From the author: Alarm bells rang. Common enough in a state of Anthozoan war. Tocsins echoing: warning of collisions imminent or induline spore clouds and polyps drifting and falling like death. But this clamour was different, urgent and strange.
Alarm bells rang.
Common enough in a state of Anthozoan war. Tocsins echoing: warning of collisions imminent or induline spore clouds and polyps drifting and falling like death.
But this clamour was different, urgent and strange.
Porcelain Salli blinked and eased her focus from the SOL-Stream, shaking off the thoughts clinging to her - tenacious and earthly fog tendrils slow to lift.
Her brains were next-to-full-up, and her reserves stung -- migraines waiting to happen, in skull's fore and aft, if she wasn't careful.
Time to purge.
Bemused, though, she found it hard to cull the SOL-Stream stuff. For once Jupiter's magnetosphere wasn't acting up and the signal coming through was clean and fat and she felt alive to all its possibilities.
Jet spiders and whispers, squirts of almost infinitely dense information the by-product of the Simpson Sentiences; the thoughtshit on which the rest of the Solar System fed.
She'd glimpsed on the periphery, where meaning and noise warped, becoming convoluted webs of possibility a dozen Dorothies, all of them blinking and slapping their ruby slippers together, like they were getting off on getting out.
Salli blinked again and a polyp tentacular mass reached over from its cup, brushing her porcelain face lovingly, but insistently, pulling her completely out of the virtual and into the visceral.
Salli blinked again.
The sirens increased in pitch, becoming a constant and terrible shriek.
Anty M whispered once. Part scent, part sonics.
Tentacles, sprung from nearby cups and hollows, bunched around her, gripped her waspish waist and squeezed, gentle but strong.
The world swung upside down.
Everything shuddered, coral alleys twisted, bits of the ceiling collapsed in clouds of calcium carbonate, and, deep below, terabytes worth of bio-processors went out and reserves came online.
Anty M held its Salli tight for it had raised her, grew her. Losing Salli would be a kind of death.
Then the world was done shaking, the sirens ran down, and Anty M loosened its hold, though the tentacles remained, worried and stroking.
"What was that?" Salli asked, then purged and listened.
* * *
"A ship," she said.
"A shuttle," Anty M corrected. "A ship that goes between ships."
The shuttle teetered before her, bulbous metal all twisted, crumpled and broken: gases streamed from a dense network of cracks along its diamond hull, freezing and icicle-jetting off into the frigid dark.
Anthozoan flesh had cracked and cratered beneath its impact, but Anty M had held together, which was more than could be said for the shuttle. As Salli watched, one of the mangled landing claws gripping the hard surface of the Anthozoan, gave way silently and the shuttle plunged forward. Anty M's nearest tentacles whipped back into their cups, then all was still. But for the red spot behind, shifting, shifting, fluid and vast.
Salli's eyes possessed elegances set to detect the biological and they did just that.
Something, that wasn't an Anthozoan spore, lived inside.
She was watching it die.
"Can I?" She asked. "Can I save it?"
Anty M could deny its Salli nothing.
She linked with the wreck's dry mind. Easy enough, as the shuttle's networks were bleating and sad.
On contact, Salli paused, shocked at what she found, the AI possessed very different thoughts to that of Coral; corridors of desiccated sentience that did not curl and pucker. At first it denied her, but when it realised that Salli was not going away, and that she might just save its occupant, it gave a brittle sigh and released the shuttle's doorifice.
A last gasp of atmosphere escaped, a frosty exhalation that left Salli wiping ice from her eyes. And when she had they widened.
"Oh my," she whispered into the soundless vacuum. "A man."
And indeed it was.
A ruined man, skin blistered with sealant and webbing that could not hide the facts. The cockpit window was an impasto of frozen blood. His limbs were twisted and his bones fractured. Ribs, gone rogue, had punctured a lung.
And that was the least of it.
A man broken and dying. But not dead yet.
She lifted him up and carried him inside, where Anty M was already filling a chamber with air.
* * *
Dava Grey, the shuttle's AI had called him, and the name was sown into his suit in a glittery but bloodstained thread. In the oxygenated chamber, she looked closely but fleetingly over her patient. Sealant kept the blood in, but could do nothing about the deeper damages, impact woundings, boiling haemorrhages , blood vessels undammed. She had no knowledge of such things, but she knew where she could find it.
Into the SOL-Web she plunged, thankful the signal was strong, hunting and gathering all things pertinent and medical. Cavitation. Tension Pneumothorax. Hemothorax. Cardiac Tamponade. A minute, no more and she knew what to do, what she had to make.
Along coral alleys and down twisted staircases she ran to the Sound Box at the heart of the coral. Here was true weightlessness, no down to warp its makings, she programmed in her needs with urgent stabs of her fingers, marvelling all the while at the magic of acoustic manufacture, baffles and lasers and frequencies shifting and shaping the raw matter funnelled into the chamber.
Here she had been constructed, and her occasional emergency repairs effected. With the chamber you could make just about anything, if you possessed the right template. But after Salli had been made Anty M rarely used it, materials were scarce and better used in extending the colony.
When the tools were finished - cutters, rebuilders and the like, down to needles for injecting and tubes for sucking, nano and macro medicines - she raced back to her Dava Grey patient and cut and dosed.
With the subtleties of soundspun craft, she plucked him from Death's unsubtle grip.
* * *
Sometimes when she was up surface - Anty M's external tentacles waving around her, a forest of hunger - doing her job, breaking free the predatory polyps budded and drifted over from rival colonies, Porcelain Salli would pause and stare at the vast storm-banded gas giant which dominated the heavens.
Tired of chores, lonely and maudlin, she would dream of other places.
That Great Red Spot, where might it take her?
An anticyclone the size of worlds! Dorothy, eat your heart out.
Salli would stare until her eyes iced over or Anty M nudged her, directed her to another front in this slow and endless campaign. All Salli had ever known was war and the quiet spaces between invasions that might stretch a month or a year, filled with the static-haunted susurration of the Sol-Web.
Once a year Anty M would spawn, light up and crackle with deeply stored energies, ejecting its spore into the cold. Most were devoured by gobbling old Jove, but some of the millions, launched like multi-coloured rain in reverse, maybe just four or five, would collide with a small lump of rock or ice or dead coral and grow.
And perhaps one might even find a more established Anthozoan colony attach itself to the surface and chew and bud and chew, transmitting to its sister spores drawing more and more in, until the host colony was consumed and transformed.
Anty M was proud of its Spartoi. Humans were rare - even vacuum-resistant Spartoi - in this radiation filled space between Jupiter and Mars. Dexterous fingers attached to dexterous minds.
It could not begin to conceive of itself as a cold and lonely place for porcelain girls loved and grown by coral.
* * *
At last, Dava Grey rose above the chaos of his pained dreaming and the memory of Death's now distant kingdom. He opened his eyes and looked upon his saviour.
Such a pretty face and he was in love from that moment, till his last.
It was easy to fall in love when you have lost it all. It was easy to fall in love in the cold and the dark, last memories of collision, of sirens screaming, and big mass looming like death. His patched heart quivered, his pupils dilated.
"You look like - "
"Miss Garland, I know," she said "Dorothy, though my name is Porcelain Salli. Porcelain Salli, Spartoi."
"A good omen. A good omen indeed. Looking like Dorothy I mean," he said.
And Dava Grey, brave and lost, cried.
* * *
After the crying was done, and Salli brushed at his face gently, gently, and patted and whispered and said nice things, Dava Grey tried to stand. And blacked out.
Anty M was rather amused. Humans were such frail things.
* * *
Salli looked down at her human and waited for his eyes to open again. With the blood gone from his face and the bruising diminishing to shadows he was beautiful. And his voice. Oh his voice! It was honey in her ears.
When Dava Grey stirred, again, she pressed her hand gently but firmly against his shoulders.
"You're still a long way off standing, I'm afraid. Just concentrate on healing, there are bones to knit and wounds to seal up. A few days no more and you'll be perfect."
"Where am I?" he asked.
"Home," Salli said. "Coral Sentience Anthozoa Y@M. Anty M for short."
Dava Grey nodded.
"I have heard of the Anthozoans, and their war, but never expected to encounter a colony," he shook his head. "I have no home, mine is long lost. I am at your service, my lady."
* * *
And he had stories to tell. There was a lot the Sol-web had not told her. But then it was a whisper, a continual babble.
So, she knew nothing of the distant seed-ship-city-mind Slow, stalled on the edge of the Solar System. Or that there, on the edge, was where human kind stopped.
"We embarrass them, see. Our Terran AIs are too ashamed of their parents to let them out and play. No diaspora for the dim-witted fleshlings.
"But Simpson Sentiences are not as clever as they think." Dava Grey puffed up, then hunched down, a long finger pushed against his lips as he whispered, "We travel in silence, exploring, broadening our knowledge. Getting nowhere fast, because speed makes waves, and they would catch us and send us back. I dare not try to chase her, my ship, lest my noisy engines chop up the still black waters and give away the game."
He told her about his ship, the Melancholy Fled, its cramped confines, the crowd and smell of crew. Eighty-nine in all, though they had lost nearly a dozen in their slow progress across the solar system. The ship’s sails billowed clever and transparent, for such a vast opaqueness would have surely given them away. But bad things happened regardless of cleverness, collisions, bursts of radiation in unguarded moments. People die.
"Earth and Mars where the womb-born live. That is where we both come from – conceptually, you and I -- though neither of us was made there. My parents were born on a habitat in a small hollowed out planetesimal. However it was the AI of "The Melancholy Fled" that raised us. Our parents had to hide us as rubbish and launch us into space and only there, once we were away from the home rock, in the less guarded void, could we grow.
"I have recordings, though, of mother and father. I've seen the small forest of our habitat; I've sampled the odours of that different place. But on Earth as there is on Mars, there are mighty forests, and on the moon they have trees as large as forests and a great big sack of atmosphere."
"Are they ever lonely?"
"Never and always."
Anty M buzzed for her then. Salli grimaced, but none-the-less she clambered surface-wise to unpick another hungry bit of foreign coral. And while she was gone, Anty M's inner eyes stared at this Dava Grey. And its deeper darker bio-circuitry burned with Anthozoan jealousies.
But Salli adored him and Anty M adored her, so it just watched and Dava Grey healed.
* * *
What times they had.
Talk, not just chatter-flood of the Sol-Stream, or the chiming deliquescent demands of Anty M, but true interactiveness.
He spoke of the vastness of space, of the other oceanic analogues he'd seen. Great Sentient Sponges on the inner asteroids. A shivering school of proton-hungry squid that shaped itself into a glittering sphere at the approach of "The Melancholy Fled" then disappeared with an inky squirt of FTL.
And, more recently, Europa, teeming with life beneath the thick, thick ice. But what sort of life was uncertain, they had been unable to get close enough to look. Dava Grey had tried taking the shuttle out for recon, and ended up here, he said, encountering a different sort of life altogether.
The Solar System, let alone the universe, was vast and cold and dead -- until you looked a little closer and saw all the things teeming there, clinging to the shadows.
Humans had engineered most of them.
The Anthozoans for instance. Coral worlds to house humans on interstellar journeys and to seed the great interstices of space with slow-building way stations. But then the Simpson Sentiences had locked down the Solar System.
Where once they were destined for the expanses of the galaxy now they were crowded around Jupiter, possessed of a the desire to spawn and a rudimentary propulsion system too weak to do much beyond stabilising their orbits and avoiding collisions. No wonder they were at war.
All of this was fascinating to Salli and inspirational.
"Perhaps we could build a ship."
Salli stroked his cheek and crooned.
"Think of it! Jaunts to Callisto and Europa, we could take a dip beneath her icy petticoats. No need for either of us to be trapped."
Dava Grey's eyes brightened and Salli said what she'd dared not hope a few weeks before.
"There are rainbows out there somewhere and we might get over them."
Dava Grey laughed and it was a grim sound, for he had seen the face of death and he had spent his life in hiding, running, crouching, looking for shadows.
"There are no rainbows, my love. Just cruel promises and the cold of space. So cold and yet it calls us, hooks in our bones and pulls."
* * *
Dava Grey came up surface with her, wrapped in a thick suit, thicker still with Intelligence technology - a Van Allen belt around his waist and Elegant eyes alert to enemy activity.
He looked at his shuttle and shuddered. The metal that had twisted crazily, the blood-splattered cockpit. Something buzzed a moment in his head. And he thought of the impact again and his plans gone utterly awry.
He gripped Salli's hand. There were always complications.
Salli stared at the wreck admiringly.
"Anty M says I can keep it. A kind of monument to you."
Dava Grey nodded and unlocked the doorifice, it irised open begrudgingly . He reached in and plucked out a few items. One, a small nugget of bone or stone, he looked at wryly, made to throw away then thought better of it, slipping it into his suit pocket.
"What is that?" Salli asked of him.
Dava Grey shrugged.
"A memento. A reminder."
There was a bright flash in the corner of his vision. He pointed, grabbing Salli's hand to help her sight along.
"Look, a mining craft skimming Jupiter like a stone!"
The hydrogen-hungry ship shot bright as a star out of Jupiter's atmosphere.
His elegant eyes - enhanced for distance and recognition - mapped out all the major happenings in the Jovian system. Jupiter's Galilean satellites, Europa gleaming like a billiard ball, Angry Io and fat Ganymede and Callisto where the wild things were.
"Yes," he said. "A ship would be fine."
* * *
They hacked into Dava Grey's old computer, digging out its blueprints, and programmed and refined, building a ship for two.
The Ruby Slipper, made of diamond of course, spun diamond with a crust of delicate red. A pocket ship to be constructed in the Acoustic Chamber then shaken out on the surface.
When not working on The Ruby Slipper they slept in Dava Grey's air-filled coral alley, whispering and dreaming, and Salli would stir and look down at her love realising that she did not feel lonely, had not felt lonely since the day the sirens rang.
And all the while Anty M watched, a thousand eyes and ears all attuned to Salli's laughter, Salli's happiness that was Anty M's not at all.
* * *
"Where shall we go?" Salli asked with The Ruby Slipper nearly done. All they needed was to take it up surface and shake it out.
Dava Grey was thoughtful.
"Not far at first, maybe a little hop to Io. We don't want to draw any attention."
"Are there people there?"
"Once, vulcanologists, two whole clans of them. But that was centuries ago. People don't get to go where they want to any more."
A siren rang a familiar bleeping, and Salli smiled wearily.
"I'll be back soon," she said.
* * *
Tentacles closed around him and the air filled with a stinging garrulous odour.
DAVA GREY. Anty M said, startling him, as he'd never heard the Coral Sentience speak. DAVA GREY YOU ARE TAKING AWAY MY SALLI. The voice was a wet one, a threatening deliquescence. DAVA GREY I WON'T LET YOU.
Anty M's tentacles gripped with obdurate rage.
Dava Grey struggled, but could not pry himself free. Instead, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the stone he had taken from his ruined craft.
"I love her," he said.
I MADE HER.
THERE IS ONLY ENOUGH LOVE FOR ONE. SHE IS MY SOLDIER.
A tentacle flexed and squeezed and Dava Grey felt something burst: a liquid pain washed through his chest.
Anty M was a warrior that had fought in a conflict over eight centuries old. It had survived by not losing.
War makes creatures cruel, Dava Grey understood that better than most.
He smiled, a little blood leaking from his lips.
"Well you have lost this time," he said, and opened his fist, whispering a single word. A pass word, a Anthozoan word.
The stone hovered beneath his open palm then shot towards a coral wall.
* * *
Anty M recognised it at once.
CNIDOCYTE! It hissed, flicking at the vileness with a tentacle and missing. It was a little viral thing that would eat Anty M from the inside out.
Dexterous hands. Dexterous minds.
The cnidocyte struck the far end of the chamber, then flexed: a barbed nematocyst, a thread laden with enemy DNA, punctured the wall.
Anty M shook Dava Grey, hard.
YOU ARE ALL LIES, MAN
"Yes," Dava Grey said, colours dancing before his eyes. "Yes and no. My ship encountered another Coral Sentience, in fact a whole Coral Collective, seems you've got them running scared, and made a deal. For certain heat shield technologies and the Sound box stuff as well, if we could do this for it. Of course I never intended to crash my shuttle. I gave up my chance of escape so that "The Melancholy Fled" could truly live up to its name."
His grin grew wider and bloodier, death's face loomed but he'd already seen it before. It had lost its terror for him.
"And you know I nearly didn't do it, because I loved her. And because she loved you. But I had promises to keep, Anthozoa Y@M. Promises to keep. If Salli wasn't so good the other Coral wouldn't be gunning for you, be proud of that. My Salli, your Salli. She's her own Salli now."
"I'm sorry, truly sorry," Dava Grey said as the Anthozoan shuddered.
Anty M squeezed again, tighter than before and organs ruptured and bled.
Dava Grey's grin turned idiotic, his tongue bloated, and his eyes seemed almost to pop out of his head.
TOO LATE, Anty M thought.
Already the virus was spreading, devouring, and when the cruel enemy DNA reached its core it would send out signals and Anty M's bleached dead bulk would drown in enemy polyps.
SALLI. It called.
Just once, but it was enough.
* * *
Salli lay Dava down, and cried the chalky things that passed for her tears.
Her kisses were dry and hard, and he did not feel them. The same matter of a few minutes before - all sensation - was now insensate.
She stroked his lifeless cheeks and closed the unfluttering eyes of her love.
And for all that it stung Anty M that she'd not come to it first.
It whispered, sadly.
SALLI CHILD. I AM DYING.
DAVA GREY, HE VIRUSED ME, A CNIDOCYTE.
BUT THEN I AM NO BETTER. I DIDN'T WANT TO LOSE YOU. NOW EVERYTHING IS LOST. I'M SORRY.
DO WHAT YOU MUST, MY LOVE. GO.
"I can't," she said. "I won't."
WHAT IS COMING IS NOT CALM, BUT CHAOS.
IT WILL KILL YOU.
Tentacles brushed her back. Sad and stern scents filled the corridors.
IF YOU LOVED US, GO.
So Salli stumbled to the acoustic chamber. The pocket ship sat there, she picked it up and pulled herself surface-wise. And even as she did, the coral alleys gave up their last - tentacles spilled senselessly from their cups - and all Anthozoan Frequencies grew shrill with viral broadcasts.
HERE, HERE DEVOUR, it cried.
* * *
Already polyps were falling, striking the coral, digging and devouring. Drawn by that noisy cnidocyte.
Up surface, Anty M's tentacles shuddered mindlessly or floated limp and Salli paused a moment, missing their conscious touch. Jupiter filled the sky and the Polyps kept falling.
Salli found a clear space and flicked her wrists. The Ruby Slipper unfolded smoothly, then clicked and expanded.
What a perfect little ship!
The Ruby Slipper glowed, a teardrop of blood.
Salli rubbed the doorifice until it irised open.
The Ruby's AI was simple, and downloaded itself into Salli before the doorifice had shut.
"Good," she said. "Good, this is not at all hard."
The hard part was done. The hard part was past. And it hurt her more than she could have ever feared.
The little ship lifted off and Salli turned her back on Jupiter and the almighty storm it contained.
The galaxy itself was a twister one hundred thousand light years across.
What a storm. What a storm!
No tinpot Kansas cyclone.
The Ruby Slipper shivered, as though in anticipation, and Salli wondered where it would hurl her? What looming wondrous rainbows she might get over: vast enough to make Dorothy envious.
She turned the stealthy engines to full speed, programmed in the coordinates for the most distant star and found out.
This story originally appeared in Aurealis.
Shale is dying. A vast, chaotic, monster-bearing storm known only as the Roil is expanding, consuming the land. Where once there were twelve great cities, now only four remain, and their borders are being threatened by the growing cloud of darkness. The last humans are fighting back with ever more bizarre new machines. But one by one the defences are failing. And the Roil continues to grow.
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