Science Fiction

Where the Flock Wanders

By Phoebe Barton
Apr 5, 2019 · 3,549 words · 13 minutes

The artifacts couldn't hide forever.  Torenvalk's radar pulses and lidar sweeps were too keen for that.  The next object might be another dirty snowball, just like the one before it and the one before that, but Rho Kelvin knew that somewhere in Saturn's rings, among a billion fragments of dismembered moons, Precursor relics waited to be found.  It was what made ver heart beat, ver lungs draw breath, as the ship followed its road through the Big Empty and turned over every glittering rock it found.

Even though they were usually just dirty snowballs.

"You're going to say you never get tired of that view."

The intrusion knocked Rho back into Torenvalk's cramped hab--more than big enough for two people as far as the engineers cared, but Sounds of Static at Five Minutes Past Midnight was a woman with titanic presence, a notion that her asteroid heritage didn't dispel.  She grinned at ver with a look of knowing satisfaction.

"Just admit they taught you how to read minds."

"That'd be a terrible lie," Static said.  Her skin was the color of sunset on Titan, and hid as many secrets.  "Ten months, Rho.  You think I wouldn't have a sense of you by now?  That whenever you stretch out your legs and you yawn like that, you're going to make some big pronouncement?  Face it, you're predictable."

"Then I predict that we'll find something worthwhile inside the next... hmm, six weeks," Rho said.  "Come on, Static, isn't this wearing you down at all, knowing there's something unbelievable waiting to be found out there?  There's this bit I found in a twentieth-century article, this thing they called a 'blivit,' and it's just--"

"We'll find out soon enough," Static said.  "It'll have waited fifteen million years.  If it's your determination to find it, so it'll be."

"Patience," Rho said.  There was little room for patience after five months in Torenvalk's hab, a tiny pinch of air and pressure ve had studied to every bolt, every stitch, every weld.  "You're satisfied with that?"

"Not really, but there's little point denying reality," Static spread her palms wide.  "It is what it is."

Rho sighed and went back to the cameras.  Ten kilometers beyond Torenvalk Saturn’s A ring was nearly motionless, a blizzard that filled the sky clear to the Cassini Division.  Its scanners probed snowball after snowball, nameless fragments that nobody would disturb again before the universe wound down to nothing.  More than a hundred years since the discovery on Mimas, and this was all anyone had to show for it--a sky full of ice...

"We've got something," Static said.  "Metallic.  Good, solid returns."

Rho nodded and brought up ver own displays.  There was no sense getting excited, not yet.  It had been more than a hundred years since humans had come to Saturn in earnest; plenty of time for garbage to pile up, especially after the brief fury of the Titan War.  Ve still couldn't believe anyone had lived through it.

"I'm on it," Rho said.  Visions of vindication paraded behind ver eyes, secrets of the vanished Precursors that had been content to wait until ve--Rho Kelvin, odd old Rho!--lifted them out of the dust.  Ve listened keenly, blocking out the world, while the scanners whispered the secrets they'd found, and ve couldn't help but squint with disappointment.

"One of ours," Rho said.  "Probably war debris.  God dammit."

"At least there's the bounty," Static said.  Keeping Saturn's orbits clear wasn't as pressing a concern as Earth's, its sky made sharp by satellite shavings, but the rings were too precious to be knocked about by twisted metal.  "Besides, it's something interesting.  Don't tell me you're getting bored of everything but the score."

"No, it's just... I had a feeling for today," Rho said.  "Bringing us in."

Torenvalk's navigational software did the hard work, chewing the numbers and jinking here and there to avoid an uncomfortably large snowflake, with Rho poised to cancel in case ve didn't like what ve saw.  In half an hour their relative velocities were zeroed out, and Rho gazed out at the cold, shattered wreck.  It had unfolded like a flower, its hull plates peeled apart by its last encounter, and spit its crew and contents into the void.

"Confirmed, this isn't on any of the charts," Static said.  "So we've discovered something, at least.  Interested in checking it out?  Or would you rather just stay here sulking because the Precursors never touched it?"

"All right, all right," Rho said as ve disengaged from Torenvalk and stuffed verself into ver spacesuit next to Static--something that would've occupied ver full attention in ver old life, but which ve now registered with the same detachment as Torenvalk's color scheme.  They checked each other's suits, tethered themselves, then let ringlight spill into the airlock.  They dived together into it.

At least boarding was simple--even if any airlocks had survived, there wasn't any air for them to lock in anymore.  They glided around the wreck until they found the twisted mouth of corridor that led further inside, and their flashlights illuminated a shattered mess of mesh bulkheads, dead electronics, and structural girders so damaged Rho could barely distinguish between lightening holes and impact holes.

"Unbelievable," Static said.  "All the effort that went into whatever this was, and it ends up like this."

"Then let's find out whatever it was," Rho said.  "As long as the flight recorder didn't get blown to bits..."

"If there was a black box here, we'd have heard its beacon by now," Static said.  "Or someone before us."

"Not if the transmitter's wrecked," Rho said.  "But the box'll have a radiothermal generator full of americium-241.  If it's here, we'll find it from the gamma emissions.  Torenvalk's is the same way.  Didn't you ever wonder how your own ship works?"

"I know what I need to know," Static said after a moment of silence.  Whatever she was thinking, Rho couldn't tell--her sealed, shielded helmet hid her face away.  "Come on."

Their suits came equipped with Geiger counters sensitive enough to click at bananas, but after half an hour of drifting through the wreckage there was no hint of the flight recorder or the bounty they'd earn if they dragged a lost box back in.  They went compartment by compartment, sifting through debris for anything secured or pinned down that might tell them even so much as a name, recording as they went.  The more ve saw, the more Rho suspected ver nose was off--the compartments were too small for cargo bays--but ve kept ver mouth shut.  Static would never let ver hear the end of it.

"Now, here's something compelling," Static said, once they'd been in the wreck for so long that the idea of a spaceship in one piece felt like ridiculous fiction.  In a compartment slightly bigger than the others they'd found, she kneeled next to a small safe secured by heavy clasps to the floor.  "What's inside you, I wonder?"

"Doesn't look much like a flight recorder to me."

"Unimaginative," Static said.  "This could be the commander's cabin, and even if it isn't, people don't install safes just to leave them empty.  Besides, there'll be a serial number inside--maybe even the name of this bucket."

"Do I have to point out that this is a locked safe?"

"Thirty years old," Static said as her tool shaped itself into a screwdriver.  "I broke setups like this for fun when I was in creche.  Come on, help me get braced."

The clasps came off easily.  Rho checked ver counter again, but there wasn't so much as a whisper of the flight recorder's power source.  No doubt it was somewhere out there, waiting vainly in the rings to be found--a Precursor artifact in the making, maybe, for when the descendants of squids or squirrels built spaceships of their own, once humanity evaporated from the cosmos.

"I just hope there's nothing valuable in this," Static said.

"Says the woman who's aching to find some incalculably rare Precursor artifact."

"We had a saying back on Fornjot," Static said.  "To search is better than to discover.  Things are always more interesting when they could be anything."

"Are you sure it's... safe?” 

"Rho, don't.  Your puns make me sad.”  Static smirked at ver regardless from where she sat in Torenvalk's cargo bay.  "If it's not, that's why you're out there.  But it'll be right.  A kid could crack this lock--the real security would've been in the hatch.  They wouldn't have kept anything dangerous in here... but I could just let it be if you think we shouldn't risk it."

"No way," Rho said, watching from ver contour-sculpted seat in the hab.  "There could be anything in there.  There could even be a smaller safe in there!"

"Sitting on top of a turtle, I bet.”  Static shook her head.  She worked for another moment, then set down her cracker's tool with a smile.  "That's having it.  How's your sightline?"

"Just fine.”  Ve saw through her head-mounted camera--in the worst case, it'd be something for their Institute bosses to rage over, not to mention one hell of a show for her funeral.  "All in."

It was the kind of exploration Rho could really get behind, watching in safety and comfort while someone else went out for the slog.  If not for the Institute's paranoia over hackers or jumpers, ve could have run Torenvalk's mission from the side of a pool in the lushest spa on Titan.  Ve leaned forward as Static eased the safe open, and squinted as the light revealed it to be empty except for a plain white, sealed envelope.

"What the hell is this, 1950?”  Rho said.  "Who brings a letter to space?"

"At least maybe it'll tell us something," Static reached in and took the envelope.  "I... gods and stars, Rho, do you realize what we've found?"

Static had flipped over the envelope to expose its face.  It had been addressed by hand, with ink--TO FLIGHT COMMANDER, USSV PEREGRINE, NOT TO BE OPENED UNTIL TITAN ORBIT ACHIEVED.

"I see that someone was a fan of the past."

"Seriously, Rho, all that talk about americium and you've never heard of the Peregrine?”  Static sighed when ve didn't answer.  "It was an Earth space superiority ship that got taken out during the war.  I mean, there's even a ballad about it--oh, the year was twenty-one ninety-one, and--"

"I'll listen to it later," Rho said.  "I know about the war.  I know that mostly the Americans thought it was a good idea, not all of Earth.  There's a difference, you know."

"Maybe, but if this monster had made it to Titan, Earth would've won, no question.”  Static said.  "They wouldn’t have stopped with Xanadu City."

"Those could be sealed orders, you know," Rho said.  "We could open them.  Find out."

"We shouldn't open this.  We can't.”  Static's hands began to shake and the envelope trembled like a leaf caught by a breeze.  "It's not for us."

"Not for us?  Static, that's history!" Rho pushed away from the chair toward the first handhold that would take ver to the cargo bay.  "Exactly what we're out here to find!  Who cares if aliens didn't make it?  It's something that's been waiting all this time to be known!"

"Vac, Rho, don't you get it?  This isn't some ancient history that'll just wind up a bunch of Objectians, this is politics!" Static clutched the letter tightly, as if it would flutter away if she let go.  "What if I open this and find city-cracking orders?"

"Then every person on Titan will know how lucky they are that that ship never made it."

"Or people will start thinking Titan yesterday, Ganymede tomorrow, Ceres and Vesta the day after that," Static said.  "They'll start thinking about doing it to Earth first."

"Christ, are you listening to yourself?”  Rho had swung to the cargo bay and floated next to the door.  "You think one letter is going to start an apocalypse?  Get a grip!" Ve pounded on the door with each of the last three words for emphasis.

Static turned to look at ver and said nothing.  It was a strange feeling, seeing ver own face from the other side of the window, like ve'd stepped out of ver body.

"If we'd found a Precursor bomb frozen in one of those chunks, or a Precursor battleship even, how eager would you be to tell everyone about it?”  Static bit her lip.  "Would people have a right to know then?  It's just one bomb, you can't start an apocalypse with just one bomb, can you?  Not everyone can reinvent themselves like you did, you know.  Not everyone can paint themselves grey just because they wanted to."

"That's different."

"I'm sure you think it is," Static said.  "For now, whatever's in this is better off not being known--at least, not by us.  We can take it back to Titan and let the Prime Minister decide."

"That's a historical document," Rho said.  "It could overturn our understanding of the whole war!  You want to just let the government bury it?"

"Big talk for someone who'd barely heard of the war an hour ago," Static said.  "I'm not going to talk about this anymore, Rho.  If you respect me, if you respect the mission, you'll leave it be."

Static flung the envelope back into the safe and closed the door.  It'd never lock again, not after the coarse way she'd cracked it, but a finger of duct tape would at least keep it shut.  Rho moved aside as Static came through the door, but after she closed it behind her ve stayed at the window.

Static had gone to her compartment to sleep, or meditate, or whatever the hell she did when no one was watching--repeat nonsense syllables distilled from the Phoenix Transmission, maybe.  Rho leaned back in ver chair and sighed.  They'd flagged the Peregrine wreckage with Saturn Orbital Command and nudged Torenvalk onto a new orbit, once more pounding the pebbles and icebergs for as much as a shaving of Precursor dust.

The safe remained, to be delivered to the American embassy in Las Mercedes.  The safe, with its cargo of relevant history--Rho had thought that was why ve was trawling the rings, to bring back history.  Once the Americans got it, the letter and whatever secrets it held would disappear into an unmarked archive ten thousand feet beneath the mountains.

"Disrespectful," Rho muttered.  Ve'd taken a skim across some Titan War overviews, photos and videos and screeds that screeched, and an expie or two smuggled out of the wreckage of Xanadu City.  It was a miracle that Titan had won at all--wasn't it only proper for that miracle to be celebrated, and leavened against the knowledge of what would've become had things not turned out the way they had?  If Commander Seong had missed and Peregrine had made it to Titan, bristling with lasers and railguns and casaba howitzers?

People would know, soon enough, that Peregrine had been found.  In the absence of anything solid, how long until they started inventing missions for it to stoke their fires?

How long until they made their own apocalypses, no matter what Static thought?

There was no one moment ve could pinpoint, looking back, as when ve chose to ignore Static and open the envelope.  It was as if ve had woken from an intense dream to find verself drifting through Torenvalk's passages, undogging the cargo bay hatch, and carefully pulling off the duct tape that held the cracked safe shut.  It was incredible it was there at all--what kind of trajectory had Peregrine been on, so that its remnants could end up in orbit around Saturn and not flung out toward the Kuiper Belt?

It wasn't just a coincidence that they encountered the debris.  The universe was far too vast for that.  Perhaps the Precursors were helping ver after all, in some ineffable, elevated way.

The envelope was warm with the pressure of secrets.  The handwritten address marked out a path ve'd never been meant to walk, but ve followed it with head held high.  Part of ver wanted simply to tear it open and seize a tactile victory--reckless, though; even more so than Commander Seong's last, desperate boost.  The Americans would have something to say, even if Static only sulked.

Ve held ver versatool over the envelope and cycled through functions until ve found one that peered through it like foggy air.  The letter within was cloudy and raw, but ve could read the words well enough--

Most excellent Cynthia,

Assuming you didn't open this early (you'd better not have!) Titan is big and beautiful underneath you, and I wish I could be there with you.  I know we had plans and I know that your duty comes first, but I wanted to give you a reason to come home safe, sound, and fast as you can.  When you get back, please let me be part of yours just as I ache to make you part of mine.

Yours, always,


Rho read through the lines twice more, frustration mounting.  Part of ver reached for rationalizations, that it was some cunning code that the one-time pad in Peregrine's other safe would convert into attack orders, but ve knew ve was lying to verself.

"Satisfied?”  Rho turned and found Static braced in the hatchway's frame, wearing a look that shifted between anger and pity.

"It's a love letter," Rho said.  "To Peregrine's flight commander.  Not orders.  Nothing that will start a war."

"I can't believe you, Kelvin," Static said.  "I can't."

"I--" The words caught in ver throat.  "We needed to know.  Whoever this Sarah is will want to know we've found this."

"I'm sure she'll love knowing you broke into a safe and read her love letter," Static said.  "Get the fuck out of my sight.  I can't believe you'd do this."

"I couldn't let something historically valuable get buried," Rho said.  "I thought that's why we were out here."

"You privileged vachead," Static said.  "That was never your choice to make.  Now go!"

There should have had some smart answer, some knife-sharp retort that would have made Static understand, that would've translated the conviction from ver mind to hers.  But there was nothing.  With downcast eyes, ve left the door hanging open.

A tender tap of acceleration awakened Rho from blameless dreams.  Torenvalk's arcjet engine wasn't much for thrust, but the twelve-thousand-degree hydrogen plume it rode gave it the freedom to fly from Titan to the rings and back again with a healthy reserve.  It was a comfortable feeling--even if gravity's reappearance meant all ver loose articles had found their way to the deck--but ve shouldn't have felt it at all.  They'd been slated to keep scouting the A ring for another three months at least.

Had Static found something out there?  Ve checked ver logs and found no messages waiting for ver; there was nothing but the thrust to suggest anything was out of the ordinary.  Ve pushed out of ver compartment and danced through the hab to flight control.  Static was there, strapped in at her console, but when Rho vaulted into ver own the screen stayed resolutely black.

"I've got things under control, Kelvin," There was nothing conciliatory in Static's voice.

"What the hell is this?”  Ve'd rebooted the console twice, but that didn't stop it from sulking.  "This damn thing, always having issues--"

"Kelvin, you're locked out.”  Static's words burned hotter than the arcjet.  "Until we make Titan, this vehicle's mine.  So don't touch anything."

"What the hell did you do?  Once the Institute hears--"

"This was the Institute's call," Static said.  "Did you think I wouldn't report what happened?  I think they started to worry about what might happen if you picked up some Precursor artifact out here, a nice little box with a big red button."

"That would be different."

"You didn't seem to care how much damage you might do," Static said.  "I don't know how you snuck by the tests with an attitude like that, but enjoy it--they'll patch it as soon as they figure it out."

"Don't give me that," Rho said.  "You were curious as I was.  It was only a matter of time."

"Keep telling yourself that," Static said.  "Just keep one thing in mind.  I don't know what kind of person you were before you opted out, but we're out here because some things are too important for simple curiosity.  Got it?"

"If it wasn't for curiosity, we wouldn't be out here in the first place," Rho said.  "If someone hadn't wondered what would happen if you rubbed two sticks together for long enough."

"Maybe," Static said.  "But people also wondered what would happen if they built ten thousand nuclear bombs.  Did you ever stop to wonder if that's why the Precursors aren't around anymore, maybe?"

"I try not to," Rho said.

"Maybe don't always try to see what's over there," Static said.  "Try to see where you're standing instead."

Rho leaned back in ver acceleration chair and wondered how many artifacts humanity would leave for the squirrels or the squids--how many buttons they'd find, just waiting to be pushed.

This story originally appeared in Analog.

Phoebe Barton

Phoebe Barton writes stories that she does a surprising amount of calculations for.