Her Scales Shine Like Music


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Humble ice crystals high in the atmosphere often enrich sunsets on this cold world to glory. Mid-twilight, the sky shatters into opalescent shards, painting spectral pastels onto each ripple and wavelet of the vast lake near my shelter.

A strange lake it is: barely salty enough and in just enough constant motion to keep from freezing over. No more than a child's stride inward from its smooth rim, the edge drops precipitously to a depth of over four kilometers. So sayeth Artist, High King of Scanning and Analysis on
, the twistship that abandoned me here for my unwanted tour as sentry, placeholder, and legal Vigilant.

Artist suspects the lake is artificial, created perhaps a million years ago. I can't decide if I want him to be right. It both frightens and inspires me to imagine a species with such grandiose engineering powers. And where are they now?

Pale hexagons, magnified snowflake ghosts, appear on the fine sand around me, heralds of the falling temperature. The air carries a sharper bite.

While setting, the local sun doesn't radiate enough energy to keep my parka fully charged, so I must be thrifty to stay warm through the next few hours. I stand and jump in place for a time, and then return to my featherweight chair, wrapping my arms tight around me. She'd either come to me or she wouldn't. Most evenings, she would, but after what happened today, I'm not sure. Still, I think she's as lonely as me. Not long ago, I only kept watch on the skies. Now I have eyes for the water.

But my past paints specters on my present.

*   *   *

Deep space scouting missions are always a shot in the vasty dark.

Even the immense Skyscreen Array can only
the nature of worlds hundreds of light years distant from Earth. So two months ago, when some bribable Skyscreen analyst whispered in RE's corporate ear about G90703, a newfound marvel improbably burnished with breathable air, thus hinting at potentially obscene profits, the corporate mind drooled, but not heavily. A personal, on-site confirmation is always required for full salivation.

Skyscreen has cataloged many auspicious planets, yet few corporations can afford to investigate them. So Research and Exploration Inc., RE for short, emitter of my paychecks, bid low and won. No miracle, considering that only RE had insider info. Thus, my bosses landed a four-solar-month exclusive to send lackeys to poke around G90703.

First poke was us, a compact team for quick overview and resource mapping: a primary pilot, six scientists with twistship operations training, and two bodyguards (including me), with similar training. If enough gold panned out, RE would dispatch a heavier poke: multiple ships with large crews and serious equipment to investigate areas we'd believed worthy. By Global Council laws, no company could claim much of this Promising Land, but RE would get first crack at the ten thousand most promising adjacent acres.

bent reality into an unimaginable pretzel, and after three subjective weeks, all nine of us crowded around the main viewscreen, gazing at our gray, white, and blue destination while residual boredom faded from our eyes. To speed up scanning, Flute, High Queen of Piloting, began by “rolling against the grain.” That's our in-house code for orbiting a planet at the equator opposite to its direction of rotation.

Artist reported four kinds of results: expected, pleasantly surprising, disappointing, and bizarre.

As the bribed analyst predicted, even at the equator, temperatures remained somewhat below human comfort level, and gravity didn't have quite Earth's tug. Artist beamed during his next revelation. Praise the Lord, the atmosphere
register as breathable straight from the box, and watering holes abounded, plus three sizable oceans. Yet deeper scans showed no signs of life, not even the fuzz of primitive vegetation. Those Earth levels of atmospheric oxygen might be, he speculated, generated by organisms too small, too cold, or too buried for his instruments to detect; or, more likely, by volcanic processes.

One anomaly registered. Slightly north of the equator—“north” being an assigned direction—Artist had pinpointed a tiny area of highly refined metals. Hardly a spectacular find, but worthy of a close-up. A science team headed by Cards, High Priest of Geology, flew
Mighty Moose
down to do so and took Archer and me along, out of habit, I suppose, since the planet's only apparent danger was tripping and falling.

I remember the way we joked as we spiraled down. Any number of natural events could've resulted in a minuscule patch of pure metals, none of which amounted to anything profitable by RE standards.

But instead of discovering a pool or two of shiny congealed irrelevance, we found the incredible.

Six days later, something far more incredible found me.

*   *   *

I'm doing some jumping and push-ups to stay warm. Light keeps leaching from the sky, and she still hasn't appeared. Maybe tonight she won't. Restlessness invades me like an emotional species of cold, but I can't bring myself to leave. No oversize bubbles arise, no telltale bulge of water disturbs the lake's surface. Soon, it will become too dark to know if she's on the way.

She? When and why had I begun thinking of her as female? Oh, now I remember: when I began writing that poem about her.

*   *   *

Flute set
down on a conveniently flat shelf of rock, conveniently close to the site none of us took seriously. Gardener did a just-to-be-sure air sample test, and a minute later Archer and I led our merry band of insulated scientists toward a lake that was three drops shy of being a sea. Can't speak for Archer, but despite ER's commandments, I felt two kinds of fool for toting a wave rifle along. Soon, all jokes ceased, along with conversation, because we'd gotten close enough to our goal to see what had to be an abandoned campsite.

We stopped several meters from it, and spread out into a fog-exhaling semicircle. For a full minute, no one said a word. Finding this evidence would've had Cards—even-tempered only by being perpetually peeved—screaming obscenities at the pearly sky, poorly aimed at whichever corporation had mounted an unauthorized expedition here. But the collection of incomprehensible artifacts strewn around had clearly not been made by or for humans. Weaver, our tactile sensor specialist, finally broke our joint stunned silence.

“Anyone doubt that intelligent ETs left all this?” She glanced around at us. Even her Kenyan face appeared somewhat bleached by more than the cold. “Yeah. Me neither. But here's a little trivia for your consideration, children. They scrambled so recently that my sensors can pick up a touch of residual heat.”

Quite the aftershock. We looked in each other's eyes and I'm sure everyone had the same two thoughts.

Cards wondered out loud for all of us. “You mean we just missed them? Christ! You don't suppose they took off so suddenly
we'd arrived?”

Weaver didn't quite roll her eyes. “By ‘recently' I meant sometime in the last few local days. You people do know how sensitive my equipment is?” By her tone, we'd have to study hard to attain the level of ignoramus.

Cards made a firing-back sort of target, but he got distracted.

“Hey, you! Archer! Don't you take another step. We so much as touch that, uh, equipment right now, we could be out millions.”

No one spoke, but I saw a brightness dawning in everyone else's face. Yes. We'd landed the jackpot of jackpots. A discovery like this would be worth more than a dozen rare earth or precious jewel mines. We'd each be getting astronomical bonuses! I could quit RE, go back to school, and see if my Tara was still foolish enough to marry a—

I noticed all eyes turning toward me.

Oh. Everyone else had already thought it through. Part of me still floated, buoyed by visions of a brilliant future. Another part sank as I worked it out for myself, a three-step process.

One: Before reaping our unjust rewards, we had to stake this claim, an immediate priority with a discovery of this magnitude. Otherwise, RE specialists might lack time enough to squeeze maximum value from the artifacts before … other interests arrive.

Two: Global Council policy demanded a “Vigilant,” a person constantly remaining within seven hundred meters of a find until a title was officially registered. Some legal cheating by one of RE's competitors, the Finnish-Japanese conglomerate Draaki Oyj, inspired this recent rule change. Draaki had exploited the original radio beacon dibs-on-this statute by burying inactivated beacons, thousands, on newly opened worlds wherever sites held a shred of financial promise. They'd let other companies do the actual work to find any goodies, and then activate the buried beacons to finalize a claim. This stunt had also inspired the adjacent-acres rider.

Three, where our lightning stroke of mutual luck carried an edge of personal discomfort:
equals scouting ship. We weren't expected or prepared to find anything this valuable. And it takes six people minimum, three to a shift, to safely operate a twistship of any size. No insulation yet discovered prevents the Twist from affecting onboard electronics. So constant attention and frequent recalibration is the price for making the light-speed limit irrelevant. By both Council and RE's internal laws, eight people are the minimum crew for any twistship, two for backup.

And who happened to be on top of our totem pole, in the sense of providing our crew the least support? Me.

I did some mental calculations and didn't savor the result. Even with the Twist's temporal contraction paradox, it would take almost two weeks for
to return home, a few days at best for RE to dispatch a claim fleet, and another brace of weeks for those ships to arrive here. I'd be on my own here for at least a month …

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