“How long have we been waiting?” Citre asked in Not-Kernel’s direction.
His question bounced ineffectively off of the hunched little man’s turned back. Citre’s questions were being drowned out by the blipping noises coming from the colorful screen that Not-Kernel was staring at in the corner of the room. Not-Kernel was busy trying to cross-reference who exactly Q48054 was, eying pixeley faces and bumpy topographic maps. He scrolled his fingers over a screen as lines of varying thickness darted across the images, connecting the faces and maps in twisted criss-crossing patterns.
“Excuse me,” Citre said, trying to raise his voice only slightly, but it came out as a yell, “how long have I been here? It feels like it’s been a long time.”
Not-Kernel flinched at the yelling, but still didn’t turn from his map of connections. “Don’t look over here. Just have another bite of cheese or some more moss wine,” he offered with a calmer voice, “Kernel will be back in a minute and we can continue with the experiment.”
He turned the screen so it faced away from Citre. The last set of faces that Citre had seen looked very familiar, but he couldn’t quite place where he’d seen them before.
Citre leaned back in his seat and stared intently at the blank wall across from him, thinking about how the faces he’d seen could be connected with the mysterious Q48054. He suddenly remembered where he’d seen them, the first and only time that he’d been admitted inside Solas’s command station.
“It’s like the tests were made for him,” Delfi said, “you should have seen him.”
Delfi was escorting Citre into the central control room of Solas’s command station. Citre had just finished his last set of technical challenges. They climbed up a metal grated ladder.
“Citre has performed the best of any candidate on the tests I’ve administered,” Delfi continued, “and he has impressive performance on his prior work as well.”
Status updates scrolled across the screens at the front of the room. Citre could see his own name next to hundreds of numbers as they appeared in front of the entire room. When he stared closer he recognized that some of the numbers were his elementary school evaluations, the thousands of data points that the educational engineers tracked on all students across the planet. Other numbers seemed to be his medical records, and his job performance reviews. They seemed to be collating all the bits of information they could find about his entire life. Citre shuddered to think about the things they probably knew about him, but kept his face calm.
Solas ignored Delfi and Citre at first. Continuing to speak to the team of clean-cut young men and women around her in short declarative bursts. The crew updated code and re-calculated simulations and engineering designs as their results flashed across the screens. The entire command station seemed to be an extension of Solas herself. This made sense, after all, the purpose of the facility was to oversee the massive enterprise she was heading.
“Congratulations,” Solas responded with her back still turned, fidgeting with the controls in front of her, “I’ve just been reviewing the tapes myself. I was expecting an impressive performance, but he exceeded my expectations.”
The other crew members turned around and nodded with a look of awe and a faint tinge of jealousy waving over them. It was clear that Solas didn’t often have her expectations exceeded.
Citre was proud to hear himself described as exceeding expectations, but also surprised. He hadn’t worked very hard or even taken the tasks put to him very seriously at the time. Delfi continued giving an oral report of the test results.
“I’d like to highlight that on the deep space flight simulator, he performed three standard deviations above the next best candidate,” Delfi said.
“Astonishing,” Solas said, “I never predicted we’d see a candidate with that performance level, and we’ve long past the calibration period.”
“Exactly,” Delfi continued, “And his speed at deciphering that imaginary language you invented is just as impressive.”
Solas faced the display screens, typing at lightning speed on the console in front of her. It appeared that she was programming some kind of algorithm simultaneously as she discussed Citre’s results. Citre was wildly intimidated by the entire scene, and for the first time, he really began to understand the intensity of the project that he was joining.
“Looks like his only slip-up was in the pressure test,” Solas said looked at the last panel. Citre could sense her raising an eyebrow as she continued, “Then that’s where you’ll have to focus his training the most.”
Citre lost his attention to a thread of worried questions: Had he officially committed yet? Was he liable? What would happen if he started to flounder at this point? Would backing out mean some kind of exile to the 4th planet?
But then Solas’s tempered and precise voice broke through his frantic thoughts. “Congratulations Citre. Welcome to the team,” she said, with a pure, even tone.
The simple phrase instilled a sense of calm and confidence in Citre at just that moment, and that confidence somehow carried through the following months of nauseating stress, a constant bombardment of training and political tumult. Nevertheless, during that meeting—the first time Solas and Citre had ever spoken—the entire time they were in the research command center together, Solas had never once turned to face Citre.
Citre was jerked back into the present when Kernel reentered with a tray full of what looked like muscle and organ dishes: slow-roasted marsh buffalo meat, fattened lizard liver, and bits of dried high-plains pheasant. Food like that was hard to find on Othera those days as it was considered somewhat distasteful to consume foods that were so hard to scale into mass production. Nevertheless, with his experience in culinary engineering, Citre had been fortunate to try all of them on rare occasion. It looked absolutely amazing, just like it did in Citre’s favorite memories, but he was ready to be disappointed again. He approached the tray, thanking Kernel for bringing it.
“I’ve been craving some meat,” Citre said, then stopping short, “but how did you get this? Do you have grazing lands here?”
“Not at all,” Kernel said with a hearty laugh, “all of this is chemically synthesized.”
“Interesting,” Citre replied. He slowly picked up the sterile bit of sausage sitting closest to him, all-the-while keeping the furthest possible distance from the rest of the food on the tray. He wafted the sausage under his nose. “Ah,” choking back his gag reflex at the tasteless mush, “this actually isn’t so bad.”
“Do you really like it then?” Kernel said as he excitedly grabbed one of the juiciest sausages and vigorously bit off a flavorless, mushy blob.
“Can you tell me more about how you’ve engineered these foods if you don’t even have these animals here?” Citre asked.
“Well, if you can allow me to boast for a bit,” Kernel said, “it’s largely thanks to me that the very idea of chemically synthesizing the food from your planet ever happened.”
“Ha,” Not-Kernel barked, “taking credit for X513 I see.”
“Well, I wasn’t going that far,” Kernel replied, then turning back to Citre he continued, “you see, my obsession with this magical manifestation of the senses began when I was first apprenticing as a documentarian. Lots of my contemporaries were looking into how taste interacted with politics at the time, but I was more enchanted with the internal sensation. In fact, unlike most of my colleagues, I actually started trying to replicate the Otheran recipes instead of just abstractly theorizing about it—a rather revolutionary concept in the field at the time.”
Not-Kernel turned from his screen to face Kernel. “Yes, yes, we’re all very proud of your innovations. Now tell him who actually figured out how to synthesize the food.”
Kernel rolled his eyes. “Look, just because that project was chosen for the Showcase and yours wasn’t, that doesn’t mean you need to take it out on my accomplishments.”
“The Showcase?” Citre asked.
“That’s not something you need to know about,” Not-Kernel said, turning back to his screen.
“I’ll tell you some other time,” Kernel whispered. “Anyway, as I mentioned, that was why I came here, actually. There was a biological engineer stationed here in those days who was becoming a sort of specialist in taste receptors. She was looking for ways to redevelop taste receptors.”
“You mean so that you could taste things?” Citre asked.
“Yes, exactly, but unfortunately, it never came to anything,” Kernel replied.
Citre made an attempt at a few conciliatory nods of his head.
“But that was actually how I met our dear old friend in the back there,” Kernel said, gesturing toward Not-Kernel, “Such a long time ago now. That must have been 30 or so years before you were born even.”
Citre was surprised. “You can’t possibly be that old,” he said, looking over Kernel’s puffy, child-like skin.
Kernel chuckled affably, “Well, that same biological engineer is a good friend of ours now,” he said, casting a wizened look towards Not-Kernel, who, for his part, was far too focused on the screen to hear anything. “She is very good at the modifications she makes.” He spun in a little circle showing off his odd flabby physique.
The beeping and blinking lights from panel in front of Not-Kernel suddenly halted as his hand fell to his side. Both Kernel and Citre stiffened as Not-Kernel continued to stare at his now-motionless charts in silence.
“I hate to break up your nostalgia, but can you come and look at this?” Not-Kernel said after a pause.
Kernel resignedly spit the flesh into the tub beside him. “So, you think, you’ve figured out who that mysterious Q48054 character was,” he said, bending in towards the screen to look at the blurry images more closely. “So what, she probably talked to thousands of people during that time. She was a politician after all.”
Not-Kernel pointed to his screen. “Compare the times they communicated with this list of dates.”
“Fine,” Kernel said, “they match up. What are those dates anyway?”
Not-Kernel tapped another spot on the screen, and Citre could just make out the words transmission, X513, Othera before Not-Kernel swiveled the screen out of view.
“Unbelievable,” Kernel said, his hand raising to his forehead, “did you know she was involved?”
“Quiet,” Not-Kernel said, nodding towards Citre, “we can’t discuss this here.”
Not-Kernel hurriedly flipped the screen off and the two of them rushed towards the door.
“Wait here for just one moment,” Kernel said to Citre as they rushed past, “we have to consult on something that would be problematic toward the experiment if we were to mention it in front of you. Apologies for the interruption.”
The door slammed behind them. The sounds decayed away. The chirping from the console at the back was gone. Kernel’s chatter was gone. Citre was left with just the dull hum coming from behind the walls.
Citre felt a knot in his stomach. This was a perfect time to snoop around the room and get some information for his escape. He darted toward the door to check whether they were outside, but stopped himself short, realizing he was unsure whether he was being watched already. He casually paced back away towards the far wall, and returned to his chair again. He could only keep still for just a second before he repeated the same jerking path around the room, trying to feign nonchalance. Just before he sat again, he noticed the screen on the table where Kernel had been sitting. As he passed, a flash of text raced across the screen.
He bent down to inspect it more closely but the text had disappeared. Another piece of text flashed across the screen.
So X513 must have known about this.
Citre hovered above the screen wondering where the message could be coming from. After a pause, a longer phrase scrolled across the screen:
When I stepped out earlier, I contacted her to let her know that we haven’t had any interference from the committee yet. She said that she’d be here within a day as soon as she cleared up some business. I wonder if her business has anything to do with this.
Citre had a guess at what he was looking at. Kernel must have been recording what he was saying and having it translated into the Otheran language on this screen. For the first time, it occurred to Citre that those two must have had a different native language.
I certainly don’t think we should let on that we know about this. At least not until we can figure out what she was doing, and why she left us out of it. I can’t even imagine why she’d involve herself so directly. Anyone could have detected this if they were suspicious. And I don’t even see what it could have accomplished.
There was a long pause. The screen seemed like it was only picking up Kernel’s side of the conversation.
Well, that’s OK. I can stall with him for a bit… Absolutely not. How exactly can I keep him away from the other researchers? … I understand that. But what exactly can I do?
There was another long pause. Citre pictured Not-Kernel’s hunched little body hatching some devious plan.
How can he ask for a reprieve? He doesn’t have any issues with his mental health even after we gave him those pacifying medications to subdue his fear. He’s clearly fine.
Medications? Citre said to himself, that would explain why I haven’t been able to resist them. There was a longer pause than normal, and Citre started to feel his nerves go. He was an instant away from dashing across the room to his seat when another message flashed on the screen.
I don’t want you to ever mention that plague sample again. Do you understand me? That is beyond question. I will not do that to him.
Citre had a chill run through him when he saw the word plague. He was glad he couldn’t see what Not-Kernel was saying, but he imagined something horrible.
Don’t look at me like that. That can be on your conscience, but I never asked for anything like this. I’m going back inside. You do whatever you need to do, but I’ll take care of keeping the other researchers away.
Citre sprinted back to his seat, grabbed a spoonful of meat-like paste and shoved it into his mouth, just as the door opened again.
Kernel walked in wearing his regular grin, which suddenly looked so false to Citre. When he saw Citre munching loudly his smile expanded into the most honest expression Citre had witnessed.
“So you like it!” he exclaimed.
Citre looked up and felt his skin crawl as he faked a warm nod.
“You caught me,” Citre said, “this is truly, really, very delicious.”
Within one day, the Counsel would have their vote on whether to continue the Skylight Missions, and the results would be broadcast across the planet. Solas had developed a reputation for impatience and being generally intolerant of any bureaucratic delays to her plans, but on this occasion, she was perfectly content to wait. After the disastrous results of the debate, she returned to her monopartment and sat quietly, alone in her darkened room.
Solas lived in one of the only sets of monopartments, apartments for individuals, remaining on all of Othera. Over the past hundred or so years, the constraints of Otheran economics had led to almost all Otherans joining either collectives or hyper-families. To have a monopartment was now thought of as an eccentric lifestyle—not to mention an extremely expensive one. But Solas had demanded the luxury to allow her to focus on her work without the distractions of communal life. This was one moment, though, when she could have used the distraction. Sitting alone in the quiet, Solas permitted herself just one reminiscence. She thought back to her youth, to the days when she lived in a hyper-family just like everyone else. That was where she was first introduced to the machinations of the political class of Othera. It was strange to remember those days, especially considering who she’d married when she joined the hyperfamily: Counsellor Ateinia.
Ateinia Ilimitado was always the earliest to wake up amongst them. Every morning when Solas awoke, Ateinia would be sitting at her desk, her back straight and shoulders raised in perfect posture. Their four other partners in the hyper-family would normally stay asleep for hours while the two worked, back to back at their desks. They were a glamorous group, celebrated in Ilimitado City for their beauty, intelligence, and poise. The city was named after Ateinia’s great-great-grandmother who founded the City’s political engineering techniques. According to the city elders, their family would certainly be one of the strongest on all of Othera, happy and successful for many years.
They were on a vacation to the North of Othera to celebrate the five years since Solas and Ateinia had joined with Jola and Tewas and Nanouy and Lyngwen to start their hyper-family. Four of them were going away for three days inside caves carved into frozen waterfalls, leaving their six perfectly adorable and well-behaved children with Jola and Tewas for the weekend.
Solas and Ateinia still awoke earlier than the rest. Ateinia was patiently waiting for Solas when she opened her eyes, gazing at her with a touch of affable impatience. They smiled at each other to convey their daily morning “Hello” without breaking the calm in the sleeping room. Solas could see the urge to fidget in Ateinia’s eyes. She was the only one who could see through Ateinia’s poise. Solas smirked and crept out of the bed, nimbly rolling over Nanouy and Jola who were wrapped together. She pulled her synthetic heat suit over her body and tiptoed to the door, motioning for Ateinia to follow her.
In their home and in their daily lives, Ateinia was in charge, and the rest of the hyper-family knew it. In the rest of world, however, with all its strange complication, Solas held the reins. And when there was something to explore, Ateinia could always trust Solas to lead her out into the wild. Ateinia wrapped herself in the fur cloak that she had bought especially for this expedition to the farthest northern reaches of the planet. She followed lightly into the hallway of ice.
Solas was already far down the hall near the outer wall of the frozen waterfall. The brightness of the sun was penetrating through the few feet of ice.
“Do you already know where we’re going?” Ateinia asked as she walked toward the brightness.
“Couldn’t you hear it last night?” Solas responded with a loving giggle, and slipped up the stairwell etched into the ice at the end of the hall.
Ateinia pondered for a moment trying to remember anything out of the ordinary in the night. She’d slept soundly, which was what this warm cavern in the cold of the north was intended for: a satisfying rest, a borderline hibernation. She had never been to the north before, and never known how her senses could seem so muted in the darkened ice rooms. As she rounded the first floor of the spiraling ice stairway, the light and cold suddenly streamed in from an opening in the ice. Outside, the icy river below stretched down through the thousand miles of frigid evergreen forest. The cold struck through Ateinia’s furs and chilled her senses back alive. Suddenly, she realized what Solas was talking about.
“You mean the scraping,” Ateinia called up the stairway to Solas, “What was it?”
“Shh,” Solas whispered back down the stairway, “I’ll tell you when we’re nearly there. Our voices carry, and everybody is trying to sleep.”
Ateinia climbed silently, trying to keep her panting quiet enough that Solas wouldn’t hear, but Solas heard anyway. The cliff was nearly 500 feet high, and the ice staircase followed it to the top in a dizzyingly tight spiral. Every step had to be sure, as the melting ice could turn slippery. Between deep breaths in the thin air, Ateinia marveled at the tremendous work that had gone into the intricate design of the stairway—and of the much greater effort that the Otheran people had undertaken over the past centuries, which had led to the frozen waterfall in the first place.
For a bit of historical perspective, Solas had made the family listen to a SonoText called The History of the North on their trip to the ice falls. This particular waterfall had frozen nearly 600 years prior when the polar ice mass was expanded two miles farther south by Othera’s climate engineers. They’d wanted to remedy a slow temperature drift that was beginning to reduce the productivity of the farms at the equator, and the byproduct was an almost overnight generation of an otherworldly snowscape. The river that fed the falls was a nearly quarter mile wide runoff from a northern glacier. This massive waterfall froze entirely in just days, leaving a 100-foot-deep solid mass of ice, which the wealthier Otheran’s soon began to carve up into this beautiful wintery getaway destination.
Ateinia wasn’t in good enough shape for this kind of a climb. She was from the main political family of their city, the Ilimitados, and that family had historically spent far too much time debating and negotiating to maintain this kind of physical ability. To top it off, she’d given birth to her second child just under a year ago and was still recovering. When she reached the top of the stairs, Solas was waiting with her bare fingers pressed against the ice to melt her hand print into the wall.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Ateinia said, “there won’t be any ice left if we all did that.”
“Don’t be silly,” Solas replied, “They come in and reapply the ice every winter. Do you really think this place would still be here after this many years with all the melting we cause?”
Ateinia nodded and laughed at herself. “Why didn’t I think of that?” she said, approaching closer to Solas, “I think I’m just light-headed from the climb.”
Ateinia looked over Solas’s body in the tightly fitted heat suit. Solas was younger, and in far better physical condition. As Ateinia moved in closer, she quickly pulled open her furs and wrapped them around herself and Solas together. “Caught you!” Ateinia whispered, “Oh, your suit is so warm. I’m jealous.”
Solas kissed her and squeezed her tightly for a moment, but soon pulled away, unwrapping herself from the cloak. “I told you not to get that old-fashioned natural coat.”
“Not everything needs to be so short and to the point,” Ateinia said. She slipped her finger through a loop on Solas’s heat suit, and pulled her back into her arms, softly nuzzling the back of her neck and smothering her with a slow deliberate kisses.
Solas relented with a short sigh and took Ateinia’s hand to lead her through the opening at the top of the icy stairway. The two had to stoop to enter, moving back away from the light and into a darkening tunnel of ice.
“And where does this lead?” Ateinia asked, “just out of curiosity?”
Solas shrugged. “We’re at the top of the waterfall, this leads further up the river.”
“And what does this have to do with the scraping?”
“This is a new chamber,” Solas said gesturing towards the roughly carved walls. “At night, people come up here to drill deeper up into the ice river.”
“And how deep does it go?” Ateinia asked.
“That’s what we’re here to find out.” She grinned back with a devious smile.
The tunnel narrowed in front of them with spiraling grooves along the surface of the ice. The path curved gently every few yards, following the meanders of the ancient river. It was impossible to see farther than one or two bends in the path. Ateinia and Solas continued venturing onward through the corridor, as the light dimmed and brightened depending on their distance to the surface.
“Your hands are warm too,” Ateinia said.
Solas smiled over her shoulder back towards her companion. “I wonder what it looks like above us,” she said, “if we go far enough we’ll be under the old glacier. Its ice is nearly a million years older than the ice here.”
“Is there anything alive on the old glacier?”
“I don’t think so,” Solas replied, “but I’ve never seen it.”
“I bet it’s beautiful?” Ateinia continued.
“I do too,” Solas said, “this emptiness seems to have a beauty we don’t have farther south.”
Ateinia shook her head. Ateinia and Solas had debated many times the relative merits of the density of the Capital and the suburban sprawl around it. Ateinia loved to find herself in one of the factories or markets around Ilimitado City standing shoulder to shoulder with the crowded masses. Solas was willing to accept the business of the city as a part of life, but she’d fantasized with Ateinia about emptiness before, many times.
“Is that why you chose this place?” Ateinia asked, “So you can get a glimpse of your precious ‘emptiness?’”
“It factored into my decision, but it wasn’t only that,” Solas said, “I was trying to optimize over what would make everyone the happiest.”
“And you thought we needed a little emptiness to know how it feels?”
“Well, we live crowded lives.”
“And is that why you still won’t even visit the 4th planet?” Ateinia asked. The 4th planet was even more densely populated than Othera.
“I’ll go when I want to,” Solas said.
Back in her monopartment, Solas’s tickets to the 4th planet were carefully packed in her satchel, packed with reams of inter space flight logs. She’d already worked through most of the calculations for the next mission. She was prepared. She knew how many days it would take to prepare another vessel, how many hours for the refueling between test flights, how many minutes between the passings of the 6th planet’s moons. She’d collated all that data and used it to calculate the instant that the new vessel could lift off of the surface of the largest moon of the 6th planet and jet to that distant point in space where she’d lost contact with Citre.
But those plans could be worthless now. The Counsel’s decision would be final. There would be no appeal. They could shut down space exploration entirely or pump half the planet’s funding into it. They could transfer command to someone outside of Solas’s influence. They could pick a pilot Solas wouldn’t trust. And for the first time, there was literally nothing Solas could do to change the outcome.
Solas patted the side of her bag to feel whether the tickets were still there. She pictured the swarming, crowded cities of the 4th planet. Now, she wanted to go.
Ateinia and Solas walked briskly down the narrow shaft cutting through the frozen river. They’d spoken briskly of Ateinia’s various projects back in the Capital City for the first hour as they walked. She had already inherited a highly successful political career from one of her uncles, and since she’d just been pregnant, her first task was to revamp the maternity wards throughout Ilitimado City. Solas was quite pleased to hear about the technical innovations that Ateinia had decided were appropriate based on her measurements of the scale and sophistication of Ilimitado City’s population.
As they discussed these things, they’d passed from the shallows of the frozen river into the depths of the main glacier, and, likewise, the path began to sink further below the surface. The day was short at that northern latitude and the light though the ice overhead had reddened and dimmed already. What light remained was being drowned out as their path sank deeper and deeper into the ice. As the light faded, so did their conversation. Now they ventured in silence, guided by Solas’s dim emergency flashlight.
As the icy chill migrated from Ateinia’s toes to her feet, she finally broke the silence of booted steps and quiet panting.
“We’ve really moved far north now, haven’t we?” Ateinia said, “we must be in the old glacier.”
“This tunnel has definitely gone farther than I’d thought,” Solas replied, “and we don’t really know how far it goes.”
It had grown colder as they progressed, and despite the physical exertion, Ateinia was visibly shivering now.
“Do you want to turn back?” Solas continued.
“I want to see the end of it. We’ve come too far at this point.”
The corridor had changed by this time too into little more than a narrow gash through the ice. And the surface of the floor was no longer a flat path, but in this unfinished cave, it had morphed into an uneven V, sometimes rising and sometimes sinking deeper under the ice.
When she could get her mind past the uneven terrain and the bone-chilling cold, Ateinia could feel the vaguest sense of foreboding as she walked. But it didn’t deter her at all. This was what she loved about her time with Solas—the purposeful danger. At the end, there would be something new, just like always. Still this adventure did feel different.
“It feels like we’re really at the end of the world,” Atenia said, trying to get the nervous sensation out of her mind.
“Well, we’re headed that way, aren’t we?” Solas replied.
Almost as soon as she spoke the words, in the space in front of her, the walls seemed to separate into a completely open space and the floor dropped away into emptiness. Solas stopped so abruptly that Ateinia almost walked into her. Faint shafts of light penetrated the cathedral-like icy ceiling above them, illuminating the farthest reaches of the cavern in front of them.
Neither of them spoke. Without their motion, the silence in the darkness in front of them seemed to have sucked the oxygen out of them.
Eventually Solas sighed and turned to Ateinia. “Well,” she whispered, “there isn’t any farther we can go.”
Aetenia smiled contentedly, “I’m happy we got here though.” She pulled an extra flare from Solas’s pack and shined it into the abyss beyond her. “It’s beautiful and so deep. I never would have imagined.” She hummed one of her favorite songs into the cavern and listened to the crisp reverb magnify her voice.
Aetenia never cared so much for natural science the way Solas did. Solas didn’t bother interrupting to explain the reasons behind the formation of this beautiful echo chamber. Solas could have told her that it formed when Otheran meddling triggered the melting of the glacier due to the subtle heating of the ground when drilling machines passed a few thousand meters below the rock at the base. Two hundred years prior, a government project had bored a tunnel that stretched half the planet to the northern pole. It was undertaken to supply an extra source of cooling for the homes of their citizens living near the planet’s equator. It might have been one of Ateinia’s ancestors who commissioned the project for all they knew. The accompanying ice cavern was just environmental damage from another massive geo-engineering project, but Solas didn’t have the energy left to explain that.
As the flare faded, so did Ateinia’s song, and she turned back still wearing her satisfied smile. Solas only shrugged. Ateinia could tell that she was disappointed. “It was beautiful, and it was good we tried,” Solas said, and then briskly began to walk back up the corridor toward the south.
Ateinia had no way to respond. She waited alone as Solas’s steps faded away, wondering how Solas would have responded to a different ending. Would she have been happy if the corridor just stopped at an icy wall? What could have made the destination as satisfying to Solas as the journey? She thought quietly for a few minutes until the cold reached back through her cloak and jolted her into the awareness of the dark.
She ran back up the corridor in the direction that Solas had been walking. Solas had already climbed back up from the depths toward the shallow ice of the frozen river. Ateinia could just make out her silhouette ahead on the path standing still with one arm held over her head toward the ceiling. Ateinia slowed her pace as she approached.
“Come here,” Solas whispered.
Solas was pressing the tip of her finger against the thinning ice wall. Her heat suit was pumping, and soon a little stream of water trickled down her arm and onto the floor beneath. The ice was melting rapidly and her finger was pressing farther and farther beneath its surface. Once she was up to her knuckles, Solas pulled her finger back out and motioned for Ateinia to come closer.
Looking up, Ateinia suddenly understood. Through the tiny hole in the ice, she could see the darkness of the night sky. The stars were shining brightly enough to project a tiny circle onto Ateinia’s face.
When Ateinia’s focus came back to Solas, she saw a new resolution in Solas’s eyes. Ateinia knew something was different, but it would be years until she understood just what Solas was thinking in that moment. And it would be even longer before Solas understood what had caused her to think it.
Ateinia and Solas returned to meet the rest of their lovers in the bathhouse and their lovely and relaxing weekend continued. The Ilimitado hyper-family lounged in the ice saunas, and enjoyed the elegant dinners and parties that they came to enjoy. Only Ateinia could notice the slight distance that had crept into Solas’s behavior. Something told her that Solas was hiding something. She wasn’t reveling in her long awaited vacation. She was persevering through the weekend, trying to keep from spoiling the others’ fun.
It was only on the train ride back to the Capital City, that Solas revealed her new plans. The others resisted, but Ateinia knew that the choice had already been made irrevocable in the moment that the light from the stars broke through the ceiling of the ice cave. She just calmly nodded as Solas told the others. Solas would be leaving the hyper-family to live on her own. She would move back to the capital and resume her studies in basic science. She told them that she still loved them all, but that there was nothing that could keep her from her path.
As they departed the train, Solas nodded, unspeaking to Ateinia, the one who she knew she’d miss most. Ateinia nodded warmly, knowing there was nothing to change Solas’ mind. Still Solas could tell in that moment that Ateinia was already doing what she always did, contemplating what she could do in response.
Solas received the news of the Counsel’s decision as she rested in an alkaline bath she had drawn in her monopartment’s moss-free water chamber. She read the first paragraph, nervous about whether her up-to-now flawless planning would continue.
“The Global Counselors have voted and the measure has been denied,” the article read, “Othera will not pursue another exploration of the region beyond the solar-system. Furthermore, the Counsel passed a corollary measure such that no extrasolar exploration requests may be considered on Othera for another 25 years.”
She swiped away the rest of the article and laid back into the tub. She breathed in the smell of the soda and salt crystal that she soaked in. She would be leaving Othera in the morning.
Everything was going exactly as she’d planned.