Story Excerpt

Taking Icarus Home

by Suzanne Palmer

 

There are, you think, two main problems with the Barrens. The first, and most obvious, is that it is vast and unnaturally sparse of star systems, which means it comes up stingy and begrudging with the specific, complex, and mostly not-understood gravitational circumstances necessary to spawn up active jump points. That leaves one to slog along in passive jump, or worse: actual sub-C speeds, which is especially tedious when you miscalculated your swing around one of the few actual bodies out here and got shit for a speed boost.

Not that you ever miscalculate, per se. That is problem number two: for being a place called the Barrens, there is way too much stuff out here floating around where it shouldn’t be, like an old, holed-out rustfreighter that’s abandoned itself right in your approach vector, meaning you had to swing wide to avoid a collision, and rather than make another day-long loop around to try again, you guessed, and you guessed really close, but not quite close enough. So here the fuck you are only going about a third as fast as you want, not quite in the optimum direction, and debating if you should just burn the fuel to take yourself up to passive jump and get the hell out. It feels like cheating, though. You’ve been playing the run around these stars for a long time, and damned if you’re not going to at least think through if you can still use ’em.

“Axie,” you say. “Vivaldi, please.”

The ship chooses a violin concerto. You’re not sure which one, but already you can tell it’s a Martian Symphony Orchestra recording, as are most of the ones you’ve kept; even if you didn’t really like the handful of Marsies you’ve met, the MSO is arguably one of the very best. The sound of strings swells throughout the small cargo ship that is the Axolotl Daydream, that is your shell, your home, an extension of you, no less vital a part than your own arms, your own eyes. The music is your collective heartbeat, and it warms you as you slide together through real space, among the dust and dead relics and ditched salvage in the vast emptiness.

The star you skirted awkwardly is named Birib, and it’s a big, bright, fast-burning A-star with a few scorched rocks orbiting closer in, a gas giant past that, and then some distant chunks of ice that barely qualify as planets. Signal comes in from somewhere between the giant and the first of the ice planets, and you know that’s Hades Enclave warning anyone with bad intentions to stay out of their space. You’ve traded there, and it’s not nearly as bad as they want people to think, but nowhere you’d want to stay.

You like being on the move, and you never did like other people much. It works out.

“Captain,” your ship says. “I am detecting a substantial object along our projected path. I estimate we will overtake it in approximately four minutes.”

“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” you ask.

Axie knows by now how to interpret the question. “Artificial. It is consistent in approximate size and shape with a standard human-craft lifepod, but it is not broadcasting any signals, identity, distress, or otherwise.”

“Propulsion?”

“Not that I can detect.”

Dodging it is easy enough. The question is, should you? “Do you think it came from that freighter?” you ask, even though you’d bet it didn’t.

“If I extrapolate backward from its current trajectory, it would appear to have also attempted a gravity assist loop around Birib, but in much closer to the star.”

You blink at the console in front of you, knowing how you skirted the edge of tolerances, and you’re in an actual starship designed for such things. “Closer? It would have been fried to a crisp.”

“Scans indicate a high degree of crispiness,” Axie answers. “That may explain the lack of signal and propulsion. It is possible it briefly grazed the heliosphere itself.”

“So it’s dead,” you say, and that’s a door closed that means you don’t need to hassle with it, but also you can’t fix it. You don’t like not getting to decide that yourself.

“It is maintaining a temperature above ambient, so some systems are, at a minimum, partially functional.”

“Slow us down so we overtake in fifteen,” you say, “and give me scans.”

Once you’ve got the visuals you’re sure it’s a lifepod, but it looks bad. Really bad. One whole side of the alloy hull plating—designed to tolerate temperature extremes—is blistered and some of the panels are warping out of place, which you’ve never seen happen, and you’ve cruised through fields of battle-shattered warships back when you ran with a salvage team. Axie is right, though, that it’s not completely DOA. It’s holding steady at about 8C, and there is electrical signature, even if it’s nothing coherent.

“What do you think?” you ask.

“The chances of anyone inside it being alive are negligible but not zero,” Axie said. “If someone is still alive, their chances of remaining that way until another ship accidentally crosses paths with it in the Barrens is effectively zero.”

Two of your three cargo holds are packed full of agro goods. You’d planned to fill the third when passing Beenjai, but one way or another the lifepod matter should be resolved before then. “Okay, Axie. Fetch it in,” you order. You don’t add be careful, because Axie is always precisely careful, and that’s why you asked Axie to do it in the first place instead of doing it yourself. Not that you’re not careful, but maybe not precisely so. You’re human, after all, and your confidence is still stinging a bit from missing your course correction on the swing around Birib.

Axie takes full control of the helm, and you settle back in your seat, watching the front viewscreen, surprised by how tense you feel. You could go get coffee—Axie has as much use for you right now as a unicycle in zero gravity—but you want to see.

When the Axolotl Daydream closes on the pod, slowing, and you can get your best look yet at it, you find your breath all goes out in one sharp, shocked grunt.

It disappears beneath you, and you can feel the vibration of the cargo manipulators unfolding themselves from the underside of the ship. Two minutes later, you see the bay three light flash from red to yellow to green, open to closed to repressurized.

Well. You might as well go see. Whatever concentration you need to figure out your best hop out of here is shot, anyway.

“Axie, stay at current speed and course for now,” you say, and you unfasten your safety tether from your helm seat and push yourself up, doing a slow somersault in the air before grabbing a wallbar and pushing for the open door behind you.

From there it’s down one drop tube, a quick airswim down the lower corridor, and then through the heavy doors into the bay. Axie has the pod suspended in the center of the space, mag-clamps holding it stable. You float over and put one hand on a clamp strut to stop yourself before you touch the pod itself.

The unit is about four meters long, shaped like a stretched-out egg, with two of its five stabilizer fins still intact. The exterior is scorched, and you pull yourself around it, looking for markings, anything to tell you what ship it might have come from, but what little you can make out through the charred exterior is illegible, slapdash graffiti that had been painted over whatever official insignias there might once have been.

“You’re not helping me,” you tell the pod.

At last, among the bubbled-up panels, you find the edges of the hatch, and carefully have Axie rotate the pod thirty-eight degrees to put it upright.

Then you hang back, and stare at it a few moments longer. “Do I want to open this?” you ask.

“I am not able to answer that for you,” Axie answers from speakers in the bay, “but if not, what else would you do with it?”

It’s a valid point, of course, so you take some deep breaths and try to push the anxiety down and out as you find the cover over the emergency overrides. Underneath, the controls are still alive, though they flicker weakly as its internal power systems falter. You’re not sure it’s a good idea, but you pull down a tethered power line and hook it into the system to stabilize it, and nothing explodes or tries to electrocute you, so that’s something.

You hesitate, but what, really, does that buy you? Nothing. So you hit the sequence to open the hatch, curious and nervous and tense, as with a groan the tortured, deformed shell cracks and begins to open.

And then the smell hits.

You’ve puked in zero gee before—a lot, your first few months off-planet—and there’s not much worse than trying to clean up those floating vomit-globules as they dance around the inside of your ship, coating and contaminating everything they hit, so you manage to hold it in long enough to back away from the pod and stick your face over the chute for the bay’s flash recycler.

When you’re sure you’re definitely done, you grab a bob unit from where it’s magged to the wall, flip it on, and let it go. It hovers, blinking. “Go have a look, Axie,” you tell it, because the ship’s mindsystems are tied into the tiny logics of the bob itself. “I’m going to go wash up.”

The cold, precious water feels good on your face. You use the bathroom unit’s graywater suction hose to recapture all the droplets that have wandered off, then pop a teeth sanitizer tablet. They taste like crap—you call the flavor “Nuclear Mint”—but right now it’s way better than the alternative, and it’ll leave no trace of anything but itself when it’s done fizzing and finally dissolves.

Before heading back in, you sling an oxy tank over your back and strap it on, then cover your nose and mouth with a portable facemask with the filtration set to maximum. Other than lingering mint, you won’t smell anything. And now you can at least get advance warning about what you might see. “What’ve we got, Axie?” you ask.

“Human male, young. There is significant damage to both him and the pod itself.”

“Deceased?”

“I cannot be certain,” Axie says.

So yes, you’re gonna have to go look. You expected as much, with your luck, and even if Axie had been sure you’d have had to verify yourself anyway, or the but-what-if nightmares would be merciless. “What is the pod saying?” you ask.

“The pod’s internal first aid and life monitoring systems have been stripped out,” Axie answers.

“What? Why?” you say. “Why the hell would anyone do that?”

“I don’t have an answer that meets an acceptable minimum of reason.”

All right. You can do this. You’ve seen bodies, more than a few, in the salvage days where not everything got cleaned out before being junked. You know what frozen brain-splatter looks like.

So you peer in. “He wasn’t even wearing an exosuit,” you say.

“No,” Axie agrees.

You lean closer, less afraid now. His skin, where it’s bare, is covered with what you first take as ice, until you peer closer. Some sort of mineral deposits?

“Salt,” Axie answers, anticipating the question. “Extreme heat exposure can cause the body to sweat out salts and other mineral contents in a desperate attempt to cool itself.”

“Does that work?”

“No.”

The inside of the pod itself catches your eye, maybe because you want to look away from the blistered, red face. More graffiti like the exterior is here, what seems to be crude, thick drawings of the sun. You wonder if this was something religious, something deliberate. Something voluntary? The inside of the pod hatch lid is streaked with dried blood, and the man’s fingernails are bloodied and torn. Probably not, you decide. Poor kid.

“Axie, ping Hades Station and see if they know anything about this,” you say.

“Yes, Captain,” the ship answers.

You wonder how hot it got inside the pod, and you reach out with one gloved hand and tentatively place it on the body’s chest, not sure what to expect. And then you’re pushing away from the pod, your body reacting before your brain can even identify, much less articulate a reason for surprise, as the body arches, and its—his—arms flail, and a sound comes out of his mouth that is a terrible, senseless, despairing keen.

Shit, you think, and also: Shit Fuck Shit Now What?, and more shamefully, Why did I have to go and bring this on board my ship?

You’re still moving, though. You grab a wallbar, throw open your emergency supply cabinet, pull out the first aid kit that, other than going through several tubes of skin sealant, has been pretty much untouched since you bought your ship nearly nine years ago.

There’s a med scanner, and it wakes up after you whack it on the palm of your hand a few times. The screen pops up a reminder that it must be placed on bare skin. Whatever seizure the guy in the pod was having has already ended, and when you peer back over, he looks almost as corpse-like as before, except his eyes are open wide, staring and moving around, though you’re not sure there’s anyone home behind them. You pull your utility knife off your belt and, placing your hand more firmly on his chest now to keep him steady if he starts thrashing again, you cut his shirt with the other. You peel the backing off the sticky tape on the med scanner and press it firmly onto his chest, and then back away again, waiting for it to do its job.

What do you know about burns and hyperthermia? Not nearly as much as you do about radiation, and he probably got a good dose of that too, if the shielding on the pod had failed.

You’re not sure, but it seems like the wildly roving eyes settle on you slightly more than anywhere else. “Hang on,” you say, not sure if he speaks the same language, entirely sure it doesn’t matter. “I’m trying to help you.”

The scanner beeps. “Human male, approximately eighteen standard years old. Multiple internal organ failure,” it says. “Acute neurological impairment and significant damage to the hypothalamus and other regions of the brain. Critically low potassium levels, and an unknown sedative that is interfering with optimal heart function. These take medical precedence. Recommend patient be immediately transferred into a full medical pod unit. Is one available? Please say [yes] or [no].”

“No,” you say.

“The manufacturer of this scanning unit does not hold any liability for damages to persons that may result from the performance of actions which the unit advises. Say [agree now], [agree always], or [disengage unit].”

“Agree always,” you say.

“Input code 74533C-5K into your emergency autoformulary. When dispensed immediately administer to patient, then say [more].”

You push back over to the cabinet where the first aid kit was and pop open the door next to it. The autoformulary is there, and just as dusty as the kit. It powers on. “What was that code, Axie?” you ask. Your memory is pretty shot by the amount of adrenaline you’ve got moving right now.

Axie repeats the code as you punch it in, and hit go.

“The manufacturer of this autoformulary unit does not hold any liability for damage to persons that may result from the administration of formulations provided, except if such formulations are found erroneous for reasons of manufacturer negligence,” the autoformulary says. “Say [agree now], [agree—”

“Agree always,” you growl. Goddammned liability gates did nothing but slow you down when you could least afford it, out here where guns resolved arguments, not lawyers.

Three minutes later, a fat hypodermic needle full of some orange-yellow liquid drops into the dispensing tray, and you grab it out and kick off the wall back to the pod. The man is seizing again, his body twisting and rocking side to side as his arms flail along the pod bed edge. “Shit,” you say. “Should I wait?”

“I think if you can safely get the needle in, you should not wait,” Axie says.

So you haul yourself over the pod and kneel across him to hold him as steady as you can, and you stab him hard in the upper chest, below his collarbone, and push the plunger on the needle down until it’s emptied. Then you pull it out and scramble back and off, afraid you’ve hurt him because he’s still just a kid almost, afraid it’s not enough and all for nothing.

Still, you say it: “More.”

“The patient has now been put in a chemical coma,” the scanner says, “and will require another formulation in approximately forty-five minutes. At that time, a code will be provided. Given the limitations of this scanner and the severity of the patient’s condition, it is recommended that he be brought with haste toward the nearest public trauma facility.”

“Nearest public trauma facility” is a joke out here in the Barrens. “Did we hear from Hades?” you ask.

“Yes. I thought it best not to interrupt you. They say he’s not one of theirs and suggested we speak to ‘the Sunrunners.’”

“The Sunrunners?” An ominously promising name, given the circumstances.

“They sent coordinates. It appears to be a small station in an outer orbit, not part of any normal trade routes. It is not logged on any of my maps.”

“Contact them?”

“I tried; no answer. Hades had expressed that as a likelihood, and said if we go there in person, to be careful.”

Great, you think. You have things to do, things other than chase down people who don’t want to talk to you on behalf of some nameless stray you stumbled over and picked up.

You look again at the man. His eyes are closed again, and it feels final.

You have a ship to fly, you tell yourself, and with that you turn your back on everything in your bay. “Axie, I’m heading back to the bridge,” you say. “Tell me when forty minutes is up, or if something changes.”

“Yes, Captain,” Axie says.

“Add this ‘Sunrunners’ station to the nav maps,” you say, as if you haven’t decided what to do—and you haven’t—but you know what you will.

Unknown sedative. The bloodied and torn fingernails. Answers are owed, and someone damned well needs to collect.

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2018. Taking Icarus Home by Suzanne Palmer

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