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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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