From the author: A crew of three aboard a small dirigible floating above the liquid oxygen sea of a distant ice moon find signs of alien life--and one of them must come to realize how isolated she's become from humanity, as she reaches out to encounter the unknown.
Oxygen, when reduced to a liquid state by cold temperatures, turns a surprising shade of periwinkle blue. On Aglinak, one of the moons of 14 Herculis b, a cobalt sea of liquid oxygen shimmered under the orange light of the system’s distant star. Blue-white clouds of oxygen scudded away across a bronze horizon, revealing the teal bulk of a gas giant.
A vessel rocked above the waves, suspended by a helium balloon and held in place by a carbon nanofiber anchor—mere steel would shatter in the intense cold of this sea.
Inside the Anumati, Amanda kept her eyes on her screen, directing a drone under the waves. Behind her, a hatch opened and a hand fell on her shoulder. She twitched. In the ship’s close confines, it was impossible to escape her shipmates, Zhang Xia and Ahbay Saluja. She knew it was irrational. She knew it was unhelpful. But after six months in each others pockets, she wanted space. Time away from them. Anything, really.
“We’re never going to find anything that will justify our expenses to management,” Saluja muttered glumly, ignoring her flinch.
“We’re sitting on a fuel goldmine,” she replied, managing to control her expression, stealing a glance at the screen dedicated to the outside world. Her eyes drank the colors thirstily. In a vessel necessarily without windows, keeping a screen tuned to an outer camera became a psychological relief. “Water ice at the poles, LOX here—”
A chirp interrupted them as the drone registered unusual rock formations. Amanda panned its camera, and they stared at the feed.
No jagged rocks, but smooth, even lines, running east-west. Amanda sent the drone ahead. “That wall’s three meters tall and a meter thick. There’s a two-meter gap past it, and then another, identical wall.” Her mouth went dry. “And it just keeps going!”
Saluja’s shoulder pushed her into the bulkhead. “There’s a break—get closer.”
A gap gave way to another intersecting passage. “That’s a ninety-degree corner.”
“Crystals do fracture at angles—”
“But the walls haven’t deviated in width.” She looked at Saluja, who’d practically applied his nose to the screen. “I think we’d better wake Xia.”
“And contact management,” Saluja said, scratching his chest-length bristling beard, worn in defiance of corporate regulations. Regulations suggested that beards would interfere with breather seals. Saluja had started growing his almost the day he joined the three-person crew of the Anumati. A private kind of protest.
“May as well,” Amanda agreed, shrugging. A corporate space station hovered in orbit around Herculis b, coordinating recon and construction teams on seventeen of its moons. But to contact Earth about any salient finds, Central would have to deploy one of its Alcubierre-drive messenger drones, which would take eight weeks to reach Earth. Any reply would take an additional eight weeks to return by the same method. A modern version of letters sent by transoceanic liner.
In short order, corporate directives came down: “Find out as much as you can before we send this on to Earth. But don’t interact with the structure.”
“Look as much as you can,” Amanda interpreted, her back against the wall of a compartment, fascinated by what unfolded on the screens, but trying to keep as much space between herself and the others as possible . . . hoping her thirst for space wasn’t noticeable, “but for god’s sake, don’t touch anything.”
“A reasonable precaution,” Xia replied calmly, working the drone controls now. She appeared, as always, preternaturally calm, her dark eyes flickering over the consoles with practiced ease. She was always so pulled in, so composed, that her very calm grated on Amanda’s nerves. No one trapped in this tin-can for months can possibly be that at peace. There’s got to be a volcano in there somewhere. “We wouldn’t want to shame the company.”
Amanda awarded the other woman a sidelong glance. She couldn’t tell if that comment had been sincere, or the wickedest form of irony imaginable. Xia’s remarks tended to cut many different ways at once. Or I just overthink it. Like everything else.
A week later, Saluja waved Amanda into a workroom filled with holographic arrays. “I’ve been having the computer render maps of everything we’ve found. It’s taking a while. Substandard equipment,” he grumbled. “After that, 3D.”
Hanging back by the hatch, she whistled. “There’s no way that this is a natural geological formation,” Amanda muttered. “I’ll admit that with all the twists, it does look a little like a brain coral, like Central suggested last week . . . but it’s so square. Inorganic.” Something tickled at the back of her mind. Not bends and curves. Folds. Brains fold for maximum surface area. . . . She looked up. “What’s management’s latest theory?”
Saluja snorted. “Giant worms that spread out a tunnel network over five square kilometers.”
Behind them, the door opened, and Xia ducked under the frame, colliding with Amanda, who flinched. “Excuse me,” Xia apologized, her tone excited. “I think it’s a structure built by an ancient alien species. Look at the whole thing,” she added rapidly. “It’s symmetrical. Perfectly so. With four paths leading to a central area, the sunken square.”
Amanda’s eyebrows rose. “There are plenty of habitable worlds in the galaxy. Why would someone want to build something here?” She gestured vaguely towards the outside world. “Underwater—excuse me. Underliquid.” She grimaced. No salt in this sea. No fish. Only plankton-like creatures that drift around like silicon snowflakes, metabolizing slowly. Using light to fuel their processes, while immersed in a fluid so cold, that death would be instantaneous for us if we fell into it.
Something about the word silicon triggered a notion, but then Xia spoke, chasing the half-born thought away. “For the same reason we’re here. Abundance of fuel. A supply station. One that was above the sea when it was built. And sank later.”
“That tracks for me.” Amanda frowned at the images. “But then . . . why build a maze around it? You want straight lines for easy transport. Crooked paths are usually defensive.”
Saluja cleared his throat. “When I visited England, they had mazes. Built for meditation, originally. For walking in solitary contemplation.” He leaned back in his chair, gesturing expansively. With them all crammed in the same room, Amanda felt as if she couldn’t breathe. The walls seemed to bend inwards at her, and she got her fingers on the latch of the hatch. Stupid. Irrational. There’s just as much air now as there was five minutes ago. Breathe, idiot.
Saluja continued, the words filtering vaguely into Amanda’sher consciousness, “The meditation aspect, eh. If I want to meditate, I find a place to sit and clear my mind. But . . . it wasn’t my culture that built the thing.” He stretched again.
Amanda took a deep breath. “Agreed. We can’t know for certain what brought any aliens here.” A pause. “Heck, I don’t even know what brought you two here.”
Xia regarded her steadily. “I’ve heard that you volunteered for this job.”
Amanda grimaced. “I needed a turn in actual gravity. It was this, or being shipped home.” She shrugged, avoiding all the reasons she had for not going back to Earth. Her parents’ deaths. Her brother’s anger. “Up till recently, I’d been wondering if I should’ve taken the ticket home.” Another inhalation. “I think I’m getting claustrophobia here.”
A glimmer of a thought remained at the back of her head—something about the plankton. Drifting like glass through a gelid sea. Amanda exhaled. “So, we’re agreed that this is most likely something constructed by intelligent beings?” she asked. “Should we talk to corporate?”
Saluja’s frown disappeared into his beard. “They’ll tell us not to jump to conclusions.”
“Then we need to get more evidence.”
“How?” Xia challenged.
Saluja shrugged. “Send drones to the central depression? Or have one of us pilot the small sub through the maze?”
“Drones represent a good start,” Amanda acknowledged. “But all of our images so far have been top-down. We’re probably not looking at this thing as it was intended to be viewed.”
Xia shook her head. “Amanda, you have cabin fever.”
Amanda inhaled. “Maybe,” she replied. “But, taking a one-seat sub out isn’t exactly going to provide fresh air.”
“And why couldn’t we send one of our drones into the trenches between the walls, without risking any lives?” Saluja demanded. “Explain this, please!”
She frowned. “A probe would give us a view from inside the trenches, absolutely.” Amanda acknowledged. “But . . . you yourself said about the mazes in England that the point of them was to invoke a sense of meditation and awe. The ahah! moment when you find the right way of thinking about something.” She paused. “And if there’s a meditative component to this, I’m probably the most in need of a high colonic to the brainstem.”
Saluja threw back his head and laughed. Xia allowed herself a small, restrained smile. “Brainstem enema,” Saluja spluttered. After a moment, though, his grin faded. “I don’t see how corporate can object, so long as we don’t damage the structure.”
Approval came three days later. To Amanda’s surprise, management recommended that she should be the one to go.
Saluja looked uncomfortable as he told Amanda, “I have children. Xia has two elderly parents who depend on her paychecks—”
Amanda blinked. “I didn’t know that. She’s never mentioned.”
Saluja grimaced. “You represent the least liability.” He hesitated. “I could still go—”
“Xia’s got more time in the submersible than either of us,” Amanda admitted. “But . . . “ She hesitated, then shook her head. Suddenly, the notion she’d floated on a whim loomed in front of her, large and terrifying. “I’ll go.” Amanda told him, her mouth dry. “I’m the one who came up with the fool idea in the first place.”
As she clambered into a bulky pressurized suit, at least ten years old, the hatch behind her opened. Xia stepped inside, frowning.
“Was there something?” Amanda asked, stepping into the suit and pulling it up over her shoulders.
“Have you written to your family?”
Amanda’s stomach lurched. “No one left but my brother. And he’s not exactly talking to me.” She closed the first seal.
A pause. “And if there is an accident, how do you think he will feel, knowing that you and he never made peace?” Xia hesitated. “I have no brothers. No sisters. I’ve often wished for both. Particularly now, with my parents near the ends of their lives. It would be much easier if there were someone with whom to share the . . .” A frown. “I don’t like this English word, burden. Family isn’t a burden.”
“They can feel like it,” Amanda replied, looking away. Unable to bear the intimacy of sudden confession. Do the human thing! Reach out, as she’s reaching out. “My parents died in an accident. I didn’t have the chance to watch them grow old.” She managed to look up. “My brother hasn’t spoken with me since I missed the funeral.”
Xia nodded. “My parents don’t wish to jeopardize my work. And yet, I feel I should be there. Caring for them in ways that doctors and nurses and others cannot.” She exhaled, her face closing back over the moment of raw vulnerability. “You shouldn’t burden your brother with the regret of words unspoken, and anger unresolved, if the worst happens.”
Amanda stared at her boots. “You have a point,” she muttered. “But there’s no time.”
“There’s also no rush. The structure has been here for millions of years.”
Amanda stared after her. Would I have reached out to her, if she’d been the one heading out in the sub? I’d like to think so, but . . . .
At first, she resisted the notion. No. I don’t need to write to him. Hell, I don’t want to write to him. He’s the one who shut me out of his life and judged me for not being there—and why? Because by the time I got the message, they’d already been in the ground for a month. No, if he wants peace, he can be the one to make contact, not me.
But the more she considered it, the more Xia’s words resonated with her. The sheer fact that the reserved woman had reached out to her, to ask her to reach out in turn... It meant something. So Amanda dictated a halting letter to her brother, determinedly upbeat and cheerful. Hell of a last message. “Hi, Tom! If you get this message, I’m probably dead. How are you and your wife? Nevermind—if I’m dead, you can’t answer that, ha-ha!”
Still, it felt easier to talk to the camera than she’d expected.” She hesitated, then saved the message, not sending it. I’ll replace it with a better one later.
The pressurized suit had heating elements built into it. Liquid-proof, it should keep her from freezing if the sub malfunctioned. She verified the seals. Let Saluja latch on her helmet. Felt the thump of Xia’s hands on her shoulders. And clambered into the sub.
A stark mechanical jolt as the Anumati’s deckplates shifted. And then an instant of free-fall, followed by a sharper jolt as the sub hit the fluids below.
Blue, she thought, dazed. I’ve never seen so much blue. The waves glowed in the sunlight, the color searing down her optic nerves, saturating starving neurons. Oh, god, I have needed this. Maybe I’ve just had some analogue to Seasonal Affect Disorder all along.
The radio crackled. “Amanda, do you copy?” Xia asked.
Amanda checked her controls. “Yes, I copy. All systems show nominal.”
Her hands felt clumsy in the thick gloves, and she made her approach to the entrance slowly. “What do you see?” Saluja asked in her ear. “Keep a running monologue.”
“It’s darker than the probes made it appear,” she ventured as she entered the first trench. “It’s like twilight on Earth. Turning on the forward lights.”
As she did so, she caught her breath in awe. Thousands of tiny stars hovered, catching the light from the sub and glittering a radiant gold. “The plankton’s all around me,” she managed, swallowing. “It looks like stars. Like snow. It’s settling everywhere!”
And then her breath caught again. “That’s it. The upper layers of the structure? I bet they’re all made of silicon. Thousands of years of plankton settling, compacting, and sheathing it . . . maybe the builders put it under the sea on purpose. To let the silicon layer down.”
“But why would they?” Saluja asked.
“Make a hard right at the end of this trench,” Xia cut in.
“Hard right, copy,” she murmured, and drifted around the bend. “I can see lines in the walls,” she added. “The probes didn’t pick up on it. Lines, running parallel to the ground.”
“Forty-five degree left ahead,” Xia informed her.
Amada moved towards the center, awed. But she noticed that the controls seemed to be less responsive now. Just as substandard as our computers. And as she made the final turn into the central enclosure, vibrations shuddered through the frame. “Damn. Guys, the controls are sticking, and I just hit a wall.”
Saluja cursed. “Are your seals holding?”
Amanda licked her lips, conscious of tons of pressure enfolding her tiny sub. “No hazard lights yet, but . . .” she squinted out the canopy, “looks like I lost a light. All I see are wires.”
“Come back for repairs,” Saluja ordered.
“I’m already here,” Amanda replied. “A couple of tests can’t hurt. I mean, this is silicon. A light electrical charge should let us measure its resistance. Might as well make use of those broken wires,” Amanda added with forced cheer.
“Go ahead,” Saluja returned.
Amanda moved the sub towards the nearest wall with delicate touches to the controls. “About ten centimeters to go . . . five . . .” A gentler thump this time. “The broken wires from the light are against the wall,” she reported. “Nothing seems to be happening—”
The lights in the sub flickered. “Oh, crap,” Amanda muttered. “That’s apparently a big draw on current. Backing away—”
The thrusters shuddered and failed. Amanda’s eyes widened as the lights in the cockpit died. “Guys?” she said into the radio. “I think I just lost the master breaker.” Even through her thick boots, she felt heat radiating up from the deck. That was a huge draw. It melted the fuses . . . or the wires themselves. “Guys, I’ve got zero engine control. Guess the electrical test wasn’t the best idea.” She closed her eyes.
A pause. “We’re pulling the anchor and moving to you,” Saluja replied tightly. “You’re going to have to make a suit ascent.”
“Yes, I know. I’m not popping this canopy till you’re overhead.” Everything seemed distant. Not important at all. Adrenaline. Friend and foe. “Of course, the canopy might freeze by then.”
“Just hold tight.”
After a minute that felt like an eternity, Xia’s voice, taut and concerned: “We’re getting odd readings from the maze as we pass over it. Electrical surges. Amanda, you should probably not be in contact with the wall at this point—”
“No thrusters,” Amanda reminded the other woman, her lips numb.
“Get out of there,” Saluja told her. “We’ll be there in time. I promise.”
Amanda pulled the emergency latch with gloved fingers, but the mechanism didn’t respond. Hands shaking now, she unclipped her harness and lifted her heavy, booted feet. Kicked out at the polymer canopy and worked the latch again. No give to the canopy. She kicked again, legs uncoiling like a spring. And again—
—and the canopy gave way, icy fluid pouring into the cockpit, viscous and thick as a milkshake. Oh, god, Amanda thought numbly, and then pushed out of the submarine. Let’s go. The suit’s lighter than its environment, so I’m a cork, sure, but have to help it along . . . . She kicked clumsily with her booted feet, staring upwards through the blue-violet twilight around her. Oh, damn. Am I going the right way? Disoriented, she stopped kicking, but felt herself continue to rise. This was a bad idea. I’m not going to make it. I’ll be a Popsicle before the ship can reach me—
And then voices. Voices coiling through the water like those of mythical sirens, singing in voices like waves breaking on the shore, in words she couldn’t understand. Burning into her brain, rewriting the synapses. All she wanted to do was drink them in, listen, and understand, but she felt so cold, and her heart stuttered in her chest.
Her head broke the surface, and she bobbed on her back, shaking with the cold that her suit’s heaters struggled valiantly to combat. But the voices were in her and through her and she thought it might, just might, be all right to die this way . . . .
When Amanda awakened, she did so gradually. Words interlacing through her awareness, a chorus of ten thousand voices, interspersed with the prosaic human voices of doctors and nurses.”
Do you remember? Do you remember the red light our homestar expanded like a hungry giant, reaching for our world—
“EEG results are all over the place—”
“Considering the electrical shock she took, and the shock of exposure to those temperatures, she shouldn’t be alive. She should be a vegetable, no brain activity, not . . . all this nonsense we’re getting—”
All we were would have been lost, all our thoughts, all our dreams, all our selves, all our history, all our poetry—
Snatches of alien music flowed through her. A dozen poems jumbled into her mind at once, about the beauty of a sunrise, the horror as gentle dawn became a killer—
“The cold induced hypothermia, and we’ve kept her in a stabilizing coma—”
—the terror of ten thousand minds faced with extinction rose to choke her. Her heart pounded in her chest as she faced dissolution, imminent, immediate, oblivion yawning before her like an empty grave—
“Blood pressure spike! Heart rate just hit one-sixty—” She could see concerned human eyes over a mask, looking down into her own, and recoiled, seeing them as gelatinous and unreadable. “Hey! She’s awake!”
“We need to get that heart rate down—”
And then the world dissolved into the voices again, and the prick of a needle in her elbow washed those away, too.
The next time she opened her eyes, she saw pink and blue flowers on a curtain. The afterlife is a hospital? What’d I do to deserve hell?
But when she tried to speak those words out loud, they came out in foreign syllables, croaked in a voice as rusty as a raven’s. She couldn’t feel her arms or legs, but that didn’t seem important—
“Ah, you’re awake,” a familiar voice said, and she turned her head to find someone at her bedside. It took her a moment to recognize him through the plastic aperture of the white Hazmat suit he wore. She hadn’t, after all, seen her brother in the flesh for over a decade.
She tried to say his name, but the familiar syllables failed to form. Something else croaked out from between her teeth, sounds not meant for a human throat, sounds that almost flayed her vocal cords as they emerged. Amanda could feel a fresh spike of panic spreading through her.
White-gloved hands took and squeezed one of her own. “Calm down. Nod if you understand me.”
She managed that much. She tried to sit up, somehow not able to master her own body. “Are you Amanda?” her brother asked. “Is it Amanda that I’m talking to?” He sounded bone-weary. Near the edge of tears, as she’d never heard his voice before. Not even in the messages sent after their parents' funeral—all she’d heard then, had been anger.
Well who else would I be, Tom? she tried to demand, nodding, but the words kept tangling on her teeth, and she had to stop to cough.
“It sounds like her,” he said as a second white-clad figure pushed past the curtains. Through the new facemask, she recognized Saluja’s dark eyes.
“It does. No one else manages quite that tone,” Saluja replied, sounding just as weary as her brother. “Amanda, you’ve been out for four months,” he added, his voice taut. “Long enough to get your brother here. Long enough for the doctors to work out the right neurotransmitter cocktail to let you surface, but we don’t know for how long—”
Surface? she wanted to ask, but the voices whispered around the edges of her awareness again. Loud. Pressing into every space she had, the last vestiges of privacy. I don’t understand—
Saluja gestured. “Just let me finish. You gave the maze a jump-start with the electricity from your sub, remember? Turns out it was . . . some kind of giant computer chip. Built from the silicon of the plankton, to give it enough computing power, over the centuries to . . . do whatever it’s done to you. You’ve been talking nonstop since they brought you out of the coma. Relaying words from whatever alien civilization created it. But we can’t understand any of it.”
She closed her eyes, slumping. “Do you understand it?” her brother asked, squeezing one of her hands.
Amanda nodded numbly, the edges of her thoughts starting to erode away again. Closing her hand on her brother’s. Simple human touch. I could have reached out for this at any time, but I didn’t . . . .
“It’s been transmitting streams of code since the central area rose,” Saluja told her enthusiastically. “Streams of code that it transmits in music that our radios pick up. No one can translate it. The maze seems to be a giant computer chip, made of silicon, and the plankton may serve as both conductors and solar energy transformers for the structure.” He waved his hands excitedly. “The builders designed a semi-organic computer chip five kilometers square, with enough power to control whatever’s at the center, and we have no idea what we’ve awakened.”
“It talked to me,” she whispered. “It may need a more direct interface—“
“That’s the first we’ve known of that. You’ve been unconscious for nearly four months.” He ran a hand over his hair. “There are people on Earth who would give an arm to be here—” The words cut off abruptly. “Damn. There I go again. I’m sorry.”
Amanda nodded, trying to push through the drug fog that swept back in, threatening her feeling of clarity. Of being awakened in every nerve and cell. “This is the discovery of the millennium,” she whispered. “How soon do I get out of here? How soon can we go back?”
Saluja looked down. “Ah, I’m not sure that you will be going back,” he told her uncomfortably.
Beside him, Tom stirred. Turned to glare at her coworker, as his hand tightened on hers.
“What?” she blurted, stunned. “Why not?” Panic slowly welled up from under the medications. Just as slowly as the fluid had poured into her capsule.
Saluja winced. “The doctors wanted to tell you themselves. I’m an idiot.” He sighed and pulled the covers back. Amanda, already braced by his words and feeling dread roil up from her stomach on a wave of bile, looked down.
Her right arm remained intact, but her left terminated in a stump. And looking further down the bed, she didn’t see mounds under the pink blanket that suggested the presence of feet.
Panic tried to explode in her chest, but the medications and a pervasive feeling of unreality contained it somehow. She just stared down at herself numbly as Saluja explained hurriedly, “The company’s acknowledged that there was a fault in your suit. Just as substandard as our computers. They are, of course, going top-of-the line for the prosthetics—they even offered cadaver replacements, if you want them—”
Amanda shut her eyes tightly. “No!” she snapped, the horror of reality seeping through in spite of her closed lids. “There are no donors this far from Earth. And I’ll be damned if I’ll take anti-rejection medication for the rest of my life. Or look down at someone else’s hands at the ends of my arms. No way.” She swallowed, hard. This is real. This is really happening. And I get to hear about it five seconds after learning that I helped uncover the ultimate proof of other sapient life in the universe. After hearing their voices unfurling in my mind like waves on the shore.
“Look,” Tom cut in quietly, “I’m here, Mandy. We’ll talk it through. You have a family who loves you. Who’ll take care of you while you heal. It’s what families do.” He shrugged. “And if you really want to, I expect this thing will still be here when you’re ready to return.” His eyes looked angry behind his visor. “Though I hope you won’t line up to give it another shot at killing you. God damn it. We already lost Mom and Dad. I haven’t gotten to talk to you in five years, and when I get here, you’re comatose, and then babbling in tongues. Don’t make me lose you, too.”
Amanda swallowed her anger and resentment. Listening to her brother’s voice for the first time in years, hearing nothing but love and concern in it. But still, something in her remained resistant after hearing the message.
“Listen,” she told them both, “I . . . hear you, Tom. But I’m not leaving, you understand me? This place tried to take everything from me, but it also gave me something. A key, maybe, to unlock all the doors down there.” She exhaled. “And the company owes me. Send a memo up the line. I’ll take the prosthetics, and I’m staying right here. So we can unlock some damn doors.” She regarded them. “All of us. Together.”
And yet, in spite of those brave words, something welled up from deep within, and the voices sucked at the corners of her awareness. Taunting her with the knowledge that she might have left it too long to reach out. That tomorrow, she might lose her ability to speak again. That she might be reduced back to babbling in the language of those who’d built the maze, unable to communicate. To reach out with more than just a hand.
Her brave front wavered, and her fingers clutched her brother’s hand. Unable to let go.
This story originally appeared in Future Visions.