What Rhythms In Your Body Have Changed?

 

“What Rhythms In Your Body Have Changed?”

by Sarah Pauling

 

Excerpt from communication: November 22. Sent from Dr. Cao Xinyun’s personal terminal, Mars Station. Addressed to Dr. Serge Farro, aboard the Independence Hermes-class transport ship.

[…So you see, all I want is to help you….I reach out to you now, from millions of kilometers away, in the hopes that you can trust me. You may choose to pass me and my planet by. I would understand. Our peoples are not bound in friendship, and I can offer you no reassurance of my intentions.

But I think I can save you.]

The CORVID III looks more like a pair of giant chopsticks than a robot: a minimalist approach to surgery. With narrow metal rods mimicking the full length of human arms, it can insert into keyhole-sized incisions anything from teensy cameras to tiny light systems to itty-bitty instruments for cutting and suturing. Then, when the secret carnage is over, the machine can be folded back into the wall.

Mara and the other crew members struggle to assemble it in zero-grav. Emergency medical training was mandatory at UNASA, but the segment on actual surgery had been brief. Though medical issues on a four-month long-haul are inevitable, a failing heart – a failing anything – is a worst-case afterthought. Teaching astronauts rudimentary surgical procedures is akin to tossing a few leaking lifeboats onto the Titanic.

Mara remembers a line from the module that went something like, “If you’re lucky, things will go wrong immediately. Before you’re too far from civilization to bother.”

Earth is nearly two hundred million kilometers behind them by now. All they can do is move forward into the void; pray that the nothingness parts for them as the red planet grows larger by the day.

“You notice I still haven’t given my okay to all this.”

Although all four crew members are present, Dr. Farro addresses Mara directly.

Work pauses for a moment. Commander Verma’s eyebrows go up.

“Stop kvetching,” Mara tells the professor.

“No.” He crosses his arms. “No, I think I’ll keep kvetching, thanks. I’m the one dying.”

His weightless body rotates halfway away from them, towards the sterile-white wall. Luke and Angelica eye each other over the CORVID; Commander Verma shrugs sort of helplessly.

“There’s a lot at stake on this mission,” the commander tells the professor. “I would think you’d want-”

“I didn’t want to come in the first place.”

“You sound like a kid,” Mara says. She doesn’t mean it as an insult; rather, she remembers the way her cousins get ornery rather than get scared.

But for once he doesn’t counter her banter with literary references designed to go over her head. He drifts further from the crew tasked with delivering him alive.

“Even if the Martians really want to help…” He takes a deep breath. “Well, hell, that’s not even a sure thing.”

Mara waits until her crewmates have drifted off to review Dr. Cao’s briefings. Then she touches the professor’s shoulder. She tries for an implication of privacy in her tone, even if nothing of the sort exists on the vessel. “You’ve done a lot of good stuff, you know – even if you are a grumpy old windbag. We’re gonna help you stop just one more fight.”

Dr. Farro makes a derisive noise in the back of his throat. “Old age should burn and rave at close of day,” he says, “But I’ve burnt up everything I’ve got, I think.”

Excerpt from communication: November 23. Sent from Dr. Cao Xinyun’s personal terminal, Mars Station. Addressed to Dr. Serge Farro, aboard the Independence Hermes-class transport ship.

[Dr. Farro, I have not received your response. Understand that the situation is urgent and we have much work to do before your vessel is in range….

…Your crew has informed me that you refuse pain medication….While this is admirable, it is unnecessary. They contacted me because the situation is dire. I hope that you understand this.

Please give me your thoughts. In the meantime, do nothing to exert yourself unnecessarily.]

“I understand the council will have concerns,” Xinyun says.

Her arms are clasped, overlaid, behind her back. She stands, partly out of respect for the men on the large screen in front of her, and partly because she rarely sits when she’s working.

Outside her office door the hospital is in uncharacteristic disarray. The weight of her nurses’ curiosity presses up against her walls and seeps out the doorway into the Mars station proper.

As clearly as she speaks, her volume doesn’t match the three men on screen.

“You are aware that the Belt conflict has escalated,” Delegate Zheng says, clutching a glass of water in his veined hand. “There was another attack on the Kalliope colony just this morning.”

His colleague – Delegate Han – adds, “You can’t honestly expect that this foreign ship will have good intentions.”

Xinyun nods politely, then contradicts him. “With all due respect, we’re not at war. Not officially; not anywhere but where it’s spiraled out of control in the Belt. I am no politician. I am a surgeon whose service has been requested by a vessel in distress.”

“Please, they’re probably running guns for the Lutetians.”

“The vessel’s diplomatic mission was requested, if I may remind you, by our relatives on Kalliope – and authorized by the homeland on Earth. It carries the ‘foreign’ diplomat who helped oversee the peace process with the North American States.”

“Well, yes. Whether it will serve any good this time-”

“It’s a mission of peace. I – with all due respect, you can’t tell me there’s no value in that.”

Delegate Zheng sighs. Xinyun notices the brief downwards flicker of his eyes. If she had more faith in the Mars station’s internal government, she’d call it understanding. As it is, he’s probably just checking the time.

She glances to her own clock: traditional, analog, carved with plucked marigolds. A gift from her daughter.

The Chief of Station Science speaks up from the screen. “This may all be academic anyway. The ship won’t even be able to land here, not with that velocity. The remote procedure you are suggesting-”

“It’s been done before,” Xinyun says. “I’ve been in contact with an engineer on board-”

Delegate Zheng’s nose twitches. “A conversation that should have begun on official channels.”

“-and we think the window of time for surgery will be mere hours, as they slingshot through Mars’ orbit. I can perform the procedure from here. Their ship is equipped for emergency telesurgery. It will be rudimentary, but-”

“There is no protocol for this,” says Delegate Zheng.

Xinyun wants to say: stop interrupting me. Instead she says: “No, there isn’t. But there’s a hero on that ship, and he is in distress.”

“Doctor, you are an intelligent woman. I hope you’re aware that, even if you provide this service, one ‘hero’ can’t stop two out-of-control colonies from tearing each other apart.”

Xinyun’s chest tightens as though someone has slung a band around her, placed a boot on her back, and begun to pull.

“Especially not if he dies in transit,” she says. “I await the permission of the council.”

She shuts off the screen. She does not sit down.

Excerpt from communication: November 23. Sent from the Independence comm terminal. Addressed to Dr. Cao Xinyun’s personal terminal, Mars station.

[…So give me your diagnosis, then. No offense to you, but I can’t believe someone way off on Mars could be any help to me. I’m not even sure I believe a Martian wants to help….

…You want my thoughts? I’ll give them to you. I was a successful diplomat at one point (before I retired to academia and took up nitpicking poetry). People believe I was good because I was open-minded, but I’ll tell you a secret: it’s because I never trusted my opponent and never gave ground without getting something in return.

But then the Kalliopers requested me by name. Hey: explain that. Why’d your people call me up? I wanted to be retired by now….]

 

Addressed to Dr. Serge Farro, aboard the Independence Hermes-class transport ship.

[Kalliope will not negotiate with anyone else….You are considered a man of peace. I admit I am surprised by your demeanor, but I notice you decided to honor their request…

…I hope you understand that even if the people of Kalliope are our relatives by blood and overarching citizenship, we usually go weeks without hearing from their council. We see things in the news, but really the entire Belt is like a void, speckled with the small points of information that get through….

…The conflict benefits no one. No ore-rich rock is worth this….

…I want to diagnose you, but you’ve refused to let your crew perform an ultrasound. I need to understand. How are you feeling? What rhythms in your body have changed?]

 

Addressed to Dr. Cao Xinyun’s personal terminal, Mars station.

[…That’s a pretty thought, but it’s naive. They just asked for me because they didn’t think I’d come. Never give ground, see? Ask high before going low….]

Mara tears open the gravy packet. A few drops escape into zero-grav, beading up inches from her nose. She catches one on her tongue like a snowflake.

“Kid,” Dr. Farro addresses her, floating contemplatively across the corridor, “Do you think this was somebody’s plan all along?”

Mara squeezes the gravy into a plastic bag full of processed turkey and bread stuffing, then pushes herself across the passage to the wall oven. She shoves her mush into the oven and sets the timer, considering the various practical and ethical angles to the professor’s question. “I dunno, how many kilometers from Earth did you say you got gassy?”

Dr. Farro’s face puffs up into what Commander Verma refers to (strictly over crew-to-crew communications) as the “belching bullfrog look.” Before he passed out the first time, it was funny. Now his face just looks red like a warning light – like a proximity alarm.

Then he sighs, swiveling slowly on the spot with leftover motion – trying not to exert himself. “Paranoia, then. I get it.”

When the turkey’s done, Mara portions some out for him before it gets cold.

He turns back to face her. To her surprise, a nearby spotlight illuminates early-stage cataracts: gray reflected circles where piercing blackness should be. Mara’s uncle got surgery for that. It was painless; took a handful of minutes.

“You were pretty young at the end of the last war,” he tells her. “Did your parents talk much about it? About the human cost?”

Mara twists her fingers together. “Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, it’s – you did a good thing by stopping it. ‘S what I was saying the other day.”

“Eventually, we did stop it,” he says. “We did it by forcing concessions and apologies from the weaker side that, morally, shouldn’t have been made. Other shit – war crimes, convenient murders – went unpunished, because the bigger the sin, the more offended people get when you press them on it. No one came away with a fair deal. When your goal is to stop something terrible, you have to let go of justice. Worse, you have to tell everyone else to do the same. Pretend everything is all equal now. Create a smooth new reality, without the depth of time behind it. It’s – the placidity of the thing is enough to boil your blood.”

He has a full head of hair; only his sideburns are mottled gray. The stubble on his chin looks white.

Mara hesitates. Then she hands over the turkey.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Gramps. Take it easy.”

Excerpt from communication: November 25. Sent from the Independence comm terminal. Addressed to Dr. Cao Xinyun’s personal terminal, Mars station.

[They put the robot together days ago and it’s been in everybody’s way ever since. Damn thing is spindly like a spider braced to jump. Obviously malevolent.

“Come the woman in dark glasses and humpbacked surgeons, and the scissors man.” In my past life I’d have marked a student down for quoting so far out of context….

…On a side note, there’s a lightness to your prose. Could do poetry, if you tone it down a bit. And in a second language, I’ll bet….]

 

Addressed to Dr. Serge Farro, aboard the Independence Hermes-class transport ship.

[…I haven’t had much chance to experiment with poetry. I notice you did not include further description of your symptoms. Why don’t you tell me about your eating habits? Old injuries? Any hobbies? Do you understand that if you die en route

Xinyun lifts her fingers from the keys. She breathes; allows herself a moment of steady contemplation. Be professional, she admonishes herself. This is not about you.

The only lights in her quarters: the comm screen, her HVAC controls, and the glow pooling under the doorway of a long-empty bedroom.

She keeps her daughter’s old nightlight on. This makes her quarters navigable whenever she wakes up at night – as she stands, paces, doesn’t sit down.

Mara fastens Dr. Farro to the shallow wall alcove, beneath the hovering arms of the CORVID. His body levitates, pushing up against the thick straps. She tightens them.

His breathing is labored. Purple veins run down his swollen ankles. An IV pumps clear, carefully titrated antibiotics into his arm.

“Don’t put me out until we get a visual,” he says. “I mean, until we can see her.”

Commander Verma looks up from the comm display on the wall. His eyebrows draw downwards, illuminating new wrinkles lining the space around his nose. “We’ll have to confirm that with Dr. Cao.”

The communications latency between here and Mars is mere seconds now. The red planet is gigantic outside, half-bathed in shadow: like cartoons from Mara’s childhood. Like action movies.

Mars was humanity’s frontier, once. Then the frontier moved out to the Belt as quickly as possible. Resources were one motivation, but as far as Mara can figure, it more came down to pride. Space race 2.0. (“They beat us to Mars, but we can beat them to everything else. We like beating.”)

Mara doesn’t keep up with the news, but she has family back home who gleefully discuss any problems they can get wind of on Mars or Kalliope or the foreign countries on Earth these projects sprang from. (“Their resources are failing; their ways are strange.”)

Mara just thinks the planet looks nice.

Verma makes a triumphant noise.

A face fills up the comm screen: dark brown eyes above a blue surgical mask. Long eyelashes. A mole above the brow. From this angle, Dr. Cao appears to be leaning over the terminal rather than sitting down.

Dr. Farro starts to laugh: a great, whooping sound. Then he coughs twice as loudly. Mara looks, panicked, to the screen.

“Please remain still, Doctor,” the surgeon says, her accent smooshing the words into shapes Mara is unfamiliar with. “We will begin momentarily.”

“You’re as old as I am!” Dr. Farro exclaims. “I don’t know why I thought – of course you’re old, you know what you’re doing.”

The surgeon doesn’t answer, too busy speaking with off-screen staff (anesthesiologist, perfusionist, nurse, nurse, nurse). For a moment, her eyes crinkle into a smile.

The numbers in the corner of the CORVID’s auxiliary screen decrease in jittering back-and-forth milliseconds, until maximum latency is one second or under. The professor lies unconscious against the wall.

“Mark,” Mara says.

“Mark,” Dr. Cao says, from three hundred thousand kilometers away.

The robot’s arms move more gracefully than Mara was expecting: like a human body responding, seamlessly, to input.

One arm lifts itself up; offers itself to Mara.

“Scope, please,” Dr. Cao says from the wall screen.

“Roger,” Mara responds, accidentally addressing the machine.

The CORVID’s arms stretch up halfway to the ceiling (or the wall or the floor) and come down again, cohering to insert terrible things into a single point of flesh. She doesn’t see any of the gore. The minimally invasive nature of the surgery hides the hard part away from her, as wires and knives and little lights snake their way between the professor’s ribs. There’s a port in his chest where it all routes through: like comic books. Like the Borg.

The connection is fixed at one second of latency. Better a long, consistent delay than a jumpy feed to the surgeon’s screen. Still, the challenge proved hard to train for. Dr. Cao moves in a painfully cautious manner, leaving space between actions in order to determine each outcome before proceeding. Inserting the scope should have taken fifteen minutes; instead it takes twenty-five.

Mara’s pulse climbs. She thinks: if something goes wrong – if the machine delays, if the little tools slit open the professor’s heart all wrong and he bleeds – Dr. Cao won’t know for a full second. Engineers like Mara understand the value of a second. That’s an eternity in the language of machines.

She watches the latency monitor tick downward as the ship moves through Mars’ orbit above the hospital. Finding the blockage takes another twenty minutes; prepping the printed replacement valve takes ten.

Dr. Cao’s face is no longer on screen. When she gets too quiet, Mara forgets that a human helms the controls. The robot moves with disturbing fluidity, like a part of her ship has gained sentience and taken up surgery for a living.

Sometimes she forgets entirely that she is not alone in the room. This is even worse, because it means she forgets Dr. Farro is a living thing.

An hour in, the lag time starts going up.

And up.

Another hour passes. Dr. Farro’s fingers float next to his sides. Mara floats next to the CORVID as it painstakingly withdraws its tools from the professor’s insides.

“Doctor,” Mara says, mashing her fingers together beneath her gloves, “It’s – we’re gonna be beyond the one-second barrier soon.”

“I know. I just – alright. We are almost finished. The tools are – I want to withdraw them slowly. We just have to suture the port, and then it will be over.”

The maximum latency creeps beyond the safe limit.

Very delicately, Dr. Cao swears. “I can’t see what’s going on out there,” she says. “I can’t-”

Excerpt from communication: November 26. Sent from the Independence comm terminal. Addressed to Dr. Cao Xinyun’s personal terminal, Mars station.

[…After I was discharged, after I remembered how to talk again, I told the same damn story about the Syrian front to anyone who would listen. I don’t have the energy for the whole thing now, but listen: the story had a knife in it. Right up close to my gut.

That’s not a metaphor. In the moment, it felt too good to be true: to be killed by a knife. Personal, gritty, not barbaric like the drone I always expected it to be….

…They say the robot will respond to your movements exactly, so it’s like you’re right beside me. Your arms are its arms.

Listen: I don’t want to be killed by a machine out here.

Are you piloting a robot? Or are you wielding a knife?]

 

Addressed to Dr. Serge Farro, aboard the Independence Hermes-class transport ship.

[I will try to take care of you.]

Mara’s hands have never shaken on the job. They don’t start now.

She carefully pinches the needle between the tweezer-like prongs of the driver.

“The needle should go straight down into the flesh,” Dr. Cao says. “Only then should you curve your wrist.”

Her voice hovers like a haze, pressing down against Mara’s ears and making the ceiling-floor seem distant.

Mara pierces the professor’s skin. Like sewing, she thinks. The skin around the needle grows lighter as she pulls upwards; the inside of the gash sinks deeper into red. Like sewing up jam.

“You can do this,” Dr. Cao says – or said, seconds ago, forever away.

“I know,” Mara says, and waits for the message to be received.

After a while it’s just like wiring. The thread slides through easily. Resistance is futile.

She pushes the needle in again and some blood wells up, harmless and inert. A ruby red drop escapes; floats up before her eyes.

Her breath catches and she thinks: two million kilometers from Earth and everyone can still breathe.

Excerpt from communication: December 2. Sent from the Independence comm terminal. Addressed to Dr. Cao Xinyun’s personal terminal, Mars station.

[Hey.

I’m writing to prove I’m still alive after so many days – further evidence that your procedure was successful, Doctor.

I feel like absolute hell. The gas residue seems to be ballooning through my major organs and I keep dreaming dark things about the parts I was out for.

But I really wanted you to know: I owe you my life, my death, and several moments in between.

Will the scar fade?]

 

Addressed to Dr. Serge Farro, aboard the Independence Hermes-class transport ship.

[Hello, Dr. Farro. By Mara’s account, you seem to be moving around more easily. I am curious to hear more details about your health, as they are – as ever – elusive.

How does my planet look, growing smaller by the day? I imagine for me it would be a wistful image….

…Actually, may I tell you something about myself? A small and funny coincidence. When I heard that you were going to Kalliope, I did not recognize your name. I looked you up. I found your publishing history; skimmed over it. One of the lesser titles seemed familiar, though at first I could not determine why.

My daughter was born on Earth. She came with me to Mars as a teenager, but she made no secret of the fact that she resented the change. The dangers of Earth did not seem to matter to her. It took me too long to understand why.

After political relations thawed somewhat, her best friend – at the time I truly thought they were only friends – went instead to your country for an education. She took your writing seminar. There, she learned to create poetry. I understand you collected the best of your students’ works and published them through the university press.

There is a poem about my daughter in your book.

I think very often about how strange and large the universe is. About how everything moves according to everything else’s gravity.

Dr. Farro, I have a favor to ask of you.

My daughter is on Kalliope. I haven’t heard from her in a long time.]

 

Addressed to Dr. Cao Xinyun’s personal terminal, Mars station.

[Mars is a pretty planet. I wouldn’t mind coming back. Seeing what the place has to offer.

And when I do, I’ll bring news. I’ll find her.

Professional courtesy; I owe you at least this much.]

“I think it’s pretty, too,” Mara says.

“Quit looking over my shoulder! This is a private conversation.”

Mara laughs and backs away.

The professor finishes his message, then carefully pushes off the wall to join Mara on her side of the corridor. His back bumps gently against the viewscreen.

“You’re blocking my goodbye,” Mara says.

“Please, you’ve been saying goodbye for days.”

“How would you know? You keep falling asleep.”

The professor rolls his shadow-sunken eyes. The face surrounding them looks pale and paper-thin.

“I was being polite to her, you know. I don’t think it’s really that enticing – damn thing looks orange from here. They don’t go over that kind of thing in the press releases. If I came all the way out here to live on the red planet only to find that rather than red, it was- ”

“Kinda like, marigold-orange,” Mara says. She chews at her nail.

He squints at the screen as though he needs to check her work. “Well, yes, I suppose – like an under-performing marigold.” His voice comes out hoarse.

“You write poems, right?”

“Not usually.”

“Oh. Well, I think Marigold Planet is a pretty idea.”

She pats the professor’s shoulder, firmly enough to send him inching towards the floor. His hair floats up above him; his eyes track Mara with a new steadiness.

“If you say so,” he says, fingers pressed gently to his chest.

_______________

Sarah Pauling sends other people to distant places for a living as a study abroad advisor in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She was shortlisted for the James White Award for new writers and is a recent graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Cast of Wonders, and Luna Station Quarterly. If approached without sudden movement, she can be found at @_paulings on Twitter, where she natters on about writing, tabletop gaming, comics, and books.

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