An unexpected encounter with a mysterious life form turns a simple trip to Mercury into a historic event. Both for ship Captain Victory Citrus and human civilisation as we know it.
Slingshot #01: Luna
Song Stuck in My Head: “I’ve got N2 on My Mind” (to the tune of “Friday on My Mind”)
Cosmic rays buggered up my right arm just after we took the mission.
That is, some stupid high-energy proton started up an osteosarc in my ulna, which is a new one for me. Last cancer I got was lympho, in my lung. Which was annoying, because you can’t isolate and freeze a lung and keep working.
Lung isolation means a stupid induced coma while the new cells grow and Printer Two compiles a clean, connective tissue scaffold. It means sitting still for six weeks after the graft, somewhere with one-third G or more, waiting for it to take.
It means someone else gets the good jobs. Steals your promotion.
I’m not bitter. Who can blame protons? They do what they do. Planet-bounds call us bobble-heads, because of the thick shielding on our helmets. One thing we can’t replace are our brains. But high-mass, high-density helmets don’t weigh anything up here. We take them off when we land, and the smart suits hold our spongy skeletons upright until the dirt jobs are done.
Anyway, dealing with the osteosarc means there might be a slight problem with the nitrogen supply. I might have lied to EleAlloc Admin about that. You can’t get a job landing on Mercury’s Brimstone Plains if you don’t have a lot of nitrogen for your manoeuvring thrusters.
And I mean a lot.
Mercury’s a quick little bastard.
I’ll be quick getting there, on account of the sun sucking Whaleshark in, together with my plotted slingshots—faster than those job-stealing others—but getting out again? Against that pull?
Time also matters because, to stop the osteosarc from metastasising, I’ve had to tell my smart suit to freeze my whole right arm. That’ll use liquid nitrogen, and keep on using it, for six months, while the new arm grows. It will take four months for Whaleshark just to get to Gog’s Gorge.
If I let it thaw out before that, and I haven’t got to someplace with gravity for the graft, the whole dead limb’s gonna kill me with gangrene even faster than the cancer would’ve. So I really can’t run out of nitrogen. And I can’t lose time stopping to refill, or Jihad Dib’s going to have me deregistered for failing to complete my end of the mission.
He’s got the easy job. Mars just sits there like a big old bullseye, doesn’t it?
Also, if I stop, they’ll know I fixed the Whaleshark’s specs to get the job in the first place.
At least an arm is not a lung. At least I can keep on working.
Just have to sort out this tiny matter of Mars North getting half a million tonnes of uranium deliveries that were supposed to go to Mars South.
Surely it won’t take long.
Slingshot #02: Venus
Song Stuck in My Head: “Hot Fun in the Summertime”
Mercury surface temps sit roughly between 100 K and 700 K.
So, even though Whaleshark’s landing site, Gog’s Gorge, is in an eternally dark crater at the North Pole, I’m still checking and rechecking the suits like an Earth squirrel checking walnut hoards.
As if the solar wind hitting the naked planet wasn’t terrifying enough, we’ve got the natural radioactivity of the crust and random, unexplained electron bursts to worry about.
If people could just get along, share resources and not slap sanctions on each other, mining Mercury wouldn’t be remotely profitable.
But we can’t, so Mercury Solar Co moved in. Mercury’s proximity to solar heat means free smelting forever, and the weird concentrations of useful material in the crust mean that relatively low-cost, automated mass drivers in Gog’s Gorge can shoot uranium from the Brimstone Plains, dug up by the kilometres-long MINE-Z mining and transport system, back to the mine owners on Mars South. The launch windows are tight, and they have to pop correctional thrusters on to counter solar flares, but it’s worked, until now.
The fact that, over the past quarter, the payloads have been consistently landing, a fraction of a rotation too late, at Mars North, could mean the software has accumulated error, or failed, or been sabotaged, at the Mercury end.
It could mean mechanical wear of the mass driver, or maintenance failure.
There could be humans on the Brimstone Plains, or robots, that aren’t supposed to be there.
Or, there could be some unknown planetary explanation, since we don’t really understand Mercury’s core, its tectonics, or its magnetic field yet—only what we absolutely need to know to get uranium off it.
Because when it comes to keeping the solar system connected, solar-electric is reliable but slow. Hydrogen is adequate. Only nuclear propulsion is quick enough in an emergency.
Like, when you’re low on nitrogen and your dead arm’s starting to thaw.
That kind of emergency.
Anyway, Captain Jihad in the Penetrator is going to Mars, to find out if the problem is at their end, and my Whaleshark is going to Mercury to see if the problem’s at the mass driver or MINE-Z end.
Look, the nitrogen thing’s not really an emergency.
I’ll totally be home in time to swap out my arm.
It’s just that I’ve got a reputation to protect, you know?
Not many North Martians make it into space.
I won an astronaut’s apprenticeship in a lottery my parents entered me in before I was born.
Don’t really remember them. Bots raised me in a creche. The bots came cheap, secondhand, from an Earth retirement village, and asked questions like, Are your bowel movements within normal parameters? Does the fleeting beauty of the blossoms make you ache with bittersweet memories? Your cortisol levels are high, do you feel you have failed your family members?
One of those was semi-appropriate for toddlers, I guess?
My personal bot had previously cared for someone with very specific music tastes, which is how I got acquainted with Earth sounds of the 1960s.
According to my EleAlloc service record, my worst hangover from being raised by bots is that I get squicked out by the sight of human eyeballs moving in their sockets.
I mean, anyone could get squicked out by that, right?
When I have to do my self-health-checks, and see my own reflected eyeballs moving, it makes me shout, “NO!”
Without fail. Every time. And I’m twenty-three years old, so I shouldn’t be shouting at myself in the mirror. I can’t help it. Eyeballs are so gross.
On the other hand, whenever I finish a mission, I allow myself to eat one of the North Mars lemons I’ve got stashed in Whaleshark’s water shielding.
There’s nothing like a seedless lemon so sweet and juicy you can eat it like an orange. Nothing beats ripping it open, slipping it under your huge bobble-head helmet, and sinking your teeth through the segment into the white pith.
Afterwards, the essential oils burn your lips at the mucocutaneous junctions for five minutes or so. That refreshing moustache of tingling citrus fire makes me shout, “YES!”
That’s why, when I completed my apprenticeship, I named myself Victory Citrus.
I bought the Whaleshark with the proceeds of a particle capture mission in the radiation belt that gave me two bouts of leukaemia.
Jihad Dib, distinguished service record two centuries long, can eat my nitrogen exhaust.
No stinking ulnar osteosarcoma is going to stop me from landing in Gog’s Gorge.
Mercury, First Pass
Song Stuck in My Head: “I Get Around”
“I checked the nitrogen tanks,” Naamla tells me, “and the manual reading doesn’t match the auto reading. What have you done?”
Naamla, my apprentice, was raised by wolves.
“That’s not as funny as you think it is,” she says, tapping the screen where the lines of my thought-journal scroll, in real time, across the smallest of Whaleshark’s monitors.
When new people are recruited to EleAlloc, they keep their family names. Naamla’s means Wolf. Newbies’ supervisors, the ship’s Captains, then give them a use-name for the duration of their apprenticeship, after which they name themselves.
Like me, naming myself Victory.
I chose Naamla’s name after she suggested I stop yelling YES and NO all the time.
Naamla’s background is Arabic.
YES and NO in Arabic are NAAM and LA.
Keep forgetting I have an apprentice. Been a while since I set anything to private, and I might have forgotten how. Important things, I never forget, but if I’m going to be around a few centuries, I don’t want to be clogging the memory centres with software commands that will eventually be obsolete.
So I grab a roll of black PVC duct tape and put a few layers over the smallest screen. It’s hard to tell what Naamla’s thinking because courteously she keeps her dark visor down, hiding her eyeballs in my presence, to try to minimise my shouting.
She helps me with the tape, though, which is tough to tear one-handed.
“Haven’t done anything,” I tell her evenly when the screen’s covered. “Been meaning to swap out that faulty sensor. Half the tank’s tucked under Printer Two, so the volume’s actually double what the sensor says. The pressure’s right but the mass reads wrong. We have five hundred thousand litres, not two hundred and fifty thousand.”
Liquid nitrogen weighs 1782 grams per litre on Earth, 677 grams per litre on Mercury, and just about nothing in transit. We need so much because mechanical refrigeration is way too slow to work in Mercury day time, and doesn’t have the capacity to drop us down several hundred K, anyway. To keep our smart suits at a comfortable twenty Celsius on a two hundred Celsius day, a hundred grams per person per minute is only a fraction of the 6000 L/min that Whaleshark will need, not only to cool the 12 MW reactor but to keep our living space liveable and my new arm, two-thirds grown, viable. Capturing and refreezing nitrogen while on-planet requires a module I sold back on Luna to buy a brand-new Printer Two.
If I wasn’t lying about the tank sensor, five hundred thousand litres would mean we could spend an hour or more on Mercury’s surface. That’s if we had to leave the relative safety of the mass drivers at Gog’s Gorge and check on the surface-exposed mining rig.
Since I am lying, we can actually afford to spend thirty minutes or less examining a twelve-kilometre-long machine.
It’s fine. It’s all fine. The problem will be with the mass drivers.
“If you say so,” Naamla says dubiously. “Five hundred thousand it is.”
She’s not very wolflike, and she’s not very much younger than me. Nineteen Earth years old, she has the patience of a Mars cactus waiting for rain. It’s lucky I’m not patient, or I probably wouldn’t be so quick at doing equations in my head.
Or rushing off, undersupplied, to do dangerous missions with sweet, sweet paydays.
I ignore the odd sensation, inside my smart suit, of liquid nitrogen boiling at the junction of my numb limb and sensitive shoulder where the heating element maintains the body temperature border. The nitrogen gas, six times the volume of nitrogen liquid, gets vented through a hose. While we’re in a freezing vacuum, the gas can easily be recondensed by the ship.
Just got to keep my suit on and my hose connected, to avoid either asphyxiating or over-pressurising the cabin.
Both would be bad ways to end.
“How’s the Mars mission going, then?” I ask.
Because Wolf, in Arabic, is Dib.
Naamla was raised by my worst enemy.
I hate Naamla’s dad because his motto is that a young brain’s a dumb brain. He’s two hundred. His parts have been replaced more often than the diamonds on MINE-Z’s drill. That could have something to do with why Naamla’s with me.
Also, the fact I’m from Mars North. In case I’m in on some conspiracy, I have to have a spy from Mars South, and vice versa. Not sure who Jihad Dib’s apprentice is, but they’d better strap themselves in for that boring-a-thon, reviewing video footage and interviewing retrieval crews.
“They haven’t found anything yet,” Naamla says.
Naamla’s thought-journal feed goes straight to Jihad Dib, and his goes to her. So there’s very little privacy around here, duct tape or no duct tape.
“Damn straight,” I say, grinning.
“Neither have we,” Naamla points out, her visor turned in the direction of Mercury, a bright, distant spot out the window.
“I bet it’s one of the mass driver’s pressure sensors,” I say.
I’m an expert at fixing those.
Mercury, Second Pass
Song Stuck in My Head: “The Loco-Motion”
Time crawls when you’re one step ahead of the competition.
Finally, we arrive.
The ship clocks some electron bursts. I don’t pay much attention. The absence of atmosphere forces Whaleshark to mechanically angle panels and thrust, coordinating solar radiation pressure with an alarming loss of nitrogen. I’m monitoring our drop into stable orbit when I’m interrupted by my apprentice.
“There’s an anomaly,” Naamla says. “A gas plume over the Brimstone Plains. Massive, more like something you’d see on Enceladus. It correlates with MINE-Z’s active face, and isn’t far from the refineries.”
I look from my screens to her dark visor.
“Seems unlikely the problem’s at the Gorge, then,” I say. My heart can’t sink in low-G, but it wants to.
“Seems unlikely,” Naamla agrees.
“Who saw it first?” I have to ask. “Us, in orbit, or Jihad Dib, all the way from Mars?”
“Our approach was on the night side,” Naamla says, pointing out the obvious.
In other words, the dirty, rotten enemy noticed it first.
I grit my teeth.
It doesn’t matter if that dinosaur saw it first. I’m here, and he’s not.
Leaving Whaleshark to manage insertion on its algorithmic lonesome, I flick over to the visual map, and there it is. Some evaporating liquid escaping through dense, volcanic crust that’s supposed to be something like twenty-five kilometres thick, when MINE-Z doesn’t dig more than ten kilometres down.
“Mercury sprung a leak,” I say, hardly daring to hope it’s something useful. I’ve still got the capture equipment from the last mission. Seen better days but it still works.
I flick to the readout from our spectrometer, and my nostrils flare involuntarily.
“Hydrogen sulfide,” Naamla murmurs. “If Mercury had an oxygen atmosphere, that plume would be on fire.”
Yeah, and then it would turn into sulfuric acid.
The plume looks like a cartoon.
Of the Solar System’s biggest fart.
I kind of wish my thought-journal was uncovered, so Naamla could get the fart joke. Even she would find that funny. Whaleshark tries to tell me about the electron bursts again, but I ignore them. The visual camera tracks the yellow rock of the plain and the toothed belt of the active face of the rig as our orbit takes us closer to the plume. MINE-Z doesn’t appear to be damaged by the flow of hydrogen sulfide. Naamla starts fiddling with the array software to get better resolution.
My smile fades under my helmet. I have to cancel the approach to Gog’s Gorge with my left hand, while my highly protected brain decides whether we should pull out while we still can.
The problem is with the rig, after all.
On Mercury’s killer surface.
Suppose we went down to MINE-Z’s active face at night. The crawling terminator wouldn’t cross the Brimstone Plains for another month. Poor visibility could lead to a crash. If it didn’t, we’d use so much fuel that we’d have to make our return journey to Mars on pure solar.
I could fire the emergency sails. Mercury gets more than six times the solar flux of Earth. But the transit time would be years instead of months. I’d have to amputate my arm without getting the graft, the nerve ends would be shot, and I might never be able to use it again.
Plus there’s the increased chance of me or Naamla getting another cancer along the way. Ten thousand rads per Earth year is a lot. That’s on top of whatever we get dosed with on the planet. Which would also be a lot, smart suits or not. I wouldn’t want to subject a microchip to that, much less a human body, and though we’d have the coolant to contain multiple cancers, and Whaleshark can navigate without us, we might not have the spare fuel to fire up Printer Two.
A night approach is out.
“Mars Team instructs us to stay in orbit and wait for reinforcements,” Naamla reports. “EleAlloc is in agreement. Penetrator is being refuelled and dispatched.”
I barely hear her.
Suppose we landed in the daytime. Some of our nitrogen could be recaptured but not most. The volume would be too great. We’d use up pretty much all our coolant getting down to the Brimstone Plains and back again safely on a Mars trajectory. But it would be quick. The cancer risk would be reduced. We wouldn’t run out of fuel. I might not have to sacrifice my arm.
No margin for error, though, and we’d still have only thirty minutes to figure out what went wrong, and to potentially repair it.
How can you repair a hole ten kilometres deep?
“Something else is happening,” I say. South of the plume’s source, there are cracks widening in the crust. It’s a disaster. A second plume is going to start up, and I’m going to have to waste all our gas just avoiding the debris. Tapping on the screen to take measurements, the site of imminent explosion turns out to be seventy kilometres away from MINE-Z, and although the survey map shows the crust is supposedly twenty-eight kilometres deep there, the new reading suggests it’s actually only ten.
How is it so much thinner, and denser, than we thought? It’s as if some deliberate process is at play at that particular spot. It can’t be an accident. Shouldn’t someone have investigated the unlikely richness of the ore at the site?
Also, what’s underneath the crust is a layer of liquid reading exactly 200 K, everywhere, from the centre of the cracked area to the margins. The ship’s quick enough to sneak a scan into the millisecond before the sun starts boiling it off into a second, smaller plume.
“That’s where it’s coming from,” Naamla observes. “There’s an ocean of liquid hydrogen sulfide underneath the Brimstone Plains. Most likely solid under even higher pressures, down at the sea floor.”
Liquid hydrogen sulfide.
I reach over and peel back the duct tape, just the bottom part of the screen, so that Naamla can see the words FART OCEAN.
“I’m rolling my eyes,” Naamla says, which is disgusting.
Whaleshark insists I pay attention to the electron bursts, now, and I do.
Because they’re not random, after all.
The ship’s pinpointed their origin. It’s subsurface, a hundred kilometres deep to the Brimstone Plains’ first, biggest, and most dangerous plume.
And the pattern of them is no accident.
One second on, three seconds off. Then one second on again. Pulsing purposefully between the silences. Two of them. Then three.
Five, eight, thirteen, twenty-one.
Then starting all over again.
“It’s the F—” I start to say.
“I know,” Naamla says.
“There must be intelligent li—”
I try to cover up the screen again, but I’ve ruined the adhesiveness of the tape and there’s no time to get more.
“Naamla. Look at me, not the screen. Something is trying to communicate with us from underneath the Fart Ocean. If we reply our signals will have to penetrate ridiculously deep, and it’s not like I carry a particle accelerator around with me. Printer One is too small to assemble a dephasingless laser plasma accelerator, and Printer Two—”
Bloody eyeball soup.
“Printer Two is printing your arm,” Naamla finishes calmly. “Captain, our instructions are to stay in orbit and wait. Penetrator carries six printers. It can start on a particle accelerator right now.”
“And let your dirty, rotten dad be the one to make history by having the first conversation with aliens?”
Imagining that is worse than imagining the rest of my life unable to rip off a piece of duct tape.
“You’ll still be here,” Naamla says. “His ship is only four months away.”
“That’s a lifetime!”
“He warned me that, one time, you burned your taste receptors off because you couldn’t wait for your food to cool, then tried to pretend it was a tumour that forced you to re-grow your tongue.”
“He called you an unhatched egg with delusions of competency!”
I mean, why did he have kids if he was going to run them down all the time?
The thought shows on the bottom of the exposed screen.
“You run me down all the time,” Naamla points out.
“I’m sorry. Okay? Can you stop your thought-journal from going to his ship?”
“It might start open war on Mars.”
I pull off my giant helmet so she can see my eyes. That’s what people-raised-by-people do. So that she knows it’s bloody serious. That I have to talk to the aliens.
I HAVE TO TALK TO THE ALIENS.
Naamla sighs. Her giant helmet bobs in agreement. She turns her back to me, tapping some screens, presumably switching off the relay.
“Please put that back on, Captain,” she says, “before you really do get a tumour on your tongue.”
Elation bubbles my stomach like a boiling fart ocean. Are your bowel movements within normal parameters? I feel like I could repel cosmic rays with the power of my excitement. I strap my helmet back on and start tapping with my left hand, to let Printer Two know it’s to recycle my right hand, and get started on a 4.5-metre-long plasma wakefield machine.
Naamla’s gasp draws me back to the screens.
She points wordlessly at the cracks in the ground at the second site, seventy kilometres south of the first plume, where something that isn’t boiling, freezing hydrogen sulfide is soaring free of the planet’s surface.
It’s a pale yellow torpedo-shape, ten metres, with a pair of multifaceted, eyelike orbs at one end. A couple of hundred white, curving, leglike prongs crowd the torpedo’s undercarriage.
There are pointy things near the eyes, like mouthparts.
One huge, metre-wide claw, and one tiny one.
A ridged exoskeleton covering the torpedo-body.
It’s an animal. A fish. A lobster.
It’s a whaleshark crossed with a giant fart trilobite.
“God is great,” Naamla whispers.
“EYEBALLS,” I shout. It’s the worst swear word I know. I couldn’t be more thrilled.
We are seeing an alien.
Either the intelligent kind, or its runaway livestock.
As the glistening torpedo’s momentum carries it further and further from the kettle-vent of the underground ocean, it turns brown. Then black. The ridged shell starts sublimating, then freezing, until chunks of the alien animal’s substance is indistinguishable from chunks of the second, smaller plume.
“It’s beached itself,” Naamla says. “Or the plume has washed it away. The pressure difference is too much for it to hold together. It’s melting like a deep-sea Earth squid. Oh, my. Another one is emerging. More of them. It’s a whole herd, Captain.”
“We have to fly through that plume,” I shout, tapping to reactivate that capture equipment from the previous mission. “We have to scoop up the pieces. Find out what they’re made of. How can organic things like that communicate with electron bursts? Have they got tools down there? A city? The uranium we’ve been digging and taking away, was that their protective wall?”
But there’s no going back.
We swing over the horizon in our helplessly brisk orbit, plunging back into the night side while the whole planet zips along at forty-seven kilometres per second.
Mercury. It’s a speedy little bastard.
But so is Whaleshark.
We’ll be back on the day side soon.
Song Stuck in My Head: “I Can’t Help Myself”
“It worked,” Naamla’s voice reports from the laboratory module. “We have samples of Mercurian biology, Captain. I’m running the least-damaged piece of alien exoskeleton I can isolate, but it’s dissolving as we speak.”
“Of course it worked,” I say, keeping my relief to myself.
KEEPING MY RELIEF TO MYSELF.
Luckily, my apprentice isn’t here to read my treacherous thought-journal. The lab module is at the opposite end of the ship to the command module. My left hand taps the closest screen, bringing me her results in real time.
I bite my lip.
For all the acronyms to run.
FTIR. RS. NMR. SEM-EDX. XRD. TGA. DSC. Rheometry.
Why doesn’t the rheometer have an acronym? Seems unfair.
I decide to name it Stretchy.
Then the results flash up.
Mostly errors. No matches to known chemistry.
“Predominantly sulfur,” Naamla says through the intercom.
“Our noses could’ve told us that much,” I grumble. “Giant fart trilobites can’t only be made of sulfur.”
“They’re not giant trilobites, Captain. Give them some credit. They’re using the Fibonacci sequence from a hundred kilometres underground. They’re intelligent Mercurians. Should I run a second sample?”
“Yes. Do that.” I frown at atomic ratios. Useless. Irritating. “Is this a software problem, do you think?”
Our analysers can identify high-sulfur polymers, those friendly renewables with waste sulfur crammed in between algae-produced monomers.
This isn’t that.
Is it true sulfur-based life?
As a rule, our life forms don’t make long-chain polymers with sulfur instead of oxygen, because they’re insoluble in water. How could a living thing manufacture insoluble material, to use as shell cement, cell walls, whatever, and still be able to break it down again when it’s time to replace or renew those cells?
“Second sample seems more uniform,” Naamla reports. “The atomic ratio is eight carbons to thirteen hydrogens to five sulfurs to one nitrogen. Does that remind you of something?”
It doesn’t. But this time the software comes through and reminds everybody on my behalf. Like I said before, if I’m to live a few centuries, I’ll need to save most of my memory space for later. This result is interesting, though.
“It’s chitin?” I say. “Chitin, which forms the exoskeletons of Earth insects? Only, with sulfur in place of oxygen?”
“I wouldn’t say that, Captain.”
“What would you say?”
“That we can’t know how the molecules are arranged, because they’re breaking down too quickly at this pressure? Also, Captain? I would say that all three fume cupboards are overwhelmed, and I’m going to have to seal off the laboratory immediately.”
Raised by Wolves. Doesn’t she ever panic?
Outside the laboratory is the emergency shower and exercise room.
“I’m coming to you,” I say, floating horizontal, clawing my way out of the control module into the connecting tube. “Right now.”
“My eyes are burning,” Naamla says. “I think my tears are making it worse. Moisture is oxidising the—”
I fly into the exercise room.
I grab her with my crossed ankles.
Left-handed, I twist the lock on her helmet and throw it off.
I’m not sure how noxious gases got inside. I checked all the suits, except the one she was wearing.
Probably smells like rotten eggs.
“Hold still,” I say. Her wet, dark lashes lie on her brown cheeks like seaweed left on a shore. “Open your eyes.”
“No water,” Naamla begs. “No oxygen. I need—”
“You need nitrogen,” I say. “Hold your breath.”
She holds her breath, and opens her eyes.
The round, soft, capillaried wetness of them is terrifying. But somehow, I don’t shout NO. Instead, I pop open a valve in my smart suit, where the nitrogen reads just below body temperature. I aim my frozen right hand with my left, like a fire hose.
The nitrogen gas makes her burning tears float away.
Song Stuck in My Head: “It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry If I Want To)”
Eyeballs. We’re going to have to land.
“The particle accelerator is finished,” I say. “But I can’t fire it from here without wrecking the ship. I’ll have to stick the nozzle directly against the surface.”
“It’ll be heavy,” Naamla says. “Even on Mercury.”
So. We’ll need help.
I check the inventory of public-access maintenance robots that wander along the length of MINE-Z.
“There. That digging robot, Lay-B0R, can carry it. Preferably bury the whole accelerator to a depth of seven hundred millimetres to keep it from melting to slag. We’ll have to land as close to the original plume as possible.”
I glance at her screens. She’s already on it. Definitely more competent than an unhatched egg. Jihad Dib’s loss is my gain.
I’m feeling pretty smug until she says, with powerful irony, “Half a million litres of nitrogen ready for cooling, Captain. Historic meeting of civilisations imminent. Now all you have to do is decide what you’re going to say.”
Song Stuck in My Head: “Bad Moon Rising”
“More Mercurians have suicided,” Naamla says, “while we’ve been on the night side. Have you finished your message, yet?”
My message. I have to program the particle accelerator before we land. Before the robot buries the nozzle and we fire it off.
What am I going to say?
My message has to take their message into account, and what is that? A bit of maths, a bit of death?
Maths and death. That’s what the universe is made of.
All the years we lived on Earth, did we ever really master interspecies communication? We couldn’t manage monkeys, much less radically different life.
“Not yet,” I tell Naamla.
So. How does a human communicate with, say, a tree?
You find out what it wants—light, water, whatever—and you put those things nearby. The tree grows towards them. Message received.
“My father,” Naamla says, “has suggestions.”
Now, how does a tree communicate with a monkey? Does it say Monkey, I need you to spread my seeds. Please eat them and shit them out? No. Just wraps the seeds in what the monkey wants. Fruit.
“I bet he does,” I say absently.
These big old rotten egg lobsters think we want to eat them. That’s why they’re beaching themselves, at a suitable distance from the place where their signals come from.
They’re drawing us away from their ocean-floor city. Away from their home.
Maybe the Fibonacci signals aren’t even for us. Maybe the electron bursts are their alarm system. An evacuation order. It’s taken decades for MINE-Z to dig deep enough to threaten them, but the moment has finally come where we’ve removed so much crust that the pressure can no longer hold.
Pressure that they need, to keep their ocean liquid. To keep their bodies from falling apart.
They’re making their bodies into a bribe for us but they’re wrong about what we want.
We can’t eat them, that’s for sure.
And what do they want?
To be left alone?
Better. They want to be covered back up. Crust thickness is proportional to crust density. Uranium is too valuable to pour back on top of them, but what about bismuth? There’s a shit-tonne of it on Mars, and it’s cheap to send things towards the sun.
And what do I need? Time. I need this to be already done.
Because I lied about the coolant, and Naamla doesn’t deserve to die.
“Can I help you with the programming?” she prompts.
“Yes,” I say.
I know exactly what I want to communicate to the Mercurians.
Though it won’t be impressive enough for the history books. Just a bunch of numbers. It’s the only thing I can be sure they’ll understand.
Numbers, and death.
Maybe Naamla will promise to keep this historic first message to herself?
“Too late,” she says. “It’s already gone through the relay to my father’s ship.”
Speed of light: c.
Speed of thought: faster.
I see trouble on the way.
Mercury Surface, Brimstone Plains
Song Stuck in My Head: “Help!”
I send my message, to the sound of nitrogen hissing.
The smart suit, snapped to attention, holds me up in the horrible, painful grip of gravity. It feels like hooks through my ankles, pulling on my shin bones. I’ve got a raging headache from the alterations in blood pressure.
My dead arm drags like a uranium slug.
It’s been seven minutes since I landed.
Under the ground, pounded there by the clunky digging robot, my newly printed particle accelerator sends my message to the Mercurians. Telling them what we need.
Nitrogen is what I need. Seven protons, seven neutrons. Fat chance of finding any here.
Ninety-two, two hundred and thirty-eight.
Uranium is what Mars needs. That’s what started this whole investigation in the first place. I use the Fibonacci sequence between each request. So they know I don’t want uranium nitride.
So they know it’s an emergency.
What else do I need?
I need this to already be done.
The final part of my message represents uranium decaying, only in reverse.
I’m begging them to understand that I need to get off this planet.
I’m asking them to stop doing what they’re doing.
To stop killing themselves.
As if I could turn back time.
Fourteen minutes since I landed.
“Get back to the ship, Captain,” Naamla insists.
I stare at the hypnotically, awesomely powerful base of the plume, a nightmarish blowhole destined to be eternal, or at least to blow until the Mercurians are dead, unless we can get that hole plugged. To the side of it, MINE-Z’s slack mouth, once-impressive belts and buckets now made miniature by the scale of the blow, expands and contracts under the opposing influences of sun and compensatory, mechanical, equilibrium system.
Rolling past me is the three-legged, four-wheeled, drill-headed digging robot, Lay-B0R, heading for the ship without being told to, stupid hydraulic arms waving, because it’s got the sense of self-preservation that Jihad Dib swears I was born without.
“I’m coming,” I tell Naamla, and turn.
My majestic ship, two hundred metres long, rests eight hundred metres away. I had it renamed Whaleshark for the anterior, ribbed, maw-like scoop, but it’s shaped more like a marble-embedded, bleached, broken, human skeleton-leg.
Not even remotely streamlined.
But on no-atmosphere Mercury, much like Luna where the ship was made, who cares about that?
Nitrogen vents all around it.
“Run,” Naamla suggests.
I run. Lay-B0R is way ahead of me.
When I see the crust around the digging robot wrinkle, I think: Too late. I’ve killed Naamla and myself. The plume’s going to blast our broken pieces into orbit. Jihad Dib will have to collect them and test for our DNA.
But it’s not the plume enlarging.
It’s a seventy-metre-diameter silver sphere, eased out of the ground as carefully as if Mercury were an Earth-ostrich laying an egg.
“What is that?” I scream at Naamla.
“Ship says the surface is pure aluminium, Captain,” Naamla says.
Lay-B0R stops by the sphere to lift it, looking like something from an old superhero film. Yet it jacks the thing clear of the cracked crust without breaking.
I’ve spent eighteen minutes on the surface.
Half my smart suit’s HUD is telling me to get the heck off the planet’s surface, in a hurry, if I don’t want to die in the molten remnants of my ship, while the other half is telling me what Lay-B0R is telling me, which is that if it subtracts the mass of the aluminium shell, which it estimated with its x-ray-emitting claws and ultrasonic head, the contents of the sphere weigh 677 grams per litre.
“Fix that thing to the ship,” I order my apprentice, “with the capture nets. I’ll weld the bloody robot to the hull if I have to. Get the printers to make us something pointy for piercing that sphere and connecting it to our nitrogen supply’s primary hose. You’ve got twelve minutes!”
Bloody eyeball soup.
My spine’s tingling.
The Mercurians got my message.
They’ve given me a gift of pressurised nitrogen.
Two hundred and fifty thousand litres of it.
Mercury Orbit, Descent to Gog’s Gorge
Song Stuck in My Head: “I Say a Little Prayer”
No more Mercurians fling themselves out of the second vent.
In fact, it seems the aliens have closed that breach, somehow.
So many alarms are going off, everywhere, that it’s hard to filter out which ones are the most important. Threats to the ship. Threats to me. Threats to the Gog’s Gorge infrastructure, which has a landing site suitable for Whaleshark, but not necessarily for the aluminium bubble add-on provided by the Mercurians to save my life.
The most important thing is stopping the primary vent.
The leak in the Mercurians’ ocean.
Naamla’s furiously tapping screens, her HUD is probably just as stupid as mine right now, so I have to seize her shoulders and turn her to get her attention. That is, my left hand seizes one shoulder, and my frozen right forearm gets positioned on her other shoulder by my smart suit.
“Look. Everything MINE-Z has excavated from the Plains for the past three days is still sitting on the belt, isn’t it? And the uranium slugs at Gog’s Gorge, ready for Mars? Mercury Mining Co paused the launches until we could sort out the problem, right?”
“They’re not sitting there,” she says, hands frozen in finger-claws partway through a bunch of screen taps. “They’ve been moving towards the mass drivers all this time.”
“Then we’ve got to get them back. We’ve got to put MINE-Z in reverse, and dump all of the densest material we have back into the active face. That will plug the hole until we can get Mars organised to shoot us some bismuth.”
“We don’t have the authority,” Naamla points out.
Of course we don’t.
The second I ignored EleAlloc’s command to wait for the Penetrator, I probably got deregistered. If deregistration has an alarm, it’s way, wayyyyyy down the priority list.
But Naamla was raised by Wolves.
Time for my worst enemy to come in handy, for once.
“Your dad can get permission. He can’t have lived for two hundred years without accumulating favours.”
What’s the point of him, and his arrogant, two-hundred-year-old head, otherwise?
“Right,” Naamla says. “I’ll have to turn my thought-journal relay back on, then.”
“He’ll be furious.”
“Yeah, he will. But the giant fart trilobites won’t have any ocean left in four months when he gets here to assess the situation. They’ll be extinct. The only other intelligent life in the solar system will be gone. He’ll just have to trust you that it’s an emergency.”
“Mercurians,” Naamla says. “The Mercurians will be extinct.”
Naamla shrugs my left hand and frozen forearm off. She turns back to her screens. Turns the relay back on. I don’t know what she’s saying because she doesn’t have to say it. Only to think it.
She sighs, presumably receiving her father’s reaction, which can’t be pleasant.
Tick—one, one, two, three, five, eight—
“He’ll do it,” Naamla says. “He’ll get South Mars to put MINE-Z in reverse. I need to send them some more data packets. After that, unfortunately, Captain, I have to freeze both my eyes.”
If she hadn’t been keeping her visor down, to keep me comfortable, I probably would have noticed that her eye injuries were worsening. Shame stabs me in the gut.
“Yes. I’m sorry. I mean, thank you. I mean, we’ll have landed in the bottom of the crater, soon. We’ll be safe from the sun and we’ll have gravity. Thanks to the Mercurians, we’ll have enough gas to manoeuvre, and to safely take off again when we need to. Naamla, I shouldn’t have lied about the nitrogen. I’m a terrible supervisor. When we get back, I’ll take the heat from EleAlloc and make sure you get transferred to a better ship.”
“No thank you, Captain. I’m also going to need to freeze my heart.”
Does the fleeting beauty of the blossoms make you ache with bittersweet memories?
What’s wrong, now?
“Your heart?” I repeat.
YOUR HEART? reads the bottom line of my thought-journal.
“Yes, Captain. My smart suit is recording a mitochondrial radical bloom that’s most likely to become a heart-based tumour. If you’ll focus on your own smart suit’s reading, you’ll see that there’s a bloom in your lower back, as well.”
Who can blame radioactive particles? They do what they do.
I guess the tingling in my spine wasn’t just the excitement of being the first human to chat to intelligent aliens.
“Oh,” I say lamely.
Nitrogen bubbles around my shoulder, mirroring the bubbling outside as Whaleshark sets us down on the safest bit of Mercury real estate on the whole planet.
For humans, anyway.
The Mercurians certainly wouldn’t like it very much.
“I’ll be going into my induced coma, now. Goodnight, Naamla.”
“So will I. Goodnight, Captain.”
Gog’s Gorge, Mercury
Song Stuck in My Head: “Rescue Me”
I wake up from my coma wishing that my slow dreams had been about solving the meaning of life with profound fart trilobite philosophers, not having my fruit privileges taken away by Jihad Dib for raiding the Penetrator’s supply.
Then I realise he’s here, in the flesh, helping Naamla out of her autobed, calling her by her birth name like he still owns her.
“Please,” I say through rubbery lips, “come aboard my ship without asking. Welcome, Captain Dib!”
EleAlloc must have given him the necessary permissions.
Isn’t that the whole point of him?
Isn’t that what we wanted him for, his centuries of schmoozing?
He doesn’t bother to talk to me. Just opens access to his thought-journal.
I see your expensive new tongue still works, he thinks at me.
“There was cancer in the old one!” I shout.
Yeah, my tongue works fine. But it’s stiffer than it should be. As if I’ve been sleeping longer than I intended.
There was not, Jihad thinks. I’ve still got it if you want to take a closer look.
“You’ve still got my old tongue?”
Of course. How else could I have printed you a new arm on the way here? I knew you were lying about the nitrogen, Hogwash. If you’ll cast a downward glance, you’ll see I even took the liberty of installing the fresh limb while you were sleeping. To spare you the waiting period.
Nobody’s called me Hogwash Perjury since I was Jihad Dib’s apprentice, and he was allowed to choose my use-name until I completed my proficiencies.
I hate him more than I hate looking at eyeballs.
Your cortisol levels are high, do you feel you have failed your family members?
But wait. Did he really grow me a new arm?
I lift my right hand to open the visor of my enormous, bobble-headed helmet. Yeah, we have to wear them even in a coma. I hold my hand in front of my face, unzip the suit to push the glove and sleeve back, and stare at the new nails, new skin, and new slightly-protruding wrist-bones lightening the brown skin.
I flex my fingers. The connection is perfect.
“I’m called Victory, now,” I say. “Captain Citrus to you.”
The old Wolf inclines his head.
Captain, he thinks.
“Did you save the aliens?” I demand to know. My ship starts filling me in on what’s been happening. Jihad Dib showing up with my re-grown arm and Naamla’s re-grown heart. Forcing Whaleshark to wait in Gog’s Gorge while our grafts took. Ordering shipments of bismuth launched as fast as South Mars could assemble them.
Printing a better particle accelerator for speaking with the Mercurians. The fart trilobites have an active vocabulary by now, and are giving gifts of refined uranium to EleAlloc. Smaller, but enough for the politicians to work with.
Communication’s good enough to explain exactly why the ocean remains liquid at Brimstone latitudes, where it should be too hot. The Mercurians evolved under the pole, where pressure and temperature were ideal, before excavating a planet-wide subterranean network that they were able to perfectly maintain—until we dug it up.
You saved them, Captain Dib thinks. Is that warmth in his thought-tone? Is he actually smiling? I can’t see his face, because he’s keeping his visor down out of respect.
He’s never done that before.
“Does that mean stupid is sometimes better?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer that.
You were wrong about one thing, the old Wolf thinks at me, offering me one of my own North Mars lemons from my stash in the water shielding. The universe isn’t made of maths and death. It’s made of maths and life.
I accept the lemon with my brand-new right hand.
Then I slip it inside my helmet, and sink in my teeth.
“Victory Citrus Is Sweet” copyright © 2022 by Thoraiya Dyer
Art copyright © 2022 Gregory Manchess