An excerpt from

Black Box

Kevan Manwaring

Lake opened the sno-cat airlock and stepped outside, his field of vision suddenly filling with a white almost featureless foreground and a deep black sky. With an easy jump he landed softly on the ice, his boots making no sound. He collected his bulky sample case from the external hatch and closed the lock.

            By his side a floating cube moved, shifting planes of light.

        Inside his helmet, in contrast to the austere silence around him, Chinese death metal thrashed out, fed directly to his brain via his Binditm, an Ace of Spade design implanted by his right temple.

            He selected a spot in the compact ice – extending the sample line demarcated by the marker-flags frozen stiffly in permanent salute, and set about taking an ice sample.

            His moves were assured; rendered elegant, almost, by the buoyancy of the low gravity.

        Through his thick gloves he slowly managed to operate the opening mechanism and initiate the core sampler, its drill extending into the ice. His hands seemed to remember what to do.

            Muscle memory.

            But when he stopped to think, his mind went blank.

            The scene felt familiar and alien at the same time. Déjà vu, within a dream.

            While he watched the titanium bit do its work, gouging into the skull-like texture of the ice, Lake stopped to take in his surroundings for a moment, to stop his head from spinning. A pain behind his temples, as though it was his cranium being trepanned.

            Being alive felt like a tight-rope walk, a balancing act over a void.

            You could get across if you didn’t look down.

            Through his boots, he could feel the vibration of the drill.

            To his side stood the rhomboid chassis of the sno-cat with its wide caterpillar tracks, its bright orange paint job incongruous against the cool blues of the vast snowscape around – its three connected cabs blinking with lights and bristling with antennae, sensors and safety equipment, insectoid.

            He arched his back to look up.

            Stars, beyond reckoning. The universe shaken into new patterns. Constellations, rendered unfamiliar.

            And stretching out around him as far as the eye could see.

            Ice.

        A chunk of ice the size of Iceland being pulled through space by his tug, five hours back across the berg.

        What a place to end up.

        Lake scryed the blackness for meaning, contemplating his fate. Could he have known it, by reading the stars better? Could he have discerned the trajectory of his life from them, triangulated his destiny?

        What strange geometries guide us, he thought.

        The sampler finished its drilling and began to extract the cylinder of ice, which exuded from the head like a stool. Lake unclipped this and packed it carefully in the silver tube of the flask.

        Here was history, on ice.

        A timeline, preserved in crystal. Each band was a century, a blip of human history: resource wars, leaps of technology, year zeros, anniversaries, regimes, peacetimes, unions, rifts, wastelands, the resurgence…

        Whatever.

        Lake looked out across the endless ice scape, framed by the black.

        No matter how many times he stared, he could never get it to mean anything. It was just ice. Stupid, fucking ice. His albatross, his millstone. Whatever the fuck they were. No, scratch the poetic. Just ice. Three trillion tonnes of it, like a whole crummy ice age. His responsibility, his burden, to lug.

        To another star.

        His visor was tinted against the glare, a harsh sheen which seemed to want to personally needle him. Some sad souls might find this soothing, might enjoy the solitude, see it as some kind of romantic fucking delusion. But he was no poet. He just drilled, crossed and lugged ice. That was his job, or his sentence. Sometimes they felt like the same thing. An endless routine of brain melting boredom. The stars might change, infinitesimally, each day, but everything else was the same. The same fucking sno-cat. The same fucking sampler. The same fucking vista. Yes, the ice was sculpted by the strange processes of gravity and time into weird shapes – Hell, it was his own private Lunarheim. Marking the bore, Lake contemplated it as he got back in the sno-cat, followed by the glowing Q-bot, and set off on his round … driving across the vast ice-shelf.

 

Inside the cab of the sno-cat Lake’s shit was everywhere. He flung the digital clipboard on the passenger seat amid the detritus. Festering food pouches, rags, puzzling pieces of hard-ware and wiring, soggy tissues, phials, test samples… One day he’d get around to clearing it up. He was sure some life form could grow amongst the squalor otherwise, but hey, at least he would have some company.

        ‘Captain Lake, is there something I can be assistance with?’

        The male voice made Lake nearly jump out of his skin.

        He turned to see the pulsing cube, hovering in the back of the cab.

        ‘Jeez, you nearly gave me a fucking coronary!’

        ‘Your life-signs show a spike, but they are now normalizing.’

        ‘Thanks. And you are?’

        The Q-bot seemed to blink. ‘Butler, sir. Is there a problem with your memory? Do you want me to run a neural scan?’

        Lake shook his head. ‘No … that’s okay. Let’s get going.’

        It slowly came back to him. The maintenance unit. Of course. He had resisted anthropomorphic sentimentality. It was just a lump of metal, programmed to maintain the ship, the crew of one. For a while he had called it a real name, something Italian, but it had felt too romantic for an appliance. He’d forgotten what it was. Mussolini or something. Anyway, he was hardly lord of the manor – just another system to maintain.

        He moved off, following the sno-cat’s well-worn tracks.

        It was as though the vehicle knew where to go. He didn’t even have to think about the route. The scenery, such as it was, past slowly by, giving him time to reflect as the sno-cat rattled and creaked along.

        Strange forms emerged out of the mini-blizzard churned up by the sno-cat’s progress.

Over the months he had come to know and name each of the Penitentes, the natural ice sculptures on his round. Their elongated twisted forms were suggestive of humanoid forms, to the point he always did a double-take when he caught one at the corner of his eye.

        Nature abhors a vacuum, and Lake certainly detested this one.

        Yet these ice sculptures were the closest he had to human company.

        Butler, on the other hand, was little more than pain in the butt. The ultimate square.

        That little stump he thought of as … Kracznik. The name came to him instinctively. The associations followed, like blood into a wound. He was a … modeller of some kind. As he passed by he always heard him come out with some dour wise crack, his Polish accent thick like borscht.

        The broad shouldered one, well that had to be Maddox – the grumpy old British git. Lake greeted him cheerfully, knowing he’d get a gruff response from the engineer, his Yorkshire accent comically gloomy.

        Again, where these associations came from, Lake did not know. They were just captions in an exhibition and he noticed at them with casual interest.

        Next, there was the slender form of Benveniste, the French oceanographer, with her beautiful swirling contours like a frozen wave – he loved the way the starlight caught on them, like beads of sweat…

        Then the Japanese biomedic, Masaru, kneeling at her Shinto shrine – shaped like the sign of Pi.

        That muscular, squat form, the Maori pilot, Dru.

        Then, over the ridge, as the cat traversed the narrow ice-bridge to Delta section, the three figures he had come to know and loathe.

        The rigid form of Massimo, chief scientist, poised like a bird of prey about to strike; Boone, base commander, foxy but formidable, not to be under-estimated. Then the wiry form of Jefferson, security, reserved, eyes glinting like shards of ice, coolly observing.

        Simulacra, yet they produced in him an instinctual antipathy.

        He liked to spray ice against their flanks as he skidded past, giving each an extra layer of ice-crystal. Slowly, changing their forms like a bad skin disease. It was good to leave some kind of mark on this landscape, some sign that he had been there. Otherwise the days, weeks, months blurred into one with no clue as to the relentless passing of time.

        Stuck inside a frozen hour-glass, that’s what it felt like.

        The sno-cat vibrated beneath him, giving a curmudgeonly grumble on the slopes. It was due for a maintenance check soon, he thought dully. Another thing on the endless to do list.

        Every now and then he would stop the cat at one of the monitoring stations – a metallic orchid of sensors against the white – alight and check everything was as it should be.

        As it always was.

        The condition of the ice was fine – its core temperature regulated by the freezer units against the extremes of space. At any time, one side of the ice could be absolute zero, the other, experiencing hundreds of Celsius.

        His smart-suit cooled or heated him accordingly. It could maintain a comfortable medium for up to an hour at a time, then he’d have to return to the cat, with its more powerful shields and life support systems.

        His daily round took a good ten hours.

        By the time he got back to the tug he was usually beat.

        He’d stop now and then for a coffee break, helmet off, breathing in the stale air of the cab. His cup of joe still tasted crap, no matter what flavour bean he programmed. He sipped the sour liquid, cradling its steaming warmth. Feet up on the dashboard, massive boots half blocking out the view, the ice slowly melting on them, forming a map of puddles, perhaps a Greek isle or another archipelago of memory.

        Lake ran his hands – free from their unwieldy mittens – through his long growth of dark beard. He caught his reflection in the screen: shadow-eyed, pale-skinned, his hair falling in lank brackets about his once possibly handsome features. ‘Jeezus, you look shit,’ he spoke to his reflection. He was sick of seeing his own ugly mug day in, day out. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen a human face, a flesh-and-blood one that is, not some holo-recording or ice mummy. It had been years. How long, he couldn’t recall, but too fucking long.

        On the dashboard he had gouged with his icepick nicks – one for each day on the ice. They had covered the surface until he had run out of space. Each one was minutely different – an esoteric alphabet for future archaeologists to decode. Not that they would discover anything interesting. Lake had long ago lost the ability to discover any meaning in his life. He had once looked back and tried to discern a path, significance, anything, and had failed. If there was a causality, as with the apparent miracle fluke of life in the universe, then it had been long lost. The collision of atoms, elements, the chance encounter of quarks. Random events.

        It was a big lonely universe out there.

            Lake shrugged off his fug, and fired up the cat, heading back to the Point. The ice peninsula narrowed to its headland where massive anchors attached it to the tug. Across the gulf the tugship, shaped like a palaeolithic hand axe, pulled the ice shelf through the depths of space, propelled by the Dark Light drive – its vast scoops extending from the sides of the berg like black wings.

        Lake parked the cat and put his helmet and gloves back on.

        Collecting the sample, he closed up the cat and exited the lock, followed by Butler. Slowly, wearily, he walked over to the safety platform connecting the ice to the tug. After the third attempt it fired up, and with a judder carried him over the star-strewn void, a fragile basket cradling the soft matter within the suit – a heartbeat, a brain, the flame of consciousness.

        Halfway across the platform came to a halt.

        ‘Crummy piece of shit.’

        Butler hovered before him in the gulf, glowing in the dark. ‘Is there a problem, sir?’

        Lake gave it a kick and it continued doggedly onwards. It brought him to the rear of the tug, and the sphincter of its lock. He alighted with his sample case, and punched the controls, waiting for the ship to let him in. He looked back at the wake of the berg – a vast frozen shelf of precious, life-giving water. The flanks of the ice were punctuated by the nimbus of thrusters, their coronas like lunar rainbows, connected and controlled by Sentience, the ship’s AI, guiding it through space, steadily, to its destination a million light years ahead.

        The dock hissed and opened and he entered, Butler sliding passed him, awaiting decontamination and de-pressurisation. Red lights flashed around him; a laser swept his body. He was accepted. The inner lock opened with a lover’s sigh. He clicked and twisted off his helmet.

        He was home.

        ‘Captain Lake, welcome back,’ spoke the purring feminine tones of Sentience.

        He could almost believe the female voice of the AI was his wife. Except she would have thrown something at him, or froze him out with silent recrimination.

        ‘Sentience, give me some Neil Young. I’m feeling kind of nostalgic today.’

        The AI didn’t reply this was his usual mood on return to the ship, nor comment on the captain’s obsession for Twentieth Century rock.

        Butler was less diplomatic. ‘I think your needle is stuck, sir.’

        ‘Did I ask your opinion? Go do something useful like fix me a drink.’

        Lake stripped out of his suit, hooked it on its rack, and, as the mellow chords and beat-up vocals of ‘Horse With No Name’ kicked in on the ship’s sound system, launched himself along the main corridor to the central sphere. Kicking himself over to the shower unit, he peeled off his base-suit and underwear, which was starting getting distinctly threadbare, and jumped into the pod, flashing his pale, skinny body – his muscle tone shot, looking and feeling like a decade older than he was. The jets sprayed him with a cleanser, which he rubbed over his skin, before steam jets blasted his pores open. He wiped himself down with alcoholic wipes, before an icy blast closed them again.
          Shivering, he slipped out, rubbing himself down vigorously, pulling on his crusty base-suit. He pushed over to the kitchen and punched in his ‘Thursday’ option. While that was being prepared, he unpacked the ice sample from the case and slotted the flask in its reader. The screen flared to life, as the scan activated, detailed charts, lists of numbers … he never bothered to read them. The data was just fired back home.

        Home.

        How many light years away was that away?

        He could check, of course, but that would depress him.

        Fuck it, he was a masochist.

        ‘Flight data.’

        The tesserae which lined the walls around the central sphere of Sentience flickered to life, projecting the route update. Earth way over to one side, the tug half way over, and the opposite side, the destination, the Earth-like planet of Proxima B, in the Proxima Centauri system.

        And in orbit around it, Ithaka.

        Only another six months away – thanks to the Dark Light drive, which harvested the universe’s most abundant resource, like a whale plankton. The arkship had been sent off to the nearest star, powered by it, carrying the flora and fauna, seeds and cells, needed to begin a new Earth.

        The chef-bell tinkled and an overly enthusiastic voice hollered ‘Mmmeal-time! We hope you enjoy this finely-prepared meal customised to your dietary requirements.’ Lake, extracted his tray of differently-coloured mush. He picked at a grey turd that was meant to be roast potato while watching the screen.

        ‘Ithaka status update.’

        The holo-display zoomed in on the destination, enlarging the stranded arkship. It had reached the target planet, but a malfunction had left it stuck in orbit, running dangerously low of the most precious resource in the universe, water.

        The vast ship, ten black orb-shaped biomes attached to the central hub, seven hundred miles long, hosted a portable Tree of Life: genetically-engineered breeding pairs from stored DNA, the recovery files of a biosphere with which they could reboot Project Earth elsewhere. And all housed within immersive simulacra of Earth’s precious habitats: Tropical rainforest; Temperate forest and grasslands; Boreal forest; Savannah; Mediterranean; Desert and Scrub; Taiga; Mountain; Fresh-water; and Ocean. The livefeeds and data-streams showed the Kingdoms going about their Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista and Monera-business.

        Life signs were okay, the atmosphere not bad. But the water was getting tired out, silted, its chemical composition changing, despite the filters.

        No human crew aboard. What had become of them remained a mystery. It was a Marie Celeste (he had to look that one up). Lake needed to deliver the precious water, locked within the ice, and restart its landing programme, for all attempts to operate it from a distance had failed. It was a one-way trip, even with the dark light drive. It had already taken him eighteen point five years. There was no point heading all the way back to Earth an old man – better to live out the rest of his days on another planet, if it proved life sustaining as all of humankind hoped. And if it did not – well, he could just cut loose, wander.

        See what was out there.

        The footage from Ithaka was interrupted by an official message – a face he had come to know and loathe, suited, hair perfect, teeth perfect, beamed at him and began a long tedious micromanagement checklist and briefing, recorded so long ago it did not respond to his food-flicking or hurled abuse. The Company expected the highest standards from its employees at all times. Maintenance of the Company’s property, blah blah blah… What did they think he was, a fucking janitor? He guffawed at the various instructors, while shovelling more mush down him.

        He did not notice the anomalies in the sample, as its analysis scrolled on another screen, its alarming peaks flagged in red.