Monday, October 10, 2011


They found the old Plutonian in a crag of methane ice near the peak of the mountain. The crew of six humans had touched down in the planetoid’s northern hemisphere and hiked ten thousand meters up slippery, jagged slopes under the glittering onyx of space to reach him. Now they had completed their mission, had located the murderer, who along with the boulder he sat upon was frozen within the methane like some peculiar imperfection of a massive gemstone. They gazed up to the peak of the crag towering above their heads, then back down to the Plutonian. Even sitting, his gray, spindly upper body reached higher than the tops of their helmets. They’d learned from their training about the low gravity of Pluto that stretched the arms and legs and necks and torsos of its people. Made them light. Gave them quick, cold-blooded heartbeats and spirits for dancing.

This Plutonian, Captain Mary Tycho knew, had danced once in a town called Boston, fifty Earth Sidereal years before they’d found him here, where he stared eerily at the distant pinprick sun from his petrified final resting place.

Mary ran her gloved fingers across the man who killed her grandmother. Though she was separated from him by both the ice and her spacesuit, she thought she might have smelled the ghost of his strange alien breath the way her mother’s mother had when the two had been in love.

“Why is he sitting that way?” asked Lieutenant Kern over the helmet intercoms.

“He was paraplegic,” Mary said. “When Plutonians die their thick skin softens and they freeze within one or two milliseconds, whatever the position. The methane must have solidified around him later, when the surface temperatures dropped.” She shivered, thinking of how the fabric of her suit toiled to keep the 36 kelvin cold from touching her delicate skin, and how a rupture would turn her instantly to a ceramic astronaut figurine, like the ones she’d begged her mother to buy for her as a child. Like her grandmother’s killer. “It couldn’t have been an easy death,” she said. “Probably starvation, since his skin would’ve only been susceptible to the cold postmortem, and there are no visible wounds.”

Another man, Colonel Alexandrov of the Russian program, asked a question which Mary’s helmet translated to monotonic American English. “How did he get up here?” he said. “There’s no place on this mountain big enough to land a rocket, and ion sleds would be too dangerous. I find it unlikely that he crawled up here.”

Mary gazed through the methane wall into two longing, alien eyes, entranced even through the ice by the vibrancy of their violet irises, like burning coronas wrapping binary eclipses. She seemed not to have heard the Colonel.

“Captain?” Alexandrov said. He shook her shoulder.

She started back at his touch, snapped around to face him, but then looked quickly back to the Plutonian. She hoped the Colonel hadn’t seen the–-what, fear, uncertainty, loss?-–in her eyes. For a moment she felt the unnerving sensation of translucence, like the ice in front of her. She shrugged the feeling away.

“Cut him out,” Mary said. “We’ve got a long hike down.”

Kern and a few of the others protested. “We’re tired,” Kern said. “With respect, we’d be better to camp five hours Earth Sidereal and recoup our energy before hauling the iceman down the side of a ten-thousand meter popsicle. Less likely to make mistakes that could cost lives.”

Earth Sidereal. That was the way they’d been trained to say it. And yet it had always felt unnatural to Mary. Especially here, when her grandmother had lived in a time that hours had no planetary designation, when they were the only kind of hours humans concerned themselves with, it seemed disrespectful somehow. She didn’t want to appear racist, but unfortunately this man had more or less ruined the idea of interplanetary relations for her.

Mary thought to object to remaining on the mountain, but Kern and the others had already begun constructing their thermo-tents. She sighed and made a weak argument for insubordination, but finally ceded to her crew’s insistence on rest. Besides, she was a bit exhausted. Coming here had been harder on her than she’d anticipated, and there was enough oxygen for at least a few idle hours.

They arranged the tents in the regulation circular fashion with the holographic orb-lantern, modeled after the Earth, glowing incandescent blues and greens at the center of the campground as it spun slowly on its axis. In basic training they’d all been lectured about astronauts whose brain wires came loose after too long on distant worlds. The orb-lantern was an invention of the industrial psychologists, to give their psyches a familiar comfort.

Mary watched the Americas, Australia and Asia, Europe, Africa, the long, deep-eyed Atlantic, as the orb-lantern turned. She looked out into space, at the collection of stars where the real Earth sat 40 Astronomical Units away, though the planet itself was much too small to see. She and the others sat around the orb-lantern to reflect on their memories from Earth. Sunlight, pale skies the color of faded sapphire, the mossy smell of sweat and lovemaking. It was a regulation pre-REM exercise they’d been through countless times before.

But Mary’s mind wasn’t on her own Earth then. In place of the spinning pseudo-globe she saw her grandmother in her turquoise ball gown, twirling on the dance floor with the Plutonian’s elongated arms around the small of her back. Although Mary had never experienced that night she knew every detail from the police files, and everything leading up to it she’d pieced together from her grandmother’s diaries and the Plutonian’s own detailed written confession. She could hear the waltz wash over the ballroom. She could see now the crisp afternoon horizon cutting wide, smell the daisies that rushed out over the soft hills, feel the grass brush across the skin of her grandmother’s ankles and the mild warmth of the sun on her naked arms. These were the customized sensations of the Virtu-Bio pill, administered by the ballroom bartenders with small paper cups of water. In Mary’s time the pills had been outlawed because the risk for brain damage was high, but in her grandmother’s youth they were called, with an easiness Mary found disheartening, “dance enhancement.” And it was this pill, no larger than a drugstore vitamin, feeding the nerves of her grandmother’s skin and nose and eyes, the ones that gave her goosebumps and the ones that made her heart beat faster, that crawled up the edges of her smile. The ones that tricked her mind into believing the two of them had really left the safety of the ballroom, and peeled her skull open into the hallucinatory world before them.

She could feel the cool breath of the Plutonian on the nape of her neck as he whispered her grandmother’s name, Lucille. She could feel her bare feet glide around his, for one brief moment, before that sudden snap in her spine, the black that wrapped round her quick and cold. And she saw the Plutonian’s face frozen in shock, as the cloudless sky and daisies and hills faded to a ghost world half-melted with the banisters and walls of the ballroom.

Then she was dead.

Mary opened her eyes. Kern, Alexandrov and the others continued meditating on the individual lives to which they’d return in a few months time. She was alone, she realized. Her crew seemed far away and inconsequential to her now, the way the ghost-speck Earth seemed in the night sky. How could they understand? It was just another mission to them, but to her–-

A low buzz came through their helmets, indicating the end of the meditation exercise.

“Don’t forget to run a liquid nutrient IV cycle before you cocoon,” Kern said to the others. “I don’t need to remind you what hell this comet is putting our bodies through.”

The thought of getting into the oxygen-filled thermo-tent and out of her suit, zipping into a warm REM cocoon sleep bag, drifting into unconsciousness, was usually a welcome relief to Mary after such a lengthy flight.

It was different now. The vicarious past of Lucille Cyrillus sludged through her veins. It made her restless, and indeed, she doubted if she might ever sleep again if forced to keep this acquired memory silent in the back of her throat, where it would continue to choke the air from her. Distraught, she caught Kern by the shoulder on the way to his thermo-tent.

He turned.

“A favor, lieutenant.” She hesitated, for it was selfish to keep a crewmate from much needed rest, but she trusted Kern. He’d always understood her more than the others. So she went on. “Sit with me by the orb-lantern a little longer? It isn’t an order, Herbert. I just...I can’t stop thinking about her. Please.”

“Not like you to be pensive.” He crossed his arms and searched her eyes for a long moment. It would have been an intrusive stare from anyone else, but Herbert Kern’s gaze was protective and reassuring now, as it had been since they were kids playing astronauts and aliens. It was the look that held her together when the Europan coring mine collapsed on her father. And so it was the same look now.

They sat back before the spinning, glowing Earth, which cast shades of oceans and trees across their faces like a strange blue-green campfire. The others had gone to their tents, and the two sat alone in the light of their pseudo-homeworld. Mary closed her eyes and described the image of the Plutonian tracing his fingers down the spine of Lucille Cyrillus, the grandmother she’d never met.

“His name was Dr. Tristram Saari,” she said. “He came to fix us.”


“They’re afraid of me,” he told the girl. He knew she knew why, so he didn’t tell her, Because I am crippled in this hoverchair. He knew the question she would ask next. It was always this question, so he said, “I know it’s difficult to understand, but I can do my work without the use of my legs. On my world I sat in one place always, and the people were brought to me, sometimes from very far, to be fixed and to walk again. And yet I came here on my own, in this chair your government gave me, and I obtained my work visa, and I do my work, and I did not use my legs for any of this. It reminds me to appreciate strength in weakness.”

The girl, who lay prone across the long table in Dr. Saari’s office, the back of her blouse undone to her hips and his fingers on her vertebrae, as if she were some delicate instrument to be played, closed her eyes.

“You have a nice name,” she said. “Where did it come from?”

“I picked it from a book when I got here, to be more human. Less frightening to your people.”

“I’m not afraid.” She said it so calmly and so suddenly that the doctor paused, as if his musical score had called for a rest of some length. Then, seamlessly the playing began anew.

“If I cannot fix myself to walk, why do you believe I may fix you, Miss Cyrillus? How are you certain, that when I twist,” he said, lingering at her lower back, “I will not cripple you further, I will not kill you?”

“Is that what they say?”

“It is what they say.”

“You’ve never danced, doctor?”

After a number of minutes it seemed he had not heard her, or had ignored the question. Then he said, “I do not remember well, but my mother has told me I danced much as a child. Very young, I danced myself over the cliff edge, very young and very small, uncareful mind, dancing brain and not a thinking brain. Now I think always and never dance.”

“You must have been sad to grow up like that, around all that dancing,” she said, but not unkindly. “Your people are dancers, are they not?”

He nodded, though she couldn’t see him do it.

Yet she went on, “I knew they were. Dancers know each other well, without ever having met.”

“Are you a dancer, Miss Cyrillus?”

“Was. Am.”

“And am I? How would you know when neither of us walks, stands, strides, steps?”

“Dancing isn’t a movement of legs,” she said simply. “We can’t hide in dead muscles and nerves. If our legs aren’t dancing then our eyes sway restlessly from side to side, our fingers haunt the air, our goosebumps rise in melody, our fingernails grow to the rhythm of a billion sevenfold heartbeats. We say ‘I love you,’ first Pizzicato, then Tenuto. ‘I hate you’ is Marcato. Dancers dance without a tendon or a toe.”

And so, with his fingers, he danced, and with three steps and a twirl came a pop, burning pain ripping through her legs and her toes and the balls of her feet. An exhilarating pain two-stepping through the void of numb nothingness, as if, like a lizard’s tail, new legs had grown in place of the useless old ones, now discarded and forgotten. The pain soon faded, the song ended, the fingers motionless above its strings.

Tears slipped from the corners of her eyes. She exhaled once sharply, mouth agape. Then she quietly shut her eyes and her mouth and it was over.

“You’ll have atrophy,” the doctor said. “That’s expected. It will take time and therapy for you to walk, let alone dance again. It could be some time.”

So he said, and so it always had been with all his human patients. They were not the cold-blooded, hard-muscled creatures of Pluto, who after his corrections could walk almost as suddenly as a calf freshly fallen from the womb. But Lucille Cyrillus was not interested in always, what interested her was now. And now and then and forever Lucille was a dancer.

The work of getting back on her feet was rigorous, painful, heartbreaking. And so what of it? she’d thought. Every step, every turn, every beat of every song, had broken her heart. When her husband left behind a thirty-year-old mother of a fatherless daughter, a bolero. When she’d leapt from her thirteenth story condo finally, and landed feet-first on snowy Province Street, crowded then with holiday-shopping congregants in indiscriminate wool hats and gloves and great coats as bone and faith splintered before them: a hymnal. How was this pain different? A new tune, maybe. But the dance never changed. Not its essence, that rose like steam from the friction of heels rubbing oak wood floors.


“They’re really going to reanimate him? What’s to gain from sentencing a dead man to death?”

“What gives every story its heartbeat,” Mary told her lieutenant. “An ending.”

“I don’t mean to spoil this for you, Mary, but the story’s over. He’s dead,” Kern said.

She leaned back, watching the black spot where the Earth sat imperceptibly tiny, while the false Earth cast her in its glow. “Maybe when all of you look at him you see a dead man, who does nothing but sit frozen on a rock and stare at an invisible blue-green sphere four, five, six billion kilometers from his eyes. But isn’t it so that by doing nothing, by being nothing he’s removing the final page? His actions are very much alive, and they’ll be dead when our government and our law kills them.”

Kern put his gloved hand atop his captain’s.

“They shouldn’t have let you on this mission, Mary. Rocket ship captain isn’t such a fun game when people die before you ever get a chance to meet them. This isn’t his story or hers, it’s becoming yours.”

“Whose better?” she said, staring at the visual absence of her home in the sky.

“There’s no objectivity,” Kern said, “no ethics. So far as narrators go, you’re unreliable.”


Yes, it was hard. Lucille never hid the fact. It had simply not occurred to her to stop moving the way she’d been built. She owned a dancer’s frame, a dancer’s grace, and a dancer’s fool stubbornness.

First she twitched her toes, her calves, her knees, tendons and joints and muscles and bones, awake, drifting to sleep, in her dreams. Then she swung the great wheels of a wheelchair. She’d said no to the hoverchair this time because a dance requires momentum and her arms could push her along with the building energy her legs could not yet have. When Dr. Saari said it was time to hobble with a walker she instead threw the folding metal crutch aside and fell and fell again, with elegant crashing timpani and four-four rhythm. When her legs could sustain her they fell into the remembered grooves of steps, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. At first they hurt her like a clumsy dance partner stomping her toes, but in astonishing time they were flawless. Mambo. Ballet. Foxtrot. Balboa. Jota. Liscio. Rumba. Salsa. The Cajun Two-Step. Valse à deux temps. The robot. Worship dances. Rain dances. Spirit dances. Sweaty, invigorating, excruciating dances. Sore heels and fatigued calves. Salt on the lip and labored breathing.

Lucille had no idea the movement that had been locked away between broken vertebrae these years. She could not stop, as if all this movement intended to flow from her like amniotic fluid to signify the coming of a wonderful birth. And Lucille’s recovery was a birth, the kind of happiness only birth can give and the kind she hadn’t experienced since her daughter first clutched her with tiny fingertips. She danced now with her daughter to the warm hum of the antique record player. Danced and swooped around the living room with vigor and life, past the window that so long ago had promised her death and given her worse.

She twirled her daughter like a spinning top. Until the girl’s geometry blended in a motion of colors and she begged her mother to stop for dizziness. They sat there on the couch still and silent except the scratch of the record needle. She watched her daughter with the longing and sorrow of one returned from war to see the person they loved had grown without their noticing.

“When,” she asked serenely, “did you start curling your hair?”

The girl frowned. “Am I in trouble?”

Lucille thought about it. “You shouldn’t be using my curler. It’s dangerous. But no, you aren’t in trouble. I like it that way. It’s just that it’s...different.”

Lucille began to notice lots of things were different. She caught herself watching the sun set over the New England high rises, finding it a new and peculiar thing to happen outside a window. The taste of scrambled eggs with pepper and cheese lingered on her tongue in the morning; her daughter, it turned out, was quite a good cook as well. What else had she missed? Music. Everywhere music. And the man who played her like an instrument. She owed all this to him, to the Plutonian man in the hoverchair of whom people were afraid.

She must see him again, she decided. The thought of him intoxicated her, an overwhelming aroma of cologne swarming her inner thoughts. Though, she came to think of it, Tristram Saari wore no cologne and smelled unlike anyone she’d ever met. As if he’d just come in from swimming through the clouds of Uranus or had been spelunking deep in a Europan cavern.

At any rate, she was resolute in her need to see him, smell him, be near him. She wiped the dampness from her forehead and arms, but decided to keep on her red Salsa dress and not to spray perfume. For if his musk was of one flying through the stars hers was surely that of dancing till dusk across the salt of the earth.

She made an emergency appointment with his office, telling the receptionist over the telephone, a human boy with a concerned sounding tone in his voice, she’d been having a bit of lower back pain. Although it wasn’t a lie, Lucille would have never normally called for the pain, which was manageable if annoying. But she was unsure how else to reach him on such short notice. The boy returned from keeping her on hold and told her to come right away, that if she needed they would send an ambulance.

“That won’t be necessary, I’ll call for a taxi,” she said and hung up the phone.

Fifteen minutes later she was before the glass doors, with Dr. Saari’s name and the words “Bipedal Recovery Center” etched above an abstractly wavy design. The doors whooshed open and she stepped past them, into the lobby. The sandy-haired boy she’d spoken to on the phone looked worriedly at her from behind his desk. Suddenly her mind was blank, and she could think of nothing to placate his curiosity. She could think of nothing but Dr. Saari and his delicate, familiar fingers.

“Miss Cyrillus?”

She gazed at him.

“The doctor will see you soon. You should sit to keep from agitating it.”

She blinked. “What?”

“Your back.”

“Oh. Thank you.”

Before she could sit, however, the doctor appeared from behind the door and motioned the receptionist to help her into a hoverchair like his own, which he did.

When they were alone in the exam room and Lucille had moved from her chair to the table, Dr. Saari’s blank face turned to anger.

“It was stupid to come by foot. And dangerous. Why wouldn’t you take the ambulance?”

His rage had struck her dumb. “I,” she stammered, “I, I’m alright.” Her plan to swoop into the office and collapse into his arms, to say just the right thing and turn the whole affair into a telenovela, was off-rhythm, had somehow miscued and lost its step. She could only stare confusedly at Dr. Saari’s terrifying precision. His skill was predatory.

“A patient calls my office for an emergency visit, comes by taxi instead of ambulance, walks through my door, says she is fine. Do you think my emotions, my talents, my peace of mind are toys to be played with?”

Her frustration came in tears. Whatever words she would have said, whatever requests to have this or that dance, were choked. He’d taken her passion for him and crushed its bits between his powerfully slender fingers. He’d turned her love in one brief moment to hate.

“I was wrong about you doctor. You’re not a dancer. You’re a cripple with a cruel magic trick.”

Without another word from either of them her feet carried her as fast as feet could go, past the inquiring receptionist, through the glass doors and down the cold and icy street.


Mary had become silent. She wondered how far her feet would carry her through the ice before it would be too far to turn back. She calculated enough oxygen in her suit for roughly three kilometers in any direction without needing to replace the tank, give or take half a kilometer if she exerted herself. A minute or two walk past that and there wouldn’t be enough left to make it back to the camp before losing consciousness.

She wondered what was wrong with her, how she could find the idea of asphyxiating on some cold and dark little wasteland so peaceful.

“How do you do it, Kern?” she asked him, nearly whispering.

“Do what?”

“Stay so fucking optimistic. Space crews spend their lives surrounded by nothing and crawling past tiny pricks of light impossibly far away. Where’s the optimism in that?”

He was quiet for a minute. “Okay, so space is depressing. I don’t know why we keep leaving the ground. Still chasing childhood dreams, maybe. Why do you do it?”

“I–-” He’d caught her off guard. Truthfully she wasn’t sure. It was all she knew. All that’d filled her head since she was a little girl. Who was Mary Tycho, if she could now find the idea of flying mammals trite? If she thought the great unknown aught to stay that way?

“This is my last mission,” she said. The words seemed not to be her own. They shocked her with their finality. But she knew it was true. She couldn’t bear to go through this agony again.

Kern put his gloved hand over hers. This response surprised her. She’d expected an argument, a protest. Something. He squeezed firmly, or as firmly as the thick-fibered gloves of their suits allowed. It wasn’t a romantic gesture. They’d tried that once and it hadn’t worked. They had been as inseparable as conjoined twins for as long as they had memories. And as familial, too, siblings in every way except blood.

Yet his touch was just as powerful as a lover’s. More so. It amazed Mary just how powerful human contact could be in an infinite vacuum of nothing.

She turned her wrist so the palms of their gloves touched and squeezed back. They sat like that for some time, watching the stars, and she imagined she could see the earth, though even with a fighter pilot’s eyesight she couldn’t. It didn’t matter because she knew it was there waiting for them.

She followed him to his thermo-tent, worried he’d ask questions and that she’d have to explain that she didn’t want to be alone. Her intentions could easily be misconstrued as needy, or worse, something else. She didn’t really think he’d think that way of her, but they weren’t ten years old anymore and this wasn’t a camping trip.

Instead, he unsealed the tent and let her in, said, “I’ll go get the cocoon from your tent.”

She nodded and, no longer able to analyze the jumble of thoughts in her head, slipped into her lieutenant’s tent. When he returned and she was securely cocooned, she left her body safely behind with her friend and her crew. And with her dreaming mind, she went home.


One-two-three. Lucille waltzed alone across the peeling wooden dance floor of the corner studio. One-two-three. She extended her hand to a dance partner who wasn’t there, swooped from mirrored wall to mirrored wall. Images of her gown and hair twirling centrifugally exploded and imploded across the studio. One-two-three.

He watched from across the street. Watched her move with a grace that sucked him in and obliterated the distance between them instantly. It was as if he were no longer in his hoverchair, as if he met her hand, danced with her as sweat beaded down their foreheads. The song ended and he realized where he was. He could neither dance nor walk as he sat along the sidewalk in his hoverchair. He wiped his brow with a handkerchief.

Dr. Saari had tracked her here, after learning she’d moved from her condo months ago to an apartment overtop this studio. He’d been worried when she hadn’t returned his office’s calls or letters. Any kind of medical emergency would require an expertise only he could provide and, handled by another doctor, would be almost certainly impossible to correct.

He’d been harsh on her the last time they’d spoken. After having watched her dance here he wondered how he could’ve been so unfeeling, so hardened against her approaches.

It was snowing. He watched as violent winter flurries forced passing pedestrians to clutch at their coats, though no winter wind on Earth, no matter how cold, could penetrate his armored skin. Was he genetically mapped to resist the things that aught to cut at his guts?

Certainly her dancing had reached beneath that fortified outer layer and touched him. And when she began again, each step touched him anew. When she finished she saw him in the doorway. He’d come in unnoticed, as the song had hypnotized them both with the body’s heat and movement.

She stopped as suddenly as the record player. He startled her. She glowed, her hair matted to her face, her breathing heavy. Their eyes met.

He forced himself to speak. His words felt weighted with lead. “I was arrogant.”

“I called you crippled.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No. It was stupid for me to exaggerate such a serious–-”

“I want to do that,” he said.


“With you. I want to do that with you. Once.”

She’d thought that she could never feel the same as she had before leaving his office in tears. Yet here he was, here they were. She might as well have been on the table again, his instrument to play as he would.

“I don’t know,” she said. But she did know.

“Your back is still in pain?” he said.

“My back?”

“Yes. You said you exaggerated the pain, not that you lied about it. You still feel discomfort?”

“Pain is something I’m used to in my life. I can handle it.”

Dr. Saari pursed his lips. Something wasn’t right. There shouldn’t still be pain.

“You should not dance until we can investigate this surgically,” he said. “It was wrong of me to ask you.”

She felt her chance slipping.

“No. I want to do this. It’s my choice. If you...operated on yourself, how long would it take?”

He hovered closer to her. “You’re sure about this? It is very dangerous for you.”

“How long?”

“To recover? My people can walk almost instantly after an adjustment. Our healing times are much faster, though I have never even tried–-”

“Then try, doctor. Your body deserves to move in time with your mind. There’s a ballroom along the lake near your office.” She took a scrap of paper she’d scribbled on from beside the record player and placed it in his hand. “This is the address. There’ll be a dance there tonight at eight o’clock. Will you come?”

It was wrong to go. He knew that it was. But what could he say, the image of her twirling across the empty dance studio settled into his grey matter like a bullet?

“I’ll come.”


Several Earth Sidereal Hours had passed at the camp, enough for the crew to recover a bit before their IV cycles ended with a mild stimulant to bring them awake. Even with the stimulant their movements were groggy and clumsy as they suited up and packed their thermo-tents. Everyone seemed to be filled with aches and pains. The mission had been incredibly taxing on their bodies, both the extended jump over on a cramped shuttle and the difficult and treacherous mountain climbing. And now there was a huge chunk of cargo to lug.

Mary was glad for the nutrients that’d been injected in her bloodstream while she slept. Even if her dreams hadn’t been exactly refreshing, she couldn’t imagine doing this in worse condition than she already felt.

“We’re further behind schedule than anticipated,” Kern said, “but at least we’re less likely to make mistakes that could jeopardize the mission.”

No, Mary definitely did not want the mission to fail. Not when she’d come this far. Regardless of how much the Plutonian had loved her grandmother, the fact was that his malpractice killed her. Certainly that deserved some form of justice. She wanted the death he’d stolen on this rock erased and the one Earth’s law would give him entered on the books permanently.

“I’ll send a report as soon as we’re back onboard,” she said. “I’ll take the blame for the delay.” Before they could argue she continued on, “Cut down the rock and tether it for transport. Alexandrov, I want the route with the widest paths down this mountain. We’re looking for safety not shortest distance. We’ll circle round as many times as is necessary. Kern, you lead.”

With Kern scouting for secure footing and smooth, unslippery ground, and the rest dragging the massive frozen chunk of dead Plutonian behind them with tethered ropes, the crew made their way down the mountain. As they’d anticipated it was harder work than the trek up had been. Much harder. But they’d been through worse together and after a few hours the ship was in sight. It’d been agonizingly precise work and they’d often had to go up to go back down, but they’d made it through another mission together.

The crew seemed exhausted but in better spirits at the base of the mountain. Mary couldn’t help but smile for the first time this whole mission. They had been through some hairy times, times when Mary wasn’t sure she’d ever walk down the gravel path that lead to her house again. Ever smell dried pine needles in winter or skate across Frog Pond. Jesus. And they’d followed her sans objection across a whole solar system for what must’ve seemed like some personal vendetta of hers. They were the closest she had to siblings. For better or worse, it seemed.

“Thank you all,” she said. She had infinitely more words rushing through her mind, but decided it better to leave it at that.

“Not necessary,” Alexandrov said. “You are our captain. Our mission is to follow you.”

No more was said as the crew loaded the ice-encased doctor into the cargo bay and began filing into the ship. After a lengthy pre-flight checklist, made more irritating by the necessity of waiting for the heat array to thaw the shuttle, Mary fired the engines and the now-seven lifted away from Pluto.

“Good riddance,” Mary said once they were clear of the planetoid’s gravity well. “One place I sincerely hope never to return.”

“I was starting to think you might stay,” Kern said. “Build an igloo.”

They’d removed their helmets and sat alone in the cabin in the pilot and copilot seats. The others had already begun hibernating in their bunks, only to be awakened during final approach to the Earth or if there was a technical emergency that required manual assistance. Because they were the only two still awake, the scratching hum of the engine filled the silence like a needle on record’s edge. And they were physically and mentally exhausted like dancers at the end of the song, also.

So why aren’t we asleep? Mary thought.

“I thought about staying, but it’s too easy being cynical,” she said jokingly. “There’s no challenge in it. No risk. I guess that’s why we keep taking on these damn dreadful missions. Humanity seems so unlikely out here, yet we always come back to find it.”

After a few moments Herbert Kern pulled himself up and walked to the door.

“Where are you going?” Mary said.

“Someone’s got to get the good doctor out of that methane and into more secure storage.”

“Shouldn’t I be the one? You’ve all been through enough on my account.”

“Whatever we’ve been through you’ve been through twice as much. Besides you’re too involved. Saari means nothing to me. I’ll do it.”

She wanted to thank him but could only smile. Kern smiled back and exited the cabin. Mary watched the crawling stars a few minutes more, listened to the scratching record engine and then cocooned herself into hibernation.


Tristram looked into the fading stare of the woman who’d danced her away through his guts and deep into his chest, watched her turn limp, watched the heat of her dancing evaporate into the air like fleeing bats.

He wanted to call for help but no words came. What did it matter? He was the only one on the planet who could have saved her, and it was too late for that. She was already dead.

"Lucille?” He wasn’t sure why he’d said her name knowing she would never respond. But he said it again, because it was the only word that would comfort him. “Lucille.”

She lay sprawled in the hallucinatory grass of a field that existed in their minds, the wide open skies above painted by a tiny pill that invaded their sensory receptors, the wind in her hair an illusion that gave life where there was none.

But they were not alone in the open field the virtu-bio pills had made them see and feel and smell. They were still in the ballroom by the lake, and he could not have been the only one to see her snap in two. As he kneeled over her and wept, invisible arms grabbed him and an invisible needle pricked him, filling him with a warm liquid that melted away their false utopia and brought him back to the dark dance floor and banisters and other dancers.

Luckily the others were still off in hallucinatory lands and had not heard or seen what happened. Only the ballroom owners and bartenders were there, holding him from falling over and attempting to revive Lucille. Tristram stared at them blankly.

“It won’t help,” he said quietly, then was silent.

They ignored him, or hadn’t heard him, and continued to try to save her until emergency workers arrived. But he was right; nothing would bring her back.

She left in a bag. The woman had gone from a hoverchair to a dance floor to a black bag, like trash to be thrown out.

“It was my fault,” he told the police. “I did this to her.”

An unshaven detective leaned over him where he and several other officers stood near the sidewalk. Tristram sat on the curb. They’d placed a blanket over him though he didn’t need it and hadn’t asked for it. Blue and red flashed across their faces and reflected over the lake; blue the coldness of his DNA and red the warmth of her blood, he thought.

“Is this a confession, Dr. Saari?” the detective said. He pulled a notepad and pen from his breast pocket.

Tristram ignored the man. It wasn’t a confession to him, to his policemen. These were just words that needed to be said. Nonetheless, the detective scribbled furiously as he spoke.

“I tried to fix her, but it went wrong. I should not have let her dance. The pain should have gone. I should not have let her dance. I tried to fix her. I tried.” When Tristram’s words turned to babble and repetition, the detective put the notepad away and cupped doctor’s shoulder. The detective told him he was under arrest for suspicion in the murder of Lucille Cyrillus, that he had rights, and cuffed him. At the police station he wrote a more complete time line of the events that lead to Lucille’s death, that he’d allowed her to dance, insisted upon it despite knowing the dangers.

The state of Massachusetts banned him from practicing medicine, but it didn’t matter because he had to sell his practice to post bond. The prosecutors motioned that Dr. Saari was a flight risk, but by the time a hearing had been scheduled his ship was some thousands of miles from the Earth.

What did it matter? he thought. The damage had been done. The only thing he’d ever been meant to do killed an innocent woman, placed her daughter into foster care and sent him fleeing from the law.

The prosecutors wanted the death penalty. Whether it was fueled by racism, whether they wanted to make an example of him, he didn’t know or care. If he would die he would die on his own terms, his own world.

He landed some miles from the mountain he’d fallen from as a child, and hiked his way there. Then he climbed. He climbed until there was nothing left to climb, climbed impossibly higher than he’d done when he was younger. Numbly he’d reached a small plateau near the peak of the mountain, with no more than a few leaves of blank sheet music and a pen taken from his office on Earth.

Dr. Saari sat on a flat rock, reached to his lumbar spine and firmly twisted. The life he’d let into his legs died as instantly as it had arrived. What he’d just done could have killed him like it had killed Lucille when her procedure undid itself. He did not want to leave this rock, and this would ensure that. Doing the procedure again was all but impossible without his staff to oversee and guide him, and was much more delicate than simply snapping a vertebrae out of place. He wasn’t even sure he’d snapped the one that originally paralyzed him from the waist down.

It didn’t matter. He was here now, and he would die here. Tristram had not brought food or a communication device. What he’d brought were a few printed bass and treble clefs and a pen.

On the top of the first sheet he wrote, “Lucille’s Legs.”

He looked up at the stars and planets in the sky. He couldn’t even see Earth from here, but he remembered exactly where it was.


Mary as captain was the first to awake. After she’d verified their flight pattern and made sure all systems were functioning she was to wake the others, Kern first.

But–-where the hell was Kern? Everyone else lay cocooned and unconscious. Yet his bunk was empty. Had he been awakened before her? Impossible. The ship was programmed to only rouse her. She had to manually revive the others, a protocol designed to prevent would-be saboteurs in the space flight program from causing harm. In the history of the program a ship’s computer had never malfunctioned in this way.

And was that music playing? Best Mary could tell, it came from the aft portion of the shuttle, near the cargo bay...

Mary struggled as best she could against her weakened leg muscles. What was normally an annoying side effect of hibernation now impaired her attempts to protect her crew. She hated feeling helpless. It was infuriating limping and stumbling her way through the ship, down the seemingly endless corridor stuffed with metal grating to cut herself on and exposed wiring to become tangled in.

Damn it, hurry.

Kern could be in trouble, or Kern could be causing trouble, though neither was likely given his extensive training and years of loyalty. Plus there was a lack of motive for a mutiny. Nothing about the situation made sense, making the long walk even more unbearable.

Mary approached the arms locker along the main corridor. It was kept secure during flight because of the extreme danger of a hull breach that gunfire posed. Only the captain had the override code, in case of an emergency. She figured a colossal computer dick-up like this warranted arming one’s self. One should always step carefully on uneven ground.

After punching the code Mary grabbed her department-issued pistol and moved to the cargo bay, her legs nearly recovered now. The musical score grew louder, the voices of stringed instruments, brass, a piano hammering along the higher register.

When she burst through the door and pointed the gun at Kern, he barely noticed, engrossed in the music resonating from wall to wall. Seeing he was alone, except for the coffin-like box holding their prisoner in the middle of the bay, Mary put the weapon’s safety on and holstered it.

She had to shout over the echoing music. “What is this?” she said.

Some violins screeched in anguish. The piano sobbed.

“It took me this entire flight to reconstruct the score using digital instrumentation on the ship’s computer. The man was a genius, Mary. More than that. Listen.”

She listened as a trumpet begged for its lover’s life back. “I don’t understand. What are you telling me?”

“Your doctor from Pluto is a composer.”

She shook her head. “I don’t think so. A dancer maybe in his youth, but he must’ve had little to no exposure to written music on Earth. He was hardly there long enough to unpack his ship.”

“Then he’s a fast learner.” Kern passed her a pile of intricately notated sheet music, all clearly musical symbols from Earth except for a set of strange symbols at the top of the first page. A title of some sort, she gathered.

“What’s it say?” she asked.

“I don’t know. It’s Plutonian. I found this when I cut him out of the ice. I know enough music theory to have gotten a general tune in my head from reading it, and it was so beautiful, Mary, that I couldn’t stop working on it until it was done.”

That explained why he wasn’t in hibernation when the computer woke her.

“I haven’t showed you the best part,” he said. Kern took the papers out of her hand and turned them over.

“These are dance steps,” she said.

Kern extended his hand.

“Oh no,” she said. “That’s not a good idea.”

But he did not retract his arm.

“Don’t do this, Herbert. You know how much this hurts me.”

“That’s exactly why you have to let go. So it can’t hurt you any more.”

She didn’t want to. She hated him for this. But she felt the song drawing her in. The sadness of it was powerful, and it was masterfully written, she had to admit. Even more astonishing that the man who’d written it was a doctor with minimal exposure to Earth’s instruments and methods of song writing.

“God damn you,” was all she could say. And then they were dancing. He’d memorized the steps. She’d looked at the pages long enough to see it was a waltz, the kind she’d been told her grandmother loved to dance most. But it was different somehow. The dance seemed to possess Herbert Kern’s legs and he flowed as if the body were a fantasy and only energy and movement were real. He showed her the way and before long they were dancing around and around Saari’s contained body. The dance was strikingly easy to learn despite its complexity. It seemed so, so natural to her.

It took her. It swallowed her. There was just her and the music and nothing else. And when she shut her eyes she was once again her grandmother in the arms of a towering cold-blooded man, but in a new way this time. She was loved. Loved so much that all the scars of struggling and pain couldn’t hurt her any more. So much that she understood why the doctor had to dance with the woman he loved no matter what the consequences. That she wanted it just as much as he. That it didn’t matter what happened when the song ended.

Then it was over, and they were left sweating, heaving messes in the cargo bay, listening to the record-needle-scratching of the ship’s engine. They looked at the crate with Saari’s body in it, then at each other.

“Help me get this into the jettison tube,” she said.


“You heard me. Don’t question an order, lieutenant.”

Mary placed the sheets of music in the heavy rectangular coffin with Dr. Tristram Saari and resealed the lid. Together they stuffed the box into the cannon-like chamber.

“With our orbital trajectory around the Earth, when does the sun come up?” she asked.

Kern typed into the computer the music had been playing from and a telemetry pattern appeared on the screen. “Looks to be about an hour,” he said.

So for the better part of an hour they danced a hauntingly human dance to a song written by a man who’d never been human, except by name. Then they programmed the jettison procedure and sat in the cabin with two glasses of Pinot.

They watched in silence as the sun peeked out from behind the Earth. At first just the edge of the planet glowed with a golden corona, the rest silhouetted, and then slowly the sun pierced the blackness of space and illuminated their homeworld with blue oceans and green trees, brown deserts and white spiraling clouds.

Just as the sun became fully visible the computer indicated that the automated jettison protocol had been initiated. A small wooden box, like a coffin, whooshed into space at a high velocity. Its flight path would take it directly toward the sun, where it would eventually be incinerated, the body inside cremated and the map to a brilliant song turned to ash.

Mary sipped her wine. She pointed down to Earth. “That’s her grave. Right there.” She pretended to pinpoint an imaginary gravestone among the tiny treetops, mountain ranges and rivers.

“They can see each other now,” Kern said. “The ice man on the sun, burning the whole sky to light her up each day.”

Herbert was sweet. Mary was glad they were friends.

“What’re you gonna tell mission control when we land? What about our killer?”

Mary looked into the blinding light of the sun and it warmed her face. She shrugged. “I really thought we’d find him.”


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