Departure

[previously: https://steller.space/2021/01/22/escape/]

The Antarctic night, coupled with the Antarctic wind and Antarctic snow, did a fine enough job of obscuring the two skimmers on the tundra as they approached the Aldyne Defense transport ADV Continuum. The landing lights were still on, visible from the two kilometers or so away Flake and Franklin now found themselves, snowflakes wind-whipping through the beams drawn like blades against the darkness, UN Peacekeepers stationed at the embarcation ramp probably waiting for the return of the Aldyne Defense folks they’d been contracted to protect.

Only one of them was left alive, of course.

“Frank, you see ’em?” came the call across the comms.

“Eyeah. Three bluedomes. Heavy armed. Think they see us?”

“Not likely pal. I think we can get the drop on them, but I don’t know how many more there are aboard the ship. How’s our friend doing?”

Franklin grabbed at Gideon’s elbow and yanked it forward so he could read the medical datapad around his wrist. Gideon yelped as his arm was practically twisted out of its socket. “Stable,” the panda said, dropping the lemur’s arm and letting it limply hang.

“All right. If you can draw them away from the ramp I’ll hit them while they’re cheesing it after you. Once we’ve got the outside guys taken care of we’ll secure the decks, put any defense dicks we find off the ship, then take ‘er back to McMurdo for extraction. On my mark?”

“Eyeah, good,” Franklin said. “You take him then?” He threw his huge thumb over his shoulder to the bloodied lemur strapped into the rear seat.

“Shit, right. No, they’re on foot, you’re on a skimmer. I don’t think he’s going to pose a threat, but he might uh, I just, uh, hmm. He’ll be fine.” Flake turned to Gideon,  the hood of their parka billowing in the wind, smiling. “You’ll be fine, right?” Gideon’s frown was enough to get the jay to look back at Franklin. “He’ll be fine. If you get a clean shot on any of those guys, don’t wait! Take it, okay Frank? I’ll cover you from here.”

“Okay, jay.”

Flake toggled the strut deploy switch on their skimmer, landing anchors thunking into the permafrost. They reached for their marksman rifle and unlatched it from the gun anchor, throwing it over their shoulder and toggling the charge safety to full. The rifle started to whine as the coils charged, pale amber creeping its way along the barrel to indicate capacitance. The scope blinked to life, crucial and fatal mathematics calculating trajectories, windage, distance, elevation. They lifted it into position and closed a single eye, peering down the scope as they did so.

The scope highlighted a target, outlining it in pale red, spitting out numbers and plotting an aim point on the horizon. Flake tracked to follow it.

“Ready!” he called over the comlink, and Franklin revved the skimmer’s engine ever so slightly in response.

“Mark!” Flake said, finger on the trigger. The charge indicator in the scope’s display read 98%. The skimmer kicked up a plume of powder as it roared off down the frost, stirring the attention of the blue helmeted soldiers near the lander’s struts. Flake’s target, the ramp watcher, remained unfazed.

The capacitance readout switched to a nice, round 100% and the bird ventilated him without a second thought. As soon as Flake pulled the trigger he went down like a sack of hammers. They immediately turned towards the other two, now giving a barely passable chase-and-fire at Franklin’s rapidly disappearing snowskimmer. The scope highlighted another target and did the math, and Flake pulled the trigger again, dropping the furthest soldier out.

His partner reached for her wristpad and the ship’s ramp started to retract. An alarm klaxon sounded from the vicinity of the ship. Just before the lights went out, Flake saw her in the scope aiming a rifle down sights in their general direction. “Shit,” they muttered, thumbing the comms toggle on their datapad. “Franklin, I’ve been made.”

“Eyeah,” Franklin growled into the commlink, static punctuating his lone word. “I see.” Gideon’s yowling could be heard in the background.

A few coil rounds zipped past Flake’s crest, sending them scrambling off the skimmer they’d been using as a sniping platform, fumbling to get the marksman rifle back over their shoulder. “Shit shit shit! Frank, you said Keth and Cal were out here?”

“Eyeah eyeah. Last check, they were scouting, on patrol.”

“Do you think you can try distracting this bluedome I’ve got taking potshots at me or do you want me to try and raise them!”

“Eyeah. I got ’em.”

Franklin killed the skimmer’s engine; it drifted gently to the ground with a pomf in the snow-covered tundra. Swinging his huge frame over the side, he grabbed Gideon’s small head with both of his paws, applying the slightest amount of pressure. His captive squirmed.

“Stay put. You try to leave? I will crush into paste, eyeah?” He knew Gideon wouldn’t be able to move anyway given the brace he’d been put in to keep his chest wound from opening back up after the medigel treatment. Gideon nodded anyway, real fear in his eyes.

The bear trudged off in the snow without so much as a glance behind him. Cracking his knuckles and using the gunfire to guide him, he took off into a full-fledged sprint, shoulder in ramming position.

The next few moments were muzzleflashes against a jeweld sky glittering with the light of a thousand thousand stars. Repeated bursts of gunfire crackling across the permafrost, the crunch of packed powder beneath Franklin’s feet, a few rounds from what was probably Flake’s coil pistol grazing the air near Franklin’s head. The UN soldier on the ground barely had time to register what was happening when she felt the weight of nearly 180 kilograms of bear collide with her body armor, sending her flying across the snowdrift.

“Frank!”

“Eyeah. It’s done.”

“Go get our friend! I’ll get this thing open!”

Flake threw back their hood and grabbed the unconscious soldier at the wrist, hauling her arm out of the snowbank and brushing her datapad off. The jay fished a piece of flexroll tape out of their jacket pocket and pressed it against the display, exposing the gloveprints used to key in the ship’s access code. Keying in 1-9-4-3-2-7, the landing lights beat back down on the powder and the ship’s boarding ramp once again descended.

Flake reached up to their headset. “I’ll drag your unconscious friend here aboard; get Gideon on this thing and let’s go get the compound emptied before the UN does any checking around.”

D’Artagnan’s

“I don’t think I can serve you much more, Buster. You know I’ll get in trouble. You want a coffee?

One ear bent and the other standing stock straight, Meyer braced himself against the bar and frowned. “Whatcha mean, barman? I’m schtill pullin’ innnnnnn FM radio on these thingsh,” he gestured, lazily pointing upwards, aiming for his rabbit ears but missing — wide right — and pointing at Clifton instead.

“My, you gotta take it a bit easy. What about a little soda bitters, huh? You like soda, right?” Clifton threw his arm around Meyer’s shoulder.

“Y0-yeah, yeah, I do. I do. What about a shoda bitters, ffffflat top?”

“How about a double ‘paying your tab’ since you didn’t last week?”

“Aw, c-cm, c-commonnnn, Mickey–”

“Clifton?”

The lemur sighed. He brushed a tuft of Meyer’s hair out of his eyes as he gently held him by the shoulder with one hand and tapped him between the eyes with the other. “My, we gotta pay the man.”

“Ye-yeah. Yeah. I…I know, I know it,” the hare frowned, fishing his billfold out of his front pocket, dropping both elbows on the dinged-up heavy-lacquered turquoise bartop with the same degree of force a crane accident might have, rummaging through his cards and cash.

“Sorry, Mick.”

The pangolin tending bar laughed hard enough to shake his scales. “Ehhh, he’s — you’re both — the best customers I’ve got.” He eyed Meyer with an edge of disdain. “But uh, are you sure he’s okay?”

Clifton stuck his thumb out and stuck himself in the sternum. “I’m taking care of him tonight. What could go wrong?”

Meyer fished out a half-broken debit card, chip half still intact, and threw it down on the bar. “Here,” he managed, stifling a dry retch.

Mick stuck the card in the reader without much of a second thought and waited for it to process. The attached thermal printer tried its college hardest, barely eking out a respectable “D’artagnan’s Copy” that Clifton snatched before Meyer had a chance. He took the half of the debit card too, just in case.

“H-hey, wh-hwat’s the idea here!” Meyer protested.

“You didn’t tip last time,” Clifton chided, pulling a pen out of his sweatshirt pocket and scrawling in a hasty 30% atop the tab before pulling a twenty spot out of his jeans and slipping it under the receipt.

“I didn’t?”

“You didn’t. C’mon, let’s go. Up we go.” Clifton reached under Meyer’s arms to help lift him off the stool but, being a little under a foot shy of Meyer’s 6’4″ frame, this didn’t do much to help in any reasonable way, and the hare stumbled backwards.

“Hey I got it, I got it. I got it. I can stand. Cliff you’re not my godshdamn mom,” Meyer slurred, yanking his arm from Clifton’s hand.

Clifton chuckled. “Okay big guy c’mon. Let’s get a cab, okay?”

“Okay.” He turned his head over his shoulder and hollered something that sounded like “Thanks, Mick!” but slurred together in a highly inappropriate way. Mickey just threw his hand up to acknowledge it, half paying attention, half pocketing the extra twenty bucks and chuckling to himself.

– – –

“Did you have fun tonight?”

“Yeah.”

The streetlamps dashed across the back seat of the cab every half second, finding their way across the pair’s lap and back again, the only light in the new moon evening. The soft hum of the cab’s hybrid motor barely registered over the road noise of tires hitting bridge strips and pavement, thrumming a soft and steady percussion without an accompanying melody. Clifton ran his fingers through Meyer’s hairtuft.

He leaned in to Meyer’s bent ear and whispered gently. “Do you wanna go back to my place and fool around?”

Meyer tried to pull his head out of Clifton’s lap, placing a paw on Clifton’s shoulder and giving the lemur a sheepish grin, blue eyes locking with yellow and somehow seeming present and distant all at the same time. “I wanna go back to our place and fool around,” he said, slightly more sober but nonetheless worse for wasted.

The whiskey-soaked hare’s paw slipped off Cliff’s shoulder and fell behind his back, finding its way under the back of his partner’s hoodie, seeking purchase along the small of his back, soft fur against soft fur, scratching gently at the waistband of his jeans.

“Well, let’s at least get you home first and we’ll see how much you’ve got left in you,” Clifton chuckled, knowing full well he’d be hauling Meyer up the steps to their apartment

“Mmmmmmokay,” the hare murmured, practically half asleep already.

“Mmmmmmokay,” Clifton half-whispered back.

Faith

“Have you ever met a Lyrician, Ms. Ulbrecht?”

“I can’t say that I have, sir,” Cynthia replied.

“They’re detestable. An utter failure from Aldyne Genomics. I can’t believe the project was allowed to begin, let alone continue. I had no say in it. Gennaro was told to abandon it before he fled the planet with those…filthy embryonic aberrations. My grandfather had assurances that the program was disposed of. We let them run around and the gods-damned United Nations even gave them territory. We’ve employed them, Ms. Ulbrecht.”

Cynthia took a sip of her whiskey. “I feel a bit far removed from this, Mr. Aldy–”

“How did we let this mess get so out of hand? How Dr. Gennaro was allowed to continue his abominable experiments is beyond me, but I’m not entirely convinced they’re not still ongoing.”

“Sir, M-mr. Aldyne, Alyx Gennaro has been dead for at least a hundred years. They’re…if you…I mean, we can’t. They’re a part of society now.”

“Do you know the population? Do you know there are only a few thousand Lyricians? A handful. Barely enough to register on a system-wide census. An afterthought. Pathetic creatures.” David Aldyne frowned, pushing back his chair, standing up, stretching his arms behind his head. “The project was to find ways to enhance extra-solar colonists, not to create a race of filthy gods-damned halfbreed two-legged animals,” he spat, the derision in his words as toxic as the poison in his infusion rig.

“I can’t say that I’m following your reasoning, Mr. Aldyne.”

“Project Lyric’s brood exist as an abomination, Ms. Ulbrecht. Nothing more. It is a stain on the Aldyne name, and it is a stain on Federated society. We know where they’re holed up, right?” he hissed. A chirping from his waist, followed by a little pressurized ping, sounded the delivery of the incandescent blue plasma needed to keep that Aldyne name alive. Another Aldyne First.

“Sir, we can’t send AlDef after the Lyricians on Old Terra. Doing so would be brand suicide, it would be in violation of several United Nations protectorate agreements. It could lead to a legacy of damage to the Aldyne name. I would advise against it at all possible costs.”

“Aldyne funds the United Nations practically single-handedly. I want you to do what you’re paid to do and put our boot on their necks. The McMurdo Concordat should be nullified and the Lyricians need to be rounded up and destroyed. This Project needs terminated with alacrity, Ms. Ulbrecht. Speak with our envoy at the UN and see that it’s done. Our five year plan does not include these vermin. Have I made Aldyne’s position clear?”

“Of course, Mr. Aldyne. What about SKHI’s position? Guldsommar’s?”

“What of them? I am not troubled by ditch-diggers and gas-dredgers. This is an Aldyne problem, and AlDef will take care of it. Frame it as a rescue and recovery effort. The other corporations on the council will see it as janitorial and the UN will simply oblige us to do as we wish.”

“Sounds reasonable to me, Mr. Aldyne. I’ll draft the resolution right away. General Assembly meets in a week, we–”

“A week? I meant now, Ms. Ulbrecht. Do what you have to do.”

Cynthia stifled a sigh. “I understand, Mr. Aldyne. I’ll act accordingly.”

“Cynthia?” David whispered, crackling through the com-link.

“Yes, Mr. Aldyne?”

“I trust you. Get it done.” His visage faded, and the terminal shifted from full opacity to transparent once again, [Commlink Closed] flashing across the center of the screen in bold yellow letters.

Cynthia Ulbrecht stood and stretched, reaching behind her head to pull out the pins holding her bun together, letting her black hair cascade down past the shoulders of her forest green blazer, exhaling the breath she’d half-held the entire conversation with The Aldyne Group’s President, Executive Director, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer Dr. David Nolan Aldyne. Talking to him always consumed a majority of her spoons.

She gestured at her terminal towards the address book, flicking through her contacts until she’d located Rowan Murphy, United Nations Security Council President, and hit the record button on the messaging modal.

“Ro, it’s Cynthia. We need to have a conversation about the rat problem in Antarctica.” She affected a bit of lust in her voice, just enough to fool any mood analysis software. “It’s been so long since Antwerp. Give me a call when you have a moment. Please? she barely more-than-whispered before closing the connection.

She slugged the rest of her whiskey. Gods have mercy on her.

Now THAT would be an Aldyne First, she chuckled to herself.

Escape

Vision blurred, breathing ragged, blood chilled, and adrenaline pumping, Gideon managed to swing his head into a position where he could see his captor.

“Tsk tsk tsk,” the angular figure seemed to say, opening their lighter with a metallic snik, flame sparking and drawing closer to their…mouth? beak…? before disappearing completely. “Gideon, buddy, look, you’re lucky we found you!”

A deep inhale, then a huge exhale. Mentholated secondhand stung Gideon’s nostrils. He coughed.

“Cold out there on the ice, Gid. You realize if we hadn’t found you that the Peacekeepers would have, right?”

“Who…who’s we,” the lemur spit, the taste of copper in his mouth. Was that…blood?

“Right now, bud, the only important identity is yours,” suggested his captor, whose black-gray visage got closer, coming into focus as they approached him, squatting down to meet Gideon eye to eye. Their tone was critical, harsh, unwelcoming. “It’s also important that you’re out of the cold. Antarctica is no place for an Aldyne dick trying to track us down, okay?” Another exhale.

Gideon couldn’t help but inhale this time, ragged and painful. Something was very wrong in his chest.

“What’s Aldyne doing out in this region, anyway? We’re not hurting anyone. We’re minding our business.”

“If you’re minding your business,” Gideon spat, licking his chops, tasting his own blood, “we wouldn’t–”

Whatever he had left to say was cut off by what felt like an electrical circuit in his ribcage. His whole body felt like he just ate an exploded battery. The fellow in whose possession he now found himself had stuck him with a shock rod in his open wound. Gideon screamed.

“We were minding our business. Now you’re minding our business. Our mutual acquaintance here didn’t want to peg you with a railgun from a few kilometers out but we don’t have a lot of options here at McMurdo. Your company decided to send your hired guns and you are the only one left from your team.”

His captor pulled the device out of his chest wound and Gideon took his first breath in what felt like an hour. “Honestly, my guy, I was not expecting Franklin to haul back any survivors, but since you had the good fortune not to keel over, you need to answer some questions, or I’m going to introduce you to a whole host of experiences I guarantee you corporate security hasn’t prepared you for! I’m not gonna ask you again! Why are you here!”

“I’m…” Gideon started, vision blurring again. The realization that his team of four was…where were they? Were there four? “Aldyne sent my team because we’d received reports of a Lyrician Liberation Cell out near McMurdo.”

Flake paused. Why would Aldyne Defense be trying to apprehend Lyricians? Why would they send a Lyrician security team to arrest others of their kind? This land belonged to them. These two were practically brothers.

None of this made any sense.

“AlDef is working with the UN now? Why?”

“They just sent me out here for recon, I don’t know what they were planning on doing beyond that! I’m just following orders!”

“Who cleared this operation? Who gave you those orders?”

Gideon spat, a mixture of fuchsia blood and hot saliva, in his captor’s face. That much he could see clearly. It didn’t take long for him to regret it when he felt the business end of the shock rod in his chest again, and his body seized like he was chewing on jumper cables.

“You were not invited here, blood traitor,” his captor sneered. The lemur could feel the air choke in his windpipe. “You took the side of the oppressor. You took their guns and you came to hunt us down after we’d been ceded this land in the McMurdo Concordat. You have the gall to literally spit in my face?”

A series of alarms, sharp and piercing, came from somewhere nearby. Gideon wasn’t able to make out where.

“Hey, Flake, he’s hurtin’ I think.”

“Frank, I think if there’s something wrong with our guest it isn’t my problem, right?” Flake removed the rod from Gideon’s wound. Gideon’s vision started to clear. He took a deep, ragged breath, choking on the air.

“Get this son of a bitch some respimix and medgel for his wounds. Where’s their skimmer?” the bird hissed, tossing the rod on a nearby utility cart, flexing their hand to loosen the joints.

“No skimmer. Big lander though, bear-loaded. Plenty weapons. Cal and Kethri said it had a small nuke. Looked mean. On their way out now to bring it in.”

“A lander? You said you only took out three AlDef guys plus” — the bird stopped, glaring at his captive coughing up hot pink phlegm on the floor — “this dipshit. What kind of lander was it?”

Franklin, a giant panda with more muscle than brains, frowned in deep thought, big black eye circles furrowing, wrinkling the scar across his forehead. “Uh…real big. Show me cards.”

The jay pulled out a deck of ship identification flexes from their back pocket and spread them across a table. Gideon was still catching his breath. “Which one of these.”

A beat passed. The klaxons from the medical equipment strapped to Gideon’s wrist started hollering again. Franklin laid a huge pawfinger on top of a Holland Aerodynamics atmospheric transport. “This one,” he said, proudly. “Cal say we can leave orbit if we take.”

Flake’s eyes went wide. “Yeah. Yeah. We definitely can leave if we take.” They paused again in thought. “Make sure he’s healthy enough to travel. We’ll need his biometric imprint to get the thing started, and it’ll only work if he’s alive. I need to go out on the frost and make sure they’re not planning on sending anyone else down here.”

“I worry?”

“Yeah, big worry. If AlDef is sending expedition teams that means the UN has no interest in honoring the treaty they signed handing this land over and we need to get the hell out of here.” Flake made a few talontaps on their wrist-worn datapad.

“Folks, uh, I hoped I’d never have to say this,” Flake’s voice came echoing throughout the McMurdo Station’s PA system. “I guessed correctly. The UN is about to clear us out. They left us a carrier. We’re on our way to secure it. Pack only what you can carry and be prepared for departure in twenty minutes.”

Franklin frowned. “We go?”

“Not without him,” Flake grimaced, brow furrowing, as he gestured at Gideon’s exhausted frame bleeding pink on the concrete floor. “Once he’s got a rebreather and he’s bandaged, get him in a thermal jacket and put him in a brace. We need to move.”

[next: https://steller.space/2021/02/14/departure/]

Chill

“Gentlemen,” I’ve said, “I’ve studied the maps,
and if what I am thinking is right,
There’s another new world at the top of the world
for whoever can break through the ice.”

[Aboard the TCV Frozen Alchemist]
[Gemini Scopuli, Mars]

Wiping the sweat and grease from her goggles, Meredith Abendroth stared out beyond the working deck’s safety rail, braced against the control panel for the deployment cranes. She took a deep breath, cold air stinging her nostrils through the respirator, exhaled into her mask. She rubbed her hands together for warmth, then raised them above her head, practically touching the electric heater hanging above her workstation to release the numbness in her fingers. The heater offered her nothing in return for her praise. She grabbed the console again and frowned.

The vastness of the Martian ice shelf was not lost on her. Thousands of kilometers of frozen ice, ready to be turned into an ocean now that a greenhouse-grade atmosphere had finally taken hold after decades of trying. An Aldyne First, she thought to herself, locking eyes on a nitrogen dioxide pump on the horizon. Lot of those going around lately.

In her reverie, the slowly pulsing yellow light on the release switch had changed to a steady red. A klaxon roared across the working deck. The ship began to shudder, bucking back and forth, control thrusters attempting to compensate. She magnetized her boots reflexively as the smooth mechanical whirring of the crane became a violent kick, metal groaning even louder than the warning siren. Just as quickly as it had started, it stopped.

“MARY! The godsdamned drill crane’s stalled again!” came a voice over the headset. She checked the control panel.

///IMMEDIATE ATTENTION REQUIRED - CYCLE HALTED
///Hydraulic Fluid Pressure Tolerance (High) Reached @ CT+14m:42s 
   Fault Signal Detected: Hydraulic Line 3 (WARN)
   Fault Signal Detected: Hydraulic Line 5 (WARN)
   Fault Signal Detected: Hydraulic Line 6 (WARN)
   Fault Signal Detected: Stabilizer 1 (ERR)
   Fault Signal Detected: Stabilizer 3 (ERR)

///Travel Speed Tolerance (High) Reached @ CT+14m:42s
   MASTER ALARM - OVERTRAVEL - Stabilizer 1 (CRIT)
   MASTER ALARM - OVERTRAVEL - Stabilizer 3 (CRIT)

///Crane Travel Cycle @ 73% Of Destination
///MANUAL POSITION CONFIRMATION REQUIRED BEFORE CYCLE RESTART PERMITTED

“SONOFABITCH!” she bellowed across the deck, punching the ALRM ACK button on her console and heading for the manlift. She pushed the all-call button on her datapad and growled into her headset. “I warned you to keep the hydraulic pumps warm! We had this problem in the goddamn simulations! Now we’re losing time, fluid, and we have to reset the position sensor on account of the shuddering ratfucking halt your incompetence brought this thing to. God dammit, Hawkins!”

As she pressed the button to carry her up to the crane, Dwayne Hawkins’ reply came over the radio. “Sorry mum, we’re on it. We had a heat pump stall out and couldn’t correct ‘er in time. Malcolm’s purgin”er lines now.”

She tapped back. “You’d better hope to God we didn’t blow any teeth on the crane gears or your team’s back to pumping dome sulfur!”

The lift gates opened and Meredith stomped over to the crane’s drive assembly, several workers already having removed part of the outer housing to inspect the gears.

“How’s my crane,” she blustered.

“Oh, looks fine,” her assistant Harriet replied. Her rosettes were clearly not in any sort of twist; sweet as she always was, in contrast to Mary’s sour. “A little fluid-poor, but the temperature at the gearhead is okay, it’s just slowing things down. We won’t need to flush it but, before we restart, we might want to circulate the fluid a bit. How’s Dwayne’s team handling it?” Harriet said, cooler than the winds whipping about the upper deck of the Alchemist.

“Changing hoses,” Mary barked, voice thick with congestion and canyon-deep. “What about the drillhead position?”

“Given the bucking I figured you’d ask about that, Dr. Abendroth. Drone surveys appear to confirm we’re only a few meters out of position, nothing that a minor cautionary offset won’t fix. We can probably bypass the resurvey. All we need is 90% accuracy to pop the cork, ma’am!” Harriet replied, gray-flecked tail whipping back and forth.

A drill tech yelped as metal clanged loud on the deckplate, some tool or another skittering across the ground and causing a ruckus. Mary’s fur stiffened, then relaxed, locking eyes with her assistant, letting the snow leopard’s smile wash across her like a warm summer breeze.

“Harriet…” she began, almost complimentarily, “please keep me posted. And thank you.”

“No problem, ma’am!” Harriet cheerily responded.

Consideration

[previously: https://steller.space/2020/12/09/registration/]

The door to the hotel room slid open and Trellis took a moment to remove his work jacket.

Never one much for appearances, the coat he’d worn after spending a decade in the Sun-a-do mountains — planting trees, cultivating the soil, arranging shipments of dirt and dead leaves and fill and logs and waste, carefully raising the right kind of mushrooms to form a bond with what had been a long-obliterated winter wasteland — was probably his closest link to home this far away. It smelled like soil and hydraulic fluid and sweat, contained memories of a victory against all odds, a sort of nylon suit of armor against the uncaring world beyond the treeline, a feeling of warmth beyond the insulation it provided.

It was as much him as his own body was. He hung it gently on the hangar, taking a moment to run his fingers through the fur lining the hood. Remembering long nights camped in the wilderness, staring up at the stars, wondering if the firs would ever grow, watching the lights of the aurora borealis dance across the sky like a ribbon on fire.

“They’re right,” he said aloud, shutting the closet, throwing himself across the bed, sighing through his nose. “Christ.”

He rolled over on his back, stared at the ceiling, raised his arm to see his datapad wrapped around his wrist. Accessing the room key application with a few taps, he dimmed the lights and closed the shutters, blacking the room out. A few more taps and the ceiling began to twinkle with the light of a thousand thousand stars a million million miles away.

He started to lose himself in his thoughts.

# # #

“Trellis, have you ever given any thought to, y’know, leaving?”

“Wh…what?”

The spaceport was busier than usual. The sunlight, as always, cut across the living room like blades in Flake’s apartment. The viewscreen was on low volume, a science program about New Mawsynram’s unique weather climate. Some Aldyne Terraforming Corps Meteorologist was explaining the theories behind the rain.

“Leaving,” the bird asked, pulsing the coffee grinder. “You know. Those,” they said, nodding towards the picture windows as another stellarliner began its takeoff roll with the high-pitched whine of sublight engines.

“N-no. Why would I do that?”

Carefully unfolding a coffee filter and placing it on the scale, Flake tapped the grounds into the paper basket until their scale chirped satisfactorily. The bird set the filter in the glass brewer and thumbed the toggle on the electric kettle. “You finished your project, you’ve got cache now. You got a United Nations Egalitarian Cross for god’s sakes! The Sun-a-do…in five years it’ll be teeming with life again! You did that, Trel. What are you gonna do next?”

Trellis shrugged. “I figured I’d go back to Newhalem. Maybe start a farm–“

“A farm of what, bud?”

“I d-don’t know, a t-tree farm–“

“A tree farm! Wow! What kind of trees?” the jay crowed.

“Don’t patronize me,” the deer frowned.

“You know nothing grows out here that doesn’t glow in the dark, Trellis, yourself included.” Flake’s tone seemed to shift from sardonic to caustic. “Your potential here is tapped out. Do you not have higher ambitions? What about joining the terraforming corps on Venus? They could use someone to help expand the domes. Think about it. An entire forest named after you.”

“I don’t want to do that.”

Flake’s fist hit the counter with a thud enough to faze Trellis slightly. “You’re wasting your god damn skills fumbling around in some potting shed!”

The kettle clicked off, and Flake snatched it from its base, thumbing the Water key on his scale until it made a little melodic chime indicating the right weight had been reached.

The bird’s silence permeated the apartment almost as deeply as the smell of coffee grounds. Tension filled the air, thick enough to be cut with a chainsaw.

# # #

“Call Flake,” Trellis muttered into his wrist.

The datapad chirped eagerly, attempting to set up the connection. Trellis rolled over on his side, reached behind his head, pulled out his hair tie, let his long silver hair fan out. After a beat, it chirped again to notify him the connection was established.

“Hello hey,” came the familiar voice, with a backing track of running water and clanking dishes in a washbasin.

“Flake,” Trellis sighed.

“Oh, hey bud,” the jay replied. The water stopped. “What’s up?”

“Why did you refer an application in my name to ASA?”

“Ah, okay. Not a social call,” Flake said, and Trellis swore he heard their eyes roll.

“No,” Trellis sighed, “not a social call.”

“Trellis–”

“Look, don’t think I’m not grateful. I just don’t get it. Why do you want me off the planet so bad?”

“What makes you think I want you off the planet?”

“Why are you answering my question with a question?”

Flake sighed. “You realize that there are thousands of opportunities out there, right? Millions? You could be the driving force that spreads our kind out past the Compact. We’re talking Neptune. You could be among the first folks to terraform Io. Io! They’re already working on it. Ring colonies. Drum colonies. New stations. You could be building oxygen forests! The work you’re doing is too important! You can’t just do one thing and give up!”

The line went silent on both ends. A sniff came through, crystal clear. Flake’s voice started to waver.

“I love you but I can’t have you hanging around here and wasting yourself. I have work to do, too, Trellis. I have to do what I’m good at, and you have to do what you’re good at. It’s bigger than money or love or anything else. We’re still new here, relatively, our kind, you know? Having a Lyrician like you or me doing something like heading up a big multi-generational project…that could open doors. It could change lives, handlebars.”

After a pause to digest the words, including the emotion behind them, Trellis spoke. “You wouldn’t be saying it like this unless you’re planning something.”

“I’m not. Even if–”

“Yeah.”

A moment of silence. Hands held, released across tens of millions of miles. Trellis swore he could feel fingers intertwine. Their fights always ended like this.

“I knew this wasn’t a social call,” Flake said. Was that a smile?

“What are you doing?”

“Cleaning up. What are you doing?”

The deer sighed. Loudly. “I don’t know, Flake.”

“Marge told you about the Ivory Hermitage, didn’t she? It’s a huge initiative, you know. They’re just building it in Mars orbit and they’re going to tow it out past the Rim. You’d get to see the whole system, eventually. A Lyrician working for Aldyne, building a colony ship.”

“She…said it was a seed vault.”

“I mean, you looked at the diagram, right? Nobody needs all that space for plants, Trel. Come on.”

Another moment passed. Then another. Gears in the deer’s head began to grind away, chewing at this new information.

“I don’t want to leave the system.”

“I know, dear.”

“I don’t want to leave you.”

“I know, dear.”

“And…I’ll never get another opportunity like this again, will I.”

It was Flake’s turn to sigh. “Not in this lifetime, dear.”

Trellis hated when Flake called him “dear.” It was a blatantly transparent play on words. The jay just could not stop themselves. Even in times of duress, ever the joker. It was one of their most endearing qualities.

“I need to sleep,” Trellis yawned.

“You’ve had a big day. I bet you do, handlebars. Get some rest, think about things. Take a train around the planet, go see your parents or something. You can probably get a mass driver to New Vail somewhere out of Gusev, right?”

“I…I don’t…maybe?”

“I’ll look it up for you and fire it to your pad. Get some sleep. I love you and I’m hanging up for your own good okay? Okay. Mwah. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” Trellis said, the connection closing before he had a chance to return the romantic sentiment.

Two weeks on Mars wouldn’t be so bad, he figured.

 

Registration

“Mister…” said the desk attendant, looking at their datapad, eyes the first to fumble with the pronunciation and mouth the second, “Shee-go?”

Shigo,” the deer said, frowning as he stood. “Long I. That’s me. Just…call me Trellis.”

“Trellis, huh? Like, an arbor. Oh! Because you’re an arborist.”

“Arboriculturalist. And, uh, n-no, because that’s my name,” Trellis replied.

After a highly awkward silence, and after the attendant tried to find anywhere to look other than the deer’s two meter tall frame, they made a face like they’d just dropped a bowl of eggs. “My apologies. This way please,” they gestured down a corridor.

The poured concrete walls of the Aldyne Stellar Agriscience building offered a cornucopia of living color for decoration. Wooden paneling broke up the long gray halls with splashes of brown, bright white light diffused behind it to illuminate the corridors without making it feel too sterile. Fungal cultures grew out of little sconces dotting the walls, remnants of the same types of spores used to bring life to the Martian regolith. Lichens were allowed to crawl the walls on specially made stone lattices, tracing intricate patterns along the corridor. Trellis closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and for a moment, he felt like he was back home in the Cascades.

The echoing clunk of a steel door latch stirred him from his reverie, which he must have been lost in for a while; the assistant was already at the end of the corridor waiting at the interview room. “S-sir?” said the attendant. “Right this way.”

The deer’s eyes flashed open. “Sorry. I, uh. Sorry,” he stammered, continuing, a slight hustle in his walk.

“Director Stoughton will be in momentarily, she’s currently in a meeting that’s running just a bit long. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea?”

“Oh, um. Thanks,” Trellis said, removing his jacket and folding it carefully over the back of his chair. “Sparkling water?”

“Absolutely. Back in a moment,” the assistant said, the door sliding shut behind them, leaving Trellis alone with himself.

Director Stoughton’s office had a picture window overlooking Orion City’s Bell Fields district, hundreds upon hundreds of apartment blocks housing some of Mars’ best and brightest, all employees of the Aldyne Sciences Corporations, all working in Jacob’s Ladder, tarrying between the compound and the condos, raising families, doing work they believed was in the best interests of Lyricians and Humans and everyone yet to be born. Parks dotted the landscape, Hyperion trains criss-crossing the streets between the buildings. Trellis recognized some of the trees from the window, little clusters of paper birch and douglas fir clearly imported from Old Terra to make the residents feel at home.

In that moment, standing behind Director Stoughton’s desk, staring out her picture window, he felt very far away from the Northwestern Territories, and he felt very alone.

“It’s the pride of the company, you know,” came a low, burning voice from behind him. He pivoted. In the doorway stood Margaret Stoughton, her tall, broad frame filling the opening, taller ears barely brushing the top of the entry. “Orion City’s been a piece of the Aldyne corporate infrastructure for over two hundred years, and we take very good care of our own.”

“Looks like a scrip town,” the deer muttered flatly.

“We give our employees everything they need to survive. We only ask for their labor in return, Mr. Shigo,” the serval replied. “But we’re not here to have a labor rights conversation, are we? Quite the opposite in fact. Do you mind?”

“O-oh. Sorry,” Trellis said, quickly finding his seat like the song had stopped in a game of musical chairs. “No, you’re right. I-”

“You’re here because of the letter,” the serval stated, matter of factly.

“I, uh. Yeah. Sort of.”

The door slid open. The attendant wordlessly set a coaster and a glass of sparkling water on the small table between the two chairs in front of the large wooden desk, then exited without so much as a breath.

“A mister Katrena–”

Mixter,” Trellis corrected. “Don’t gender them.”

“No matter,” she frowned, ears flattening, their white tips disappearing behind her head. “‘A little birdie’ referred you, is that correct?” The words came out of her mouth laced with derision, bumping off her incisors and breaking loose with the same amount of sharpness.

“Th-they did, yes.”

“I’ve heard about your work on restoring the natural evergreens to the peaks of the Sun-a-do after the Glassing. Very impressive, Mr. Shigo.” Her ears perked, pulling her chair out, taking her seat behind her desk. She began to idly key information into her terminal.

“The UN did a thorough job of obliterating that region of the world, ma’am; I simply did right by the mountains. You can plant a tree but not a forest. A forest is a system. You can’t plant a system.”

“You can nurture one, though.”

“Y-yes, you could,” Trellis said, holding his glass, taking a slightly nervous sip, setting it down.

“Let me be blunt, Mr. Shigo. We were looking for a botanist, someone whose skills were more generalized. You are…not that. Specialized, to be sure, but not quite what we were looking for. But you may be just what we need.”

The deer’s brow furrowed. Not one to ever have held a decent poker face, the frustration became evident. “It was a week-long trip getting out here, ma’am, I don’t understand why–”

“I think — and my team thinks — you would be a perfect caretaker for our long term arboreal storage initiative. We call it,” she said, making a few taps on her console and swiping a document to the picture window behind her, “Ivory Hermitage.”

A tubular structure, spun gravity wheels spaced evenly throughout, appeared behind her. The diagram had some mathematics on it, none of which Trellis understood, but he got the jist; it was a seed vault and science laboratory, a space station pushed into a satellite-like orbit of Mars. The oxygen garden would need tending, there was room to grow all manner of plants, lichens, fungi…even trees.

“Wh…what?”

“You’re a botanist of a sort, as I said. Specialized. We’re Aldyne, Mr. Shigo. We have plenty of scientists of all kinds. Physicists, geneticists, horticulturalists, mycologists, geologists. We have arboricultralists too, but none with your reputation. Stellar Agriscience is one of our newer initiatives and we need a newer mind to help guide our aim. The ceramist guiding the apprentice’s fingers on the pottery wheel, if you will. Do you follow, Mr. Shigo?”

“Can you call me Trellis, please?”

Margaret sighed dismissively, waved her paw, slammed it on the desk. “No. Look, I don’t have a lot of time. You, however, have two weeks of stay booked at one of Orion City’s finest hotels, and a first class Solfed Charter back to Old Terra whether you take the job or not. So give it some thought. Take in the sights. Really consider if this is the right role for you, Mr. Shigo. But bear in mind we hand selected you from literally thousands of possible candidates. Just because you’re the top of the stack doesn’t mean we’re not willing to overlook you.”

“Why did you fly me up here th–”

Her pace quickened, frustrated. “You’d be curating an arboretum in zero gravity. Complete control over its contents, what we store, where it goes, what experiments are run, how the hydroponics are set up. Hell,” she said, stifling a laugh, “if you wanted to grow Ganymedan Poppies, we couldn’t stop you.”

Trellis took a moment to catch his breath. “What’s the catch?”

“No catch, Mr. Shigo. It’s a permanent contract. Full medical, full dental — lord knows you’ll need it with all those teeth, something something gift horse,” she chuckled, Trellis making a disgusted look at her prejudiced comment, “and a substantial stellar habitat stipend to spend both in orbit and on the surface as you like.”

The deer’s silence was telling.

The serval smiled, teeth bared, predatory. “Look, Mr. Shigo. You can enjoy your two weeks on Mars any way you like. I’m not here to tell you what to do. You want to go back to your little nothing cabin in your big nothing woods north of a metropolis full of criminals and poors, that’s a decision you can come to on your own, as an adult. I’m offering you a way out.”

She stood up and clicked something on her terminal, the wireframe diagram of the Ivory Hermitage disappearing, the vista of the residential blocks of Orion City returning to full view.  “A fellow Lyrician heading a stellar initiative. Not many of our kind can say that,” she purred. “Not many at all.

“Frankly, Dr. Aldyne sees something in your perseverance that I, too, find admirable. I’m here to conduct a hire, and I think you’re the right deer, dear. Since you already took the liberty of signing the non-disclosure agreement I’ve had my attendant deliver all the FOUO data I can share on the program to your datapad for review at your leisure. Take your time to study the information, the description of the role, and get back to me one way or the other.”

Trellis sank into the chair as far as he could, lost in thought, staring at his boots, trying to find any imperfections he could focus on, any small crevice he could escape into. “I have a question,” he said to the floor.

“What,” Margaret sighed.

“What did Flake say about me, exactly, that got you to message me?”

Mixter Katrena referred you to the program because they suggested, and I quote,” she said, grabbing a datapad off her desk and clearing her throat, “‘Handlebars knows that run-down nursery of his is only capable of growing irradiated little aloe plants. I’m tired of seeing him fret over dying flora when he could be nursing seedlings to new life.’ Your record in the Sun-a-do Restoration Project from the United Nations also helped in our decision, but frankly your passion for the work often speaks for itself.”

“I’m sorry?”

“‘He’s a nurturer,'” the serval said, once again quoting from the report, “‘practically a druid. The man has a way with plants. He sings to them, he treats them as a mother would their children. As his friend, his lover, and his family, I cannot think of a single individual whose thumb is greener than Trellis Shigo’s.'”

“They…Flake? Said that about me?”

“And, if I may, Mr. Shigo, whether you’re aware of it or not, their voice is at its loudest among those of our kind here on Mars, particularly after the McMurdo Concordat.”

“I’ll…” Trellis started, trailing off, pausing, losing himself in his memories. “I’ll need time to think.”

The door slid open, carefully timed, the attendant waiting just outside in the corridor. “You have two weeks, Mr. Shigo. Take as much of it as you need.”

[next: https://steller.space/2020/12/11/consideration/]

Outside

The smooth greased-metal sound of sealbolts whirring into place as the inner airlock door clenched itself into a solid seal between the cabin and what was about to be hard vacuum, the metal thud barely audible in his helmet assuring the deer that depressurization was a guarantee. Trellis grabbed the cuff around his suit glove and wiggled it just to be sure it was snug and locked into place.

[Inner seal confirmed. Pressure equalization in progress.]

“Nervous” was maybe close to the right word. After all, hard vacuum is pretty much the end of it, really. You can tell yourself this is routine, I’ve done this a hundred times all you want, but nothing is stopping metal fatigue or a loose suit seal from resetting your expectations.

The heads-up display in his suit helmet lit up, orange and yellow and subtle, meters showing available power, available respimix, vital signs, a compass, a clock sparking to life. “Everything a growing spacer needs to feel secure,” his trainer had told him.

He took a deep breath. A gauge on the wall counted down the time to cycle. The breath was reflexive — the suit was perfectly capable of generating the necessary breathable atmosphere to ensure he was comfortable — but it never stopped Trellis from doing it every single time.

In that moment, as the timer ticked down, the deer reached for the maglock toggle on the suit’s thigh. The button gave without a second thought, and the suit’s HUD confirmed the disengagement with a pop-up notification. Trellis applied the gentlest little push angling off the deck plate and began to rise, his gloved hands brushing against the top of the airlock.

He was floating.

[Magboot disengage not recommended]

He keyed the ACK button on his wristpad. He knew.

[Pressure equalized. Outer door seal disengaged.]

The timer exhausted itself, the yellow triangle light winking out, turning to a green circle. The outer airlock door clunked apart, the metallic whirring of the sealbolts unbinding themselves and retracting as the door slid open to reveal the vacuum of space.

Thumbing the toggle again to remagnetize himself, Trellis stepped out onto the catwalk and began making his way to the tidally locked front of the seed vault station.

“I love the color,” he would say to the other caretakers when they’d ask what his spacewalks were for. They didn’t know he’d been in contact with the Lyricians at Phobos Lab to help rebuild some of the agridomes there, smuggling seed packets in their returned supply canisters. They didn’t know it was to look at the verdant patches on the Martian surface near New Orion or Holyoke Green.

He gripped the railing and stared at the red planet’s surface. The station would be passing Syromyatnikov Plateau soon, the bringer of war’s largest boreal reserve, and their fruit forests were coming into season.

Trellis reveled in its verdant reaches.

Morning

It felt like every bump in the gravel on the way out of Trellis’ driveway telegraphed itself directly into the seats of Flake’s little runabout, the sounds of creaking plastic and shuddering frame filling the cabin.

“Just a little farther,” Flake muttered.

“It’s my driveway! I know how far it is,” Trellis replied.

“That was more for the car than for you,” the jay crowed, clearing the final pothole and emerging onto the forest service access road leading to the freeway. “Good lord! When are you gonna pave that thing?”

Silence from the passenger’s seat. Trellis was gazing back at his home, furrowing his brow and narrowing his eyes to see its lights through the thick haze of the morning fog. “Why would I pave a driveway I barely ever use?” he muttered.

“Oh, come on now, soursticks. You go to the nursery like twice a week. Besides, that little truck of yours has gotta be about thirty years old by now! You’re gonna shake that thing apart. You can’t just neglect your access road, y’know.”

More silence. Not a word. Their friend’s focus was clearly elsewhere, and attempting to jar it loose would take more than snide commentary about property upkeep.

Moments passed as quickly as the roadway signs and turn-outs. Flake thumbed the radio presets, not really to listen as much as to fidget. The deer slouched against the window, watching the sun cut knives through the mist in the trees.

He sighed. The mood in the cabin changed. The bird flinched at the noise, unexpected.

“You miss him, don’t you,” Trellis asked, quietly.

Flake stiffened, sat taller in the seat, and the vehicle swerved slightly when their grip on the wheel tightened with the motion. The seat belt’s limiter ratcheted. “I don’t want to talk about this. Not with you, Trel.”

“We’re going to have to, you know.”

“We’re not.”

“It’s been six years.”

I’m aware.”

“You know he still calls, right? He’s been asking about you. Wants to get together with the two of us for dinner.”

Slowing to a stop at an intersection, the steller’s jay palmed the right hand blinker and checked their corners. They sighed, touching their forehead to the wheel as another vehicle blasted through the stop sign in the opposite direction. “Trellis. He wanted to tear ass around the country, see the sights. I wanted to stay right where I was. It was an addiction. Marder was never going to be a good fit. I don’t miss him any more than I miss smoking.” They raised their head, turned to look at the deer, only saw silver mane furtively shifting towards the passenger window. Flake frowned. “Can we please change the subj–”

“Fine, fine. Sorry to bring it up,” Trellis replied, cracking the window. “I just…I wonder. I wonder what things would be like if you and I–”

“Never would have happened,” Flake interrupted.

“It almost did.”

“It didn’t almost did. We fooled around. We knew better. You, you, you and I were never…Trel, we were never that way.”

The blinker shut off as the runabout rounded the corner, swinging on to the exit ramp in the dawn’s early light, the sun starting to burn the fog off the freeway. The drive was mostly silent, save for the static crackling over the light jazz and occasional chatter on the radio. Trellis was focused on the trees as they flashed past the window, taking little notes in his journal, doing little sketches of the evergreens and the leafy trees giving up their protective garnishing in anticipation of the coming snow.

Flake, of course, was focused on the road. But they allowed themselves a stolen glance at their lifelong friend, college roommate, confidante, aloe source, sometimes rescuer of the wayward houseplant here or there.

And the jay smiled.

We probably could have been that way, though, Flake thought to themselves. Maybe. Just not then, and not there. The love Flake felt was more friendly than fiery, but it was there all the same. Trellis had to know that, somehow, the jay figured.

“Coffee sound good?” Flake asked. “Then the farmer’s market?”

“Coffee sounds great,” Trellis replied, wistful.

Summer

God, it was hot. The kind of hot that makes you wish winter still existed. What was left of the day’s sunlight bored through the slats in the vertical blinds, cutting across the apartment’s carpet like fiery blades. Spaceplanes took off and landed, seemingly infinitely, at the spaceport visible from the small apartment’s windows, the loud roars of afterburners drowning out the less-loud drone of the box fans stuck in the window, trying desperately to force hot air out of the western-exposed hotbox of a living quarters.

Flake splayed out on the couch, ice-sweaty water bottle clenched tight in their left hand, television remote in the right, flipping through channels and only pausing long enough to press the damp plastic vessel against their forehead. It wasn’t enough to ease the bird’s hangover, but then again, neither was the twelve-hour nap they started at seven o’clock in the morning.

Keys jingled in the door lock, the jay only acutely aware of it thanks to their temporarily heightened sensitivity to…well, everything. The door handle turned, the slick grinding of metal-on-metal mechanisms clunking into place thundering in the bird’s ears like the march of a thousand New Terran soldiers marching across the plains.

“When did you get in?” came the voice from the foyer, deep and northern, thick and grave like the ash of a forest fire sifting through a smoky breeze.

“When I felt like it,” moaned the bird.

“Jesus,” Trellis frowned. “Are you staying hydrated at least?”

An arm thrust weakly upwards from behind the back of the couch, rattling a water bottle full of ice cubes.

“Well, at least you have that going for you,” the deer mused. “Are you okay?”

The arm fell back to its place. Flake opened their beak, sprayed some water in it, choked it down. “As okay as I can be, given that I’m out of work, I’ve got no place to go, I’ve turned to my only friend within five hundred klicks, and I’m not aboard some godforsaken jobs transport to the new frontier,” Flake said, affecting those last few words as if delivering a marketing pitch. “Thanks for not changing the locks.”

The deer chuckled. “Thanks for not changing anything.”