by Daniel Marcus
Arun floated in the ammonia swells, one arm around the buoyant powersled, waiting. He’d blocked all his feeds and chats, public and private, and silenced his alerts. He felt deliciously alone. His ears were filled with the murmuring white noise of his own blood flow, intimate and oceanic, pulsing with his heartbeat. Metis was a bright diamond directly overhead. Athena hung just above the near, flat horizon, her rings a plaited bow spanning the purple sky. Persistent storms pocked her striated surface, appearing deceptively static from thirty kiloklicks out. Arun had negotiated the edgewalls of those storms more than once, setting up metahelium deep-mining rigs. A host of descriptive words came to mind, but “static” was not among them.
The sea undulated slowly in the low gee, about 0.6 Standard. The distant shape of a skyhook was traced out by a pearlstring of lights reaching up from the horizon and disappearing into distance haze, blinking in synchronization to suggest upwards motion. The skyhook was the only point of reference for scale. He shuddered involuntarily. His e-field distributed warmth to his body extremities from the tiny pack at the small of his back and maintained his blood oxygenation, but bobbing in the swell, alone in the vast sea, he felt cold and a little dizzy. He wanted to breathe and felt a fleeting instant of lizard-brain panic.
The current began to tug at his feet long before he saw the humped swell bowing the horizon upwards, a slight backward drift, accelerating slowly. His heart began beating faster as he clambered belly down onto the power sled. He drifted back towards the swell, slowly at first, then faster. He looked over his shoulder at the rising wall of liquid. It appeared solid, like moving metal, completely blocking the sky. He imagined he could feel wind tugging at his e-field.
Arun felt a vibration through the powersled, a vast low frequency murmur, the world-ocean getting ready to kick his ass. Just as he was about to be sucked beneath the monstrous swell, he activated the sled. He surged forward and stood as the sled began to accelerate up the face of the wave.
He felt the sled’s stabilizers groaning beneath his feet as he sought balance on the flat surface. The wave steepened, hurtling him forward. He could just make out the landmass upon which this immense wave would break. Brooklyn was the moon’s only continent, a million square klicks of frozen nothing.
He estimated his height now at half a klick, his forward speed about a hundred meters per second. A fine mist of icy, driving sleet surrounded him, melting to slush as it touched his e-field and whipped past his face. Blobs of static discharge, pale blue and luminous, flickered around him. His vertical position had stabilized about three quarters of the way up the face of the wave. The powersled’s gyros did most of the balancing work but he kept his eyes fixed on the distant, blinking skyhook lights, shifting his stance as perturbations in the flow jostled his footing. He figured he had about a minute before he had to ditch or be dashed against the shore when the wave broke. His e-field’s impact system would prevent major injury, but he’d be black and blue for a week. Worst case, a month in the tank and restoration from backup. He’d only had one full restore, several years back after his singleship’s drive went unstable, and it was disconcerting, a huge unrecoverable swath cut from his life. It was routine as an eye replacement for some people, but he didn’t like it at all.
His peripheral vision registered motion, a vast, dark shape beneath the wall of ammonia to his left. He didn’t want to take his eyes away from the skyhook lights, but he sneaked a look. Nothing — just a shimmering solid wall of liquid.
He returned his gaze forward, sought and locked on to the skyhook lights. There, again, a flicker of something huge, hovering beneath the glassy surface. He looked again and for the barest flicker of an instant he saw it, a tapered fifty meter bullet trailing a bundle of tentacles, a quartet of glassy black orbs framing the rounded front of the thing. Eyes, he was sure of it.
He lost his footing and the wave took him.
Arun rose through veiled layers of consciousness, gauzy memories caressing him with feather touches and drifting away like smoke. He was a child on Luna, outside for the first time, learning to suppress the choke reflex while the e-field oxygenated his blood. The sky was huge and black, dusted with bright, steady points. Terra was a mottled brown marble.
Pain woke him to a large pale face hanging over his like a translucent moon. The gentle silken murmur of her voice took him back under.
The next time he awoke, Ko was there. He imagined that he felt her presence before he opened his eyes — stern, concerned, an undercurrent of agitation.
His eyes felt gritty. He opened them cautiously. He was in zero gee, swaddled and tethered. He recognized the light green biowalls of the clinic at Athena Station, glowing faintly. The far wall was transparent and filtered: Athena hung mottled and beautiful, suspended in blackness, her ring system covering half the sky. Above Athena, the lacy spiderwork of docks surrounding the Metis Wormhole rotated slowly.
He was banged up, he knew that much. Gel covered half his jaw and cheek, analgesic and colony nutrient. Pain lanced up his body. He risked a glance down. His left leg ended neatly just below the knee. Beneath it, growing from the stump, a pink stub glistened with more gel.
“Wow,” he croaked.
Ko nodded without smiling.
“Wow indeed. I’d kick your ass if there was anything left to kick.”
He started to smile and regretted it instantly.
“Fuck.” It came out sounding like uch. He tried to subvocalize his credentials to a shared channel, but the aether was dead.
She nodded. “No implants yet. Your nervous system needs an absence of distraction to heal the mess you made of yourself. They wanted to restore you from backup into a noob but I wouldn’t let them.”
“Thank you.” Anch eu.
Arun closed his eyes and darkness took him again into velvet arms. As his senses fell away he saw it again, hovering effortlessly behind a shimmering wall of liquid, sleek body rippling peristaltically and buffeting slightly, its sensory nodes – eyes — huge, black, depthless.
This time, he came fully awake almost immediately. He felt acute pain in his jaw, his side, and his leg. His leg. It had grown several inches since he’d seen it last and now sported five stubby bumps that would become toes. It hurt like a bastard — a surface burning all over the new growth and a bone-deep ache coming from a phantom location several inches below it.
He tried to call out, emitting only a raspy croak.
The medic’s avatar appeared immediately, hovering in front of him, a vaguely pretty, middle-aged woman with a round face and shaved head. She was a Mind, of course; Arun recalled that she had chosen the unlikely name Wheat.
“Hello, Arun,” she said. “Welcome back.” Her voice was low and liquid.
She pointed to a tube next to his head. “Take some water.”
He took a sip and tried speaking again, a little more carefully this time.
She floated there, waiting, her broad features impassive but for a hint of amusement in her large, brown eyes.
“Any questions?” she said finally.
Arun laughed and pain flared from his jaw and burst inside his skull. He squeezed his eyes shut and saw purple blotches swimming before him.
Wheat floated closer.
“I’m sorry, Arun. I’ll try not to make you laugh.” She paused a beat. “Do you have any idea how angry Ko is?”
“I can imagine.”
“I’ll bet you can.” She glided back a bit. “Okay, inventory. You lost a leg, your liver was destroyed, you fractured your skull. Badly, it turns out. You actually lost some brain tissue. Oh, and you broke your jaw in three places. I wanted to just dump your latest snapshot into a new body but Ko wouldn’t let me.”
“Good,” he said, emphatically. “How did I lose the leg?”
“Your e-field was breached when the impact systems kicked in. Snipped your leg clean off when it restored itself. What the hell were you thinking?”
He shrugged carefully. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Do you know what a Darwin Award is?”
“You should read more cultural history. Anyway, your new liver is in place, about half-size and growing nicely. Don’t drink any alcohol for awhile. I’ve got colonies working on your fractures. If you stay out of gravity wells, your leg should be ready in a week. And if you want, I can do something about your testosterone problem.”
“No, that’s –” Suddenly, he remembered the shape.
He looked at her. “I saw something …”
She tilted her head quizzically.
“I –” He imagined her reaction. The furrowed brow. The gentle half-smile. Maybe slip him a seed colony of serotonergic neurons.
Keep it close to the chest for now, he thought. Gotta talk to Ko.
“Never mind,” he said.
She arched her eyebrows slightly.
He smiled weakly. “I’m tired.”
“You rest, then. I’ll tell Ko you’re back among the living.”
Her avatar winked out.
She reappeared, hovering in the doorframe.
“My aether implants. When?”
There was an odd flicker in her eyes, then it was gone. “Soon, Arun. I’ll tell Ko you’re up and around.”
He’d lost his diurnal sense, but he thought about two days passed before Ko showed up. He did the exercises that were assigned to him, began eating solid food — well, paste — on the second day, read and scanned from the slate Wheat brought him, and slept a lot. The pain was spiky and he had the worst of it blocked, but Wheat wouldn’t let him off the hook entirely, saying pain was part of the healing process.
He missed the aether badly, but Wheat continued to deflect his requests.
He awoke from a fitful doze to find Ko perched next to his webbing, looking at him with a slight frown.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey yourself,” she replied, and leaned over to kiss him. He could see a tension, though, in the way she carried herself.
“I’ve been here a lot, but you’ve been under most of the time.”
“I know. I remember you talking about kicking my ass.”
“Well, I have to ask. What were you thinking?”
Arun chuckled. “Wheat asked me the same thing. You really want to know?”
“I really want to know.”
“I was thinking — I mean, as far back as when we got the first imaging, the klick-high waves — I was thinking, damn, it would be really cool to surf one of those.”
She looked at him impassively for a long moment. “That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?”
“Yeah. Pretty deep, huh?”
“You realize you’ve set us back about a month. Everything’s waiting on your simulations. Not to mention everybody’s been worried sick about you. You owe a huge debt to Wheat — she hasn’t let anybody near you.”
He smiled ruefully. “Yeah, well, you know medics. I’m really sorry, Ko. I thought, the sled’s gonna keep me stabilized, and if I wipe out, no big deal.”
“No big deal.” She pushed herself back, hovered in front of him like a pissed-off Samurai angel, her dark hair floating around her head. “You know something about systems engineering, if I recall. Risks are multiplicative. You slam into solid rock at a hundred meters a second –” Ticking off her fingers. “– in a methane atmosphere, and it’s one fifty Kelvin outside. Something’s gonna go wrong.”
“It was stupid.”
He paused a beat.
“But it was really fucking cool.”
Ko almost smiled, then caught herself.
“Got you,” Arun said.
They looked at each other for a long moment.
“Ko,” he said.
“I saw something. Just before I wiped out … I saw something.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s life down there, Ko.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“It was in the wave, riding it just like me. About fifty meters long, very aerodynamic, squid-like. Cluster of tentacles at the back and a pair of stabilizer fins. Four sensory organs at the front end, bilaterally symmetric. I got a good look at it. That’s how I wiped out — I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing and I lost my footing.”
“We’ve taken samples –”
“Yeah, nothing. Far as we could tell, the ammonia ocean’s a desert — completely barren.”
“What about all the mapping?”
“We scanned to pick up huge density gradients so we could map the ocean floor. The scans wouldn’t pick up life forms.”
“You know what this means.”
“Yeah. There’s gotta be a whole biosphere down there. Maybe localized to volcanic vents on the sea floor — more trace compounds, richer organics. That’s why we never picked up anything in the samples — they were all near the surface.”
“What was your squid doing up there?”
Arun shrugged. “Maybe he got lost. Maybe he thought it was really fucking cool, too. Who knows? I’ll tell you something, though — we go through with terraforming Erichthonius and we’re wiping all that out.”
She was silent for a long moment.
“You’re sure about this. Maybe you were hemaglobin-deprived. Hallucinating.”
Arun shook his head. “No way.”
“You’re going to have to verify and validate. Tweak the density and re-do the scans. Good thinking about the vents — see if you can concentrate some resolution down there. I’ll get on the ansible to Corporate and see what they have to say.”
She looked at him long and hard and he got that feeling again, that she had something else on her mind.
Ko shrugged. “This probably isn’t a great time to tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
“There’s no way to make this easy. Periphery’s divorcing you.”
“The fuck are you talking about?” He realized instantly, though, that he’d known it all along, that they were waiting to tell him before he regrew his aether implants.
“It’s no good, Arun. You don’t need us.”
“This –” She waved her hand and began drifting across the room. She kicked off the floor and floated back to his webbing. “This adventure of yours. It’s a case in point. You shut us all out. You shut us out. And we’re supposed to be okay with that. And it’s not like that was the first time. You don’t need us.”
He thought back to the calm, centered feeing he had, a tiny speck floating in the vast ocean, dwarfed beneath Athena’s huge bulk, nothing in his ears but the sound of his own blood flow. It was a perfect moment.
“Do you feel the same way?”
She sighed. “You know I love you. I always will. But you married into a pod, not just me. And the dynamic has to be there, or at least it has to be fixable. For everybody. I mean, come on. This can’t possibly be news to you.”
He thought of them, visualized them in his mind’s eye the way he saw them in the aether. Ko’s presence tightly focused and diamond-bright. Andrew, full of contradictions, a bumbling puppy with a scorpion tail. Sara, a soft pulsing blob, golden toned and full of nurturing warmth, surrounding a secret, walled-off place that few ever saw, even her podmates. Jacob, all planes and angles, Cartesian simplicity and denial toe-to-toe, because nothing is ever really linear.
He wondered how he looked to them.
But it was always mainly Ko for him. Ko, his partner-in-crime from back in grad school. Ko, his friend, his lover, his boss. Ko, who’d brought him into Periphery and advocated tirelessly for him when things got rough. They were both so strong-willed, it was a miracle that their friendship had endured for so long. But her strength was like tempered steel, his like the green sapling that bends but does not break. It had always worked, somehow. They’d always worked, at least until Periphery.
He blinked away tears. “No. No, I guess not.”
Ko bent over to kiss his forehead.
“Rest up now,” she said. “Wheat says you’re ready to go back to work. Do the scan. Check the vents. Rokhlin back on Terra sent you some notes on the ignition model through the ansible that I want you to fold into your simulations. We’ve got some lost ground to reclaim.”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small vial. He knew without having to ask that it was the colony that would build his aether implants. Nanomachines would thread his brain with microfilament receptors, program him with communication protocols and the somatic interface. But there would be no Periphery channel, no always-on, no constant presence of other souls joined with his.
He sucked down the contents of the vial. It left a bitter, chemical taste at the back of his throat.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll ping you in a day or so.”
She kissed him again, pushed off his webbing with her foot, and floated out of the room without looking back. The door irised shut behind her.
Recipe: Earth-like planet
Gas giant (Jovian) planet – rings optional
Frozen-ass Jovian moon, nickel-iron core, 0.5 Terran mass or greater
Virtual tokamak and attendant virtual flux plumbing
Metahelium, as needed, for power
H2O and CO2 ice
Photosynthetic nanomachine colonies
Spaceships ‘n’ stuff
1) Scoop hydrogen from the Jovian’s atmosphere and contain it with a virtual tokamak. The field generators should be at the L4 and L5 Lagrange points of the system you are about to create. L3 is a good spot for the hydrogen scoop. The Lagrange potential wells will shift and deepen as mass accretes, and their position will stabilize by the time your pocket sun becomes operational.
2) Compress the hydrogen until it ignites.
3) Adjust the hydrogen flux from the Jovian and your new sun’s distance from the moon until Terran temperature ranges are achieved.
4) Wait for ammonia oceans, methane ice, and other really cold stuff to boil away.
5) Drop 1020 kilos of H2O and CO2 ice down the moon’s gravity well. Don’t worry about exact measurements here. The resulting seismic and volcanic activity should shake loose a bunch of nitrogen as well. You’re going to want that later!
6) Season liberally with photosynthetic nanomachines
7) Go do something else — this may take awhile!
Arun floated alone in the Simulacrum. The animation was looped; the repetition was meditation for him. Slender filaments of luminous gas spiraling from Athena and converging to a bright fuzzy cloud near Erichthonius. The cloud condensing, collapsing, brightening until it ignites in a blaze of white light that dwarfs Athena, dwarfs Metis. Cheesy inspirational orchestral music swelling, rising. Slow zoom to the moon’s storm-wracked surface now, ammonia oceans boiling, churning. Pull back through the roiling atmosphere, past the pocket baby sun, to a stately swarm of icy asteroids sliding inexorably down the moon’s gravity well. The impact explosions are visible from a hundred kiloklicks out, violently transforming their kinetic energy into great gouts of flame and superheated steam. The music is staccato now, pounding and elemental. Cut to: Silence, and a lone cylinder spinning end over end in space, corporate logo plainly visible, heading towards the battered moon. The cylinder dwindles, disappears from view. There is a very long pause, and just when you think there’s something wrong with the feed, Erichtonius’s grey, marbled surface explodes in vibrant blue, green, and white. Fade to black. Pause. Then the loop begins again and we fade in to Athena pinned to the void, slender filaments of luminous gas spiraling out from her banded surface …
It was complete bullshit, of course. Marketecture. An animated ducky-horsey diagram for the shareholders. The real work lay in the physics models. That was Arun’s comfort zone, his sweet spot, the arcane worlds of ignition thresholds, phase maps, stability analyses. But he loved the Simulacrum. It reminded him of what he was doing. It helped him define himself.
His pain was down to a dull ache where the new liver was coming in. He still had some difficulty with solid food, and his new leg wasn’t quite grown, although it was strong enough to help with maneuvering in zero gee.
He was healing and he was broken. He saw Ko a couple of times and it was cordial, professional. He missed Periphery badly, but not as badly as he feared he might. He stayed to the public and info channels on the aether and defaulted everything else to autoreply. Sara came in from the nearly operational L4 field generator to see him and spent the night. It was bittersweet, a mercy fuck, and they both knew it, but they played it out, she the healer and he the wounded, and it was all right. He saw her off at the docking platform. As he watched her singleship recede to a point and vanish in the starry void, he wondered if he would never see her again.
Athena Station was basically a small town and everybody knew everybody else’s business. People he passed in the corridors were painfully kind and eventually he stopped going out. He worked eighteen hour days, stopping only to eat, bathe, and sleep. Burning the candle at both ends, but he figured candles were made that way for a reason.
“Are we ready?” Ko asked.
They were perched in webbing near the top of the lounge, a hemispherical room capped with a transparent e-field so it appeared open to space. Singleships and utility barges floated overhead on various errands. Metis was behind Athena and her shadowy bulk hung directly overhead. They sipped station-brewed beer from bulbs and nibbled sticks of salted jicama flavored with lime. The place was about half-full. Arun saw several people look in their direction, then look away.
“The models check out. We can start the L3 scoop any time, but I don’t see how –”
“First things first, Arun. The ignition models. We don’t want another Titan.”
“No shit,” he said. “Ko, the models are solid and it works in the lab. We induce a bit of excitation in the injection stream, a little energy radiates away, and we inhibit pre-ignition. It’ll work, no doubt about that. And we’ll be able to control it. But –”
She held her hand up.
“I know, your squid. What have you got?”
He tapped his slate and pulled up a graphic.
“You can see the points cluster near the bottom, following the vents. They’re moving, too, independent of current drift.”
He tapped the slate twice. “You pull back and you can see a few loners here and there, like my guy. But they mostly hang together.”
He looked at her. “They’re social animals, Ko.”
He waited for a response, but she wasn’t giving him anything.
“And you’re not gonna fucking believe this.”
He tapped an icon on the screen.
There was a high-pitched ratcheting sound, followed by a series of low clicks and whistles, then a long sustained tone that modulated slowly into two separate voices. Another voice joined in, weaving harmonies and polyrhythms in with the first. It went on like that for nearly ten minutes, some parts repeating, then branching off into new patterns, then returning to an earlier motif.
Arun watched Ko as they listened. She wouldn’t meet his eyes.
Finally, she held up her hand. “Okay, I get it. Whalesong. Like the humpbacks. Fine.”
She closed her eyes and stroked her forehead, her other hand still held aloft, palm out, as if warding him off.
She didn’t seem to hear him.
“Ko,” he repeated.
Finally, she looked up.
“How long have you known?” he asked.
She sighed. “Just after your accident. I told the Board about your close encounter and they weren’t at all surprised – said they’ve known there was some kind of biosphere here since just about Day One. Nothing like this, though.”
She nodded toward the slate. The recording had looped back to the beginning and the haunting tapestry of sound was building again.
She shook her head. “But it doesn’t matter.”
“What do you mean?”
“Please don’t get stupid on me, Arun. What do you think I mean? What are we gonna do – pack up our toys and go home? This can’t be stopped. There’s too much riding on it.”
“Ko, this is it. First contact. Our first intelligent extees. How we handle this will define who we are as a species from this point on. And we’re gonna wipe them out because we need the real estate?”
She nodded, biting her lip. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but yeah – pretty much.”
They looked at each other for a long time.
“Well, shit,” he said, finally. “I always knew you were management material, but you’ve really surpassed my expectations.”
“Are you done? I’m sorry about your squid, I really am, but we’ve got a lot of work to do and I need to know if I can count on you.”
Her face was hard and set, her eyes unreadable. He had a snapshot memory of her, back in grad school, shortly after they became lovers. They were sitting in a café in Barsoom, a few years before the dome collapsed. Olympus Mons filled the sky behind her. He’d fallen in love with her for her fierce intelligence, but in that moment she was open, vulnerable, and warm and he remembered a small shock of wonder that here was a side of her that he had never seen.
Now, again, he was seeing a new aspect of her. The calculating technocrat in full flower, proxy for the Corporate intent. He wondered if he’d ever really known her.
A barge bristling with grappling cranes floated slowly overhead, so close he felt he could have reached out and touched it.
“Yeah, Ko,” he said. “You can count on me.”
Arun logged a lot of singleship hours, traveling between the field generators at what would be L4 and L5 of the new system, the hydrogen scoop at L3, the receiving docks at Metis Wormhole, and Athena Station, making final preparations. He did not see Sara during his visit to the L4 facility, which was just as well.
He relished the solitude of transit. He liked to clear the hull; he was ensconced within the immensity of space. He emptied his mind of thought and felt something close to peace.
Other times, drifting between stations, he would play the animation. The new system formed around him: the slow accretion, the bright moment of ignition, chaos, destruction, rebirth. It reminded him of what he was doing. It reaffirmed who he was.
Finally, everything was ready. Arun took a singleship one last time down to the moon’s world-ocean, slipped into the ammonia swells and clambered aboard his powersled.
There was very little haze. Athena was huge and bright, her surface busy and florid, her rings a bridge to Heaven. Metis was a painfully bright spark pinned to the purple bowl of the sky.
It was time.
He opened a broadcast channel and began to speak.
“This is Arun Dhillon. I alone am responsible for what I am about to tell you. There is a breach in the metahelium containment field at the Metis Wormhole. In approximately ten hours it will completely rupture, resulting in a five Gigaton thermonuclear explosion that will collapse the singularity, preventing all subsequent travel to and from the Metis system. The event will also destroy Athena Station and the Lagrange facilities.
“There is plenty of time for all staff and their families to evacuate through the Metis Wormhole if you mobilize immediately. I pray that you do and I thank each and all of you for the privilege of working with you these last few years.
“Good bye and good luck.”
He shut down all his feeds and sent a home directive to his singleship. It would dock itself just in time to be vaporized.
The ocean rocked him and he felt no pain, no regrets. He dozed off and was awakened by a gentle but perceptible swell. He looked down. He couldn’t see more than a few meters, but imagined, far below, a huge shape gliding through the shadowy depths. He waited, hoping it would return, but it did not.
Exhaustion overtook him and he slept again, more deeply this time. He dreamt he was in the Simulacrum, whorls of gas surrounding him, converging, condensing, collapsing, and he awoke to brightness, the actinic glare of a new sun swelling in the sky. It outshone Metis, outshone Athena, bathing the undulating ocean in white radiance. Then it softened and attenuated, collapsing back through the spectrum to a dull red glow.
About the Author
Daniel Marcus has published stories in many literary and genre venues, including Witness,Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, ZYZZYVA, and Fantasy and Science Fiction. Some of these have been collected in Binding Energy. He is the author of the novels: Burn Rate and A Crack In Everything. Daniel was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He has taught in the creative writing program at U.C. Berkeley Extension and is currently a member of the online faculty at Gotham Writers’ Workshop. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop. After a spectacularly unsuccessful career attempt as a saxophonist, Daniel earned a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from U.C. Berkeley, has worked as an applied mathematician at the Lawrence Livermore Lab, the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, and Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, and has authored numerous articles in the applied mathematics and computational physics literature. Daniel then turned his attention to the private sector, where for the last 15 years, he has built and managed systems and software in a variety of problem domains and organizational settings.
About the Narrator
Mr. Lee is a person that exists.