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Children of Icarus

July 24, 2012

Told in two narratives from two times, Children of Icarus is the story of lineage and repetition, set in a distant period, beginning on the planet Icarus and exploring the rise of its king and his descendants. The first chapter is called (for now) “The Sand People” and is as follows:

The Sand People

There were two sides to the planet and neither was very habitable.

One of the two was desert, pure and unliving. There were no plants, no critters, no color. There was only sand, rippling over itself night in and night out. The behemoth dunes glided like the slowest of tsunamis, and when one appeared on the horizon of a town, the townspeople prayed to the planet to spare them. Sometimes the dune would pass by, sometimes pass over. The winds on the planet were notoriously unpredictable, so much so that even when a dune seemed to sweep away, the colonists feared to sleep in case it changed its mind and turned back to swallow them.

Once one became a colonist, it was very difficult to leave, and so the denizens that weren’t scientists were explorers and roughnecks and eccentrics and minor outlaws. Of the desert’s size, it was said that a person might walk his or her entire life and never reach the Glass at the end. The Glass was the other side of the world, the side that periodically dipped into the sun. It was this other side, with its mystery and brilliance and stark surreality, that brought the scientists in the first place, and it was they that brought the rest after them.

The planet, formerly known only by shorthand and only to astronomers and navigators, first had to be officially named. As it happened, the Chief Commissioner was rather unimaginative, though appreciative of history and myth, and the planet was called Icarus. Its orbit was unstable and decaying and now quick enough to match each revolution, leaving only one side to face the sun. By this time, the orbit had so fallen that it was just close enough for the heat to glass the sandy surface, molding a mirror of the planet that threw all the light back at the star. This was in great contrast to the sandy side, where there was no light but that from distant stars. And though there were thousands upon thousands of these, their light did little but watch from above.

When Icarus – then designated AC3714c – was first charted by the Councilate Commission for Galactic Navigation and Safety, it was not generally considered worth further investigation. To the jaded star-gazers, it was just another dying world. And it remained thus, until one Willam J. Frist posited conditions for life far beneath the glass. He suggested that if AC3714c had at any point harbored life, there might be carbon-based life forms deep in the sand where it was warm but not hot, and somewhat sheltered from radiation. And even if not, Frist, et al, pointed out no small number of cases in which radiation-resistant life had been documented, indeed thriving.

He even had the gall to mention – to the Nuclear Control chair, no less – the strange case of rapidly evolving bacteria found in the wake of the Titanic nuclear spill in 11743 G.S.D1. After the incident, the Commission for Nuclear Control lost much of its former prestige, and those that led the department saw in Frist’s proposal a chance to fulfill their mandate and reclaim their prestige (and funding), and at no cost – under Councilate law, an endorsement was an act of faith, not an investment. The CNC chair gave her approval and soon, there was issued by the Councilate a Commission for Exploration.

His theory, which would come to be known as the Frist-Jesser-Kol hypothesis after the two scientists that endorsed him before the CNC councilate, though historians would later argue that it was Dr. Leon Wattsky that assisted him, and Leon Wattsky that declined official recognition in favor of Jesser and Kol. Per the CNC’s request, Frist was given lead of the expedition and command over the science team, including both Dr. Dallas Kol and Dr. Kim Jesser, Leon Wattsky, and many others from all the varied fields of science. With them went a small detachment of Security and Survival personnel, commanded by one Lt. Col. Carlota Monday, whose relevance will become apparent later.

Both Kol and Jesser were initially incensed that Frist – a layperson without renown – had been granted authority over them – both well-educated and credentialed scientists in the employ of the Councilate – but Frist, a clever soul, offered them both complete autonomy as co-chairs of the science team in exchange for veto power. They agreed, and so all went forward amiably with high hopes for success, adventure, and glory.

Happily for the colonists, they were not doomed to indoor, artificially-lit rec malls, commons squares, nor barracks. The Councilate was an empire without rivals and it was wealthy and it was growing. The Commissioner commissioned the installation of a False Sun to maintain orbit above the dark side of the planet.

False Suns were a relatively recent innovation, and operated rather as one might expect, being little more than immense mirrors that redirected the star’s light down onto the planet in question. Still, they were rather expensive to transport and assemble, so a large portion of the colony’s founding budget was set aside for its construction.

The township the expedition incorporated was founded a few months before the completion of the False Sun, and so the inhabitants became accustomed to permadarkness such that the sudden light of day was almost totalitarian, and they continued thereafter to affectionately refer to their town as Underwing, rather than Icarus Outpost Alpha.

It was soon apparent that Frist had little-to-no interest in the day-to-day workings of scientists, and he spent the majority of his time in management of the town. He sat on the Town Councilate for three months until he was grudgingly allowed to chair it. Frist, finding himself to be a competent politician, soon abandoned all pretense of scientific ambition and granted Kol and Jesser all-but complete autonomy. As long as they didn’t do anything to jeopardize the town or his control over it, he was content, even helpful. Both scientists were somewhat concerned with Frist’s political capacity, but they were willing to let him have his fun while they did their work. Happily for them both, this work meant that they were often on the far side of Icarus – Topside, they called it – and far from Willam Frist.

ICARUS, COLONIAL YEAR 2 (2 CY), 11990 GSD

As it turned out, there were no signs of any life whatsoever beneath the Glass. It had been over a year and a half, and both Kol and Jesser were growing bored with the whole affair. At first, it had been exciting: suiting up in exotic gear, sliding across the blazing glass, drilling down and excavating dark formations far below. But they had hoped to find… something, anything. Once, Jesser found a peculiar slab of rock that she dared to hope might be age-old artwork left behind by some long-dead civilization, but it was soon determined to be the product of wind erosion from its time on the surface of the planet, before the glassing. She threw it out onto the Glass, where it smoldered testily.

Even then, the two scientists were set on salvaging something of merit, if only to mitigate the embarrassment of returning empty-handed from their own expedition, let alone a loss of patronage (a predicament arguably anticipated by Frist when he offered them control). Jesser half-heartedly suggested trying to terraform the sandy side. After all, she reasoned, they were relatively well-acquainted with the climate of the planet and make-up of the surface. It was a long-shot, sure, but what choice did they have? Kol wearily agreed.

Figuring they could afford no more than another six months – a year if the results were promising – before they cut their losses, the two went one day to see Chairman-Mayor Frist.

Frist’s administrative building was domed like all the rest, though larger, and situated at one end of the town, which was arrayed along one major corridor not unlike people around a table. The False Sun, which was often brighter than most in Underwing would prefer, seemed rather dim to Kol and Jesser, who had just spent little over a month living under the real thing.

The two scientists stepped out of the air-and-space port after Dr. Leon Wattsky, who they routinely left in charge of the Commission Laboratory and Offices while they were Topside. Kol and Jesser wore oxygen-masks – transparent contraptions with a sort-of suction-cup aesthetic – as a promised biodome2 had yet to come to fruition. They wore also tight-lipped glasses, and their heads were swaddled in synth-fabrics to guard against sandburn. Wattsky wore a light helmet that combined all the previously-stated benefits in one. All were overlain with long, gray ponchos that swung lightly around their knees and preserved the integrity of their suits for business. The three might have made a comical sight, had all the townspeople of Underwing not shared in their plight. Kol grumbled often about the hassle in merely stepping outside, but Jesser liked noticing how people personalized and accented their headwear.

“How’s Frist doing?” The question spoke of caution. “We didn’t even see him last time we checked in.”

Wattsky shrugged. “Like you’d expect. He’s the boss, here to serve us in any way he can. Namely, his way.”

Kol nodded thoughtfully. Wattsky was a quiet, cerebral sort, but he was tenacious in his defense of all things scientific – a good foil to the clever but aggressive scheming of Frist. Kol smiled in spite of himself, recalling the first time Wattsky and Frist had met.

It had been during the endless night before the False Sun was finished, and the three scientists had been drinking on the sky-patio of the Offices, chatting merrily and gossiping and watching the stars. Frist had shown up unexpected;y, no doubt hoping to catch Kol and Jesser drunk and off-guard. He had glanced once over at Wattsky, deemed him no threat, and proceeded to try and wrest control of the Commission Offices from them. Wattsky, perhaps empowered by drink, had leapt up and thrown his glass at Frist, cursing him and all those like him. He had proceeded to rant and rave and ramble about the need for sovereign science unencumbered by political tape, as far from coercion as can be managed, and so on, until Frist was forced to retreat from the patio.

Come to think of it, Kol thought, it had most certainly been the drink that night. Nevertheless, though in future meetings he was decidedly more civil, Wattsky possessed no tolerance for such underhanded maneuvering and seemed nearly immune to Frist’s manipulative rhetoric. Kol thought him a most valuable ally.

Wattsky parted ways with them at the Offices. “I’ll be inside when you’re done. Give you the sit-rep and all that. There’s something I think you’ll both want to hear.” He glanced down towards the large and muted dome at the end of the thoroughfare. “Good luck.”

The two scientists nodded at their fellow and set off down the street. They walked slowly, enjoying the shade of the sun-roof that lay across the whole of Underwing. The sun-roof was a glorified tarp, voted up by the township soon after the False Sun appeared and providing further justification for calling the town Underwing (in later years, as the population grew, the name would be officially changed).

Each dome was navy blue and dusted with sand. All were of comparable size, and all were more or less copies of each other. Without the honeycombed biodome to hold back the dunes and the sand and the winds, every nook, cranny, and surface was forever layered under the elements. Accordingly, shop owners and entrepreneurs were limited in how they might entice the customer, and so each simply colored their doors a different color. The bank, styling itself as Underbank, colored theirs green, Underwing General’s was blue, the Saloon’s was rust-red, and so on.

Both sets of eyes drifted to Underwing Saloon. In their own minds, each wished to delay the meeting for a bit longer that they might prepare for Frist’s possible reactions to the news.

Kol said, “Let’s get some lunch first. God knows I’m sick of that freeze-dried shit.”

Jesser said, “Isn’t it all freeze-dried?” For the first few months in any colony, before optimal food combinations are determined, rationed, and cultivated, a Councilate colony traditionally has its supplies shipped in from off-world. Additionally, considering the disparity of agri-worlds, the shipped foods are more often surrogates than they are organic.

“I thought they finally got the greenhouse up and running.”

“Did they? Well, in that case, we might as well go check it out.”

“In the name of science.”

“In the name of science.”

They turned from the street and walked into Underwing Saloon.

They emerged thirty or forty minutes later full and tipsy. As relayed to them by the barkeep, Polly, the greenhouse was still a week or so away from productivity, and the only Icarus-made consumable the Saloon had on tap was a biting liquor somewhere between vodka and whiskey. It wasn’t very good, but it was effective.

Kol blinked from behind his glasses. “I think this is gonna hit me harder than I anticipated.”

Jesser glanced at her friend and decided she was going to have to take point. “Might as well get this over with.”

As they walked, “What do you think Frist is gonna say? He’s not going to like it.”

“What choice does he have, really? He’d be a fool to think Underwing has any staying power. Without us, the Councilate won’t fund him.”

“Still, the man’s hungry. Let’s tread carefully.”

Just then, a shout reached them.

“Wait up! Kim! Dallas!” They turned as Wattsky approached, trailed by a skin-and-bones young man with a hookish nose.

Kol appraised him with a concerned frown. “What is it? We’re going to be late.”

Wattsky stopped, the dust rolling up from his feet and slowly surrounding them all. “I thought I’d missed you – I should have told you this earlier, so you’d have it for your meeting. Might spare you some trouble.”

Kol looked searchingly at Jesser, then turned to Wattsky. “What in space are you talking about?”

“There might be a way to prolong the expedition.”

“There is – terraforming.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve looked at that ever since you told me about it a couple weeks ago. I don’t think its very promising – ”

Kim looked a little bit affronted, and Dallas started to defend her, but Wattsky went on, “Kim – it was a good idea, but there’s a better way.” He paused. They gestured impatiently. Wattsky nodded earnestly and said, “All right, so as you know the planet is headed towards perihelion in the next few months. And remember that image-data that implied the Glass possessed oceanic-type flow?” He paused and they nodded, the wheels in their minds turning over. Wattsky continued, “I checked the time-lapse and it’s true. The sun will heat the glass enough that it will flow – ” His arms waved about erratically, “ – like some bizarre, slow ocean. We can sell it as a way to better understand the complexities of currents – on the macro-level, and in super-slow motion.”

Kol and Jesser exchanged skeptical glances.

Kim said, “I don’t think the two are that comparable. I mean, speed and con– ”

Kol interjected, all-but sold, “Maybe not right now, but it is a unique opportunity. There probably isn’t much incentive for the Councilate, but I have no doubt we can spin it to sound more… practical. Besides, even if Frist doesn’t buy it, there’s always terraforming.”

Wattsky nodded. “Exactly. It’d buy us time, at least, and even if what we document isn’t huge, it’ll be science. Reputations saved, Frist satiated. We all win.”

“How long will it give us?” Willam Frist was seated behind a sprawling desk stacked with viewpads, papers, and pretense. His hair was sleek and black and slicked back, his suit the same, and his office was air conditioned, unlike most Underwing domes. Most domes had kitchens and storage and such on the ground floor, and a cellar below where the bedrooms and living areas were. But because Frist had air-conditioning, he slept above-ground, in a room adjacent to his office. He found it made him seem more invested in his civic duty. Frist repeated, “How long?”

“Another year, maybe a year and a half.” Frist narrowed his eyes ever-so-slightly. Kol seemed more self-assured, more direct than usual. Frist’s eyes followed Jesser’s half-glance to the same effect.

Jesser said, “It’s hard to give a time-frame. It depends largely on the results. Of course,” she added, “the year and a half estimate doesn’t even take effect until after perihelion.”

Kol offered, “It’ll take at least until then to get through the bureaucrats.”

There was a short silence. Frist said, “All right. Get me the documentation and the proposals, whatever it is, and I’ll get you the clearance and the funding.” He stood up. They followed suit. Frist stuck out his hand and smiled, “I’m glad we’re all on the same page.” He paused, then added with unusual transparency, “I like it here. In Underwing. It has… character. I don’t intend to leave so soon after arriving.”

As they walked towards the doors of the lobby, across the black-and-gray tile, under the deep blue standard of the Councilate, Kol suddenly stopped. Jesser took another step before noticing and turned questioningly to face him.

“Kim.” She suddenly knew he was about to say – “I love you.” There was a moment of silence.

Kim said, “I… Dal, what’s bringing this on?”

Though hurt by the unrequited, Dallas went on, his words rushing past his lips, “I’ve loved you since I met you. I’ve always loved you. I love your fiery hair and your wellspring eyes. I love your optimism and how you don’t let me be so dour. I love the way you wear a dress, the way you carry yourself when you feel accomplished. The look in your eyes when you know something but don’t want to be a know-it-all. I love the things I hate about you. And now we’re here, together, on Icarus, working together, practically living together, and we’re probably going to be here for at least another year or two. I just thought… ” He seemed at a loss trying to appeal to reason for the sake of love. “I just thought it was a good time.” He suddenly regretted the drinks.

Kim couldn’t but smile as she took it all in. Finally, she thought to herself. She said, “I know you have. And I suppose we are stuck together for now. Don’t take that the wrong way!” She looked around, noticed a few heads turned. And usually it was Kol that got uncomfortable in public. “I… I’m rather fond of you, too.” Ugh, I’m so damn quaint, thought Kim.

There was another moment of silence as each tried to work out the score.

At last, Dallas said, “Good enough for me,” and swept her into a kiss.

ICARUS, 3 CY, 11991 GSD

“I don’t understand. What could possibly be so important in Quad 2? There’s nothing but sand out there. I mean, there’s nothing but sand anywhere, but how many teams have already scouted the area? And,” Kim went on angrily, “why you? Why not send someone else, like Leon or Paddy or Silas? Silas is a damn archaeologist, after all. You’re not.”

Dal stopped packing his travel-case and turned towards her, putting his hands placatingly on her shoulders. She shrugged them off and glared. He said, “Look, I don’t get it either. But Wattsky says its important, and if he says so, it probably is.” Kim didn’t seem at all convinced. “Kim, darling, you’re right. I’m not the man for this, and I know we’ve been planning this outing for a long time, but he said in the message that this discovery, whatever it is, could turn our work into a footnote.”

“I thought it was already doomed to be a footnote.”

“All the more reason to carpe diem, right?” Sensing she was close to relenting, Dal touched her arm affectionately and said, “Remember the rock with those crazy markings on it? Let this be my rock.” She sighed heavily and let him embrace her.

“Fine, but you owe me.”

“That I do, that I do.” He kissed her on the head and pulled away with a mischievous grin. “Now, if you’ll let me pack, we can get in a quick one before I leave.”

She leaned in close, tauntingly close, her lips dancing across his ear, and whispered, “No, thanks. You’ll be right back, remember? I’ll save myself.”

With that, she withdrew, gave him a knowing look of triumph, and left him to his packing.

A few hours later, Dallas kissed Kim goodbye, told her he loved her and that he’d be back as soon as possible. “Tomorrow, if I can manage,” he recited, “And no later than Friday. I promise.”

Clipping on his oxymask, he walked out of the domehouse and set off down the street in the direction of the air-and-space port. Underwing had grown in the past year – there were more colonists, more scientists, more buildings. The biodome had never been built, the False Sun had malfunctioned for a week, allowing for some bizarre light cycles, and the town had almost been overrun by a sand dune once, but they had gotten through these disturbances and flourished.

There were two more outposts on Icarus now. One was just aside the Glass, and was commonly referred to by an amalgamation – Glassout. The other was a midpoint between Underwing and Glassout and was called, simply, Midtown. Glassout was the smallest by far, housing only perhaps a hundred people of which over eighty were scientists. Midtown was not much larger at about one-hundred-fifty, and consisted of scientists only as a layover. The rest were lay-lowers and workmen. Rumor had it that Frist was building a retreat for himself in Midtown, and some suspected he intended to extend his control to this next town, though neither Kol nor Jesser had ever sought to confirm the vanity.

Even given the expansion, Kol reasoned, not much had changed. Underwing was still Underwing, with its dark domes and shaded streets, and masked citizens. A wistful smile threatening to overtake his mouth, and good feelings not far behind, Kol realized he was starting to think of Underwing as home. He felt a twinge of empathy with Frist and walked on thoughtfully.

Wattsky met him just inside the port entrance.

“Leon. Are you all right? You look sick.”

Wattsky waved it off. “No, no, I’m fine. Just tired. This site has kept me up all hours.”

“Are you going to tell me what it is?”

Wattsky shook his head. “I don’t want to ruin the surprise.” Kol was about to insist, but Wattsky beat him to it. “Really. You won’t believe it until you see it. Just be patient, Dal. It’s a short flight.” Kol conceded to try and allowed himself to be herded to the shuttle.

The flight out to the excavation site was short, and it was boring. Out the window, restless sand dunes overlaid the had-beens, and the False Sun seemed to Dal, for once, nigh maniacal in its luminosity. All the way, Dal leaned against the view of the sky with decidedly forced boredom. If he couldn’t spend time with Kim, he sure as Hell wasn’t going to enjoy whatever it was whoever had found way out here in… whereever. Sensing his colleague’s displeasure upon taking a seat, Wattsky offered him a flask.

Thawed, Dal muttered, “I didn’t know you were a drinker,” and accepted the olive branch. Wattsky laughed; his love of drink was nothing if not notorious. Kol offered him back the flask, but Wattsky shook his head mutedly and waved it off. Kol shrugged and helped himself to another swig. Perhaps, he considered, perhaps whatever it was they found would be worth the day away from Kim. Maybe it’d even keep them both on Icarus together. And, while he was fantasizing, maybe it’d even keep Frist off their backs.

A little over a half-hour later, the shuttle touched down. Kol peered through the small window. All he saw was sand. He turned around to look for Wattsky. Spotting him in the back, looking out a different window, Kol half-shouted over the hum of the engines.

“Hey, Leon, is this it? All I see is sand!”

Rolling his eyes as passed on the way to the hatch, oxymask hanging loosely from one side of his face, Wattsky spoke over his shoulder, “It’s on the other side, Dal. Jesus.” He squinted as the hatch fell away and ducked under the threshold and dropped onto the sand. With the lightest of sighs, Kol unbuckled, downed the sip he’d saved, and stood up. The world spun.

“Shat… I… must’ve drunk too quickly.” He shook his head, rubbed his eyes, and walked slightly unsteadily towards the hatch. He put on his oxymask and glasses. Kol turned towards the pilot, who was watching him in the mirror, and waved his thanks. Now squinting himself, the scientist stepped gingerly down onto the sand, blinked a few times, raised a hand to his brow, and looked around.

There was nothing but sand.

“Dammit, Leon, there’s nothing here!” Leon Wattsky was standing about fifteen paces away, his back turned. “Wattsky!” At that moment, the dying engine came back to life and Kol heard the hatch slide back into place. He whirled around, then back to Wattsky, who had still not turned to face him. Suddenly, suspicion took hold.

“Leon, what the fuck is go.. going… oh, what the… ” Kol had started walking towards Wattsky when he felt his legs give. He stumbled, nearly sputtering his speech, and tried to go on. He fell to his hands and knees. His face painted the sand with utter bewilderment. What was… why would… what? He looked up as a shadow fell across him.

Wattsky said, “I’m betraying you.”

Kol righted himself, sitting on his feet before the other scientist like an altar boy. Trying to mask his disadvantage with nonchalance, he managed, “A bit cliché, isn’t it? Stranded in the desert?”

Wattsky looked out at the neverending tan, his face unknowable behind the mask, then back at Kol. Wattsky said, “It worked.” Kol merely blinked distantly from behind his glasses, his coherence rapidly waning. Wattsky said, “Dal… don’t you want to know why?”

Kol shrugged. “I’m a little drunk, I think. I can’t really… think.”

“I drugged you.” Evidently more than intended, Wattsky thought with displeasure.

Kol smiled sleepily. “That makes sense.”

“Yeah. But, listen. I want you to know why.” Wattsky swallowed, ready to tell his friend how envious he was. Of his prowess, of his prestige, of his character, of Kim. He prepared to admit he’d conspired with Frist from the outset to colonize Icarus, that his betrayal had been a long-time coming, that – fortune favor them – he and Frist would eventually rule an entire planet, and that they would live in comfort upon the backs of all those foolish colonists. He was about to explain how Kol hadn’t been supposed to die, but then he married Kim and then they suddenly wanted to stay, and so now he, Wattsky, had to remove them before Frist removed him. After all, if they want to stay, Frist didn’t really need Leon Wattsky, did he? Still, he would say, it was mostly about Kim, now. Wattsky hesitated as she enveloped his fantasy, but was promptly brought back when Kol fell on his face in the sand and didn’t move.

He wasn’t dead, yet. Leon looked around, considering whether to revive his poisoned colleague. Leon really did want to explain himself – it was a form of closure, he supposed. Still, if he revived Kol now, the poison might not do the deed and Leon wasn’t a killer. Not directly, at least. He considered for a moment the pilot, but the remembered the pilot was Frist’s and, like the shuttle, was unarmed. Sighing heavily, Leon knelt down, touched Kol’s shoulder, took a handful of sand and sprinkled it over the body.

“May the sand embrace you. May you dance with the air, travel with the dunes, and reunite with the Glass. May the sands embrace you – sinner, scientist, son of Icarus.” Wattsky did not know where the words came from, but come they did. He stood and looked out at the expanse. One more glance down, then he turned on his heel and was gone.

Behind him, Dallas Kol’s skin began to redden under the False Sun. Though Wattsky didn’t loiter to watch, the winds soon picked up and Kol was slowly dusted with sand until he burned no more.

When the shuttle arrived at Underwing Port, Wattsky went straight to the Saloon. As the doors swung away before him, his postural tightness seemed to diminish, his heart lightened, and his breaths came a bit easier. The familiar and noisy haze of the Saloon felt like home. His eyes swept with love from the space-lit ceiling to the aluminum walls that layered themselves in haphazards, then to the neon juke-box, finally to the bar, washed in granular navy. From above hung false stars and his eyes appreciated them silently as he tread beneath.

The bartender, Polly, was a well-bosomed woman from Earth, so many lears away. Wattsky, like many others, had once sought her affection, but like all the rest had been put down quickly and easily; she was a lesbian. As might be expected, it was a matter of great intrigue amongst the men (and some women) of Underwing who it was that kept her warm on the cold Icarus nights. Especially in winter, when the sand glistened white like ice and made the days that much brighter but no warmer. Yet for all their curiosity, no one really knew.

“You all right, Leo? You don’t look well.” Wattsky was, like many, a regular, but had always been one of Polly’s favorites. She brought him a rye, her favorite, and slid it to him, then offered him a cigarette. He waved it away.

“I have a bit of a cold.” He looked at her briefly and averted his eyes. She knew he didn’t have a cold, but Polly was used to his mood swings and didn’t think much of it. She returned to him a couple minutes later and refilled his glass.

“You want something for the cold?”

“Like medicine?”

“Yeah, like medicine.” Her eyes glanced about quickly. His followed and when they returned, there was a small, colorless capsule in front of him.

“What is it?”

She smiled. “Medicine.”

“You realize I’m a goddamn chemist, right?”

“Don’t you trust me?” They locked eyes and like any other day, Wattsky yielded to her, but this time because of shame, not cowardice. He figured, if God wanted him to die, who was he to resist? He swallowed the capsule, washed it down with the rest of the rye.

After another couple drinks, feeling reassured and again confident, Leon thanked, paid, and tipped Polly, then left.

Wattsky was a block from Dal and Kim’s domehouse when he started feeling weird. He watched the sidewalk run away before him as he walked, almost hit the lamp-post, and stopped to admire its texture for some time. Suddenly coming to his senses, he blinked his way up to the door, and stood there, unsure of what to do. After all, the whole place was very strange. Sort of like a collection of huge tortoise shells.

“There’s no way I can talk right now,” he muttered to himself. What had Polly given him? He should have asked, should have insisted, should have –

The door opened and there was Kim.

“Oh.”

“Leon,” she looked confused. “Where’s Dal? I thought he was going to some important dig site with you.” He noted an ounce of resentment in her tone.

“I… I don’t know how to say… May I come in?” He felt beads of sweat and breathed deeply, glad he was behind a mask (though for some reason he felt both more naked, and yet as if he were behind two masks). The drug must have made him seemed enough out of sorts that Kim took it upon herself to help him inside to a chair.

“Let me get you something to drink.”

Wattsky took off his helmet. “Nothing alcoholic.” Wattsky thought his voice sounded off and was still massaging his throat curiously when she returned with tea.

Handing it to him, Kim took a seat nearby and – her eyes searching – asked, “So, Leon, what’s the matter? Where’s Dal?” There was a moment wherein nothing was uttered, but much was spoken. Her entire body quivered. “Leon… ”

Leon realized he possessed no control over himself. His mind was on strike and all he could see was the look in her eyes. The quiet terror. He swallowed, and forced his way through the drug’s effects to sanity. “He’s… ” Leon looked away. “… dead.”

Kim said nothing as her body pulled in around her and she sank back into the chair, her eyes recoiling from Something Awful and Unseen. There was a long, long silence interrupted only by soft sob-like gasps. At last, she managed, barely above a whisper, “What happened?”

Wattsky, at once so disassociated that he felt he could speak with the least effort, replied, “Cave collapse.” He looked at her. “We tried to pull him out, but he was already gone.”

“Where is he?”

“We couldn’t get to him.”

“Oh, God.” All stoic pretense abandoned, Kim’s head fell into her arms, against her knees and fetal, sobbed and wailed.

Leon had never been good at comforting anyone, let alone women, let alone women he desired, and certainly not in his current state. He found himself trying to sink back into the couch, then fidgeting with his cup, then watching her cry. He noticed something.

The False Sun was bright, but for Leon Wattsky the whole world was dark. He walked numbly from street to street, saying nothing, thinking less. He walked by the Saloon. He stood in front of Frist’s building. He walked to the edge of town and sat down. The sand was hot beneath him and rolled off towards the horizon with utter indifference. He sat there for a long time, letting the drug run its course, wanting to be free of its emotive power.

“Pregnant.” The word felt heretical on his tongue, and with the muffled echo in his mask, like a death sentence. For everyone. For Kol, for Kim, for the baby, for him, for Icarus, for the species. He sat and stared into the tan until it was all he could see, then again until his mind ran so vividly that he couldn’t even see the sand. After a long time, feeling a bit more sober but no less darkened, Leon stood up and made his way to the Laboratory, hoping no one would notice his mania.

He shivered as the air conditioning embraced him, nodded stiffly to Pvt. Mashe, and went directly to cold storage. Wattsky punched in his code, entered, loitered a moment before choosing a small container, and went directly to his lab-office. He shut the door and picked up a syringe. He carefully filled it with liquid from the container. Once finished, he put it down and walked around to his chair and sat down.

“This is it, Leon. You’ve already crossed the Rubicon.” Wattsky took a look about his office with premature nostalgia, stood, picked up the syringe, capped it, pocketed it, and left.

“Have you cleared this with the Colonel?” The pilot was having none of Wattsky’s attempts. “No, but I cleared it with Frist.”

“I don’t work for Frist.”

“We all work for Frist.”

“Says you.”

Wattsky scowled. The military pilot regarded him with mild unconcern. It would have been so much easier if Frist’s personal pilot was still available. But, no, he was at his kid’s birthday party.

“Damn you. I’ll be back.” With that, Wattsky turned and walked briskly out of the hangar and didn’t stop until he reached the barracks.

The barracks, laid out five across, were domed like the rest of Underwing, but rectangular rather than circular. Behind them there was a large, round mess hall, and beside that were the officer’s quarters. Farther out, there was an armory and a vehicle impound. Wattsky didn’t care much about the specifics, and only remembered the layout well enough to navigate his way to the officer’s quarters. At the door, he was rebuffed by two men in tan uniforms and masks.

“I need to talk to Monday.”

One of the officers spoke inside his helmet – “Tell the Colonel that Dr. Wattsky wants to see her” – but Wattsky couldn’t hear him. Worried they might think he was on drugs (even though his own face was behind a mask), he determined to be extra-assertive.

“What is this, a vow of silence? I want to – ”

“You may go in.”

Wattsky paused, then nodded and said, “Thank you.” The door opened and he stepped inside.

He removed his mask and stepped up to the receptionist, who barely looked up as she waved him down the hallway. He clucked his tongue resentfully and made his way after her finger, only to run into –

Polly? What are you doing here?” Polly seemed a bit out of sorts herself, but smiled brightly at him.

“Just some legalities about the soldiers and the bar. You know. Beauracracy.” Leon nodded knowingly. She started again, then stopped and asked with a glint, “Feeling better?”

Wattsky smiled weakly. “Much. I might actually want some more.”

“You know where to find me.”

With that, she wished him a good day and went about her business. As she passed out of sight, he realized he was never going to see the Saloon, nor her, ever again. He reached the door and knocked once.

“Come in,” was the muffled reply. He did so.

The office was officey and barebones, all business. Very military.

“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever been in here.” He looked around before turning to face Lt. Col. Monday. Carlota Monday was everything a man wished for in a woman, he thought to himself. She was a real woman. She was curvy, dark-haired, razor-sharp, indomitable. Sexy. With some reluctance, Leon pushed the thoughts away.

She shrugged. “What do you want, Wattsky?”

“I need to take a shuttle.”

“Why?”

“Retrieve data from a scanning array.” He was banking on jargon-laced hodge-podge. “We surveyed an area out in Quad 2 and found an interesting formation a bit below the surface, so I left the array to scan the formation in more detail.” Utter bullshit. “I assume Frist informed you?”

“Frist.” The words came out as venom. “Why don’t you use Frist’s personal shuttle again?” Her tone conveyed well her displeasure at such privilege.

Wattsky shrugged. “The pilot’s at his kid’s birthday party.”

Monday regarded him coolly. She might not like the fellow, and she might detest Willam Frist, but she didn’t have a good reason to deny his request. “Fine.”

“Thank you very much.” Inwardly, Wattsky cursed her. Why the military got to control the shuttle fleet, he’d never understand. Then again, he admitted, how Frist had landed his own shuttle was equally suspect. To Hell with all of them.

Back at the hangar, the pilot said he’d been informed of Monday’s approval and was ready to go when Wattsky was. Minutes later, the destination was logged and they were in the air. The flight out was short and boring. Seated where Kol had been earlier, Wattsky pulled out his flask, this time laden with brandy rather than poison. He gulped at it greedily, but saved some for Kol. He tapped his fingers on the armrest and watched the sand drone by in blurs. He daydreamed about life with Kim Jesser on some living world, maybe Terra with its Earth-born grasslands, or the rainforests of Vita, with trees as green as her hair was red, unyielding as her eyes, and nearly as deep.

Finally, maybe too soon, they were there. Or close enough, at least. Wattsky didn’t want the pilot seeing the body, so the coordinates he’d given the lad were a couple dunes away from Kol. Or at least, Wattsky hoped it was only a couple dunes. He didn’t much intend to wander until he cooked through evenly.

As Wattsky reached the cockpit, the pilot turned and said, “Are you sure this is it? I don’t see a damn thing.”

“This is it.” Wattsky reached over and deftly injected the pilot with the syringe. The pilot immediately jerked away and fumbled for his gun.

“What the – ” Wattsky punched him in the face as the pilot tried to unbuckle, and then again, then again, then took the gun and pointed it at him. The pilot blinked several times in a row.

“What did you put in me?”

“A sedative, nothing more.”

“Jesus. Why?”

“I needed your gun. I’m sorry.” For a few moments, neither said anything.

“How long until it kicks in?”

“You should feel it now. It’ll get heavier and heavier for the next few minutes and you’ll be out in twenty.”

“For how long?”

“Hard to say. Anywhere from four to six hours.”

“They’ll come looking.”

“I know.”

“You’re fucking dead, you know that?”

“That is the idea.”

The pilot struggled to maintain the intensity required of anger, but soon had calmed down. Neither spoke. Wattsky waited with the gun until he was sure the pilot was unconscious. He hit the pilot on the head sharply to double-check. Then, he put on a mask, took the flask and the gun, and left the shuttle.

The walk over the dunes was relaxing, and despite his impending death, Leon felt warm. At the top of the ridge-line, he stopped and looked back. He saw the shuttle glinting contently. Leon turned back around and went on. As he reached the peak of the last dune, Wattsky stopped short. He couldn’t see the body.

Damn it, the sand!” He plodded down the slope and stumbled around at the bottom in desperation. His plan felt too right to be derailed now. With great relief, Leon spotted a dark shape and ran to it. All that remained above the sand was a heel. Wattsky knelt down beside Kol’s body and lightly uncovered the head, then removed the oxymask. Dal’s oft-sardonic expression was dulled and there was dried blood around his lips and inside the mask. Tossing it aside, Wattsky sat back on his heels.

“Kim is pregnant.” The corpse said nothing. He went on in monotone, “I swear to you I had no idea. I… I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known.” A voice inside him questioned whether his refrain would have been for conscience or spoiled goods. He felt sick. “I… ” Wattsky looked down at his dead friend’s head, hair gently wafting. He realized, perhaps for the first time, that Dal really had been his friend. He swallowed.

“I want to tell you why. I know you couldn’t listen to me before. Somehow, I hope you can hear me now. Or maybe God can. Just, I hope it reaches you.” He paused. “Of course, there’s Kim. Maybe she was the only real reason. But I needed Frist to be able to really get her, to give her all the things I wanted. All the things she deserved. I promised I would lie for him, keep Underwing afloat, keep the Councilate funds flowing. You know. He’d get me, I’d get Kim.” Leon Wattsky raised his eyes to the False Sun, let it blind him a moment, then looked back down, saw Kol fade slowly into focus.

“I’m sorry, Dal.” He pulled out his flask and smiled sadly. “I brought you a real drink this time.”

He poured out a generous portion onto Kol’s lips and the sand around them, then raised it to his own lips and drank it dry. He laid down the flask, stood up, and pulled out the pilot’s gun. A sudden calm took hold of him.

He said, “May the sands embrace us all – sinners, scientists, adopted sons of Icarus.”

1Galactic Standard Date – the most recent nomenclature of the Gregorian Calendar, begun on Earth in mid 1500s GSD, nearly four-hundred years before spaceflight. There have been many revisions over the years, but people get uncomfortable with large numbers because then they feel small, and with small numbers, because they wish to feel big. For that reason, it is almost always less than fifteen-thousand years since the beginning of time.

2Biodomes were often argued to be THE reason for the expansion of humankind throughout the cosmos. It had been assumed the exodus from Earth would be undertaken by refugees of some great war, but what really drove the species to spacefaring was population growth. The world became too interdependent for war, and medicine began to overtake disease. All too soon, there was simply no more room. Rocketry and fuel-efficiency initiatives were subsidized and, seemingly overnight, the dream was a plausibility. The remaining hurdle came from the people themselves. In a world of climate-control, luxury for most, and relative peace, who wanted to struggle on the frontier? Biodomes changed that.

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