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 northwestern 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 cascades…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. The silence became uncomfortable.


“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 care about 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.”

A pause. The water stopped. Silverware clanking around loudly in a drawer.

“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 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/]