A pneumatic hiss made me start. Since childhood I've been easily startled and for the past couple of months that tendency has overdeveloped, has had me jumping at shadows.
And at perfectly normal hisses from our state-of-the-art orbital station.
I glanced about sheepishly, a blush building up in preparation for smirks from my comrades, but no one was focused on me. The mixture of fading alarm, relief and embarrassment conspired against me anyhow, and raised my heart rate just enough to set off my proximity vitals.
That did it.
Training kicked in and seven faces slowly turned to me, away from the tiny portholes showcasing our home planet to see why my heart rate jumped. I could see the distorted smear of cloud and sea reflected on two faces; Earth looking perfectly normal, completely untragic in the pressurized, tempered glass faceplates of the two colleagues due to have a bit of a zero-G walk.
"All right lass?" Harkin asked.
"Oh, yes. Sorry. Just startled a bit," I replied. He regarded me a moment longer, a ghost of a grin haunting the corners of his mouth before he turned back to the group.
"Pressure's down another percent," interjected Russell. "Let's get it together folks, what do you say?"
Harkin and George stepped back from the windows, holding out their arms and spreading their feet apart so the rest of us could finalize their prep, checking zips, flaps, snaps and digital readings.
"Check check," said George.
"Check check," said Harkin. He grinned. "Right, let's get about it. Send the Scots, aye. We'll save the day, it's always -- "
"Calm yourself Harkin, we have no time for your whingin'," snapped George, fiddling with her oxygen and frowning. She glanced up at Russell. "Got a tussle with my valves, give another look-over aye?"
Russell drifted over towards George, lips pursed in aggravation. Harkin looked to me with a touch of glee, side-eying Russell and settling into his babble.
"Did ye know Scots invented the ATM? Phones too, Edison was a Scot," he prattled. "And down to St. Andrews, their clever wee marine biologists set carbines right in the water. Catching waves like, and the rest of ye stuck muckin' about with wind power. Daft. Edinborough kept the lights on ye ken. The rest of you..."
"Harkin," barked Russell. "You check out?"
"Oh aye, Cap'n," Harkin replied.
"George's suit is fucked," sighed Russell. He glanced back at the rest of us, considering. Eyes settling on mine, he nodded his head aft towards our sleeping pods. "Kinney, suit up, and be quick."
I'd not been on a walk before. Dignity dictated I not respond with visible excitement, so I responded instead with a curt nod and grabbed hold of a doorway, propelled myself toward the back of our station. Quick quick quick quick I thought, swinging into my pod and launching right towards my suit standing snapped to the wall.
Looking at it usually gave me the creeps; it stared at me while I read or slept, it watched us with dumb, atavistic interest when Pete -- sorry, Harkin -- came to visit on the occasional evening while my bunkie lingered courteously at the chow hall.
"We have a mission," I announced to the faceplate of my suit. Maybe I should give her a name, I thought randomly. I'm thinking of it as a her now, anyway.
She didn't respond, just went on gawking at me with her empty glass face. "We're going outside with Harkin, you wretched voyeur," I said amicably, unsnapping the suit from her wall hooks. "He's going out of his way to piss off Russell, you know. He's doing his Scottish-people-invented-everything schtick." I gazed at my suit's slightly curved face and saw a faint reflection of my own. The woman in the glass looked fish-bowled, wide-eyed. She looked alarmed. "He keeps smiling at me. Russell is going to notice." The woman in the glass smiled nervously. "I bet he comes by tonight, you Peeping Tom. I should stuff you into a closet, you know it?"
How long have I been here talking to my damn suit?
Gloved sleeves freed, my suit drifted towards me arms outstretched, as though she wanted a hug. My heart was in my throat. Nerves. Outside was so big. It was so vast.
When had I become agoraphobic? If there were ever a disqualifying trait in an astronaut, an irrational fear of open spaces had to be it.
But phobias are irrational, and the past few months had brought so much information that made me feel this wasn't an irrational fear. It wasn't. Wasn't someone coming, after all? Wasn't there something out in that vastness?
I peeked behind me, listened for the telltale whisper of hands slapping walls and doorways. No one was coming, so I put my arms around my suit and hugged her tight to me, the shell around the emptiness inside crumpling under my need for comfort. "I know how you feel," I whispered, slipping my anxiety into the suit and out of my mind word by word.
There's a word for that, but I haven't paid much attention to the unit psychologists. Transference was one, probably. Anthropomorphize was another, but I'd cadged that one from my anthropology instructors. Xenological instructors. We needed so many new words, just because we'd heard some math coming our direction. From the vastness. From something. From someone.
I didn't like to think about it.
I started pulling on my suit, feet slipped into sturdy booties and hands into mesh-lined gloves. Snap, snap, snap. I smoothed flaps over seals, wiggled deeper into my protective gear. Pulling my headgear towards my face, I rested my forehead against the faceplate. "We've got this," I murmured.
Projection. That was the word I wanted. I shook my head. "We've got this," I repeated. Lifting the helmet over my head and into the yawning, sturdy neck I gave it a twist to the right, listening for the click. Back home, my food processor docked just the same way.
I momentarily pictured the delicate skin of my neck, shredded. I shuddered and tried to replace the image of blades at my throat, thought of Pete grazing his teeth from jaw to collarbone, instead.
Enough. I launched myself towards my doorway, kicking off towards the fore of the station and activated my intercom system with the flick of a switch and a "check, check."
Russell came back, gruff. "You ready?"
"Kinney ready, sir," I replied. I fiddled with my air, pressing flattened buttons and listening to the hiss of nitrogen rich, breathable air. It smelled of vulcanized rubber and the quick-drying hair cleansing solution I'd learned to tolerate after months of training. My nose wrinkled.
Ahead, Harkin was holding out a waving anemone of tethers, watching my approach. George had taken her headgear off, disgust clear on her face while Thompson and Nguyen detached the breathing unit from her suit.
Harkin curved a smile towards me. "We invented carabiner clips, too," he announced, attaching himself to me. I saw his hand brushing my suit, grazing my gloves and imagined I could sense the warmth of his skin.
"Four percent down," growled Russell from behind me. I felt slaps and pats, vague sensations distant as though my entire body were coated in lidocaine. A cursory examination of my ability to suit myself up passed with flying colors. I curled my toes, rubbed the fine hair of my arms against the inside of my sleeves to feel the vague tickle and assure myself I wasn't numb.
But I was.
Eight weeks ago, the United Federation Space Agency had caught audio at their satellite farm over in Death Valley. Unmistakable, they decided. In a universe of infinite possibility, our scientists remain perfectly comfortable applying Occam's Razor to a situation like this. The Fibonacci sequence is hardly random, they said. The simplest solution tends to be the correct one.
The audio wasn't ours, and it wasn't random. A progressing series of numbers. Occam's theorem says we're dealing with intelligence.
I heard the audio, before joining this mission. The message UFSA was so ecstatic about really was undeniable.
What they hadn't prepared anyone for was the gruesome quality of the sound.
When Earth was still separated into countries and states, when invisible lines called for official documentation to cross them and lacking it was considered criminal, we'd sent this same sequence into the skies. In clicks, in tones. We tapped out the sequence and we used audiologist's beeps and low, contemplative hoots. We'd flashed the sequence on the lights of deep-space satellites and carved it into tablets, punched Braille into sheets of steel. It was hard to know how another society experienced the universe, they reasoned.
What we got back sounded to my ear at first like the time my flighty, horoscope-reading mother hustled me in for a chiropractic visit. An experience I never sought to repeat, after an hour of groaning under the apparently talented hands of a certified sadist.
At first listen to UFSA's audio, I heard cracking knuckles, but I couldn't picture them. The thick, clicking Fibonacci, the cracking mathematical progression that would make first year university math students crow about the universal language. Those smarmy students wouldn't hear this, they wouldn't start cringing at 3 and shivering by 8. The thick, organic click of what sounded like wet bone cracking in half but could be anything.
Once we started the 21 sequence, the final number, the end of the response to the math we'd thrown haphazardly into the skies, I could feel my throat closing. I was gagging. I ran from the brief, barely hearing the chatter of excitement below the pulsing, thundering cracks of 11, 12, 13 and I ran, away from 14, 15 and slammed open the restroom door at 16, fell to my knees and vomited government issue grits and powdered eggs, crying and gasping as I heaved and felt 17, 18, 19 thumping inside my skull, screaming down low in my throat, quiet, quiet, and clubbing my fists to my ears to drown out my imagination pounding 20, 21. 20, 21. 20, 21.
I went to sick call and pled a migraine. I wouldn't let the horror of that noise take me from the most important mission since erstwhile NASA's 1969 mission to our very own Moon.
"Come along, let's be done and dusted," said Harkin, hopping ahead and jerk-pulling me in his wake.
"Pete!" I said, snapped back to here and now. "Watch it, you discount Englishman."
"Dinnae start with me, Puritan exile," he quipped.
Not that we really had such distinctions anymore, mind you.
"Now, get out and back in ASAP," started Russell. "You'll break left the second you're out of the airlock, nearly 15 meters. The hole's probably under 10 centimeters, but you'll take 30 centimeters of patch ..."
Harkin bristled. "We've got it, aye," he muttered.
I gathered my nerves and followed him through airlocks, through hissing doors. I cringed, grateful no one could see. "Exiting the station," announced Harkin.
"Command reads. Be careful and get back quick."
We plodded along the side of the station, a slow-motion march. I glanced up at Earth, watching Europe glide, dreaming into midday. I stared at the jut of Italy, sullen and brown and sunken, the boot shape softened and mellowed by the encroaching Mediterranean. I imagined the Coliseum standing firm in the sea, waves lapping at collapsed pillars, a captain going down steadfast with his ship.
"Watch it lass," admonished Harkin as I walked right into him. "You want to set me off into the void? We're here." He knelt, examined the gouge. "Must've been some diamond-tipped drill, broke off. Russian space trash." I knelt beside him, measuring with a critical eye.
"Looks about 12 centimeters long, just about 4 across," I decided.
"We invented the metric system, ya know." I could hear him smiling.
"You still measure weight in stones, Peter," I grumbled. I glanced back up at Earth. "Can you even point out Scotland? You were a mess in mapping and charting."
Silence, finally. For all his good company, sometimes the man never shut up and my nerves were frayed. As he welded the patch, I looked for Scotland myself. I looked for anything of the map I'd known as a child. The day was dawning on the east coast of North America, the former thrust of Florida a nub and the Louisibama Bay glittering serenely at the Tennessee shoreline.
"Aye, Lila, I see it," Harkin said softly, focused on his patching. "Still green as summer. I see it there, the castles and lochs, tenement housing set near Isle of Skye and the fairy pools." He holstered his welder, tucked the extra patching into his utility belt. He looked up at Earth with me.
"You see there, off Canada," he pointed. "That green beauty, Iceland."
"Yes," I whispered.
"She's doing all right, aye?" Harkin's voice, husky. I didn't look at him. His hand stretched into my field of vision. "Right. South and east, Lila. Look." He clucked his tongue to the roof of his mouth. Tck. Tck. Tck. "There," he said softly. "More green there, aye? There she is. Highlands, you know. Harder to sink. Mo chridhe."
"Mo creed," I echo.
"Aye," he said. I heard a tick, his gloved hand glancing off his faceplate. Pure habit. I pictured his face, the tears welling in his eyes and politely stared up at a browning, shrinking England. In my head, I heard the grotesque creaking, cracking sound of 20, 21. 20, 21.
I heard the crunch of snapping bone counting off a dead Italian's theorem and wondered what they called it. I heard my memory of tumbling from an apple tree and breaking my leg and prayed that I was wrong. That salvation threaded through the sound of 20, 21. I peered up at the greening arctic circle and heard 20, 21.