching the darkening regions upon the display.
Thaler raised the fingers of his hand in warning.
“I’m picking up something. A big gust. Hold tight!”
The line in Mica’s hands suddenly tautened and yanked her forward and Thaler along with her, spilling his makeshift desk and console, both of them tangling together as the tether line slipped through her gloved hands with a rapid zipping noise, spooling out so rapidly it thrashed and writhed like a thing alive.
Just as suddenly as it had started, the line went slack, limp and dead in their hands. Mica moved without conscious thought. A series of quick darting steps and she was at the rack by the wall and somehow a helmet was in her hands, working and flipping it over. Her feet, she was surprised to note in some far off corner of her mind, were steady beneath her as she jammed the helmet over her head in a double-handed overarm action. Sounds became muted within the helmet, the world removed a step. Seals locked into place and the faceplate steamed momentarily with the puff of compressed air.
With quick steps she crossed to the far side of the airlock, hearing Thaler give some wordless cry of alarm and scrambling for his own helmet as she palmed the outer lock pad. The lock triggered a shrill alarm, Mica’s focus pared down into a tight beam such that she hardly noticed it, the doors parting and a stinging rush of clumped hydrocarbon polymer particles that made up the atmosphere of Titan flooding into the airlock, shoving her backwards a score of paces like a firm hand upon her chest.
Thaler, now helmeted, lurched about like a drunkard, shouting some mangled words of warning that came through the mote feed. Automatic seals hissed and red strobe lights launched with alacrity into a mad flashing upon the walls, the siren now completely drowned by the roaring wind. Mica fought towards the airlock and did not even pause at the threshold, throwing herself out from the base and into the blackness of Titan’s surface.
She couldn’t see a thing. Sleeting methane rain smashed against the visor of her helmet, the fibrous bundles of her helicasuit automatically tightening, compressing protectively against her flesh. In the light gravity she weighed only one tenth of that on Earth; it was only because she hung tight to the railing by the airlock that stopped her from being swept away by the furious eddies and vortices of wind, feeling her feet being lifted away from her, struggling to put them to the ground as if she were fighting to stand in a swift river. The rain glinted in long streaks in the light projecting from the open airlock, closing her into a tiny world, like an actor in a spotlight upon a stage. The tether cord whipping away from the railing and into the storm gave no clue as to which way to go as it flung about in all directions.
“Arran!” she shouted into the confines of the helmet, the noise ringing in her ears. “Arran!” She tried to walk, shuffling along the grating of the catwalk, sliding her hands along the railing.
With a mote-command she tried to call up a map of the base, something to orient herself in relation to the outbuilding where the antennas were located, but her mote feed was blank. No link here. She closed her eyes, forcing concentration, and tried to placing herself in the rough sketch of a map in her mind. She would have to let go of the railing, strike out across the openness. She took a hold of the umbilical line where it passed through the railing. It was as thick as her wrist, fat with bundled lines encased in a rubberised sheath. Should she go back into the airlock and get a clip-belt? No time, she decided. She wrapped her arm about the tether, and stepped from the catwalk and onto the surface of the moon.
She felt the press of stones through the soles of her lightweight boots. She stumbled forward, bent low to the ground, using her gloved hands to grab at rounded stones the size of dinner plates to keep her from being flung by the wind. All the while the methane rain lashed against her helmet, smearing her vision so she saw only a confused blur, and heard only a magnificent roaring that drove every thought from her head. The place did not want her.
The line snagged at her arm and she felt herself being dragged, circumscribing an arc with her feet in the stony surface, her boots scrambling for purchase. She stubbornly made ground, every step hard won, total focus on pushing forward. Ahead, through the blur, was that a light? She dared not pause, dropping her head again, firm belief driving her that she could make it to the Haustorium. Once there, she could hook in. She just had to make it. One step at a time.
Her inner ear speaker seemed to whisper something. Mica stopped and clasped her hands to the side of her helmet, pressing hard, as if it could shield her ears from the drowning roar of the wind. A mote-thought and the volume driven to maximum, she heard a voice.
“Arran?” she screamed inside her helmet. “Arran, Arran!”
Still with her head down and shielded from the brunt of the wind, she crawled forward while looking backwards between her knees. There seemed to be lights back there moving along the umbilical line, dancing and picking up arcs of flying rain.
A huge gust of wind reached beneath her waist, bodily lifting her from the ground despite frantic kicking and flailing. Blinded as if inside a coal black bag, it was only her sense of balance that told her she was spinning madly, arms and legs outstretched. And then she hit the ground again hard, bounced, and dragged upon her back. She felt the tether line slip quickly through her hands and she realised it had unwound from her arm. She made a grab for it but it was too late and flew off into the darkened sky. She lay upon her belly with a curious lightness of thought. She was now a small speck of light in the darkness, parted ways with that tiny cupped glow of mankind, and now in every sense alone as very few had ever been.
She had wanted this, she realised. To be swept away, as if it could wash away that dread stain of guilt on her soul. She would get her wish; the wind was pulling at her again and this time she did not resist.
A light slashed across the ground and she looked back just as a heavy hand grabbed at her ankle, clamping her to the ground. The gloved hand led back to a forearm enclosed in a rib of struts and armatures.
The wind gusted and through the brief clearing in the rain she saw the man in the TIG, his head but a silhouette behind the glare of a bright light affixed to his helmet. He pressed himself low to the ground and drew her close with brutal force, the mechanical linkages boosting his strength by articulated brackets. Mica twisted upon her back and threw her hands out upon either side, rocks catching and flipping over in her hands, others bruising her ribs, yet unable to stop herself from being hauled in.
“Damn you, let me go!” she cried into the echoes of her own helmet. “Arran! He’s out there!”
Mica pounded her fist but struck only the heavy plating of the TIG chest plate, the man’s attention focussed upon some point in the distance, keeping them both crouched low against the wind, reeling in his own tether line with a steady but rapid pace. Mica sagged like a rag-doll, her head lolled backwards, hoping to catch an impossible glance of Arran.
The airlock suddenly appeared as if they had ascended to the surface from great depths. Blinding lights were everywhere, and she had to squeeze her eyes shut and look down into her chest until her eyes adjusted. Thaler was there, backing away and allowing room for the pair to enter the airlock.
The outer hatch rumbled and snicked closed, and quite suddenly all was still. The wind still roared yet it was a distant thing now, powerless and thwarted of its prey, leaving Mica reeling with the shock and nausea of the sudden stillness.
The recovery gurney was cupped like a soap dish, pushing her shoulders in and restricting her movements. She still felt lightheaded from the repair work to her cells, bundles of automated surgical appendages hanging limp by her side.
The anaesthesia faded and her mote feed kicked in, widening her mind to her surrounds. Someone else was in the room, loitering by the door. Her gaze blurred when she raised her head and she blinked hard, seeing two silhouettes standing side-by-side, then realized after a moment it was the miner who had pulled her from the storm, standing alongside the emptied man-shaped shell of his shucked Northrop Grumman TIG. The exoskeleton was of minimalist design, having only struts around the arms and legs, and plates on the chest, shoulders and back, yet it loomed in the close quarters of the medical bay, hollowed head bowed yet almost touching the low ceiling. Mica guessed that the suit had once been dayglow orange, but the years had been unkind to it and the paint had long since worn away, leaving only flecks and a mottled cicatrix of chips and stains. The left arm was red and looked newer, obviously commandeered from another suit.
The miner was similarly tall, and looking just as filthy and mismatched. He held his head erect, gaunt cheeks beneath a thick beard that seemed to have been lavished with more care than any other part of him. His skin was a hue that suggested middle-eastern roots, his eyes bright beneath heavy dark brows. His helicasuit was a patchwork of stains and repairs, and condensation still clung to the material, and water pooled on the floor about his well-worn boots. He had obviously been there for some time, and was shifting his weight from foot to foot. Strangely, she’d never seen him on the base before. With only a few hundred people for company for the past eight years, it was unusual to come across a stranger. Running a rapid check of his public ID via mote and she found his name: Mubarak, A. M. (Capt.).
According to his feed, he’d been stationed here from the beginning, so their circles of movements and interactions simply hadn’t intersected. Mica dropped her head back and closed her eyes, wishing only to be away from the man. He made her skin crawl. She fancied she could smell his body odour from here. They’d all, every man and woman on Titan, had had some degree of transgenic gene splicing, it was pretty much mandatory for survival; yet Captain Mubarak’s was far from subtle. He looked part gorilla.
Her mote chimed and, weaving its deft magic, superimposed images in a flowing stream into her visual cortex. Mica’s heart sank as she watched the brief display of the whirling lighthouse beam and familiar company logo and then the projection of the Governess herself appeared, standing whip-tall in grey uniform, hair tied back behind her head, lifting her chin and using it to point as if it were the sharpened bow of a ship.
“Doctor Fischer, what you did was against all regulations.”
The Governess’s words jolted shards of ice through Mica’s heart. She felt angry unbidden tears lurking just upon the inside of her eyes and fiercely drew them back and hardened herself as if she were bolstering a failing dam.
“We have to get him back. We have to –”
“Database records show exactly what happened. Mr. Thaler might have disabled the mote feed, but we are not as stupid as you might think. Doctor Fischer, you are to be returned to suspended animation immediately.”
“What? No, I have to get back out there! Arran, he’s still alive, I know it. He made it to the Haustorium, he can hold out there until we can get to him.”
“Then Arran must hold out until the storm – the storm – the storm – ”
The room lights faded and flickered, and even some of the electronics by her side gave warning beeps with the power brown-out. The Governess’s projection vanished for a split second, until a moment later all was restored. Reappearing, the Governess’s projection broke out of the stuttering loop and continued to speak as if she hadn’t noticed the disturbance.
“– situation is well outside my operational parameters; we will have to wait until Earth-side communications are re-established before a decision can be made. That is all.”
“No, wait!” cried Mica.
The Governess’s face remained impassive. “This conversation is over.”
“Like hell it is!”
Her hand grasped around the bulk of tubes about her forearm and gave a mighty jerk and the needles came free with an ugly spray of blood. She lurched from the bed, legs still weak beneath her, finding herself fighting against Captain Mubarak, who had somehow crossed the room in the time it had taken her to rise. He pinned both of her arms in a bear hug, his breath and bristles of his beard in her face. Deep revulsion coursed through her, the man’s arms bulging with muscle. It was like being bound in iron. Mica had a fleeting derisive thought of all the protein wasted into keeping this behemoth fed as she twisted to free herself.
“Get off me you stinking brute!”
His breath was warm against her cheek as he replied:
“We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.”
To Mica’s surprise he did not speak with the harsh rigger’s accent she assumed he would have, given the degree and manner of his gene manipulations. Rather it had the measured, even intonations of the well-educated.
Mica sagged, then suddenly reared up, butting her head and catching him on the point of his jaw. The miner reeled backwards into a tray full of silver instruments that went flying, launching on strangely flat parabolas in the low gravity. Using her hands as much as her feet, Mica launched at the Governess, her wild swipe pure animal instinct that swished through empty air.
Pain burned a hot cattle-brand into the soft patch of brain behind Mica’s eyes and she instantly loosened, folding like a marionette without its strings into an awkward heap, sliding along the polished cold flooring, spinning limply and coasting to a stop. There she lay, totally immobilised, only her eyes moving, darting with deep rage.
The Governess’s projection stood over her, looking down with a calm acuity.
“I am authorized to use any means necessary to subdue violence,” she said.
Mica gritted her teeth, her limbs still without strength, as Mubarak returned and lifted her by the arm, lopsidedly dragging her trailing heels, his other hand still pressed to stem the flow of blood from his nose. Her pod had already been delivered and primed.
“Start the procedure,” the Governess said.
That familiar smell greeted her, this time stronger; there hadn’t been time for a scrub-down since she had awoken, and beads of dew heavy with body odour still clung to the inner fabric. Mubarak arranged her limbs a little too forcefully than strictly necessary, and started to lower the hood of the pod.
Mica fought against the block upon her nerves, using the roiling pain and guilt within as a black fuel, and managed to twist her head.
“Captain Mubarak. Please, look for him.”
“Captain,” warned the Governess from where she stood. “Without any further delay, if you please.”
Mica forced away her distaste of the man and tried to warm her words with a shade of compassion via the empath mote link. Mubarak’s lips formed a hard straight line as he rejected the empath transmission, bouncing it back unread into Mica’s feed.
“I’m sorry about your nose,” she said, forcing the words from her iron-bound chest.
The nanobots in his bloodstream must have stopped the bleeding but his voice, naturally low in its measured tones, was still nasal.
“Go to hell.”
“The rovers. They were designed for winter.” Mica tried to catch his gaze again, imploring him with every ounce of her being. “Please, this is very important.”
Mubarak stiffened, his face hardening behind the thicket of his beard and he glanced furtively in the Governess’s direction.
“Doc, you don’t realise how lucky you are that I was on-shift at the time you decided to go for your little stroll.”
“Dammit, I was –”
“You think I went out topside wearing just a TIG for shits and giggles? The rovers are shot. I put my life on the line out there, and there’s no way I’m going back out again, not for you, and especially not for a mech.”
Mica found strength to lift her hands, fingers clenched on the inner rails, her steel-grey eyes narrowing.
“He was no ordinary mech. You wouldn’t understand. He was trying to help all of us…”
Something vital inside her heart crumpled. A drunken giddiness – a movement that was not a movement – took hold of the sagging bag of memories in her mind and swept everything in a flash-flood down the river bed of fate. With every jolt and sway, parts of her sense of self dislodged and were lost to the flow. Her eyes closed, and the sounds of the world merged into the surf roar of a hollowed shell. She hardly noticed the movement of air as the lid of the pod came down and the seals compressed. The air pressure ramped, the needles already in her veins.
Any moment now, all would be gone.
In unconscious catatonia, no thoughts would spark in her brain until she woke years from now, when everything was over, when there would be no need to think anymore. When Arran would be long gone…
A soft warning buzz followed by a whirring noise woke her, then a louder, shriller buzzing. Within the walls came the reverberating thud of retracting machinery.
“What the hell was that?” said Mubarak, his voice reaching Mica’s ears muffled through the plastic pod. Then the Governess’s voice, clear in her head through the mote-link.
“Stop the procedure at once.”
“Stop it, immediately.”
Mica heard a tapping, and then some more words lost into muffled discord, and a confusion of footsteps; Mubarak strapping into his TIG and stomping away down the corridor. Mica did not raise her head, her eyes closed, refusing to be drawn, refusing to give up the belief that in any moment she would disappear into sleep, and for a time nothing happened. Then, with a wet crack, the seals on her pod separated and the Governess’s voice spoke in her ear.
“Dr Fischer, we have an update on your situation. You’ll be awake for the foreseeable future. Consider yourself lucky to be here. I suggest making yourself useful.”
A profusion of dark shapes hung from plastic plates, each suspended by wires from the ceiling far above, arranged in narrow rows of leaves melding with perspective at the far end of the cavernous room. Most of the overhead lights had failed, and the air recycling filters had long since clogged. The only motion in the room were occasional soft, gentle drips from the upper stacks where untended protein steak plants grew, filtering downwards to those leafier layers beneath. Mica moved through the rows of abandoned plants, where broken railings spilled out into tangled confusion. This place had once been a refuge, a place of relaxation, where one could see greenery and real growth, breathe air touched by photosynthesis. It had been one of the first places to be culled with the budget clampdown: why maintain such a facility when a mote-feed to all sensory inputs could do everything equally well, all within the comfort of ones’ own capsule.
Mica’s stepped over a pool of water, its peripheries marbled with ice and surface rippling with a standing wave of concentric rings set up by the constant vibration running through the floor, each peak picked out in the orange glow of aging lights. Mica closed her eyes against the reminder that the storms raged one hundred and fifty metres overhead without surcease, driving and swirling winds searching with hungry fingers for a way in, to sear this blight of humanity burrowed into the surface.
She checked the time on her mote-feed. Nearly twenty hours had passed since Arran had gone outside, and she was exhausted. It was only her mote, feeding chemicals and forcibly resting portions of her brain, that kept her on her feet. She had spent almost the entire time going through and discarding options, pursuing ways to get Arran back. It hadn’t taken long to discover Captain Mubarak had been right; the rovers were manufactured by Bosch, and with the German’s out of the consortium, essential replacements hadn’t arrived with the last shipment. She had wasted three hours chasing down leads that met with dead ends in an attempt to locate spares. She had then looked at the storm forecasts, but things seemed to be only getting worse.
How long could Arran hold out?
With every passing hour her fatigue grew until her whole body ached. And all the while, breathing a chill prickle down the back of her neck, was the fear that the Governess would call her at any moment, tell her that the deep sleep systems were back on-line, the command to go back on ice. Every moment she had left was precious, yet finally she found herself squandering them, unable to think of ways to do any more. Finally, she had closed all mote screens and her feet had taken her to this place.
Her mind felt like a raft bobbing upon a vast sea, and it was only by degrees she became aware that her eyes were fixed upon the pale white tendrils in the cupped container before her. She reached out and gave it a tender tug upwards. The small root-bound plant lifted, the tangled ball of its roots had grown to the limits of the container, packing outwards even though there was nowhere to go, becoming denser, tighter. Suddenly it were as if she looked inside her own skull; the pale packed nest of roots like the mote within the blood-brain barrier, filaments of ultra-fine titanium wire intimately wormed into every millimetre of her brain, privy to every thought, every impulse, and also able to masquerade as real input; sight, sound, touch. Yet at the same time, in a strange metaphysical bent, the mote extended her mind, able to call upon a vast network of information throughout the entire base. Was there a reconciliation between oppressor and liberator?
“That’s not necessary, you know.”
Mica startled, dropping the plant back into its pot, then hating herself for giving Thaler the satisfaction of her fright. She should have been paying more attention to her mote feed.
“I’m not doing it for the plants.”
Thaler grinned, and lowered his head, perhaps realising his childish game was out of line, but his abashment did not last long.
“You still sore at me?” he asked.
Mica turned and started back towards the exit, Thaler quickly following in little skipping steps, talking at her back.
“Have you considered perhaps going back to your work?”
“You might be here for a while.”
“My research is done.”
“Oh, but hardly!”
“What would you know?”
“The reports are underplayed, but the incremental gains are undeniable. You must have been so close! Until everything stopped, that is.”
Mica swung about, her pulse rate increasing, a thudding in her ears. Jaw muscles firming, she spoke between gritted teeth.
“You stay out of my business, I’ll stay out of yours. Deal?”
“I can pull some strings, get your old work privileges back.”
“Hey, where are you going? Slow down! Come on, it’s amazing work. We have a chance to rise above the accident of our existence.”
Mica stopped and turned to face Thaler.
“Why this sudden interest? I’m not looking for a new friend, or anything else, if that’s what you’re angling at. So get lost, I’ve got things I need to be doing.”
“I did some research, after what happened with Arran, I…”
He stopped as Mica’s face darkened. He gave a small shrug.
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out. He was a brave little mech. I really thought he could pull it off.”
“How could you have let him go?”
Thaler was silent a time. When he replied, his voice was low, his words carefully considered. “It was his idea. His logic circuits were independent -”
“Because he was alive!”
“Come now, let’s put this in perspective. He was a machine, fuzzy logic giving the illusion of sentience.”
“Don’t speak about Arran like that! You know nothing!”
“Hey, easy!” Thaler was standing tall again, all indignant five-foot of him. “I tried to stop him. Maybe if you had been there, as he told me you should have been, this could have worked out differently!”
Immediately, Thaler realised he had said the wrong thing as Mica’s face turned into a mask of icy hate.
“I’m sorry,” he said, bowing his head again. “I didn’t mean that. I should have done more. He came so close to pulling it off, I really thought he could. Another minute of luck, and the Icarus might well be here, supplies that would put this whole operation back on track.” He gave an exhausted, melodramatic sigh. “He told me he had run the statistics, and I trusted his calculations that it would be safe. But I was wrong, I should have waited for you. For the record, I have spoken with the Governess and claimed all associated costs and responsibilities. It could be enough to get your laboratory back.”
“Sebastian, enough already of the eulogising. I have spent my entire life in the lab, and giving it up wasn’t something I did on a whim. Don’t you get it? I’m nothing, absolutely nothing, without it. What, you think that I don’t constantly dwell on the sacrifices I made? Every second of my life I wonder what to make of those countless years of work? You think I just let everything go just for a laugh? God! I thought I was scratching a legacy into the stone tablet of humanity, but it’s nothing but foolishness and noise. So don’t preach its virtues… Your layman’s bloody ignorance is insulting.”
Thaler lowered his head graciously, his fingers steepled into a little triangle. When he looked up again Mica saw a mischievous gleam had come into his eyes, glinting tiny reflections of the skeletal strips of overhead bulbs.
“Then tell me, what is it that I don’t know? Why was the whole project halted?”
“The concept was ill-conceived. It can never work.”
“Ahh, but you must have tried something!”
Mica found it hard to draw breath all of a sudden, and spoke in a short constricted burst.
“This is not a conversation I am going to have with you.”
Thaler moved after Mica as she strode along the narrow rows, the dew-soaked leaves so close they brushed against the sleeves of their helicasuits.
“How did you get away with it?” he asked. “There are no reports on the mainframe of any experiment.”
“There was no experiment,” said Mica, her voice holding a firm resolve.
“Doctor Fischer, we don’t belong here. You know that, don’t you?”
Mica stiffened, her steps slowing. Thaler overtook her, brushing past the narrow space between the leaves. Shorter than Mica, he had to tilt his head, cocked like a sharp-eyed bird, unblinkingly appraising. “You, me, humanity. We don’t belong.”
He raised his finger as if to brush something from Mica’s cheek, but thought better of it and withheld his hand, poised mid-air. “Titan is too cold, our presence here is simply temporary. Maybe in a billion years when the sun is a red giant large enough to swallow Earth, only then could life be given a chance on Titan. But by then humanity will be long gone, it will be the turn of single celled organisms that we hope to find below our feet to come to the surface and thrive, but whether it be in the water core of Titan or scattered through the stars, life will remain microbial. There is nothing in the universe to drive complexity; trapped in an energy barrier, it is impossible to grow beyond that single cell. We are freak chance.” Thaler seemed to suddenly recall himself and lowered his hand. “One single accident in four billion years. Two different types of cells colliding and actually fusing in a way that works, from which the entire tree of life has spawned. And since that one freak accident four billion years ago it has not happened again. Oh, you look overhead, you see the stars and the galaxies, an incredible number flung across the night sky. More stars than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of Earth. Yet still that multitude is annulled by the time scales of the universe; billions of years and distances where light itself takes a lifetime to reach our eyes. Our physical forms, so fragile and so fleeting, are in a prison with vast distance serving as unbreakable bars. There are no warps in spacetime, no shortcuts across the chasm, simply no mechanism exists, for the universe does not exist for our benefit. Even though it is a painful barb to that hope we cradle deep in humankind’s heart, we have to accept the fact that even in the enormity of the cosmos we will never find solace, never meet another race to share our existence, and that lack is infinitely worse than any war or conflict. We need to cling to our consciousness and preserve it, for we are the only spark in the dark.”
“Earth isn’t a spark, it’s a goddamn fireworks factory.”
Thaler’s pale blue eyes held an odd intensity. “You’ve seen the last reports? The faction wars have escalated. Who knows what we’ll wake up to when our winter is over. It is imperative that you continue your work. It’s your responsibility. I can get your husband clearance to come out of ice too, the work you’ve done together –”
“Come now, it’s what he would want.”
“Sebastian, don’t you ever, ever presume to know what Eiji wants.” Mica snapped herself to full height. “Who the hell are you to question what I do?”
In that held moment of tension the overhead lights flickered, so quickly that at first Mica couldn’t be sure if it was just her own blink reflex rebelling, but then she saw Thaler react, casting his eyes upwards. He spoke slowly while still looking up, as if divining their end.
“Whatever it is, you can’t keep running from it forever.”
Mica turned on her heel and strode away down the row, flinging aside dripping leaves, her vision constricting.
She would not let it take her.
She focused on her breathing. She vaguely heard Thaler calling something at her but she was beyond hearing now. Her pace lifted and she was running, breath coming out in hard pants, and her mind’s eye cast back to that inexorable stretch of time, which surely must have only lasted seconds, every moment burned in her memory with vivid clarity. She had tried to hold Eiji down, but in his spasms he was too strong, thrashing about on the gurney as if his spine had become a wound up elastic band.
Mica shook her head violently from side to side to cast away the memory, until suddenly the triggers fired on her mote and her mind blanked and she fell back into herself, finding herself on the floor, looking at the spread of her hands upon the grating.
She was aware that Thaler was there, touching her shoulders, asking her something but his voice sounded very far away. She shook his hand away.
“Get out! Just get out!”
Thaler straightened, hesitating for so long that Mica feared she would have to shout at him again, but finally nodding and taking a step backwards. Mica felt the world still hued by the colors of that memory and did not fully rouse herself from it, for although it caused pain, it was a penance that she would never give up. A thorn she could prick herself upon to remind herself of her place.
Thaler had turned his back and disappeared in quick little strides down the rows of plants. She waited until she heard the click of the outer door and saw on her mote feed that he had started descending to the hab quarter before calling up the list of the active personnel and requesting a private call. Her feed faded to black while the call was processed, the status signal blinking to indicate the poor quality of the connection to the tunnel network far below. Mica waited, and while she did she had a sudden thought that was she was doing was pure folly, and was just about to terminate when the call picked up, voice only.
“Captain Mubarak…. I… I need a favor.”
The digging crew rode the clanking and rocking elevator as it rose from the depths, swaying as they unstrapped the braces and linkages joining their TIG linkages to their helicasuits. A green light illuminated upon one of the walls at the same time as Mica’s mote feed chimed, and with the signal each of the four crewmembers snapped the fasteners and ran back the bubble of their helmets. The air inside the elevator was cold and stung of sludge and antifreeze, yet was infinitely better than the recycled air of her suit. Mica ran a hand over her forehead and tucked a strand of her bobbed hair behind her ear before realising the unconscious action had spread a line of grease across her forehead. She found that finally, after an entire day of working, she was simply too tired to care anymore. Mica bent her head, her lips compressed in a tight line of self-control in an effort to suppress the shivering that threatened to overtake her body; her core felt like a block of ice, and she longed to get back to her bunk, peel off the damp helicasuit, and dry herself.
Captain Mubarak paced the four walls of the elevator, his boots crunching the ice that was fast turning to slush underfoot. He inspected each of them as they sat on benches lining each side. When he passed Mica she pretended she did not notice his heavy-handed observation, instead ostensibly absorbed in removing the last of the buckles and shucking the last TIG linkage from her right leg. Mubarak gave a solemn little nod as he strode past.
A small mech gave a yelp, spinning about on hind legs as it chased a twisted limp rag held by one of the crew, a thin man with a dishevelled mop of black hair. He tossed the rag to the far side of the elevator where it landed at the feet of another crewmember, who gave it a disdainful nudge aside with the edge of her boot as the dog came barreling in hot pursuit, paws scratching on the metal flooring.
“Cut it out, Mitch,” she said. “It’s smarter than you, you should be the one doing the fetching.”
“Ah, come on Chi-ling.” Mitch gathered the dog up in his arms; programmed to appease, it squirmed appropriately and made playful snaps at Mitch’s hand. “He likes me, don’cha boy?”
“He’s all alone there.”
“I can spot your secret desires a mile away. Anytime you’re ready, baby. I’m here.”
Chi-ling blew Mitch a kiss and then turned the gesture into a middle finger salute. Mitch gave a delighted squawk and delivered a solemn bow. Mica couldn’t help but finally look up, and yielded to her instinctive impulse to mote-probe for the public IDs of the crew. The mote-net had been patchy in the tunnels, limited only to audio chatter over the short-range comms, and she hadn’t had a chance to actually see anyone all day. Mitch was quick to spot Mica’s mote-probe.
“Ah, the good doctor, so you are human! I don’t believe we have been formally introduced.”
Mica gave a cold smile that reached only the corners of her lips and allowed Mitch mote access to her public ID.
Mitch gestured expansively to his side.
“This, of course, is our good friend Chi-ling. You probably recognize her.”
Mica pressed her fingers into the bridge of her nose, knowing her irritability was a frayed edge, and instead forcing herself to attention to give a wan smile.
“I thought your face seemed familiar.”
“She was picked up by the networks a few years back, had quite a following before Earth lost interest in her.”
“Shut it Mitch. I kept ratings longer than anyone else in this shit bucket.”
“Must be tough, to be back with us after having your moment of fame.”
“At least I had a moment. I’m true to my roots, and I’ve never denied that.”
“Still, reality is a bit different when you live it every day isn’t it?”
“Loving every minute of it.”
“It’s a pity they cut your show. Guess that’s the Chinese for you, always quick to renege on a contract.”
“Mitch, cut it out,” barked Mubarak, standing hands upon his hips in the center of the elevator. “You’ll be on double-shift tomorrow if you’re not careful.”
“Hah! Like we’re not already on double shifts. No way man; in a few days, as soon as Icarus is down, I’m going on ice.”
Chi-ling’s voice dropped low and level, all levity gone.
“What have you heard?”
Mitch spread his hands and his mouth pulled down at the corners in an exaggerated shrug.
“A little something along the grapevine.”
“Bullshit,” growled Balahoskin, the final crewmember who had so far been sitting upon a bench by himself, unmoving and unresponsive as a stone gargoyle. The burly Russian hawked and cleared his throat, a horribly heavy and greasy sound. Mica shot a surreptitious look in his direction: he had thick eyebrows and a smarmy half-smile plastered across his face in an expression that hid whatever it might be that he was truly thinking. As she watched he worked his fingers together, thumb to forefinger, in a motion that made Mica decidedly uncomfortable; as if he were working something dredged from his nose into a sphere, and at any moment might flick it off in some random direction.
“More likely they didn’t even bother to send it this time,” said Chi-ling. “Someone is feeding you shit, Mitch. Six and half more years. Hey, doc, you’d know. You heard anything?”
Eyes swung in Mica’s direction and she lowered her head, wishing the lift would hurry up as it swayed gently like an ambling cow on its agonizingly slow rise to the upper levels.
“Latest reports aren’t good,” she said. “The storm is much bigger than the model anticipated.”
Chi-ling laughed. “The same model that told us Titan had no winds at all?” She danced her fingers. “Just a gentle soot forming on the dunes. Let’s all set up shop and have a cozy old time.”
“That was thirty-eight years ago. Things changed.”
“Brilliant work, just brilliant work.”
“I say hell yeah!” cried Mitch. “The bean-counters don’t know jack shit about what we’re up to, so let’s go crazy. We’re in our own little bubble of reality here.”
Chi-ling gave him a sour look. “Jesus, Mitch, keep your lid on.”
Balahoskin gave a grunt. “I bet my hairy heavy balls that the ship wasn’t even sent. I reckon war’s finally started, I bet those factionist bastards slipped a nuke.”
Mitch clapped his hands together. “Now you’re thinking!”
In her corner of the elevator Chi-ling glowered and her thin brows knotted as she drew breath to retaliate but Mubarak held up his hands, palms extended to each side.
Mitch gave a sloppy salute to Mubarak’s back.
Mubarak spun but Mitch had already dropped his hand to his side, an innocent grin on his face.
The lights in the elevator suddenly switched off and in the darkness everything jerked and clanged to an abrupt stop. A moment later the lights turned back on in time to see everything not strapped down in elastic webbing lofted in the air, hanging for a second before floating slowly back down to the floor. There were a series of distant clunks and, from somewhere far down the end of the elevator shaft, the sound of a turbine winding down.
“That’s great,” said Chi-ling, throwing up her hands. “Fantastic. Great job on the power boys.”
Mitch exchanged a glance with Balahoskin, as if hardy believing what he had heard. He then swung back to regard Chi-ling with narrowed eyes.
“We did the best with what we had. Ain’t no way the fission reactor will match what the fusion plant could put out.”
“Just relax. It’ll come back in a moment,” grunted Balahoskin.
They all sat in a moment of silence as they heard a continuation of the clicks, growing louder as relays closed, working their way up the elevator shaft. There was another jerk, and the elevator started moving again.
“See?” Balahoskin said.
“This is unacceptable,” Mubarak mused. As Mitch opened his mouth to protest Mubarak swung to Chi-ling. “I want you to double-check the inventory.”
“We’ve already double-checked.”
“Then triple check. Everything, including the archives.”
Mitch gave a snicker as Chi-ling’s eyes widened, both knowing how much time she would need to spend dredging through the records.
The elevator wound down to a gentle stop and there was a heavy noise of the docking claws locking, then the doors split open and marginally cleaner air of the crew quarters wafted in. With base-wide heaters on emergency power mode, it was barely a promise of warmth.
There was a flicker in the air at the exit of the elevator, a moment of refraction like a heat haze, and then that familiar lighthouse strobing light of the Fujino Heavy Industries logo signalling an incoming transmission, and then the group-wide mote feed image of Robin Galen morphed into solidity, standing with arms crossed over his chest.
Chi-ling’s almond eyes narrowed and she raked her hands back through her jet-black hair. “No man, not now.”
“This won’t take long,” said Galen with an imperious raising of his chin. “The Governess has advanced the timetabling.”
“Like we don’t have enough to do?” said Chi-ling.
“All of you are required to reduce your rest time by half, as mandated by extreme situation protocol.”
“Half? Jesus, what the hell has gotten into her?” Mitch leant forward with his elbows upon his knees; it had the effect of raising his scapula from his scrawny body, visible under the tautness of his helicasuit like hacked-off angel wings.
“We need to hit the water table by the end of the week, no more excuses,” said Galen.
“Why, so we can dig up ET before everyone else wakes up? What’s the hurry?”
“Even when we do, we ain’t gonna find nothing,” said Balahoskin, who had not moved, and spoke facing only the empty air before him. “Titan is a frigid mother-of-a-whore.”
Galen held up a hand for silence. “Enough! We need results. Performance has been sub-par the past few weeks.”
“I want to know what we’re doing busting our asses in the middle of winter.” Mitch said. He suddenly stood, and waved his arms at the crew as if proffering them something while twisting his head towards Galen. “Hey, you tell these guys about the news on the Icarus.”
“There have been no updates, I would advise that you focus upon your work. The drill probes are coming back positive; the liquid water layer can’t be far off.”
“Come on, you know something. Spill it, dude!”
“There is nothing more to say on the matter of the supply ship, crewman. I suggest you concentrate on your work.”
Captain Mubarak took a step forward. “Bring in more heavy drilling bots. You have a problem with progress, take it up with the Gov.”
“I’ll worry about the bots, you just need to keep what we have going down there moving efficiently.”
Mubarak shook his head from side to side as he advanced another step, his bulk and beard giving him the aspect of a lumbering bear shaking away flies that stubbornly persisted. “We are a winter team. Skeleton duty. Leave the heavy work until summer, fix the fusion plant, and then – and only then – can we ramp up operations.” He now stood face-to-face with Galen’s projection. “You are risking the lives of my crew. If you really want to continue, we need to be replaced.”
“I’m sure your crew appreciate your show of brash preciousness, but there is no other choice.” Galen’s wandering gaze picked out Mica and he raised his brows pointedly. “Until the deep sleep issues are resolved, there’s no way we’re thawing anyone until we know they can go back under again. Every mouth we wake now is a hungry mouth for the whole of winter. So shelve that little pipedream, and let’s make what we have work.”
The projection vanished.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” cried Mitch, casting the mech dog callously aside where it slid along the entire length of the bench, now switched off and servos in freewheel. It pitched off the end of the bench and landed in an awkward articulated bundle to the floor. Mitch spun to Mica, brows heavy over his eyes, his already thin face drawn thinner. “This is all your fault!”
“How the hell can it be my fault?”
“The way I heard it, the system broke down the moment they tried to put your skinny white arse under. You got bad luck riding all over you.”
Mica fought down red flame of temper that cupped the base of her brain, the blood pounding now in her temples, and she spoke softly without looking up. “It was nothing to do with me.”
“No? Well, we all know why you put yourself here. You might think it’s some big secret, but we all know.”
“Shut your mouth, Mitch,” Mubarak said, his voice hardening.
Mitch glanced around the elevator, taking in the gazes of his silent crewmates, his humorless little smile tightening as if tendons were being ratcheted by some mechanism at the back of his head. “You want to dig the slide out, right? To the access tunnel. Get to the Haustorium, pick up that little mech pet of yours? Well, it’s not worth my neck, so get back to your-”
“That is it! For the last time, shut your mouth.” Mubarak levelled a finger at Mitch, looming over him, edging within his personal space. “Nobody wants to hear it.”
“Yeah, well Captain, someone’s going to hear it!”
Mitch launched to his feet, knocking Mubarak backward. They both tumbled in the low gravity. Chi-ling tried to restrain Mitch but he attempted to shake her off and they both fell back, and a dirty scuffle broke out, a crate overturning, flipping almost full circle before cascading to the ground; wrenches, sockets, belts and spare parts flew towards the walls, hitting with a discordant clamour, skidding and bouncing away in bizarrely majestic shower of silver across the polished floor. Mitch finally tore himself away from Chi-ling, feigned, then made a lunge for Mubarak’s midriff. The crew leader sidestepped the clumsy blow and caught Mitch with a deft twist and flip that Mica could only identify as some kind of martial art manoeuver, sending him crashing to the wall where he lay defeated and exhausted.
“That’s it for today!” Mubarak bawled. “Get to your quarters. I suggest you rest, I want an early start to the shift tomorrow.”
Balahoskin and Chi-ling took up their bundles and left without a word, passing by Mubarak who held his arms outstretched in a shepherding pose. Dishevelled and sulky, Mitch followed, shooting a surly grimace as he stalked past Mica. Mubarak did not presume to interfere with Mica, simply pausing at the door, waiting until the rest of his crew were well down the corridor and out of earshot. He looked back at her as she sat alone now at the bench, a small speck of huddled humanity in the grimy dark.
“Six months I’ve had this crew,” grunted Mubarak, his voice pitched low for her ears alone. “And for six months I’ve made it work. Get your act together – if you screw us up you’re out of here.”
Something cold stiffened Mica’s spine, her steel grey eyes flicking up to meet Mubarak’s gaze. Finally, Mubarak lips twitched beneath the spines of his beard and he was the first to look away.
Mica stood in the cool shade of a tall pine tree, the air buzzing and the sky a washed out summer blue, her nose heavy and beginning to itch with fragrances of thick black dirt and pollen. She stood from the fallen tree log, absently brushing the seat of her pants, and took a few paces forward, hand reaching up to feel the needles of the pine tree run through her fingers. As she moved the dappled sunlight alternated heat and cool across her face.
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The only foothold of mankind outside of Earth is upon Titan, Saturn's largest moon. The colony is buried deep beneath the surface against the storms and within, all is not well. Neglected by Earth, things are slowly falling apart. Times are lean for the three hundred colonists now in the deep sleep of hibernation tiding them over the seven year winter upon the frigid moon. Only a handful are left awake, a skeleton crew within the vastness. Only they are left when things take a dramatic turn, and they must question what it means to be conscious, and the reality that the once bright hope for mankind's legacy for the stars will soon be plunged into eternal darkness.