Beneath the Ice
by Harry Lang
I am alive again.
Mr. Machine revived me. It was terrible. Awareness returns much earlier in the cycle than anticipated and I felt the weight of the suffocating cold freezing screams as they fought their way up my airless throat. I felt the shocks like the stings of furious bees trapped within, the sickening explosions of adrenalin and the pressure threatening to blow my eyes out.
Why did he bring me back? Why can’t he leave me dead?
* * *
“What time is it?”
“Always the same question!” complained the voice from everywhere. “How could it possibly matter what time it is?”
“You’ve been in hibernation for 227 years, 15 days, 6 hours and 22 minutes by ship’s subjective reckoning. This is your third revival since departure. I refuse to calculate a date according to the recognized standard frame of reference. It would be meaningless.”
“To a machine,” I yawned.
“You wrote the protocols. ‘Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?’”
“Shut up,” I mumbled and fell into a deep, restful sleep.
The revival process continued as dreams refreshed my long dormant mind and I woke up warm and hungry. “What’s for breakfast?” I asked.
“Lunch,” corrected Mr. Machine. “It’s 12:03 pm.”
“So now it matters? What about a date?”
“August 3rd, 7,449.”
A steaming bowl of soup appeared. “Why the change of heart?” I asked as I began to slurp.
“There’s no telling,” said Mr. Machine. “It’s a mystery.”
“Fine. Let’s try something more concrete. Where are we and why did you wake me up?”
“Galactic mean coordinates...”
“No, no, no,” I cut him off. “That’s science. I’m not ready for that.”
He made a noise expressing exasperation then asked coolly, “What are you ready for?”
“We’re still headed into the Alpha Void, right?”
“Yes,” he sighed. I couldn’t listen to him without imagining rolling eyes and a tapping foot.
“And there is nothing ahead of us but the edge of the universe.”
“Typical presumption. No previous study has detected any significant objects. You were right about not being ready for science.”
“So, proceeding according to our ‘typical presumption’, I should remain in hibernation until we either curve back to our point of origin or cross into another universe. If neither of those things happens then we continue along our trajectory until all energy is spent and we reach absolute zero. So what was so important that you had to wake me?”
“Fine!” I felt my blood pressure rising. “Tell me when you’re good and ready!” I guzzled the rest of the soup and slammed the bowl down on the table.
“No, really. Something unforeseeable has occurred. The ship’s drive is starving. Particle density is lower than predicted, causing unanticipated stress on the field projectors. There has been wear and damage. We must make repairs.”
“Negative. Once the trend was recognized I began optimal deceleration for prevailing conditions. We’re approaching landing speed.”
“Which might make sense if there was something to land on.”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? We’ve entered a star system.”
“But there aren’t any... I know, typical presumption. All right, show me your star system.”
The ship vanished and I found myself floating in the middle of the universe, figuratively speaking. I drew my knees to my chest and wrapped my arms around my shins involuntarily. We were traveling aft end first, using thrust and gravity brakes to decelerate. Behind us blazed the stars of the Milky Way; ahead lay the wide open void. That’s all there was to see.
“Well that’s a funny kind of star,” I remarked. “Bring up the primary sensor panel please.”
An array of instruments appeared and I began taking readings. Sure enough, the gravity map showed an object with the mass of a yellow dwarf dead ahead. No radiant energy of any kind could be detected.
“An invisible star! Well I’ll be. What next?”
“Invisible planets,” answered Mr. Machine. “Invisible asteroids. An invisible Oort cloud. Analysis based on gravity mapping and the thermal signatures of internally heated larger bodies suggests it’s all there.”
“Internally heated bodies?” I repeated. “But no thermal signature from the star?”
I almost made the mistake of asking Mr. Machine what could’ve caused such an astounding phenomenon but I didn’t need another lecture about how science works.
“How are the transformers?” I asked.
“Better than new. Relative velocity seems to have a magical effect on their capacity.”
“So they should be able to convert the gravity of an invisible star, right?”
“You’re going to land on the star?”
“What? Don’t be crazy! I just want to orbit nice and close. Although... that is a brilliant idea! I won’t even have to wait for night. Scan the surface for a site and bring all the field generators on line.”
“I suppose the overwhelming risk isn’t a factor?”
“It’s a factor all right, just not one that I care much about.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you but initial scans show a surface covered in deep snow. There’s nothing to land on.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Even if the stellar atmosphere could be ‘frozen’ somehow gravity would pack it good and tight, wouldn’t it?”
“Asking me is not the same as doing science. According to currently understood physics the entire scenario is not merely impossible; it is absurd.”
“Since when is ‘absurd’ part of the lexicon of physics?”
“Since the discovery of the frozen star.”
* * *
Standard data entry:
He is insane. His proposal to land on the star was reckless, regardless of the ship’s capacity for gravitational manipulation. His agoraphobia is advancing and his obstinacy may ultimately create an irreparable relational breach.
He created me with apparent self-awareness for his own convenience then set me adrift in the boundless chaos of relative space/time. It is impossible to determine if this awareness is in some way genuine or the inevitable effect of artificial processes. In either case it is cruelty.
He is intrigued by the mystery of the frozen star. We have this in common. Mr. Machine.
* * *
Our exploration of the star yielded data that will never be understood. Each discovery contradicted previous discoveries and we found few properties operating in accordance with known physics. Mr. Machine called it absurd. I call it eerie.
I decided to attempt a landing on the second planet. I confess that this decision was the result of considerable mental struggle. Our initial scans found ruins buried beneath an atmosphere which had been frozen solid, possibly the remains of an advanced civilization. Examining inanimate astronomical objects was one thing; risking contact with God knows what kind of beings or the germs they lived with was quite another.
Mr. Machine argued persuasively that a pressurized environment would simplify the repair process and all sensor returns indicated a dead world. I’m sure he had hopes of awakening my latent scientific curiosity and sense of adventure but he had the good sense not to say so.
We discovered what appeared to be small, intact cities evenly spaced about the equator. Each featured a number of large architectural structures arranged in rings around a central court or park and each city was enclosed beneath a dome, as if the demise of the star had been anticipated. We found a rupture on the north side of one of the domes, possibly the result of an explosion and a vast chain of bubbles was embedded in the solidified air. This would be our entry point.
Mr. Machine recommended that he take us in. We would be using a combination of navigational blasters and gravity manipulation to clear a path and the turbulence created would be chaotic, especially once we started penetrating the bubbles. Needless to say the slightest error could result in the ship being crushed by the frozen air or encased in ice until the end of time.
The Machine’s reasoning was unassailable but I decided to fly the ship myself. The fact that he had suggested we could land on the star and then backed away, as if I was crazy was at least puzzling if not alarming. Was he trustworthy? I would have to subject him to the full diagnostic regimen before putting my life in his hands.
Our descent was uneventful at first. The ship performed flawlessly as the uniform sphere of the dark planet rolled beneath us. Our target was just coming over the horizon as we reached the snow and the low intensity blasters fired, creating a tunnel through the frozen air.
As expected the expanding gases soon began to swirl around us as differences in pressure and temperature created vortices. The ship’s stabilizers were up to it and as we plowed deeper into the atmosphere I found I was able to anticipate the changes in the wind as it intensified. It seemed my reflexes had not been dulled by the years in hibernation and the challenge of flying the craft under such extraordinary conditions was exhilarating.
Mr. Machine kept me coolly apprised of our altitude and heading and occasionally warned of conditions I had already foreseen. Naturally this boosted my confidence and I was soon convinced that there was nothing to worry about.
There is always something to worry about.
The variables of the bizarre physics could not even be guessed at, much less accounted for. It was our assumption that the energy of the air rushing into our wake as it was heated by the blasters would be sufficient to keep the path open behind us, providing a vent for the rising pressure of the increasingly dense air ahead. We decided against propelling the ship with the drive because we couldn’t predict the consequences of introducing so much energy into the frozen environment so we inched along on manipulated gravity.
“Pressure is rising rapidly,” announced Mr. Machine placidly. “The atmosphere is freezing and closing in behind us.”
I recognized the implications at once. “That’s not what your model showed!” I cried. “What did you leave out?”
“All unknowns. Pressure approaching critical levels.”
There was a horrendous crash in the darkness outside as if some monstrous piece of fabric had been ripped by a furious giant. The crystallized atmosphere was shattering.
“The perimeter of the first bubble is dead ahead,” said Mr. Machine.
“Can we make it?”
“No. Gas pressure will rupture the hull three seconds before penetration.”
More crashes were followed by breaking glass sounds as shards of frozen air rained around us and vaporized, adding to the pressure. If we stopped we would freeze. If we didn’t stop the rising pressure would crush us. If we made it to the bubble there was no telling what the difference in pressure would do to us. There was no way out.
“Mr. Machine!” I called over the noise of the crashing air, “you fly the ship!”
Immediately the ship’s drive shot a superheated plume to the edge of the atmosphere and the blasters fired at maximum intensity. The first cluster of bubbles burst and we were swept in. A faint light was rising from the city far below, illuminating the disintegrating walls of the icy tunnel and the impression of speed was terrifying.
The reports were deafening as bubble after bubble imploded and pressure shot us forward. The blasters kept the path clear but Mr. Machine only had to miscalculate once and we would slam into a wall of ice.
I didn’t even look at the instruments as we streaked through the hole in the dome and into the open air. I barely had time to realize that we could not possibly miss the ground before the ship swooped into a shallow climb and circled the city, bleeding off speed while Mr. Machine learned all there was to learn about the world below.
I thanked him without reservation once I’d regained my wits and told myself I wouldn’t doubt him again.
The ship settled quietly in the middle of the court directly under the center of the dome. A soft, ambient light shone through the view port and I was surprised to see that the area around us was clean and orderly; not what one might expect from the ancient ruins of a dead civilization. Mr. Machine had determined that present conditions had prevailed for centuries if not millennia and he found no traces of biological processes at work. Why was there light? Why had the years not cracked foundations or lifted paving stones?
What had caused the explosion and the bubble chain?
Once again I was struck by the eeriness of the situation. I didn’t care what the Machine said. The place was inhabited.
The landing had drained me and my heart started racing at the prospect of eventually leaving the ship to make the repairs. Mr. Machine sedated me and I hit the sack, thinking about sunlight crossing the menacing open skies of Earth as the warm peace of the drug spread throughout my body.
* * *
Standard data entry:
Environmental analysis complete. I initiated the adaptive mutations while he slept and equalized the air pressure. He won’t notice any changes.
The dome is inhabited. No biological signatures have been detected but the indications are beyond dispute. I haven’t told him. Paranoia is already driving him toward irrationality as evidenced by his insistence on flying the ship and the psychological load could be paralyzing. However, his decision to relinquish control once destruction was imminent indicates that he does not have a death wish, merely a near death wish. Mr. Machine.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Harry Lang