It was so white you couldn’t believe it. Just an even keel, this infinite circle of snow radiating out into the distance from their shuttle. The only thing Sawyer had ever seen like it was the sky once flying into Dallas Love Field: the endless clouds had spread beneath her plane like pastureland, then swallowed her up on the descent.
Once freed from the shuttle pilot and his atmosphere readings, disarms, and crosschecks, the research team stumbled out into the snow. They were six, helplessly dorky in black and orange parkas. Before long three of them started a snowball fight. The meteorologist, the chemist, and the botanist. They gallivanted about like ungraceful children. The blister cold of Sawyer’s first alien atmosphere lashed at her hair and at the seams of her tactile gloves.
Chris tapped her shoulder. Can you believe it? he signed. Under the clear shield of his mask he wore the smile of someone who’d just ridden someone’s coattails to the big time, which, as the assistant and interpreter of an internationally significant geologist, he had.
Like so much cotton, Sawyer signed back. She looked out, considering. Like the Antarctic, but unexplored. And that was what they were, basically: the painfully academic, new-century Heroic Age of Exploration. Shackleton with jet engine shuttles and in-orbit rally stations. Two hundred years ago, on his third expedition to Antarctica, Sir Ernest Shackleton had undertaken an eight-hundred-mile, open-boat journey to seek rescue for his crewmen, stranded together on a tiny island in the Southern Ocean. Sawyer’s own little trip-of-no-consequence, in contrast, was backed by on-board agriculture and drive algorithms and automated docking procedures. Armchair tourism, is what it was.
Because she was a geologist, and to remind Chris to read the briefings, she signed, It’s fifty inches of snow, twenty feet of ice under that, and then a mess of cumulate rock and iron oxides.
It’s fucking cold, signed Chris.
* * *
They put Sawyer and Chris in rooms next to one another at Third Station. The compound was home base for the next three months, a squat, gun-metal shelter split into thirds: living, labs, and mess; one, two, three. In practice it was a lot of narrow corridors. Sawyer’s fellow researchers and their three support staff kept colliding with her around corners. For a deaf woman used to living alone, determining whether or not the showers were occupied was, Sawyer soon discovered, an ordeal that strayed into the mortifying.
Their first day she unpacked in five minutes; she didn’t have much with her. Two of her three travel crates she stacked empty in a corner, the third she did not open, and tucked beneath the bed. Then she went to check out the rest of the place.
On the topographical maps of the exomoon, Third Station nestled in a grid square designated LD-96, though the crew called it the Val. Sawyer had thought the name was a reference to Valhalla, but it was just short for valley, one on Loa, a moon approximately fifteen light-years away from Earth. Sawyer had had to look up that figure when the final approvals had come through, and then she’d lain down on the cool tile of her kitchen floor to think. It had been the dead heat of an Austin summer. The gold afternoon sun through the blinds had painted her body in straight lines. She imagined this dark and featureless place not meant for human analysis or even awareness. She imagined its forsaken silence, which had been a pretty stupid thing for her to do, all things considered.
“The color of the sky,” the meteorologist was saying. Their second night, all nine of them crowded around the mess’ one long table. Humanity, Sawyer thought, full of boxed jambalaya, had mostly solved the taste problem of ready-to-eat food.
“The color of the sky is really quite something,” the meteorologist said. “Gliese 876 has this particular shade of aquamarine through Loa’s atmosphere. It’s beautiful.” Like the rest of them, this was his first time on extrasolar ground. Humanity had also mostly solved the problem of space’s great gulf of distance; it was just a months-long, expensive as hell solution. Sawyer had not dwelt on the grand total typed across the bottom of her award letter.
“Thanks for the forecast, Doppler Dave,” said the botanist. Sawyer could read lips, but Chris sat beside her with his elbows on the table, translating what she missed. Sawyer only worked with interpreters. All that implant and voice reproduction tech was tinsel. A person right in front of you; that was something you could rely on.
“Atmo optics is weather of no consequence,” the meteorologist replied. “My favorite kind.”
“What a terrible thing for a scientist to say,” chastised their astronomer. They all had a good laugh. The six of them were experts in their field, on a moon that only experts in their field would ever care enough about to visit. The words ‘no consequence’ put the heart across them.
Sawyer turned in early. Chris asked her if she was okay and she signed that she was. She took a shower and brushed out her hair in front of the lavatory mirror. Back in her tiny room, she locked the door and slid her crate out from under the bed, and then opened it on her small metal desk. Inside was a plague pile of notebooks. She rummaged, taking out the only one that was not completely filled, and then sat for a minute flipping through the equivalences and grids of percentiles and long strings of numbers behind the decimal. She reached the page she’d saved and thought, yes, right about now I could use something familiar. She put away the crate and began to write.
All this was nothing, her night project. She didn’t even mean anything by it. On the page she’d turned to, Sawyer had transcribed the latest iteration of her equation to find the probability of the death of Lisa Serandon.
Lisa had been Sawyer’s girlfriend in graduate school. She’d been on a stint with Doctors Without Borders in Bosnia and Herzegovina when it happened. This was the story: a civil war had flared up, turning the city in which Lisa had been living, Sarajevo, into a shell of a place with not buildings but a smatter of good and bad cover. The streets an inch deep in glass. Gape wounds in the walls. Lisa, hidden out with school children in a mosque, had been unable to move for two full days. On the morning of the third day, she had leaned out of a window to gauge the situation—leaned, not leaped out, not shouted or waved—and an M224A1 60mm shell had crashed through the parietal bone of her skull. She was twenty-eight.
At first pass, the equation was just a matter of analyzing the statistics of a chance meeting: the mortar shell and Lisa. But devils, details. If you did things right, you’d have to parse out Lisa’s entire life, every experience driving every minute decision that put her in that recruitment meeting at UT. You’d have to consider the other side too: the development history of the ancient M224; the world stage maneuvers that put one, with ammunition, into the hands of Serbian rebels. And at the crux, the physical facts of that morning. What had put Lisa in that exact position at that exact time? What errant gust of wind had nudged the shell—an explosive with an effective range, when fired, of 3,500 meters—into a trajectory in line with the only window in Sarajevo with the love of her life leaning out of it?
* * *
Sawyer’s turn to employ Third Station’s shuttle arrived their fourth day on-moon, so early that morning the pilot flew her and Chris north, along the short mountain range that the Val curved up into. The astronomer tagged along. She wanted to escape the ice-gray pall hanging over the station. She sat across from Sawyer and Chris, her pack on her knees. “It’s a telescope,” she told them. “Deployable.”
The shuttle’s instruments detected the caves after thirty-five minutes. The pilot put them down on a smooth stretch of ground thirty feet away.
It was overcast here too, unfortunately for the astronomer. Negative 40 degrees Celsius. The three of them put on their masks and fitted hoods and trudged out into the snow with their equipment. Everything around them white snow, black rock.
In total, there were three caves, each free-standing out on the icy expanse, which was what made them special. From the air they looked like three monstrous eggs, or the ancient barrows of space-faring kings. Down here, you could see that a million years of wind had cleaved their southern faces into open wounds, and they looked like three great eyes, whorls of blue-green ice fifty feet tall, clinging to the underside of the hollow rock. At the mouth of the first cave Sawyer stopped and looked up. Like Hokusai’s Great Wave. A whirlpool stopped in time and turned over on its side.
Chris tapped her shoulder. Star lady says, “Holy shit.”
The first scans of the caves had been sent to Sawyer by an old colleague, a tech on a mining vessel. Three formations, hollow, miles from any evident tectonic violence. In the last five years Sawyer had published three papers positing theories on their formation, and now here she was, finally, in-person.
Inside, she kept fumbling tools and pieces of the hollow drill out of excitement. She just couldn’t believe this was actually it. Since Lisa’s death, Sawyer had very carefully separated her life into halves: her professional endeavors and grief. Fifteen years had made her an old hand, and right now she was Sawyer Davis, Ph.D., and she was breaking rocks on an exomoon.
Wow, signed Chris, grinning at her. He was handsome, a lanky white kid from Houston with a cultivated nonchalance. This is like rapture for you, isn’t it?
Sawyer told him to be careful. She looked up at the beauty of it. Is it echoing? she asked.
What is Dr. Grace saying?
She’s talking about how it’s like a giant geode. It was a decent comparison.
Sawyer took mineral samples from a patch of exposed rock and then they set up the drill. Dr. Grace looked on in mild interest. She asked what they were after, exactly, and Sawyer waved Chris on. This was part of his post-doc work, after all. He explained that at this point the nature of the caves’ formation was between two possibilities: one event millions of years ago, or a series over that long. Sawyer had argued the former, a prehistoric day so cold that, as the molten rock hit the surface and expanded, ice formed beneath from the water of a suddenly-exposed spring. The ice froze so fast it kept the new stone from collapsing.
Sawyer keyed in for depth and core width and let the quarter-million-dollar machine do its work. She couldn’t hear the drill, but she could feel its small, measured vibrations.
There was an hour to kill. Sawyer took a walk farther into the cave. The crystalline ceiling almost immediately began to slope down—you could fit a crop duster inside, but soon she was forced to duck under the huge ribbons of ice. Eventually it was impassible. She found an interesting niche near the geometrical center of the cave that had a floor of solid, black ice. Sawyer tapped at it with the heel of her boot. If they had time, she’d have to see if they could fit the drill in here. She crouched under the low ceiling, estimating, then checked her tank’s oxygen readout. Normal.
She headed back. She was halfway to Chris and Dr. Grace, looking out through the entrance at the waxy white landscape of Loa and their sleek, winged shuttle across the way, when she heard, as clear as a bell in the form of what must have been sound, it could not have been anything else, “Sawyer.”
Sawyer stopped in her tracks. She looked to the left and to the right. More than anything, it was like someone had brushed a funny bone nerve in her head, and a heat wave went up Sawyer’s body under her mask and her oxygen tank and the stifle of her parka. Her skin prickled, almost priapic, and it came again, “Sawyer.”
She recognized her name not because she’d heard it before—she had been born deaf; her mother and father, living now with their Great Danes in Miami, had been born deaf—but because the sound knocked her back into a perfectly clear memory: two delicate hands poised over a coffee shop table, nails painted canary yellow, fumbling out the letters of Sawyer’s name. Just the sound of it. Sound, Sawyer discovered, was a sensation without source, or rather a sensation that ignored the usual filters and inserted itself like a lovely sliver of glass into the folds of her primary auditory cortex. She reached up to hold her forehead but her fingers knocked against the mask’s visor.
There were other things said, but Sawyer hardly processed them. Someone was speaking into her ear, and that person—despite the impossibility; Sawyer was more sure of it than she had thought she was capable of being sure of anything—was the dead woman, Lisa Serandon. Sawyer had never heard Lisa’s voice either, but she had watched her say her name. Those pencil-thin lips.
“Sawyer, Sawyer,” said Lisa. Then, “Hello.”
The geologist stumbled like an off-step dancer, her vision a watercolor. Chris saw her, and because he had a good head on his shoulders and because she must have looked very concerned, ran for the hollow drill and tapped it off. The vibrations stopped. The cave relapsed, Sawyer imagined, into silence.
* * *
The equation, in its way, was like an antidote for an incredibly elegant supervirus, the kind that reacted to attempted cures and reconfigured itself in endless, labyrinthine sequences. Sawyer had started it three years after Lisa’s death, and at this point, in the math, the smallest things kaleidoscoped out: Lisa’s girlhood subscription to National Geographic. Her first trip to Europe. Her hair. Lisa’s hair had been beautiful, this long, buttery stream. When Doctors Without Borders had sent her assignment, Lisa had cut it to her shoulders for practical reasons and to symbolize, she said, her shift from vanity into global service. But it had been hard for her all the same. She’d had this beautiful hair her whole life.
In the equation, this was a minute but essential decrease in the probability of Lisa accepting the appointment at all. One of many. Sometimes it seemed to Sawyer that the work actively fought her, though really it was her fault. Or rather, the fault of the human brain. She was just not rigged, as a mere hunting animal, for reckonings of this magnitude.
* * *
They returned to Third Station late for dinner. Sawyer tried to work but in the end put her notebooks away and abandoned her room for the station corridors, turning aimless corners in sweat pants, slippers, and her unzipped field parka. It was by then after midnight. The mess was empty. So was the kitchen.
Sawyer could not fathom it. It wasn’t a question of belief, she just did not get it. The technical cause for her deafness was a genetically malformed cochlea. Not only did people not speak to her from beyond the grave, they did not speak to her, period. Sawyer had read studies about auditory hallucinations in the deaf, but she’d passed a psychological assessment for this very expedition. Things like that were not sudden onset. Was it a question of frequency, then? Did that cave do something strange to sound, bending it so that the vibrations went just right through her stubborn inner ear? Then there was the question of source. Sawyer tried to draw up what she knew about the wave mechanics of sound, which was not much.
By the lavatory she stopped and stood with her forehead against the cold metal wall. There were no windows in Third Station. She waited until she could breathe, and then kept walking.
Turning by the mess hall, she almost bumped headlong into Dr. Grace. The astronomer was speaking to the botanist, the two of them casual in the synthetic yellow dimness of the night cycle lights. The two women turned to Sawyer, almost starting, then relaxed. Dr. Grace said hello. And then everyone became immediately embarrassed. The three of them went through a pantomime of the women asking if she needed something, Sawyer indicating no, she was just heading to the lab. They let her pass, nodding with friendly vigor.
Sawyer decided to make good on the lie and shuffled to the lab. She was surprised to find it lit, Chris reading by the freezer where they’d stored the day’s ice cores. When he heard her come in, he pup-tented his book on the work counter.
Can’t sleep? Sawyer signed.
Chris wore new glasses that made him look like a goggled swimmer. Just reading, he answered. The lab’s a nice, quiet place to sit. He frowned. My room’s too small.
It’s the middle of the night, Sawyer signed, by which she meant, it was quiet everywhere.
Look who’s talking.
Sawyer twisted her mouth and went over to look into the freezer. The cores were mustered neatly along the wall in their temp-lock cases. She thought about tomorrow’s work cutting the cores into sections. She thought about the caves.
I set them in the order I thought we should cut them, Chris signed.
He hesitated. Are you sure?
Yes, she signed, raising an eyebrow at him. He shrugged. Sawyer shrugged back. I just don’t like cutting cores, she confessed. Feels like I’m destroying art, or something.
Wouldn’t coring the ice in the first place be the destructive act? he asked, grinning.
You’re making fun of me.
He looked affronted. Never, he signed, then smiled and rose with his book. We missed you at dinner, he told her, not accusing her of anything.
I was tired. Or at least I thought I was, Sawyer signed.
Chris said he was right there with her and wished her good night. Eight o’clock sharp, she told him.
Alone now, she keyed into one of Third Station’s computers, struck by a vague urge to go over the surface scans of the interiors they’d taken that afternoon. She brought up the files and sat for an hour looking at them. Everything irregular and naturally formed, the numbers assured her, but all the same, walking back to her room, she had this sudden lucid vision. Of a radio somewhere, in a room that had, instead of walls, the starry abyss of the universe. And speaking into the microphone of this radio a woman, a woman she knew.
Sawyer. Sawyer. Hello.
* * *
Chris was Sawyer’s liaison to the rest of the researchers on Third Station, each with their own projects. The meteorologist was studying wind patterns out of Loa’s southern hemisphere, where a storm had been raging for the past twenty-five years. The botanist was experimenting with the survivability of modified species in Loa’s atmo makeup. They had kids and spouses. Chris translated everything over dinner, relayed stories and invitations to card games. Sawyer attended one of these the second week, at which the interpreter merrily cleaned house. Friday night became vid night. The chemist had a penchant for bad horror.
Three weeks in, four of the cores were cut and they’d collected two more from deeper in Cave One. Back to back with Chris in the freezer, Sawyer measured layers of ice under a microscope. They were looking for a layer thick enough to account for the coldest of winters.
One night, after dinner, the meteorologist approached Sawyer with a request from the team for a tour of the cave site. Chris had shown them some photos, apparently, and Dr. Grace’s visit had turned her into a raving ice cave evangelist. “This gorgeous thing on our doorstep and I didn’t even know,” the meteorologist said. “Positively otherworldly.” He laughed.
Sawyer agreed, and on a clear day the next week six of them piled into the shuttle and rumbled 1,500 feet straight up into Loa’s green sky. It was a half hour to the site. The pilot put them down and they gathered into Cave One. Sawyer had code-named it Sarajevo.
This is Cave One, Sawyer signed. Chris interpreted to the group. Everyone looked straight up, as if to catch rain in their mouths. She kept her introduction brief, telling them that the caves had formed during a meeting of incredible heat and incredible cold a long time ago. The other four scientists and the half-interested pilot listened politely and then wandered around, taking pictures. The ice vaulted above them.
“Hold on,” said Lisa, her lips shaping the sounds.
Sawyer’s whole body went electric, a live wire. As best she could, she answered the few questions from those interested. They asked about structural integrity, and time. Just how ancient was all of this? Sawyer told him that was exactly what she aimed to answer. A million years, at least. Chris spoke while Sawyer signed, facing the person who’d asked the question, his masked head tilted almost absently toward the motion of her hands.
When they were through, Sawyer stood and watched her colleagues milling and looking at the ice, touching it, posing shoulder to shoulder. No one jolted, or whipped around at unseen voices. Was it because she was deaf? Sawyer wondered. Was there something biological here, or physical, that required previous silence?
The pilot came up. He spoke to Chris. He was worried about the weather. Sky’s a weird color, Chris half-translated, more for the pilot’s benefit than Sawyer’s.
“But dark over here,” Lisa said. “I like it. Warm-like. Stop.”
To Sawyer the sky looked fine. She looked back into the cave. A few nights ago she’d done some reading about radio telescopes. What she should have known but had not was that the dish itself was not a receptor but a mirror; radio waves bounced off its parabola into the receiving horn suspended in the middle. The dish was this gargantuan switchboard of the heavens.
“Might want to head back soon,” mouthed the pilot.
“You’re speaking loudly,” said Lisa. “Please quiet down.”
Sawyer felt an unexpectedly deep stab of annoyance. The pilot slouched, hands in his jacket pockets. The next time she was due out the caves wasn’t until next week. Well we just got here, she signed to Chris. Tell him to get the fuck over it.
That night they watched something out of the archives, not remastered or even mastered in the first place. It was a monster movie about Antarctica, and Sawyer was surprised at how good it was. The team and the crew arrayed themselves in the mess around the projector screen, bathed together in the soft digital light. Someone thoughtful enabled subtitles for Sawyer’s benefit.
* * *
The middle of month two, forty-five days. Chris started focusing on the third core they’d taken. He talked Sawyer into taking another from the same part of the cave. The drill gave them good, clean ice that churned out a stretch of notably uniform data: a thick layer.
By this point, Sawyer had a special diagram worked up and arranged permanently atop her desk. This of course was not the work she’d come to do; this had happened of its own accord. Here was the diagram: overhead view of the caves. One-hundredth scale. Sawyer had marked the bounds of each entrance and drawn lines from them to the edge of the paper. Over the top of this she’d laid another map, this one of Loa much smaller, with the Sarajevo site dead center. She continued the trajectories out into the solar system, and then into the farther reaches of the stellar neighborhood on a third map, until the lines extended like the beams of searchlights situated atop this cold and lonely moon, scouring the night for some sort of air raid its citizens feared, by the faintest rumblings along archaic communication lines, was on its way.
She counted layers of green ice in the mornings and stole time in her room the rest of the day and into the night. Sometimes she slept through breakfast. When the core data came through, Chris did not have to convince her to drill two more, or to return a third time for rock samples. On the days they flew out Sawyer woke up thinking about Lisa’s voice, just the incredible sound of it. She was still trying to figure what Lisa meant to say, but didn’t her words did have a touch of the SSB ham radio? Lisa spoke her name, said through the void, “Hello,” and had a habit of ending her fragments with the word ‘stop.’ Sawyer had a recurring dream about herself as another person, in another time, receiving news of Lisa’s demise by telegram. Regret to inform you that Lisa Serandon dead. Stop. Caught in warzone. Stop. Body not yet recovered. Stop. But such the way of these things. Full stop.
Over breakfast, Chris imparted rounds of Third Station gossip to Sawyer, signing across the table in the middle of everyone like a secret agent. Dr. Grace and the chemist had become a couple. Sawyer had been on research trips that had resulted in grant babies before, and according to Chris, if this trip didn’t it would not be for lack of trying. Their corner of living quarters was gaining something of a reputation.
Less of a reputation, he told her, and more of a cacophony.
Sawyer made a face. I wouldn’t know.
Lucky you, signed Chris. He’d started growing a beard the first month. It made Sawyer think of Shackleton again.
That night, Sawyer discovered that the percentage of nearby space from which radio waves might have possibly been received, given a potential travel time of fifteen years, was roughly equivalent to the number of shots with which the M224 could have killed Lisa, out of the possible shots it could have taken within its effective range.
She contemplated that for a while. Using the binder of core data she’d smuggled out of the lab, she started to futz around with some numbers and, without warning, the unexpected thing happened. Calculations started working out; probabilities began to look familiar. Vectors, frequencies. Sawyer Davis’ head filled with the geometric.
It was two a.m., so nobody saw her in the halls, or in the dark of the lab, no one heard the hush whir of the computer booting or the wrinkle sound of paper as she rolled up her map of the Bosnian capital and ferried it back to her room. Sawyer, in fact, did not hear it. She stood over her desk and laid down the map, gently making flush the lines, like a draftsman. Yesterday she and Chris had finally pulled a reasonable date for the caves’ origins, somewhat more recent than they’d thought, but still, it had been as she’d expected. One night, so cold, millions of years ago. Now, Sawyer took that number. Working in very broad strokes in her head, she converted it into a degree and began, using just the tips of her fingers, to rotate the maps accordingly. The papers shifted over one another like clockwork. Then she saw her.
* * *
Sawyer dreamed other dreams. There were the ones about Lisa that were really just the two of them living in each other’s space. Coming into the kitchen in the early afternoon and finding her standing in her underwear before the open refrigerator. Complaining about the energy crisis.
* * *
Chris came to her door two weeks out from their departure. Sawyer rose from her chair and stepped over her notebooks and kicked a pile of clothes out of the way. She flipped up a chart on the wall to check herself in the small mirror. Not too bad. The hallway, except for Chris, was empty. Outside it was storming: Sawyer could feel the slight tremor of the walls shuddering under the whiplash. It had come up from the south.
So, we have kitchen duty, Chris signed.
The expedition company had sent details for the team’s departure from Third Station in the form of a heroic, fifty-page electronic document. Shuttle schedules, cargo protocols. The ground staff had already begun to deadbolt the unnecessary exits. Third Station was going dark.
Chris informed her that, as a final hurrah, the team had decided to take everything edible out of cold storage their last night, for a feast. His and Sawyer’s roles, Chris said, were sous chef one and two.
So you want everyone to die of internal hemorrhaging?
Come off it, Chris signed. You love to cook.
It was true. Sawyer appreciated just-physical tasks, their one-dimensionality. Cooking especially, where there was a deadline, and a very clear delineation between failure and success. She asked if this was Beverley’s idea. Beverley was the unofficial master of Third Station’s kitchen. Beverley the man.
Absolutely not. Chris smiled. Sawyer shook her head. Poor Beverley. Displaced by his own hungry brood.
So yes? Chris asked.
Come on, he signed, frowning. You can’t sit everything out. You’ll starve in there. And people wonder about you. Dr. Grace told me today she was worried.
Sawyer shrugged and glanced down the hallway.
Look, Chris signed. He leaned forward. I know Lisa’s anniversary was a few days ago. Obviously, I haven’t said anything to anyone. I understand. I just wanted to make sure everything’s all right.
Sawyer looked at him. She was actually touched. She remembered when they’d first met, six years ago at UT when he’d interviewed as a first-year grad student for the assistant position. Some band t-shirt, head shaved down to the lines of his skull. He’d walked into her office wearing wireless earbuds, devices that were, even in this age, sort of wondrous to Sawyer. Music file in the player, sound in Chris’ ears, but nothing in between. To her he had walked in silence. To someone else in the room, same thing. He’d kept them in the entire interview, but was perfectly articulate with his hands.
Not exactly the image of adolescent doom, but who could have guessed he’d turn into his coif-haired man in a corduroy sweater remembering the death date of a woman he’d never met?
All right, Sawyer signed. She stopped herself from saying anything else about Lisa. She almost said, I’d love you to meet her, but she didn’t.
Great, signed Chris. Smiling, he asked her about the paper they had started that morning, running through a few ideas about format and chart order. Sawyer thought it was a little early for all that. She told him they had to take some time, re-check the data, consider it without bias. Who knows what they had missed.
I think it’s pretty clear, Chris signed. Sawyer frowned. She said they’d talk about it tomorrow. Chris said all right. It’s Friday, he signed. You should come to vid night.
Sawyer promised she would. As she pushed back into her room, she felt more than saw her interpreter peer over her shoulder into the single-lamp murk. She got a bad feeling. Left to his own devices, Chris was not this curious.
She shut the door hard and sat on her bed. She would admit that she did not want Chris to see the mess her quarters had become. But the real danger, Sawyer understood, at least for now, was letting him anywhere near the realization of what she had discovered here. Of him seeing the charts and becoming convinced, as she had become, of Loa as the aural center of something. Aural beyond the normal sense of it. She was afraid for Chris’ mind being knocked like a delicate timepiece off its essential axis, of him falling, as the young do, into the dread consideration of a thing called God.
* * *
Their last foray to the Sarajevo site was the very last shuttle out, at the hour of the team’s final Loan sunset. Chris saw to their packs, Sawyer checked the hollow drill, and they met the pilot out in the stark cold of the evening. He helped her lift the drill up the cargo ramp and then they strapped in and took off. The shuttle rocketed north out of the Val. Everything below them became smaller and smaller circles: the station, the launch pad.
Chris, harnessed in beside Sawyer, waved his hand. I was thinking we have enough for two studies, he signed, jostling with the engines. The mountains swung by through the starboard-side windows.
Sawyer agreed. One for dating the caves and another that explained in-depth the process of their formation.
I don’t think we need this sample, by the way, he told her.
Shows how much you fucking know. Chris laughed, settled back, and closed his eyes.
At the caves it was approaching night. A wind had risen—when the pilot lowered the hatch they were greeted with a steady blast of gray across the steel opening. Sawyer couldn’t make out the caves.
“Here,” said the pilot. He disappeared up into the cockpit. There was an impact as something slid into place, and the hugely bright floodlights at the shuttle’s front and rear beamed on, cutting through the snow. “If you get lost, we meet back here, at the shuttle,” the pilot mouthed to them. They shouldered the equipment and marched into the pale, all those stories coming to Sawyer’s mind about people on expeditions walking out a few feet into a storm to pee, or for a smoke, only to become irrevocably lost by the thinnest of margins.
Inside Cave One, it was sheltered and clear. Sawyer set up the lamp. “Dr. Davis says this won’t be long,” Chris promised on Sawyer’s behalf.
“Night flying’s good fun,” said the pilot.
Sawyer switched on the lamp. Its light refracted up into the ribbons and knots of ice, mixing with the green inside to form a color not unlike beer, making much more light than one lamp seemed to account for. Sawyer let Chris take the drill and led the way to the niche. They had to stop and slide the pack through the snow when the ice came down low enough. Crouched, pushing while Chris pulled, Sawyer tried to stop her hands shaking. She tried to concentrate. It just killed her, absolutely killed her that, whatever happened, this could be her last chance to communicate with Lisa. To otherwise discern the dead woman’s intentions. She hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it, all day, about how tomorrow they would be gone, about how the cost of a return trip would be impossible. The fact was grants like this did not come along twice. If she’d made a mistake in the math, that would be it.
It was close and damp in the niche, completely free of snow. As they took out the drill and locked its pieces together, their perspiration made the ice weep. The niche was way too small for two people. Sawyer felt the vibration when Chris spoke. What? she signed.
I just said wow, he signed back, taking down his hood.
Sawyer pumped her fist when the ceiling proved just high enough to angle the drill down into the well of black ice. Everything in place, she booted the OS, fiddled with the settings, and hit start. The niche turned into a subwoofer. Sawyer waited, looking straight through the drill’s readout. Come on, she thought.
Chris touched her arm. So you’re thinking this is the origin spring? he asked.
Sawyer nodded. It’s got to be.
And then, right on time, with perfect clarity: Lisa. “Sawyer, baby,” she said. “I think I’m waking up now.”
Chris was considering. What about hitting water? he signed. Won’t it geyser up? He didn’t elaborate, but in his boy’s nervous grin were all the ways he pictured such an event killing them on the eve of their triumphant return: the brute impact, hypothermia from being soaked to the bone on a frigid exomoon.
Sawyer looked at the readout. She looked at Chris. The lamplight made a glare across her face mask. We’re not drilling that deep, she signed to him.
“Get ready for a breath of fresh air,” Lisa warned.
The drill’s touchscreen read five percent. Sawyer might as well have been naked for how she was trembling. Music, of a sort, had filled the niche. She looked out toward the cave mouth. The pilot was sitting alone, looking like he wanted something, a smoke maybe. She looked at the light and the twist of the storm outside.
Oblivious, Chris tapped her shoulder again. You look like you’re ready to go home, he signed.
Sawyer stared at him. She felt exactly the opposite.
“One woman show,” Lisa said.
Ten percent. Twelve. Sawyer considered. She’d now stood in this cave dozens of times, and each time Lisa had only spoken so that Sawyer could hear. Only she, the deaf woman, alone at the center of the universe’s sound. To see this she had to be alone.
Sawyer looked at Chris, this boy. She thought.
They must have looked like something out of an old war vid coming up to the pilot, Chris’ arm around Sawyer’s shoulders, her sagging under his weight. With his other hand Chris gripped the back of his head. Blood oozed down his neck and matted his hair.
“Holy shit!” said the pilot, shooting up. “What happened?”
“Hit his head,” shouted Sawyer in her own, hardly-used voice, the words vibrating round and unfamiliar in her mouth. “Sharp ice.”
The pilot helped Sawyer sit Chris down in the snow, then looked at the wound and swore again. Chris was groggy, blinking at the ground. He closed his eyes. He opened them again.
There was a back-and-forth. The pilot told Sawyer that the cut was bad. It was possible Chris had a concussion. There was a basic first aid kit on the shuttle, but the kid needed back to Third Station, pronto. Sawyer told him that she couldn’t stop the hollow drill, or leave the equipment. She told him to take Chris and come back for her when he was safe.
For a second, the pilot looked at her like she was heartless. But then he said fine. He hoisted Chris up onto one shoulder and, bent like a devotee, advanced out into the storm, the two men’s shared shape skylit by the shuttle’s white floodlights. Soon, the ground shook with the power of the craft’s twin engines and the shuttle lifted into the night. Sawyer shut off the lamp. It seemed appropriate.
She flipped on her pack light and practically sprinted back to the niche. The display read sixty percent. Lisa was here, somewhere; Sawyer just had to wait. Lisa spoke to her there, in the niche, in a weak signal that, as it strengthened, came across as some sort of looping apology. Sawyer, listening, had a brief notion of Lisa, in some purer form, encased deep within the black patch of ice under her knees, stored like a valuable from some alternate and more probable version of events. A breath of fresh air, indeed. She waited. Sixty percent. Eighty.
The drill beeped. Sawyer took a professional moment to seal the core and power down the drill. She moved the machine aside, and carefully reached down into the opening.
She had figured the arithmetic, but did not know exactly what she expected to find. She felt only empty air, the cold edges of the bored hole. She reached to her shoulder. She imagined, for one beautiful second, the grasp of a warm hand.
Instead, the cave filled with light.
Sawyer withdrew her hand. She looked over her shoulder. The light was not welling up from the ice, but lanced through the entrance of the cave in pure white beams, like fanfare. They flowed across the visor of her mask, the beams, in ways that were not possible in normal gravity. She rose and stumbled out of the niche, pushing past the close ice and stepping out of the cave mouth into the wind. She looked up. Lisa was coming down from the sky like a great and glowing sea-creature, infinitely benign, her two legs lit up like tongues of flame and her dark wings so big and so beautiful.
More than anything, Sawyer Davis felt relief as she watched it descend, just this great airy crush of relief. But she was also confused at her girlfriend, now this soundless celestial being, for pulling a fast one on her, convincing Sawyer this whole time of her internment at the center of the tumbledown house that was her life, when really she had been burning up there, in the sky, waiting patiently for clearance.
Samuel Jensen is a MFA degree candidate at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. He is a reader for Michigan Quarterly Review and has covered culture, art, and philanthropy for the Rivard Report. He is from Texas.