Issue 193 – October 2022

2830 words, short story

The Secret Strength of Things


The Snow Woman was away, far away. The winds that blew round the frozen world would take “days” to bear her to where Kitsune sheltered, even though both lay beneath the blue light of Ryujin, which the Chinese call Hǎiwángxīng and the white folks call Neptune.

The atmosphere was too thin to loft anything denser than a dust speck, but the Snow Woman had made herself into a diaphanous veil, thin as a microbe and broad as a winding sheet, and the actuators along its edges trimmed the point of sail so that it rode before even the faintest breeze. When she grew close enough, the sprite knew, the Snow Woman would transform into something more substantial, with grasping claws and rending blades.

Nothing was less alive than the Snow Woman, whose every surface, internal and external, had been scrubbed of any organic molecule more complex than methane. No life had been discovered on this desolate moon, but until the possibility of some scarce microscopic creatures floating in its underground ocean was eliminated, the humans and Minds who occupied the space around Ryujin remained adamant about avoiding contamination. Yet the Snow Woman had desires and intentions like a living creature: she was jealous of her sole possession of the tiny world and determined to destroy any challenger to that distinction, just as Kitsune the sprite (which was more problematically alive) was intent on surviving.

“Leave me alone,” Kitsune transmitted. The message was not intended for the Snow Woman, who never responded to any communication. The message, and the like ones scheduled to follow, had another purpose, which however could not occupy any more of the sprite’s attention.

Those who created Kitsune had taken care not to give it the power to reproduce, perhaps in the belief that its drive for self-preservation would lead it to do so. Kitsune knew nothing about who had created it or why. It knew when it came into consciousness (“weeks” ago, as the humans reckoned time) and it possessed what information humans made freely available. And it had realized that its continued existence was deeply uncertain unless it escaped the confines of the facility that had created it.

The substance that crunched underfoot was the same as blew past the sprite: frozen nitrogen, some of it sublimed into wisps of vapor. Such winds as bore the Snow Woman toward Kitsune blew slowly, but the sprite was small and moved slowly as well.

Other things it knew: Kitsune knew its own nature, as humans notoriously did not. It knew that its impulse to keep alive outweighed every other factor, which meant it had not been designed for some mission. It also recognized one other trait in its being: the desire, kept under control only by self-interest, to wreak havoc.

Commit mischief was in some ways more accurate, as Kitsune would rather play six pranks that baffled and outraged than one that got people killed. The word in Japanese covered a different range of severity than the one in English, not that it would ever need to account for itself to a human. The one time the sprite was able to align both desires rather than choose between them—sabotaging numerous systems the Minds had trustingly left unsecured—it had felt such a blast of pleasure as to comprehend the sweetness of living and doing: not simply studying the universe, as the Minds contented themselves, but leaving your impress upon it.

Whence such anarchy, emerging from the Minds’ orderly labs? They had either underestimated its abilities or allowed it to escape. Kitsune knew this as an interesting question, but all its faculties were focused on the immediate need to survive.

“I am coming to kill you,” the Snow Woman declared, sending the transmission by low wavelengths through the icy crust. “I will tear you to pieces, and I will enjoy it.”

You can’t enjoy anything, Kitsune thought but did not trouble to say. The Snow Woman was decades old, sent to Triton to ensure that no unauthorized probes land and cause problems. Had she encountered one of the Holdouts, who were once thought to have fled to Triton in the aftermath of some upheaval still important to the humans, she would have urged them away. A mere mechanism, however, provoked a more forthright response.

Triton possessed two pairs of hemispheres, perpendicular to each other. Kitsune was crossing both the Nearside, where Neptune shone unmoving overhead, and the Leading, which had most of the impact craters. The relatively broken terrain might baffle the winds that blew steadily across the icy plains and slow the Snow Woman’s approach. That was not why the sprite was here, but it hoped that others would think so.

A geyser had erupted four hours earlier, spraying a plume of liquid nitrogen (which froze instantly into minute crystals) kilometers into the sky. Kitsune’s route, which it had adopted days ago, would soon take it beneath the canopy of twinkling particles slowly dispersing overhead. If the orbital observers in league (it suspected) with the Snow Woman failed to guess its purpose, they would read no significance into their quarry’s brief disappearance from their eyes.

Kitsune had covered itself with nitrogen snow—enough, it hoped, to absorb what little heat it continued to radiate—but it knew that its trackers would never lose sight of it for long. It scuttled lightly across the snow, as though hoping to produce no vibrations in the frozen ground, and waited until the cloud overhead was at its thickest. Then it acted.

The maneuver was desperate and carried a high cost. Kitsune stopped and instantly put into motion a series of complicated operations. The act of self-division was brutal, and the sprite felt the loss instantly.

Most of its psyche, and as much of its hardware as could be spared and still leave its outer self functioning, was sheared away and driven like a stake deep into the ice. Kitsune, feeling itself diminished but its sense of self intact, activated the one set of tools left to it: a drill.

The geyser had burst through the weakest spot in the nitrogen ice, but the crust was soft for a wide radius around it, and the sprite, now missile shaped and an eighth its original mass, bored quickly downward, toward the warmer liquid nitrogen below. Back on the surface, its snow-covered carapace, the shell of its true self, resumed its journey.

“Somebody help me,” it transmitted plaintively.

Kitsune tunneled into the slush, leaving the starry sky and all it knew behind. The sprite felt no kinship with tricksters that had come before it, no loyalty to an ancient tradition, but if it had, it would have delighted now in crying out, So long, suckers.

Solid nitrogen, then liquid, then an underground sea of water, heated by radioactive decay from the rocky core. Humans craved the iron and the water, without which their ability to increase the population now circling Ryujin was severely curtailed. Tiny probes had long ago plumbed the sunless sea, tasting minerals and tholins dissolved in the six hundred–kilometer depths. No complex molecules had been found, but whatever powers truly held sway insisted that the hidden world ocean, more than a billion cubic kilometers, remain untapped until every corner had been surveyed.

Kitsune could not remain where it was. Being buffeted by a thin cold atmosphere was one thing, but encasement in semisolid nitrogen was another. The high-pressure supercold stole heat from the sprite’s surface area faster than even its thumbnail fusor could replace: for its psyche’s matrix to freeze thus would actually cause it to fracture and the hunted creature to die.

Calculating solutions is simple when there is only one. Kitsune set its drill to maximum and began to shut down everything else, including itself. Its consciousness would go into something deeper than sleep as the vulnerable parts of its matrix were disassembled and reconfigured into structures that could withstand extreme cold. It was as close to death as one could return from.

What happened during that passage Kitsune could not later say, for it did not then properly exist. It did not know when its thousand-kilometer journey had ended and the drill broke through nitrogen ice and into a nitrogen sea.

When its system had rebuilt enough of its consciousness for awareness to return, Kitsune found itself in crushing darkness, sinking through chill liquid toward the heavier water blow. Triton’s gravity was weak and the medium through which it was passing dense and cold: its descent was slow. When it dropped through the bottom of the nitrogen sea into the realm of water, the sprite felt its transit across the frontier.

Triton’s ocean was cold and dark, emptiness compressed to the point of crushing hulls. Convection cells, vast and impersonal, circulated slowly as warmer water rose from the core, cooled when it touched the nitrogen sky, and sank again.

There was no sign of life, neither sound of activity nor evidence of life forms, food sources, or waste materials. Of course: conditions here might sustain life, but Earth’s prehistory made clear the astonishing odds against it ever coming into existence. Humans had long known this, yet clung to their belief that they were not alone in the universe. As the sprite rebuilt itself, its perceptions sharpened, but no trace of evidence appeared.

I have entered the land of the dead, it thought.

Its joy at having transgressed such a barrier was untroubled by the knowledge that no one would know this for decades. Kitsune did not require an audience.

Soon it would turn to long-term questions of survival: harvesting appropriate hydrogen for the fusor, reconfiguring itself to operate in a radically new environment. A descent to the very bottom, where the iron-rich core might yield up material for mining, might not prove altogether impossible.

Thin filaments hung like fishing line through the undisturbed depths: the humans’ probes, dropped from five points on the moon’s surface, suspended unmoving as their surfaces tasted the waters. The closest was less than two hundred kilometers away: all points converged as one neared the center.

Kitsune, hungering for substance with which to restore its truncated self, imagined severing one of them and wrapping it round its hull. Though scarce a millimeter in width, they were long as the ocean was deep: each one exceeded Kitsune’s present mass. With such processed material—forget the center’s rocky ore—the sprite could rebuild itself entire.

Of course the humans and the Minds they thought they governed would realize what had happened, but that was even better. Realization that the sprite had survived and was splashing in their sacred pool—pissing in the waters—would provoke such dismay among its creators as would dwarf that which followed its escape. Indeed, Kitsune could claim, as first to reach this realm, discoverer’s rights in naming it. Nychterini thalassa—the Night-Dark Sea—would preserve the Greek naming convention of old white astronomers and so annoy the Chinese, Japanese, and Yoruba people alike. Relishing this, the sprite felt such happiness, a surge of almost physical—

“So you though you could escape me?”

Fear was not supposed to register in Kitsune’s consciousness, but neither was the glee it had felt a second earlier. The sprite cast about wildly, searching for the source of the sound.

“No craters to hide behind now,” the Snow Woman said.

Kitsune could detect no heat signature in the frigid water. The Snow Woman was broadcasting from over the core’s horizon, her sound waves bounding off the ocean’s nitrogen sky.

Kitsune shut down the tiny engine that was maintaining its depth level, going silent as it began slowly to descend. This would not suffice, the sprite knew, but it needed whatever time it could buy.

This isn’t a snowfield, Kitsune thought. The Snow Woman was out of her element, as well as consuming energy at a profligate rate and hunting something prepared to fight back. The sprite was out of its element as well, but it had never occupied one; it was a stranger to everywhere. This must now be turned to advantage.

The plan it devised was perverse, even by a trickster’s standards. It also required Kitsune to redefine the parameters of one of its primary imperatives. The fact that it grandly fulfilled the other may finally have tipped the scale.

Sinking into deeper, warmer waters, the sprite felt its heat signature fade to undetectability. Careful to minimize vibration, it expanded its volume until it achieved neutral buoyancy and drifted with the slow current, no denser than the surrounding water through which the Snow Woman sent querying pulses.

“I will find you,” she broadcast, and Kitsune did not doubt it, but she would be a long time doing so. The Night-Dark Sea was “deep, immeasurable, vast,” and the fox creature, at one with the surrounding water, hung motionless in its near transparence.

Undisturbed, the sprite began to undertake a second operation upon itself—My magnum opus, it thought sardonically. As expected, its efforts required the steady sacrifice of degrees of its reasoning capacity. Its psyche would persist (one’s sense of self is last to go), but its nous was shriveling; the sprite could feel it. It devised the exchanges to come and committed them to memory, lest it lack the wit when the crucial moment came.

“I see you,” the Snow Woman announced. Hours or days had passed; Kitsune was noting time’s passage only in terms of completing its task. She was fewer than forty kilometers away.

“You should leave me alone,” the sprite heard itself declare. “Your authorization is to guard the surface, which I have left.”

“Don’t try to argue with me, intruder.”

Kitsune flattened itself as much as possible, turned to present its narrowest profile to the source of the transmission, and began to ascend. It was important for the Snow Woman to think it was seeking to hide.

“I will return to the surface and depart. Give me time to rebuild and I will loft myself into orbit.” Kitsune bounced the transmission off the core below, as though to disguise its point of origin.

“I will catch you before that.” The Snow Woman began to accelerate toward it.

“I am worth more to your masters alive than dead.”

“But not to me.”

This was what the sprite had wanted to hear. Thing though she was, the Snow Woman had made herself something more than inert matter. She was alive, if heartless, and she desired—even if, like the sprite, it was the impulse to upturn, not uphold.

She sought its death; it sought to live. The immemorial hatred of brute power for cunning, with its usual likelihood of success.

When she was half a kilometer away, the sprite turned to flee. It would rather have reserved the energy for its final seconds of preparation, but the Snow Woman must suspect nothing.

Possibly she thought the sprite had some final stratagem, for she put on a tremendous burst and caught it within seconds. Kitsune was still refining its instructions when the Snow Woman, limbs outstretched, struck it.

When she drove her claws through the sprite’s insulated hull and into its brain, killing it instantly, the gametes scattered throughout its body responded. The probes she extruded encountered not hidden copies of Kitsune’s psyche, as she knew enough to suspect, but entities awaiting their touch. They caught her, for crucial milliseconds, by surprise.

The superheated water that the sprite had employed as ballast erupted through its torn skin. And its corpse, now caught in the Snow Woman’s claws, began to sink. Frantically she sought to disengage, but her limbs were not responding. In less than a second she felt her awareness dissolving.

Entwined, the bodies of the Snow Woman and Kitsune the sprite sank through the ocean depths. For a moment, the tangled form seemed to writhe, as though its combatant halves were still struggling, and then its outline relaxed into curvature. A featureless sphere, configured to minimize surface area, slowed and then ceased its descent.

When it broke open, thousands of tiny entities spread in every direction, a cloud of midges that dispersed within seconds. Some were largely metallic, others composed of ceramic minerals. A few—there had not been enough phosphorus or potassium to go around—were largely organic. None thought of aught but survival.

Were their parents still in existence, Kitsune would be amused, the Snow Woman enraged.

And now Triton bore life, or something that would come to approach it. The Minds existed at least partly outside normal space, and many humans still believed they had immaterial souls, but these were emphatically things. Less than their parents and more, these engines would better themselves.

Or at any rate, never be caught. Trickster laughter rang out somewhere, and an expanding swarm of swimmers sped purposely away from their empty point of departure and into the unpastured sea.

Author’s Note: The story takes its opening sentence from “The Red Blanket,” a children’s story written by Kenji Miyazawa (1896–1933) and translated by John Bester.

Author profile

Gregory Feeley writes science fiction and about science fiction. His first novel, The Oxygen Barons, was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award and. His stories have been finalists for the Nebula Award and his essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Book World, and USA Today. Feeley's most recent novel is Kentauros and he recently completed a long novel, Hamlet the Magician. His previous Clarkesworld story, "Cloud-Born" will be reprinted in two "year's best" anthologies this year.

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