by Jennifer R. Povey | 2,389 words
Shayna finished pulling on her outer suit. As it synced with the nanomachines in her blood and nervous system, she felt the suit become a part of herself. Felt the air against it, where soon there would be only vacuum.
She could not believe she was really going out there. Mike was still fiddling with his hood and she could see Clayton adjusting his gloves carefully.
Two men, one woman, three humans to be first on the new world. They were going to let her go first, just for the sake of history. Or for the sake of proving that humanity was not prejudiced against females any more. More for that, she thought, as if it needed to be proved.
Maybe it did. All she knew was that she was going to get to take advantage of their feelings, of their prejudices. Of the ancient gender wars of the past. Men and women, so dimorphic they were almost two separate species. The battle between ignoring that and respecting it.
Outside was a world with no sun. No sun, but the possibility of strange life, more alien than any yet encountered.
Alien life and danger.
“I’m ready,” Clayton said through the radio, although to her enhanced senses it seemed to come from his helmet, from where he stood. For a moment, she forgot the suit wrapped around her, then remembered as the airlock opened on darkness lit only by their suit lights.
She stood on a dark plain. Beneath her feet ice crunched, little pieces of it flying upwards before settling. All that was above her were stars. Stars upon stars, with no true gaps between them that were not filled with more stars. No atmosphere to make them twinkle.
Stars upon stars. Even on the moon, they were not like this. “We might be the only living things in the universe.”
“Or, at least,” said Clayton, practical, “within a very long distance.
“I don’t agree.” Mike was the first to step away from the group. “Given all the other places we’ve found life, why not here?”
Shayna had a long list of reasons , lack of energy being top of the list. They had needed to bring everything with them and recycle as much as possible. Even an inversion drive had taken three weeks to get out here. This was a planet with no sun, a duckling with no mother to follow.
They could not stay here long. She shook her head, almost feeling the pulse of energy flow into the suit, powered by her own motion, powered by the elevated beat of her heart. She tried to slow it down, but it did not want to listen to conscious thought. “Let’s get our experiments done.”
They had quite a few. “I’ll plant the beacon.”
It would not last forever, not here, but for a while the rogue would be easy to find. “Okay.”
No flag. The claim had already been made, of course, if this world had any valuable minerals. Shayna shook her head. Nobody would bother unless it was something really important. Gravity wells cost too much to deal with, even not allowing for the distance.
Cost too much and besides, the true spacers hated them. None of these three were true spacers, adapted to microgravity, bound to the void between the stars. Shayna had been recruited from Earth. She knew she might never return and that suited her fine.
Almost as tiny as dust motes, the sensors fell from her hands, falling to the snow beneath her feet. Or like insects. Bugs. For however long they lasted, they would record their data, study the composition of the ice and snow, study any minuscule traces of atmosphere the rogue might have, observe the stars above.
Through the snow, a rumble ran, and then the ground seemed to liquify, a wave passing through it that shook her to her bones. What the hell? There should be no tectonic activity on this world, with no tidal forces, and no heat. Surely no more internal heat, not after eons without a sun. This was a dead world, and there should be no motion, no sound as of a distant train.
“There’s nothing to fall on us,” she pointed out. That was Mike, of course. He would be the one to worry, the one to be protective of the girl on the team. Oddly, he was also the one who was gay.
Or maybe not so oddly. Every girl needed…
Just as she thought that, a second wave flowed through the ground, throwing her from her feet, through the airless sky and to the ground. She remembered how to fall safely, tucking her hands in, but she elected not to get up right away.
Hitting the ground with a thud, the implant feedback was suddenly rather less than desirable. No hiss of escaping air, though, no damage to worry about. None to the suit, anyway. She felt a bruise starting to form on her shoulder where she had struck the not-so-soft snow. Staying down seemed wise.
“It’s not a planet-quake,” Clayton reported. “I think the heat from the lander is melting the snow and there’s something frozen under it.”
Her breath caught. A thin layer of snow on rock, that was what they should have found, not snow on ice on snow. “Could it be…” Water? Hardly likely. As cold as this place was, it would be something normally a gas. It was so cold that the snow under the ground could be oxygen, hydrogen, anything that…
It could be… “Volatiles. Back to the lander!” She scrambled to her feet to take her own advice.
As she did so, the ground exploded beneath her, throwing her upwards even as she saw parts of it fall away. She landed hard, and her breath came uncertain for a moment, with only the strongest of efforts filling her lungs. Feedback told her that her suit’s self-repair facilities were active, manifesting as a tingling pain across her back and left thigh.
Large quantities of volatiles here had not been predicted. They had assumed a Mars-like rockball, with maybe a bit of comet ice or snow, snow that had crunched under their feet. Not a sleeping world their touch might violently awaken.
A sleeping world. That was what it was. A sleeping dragon. Mist flowed around her, swirling between her and the lander, which tilted in an odd angle. She ran for it nonetheless, feeling the ice under her feet crack further, threatening to plunge everything on the surface into a chasm. If it tipped all the way over it might be hard to leave. Hard to escape.
Volatiles could mean life, but if anything had ever lived here, it could not have survived.
A shape in the mist. Mike. She held a hand out to him, to beckon him towards the lander. Then his voice registered on ears shaken by her fall.
“Clayton!” he screamed repeatedly, and she saw Clayton vanishing into the sinking ground.
“We don’t lift now, we never will, Mike.” They could possibly come back to him with prep. The suit could keep him alive for a few hours no matter what, even if it had been breached. They had to go. She pulled Mike into the lander and shut the door.
He turned to stare at her as she demanded that the AI lift. Even the lander seemed to hesitate.
“You know he won’t make it.”
“We’ll go back for him.” She made that promise without a thought. You do not leave a friend. But she was not sure they could go back. Guilt washed over her, despite reason telling her she could not have predicted this. It was too late now, the roiling surface beneath them closing over his head, swallowing him. She tugged off her helmet, letting the air inside the lander flow into her lungs, not wanting to think about what she looked like. Glad there was no reflective surface in which she might glimpse her face, her hair.
The air smelled oddly stale, less perfectly balanced to her than the suit air. The implants could send those signals to the lander, but if the AI tried to balance for all three of them, the compromise would be no better than what they had, no more refined.
“We probably have four hours to get him out. Suggestions?”
“Well, we can detect the signals from his implants at this range. Hard to believe they once maxed out at thirty feet.”
Honestly! A historical anecdote at a time like this, and her hand lifted, fingers twitching. “Focus! And how far under the surface is he?”
“Only about ten feet, but if any heat…”
She let out a breath. “I get the picture. Even robots are likely to make the situation worse. So. We can’t leave him there…we certainly can’t land again. The next expedition will have to be equipped differently.”
They would need to keep everything cold, now they knew. If there was a next expedition. “Damn the planet, anyway.”
“I hate to say it, but I think we actually landed on the atmosphere.”
Shayna shuddered a little. “Then we blame whoever did the math determining it wouldn’t have one. Okay. You know what. Let’s go old school. Assuming he’s still alive down there, can we throw him a line? His implants allow accurate detection.”
“The line would…”
“Possibly froth the stuff around it some, but that might just make a nice hole to pull him out through. But if he can’t grab it, somebody will have to go down on it and tie him on.” She knew who that somebody would be…the smaller and lighter member of the team. There had been a time when women had been protected. Now, they were often sent into danger first. Most of the time, it made more sense, in a world where most children were gestated by machines. “I’ll go down. If it’s just me, and the line, there shouldn’t be another explosion. I think the lander’s exhaust did it.”
Mike looked at her and slowly nodded.
“Even if he’s dead, you’re right. We can’t leave him here.” She had never wanted to, anyway. Not unless they had no other choice. Now? They had to at least make the attempt, even if they were already dealing with recovery not rescue. She did not want to go back down there, especially with only her suit to protect her. Part of her thought she should not take the risk, but… Her idea was a good one, a solid one. It might work.
On the other hand, Clayton might well be gone. With two of the three humans lost, only Mike would be left to make the several week trip back to civilization. She could not do that either. Torn, she stood there for a moment, her helmet in her hands. “What do I do?”
She did what was necessary and pulled the helmet back over her head.
How had a little bit of warmth from the lander caused that much sublimation? This thought bothered Shayna throughout her descent. She dropped into a mist that was not quite atmosphere.
The dimensions were about right for an Earth-like planet plus an Earth thickness atmosphere. The math had indicated a large rockball. It indicated that was all the planet could be. The surface albedo…but that snow had been dirty, dusty. Space dust. Did the planet once host inhabitants? What happened to them? Did they die slowly as their planet drifted away from its sun? Or did whatever impact that had knocked it from the system kill them before that could happen?
She knew what fate she would prefer. “Clayton,” she tried over the radio. The only answer was a faint moan that she might have imagined.
It could have been wishful thinking and false hope, just as easily as anything real. There was always plenty of false hope. False hope had almost cost them Earth as a habitable planet. Yet, they had saved the situation and she would save Clayton.
The mist around her, though. She hesitated, then stopped for a fraction of a second to take a sample. Clayton would have done the same thing, she told herself. The sample would salvage it from being a wasted trip. Would tell them what this world once was or might have been.
There were always might-have-beens. The mist was solidifying somewhat around her. “Clayton.”
His voice did not matter, though. She set her implants to home in on his, to give her the old ‘warm/cold’ setting, the children’s game that had once been played only with words. So she would feel his presence, feel his location, sliding down the line, into the dark cave, into the frothing stuff that might have once been air. No, that had once been air. She was sure now, and her implants slowly warmed to her senses.
He was there. She wrapped her arms around his silent form. She tugged the line once, a primitive signal more reliable than any radio or implant signal, signaling that Mike should pull them both out of there. Feeling it pull her up, away. Where they hit the wall, the heat from their suit melted it further, making rivulets of liquid as deeply cold as space itself.
Much later, the world rested beneath the ship and Clayton rested in the infirmary, barely conscious. Nobody suggested going back down. Nobody thought about it even for a moment.
But Shayna stared at the samples she had found. Unmistakable organic chemistry. Not life, but a chance of life. Or, perhaps, the memory of life.
Just as there was the memory of the vibrant world Earth had been. They had saved it, but lost so much of what had been. The memory of life, and the memories she carried with her.
She would come out again. She would come back to this world that had so nearly claimed a man she called a friend. There was nothing else she could do.
This had been a living world, and now it was a shadow. A shadow and a promise, and a dream that came into her mind as she stared at the screen. The potential of the sleeping world, and she wondered. What would it take to move a planet?
— — — — —
© 2012 Jennifer R. Povey
— — — — —
Jennifer R. Povey is in her late thirties, and lives in Northern Virginia with her husband. She writes a variety of speculative fiction, whilst following current affairs and occasionally indulging in horse riding and role playing games. She has sold fiction to a number of markets including Analog, Digital Science Fiction, and Cosmos. Her first novel will be published by Musa Publishing in 2013.