Her legs are bare. Bare below the knee; below the hem of her towel whose fuzzy fibers seem a satire of comfort, whose bleached white mocks the ghastly pale of her own skin now beading up from chill. She’s always been so pale. All her extremities are cold though her heart mallets against the hard plate of her chest. The armor keeps her from spilling out.
Her right hip starts to throb; it took a bad knock against the door frame and she’s been sitting on it. There is more that hurts, but she prefers to think of her hip. She shifts her weight, feels the towel shift and instinctively clutches it about herself. Looking down to be sure, she sees the blood spatter down its fabric to the level of her navel. There is a surprising amount of it. She hadn’t meant to swing so hard. Her eyes trace the spatter over the faux-hardwood decking until she sees the flashlight lying by the open doorway, its head cracked open like an egg amidst a pool of blackening crimson. A lump of sodden tissue sticks to the lens. She recalls then everything from the prior five minutes. She leans forward on her knees, copious drool running between her teeth amidst threads of blood, and futilely battles the void swelling in her gut.
Once the last retches wear themselves out, Maxi Leaf realizes her towel is ruined. She would very much like to change it but she cannot remember where the clean towels are kept. It’s only her second week aboard, after all. Her feet plant hard on the floor and she tries to stand, but while she can feel her extremities it seems she has little control over anything upstream. Maxi pushes herself resolutely up using her bunk for support until she’s high enough to sit on it, which seems like a good idea because by then she is tired. Her heart slows and she feels the cored-out emptiness adrenaline left behind. The towel is slipping again, weighed down by the dripping mess she’s puked down its front. But she can’t drop it, can’t leave herself exposed. She is not entirely sure what she’s afraid of. It’s not like he’s going to get up. Not after that.
Now at last she remembers: the towels are in a small recessed cabinet below the sink, stacked up happy and new and clean and perfect. Maxi would rather not return to the bathroom. Not least because she worries she’ll slip on the water the blood, the mess of its all on the tile floor. She’ll need to clean it eventually, she supposes, but not today. Maybe if she’s lucky one of the duct work guys will fix it for her. That’s who she thought it was at first—a Tech who’d misread his work order and carelessly let himself into an officer’s occupied cabin. Surely it was an accident, a misunderstanding, and so she’d called “pool’s full” in a sing-song voice and thought nothing of it until suddenly he was there, right there inside the head (which she hadn’t locked, stupid) pulling back the shower curtain and looking at her and reaching and then everything happened very quickly indeed.
The flashlight had rested atop the toilet, where she’d left it since the overhead light went out days before and left her feeling around for a toilet paper in the dark. Fixed days before, but she’d been too lazy to replace the flashlight. After she slid away from where he had her against the wall, he’d pushed her back and she’d half-sprawled over the toilet and there the black heavy thing was, speaking to her. Yes, it said, God said through it. Yes. This is what you’re supposed to do. After the first swing he’d been surprised, not angry but surprised, and on the second swing his eyes went back and she couldn’t really see them for all the swings thereafter. There had been more than a few, she now recalls. Yes, she had meant to swing that hard. Absofuckinglutely.
She is still there, sitting on the bed wrapped in that towel, when Bosun Moon drops by to ask a question. He knocks gently; he is so polite. She makes a noise he can’t interpret but which prompts him to try the door and find it locked. She cannot recall the keypad combination, nor is she comfortable altering her present position in any way. This precise spot in the universe is tranquil, is still, and she sees no reason to leave it. When the Bosun asks through the door whether she is okay, she manages to utter the word “No,” and that is enough for him to call the X.O., which is enough for the X.O. to release the lock on her door. Which is when they burst in to find the mess.
He’s still alive, Doctor Cuaron declares, though barely, and what’s left of him won’t ever be him again. It’s quite a pickle for the X.O., for the Captain, for the many concerned men who’ll be responsible for handling the voluminous paperwork associated with a full legal inquest. The Feds doesn’t much appreciate commercial spacers dropping off their delinquents in Navy brigs; that goes for brain-damaged meat sticks who’ll never see a tribunal courtroom, let alone a real prison cell. It is easier for everyone, wise minds decide, if things are wrapped up neatly. No legal procedure, no corporate lawyers questioning the poor girl. Leave the ledger as it stands. Doctor Cuaron isn’t happy about it, but he’s also examined Maxi and he knows the score. Into his report he inserts UICD diagnostic code 988.16: Occupational Physiological Trauma (Cranium). The body he quietly takes off life support and bags up for its unceremonious trip out the airlock. To Maxi he prescribes anxiety medications she won’t take, offers counsel she won’t seek. And then he lets her go. Dios nos da un mundo imperfecto, as he’s told his children. Para poder mejorarlo.
* * *
ECV Konoko emerged into the wan yellow candlelight of a venerable dwarf star. Her Chen-Hau field collapsed and her unencumbered feelers leapt out at light speed to take in the local vastness. They singed themselves on the sun’s feeble heat, soothed the pain on the icy expanses of the old system’s sole planet. There had been others once, mismatched acquaintances yoked by gravity into brotherhood, finally falling into and destroying one another in a positively literary display of destruction. Of those two, only stones remained: a great stripe of an asteroid belt grinding itself ever further towards powder. The lone survivor, some two Earth masses, had bathed its rocky core in water. The real stuff, that serendipitous and fiercely polar marriage of hydrogen and oxygen. This had Karl Genz excited.
“It’s a thin layer!” he boomed too loud into his handy.
“That’s great, Karl,” said Lorena distractedly, easing the dive pod open to reveal Ashley Duggins’ crouched form. She stayed down a minute longer, breathing deep with her eyes closed, rising at last when Lorena put a hand on her lower back.
“Feels good to fly,” Ashley said, and pushed herself up to a kneeling position. Lorena plucked out her spine leads and held out a hand to help her down.
“Okay with the drugs?”
“Yeah. They’re still...unpleasant, when they hit. But yeah. Mostly I’m happy to be in wide open space again. Get some run in!”
“Glad to hear it. That was a quick run.”
“Wide open, like I said. Had a good connection, she knew what I wanted. Whatever chem blend you’re using is fine by me.”
Lorena clucked her tongue. “That reminds me, I need to spend some time communing with the nano-pharm. Been putting it off, I hate learning new things.”
“You and me both, Doc. I get to just strap in and fly,” Ashley grinned, scooping up her jacket and striding out the door.
“Karl, what’s that you were saying?” Lorena asked after a touch to her handy’s screen. “A thin layer of what?”
“Doctor, the local planet has water-ice over a terrestrial core! And the ice is thin enough to support a substantial ocean beneath.”
“You think it could be inhabited?”
“By biological life, almost certainly. I will concede I see no obvious signs of advanced life. But I will continue looking.”
“Doubt you’ll have much time,” she warned him, conversing through the handy’s speaker while she prepped the Nav Suite computer to receive the next Pilot on deck. “We’re clearing the grav disc under sublight, prepping Mister Mohinder and diving out.”
“With respect, ma’am, my reports coming in now suggest large structures under the ice. Conceivably artificial in origin. If that is the case…”
She worked to keep the irritation from her voice. Be direct, Stay simple. “Karl, we’re on a tight schedule. We need a good reason to divert. I don’t care about life; we’ll make a note of it. Make a note of sentience. If it can talk, let me know.”
“Might we at least take a closer path to the world, so I may employ ultrasound scanning? The system requires at least some atmosphere for the waves to propagate.”
It wasn’t an unreasonable request. “Fine, I’ll adjust the flight computer,” she sighed. “Otherwise, we clear the mass disc and we dive when we dive. Acknowledge?”
“Acknowledged,” he audibly sulked and severed the line.
“You’re so nice to that boy,” Beatrice marveled, standing over her friend’s shoulder as she worked. “Much nicer than I’d be.”
* * *
It was Maxi Leaf’s first time using Konoko’s workout facilities, and it figured Vivek Mohinder would show up. She hated exercising with others, considered it an eminently solitary pursuit, and could barely abide the occasional casual glance. On her own ship—if they’d had a gym, which Toussaint did not—she’d have ordered a rapid scramming. Here she was a guest and so she labored gamely under that burden, selecting machines and poses to keep him from her viewframe. But she could only keep it up so long.
“Coming through, don’t move,” said Vivek in an unapologetic tone, throwing one leg and then another over the base of the machine she lay on in the course of stepping over it.
“Sorry,” he said once he’d completed his dismount. “Space is the one thing we’re short on around here.”
“Why don’t you open the door and let some in?” she delivered the joke so drily, it took Vivek a moment to catch up.
“That was good,” he said once he’d finished his double take and surprised bark of laughter. “I mean, it was bad. But it was good.”
Maxi finished her last repetitions, bringing her arms up and hands together against the machine’s constantly repulsing force. When she was done she sat up, still breathing hard, and met Vivek’s eyes. He’d waited for her to finish. “Glad you appreciate it.”
“Normally I’m the one making bad puns. I’m excited to have you around; take a little heat off my back.”
“I wouldn’t count on too many,” she deadpanned, doing her best to push him away.
But he wasn’t having it. “And why not? I know you’re in a bad position, Miss Leaf. We’re all doing our best to make it better. Maybe we won’t get it right, but we are trying.”
Maxi grunted, toweled the sweat off her face.
“Even Doctor Mizrahi. I know you don’t see it, but as someone who knows her, she’s doing her best. You two just clash. With some breathing room it’ll work.”
“Didn’t we just agree there’s no space to be had?”
“We do what we can, even those of us on the crew. You’ve been a spacer long enough, I’m sure you know the same. Stupid puns help; it’s a trick as old as Shakespeare. Probably older.”
“People talk a lot about Shakespeare,” she said, a smile breaking over her face, “but I tried reading his stuff, and it was a whole lot of dick jokes.”
Vivek threw back his head laughing. “There you go. You keep that up. If nobody else on this boat appreciates it, I will. And I’m X.O., so you’ve got friends in high places,” he winked.
“If you’re gonna be a prisoner, get friendly with the wardens.”
“That’s a grim way to think about it.”
She softened. “I know. You’ve been very kind.”
“I’ve said it before, but: anything you need, just ask.”
Up went one of Maxi’s eyebrows. She felt emboldened. “Okay, then I’d ask what convinced you to get those dimes drilled in your dome.”
For the first time he looked uncomfortable. She hadn’t expected that. “I’m right about to head downstairs for my flight shift. It’s not a short enough story. I’ll tell you later if you’re really interested. Not just needling.”
Now it was her turn to feel defensive. What was she, a puckish little imp? “I wasn’t needling. I do want to know. Tell me when you’re ready.”
“Okay,” he nodded, making his way around her machine from the device he’d approached but hadn’t used. “I’m off to fly this bird at incalculable speed through space-time. Try not to be too impressed.”
With a bright even-toothed grin he was gone. Maxi looked around the suddenly empty gym, its machines all white and chrome but for the proud Explorer Corps blue of their pads. She was alone and found herself strangely disappointed.
* * *
Karl Genz stared agog at his scanners’ results. As Konoko passed swift and silver by the frozen planet, dipping her toes in upper atmosphere, he’d sent cascades of ultrasound down through thin air and deep into the icepack. Though that too, into the sea hiding armored and secret below. Lasers couldn’t get through anything that thick. Stuffed tightly into supply closets he’d inventoried an assortment of direct-contact “thumper” devices, but as the name implied they’d need setting down on the surface. Stranded in high orbit, ultrasound was by far his best option. And lo, what it revealed! “Burgen im Meer,” he said out loud, as if tasting the words might help him believe them.
“’Castles’ sound a bit dramatic,” Beatrice remarked over his shoulder.
“I cannot think what else to call them. Look!” he insisted, striking his keyboard with a pianist’s rapid precision to bring up a three-dimensional render before her widening eyes.
“Oh my,” she breathed, “that is quite a thing.” It was a spire of sorts: a spire, fluted and ornately buttressed though the long-range ultrasound veiled fine detail. It stood atop a great mountain that was itself a spire, supported by identical elbows of structure grown fractally to monstrous size. That mountain lay atop another of the same proportions, and it was there the sensors lost fidelity though wide-area scans suggested the floor was nowhere near.
“There are others,” Karl explained, zooming the display out so other, similar spires could be marked in glowing green over the nearest swath of planetary surface.
“It’s a whole civilization.”
“That depends, perhaps, on one’s definition.”
“They’re building with stone.”
“It’s not…” he trailed off, checking data on his console screen. “No, it’s not dense enough. That’s how they reach such size. The material is something lighter.”
“No, it is sedimentary in nature. Oh my,” he declared, placing a palm to his forehead, “it is both! Sediment arranged by living agency. But that idea conflicts with the engineering we see here. A species able to assemble such structures would surely be able to secure better building materials.”
“You’re making assumptions,” Beatrice smiled coyly. “Rooted in your own experience. Picture something without a primate brain. Something that’s not a big, centralized, mobile creature carrying tools and conquering worlds. Use your imagination!”
Karl pinched up his face in a way he often did when frustrated. He rushed through possibilities, drawing on what he’d admit was a less-than-ironclad knowledge of marine biology. “I know you know this,” Beatrice teased.
At last he seized on a spark of an idea. “I had not considered microbial action,” he began cautiously, searching Beatrice’s face for hints that weren’t coming. But the more he considered it, the more sense it made. He tried to pull open Konoko’s encyclopedia to investigate marine microbes but found the entries missing along with most of the encyclopedia. The Ouro A.I. had wiped it and so he was forced to remember: “Microbes on Earth have built sedimentary structures. Structures with intricate layered designs, though certainly nothing this spectacular. They are…ach, it is a long English word and I cannot recall it.”
“Stromatolites,” she bailed him out at last.
“Yes! Thank you. This would explain the sedimentary structure, the apparent lack of cities or infrastructure. The repeating shapes of the spires, growing, thickening over time to support the higher reaches. Reaching…for what? For sunlight, I suppose,” he cradled his face in one hand and started kneading his jaw.
Beatrice peered at the hovering map of the planetary surface. “That’s an awful lot of ice. You think much sunlight gets through that?”
“Several kilometers,” Karl winced. “Unlikely. That does present an interesting question: what’s fueling the growth? There must be an energy source. The local sun made sense, I agree. We cannot see the floor; perhaps they live off heat from the crust.”
“But then, why build?”
“I do not know. Unless…unless we were, as you say, to limit our assumptions. To ask bigger questions. How do we know, for example, that the spires remain under active construction?”
“We don’t. Oh, shit,” she put a hand to her mouth, placing things in a sequence. “They’re dead, aren’t they?”
“Impossible to know for certain, but yes, upon reflection I suspect they are. The star remains in a state of rapid contraction—at least in terms of geologic time.”
Her pale skin now looked ashen. “They build against the ice. While the star collapsed, the ice piled up.”
“The spires may have been a response,” he agreed. “But it wasn’t enough. It could not have been enough.”
“The whole sea’s dead. The whole world.”
“There is liquid still. The heat from the planet’s crust will sustain some of it even when the star has reached its last dwarf stage.”
“That’s so depressing. A whole world, clearly with so much potential. I mean, look at those things! And they just…ran out of time? What could they have done? Nothing, I’m sure,” she looked to Karl, who nodded dolefully. “That’s life, I guess. It’s just not fair.”
As she said it, Lorena’s voice brought intercom to squawking life. “All hands, we’re about to engage the C-H field. Mister Obo, kindly clear us for dive.”
“Are you going to ask for more time?” Bea asked.
“It’s a story worth documenting,” she protested.
“Chariot’s good to ride,” Zach Obo’s voice sounded. “Best ship?”
Karl had been watching the intercom speaker like a moving mouth but now he looked back to Beatrice. “I will make a note. We will file it for the archaeologists.”
“And it’ll never see the light of day.”
“It will not,” he agreed. “But we will know it. Maybe there will be a note revised into the Corps archives. And in any case, it will still be here. The ice can only get thicker. It seals the world in amber, keeps it safe, preserves the spires for…I cannot say what. But the story will remain until someone arrives to tell it.”
“However long that might be.”
“I am not sure it matters. If the story is good, does it matter how long it waits? Does it matter how many eyes it reaches? Certainly you would prefer more, but why should anyone define a story by a number?”
She nodded soberly. “Why, indeed? Especially in a universe this big, this old. Every circumstance will change, sooner or later. Everything’s got value so long as it clings to existence. So long as there’s someone to carry the torch.”
NEXT TUESDAY: UNDER HEAVY STEAM, KONOKO APPROACHES THE BORDER. STRESSED AND STRAINED BY THE SCHEDULE, VIVEK DOES HIS BEST TO BOND WITH MAXI LEAF. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!