On a colony beyond Neptune, memory and experience do not run parallel
fiction by Amy Ireland
illustrations by Rich Foster
There is no good way to begin this story. Even bad stories can have good beginnings, but this one is neither good, nor beginnable. A story needs a narrative, and narratives need time to behave in a uniform way. Even a time-traveller would experience time linearly, wrote Kant, because human perception functions as a single, continuous flow. This is why there are so many good stories about time-travellers. This story is something altogether different. On those occasions when time becomes too complex and frayed for experience to navigate, space can act as a salve. Perhaps this is what humanity thought when it began to establish resource extraction settlements in the outer Solar System: that the extension into deep space would somehow be a relief from time. If only that were true.
The XOSURO Ice Mining Corp settlement YG9 had operated without major disruptions on Kuiper Belt plutoid 4230324 Phix for more than forty Earth years. It answered to the Corporation’s command base on Vesta in the main asteroid belt, which meant comms were subject to a minimum delay of nine days, a technological infelicity that had contributed to the demise of several other extraction colonies after encountering what XOSURO referred to as ‘depth contingencies’, unpredictable and usually unprecedented deep space events that had occurred suddenly and for which the small mining communities had not been amply prepared. These happened more than was economically permissible, but the Corporation considered the losses necessary costs in an incremental research program that was slowly providing invaluable insight into the weirdness of the Solar System beyond the 40AU threshold. Often Vesta would receive a distress signal weeks after a colony had been destroyed. The irony of a call for help that could only ever act as a record of annihilation — the temporal collapse of possibility onto inevitability — never seemed to be registered by the transmitters of the messages, who were only ever full of futile hope. Despite this patently human belief in the maintenance of some integral connection to what passed for them as an idea of home, the possibility of a rescue mission being issued from Vesta was slim. Since the original deployment in the Kuiper Belt, there had been no physical traffic across the vast, unsettled tract between it and the Main Belt.
Officially, the outer-system settlements had been established to initiate a long-term colonisation program in the trans-Neptunian region, accumulating resources for the construction of future settlements, but there was speculation among the colonists as to whether there was not more to this than XOSURO let on. Whispers that their isolation was not simply an inconvenient effect of the need to procure the obscure minerals and gasses to be found there, but rather a security measure, had begun to spread. The inhabitants of the colony on Phix were less sentimental than their counterparts. Because of its extreme remoteness from the rest of XOSURO’s extraction apparatus within the Kuiper Belt, the population was acutely aware of the consequences of its exile and compensated with a heightened level of self-sufficiency. Alongside the standard-issue XOSURO settlement equipment, YG9 had assembled a small scientific R&D unit that supplied the colony with extra food production technology, chemical and biological tools, and additional comms installations. This perhaps accounted for the settlement’s longevity relative to the others on the Corporation’s payroll. If disaster struck Phix, no one would be sending a distress call. At least, not to XOSURO.
Imogen was in the rec chamber of the Zhou family nuke module, half hooked into the eduEx system and working on one of her designs. She had the aural input unplugged so she could listen out for her insomniac mother padding down the corridor and hide the spec docs she had pilfered from her private XOSURO research database before they were seen. Imogen’s mother probably wouldn’t be mad about her examining the files — she usually encouraged her daughter’s curiosity — but she wanted to keep the fact that she had cracked her mother’s access codes a secret for now. Another breach of trust wouldn’t go down well, especially since she was already in trouble for attempting to establish a clandestine comms link with the YG11 colony in a desperate attempt to ‘find someone to chat with’. Phix had an information hygiene policy in place that remained just far enough below the threshold of actual tyranny to avoid rousing any serious dissent from the settlers. Transmissions into and out of the colony were monitored, and contact with the other settlements in the Kuiper Belt was generally forbidden. Imogen knew this, and like any teenager, the whole of her motivation to find a way around it could be distilled down to the simple fact of its proscription. She was too smart and too bored for her own good. In 156 Earth days she’d be 17 and could officially start working for the Corporation, but until then, she had to content herself with the tedious XOSURO education modules and the additive designs she created in her spare time and transmitted back to Earth via the slow Main Belt uplink.
Imogen had lived in YG9 all her life. Her parents were part of the original Kuiper Belt deployment, and had shipped out from the Corporation’s training compound in 2171 as part of the colony’s forty-strong human establishment stock after a long induction program for which they had been genetically designed. They were known as ‘seeds’ in XOSURO corporate idiolect. Like her brother Kuo and the twenty-six other children in the colony, Imogen had been ‘naturally’ produced on YG9. They were raised to be proud of their status in the Solar System as the furthest natural born human beings from Earth, although the concept meant nothing to them, having never travelled further than the local radar and docking outposts of Phix’s satellite bodies.
Her life had been uncomplicated. Spanning less than one-twentieth of an orbit around the Sun, it consisted of a single, unending stretch of uniform darkness, regulated by the rhythms of the station complex’s synthetic lighting system, coordinated to sync with the terrestrial Universal Calendar. Despite the novelty of her distant birth status, she engaged in all the usual activities of standard Earth teen culture. Receiving continuous, although delayed hap-feeds from the Solar System’s cultural centre, producing experimental music from screwed magnetometre samples, and printing out tech and sart objects downloaded from the terrestrial arts node on the station’s sophisticated 3D printing equipment. The materials they had at hand were not always right for the models, but some of the outer-system synthetics had other benefits that terrestrial materials didn’t. In return, she and Kuo would regularly update their virtual library with their own designs, and transmit them back to Earth and Vesta, where they were rapidly obtaining a following among the inner-system cultural fringe. This wasn’t due to what Earthers called ‘sleep’ — a designator for anything they considered culturally cutting-edge — since Phix’s reception of the latest trends was subject to the inner-outer system comm delay and fashions on Earth changed fast, but rather for the sheer novelty of the environment they had been created in. From Earth’s point of view, they were parochial, but ‘cute’ in their innocent reprisals of outmoded terrestrial and inner-system cultural codes. This had always annoyed Imogen, who aspired, more than anything, to understand the mysterious dynamics involved in cracking ‘sleep’.
The latest addition was an item of wearable camouflage that Imogen called a Scatter Shell. There were craters on Phix packed with a strange kind of dust native to outer-system asteroids that could be refined and used with the additive manufacturing machines to print objects that reacted to anything in close proximity by perfectly mimicking the refractive properties of their environment. This was why she had hacked her mother’s XOSURO research files. She needed to figure out the exact ratios of the alloys produced in the refinement process so she could print the first Scatter Shell prototype.
‘Ayy!’ A tiny arachnid robot dropped abruptly out of nowhere and hovered just above Imogen’s forehead. She jumped, startled, her eyes betraying an intense fear of being caught out. ‘You want one of these?’ The drone clasped a small chrome-coloured sachet between two of its frontal tarsi.
‘Damn it Kuo, you’re such a freak!’ The screen at the far end of the rec chamber split in two and retracted into the walls. Kuo emerged, grinning.
‘Haha. Knew you were peeping Mum’s docs. Find anything cool?’
‘Wouldn’t you like to know?’ Imogen retorted, detaching the sachet from the drone and deftly flicking it back across the room in Kuo’s direction. It capsized and bounced off a wall before dropping to the floor where it buzzed about feebly until Kuo shut it off. He was still wearing his XOSURO sleep suit, which he and Imogen had augmented with a series of glowing, coloured panels loaded with a script they used to send secret messages to one another. Different combinations on the spectrum had various encrypted affective denotations, depending on the kind of geometrical shapes that needed to be constructed to connect them. Right now, a tightly packed array of blues and violets sketched a virtual arch of distress.
‘What are you doing up anyway?’ she asked.
‘There’s something in the sky. Looks weird. Couldn’t sleep.’ Kuo answered vaguely, trying to play down his alarm.
‘Probably just another comet,’ Imogen replied. Kuo looked unsure. She tore open the sachet in what she hoped was a gesture of reassuring banality and popped the tiny capsule into her mouth. ‘Thanks for the midnight snack.’
‘If it’s a comet,’ Kuo responded, ‘it’s not passing. I’ve been watching it for hours. Just keeps getting brighter… or at least, the edges of it keep getting brighter, the middle is just an expanding black dot.’
Imogen encrypted a copy of the material specs she’d appropriated from their mother’s database and shut down the eduEx system. ‘Show me.’ Kuo led her upstairs to the tiny observation deck. A light foil blanket was crumpled over the back of the flexichair and Kuo’s headset lay upside-down on the floor, cables streaming out of it as if it were some bizarre specimen of alien flora. Chrome polygons of eviscerated stimcap sachets littered the space. Kuo had been up here for a while. The deck’s twelve borosilicate windows offered a 360-degree view over the station complex. It extended below them in all directions, a tight, modular labyrinth of interconnected domes and corridors, mauve-grey in the starlight. The R&D buildings stood apart in the icy Phix landscape, a feeble suggestion of distant solar rays evacuated of all warmth lent their easternmost facets an eerie greenish hue. Imogen squinted into the blackness above. ‘I can’t see anything.’
‘Here, I’ll show you,’ Kuo muttered, and removed the blanket from the flexichair so she could sit down and jack herself into the deck’s interface. She glanced at him incredulously and then at the debris on the floor.
‘Too many stimcaps, more like,’ she said, affectionately, knowing that Kuo had picked up the habit of staying up on stims and supplementing the standard corporate education program with his own nocturnal research initiatives from her.
Kuo fiddled with the coordinates and flicked the output feed over to his sister’s connection. ‘Peep this.’ The sky pulsed with the usual waves of gently modulating blackness — an artefact of the telescope relay’s refresh rate — and dim globules of light representing Phix’s nearest satellites bobbed fuzzily around the edges of the viewfinder. Imogen manually refreshed the feed. The scene was exactly as it always was, only there, right in the middle, was a slim, hard halo of light, encircling a microscopic dark point, just as Kuo had described it. A zero, perched unnaturally in the perpetual Kuiper Belt night. ‘See?’
The outer edges of the halo shimmered subtly. She let a tense, unvoiced flow of air escape from her lips, suddenly conscious of the fact that she had been holding her breath, and refreshed the feed again. ‘We should tell Mum.’
‘For some reason, I thought you’d know what to do,’ Kuo said, disappointed. ‘But yeah, I guess Mum and Dad should know.’
Imogen disengaged from the interface and looked Kuo in the eye. ‘Do you think anyone else has seen it?’ Then, answering her own question, ‘They must have. It would have been on radar long before it became visible.’
‘Yeah,’ Kuo agreed. ‘No one seems alarmed by it. If the colony hasn’t issued an alert, it mustn’t be a threat or anything. Right?’ he appended, hopefully.
Imogen wasn’t so sure. There had been disconcerting things in their mother’s files that she couldn’t recall ever hearing any alerts issued for. Even more worryingly, she’d pulled a bunch of data from the station’s most rigorously encrypted comms log documenting outgoing transmissions from Phix to an unidentified coordinate deep in the Kuiper Belt. This had required breaking through a series of firewalls she wasn’t even sure her mother was supposed to have access to. But she didn’t want to upset her younger brother until they knew exactly what the thing was, so she smiled coolly, and confirmed his reasoning. ‘Yeah. I’m sure they’re on it. Let’s get some sleep and we can see what Mum and Dad know in the morning.’
It was still there when they woke up. Imogen shuffled into the rec chamber and plonked herself down groggily at the long bench that protruded from one of its inclining walls. Kuo was already up. He glanced at her over the rim of the small ellipsoid cup he was drinking from and gave her a worried smile. It didn’t look like he’d slept much. Clearly he’d been waiting for her to arrive before broaching the topic of the strange thing in the sky.
Their father was busying himself at the dispenser unit in the corner. ‘You two look terrible!’ he commented jovially. Imogen manufactured a sarcastic eye roll. Kuo didn’t look up. ‘Here, try this.’ He clumsily attempted to slide two trays of a viscous, tartrazine-yellow substance along the bench towards them. Imogen caught hers before it skidded over the edge and studied its contents. A curl of weak steam rose uncertainly from it.
‘It’s the latest from R&D. Synth eggs.’ Dad was obviously taking pleasure in her repulsion. ‘The texture still needs some work,’ he pronounced gleefully.
Imogen tried to coax some of the yellowish material onto her spoon, but it kept sliding off. ‘Where’s Mum?’
‘She was called to the central meeting room. She’ll be back later.’
The panels on Kuo’s sleep suit shifted from a complex ensemble of green and orange hues to violet-blue. Imogen wasn’t one for unresolved emotional tension, and she knew Kuo wasn’t going to say anything outside of what he was already communicating to her through the geometrical colour code.
‘Dad,’ she proposed as seriously as she could, ‘have you seen the sky? Is it about the thing in the sky?’
A barely perceptible flicker of doubt crossed his face but he caught it before it could fully manifest and redirected it into a grin. ‘You mean the comet?’
‘If that’s what it is,’ interjected Kuo.
Their father relaxed his grin a little, but kept it in place. ‘That’s what the committee thinks it is. I only know what your mother told me before she left this morning. But we should have more information soon.’
Kuo shot an imploring look at Imogen. As if on cue, the nuke media screen lit up to indicate activity at the module’s main entrance and the adjoining door slid open to admit their mother and a colonist named Locke. The two women strode into the room, evidently in the midst of a heated discussion.
‘It’s not worth it, Lakyta,’ Imogen’s mother was saying. ‘We know it will turn out just like last time. Someone needs to explain the complexities of the situation to everyone. It can’t keep going on like this.’
Locke glanced warily at Imogen, Kuo, and their father seated at the bench, mentally taking stock of something. ‘I’ll put it to the others,’ she stated, guardedly. ‘In the meantime, we continue to observe. The protocol remains in place.’
Imogen’s mother gave her a curt, hostile nod. ‘You know what I think.’
‘You’re compromising the project,’ Locke stated flatly. Then she fired an ersatz smile at her interlocutor’s family and exited the module the way she had come in.
‘What’s going on?’ their father asked.
‘Oh, the usual committee ineptitude. I don’t know why we persist in running things this way. No-one ever agrees and it takes forever to reach a decision. Meanwhile, this… thing is coming at us out of nowhere. Every second we hesitate equates to a reduction of the distance between it and us.’ She was visibly irritated.
‘Want me to talk to them?’ he offered, knowing the response in advance.
‘No,’ she replied immediately, then, softening her tone a little, ‘No. XOSURO love this stuff, you know how it is. We’ll never be fully autonomous. Not as long as people like Locke and her faction remain on Phix.’ She joined her family at the bench.
‘So, what is It?’ Kuo stammered, unable to keep his anxiety at bay.
‘It,’ replied his mother, ‘is just a comet. But its trajectory is set — we expect it to collide with Phix some time after 15Eh30 tomorrow.’
Kuo’s eyes widened. ‘No.’
Imogen’s mother paused for a long moment, inscrutably processing something of great seriousness. Her husband made a move that indicated he was about to offer her a tray of synth eggs, but she shut him down with an ominous look before he could complete the gesture. ‘It’s not that bad, Kuo,’ she offered. ‘It’s happened before. A couple of times. You wouldn’t remember.’
Kuo looked like he was going to cry. It was obvious to Imogen that her mother was deliberately holding something back from all three of them.
She continued, ‘The comet isn’t expected to hit the settlement directly, and it’s not particularly large. It might take out some of the mining infrastructure in the northern quadrant and flatten the comms unit on Phix’s far side. It’ll most likely affect our orbit, but that could be a good thing, a means of picking up new satellites. The problem is more to do with what it might be carrying with it.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Imogen snapped.
Her mother inhaled slowly and considered her daughter’s determined expression. A smile almost surfaced on her lips but she suppressed it. They were alike in many ways, and she knew Imogen wasn’t going to let her get away without an answer. At a deeper level, her daughter’s petulance offered her an excuse. ‘I mean some kind of life form. Not aliens. Well, technically, aliens. Something like a biological parasite. An ancient mass of ice like that, formed way out in the Oort Cloud, probably dating from the inauguration of our solar system — it’s a black box, an unparseable X. There is nothing we can say about it that will give us even the slightest bit of traction on it. All we can do is wait for it to hit us, then deal with the aftermath as best we can.’
‘Oh come on!’ her husband said. ‘The committee is being silly. We used to pick up bits and pieces of ice from the Oort Cloud all the time and they never contained anything more dangerous than pockets of frozen hydrogen sulphide.’
Kuo nodded his head in relieved agreement, comforted by his Dad’s inane joke.
‘If it’s such a black box, how come you’re so specific about its contents?’ Imogen pressed. ‘It could contain alien parasites, or whatever, but it could just as easily be packed full of synth egg paste. What you just said doesn’t make sense.’
But her mother refused to elaborate, offering an even more cryptic statement in response. ‘The committee thinks something is sending them to us. Like I said, this won’t be the first time things will have happened this way.’ She gave her husband a look that communicated something to the effect of, ‘Shut up, I’ll explain later’. Imogen’s father seemed annoyed and puzzled. His wife had higher security clearance than him, but he would have remembered alien parasites, even if XOSURO had somehow attempted to keep it a secret from the settlement.
Imogen stabbed her spoon into the yellow goop on her tray and swirled it into an obscene looking spiral. She believed her mother, but something about her conviction regarding the status of the comet didn’t quite add up. ‘If we’ve been hit by an Oort object before, why doesn’t anyone talk about it?’
‘Maybe they don’t… want to remember,’ her mother replied. ‘We’re programmed to repress traumatic memories. That’s just a biological fact.’
‘But this stuff about parasites. What makes you — the committee — so sure that’s even a possibility? It’s like you’re talking to us from the future or something.’
Imogen’s mother sighed. Her decision to cross this threshold had already been made, but it was still difficult to actually cross it. She glanced cautiously over her shoulder at the nuke media system before disabling it from the interface on her personal comms unit. Then, as if having second thoughts, she got up from her seat, opened a panel in the wall, and disconnected the cable connecting the system to its power supply. Having satisfied her paranoia, she returned to the bench. ‘Back in the early days of the settlement, before you or Kuo or any of the other children had been born, we were battered by several of these objects. They came one after the other. Testing us. Each time there was an impact it affected the mining tech, the food production centre, or the new radar installations we’d been building, but none of them hit the settlement directly. It was almost as if XOSURO had deliberately chosen Phix because it acted as some kind of attractor for these terrible missives from the Oort Cloud. They never offered any help of course, but we had our ways of carrying on. The loss of infrastructure wasn’t the worst of it though. The last few impacts affected us in…’ she glanced at the media system again before continuing, ‘…different ways. Some of the colonists got sick. Luckily, our biotech unit was clever enough to devise a method of dealing with the issue. But we’ve been wary ever since. Waiting for the next impact, afraid of what it will bring.’
Imogen relented. The look of resignation on her mother’s face at that moment was something she’d never seen before. Kuo let out a whimper, compensation for the effort he was otherwise making to keep his anxiety from exploding ungracefully and undermining the sense of composure everyone had been labouring so hard to maintain.
‘I’m going to have a shower,’ their mother announced. ‘The committee has ordered another meeting later. There will be more to say then.’ With that she rose authoritatively and left the rec chamber with Imogen’s father trailing behind her. Kuo remained frozen at the bench, staring at the media system power cable that was still protruding from the wall.
‘Hey Kuo,’ Imogen turned brightly to her brother, ‘I figured out the refinement specs for printing the Scatter Shell, wanna come print one?’
It wasn’t until 13Eh the next day that the committee finally issued the official alert. All settlers were to stay confined to their modules. No one was to move about the complex under any condition until further instructions were given. The R&D buildings had been evacuated; the nanomechs in the mining zones were off-duty. Exiting or entering the station buildings would not be tolerated on any account. The directive was non-negotiable.
Above them, the great zero of the incoming comet hung in the sky. It was at once the most terrifying and the most thrilling thing Imogen had ever seen. Looking up at it from below, she felt she finally understood the desire of her species to throw itself recklessly into the unknown extremities of deep space. The strange pull of that unfathomable abyss, full of such wild and inexplicable stuff. It spoke to her like nothing she’d dragged off the terrestrial downlink ever had. Kuo didn’t share her exhilaration. He was full of fear. Even without the sequence of panicked tesseracts he was shooting at her via the coloured panels on his suit, it was plainly readable in the way he held his body: tensed and tucked tightly inwards — as if he were trying to occupy a space smaller than humanly possible for someone with such long limbs. Imogen put her arm around him and hugged him closely.
‘It’ll be cool, Kuo. Think of all the crazy stuff that goes on in the universe all the time without us even knowing about it. Stuff like this! And we never get to see it. This is like… a gift, or something.’ Her attempt at reassuring him clearly wasn’t working, so she tried a different tack. ‘Remember what Mum said? She’s been through it before, and she’s all right. Look.’ Their mother was hooked into the interface on the observation deck next to them. Eyes blank, inscrutable as ever. Somewhere in the mesh of neurons and wires connecting them to the interface a concentrated beam of attention was focused on the comet, carefully monitoring its advance. She had the committee channel open on her comms unit. Every now and then Locke’s avatar would appear on its screen, transmitting information to her mother and several of the other colonists. The committee’s central command core.
‘I guess,’ he conceded.
Kuo trusted Imogen, more than anyone else in YG9, but he couldn’t help instinctively looking around for their father, even though he knew he was stationed below, keeping an eye on the relentless flow of updates the committee was issuing via the media screens. Kuo desperately wanted to join him, but he also didn’t want to disappoint his sister who was clearly committed to the more intense experience to be had on the observation deck. He couldn’t understand what she meant about the comet being a gift, or why she seemed so elated. Eventually Imogen gave up on words and just let herself stand there next to Kuo, hoping her presence alone would be enough to comfort him.
Numbers ticked impassively across the observation deck’s visual display, marking the narrowing temporal interval that divided them from the moment of impact. Outside, the landscape told a far more dramatic story in the media of matter and light — one that made the regimentation of terrestrial timekeeping practices seem absurd. Despite the fact that it was bearing down on them with incomprehensible speed, the comet seemed almost immobile. Frozen into place in an interminable moment of pre-catastrophic beauty. It fizzed with a febrile green incandescence so intense it eliminated all shadow from the landscape below, collapsing the varied topography of Phix into a single, surreal plane. Flat, yet infinite in its dimensionality. Imogen couldn’t shake the impression that the comet wasn’t approaching Phix. Rather, Phix was being drawn into the comet — as if the entire temporal and spatial environment was slowly imploding and being reprocessed into a language of appearance determined by nothing outside of the comet’s own, wild logic. Waves of combusting ions simulated great, radiant curtains overhead, closing on one scene, opening onto a new one, ushering Imogen through successive levels of dissolution and reconstitution, each weirder than the one preceding it. The extremities of her perceptual apparatus began to bleed into the information it was receiving from outside in such a way that she started to lose any sense of the boundary between her body and the vibratory field immersing it. The whole spectacle struck directly at whatever constituted her sense of self, paring it down as it dragged her over each approaching threshold, the only thing holding her back from complete identification with imminent catastrophe. The plutoid’s icy terrain began to pulse with a bizarre, shimmering throb corresponding to some alien beat beyond the edge of corporeal intelligibility. A conspiratorial vibratory sequence took possession of the module’s outer structure, compressing and expanding it in accordance with the patterns of light. An uncanny rhythm took hold. She felt a compulsion to move. Her feet — were they hers? — began to shift on the temperfoam floor. Kuo took this as an opening and fled down the hatch to level one. For a moment, she wanted to join him, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the comet. Its black core sucked her in. Things seemed to be writhing inside it. The module began to shake more and more violently. Just when she thought she had reached the final threshold, a pressure wave broke above the settlement and joined forces with a wall of energy exploding up to meet it from deep within the plutoid’s interior. The opposing lines of force met and crossed in the sky, forming an X where the zero of the comet had been. As the floor tilted upwards, Imogen felt her small, incomprehensible body flatten and unroll into a single, fragile membrane, spanning the full width of the temperfoam surface. To her surprise she didn’t scream or cry out — she laughed. As the vibrations subsided, the formless plane she had become folded infinitely back into itself, returning, via some quirk of geometrical law, to human form. The wave retreated. Its message delivered.
She heard her mother issuing a single, terse command to the men below. ‘Check the main door!’
Imogen tore herself off the floor and managed some kind of parody of a sitting position. Although she felt no pain, an archive of objective physical trauma lingered in the bizarre indentation she left behind on the temperfoam. Her shattered perceptual apparatus struggled to gather the environment back into clumps of intelligible experience. A staggering change in illumination was the first thing she was capable of making sense of. The entire station’s lights were out. An after-image of the comet still danced about in her vision, overlaying everything with an ominous, hollowed-out cipher. Lit from below by the lonely glow of the interface screen, her mother’s features dispersed and coalesced amidst the blackness. She was speaking unintelligibly to the command core in low, clipped tones. Then she unhooked herself from the deck and twisted towards Imogen, grasping for her shoulder in the dark. ‘Are you okay?’
‘I think so. My eyes are messed up. And I can’t really feel my body, although it seems to work all right,’ Imogen said, clumsily testing out an arm.
‘Your vision will come back soon. Looks like we’ve lost the generators. The batteries will only hold out for so long and the heating system requires a lot of energy. I’m going to check on the boys. Back in a minute.’
Imogen tried to summon enough control over her limbs to stand up and steady herself against the spine of the flexichair. She felt as if her entire being had been dismantled and inexpertly reassembled. A dim glow rose from a giant pit to the settlement’s north. Arcs of crystallising steam bloomed about its edges. The hum of the module’s air regulation system dropped down to an unrecognisable tone. A disconcerting emptiness set in.
0 + 18909 terrestrial seconds. The timer on the observation deck continued to tick inexorably upwards from the moment of impact. When Imogen came to she was sitting limply in the flexichair, watching ghosts of coloured light emanating from the impact site roll across the sky. A quiet but insistent beeping from the console brought her back to her senses and with all the force of a terrible revelation she realised that her mother hadn’t yet returned. The module seemed deserted. ‘Kuo?’ she called out. ‘Mum?’ There was an anonymous scrabbling sound downstairs, followed by the clang of something hitting the ground. ‘Kuo? Is that you?’ she tried again.
An inhuman wheeze was the only response. She stood up too quickly and a ripple of nausea shuttled from her stomach to her head and back again. ‘Kuo. I’m coming!’ She grabbed the console for stability and the floor split in two, one plane rising, twisting and collapsing into the other. Out of the corner of her eye she caught something moving across the dark landscape outside. It looked like one of the station’s transport vehicles, returning to the complex from the direction of the R&D building in direct contravention of the committee’s orders. The dome of formless light over the crater where the comet had fallen continued to pulsate. Then she noticed another vehicle heading out from the station to meet the first one. They stopped and something from the first vehicle was transferred into the second vehicle, then they both reversed and turned back the way they had come. She rubbed her eyes frantically, trying to smooth the last bit of fuzziness out of her vision, and lurched towards the hatch connecting the observation deck to the lower level of the module. Below, everything was a mess. Any piece of furniture that was detachable had been removed and flung about with considerable strength. The compartments in the dining area gaped open and their minimal contents lay strewn across the floor amongst slowly deflating nutrient sacs from the dispenser unit. A light on the nuke media screen flashed urgently, indicating a problem with the entrance portal. There was an empty spacesuit on the floor. The way it was twisted 180 degrees at the hip gave the impression it had been shed in a hurry.
‘Kuo?’ Imogen intoned hesitantly, unsettled by the scene. She stepped lightly from the ladder to the metal floor and stood still amidst the debris. A pneumatic hiss from the module’s antechamber interrupted the silence. The main door was stuck on something. Imogen advanced as quietly as she could across the space and tapped the sensor for the partition separating the rec chamber from the module’s entrance zone. As it slid open a vile smell assailed her. It was metallic and sweet, and, in some kind of foul cosmic irony, contained a note of hydrogen sulphide. The big aluminium entrance doors slid forlornly out of their housing in the corridor’s curved shell and tried to meet in the middle, but a lump on the floor was obstructing their path. They came into momentary contact with it before their sensors sent them into automatic retreat, then the cycle would begin again. Imogen crouched forward, trying to make out the obstacle in the pale emergency lighting that flickered erratically in the depths of the corridor beyond. It had a boot attached to it. She recognised the suit. It was her father, sprawled face down on the floor, one leg bent awkwardly underneath his groin. She caught the door before it hit him again and tried to rouse him.
‘Dad, get up.’ She placed her hand gently on his arm. ‘Dad.’ He didn’t respond. Imogen grabbed him by the back of the suit and attempted to pull him clear of the doors’ path. As she did, a trail of sticky fluid appeared in the place he had been resting. She was struck by the absurd idea that it was hydrated synth egg paste — a shield, perhaps, against the emerging realisation that the fluid on the floor was blood, and that her father wasn’t conscious. When she turned him over she felt she had seen the image, or something like it, before. He was missing the bottom half of his face and part of his neck, the tubes in the back of his throat were visible through a gaping hole where his jaw should have been. The edges of the wound were charred — the work of a kinetic plasma caster. Standard station weaponry. Every private module had one, locked away in a critical use kit, access to which could only be centrally activated by the committee, and even then there was a code. Imogen had lifted it from her mother’s files a few weeks ago when hacking the database and saved it along with her other high clearance access codes. Out of her family, only her mother was supposed to know what it was. She stood up abruptly, something in her mind kicking in and insulating her from the shock. Freed of their impediment, the automatic doors slid shut with a triumphant snap. Imogen’s heart rate exploded over a new threshold of bpm and she felt her senses sharpen as adrenaline flooded her bloodstream. What was out there in the corridor? Who had let it in?
‘Kuo?’ she called again, nervously, turning back to the nuke module. ‘You there?’
Something shifted in the darkness below the bench.
‘Is that you?’ The adrenaline rush had augmented her vision, making her sensitive to new subtleties in the construction of the blackness that filled the space. In the corner near the ridge dividing the nuke module from its antechamber she noticed the tiny pink light of the plasma caster — registering full charge — and beyond that, below the bench, she thought she could make out a faint violet glow, obscured by a tangle of cables and ventilation tubing that had been clawed out of one of the panels beside the dispenser unit. Driven by something far more primal than she was able to rationalise at that moment, Imogen edged towards the weapon and picked it up as silently as she could manage. A low, barely perceptible moan issued from the violet patch beneath the bench. ‘Kuo? I’m here, it’s ok,’ she said, entirely unsure of whether that was indeed the case. ‘Come out and we’ll… figure out what to do together.’
The moan persisted. The longer it went on the less human it sounded.
Imogen took a step closer, keeping her eyes fixed on the source of the violet light. As she transferred her weight to her front foot, the glow modulated to an intense magenta, introduced two low parabolas of indigo and ultramarine, then resolved into a violent isosceles of deep red. If it was Kuo, he was still transmitting messages to her. She read them through the geometrical code, but it didn’t seem right. Kuo wasn’t capable of the kind of atavistic belligerence the high end of the spectrum was supposed to communicate. Imogen shifted her back foot forward to match the other one, causing the moan to escalate into a profoundly unnerving wail. It seemed to contain an element of Kuo’s voice — but it was as if something completely unused to human vocal anatomy was attempting to hijack his speech organs. Then it stopped. Imogen froze, her senses raw. The red light burst through the bench and exploded towards her in a hail of silica and carbon-fibre splinters. The wail re-established itself, fiercer than before. She wouldn’t have had time to dodge her attacker if the mesh of cables and ventilation tubing spilling out of the wall between them hadn’t gotten in its way. Imogen fell backwards onto a section of grating and instinctively shielded herself with the flank of the plasma caster. Over its upper edge she recognised the eyes of her younger brother, leering at her out of the darkness above, where the tangled cables had caught him mid-lunge. He still resembled Kuo, but his face was distorted by an unnaturally wide grimace. Every muscle beneath his skin was taut and inflamed and his lips were coated with a hideous foam. He snarled at her. Imogen hooked the fingers of her free hand into the grating and dragged her body out from underneath him, letting out a shaky breath. As she did so, the entrance portal hissed open and Imogen’s mother stalked into the module. Kuo let loose another wail, clawing about madly with tensed fingers, straining to get at his sister.
‘Mum, it’s… ’ Imogen had no idea what to say. ‘Dad’s… there… ’ she trailed off.
Her mother glanced rapidly around the room. She acknowledged the butchered corpse of her husband slumped over to one side before the automatic doors, the weapon in her daughter’s hand, and the howling, luminous form of her youngest child frantically working to disentangle himself from the mass of cables that confined him with all the calmness of someone taking a routine inventory. Her gaze lingered much longer over Imogen. ‘How are you feeling?’ she enquired suspiciously.
‘What?’ Imogen stammered. Her mother held her gaze, assessing her. ‘I don’t freaking know. How do you feel, Mum?’
Her mother relaxed slightly, reassured by her daughter’s familiar defiance. Kuo let out another sadistic wail and shifted the focus of his struggle from Imogen to the cables, attempting to yank them free of their housing in the wall.
‘You need to shoot him, Imogen.’ Her mother commanded. ‘It’s the only way we know how stop them.’
Imogen stared at her mother. ‘You’re insane!’
‘No, he’s infected,’ she explained. ‘This is their latest method of attack. The comets are loaded with a virus. It finds its way in every time.’
Kuo succeeded in detaching the main ventilation tube from its casing, completely freeing his right arm and shoulder. He lunged again but was forced back by the remaining cables.
‘What do you mean?’ Imogen whispered, keeping her eyes on Kuo.
‘Just shoot him.’
‘He’s my brother!’
‘We’ll print him again.’
Kuo raised his right arm and delivered a calculated blow to the panel, definitively uncoupling the knot of cables from the wall. Then he hurled himself, howling, onto Imogen. The same impulse that had driven her to pick up the plasma caster pulled the trigger for her. A flash of pink light consumed the chamber, forcing Imogen back further into the grate. She heard a wet slap as Kuo’s body hit the opposite wall. It folded in two and crashed to the floor. There was a brief second of silence, followed by the rising tone of the weapon replenishing its charge. The stench of metal, sulphur and burning flesh that had accompanied the discovery of her father’s corpse returned with a whole new level of intensity. She got to her feet and aimed the weapon again. Kuo was flailing about mechanically with what remained of his limbs, as if whatever was controlling him hadn’t realised its vessel was no longer capable of operation. An uncanny image of Kuo’s drone buzzing feebly on the floor just the night before flashed through her mind, then she pulled the trigger again. The flailing ceased.
Imogen’s mother approached and examined her daughter’s face with dispassionate pragmatism. Imogen tried to resist, but gave in out of sheer exhaustion. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, unsure of who she was directing the apology to.
Her mother, satisfied with her evaluation, replied, ‘I know how you feel. You don’t forget it. No matter what they say about repression. It’s always there, in the background.’ This seemed to be more of a personal reflection than a statement intended for Imogen, but then she added, ‘You did the right thing,’ and hugged her daughter. Imogen stayed silent.
‘Kuo was a print,’ her mother explained. ‘He was already a copy. The second one in two months.’
Imogen didn’t know how to respond. ‘He wasn’t real?’ she whispered, tears starting to form in the corners of her eyes. Things were getting incredibly strange incredibly quickly.
‘He was real,’ her mother replied, ‘just not original. Real the way your father was real. Did Kuo do that to him?’ She gestured towards the corpse by the door.
‘I don’t know, he was like that when I found him. I passed out on the observation deck after you left and everything was… it was like this when I came to.’
‘Listen to me very carefully,’ Imogen’s mother instructed, pulling out of their embrace and holding her daughter by the shoulders. ‘I didn’t tell you the full story yesterday. Not because I don’t trust you, it’s just committee protocol.’ These last two words were laced with palpable bitterness. ‘Today’s events have happened before. The comets I talked about — they’re much more frequent than I let on. In the early days they were just hunks of ice or rock, and the worst we had to deal with was damage to the settlement’s infrastructure. It was devastating, but YG9 is a resilient colony and we gradually incorporated the possibility of relentless bombardments from the Oort Cloud into the way the settlement functioned. Our mastery of the impact events underwrote two decades of relative equilibrium, during which XOSURO congratulated us endlessly for having ‘overcome one of the most pernicious contingencies of life in deep space’. Then, inexplicably, the bombardments ceased entirely. We regained our confidence and started to implement the second phase of the colonisation project. You and Kuo were born, along with the rest of generation number two. Several years passed and nothing happened. Then all of a sudden, they started to arrive again. The original sequence of nine impacts in quick succession followed by a gap of roughly ten years was officially upgraded from ‘pattern’ to ‘cycle’. Everything in that respect was identical, but the comets themselves were different. This time they were carrying a virus with them.’
‘That’s why you were so sure about the whole biological parasite thing?’ Imogen asked, trying desperately to assimilate this new level of information to the previous account.
‘Yes. And the change seemed calculated, as if we were being exposed to this nightmare on purpose. Within hours of impact, no matter what we did, at least one member of the colony had been infected. At least one. It’s always the same thing — some kind of anthropathogenic parasite that takes possession of the central nervous system — seemingly adapted, or perhaps designed for specific interface with the human species. Those who are infected become extremely violent and often succeed in annihilating anyone they come into contact with. Worse, it spreads quite effectively once it’s inside, and this exponentially increases the extent of its destructive capabilities. No one who contracts the virus is ever spared by it. We still haven’t figured out how it transmits itself, it doesn’t appear to follow normal biological rules and is impervious to all the measures of quarantine and inoculation we have been able to devise.
‘When the second cycle of impacts began the committee tasked R&D with building a catalogue of the entire colony’s genetic data to use with the newly developed biosynthetic printers. It was supposed to act as a combative measure against our destruction, but I worry the committee has a different agenda. The catalogue includes complete neural scans, intended to preserve the memories and complex self-models of each of the colonists at the time of their scans. That’s why prints have no memories of the comet. Or only distant ones if they are first generation settlers like your father. Since the first successful trial, the committee instituted a law that excludes anyone who has been reprinted from participating in the command core. They consider it a means of protecting against the loss of invaluable experiential data, but each time around, the number of those in power shrinks. Sometimes I wonder if they’ve got it backwards. Perhaps it travels through memory — through the knowledge of its existence — and it’s us, the command core who are inadvertently acting as its transmitters.’ She paused gnomically. Then, as if realising the dark irony attendant on her explanation of this to Imogen, cut the speculation off abruptly and concluded with a statement more befitting of the original question. ‘Everyone on Phix has been profiled, including Kuo.’
‘So that’s what you meant when you said we would “print him again”? You just reprint everybody after the epidemics?’ Imogen felt as if someone had shoved her in an airlock and opened the outer doors. Her environment had been replaced, molecule for molecule, by an alien atmosphere.
‘Yes,’ her mother said softly.
Imogen looked around in disbelief, searching for something in the chamber that would contradict her mother’s explanation, but the opposite occurred. It all started making more sense.
‘Now you have some idea of how hard it is seeing part, or all, of your family die in front of you each time around.’ Her mother’s voice wavered, a rare occurrence. ‘The last comet was only seven weeks ago,’ she added. ‘We still have at least another five to go.’
Imogen accepted the story without resistance. It seemed that she had finally exhausted the reservoir of her mother’s classified knowledge. Now she knew more than Kuo, perhaps even more than their father had. ‘How come Dad didn’t know about the virus? He must have been alive, an original I mean, when the second cycle of impacts began. And old enough to remember them properly.’
Her mother looked pained. ‘The infections were minimal at first. We covered them up. And by the time it finally got to your father, we had a scan of him ready to go. So no matter what other versions of him have seen since, he always defaults back to a state of ignorance when we print him.’
‘Mum,’ Imogen said suddenly, remembering the outgoing transmissions from Phix she had discovered while messing around in the station’s encrypted comms logs, ‘I cracked your access codes and got into the database. I was only looking for material specs — for the Scatter Shell — but I found something else.’
Her mother couldn’t help letting out a little laugh. On some strange level if felt that, even after all she had just revealed, Imogen had somehow outdone her. It made her proud. ‘You cracked my access codes?’ she exclaimed, doing her best to sound annoyed.
‘Yeah. Sorry. But then I hacked into the station’s comms logs, some other places too — trying to get around the committee’s lockdown on the Vesta uplink — and I found evidence of long-range transmissions going out from Phix to somewhere completely weird, way out in the Kuiper Belt, maybe even deeper in the Oort Cloud. Basically the opposite direction to Vesta and nowhere near any of the other colonies. The coordinates were very strange. Who are we talking to out there? What if there’s a level of deception that even you don’t know about?’
Her mother lost the look of faux-vexation she had cultivated in response to Imogen’s confession and grew suddenly stern. The anger that was unnecessary before now rose up in earnest. ‘Locke,’ she said quietly.
Imogen remained silent, aware of the significance of the information she had just shared without fully understanding what it meant.
‘Can you still get into the logs, Imogen?’ her mother demanded, gesturing to the media system behind them. A tiny amber light flashed in one corner of the display, indicating that the system was on standby. ‘Show me what you saw.’
Their brief moment of commiseration was over. Imogen placed the plasma caster gently on the grating and stepped over to the console. She fished a headset out of the debris and started to plug it in.
Just then the main doors split open and a small party of colonists burst in. One of them pointed a device that Imogen had never seen before at her mother and shot her in the chest. It was Locke. Before she could readjust her aim in the dark Imogen had dropped the headset and dashed down one of the nuke module’s connecting corridors, heading for her cell.
‘That’s one less dissenting voice in the committee,’ she heard Locke say.
‘Looks like her family’s got the bug anyway,’ another colonist added, pointing out the bodies of Kuo and Imogen’s father with a wrist-mounted light. ‘Probably only a matter of time before it got to her too. It’s a damn wonder how she makes it through every time.’
‘Made it through,’ Locke corrected. ‘Take care of the girl. And make it look authentic.’
Imogen punched the sensor on her door and heard the seal activate behind her as she struggled to extract the Scatter Shell from a compartment in the ceiling. It fell lightly into her hands and she slid it over her head, tugging the hood down to completely cover her face. It flashed electric blue, then cycled through a weird sequence of colours before the refractive function started to kick in. It wasn’t supposed to do that. The fabric scintillated convulsively as the camouflage script fought to override the glitch. She could hear Locke’s companion clanking along the grating in the corridor. For one awful second it occurred to her that she might have made a mistake in the prototype’s design. Sometimes the stims made her overlook things. That, or the files had been corrupted when she merged them with the stolen specs.
A shrill arpeggio of beeps sounded outside the door. Locke’s companion was deactivating the seal with a committee key. Her mother used to do that sometimes. The glitch relented and she disappeared into the dark grey polyamide of the cell’s internal casing, just in time. Locke’s companion swung lightly through the opening, moving carefully in case Imogen was infected like her brother. As he passed her, she kept completely still, then slipped out behind him while he attempted to surprise her in the sleeping compartment. She crept into the rec chamber and flattened herself against the wall opposite her brother’s fragmented remains. Locke had picked up the plasma caster and was using it to fire another beam into her mother’s body. Imogen kept her head down so the opening of the hood would not reveal her presence. With her crime satisfactorily overwritten by the charge expelled from the more familiar weapon, Locke turned and motioned to the rest of her party to leave. The remaining member returned to the rec chamber with a perplexed expression on his face, sidestepped the debris at the bottom of the hatch leading to level two and began to climb to the observation deck.
‘Leave her,’ commanded Locke. ‘It won’t matter in a few minutes.’
Her companion looked relieved. As they exited the module, Locke tapped the panel on the wall and the aluminium entrance doors shut behind them. Imogen heard the trill of the committee key again. They were sealing her in.
Now totally alone, standing in the midst of her family’s remains, she attempted to take stock of everything that had happened since the night before. She checked her mother’s body just in case, a gesture she knew was futile, but one she felt driven to carry out. Then she sat down on the floor and tried not to cry. The realisation that had been pursuing her all along suddenly hit home. She was a print herself. And if the last impact took place only several weeks ago, she was a fresh one. How long had she been 16 for? How many times had she completed those mind-numbing eduEx corporate training modules? Her mother’s aloofness finally made sense. If she had been the only original among them, how many times had she seen Imogen and Kuo and her husband killed by the parasite — or each other? How many times had she been forced to eliminate them by her own hand? Imogen pushed back the long sleeves of the Scatter Shell and peered at her own hands in the darkness. Her mother had passed something on to her. Now she was the one who knew. When they reprinted the casualties, when they fixed everything and made it all go back to normal, she would be the only one in her family with a memory of the terrible event. She stared into the blackness before her. There was no way out of this. As long as the comets kept coming the threat of being trapped in an endless, repetitive loop hung over her. It was this desperation that finally brought the tears to the surface. She let them flow in an unchecked stream. They created a strange effect on the surface of the Scatter Shell, marring its camouflage with pockets of incompletely rendered fractals of the space in which she sat. Defeated.
No longer having anything to compete with, the forgotten sound of the air regulation system reasserted its presence in her consciousness. Its dependable hum had been with her since the day of her birth, give or take a few excursions outside the complex, when it had been replaced by the equally monotonous but reassuring sound of an in-suit supply system. At that moment it seemed to offer something more than just pressurised air. A lesson in stoicism, perhaps. Something always persists, she thought to herself. Then the hum stopped. A high-pitched hiss replaced it momentarily, then that stopped too. A dark silence descended upon the chamber. Imogen stood up. Locke had shut off the oxygen. She tried the entrance door, but the committee override remained in place. No, she thought. They wouldn’t do this. She looked around helplessly, trying to determine whether or not there was an alternative route out of the nuke module, but the station’s design prevented it. All the modules were completely separate structures, connected to each other only by the arterial corridor system that wove its way around the entire complex. The media system lit up and Locke’s avatar appeared on the display. A trail of bright green characters erupted out of the space below it and pulsed towards the left-hand side of the screen, rapidly assembling a sentence.
> It doesn’t matter, Imogen. You won’t remember any of this.
‘Turn the oxygen back on,’ Imogen commanded, enunciating each word with the kind of calm precision that can only be derived from pure contempt. She knew Locke was monitoring the space and she assumed she had an audio feed. ‘I’ll remember. I’ll find a way to remember.’
The cursor blinked indifferently, then the flow of text resumed:
> No you won’t. Why bother censoring the feeds when we can just reset your memory? But I won’t leave you without a comforting thought.
The screen refreshed, then a large chunk of text appeared, scattering green-black shadows across the chamber:
> ‘If a human being did not have an eternal consciousness, if underlying everything there were only a wild, fermenting power that writhing in dark passions produced everything, be it significant or insignificant, if a vast, never appeased emptiness is beneath everything, what would life be then but despair?’
‘What the hell is that? Some kind of XOSURO corporate credo? Who do you think you are?’ Locke was obviously getting off on the power afforded by her position. But it would be temporary. Just like it was for everybody else. Imogen would make sure of it. She hooked herself into the interface in one deft movement and input the following, deliberately archaic dismissal of Locke’s idea of a ‘comforting thought’:
> Fuck. You.
The last thing she needed right now was some committee sermon. She shut down the comms channel, activated her personal interface and sent a program out to hunt for anything that was accessing the nuke module’s information systems from outside. Now she had to deal with the whole running-out-of-air thing. First she tried to hack around the committee override of the main doors, but it was too tough. Its encryption was much harder to crack than the other stuff had been. There was something alien in the code. Next she tried to take control of the ventilation systems, but the shell for the committee database had been altered. Someone was deliberately trying to keep her out. Ok, she thought. I have to send a message. She pulled up her own files and started to cycle through them. Unfinished maths homework. Bits of code she’d been working on. Drone stuff. The committee would have to wipe all this before they reprinted her. But how would they know what to reset it to? There must be a back-up dating from the time of her scan somewhere. A back-up, and some kind of manifest detailing the contents of the nuke module and all of the information she’d had access to at the time. She switched to her mother’s interface, entered the codes she had stolen, and started sifting through the committee’s files trying to calculate the date the scans must have taken place. Hopefully the committee wasn’t fastidious enough to shut off her mother’s access just yet. They had a parasite to deal with.
As she searched the database she noticed there were replications of certain dates. The years 2209, 2210, 2211 and 2221 occurred multiple times over, and more specifically, there was a sizeable chunk of communication missing from the first iterations of 2210 and 2221. That must be it. 2210 for first generation scans; 2221 for second generation scans. Only it didn’t make sense that the ‘current’ date always seemed to be corroborated by the terrestrial Universal Calendar. Was Earth in on this? How deep did the operation go? She had always thought it was weird that they kept to the old calendar, despite the fact that the way Earthers experienced solar cycles had nothing to do with the way things happened out here on Phix. But her suspicions of galactic conspiracy were allayed just as quickly as they had emerged. A file from 2209 containing instructions for implementing ‘downlink adjustments’ explained that YG9 had been replaying old hap-feeds to sync Phix with the Universal Calendar ever since the reprints were first implemented. So that was why it was forbidden to talk to YG11, or anybody else for that matter. Phix was hopelessly caught in a time lag. Not that time made sense anymore anyway. She scoured the comms for data about the uplink, but as far as she could tell, information coming out of Phix wasn’t ‘adjusted’. That explained why Earthers always thought her designs were ‘cute’ and never ‘sleep’. In any other situation, the total collapse of her cultural ambitions would have crushed her, but there were far more important issues to attend to right now. The rapidly thinning air in the nuke module being top of the list.
So, a message. The uplink was definitely monitored, which meant it had to be a camouflaged message if she tried to get it out that way. And not just a sneaky bit of code, either. They’d catch that. It had to be something more abstract. Something only she could read. Imogen continued to manoeuvre through her mother’s database until she found what she had been looking for in a masked file hidden deep within the protocols for the biosynthetic printers: the catalogue of settler scans. It was encrypted to the hilt, but it was old encryption, none of this alien stuff. She cracked it easily and found the directory with her name on it. Everything was there. If she’d had the time she could have looked right into her genetic makeup, but she went straight for the personal interface back-up. The same half-finished homework she’d just flipped through reappeared on the display. Euclid’s Fifth Postulate. Eternally destined to remain incomplete. There was a joke somewhere in that. She continued to sift through the files until she came across the library she and Kuo used for their designs and brought up the Scatter Shell. Its camouflage function suddenly took on new significance.
The files for the original design were basic enough, but she now loaded them with the script they had used for the colour panels on Kuo’s sleep suit, decrypted the copy of the material specs she’d pilfered from her mother’s database, and started to write a short program that would transmit a message using the geometrical code. As a language it wasn’t very precise, but she could communicate enough information to get her future self, or past self, or whatever it was, thinking along the right lines. The transmission would trigger automatically the first time a freshly printed Scatter Shell was activated. She put all the files together and added them to the committee’s back-up. Then, for insurance, and perhaps even as an act of defiance against the qualifier ‘cute’, she ran a cloaking program and connected to the terrestrial uplink. The link went through without detection. The radar must still be intact. She watched as the updated model loaded with a message only she and Kuo would be able to decipher began to make its way to Vesta and then to Earth. It would be there within a fortnight. Less for Vesta. An occulted line of transmission to her future self. And a secret tribute to Kuo. She disabled the visual input for a second and glanced over her shoulder at his remains against, and on, the wall. A pretty awful memento mori. She wasn’t going to fare any better this time either. The thing that kept her focused was the thought that this was how her mother must have felt, over and over again. Surrounded by the dead. Waiting for the next loop to begin.
Imogen unhooked herself from the media system, wound the headset tightly in its cables, and climbed sleepily up the ladder to the observation deck for one last look at the distant star that, in one way or another, was responsible for this whole mess. Somewhere between her and it was the message. A geometrical study in despair. As she sat at the console staring into the sky she wondered what was really out there in the Oort. It couldn’t be any worse than all the things that had emerged from the sun: bacteria, fish, mammals, consciousness. She kind of preferred its dark inversion of the centre. As her vision started to give out on her she struggled to keep hold of one particular thought that was nagging ceaselessly at the edges of her comprehension. Something to do with dying. How, despite having to go through all the anxiety of dying, she wouldn’t truly die. That was the real horror. Everybody died, but they only had to do it once. Calling it death on Phix was a misnomer. Locke, or the committee, or XOSURO — whoever or whatever it was — would not even allow her the consolation of a singular, human death. This was her fate. The eternal repetition of a cycle. But she could leverage it. Exploit the fact of her return. To be printed and reprinted. It wasn’t even close to a proper ending.
Amy Ireland is a writer and theorist based in Sydney. She is co-convenor of the philosophy and aesthetics research group, Aesthetics After Finitude, and a member of the technomaterialist transfeminist collective, Laboria Cuboniks. Her research focuses on questions of agency and technology in modernity, and she is currently engaged in various poetry projects involving sound, 3D printing, stealth technology, and projectiles. Recent writing can be found in Seizure, e-flux and Flash Art, and forthcoming in collections from Univocal, Punctum and re.press.
Rich Foster is a comic book artist based in San Francisco.