No, really. Wake up. I know you don’t want to, but it’s important that you understand what’s happened to you, and—just as vitally—what’s going to happen next. I know this is hard for you, being told what to do. It’s not the way it usually works. Would it help if I still called you Captain?
Captain Rasht, then. Let’s keep it formal.
No, don’t fight. It’ll only make it worse. There. I’ve eased it a little. Just a tiny, tiny bit. Can you breathe more easily now? I wouldn’t waste your energy speaking, if I were you. Yes, I know you’ve a lot on your mind. But please don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s any chance of talking your way out of this one.
Nidra? Yes, that’s me. Good that you’re wide awake enough to remember my name. Lenka? Yes, Lenka is alive. I went back for Lenka, the way I said I would.
Yes, I found Teterev. There wasn’t much I could do for her, though. But it was good to hear what she had to say. You’d have found it interesting, I think.
Well, we’ll get to that. As I said, I want you to understand what happens next. To some extent, that’s in your control. No, really. I’m not so cruel that I wouldn’t give you some influence over your fate. You wanted to make your name—to do something that would impress the other ships, the other crews—leave your mark on history.
Make them remember Rasht of the Lachrimosa.
This is your big chance.
‘I’ll find Mazamel,’ said Captain Rasht, clenching his fist around an imaginary neck. ‘Even if I have to take the Glitter Band apart. Even if I have to pluck him out of the bottom of the chasm. I’ll skin him alive. I’ll fuse his bones. I’ll make a living figurehead out of him.’
Lenka and I were wise enough to say nothing. There was little to be gained in pointing out the obvious: that by the time we returned to Yellowstone, our information broker stood every chance of being light years away.
That was what you got when you could only afford the cheapest, least-reliable information brokers. When your ship was falling apart around you and you were down to four crewmembers, of which one was a monkey.
‘I won’t fuse his bones after all,’ Captain Rasht continued. ‘I’ll core out his spine. Kanto needs a new helmet for his spacesuit. I’ll make one of out Mazamel’s skull. It’s fat and stupid enough for a monkey. Isn’t it, my dear?’
Rasht interrupted his monologue to pop a morsel into the stinking, tooth-rotted mouth of Kanto, squatting on his shoulder like a hairy disfigurement.
In fairness, Mazamel’s information wasn’t totally valueless. The ship at least was real. It was still there, still orbiting Holda. From a distance it had even looked superficially intact. It was only as we came in closer, tightening our own orbit like a noose, that the actual condition became apparent. The needle-tipped hull was battered, pocked and gouged by numerous collisions with interstellar material. That was true of our ownLachrimosa—no ship makes it between solar systems without some cost—but here the damage was much worse. We could see stars through some of the holes in the hull, punched clean through to the other side. The engine spars, sweeping out from the hull at its widest point, had the look of ruptured batskin. The engines still seemed to be present when we made our long-distance survey. But we had been tricked by the remains of their enclosing structures. They were hollow, picked open and gouged of their dangerous, seductive treasures.
‘We should check out the wreck,’ Lenka said, trying to make the best of a bad situation. ‘At least find the name of that ship. But there’s something on the surface we should look at as well.’
‘I’m not sure. Some kind of geomagnetic anomaly, spiking up in the northern hemisphere. Got some metallic backscatter, too. Neither makes much sense. Holda’s not meant to have much of a magnetosphere. Core’s too old and cold for that. The metal signature’s in the same area, too. It’s quite concentrated. It could be a ship or something, put down on the surface.’
Rasht thought about it, grunted his grudging approval.
‘But first the wreck. Make sure it isn’t going to shoot us down the instant we turn our backs. Match our orbit, Nidra—but keep us at a safe distance.’
‘Fifty kilometres?’ I asked.
Rasht considered that for a moment. ‘Make it a hundred.’
Was that more than just natural caution? I’ve never been sure about you, if truth be told—how much stock you put in traveller’s tales.
Mostly we aren’t superstitious. But rumours and ghost stories, those are something else. I’m sure you’ve heard your share of them, over the years. When ships meet for trade, stories are exchanged—and you’ve done a lot of trading. Or did, until your luck started souring.
Did you hear the one about the space plague?
Of course you did.
The strange contagion, the malady infecting ships and their crew. Is it real, Captain? What do you think? No one seems to know much about it, or even if it really exists.
What about the other thing? The black swallowing horror between the stars, a presence that eats ships. No one knows much about that, either.
What’s clear, though, is that a drifting, preyed-upon hulk puts no one in an agreeable frame of mind. We should have turned back there and then. But if Lenka and I had tried to argue with you on that one, how far do you think we’d have got? You’d have paid more attention to the monkey.
Yes, Kanto’s fine. We’ll take very good care of him. What do you think we are—monsters?
We’re not like that at all.
No, I’m not leaving you—not just yet. I just have to fetch some things from Teterev’s wreck. Be back in a jiffy! You’ll recognise the things when you see them. You remember the wreck, don’t you?
Not the ship in orbit. That was a wash-out. The fucking thing was as derelict and run-down as Lachrimosa. No engines, no weps. No crew, not even frozen. No cargo, no tradable commodities. Picked clean as a bone.
No, I’m talking about the thing we found on the surface, the crash site.
Good, it’s coming back to you.
‘It’s a shuttle,’ Lenka said.
‘Was,’ I corrected.
True: the shuttle was a wreck. But in fact it was in much better condition than it had any right to be. The main section of the shuttle was still in one piece, upright on the surface. It was surrounded by debris, but the wonder was that any part of it had survived. It must have suffered a malfunction very near the surface, or else there would have been nothing to recognise.
Around the crash site, geysers pushed columns of steam up from a dirty snowscape. Holda’s sun, 82 Eridani, was rising. As it climbed into the sky it stirred the geysers to life. Rocks and rusty chemical discolouration marred the whiteness. A little to the west, the terrain bulged up sharply, forming a kind of rounded upwelling. I stared at it for a moment, wondering why it had my attention. Something about the bulge’s shape struck me as odd and unsettling, as if it simply did not belong in this landscape.
Unlike the other ship, no misfortune befell us as we completed our landing approach. Rasht selected an area of ground that looked stable. Our lander threw out its landing skids. Rasht cut power when we were still hovering, so as not to blast the snow with our descent jets.
I wondered what chance we stood of finding anything in the other craft’s remains. If the ship above had proven largely valueless, there did not seem much hope of finding glories in the wreck. But it would not hurt us to investigate.
But my attention kept wandering to the volcanic cone. Most of it was snow or ice-covered, except for the top. But there were ridges or arms radiating away from it, semicircular in profile, meandering and diminishing. I supposed that they were lava tunnels, or something similar. But the way they snaked away from the main mass, thick at the start and thinner as they progressed, gradually vanishing into the surrounding terrain, made me think of a cephalopod, with the volcano as its main body and the ridges its tentacles. Rather than a natural product of geology, the outcome of blind processes drawn out over millions of years, it seemed to squat on the surface with deliberation and patience, awaiting some purpose.
I did not like it at all.
Once we had completed basic checks, we got into our spacesuits and prepared for the surface. When Rasht, Lenka and I were ready, I helped the monkey into its own little spacesuit, completing the life-support connections that were too fiddly for Captain Rasht.
You may say: why did we all go out? Why did we all go down to the surface? The truth was, that was Rasht’s way. If one or more of us stayed in orbit while he was down here, there was a chance of the ship leaving without him. If he sent one or more of us down here, while he stayed in orbit, he could not rely on our trustworthiness. We might find something and lie about it, keeping its secret to ourselves.
Rasht’s way. And what Rasht wanted, Rasht got.
So our happy little party stepped out the lander, testing the ground under our feet. It felt solid, as well it ought given that it was supporting the weight of our ship. The gravity on Holda was nearly Earth-normal, so we could move around just as easily as if we were on the ship. The planet was about Earth-sized as well, enabling it to hold on to a thick atmosphere. Although the core was dead, Holda was not itself a dead world. Rather than orbiting 82 Eridani directly, Holda spun around a fat banded gas giant which in turn orbited the star. As it turned around the giant, Holda was subjected to tidal forces which squeezed and stretched at its interior. These stresses manifested as heat, which in turn helped to drive the geysers and surface volcanism. From orbit we had seen that most of Holda was still covered in ice, but there were belts of exposed crust around the equator and tropics. Here and there were even pockets of liquid water. Life had spilled from these pools out onto the surface, infiltrating barren matrices of rock and ice. According to Lachrimosa’s records there was nothing in the native ecosystem larger than a krill, but the biomass load was enough to push the atmosphere away from equilibrium, meaning that it carried enough oxygen to support our own greedy respiratory systems.
In that sense, we did not really need the suits at all. But the cold was a factor, and in any case the suits offered protection and power-assist. We kept our helmets on, anyway. We were not fools.
It was a short walk over to the crash site. We plotted a path between bubbling pools, crossing bridges and isthmuses of strong ice. Now and then a geyser erupted, fountaining tens of metres above our heads. Each time it was enough to startle the monkey, but Rasht kept his spacesuited pet on a short leash.
The other ship must have been quite sleek and beautiful before it crashed, at least in comparison to our own squat and barnacled vehicle. Much of the wreckage consisted of pieces of mirrored hull plating, curved to reflect our approaching forms back at us in grotesque distortion. Lenka and I seemed like twins, our twisted, elongated shapes wobbling in heat-haze from the pools. It was true that we were similar. We looked alike, had roughly the same augmentations, and our dreadlocks confirmed that we had completed the same modest number of crossings. During port stopovers, we were sometimes assumed to be sisters, or even twins. But in fact Lenka had been on the crew before me, and although we functioned well enough together, we did not have that much in common. It was a question of ambition, of acceptance. I was on the Lachrimosa until something better came along. Lenka seemed to have decided that this was the best life had to offer. At times I pitied her, at others I felt contemptuous of the way she allowed herself to be subjugated by Rasht. Our ship was half way to being a wreck itself. I wanted more: a better ship, a better captain, better prospects. I never sensed any similar desires in Lenka. She was content to be a component in a small, barely functioning machine.
But then, perhaps Lenka thought exactly the same of me. And we had all been hoping that this was going to be the big score.
Our reflections shifted. Lenka and I shrunk to tiny proportions, beneath the looming, ogrelike form of our Captain. Then the monkey swelled to be the largest of all, its armoured arms and hands swinging low with each stride, its bow legs like scuttling undercarriage.
What a crew we made, the four of us.
We reached the relatively secure ground under the other wreck. We circled it, stepping between the jagged mirrors of its hull. The force of the impact had driven them into the ground like the shaped stones of some ancient burial site, surrounding the main part of the wreck in patterns that to the eye suggested a worrying concentricity, the lingering imprint of an abandoned plan.
I picked up one of the smaller shards, tugging it from its icy holdfast. I held it to my face, saw my visored form staring back.
‘Maybe a geyser caught them,’ I speculated. ‘Blasted up just as they were coming in. Hit the intakes or stabilisers, that might have been enough.’
It was Rasht, screaming at the monkey. The monkey had bent down to dip its paw into a bubbling pool. Rasht jerked on the leash, tumbling the monkey back onto its suit-sheathed tail. Over our suit-to-suit comm I heard Kanto’s irritated hiss. In the time it had dipped its paw into the pool, a host of microorganisms had begun to form a rust-coloured secondary glove around the original, making the monkey’s paw look swollen and diseased.
The monkey, stupid to the last, tried to lick at the coating through the visor of its helmet.
I hated the monkey.
‘There’s a way in,’ Lenka said.
I’m back now, Captain. I said I wouldn’t be gone long. Never one to break my promises, me.
No, don’t struggle. It’ll only make it worse. That thing around your neck isn’t going to get any less tight.
Do you recognise these? I could only carry a few at a time. I’ll go back for some more in a while.
That’s right. Pieces of the crashed shuttle. Nice and shiny. Here. Let me hold one up to your face. Can you see your reflection in it? It’s a bit distorted, but you’ll have to put up with that. You look frightened, don’t you? That’s fine. It’s healthy. Fear is the last and best thing we have, that’s what she told me.
The last and best thing.
Our last line of defense.
She? You know who I mean. We found her helmet, her journal, in the wreck.
Lenka fingered open a hatch and used the manual controls to open the airlock door. We were soon through, into the interior.
It was dark inside. We turned on our helmet lights and ramped our eyes to maximum sensitivity. There were several compartments to the shuttle, all of which seemed to have withstood the crash. Gradually it became clear that someone had indeed survived. They had moved things around, arranged provisions, bedding and furniture, that could not possibly have remained undisturbed by the crash.
We found an equipment locker containing an old-fashioned helmet marked with the word TETEREV in stencilled Russish letters. There was no corresponding spacesuit, though. The helmet might have been a spare, or the owner had chosen to go outside in just the lower part of the suit.
‘If they had an accident,’ Lenka said, ‘why didn’t the big ship send down a rescue party?’
‘Maybe Teterev was the rescue party,’ I said.
‘They may have only had one atmosphere-capable vehicle,’ Rasht said. ‘No way of getting back down here, and no way of Teterev getting back up. The only question then is to wonder why they waited at all, before leaving orbit.’
‘Perhaps they didn’t like the idea of leaving Teterev down here,’ Lenka said.
‘I bet they liked the idea of dying in orbit even less,’ Rasht replied.
We continued our sweep of the wreck. We were less interested in Teterev’s whereabouts than what Teterev might have left us to plunder. But the two things were not unrelated. Any spacer, any Ultra, is bound to care a little about the fate of another. Ordinary human concern is only part of it. There may be lessons to be learned, and a lesson is only another sort of tradable.
‘I’ve found a journal,’ I said.
I had found it on a shelf in the cockpit. It was a handwritten log, rather than a series of data entries.
The journal had heavy black covers, but the paper inside was very thin. I thumbed my way to the start. It looked like a woman’s handwriting to me. Russish was not my strongest tongue, but the script was clear enough.
‘Teterev starts this after the crash,’ I said, while the others gathered around. ‘Says that she expects the power to run out eventually, so there’s no point trying to record anything in the ship itself. But they have food and water and they can use the remaining power to stay warm.’
‘Go on,’ Rasht said, while the monkey studied its contaminated paw.
‘I’m trying to get some sense of what happened. I think she came down here alone.’ I skimmed forward through the entries, squinting with the concentration. ‘There’s no talk of being rescued, or even hoping of it. It’s as if she knew no one would be coming down.’ I had to work hard not to rip the paper with my power-augmented fingers. It felt tissue-thin between my fingers, like a fly’s wings.
‘A punishment, then,’ Rasht said. ‘Marooned down here for a crime.’
‘That’s an expensive way of marooning someone.’ I read on. ‘No—it wasn’t punishment. Not according to this, anyway. An accident, something to do with one of the geysers—she says that she’s afraid that it will erupt again, as it did “on the day”. Anyway, Teterev knew she was stuck down here. And she knows she’s in trouble. Keeps talking about her “mistake” in not waking the others. Says she wonders if there’s a way to signal the other ship, the orbiting lighthugger. Bring some or all of the crew out of reefersleep.’ I paused, my finger hovering over a word. ‘Lev.’
‘Lev?’ Lenka repeated.
‘She mentions Lev. Says Lev would help her, if she could get a message through. She’d have to accept her punishment, but at least get off Holda.’
‘Maybe Teterev was never meant to be down here,’ Lenka said. ‘Jump ahead, Nidra. Let’s find out what happened.’
I paged through dozens and dozens of entries. Some were dated and consecutive. Elsewhere I noticed blank pages and sometimes gaps of many days between the accounts. The entries became sparser, too. Teterev’s hand, barely clear to begin with, became progressively wilder and less legible. Her letters and words began to loop and scrawl across the page, like the traces of a seismograph registering the onset of some major dislocation.
‘Stop,’ Rasht said, as I turned over a page. ‘Go back. What was that figure?’
I turned back the sheets with a sort of dread. My eye had caught enough to know what to expect.
It was a drawing of the volcanic cone, exactly as it appeared from the position of the wreck.
Perhaps it was no more than an accident of Teterev’s hand, but the way she had put her marks down on the paper only seemed to add to the suggestion of brooding, patient malevolency I had already detected in the feature. Teterev seemed to have made the cephalopod’s head morebulbous, more cerebral, the lava tubes more muscular and tentacle-like. Even the way she had stippled the tubes to suggest snow or ice could not help but suggest to my eye rows and rows of suckers.
Worse, she had drawn a gaping, beak-mouth between two of those tentacles.
There was a silence before Lenka said: ‘Turn to the end. We can read the other entries later.’
I flicked through the pages until the writing ran out. The last few entries were barely entries at all, just scratchy annotations, done in haste or distraction.
Phrases jumped out at us.
Can’t wake the others. Tried everything I can. My dear Lev, lost to me.
Such a good boy. A good son.
Doesn’t deserve me, the mistakes I’ve made.
Stuck down here. But won’t give in. Need materials, power. Something in that hill. Magnetic anomaly. Hill looks wrong. I think there might be something in it.
Amerikanos were here once, that’s the only answer. Came by their old, slow methods. Frozen cells and robot wombs. No records, but so what. Must have dug into that hill, buried something in it. Ship or an installation. See an entrance. Cave mouth. That’s where they went in.
I don’t want to go in. But I want what they left behind. It might save my life.
Might get me back to the ship.
Back to Lev.
‘They were never here,’ Rasht said. ‘Teterev would have known that. Their colonies never got this far out.’
‘She was desperate enough to try anything,’ Lenka said. ‘I feel sorry for her, stuck all alone here. I bet she knew it was a thousand to one chance.’
‘Nonetheless,’ I said, ‘there is something odd about that hill. Maybe it’s nothing to do with the Amerikanos, but if you’re out of options, you might as well see what’s inside.’ I turned back to the drawing. The mouth, I now realised, was Teterev’s way of drawing the cave entrance.
But it still looked like the beak of an octopus.
‘One thing’s for certain,’ Lenka said. ‘If Teterev went into that hill, she didn’t come back.’
‘I didn’t notice any footprints,’ I said.
‘They wouldn’t last, not with all the geothermal activity around here. The top of the ice must be melting and re-freezing all the time.’
‘We should look into the cave, anyway,’ Rasht said.
I shook my head, struck by an intense conviction that this was exactly the wrong thing to do.
‘It’s not our job to find Teterev’s corpse.’
‘Someone should find it,’ Lenka said sharply. ‘Give her some dignity in death. At least record what happened to her. She was one of us, Nidra—an Ultra. She deserves better than to be forgotten. Can I look at her journal?’
‘Be my guest,’ I said, passing it over to her.
‘Nidra is right—her body isn’t our concern,’ Rasht said, while Lenka paged through the sheets. ‘She took a risk, and it didn’t work out for her. But the Amerikanos are of interest to us.’
‘Records say they weren’t here,’ I said.
‘And that’s what I’ve always believed. But records can be wrong. What if Teterev was right with her theory? Amerikano relics are worth quite a bit these days, especially on Yellowstone.’
‘Then we return to orbit, send down a drone,’ I said.
‘We’re here already,’ Rasht answered. ‘There are three of us—four if you include Kanto. Did you see how old Teterev’s helmet was? We have better equipment, and we’re not down to our last hope of survival. We can turn back whenever we like. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’
It took something to make our ramshackle equipment look better than someone else’s, I thought to myself. Besides, we were inferring a great deal from just one helmet. Perhaps it had been an old keepsake, a memento of earlier spacefaring adventures.
Still, Rasht was settled in his decision. The orbiting ship had been picked clean; the shuttle held nothing of obvious value; that left only the cave. If we were to salvage anything from this expedition, that was the last option open to us.
Even I could see the sense in that, whether I liked it or not.
Don’t mind me, for the moment. Got work to be getting on with. Busy, busy, busy.
What am I doing with these things?
Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it? I’m arranging them around you. Jamming them into the ice, like mirrored sculptures. I know you can’t move your head very easily. There’s no need, though. There’s not much to see, other than the cave mouth behind you and the wreck ahead of you.
What are you saying?
No, it’s not for your benefit! Silly Captain. But you are very much the focus of attention. You’ve always liked being at the centre of things, haven’t you?
You’re having difficulty breathing?
Just a moment, then. I don’t want you to die before we’ve even begun! It was lucky, what happened with the winch. I mean, I’d have a found one eventually, and the line. Of course it didn’t seem lucky at the time. I thought I was going to die in there. Did you think of abandoning me?
I think you did.
Here. I’m making a micro adjustment to the tension. Is that better? Can you breathe a little more easily?
We went outside again. The monkey was having some difficulty with its paw, as if the contamination had worked its way into the servo-workings. It kept knocking the paw against the ground, trying to loosen it up.
‘There aren’t any footprints,’ Lenka said, tugging binoculars down from the crown of her helmet. She was speaking in general terms, addressing Rasht and I without favour. ‘But I can see the cave mouth. It’s just where Teterev said it was. Must be about five, six kilometers from here.’
‘Can you plot us a path between these obstacles?’ Rasht asked.
It was still day, not even local noon. The sky was a pale blue, criss-crossed by high-altitude clouds. Beyond the blue, the face of the gas giant backdropped our view of the hill—one swollen, ugly thing rising above another. We set off in single file, Lenka leading, Rasht next, then the monkey, then I. We were all still on suit air, even though our helmet readouts were patiently informing us that the outside atmosphere was fully breathable, and (at the limit of our sensors) absent of any significant toxins. I watched the monkey’s tail pendulum out from side to side as it walked. Bubbling pools pressed in from either side, our path narrowing down. Every now and then a geyser went off or a pool burped a huge bubble of gas into the air. Toxins or otherwise, it probably smelled quite badly out there. But then again, we were from the Lachrimosa, which was hardly a perfumed garden.
I had no warning when the ice gave way under me. It must have been just firm enough to take the others, but their passage—the weight of their heavy, power-assisted suits—had weakened it to the point where it could no longer support the last of us.
I plunged down to my neck in bubbling hot water, instinctively flinging out my arms as if swimming were a possibility. Then my feet touched bottom. Instantly my suit detected the transition to a new environment and began informing me of this sudden change of affairs—indices of temperature, acidity, alkalinity and salinity scrolling down my faceplate, along with mass spectrograms and molecular diagrams of chemical products. A tide of rust-coloured water lapped against the lower part of my visor.
I was startled, but not frightened. I was not totally under water, and the suit could cope with a lot worse than immersion in liquid.
But getting out was another thing.
‘Don’t try and pull me,’ I said, as Lenka made to lean in. ‘The shelf’ll just give way under you, and then we’ll both be in the water.’
‘Nidra’s right,’ Rasht agreed, while the monkey looked on with a sort of agitated delight.
It was all very well warning Lenka away, but it only took a few minutes of frustration to establish that I could not get myself out unassisted. It was not a question of strength, but of having no firm point of leverage. The fringe of the pool was a crust of ice which gave away as soon as I tried to put any weight on it. All I was doing was expanding the margin of the pool.
Finally I stopped trying. ‘This won’t work,’ I said. By then I was conscious that my arms were picking up the same sort of furry red contamination that had affected the monkey’s paw.
‘We’ll need to haul her out,’ Rasht said. ‘It’s the only way. With us on firm ground, it shouldn’t be a problem. Lenka: you’ll need to go back to the lander, get the power winch.’
‘There’s a quicker way,’ Lenka said. ‘I saw a winch in the stores locker, on the wreck. It looked serviceable. If it’s no good, it’ll only cost me a little longer to fetch ours.’
So Lenka went back to the crash site, detouring around the pool in which I was still trapped, then rejoining our original path. From my low vantage point, she was soon out of my line of sight. Rasht and the monkey kept an eye on me, the Captain silent for long minutes.
‘You think this is a mistake,’ he said eventually.
‘I don’t like that hill, and I like the fact that Teterev didn’t come out of it even less.’
‘We really don’t know what happened to Teterev. For all we know she came back to the wreck and was eventually rescued.’
‘Then why didn’t she say so, or take her journal with her?’
‘We’re going into the cave to find answers, Nidra. This is what we do—adapt and explore. Mazamel’s intelligence proved faulty, so we make the best of what we find.’
‘You get the intelligence you pay for,’ I said. ‘There’s a reason other ships never dealt with Mazamel.’
‘A little late for recrimination, don’t you think? Of course, if you’re unhappy with your choice of employment, you can always find another crew.’ I thought he might leave it at that, but Rasht added: ‘I know how you feel about Lachrimosa, Nidra. Contempt for me, contempt for Lenka, contempt for your ship. It’s different now though, isn’t it? Without that winch, you’ll be going nowhere.’
‘And without a navigator, you won’t be going much further.’
‘You’re wrong about that, though. I can use a navigator, just as I can use a sensor specialist like Lenka. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t operateLachrimosa on my own, if it came to that. You’re useful, but you’re not indispensable. Neither of you.’
‘Be sure to tell Lenka that, when she returns.’
‘No need. I’ve never had the slightest doubt about Lenka’s loyalty. She’s emotionally weak—all this stupid concern over Teterev. But she’ll never turn on me.’
‘Can you be sure of that?’
‘We’ve covered that ground, Lenka and I. She challenged my authority once, before you joined the crew. It didn’t go well for her, and she learned from that experience.’
I had difficulty imagining the meek, submissive Lenka ever rising to challenge Rasht. I wondered what had happened to change her.
The monkey gibbered. She was coming back.
The power winch was a tool about the size of a heavy vacuum rifle. Lenka carried it in two hands. We had similar equipment, so there was no question of working out how to use it.
The winch had a grapple attachment which could be fired with compressed gas. Lenka detached the grapple from the end of the line, and then looped the line back on itself to form a kind of handle or noose. The line was thin and flexible. Lenka spooled out a length from the power winch and then cast the noose in my direction. I waded over to the noose and took hold of it. Lenka made sure she was standing on firm ground, turned up her suit amplification, and began to drag me out with the winch. The line tightened, then began to take my weight. It was still an awkward business, but at last I was able to beach myself on the surrounding ice without floundering through. I crawled from the edge, belly down, until I felt confident enough to risk standing.
‘Your suit’s a mess,’ Rasht observed.
‘I’ll live. At least I didn’t dip myself in it deliberately.’
But my suit had indeed suffered some ill effects, as became apparent while we resumed our trek to the cave mouth. The life support core was intact—I was in no danger of dying—but my locomotive augmentation was not working as well as it was meant to. As had happened with the monkey’s paw, the organisms in the pond seemed to have infiltrated the suit’s servo-assist systems. I could still walk, but the suit’s responses were sluggish, meaning that it was resisting me more than aiding me.
I began to sweat with the effort. It was hard to keep up with the others. Even the monkey had no problem with the rest of its suit.
‘Thank you for getting the winch,’ I told Lenka, between breaths. ‘It was good that you remembered the one in the wreck. Any longer in that pond, and I might have had real problems.’
‘I’m glad we got you out.’
Perhaps it was just the flush of gratitude at being rescued, but I vowed to think better of Lenka. She was senior to me on the crew, and yet Rasht seemed to value her capabilities no more than he did mine. Whatever I thought of her lack of ambition, her willing acceptance of her place on the ship, it struck me that she deserved better than that. Perhaps, when this was over, I could break it to her that she was considered no more than useful, like a component that would serve its purpose for the time being. That might change her view of things. I even imagined the two of us jumping ship at the next port, leaving Rasht with his monkey. Perhaps we could pass as sisters or twins, if we wanted new employment.
The terrain became firmer as we neared the hill, and we did not need to pick our course so carefully. The ground rose up slowly. There was still ice under our feet, and we were flanked on either side by the steadily widening lava tubes, which were already ten or fifteen times taller than any of us.
Ahead lay the cave mouth. Its profile was a semicircle, with the apex perhaps ten metres above the surface of the ice which extended into the darkness of the mouth. The hill rose up and up from the mouth, almost sheer in places, but there was an overhang above the entrance, covered in a sheath of smooth clean ice—the “beak” of Teterev’s drawing.
The tongue of ice continued inside, curving down into what we could see of the cave’s throat.
‘Still no footsteps,’ Lenka said, as we neared the entrance.
That the ice occasionally melted and refroze was clear from the fringe of icicles daggering down from the overhang, some of them nearly long enough to reach the floor. Rasht shouldered through them, shattering the icicles against the armour of his suit. As their shards broke off, they made a tinkling, atonal sort of music.
Now Lenka said: ‘There are steps! This is the way she went!’
It was true. They did not begin until a few metres into the cave, where sunlight must have only reached occasionally, or not at all. There was only a single pair of footprints, and they only went one way.
‘That’s encouraging,’ I said.
‘If you want to remain here,’ Rasht said, ‘we can exclude you from your cut of the profits.’
So he had gone from denial of the Amerikano settlement, to a skeptical allowance of the possibility, to imagining how the dividend might be shared.
We turned on our helmet lights again—Rasht leaning down to activate the light on the monkey, which was too stupid to do it on its own. The monkey seemed more agitated than before, though. It was dragging its heels, coiling its tail, lingering after Rasht.
‘It doesn’t like it,’ Lenka said.
‘Maybe it’s smarter than it looks,’ I put in under my breath, which was about as much as I could manage with the effort of my ailing suit.
But I shared the monkey’s dwindling enthusiasm. Who would really want to trudge into a cave, on an alien planet, if they had a choice in the matter? Teterev had gambled her salvation on finding relic technology, something that could buy her extra time in the wreck. We had no such compulsion, other than an indignant sense that we were owed our due after our earlier disappointment.
The angle of the slope pitched down steeply. The ice covered the floor, but the surrounding walls were exposed rock. We moved to the left side and used the grooved wall for support as we descended, placing our feet sideways. The monkey, still leashed to Rasht, had no choice but to continue. But its unwillingness was becoming steadily more apparent. Its gibbering turned shriller, more anxious.
‘Now now, my dear,’ Rasht said.
The tunnel narrowed as it deepened. All traces of daylight were soon behind us. We maintained our faltering progress, following the trail that Teterev had left for us. Once or twice, the prints became confused, as if there were suddenly three sets, rather than one. This puzzled me to begin with, until I realised that they marked instances of indecision, where Teterev had halted, reversed her progress, only to summon the courage to continue on her original heading.
I felt for Teterev.
‘Something ahead,’ Rasht announced. ‘A glow, I think. Turn off your lights.’
‘The monkey first,’ I said.
When Rasht had quenched Kanto’s light, the rest of followed suit. Our Captain had been correct. Far from darkness ahead, there was a silvery emanation. It did not seem to come from a single point source, but rather from veins of some mineral running through the rock. If they had been present nearer the surface, we would probably not have seen them against the brighter illumination of daylight. But I did not think they had been present until now.
‘I’m not a geologist,’ Lenka said, voicing the same thought that must have occurred to the rest of us. We had no idea what to make of the glowing veins, whether they were natural or suspicious.
Soon we did not need our helmet lights at all. Even with our eyes ramped down to normal sensitivity, there was more than enough brightness to be had from the veins. They shone out of the walls in bands and deltas and tributaries, a flowing form frozen in an instant of maximum hydrodynamic complexity. It did not look natural to me, but what did I know of such matters? I had seen the insides of more ships than worlds. Planets were full of odd, boring physics.
Eventually the slope became shallower, and then levelled out until our progress was horizontal. We were hundreds of metres from the entrance by now, and perhaps beneath the level of the surrounding terrain. It would have been wiser to send a drone, I thought. But patience had never been the Captain’s strong point. Still, Teterev would not have had the luxury of a drone either. Thinking back to her journal, with its increasingly desperate, fragmentary entries, I could not shake the irrational sense that we would be letting her down if we did not follow her traces all the way in. I wondered if she had felt brave as she came down here, or instead afraid of the worse fate of dying alone in the wreck. I did not feel brave at all.
But we continued.
In time the tunnel widened out into a larger space. We paused in this rock-walled chamber, leaning back to study the patterning of the veins as they flowed and crawled and wiggled their way to the curving dome of the ceiling.
And saw things we should not have seen.
We should have turned back there and then, shouldn’t we? If those figures weren’t an invitation to leave, to never come back, I don’t know what could have been clearer.
What do you mean, Teterev went on?
Of course she went on. She was out of options. No way off this planet unless she found something deeper in the cave, something she could use to wake up the orbiting ship. To go back to the wreck was to die, and so she knew she might as well continue.
I doubt she wanted to go on, no. If she had a sane bone in her body by that point, she’d have felt the way the rest of us did. Terrified. Scared out of her fucking skull. Every nerve screaming turn around, go back, this is wrong.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
But she carried on. Brave Teterev, thinking of her son. Wanting to get back to him. Thinking of him more than her own survival, I think.
You say we were just the same? Just as brave?
Don’t piss on her memory, Captain. The only thing driving us on was greed.
Fucking greed. The only thing in the universe stronger than fear.
But even greed wasn’t strong enough in the end.
The silver veins looped and crossed each other, defining the outlines of looming forms. The forms were humanoid, with arms and legs and heads and bodies. They were skeletally thin and their torsos and limbs were twisted, almost as if the very substrate of the rock had shifted and oozed since these silvery impressions were made. Their heads were faceless, save for a kind of hemispheric delineation, a bilateral cleft suggesting a skull housing nothing but two huge eyes.
The strangeness of the figures—the combination of basic human form and alien particularity—disturbed me more than I could easily articulate. Monsters would have been unsettling, but they would not have plumbed the deep well of dread that these figures seemed to reach. The silver patterns appeared to shimmer and fluctuate in brightness, conveying an impression of subliminal movement. The figures, bent and faceless as they were, seemed to writhe in torment.
None of us could speak for long minutes. Even the monkey had fallen into dim simian reverence. I was just grateful for the opportunity to regather my strength, after the recent exertions.
‘If that’s not a warning to go,’ Lenka said. ‘I don’t know what is.’
‘I want to know what happened to her,’ I said. ‘But not at any cost. We don’t have to go on.’
‘Of course we go on!’ Rasht said. ‘These are just markings.’
But there was an edge in his voice, a kind of questioning rise, as if he sought reassurance and confirmation.
‘They could almost be prehuman,’ I said, wondering how we might go about dating the age of these impressions, if such a thing were even possible.
‘Pre-Shrouder, maybe,’ Lenka said. ‘Pre-Juggler. Who knows? What we really need is measuring equipment, sampling gear. Get a reading off these rocks, find out what that silver stuff really is.’
By which she meant, return to the ship in the meantime. It was a sentiment I shared.
‘Teterev went on,’ Rasht said.
Her prints were a muddle, as if she had dwelled here for quite some time, pacing back and forth and debating her choices. But after that process of consideration she had carried on deeper into the tunnel, where it continued beyond the chamber.
By now the monkey almost needed to be dragged or carried. It really did not want to go on.
Even my own dread was becoming harder to push aside. There was a component to it beyond the instinctive dislike of confined spaces and the understandable reaction to the figures. A kind of unarguable, primal urge to leave—as if some deep part of my brain had already made its mind up.
‘Do you feel it?’ I risked asking.
‘Feel what?’ Rasht asked.
The Captain did not answer immediately, and I feared that I had done my standing even more harm than when I questioned his judgement. But Lenka swallowed hard and said: ‘Yes. I didn’t want to say anything, but … yes. I’ve been wondering about that. It’s beyond any rational fear we ought to be experiencing.’ She paused and added: ‘I think something is makingus feel that dread.’
‘Making?’ Rasht echoed.
‘The magnetic fields, perhaps. It’s strong here—much stronger than outside. What we saw before was just leakage. Our suits aren’t perfect Faraday cages, not with all the damage and repair they’ve had over the years. They can’t exclude a sufficiently strong field, not completely. And if the field acts on the right part of our brains, we might feel it. Fear, dread. A sense of the unnatural.’
‘Then it’s a defense mechanism,’ Rasht said. ‘A deterrent device, to keep out intruders.’
‘Then we might think of heeding it,’ I said.
‘It could also mean there is something worth guarding.’
‘The Amerikanos never had psychological technology like this,’ Lenka said.
‘But others did. Do I need to spell it out? What did we come to this system for? It wasn’t because we thought we’d find Amerikano relics. We were after a bigger reward than that.’
My dread sharpened. I could see where this was going. ‘We have no evidence that Conjoiners were here either.’
‘They say the spiders liked to place their toys in caches,’ Rasht went on, as if my words counted for nothing. ‘C-drives. Hell-class weapons.’
Despite myself I laughed. ‘I thought we based our activities on intelligence, not fairy tales.’
‘I heard someone already found those weapons,’ Lenka said, as if that was all the convincing Rasht would need.
But his voice turned low, conspiratorial—as if there was a chance of the walls listening in. ‘I heard fear was one of their counter-intrusion measures. The weapons get into your skull, turn you insane, if you’re not already spidered.’
I knew then that nothing, not even dread, would deter Rasht from his quest for profit. He would replace one phantom prize with another, over and over, until reality finally trumped him.
‘We have come this far,’ Rasht said. ‘We may as well go a little deeper.’
‘A little,’ I said, against every rational instinct. ‘No further than we’ve already come.’
We pushed out of the chamber, Lenka setting the pace, following Teterev’s course down another rock-walled tunnel. To begin with, the going was no harder than before. But as the tunnel progressed, so the walls began to pinch together. Now we had to move in single file, whether we liked it or not. Then Lenka announced that the walls squeezed together even more sharply just ahead, as if there had been a rockfall or a major shift in the hill’s interior structure.
‘That’s a shame,’ I said.
‘We could blast it,’ Lenka said. ‘Set a couple of hot-dust charges at maximum delay, get back to the ship.’ She was already preparing to unclip one of the demolition charges from her belt.
‘And bring down half the mountain in the process,’ I said. ‘Lose the tunnel, the chamber, Teterev’s prints, probably blast to atoms whatever we’re hoping to find.’
‘Her prints don’t double back,’ Rasht said. ‘That means there must be a way through.’
‘Or this obstruction wasn’t here,’ I answered.
But there was a way through. It was difficult to see at first, efficiently camouflaged by the play of light and shadow on the rock, almost as if it meant to hide itself. ‘It’s tight,’ Lenka said. ‘But one at a time, we should manage. With luck, it’ll open up again on the other side.’
‘And luck’s been so kind to us until now,’ I said.
Lenka was the first through. It was tight for her, and would be even tighter for Rasht, whose suit was bulkier. She grunted with effort and concentration. Her suit scraped rock.
‘Careful!’ Rasht called.
Now most of Lenka was out of our sight, swallowed into the cleft. ‘It’s easier,’ she said. ‘Widens out again. Just a bottleneck. I can see Teterev’s footprints.’
Rasht and the monkey next. I could see that the monkey was going to take some persuasion. To begin with it would not go first, ahead of its master. Rasht swore at Kanto and went on himself, his suit grinding and clanging against the pincering rock. I wondered if it was even possible for Rasht to make it through. He could have discarded the suit, of course—put up with the cold, for the sake of his treasure. I had known the Captain endure worse, when there was a sniff of payoff.
Yet he called: ‘I’m through.’
Kanto was still on the leash, which was now tight against the edge of the rock. The monkey really did not want to rejoin the Captain. I felt a glimmer of cross-species empathy. Perhaps the magnetic emanations were affecting it more strongly than the rest of us, reaching deeper into the poor animal’s fear centre.
Still, the monkey did not have much say in its fate. Rasht pulled on the leash, and I pushed it through from the other side. I needed the maximum amplification of my struggling suit. The monkey would have bitten my face off given half the chance, but its teeth were on the wrong side of its visor.
Reunited, our little party continued into the tunnel system.
But we had only gone a hundred metres or more when the path branched. There were three possible directions ahead of us, and a mess of footprints at the junction.
‘Looks as if she went down all three shafts,’ Lenka said.
Only one set of prints had led to this point, so Teterev must not have returned from one of those tunnels. But it was hard to say which. The prints were confused now. She must have gone up and down the shafts several times, changing her mind, returning. Given the state of the prints, there was no way of saying which had been her ultimate choice.
We selected the leftmost shaft and carried on down it. It sloped a little more, and eventually the ice under our feet gave way to solid rock, meaning that we no longer had Teterev’s prints as a guide. All around us the silver patterning continued, streaks and fissures of it, jetstreams and knotted synaptic tangles. It was hard not to think of a living silver nervous system, threading its way through the stone matrix of this ancient mountain.
‘Your suit, Lenka,’ Rasht said.
She slowed. ‘What about it?’
‘You’ve picked up some of that patterning. The silver. It must have rubbed off when you squeezed through the narrowing.’
‘It’s also on you,’ I told the Captain.
It only took a glance to confirm that it was on me and the monkey as well. A smear of silver had attached itself to my right elbow, where I must have brushed against the wall. Doubtless there was more, out of sight.
I moved to touch the silver, to dust it from myself. But when my fingers touched it, its contamination seemed to jerk onto them. The movement was startling and quick, like the strike of an ambush predator. I stared at my hand, cross-webbed by streaks of gently pulsing silver. I clenched and opened my fist. My suit was as stiff as it had been since my accident outside, but for the moment it did not seem to be affected by the silver.
‘It’s nanotech,’ I said. ‘Nothing the suit recognises. But I don’t like it.’
‘If it was hostile, you’d know it by now,’ Rasht said. ‘We push on. Just a little further.’
But turning around there and then is exactly what we should have done. It might have made all the difference.
The next chamber was a palace of horrors.
It was as large as the earlier place, the shape similar, and a tunnel led out from it as well. But there all similarities ended. Here the tormented human forms were not confined to figures marked on the walls. These were solid shapes, three dimensional evocations of distorted and contorted human anatomies, thrusting out of the wall like the broken and bent figureheads of shipwrecks. They seemed to be formed not of rock, or the silver contamination, but some amalgam of the two, a kind of shimmering, glinting substrate. There were ribcages and torsos, grasping hands, heads snapped back in agonies of perfect torment. They were not quite faceless, but by the same token none of the faces were right. They were all eyes, or all mouths, hinged open to obscene angles, or they were anvil-shaped nightmares that seemed to have cleaved their way through the rock itself. I was struck by a dreadful conviction that these were souls that had been entirely in the rock, imprisoned or contained, until an instant when they had nearly broken through. And I did not know whether to be glad that these souls were not quite free, or sick with terror that the rock might yet contain multitudes, still seeking escape.
‘I hate this place,’ Lenka said quietly.
I nodded my agreement. ‘So do I.’
And all of a sudden, Lenka’s earlier idea of setting a demolition charge did not seem so bad to me at all. The mere existence of this chamber struck me as profoundly, upsettingly wrong, as if it were my moral duty to remove it from the universe.
The charges at maximum delay. Time to get back to the ship, if we rushed, and none of us got stuck in the squeeze point.
Maybe. Maybe not.
That was when the monkey broke free.
So, anyway. About what we’ve done to your suit.
Its basic motor systems were already compromised when I found you near the cave mouth. You’d got that far, which can’t have been easy.
Yes, well done you.
The nanotech contamination, the traces you picked up from the cave wall, was clearly the main cause of the systemic failure. Obviously, if you’d stayed any longer, your suit would have begun to turn against you, the way it happened with Teterev. Allowing itself to be controlled, absorbed. But you still had some control over it, and enough strength to overcome the resistance of the jammed locomotive systems.
It was never as bad for me. I think when I fell in that pool, some of the native organisms must have formed a barrier layer, a kind of insulation against the nanotech. Perhaps they’ve had time to begin to evolve their own defense measures, to contain the spread of it. Who knows? My good fortune, in any case.
It didn’t feel like good fortune at the time, but that’s the universe for you.
Anyway, back to your suit.
You’re already paralyzed, effectively, but just to make sure that the systems don’t begin to recover, I’ve opened your main control box and disabled all locomotive power. Locked it tight, in fact. You might as well be standing in a welded suit of armour, for all the success you’ll have in moving.
Why are your arms the way they are?
We’ll come to that.
You are standing, yes. Your feet are on the ground. Obviously, with the noose around your neck, the one thing you don’t want to do now is topple over. I won’t be there to catch you. But your suit is heavy and provided you don’t wriggle around inside it too much, you should stay upright.
Of course, if you don’t want to stay upright, that’s one way out of this for you.
I’m not surprised! It’s a cold planet, and you’re not wearing a space helmet. Be a bit difficult, slipping a noose around your neck, if you were still wearing your helmet!
Fine, you want some more heat? That’s easy. Your life-support systems are still good, and you can adjust the suit temperature. The reason your arms are positioned in front of you the way they are, is that I want you to be able to operate your cuff control. That’s right. You can do that. You can move your fingers, tap those buttons.
Here’s the thing, though. There’s only one thing you can do with those buttons. Only one system you can control.
You can turn up your suit temperature, or you can turn it down.
The why is easy. You remember those pieces of the wreck I went to so much trouble to position around you?
There was a point to all that.
There’s a point to you.
I suppose the terror was too much for Kanto, and that the passage through the narrowing had weakened his leash. Whatever the case, the monkey was out of the chamber, gibbering and shrieking, as it headed back the way we had come.
None of us had spoken until that moment. The chamber had struck us into a thunderous, paralyzing silence. Even when Kanto left, we said nothing. Any utterance would have felt like an invitation, permission for something worse than these stone ghouls to emerge from the walls.
Lenka and I looked at each other through our visors. Our eyes met, and we nodded. Then we looked at Rasht, both of us in turn, and Rasht looked as frightened as we felt.
Lenka went first, then Rasht, then I. We moved as quickly as our suits allowed. But even though none of us felt like lingering, I was no longer having to work as hard to keep up with the other two. My suit still felt sluggish, but it had not worsened since I came into contact with the silver contamination. Lenka and Rasht, though, were not moving as efficiently as before.
I still could not bring myself to speak, not until we were well away from that place. If the monkey had any sense, it was already through the narrowing, on its way back to daylight.
But when we reached the junction, the intersection of four tunnels, Rasht made us halt.
‘Kanto’s taken the wrong one,’ he said.
In the chaos of footprints, there was no chance at all of picking out the individual trace of the monkey. I was about to say as much when Rasht spoke again.
‘I have a trace on his suit. In case he … escaped.’ The word seemed distasteful to him, as if it clarified an aspect of their relationship best kept hidden. ‘He should be ahead of us now, but he isn’t. He’s behind again. Down this shaft, I think.’ Rasht was indicating the rightmost entrance of the three we had faced on our way in. ‘It’s hard to know.’
Lenka said in a low voice: ‘Then we have to leave. Kanto will find his own way out, once he knows he’s gone the wrong way.’
‘She’s right,’ I said.
‘We can’t leave him,’ Rasht said. ‘We won’t. I won’t allow it.’
‘If the monkey doesn’t want to be found,’ I said, ‘nothing we do is going to make any difference.’
‘The fix isn’t moving. I have a distance estimate. It isn’t more than twenty or thirty metres down that tunnel.’
‘Or that one,’ I said, nodding to the middle shaft. ‘Or your fix is wrong, and he’s ahead of us anyway. For all we know, the magnetic field is screwing up your tracker.’
‘He isn’t behind us,’ Rasht said, doggedly ignoring me. ‘There are really only two possibilities. We can check them quickly, three of us. Eliminate the wrong shaft.’
Lenka’s own breathing was now as heavy as my own. I caught another glimpse of her face, eyes wide with apprehension. ‘I know he means a lot to you, Captain …’
‘Is there something wrong with your suits?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ Lenka said. ‘Mine, anyway. Losing locomotive assist. Same as happened to you.’
‘I’m not sure it’s the same thing. I fell in the pool, you didn’t. Can you still move?’
Lenka lifted up an arm, clenched and unclenched her hand. ‘For the time being. If it gets too bad, I can always go full manual.’ Then she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and reopened them. ‘All right, Captain .’ This with a particular sarcastic emphasis. ‘I’ll check out the middle tunnel, if it’ll help. I’ll go thirty metres, no more, and turn around. You can check out the one on your right, if you think Kanto’s gone that way. Nidra can wait here, just in case Kanto’s gone ahead of us and turns back.’
I did not like the idea of spending ten more seconds in this place, let alone the time it would take to inspect the tunnels. But Lenka’s suggestion made the best of a bad situation. It would appease the Captain and not delay us more than a few minutes.
‘All right,’ I agreed. ‘I’ll wait here. But don’t count on me catching Kanto if he comes back.’
‘Stay where you are, my dear,’ Rasht said, addressing the monkey wherever it might be. ‘We are coming.’
Lenka and Rasht disappeared into their respective tunnels, their suits moving with visible sluggishness. Lenka, whose suit was more lightly armoured, would find it easier to cope than Rasht. I speculated to myself that the silver contamination was indeed having some effect, but that my exposure to the pond’s micro-organisms had provided a barriering layer, a kind of inoculation. It was not much of a theory, but I had nothing better to offer.
I counted a minute, then two.
Then heard: ‘Nidra.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I hear you, Lenka. Have you found the monkey?’
There was a silence that ate centuries. My own fear was now as sharp and clean and precise as a surgical instrument. I could feel every cruel edge of it, cutting me open from inside.
You came back then. You’d found your stupid fucking monkey. You were cradling it, holding it to you like it was the most precious thing in your universe.
Actually I do the monkey a disservice.
As stupid as he was, Kanto was innocent in all this. I thought he was dead to begin with, but then I realised that het was trembling, caught in a state of infant terror, clinging to the fixed certainty of you while he shivered in its armour.
I made out his close-set yellow eyes, wide and uncomprehending.
I loathed your fucking monkey. But there was nothing that deserved that sort of terror.
Do you remember how our conversation played out? I told you that Lenka was in trouble. Your loyal crewmember, good, dependable Lenka. Always there for you. Always there for the Lachrimosa. No matter what had happened until that point, there was now only one imperative. We had to save her. This is what Ultras do. When one of us falls, we reach. We’re better than people think.
But not you.
The fear had finally worked its way into you. I was wrong about greed being stronger. Or rather, there are degrees. Greed trumps fear, but then a deeper fear trumps greed all over again.
I pleaded with you.
But you would not answer her call. You left with Kanto, hobbling your way back to safety.
You left me to find Lenka.
I did not have to go much further down the tunnel and reached the thing blocking further progress. It had trapped Lenka, but she was not yet fully part of it. Teterev had come earlier—many years ago—so her degree of integration was much more pronounced. I could judge this in a glance, even before I had any deeper understanding of what I had found. I knew that Lenka would succumb to Teterev’s fate, and that if I remained in this place I would eventually join them.
‘Come closer, Nidra,’ a voice said.
I stepped nearer, hardly daring to bring the full blaze of my helmet light to bear on the half-sensed obstruction ahead of me.
‘I’ve come for Lenka. Whatever you are, whatever’s happened to you, let her go.’
‘We’ll speak of Lenka.’ The voice was loud, booming across the air between us. ‘But do come closer.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Because you are frightened?’
‘Then I am very glad to hear it. Fear is the point of this place. Fear is the last and best thing that we have.’
‘My predecessors and I. Those who came before me, the wayfarers and the lost. We’ve been coming for a very long time. Century after century, across hundreds of thousands of years. Unthinkable ages of galactic time. Drawn to this one place, and repelled by it—as you nearly were.’
‘I wish we had been.’
‘And usually the fear is sufficient. They turn back before they get this deep, as you nearly did. As you should have done. But you were braver than most. I’m sorry that your courage carried you as far as it did.’
‘It wasn’t courage.’ But then I added: ‘How do you know my name?’
‘I listened to your language, from the moment you entered me. You are very noisy! You gibber and shriek and make no sense whatsoever.’
‘Are you Teterev?’
‘That is not easily answered. I remember Teterev, and I feel her distinctiveness quite strongly. Sometimes I speak through her, sometimes she speaks through us. We have all enjoyed what Teterev has brought to us.’
I had never met Teterev, never seen an image of her, but there were only two human figures before me and one of them was Lenka, jammed into immobility, strands of silver beginning to wrap and bind her suit as if in the early stages of mummification. The strands extended back to the larger form of which Teterev was only an embellishment.
She must still have been wearing her suit when she was trapped and bound. Traces of the suit remained, but much of it had been picked off her, detached or dissolved or remade into the larger mass. Her helmet, similar in design to the one we had seen in the wreck, had fissured in two, with its halves framing her head.
I thought of flytrap mouthparts, Teterev’s head an insect. Her face was stony and unmoving, her eyes blank surfaces, but there was no hint of ageing or decay. Her skin had the pearly shimmer of the figures we had seen in the second chamber. She had become—or was becoming—something other than flesh.
But apart from Teterev—and Lenka, if you included her—none of the other forms were human. The blockage was an assemblage of fused shapes, creature after creature absorbed into a sort of interlocking stone puzzle, a jigsaw of jumbled anatomies and half-implied life-support technologies. Two or three of the creatures were loosely humanoid, in so far as their forms could be discerned. But it was hard to gauge where their suits and life-support mechanisms ended and their alien anatomies commenced. Vines and tendrils of silver smothered them from head to foot, binding them into the older layers of the mass. Beyond these recognisable forms lay the evidence of many stranger anatomies and technologies.
‘I’ve heard of a plague,’ I said, making my way to Lenka. ‘They say it’s all just rumour, but I don’t know. Is this what happened to you?’
‘There are a million plagues, some worse than others. Some much worse.’ There was an edge of playfulness in the voice, taking droll amusement in my ignorance. ‘No: what you see here is deliberate, done for our mutual benefit. Haphazard, yes, but organised for a purpose. Think of it as a form of defense.’
‘Against the outside world?’ I had my hands on her suit now, and I tried to rip the silver strands away from it, while at the same time applying as much force as I could to drag Lenka back to safety.
The voice said: ‘Nothing like that. I am a barrier against the thing that would damage the outside world, were it to be released.’
‘Then I don’t understand.’ I caught my breath, already drained by the effort of trying to free her. ‘Is Lenka going to become part of you? Is that the idea?’
‘Would you sooner offer yourself? Is that what you would like?’
‘I’d like you to let Lenka go.’ Realising I was getting nowhere—the strands reattached themselves as quickly I peeled them away—I could only step back and take stock. ‘She came back here to find the monkey, not to hurt you. None of us came to harm you. We just wanted to know what had happened to Teterev.’
‘So Teterev was the beginning and end of your concerns? You had no other interest in this place?’
‘We wondered what was in the cave,’ I answered, seeing no value in lying, even if I thought I might have got away with it. ‘We thought there might be Amerikano relics, maybe a Conjoiner cache. We picked up the geomagnetic anomaly. Are you making that happen? If so, you can’t blame us for noticing it. If you don’t want visitors, try making yourself less visible!’
‘I would, if it were within my means. Shall I tell you something of me, Nidra? Then we will speak of Lenka.’
Shall I tell you what I learned from her, Captain? Will that take your mind off the cold, for a little while?
You may as well hear it. It will put things into perspective. Make you understand your place in things—the value in your being here. The good and selfless service you are about to commence.
She was a traveller, too.
Not Teterev, but the original one—the first being, the first entity, to find this planet. A spacefarer. Admittedly this was all quite a long time ago. She tried to get me to understand, but I’m not sure I have the imagination. Whole galactic turns ago, she said. When some of the stars we see now were not even born, and the old ones were younger. When the universe itself was smaller than it is now. Young galaxies crowding each other’s heavens.
I don’t know if it was her, an effect of the magnetic field, or just my fears affecting my sense of self. But as she spoke of abyssal time, I felt a lurch of cosmic vertigo, a sense that I stood on the crumbling brink of time’s plunging depths.
I didn’t want to fall, didn’t want to topple.
Sensible advice for both of us, wouldn’t you say?
The universe always feels old, though. That’s a universal truth, a universal fact of life. It felt old for her, already cobwebbed by history. Hard for us to grasp, I know. Human civilisation, it’s just the last scratch on the last scratch on the last scratch, on the last layer of everything. We’re noise. Dirt. We haven’t begun to leave a trace.
But for her, so much had already happened! There had still been time enough for the rise and fall of numberless species and civilisations, time for great deeds and greater atrocities. Time for monsters and the rumours of worse.
She had been journeying for lifetimes, by the long measure of her species. Travelling close to light, visiting world after world.
If we had a name for what she was, we’d call her an archaeologist, a scholar drawn to relics and scraps.
Still following me?
One day—one unrecorded century—she stumbles upon something. It was a thing she’d half hoped to find, half hoped to avoid. Glory and annihilation, balanced on a knife edge.
We know all about that, don’t we?
Your finger is moving. Are you trying to adjust that temperature setting? Go ahead. Turn up your suit. I won’t stop you.
There. Better already. Can you feel the warmth flowing up from your neck ring, taking the sting out of the cold? It feels better, doesn’t it? There’s plenty of power in the suit. You needn’t worry about draining it. Make yourself as warm as you wish.
Look, I didn’t say there wasn’t a catch.
Turn it down, then. Let the cold return. Can you feel those skin cells dying, the frostbite eating its way into your face? Can you feel your eyeballs starting to freeze?
Back to our traveller.
We have rumours of plague. She had rumours of something far worse. A presence, an entity, waiting between the stars. Older than the history of any culture known to her kind. A kind of mechanism, waiting to detect the emergence of bright and busy civilisations such as hers. Or ours, for that matter.
Something with a mind and a purpose.
And she found it.
‘I’ve no reason to think you haven’t already killed Lenka,’ I said, a kind of desperate calm overcoming me, when I realised how narrow my options really were.
‘Oh, she is perfectly well,’ the voice answered. ‘Her suit is frozen, and I have pushed channels of myself into her head, to better learn her usefulness. There is some damage in there, but it is nothing I have caused. Old damage—something that was done to her once, and not put right.’
‘Damage?’ I asked.
‘You would need to ask her how it happened.’
How it happened, maybe. But who? I knew that I did not need to ask Lenka that at all. I already knew. She had challenged his authority, and it had not gone well for her.
Whatever damage had been done, Rasht had done it. Broken her will—left her as willing and pliant as I had always known her. Loyalty by surgery, as crude as it came.
I had no idea if she could hear me or not. But I had to speak. ‘I’m sorry, Lenka. Sorry that I thought badly of you. You had no choice. He broke you.’
‘She is not broken, Nidra—just damaged. But she has travelled well, this Lenka. I can still learn a great deal from her.’
I waited a beat.
‘Are you strong?’
‘That is an odd question.’
‘Not really.’ I reached beneath my chest pack, fumbling with my equipment belt until I found the hard casing of a demolition charge. I unclipped the grenade-sized device, presenting it before me like an offering. ‘Hot dust. Have you dug deep enough into Lenka to know what that means?’
‘No, but Teterev knew.’
‘That’s good. And what did Teterev know?’
‘That you have a matter-antimatter device.’
‘And the yield would be …?’
‘A couple of kilotonnes. Very small, really. Barely enough to chip an asteroid in two. Of course, I have no idea of the damage it would do to you.’
I used two hands to twist the charge open along its midline, exposing its triggering system. The trigger was a gleaming red disk. I settled my thumb over the disk, thinking of the tiny, pollen-sized speck of antimatter held in a flawness vacuum at the heart of the demolition charge.
‘Suicide, Nidra? Surely there’s a time-delay option.’
‘There is, but I’m not sure I’d be able to get to my ship in time. Besides, I don’t know what you’d do with me gone. If you can paralyse Lenka’s suit, you can probably work your way into the charge and disarm it.’
‘You would kill Lenka at the same time.’
‘Not if you let her go. And if you don’t let her go, this has to be a kinder way out than being sucked into you.’ I allowed my thumb to rub back and forth over the trigger, only a twitch away from activating it. There was an unsettling temptation to just do it. The light would be quick and painless, negating the past and future in a single cleansing flash.
In that moment I wanted it.
What would you have done, Captain?
That’s easy. The thing she found, in the wreck of another ship, seemed dead to her. Dead and exhausted. Just a cluster of black cubes, lodged in the ship’s structure like the remnant of an infection. But it had not spread; it had not destroyed the wreck or achieved total transformation into a larger mass. She thought it was dead. She had no reason to think otherwise.
Can we blame her for that?
But the machinery was only dormant. When her ship was underway, while she slept, the black cubes began to show signs of life. They swelled, testing the limits of her containment measures. Her ship woke her up, asking what it should do. Her ship was almost a living thing in its own right. It was worried for her, worried for itself.
She had no answer.
She tried to strengthen the fields and layer the alien machinery in more armour. None of that worked. The forms broke through, began to eat her ship—making more cubes. She put more energy into her containment. What else could she do?’
Throw them overboard, you wonder?
Well, yes. She considered something like that. But that would only be passing the problem on to some other traveller. The responsibility was hers alone. She felt quite strongly about that.
Still, the machinery was definitely damaged. She was sure of that. Otherwise the transformation would have been fast and unstoppable. Instead, she had achieved a sort of stalemate.
Suicide, perhaps—dive into a star. But the data offered no guarantees that this would be enough to destroy the machinery. It might make it stronger!
Not a chance she could take.
So instead she found this world. A ship in space is an easy thing to see, even across light years. A world offers better camouflage—it has mass and heat. She thought she could screen herself—drawing no attention from passers-by.
She was wrong.
The cubes were resilient, resourceful. Constantly testing her capabilities. They demanded more power, more mass. She converted more and more of her ship into the architecture of their prison. She died! But by then her living ship had grown to know her so well that her personality lived on inside it, haunting it as a kind of ghost.
Centuries blasted by.
Her ship protected and enlarged itself. It ate into the surrounding geology, bolstering the containment and consolidating its defenses. For the most part it had no need of her, this residue of what she had been. Once in a while it raised her from the shadows, when her judgement was required. She was never lonely. She’d burned through her capacity for loneliness, discarding it like an outmoded evolutionary stage.
But she had visitors, all the same.
No, not quite. Not to begin with. To begin with they were just like her.
‘They came,’ the voice said. ‘My sensors tracked them with great vigilance and stealth. I watched them, wary of their intentions. I risked collapsing my containment fields, until they were out of range. I did not want to be found. I did not want my mistake to become theirs. It was always a bad time.’ It paused. ‘But I did not miss their company. They were not like me. Their languages and customs had turned unfamiliar. I was never sorry when they turned for space and left me undisturbed.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Believe what you like. It hardly matters, anyway. They stopped coming. A silence fell, and endured. It was broken only by the tick of pulsars and the crack and whistle of quasars half way to the universe’s edge. There were no more of my kind. I had no knowledge of what had become of them.’
‘But you could guess.’
‘It did not mean that I could give up, and allow what I had found to escape. So I slept—or ceased to be, until my ship had need of me again—and the stars lurched to new and nameless constellations. Twenty million orbits of my old world, two hundred thousand lifetimes. And then a new visitor—a new species.’
I guessed that we were still in the distant past.
‘Did you know this culture?’
‘I had no data on anything like them, dead or alive. Frankly, it disturbed me. It had too many limbs, a strange way of moving, and I wondered what it looked like outside of its armour. I wanted it to go away. I quietened myself, damped my energies. But still it came. It dug into me, seeking an explanation for whatever its sensors had picked up. I thought of simply killing it—it had come alone, after all. But there was another possibility open to me. I could take it, open its mind, learn from it. Fold its memories and personality into my own. Use its knowledge to better protect myself the next time.’ A kind of shame or regretfulness entered the voice. ‘So that is what I did. I caught the alien, made sure it was incapable of escape, and pushed feelers through the integument of its suit and into its nervous system. Its anatomy was profoundly unfamiliar to me. But at one end of its segmented, exoskeletal body was a thing like a head and inside the brittle cage of that head was a dense mass of connected cells that had something of the topological complexity of what had once been my own brain. It was hierarchically layered, with clear modular specialisation for sensory processing, motor control, abstract reasoning and memory management. It was also trying very hard to communicate with its fellows—whereverthey were—and that made it easy for me to trace the circuits and pathways of expression. Before long, I was able to address the alien through the direct manipulation of internal mental states. And I explained what was to become of it. Together we would be stronger, better equipped both to deal with the thing at the heart of me, and also to make my concealment more effective. I was sorry about what had needed to be done, but I made it understand that I had no choice at all.’
‘How did it take it?’
‘How do you think, Nidra? But very soon the question concerned neither of us. It had become me, I had become it. Our memories were a knot of entanglements. It understood my concerns. It grasped that there had only ever been one path. It knew that we had no choice about what we had become.’
‘But it didn’t end, did it? There were more. Always more. Other species … dozens, hundreds of them. Until we came!’
‘You are no different.’
‘Perhaps we aren’t. But this alters things, doesn’t it?’ I still had my thumb on the trigger, ready to unleash a matter-antimatter conflagration. ‘You think I won’t do this? You’ve told me what you are. I understand that you acted … that you’ve been acting … for what you think is the common good. Maybe you’re right, too. But enough is enough. You have Teterev. It’s too late for her … too late for you, if I’m still reaching a part of her. But it stops with Lenka. She’s mine. She’s coming back with me.’
‘I need her. I need to add her library of fears to my own. I need to make myself stronger.’
‘It won’t work. It hasn’t been working. You’re stuck in a spiral … a destructive feedback loop. The more you try to make yourself impregnable, the more evident you become to the outside world. So you have to make yourself yet more impregnable … add to your library of fears. But it can’t continue.’
‘I tried to stop myself. But always they came. New travellers, new species. Nothing I did made myself invisible to them. I could not negotiate, I could not persuade, because that would have been tantamount to confessing the hard fact of my existence. So I did what I had always done. I hid. I made myself as quiet and silent as physics allowed, and willed them to leave. I dug into our mutual psychologies, trawled the ocean of our terrors, and from that sea of fears I shaped the phantasms that I hoped would serve as deterrence, encouraging newcomers to come no nearer. But it was never totally sufficient. Some were always too brave, or curious, and by force of will they reached the heart of me. And always I had no choice but to take, to incorporate, to turn them to my cause. To feed me their fears, so that I might better my defenses. Why do you think I had to take Teterev? She was the first of your kind—a new jewel, to place in my collection. She had been very useful, has Teterev. We are all very glad of her. Her fears are like a new colour, a new smell. We never imagined such things!’
‘Good. I’m truly sorry for Teterev. But you don’t need Lenka. Give her back control of her suit, and we’ll leave you alone.’
‘You could make that promise to me. But you did not come here alone.’
‘The Captain … we’ll take care of him.’
See? Thinking of you even then.
Always in our hearts and minds.
‘I listened to your babble. The theories of your Captain. He craves his fortune. He will think he can turn the fact of me to profit. He will try to sell the knowledge of my location.’
‘He doesn’t even know what you are!’
‘But he will find out. He will ask what became of you, what became of Lenka. Your silence will count for nothing. He will return. He will send machines into me. And soon more will come, in other ships, and I am bound to fail. When the machines touch your civilisation, they will scorch you into history. They have done it a thousand times, with a thousand cultures. They will leave dust and ruins and silence, and you will not be the last.’
‘Lev,’ I said quietly.
There was a silence. I wondered if the thing before me would speak again. Perhaps I had shut the door of communication between us with that one invocation.
But the voice asked: ‘What do you know of Lev?’
‘Your son,’ I answered. ‘The son of part of you, the son of Teterev. You had to leave him on the orbiting ship. You didn’t mean to, but it must have been the only way. You loved him. You wanted very badly to get a message to him, to have him help you. That’s why you came as far as you did. But you failed.’
‘And Lev is gone.’
I nodded. ‘But not in the way you think. Someone got to that ship before us—cleaned it out. Stripped it of engines, weps, crew. The frozen. But they’d have been valuable to someone. If Lev was on that ship, he’d have made it back to one of the settled worlds by now. And we can find him. The Mendicants trade in the frozen, and we have traded with the Mendicants, in many systems. There are channels, lines of enquiry. The name of your ship…’
‘What would it be to you?’
‘Give us that name. Let us find Lev. I’ll return. I promise you that much.’
‘No one ever promises to return, Nidra. They promise to stay away.’
‘The name of the ship,’ I said again.
She told me.
So many names, so many ships. Numberless. Names too strange to put into language, at least no language that would fit into our heads. Names like clouds. Names like forests. Names like ever unfolding mathematical structures—names that begat themselves, in dreams of recursion. Names that split the world in two. Names that would drive a nail through your sanity.
But she told me some of them, as best as she could.
Lovely names. Names of such beauty and terror they made me weep. The hopes and fears of the brave and the lost. The best and the worst of all of us. All wayfarers, all travellers.
I asked her to try and remember the last of them.
Not a chance, Captain. You don’t get to know everything.
I stepped back from his suited-but-immobile form, admiring my handiwork. He really did look sculptural, frozen into that oddly dignified posture, with his arms coming together across his chest, one hand touching the cuff of the other.
‘I suppose you could say that we came to an understanding, Teterev and I,’ I said. ‘Or what Teterev had become. Partly it was fear, I think, that I’d use the hot-dust. Did I come close? Yes, definitely. Not much to lose at that point. I might have been able to work the ship without you, but certainly not without Lenka. If she didn’t survive, there wasn’t much point in me surviving either. But Lenka was allowed to leave, and so was I. It was hard work, getting Lenka back here. But she’s begun to regain some suit function now, and I don’t think either of us will have any trouble returning to the lander.’
The Captain tried to speak. It was hard, with the noose tight around his throat. He could breathe, but anything more was an effort.
He rasped out three words that might have been “fuck you, Nidra”. But I could not be sure.
‘I made a commitment to Teterev,’ I carried on. ‘Firstly, that we’d make sure you were not a problem. Secondly, that I’d do what I could to find Lev. If that decades, longer, so be it. It’s something to live for, anyway. A purpose. We all need a purpose, don’t we?’
He attempted another set of syllables.
‘Here’s yours,’ I said. ‘Your purpose is to die here. It will happen. How fast it happens, is in your hands. Quite literally. Those pieces of debris I set around you are curved mirrors. Now, it’s not an exact science. But when the sun climbs, some of them will concentrate the sun’s light on the snow and ice on which you are standing. It will begin to melt. The tension on your noose will increase.’ I paused, allowing that part to sink in, if he had not already deduced matters for himself. ‘In any case, the ice will melt eventually, as the days go on. It’s only permafrost deeper in the cave mouth, and we’re moving into warmer months. But you’ll be dead by then. It’ll be a nasty, slow death, though. Hypothermia, frostbite, slow choking—take your pick. But you can speed it up, if you like. Turn up your suit’s heat, and you can stay as warm as you like. The downside is that the heat will spill away from your suit and melt the ice even quicker. You’ll be hanging by your neck within hours, with the entire weight of your suit trying to rip your skull from your spine. At that point, overwhelmed by terror and pain, you might try and turn down the thermal regulation again. But by then you might not be able to move your fingers. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. There are many paths to the one goal. All the scenarios end with your corpse hanging from the mouth of the cave. Swinging there until the ice returns. You’ll make an effective deterrent, wouldn’t you say? A tolerable invitation to keep away?’
Rasht tried to say something. But Lenka, who had hobbled closer, placed a finger on his lips.
Something had changed in Lenka since her return from the cave. If the thing in the cave has the means to sense the damage in her head, I wondered, could it also make some repairs? Nothing major—just enough to break her submissive, to turn her from Rasht?
‘Enough,’ she whispered. ‘Save your breath.’
‘Where is the monkey?’ I asked.
‘Tethered where we left it, over by the wreck. Shall we leave it here?’
‘No. Well bring it with us, and we’ll take good care of it. I promised him that much.’
‘He doesn’t deserve it.’
‘That’s true. But I try not to break my promises. Any of them.’
‘Then we’re done here,’ Lenka said.
‘I think we are.’
We turned our backs on our former Captain and commenced the slow walk back to the lander. We would stop at the wreck on our way, collect the monkey, and what we could of Teterev’s belongings—her journal, in particular, would be coming with us. Then we would be off Holda, out of this system, and that was a good thought.
Even if I knew I had to return.
‘When we get back to the ship, I want to give it a new name. Lachrimosawas his ship, not ours.’
I thought about that for a moment. ‘That’s a good idea. A clean break. I have some suggestions, if you’d like to hear them.’