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Written by Tom Brennan
Illustrated by V. Shane


Anna came in too fast, too low.

There was a screech of tearing metal as Stheno's carbon trees gouged the hull and the flyer tilted fifty degrees. Anna's body slammed forward in her rigid suit. She stared at the flyer's shattered displays; emergency lighting and halon made every surface greasy. She tasted blood.

Before she could cancel it, the screech of the distress beacon filled every channel. She punched her harness release and yelled at the chaperone, "Get out!"

In its bulkhead nest, the skeletal steel chaperone tried to unfurl itself. A dislodged spar pinned it down. It flailed its six limbs like an upturned crab.

As Anna splashed through gushing hydraulic fluid, the flyer's hull began to crumple under the carbon tree's reflexive attack. Metal groaned. Anna upped her suit servos, braced herself against the bulkhead, and tore the steel spar away. She dragged the chaperone to the airlock, overrode the safeties, and blew both sets of doors. Halon erupted into the moon's atmosphere. Half of the outer door lay buried in the tree's surface, revealing layers of carbon and leaking electrolyte.

Anna pushed the chaperone out and rolled after it. She looked back and saw the flyer's keel buckle as the tree's branches curled around it, centimeter by centimeter.

God, she'd screwed up. She should have kept her eyes on the screens. Radar was useless on a moon where the flora absorbed every wavelength. Perfect black-body receptors, the carbon trees climbed out of Stheno's weak gravity and soaked up every particle of radiation, their flexible branches constantly rearranging themselves into perfect receivers.

And she should have killed the beacon before the tree reacted to the blast of radiation. Anna remembered exobiologist Jerabek's words: "Faced with something new, an organism will try to screw it, eat it or kill it. Sometimes all three simultaneously."

Now, Anna couldn't count how many branches had curled down. Enough to turn the flyer into scrap; the electrolyte made a good hydraulic. The emergency signal died. Then one of the branches angled toward Anna. Without the flyer's halo of radiation, the tree could smell her suit's minute emissions.

She ran to the edge of the tree's crown, a ridged plateau half a kilometer wide. Two kilometers below lay the frozen surface of Stheno. Above her, Ixion's bloated yellow globe filled the sky.

"Pilot?" The chaperone's voice crackled in Anna's helmet. "I advise—"

Anna gestured for silence. Too late. The tree detected the shortwave signal. Branches curled down, searching. Anna looked down the two-kilometer well, signed to the chaperone, then jumped.

She plummeted through viscous clouds of ethane. Black trees crowded around, the opposite of color. Beside her fell the angular spider of the falling chaperone, its six limbs jutting out. Before she flipped over, Anna fired the suit's directional jets. Nitrogen hissed and threw her forward. She adjusted the jets until her dive slowed. The chaperone copied her.

The moon's surface appeared, a world of white lakes of ammonia and ice, fields of carbon dioxide snow. Anna aimed for open ground.

With fifty meters to go, Anna's fuel failed. She braced herself for the shock, curling her arms and legs, protecting her faceplate with her hands. She smashed into the brittle crust and swam through carbon dioxide until a claw fastened around her arm and hauled her up. Anna stared into the chaperone's sensor array.

The chaperone plugged a fiber feed into Anna's suit. "Pilot? Injured?"



Anna struggled to her feet. The fiber linked them like an umbilical cord. Down here, the trees shouldn't be a threat, but they weren't Stheno's only radiotropic organisms.

"Pilot? Orders?"

A good question, Anna thought. The adrenaline faded, leaving a nauseated hollow in her stomach. For a moment she thought she would vomit. She sipped water and took a deep breath.

Anna stood with her chaperone in a crater fifty kilometers wide. Stands of carbon trees climbed into the sky, matte black silhouettes like old photographic negatives. Beyond the hydrocarbon fog were the crater's curved walls, then open plains and mountain ranges.

Anna's heartbeat slowed. She scrolled through the suit's readouts: power, eighty-seven percent; three liters of water; air recycling undamaged. Suit temperature 17°C. Ambient temperature -103°C.

No food, but the survey station, left over from the first landing thirteen months before, had stores. It also had a satellite uplink. One of the other pilots, Howards or Videan, could reach Stheno in a day. Anna just had to walk thirty-two kilometers to the station and report back to the Jefferson.

But Per Hals, the EV Jefferson's engineering chief, had sent Anna to Stheno because the survey station had stopped polling. Anna hoped simply a processor or feed had burned out. She could replace them with on-site spares.

And if something else had happened? Anna pushed that thought to the back of her mind.

"Pilot? Orders?"

Anna activated her visor overlay. "We head for the station."

* * *

Anna tried to develop some kind of rhythm of walking on the snow, but her legs ached despite the low gravity. She'd turned off the suit's servos, since the same power supply fed her air scrubber. She had worked on Luna, Mars, Titan, Io, and Europa, and she'd worn this suit's prototypes: a rigid, vapor-coated titanium shell, with sealed neoprene joints. Light yet strong, it should protect her even if she fell into the eutectic lakes.

She could see one of the lakes now, where water ice floated in vast stretches of liquid ammonia; the solid ammonia ice lay at the bottom. Delicate pagodas of ammonium salts grew at the shores, crystalline white and yellow. Wisps of ethane drifted over the surface.

Anna imagined what it would be like below that glassy surface. Silent. Peaceful.

Mark would have enjoyed Stheno. Like Anna, he'd loved cold landscapes, ice and rock, tundra, sastrugi. They had met on Mark's first job after college, core-drilling in Antarctica. Anna had been flying the big Tereshkoff cargo choppers, coasting until an orbital pilot job came up. After Antarctica, they'd tried to follow each other's contracts through Sol.

But Anna had been delivering a study team to Titan when the Europa dome cracked. The news had taken a week to reach her.


Anna stumbled, surprised by the chaperone's voice. "What is it?"

"How are you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Your condition?" The machine sounded asexual and monotone. "Are you distressed?"

Anna glanced back at the chaperone, a plodding creature like a huge, upright cockroach. The fiber umbilical rose and fell like a sine wave. "You're asking me how I feel?"

"I can monitor somatic environment but not emotional state."

"Is this in your system?"

"My function is to protect you."

Anna laughed. She wondered what survival routines the designers had set up. "So, what could you do if I was distressed?"

A pause, then, "Converse with you. I have many diagnostic routines loaded, plus reference works on—"

"Thanks, but I prefer the quiet," Anna said. "I'll let you know if I feel lonely."

The chaperone fell silent. Anna heard only the tide of her own breathing, in and out, and the background creaks and whines of her suit. After the initial shock and her reflex reactions, a numb acceptance had set in. She almost enjoyed the hike; Stheno was a beautiful world.

She'd reached the point, on the Jefferson, where the crew's noise grated. Two-thirds of them would be going home in ten days when the ship segmented itself. The returning crewmembers were gate-happy, eager to get back to Sol. Anna could understand that and make allowances for it.

But she volunteered to stay behind. She'd spent the past three years drifting further and further away from Sol. Seemed like 47 UMa was far enough.

Had it only been the day before when Per Hals had found her floating above the expedition vessel's core docking bay? He'd called up, "Hey, Anna, you looking for work? We lost a survey node on Stheno: two days out, two back."

She hadn't hesitated. The trip meant Anna could quit the EV Jefferson for the best part of a week. "Do I have to take anyone?"

"Just a chaperone. Sign out one of the flyers and keep in touch."

Before Hals reached the exit, Anna had asked, "How did you know where to find me?"

Without smiling, Hals had said, "Simple: I checked out the remotest, emptiest part of the ship."

Per Hals would be going back home on the first trip. He'd invited Anna to visit him in Amsterdam. Per, the only crewman who had sat with Anna in the mess, despite her silence. He talked about the city, his childhood on the island of Terschelling, his family. But then Per had discovered she'd be staying behind. Thanks to relativity, Per would be over sixty by the time the second crew returned to Earth.

Now, Stheno's fog cleared and slender structures loomed up beside Anna and her chaperone, abstract mineral eruptions from the imagination of Dali or Bosch. Whorls of smooth white, contorted compounds following their own logic. Towers and ridged arches. Crystal fronds. Lattices spanning the path and dripping sharp stalactites.

Anna picked a careful path through, but her shoulder brushed against a monument, reducing it in seconds to bright shards. Anna stared at the debris for a moment before walking on. Even with the best intentions, she couldn't avoid destruction.

* * *

Ahead of her, two hundred meters of cliff face reared up and marked the crater's boundary. Millennia before, some planetismal had smashed into Stheno and formed the depression. The force of the impact had sent shock waves racing around the mantle to create a jagged mountain range on the opposite side of the moon.

"Pilot? Are you injured?"

"No . . . just tired."

Her quadriceps burned with lactic acid. She wished she could rub her lower back. Jefferson's medics could work on her later. She could picture herself in the ship's pool, sinking through warm water . . .

Anna stank. Despite the air scrubber, sweat trickled through her black hair and into her eyes, down her chest and back.

"Pilot? You rest here?"

"Not yet."

Anna headed for the cliff. She'd been lucky so far: she hadn't seen any geysers, even thought they preferred the element-rich craters' floors. She checked her suit: power at sixty-two percent; one-point seven liters of water; air recycling at full. Internal 21°C. Ambient -102°C.

She'd have to cut back on her water intake. There'd be plenty to drink at the station. And to eat. Anna focused on the lip of the crater. Twelve kilometers gone; twenty to go. She just had to pace herself.

The utter peace and solitude were addictive. Anna entered a calm, disconnected condition, almost a fugue state. Her limbs moved in mechanical rhythm. Her situation caused no worry; she'd soon be in the survey station, showered and fed. But she wished she'd had time to grab some music from the flyer.

She'd been listening to Arvo Pärt on her com-set when Per Hals had tracked her down. Minimalist music suited this world, as if the musicians had been here before any of the scientists. Some of those old composers had been alive when the Huygens probe landed on Titan—had they seen the transmitted pictures?

Anna had to rest. She gazed up at Ixion's surface—47 UMa's gas giant—at storms of hydrogen and helium larger than the Earth. Ixion had three moons, all named after ancient Gorgons, but Medusa and Euryale had lost atmosphere early in the system's formation, as Ixion's mass pulled in loose matter. Planetismals and fragments had rained down on the three moons; by chance, Stheno survived with just enough atmosphere to trap the distant star's heat.

Euryale and Medusa's elliptical orbits brought them close to Ixion; at pericentron, tidal heating wrenched at their cores. Anna wondered what would happen when Euryale crossed the Roche limit and disintegrated, torn apart by tidal forces. The three moons, locked in a complex resonance, would become two. Would Stheno survive? Or would it follow Euryale into Ixion's well? All this would be lost.

The first geyser erupted forty meters to Anna's left. The nitrogen plume ripped through the snow and widened as it rose, fanning out in silence across the sky. The airborne tesserae sparkled for a moment as they rose.

Anna fed power to the servos and started running, ignoring the pain. She didn't look back. Her heart hammered and her breath came in ragged bursts.

She had to get away from the geyser. The nitrogen and assorted volatiles didn't worry her but the tesserae did. Small carbon and mineral formations, some only millimeters across, had the same tropism as the carbon trees: any and all radiation. If they swarmed, they could clog Anna's suit, then bond like concrete.

Anna reached the foot of the cliff. She dragged air into her lungs and looked up. She'd planned to use the suit's crampon spikes and monofilament line, but she had no time for that now. She turned to the chaperone. "How much fuel do you have?"

"Twenty-six percent, Pilot."

It might be enough. "Take us up."

As the chaperone wrapped two of its manipulators around her suit, Anna looked back. The tesserae had started to fall, a horde of bright insects.

Anna lurched into the air. The cliff face filled her view and she winced, sure she'd collide. Then they were over the curled lip. As soon as the chaperone's grip loosened, Anna killed the servos and started out across the snow, striding toward the survey station under her own power.

A handful of tesserae landed on her forearm, attracted by the external control pad. They flattened themselves to the quartz panel and changed color from white to black. Three of them slid together. Where they bonded, the joints became invisible.

Anna headed for the mountain range to the north: to one side, the spire of Cathedral Peak; to the other, the Presidents, bulbous formations jutting from the sheer rock. They made good landing reference points. Anna aimed straight for them.

* * *

Anna woke, sure that someone had called her. Every muscle ached, just as she'd felt after cadet training in the centrifuge at Austin. She'd been dreaming of Mark but realized that she couldn't picture him clearly. She felt cheated, glad to be awake but still struggling to remember Mark's face.


A man's deep voice. She must still be asleep.

"Hey, Anna? Respond."

Anna sat up. "Hals?"

"Jesus, Anna, I thought we'd lost you." Despite the time lag, Hals sounded as if he stood next to her.

"Hals? Where are you?"

"On a cargolifter midway between Jefferson and Stheno," Hals said. "We're about twenty hours away. Think you can hold out?"

Anna couldn't concentrate. Fatigue filled her like a heavy shadow. "I don't get it."

A small delay, then, "The surveysat grabbed part of your distress call and sent it through to the Jefferson. We hauled out the fastest lifter and set up a laser link to your chaperone, via the sat. Clear?"

Anna shook her head. "I guess."

"Good, because I don't want to stay on too long. It looks like your power is down to about forty percent. You're heading for the survey station, right?"


"Then look out for us. Keep steady and don't screw up."

As the signal died, Anna realized she didn't want to explain to Hals how badly she'd already screwed up.

She stumbled to her feet. She forced one leg before the other, trying to get back into rhythm. She fell to her knees and let the chaperone help her up. Twenty-nine kilometers down. Three to go. Only three. A baby could crawl that.

She'd never been so tired, not even when that blizzard had caught her on Mount Cabot, back home in New Hampshire. She'd skied nonstop for a day, sometimes through whiteout, before finding the road to Lancaster. Her dad had called her every name he could think of for being out there alone: "You need someone to watch out for you, for chrissake."

She'd been lucky, then. She'd been lucky since. She'd been due to meet Mark in the Europa dome, but she'd missed her lift off Titan. Instead, Mark had been swimming alone in the Mining Company pool, the geothermal "tropical oasis" the Company used on all its promo clips. Mark hadn't known the geologist who drilled the angled borehole close to the dome, but he might have understood what was happening as the interconnected cave system collapsed and the Europa dome tilted way past its forecast stresses.

Anna had seen the netcast footage. In seconds, the atmosphere had blasted away. Everything froze. It had a strange, crystalline beauty.

Anna tripped and fell into the snow. She lay there, a glistening metallic outline.


Anna didn't have the energy to reply. She let the chaperone help her up. She stared at the distant mountains and stumbled on through the snow.

* * *

The survey station had vanished. Perfect black domes had replaced the complex. The surface of the tesserae showed no joints, no cracks. Layer upon layer, they had set as hard as concrete.

Anna stared at the domes and tried to calculate how many millions of tesserae had flocked to the station and buried it. She could identify the laser array. The tesserae had glued themselves to the installation but followed its form.

Jerabek and the other exobiologists had said the geysers wouldn't blow up here: that's why they had chosen the site. And the tesserae couldn't travel far under their own power. Okay, a few stray ones might stick to the shielded steel alloy domes by mistake, but not many. . . .

Anna started to laugh. The sound came from somewhere deep within her and wouldn't stop. She doubled over, gasping, crying at the absurdity. She gulped stale air that tasted of sweat.

"Pilot?" The chaperone stared into Anna's visor with its multifaceted sensors.

"I'm okay," Anna said, then doubled up again at the obvious stupidity of her words. She'd screwed up when she crashed and she'd screwed up believing the survey station would be working.

The hysteria stopped as suddenly as it had started. In its place, utter emptiness.

She'd been in trouble before. After Mark died, she'd chosen the most dangerous expeditions, the contracts with the smallest margins for error. She hadn't been reckless with other lives, but she'd stopped worrying about her own.

It had been like a game of poker, with Anna bluffing all the way. But she'd been bluffing herself.

Hals wouldn't be here for another twelve hours. Anna had enough power for between four and five hours, even if she tapped the chaperone's reserves. Simple math.

"Hey." Anna didn't know what to call the chaperone. "Hey, can you open up a laser channel back to the lifter?"

The chaperone dropped onto four legs. Its carapace split to reveal a compact comms array. "Link polling. Polling. Active."

"Hals? This is Travis."

A delay, then, "Anna? What's happened?"

In the fewest words possible, Anna told him about the station.

Silence, then Hals said, "Shit."

Anna grinned. "You bet."

"We're still . . . eleven plus hours away. I don't think we squeeze any more out of the lifter."

Anna didn't reply. Hals had access to her suit readouts via the link.

"Give us some time to think this one through," Hals said.

"Don't do anything stupid. This is my own fault."

"You're on my team, Anna."

The link died. Anna looked around. She had a simple choice: sit and wait for her power to drain, or start walking. But to where?

Clumps of carbon trees stood a few hundred meters to her left. More crowded the higher ground further away, on the mountain ridges and crags. The distant trees looked smaller than the ones in the crater, maybe younger. They crowned the Presidents, the bulbous rock formation.

The mineral caves behind the "faces" were supposed to be spectacular. But she should wait by the station. It would make things easier for Hals.

As if to prove the exobiologists wrong again, geysers erupted left and right of Anna. She settled back, switched her systems to powersave and let her body relax. She wasn't going anywhere and it didn't much matter, now, if the geysers' tesserae troped in on her own suit's meager emissions. She watched the tesserae's small hexagonal compounds reach the top of the plumes before searching for the most hospitable hosts: those carbon trees held the most charge. Once they troped in on the highest potential, they flocked to it using tiny bursts of nitrogen. The smaller tesserae had enough for one or two bursts before falling to the snow.

The successful tesserae fastened themselves to the host trees, adding their own small charge. They locked on at the molecular level and changed from white to black. Organic circuitry, they absorbed radiation and passed the charge into the electrolyte. The electrolyte eventually fed the fermentation. A full cycle.

The exobiologists argued whether the organisms were symbiotic or different states of the same genus. Anna doubted they'd ever know. The study teams devoted themselves to Cybele, the Earth analogue just over one AU from the star. Anna preferred Stheno's beauty.

She saw the truncated core of a derelict tree. Half a kilometer tall, the crown ended in shattered filaments instead of branches. The tesserae had avoided this host, leaving it to decay. It stood alone, jagged and stark.

Anna had thought about death many times. After Europa, she'd sat in an orbiting hotel room with two strips of tranks and a bottle of imported brandy. She couldn't do it, not then.

And now? With the power gone, carbon monoxide would build up. Like drifting off to sleep. Anna closed her eyes and settled back. An easy death. So easy.

Too easy.

The realization brought Anna bolt upright. She wasn't ready to give in, not yet. Maybe that's what had kept her going: stubbornness. Maybe that's what kept everybody going.

And she didn't want to let Hals down.

Despite the fatigue, Anna searched for a way out. Her suit needed more power. The chaperone's batteries might add another hour or so to Anna's reserve of two hours. Still eight short.

The trees were giant storage cells. If she could drive in two probes and tap the charge . . .

But how would the tapped tree react? Anna didn't have much choice except to find out. She powered up and stumbled toward the nearest group of trees. Before she'd gone five steps, an unexpected geyser erupted, blocking her path. Another blew behind it, filling the air with tesserae. Anna ran from the plumes. Now the nearest trees stood high up on the exposed ridges. With the chaperone close behind her, Anna headed for the mountains.

Now that she had a clear goal, her fatigue drained away. A part of her mind warned that euphoria wasn't a good sign, but she ignored it. She started running up the snow and scree. She glanced back and saw the chaperone right behind her. Ixion gave everything a yellow sheen, like an ancient sepia print.

Anna scrambled up and up, slipping on hidden rocks. The slope became a level ridge. No geysers blew here as Anna slipped silently between black trunks, searching for one in good condition and with plenty of charge, one that would survive being tapped. Here at the base of the trees, well out of range of the flexible, responsive upper branches, she should be safe enough. There wouldn't be much a tree could do to stop her even when—if—it detected her drilling into its trunk. As far as Anna knew, none of Stheno's organisms had the capability or evolutionary need to puncture the trees' bark. She would be the first.

She was almost grateful that she and the chaperone had hardly any power left in their systems. Less emissions meant less of a target for the tesserae.

Near the top of the ridge stood a young tree thirty meters across and half a kilometer tall, its bark glassy and fragile beneath Anna's glove. She realized how ridiculous this was, but she had no choice. She turned to the chaperone. "I need to access the stored charge here."

She repeated the order in different phrases, trying to get the robot to understand. Eventually, the chaperone raised one of its manipulators and spewed out a drill bit with a bright tip. After five minutes work it pulled back the bit; the trunk had been barely scratched.

As the chaperone tried again, Anna pushed down the rising sense of panic. She looked up at the tree's contorted crown and remembered how flexible, responsive branches like those had destroyed her flyer. She appreciated the half-kilometer gap between her and this young tree's reflexive defenses. She hoped it would be enough.

The chaperone stepped away from the trunk, hesitated, then raised another manipulator and opened a segment of steel iris. Its laser drilled two small holes in the trunk. Electrolytes seeped from the holes, but the tree didn't appear to react to the unexpected invasion. The chaperone inserted two probes into the trunk and adjusted them as if searching. Finally, "Potential flow."

"How much?"

"Mean: fifty-three point two volts."

"Can you link that up to my suit?"

"I can process the current."

"Do it."

Anna stepped forward as the chaperone unfurled a shielded copper cable. Anna scrolled through her suit readout: power, four percent. As she watched, the display rose to four point five.

If the tree registered the tapped current, it didn't show it, at least not in any way that Anna could see. She sat beside the chaperone and closed down all her suit's functions save for environmental. A single point of red light shone. She looked to the horizon. Medusa showed as a pale disc reflecting Ixion's glow.

* * *

Anna woke after dreamless sleep. The air tasted foul. The chaperone stood beside her, patient and still.

"How are we doing?" Anna asked.

No reply.

Anna began to panic, then remembered to activate the comms link. "Hey?"


"How long was I out?"

"You were inactive for nine point six hours. Cargolifter Edmund Maguire attempted contact three times."

Anna saw her power level at under two percent. The tree's borrowed charge had kept her alive, but it had been close.

"Can you open up a link?" Anna asked.

"Negative. Line of sight is now blocked."

Restrained by the copper and fiber leads, Anna looked up into the sky. Hals must be behind Medusa.

"Keep trying. Laser, shortwave, everything, right across the dial. Full power."

"My reserves are low," the chaperone said.

"Try again at ten-minute intervals."

If they didn't respond after that, Anna thought, there wouldn't be much point. She tried to slow her heartbeat. Her body felt like a plucked steel cable strung too taut and still resonating. She fed power to all her suit's systems, ready for that one last effort.

Slowly, so slowly, Medusa dropped toward the horizon. Then Anna noticed brief plumes firing into the air above the ridge. Two geysers erupted a hundred meters below her. After a few minutes, another erupted, coating the slope with tesserae. Anna realized that the geysers were moving toward her, zeroing in on the chaperone's full-bandwidth emissions and her suit.

Some of the tesserae landed on her arms and tried to converge; she shook them loose. Was it coincidence? Or was it the tree's symbiotic response? Now that it had detected her, it couldn't reach Anna with its branches—was it using another weapon?

Two geysers blew, sixty meters away. The tesserae darted toward Anna with invisible bursts of gas. One part of her mind knew that Karl Jerabek would have swapped places with her in an instant, but exobiologists were more than a little crazy.

"Can you get a link yet?"

"No, Pilot."

"Keep trying," Anna said, knowing they had no choice. "Every minute."

A handful of tesserae landed on Anna's leg and formed a tensile sheet. While she tried to peel them off, another handful landed on her chest.

Hals's voice echoed. "Anna? Respond."

"Hey, Hals." Anna peeled off another layer of tesserae. "I'm not at the survey station, I'm on the ridge above the Presidents."

"Hang on." The sound of Hals talking to someone else. "Okay, ETA five minutes. How's your power?"

"Low, but I've got other problems." The left side of her visor disappeared beneath a cloud.

"What problems?"

"I'll tell you later." I hope, she added.

She saw the lifter's rockets. The pilot had to switch from field drive to chemical propulsion well away from any atmosphere. The glowing dot grew larger.

Anna helped the chaperone peel tesserae from its carapace. "Take out the probes."

Maybe, with the power down, the tesserae would leave them alone. As the chaperone withdrew the probes, Anna disconnected the copper cable. Her suit readout darkened.

The tesserae still flocked toward them, swarm after swarm, as if some signal or instinct drew them to their already-bonded colleagues. Anna saw a geyser erupt ten meters away, releasing yet more. They must be everywhere, forming century after century, millennia after millennia.



The squat, massive lifter banked above the ridge and started to descend. Then Anna saw her mistake: she stood surrounded by trees, with the sheer ridge in front. The lifter couldn't pick her up without blasting down through the trees, probably burying her and destroying the organisms.


No reply. Anna checked the fiber feed between her suit and the chaperone. Garlands of tesserae hung from the cable like icicles, but it was still connected. Then Anna saw the chaperone's sensor and comms arrays buried beneath tesserae.

Anna led the blind chaperone to the edge of the cliff and waved to the lifter. Above her, the cargo bay opened and a steel cable unfurled. The hook slammed into the rock face before Anna could reach it. She fumbled, trying to connect it to her suit's recessed eyelet. Then the hook clicked into place.

Anna grabbed the chaperone as the cable tightened. "Hold on."

The cable reeled in, but tesserae anchored the chaperone. The slick white hexagons started to turn black.

The cable strained and whined. Anna knew she should let go, but she couldn't. She had an image of the chaperone lying beneath a black dome.

Suddenly, Anna and the chaperone cleared the ridge and swung free into space. Anna saw the chaperone's lower manipulators still anchored to the tree. The machine had left half of its body behind.

Anna looked up into the yawning bay. Hands dragged her inside. As the doors closed, a cloud of loose tesserae surged past, driven wild by the excess of radiation.

Hals led Anna into the inner lock and plugged a fiber feed into her suit. "Of all the stupid, idiotic—"

Anna looked at Hals, smiled, and passed out.

* * *

She woke up in a bunk's cocoon, her body weighted down by acceleration. A single light showed the inside of a sparse cabin. She stared at the ceiling, thinking.

The door opened to reveal Hals. "How are you?"


Hals sat on the edge of the bed. "The medic said you're in reasonable shape."

"How about the chaperone?"

"After a new rig it'll be fine."

They sat in silence for a moment, then Anna said, "I'm sorry I screwed up."

"To err is human."

"Even so—"

"Don't knock yourself out about it. We can talk about blame later." Hals stood up. "Get some rest."

Anna sat up in the bunk. "Thanks."

Hals nodded. "I'd do the same for any of my team."

She hesitated. As Hals opened the door, Anna called out, "What's the beer like in Amsterdam?"

He looked back. "I like it, but I'm biased. Maybe you should try it for yourself."

Anna smiled.

Hals echoed the smile and said, "Welcome back."

* * *

Tom Brennan is the author of two novels.

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