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Dancing Regolith

The stars were sharp as blades.

The horizon was eerily close. The planet was barely three thousand kilometres wide. Jyothi walked alongside the talweg of a deep valley surrounded by blade-sharp mountains that gnawed at the ink-coloured sky. Sometimes Jyothi would stop and cover the peaks with her gloves, imagining herself as a space goddess gazing at a geology she could draw her own blood upon. Then she would grab her walking pole again and resume her walk. In one sixth of Earth gravities effort was limited and energy well spent. She could walk for hundreds of kilometres at a time, as long as there was solid ground in front of her. Fatigue wasn’t a concern. She would walk, and walk, and walk until exhaustion got the better of her, and then she would inflate her little personal habitat and sleep for days, somewhere in the great regolith plains where sunlight was sharper than a razor.

A red dot blinked on the visor of her helmet, then shattered into a bloody flower. An invisible wave was flowing towards the planet, crowds of protons surging among the solar wind. Jyothi looked up, towards the abyssal sky. She lowered the armoured plate on her helmet and the world became gold-tinted. Then she straightened her grip on her walking poles and carried on.

When the radiation storm hit, the regolith started dancing.

The solar flare wasn’t a simple coronal mass ejection. It was a proton storm made of positively charged particles travelling at one third of the speed of light. The regolith, on the contrary, had been negatively charged by billions of years of interaction with the solar wind. Each proton would impart a positive charge to the target, leading grains of regolith to start repelling each other. At one point, about seventy seconds after the initial impact, some of the grains would start moving upwards.

All around Jyothi knee-high pillars of dust would rise up and down, scattered columns birthing ephemeral wave-temples in the valley. At the beginning they looked like hails of bullets sending ripples in the dust, then they became ghost hills battering the landscape and finally the undulations stabilized in a coherent pattern. Blips and waves, up and down, up and down, again and again, a visualisation of music she couldn’t hear on a planet-sized screen.

Jyothi braced and hunkered down as if she was walking against a powerful wind. Protons battered her suit, piercing most of the outer shell except in the thicker helmet section. In a few dozen minutes she had already absorbed a lethal dose of radiation but there was not much left for the protons to damage. Her body was but one single, symbiotic q-aug. Extremophile algae flowed in her veins, feeding the lichen embedded in her skin, spreading towards the roots that were her bones; she was an enclosed ecosystem, a human tower of Babel. What radiation would destroy was almost immediately cut off, reconfigured and reconstructed. Her body yielded under the proton storm but did not break. In her mind memories danced, died and lived again, to the pace of self-repairing neurons. The world would ebb and flow, fragments of meaning collapsing and gathering up again in front of her eyes. Jyothi focused and switched her sensory emulators on. Normally they would detect movement and waves coming from the outside to create a fake soundscape but under the radiation storm, they could only output white noise. Electronic rustle that would ebb and flow along the regolith, set to the tune of the star above. Sound that filled her with warmth and peace, white and reassuring.

Ten thousand lightyears away from the Earth, a two hundred and fifty year old woman walked among a sea of dancing regolith.

Illustration and inspiration taken from For All Mankind. 

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