12. Wintergardens

On The Ice

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

Spegg and the crew left about an hour ago on the pods. They got the Array up and running, but it started shrieking like a bone saw after they left. Figures. I’ll have to try to fix it tomorrow before the first experiment. I don’t think I can deal with that noise for the next six thousand years.

It looks like the fetal pig has found a warm place under the server rack. He’s snoozing quietly next to his feed tube. I should find a name for him.

I can’t feel my legs.

First Morning

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

I seem to remember having breakfast. Powdered eggs. Dried hash browns. Coffee. A microwaved doughnut. I seem to remember that. At least the fact that I had breakfast. But when? I don’t actually remember doing it. I can taste the sugary glaze from the doughnut in my mouth. And there’s a fresh coffee stain on the front of my shirt. I can even feel a touch of caffeine coursing through my veins. All good evidence that breakfast was had. Good enough for me. I had breakfast. The how—and the when—isn’t really important. Time to move on.

The Array is still shrieking. It’s really loud. And it’s scaring the fetal pig strapped to my chest. Hmm. That’s another thing I don’t remember doing. Another mystery to solve. You’d think I’d remember strapping a fetal pig to my chest! It’s kinda nice, though. I can feel the little guy’s heart thumping along with my own. I do like it. The pig straps are really constricting, though. Feels like my chest is about to implode. Oh, well. If you want the rainbow, right?

Anyway, I should get out to the Array field and recalibrate it. Or just reboot the damn thing. See if that stops the noise. Alright, here we go. One foot in front of the other. Just like mom used to say. I just need to find my legs. Now… where would those be? They were here a minute ago. I’m sure of that.

Legs, legs, legs. Every time I start looking I forget what I’m doing. What am I doing? Legs. I’m looking for my legs. What the hell are legs? I’ve no idea. Okay, let’s rewind a bit. I wanted to do something. Something to do with the noise. The horrible, terrible, shrieking noise. Right. I want to stop that. And in order to stop that I need to go outside. And in order to go outside I need to move. And how does one move about in the world? One floats. That’s right, one just floats right on out the door.

Just like I’m doing right now. The door swings open and I’m floating outside. Me and my pig. It’s bright out. Windy. Heavy, sideways snow. I place one hand over the pig and cup another over my eyes. Down the hill, in the valley, I spot the giant, toothy maws of twenty radio antennas screaming into the storm.

Wow!

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

I float out into the weather, across the pack and down the hill, into a wide, flat valley bordered to the north by a ridge of pale nunataks. The shrieking from the antennas is oppressive. The fetal pig squirms and claws at my chest. I give him a few short, comforting taps. “Hang in there, buddy,” I say. Then I float over the the closest antenna.

The dish is red and swollen. Bulging, mad. I lay a hand on it. Do something! it tells me. I have some tools in my bag. I pull them out. A crescent wrench, a diagnostics machine, some fresh DIMMs…. #6 refuses them, slaps the bag into a drift.

Listen! it screams. Listen!

“Okay,” I reply, raising my hands in submission.

I retrieve my bag, take out a set of headphones, and plug in. The ‘phones slide in, wrap around my cochlear nerve. #6 doesn’t wait. Data immediately screams into my brain. The ARC is here. Welcome to the ARC, Wayne Robertson. The other dishes are linked up, too. They start joining in, one after another: #19, #20, #14, #8. More data streams in. Slightly different data. Observational data. Thermal radiation. #12, #16, and #4 come online. Interference from an Aurora. A pulsar. A meteor. #2, #7. #13, #1. They’re scanning for something. #15. Pressing their ears into the sky. #3, #10. Wrenching the noise out of the vacuum of space, funneling it down to the bottom of the Earth. The rest join in. Data sieves into my ear. But it’s all meaningless noise. Space junk: Thuck-thuck-thuck. Sqqeeeeeee. Thip-ccraaww.

The noise stops. All is quiet, momentarily. I sense they’ve found what they’re looking for. Something small. Almost unnoticeable. Just a blip. It sounds in my ear. Blip. Again. Blip. Blip… blip.

Blip blip blip.

BLIP! BLIP! BLIP!

It repeats faster and faster, louder and louder each time. Pounding in my ears. My head swells. It’s too much! Stop it! I’m screaming. They don’t hear a thing. STOP IT!

BLIP! BLIP! BLIP!

BLIP! BLIP! BLIP!

I rip the headphones out. Sharp pain explodes between my ears. Milky, glutinous strands of nerve fiber plunge into the snow. My ears sing.

“Okay, okay!” I plead. “I got it! I’ll figure it out!” I’m screaming, I think. I don’t actually hear myself speak. My ears are destroyed.

I take a breath…. Then, I replay the noise—the blip—in my head. It’s just data, like the rest of the noise. But this little blip of data is unnatural. I can feel it. It’s intelligent. Deliberately forced out into the universe. A tiny little blast of straight lines.

I can do the translation in my head. My eyes roll backward. Waveforms become 1’s and 0’s. Binary. Then… UTF-8. Unicode? Wow, it’s text. Nothing special. Just plain, regular text.

It says… “TELDRS”

I pause. Glance at #6. Run the translation again.

“TELDRS,” again.

TELDRS?

What the hell is that?

Chinstrap

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Chinstrap

TELDRS.

The word is stuck in my head. I don’t know why, but I despise it. And it refuses to leave. It is hammered into my skull, plainly, gallingly, displayed without meaning, without remorse, demanding to be scrutinized, its mystery suffered.

TELDRS.

I despise it and I despise that I don’t know what it means. I try my best to think of other things. I try to think of nothing at all. It is hard. It does work… for a time. But the word always returns. TELDRS. It’s there as I leave the antennas behind and float over the valley toward the water’s edge. It’s there as I comfort the fetal pig, who squirms against my chest. It’s there as my vision falters and the landscape becomes noisy streaks of black and white.

TELDRS.

It is a savage word. I continue to float, imprisoned by it… until I’m floating no longer. I have crashed, or set down, or simply sunk into the mud on the barren, rocky shore. I can no longer tell. My eyes are lost. Broken. The world appears like a giant sleeve has smeared its ink.

Something is here.

I can barely make it out. It is a black and white blur set against a larger black and white blur. The fetal pig is spooked. He must see it plainly. He is panicking. Digging. His hooves are sharp. Sharper than I would have imagined. He’s tunneling into my chest. It is agony. I can’t see to stop him. My blood is gushing. I should be terrified, but the fluid is warm and strangely comforting. The fetal pig reaches my heart. He draws near, curls around it. Sleeps. He is gestating now. He is safe.

But I have no heart for shelter. I am the only line of defense. The blur edges closer, fresh snow crunching under its feet. Closer. I raise my fist, preparing to lash out. Then it makes a noise: a bright, honking sound. I give a start, but quickly realize my foolishness. The blur is only a penguin. A little chinstrap. I laugh, both embarrassed and relieved.

I reach out and snap his neck.

TELDRS.

Inside

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

BlindAndHappy

I don’t immediately surrender the penguin’s body to the ice. It’s mine for a while. I blindly pull it close and take its heat with my palm. Rub its head. The penguin’s flesh is slick and tough and smells like cold earth. I cup it behind the neck, its flippers hanging on the ground, and brush my palm over its eyes. I feel that they are closed, then lay my palm on its chest. What’s left of the bird’s warmth ebbs quickly. He is done. I let go of the penguin and it slaps the ground hard and rolls. He’ll freeze solid within the hour and stay that way probably forever.

There’s nothing left to do, so I straighten to go. The air feels lighter now and has a slight charge that I can feel in my skin. Another storm gathering. Somewhere, not so far off, the wind howls—then quickly louder and more shrill—as if it has rounded a corner.

I turn around, hands out, somehow trying to sense the right direction to go. Ten or twenty meters the wrong way and I might find myself in the middle of the sea. I don’t want that.

Then unwillingly, I’m moving. Floating. Not over the ice, but down, straight down into it. Through it. My vision returns in a flash. I’m being whisked along, past bursts of frozen, puffy clouds and sparkling blue capillaries—speeding, full-bore into the darkness, to the core, to the heart, to the ancient, crackling, icy muscle deep at the center of the continent.

Frozen. Miles below the surface.

Nothing but cold and crushing pressure here. But the temperature soothes me. And the pressure is a strong, comforting embrace.

The ice crackles and groans, sound waves barreling in, some reaching out from the very edge of the continent. They are voices. Speaking to me. Welcoming me.

I call out to them.

Sotto Voce

Friday, September 11th, 2015

SottoVoce

Beneath the surface, deep inside the ice, Antartica is a menagerie of sound. The glacier crackles and shivers and pops. Hollow, glottal thuds shamble in from uncertain distances and painful shrieks caused by the release of extreme pressures drill your ears. It is constant. You might think that this cacophony is the voice of Antarctica, but you’d be wrong. This is just the rattling of the engine. Its true voice is found between all that noise, haunting the negative space, betwixt the mindless crackling, thudding, and shrieking, formed in those brief pauses where the sounds aren’t. What resolves is a monstrous, sunken voice—an old, haunting sort of awareness.

And it is angry: despising the spoiling heat from above and below and hateful of any life within.

The continent had accepted me at first. It’s true voice expressed its love, time and time again. Epochs lumbered past. We were the same. We are the same. But although time moves slowly down in the ice, time does move. And it was only a matter of time before the continent learned of the tiny passenger coiled around my heart.

It cannot abide this burning life. It tells me this. It is wrong. It is opposite. The claws and teeth of the continent try their best to get to it, but I am stronger, even this deep in the glass. I have lived more recently, my will remains fierce, and I repudiate the continent with all that I am worth.

It does not go quietly. Thick layers of ice shift over the Earth’s crust. Loud, baleful pops and hollow thuds slam into my head. Cracks and furrows gouge the ice, searching, seeking, like semi-conscious knives that have somehow caught the scent of my heart. Somewhere, far off, something huge is collapsing, exploding. Stentorian demands in Antarctica’s ancient, ragged tongue shiver through the ice.

Rend that foul thing from your chest

I push back. I form a pocket of air around me, hurling tens of thousands of miles of ice away from the pole. The continent groans, cries out in pain, as if I’ve broken its back.

But it can’t last. Levered against the planet’s iron core, the continent hauls back, closing the gap with one powerful, authoritative strike.

I am crushed. Flat. My mind, slow. I can’t protect it anymore. I can’t… think. I feel the glacier’s hands working on me, clawing, despoiling. It is impossible to resist.

Next: Book II