Artwork by Marilynn
Arianne watched the weird, pink light of dawn from a wind hollow in the lee of a boulder. She’d selected a landing on the night side deliberately, so she could wake at sunrise. And let the gravity sink in while she slept.
She’d done it – not named after an antique rocket launcher for nothing!
The others were probably days or weeks behind. Her final pull around Earth had been right on the limit, but it had given her the edge that she needed to win.
She smiled happily; allowed herself a feeling of pride. She knew her sail designs were good, but now they’d passed their ultimate test as well.
As she flicked out her tongue to drink, Arianne did a quick checklist of her options; deliberately savouring available choices. She could afford to relax and enjoy the dawn. The planet was hers for a while; she saw no need to rush.
After the intense concentration of finding an orbit, and choosing a land site, she was content to just sit and stare.
The serrated horizon, the edge of a boulder field, cut and scattered the new light. Arianne’s eyes were adjusting slowly; her Skin balancing the input to a safe level after months of glittering darkness.
She could get back and win this, claim her prize and go for full transfer. Being Skinform was fine, but now she’d proved she could adapt entirely. Become full Diamond.
She was hungry, but let the Skin wet feed her; she’d celebrate with real food when she knew she could leave in the lead.
Arianne’s panels were clinging to the sunside of her boulder, balancing upright to catch all of first light. Radar and night heat had used almost all their reserve. She whistled a timeset and watched them shiver in reply. A request flag shimmered and died; they’d worked it out for themselves as usual. She smiled fondly.
Checking the sail bag showed processing was well under way; just over eight hours and she could start on wings or wheels.
Those were the realistic choices. She knew she was well inside the allowed zone, but not yet how far she was from the Viking. It’s whole area was archive, so there were no beacons to home on. Wheels would assemble faster, but wings would give faster transit and homing.
The panels flagged. They’d chosen just under the redline; knowing that time was short, and that they could self-sort later.
Arianne was confident. She’d kept her ‘help’ points very low; and nav had always been one of her naturals.
Skin tickled her, making her wriggle in surprised pleasure. She’d forgotten that time-set. Decided to fine herself with denial - There wasn’t time for good sex anyway.
‘Fine and Tune’, she thought. ‘I’ve done well – So I’m allowed a dream’.
She settled back into the wind blown bowl, stretching and curling luxuriously in her Skin, under the fluted overhang of the boulder. Timed herself to wake naturally.
She tried for the lightest level of rapture, semi-conscious, but found surreal instead:
The dream flickered between her half closed lids; Skin lenses unable to filter the drug-like hallucination.
[She was floating in a zero pond, being born; her mother’s face masked by a gill fish. The tendrils in her mother’s lungs were swimming out along the umbilical, singing little songs of trust and desire.
She spat the cord away from her belly, and was walking, growing as she went, up the spin shell of Lagrangia 9 and into a fresh gravity. Feeling pregnant in turn with new life.
Surprised, and flattered, that a tree would talk to her this early. And take the trouble to direct her on her way. Way where? Waypoints to an old man; who was her grandfather turned inside out. Or was it just his coat on backwards? She laughed with the dream, looking into the palms of both hands. Reading a map without any circuitry.]
Then – awake. Shivering in renewed clarity as the sun lifted from the horizon.
Whistling the panels in, and mating them to the sail bag, took less than five minutes. They’d had enough sun to lift themselves up now; spine legs bracing into the dusty orange sand. So she still had over seven hours to refine a design. Far too long. She considered sleeping again, but decided it would only spin the dream and leave her confused.
Arianne had conceived another option: She would gain a few ‘help’ points for not strictly recycling, but using a bit of local, for reaction mass, would be worth it. Simple and fast. Downside; her nav after acquire would have to be ac so. And she’d have to grow eyes better than any she’d done before.
She sat back again, musing. Thinking about her brother, Joe, and how he’d never wanted to play with labs. Three years in a row she’d inherited the latest model, as soon as Christmas was decently past. Admittedly you weren’t allowed to make much then, but designing was most of the fun to her. More fun than the dusty, archive CD’s that Joe was always playing. He seemed to have grown too serious too soon. And now he was a last spark in a dying fire; a brilliant politician in a world that had begun to grow up.
Arianne suddenly felt terribly tired; pinned helplessly to the planet’s surface, and almost unable to move.
The Skin overrode on emergency, and injected her into sleep.
Joe was clamped tight into Deimos; his hiding place a fused funnel in the cindery rock. His sensors were all out roaming, most of them out of IR sight, trying to get a lock on the planet below. Surely the little buggers would find her soon.
His FormFitter was letting him itch again and he’d not persuaded it’s manager to do anything about it. He would fry in his own anger if he let it get out of hand; but there was little else to look at. His cloak was thin enough now, and he couldn’t afford to leak any signatures.
It had cost him a fortune in signtime to get his cover as a science flight and get out here unnoticed. He’d be on payback for the rest of the century and beyond.
His face felt slimy again, behind the mask, and he braced against the glassy rock tube; fighting down a wave of paranoid horror. He’d lied about his phobia ratings and somehow it hadn’t been peeled. One advantage of being a politician he assumed, but not much use to him now. He cursed.
Up to his neck in terror, and the only other option had been fear; it was a fucking nightmare. He laughed hoarsely then, the mask allowed him that much, and relaxed into waiting for the sensors to come back. They’d promised, on estimate, to be back in less than an hour. He could hang on that long. Then he’d have something to work with, and get his anxieties distracted, while they waited for his little sister to make her move.
Arianne woke up with her Skin rippling. Two hours of the slow dawn had gone by, and the panels had barely changed their angle. She called a report, and they’d decided it was safe to come back from the redline. What she was planning would use less resource and they’d have a reserve by the time she wanted to jump.
She forbore from saying she hadn’t actually made the decision; the Joint Manager was close to achieving AII1 status on it’s own, and she didn’t want to upset it now.
The Skin offered her food, and this time she accepted. It seemed to be apologising for having slugged her. She was grateful, and it felt good to indulge it’s apparent desire to care.
As she was eating the design for a jump rig was coming together in her mind. She was nearly ready to load it across to Cad for a first opinion.
The boulder field in front of Arianne’s shelter looked like an electron shot of one of Joe’s CD’s; the long, sharp shadows like parallel series of dashes on the sand’s glare. The boulders were nearly uniform in size, and the ground flat to the horizon. Much more boring than all the romantic views artists had constructed. But it felt solid, and a thin breeze was hissing on the threshold of hearing; sending a sense of being at home. Close-to the colours were amazing; textures and overlays of rust and pink and powdery orange. A dry and fragile mosaic of platelets and small stones, bedded in grainy dust.
She couldn’t believe she was finally here – sailing solo to Mars as she’d dreamed of doing since she was eleven years old. A study trip to the old launch site in Kourou, and her father’s pride in the slender rockets that had given her her name.
When she was about five Arianne had tried to follow her brother as he scrambled up a shallow slope of crumbling shale. Somewhere in a desert, where their parents searched for rocks, that was hot and dry and full of hidden things. You had to learn to look very hard. At every step you could miss or break something.
She was angry that Joe told her to stay back. But if he hadn’t she would never have seen her magic stone. She looked closer and closer, and the more she looked the more she saw. The stone was like a picture from space. She fell further in, and saw cities and roads and fields on the sides of mountains.
Then she wasn’t angry with Joe at all. He’d been letting her play with his new lab, and now she suddenly understood what it meant. She saw how things that were too small to be seen were still real. And she laughed in delight.
That night a little stick dinosaur was born. Arianne knew she couldn’t let it out, you had to be thirty then to actually build things real size, but she also knew that one day she would. She wasn’t even supposed to play in the lab, but Joe kept quiet about giving her his keys. Years later she realised their parents had known. She gave them a clock for a graduation present; a little stick dinosaur that could scratch out the time on a flake of desert stone.
Now she was here, where her parents had come in imagination with the first robots, sitting happily in her Skin at minus fifty degrees, able to see and touch and smell the body of the planet. She only wished she had more time to search for microfossils. That would be the present of a lifetime, but also an illegal act of vandalism in the new, wiser climate of caution.
Her licence to land was one of the last to be issued before the whole globe became archive. And the orbiting Sentinels were almost ready to launch from Earth, so the next move would have been impossible if they’d been in place.
Arianne’s designs were getting approval from Cad, and the processors and assemblers powering up to start building the rig. She was amused by her own impatience; ten hours to assemble a unit that would have taken months to construct only a few years ago. But time, as ever, was relative, and she had to be in place before anyone else arrived for her plan to work. None of it any use without the essentials though.
She stood up slowly, testing her ability in unfamiliar gravity, knowing the Skin would catch her if she stumbled but still enjoying the forgotten sensation. Eighteen months alone in zero, with only her Skin to exercise against, had made her a shaky walker even with bone maintenance routines in her system. She improved with lightning speed, as promised.
Delight and familiarity with her natural elegance merged, while she felt the two-legged animal within restored. A confident memory of life’s evolution upwards. Last night she had crawled under the boulder to sleep. Now she walked around it, and then leapt upwards; floating to a perfect touchdown. A weird, thin cry of triumph in the tenuous atmosphere.
Joe’s sensors were conferring and analysing their data into a shared account. After a short technical argument they’d agreed on a probability for Arianne’s position on Mars; meaning they’d nailed her down to less than ten metres. Joe cut short the fiercer debate on her likely target. It seemed certain that she was going for the Viking 1 site; as soon as she could reconfigure her systems and equipment.
Now that he knew where she was he could relax a little; there should be time to aim a message down however she decided to travel.
He approved the Common Manager’s suggestion that optics and IR should process an image, so he could see Arianne’s landing site, despite a suspicion that the machine was humouring his limited biosystem. He felt better now he could concentrate on the final form for his message. He’d had too long to think about it, and he still wasn’t sure if he could hide the real motivations from his sharp little sister. And if he didn’t stop thinking of her in those terms she’d be on to him for sure. She’d got out here on her own resources, and he’d used the fastest ion engine he could afford, with a navigation suite that left very little to chance.
Joe still wasn’t sure how his sister thought of him, but he hoped she might be proud of him even so. After all he was a politician, this was not his environment at all, and he’d survived the long period of solitary travel without cracking up completely. A lot of people ran for home when the reality of deep space overwhelmed fragile sensoria.
He refused to feel shabby about using this as a lever; Arianne could be in more danger than he wanted to dwell on. Then a warning squawk made him jump; he felt sure the whole moon had rung to the sound. Somehow his managers had arrived at a prediction, and it wasn’t good.
Arianne had a go confirm for four hours. Cad had found at least three ways to simplify her designs, and she was caught in a familiar conflict; admiration for elegant solutions warring with wary envy of the machine’s ability. Implants could take her way above its level, but that would be like fucking with the enemy.
Then, with no warning, a cascade of negative and fearful images - Inhuman and inhumane machines sweeping all flavour and love of life from under the sun. Just dark and soulless function ruling.
She was shocked by the nightmare revelation; surely that was exactly where she wanted to be? Everything about this race was aimed at her eventual full transfer to Diamond. Something was wrong. She’d had no warning of emotional dysfunction, apart from the expected side effects of fatigue and return to gravity, and now she was crashing to a level of doubt that was positively dangerous.
She ran three layers of Karm at once, two on relax and one on search. She had no reason to think family could be a problem, but that was what she was getting. If she had to break silence now her point score would more than double, and the chance of winning reduce to no more than even. She saw again the flicker in Joe’s eyes even as he wished her all health and speed on the launch day finals. Damn him; he was safe in Geneva, so where was this shit coming from?
Arianne hated to cheat, she’d felt guilty all the time she’d carried a secret code, but now at least the ethical compromise made some sense. She beamed a flash code, disguised as a routine weather station reading, at distant Earth. In forty minutes she’d know if any of her family were in real trouble. If not, she was going to delete the illegal contact routine. It had been gnawing her conscience more than she had realised; not trusting the Sail Pro’s to reach her with emergencies.
She turned to check her panels, and a movement caught on the threshold of awareness. Out across the boulder field; hard to judge distance and scale. A mobile sensor, if it was really there? But the chances of meeting? And there’d been no notification of experiments in this area.
Arianne’s optics tensed to maximum as she swept the middle distance. Nothing. Then one boulder caught her eye. A hint of unusual structure, tiny but out of place, against the light.
She must be imagining things now; why on Mars would a sensor need a mast sight?
She’d not declared the power of her optics, not a requirement, but they’d been enhanced by the best researchers in the field; an unofficial sponsorship in return for data. The machine’s manager would assume it was out of visual range. Unless she stared at it for too long. She turned her head, still sidespying the boulder, and the mast very slowly sank out of view. Arianne was puzzled. Stealth sensors on Mars?
She shook her head. Other things to attend to. And not far off launch time.
The panels were slimming themselves down to thin, flexible sheets, and merging with the new Rig. As they slid into place and tautened the Rig requested a stage, and Arianne turned to crouch so it could climb up onto her back. It strapped and mated with the Skin, exchanging data and testing all interfaces, while new shields thickened down the backs of her legs. She sat back against her home rock, and waited.
Right on time her flash code returned. Empty.
So nothing was wrong at home. So good. Any message would have broken the cover, so she forced herself, and then relaxed, into being content.
Long ago she had decided the only way forwards was onwards and upwards. She was amused by the cliché now, but still held to the principle. Whatever it meant to be human would carry forward; it was her faith that this was intrinsic to the process of change. Change and ever faster acquisition and exchange of information. Ever since the mud pools that was the way life had been going, and Arianne’s only certainty was a need to be out in front of the wave. Where her little bit of free will could balance and move and live.
She had no real illusions about the next stage. Going from flesh to Diamond. It was going to be amazing and terrifying, like any adventure worth pursuing. But this was the big one. A door opening into realms of magic that even imagination would drown in. The end of human history, and also it’s real beginning.
She gulped a breath, Skin pucking inwards, as the enormity of it struck with undiminished force. She could never resolve that awe of the future that her life’s direction implied, whenever she thought this far.
But if she was going to be responsible to forever, she had better get on with the present. She conferred with Skin and Rig, and got an accelerated go-confirm for ten minutes. Her systems were improving themselves even faster than usual. As if they felt the same excitement that she did. She laughed in simple delight. That could even be true.
It was still only mid-morning; she would be over the Viking at least ten hours sooner than her best first estimate. Then she looked down.
The after-form of the sail bag’s conversion was doing a final audit to stock. Arianne put out one foot, to take the magazine on board, then snatched it back with a soundless cry. Instinct pushed her away from the boulder, and spun her around to face it. She had no weapons, but pointed her laser interrogator and fired it; as the tiny machine swayed back to balance and stood on four of its six legs. Then fired again at its partner on top of her stock magazine.
No answer. No ident from either.
Arianne saw the mid-body casings opening, and hit Launch.
Her Rig Manager reconfigured in a split second, and aimed the exhaust plume to blind both intruders. Overrode her G-limits and accelerated. She passed out at a thousand metres; dimly wondering where her emergency routines had got such rapid threat assessments from.
The Skin shot her awake at apogee and briefly boosted the air supply.
She had to go back. Leaving debris was an ‘expulsion from race’ offence.
Then the laser hit, and she got the message.
Glossary of terms - - -