From Issue 2
Kahina Deschamps felt her sixty years in the reverberations of the coring machine thrumming up into her bones. Above her, the sky churned with hydrocarbon clouds, but for a bronze patch that suggested the sun, hovering at the horizon for the duration of Titan’s polar summer. Saturn itself was an unseen presence lurking behind those clouds. And ten meters away, a methane sea lapped at a shore of rounded ice pebbles, black-silver in the UV night-vision provided by her visor.
She’d awakened this morning craving her mother’s tagine, untasted in decades. Longing for her mother’s stories of djinn, the sound of her children’s voices. Odd. She didn’t get homesick. Something the psychologists said made her ideal for this mission.
Interplanetary Explorations had taken a page from the Japanese response to the Fukushima disaster in recruiting her and the others for the Titan expedition; they’d recruited people over fifty for the voyage, on the theory that radiation exposure in transit wouldn’t matter, long-term. On average, they wouldn’t live long enough to develop cancer. They’d survive long enough to establish bases for others, who’d come when shielding technology improved.
It had taken them seven years to reach Saturn. Seven years away from their families. A presage to spending the rest of their lives a billion kilometers from the rest of humanity.
Her kids hadn’t understood her decision. She hadn’t expected them to.
“Michael,” she said into her suit radio, “if you had three wishes, what would they be?”
The coring machine spluttered off, diamond-edged blade now buried thirty meters beneath their feet. “Dunno, Doc,” Michael Tedesco muttered. “Robots intelligent enough to fix the equipment for us?” He bounced around the drill’s brutalist struts. “Cold’s gotten into the controls again.”
At −179 C, metals turned brittle. They had to use carbon-fiber composites for most of their equipment, and Kahina could feel resistance in the mechanism as they tried to manually retract the drill. “No idea why IPEX wants more of these,” Michael grumbled. He often talked to himself as he worked, a nonstop patter of invective directed at recalcitrant machinery and defective code. “We’re sitting on the biggest sink of fuel in the solar system, and it’s all at the surface. No drilling needed.”
She knew he’d worked the oil fields in Canada and a dozen other countries, where he’d learned the skills that had brought him to Titan. He’d burned through two marriages and had been a mostly absent presence in his children’s lives—as invisible to them as Saturn behind Titan’s clouds. He’d retired to a cabin deep in British Columbia before the call for volunteers had come.
And yet, he had volunteered. They all had. Drawn here in search of wonder.
“My fault,” she answered after a moment. “I asked to do sediment layer studies up here—crap, are we caught on actual rock?” The icy regolith underfoot usually yielded to the diamond drill, but she could feel a snag, singing tension through the controls.
“Feels like it. Let me get a lever—”
She watched it happen in slow-motion. The drill, twisted by hands and tools, snapped. Pieces of metal, ice, and rock flew from the fracture point like spear-points, and Michael crumpled just as one of those same spear-points slashed open the left arm of her suit.
Cold. Vicious, freezing cold. Kahina yelped and slapped a hand over the gash. Even a second or two of exposure to the lethal cold had been enough to flash-freeze part of her forearm. She wasn’t losing oxygen, but the thick, frigid atmosphere pressed in, invading.
Each segment of her suit sealed at each joint, not allowing contamination and cold any further in or out. She gritted her teeth at the necessity and released the gash long enough to grab the tube of two-stage epoxy that swung from her toolbelt and broke it open off by rapping it against the drill. A chemical reaction inside heated the compounds briefly, allowing her to fill in the gash…and then she felt a steady thrum as her suit heaters strained to warm her.
Bounce, bounce, landing beside Michael. “You all right?”
He uncurled, displaying an epoxy smear on his shoulder. “Yeah. The cold’s worse than the impact.” He sounded disgruntled. “Hurts my Canadian pride, eh?”
She managed a chuckle. “Let’s get the core, whatever parts of it didn’t shatter.” An incomplete record was better than nothing. “Then we can call Dr. Lavrova and let her yell at us.”
“You do that and I’m grabbing a rover and heading for Shangri-La.” A hollow threat; the dune-filled region rolled along the equator hundreds of kilometers away.
— * —
Back in the habitat, Michael scrubbed at his sweat-tangled hair as he peeled out of his suit. He usually had the concrete dome to himself, overseeing the robots that were building more structures to accommodate future expedition members. Tending to the garden that filtered the air and provided food. Siphoning methane out of Kraken Mare with which to fuel their rovers, heaters, and shuttles.
Michael knew he’d move on when the company imposed permanent roommates on him. He’d be building the next habitat. He hadn’t come a billion kilometers from Earth just to live in someone’s armpit again.
And he loved Titan in all its emptiness and strangeness. Loved that he could go a week without hearing another human voice. Just him and the darkness, his boots on the ice.
Kahina wasn’t bad for an American, fussing over her rock samples like a new mother. But whenever she showed up, she’d hang pictures over her bunk. As if she lived here, instead of being as peripatetic as the rest of the researchers.
He listened as she contacted Central. Their radios weren’t powerful enough to contact the other habitats directly—everything had to go through their space station. “Xu Lan, could you contact Dr. Lavrova and tell her that Tedesco and I were injured today?”
Lan answered immediately. As the officer in charge of Station Central, she was their de facto leader. “She’s at Lake Ontario station in the southern polar region. Let me patch her in.”
Seconds later, another voice: “Lavrova here. What’s the situation?”
“Probably severe frostbite and a couple of cuts.”
Michael leaned in over Kahina’s shoulder. “Nothing we can’t handle.” He didn’t like Lavrova. Like most of the rest of the researchers, she seemed to think he was some oil-smeared mechanic, rather than an experienced and degreed engineer. The condescension of the Ph.D’s grated.
A snort. “Unless you want dead tissue to necrotize? Spread sepsis? You will stay put and let me look at you.”
When Lavrova appeared, she excised the damaged tissue. Gave them antibiotics, muttering, “Stock of these is small. Cannot synthesize them without factory infrastructure we do not have and last shipment was contaminated when supplies arrived.” She ran tests, demanding an accounting of symptoms.
Michael had a headache, but he wasn’t about to tell her that. “It’s not like we’re going to get an infection, doc. No bacteria out there.”
“Nothing here that we recognize as life. But plenty of bacteria on human skin.” Sharp, curt words. Lips like a dried persimmon and a cap of steel-gray hair. “Infection’s not impossible.”
Nothing that they recognized as life. That phrase had been at the heart of every debate about colonization: what if there were life in Titan and humans damaged it by being here?
Michael swallowed ibuprofen while Lavrova was busy examining Kahina. Their voices, filling the space he usually had to himself, grated.
Head pounding, he suited up and went back out. Kahina would get her damned core samples, and then she could be on her way, leaving him to silence.
Except, when he’d repaired the rig and obtained the samples, he stood outside, staring at the black-silver surface of Kraken Mare. Was that a voice? High, lost, and lonely…nah.
Still, he stood there a while longer, feeling the heavy, elastic sensation of Titan’s winds pressing against his suit. Waiting to see if he’d hear it again.
Then he turned and bounced back to the habitat. Head still throbbing as he got the cores through the airlock of the containment lab. “Doc?” he called on the radio. “Got your samples. They’re in lab one.”
“Thank you!” came the reply, right in his ear. “I appreciate it!”
He hated the false intimacy of radio work. The feeling that someone was always hanging over his shoulder. Michael grimaced and went to work with the robots. They, at least, could be counted on not to talk.
— * —
The next day, Lavrova departed. A patient with cellulitis in the southern polar regions—fragile elderly skin and the difficulty of hygiene when they spent so many hours a day in their suits made infections easy. “House calls. No doctor has driven so far for so many patients in last century,” she grumbled.
“But you love it,” Kahina reminded her cheekily.
She liked Lavrova; the doctor’s crisp, no-nonsense attitude contrasted sharply with the medical doctors she’d dealt with on Earth, during her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. The conflicting treatment options. The lack of concern she’d encountered in physicians and nurses burned out on dealing with people who couldn’t speak coherently and couldn’t care for themselves. And all the while, her mother had been…shrinking. Her fund of stories had shrunk with her as her memory turned as frail. Fractured fragments of the past, jammed together in awkward pastiches, no, no, I know it happened this way…no, I’ve never said that.
If memory was the core of the self, then her mother had had almost no self left by the time death had finally deigned to take her. Only one story had remained the same, consistent and firm, a truth that she’d clung to: Did I tell you about the time I woke up in bed next to a djinn? He wore your father’s face, but I knew it wasn’t him. I told him to get out, but he laughed….
Kahina suspected that this was some kind of confabulation on her mother’s part. Some trick of the mind to cover up an inadmissible, unbearable truth—a moment of adultery or violation. And yet, even when her mother didn’t recognize her own children, she’d remembered that.
Then the earth swallowed her body, wasted down to only ninety pounds, planted in a nondenominational cemetery that welcomed both an Algerian Muslim woman and her French–Canadian husband, and there’d been no stories left. “That won’t be me,” Kahina had told her own husband after the service. “I don’t want to forget who I am. I’d rather drink poison.”
“Don’t say things like that,” he’d chided.
He’d died only two years later. A sudden heart attack, leaving her to stare blankly as the ground opened up its hungry mouth to devour another of her loved ones.
When she died here—and they were all supposed to die here, within twenty years of arrival, if actuarial charts held true—her remains would be cremated, her ashes returned to the carbons of the gardens. A chilling thought, but better than having her remains cryogenically preserved in some icy tomb on the surface.
Kahina shook off her morose reflections, wondering why thoughts of the past seemed to haunt her lately. “Get on with it,” she muttered. Sometimes saying the words out loud helped. “The past’s a trap. The future’s a dream. Get in the moment, like you’re climbing a mountain. No thought but the next handhold.”
She met Michael in the lab, where they stood over the long tables, removing each core from its plastic sleeve so that she could examine, slice, and analyze them. Study the strata in each for porosity and permeability. Where the layers were water ice, hydrocarbon detritus, and, occasionally, rock ejecta. How they’d been laminated together over time.
As they unwrapped the third core, however, Michael swore. “Doc, do you see that?”
“See wh—oh.” She stared.
In the layers of rock and ice, the outline of something oval and symmetrical, with regular lines rippling across its surface and spiky, flattened limbs. “What are the odds of the corer catching it that perfectly?” Michael muttered.
“Looks almost like a trilobite,” she whispered. “Symmetrical body. Armor plates. Convergent evolution? Similar response to similar environments?” Her fingers crept to her helmet, as if she could rub at her aching temples through it. “Do you know what this means?”
“—no ambiguity about it. This isn’t seeing the face of Jesus in a slice of toast, or maybe evidence of bacteria in a Martian rock—” Michael’s voice sounded taut as they talked past each other.
“—if I’m reading the strata correctly, this is a million years old. Assuming our assumptions about ice deposits and weathering are correct, of course—”
“God damn it!”
Her head snapped up. “Michael?”
“It means that there was life here, and the scientists back home will scream and say we can’t be here, messing it up.” He swung away agitatedly. “They’ll order us back to Earth.”
Kahina shook her head. “They can’t—”
“They literally can’t. Think, Michael. Our ship was decommissioned, added as a module to Central station, and our shuttles are designed to leave Titan’s surface and return to it. We can’t make a return flight to Earth.” She kept her tone dispassionate. “They’d have to build a ship capable of round-trips if they want to take us away. And that would take about a decade, not to mention flight time.” She shrugged. “We’re here. Whether they like it or not.”
None of that seemed to matter to him. “This is my place. My home. I built it. I made it.” He thumped a fist against a nearby wall.
Her husband had had a similar temperament. A neutral tone was the best way to prevent escalation. So Kahina went on expressionlessly, “Michael, I can’t send out reports yet. Not till we have more evidence. They’ll just say we’re manufacturing a story if we don’t have perfect data to corroborate this find. We’ve got time.”
He nodded, raising his hands to his helmet as if his head ached as much as hers did. Several steadying breaths, audible over the radio. “You’re right,” he acceded. A rueful snort. “I’m not sure what’s worse. Getting yanked out of here, or Earth sending more yabbos to join us to help document this thing.” He gestured at the core.
“Oh, you don’t want post-docs underfoot?” A gently needling tone.
“Oh, hell no. They’d track all the shit of Earth with them.”
Part of her couldn’t help but agree.
— * —
Four weeks passed. Kahina expanded her site surveys, looking for more of what she’d dubbed titanobites. Her obsession with finding more of the creatures worried Michael. But she only told Xu Lan that they’d uncovered some “interesting findings.”
He did subtle things to slow her down. Sabotaged the core rig. Altered the lab’s temperature settings, which damaged the cores.
His hands constantly felt numb. He kept dropping tools. And the headache just wouldn’t die.
Getting older was a bitch.
“You need a break, Doc,” he told her one morning. “All work and no play? You’ll mess up your own results.”
She rubbed the back of her neck. “I’ll take a wingsuit out for a bit. Do some aerial surveying, and yes, I’ll relax.” A teasing grin. “You’re a good guy sometimes.”
He didn’t know how to reply. He wasn’t a good guy. He was an asshole. But he had no other choice, did he?
Michael headed outside as well, planning on damaging the core rig. Instead, he stood on the shore of Kraken Mare, mouth agape as hundreds of crab-like creatures marched up out of the methane sea, trundling towards him in neat rows.
“No life as we recognize it, my ass,” Michael said as he dropped to his knees to examine the creatures. He didn’t want to turn on a full-spectrum light, in case it damaged them. But he wondered what color the creatures were—something dark, he was sure. Some kind of cobalt blue, perhaps.
He closed his eyes. They aren’t just fossils, he thought. They’re real. They’re alive. And if anyone finds out…. The same two intolerable options loomed before him: exile from the place he loved, or its invasion.
His head ached, and again, he heard that wild and lonely cry.
When Michael opened his eyes, he knew what he needed to do.
— * —
Kahina soared, catching an updraft over Kraken Mare. Her wingsuit had membranes of interlaced carbon fiber running from wrist to ankle, designed to catch the atmosphere of Titan and lift a human easily off the ground in its low gravity. Magnetic locks at the ankles kept her feet together so she could use the fins at her heels as a rudder. Dolphin kicks pushed her higher into the atmosphere, like a champion swimmer.
She loved flying. The wind felt as purringly alive as any feline, thrumming against her wings and belly. As if she were intimate with the entire world. In moments like these, despite the darkness all around her, impenetrable at this altitude with night-vision, solely dependent on the radar set in the suit that outlined shore and mare in a green overlay for her…she knew that this was her world. That if she were offered magical transport back to Earth, to see her family again, she wouldn’t take it. She wished her children were here with her, instead.
They’d drifted apart after her husband’s death. Perhaps that was her fault—there was something in her that longed for silence and distance. She’d preferred silence in her grief to the babble of voices, to the touch of a human hand.
It was a character trait that the psychologists had selected for: ability to deal with isolation and loneliness, while still having enough social flexibility to work with a limited team. She’d known loneliness. She’d dealt with it, as she always had, by finding a new mountain to scale. A new goal. She’d wanted to climb Olympus Mons.
But Titan had claimed her first.
She’d turned off her audio queue, so she’d only have the moon to listen to, the sound of her own breath, her own heartbeat…and yet, in spite of that? She thought she heard a voice just at the edge of her auditory range. It sounded like her daughter, calling for her. Mom, are you there?
The radio crackled in her ears. “Doc? Can you take a scan of the beach? There’s something out here.”
Kahina frowned. “No one’s scheduled to arrive for days.”
“Just look, damnit!” Raw temper now. “There are crabs out there.”
She blinked and swooped lower. He’d been acting odd. More taciturn and withdrawn. Last night, he’d dropped his dinner tray and had sworn at the mess. And when she’d gone to the dispensary cabinet for her constant headache this morning, she’d been shocked to realize that they were entirely out of anti-inflammatories.
She’d sent a text about the medication situation to Dr. Lavrova, but Lavrova was dealing with an outbreak of gastroenteritis in the southern polar regions. Low-priority messages would be ignored. But now? With Michael’s voice in her ear, demanding if she could see crabs on the beach?
A surge of wind pushed her further towards shore. Inside her suit, she could’ve sworn she smelled saffron, apricots, ginger, and chicken. Her mother’s cooking, so unlike the bland, 3D-printed protein chunks of the habitat.
Focus. It wouldn’t do to mistime her landing; she’d wind up in a bath of liquid methane, and her suit couldn’t handle that.
A crunch as her feet touched down on the ice…and then to her shock, she could see them. Tiny things, no bigger than her thumb, marching out of the sea to spawn.
Her head ached fiercely. “Michael?” Kahina said, her mouth dry. “The titanobites aren’t just fossils.”
Except they hadn’t changed in millions of years. What kind of creature didn’t evolve over that amount of time? Had she misinterpreted the sediment record? Were the fossils they’d found vastly more recent?
Stunned, she focused her wrist camera on the beach, trying to get footage of the creatures. Tried to transmit it as a live stream up to Central. “Xu Lan, you’ve got to see this.”
The voice of Central didn’t respond. After a moment, Kahina realized that she had no outgoing signal. Their repeater was down. “What doesn’t break around here?”
She could see Michael approaching and put a hand to the back of her head, trying to dig through the helmet to her skull. Some days, it felt as if worms were growing out of her scalp. As if they’d fed on the calcium of her bones and were just about to burst through her skin like Medusa’s hair. Spines like the titanobites. Hypochondria, she’d assessed, using a camera to check her own scalp. Don’t need to bother Lavrova with this….
…except, as Michael bounced closer, everything came into focus. His erratic breathing, his irritability of late. The equipment that had broken down so often. The radio outage.
The wrench in his hand.
Paranoia! part of her mind shouted. The rest of her brain screamed Run!
She leaped into the air, extending her wings just as the wrench came down, clipping her left foot. The boot took some of the impact, but she yelped, feeling something break inside. “Asshole!” Kahina shouted as the wind caught her wings. “What the hell are you doing?”
“You’re going to bring them here!” Michael slurred in reply.
Her mind raced as she ascended. The closest habitat was at the equator, among the dunes of Shangri-La—uninhabited at the moment, just a layover spot for people taking a rover between the poles. It had a working radio.
She spun, pumping her arms. Snapped her feet together, so that the fins at her ankles caught the wind. And raced for the habitat’s garage.
She could swim-fly faster than Michael could bounce-run over the ice boulders. But when she landed at the garage with a grunt of pain, she tried her code on the door with no response. She hammered out the override code, hands shaking.
No response again. She was locked out, and she swore she could hear the crunch of his feet over the icy terrain. I’ve got to move.
Kahina leaped once more, looking down in time to see Michael skid around the corner, outlined in gray-silver UV. She hovered above him, biting out into the radio, “What the hell, Michael? I thought we were friends.” Remind him that I’m a person. Oh, god, the old cop videos I used to watch made it sound so easy for the SWAT team to talk people down….
“You’re going to bring them all here!” Michael shouted, looking up. “We’ll be yanked away. Just because you want to publish your results.” And he hurled his wrench at her.
With so little gravity, the tool came at her like a levin bolt. Kahina managed to dodge, and then swooped off to the south. Following the line of robot-laid transponders that outlined the trails their rovers usually used. Get to Shangri-La, she thought through the tide of panic welling up in her. Get in radio contact with Lan up at Central. Get some of the others for backup. There are four groups out doing site surveys all over the moon. One of them has to be close enough to help me.
Except they weren’t.
She hammered at the radio bands as she flew. “This is Kahina Deschamps, declaring an emergency. We believe we have signs of life here on Titan, but Michael’s gone crazy. He’s damaged the radios, and he’s pursuing me.” She risked a glance over her shoulder. Nothing visible, but that wasn’t a surprise—the UV light on her helmet only gave her an effective distance range of 120 meters. Beyond that?
She shut down the radio after that, realizing that Michael could use her transmissions to track her. Hell, her suit had a TPS module in it—he could track her using that, too. She didn’t dare disable it, though, as it would allow the others could to find her to render assistance.
Arms burning, she could feel a distinct click in her shoulders with each downstroke. She’d spent her life climbing mountains—her favorites had been the desolate Ahaggar Mountains of the Sahara. Scaling rockfaces two billion years old, like touching the face of time.
Regular flying had helped maintain muscle tone, but…she didn’t want to push the shoulder joints too far. So Kahina gritted her way upwards to let higher-elevation wind currents push her along with less effort.
Risky—the upper levels of the atmosphere held powerful winds. Catch them the wrong way and the carbon fiber wings could be torn apart, sending her plunging to the ground like Icarus. Yet, she didn’t have the strength, the endurance, of a twenty-year-old. There was no way she was going to be able to swim-fly several hundred kilometers without the winds' assistance.
After fifteen minutes, she managed to level out. Got the suit’s computer to bring up a TPS map in her field of vision and went off-road, away from the transponders. Kept the motionless patch of bronze in the sky to her left as a secondary verification.
But her head ached. As if the exertion had stirred up the worms threatening to burrow out of her skull. She could picture them churning in a spadeful of Earth’s black soil. Burrowing back into the graves of her mother, her husband. They’re not real. Focus on your direction and the wind.
After several hours, her radio clicked. “Doc?” Michael’s voice wavered. “I’m sorry. I…don’t think the crabs are real. I’m seeing things.”
She’d managed to catch her breath, soaring along a thermal layer with her wings outstretched, for the past hundred kilometers or so. She didn’t think he deserved an answer, though. He’s playing you. He’s trying to lure you in.
Her map told her that ascending high enough to catch the upper-level winds had been a worthwhile gamble. She was entering the Shangri-La region…but ahead of her, a low-pressure system swirled, dangerous and fierce.
Kahina began descending as Michael’s voice came in over the radio again, stronger this time. “Check your video logs,” he said sharply. “The crabs aren’t there. I checked my own when I went to scrub them, and they’re not there.”
Kahina snorted her disbelief at the sky. Enough of the clouds had thinned to the east that she could see the sun as a tiny rounded speck, higher in the heavens at this latitude than up at the pole. A shadow in the sky beside it hinted at Saturn’s rings.
Apparently, he’d say anything to get her to respond. But…he was closer now, wasn’t he? He’d caught up, somehow? She realized belatedly that she could have been tracking him through the TPS system all this time, just as he could track her. “My brain isn’t working,” she muttered, her voice loud in the confines of her helmet. “I should’ve thought of that hours ago.”
Bringing up the TPS screen, brilliant white against the gray world outside, made her head ache all the more. He was close. No more than a few kilometers behind. While ahead of her, the dunes of Shangri-La rose, black against the darkened bronze of the sky, like something out of Earth’s Sahara.
Like something out of her mother’s tales of djinn and desert spirits.
She licked her lips. Michael was behind her. A storm lay ahead of her. And the habitat dome she needed to reach stood fifty kilometers further south, through the teeth of the storm. There was no upper-level lightning on Titan, but low-level storms like this one? Often generated electricity as ball lightning. Heading through that wasn’t a good idea.
If she couldn’t flee, she could hide. The time-honored strategy of mammals everywhere. Kahina dropped to the ground, gritting her teeth at the pain as her left boot touched down. Slowed herself with two or three bounces, and then started digging in the dune. The black ‘sand’ here, she knew, was electrostatically-charged hydrocarbon granules. As light as Styrofoam and as apt to cling. If this gets over my suit, she thought, sweat trickling down her neck. I might never be able to lift off again. I’ll have to walk the rest of the way. On a broken foot. Not good. But I can’t fight him. And if the satellites can’t see my TPS chip, he can’t see me, either….
It felt right, somehow. As if the dunes called to her. Offering her their shelter, their protection.
She tucked herself into her pit. She felt like a trapdoor spider at the base of its funnel. And as the wind howled, she heard a voice in it. High and lonely, it sang to her, vibrations thrumming through her body, and she tasted saffron and ginger on her tongue.
And then she felt a hand on her shoulder. Kahina jumped and turned, expecting to see Michael somehow here in her refuge.
Instead, she saw a suitless human figure that smiled back at her with her own face. For a moment, all she could think of was her mother’s stories—I woke to see a djinni laying beside me. He wore your father’s face, but his eyes looked like burning coal, and he laughed when I told him to leave and never return.
“Doc! Kahina! Please! I’m sorry! I know it’s not real!” The voice on the radio became a shout. Close now. So close she thought she could feel the vibrations of his steps in the styrofoam-light sand. “There’s a storm! You’re going to die out here, and it’ll be my fault. Please!”
…and then the figure became a giant worm-like creature, burrowing up out of the dark shadows of the dune. The pressure at the back of her head intensified, as if the worms boiling at the base of her skull wanted to burst free and join with their greater cousin. Extending themselves down her spine like a serpent, like the flames of the kundalini, braiding with her nervous system. Agony and ecstasy at once.
Black wormhide sliding through black hydrocarbon sand, merging with the storm-tossed black of the sky above. The sand gave way before her, her UV light illuminating the scene as Michael screamed. Flickers of his face as he held up his flashlight—how did he get so close?—as if he were trying to ward the worm off with its beam.
And then the worm engulfed him, bearing him down into the ground. She could see the sands rippling in its wake, an absent presence, mass inferred but not known. Djinni, she thought, mind reeling. Djinni.
Tears ran down her face as she heaved herself up from the black sands. She didn’t think that the creature would return for her. The dunes had offered her sanctuary—hadn’t they?
Doubt trickled through her. Flashes of his face. Visor cracked, skin turning white with cold, eyes freezing over. She shuddered, clambering inside his rover and tabbing its radio. “Xu Lan? I need assistance.”
— * —
Two days later, she huddled in a medical bay on Central, staring at footage she’d taken on the shore of Kraken Mare. There were no crabs visible. “I saw them,” she asserted. “So did Michael.”
“You may have seen something,” Dr. Lavrova replied with surprising tact. “But the camera did not.”
Xu Lan was with them, her lined face taut with concern. “We need to know what happened to Michael, Kahina.”
She shook her head numbly. “I told you,” Kahina replied, keeping her tone tightly controlled. “I saw some form of alien life attack him.”
But the back of her mind whispered, Djinni. It didn’t save you for your own sake. It did so because it amused it to do so. Because it would make more trouble in the long run….
“There’s nothing alive out there,” Xu Lan retorted firmly. “You arrived in Michael’s rover. Michael himself is missing.” She turned towards Lavrova. “Are we dealing with hallucinations? Dementia?”
Kahina didn’t like being talked about, instead of to. But a searing flash of panic laced through her at the mention of dementia. Not that. Please not that.
“My best guess,” Lavrova said, responding over Kahina’s head to Lan, “is that it’s some kind of prion. Similar to Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. When they were injured, the prions could have gotten into their bodies, and started altering the proteins in their brain structures. There’s no blood test. No way an MRI can see the damage. I could do a biopsy, but that’s…brain surgery.” She put a hand on Kahina’s arm. “I want to help, Kahina. But I can’t prove what’s going on without Michael’s body or cutting you open. You have to tell us where he is. What you did with him.”
Kahina knew the course of Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. Dementia, paranoia, insanity. Death within two years. Flashes of her mother’s mazed, confused rambling for six years before her death. All her beautiful stories gone to dust as her memory withered.
She closed her eyes. “I wish I could help you,” she told Lavrova, her throat tight with fear. “I didn’t kill Michael. It did.” She swallowed, then blurted, “What about the fossils we found? Were those real?”
Lan hesitated. “They’re real,” she grudged. “But that doesn’t mean anything—”
Kahina exhaled. “It could mean everything. Maybe I’m infected with something,” she continued. “But if so, it’s clearly not affecting me the same way it affected Michael. I’m not paranoid. I’m not attacking you.”
“But you killed Michael.”
The words hung like incipient lightning in the air.
Flashes in her mind’s eye. Her light playing over the fracture in his faceplate. His eyes glazing over as his own tears turned to a latticework of frost. So close. I couldn’t have seen that if I weren’t close. But maybe I didn’t see it. Maybe the djinni saw, and I saw through it…or I’m insane….
“Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t.” Rapid words, short breaths. “You’ve always said that there’s no life here that we recognize. Could it be that infection is the closest thing it has to communication? Maybe it doesn’t want hundreds of humans coming here to investigate it.” She caught Lan’s expression and exhaled. “I know. It sounds insane.”
Maybe I’m the djinni. Maybe there’s no infection. No colonization by alien life. Maybe I killed Michael and buried him out there.
Maybe there’s nothing here, but what we brought with us.
And yet, she felt warmth spreading in the kundalini path along her spine, agony and ecstasy. Caught a high and lonely voice at the very periphery of her hearing, begging her to hear. She closed her eyes. “Dr. Lavrova, would you be able to find anything in my cerebrospinal fluid?”
The doctor cleared her throat. “Possibly,” she answered. “No one has yet found prions there, but…is all a part of nervous system. Could do spinal tap and check for…infiltration.”
Kahina licked her numb lips. “Do it,” she whispered. “I’d rather know if I’m crazy. If I killed him. I’d rather know what’s coming for me.” Her breath caught, fear churning through her. “And if I’m not…” she paused, a bittersweet smile quirking her lips, “I’d like you to know that, too.”
© 2020 Deborah L. Davitt
About the Author
Deborah L. Davitt was raised in Nevada, but currently lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and son. Her poetry has received Rhysling, Dwarf Star, and Pushcart nominations and has appeared in over fifty venues; her short fiction has appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Compelling Science Fiction, and Flame Tree anthologies. For more about her work, including her Edda-Earth novels and her poetry collection, The Gates of Never, please see https://www.edda-earth.com/.