Story Excerpt

Communion

by Jay Werkheiser & Frank Wu

 

Tethered to the main cluster, placidly I float in the lazy currents.

Softly, gently, a colony-mate brushes against me. Our membranes touch briefly and fuse.

Electricity.

Instinctively, I extend a single pseudopod toward my neighbor. The texture I feel is neither wrinkled nor ridged, like the infirm or the interloper: my execution proteins remain quiet for now.

My neighbor’s shape is healthy, well-fed, almost spherical, except for the single pseudopod extending to caress mine. Another delicious jolt, as our pseudopod tips release each other in this fleeting embrace.

Wherever we touched, I leave tiny membrane fragments in my neighbor, and my neighbor in me. The fragments carry morsels of news and greetings from afar, written in the beautiful cursive of proteins—coiled, twisted, pleated strings of amino acids, crafted, sculpted, each protein having a unique shape, a unique purpose, a unique message.

The proteins bring news of a current carrying a rich amino acid vein, an ion pocket to avoid, and colony members needing cysteine.

But one messenger activates alarms in my command protein complex.

It bears a critical message in its shape, compressed and distorted by a high-pressure anomaly.

I duplicate the messenger as a memory protein, flagging the original for immediate attention and transferring it down my tether, down to the main cluster. On heightened alert now, I unsheathe defensive command sequences in case they become necessary.

Then I wait for instructions, ready if called to alert others.

An unexpected response arrives.

Do nothing. Nothing.

Thinkers in the main cluster inform me that this is an old protein, as indicated by its degraded tails. Possibly it was passed from one colony to another, from far down the magnetic field.

We are safe for now.

The immediate concern is this: the cluster hungers.

Thinkers instruct me to remain as I am, floating freely, luxuriating in luminous amino acids, sweeping them through the water, toward my cluster-mates below.

And so I do.

The flow of news and nutrients is optimized.

Communion. Harmony.

Nearby the nutrient pocket thrums with rare amino acids. Melodious mimosine, harmonious hypoglycin. Satiation, joy. We dance to the soothing pulse of knowledge proteins.

Suddenly the rhythm changes.

Heat and pressure from below.

Proteins tremble, their carefully crafted shapes smashed into meaningless mounds of broken amino acids. Beautiful coils are replaced by mangled, tangled strands of ugliness.

Is this the anomaly the distant proteins warned of? How could it have reached me so quickly?

Confusion grips me, holds me immobile, as competing commands spin off contradictory enzymes. I deactivate all but the most essential, clearing my mind.

Is it too late to retreat to the safety of the main cluster?

A command protein rises up the tether, and I and my tethered mates willingly obey. Four of us twist our cables together, cross-linking them for strength.

Now we are a sentinel group, like dozens of others extending from the colony in all directions.

No time now for feeding or frolicking. Our only job is to measure local temperature and pressure, sending constant reports down the tether.

Our cluster-mates beat their ropey flagella in unison, moving the entire colony. We will tell them where.

The pressure around me rises and plummets unpredictably. I struggle to match, clenching and relaxing my membrane gates, siphoning fluids in and out, lest my membrane burst and scatter my precious proteins into the water.

Still we monitor and send reports.

I remind myself: I am more than just a double-membraned sack of bio-molecules. I am a sentinel, strong and brave, and if I must, I will die that the colony might live.

Suddenly, a desperate plea for help, then a wave of twisted proteins, dotted with methyl groups. These are old proteins, useless in our present crisis. This makes no sense.

There is only one explanation: one of the other sentinel groups has exploded.

Now . . . more rapid motion, erupting from below.

Field lines race by.

But we hold firm.

Suddenly I lose tension on the tether.

I send news down the cable, but no acknowledgement returns.

Is the colony destroyed?

No. We have been ripped away, away from the cluster.

In the water, communication proteins are increasingly diffuse, as are the waste products of flagellar movement. The cluster is moving away from us, but—yes!—also away from the pressure anomaly.

We have saved the colony. But not ourselves.

The currents carry us far from the colony, beyond any hope of return. The tether is useless now, so I release status proteins directly into the water. Even as the colony retreats to safety, perhaps they may still receive my last, distant reports.

Panic proteins now. My three sentinel-group-mates cling to me and we wrap ourselves with the wreckage of our tether.

I extend a pseudopod, but feel nothing around half of my periphery. One of my sentinel-mates is gone, and too much of my flank is now unguarded, unprotected.

We are so few, so small, so inexperienced.

More motion from below, and the water shears violently. Step by step my receptors lose contact.

One by one my sentinel-mates are torn away or shattered in the flood.

Time passes, marked by the final degradation of an alanine helix. I construct fresh chains of alanine, and the cycle begins anew.

Another cycle.

The fluid finally ceases its motion.

Through the alanine chain, I know how long I have traveled, but not where I have been carried.

I am safe at last, warm for now.

But everything is wrong. The temperature is dropping, and the field is too weak here, as though far above the home waters.

I have never been alone before, never away from the main cluster.

Where is my colony? How can I get back?

I synthesize alarm proteins, flagging them with my own alanine glycoprotein identifier—my name!—before dispersing them into the water. I wait and wait, but my cries for help go unanswered.

Communion has ceased.

Why?

Water molecules form bizarre hexagonal rings in the fluid around me, assembling into a jagged expanding terror. Ice crystals? I have never touched these before.

Oh no!

Thermal energy fades, and the deadly crystals begin forming inside me, within me. The ice becomes a monster gobbling up my proteins, breaking bonds within their amino acid strands, crushing them into useless shapes, locking them in prisons of rigid water molecules, where they cannot be reached, cannot be repaired.

Thinking is difficult now, as the ice monster attacks my delicate command proteins, cutting off my thoughts, my essence.

It cannot be controlled, cannot be reasoned with, even as it eats my memories of the communion, the memories that give me strength.

Without communion, I have no purpose.

Others in my cluster serve to protect, to store, to think, to lead. I am made to receive signals and nutrients, redirecting them, organizing and marshaling our colony’s limited resources.

For what do I serve if there are no signals to receive and resend?

Even if I find delicious streams of ethionine, I have no one to share them with.

Who will cavort with me in coruscating amino acids? Who will warn me of predatory protein swarms?

In desperation, I kick helper enzymes into action, synthesizing a glycerol sheath around my most important command proteins. Perhaps this sheath will protect these delicate parts?

I do not know.

The degradation cycle is slowing. There is no longer enough thermal energy to degrade the alanine helix. Time has no meaning.

My final sluggish thoughts are for my lost colony-mates.

I am utterly alone.

Reaction ceases.

*   *   *

“Alex, do you see that icy little moon?” Nes Mason said to his robot copilot. “We’re not going to hit it, are we?”

Cleverly hidden seams revealed themselves in the back of Alex’s head, splitting apart the hand-polished selenotanium cask. A jointed eyestalk camera telescoped out, pivoting toward Nes. Humanoid form or no, that was just creepy. “Recalculating trajectory now, sir.”

“Recalculating?” Nes wondered what went on inside the cluster of cognition nodes that Alex called a brain.

He watched the curved green line on the main viewscreen, the projected slingshot path around the planet Dagda. The line shifted as Alex’s astrogation node updated his trajectory, bending ever closer to the ice moon, 17c. “How did this happen? I asked you to input all the available data.”

“I did, sir.”

“And . . . ?”

“According to my astrometrics node, only one flyby probe has visited Dagda, and it constructed a preliminary model of the magnetosphere.”

“So why is our trajectory off?”

“The reported data are incomplete and have low temporal resolution, sir,” the robot said. “The model missed the fact that the magnetic axis is not parallel to the spin axis of the planet. I have discovered that, inside the planet, there is an unreported off-center, magnetic perturbation.”

“Perturbation?”

“It’s really quite interesting. Perhaps the heavy metal core of an impacted asteroid--”

“I think that can wait, Alex,” Nes Said. “So, we’ve slungshot around the planet, but . . . is it too late to avoid colliding with the ice moon?”

“Our orbit will intersect the surface.”

Well that was a clinical way to put it. Nes thought of another. “So we’re about to crash because Keiretsu Corp. used cheap, junky hardware to map a dangerous navigation hazard?”

“Indeed, sir. Shall I write a letter of complaint?”

“No, but—can’t we ramp up current in the, uh, magsail wire to change course?”

*   *   *

“No, sir, the magsail would not provide sufficient thrust to prevent a full-impact landing.”

“Hmm, this thing’s not built for landing . . . Can we survive a crash?”

“I calculate a probability of 99.93 percent for my survival, 54.6 percent for yours.”

Even with all these bio-mods you put in me, Nes thought. And of that 54.6 percent, what portion entails me surviving, but unable to talk or walk or eat on my own? Was there maybe a one-in-ten chance I’ll live, but never eat a gyro again?

Several of the fuel cells showed gray flags on Nes’s console, and the magsail was indicating torsional stress.

This was supposed to be a simple flight—out from Nouvelle Terre, slingshot around Dagda, ramping up the magfield for a periapsis kick, and then drop the cargo at Badb Catha’s L5 point. That cargo would be used to build a particle beam launcher, and the outer planets of the system would transform from lonely, meteor-haunted no-man’s-land in eternal twilight, to county fairground, complete with Christmas lights and cotton candy and re-vigoration spas—at a full one-g!—and fancy hotels with rooms too expensive for Nes to afford.

But right now most of the planets in Nouvelle Terre’s system remained only superficially explored, the unexpected bound to come up. Nes was lucky enough to be there for the occasion.

“What about using the vernier thrusters in a deorbit burn?”

“I’ve consulted with my internal astrogation and astrometrics nodes, and those are already taken into account, sir.”

“All right, all right, all right. How bad is impact going to be?”

“That’s a rather subjective question, sir. The ice moon’s surface gravity is likely around one-fifth of Nouvelle Terre’s, assuming standard accretion models and the likely ice-to-rock ratio of a moon that formed at this distance from—”

“When you’re about to crash, planetary geology is so fascinating.”

“No need for sarcasm, sir.”

“Okay, fine, fine, fine. How much damage will the ship sustain? Will the cargo survive the impact? Those particle accelerator parts must be sensitive.”

“Damage should be minimal, both to the ship and the Wakefield accelerator components.”

“Great, that part of my bonus isn’t in danger, then.”

“However, the magsail loop is not expected to survive impact.”

“Way to bury the lede!” Nes exclaimed. Even if he could get his ship off that stupid moon, without that superconducting loop he wasn’t going anywhere, and he’d probably starve to death waiting for rescue. “Retract the magsail loop. Now!”

“Retraction is already in progress. The sail will take approximately fifty-three minutes longer to retract than our remaining flight time.”

“Wait, won’t it be okay anyway? You said the moon had no appreciable atmosphere.”

“The problem isn’t atmospheric friction, sir. It’s gravity. A superconducting nanofilament will not survive in even a weak gravitational field. It will collapse, entangle, and likely rip in several places.”

Nes imagined himself trying to piece together fifty kilometers of nanofilament, thin as masking tape, strewn across hundreds of square kilometers of broken ice. “Retracting that loop is your top priority,” he said. “I can’t get into an EVA suit fast enough to matter, so this is your baby.”

Alex’s torso rotated to access the tool closet next to his copilot’s seat. Nes took a moment to admire the needlessly beautiful carvings on Alex’s spinal casing, with art nouveau swirls thermally oxidized into the selenotanium alloys in cascading golds and blues.

Keiretsu Corp. will spring for decorations on my robot, Nes thought with a sigh, but they can’t afford fresh tomatoes for my gyros, instead of a tube of artificial processed tomato-like paste.

Then he said to the robot:

“Remember, Alex, if you can’t get that magnetic wire pulled in before impact, we’re dead. And by ‘we,’ I mean ‘me.’”

In a flash, the robot had opened the interior hatch at the back of their command module, on his way to the back of the ship.

As the hatch slid closed, Nes wondered:

How long would it take for a rescue mission to get here?

Likely longer than his stores would last. They’d sure as hell want to retrieve the accelerator components, so they could finish the particle beam launch system, but they might be leisurely about it. When that was up and running, people wouldn’t need to go slinging around planets to get a boost. Wouldn’t that be a fitting end? The first and last guy to die doing a periapsis kick here. Suffering right up to the end so the next generation could have it easy.

He remembered his old friend Escalante, who’d died of salmonellosis, when bacteria got into her water system and micrograv turned them pathogenic.

And Umbarger. Never liked that dude. Always costing them points in micro-g hockey. Still, his mind kept seeing Umbarger fumbling with his helmet in that slow-mo docking collision. Clumsy schmuck.

Unlike them, Nes thought, he’d probably get a nice plaque. A historical marker even.

After all the tears, Parvin would find that amusing.

Why is it always us poor shlubs, he wondered, hauling other people’s expensive junk around the Galaxy? Why is it always us that bite it?

*   *   *

The moon was now a crisp white horizon cutting across Nes’s field of view. The thing must’ve had a diffuse, barely-there atmosphere of water vapor. It wasn’t much, but the heat and mechanical stress played hell with a ship never meant to get near the ground. He radioed the robot again.

“How are we doing? Is the mag wire retracted?”

“Essentially, yes, sir.”

“Then get back here! I’ve got blinking lights all over my HUD.”

“Don’t worry, sir,” the robot said over the comm. “I am aware and I am resolving the most important flags. Also, I have already laid in the most crucial inputs. If one jet or support structure fails, the others are already programmed to compensate. And I apologize, but I can’t leave right at this moment. I am dealing with metal fatigue and thermal stress issues.”

More lights turned red.

Hull temperature, dynamic stress, coolant pressures.

Pinched hoses, circuit faults, actuator valve failures.

A hundred things to fix, but none fixable by pushing a button inside the command module. He could go spacewalk right now, but what would it matter if the ship were about to be shattered into a million pieces?

“Tell me if anything is urgent enough for me to do right now, Alex.”

“Yes, sir.”

Several quiet minutes passed, and Nes ignored the lights and took a couple hits from the “juice” dispenser built into the wall.

He looked out at the stars and wondered if he’d ever hold Parvin in his arms again. Just three or four more construction jobs and cargo runs between the two of them, and they could finally afford that apartment on Gardien station. The one where most of the residents owned a pet fennec fox, the kind with the giant ears, modified to fly around at low-g like Dumbo.

“Alex, how we doing?”

Several more minutes passed, but Alex still gave no instructions—said nothing over the comm, really.

In the middle of a crisis, but without anything specific he had to do, Nes idly checked the status of their precious cargo. Video feeds of the cargo holds showed various manipulator arms activated, bracing freight lockers against impact.

Hold it together, baby, Nes thought, hold it together.

Nes’s mind drifted back to Parvin, and he thought of her family—her parents were both spacecraft mechanics—and how they lived, illegally, in an empty freight locker on a spacedock. Sometimes, an old cargo carrier would put in for repairs, but the owners refused to pay the bills, abandoning it in place. So the entire family would—illegally, again—squat on the old ship for a couple months until it was sold at auction or hauled away by breakers.

Then they’d go back to the freight locker. He’d seen it. Everything hard metal, oily, sticky, the air foul with polishing compounds and anti-corrosives. She’d never been to school a day in her life.

Nes’s childhood hadn’t been much better—his command chair was the most comfortable thing he’d ever sat in. But he vowed to Parvin that he’d make their lives better. Anywhere to lay roots without imminent threat of eviction or arrest would be a step up.

So he daydreamed of Parvin and flying fennec foxes, and suddenly his harness smashed against his chest. There was a sharp impact to his forehead, then nothing.

*   *   *

Hazy thoughts return, messenger proteins binding to active sites. Molecules again wiggle with warmth.

How long have I been frozen?

When melted from the ice, many of my proteins re-fold spontaneously, springing back to their natural shapes. A welcome surprise. I repair the proteins that cannot repair themselves.

But as the ice block inside me melts, slivers break off, forming hard sharp edges that threaten to cut me open, or split me apart from osmotic trauma.

Desperately, I pump out excess fluids and copy several enzymes, trying to disassemble the ice monster in an orderly manner.

The alanine cycle resumes with the warmth, and I mourn the time I have wasted on recovery.

Even after the danger passes, I am still alone in an alien world.

The only thing I am comfortable touching is my own colony, but now I am immobilized, bound to an ice crystal too big to measure.

The crystal offers me amino acids, even rare ones, encased in its lattice. But it sends me no messenger proteins, shares no knowledge. It is not a colony, and I can have no communion with it.

What is this place?

Touching the crystal is loathsome. Every molecular memory, every instinct, screams to float freely, to escape. To find others of my kin—if any have survived. I extend a pseudopod to push away, then another and another, until I am free.

But I push too hard, too soon, before I am completely thawed from the surface!

An ice monster is not a cluster-mate. When it releases me from its embrace, it selfishly keeps fragments of my membrane, giving nothing in return!

I have ripped holes in myself!

I use valuable lipid stores to repair the damage, opening membrane gates to replace lost fluids and nutrients. But the alanine helix inexorably winds down.

How long until the ice crystals engulf me again?

Now I seek proteins of any kind from someone, anyone, as I corkscrew my ropey flagella, propelling myself, searching, sampling the water.

Danger meets me at every turn, with jagged deposits of weird minerals, turbulent channels full of acid, unfamiliar surfaces, grooved and pitted. Special enzymes uncap and activate, molecular fear, kicking my responses into high gear. Strange radiations filter through the water, exciting nearby molecules in unusual ways.

Yet for all its danger, this world holds an odd splendor. Molecules dance in striking excitation patterns, shimmering as they change energy states. Such power and beauty, unlike anything in my experience. Still, I am alone and incomplete, and this world’s loveliness does not complete me, nor I it. Without communion, even beauty becomes repulsive.

But I will not starve here; the waters are full of nutrients. Even the release of death eludes me. My receptors continue to collect nutrients beyond the point of satiety.

Because I have no colony-mates to share this feast, the nutrients accumulate unused within my body.

This inspires partition proteins to gather sets of knowledge proteins, anchoring them to the membrane on opposite ends of my body. The protofilaments fuse into a double-lined ring across my middle, generating new membrane.

Without realizing it, I am splitting, reproducing myself.

I cannot do this. Not alone.

I should be joyful in copying myself, sharing the beauty inside me. I am capable of such beauty, such power—but I am incomplete.

I am a sentinel, not of the main cluster, not a founder.

Only they have all the proteins needed to establish a successful new colony.

I do not.

Without the right cluster-mate to join, there is no union, no reproduction, no life.

Sadly, I copy proteases to degrade the double-line, destroying my own proteins. I purge myself of excess nutrients.

Now is not the time for me to reproduce.

Will such a time ever come?

I choose a direction—does it matter?—leaving marker proteins on every hideous surface.

I cannot go on, but I go on, zigzagging, advancing, retreating, stopping, pivoting, searching and searching more.

Still I search.

Then, unbelievably, an alarm protein drifts toward me!

A sign of another survivor?

Alas! The name on the protein is my own.

But how?

None of my markers stud my surroundings.

Could my proteins have drifted so far away from me?

I recheck the identifier.

A mistake, but I have never been so happy!

The name on this protein is similar to mine, but not mine.

I check it again, carefully analyzing the length of the tag’s alanine chain, where it splits or circularizes, where it is substituted or studded with sugars.

This is not my name.

Maybe this is simply waste, proteinaceous detritus, but—

Maybe this protein is from another of my kind! Perhaps it is a founder, and perhaps we might mate, reproducing at will, establishing a new colony?

I backtrack to the exact spot where I found this protein, and I will begin an organized search in every direction, until I find another of these proteins, then another and another.

And then I will follow up the concentration gradient, until again I have . . .

Communion.

Belatedly, I realize that warmth is fleeting and once again the alanine cycle slows. My proteins will soon freeze, and I will lose my memories, my sense of time.

But I am no longer afraid. I am defiant.

I will not lose myself again.

If the ice immobilizes me, no matter. It must also have trapped the other survivor.

Somewhere nearby.

And when the warmth returns, and I will melt myself free from the ice, and—

Reactions cease.

*   *   *

Nes woke himself coughing. His head throbbed, and he tasted the metallic twang of blood.

Oily smoke filled the cockpit. But what was on fire? Fuel lines? An electrical junction box? Him? Was he on fire?

There were no flames around him, but dozens of alarm lights were blinking. They couldn’t all be true alarms, could they?

Well, at least we know the electricity still works, he thought.

The vents and scrubbers were functioning at a low level, carrying the smoke from somewhere else in the ship. Could be anywhere. Maybe the swing bins in the cargo hold, or the nav sensors overheating? But where in the ship?

And where was the ship?

He turned his neck, and pains shot from the base of his skull, down his back, to his hip.

He tried to look out the starboard porthole, but his vision was blurry. Then he realized he was only using one eye. His left was only open a slit, and his right not at all. He touched it, and it felt swollen, bloody, gooey.

“Alex, how bad does my eye look?” he said, turning toward the copilot seat.

The seat was empty.

Nes tapped the comm. “Alex, report.”

Still no answer. Damn it, he needed that robot if he wanted to stay alive.

“Alekseev, where are you? And where are we?”

Through the porthole, with his one good eye, Nes saw that all around him was ice. Pillars of ice, mountains of ice, slabs of ice.

He checked the other porthole and the horizon—close and remarkably sharp in the thin air—seemed like fangs of ice, as if he were inside an ice giant’s mouth, an icy steel jaw trap, ready to snap shut.

He shook his head when he saw drool dripping down some of the ice. An overactive imagination and head injury were a bad combination. But no, there was liquid. Now it was spurting upward and freezing into flakes on the way down. Liquid water pooled below and froze as he watched. Liquid water?

He tried the comm again, this time enunciating as clearly as possible. “ALXv23, where are you?”

“Apologies, sir. Communications are currently not reliable. If you are not otherwise occupied, I could use your assistance. I am in the abaft.”

“Are you trapped?”

“I am immobilized, sir.”

“I’m coming to you!”

He hoped that he would be able to repair any damage that the robot had sustained. Of the two of them, Alex was the better mechanic, and so much more. With his multiple talents and persona nodes, not only was the robot copilot, but also navigation, maintenance, and, as necessary, genetic magician.

The last part was key; Nes needed the robot to constantly monitor and adjust his genetic and musculoskeletal mods, compensating for the changes in gene expression caused by microgravity, repairing the deletions and double-stranded breaks in his chromosomes from cosmic radiation damage, and keeping his immune system mostly in lockdown, to prevent autoimmune diseases triggered by company-issued food-like pellets and pastes.

Only Alex understood all the interconnected components of Nes’s genome, proteome, transcriptome, metabolome, and microbiome—quietly micro-adjusting them on the fly.

To avoid risk of contamination, the ship’s onboard biochemistry skunkworks were sealed end-to-end. Nes could not access them if he tried.

Even if he could, he would have no idea what to do.

Nes knew as much about biochemical matters as a cowboy knows about the myostatin and activin receptors in a horse’s muscles.

He was as dead without that robot as he was without the magsail.

So he struggled from his smashed command chair. Gravity, light as it was, made him awkward after weeks in microgravity. Or maybe it was the knock to the head. He mashed several buttons, until one finally opened the interior hatch behind him.

From here, he could access the main shaft that ran down the spine of the ship, passing the interior cargo bays, solid fuel plugs, and finally reaching the engineering salon and circuitry access bay in the abaft of the ship.

As soon as he got the hatch open, flames shot out at him.

“Fire! Fire!”

“Thank you, sir,” Alex said. “I had detected smoke, but my internal temp monitors were offline and I was unable to ascertain the fire’s exact location.”

As the hatch sighed shut, Nes saw extinguishing jets shoot from the interior walls of the ship.

“Evacuate the air from the central corridor, and flood it if necessary with fire retardants. Can I get to your position from outside the ship?”

“Yes, just travel directly aft.”

It usually took Nes about twenty minutes to don his helmet and gloves, triple check all his seals and equipment loadout, and cycle through the airlock. Gravity, head wound, and general soreness made it take twice as long.

By the time he was done, his back felt like a swimming pool, his body drowning in sweat inside the suit. He cranked the dehumidifier to max, but stubborn condensation clung to the inside of his helmet.

When he finally got himself out the top hatch and onto the surface, he was amazed how bright everything was.

Some of the surface ice was melted from the heat of his impact, now flickering, sparkling as it refroze. Spectacular sundogs shimmered in the air. Beautiful crystals wreathed the brightest stars, and in some places, the thin atmosphere looked like a curtain of floating diamonds.

Jets of water shot out like volcanoes through the surface, spraying warm water from deep below. Some of the water shot high overhead, returning to the ground in a cascade of tiny twinkling ice crystals.

This ice moon would be a winter wonderland, if it weren’t trying to kill him.

Nes stood up straight and shouted to the heavens, “I claim this nasty little ice moon, Dagda 17c, in the name of, of . . .” He sighed. “In the name of . . . we who are about to die?”

He wrote his name with his gloved finger in the crusty icy and then stumbled away to continue his inspection.

His feet almost lost their grip, and he wrenched his knee trying to keep from falling. He succeeded, but it hurt so much he wondered if he should have just given himself over to gravity.

The ship itself had sustained some damage in the crash. The forward command module, C-shaped like a trilobite’s head, had taken the brunt of the impact. The hull plating was twisted and deformed, but the spaceframe seemed intact. Luckily the crew cabin had remained airtight.

He stopped at a maintenance access port, its cover torn off.

The pumps that the company had put on the lubricant reservoirs were cheap and small, barely able to move the fluids around in weightlessness. Now this moon’s gravity, weak as it was, pooled liquids in all the wrong places. Dozens of different kinds of lubes, coolants, and hydraulic fluids dribbled down, oxidized and contaminated with particles, foaming with water, icing over drain plugs and leaking into rainbow-colored puddles under the ship.

The cargo bays running down the side of the ship looked pretty good, though. Some of the swing-out bins had swung out, but the electromagnets and nanoprocessor motes seemed fine. Nes simply clicked the bins shut.

The various manipulator arms in the cargo bays had successfully held the freight lockers in place during the crash.

Alex’s voice rang in his earphones.

“I can see your eye from here, sir.”

“How bad does it look?”

“Your eye is not damaged beyond my ability to repair. From my medical scans, it seems merely swollen, and caked shut from dried blood and hair.”

“So I’m not blind in that eye?”

“No, sir, not at all.”

“That is the best news you could give me!” Nes exclaimed.

Suddenly, everything seemed good for once, and Nes completely forgot about his little aches and pains. Miracle of miracles, wonder of wonders, he had survived a spaceship crash, almost completely unscathed!

And none of the damage to the ship seemed that bad—nothing that he and the robot couldn’t fix. He was sure that, between the two of them, they could get this crate off this moon and into space. The cargo was still intact, which meant that he’d get his full bonus. Then, after a few more runs, a few more construction jobs, he and Parvin could buy that apartment on Gardien station.

“Just to confirm, you saved the magsail wire, Alex?”

“Yes, sir,” the robot said, “About two-thirds of the magsail was safely retracted into the stowage bins on the ship exterior. Most of the rest is here, wrapped safely around my arm.”

“You’re sure there’s enough to get us to the L5 construction site?”

“Yes,” Alex said, “Assuming we can launch back into space.”

Nes’s prospects for survival were good, his future looked bright.

For just a moment Nes was even feeling pretty good about Keiretsu Corp. He saw his shadow in the company-issued spacesuit. Yes, maybe the suit was creaky and leaky, but . . . it made him look like a bulked-up strongman with a giant brain to match, mighty as Poseidon, whip-smart like Athena.

When Keiretsu Corp. had given him a uniform, for the first time in his life, he had nice clothes that fit. Yes, it was a low-end model, but still, it was sparkly with its brass connectors and embedded electronics. Parvin told him he’d never looked so handsome. He was magnificent!

Nes started whistling, which he hadn’t done in years, as he continued down the side of the ship.

Then he stopped suddenly.

“Alex, you just said you could see my eye, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“But . . . the external cameras are all offline. How are you seeing me?”

“Look up, sir.”

Nes looked up and saw Alex’s eyestalk camera, emerging from some damaged components on the top of the ship.

When he realized what the components were, he screamed.

Nes stepped back on legs wobbly from gravity and shock. His left knee buckled and he tumbled backward, falling in slow motion in the moon’s weak gravity.

An ice spear scraped the side of his dorsal air tank, then found a small depression in a thin metal plate on Nes’s back.

And punched through.

As Nes lay sprawled in the ice, the breach alert flashed in time with the throbbing pain in his back. Not a spasm in a back muscle again, more like a cut or a stab. He heard his neck muscles crunch a little as he turned his head and looked over his left shoulder. He was venting moist air.

“Help! Help!” he called out, as he fumbled with his helmet-mounted controls. “Help!”

And even though there was no one to help him, help came anyway.

“Sir, I’m sealing the breach,” Alex said. Nes, calmer now, recalled that Alex could remotely direct the suit’s flexiglass nanofibers to seal the tiny rip.

The flow of foggy air slowed.

And then stopped.

Careful of the sharp spears of jagged ice, Nes gingerly sat himself up, unsuccessfully trying through his heavy gloves and suit to scratch his throbbing back.

Then he climbed the exterior ladder onto the top of the ship, and confirmed that he had seen what he thought he saw.

He took a deep breath.

Even though they’d never before flown a mission together, Alex was like a cocker spaniel, showing Nes a loyalty and devotion he didn’t understand and probably didn’t deserve.

In return, Nes had treated Alex like just another tool, no different from a hammer or spanner. But the robot had done this to save his life. No one would have made this kind of sacrifice for him, no one except Parvin.

The eyestalk camera pivoted, watching Nes as he approached, extending from the back of the robot’s head, which was open to the near-vacuum of space.

The robot was buried up to his ankles in the ship’s twisted outer plating, indented where he had gripped the spaceframe with his toes. Nes followed scorch lines to a topside vernier thruster tank, which must have ruptured during atmospheric entry, spraying Alex with burning fuel, obliterating the back of his outer shell. All those expensive decorations on his backside had been savagely ripped away, melted into streams of selenotanium now resolidified into strips like motion lines parallel to the ship’s hull, revealing an articulated endoskeleton that Nes had never seen before.

But Alex had succeeded in saving his captain’s life and his mission. He had saved the magsail coiled around his arm, using his own body as a heat shield to protect it during the crash.

*   *   *

Thawing again, this time as a sudden burst of thermal agitation.

I rapidly produce messenger proteins, eager to continue my search for the other survivor, when—

Magnetic field lines flit by, as if the entire world has shifted, or I have.

The saline concentration changes rapidly, and I open ion channels to match the osmotic pressure. Where am I now?

Has the other survivor been swept along with me?

I briefly taste metal passing by; what kind, I cannot tell. Reduced metals, lacking an ionic charge, are rare in the oceans of home, and I never learned to distinguish between them. Then I sense large, pliable organic polymers. What are these? Other compounds so rare we never found a use for them.

Then movement stops, and I find myself in strange, deep fluids—salty, oily, warm.

And most exciting of all, the water carries messenger proteins. But they are neither mine nor the other survivor’s.

There are others here!

But am I surrounded by potential new friends, or enemies?

Many of these proteins carry no identifiers, and those that do are unreadable. Messages without attribution.

If I were still tethered to the colony, I could consult the archives, ask the rememberers the meaning, if anything, of these strange amino acid chains.

Alas, I cannot.

The cautious thing would be to move stealthily, slowly, plucking surrounding compounds, to coat and disguise myself.

But I tire of searching.

If I cannot find the other survivor or another friend, I will have no communion and life will be meaningless.

I am already dead.

So I announce my presence in a vast cloud of messengers, each tagged with my alanine glycoprotein identifier.

The proteins that return to me are all different, none sharing a tag.

I have told these aliens my name, but they refuse to tell me theirs.

The same meaningless proteins drift by, but I discover something I hadn’t noticed before.

As my proteases break down these proteins into their constituent amino acids, I realize that some important amino acids, like ethionine and mimosine, are absent. Others are—poison!

 

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

Copyright © 2021. Communion by Jay Werkheiser & Frank Wu

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