by Angus McIntyre
When the fuel is flowing smoothly, it feels like silk under my fingertips. It unravels, kilometer after kilometer, soft and slightly warm to the touch. Through my fingers I sense any interruption in the flow, the grittiness that signals the presence of impurities, the sudden check and release of a stalled pump, the knotting drag of developing turbulence in the feed pipes. It is my job to feel these things: assess the fuel quality, monitor the pumps, smooth away the turbulence before it can choke the engines.
During a burn, I divide my attention between the fuel feeds and the engines themselves. Fuel control is all about sensitivity. Running the engines is more physical. The haptics convey the inertia as I bring the gimbaled thrusters into alignment. I run my hands over the maneuvering assembly, the units heavy and solid in my hands as I fine-tune the configuration, pushing and pulling until everything is in its proper place.
It is all illusion, of course. The engines are not in my hands, but half a kilometer from where I float in my harness. The smallest of the thrusters is too massive for twenty men to move. The sudden warmth between my palms that tells me the main engine is firing is no more than a muted echo of the inferno raging in the ignition chamber as tonnes of fuel flash into plasma in an instant. But it is an illusion that I can work with.
The interface that I use is generated by the ship’s processing core. The core takes the data fed to it from a million sensors and effectors and translates it into things I can feel and hear and smell and taste. The core is more than smart enough to do everything itself, of course. It could control the burns from start to finish, just as it could carry out every other function on the ship. It doesn’t have to play understudy to the human crew. But there’s a reason why we don’t like to rely on computers too much. There’s a reason why we prefer to keep humans in the loop.
And here I am. I’m not so much a cog in the machine as a sinew or a synapse. I’m one linkage in the almost organic system of flesh and metal that we call Siri. And I do my job well. Everyone says so.
The one person aboard who has no confidence in my abilities is Weiss, our political officer. Ten days before we lose the core, he has me trapped in the corner of the empty mess-room, cross-examining me on my grasp of the prevailing ideology.
“Do you understand?” he asks me.
“Sure,” I say. Weiss has a high, rather nasal voice. I imagine him thin-faced and nondescript, gray-brown hair cropped close to his scalp, another bloodless apparatchik from the Inner Party.
The political officer’s job is to make sure everything we do adheres to doctrine. He is the official representative of the Plan. The captain may run the ship, but Weiss is the supreme authority for anything that touches on ideology.
Our last political, Boonten Singh, was a nice old fellow. He knew the theory and could quote chapter and verse when needed, but he was mostly happy to let the crew get on with their jobs. Then while we were out on mission there was a realignment in the Central Committee and Boonten’s brand of orthodoxy was suddenly at odds with the new party line. When we came home to refit and resupply, Weiss was waiting for us at the airlock.
Weiss takes his responsibilities seriously. Not content simply to watch us for regressive tendencies, he works hard to educate us. We have weekly all-hands lecture sessions with names like “Understanding the Fundamental Directive” and “Countering Individualism”. He badgers us with dialectics at mealtimes. For those he deems politically suspect, he organizes one-on-one coaching sessions.
Weiss does not like me. It is nothing personal. With Weiss, it is never personal. But I have been weighed against the Plan and found wanting. Whatever I say will be wrong, because I am wrong.
“What is the individual’s responsibility to the state?” he asks.
“The responsibility of the individual is to use his abilities in the service of the state,” I say. I’m paraphrasing. I know the slogan by heart: “From each according to his abilities, to the state according to its needs.” But politicals get suspicious if you just recite stock phrases. You have to put it in your own words. And woe betide you if you use the wrong words, ones that have fallen out of fashion this month.
I’ve had three months of being singled out for Weiss’s special attention. He sees me in private more than anyone else. I know why. He wants to hear me convict myself, to hear me say something that will let him label me as politically unreliable.
“Abilities, yes,” says Weiss. He lets the word float in the air between us. Because this is the nub. In Weiss’s eyes, I am not able.
Ours is a marginal society, floating out here on the edge of nothing. We are a heartbeat away from extinction, energy-starved, clinging to life on an icy rock, threatened by neighbors who do not share the Plan and by powers beyond our understanding. At any moment, the Thing that squats at the heart of the Solar System, the unchecked Intelligence that ate Earth, could reach out and brush us out of existence. Precariousness is written into our very constitution. There is no room for anyone who cannot give 100% to our collective struggle for survival.
So when Weiss looks at me, he doesn’t see a crew member. He sees a liability. In his eyes, only the fittest should be allowed to survive. He fears that my blindness may doom not just me but my shipmates and, most important, the ship itself.
He is looking for a way to get rid of me.
I know Siri–full name, Siriporn Kongmont, named for an early activist who miraculously still enjoys the favor of the Central Committee–much better than I knew my previous ship. I’ve been blind for eight years, but in that time I’ve learned her in a way that I could never have done while I had my sight.
When you can see, you know the space you occupy only superficially. Your eyes flicker over things, never resting on anything, never really taking it in. There’s always something to attract the eye — loops of colored cable spilling like intestines from an access panel, stenciled letters and numbers on the bulkheads, the faces and bodies of your shipmates. You swim in a torrent of impressions and none of it lingers.
Blind, you have to learn the ship in depth, memorizing every detail. Just past the tunnel that leads from the axial to the forward hab there’s a jutting section of pipe that will crack your skull if you forget to duck. Near port-side storage a grab-bar is missing. A loose bearing in a fan by the ventral lock makes a high-pitched whine that you can hear several meters away.
Siri is an old ship. She was built originally as an automated cargo hauler. When humanity fled the inner solar system during the Exodus, they hurriedly refitted her to carry refugees, with four hundred passengers jammed nose-to-toe in jury-rigged hab units for nine months. Later, she was refitted again, this time for deep space work as a mass prospector. Everything about her has been chopped and changed and changed again.
Her inner spaces are cramped and cluttered, but I know them by heart. I know where I am by the feel of the air currents, by the pulse and mutter of each of the machines that keep us alive, by the texture of the chipped paint under my fingers. I know her by smell: the sharp tang of lubricant leaking from a generator, the funky musk of the after hab, the freshness of the greenhouse. Together, touch, sound and smell shape the map of my world.
I wear an echo-locator on my right wrist, a little gizmo that sends out a train of clicks, then converts the returns into a skin-crawling sensation that’s supposed to help me feel my way around the ship. I hardly turn it on any more. I manage fine without it.
Like me, Siri gropes in the dark, using instruments not too different from my own. She hunts by radar, sending out weak pulses at random intervals. We’d find more if we boosted the power, but something else might find us as well. The Kuiper Belt isn’t as empty as it seems. There are things out here we’d prefer not to meet. So we keep our heads down and peek at our surroundings as quietly as we can.
For three days, we’ve been seeing snowballs — chunks of matter, mostly methane and water ice, none more than a few meters across. They register as faint flickers on the radar, drifting by at the limits of detection range. The core sorts the signals, adjusts its models and sends down course corrections, steering us towards what we hope will be the heart of the drift.
Somewhere out here, the models say, is a mass concentration, a crowd of massive objects moving slowly inwards. The Kuiper Belt is all chips and snips, crumbs and fragments of left-over matter from the dawn of the solar system: the leavings from God’s workshop floor. It’s mostly ice, with a scattering of rock and metal, the merest dusting of complex organics. But mass is mass, and we’ll take whatever we can get.
On the third day of our search, we finally get a solid echo. The core probes the object cautiously, stroking its surface with radar fingers, sniffing at it with spectrographic lasers. The answers come back: methane ice on a rock core, ten thousand tons. Not a rich prize, but big enough to care about. We alter course to meet it.
Final approach would have gone more smoothly if Weiss hadn’t decided to sit in.
We work tandem for close maneuvers, two engineers sharing the workload. Today, I’m teamed with Vera Haig, which suits me. Having Weiss watching over our shoulders doesn’t suit either of us.
He keeps silent most of the time, which is a small blessing, but I’m still aware of his presence. When I take off my headset to rest for a moment, I hear him cough. He manages to make it sound disapproving. I wonder if that’s something they teach them at cadre school.
“How did you lose your sight?” he asks, just as I’m about to put my headset back on.
I stop, holding the headset in my hands. He doesn’t need to ask. As a political, he has access to all the ship’s files. He could just look it up if he wanted. He probably has.
“Brain tumor,” I say.
Cancers are one of the risks of the job. Something always gets through the shielding. There’s no way to know the origin of the invisible bullet that passed through my head. Perhaps it was high-energy cosmic radiation, a traveler from the dawn of time whuffed out by the Big Bang itself. Maybe it was a gift from our own Sun, too distant to warm us but still close enough to use us for target practice. Whatever it was, it left behind a growing mass in my occipital cortex.
“And they couldn’t fix it?”
“No,” I say.
It’s ironic. If anything had happened to my eyes, they could have swapped them out for artificial ones and sent me on my way. Even damage to the optic nerve is repairable these days. But the tumor that did for my vision grew deep inside, undetected until it was almost too late. Perhaps if I was a member of the Inner Party, they’d have found a way to repair Doc Mellor’s ham-fisted DIY brain surgery. As it is, his well-meaning efforts to save my life left me cortically blind. My eyes work fine: I just can’t see.
“Rough luck,” Weiss says.
I put the headset back on, and my remaining senses are submerged once again in the simulation fed to me by the core. I feel the engines under my fingers and hear the whisper of the fuel as it trickles into the reactor. If Weiss says anything more, I don’t hear it.
I’m still aware of his presence though, and it rattles me. I fumble a switchover and we lose almost a minute bringing a thruster back into alignment. And something still feels off.
Haig finally spots it. “We’re bleeding on five,” she says. I check, and she’s right. Siri‘s an old ship, with a million tiny leaks in her pipework. Mostly we just live with them. This is bigger, though. I kick myself mentally for not detecting it before she did.
“Take five offline,” I tell her.
“Are you sure?” She sounds doubtful.
“Just do it, I can rebalance,” I say.
But of course, with Weiss watching me, I can’t. We have to call off the approach sequence while the core computes a new thrust pattern. We waste time and fuel.
When I take off my headset, Weiss doesn’t say anything. I feel his disapproval all the same.
Our prize is an irregular blob of dusty ice, ringed by a halo of fine particles. The halo suggests a recent collision, which may mean that there are other masses nearby. It’s not a native of the Kuiper Belt. It’s inward bound from the scattered disk, nudged towards the inner system by the passage of a larger body. If we’re lucky, it’s not alone.
The core models it for me, but it doesn’t feel like anything special: slick ice, gritty dust. One pole has been smoothed by friction heating. Haig tells me it sparkles slightly in the glare of our lights.
I take a break while the outside crew suit up and go to work. They’ll carve off some of the ice to top up our own mass reserves. The rest of the asteroid will be wrapped in a shroud of radar-absorbing graphene monofilament and set on course for Chariklo. It will get there largely under its own power: the outside crew plant radio-thermal generators on the surface, programmed by the core to deliver heat to the ice at specified intervals. Each hotspot causes the adjacent ice to sublimate, throwing off a blast of gas and debris that steers it toward its destination. It may take years or even decades for it to come close enough to home to be captured, but one day it will arrive. Those who sent it on its way may be long dead by then, but the Party plans for the long-term.
The send-off, fourteen hours later, goes smoothly. Siri withdraws to a safe distance before triggering the initial burn. This time, Weiss observes the maneuver from the bridge and I don’t screw anything up.
Six days later, radar pings a second mass. It’s CH type, almost ten times the size of the first. Under a thin crust of rime-ice lies a frozen slurry of organics wrapped around a metal core. There are residual hotspots that hint at the possible presence of heavier elements. We’ve hit the jackpot.
We match course and speed, pulling alongside our prize and tangling it in a web of fine cables. The outside crew suit up and set to work, planting RTGs and setting up the bio-reactors that will weave the asteroid a shroud for its long journey home. Another team gets busy scraping ice to top off our reserves of reaction mass, and the captain sends me back to my station to supervise the loading. Mirren, the geologist, drills down through the ice layer to do a preliminary assay, and sends back the good news: this one is more metal than not, and very pure. It’s a prize indeed.
And of course that’s when everything goes to hell.
I’m plugged in to the interface when the core dies. The haptics clench tight around my hands, then go slack. Alarms are screaming in my ears, painfully loud. I pull the inductor headset off but the screaming goes on.
When someone finally shuts off the alarms, the first thing I hear is Haig’s voice.
“– the hell just happened?” she says.
I shake my head. My ears are still ringing.
“Are you getting anything?” Haig asks me.
“My interface went away. You?”
“Screens are blank,” she says. “Oh, and the emergency lighting has come on.”
“Ah,” I say.
The captain’s voice crackles from a speaker system that I didn’t even know we had. “All hands. Switch to manual control. The core is down. I repeat, the core is down.”
“The fuck?” says Haig. “How can the core be down?”
I don’t have an answer for her. All I can think is that it’s a long way home. And this time I’m not the only one in the dark.
Eventually, the captain calls assembly. We crowd into the mess, twenty-odd men and women jammed into the cramped space. Another twelve are somewhere outside the ship, on the surface of the asteroid or nearby. We’ve had no word from them at all. The last thing the core did before it closed down was to cut off all external communications.
“Scrammed,” says the captain. It’s funny to hear her voice with my own ears. Usually she’s on the bridge, solitary and aloof as Jove.
Oluchi, the number two, is here as well. “It didn’t even leave a note,” he says. “Catastrophic shutdown. The quantum modules are decohered. The rest of the machinery is intact, but it’s not doing anything useful. We’re running on the bottom layer.”
The bottom layer is made up of loosely-linked control systems. There’s no central intelligence but we can get home on it. But getting home may not be our big problem.
The core is a hybrid architecture, quantum processors paired with classical hardware. It’s just sub-sentient, an artificial idiot savant with no real creativity. Perhaps it could do its job better if we let it get a little smarter, but no one’s prepared to take the risk. There are safety interlocks built into the design. Let the monitor process detect any hint of free thought developing and it will take an electronic axe to the core’s brain, flushing the Q-modules and poisoning the high-level symbolic reasoning system. It takes a shipyard refit to rebuild a scrammed core.
“I don’t understand,” says someone. “Why would the core scram?”
They never get an answer. An alarm chime sounds, not one I recognize.
I hear a movement beside me as someone releases themselves from their tie-down. A few moments later, there’s a confused babble of voices from somewhere aft, a shout that I can’t decipher. And then, shockingly loud, two flat bangs, followed by two more.
After that, everything is chaos. Out of habit, I ping the core, but of course the core isn’t answering. I grab someone’s arm.
“What the hell’s going on?”
She pulls her arm free. “Shooting, somewhere down the axial,” she says.
Weiss’s voice comes over the speaker. “Ship is secure,” he says. “Stand down.”
I keep my distance from the two dead men. Even after five minutes, a palpable cold radiates from their pressure suits. They came straight in, not bothering to unsuit or go through decontamination. Their urgency was probably what tipped Weiss off.
The air is full of unfamiliar smells. There is a lingering smell of burning that I guess must be propellant from Weiss’s weapon. Underneath it is a subtler smell, as acrid as the gunshot residue but different. It’s the smell of primordial dust on the men’s suits. It smells of creation, of matter unchanged since before the birth of the solar system.
“What is that?” a voice says. There’s someone next to me. I touch their shoulder.
“Describe it for me,” I say.
“They’re uploading helmet cam footage from Mirren’s helmet,” he says in a half-whisper. “Can’t see much. Mostly just shadows. And then there’s a sort of flickering light, playing directly on his faceplate.”
We call it the Big Dark for a reason. Normally, the only light comes from the stars — and from where we are, the distant Sun is not much more than an unusually bright star — or from our own floods and headlamps.
Anything else out here that makes light is an enemy.
Without the core to help, it takes us the better part of an hour to spot the gremlin. Finally, Oluchi finds it in a few shaky frames from Mirren’s helmet cam, in the last instant before it attacks.
I’m getting tired of asking people to tell me what they see, but I have to know.
“Looks like a bug,” says Haig. “Round body, spindly limbs. Maybe eight or ten, and antennae on top. Plus a couple of what might be radiators. Looks fragile. Shaped for deep space and negligible gravity.”
“Ours?” I ask.
She doesn’t deign to give me an answer. It attacked us. Of course it isn’t ours.
Humanity was not born in the Kuiper Belt. We grew up on a planet, along with about a billion other species of living things. Even after we’d mostly trashed the environment, Earth must have been something close to Eden. There was air you could breathe, water you could mostly drink, gravity, and sunlight. When I think about the idiocy of our ancestors who threw it all away my fists ball up so tight that they hurt.
Or maybe the Catastrophe was no one’s fault. Maybe when you’ve been playing with fire so long, eventually everyone gets burned.
What’s left of humanity hides out here in the darkness at the fringes of the Solar System, huddled against the eternal cold, praying that the thing that swallowed our home won’t turn its gaze our way. And here on Siri, we’re all hoping that whatever we’ve just run into is human-made, the product of one of the other rag-tag societies clinging to life out here. Because if it has come direct from the inner System, it’s ‘game over’ for all of us.
The thing we’re calling a gremlin is a machine of some kind. It’s an ambush predator, an autonomous device built to hide in the cold and dark, waiting for prey to stumble across it. When we walked into the trap, it hit us with everything it had. The initial exchange of fire cost us our core. For round two, the enemy switched to human pawns. Now both sides are hunkered down in the dark, pondering their options for round three.
There’s one bright spot. The fact that the attacker hasn’t yet taken over the ship suggests it’s probably not from Earth. The Intelligence there has had a long time to figure out how to build a weapon against us. But our core was able to detect the sudden barrage of subversive signals in time, knew it was being tampered with and committed suicide before the viral instructions could take root. The gremlin was forced to use a fallback strategy, trying to send a couple of our own men in to take over. Turning men into zombies with nothing more than white noise in their earpieces and a fancy light show is an impressive trick, but Weiss’s professional paranoia blunted that attack. So whatever it is, the gremlin isn’t infallible.
We may stand a chance after all.
“I still have ten crew on that rock,” says the captain. I roll my eyes, a habit I’ve never entirely lost. The captain has picked a fine time to finally grow a backbone.
“And you want to send out a rescue party?” says Weiss. “So that whatever’s down there can turn them into obedient little slaves too?”
I don’t like Weiss, but I have to admit that he’s making a good point.
“I don’t leave my people behind,” the captain says.
Weiss mutters something that I can’t hear, but which might be “start now”, or “get used to it”.
“Do we know for sure that they’re still alive?” someone asks.
“We still have low-level telemetry on their suits,” says the captain. “So, yes.”
There is silence for a moment, punctuated only by the murmur of the ventilation system. Something about that simple sound seems very sinister now. I imagine it turned into a weapon, the white noise modulated to carry suggestions and instructions, crudely reprogramming us to execute the instructions of the thing on the rock.
“Weiss is right,” says Oluchi. “If we send anyone down there, what’s to stop it from taking them over too?”
The smart thing to do is to cut our losses and run as best we can. Even without the core, we can limp home. I find myself willing the captain to accept the inevitable. Weiss may be able to couch it in terms of the greater good, but in my case it’s simple cowardice. I want to live, and if that means abandoning the men and women on the rock to their fate, so be it.
“I am not leaving my people,” says the captain.
“We don’t have a choice,” Oluchi tells her. “For all we know, that thing can attack all across the spectrum, from radio frequency to visible. None of the tele-ops are responding, which means someone’s going to have to go down there in a suit and lead them back to the ship. Got anyone in mind?”
And that’s when I surprise everyone, myself included.
“I’ll go,” I say, before I can stop myself.
The initial reaction to my offer is less enthusiastic than I might have expected.
“Thank you, Tennant,” the captain says, sounding weary, “but I don’t think it would help.”
“We thought of that,” says Oluchi. “Send someone down there with a blacked-out visor and no radio. So we have one more person stumbling around blindly in the dark — what does that buy us?”
This is my cue to give way gracefully, withdraw my offer and join the crowd urging the captain to go home. But I don’t.
“You’re forgetting something,” I say. “I live my whole life in the dark. And I don’t stumble.”
There is another of those long silences. I wait a moment, then press my point.
“I’m not volunteering because my … condition … makes me immune to its magic light-show,” I say. “I’m volunteering because I’m the only person here who knows how to find my way around without using my eyes. Anyone else would be helpless down there. But I might actually stand a chance.”
I’ve made my pitch. And while part of me still hopes that the captain will shoot the idea down and let me off the hook I’ve just hung myself on, another part wants her to go for it. It would be nice if I could call that part of me altruism or courage or self-sacrifice or obedience to the Plan. But there’s another name for it.
I think it’s called pride.
I almost panic when they seal me into my suit.
When I made my brave speech, I forgot how much I depend on all my other senses to find my way around. Inside the suit, my body squeezed tight by the electro-elastic corsetry of the counterpressure system, I can’t feel the air currents on my skin. My nostrils are filled with the raw stink of plastic mixed with the smell of my own fear. Hearing is cut off as the helmet descends over my head. I’m truly blind now.
I reach out and grip the handrail. The feeling of solidity through the gauntlets calms me. I can do this. I can get through it.
A synthesized voice buzzes in my ears.
“Can you hear me, Tennant?” it says.
“Loud and clear,” I say.
We can’t use ordinary radio. There’s no telling what the thing out there could piggyback onto the signal. Even a modulation in the carrier might be enough to let its voice into our heads. We’re using speech-to-text instead, the sound of our words converted to text and sent out over an encrypted channel in tiny bursts, then reconstituted as audible sound by a speech synthesizer at the receiving end. It’s crude but it works. Most importantly, each utterance is squeezed down to a handful of bytes. There’s not enough bandwidth there for the hijacker to send anything harmful.
Someone bumps against me as I start to pull myself towards the airlock.
“Sorry,” says the voice in my ears.
There’s nothing in the sound to reveal the identity of the speaker. But I know who it is. I’m not going down to the asteroid alone. I have a fellow volunteer.
I feel another bump against my leg.
“Sorry,” says Weiss again.
The surface of the ice feels gritty under my boots. I take slow, shuffling steps, holding onto a tether line fixed here by one of the outside crew, trying not to kick myself back into space. There’s no gravity to speak of here. I’m not so much walking on the surface as skating over it.
I am not, after all, completely blind. In place of the echo-locator they gave me so that I could find my way around the ship, Oluchi has kitted me out with a miniature LIDAR unit. At the touch of a button, it scans my surroundings with laser pulses, then maps the results to a haptic feedback device on the back of my hand. It doesn’t give me much detail, but it gives me an idea of the lie of the landscape — slopes and gullies, concentrations of mass or dust.
For the moment, I’m keeping it turned off. The problem with active sensors like LIDAR is that while they show you what’s around you, they also tend to reveal you to whatever else is out there. My idea is to play this slow and stealthy. Our plan, such as it is, is to follow the tether lines until we find where the surviving crew are hunkered down. If we’re lucky, we might even be able to sneak in and out under the gremlin’s nose. It’s probably close to blind itself, low-energy sensors struggling to make sense of a ragged landscape of jumbled ice and rock, all wreathed in drifting dust. So long as I don’t go lighting up the place with LIDAR pulses, we might even get in and out undetected. Maybe.
I take another step forward, then half. Weiss bangs into me again. He’s stopped apologizing now, but I can feel his panic in the clumsiness of his movements. He is holding onto the grab ring on the back of my rebreather unit, clinging to me like a frightened child. I can sense his terror of being left alone out here in the dark. Oluchi gave him a LIDAR unit too, but he can’t make sense of it. The touch landscape it scribbles on the back of his hand means nothing to him. I am not the blind one here.
His proxy voice buzzes in my ears again. “– much further?” he asks.
“Not much,” I lie. I have no idea. I know roughly how long this tether line is supposed to be and I’ve been counting steps. But without any real sense of how far each step takes me, it’s impossible to say if we’re making any progress.
I shuffle forward again, sliding my feet over the icy ground, holding onto the tether line, pulling Weiss slowly after me.
The gremlin finds us before we find the rest of the crew. At Weiss’s insistence, I’m using the LIDAR now, trying to get a sense of the terrain from the pictures that the haptic interface scribbles on my skin. One moment, there’s nothing but looming rock around us. The next, the machine slithers across the back of my hand like a bead of mercury, unmistakable, alive with mechanical purpose.
I paint it with LIDAR pulses, and feel its spider-like advance. It steps closer, detaching itself from the background. It acquires form and solidity. For a moment I think that it will rush us, but its weapons are informational, not physical. It keeps its distance. I guess that it must be painting my face-plate with its own laser light, trying to hack into my brain through my eyes. If I were to turn on the suit radio now, I’d hear the hiss of coded static that forms the second prong of its attack. I wonder how long it will take to realize that the attack is not working.
“It’s dead ahead,” I tell Weiss.
“Ten meters, fifteen,” I say.
I feel his weight shift as he reaches behind him for something. He came armed for bear, with a pair of cutters and a home-made fragmentation bomb made from mining explosives packed in an old oxygen canister. I hope he doesn’t try using the bomb. I doubt it will do much to the machine, but it stands a good chance of shredding us both.
“Get me closer,” the synthetic voice in my ears orders.
I take an obedient step forward, still scanning. I feel the gremlin move back. It’s skittish, not willing to risk a direct confrontation.
There’s something else there too, right by the tether line. I feel it as a solid mass, almost as big as a man. This one, at least, is familiar. It’s one of the radio-thermal generators planted by the ground crew to steer the iceball. As I watch, the gremlin feints towards the RTG, darting so close that for a moment the two masses almost merge into one. I cannot let that happen.
I take another step, trying to close the distance to the gremlin, but it dances away to the side. It’s drawing us away from the tether line. To follow it, we’ll have to let go of our handhold.
I unsnap a safety line of my own from my belt, clip the carabiner at the end around the fixed line.
“Clip on,” I tell Weiss.
“What?” he says.
“If you want to chase that thing, we have to step away from the fixed line.”
I wait for him to anchor himself, and then I let go of the tether. The machine waits patiently, no longer retreating as we creep towards it.
My boots do their best to grip the surface, but each step threatens to send me into space. I am a satellite of a satellite, tenuously in orbit about a star almost too distant to be seen. My feet touch the surface again. Everything feels dreamlike and slow. When my boot makes contact, the ground flutters rhythmically under my boot soles. I think I can hear voices.
I realize the danger almost too late. We gave the hijacker too little credit, thinking that blocking our eyes and ears would be enough to protect us from its attacks. But the machine is a born improviser. I picture claw-like hooves drumming on the ice, tapping out rhythms that I cannot ignore, sending its deadly signals up through my boots.
I act without thinking. I grab Weiss around the waist and kick off, hurling us both free of the surface. As we soar into space, my mind clears. In that instant, I know what I have to do.
My suit is a standard outside suit, built to control all the tools that the outside crew use. I touch a button on my wrist panel and another synthesized voice sounds in my ear. Not Weiss this time: it is the voice of the radio-thermal generator unit half-buried in the icy grit below. It wants an order from me.
As our safety lines snap taut and we start to fall again, I tell the generator to ramp up to maximum power.
We fall for dream-like seconds as the generator dumps heat into the ice, punching a hole in the crust. The frozen gases inside sublimate with explosive force. We swim through a violent maelstrom of dust and gas, pelted by fragments of ice, buffeted by the transient hurricane that spills from the spreading wound in the asteroid’s side. And in the midst of the chaos, the LIDAR shows me something solid whirled away by the blast. The hijacker machine recedes and dwindles, headed for the stars.
I sit beside Weiss in the wardroom as gentle hands free us from our suits. I would give a lot to see his face, to try to read something in his expression. Has he decided that I am worth something after all, or are his views unchanged? Am I still no more than a weak link, a threat to the smooth unfolding of the Plan?
I have no way of knowing and I hesitate to ask. All I can do is hope that he may eventually realize that I am not much blinder than anyone else, out here in the Big Dark.
Angus McIntyre’s short fiction has appeared in the anthologies “Mission: Tomorrow”, “Humanity 2.0” and “Swords & Steam”, in “Black Candies” magazine, and on the BoingBoing website. His science-fiction novella “The Warrior Within” will be published by Tor.com in 2017. He is a graduate of the 2013 Clarion Writer’s Workshop. For more information about his writing, see http://angus.pw/