4220 words, short story
Sahar, moving softly through the river valley, made sure to listen. The sound filtered into her helmet from the external mics, and she imagined this must be what hiking on Earth must be like. She listened to the wind; to the rumble overhead from the active ice volcano; to the storm raging on the horizon. But most of all she listened for any movement, for anything with design that may be scuttling about or trying to hide.
Titan was a cacophony of sound, a heavenly orchestra: the percussion of breaking ice and the patter of methane rains as they fell. The whisper and shout of the winds. In the northern summertime, cyclones howled and screamed over the Kraken Sea. If Sahar shifted to infrared she could see rainbows overhead and sometimes, through a gap in the ever-present canopy of clouds, glimpse Saturn rising low on the horizon. The world was always alive, awash in sound and fury. Sahar was left all alone to listen to it.
She preferred it that way.
She listened for any intrusions. The hum of an airplane engine or the softer passing of an airship or hot-air balloon. Her friend, Rania, was the pilot of a small aircraft that flew these routes and was her link back to Polyphemus Port. All she had to do was drop a signal, then wait for pickup. They had done this many times before. Not many ventured this far out here, not when Nirrti the Black was stirring again from her stronghold on the Mayda Insula. Sahar listened for the pirate’s canons, but they were silent now.
She moved cautiously up the canyon, listening for Boppers. Listening, too, for any of Nirrti’s foot patrols, who were known to venture out here from time to time. But mostly she enjoyed the lack of any human sound. Back in Polyphemus Port, humanity’s largest stronghold on Titan, people were a constant noise, an endless chatter of grunting and farting and laughing and shouting, eating and belching and singing and crying, all in close proximity under the dome and the purple roiling clouds and the eerie illumination of the lightning in the storms. Polyphemus Port was a hot, humid place with creepers and vines growing over the buildings, flowers exploding in a profusion of colors in every available space—she thought this must be what Earth was like.
But Sahar preferred her solitude. She liked being out here, on the lunar surface proper, away from people and their noise and their demands and their needs, all alone in that beautiful untamed music of the moon. She hiked up the canyon, enjoying the exertion of her muscles against a land that humans had never evolved for.
Looking for Boppers.
She thought she heard a noise, a slight slide of rocks somewhere up and to her right. Movement, and there it came again, like something with a purpose, out here where there was no native life. Nothing had evolved on Titan before humans came.
She followed the sound. The wind howled overhead and on the horizon lightning flashed, and—there! A shadow moving high against the outline of the storm.
She kicked up the slope, using boosters now, leaping high—on Earth people moved so slowly, were land-bound, where on Titan they could be free. The shadow moved again and she sought a higher vantage point to track it.
There! It was definitely a Bopper. The small critter was a tangle of flexible legs and manipulating arms, like a funnel weaver or a hobo spider on Earth, but made of spun polymers. The Boppers really thrived next to the Kraken Sea, its rich liquid hydrocarbons ideal both for fueling the Boppers with an endless supply of energy and the environment naturally providing the materials necessary for their reproduction. No two Boppers were exactly alike, for they constructed other Boppers the way they did their other curious offerings. People make people, the saying went, and Boppers make Boppers. As for their offerings, no one was, even now, sure why they made them. It was generally assumed they were simply Bopper waste, the by-product of the critters’ busy, if incomprehensible, lives.
Sahar jumped and sailed through the soupy nitrogen air, landing not far from the Bopper. It turned and must have sensed her, for it extended speaker-stalks and babbled at her in an excitable chatter. Sahar extended one hand and held it up, fingers splayed open. Sometimes the Boppers seemed to sense a kinship of sort with the people they encountered, even to seek their company. At other times they ignored them completely, or actively acted to avoid humans. But they were harmless. It was bad luck to hurt one, and even Nirrti and her pirates seemed to leave them be.
The Bopper jabbered on at her. Sahar carefully opened her node up to the Conversation. She was too far out to get a very clear wash of data. It was one reason she liked it out here. The Conversation may have engulfed the entire solar system, but out here there were still pockets of dead air, the cloud cover and the storms made signal loss an issue, and of course Nirrti’s pirates made sure to destroy any booster-hubs they found. Nirrti’s hatred of the Conversation and anything that lived in it was the very thing that drove her. None of her people were noded, and any passersby unlucky enough to be caught by the pirates would have their nodes forcefully torn out, often leaving them little more than vegetables.
She thought she might get something out of the Bopper, some digital signature or communication, but there was nothing there. The Bopper watched her hopefully for a moment, then seemed to lose interest and wandered away. It moved surprisingly fast, but Sahar was fast too, and she followed.
The Bopper went higher up into the hills. They were covered in ice and soon it began to rain again, though neither Sahar nor the Bopper minded. Sahar looked for other Boppers but saw none. She kept an eye out for the Bopper’s leavings, the artifacts she had come here to find and which were her livelihood. Sometimes she could follow a Bopper or a pack of them for days.
But this Bopper wasn’t making anything. It seemed in a hurry, and yet from time to time it would stop and seem to listen carefully, and then turn back to watch if Sahar was following. It was like it wanted her to. Which was strange behavior for a Bopper.
At last it crested a rise and vanished on the other side. Sahar leaped after it and saw that it had brought her to the opening of a cave that was hidden in the saddle of two hills. The Bopper beeped at her excitedly and then darted inside. Sahar, curious, followed.
The first things she saw were the artifacts There was a thing like a tree trunk hollowed and turned inside out, with the branches somehow growing and twisting into an impossibly small matrix formed around the heart of a glowing star.
There was a thing like a black cube with knobs and dials turning on it in an intricate pattern that never repeated, and the ice all around it hovered in the air as though the gravity worked differently in that part of the cave.
There was a convex mirror half-melted against the wall of the cave, made of some impossibly smooth silver matter, and Sahar made sure not to look at it directly, for it was never wise to stare into the mirrors Boppers made.
Boppers just made things, evolving them out of an obscure set of criteria, and some of them were useless and some of them seemed to do things that were supposed to be impossible, like the thing that seemed to subvert gravity, and sometimes they seemed to only half-exist in traditional four-dimensional space. Mostly, they were just prized for being rare, and unusual, and they fetched high prices in the galleries back in Polyphemus Port. There was a law against exporting them off-world, but some collectors were determined enough anyway for a black market to have formed.
And that’s what Sahar did. She hunted for Bopper objects. The Boppers never seemed to care—once they’d finished an object they’d lost all interest in it. Perhaps it really was, as has been theorized, just their waste product.
The second thing Sahar saw in the cave was the woman in white.
She was an Ermine.
The woman reclined against the back wall of the cave. Her white fur was mottled with icy crystals of snow that caught the light, but her left leg looked like it was decorated with tiny rubies in an intricate pattern, and it took Sahar a moment to realize it was blood.
The Ermine was hurt.
Sahar approached cautiously. The Ermine stirred and that perfect, elongated face turned and regarded her through black, filmed-over eyes. Sahar held her breath. The Ermine was so perfectly engineered, the stoat-like bio-suit fused with the vulnerable human frame of its owner until the two were one and the same. The Ermine was a whole other level of adaptability. She could traverse Titan without suit or mask, body impervious to the freezing temperatures, her blood oxygenated, the fat around the human-form rich in nutrition that could sustain the Ermine for months. And she could dig into the snow and sleep right out there, or chip at the ice for precious water and air . . .
Sahar had never even seen one. There were reportedly Ermines on the Fairy Moons, Oberon and Titania, out there in the Uranian System where people’s base human forms had been ruthlessly gene-chopped and engineered until they barely resembled their origins. But that was out, far out, where things got strange: beyond lay Jettisoned and Dragon’s World where wildtech flourished and people believed in strange gods.
Sahar had never met an Ermine—and she was terribly jealous.
The woman looked at her. Sahar maintained a respectful distance and knelt down, hands open forward in a gesture of peace, fingers splayed. The Bopper who led her there was chattering to itself in a corner of the cave, now oblivious of the two of them, slowly converting matter into a new object. Mandibles and manipulating arms moved fast and precisely.
“You are hurt?” Sahar said.
The woman looked at her through those black, impregnable eyes.
“What does it bloody look like?” she said. The sound was distorted, both by the physiognomy of her face and the thick atmosphere it had to travel though. But she sounded in pain.
Yet underneath, Sahar thought she sensed a cold amusement, somewhere deep within the Ermine’s core being.
Sahar approached, still crouched low. The woman let her. Sahar ran her fingers lightly over the blood-encrusted foot. The Ermine could move four-legged, her hands were paw-like and she could go horizontal and fast if she chose. Sahar was filled with envy. To be adapted in this way! To see Titan not as Sahar saw it, a hostile, dangerous place to humans, where every careless step could be your last—but as home! To be as comfortable outside as people were inside the Polyport dome.
“What happened?” she said.
The woman grimaced. “Fell into a trap,” she said.
“Is there an echo in here? It must have been set by Nirrti’s people.”
“Who are you?” Sahar said.
“You can call me Yoharneth.” Again, that sense of deep-buried amusement.
“I’m Sahar. Is there anything I can do to help?”
The Ermine studied her. “Perhaps,” she said. “You’re a Bopper hunter?”
“Artifacts, not Boppers,” Sahar said. The question took her by surprise.
“I heard there were people out here,” the Ermine said. “I never saw one before.”
“You have been here long?”
The Ermine almost smile. “Not that long, but . . . ”
“You’re an off-worlder.”
“What gave that away?”
Sahar let it go. She sat back, cross-legged, on the cave floor. The suit extruded a piece of jerky and she chewed on it.
“You want some?”
She handed the Ermine a strip from her supplies. The Ermine chewed.
“Of course. Well, it’s not bad.”
“Do you need medical help?” Sahar said.
“Why, are you a doctor?” The Ermine laughed. “No, thank you. I’m shot full of bacterial machines and, well, some sort of retroviral defenses and so on. Should repair the damage, as long as I’m still. Damn but I hate being stuck here.”
“What are you doing here?” Sahar said.
“Searching for something. Same as you.”
The Ermine’s eyes gleamed. “An artifact,” she said.
Sahar cautiously opened her node to the Conversation again. She could hear very little chatter over the digital signals lost in the storms overhead, but when she glanced at the Ermine, the woman was an impenetrable bubble of defenses that seemed to extend for a meter around her, as though she were herself a hub of the Conversation. Intricate patterns ran through the surface of that visual image, and Sahar was convinced this woman was running some sort of military grade obstruction-ware.
“Look all you want,” the woman said, and laughed again. Sahar switched off. The Ermine was equally annoying and fascinating to her. A mystery.
“What sort of artifact, then?” she said.
“A Black Monolith.”
Sahar almost laughed right back at her.
“That’s just a story,” she said.
“Sure. I’ve been hunting Bopper artifacts for a long time. Black Monoliths are just a story.”
“Who said they were Bopper artifacts?” the Ermine said.
The question took Sahar by surprise again.
“Who else’s would they be?”
“Who made the Boppers?” the Ermine said.
“Boppers make Boppers,” Sahar said.
The Ermine sighed. “Child, for someone who has been doing this for as long as you say, you seem to have remarkably little curiosity.”
Sahar chewed on her jerky. She studied the Ermine. She didn’t know what to make of her at all.
“It was ‘Mad’ Rucker, the Terrorartist,” she said. “Everyone knows that. But he only seeded the first gen cycle, just like he did on half a dozen worlds before they finally caught up with him. He may have birthed them but he didn’t make them. They do that themselves.”
The Bopper in the corner of the cave beeped and chattered away to itself, oblivious to the two of them, still making its artifact when Sahar glanced its way. It seemed to be making an orb of some kind, a glowing sphere made half with ice and half with a black matt plastic. She thought there might be faces buried in them, a woman’s face, one in each globe.
“And you’re a Neo-Cosmicist,” she said. The weird protection ’round the woman’s node finally made sense.
“You figured it out, huh?” The Ermine sighed. “You could help me,” she said. “You know these parts, yes? I could pay you.”
That did put a different spin on things.
“There’s no such thing as Black Monoliths,” Sahar said.
“Then what’s the harm in looking for one?” the Ermine said.
Sahar sat back and thought about the offer. She could produce more oxygen out of the ice, and replenish her water. She’d found nothing usable so far, anyway, and she didn’t like going back empty-handed. She could geo-tag this cave and come back, later, to remove the larger pieces with Rania’s help.
“Sure,” she said. “Long as your credit’s good.”
“My credit’s excellent,” the Ermine said. She shut her eyes and Sahar’s node pinged.
“I trust this is sufficient?”
“That should do,” she said.
The Ermine curled up on the cave floor.
“Then I will sleep now,” she said.
They moved fast against the falling rain. Sahar found that it was hard to keep up with the Ermine. The woman moved on all fours, and even with her leg not quite healed yet she had speed. Sahar would have given a lot for modifications like that. She switched on her node reception to a wide-band, but felt nothing. The whole area around Nirrti’s lair was very carefully cleaned of anything digital. She thought about the woman, Yoharneth, and of her dark faith. Sahar had heard the stories. Black Monoliths, and the Nine Billion Hells, and amorphous beings made up of tendrils of nanoparticles pulsing and thinking, as large as planets, out in the Oort Cloud.
Stories to scare children with.
The Bopper they’d met had vanished by the time they both woke up. It had left behind an orb floating in defiance of the laws of physics, inside which were trapped the impressions of Sahar and Yoharneth. The lips of the faces inside the two halves of the orb moved without sound, and what they said Sahar didn’t know.
Now Sahar and the Ermine moved across the ice. Sahar searched again for Boppers. Weirdly, though they were machine-based life-forms, they never registered any digital signals. They were cut off from the Conversation, each one of them alone—small, self-replicating robots with rudimentary processing, as far as anyone could make out. They’d not been made but evolved, and kept evolving new circuits with weird, alien designs that made no sense even if you opened them up. But even Nirrti’s pirates left them alone. It was bad luck to hurt a Bopper.
“What do you search for, usually?” the Ermine asked.
“Small items,” Sahar said. “Portable. Sometimes Boppers repeat designs before they move on to the next evolutionary cycle. Collectors particularly look for items from the so-called Light Cycle. They were beautiful, though no one could ever figure out a use for them. They were only half-solid, the rest of them seem to be made of spun light. I only ever saw the one, in a gallery. It was like staring into the secret heart of a star.”
“Very poetic, I’m sure,” the Ermine said.
Sahar sighed. “Otherwise, keep your eyes open for anything artificial on the ground,” she said. “Boppers discard a lot of parts along their way. And they’re fond of screws.”
“It’s possible they just like the shape,” Sahar said. “They often repeat helixes. There—”
She pointed to a small metal object on the ground.
“We’re getting somewhere.”
“My information was very specific,” the Ermine said. “The object I am searching for is hidden somewhere in this vicinity.”
“Where did your information come from?”
“I’m sure I really couldn’t say.”
“What would you do if you find it?”
The Ermine smiled. “I’m sure I really couldn’t say.”
Sahar let it go. She concentrated on following the trail of Boppers.
They were high up into the icy rolling hills. A long distance from the Kraken Sea now, and a longer way still from the nearest human settlement. She was all alone, but for the Neo-Cosmicist priestess.
Oh, she’d figured it out. It wasn’t that hard. Yoharneth would have had to be important to be translated into an Ermine like that. She was a believer, from somewhere out there in the far reaches of the Outer Systems, where they worshipped strange gods. Sahar thought for a moment about the idea of Dark Others, digital intelligences from some off-Earth parallel evolution, as alien and unknowable as black holes. She tried to picture strings of smart matter, thousands of miles long, undulating in space, out there in the Oort where the light of the sun barely penetrated. The solar system was huge, old, and still mysterious. Who could tell whether it was true? The Neo-Cosmicists believed in the Nine Billion Hells. What sort of person could embrace that kind of vision?
“There,” she said. A trail of ordinary household screws and, sitting on a rocky ice shelf, a small crude sculpture, as large as her fist—it took her a moment to realize it was shaped like a monkey’s skull.
It made her uncomfortable, but she picked it up nonetheless and put it in her scrip. Yoharneth and her moved more cautiously now. And she could tell the priestess’ leg still hurt.
They were far from anywhere, she thought. So why a trap? She had never seen a trap set out here before. Was Nirrti aware of the same story as Yoharneth? Did the pirate-lord set out to guard it?
“It’s close. I can feel it,” the priestess said. Sahar opened her node and felt around her. Yoharneth’s data-bubble had expanded, was glowing sigils.
They said there was another data-web across the solar system, running on its own black hubs and routers, its own secret protocols. The Quietude. It was just a myth, a story to frighten children with.
A sense of wrongness engulfed Sahar. She shut her node, listening only with her ears, watching only with her eyes.
There! Something moved high above them, and it was not a Bopper.
“Wait,” she said. But Yoharneth didn’t listen.
The Ermine bounded ahead, up a steep slope between two walls of ice. Sahar followed more cautiously.
The Ermine vanished over the ridge.
And there it was again, that movement. Dark human shapes moving against the skyline in the rain.
Coming down the slope, fast, with projectile weapons.
Every instinct told her to run.
But she was too curious.
She crawled the rest of the way up like a snail on the slope.
Peered over the edge.
Saw the valley of the Boppers.
There were more Boppers there than she had ever seen in one place before. Small spidery ones and bipedal, four-armed ones, and centipedal ones and ones that looked like hot-air balloons with Waldos. There must have been hundreds of them, all made out of that same black matt plastic, and all chattering in union, and all working in some incomprehensible way. The Ermine ran right at them and the Boppers parted around her, clearing a path that led towards the far side of the valley, where some sort of black structure was taking form.
Not a monolith. Definitely not a bloody monolith.
She wasn’t quite sure what it was.
It was very large, like a half-formed arc made out of black stone bricks that each one, individually, might have been a monolith, but probably wasn’t.
It arched against the purple clouds and the pouring methane rain, and the Ermine, sleek and white, shot towards it like her life depended on it.
Sparks shot beneath the unfinished arch. For just a moment Sahar couldn’t resist and opened her node up, on the lowest bandwidth.
She saw it differently then. She saw a huge black mouth opening in a silent scream, and a dark tunnel that ran under the skin of the world and into space itself and far, far from the sun. Far from light and warmth, into a vast Quietude where things as large as worlds watched her.
Below, the Ermine screamed too, in what could have been terror or could have been pure joy. She shot towards the tunnel.
Sahar’s node burned in the back of her skull. The pain was horrifying. She screamed again inside her helmet and then her node auto-shutdown and she could be again.
High above her, still, she saw the descending women in black. Nirrti’s pirates, armed with guns. They fired.
But not at the Ermine. They fired high, and the sky above the valley exploded in bright, multicolored flares.
Then she heard it. Them.
Far in the distance.
The unmistakable boom of Nirrti’s canons, responding to the signal.
Overhead, in the twilight’s last gleaming, she saw the rockets’ red glare.
Mini-thermonuclear bombs bursting in the air.
She dove into a ravine and buried herself under ice.
That mushroom cloud. And another. And another.
The roll of thunder and heat and the radiation, but her suit was shielded.
She blacked out.
Slept, under ice, for a minute or a thousand years.
When she woke there was a break in the clouds and she could see, for just a moment, Saturn rising in the sky. The back of her head felt sore and she knew her node was lifeless. But she was still herself. She made herself get up. Retched, and the suit absorbed the bile. Drank water and chewed on a piece of jerky. She sent off her own flare then. A miniscule drone, it shot up into the air and would fly out until it could reach connectivity and let Rania know to come pick her up in the little airplane.
Then, because she couldn’t help herself, she went back.
She found the crater. That was all that was left, now, other than the Boppers. They seemed entirely unfazed by the attack. A few chattered at her, but the others had lost interest and wandered away. Most had already gone, elsewhere.
There was no sign of the structure she’d seen, and no sign of the Ermine.
On her way out of the crater she thought she saw a strand of white fur fused into the rocks, but it was probably just ice.
As she crested the rim of the crater, she found a small object on the ground. It was a little Bopper artifact, like a tiny, black domino tile. She laughed and picked it up and put it her scrip, for later.
Then she headed west, to try and make her rendezvous with Rania.