Science Fiction trauma titan vivaria universe asshole tourists broken world

Midway on the Waves

By Phoebe Barton
Aug 23, 2019 · 8,172 words · 30 minutes

Pia12481 titan specular reflection

Art by NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/DLR.  

From the author: Twenty-five years after Titan won its independence, a woman who witnessed a city shattered is still trying to come to grips with her trauma in the shards of her world. This is a follow-up to the story "Where the Flock Wanders."


"I'm right jealous of you," the Earther tourist said, pointing at the windowscreen that showed the world outside the train.  There were only a few overloaded pixels here and there, small enough to look like stuck-on snowflakes if it had been a real window and if Titan had water snow.  "The view must be unbelievable when you have a clear sky."

"A clear sky.”  Naomi Moon let her focus drift away from her pot of simmering noodles, but only as far as her breath could carry a feather, as she tried to picture what it might look like.  Sunlight sparkling off Saturn's rings, Enceladus spraying icy diamonds into the night, and all those glittering constellations nailed to the sky.  She remembered all her childhood wishes for the sky to part, just for a moment, scribbled on hopepaper and fed to the renewal flame.  She wondered if the children of Xanadu City had at least seen one star as the clouds parted for the killing rounds.  "Yeah.  Unbelievable."

"Surely you've seen it," he said.  He'd wasted no time telling her he was a he, along with so many other tales she'd forgotten as soon as they were spoken.  His accent was pure American, the same as the crew of the Peregrine, the same contours as Colonel Vega's order to fire.  "You're lucky, you know.  People come from all over the system to see what you have every day."

"No," Naomi said.  The noodles were hissing.  One minute down, forty-eight seconds to go.  There were a few minutes yet until the train sliced the curve past Carver Junction.  Plenty of time.

"No?"

"We don't get clear skies," Naomi said.  She splashed some oil in the wok, sloshed it around, let its hissing cover her exasperation.  It was too much to expect an Earther to know anything.  "I'm forty-three and I've never seen anything but clouds."

"Nonsense," the tourist said, because obviously the world had to align with his Earthly expectations.  What could she possibly know?  "It even stops raining in England every once in a while.  I can't believe you people are worse off than the English."

"We do all right," Naomi said.  She'd seen Earthers bring their arguments to her world, had scooped them off the ground when they'd traded fists over which dusty little scrap of world was better and whose ancestral bones were sunk deeper in that dust.  Americans, English, all the rest -- why couldn't they have pounded the feathers out of each other without leaving home?

"But you've never even seen the sun?”  He couldn't be that foolish.  Looking for the sun on Titan was like wandering around Mars in search of pyramids or canals.  No, probably just another spy playing the fool.

"Sure I have.”  Naomi scooped the noodles into the wok and let them drink up the sizzling oil.  "Brightest patch of the clouds.  We have an understanding.  I stand down here, it shines up there."

"That sounds terrible.”  Just like an Earther, telling people how they should feel in their own homes.  She had plenty to say about light so bright it dazzled, gravity so heavy that it crushed bones to powder, but she kept her tongue bit around the tourists.  "You're right next door to the greatest sight in the universe and you can't even see it."

"It's what it is," Naomi said.  The noodles didn't need much time outside the water.  A four-armed woman couldn't have finished it up must faster than she did, and once the poached egg was floating like a sun-bleached island atop it all, she presented it to the tourist just as the train started to lean into the turn.  "Here you are, auspicious noodles.  A bit of luck for your journey back to Earth."

The tourist peered at the bowl and dabbed the chopsticks into it as if he expected the broth to eat them away.  "You're sure this is authentic Titan cuisine?"

Naomi narrowed her eyes.  "Made on Titan, by a Titanese person, from ingredients sourced from Titan, and impossible to make anywhere else.  No, it's one hundred percent Martian."

"Impossible?  It's a bunch of noodles, and you didn't even season the damn things!  I've been to some of the finest restaurants on Earth, I know six-star chefs.  Nothing's impossible."

"Go home and try to heat up water to 108 degrees Celsius without it boiling, then tell me how impossible--" Her screen rumbled and nuzzled in her pocket, the sort of furious attention-seeking behaviour that it reserved for real emergencies.  "Just try to enjoy it, anyhow.  Proper way's with horseradish sauce, but be sparing."

The tourist started grumbling as soon as her back was to him.  Naomi clicked her teeth once the car's airlock sealed behind her and the next one's opened.  Probably not a spy after all.  It was hard enough for spies to slip beneath technological surveillance without giving people reasons to remember them, but when she stepped into the lounge car she forgot all about his foolishness.  There were only so many places a train fight could go, and the scars that slashed like rails across Naomi's chest took her to all of them.

"Citizen's arrest!  Citizen's arrest!”  The shouter was a belter, stretched and lanky with wild eyes and an unshaven face, hanging from a battered frame pitted with dents and with colours gone raw.  Vestan accent, too -- just great.  "You're a sovereign profiteer of destruction!  You're a threat to the all!  I place you under citizen's arrest on behalf of the proud people of this moon!"

A small crowd of Earth-boned tourists had gathered around the tumult, watching the show and waiting for someone to solve it for them.  Maybe they planned to make themselves the heroes once they were safely en route, when they had nothing to do but dream their way home.  She doubted any of them would remember how efficiently they'd kept the object of the Vestan's spittle, a short woman with cropped hair and shaved nails, from disengaging.

"All right, what the hell is going on?”  Naomi said, forcing her way through the crowd.  Despite the spidery exo that supported the Vestan's weight in Titan's relatively crushing gravity, two and a quarter metres gave her a privileged perspective.  The Vestan shrivelled under her gaze like a leaf left to dry.

"This...  this person is an Earther," the Vestan said.  "And therefore responsible for all the crimes of Earth!  You Titan people are too polite to do anything about it, but there comes a time where you have to stand, and focus, and do what's right--"

"Uh huh.”  She had run the Vestan's ticket during his soapbox.  Evgeny Garner, on Titan for eight months, with an expired League of Independent States tag practically stuck to his forehead -- an embassy worker getting rotated home.  Definitely not a spy.  They knew better than to cause unnecessary trouble.  "I'm going to save you the trouble, Garner.  You can either stop talking now, go back to your compartment, and think about everything you can miss on your way home, or you can have an extraordinary visit from some friendly government folk when you get home.  They'd have a lot of questions for you.  Comprehend?"

"But what Earth did to you--"

"Is none of your business," Naomi said, sharpening her words into knives.  "It's not your problem, Garner.  Go home."

Garner cast about the compartment for allies, and though there were a few other exoed belters they took special effort to avoid his gaze.  He hesitated for a moment, allowing uncertainty to creep into his features, before he strode out of the lounge car with his head held high.  She told the train to keep an eye on him -- if he got up to any more entertainment, he'd find himself walking to the spaceport -- and kneeled down next to his target.  The Earth woman's eyes were full of resignation as the crowd drifted away.

"My apologies for that," Naomi said.  "Is there anything else I can help you with?"

"You've already been a help," the woman said.  "Thank you.  I was hoping that if I ignored the jerk for long enough, he'd...  I don't know.  I thought they taught them better inside those rocks, you know?  I thought things would be better out here."

"People are people everywhere," Naomi said.  "I'm Naomi.  What's your name?"

"Sarah," the Earther said.  "I suppose it's all part of the travel experience, finding out that everywhere's really the same."

"We have a few tricks up our sleeve," Naomi said.  "Could you use something to eat?  Something fortunate to chase away all that bad luck."

"I think it'd be good to get out of here, yes," Sarah said.  When they stood up, she didn't even come up to Naomi's shoulder, but Naomi could see the coiled potential roped around the woman's thick-laid bones that Garner had missed.  An Earther, practically any Earther, could snap a belter like a pair of chopsticks.  There was a taut weariness written on her face, the story of someone exhausted by the world.  She wore none of the relief that the other travellers had put on when the train had eased out of Las Mercedes.

Naomi's café car was empty when she led Sarah through the airlock.  The tourist had left his bowl of auspicious noodles roofed over with horseradish sauce and so deeply spiced it looked like ashes.  There was a tag waiting for her on the bowl: "TERRIBLE FOOD AND TERRIBLE SERVICE.  YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF.”  She deleted it with a swipe and dumped the leavings in the recycler.  If she was lucky, whatever terrible vending machine food he chose instead would haunt him all the way home.

"So you're not a spy, right?”  Naomi said.  "I promise I won't tell.  I just...  spies are complicated."

"The only thing I've been spying is more than anyone's share of the colour orange.”  Sarah gestured at the windowscreen and the flat, trackless expanse it showed.  There was a good chance no one had ever trod those flats, and that no one ever would.  "If you can see anything wonderful out there, I envy you."

"What do you see?"

"Death," Sarah said.  "There's no room for our kind of life out there."

"It's not all bad," Naomi said.  "I can make you something for luck, if you'd like.  Something warm to take your mind off it."

"I...  no, thanks.”  She sighed, and for an instant Naomi saw the other woman's resolve flicker.  There were years beneath those eyes, as many as her own mother and maybe then some.  "I just need some tea.  A little bit of fortification.  Does...  does that sort of thing happen often?"

"Sometimes the belters get it in their heads that they're the blessed defenders of the outer system," Naomi said.  "Usually people step in before things get that bad.  I'm sorry you had to wait for me to show up."

"I suppose it's my due.”  Sarah drifted toward the hot water and canisters of loose leaves.  All were Titan-grown, all were emblems of simple human bullheadedness.  "Earth did terrible things here."

"You're not Earth."

"Does it really matter?”  The way Sarah looked at her stirred up memories of her grandmother and the oh, bless-your-precious-heart expression she had donned when young Naomi had said something particularly foolish.  "I don't blame them for seeing Earth when they look at me.  It might be the only chance at resolution some of these people ever get."

Tendrils of steam licked up from the mug as Sarah drowned the leaves.  As the hot water hit them, the air tightened and burst with their smell, sharp and heady, like chocolate mixed with silverwood.  They'd loved it in Xanadu City.  A single plant had survived the cracking.

"I can listen," Naomi said.  "If you need to talk..."

"Talking's for parrots," Sarah said.  "No, thank you, but I'm all right.  I'll be fine just watching the world go by."

Naomi respected the silence as Sarah sipped her brew, but it wasn't really silence.  The soft whispering of the air vents was ever-present.

She had been eighteen, full of vim and vinegar and totally unable to picture the future as anything but a thing she might get to, later, if she felt like it, but she was busy trying to live, thanks.  In Titan's cities teenagers were like free neutrons looking for an atom to crack.  She had been eighteen and she'd hated the domes.

It had been easy to sign out a rover.  The general assumption was that if someone was the sort to make a foolish mistake and kill themselves, they'd do it younger than eighteen.  Her class 1 eva certification and her sterling social credit had got her a bright blue rover big enough for a family to live in.  She'd heard tell of wanderers who left the cities behind, who rambled between outposts and boreholes just to see what it all looked like in between.  People who made Titan their own.  She and her three best friends loaded it up with gear, picked a direction, and left New Toronto in its antarctic solitude.

They could have gone anywhere, done anything.  Paid their respects at the Huygens landing site, swam in Kraken Mare in search of sea monsters, climbed Mount Doom.  Instead they had rolled onto Xanadu Regio because they couldn't agree on anything else, and because moving while arguing was at least better than standing still while arguing.

They had been close enough to feel the ground rumble and bounce, as if hammer-wielding giants were pounding out a new valley.  Then the emergency calls started.  The four of them hesitated, just long enough to fill them with shame.  Then they went.  It took them hours to reach what remained of Xanadu City.  The main dome wasn't just cracked, it had been shattered.  Its innards were spilled all across the ground, rubble and wreckage and so many bodies.  Naomi did half a dozen missions into the ruined city that first day, chasing heat blooms that could have been huddled survivors and following emergency beacons buried in debris.

Her last time in, she had found a family sheltering in what had been a library.  The heaters had failed and they were frozen together.  None of them had had a chance.  None of them had deserved it.

They had been frozen, but when she went back outside she couldn't trust the ground.  So much of the ice was still molten.

It was brighter outside when the train settled to a stop at XNDU-Spaceport, but not by much, and Naomi felt like a tourist herself as she stepped onto the station platform with the rest of the travellers.  The river of Earthers flowed to the right, down the ramp to where the buses would take them to the spaceport and back to their own world.  She and a few others, all Titan-bodied, turned left and followed the path to the Remembrance Shrine.

It had been built in the shape of a dome and left the colour of bones.  Miniature lamps lined the path, one for every person that had died in Xanadu City, and the words "WE SHALL REMEMBER" were engraved around the airlock in every language spoken on Titan.  Once inside she exchanged her evasuit for crimson mourning robes.  She washed her hands, lit a small torch inscribed with names, and guarded its flame as she went barefoot to the altar.  The shrinekeepers had laid out six candles for her there, and she lit them one by one.  She had no words for them; words were cheap.  An Earther would have filled the air tight enough to snuff out every flame.  She inhaled deeply over each one, the hot air turning sharp in her lungs.

One of the shrinekeepers approached with head respectfully bowed, and it wasn't until she got close that Naomi recognized Tanushree wrapped up in sky-orange remembrance robes.  The years had been kind to her, probably because life hadn't been.  She had braved ruined Xanadu long after Naomi's own bravery was sucked away.  No wonder she'd taken a slot in the shrine.  The things she must have seen...

"It's good to see you here again," Tanushree said.  "I was worried you wouldn't make it.  The others haven't been around for a while."

"They left," Naomi said.  Greg had put his brain into a lead-lined box and gone to Io to look for the gate to hell he ached to find, and Fatima had found the courage to dive through the warp point to La Mancha.  "We're the last of a kind."

"I'm sure they still remember, and measure it in their own ways," Tanushree said.  "I'm glad you came.  It's been quiet this year."

"All this 'forgive and forget' stuff is going to blow up in our faces," Naomi said.  "Parliament's walking around on rusty nails, they're so terrified of pissing anyone off.  Can you believe it?"

"I accept the judgement of my senses," Tanushree said.  "That doesn't mean I have to dwell on what I can't fix.  If you'd like, you can help me tend the fire.  That's one thing we can believe in."

Naomi nodded and followed Tanushree to the shrine's central fire.  There were legends that the flames burning in there had been kindled from the first fire ever struck on Titan -- Naomi doubted that, but the story's pull was irresistible enough that she kept her doubts to herself.  The shrine's fire had been burning for twenty-four years without pause, and on that day a year after Xanadu she had been torn between the euphoria of independence and the dysphoria of loss.

The fire must have been as hot as the sun.  If it was left alone, it could have melted its way down to Titan's rocky core.  Naomi stood in front of it for a while, basking in its warmth and radiance, until Tanushree handed her the first piece of bamboo charcoal.  Then the fire became a predator, ravenous and cruel, as efficient a killer as ice.  Hadn't there been that one city in the belt where a fire had got out of control, where they'd all--?

Naomi took a fortifying breath, filled her lungs with the smell of charcoal and embers, but her spirit overflowed with poison.  She had spent more than half her life with an open wound, poking it just enough that it never healed, telling herself that it wasn't a problem at all while it gradually became a jungle of infection.  She had joined the trains so that she could blaze past the scar that had been Xanadu at four hundred kilometres per hour, near enough for her to feel like she was confronting her past but never close enough to see its bones.

Just far enough away for her to ignore how much of a coward she was.

"It's such a calming thing, to feed a fire," Tanushree said.  The way she offered it her charcoal reminded Naomi of a daredevil she'd once seen hand-feeding an alligator.  He was lucky they'd been able to grow him a fresh one afterward.  "Be honest, Naomi.  Did you only come because it's been twenty-five years?  The nice, smooth number?"

"I--" So many words piled up in her throat that none of them could get through.  She had to swallow them all before they choked her.  "I'd rather not go into it.  Isn't it enough that I'm here?"

"Enough for who?”  Tanushree said.  "You were never interested in impressing me, and you don't know anyone else here.  So is it enough for yourself that you're here, or are you trying to figure out where you're going?"

"I said I'm not going into it.  Dammit, Tani, twenty-five years and you couldn't stop being like this?”  The outburst left her throat burning and raw, but it felt perversely good nevertheless.  She hurled herself onto a bench and cradled her head.  "Look at you, so respectful, so traditional, so pure.  Don't act like you're so much better."

"I know that I'm not," Tanushree said.  There wasn't any change in her expression, not even the slightest eye twitch or curled lip that she knew she deserved.  "You know and I know, but if you're not going to acknowledge it then I will.  You need to go back.  Make your peace."

"I don't need to," Naomi said.  "I didn't even know anybody there."

"Does that make a difference?”  She felt Tanushree's hand on her shoulder, warm, firm, understanding.  Nothing she deserved.  "If you need to know someone to feel connected to the worst disaster we've ever experienced, then remember who you used to be.  In a sense, she died there, too."

"Thirty thousand people died there!”  Naomi's shout, scattered by the dome above, echoed to every corner of the shrine and the thirty-one thousand, two hundred and sixteen names carefully, individually, carved by hand into marble facings shipped across a billion empty kilometres.  "I'm still here."

"So you do care.”  Tanushree sat down beside her, kept that warm hand on her shoulder.  "You need to make peace with it all.  Even if you can start finding a way, that'll be enough.  But if you don't start, you'll be here forever.  Is that really what you want?"

"Does it make a difference?"

Tanushree closed her eyes, breathed deeply, and nodded her head seven times before she let her lungs empty again.

"Come with me," Tanushree said, rising to her feet.  She took Naomi's hand and led her to a wall that seemed as cold and grey as all the other walls, but with a wave of her hand it melted into a screen that looked out onto the plain outside.  It took a moment for Naomi to realize it wasn't a screen but an honest window, and she pressed her palm against it despite the cold.

"Every person makes a difference," Tanushree said.  "Especially in a place like this.  I know you understand that, because otherwise you wouldn't care.  Think about the survivors you found.  I think they'd have strong words for you."

It was easier to look outside than speak, so Naomi looked outside.  Nothing had been built beyond the shrine, and the view was much the same as what the first lander had seen -- scattered chunks of ice beneath an unbroken sky.  It was a miracle anything from Earth, overflowing with oceans of molten ice, could live there.  Miracles were so easily shattered.

"I don't know," Naomi said.  "I don't know."

Tanushree didn't say anything else after that.  Naomi fed the hungry fire and huddled in its warmth, because it was the only place that she could think about a life spent riding the rails from pole to pole, never staying in one spot for long enough to let the past catch up, without freezing up with fear.  Movement made heat, and heat kept her blood molten.

"I have to go," she said once she'd run out of charcoal.  The fire crackled, hissed, whispered at her.  "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Tanushree said.  "Just try to find out where you need to be."

She hurried back to the entryway and took off the mourning robes as quickly as she could, before her shame could stain them.  Her evasuit reeked of sweat and failure, and when she latched her helmet tight she nearly gagged from the taste of it.  After a moment it seemed to go away, but she knew that was only an illusion -- she had smelled air bottled in half a dozen asteroids.  The nose could get accustomed to anything, but the mind...  the mind was eager to accustom itself to the worst things.

"Where I need to be," Naomi said.  On a world where compasses only ever pointed toward Saturn, a saying was about as useful for finding one's way.  It had been so easy on the rails.  Departure at such and such a time, intermediate stops here, there, and there, and arrival right when everyone was expecting to arrive.

She stepped outside and went off the path.  The ground was just as solid where no one had walked on it.

Once, and only once, she had tried to run away.  She had been twenty-four years old, six years removed from Xanadu's bones.  The infant government of united Titan had had all the stability of a papier-mâché skyscraper then, and every morning brought fresh rumours of currency devaluations and leadership collapses and entire communities begging Earth for a new patron.  It didn't matter that they were all lies, that their money was sound and their leaders knew which way to go.  Rumors generated heat faster than the truth could radiate it, and with each passing day more of the once-solid ground beneath Naomi turned to slush.

"La Mancha," her heart had said.  A cold world on the fringe, but only cold to Earthers -- it was warm enough for its own oceans, its own life, its own bright sky.  A ten-year contract would cover passage and adaptation, and after that she would be free like she had never been, free to wander a world with no domes, a world where a crack only meant a cool breeze got in.  She had gone so far as to meet her old friend Fatima, now a La Mancha Development Corporation recruiter, in a luxurious New Toronto café packed wall-to-wall with imported smells.

It should have been easy.  What was Titan, really?  A frigid little iceball on the ragged edge of the solar system, the last interesting stop before a void of nothing so vast that a gas giant and a comet fragment were two of a kind.  She could spiral inward like a comet and probably burn up, or she could disappear through the warp point and cross the light-years so quickly her problems could never catch up with her.

"Once you've been there for a couple of years, you'll be a whole new you," Fatima had said in a smooth, creamy, affected accent modulated to put her at ease, to make the sale, and which didn't suit her at all.  "You probably won't even want to come back."

Naomi had taken a breath at that, and the heart and soul of Titan had come in with it.  No more unbroken skies, sure -- but no more Huygenstide, either.  No more Container Day get-togethers over warm brennivin.  No more streets draped in Huygenstide decorations.  She would have to explain all of her familiar jokes and she would have to carry around a screamer gun everywhere she went in case one of La Mancha's giant hawks decided she made for a tasty snack.

"What if I do want to come back?”  Naomi had fixed Fatima with an icy gaze.  "What then?"

"I don't know if you've taken a look around recently, but between you and me, this is a chance to get out while the getting's good," Fatima had said.  Naomi still remembered the haunted, conspiratorial cast of the other woman's eyes, like an animal smart enough to recognize a predator's hunting grounds.  "I don't just mean Titan.  Would you bet money on there still being an Earth in ten years?  Go to La Mancha, war won't follow you.  We won't have any Xanadus."

"Then it's going to be no.”  The blue sky, the open breeze, they were all just phantoms.  Everywhere had a Xanadu.  Railgun rounds would pierce that fine blue sky just as easily as they had pierced Xanadu City's dome.  The trick was making peace with that truth.  Naomi had hurried out of the café back out onto Maruyama Boulevard, looked up, imagined the dome cracking and fragmenting into a hundred thousand shards.  Enough to spear everyone in town through the heart.

She wasn't afraid.

Maybe it was just as cowardly to run in place.  But at least she wouldn't be running away.

They had never rebuilt Xanadu City.  The arguments had started before the ground finished refreezing, the new government wanting this, vulture corporations nibbling at that, and the surviving cities throwing up roadblocks in the hope some of its former wealth would trickle down to them.  The spaceport had been left on its own in a desert, but soon enough the sort of people who might have gone to La Mancha went and built their own ramshackle town.  They called it Port Sunless.

Tanya's Awesome JungleDome was one of the biggest domes in Port Sunless, a pocket of old equatorial Earth transplanted across a billion kilometres, with only the thinnest skin insulating it from Titan's patient truth.  It would be so easy to puncture it.  What would that jungle of hers look like frozen solid?  Green-leafed trees encased in ice, birds like statues, silence and death...  she didn't have to imagine.  Bhattarai Park in Xanadu City had been like that, when she had been the only moving thing in a still world.

For now, at least, the air inside was full of life and Naomi breathed it deeply.

Tanya, she of the name painted on the dome's exterior in ten-metre-tall bright blue letters and hands that could crush ice to powder, was waiting for her on the far side of the suitroom.  Her smirk was like a scimitar, curved and sharp and deadly.

"So," she said.  "You finally worked up the nerve to come back."

"I can't say anything I haven't already," Naomi said.  "If you really want me to go through the list, I can.  But it'd be quicker if we just skipped it."

"Sixteen months and not a peep.”  Tanya crossed her arms and fixed her with the calm, detached look of a raptor, calculating the best angle to sweep down to catch a mouse in her claws.  "Don't tell me there's no occasion."

"Just stretching my legs," Naomi said.  "But my arms are itchy.  I need my wings."

"Your wings.”  Tanya made a fist, wound up her arm, and punched the air, waiting long enough to pull it that Naomi could count every crease on her knuckles.  "The wings that nearly killed you.  The wings that twisted you up so bad you asked me to punch you in the nose if you ever came back asking for them.  Those wings."

"That'd be," Naomi said.  "You didn't get rid of them, did you?"

"Naomi.”  Tanya gave her a despairing look.  "You trusted me with them.  I'm not like your parents, feeding all your toys into the recycler."

"I need them," Naomi said.  "You still have the catapult?"

"Naomi, please," Tanya said.  "You almost died.  Wasn't that enough?"

"So I screwed up," Naomi said.  "That was ages ago.  I figured you'd be relieved to see me trying to stretch.  You know I wave to you every time the train goes by?"

"I was relieved to know you'd have to find some other way to kill yourself by misadventure," Tanya said.  "Just because you can fly doesn't mean you've gotta."

"You don't get to decide that," Naomi said.  "Besides, you still owe me."

Tanya gave her a silent stare that stretched.  The pocket jungle all around got louder to fill the space, chirps and hoots and wock-wock-wocks that mocked the dim badlands outside.  The whole place was a middle finger to the world.  In the cities, parks had their purpose as the filters and lungs of a tightly-weaved machine.  The JungleDome was its own purpose, and like the rest of Port Sunless, was built on defiance.

"If you screw up," Tanya said, "I'll laminate your frozen corpse and set it up in the statue garden to remind everyone else."

"Sounds like a plan," Naomi said.  "Come on.  My arms are itching."

Naomi's wings were blue and green, the colour of nothing that had been on Titan for people to find, and they were iridescent in the light.  Even outside she would be visible from the ground once she was aloft, a lonesome glittering constellation.  They snapped into the housings on her evasuit's arms with polished smoothness, as if they hadn't spent two years in an equipment locker.  She gave the air an experimental slice and smiled.

"That feels better," Naomi said.  "Hey, you know what a bad wingflyer and a bird have in common?"

Tanya hid her face behind her hands.  It was never enough.  "Don't--"

"They both go cheep, cheep," Naomi said.  Tanya's groan was all the reward she needed.

"I've fixed up the launcher since the last time you took off," Tanya said.  "The tourists love it.  Smoother trajectory, better speed.  But another one like that and I'll have it slam you into the ground."

The hand-painted sign said "Tanya's Awesome Launch Control," and there were sets of sunken footprints in front of it, as if so many tourists had stood for pictures that they had melted their way down.  The catapult had a deliberately archaic appearance to it, with the few necessary metal pieces hidden by local plastics and bamboo.  It was a good enough arm that, with a right kind of payload, it could crack a dome on its own.  Naomi took hold of the launching sled's grips and paced her breathing as Tanya ran through her own checks.  The more she focused on breathing, the less time she had to dwell on what she was about to do.

"Looks all good," Tanya said.  "You ready?"

"All ready," Naomi said.  "Kick it."

"Remember, the statue garden," Tanya said.  "Launching in three, two, one, now."

It didn't take much speed to fly on Titan.  The trick was reaching that speed with the loping, bounding gait that Titan's gravity imposed on its people.  When Tanya said "now" the sled shot forward like a crossbow bolt, fast enough for her to feel a flash of dizziness as her blood surged toward her feet.  Then the acceleration was gone and she was afloat beneath the clouds.  She let go of the sled, stretched out her wings, and flew.

She knew where she was going.  Beneath her, a hydrocarbon river sparkled in the guttering sunlight.  She followed it all the way to Xanadu.

"This is," Naomi had said, "the most asinine thing I've heard in my entire life."

Ten years since that day, and it was still true.  She had been fresh from a run to Las Mercedes filled with rowdy sparrow hooligans when Greg had found her in the Polaris Station concourse, slurping xanadu noodles and weakly dreaming of a better world.  Had she been energized, she could have controlled the conversation, but she was exhausted and he had spent years sharpening the impressive teenage charisma that he'd used to slide through society like a buttered snake.  It was when he'd still been the Greg she'd known, before he stuffed his brain in a spidery box with telescoping tentacles for hands, when he'd been making the world believe he'd walked through hell without being singed.

They had been standing in rented evasuits in the shadow of a monstrosity, and she still heard him out.

"Genius is always underappreciated in its own time," Greg said.  "And this is genius.  Say goodbye to anything like Xanadu ever happening again!  This is the future, the bleeding edge of urban design, and if we get in now we'll have penthouses."

"Penthouses in a tank," Naomi said.  "We'd be goldfish."

The City in Motion wasn't a fishbowl, and it wasn't a tank either, but it was closer to either than any city that Naomi had known.  Still under construction and already incorporating enough metal to armour a dozen domes, it was a great hulking mass of axles, pistons, gears, and radiators with the occasional scrap of habitable space wedged in the gaps between the machines.  That people were willing to pay real money, good money, for a closet-sized berth aboard it said more than anything about the damage the war had done.

"We'd be free," Greg said.  "Think about it, really, does it even make sense for a city to stay in one spot?  People started out as wanderers, you know.  This is just coming back to where we should've been in the first place.  Just imagine it."

"Oh, I can imagine it," Naomi said.  "I can imagine the engines keeping me awake, the floor always rumbling, never knowing where you're going to be tomorrow."

"And yet people manage to live on stations and spaceships just fine," Greg said.  "Think about it.  The only way something like this could be attacked is if the enemy holds the orbitals.  Aren't you worried, living in those bubbles, knowing how easy it is to break them?"

"I get by," Naomi said.  "This isn't the answer.  This is trying to run away from a problem, instead of solving it."

"I can't believe you sometimes," Greg said.  "You of all people should appreciate this.  You practically live on those trains."

"That is not the same thing at all," Naomi said.  "I'm at least going places.  This is going nowhere."

"Really?”  Greg gave her a smug, superior look that made her want to crack his visor.  "Polaris Station's the end of the line, Naomi.  The only places you're going from there is somewhere you've already been."

"Maybe it's because I'm comfortable," Naomi said.  "Maybe it's because I'm not afraid."

She had cut their shared channel before he could say anything else.  She watched him holler voicelessly for a moment before spinning on her heel and stalking back to the airlock, back to the proper city.  The City in Motion could run for as long as it wanted to.  In the end, that only meant it would die of exhaustion.

The tracks had gone on farther once, but now they went nowhere at all.  The old supports remained, barely visible, like a gauntlet of mourners.  Naomi had always thought keeping them up was the worst choice the politicians could have made.  Either rebuild the line and commit to the future, or admit no train be going that way again.  All they were doing now was keeping the wound from healing, like rusty old fishhooks embedded in skin.  She gave her wings an angry flap and looked away, toward the bones just beginning to show through the dimness.

It still didn't make sense.  Falling shouldn't hurt, not on Titan, with its delicate gravity and its parachute air.  Naomi had shards of childhood memories, full of youthful indignation about how she couldn't understand and it wasn't fair.  They ended with the moment she had taken her mother's glass elephant statuette, carefully carried from Earth and handed down through the generations, and hurled it against the floor just to see it break.  Glass had gone everywhere, from wicked crescent fragments to the invisible slivers that turned into knives when she stepped on them.  Her mother had made her pick up every piece.

Those railgun rounds had been hurled toward Titan faster than the air could catch them, and nobody had cleaned up the shards of Xanadu City.  Here and there, segments of the old dome curved toward the sky, only to end in ragged edges.  The bodies had been removed, the museums had been emptied, and the metals had been stripped, but that was all.

In all the years since the shattering, no one had found the courage to do anything but leave it as it had been made.

Naomi shivered despite her evasuit.  The ruins were as cold as the world around them, inhabited only by ghosts, and yet there was a tent down there, a lonely colourful splash.  She frowned and focused the suit's infrared eyes, and it confirmed an anomalous heat plume smouldering on the ground.  Not enough to melt the ground...  it didn't even look like enough to stay warm for very long.  It seemed to cool down as she watched, and so she dived for it.  Every once in a while intrepid teenagers made the trek to Xanadu's ruins, looking for inspiration or meaning or just whatever they could find there.  Every once in a while, they never came back.

She landed only a few steps away, but the close-up view wasn't encouraging.  The tent was an old Mackenzie-Souris model, old and cheap when it had been new, and not the sort of thing anyone without a death wish would take on a hike.  There were a dozen patches she could see, and even a torn seam big enough to expose one of the inner insulation layers.  Her suit didn't report any oxygen leaking, but even a raindrop might set it off.

"Hello out there.”  With that Earther accent, it didn't take Naomi long to place the voice -- Sarah, that tourist from the train.  It figured.  Rip-off artists preyed on tourists, unloading shoddy tents to people who couldn't tell the difference.  "Sorry, but this is a one-person situation."

"It's Naomi Moon from the train," she said.  "Your tent's damaged.  What's your condition?"

"Oh, everything's fine in here," Sarah said.  "Just fine.  I appreciate your concern, but really, this isn't any of your concern."

"Sorry, but it is.”  The only locks on tents were the ones that kept air in.  Her evasuit haggled with the tent's systems for a moment and the airlock door light flipped from purple to green.  "Can't have tourists freezing to death.  Looks bad, you know."

"I think it's pretty rude to just barge in on someone," Sarah said.  The outer door sealed behind Naomi, and she bit her lip as the entryway exchanged atmospheres.  She couldn't detect any fresh rips in the tent's skin, but even so, she'd have to track down whoever had unloaded such a moth-eaten quilt.  "Hello?  You're being pretty rude, Naomi Moon from the train."

"And you're being pretty foolish.”  The tent had fed her suit all the information she needed, including that it was only fifteen degrees inside and falling quickly.  "You're in danger.  I need to come inside."

"Seems like you already handled that," Sarah said.  "I know what I'm doing.  I'd really be quite thankful if you left me in peace."

"I'm afraid I can't do that," Naomi said.  "If you have a problem...  like I said, I can listen."

"Really, don't worry yourself, I'm beyond helping," Sarah said.  She sighed, making a sound like static.  "Not after everything that's happened because of me."

"No one's beyond helping," Naomi said.  "If you don't want to let me in, I'll still be here.  I can listen."

"You don't want to hear about it," Sarah said.  "Do you have any idea what it's like, hearing all those ghosts?"

Naomi sighed.  There hadn't been enough survivors from Xanadu City, but there had been some.  Every once in a while, the mountains of grief and guilt their survival had gifted them with proved too heavy to carry.  Every once in a while, the emergency service found tents with corpses inside, or evasuits that stank of death.

"This is my world," Naomi said.  "Of course I know.  We all do.  But that doesn't make it any easier for any of us.  Do you mind if I ask who you lost?"

"It's not like that at all, it's worse than you think," Sarah said.  "It's my fault."

"Your--" Naomi paused for breath.  There had been no survivors off the Peregrine, thanks to Commander Seong.  "What do you mean?  How could it possibly be your fault?"

"My name is Sarah Vega," she said.  "Cynthia Vega, Colonel Cynthia Vega, flight commander of USSV Peregrine...  she was my wife."

"Vega...”  Naomi exhaled.  For days after those artifact-hunting weirdos had slid into orbit with a safe they'd fished out of Saturn's rings, the newsfeeds had barely talked about anything else.  "Fuck, that was your letter they found."

"It was," Sarah said.  "And thank god I didn't put anything racy in it.  Entirely unintended for public consumption, but I guess that doesn't matter anymore.  It just matters that it was my fault."

"But you didn't do anything," Naomi said.  "I mean, weren't you on Earth?"

"I was, but it doesn't matter," Sarah said, and Naomi could hear her fighting back tears.  "She was my wife, I loved her, and she goes and does this.  Shatters an entire city, kills thousands, tears people apart, and I couldn't see it in her.  I should have seen it.  I should have been able to fix her."

There were a dozen things Naomi could have said, but over the impersonality of a radio channel, they all sounded like static.

"Sarah," she said, "can I come in?"

There was silence for a moment, and then the inner light flipped to green.  Naomi ducked through the door, and once it finished sealing shut behind her she lifted her helmet.  Her lips prickled from the cold, the sort of cold she'd only encountered in games, the sort of cold that meant something was seriously wrong.

Sarah wasn't dressed for the cold at all.  She was shivering in a thin T-shirt and pants, her arms riven with goosebumps, sitting crosslegged in front of a burning candle.  It would consume all her air before it warmed her.  A small wallscreen let her stare at the wreckage of Xanadu City, frozen and unchanging.

"I told you I saw death," Sarah said.  "Now you know why."

"I know what you believe," Naomi said.  There was enough room for her to sit on the other side of the candle, blocking Sarah's view of the city's bones.  "I know you don't want to believe it."

"It is what it is," Sarah said as a few tears traced paths down her cheeks.  "I know what I know."

"But I know something you don't know," Naomi said.  She licked her lips with nervousness and wished she hadn't taken her helmet off, wished she could hide her face, but she couldn't wall herself off now.  "It was an accident."

"What?”  Sarah fixed her with an icy look, smooth and cutting.  "What do you mean, an accident?"

"I mean it was an accident," Naomi said.  It had to have been an accident.  It was the only answer that made sense.  "I have friends in the government, they figured it out.  The Peregrine was trying to destroy the spaceport, but their aim was off by a millionth of a degree, and the weather was harder than they thought.  Just enough for their bullets to hit exactly where they shouldn't have."

"It doesn't matter," Sarah said, hugging herself tightly.  "Intentions don't matter.  Only results.  That's what she said, you know."

"So it doesn't matter that you're willing to let yourself freeze because someone else screwed up?”  Naomi moved the candle aside and shuffled close.  "What do you think that's going to get you?"

"It doesn't matter.”  Sarah buried her face in her hands.  "You can't understand this.  The woman I loved, the woman I wanted to spend my life with...  she was a monster."

No doubt there were plenty of people out there who would agree with her.  But Naomi would be damned if she proved Evgeny Garner right.

"She was a person who made a mistake," Naomi said.  "Just like you're about to.  You don't have to.  You're not responsible for what she did.  You're not responsible for all Earth's crimes.  Don't act like you are."

"But that guy on the train..."

"Was wrong," Naomi said.  "You don't need to be forgiven.  I just...  can I help you?"

For a while, Sarah said nothing.  Naomi stayed where she had sat, feeling the temperature drop.  Soon it would be cold enough for water vapour to start crystallizing.  Soon it would all freeze over, and Titan would win again.

Then Sarah leaned toward the candle, and pinched out the flame between finger and thumb.

"You can try," Sarah said.

Her evasuit wasn't much, just the standard tourist-rental model, but it was better kept up than the tent.  Naomi helped Sarah back into it, tugging what needed to be tugged and locking everything that was unlocked.  Sarah had no words for her, just the empty silence of someone who hadn't planned to stand up again.  Naomi sent a message to the emergency service just before she led Sarah through the airlock, and by the time they were outside they were already on their way.

"You weren't from here, were you?”  Sarah looked at Xanadu City and then at her, expectantly, as if she could unburden her soul.

"No, I wasn't," Naomi said.  "But I was here just after it happened.  I saw the ghosts.  Part of me will always be here now."

"Then we have something in common," Sarah said.  "I wish I could understand why."

"Would it make a difference?”  Naomi said.  "Would it change anything?"

"I guess it wouldn't," Sarah said.  "But it's so dark out here.  I don't understand how you can see."

"Oh, it's easy.”  Naomi opened her flashlight and let the ground drown in its flood.  "We all carry a bit of the light."

High above, the sun was a smear against the clouds, but from where she stood the view was unbelievable.

This story originally appeared in Analog.


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Phoebe Barton

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