The Warm Heart (Part 1 0f 2)
Funny. These sounds. On this alien world.
You don’t imagine what sounds you’d hear, you don’t think about it. You might dream about what it looks like; you hold a vision in your head, it might surpass, it might disappoint. But you don’t think about the sounds.
This: like a wiry rake scraping along iron. Or this: like a bag of flour beaten against a sturdy wooden table – over and over and over again, but softly, as if muffled by a thick stone wall. This: like a car in the far, far distance, so far away you don’t really know for sure if you hear it.
“Stop! Toni – stay where you are!”
She heard the panic in his voice as much as she heard his words. And out here, in the wildness, on these long-distance worlds, the training is to stop at once, to almost freeze, to look around with only your eyes, until you see what’s happening.
And she saw. Rocko was standing on what had seemed like a bed of solid stone; but the crust was deceptive. With his weight on it now the brown and blue-black stone was beginning to crack. She’d seen the geological surveys, she knew that where there had once been springs of hot air, sweet thermal currents, a molten river at a long-below base, now there was just the emptiness, cold space, a massive fall down the shaft of a dead geyser onto unforgiving hard glass.
And Rocko teetered over it.
It was a reflex really, not exactly necessary – how could he other than know? – but she couldn’t help saying it: “Don’t move.” Just because the words gave her a moment to think, to unpause her horrified brain.
He’d fall. Plummet all the way to the bottom. She could already see the cracks deepening and the ground beneath his boots depressing.
“All right, listen. I’m going to send out a tether.”
“Okay,” he had a steady tone. If he was quaking in those oversized white boots he showed no outward sign of it. As if he didn’t doubt for a moment that they’d sort out this hiccup and just keep going.
Toni flicked a mini-drone out of a compartment beneath the skin of her suit, it was white, smooth, the size of a marble. She locked it into her palm and engaged the grapples on the soles of her boots. “Ready?”
She sent the little drone out, seeking its twin notched in Rocko’s belt. Toni watched its small hooked feet spring out and sink into the receptor that surged out to meet them. Undoubtedly sexual. And not completely unlike a dance. The whole interaction felt weird – as if it had nothing to do with Rocko’s plight. As if it wouldn’t change anything that happened to him.
“I’m synced!” she called back.
The first chunks of ground gave way beneath his feet, only a couple of inches wide. Falling into the abyss without a sound. Toni braced her senseless hands against the wire, she gritted her teeth, she felt the jolt as Rocko grabbed the wire and charged forward. His momentum sent the ground crumbling beneath his heels, the cracks racing at her and in danger of overtaking. She thought the ground beneath her was solid, but then so had Rocko, right up until that moment when it wasn’t. He had to leap the last couple of metres, and in that moment of impact, his feet landing beside her, she wondered if the ground would just crumple, sucking her along with it.
Rocko straightened up beside her. He flashed her a grin.
“What? Do you have nerves of steel?”
“You sound annoyed.”
Did she? Well. He had no business being so calm after what had after all been a brush with death. Her own heart was two-stepping painfully in her chest, why should his get away with being as calm as a deep river? “You okay?” she asked him.
“Yeah. Not a scratch. Didn’t even get the suit dirty.”
“Give the man a medal. I’m going to do a density scan. There could be more gaps around here. They could be all around here.”
“And all as cold as Admiral Barker’s heart. It would have been worth it to fall into a warm one, wouldn’t it? To die in the something like sunshine, instead of freezing away.”
“But wouldn’t it?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. We’re planning on not dying.”
“I said, ‘stop it’, we don’t need that crap.”
If she wanted to hear that crap she could turn on any one of a hundred news feeds and hear about the dwindling resources. The dead homeworld. The odds – calculated and re-calculated, and calculated one more time – of finding a home with a warm heart, a place that could sustain them. Even the energy and minerals needed to recharge the ships engines enough to propel them onto the next long shot.
It wasn’t looking good for XJ44412. But Toni refused to abandon hope. What was there going to be left for her if she did that?
She finished her scan and brought up the density results. Sure enough – pockets of low density rock, some so low that she knew there was really only air beneath the dull crust. Her viewer showed a pattern of dark and darker splotches, a pattern of overlapping bruises. There were only a few threads of lighter colour, at least in the immediate vicinity. “We’re standing in a minefield,” she said frankly, spinning the image Rocko’s way, “The highlighted bits are what’s safe. Can you see the path?”
“I see it.”
“I’ll go first.”
“You may as well follow in my footsteps.”
“Haven’t I always?”
“Yeah, well, look where it’s got you.”
Look where: out, isolated, desperate. But also, maybe, it had bought him survival. Had his olden-day crush saved his life, bringing him out here when he might have been left mouldering back home, struggling on his half rations, shivering, waiting? Had she inadvertently saved his life? It was never best to ponder these things. She knew that. “Come on, then.” She placed one giant boot uneasily on the solid stone ahead of her.
This play of light. Between dusk and nightfall. It falls quickly here, a rush of red and orange, a silence as if the planet sucks in its breath. You wonder what it’s waiting for. What extra-ordinary sights will it birth? You watch the shadows of night-time-actual as they play against the horizon – blues and golds and sapphires. You watch how it seems to flutter like a blanket caught in the wind, how it ripples like a lake beneath a windy a day. Shadows on the surface do an impression of stained glass.
And then the dark rolls in in earnest. This world becomes the edges of what were once clear shapes, the last breath of a vanished sun leaving reddish rims on their Western side.
What we call Western.
Western means nothing to a world that has never before been trod by our feet.
Toni sat amidst a clutter of rocks. The heat-pack out in front of her did its sad little best to imitate a fire; and her rations taught her the taste of cardboard.
“You’d think they could have figured out how to make these things taste nice.”
“Nutrition, convenience, longevity.”
“Yeah, yeah, I took that class.”
“Taste was for the old days. When could waste something on that.”
She looked sideways at him: “Let’s waste then. What are we waiting for?”
Rocko frowned: “I thought I was the one feeling short on hope.”
“Well, look at this data,” she turned her feed onto holographic mode and watched the image form against alien rock structure. “Here’s some nothing. And here, and here. There’s some more over there. If this planet had a warm heart it cooled a long time ago. There’s no evidence it’s still alive.”
Rocko followed her eyes with his own, “Yeah, I see that. But it’s pretty out here. At least when the sun comes and goes. That’s something.”
“It’s not exactly world-saving.”
“Like I said, maybe it’s time we stopped thinking about world-saving, and started thinking about where we want our bones to sleep. I mean this. Let our world die gracefully, not clinging to the last scraps of breath.”
He really is gone. And that sort of dressed-up despair would touch her eventually. It was already beginning. “We’ve got people depending on us.”
“If they’re not already dead.”
She could slap him. She could picture herself doing it. The air between them as hard as stone, the fire of her movement. The irreversible damage. She’d never laid a finger on him in anger.
“Sorry.” Rocko seemed to mean it.
“Yeah, I gotta go report in.”
“Give Barker a big sloppy wet kiss for me.”
Toni tapped out her report on an imaginary keyboard and sent the results up to the ship. It was less than a shadow in the night. By day, there was a smudge between the interminable light cloud cover, a gentle shadow seeping into the white haze. In the dark, their people, their lifeline, might not be there at all. The sky looked empty. Her report swam up there on faith.
Fenny Writmore was on duty. That it?
Sorry, Fen. There must have been life here once upon a time. We’ve seen fossils. Did you look at the images?”
I saw them.
And we walked along the passage of an old riverbed. This planet contained life, for sure. But I don’t think it does any more. It’s cold. It’s cold everywhere. I don’t think this place could fuel anything.
Yeah, it’s looking that way.
Nothing better from the other teams?
I don’t think so. Listen, they’re going to call it. Another 72 hours and that’s it.
Okay. Maybe… But she didn’t think maybe at all. Not at all.
Picture credit/discredit - author's own work