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A Karman Light

Qasmuna blinked and caught Talasea's hand. Her smile was painful.

Despite the distance of years, the Irenian understood what had happened in an instant. The paleness of Qasmuna's iris, the haziness of her cornea, the redness of her sclera, the way she sought light to the limit of blindness, the picture it painted was simple yet merciless.

“Neovascular glaucoma,” whispered Qasmuna, “my ophthalmologist says it is due to a short episode of heavy radiation exposure. I don't know how it happened. When I was taken out of the shadow zone of that drive, as the Al-Awaidh broke and spiralled out in a sunward vector; or perhaps when I witnessed the glimmers of a particle lance, diffracted through stellar dust. It doesn't matter. It's old, slow-burning, inevitable. My peripheral vision has already degraded to the point I can't even see the entirety of your face. I have six months, maybe a year, before blindness.”

“Your optic nerve and retina can be replaced with vegetal analogues. You will see again.”

“You are aware of what it entails, yes? They burn your optic nerve with lichens, then inject you with stem cells and commensal algae to rebuild your eyes. After twelve months of darkness, you wake from the great darkness with golden pupils, and your sight is changed. Your neural pathways are rewritten in the process, so blue is still blue, red is still red, a sphere is still a sphere and a smile is still a smile, but deep down, you know; that the world is not the same and that the root that runs to your visual cortex lies, not because it seeks to lie to you, but because it cannot do otherwise. You are a human with the eyes of a plant, and the world will never sing the same. It terrifies me.”

Radio waves were scattered across the atmosphere, dots and waves linking aircraft together — white wings and clear frames, high in the sky of Elora. Talasea was nestled in the thin cockpit of her Kármán skimmer, fortress of warmth and life in the freezing air of the stratosphere. Through the teardrop-shaped canopy poured in the candlelight of the main star, drenching her face in gold. It was an ancient sun, seven billion years down the evolutionary course of cosmic candles, teetering at the edge of the main sequence, yet not fallen. Sleek pearlescent frame and variable geometry wings angled in inversion, the Kármán skimmer was a thing of beauty — useless, but all spaceplanes were, superseded by skyhooks, orbital fountains and geostationary elevators, new altars of the interstellar age. It drifted through the layers of the stratosphere with the serene slowness of a drop of oil strolling at the surface of a river. Talasea's voice was soft and kind.

“Elora orbital, this is Cradle One, requesting permission to begin powered ascent.”

“Elora orbital control to Cradle One, you are good to go, happy flying.”

The Irenian pushed the throttle of the Kármán skimmer all the way up to the military power setting and the spaceplane responded in kind. Biofuel was pumped from the wing tanks and into the engine — thick, dark red liquid, the blood of flowers growing on the night side of tidally locked worlds. The jet engine swallowed the cold air and the Kármán skimmer abandoned its glider allure to transition into a runner. The cockpit hummed, vapour exuded and sublimed from the wings as they locked their shape into a delta. Mach 1, Mach 2, Mach 3, Mach 4 — as it passed the Mach 6 mark, at six thousand and five hundred kilometers per hour, the jet engine opened as a flower under the rain and turned into a scramjet. The Kármán skimmer had become an eager raindrop falling upwards, seeking a path of least resistance.

As the aircraft reached the mesosphere, the scramjet started losing thrust. The icy air in front of its gaping maws had become too thin for sustenance. Talasea flicked a switch and the engine performed its second metamorphosis. The flower died, retracting its petals under an invisible storm. It ceased to hunger for dark red blood, instead seeking hydrogen and oxygen. A white flame appeared in the wake of the skimmer. The teardrop had turned into a winged rocket. Underneath the thermal tiles of the fuselage gleamed a sea of high clouds, stretching their tendrils across the horizon. Elora's nascent space elevator cut the sky in two, thirty thousand kilometers of wire dangling from the edge of the world. Talasea grazed the back of her passenger's hand.

“Are you alright, Qasmuna?”

She nodded and Talasea pulled the stick towards her, increasing their rate of ascent.

Orange leaves dangled in the cool wind that rustled through the pseudotrees. The forest was warm, the mountains heavy with snow. Elora had just entered its stellar autumn, as its old star dimmed its light for six months straight. Local life had slowed down, many of the most complex symbiotic creatures falling in nigh-hibernation, just aware enough to seek for rays of sunlight falling in-between the trees. Talasea held Qasmuna in her arms, sheltering her from the rising mist.

“It is getting cold,” Talasea murmured, “we should return home, lest the birds start taking us for trees.”

“I would love to be a tree,” answered Qasmuna, “they do not have to worry about anything. They are trees.”

“Careful, now. You are on Elora. Our trees can think and dream. Perhaps they could even hear you.”

“Do they have eyes?”

Talasea extended her arms towards a furred pseudolizard that had been observing them for the better part of the afternoon, perched on its branch. The creature slithered towards the Irenian, snuggling against her neck in search of warmth and the sweet contact of her ocean-colored skin. Talasea patted the lizard on the head and it pawed her neck in response.

“The trees, I do not think so. But everyone else in the forest, yes. Eloran ecosystems are one interconnected symbiote, and I mean this not as a poetic manner of speech, but as a simple reality of this world. Maybe this lizard is going to report you to the trees. Who knows what they are up to? Conspirators, the lot of them.”

“I wonder if they will consider me as one of their own, when I have eyes as a forest and a root in my brain. Do tell, Tali. Do you think trees are afraid of seeing as a human?”

And now the Kármán skimmer ran a race against its own wake, wings three-quarters retracted and hugging the hull which creaked and vibrated under the coruscant song of the closed-cycle rocket engine. G-forces pushed Talasea and Qasmuna against their seats like a giant's palm leaning on their chests, but they didn't mind — for they were spacers at heart, daughters of this kinetic age. Freed from the shackles of air-breathing propulsion, so close to the edge of the atmosphere, the great skimmer exulted. Talasea kept an eye on the needle of the altimeter. The spaceplane was very close to Elora's orbital velocity and its wings played with the edges of the Kármán line, of that universal frontier which, one hundred kilometers up on Earth-like planets, materialized the limit between the void and the atmosphere. It was a convention, it was a fiction, for above continued the scattered particles of the exosphere, hundreds and thousands of kilometers out before the solar wind could blow them away into oblivion — but a strong fiction it was, neatly delineating the world between aircraft and spacecraft, between the flyers and the burners, between the drifters and the torches, between the realms of the blue and the realms of the black, between the last colours Qasmuna would ever see truly.

The windy warmth of a short stellar spring undulated in the forest, flowing around the hills, curving wheat fields and pseudo-oaks in its wake as it created a shifting landscape. Talasea and Qasmuna had left their bicycles on the side of the old path, abandoning the light of the young wood for the shade of the old trees. Talasea kissed Qasmuna in the neck. The Irenian was happy and exhausted, drunk on her lover's perfume and the sweet scent of spring. They had nothing left to say. It would thus be the end, thought Qasmuna. One last afternoon, one last hour of love before a year of darkness — and after that, the world would be changed without return, the colours and the shapes different yet her brain tricked into accepting as the same. It was the old question once again, the old doubt — are others really seeing the world as I do? What I call red, is it red for them? Or is it what I would call green, but by language and custom the other considers it red and thus we are all in broad accordance as to what the world actually is? Childhood questions, naive and meaningless — it didn't matter as long as humans as a whole agreed on the broad colors and shapes of the universe. But now it was her own continuum that was to be broken, this tunnel vision of hers to be replaced by the bright clarity of an algae's brightness sensors sharpened and educated into an eye, and — she was convinced of it now — with her old sight would go away the sincerity of the world. There would be a flash of suspended animation and she would find herself unable to trust reality anymore, spending every waking moment wondering as to whether or not red was red and green was green, and blue, and—

“Come,” said Talasea, “I have one last gift before the night.”

Qasmuna stood up and, helped by the Irenian, climbed back on her bicycle. They rode down the hill and towards the little village, stopping by the coral-woven hangars that rested by the deep blue lake. They entered. A slender spaceplane rested in an alveolar niche of the warehouse, grazed by the golden afternoon pouring through the bay windows. Qasmuna ran her hands alongside the edge of the variable geometry wings, feeling the silky surface against the palm of her hand. The spaceplane summoned images of a sea creature accustomed to the abyss, even though it yearned for the void.

“You never told me you had a Kármán skimmer…”

“It is not mine. I am merely keeping it in good shape for a friend who might fly it once again if she ever finds her way back to Elora from the deep black. She is a tideless, nearing three hundred years old. Her eyes are made of sap, bark and transparent leaves — but it is not why I want you to fly with me.”

One hundred and fifty-seven kilometers above the Eloran surface, Talasea cut the engines of the Kármán skimmer.

The world below had contracted its colours in a singular end of the spectrum. The ocean gleamed in lapis and cobalt that turned into teal and sapphire where the ancient, eroded continents would draw closer to the surface of Elora's shallow oceans. At the other end of the curved horizon, the planet was spread across a sea of ultramarine blue that dissolved into underexposed darkness along the exact line where sunlight came to die. In-between the atmosphere erupted in suzerain blue, fiery hue born out of the Rayleigh scattering of photons pulsed away by the sun.

For as long as Talasea could keep the spaceplane straddling the edge of space, Qasmuna watched. She gazed and gazed and gazed, gorging herself on colours that pierced the funeral veil on her eyes, the infinite hues of space intertwined with the fragile envelope of a garden world.

Blue, blue, blue; azure, the empress of colours, the tint of liquid water and the promise of life, the Cherenkov rays of electrons in radioactive water, the Doppler shift of spaceships exiting a faster-than-light translation, the formidable glow of fusion engines brought at the edge of the divine, it was the fundamental colour of this kinetic age, the heraldry of Qasmuna's heart, the promise of the eternal traveller. She closed her eyes. It would be the last true colour she would ever see, it would be Talasea's gift.

At the edge of night, a Kármán light.

Unplanned Landing

2372. The Low Age comes to an end. Humankind takes flight again.

"Nairobi still can't get a signal from Sally Ride-3," crackled the radio. "I am afraid they've lost the lunar lander."

Telemetry gleamed on Zhang's screens. The green figures showed two crafts on parallel lunar orbits, fifty kilometers away from each other. The first craft was identified as the USRE-launched Ténéré-6 orbiter, while the second craft was a direct ascent bus composed of the Laniakean Itokaya-3 orbiter and Hina-3 lander. It was Zhang's cramped den, saturated with the droning sound of ventilation fans that seemed to seek escape from the spherical prison that had travelled three thousand kilometers away from its sunlit pad, riding the momentous wave of a sixteen-engined direct ascent moon launcher. Its white surfaces and streamlined controls were reminiscent of an industrial age supercar, a herald of out-of-place luxury in the silent vacuum. For the Hina-Itokaya assembly was a racer, a straightforward device with a singular goal : to be the first to land on the Moon again. And it had lost.

Zhang took a deep breath. She sat nestled in the curved seat, the Laniakean bird on her shoulder facing towards deep space, eyes leaning against stars she couldn't see. The astronaut queried Muir, the orbiter's pilot.

"Do we have a direct channel with the USRE bus?"

"Yes, I've got a clear frequency."

"Patch me through."

Zhang flicked a switch. Her headphone buzzed with static.

"Ténéré-6, this is flight specialist Zhang on the Hina lander. Do you copy?"

The voice on the other end of the line was strained.

"Zhang, this flight specialist Saiph on Ténéré-3. I read you loud and clear."

"We're here. If we can do anything to help, we will."

"Much appreciated, Itokaya. But I don't's probably just a radio failure. Just a radio failure."

Channel switch. Zhang queried ground control.

"Manila, we're about to do a pass above the landing site. I am requesting permission to fire the RCS thrusters and orient the main porthole towards the lunar surface."
"Manila control to lunar bus, you're clear to do so, go ahead."

The orbiter rolled under Muir's careful hand. Zhang took a pair of binoculars, pushed the recording button and leaned against the thick glass of the porthole. The ragged surface of the lunar south pole, less than a hundred kilometers below, filled the entire space of the observation window. Endless ranges of sharp mountains were razored by the incident grazing light, shadowing the great craters like ink stains on the gleaming regolith: Shackleton, De Gerlache, Sverdrup, Shoemaker, Faustini, Haworth, Nobile and Cabeus. Eight eyes that Zhang could feel gazing at her soul. Signals bounced towards the surface, to no avail.

"Ténéré to Sally Ride, do you copy? This is Ténéré to Sally Ride, do you copy? This is Ténéré to Sally Ride, do you copy?"

And again, and again, and again. Zhang scanned the lunar surface with her binoculars. She had left an alarm light blinking in silence -- a minor, meaningless computer error. Its steady pace reminded Zhang of the lighthouses over the sea, far, far away in a childhood not yet struck by the maddening call of the void.

Then -- a glimpse in the corner of her binoculars. Peripheral vision. She zoomed in. Her hand drifted towards her headphones.

"Ténéré from Itokaya. I have visual contact, I have visual contact. Sally Ride is on the northern edge of the Shackleton crater. Lander appears to be tilted thirty to forty degrees to the side, facing south. Landing gear didn't deploy. Plume trenches hint at rough contact with regolith. There's...does Sally Ride have some sort of signal light?"

"Yes. Rendezvous light on the top."

"It's blinking. It's Morse! I've got Morse coms from Sally Ride! It's saying...engine dead. Soban incapacitated. Please assist. And repeat."

Words flew between Manila control and the Itokaya-Hina bus. Muir and the engineers spoke of technicalities and numbers, of abort trajectories, of landing gear failures and of the restart probabilities of a snuffed-out hydrazine engine buried in regolith with a crushed nozzle. Zhang sat still in her lander. 

"Control," she snapped, "there's no way Mansour is restarting Sally Ride and you know it. The damn lander careened alongside three hundred meters of regolith. It's dead."

"Nairobi is trying to work something out. If they can get radio coms online again, there might be a chance to perform on-site repairs with Ténéré's help."

"You really think that's a possibility? Mansour's suit only has six hours of supplies. We've already done two orbits since touchdown, so she's down to two hours and that is nearly not enough to dig through the regolith and fix the engines, if they even are repairable. We don't have room for another orbit. She'll suffocate before. She needs rescue. Look, control, we already lost the game. Hina is not going anywhere useful."

"Zhang, we cannot order you to go down. The only way Mansour and Soban fit in your lander is with two empty seats. Hina wasn't designed for single-crew landing. The nav computer doesn't even have the detailed profile of the Shackleton site, so a full autopilot descent is not possible. You know how flimsy that thing is, it might bug out or even crash. This is...we can't risk you being the third person to die on the Moon."

"Control, do I have the delta-v to land at Shackleton and bring them back, yes or no."

"You'll be active flying with no copilot. Look, this -- this is within specs of the craft. Fuel margin will be very restrictive, but this is doable."

We launched because they did. They rushed the secondary crew to the pad -- us -- and fired the damn rocket, just because the USRE had done so. They had a headstart. We were faster. Two missions in the same place, at the same time and on the same orbit -- it's not fate. Just numbers. And I trust numbers.

"Manila control, Zhang. Hina is going down."

Nary an hesitation. The ground crews adapted in a split-second, as they always did.

"Control, copy. Prepare craft for single-crew emergency descent. Separation from Itokaya is t minus fifteen minutes. We're trying to work something out with Nairobi, keeping you updated. Inshallah, Hina."

Zhang rolled her shoulders and put her helmet on. Her hands got to work on the rows of switches and buttons. The start-up sequence of the Hina lander was as simple as the craft itself, a streamlined ritual for a streamlined goal: first on the Moon, at all costs.

Luna moved around the porthole. Faint vibrations ran through the hull as the thrusters fired. Zhang took a deep breath, draining her mind of any and all thoughts. Through the airless distance she could make out the jaws of the south pole, gnawing at invisible stars. Zhang braced as a warrior getting ready to receive a charge. Her hands rested on the stick and throttle, pommels of her lance and sword. Her heart rested idle, filled with a great coldness. Numbers. I trust numbers.

Then began the radio dance, two seconds delay to the Earth.

"This is Manila flight control to Hina. We are relaying Ténéré to you."

"Zhang, Saiph here. Your delta-v is close to Sally Ride's but your handling is different. You'll have to adjust descent profile in real time. Muir is relaying your external video feed to me. It's stable. I'll be your copilot."

"Hina copies. Thanks. Beginning descent. Roll-around for antenna alignment, pitch minus nine, yaw plus eighteen. Primary Guidance and Abort Guidance are well-correlated. How's the feed, Ténéré?"

"Clear. I see you."

The eight eyes of the pole stared. Expecting. Haunting.

"Manila control, rate of descent look great. Altitude's right about on."

Zhang bit her lip.

"Control, be advised, Abort Guidance is showing rate of descent in excess of zero point six meters per second."

"Ignore. It's acting up. Follow Primary."

"Roger. Rolling over."

The module rotated, pointing its folded legs towards the lunar surface. Metallic surfaces caught sunlight, gleamed, swords in flames.

"Alright, Hina. Telemetry is pristine. You are go to continue powered descent."


Little pass of static. Solar radiations acting up.

"Hina, this is Saiph, I've got data drop-outs but you're still looking good."

"Roger. Roll-over complete, radar is facing down, locking on to terrain. I've got a problem. Delta-H is minus eight hundred and seventy meters. Radar and computer are in disagreement, please advise."

Static again. Zhang could practically see the little spectacled heads and the colorful sarees at mission control shuffling through their files.

"Manila, are you looking at that delta-H?"

"Affirmative. There's a discrepancy . We're trying to solve it."

"Saiph to Zhang, Sally Ride had the same problem during descent. Terrain and temperature contrasts interfere with radar returns. Disregard delta-H, follow computer."

"Copy that."

A red panel blinked on Zhang's instruments, drowning her helmet in blood.

"Programme alarm, two-zero-twelve. Control, I need a reading on that error."

"Control here, we got you. Computer's running clear. Ignore."


She pushed a button, silencing the alarm. Her terrain overlay flickered, then disappeared. Her voice was strained.

"Control, Hina. I lost HUD. Computer crashed."

"Working on it. We're running the sim parallel to you. Engine: six plus twenty-five for throttle down."

"Copy, throttle down in six minutes, twenty five seconds."

"Your computer should have rebooted by now."

"Roger. Alarm, two-zero-twelve again. Telemetry is acting up. Controls are hard. Autopilot seems to be countering. Confirm status on your end."

"Autopilot off. What does it read?"

"On. I can't seem to be able to turn it off. Two-zero-twelve keeps shooting. Computer crashed again."

"Roger. Switch to full manual. Patching Saiph to you. Keep an eye on the engine. Ignition in thirty seconds."

Zhang released the pressure on her controls.

"Hina firing engines."

As the bells ignited, she felt a punch in her lower gut. The jaws of the pole trembled.

"Saiph, how do I look?"

"You're clear. My values are correlated to yours. You've just passed the first alignment point. At your current rate of descent, you've got thirty seconds to final approach."

"Control to Hina, we've isolated the issue. We'll have to do a full core restart on your nav comp."

"Hina to Control, without the radar guidance this is a no-go for me, I repeat this is a no-go for me."

Zhang uncovered the abort push button.

"Saiph to Hina. I can call shots for direct visual approach, we've done this in sim a million times. You're still looking good, you're still looking good. Trust me."

Here -- and into the fray.

"Roger. Control, I need priority coms with Ténéré, no talk-over. Going for landing, one thousand meters."

Zhang pushed a switch and covered up the abort button. The rim of Shackleton was coming through the window she couldn't lay an eye on; she could feel the warmth of its reflected light on her skin.

"Saiph. I'm at eight hundred meters, coming down at seven meters per second."

"Passing second alignment point on cam. Thirty-five degrees on descent. Your trajectory is good."

Zhang kept a firm hand on her controls.

"Five hundred meters. Three hundred. One hundred meters, three meters per second vertical, seventeen horizontal."

"You're good on rate of descent, keep heading. Passing third alignment point. Thirty degrees on descent. I see Sally Ride. You're coming right on top of it."

"Sixty meters. Half a meter vertical."

"Reduce horizontal to five meters per second. Passing fourth alignment point. Still clear."

"Rocks the size of trains down there. I can't land. Picking up dust. Thirty seconds to bingo fuel."

"One forward, one downwards, you are good. Proximity light. Watch out for Sally Ride. Do not deviate."

"It just passed below me. On engine for go-around."

"You're ten seconds to bingo. You won't make it. Push down, push down, ground it, you've got flat terrain below you."

Dusted with regolith, Zhang couldn't see anything through the portholes. She rolled the throttle back and fired the engines clear.

"Five seconds to bingo. One third of a meter on all velocities. Landing gear down. Contact light, I've got a contact light."

The Hani lander shook and shivered as it finally made contact with the surface of the Moon. Zhang found her breath again.

"Contact confirmed with lunar surface. Touchdown on all landing legs. OK on engine stop. Descent engine override command: off. Fuel at two percent above bingo. No atmosphere loss, no alarm, all systems nominal. I think...I think we're fine, Earth."

"I'm giving Manila the coms again. Impressive landing, Hani."

"Right back at you, Ténéré."

She sighed and closed her eyes.

Zhang's first step on the Moon encountered the half-buried leg of her own lander. She fell face-first in the compact regolith. As she rolled down the slope of Shackleton, her tumble was stopped by a benevolent hand. Looking at her helper, Zhang saw the exhausted, radiant face of Mansour. Behind was Sally Ride-3, angled at the location of her final rest. Zhang stood up and they fell into each other's arms under the starless sky. They moved towards the stranded USRE lander, helping Soban out through the side hatch. His face was bloodied, the external cap of his helmet half-pierced, but he still had enough strength to wave at Zhang. The three astronauts started walking alongside the ridge of Shackleton crater, heading back to Hina's four-legged sphere. Standing at the edge of daylight, they raised their hands towards the Earth, old Earth, gentle Earth, exhausted oceans and depleted lands, tired people and ancient cities, new nations and old shames. Three human beings on the Moon and their machines, minuscule sums of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrazine, delta-v and hope. Wandering functions turned spinwards.

And they laughed, and cried, and their steps marked deserts unchanged in a million years.

Coldest Case

Maria Villaverde had always garnered nothing but vague disinterest for space. She was a daughter of the Earth through and through, though she now called another world home. To her, space was nothing more than an annoyance. Emptiness to cross over, vacuum to fill with the radiation cones of fusion drives. There was no real point to space, really. She couldn't wrestle significance out of it. Space was just a negative image. The opposite of things. Yet, it didn't mean it was outside her domain of expertise. As a member of the Traverse Citizens' Militia, she had to contend with cases -- once a month on average -- that used open space as their stage.

The one at hand was most peculiar.

The Kzinti was a standard Mansa Musa-class cargo ship, made of a single tubular section, about a hundred meters long, propelled by a nuclear thermal drive out of which protruded two symmetrical radiator fins. The vessel was the image of workmanlike simplicity. It was registered under a mining commune in the Elora system and carried a thousand tonnes of refined minerals between a rocky moon of Nausicaa, the local gas giant, and a Farseer transporter en route to a nearby system. It also happened to be a tomb.

"Right," said Villaverde, leaning over the railing of the drydock, "only one crewmember, correct?"

The station's mechanic nodded.

"Yes. The Kzinti is fully automated, poor guy was just hitching a ride."

"Okay. Name's Paul Adewunmi, payload specialist for the Nausicaa Mining Commune, thirty-seven, born on Earth. Do I have that right?"

"You do. What happened to him, exactly?"

Villaverde pondered her answer for a second. Most of her work in the Elora system involved trivial and bloodless affairs -- illegal ship modifications, golden lichen contraband busts, worksite inspections. Her colleagues working in the vast forests of Elora sometimes found bodies -- once or twice per year; careless hikers lost in the fog, swallowed by a crack in the karstic ground. But in orbital affairs? While space was deadly, spacers were careful. And she had no doubt Paul Adewunmi had been, too, though it hadn't spared him a most mysterious death. The corpse recovered from the Kzinti looked like the stereotypical image of a man thrown through the airlock, skin blue with frost, eyes burst open and shattered, all internal organs iced in place. It was strange, because people *actually* thrown through airlocks did not look like that. The hard vacuum of space had a different effect on bodies. It did not freeze them, not the way Paul Adewunmi had been, for space wasn't *cold*, it was the absence of temperature. Blood boiled. It wasn't iced. It was a truly mysterious death; as if someone had knocked him cold inside a deep zero freezer, then stripped him of his thermal regulation suit, before putting it back on after his death.

"We found him frozen," said Villaverde, lacking a better word.

"Frozen? What do you mean?"

"Just frozen. Not vacuum-exposed, frozen. A block of ice. Blood vessels exploded and full of solid fluid. Death caused by multiple organ failures. We couldn't take any data from his monad, it was too damaged. Ditto for his flight suit."

The mechanic looked unfazed. Catching her glance, Villaverde realized she had seen many more space-borne horrors than her.

"Come, inspector. I need to show you something."

The mechanic propelled herself forwards and glided towards the Kzinti, suspended in zero-g over the railing. Villaverde followed and they quickly made contact with the hull. The outer armor was all-white, with grey craters marking the impact points of micrometeorites. The ship was riddled with them. It was an old beast. The mechanic opened the airlock and they slipped inside, passing by the e-ink seals left by the Militia officials. The quarters of the Mansa Musa were spartan, almost an afterthought. As cylindrical as the rest of the vessel, they conjured memories of ramshackle low Earth orbit stations in Villaverde's mind.

"Look at this", said the mechanic, drawing Villaverde's attention towards a puddle of hydraulic fluid floating around, seeping from a row of flexible pipes attached to the curved hull.

"Technical failure?"

"Yes, but of a strange kind. See, the rupture points on the pipes are typical of a freezing failure, when the ship is brought to so low a temperature that the hydraulic fluid turns to ice and, by changing phase, expands. This cracks the pipes and when temperature goes up again, the fluid leaks out. Very common failure point on early generation planetary rovers."

"So this would mean the Kzinti was submitted to low temperatures? What's the freezing point of this substance?"

"In the ballpark of minus fifty degrees Celsius."

"That's very low."

"Not a temperature that's easy to reach on a ship, that's for sure. Hell, I've never heard of a vessel freezing over...usually you're dealing with the opposite problem. In fact, I don't think it's even possible. The Kzinti departed the asteroid mining facility by 6 PM, Eloran time, and was found drifting in a close Nausicaa orbit by 9 PM. That is not enough time for a Mansa Musa to go down to minus fifty degrees even if the cooling systems go completely wild in one part of the vessel. Simply not possible."

Villaverde nodded, scribbling in her little notepad in an attempt to compartmentalize the problem at hand.

"Anything notable in the cargo?"

"Unless you have a specific interest in vanadium, nickel and meteoritic iron, no. I sifted through it and there was nothing peculiar or hidden. Please trust me when I say I know all of the tricks used by smugglers. The Kzinti is the most legit cargo vessel in the entire system."

"What about the rest of the ship?"

"The Kzinti was built on the Moon seventy years ago, it's an old engine, brought to Elora during the first wave of colonisation. Served as a mining ferry almost exclusively since. Passed its yearly technical exam like clockwork, just got its inner plating changed and uranium refuelled. It doesn't even have a funny anecdote attached to its name. The most boring vessel this side of Nausicaa."

"Any sign of technical failure?"

"The freeze affected all of the systems, even the fission core. The Kzinti will not fly again. But I cannot determine the exact timeline of the failures."

"Black box, flight records, engine memories?"

"The mainframe is vegetal wetware, the freeze completely destroyed it. This also scrambled the black box. Ergo, I do not know what happened between the departure and arrival of the vessel. Here. Copy of the schematics, but you won't find anything of value."

The mechanic waved a punched card in front of Villaverde. The inspector pocketed it.

"How about the geometry drive? Nothing peculiar?"

"Ah, right, the drive."

They drifted towards the center of gravity of the vessel, where lay the superluminal drive. The crystalline cube hung in its berth of thin cables and needles, unaltered.

"What do you say?" asked the mechanic. Villaverde raised an eyebrow. Faster-than-light propulsion wasn't her forte, but she had picked up some knowledge with time.

"The drive is very smooth, polished even. There are lots of hairline cracks at the needle connexions. The tint is strange as well. Bluer than usual. It's an old model. Not standard, perhaps?"

"Correct. See, when the first colonists wanted to use the Kzinti, they noticed that the original drive was unusable. It had been destroyed by the long-range translation of the carrier ship. At the time, we didn't know about cross-interference between drives. The Kzinti was re-equiped a decade later with a custom, locally built drive. I have no idea where it comes from but it's Eloran."

"Does it have an ID number?"

"No. I guess traceability wasn't a concern in these times. I mean, we were building the first long-term settlement outside of Communal Space, with Earth more than two years away and limited resources. I am not even sure they had the technology to watermark geometry drives."

"Do you have the drive's flash?"

"In the punched card."


A blue night hummed in Malatesta Station. The starport orbited high above Nausicaa. It was property of the Eloran state, through qith Saïmour, a deep space engineering commune. Mining, cargo and passenger ships came and went, RCS thrusters spewing jets of white gas in the interplanetary night. Villaverde enjoyed the centrifugal gravity of Malatesta's outer habitation ring. One side of the-ink screen of her minitelcom displayed the full schematics of the Kzinti, lined with the mechanic's notes. The other side showed her the various air control reports of the fateful day the Kzinti had been frozen over. They were desperately empty and scattered. The trajectory of the Kzinti traditionally brought it very close to the gas giant for gravity assists, deep inside its gravity well and high orbit stations did not track it all the way through its route. With the available data, Villaverde saw no possibility for foul play, nor any oddity in the journey of the Mansa Musa-class. From what she could see, nothing had docked with the Kzinti nor fired at it. She sighed, took a sip of apple juice and opened the videoconference window on the minitelcom, typing the number of the Malatesta Shipyards. Her only venue of investigation was the drive itself.

"Hello," she said to the receptionist, "Maria Villaverde, Traverse Citizens' Militia, I'm trying to identify a geometry drive. I was wondering if you had a specialist at hand."

"Hang on a moment."

A minute passed. The screen flickered and the face of an elegant Irenian woman appeared on the minitelcom window.

"Hello, miss Villaverde. I'm Tali Talasea, navigator aboard the Starmoth Initiative vessel Azur Dreams. We took a nasty meteorite and are in drydock. Shipyard ringed me, apparently you want to identify a geometry drive? I assume you have a flash but no ID."

"Correct. How did you guess?"

"Well, you're TCM. You can run an ID through your telcom but I doubt you have a flash databank. Come over, don't send the flash through the net, Malatesta's security is terrible."


She removed the punched card and left the room.

The elevator door hissed. Villaverde hopped off the brass capsule and into the shining hall of the Malatesta Shipyard Syndicate that occupied the whole width of the secondary habitation ring. Talasea waited for her between two vintage typewriters and a shelf full of ship schematics, perusing navigation data on her augmented reality spectacles. She flashed her Starmoth Initiative pin at Villaverde. Her Arabic was devoid of any accent, unplaceable.

"Good evening. What kind of case are you on, inspector?"

"You don't have to know. The ship is called the Kzinti. I'd just want you to help with its geometry drive, if you do not mind."

"The Starmoth Initiative is happy to oblige. So. An ID-less geometry drive...a mystery. Intriguing. Do you have the flash?"

Villaverde slotted the punched card in her minitelcom, then displayed it to Talasea. The Irenian sat down. Geometry drive flashes were standardized documents, built from three-dimensional scans of a given superluminal engine. They peeled the drive away, like glass blades catching the light of a microscope, drawing a unique, reconstructed image of the engine. Talasea considered the document.

"Interesting. How old is it?"

"Some seventy years."

"That's what I thought. The crystalline pattern is characteristic of second generation drives. It's practically an antiquity."

"Is age a problem?"

"Geometry drives can last for a century when well-maintained. The flash shows signs of superficial damage in the structure but nothing out of the ordinary. I would clear it for a good hundred more jumps if it was in my ship. Are you looking for a manufacturer?"

"Why not? It is the only non-standard part of the vessel I'm investigating. I'm playing a hunch."

"Let's see. How good is your minitelcom screen?"

"I use it to examine evidence. It's color-accurate."

"Good. Good."

Talasea whipped out a personal notebook. It contained rows upon rows of watercolor squares, each of them tied to a specific variety of geometry flowers. The Irenian held the notebook side by side with the minitelcom, squinting and flipping pages until she found a match.

"You painted all these references by hand?"

The Irenian nodded.

"It's part of navigator training in the Pleiades. We have a universal range of watercolor paints, each of them corresponding to a variety of FTL drives in service in human space. The notebook is part of the graduating process. Once it's complete, you are good to go."

"You could use a screen, no? Or is watercolor more accurate?"

"Screen, watercolor, print, makes little difference as long as it is well calibrated. It's just a matter of taste. I prefer my notebook."

"I see. What is our match?"

"An interesting one. It appears your flash corresponds to a very rare variety of geometry drives. Custom, early Eloran ones, I believe eight or nine were ever manufactured and only one is still registered -- the Kzinti's. The color corresponds to Terran geometry flowers hastily imported to Elora during the initial settlement process. The ones we currently use have been genetically enhanced for optimal growth under the Eloran sun, hence their golden color. Without access to advanced facilities, the original settlers had to make do. These drives are of decent quality, well-suited to interplanetary translations. I wouldn't take it to Sol and back, though."

"The Kzinti was strictly local. So nothing out of the ordinary?"

"In technical terms? No."

"Can you point me towards a manufacturer?"

"Of course. A commune named Siburn. Engineers from the initial Migrant ship."

Villaverde ran a quick search on her minitelcom. It returned only meagre information.

"Siburn went out of operations fourty years ago. I can't find anything on the net about them and TCM data isn't much more explicit. Apparently they had a greenhouse and artisanal facility in Shiva's Reach, on Elora."

"Well then," smiled the Irenian, "you could go there if you need more data on the geometry drive and its peculiarities. The first settlers had little in the way of cloud storage, you'll have to go hard drive and punch card hunting."

"Would you come?"

"For a mystery? Always."

The biofuel-powered Saïmour-47 aerodyne switched to glider mode as it passed over the steep limestone cliffs of the shore, moving towards the sunny hinterlands. Shiva's Reach was well away from Elora's population centers. The continent's inhabitants numbered in the thousands. The rest was as pristine and untouched as during the first years of settlement. The wings were strong, the hills steep, the fog thick in the valleys and the forests deep. Villaverde angled the wings of the aerodyne, following the orbital positioning markers on her HUD. The Saïmour-47 caught the automated beacon of an ancient runway hiding behind a hill and moved in its direction. Villaverde resumed manual control for the final approach, deployed the landing gear and touched down, white hull mincing the tall grass with ease. Villaverde opened the canopy and left the aerodyne. Talasea followed. Orange and blue in the endless sea of pseudograss.

"Look, as long as I get compensation and answers, I can follow you anywhere on Elora, but why aren't you telling me about your case?"

"I told you. The Kzinti. There's something wrong with it. The rest is TCM classified."

The Irenian navigator walked up the hill. Down in the valley was a small, overgrown facility made of cheap, pre-built constructions typical of initial settlement efforts. Siburn's production center was already prey to the pseudotree forest, wood and tendrils encroaching on the perimeter.

"It is strange the forest hasn't swallowed it whole", said Talasea.

"Pseudotrees recognize human buildings. They avoid encroaching on isolated settlements, even abandoned ones. It is just a matter of being polite, you know? We preserve their territory, they preserve ours. Pseudotrees can think. They're sentient. The forests, if not the individuals."

They continued further down the valley, scaling the slopes covered in red grass. Villaverde used her laser stylus to cut open the fence that separated the facility from the rest of the valley. Talasea kneeled, sifting through the grass in search of something Villaverde couldn't quite see. Standing back up, the Irenian handed her a handful of blueish flowers. A crystalline substance covered the underside of their petals, peeling away in the wind. A pseudoant was nibbling on them. It stumbled around, high on four-dimensional compounds.

"Geometry flowers?" asked Villaverde.

"Yes. They adapted quickly to the area. Siburn was careless. Geometry flowers suck a lot of minerals from the ground, depriving nearby plants of sustenance. In a rich environment, they can quickly become invasive. Maybe that's the true reason why pseudotrees aren't encroaching."

They continued through the derelict facility. A microwave rectenna array stood next to the main building, fully overgrown by the grass. In the first days of settlement, there were little sources of power available on the Eloran surface. The colonists could not build reliable fission reactors and didn't have a good enough understanding of Eloran geophysics to count on mass-scale renewables. In the image of many preliminary settlements, the Siburn commune had used power beamed from the Migrant vessels in orbit. In the main building, Talasea and Villaverde found a geometry drive workshop filled with half-broken machines and precision tools. In theory, it wasn't impossible to build an FTL drive by hand -- in fact, such was the true power of the human FTL engine: as a paracausal object, it worked by virtue of its very existence and didn't require as complex an environment as a sublight fusion engine. Still, thought Talasea, Siburn's work was impressive. To make working geometry drives in what amounted to a workshop lost in the woods, such was a commendable endeavour. The Irenian pointed at a half-finished engine resting on a table, following the pyramidal lines with her fingertips.

"Look at the color. I was right."

"Enjoying a bit of self-satisfaction?"

"The little pleasures in life, inspector Villaverde, the little pleasures in life. Let's see now, where's the root..."

"The what?"

"The software component of the geometry drive. The cube itself doesn't incorporate any electronics, but it's always shipped with software specifically tuned to the quirks and parameters of a given superluminal engine. You can embed a drive with standard software but it's not advised. Roots are very interesting. They contain a lot of information about the drive and the minds of its creators. I'm going to take a peek."

The Irenian leaned over the rusty mainframe of the assembling table and ripped a punched card out of it. Despite its age, the storage unit slotted in her lectern and was partially readable. Talasea sent the data to her augmented reality glasses and perused it. With little flicks of her wrists, she re-arranged the visualisation of the drive's code into a geographical map of data, linking grapes of symbols together with elaborate virtual bridges. Villaverde left the Irenian to her work, wandering aimlessly through the workshop. Suddenly, the navigator let out a Pleiadian curse words that Villaverde didn't know; it sounded like gravel on sandstone.

"Stars," finally said the navigator, "the craftsmanship is impressive but the coding skills left to be desired."

"What do you mean? Is the code messy?"

"No. The opposite. It is too simple. Just the bare minimum to operate the drive and enable it to interface with the ship."

Talasea pointed at Villaverde.

"Allow me to take a wild guess as to your case. It involves a dead crewmember, which you found either frozen or burnt to ash. I would say frozen, otherwise you wouldn't have had recovered the drive flash. Yes, a frozen passenger. Do I have that right?"

"You do. Care to explain?"

The Irenian searched for her words, then obliged.

"See, geometry drives obey the laws of conservation of energy. This is almost never a concern, except in one specific situation: when a ship translates up or down a deep gravity well. When the vessel goes uphill, it gains potential energy. When it goes downhill, it loses potential energy. Do you see a problem here?"

"Well, if conservation of energy is respected, then that difference must go somewhere."

"Correct. It is converted in or from ambient heat. If a ship jumps downhill, it will heat up tremendously. When going uphill, it will cool down very quickly. I will spare you the equations, but it goes very, very fast. A simple downjump of a hundred kilometers in low planetary orbit will turn a vessel into a puddle of molten metal. Normally, you would expect a ship to output an error when you order it to jump uphill or downhill, to prevent damage. This is why faster-than-light travel is limited by the close gravitational influence of planets and stars. But this is not a physical barrier, merely a universal software lock. That is why you've never heard of this phenomenon, like the majority of spacers. The impossibility of translating uphill and downhill is hardcoded in geometry drive mainframes, alongside a variety of similar interdictions that prevent, say, time travel. We navigators call them shackles. And the drives made by Siburn..."

Villaverde snapped her fingers.

"...are not shackled."

"Correct. So I will tell you what happened. The Kzinti was cruising near Nausicaa, deep inside its gravity well, as usual. Then something happened. Perhaps the passenger engaged a manoeuvre they shouldn't have, perhaps the mainframe had a any case, the Kzinti performed an uphill jump outside the safety range. Not by much. A few tens of kilometers uphill, perhaps a hundred. Just enough for the energy compensation to suck two hundred degrees from the ship."

"But...such a drop should be survivable, no? Space suits are cleared for deep zero temperatures."

"You don't get it. When compensating for the energy increase, it is not just the atmosphere of the ship that cools down. It is every single molecule inside the ship. All of the Kzinti froze down from the inside, including the blood and organs of the crew. The blood vessels exploded, the heart stopped in a second. Instant death. Here is your case. You will need to cross-reference what I just said with autopsy reports, navigation data and the history of the Kzinti, but in essence, I believe that is it. Congratulations. This is the first recorded death by energy compensation. You've made history."

"Why did they omit the shackles?"

"Who knows? Lack of skill. Lack of time. Overconfidence in the talent of future navigators. When colonies are young and settlers are pressed by a hostile world, monsters tend to emerge. This one only killed once,and given that the Kzinti was equipped with the last remaining drive of its generation, it will never kill again. It is a merciful beast."

Villaverde looked through the collapsed roof. The golden sun seeped through it, a single moon crossing over its embrace as a black mote. Siburn's long-lost symbol gleamed on the white wall, a crescent over a blade of grass.

A strange kind of mercy, indeed.

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