Saltier

Kate Orman

Illustration by Juliana Pinho

How can this be happening to you, Pre-eminent Scientist Qris? Who is this short, hard woman, nude inside her transparent spacesuit, erupting through the door of your laboratory?

Your world gleams white and chrome, straight lines, sharp curves. No place for my bold vermilion skin, my blue-and-gold pistol. You stare at the black bands that criss-cross my chest, shoulder to hip.

How can our band of savages have penetrated the antiseptic pearl of your command module? The screams and shouts in the metal corridors – how can this be happening to your physics team?

You snatch up some small machine and throw it at my head. I dodge and laugh.

My squad have an orderly plan, but someone must have got ahead of schedule. The explosion is a giant fist punching me in the back, flipping me over a bench to collide with you.

The world blinks out – a black second – blinks back in. You’re holding my pistol.

You shoot me.

I feel it only as a hard jab in the solar plexus. Blink out.

Blink in. I’m battling for breath, torn open in the middle, suit, skin, muscle, guts, all gashed and gaping wide. You crouch beside me, the pistol dangling from your fingers. Your golden face is doused with blood, eyes staring, mint and white. You wipe your mouth, over and over.

I pull together the last of my strength and raise a hand and slap the knot on the belts between my breasts. I feel a judder inside my head, a quake – a lost connection—

Blink out.


Blink in.

The next thing I know—

You’re near the centre of the command module, on a platform in a great round room filled by your white-coated staff.

I should have woken up safely contained in metal. Or not at all. What the fuck is happening?

You stand tall. Pre-eminent Scientist Qris. Your skin is coloured copper-and-honey, your hair is peacock-green. You are a pan-zero-girl, raised and educated within the artificial light of the Unbounded Ring. Elegant lady, sleek and well-fed lady.

There’s a distracting pain in your eye-sockets. As though someone else is trying to see through your eyes.

You glance up, through the hexagonal skylight, and I can see your darling. The only thing you love. The fat, blank ball of the black hole. The gaping mouth. The titanic zero.

The black silhouette hides the far side of the Unbounded Ring, the glittering string of modules, a billion kilometres round. This vast module, your command post, is the gem set in that ring.

Beyond it all is the starless sky, the dead wreckage of the Andromeda-Milky Way galaxy.

The crowd are murmuring. Someone whispers, ‘Your Pre-eminence?’

The hurt in your head is settling a little. You go on with your speech. ‘We’ve learned where these bandits originated. They eke out an existence on the moon Channavira.’ No-one’s heard of it. ‘The damage to the module has already been cleared up. Nothing critical was hit during the raid. They tried to disrupt our search for the Basis, and they failed. Plus gloriae! All right. Questions?’

A voice in the crowd: ‘They don’t actually want the black hole, do they, Your Pre-eminence?’

‘They don’t want anything,’ you answer, scratching the back of your neck. ‘It was just wanton destruction.’

Liar, liar! If I can see through your eyes, why can’t I shout through your mouth?

You look down. In the centre of the room, the centre of the crowd, is a pitiful mess. Our little army, all twenty-two of us, piled up like a compost heap. Each body wears a baggy, transparent spacesuit, topped by a helmet like a cube of glass. One corpse is burned, the melted suit sticking to charcoal skin. One has been torn up by gunfire; its suit is packed with dark red shapes.

I see my own face in the pile.

I should have woken up safely contained in metal. Or not at all. What the fuck is happening?


It’s hard to think for more than a few seconds, as though my batteries are low. You carry me with you to a seminar on proton decay, to your laboratory, to a late dinner with some of your students.

Your synthetic food is a creamy, colourless jelly, so bad, so bland! Even the hard grains we scratch out of the dust of Channavira taste livelier in our rough bread, our chewy porridge. We always throw in a palmful of salt, scraped from the cracked plains where the underground ocean sends it boiling up.

Somehow tonight you have no appetite.

You sleep in a circular bed in a circular room. You wake, and go through your exercises in a private gymnasium.

You spend long hours meshed with your machines, contemplating mathematical models of distorted space-time. I can’t follow your trains of thought – I can see every symbol you manipulate, but I can’t understand any of it.

I’m helpless, drifting in your wake.

You permit yourself to take time off to observe the autopsies. As though to make sure we’re dead.

A pair of technicians open a refrigerator, roll out my naked body, and cut my crude spacesuit away. Your upper lip curls. It’s hateful, the ripped animal ruin of my belly, everything exposed.

The technician is a sea-green double-boy, half your age. ‘They didn’t even have proper spacesuits.’ The boys tell you. ‘This is an emergency evacuation suit. Looted from somewhere.’

You take a good look. My chilled skin still has that hot red-orange colour. I am decorated with glossy black hair, beneath my arms, between my thighs, pouring out of my scalp like seaweed. Implants dot my arms, my chest, still charged up with pearly blue light.

‘They look so much like us,’ the double-boy says.

The boys pick over my corpse with long silver instruments, plucking the implants from my skin. One of them pulls out my right eye in its entirety, trailing lustrous turquoise threads, and the other boy examines it under a lens. ‘We don’t recognize this.’ My black left eye stares.

They undo the saltire that criss-crosses my chest, the double black band covered in loops and clips for weapons and equipment. Without thinking, you hold out your hands for it. Are they surprised? They give it to you without comment. You feel the roughness of organic fabric – but the pale blue knot where the straps cross, at the centre of the X, is smooth, artificial. Not the work of a savage.

The technicians report, ‘Their nervous systems are full of these cables. The entire raid was coordinated by the computer in their spacecraft.’ They lift one of the delicate lines hanging from the back of my eye. ‘But our electromagnetic shielding cut contact between their implants and the ship. That’s why their attack ended in confusion.’

‘Plundered technology,’ you say. ‘They didn’t fully understand how it worked.’

‘Why don’t I investigate it, director?’ asks the double-boy. ‘There might be something to be learned, there.’

‘By all means.’ You quote the Unbounded Handbook: ‘Each civilization builds on whatever it can recover of those that came before it.’

You sneeze. The lab smells worse than a hospital. Your people want the authenticity of the human body, but a body means the toilet, and the cadaver. We are all just meat with pretensions.

You don’t stay to watch the technicians cut me up.


If you kill someone, do they become a part of you, like one animal swallowing another? Or…am I a ghost? Am I trapped here on the Ring, in the place that I died? But then where are the ghosts of my crew?

I scream and scream and they don’t answer me.


At the centre of your command module is a sea that never moves. It doesn’t hiss and foam, but lies still and full underneath the windowed ceiling. A beautiful view of the Ring.

You can’t stop thinking about how I tasted. The hot blood that splashed into your mouth.

This is a storage tank for heavy water, not a living, salty ocean, but you like to swim here anyway. (Here and there, others bathe too, keeping a respectful distance.) You float, contemplating your darling, the black ball at the Ring’s centre.

In your mind’s eye, the black hole’s surface ripples with quantum information. Every piece of matter it has drunk down is tattooed onto its skin. All the data of every point inside a three-dimensional sphere can be projected onto its two-dimensional boundary: a holograph which can be read, and manipulated.

There are well-known ways to extract energy from the wrenched space surrounding the black hole; anyone who is anyone uses one to power their civilization. But that’s not enough for you. You want more. You want —

You see my face in its boxy helmet, over and over.

You took the drugs the clinicians gave you, to prevent trauma from damaging your neuroarchitecture. They said that the raid would diminish to an unpleasant memory. You would quickly forget me.

And yet you keep seeing, not just memories, but pictures of things that never happened. I wrap my hard arms around you, grappling you to the ground. You rip open the plastic of my spacesuit, exposing me. My dirty hands slide over your narrow hips. My helmet falls away. You bite my lip.

You imagine terrible things, terrible.

Lady, you can’t get me off your mind!

You exit the water, towelling yourself off on the tiled beach, rubbing hard at your thighs, at the small of your back. You can’t quite get dry.


You sleep, and like a hidden camera, I watch your earliest memory.

You’re crying, inconsolably; your mouth tastes of salt. It’s because you’re going to be put into a new body.

Your parents have made the mistake of showing you that waiting twin, its brain smooth and empty.

In between gasps for breath, you cry out: ‘But what’s going to happen to me?’

‘Sweetheart,’ says one of your fathers, ‘her brain will be exactly like yours. Down to the littlest detail.’ He caresses your hair. ‘It’ll be like going to sleep, but when you wake up, you won’t need the breathing machine any more.’

But you know, you know that when they switch her on, they’ll be switching you off.

‘Why am I sick?’ You beat your breast, with its cargo of defective lungs. ‘It’s not my fault.’

‘You must stop crying, little Qris,’ urges one of your mothers. ‘It makes it harder for the breathing machine to work.’ You’ll realise later that this was an oft-told lie; they just didn’t like listening to you.


I drift away to my own earliest memory: I was running through low hills under the black, black sky. I was up there on the surface because I’d been told not to be.

I carried a big torch in both hands. Channavira’s white dwarf sun was smothered by energy panels, licking up its dying light. What got through was barely enough to make shadows on the ground. Nothing grew up top any more except the black weeds; nothing moved but the giant bodies of the robots who maintained the structures that were still left. To find people, you had to look deep underground.

I was chasing the spaceship gliding in for a landing. It had visited the dead brown dwarf that half-filled Channavira’s sky, and was bringing back crucial supplies of useful matter.

The ground jerked and wobbled under my feet. Deep below, the rocks were rearranging themselves, falling into the great voids left by the Unbounded Ring’s mining project.

I fell and spun and landed on my back and held my breath for a long second, waiting to see if, this time, I dropped through the crust.

But the ground held. I lay still, in the dirt that smelled like burning, and watched the ship.

You gutted our moon for the metals to make the solar screens. You paid us with a generous gift: two fully-equipped modern spacecraft for our trips to the brown dwarf.

All at once I saw that the ship was dragging a brilliant line of flame. ‘That’s awesome,’ I breathed into the thin air. I didn’t understand that the ship was venting burning deuterium.

You gave Channavira ships, but no spare parts, or pilots, or engineers. But we had to have that deuterium to survive. So we taught ourselves to fly as best we could.

My child-self stood up, watching the ship shrinking, puzzled. Shouldn’t it be getting closer, not further away? I asked out loud, ‘Where are you going?’

The ship flew on, away from our underground home, finally disappearing over the horizon. Then there was an almighty flash of light and a clap of thunder I could feel through the soles of my feet.

The ship had landed like a bomb. There were quakes for weeks, but in the end Channavira didn’t swallow us all. No, it was the lack of the ship’s cargo that killed most of the people I knew.


To celebrate your cure, all eight of your parents took you to see your very first supermassive black hole. It was the distended colossus which was once the centre of the Milky Way, its blank face veiled and skirted by the glare of its accretion disc.

You fell in love at once. You pressed your face to the ship’s window, breath fogging the brilliant sight.

‘They’re better than stars, aren’t they, father?’ Even this young, you knew that the sky was full of billions of expired stars, unavailable to the eye. Like dead stones hanging in the air. ‘Black holes last forever.’

‘Not forever, little Qris,’ two-father said, absently. ‘Even black holes disappear in the end.’

That set off another bout of inconsolable wailing, your other parents scolding two-father for upsetting you. But later, the family all agreed that this was the moment that determined your future.

The universe’s spectacular, violent childhood is over, and the long, peaceful darkness has begun. But the human race goes on prolonging itself, twisting itself into new forms, photosynthetic, digital, automatic; alive in spacecraft, in oceans, in blocks of iron.

Your civilisation have chosen to live in genuine human bodies – well, as close to human as records permit. You spread from one dying star to the next, identify whatever resources remain, and develop those resources with ethics, law, and order.

As billions of years sweep by, trillions of civilizations rise, learning, advancing, falling, forgetting. Struggling towards perfect knowledge of the deepest level of space-time structure. Towards the Basis. Plus gloriae. Towards the critical understanding: how to survive eternity, the coming long lukewarm black.


You sit on the edge of your bed, one shoe on, one held in your hand. This constant itching in the back of your head, this feeling that you’re not alone – could it be something to do with your twin? The girl that they killed to make you?

There’s nothing wrong with you. There mustn’t be anything wrong with you, not you. They all depend on you. The universe itself depends on you!

I feel the shoe as it slides over your foot. I’ve never been this close to anyone. Closer than the bead of sweat rolling on your cheek. Deeper inside you than the sinews in your heart.

Am I in love with you, you marauder, you murderer, you miracle?

My people are infamous for raiding your outposts. If we survive, we take away technology and materials, especially rare elements like iodine and molybdenum.

Your people say: ‘Parasites.’ Your people say: ‘They don’t even know about the raw materials they’re sitting on, wasted.’ In the end you’ll outcompete us for the resources that are left, just as you have outcompeted one hundred and thirteen other civilizations. Like them, we will die out. Tragic. But inevitable.

I love you like I loved the deuterium flame, brilliant blue in the empty black sky.

You pick up my vibe and run your hand up and down the nape of your neck. I want to stroke that stretch of skin, scratch at the short hairs with my fingernails. My darling, my jewel.

The best time is when you’re almost asleep, when your thoughts are slippery and I can slide in. I can touch every part of you at once. Each night I—

—I make you roll in your bed aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

—I make you roll in your bed eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

—I make you roll in your bed ooooooooooooooooooooooooh

I watch you at the mirror, wearing only those pyjama trousers, the ones that hug your pelvis low. You heft the criss-cross of my saltire and settle the black straps over your torso, feel the weight of its X on your hips, its knot between your sweating breasts. You still have my gun. Slide it into the holster, until it clicks, and press the holster into the sticky tight curls of the saltire’s fabric, so that it hugs your hip.

In this moment, in this bad dream, you’re the killer, the woman with the weapon.

You slump, gazing at yourself, appalled.

What’s happening to you?


In the next few days there’s a significant breakthrough in the math. Your fellow scientists congratulate you, as well as the technician who did the actual calculations. There are banquets with course after course and speech after speech.

You spoon your jelly around in its bowl, distracted. For the first time in your life you’re uncertain about the project. You’re in two minds.

You give a rallying speech to your staff, hoping to rally yourself. ‘We’re seeking knowledge beyond any knowledge any humans have ever possessed,’ you remind them.

You point up at the Ring’s black sun. ‘Black holes live enormously longer than stars; they are the universe’s ultimate product – dare we say its intended product?’ Polite laughter. ‘But even black holes must die. For humanity to have a future, we must find another way forward.

‘Together, we’re aiming for nothing less than the pure understanding of space-time.’ Your audience begins to applaud. ‘The direct mathematical manipulation of the continuum itself.’ More applause. ‘Plus gloriae! An eternal era of peace and plenty! Endless power – and endless life!’ Your staff begin to cheer.

The picture’s so clear in your mind. You’ll manipulate spherical regions of the vacuum by projecting your program onto the surface of each sphere. You’ll be able to wish energy and matter into existence as you like! Everyone will have all that they need, forever – more food than they can eat, more computing power than they can burn, more of everything than they could ever possibly want! Even when the universe is a dead soup of subatomic particles, the human race will never run down.

What will you do with it all? What will you do, baby? Your stomach can’t ever be filled! In your quest for the Basis, your people will consume every civilization around you. You mustn’t let anything stop you! You’re doing us all a favour! Take our stars, our planets. Swallow our science – consume every idea we’ve got. You’ll be a great hole into which everything pours!


If the project fails, if the Basis remains unsolved, it will be because you were the component that failed. You have no choice.

You request a scan of your brain. The scanner makes a faint ozone smell, and your scalp tightens, as though your hair is being fried.

The clinician is a cobalt-blue para-woman, her face decently shaved. ‘There’s nothing anomalous in either your central or peripheral nervous systems,’ she tells you. ‘No indicators of psychological trauma.’

‘A precaution,’ you assure her, sitting up. ‘Just a precaution.’

Where am I, then, love? In your skin? In your eyes? There has to be an explanation rooted in energy-matter. Nothing else exists!

You want to confess, tell the clinician: ‘I have these strange dreams, and…’ So strange, so terrible! ‘…daydreams.’

Instead you ask, ‘What’s the disposition of the bandits’ vessel?’

She checks. ‘Ah…the report says there was almost nothing worth salvaging. The ship’s remaining matter has been disassembled and added to stocks.’

You scratch at the back of your neck with both hands. ‘What about their cadavers?’

‘Reprocessed.’

‘And their equipment?’

‘I’ll inquire,’ she says.

Shortly that green-blue double-boy technician meets you in the infirmary. One of them holds something in both hands, a brassy-grey crystalline sphere the size of his head. You ask, ’What is it?’

‘The only interesting thing on the raiders’ spacecraft,’ they tell you. The boy holding the ball hefts its slight weight. ‘I think it’s hollow.’

‘Significantly,’ says the double-boy, ‘there’s one of these for each one of the raiders.’

You swallow hard as a monstrous thought drops into your mind. But out loud, you suggest: ’Their payment?’

‘Possibly,’ the boys say. ‘Primitives often use difficult-to-find matter as currency. More likely plunder, though.’

‘Investigate it thoroughly.’

‘Yes, Your Pre-eminence.’

‘And deliver one of the spheres to my personal laboratory,’ you add.

‘Of course, Your Pre-eminence.’


You requisition a geologist’s hammer, a heavy little silver thing. You balance the crystal sphere on your workbench, and smack it with the hammer’s head. The sphere splits neatly more or less in half, revealing the cool colours of its interior: a pearlescent aqua layer of crystals covering the inner surface.

There are scans to be done and tests and tests and tests, but you look at that broken ball of rock and you know.

When I slapped that blue switch on my saltire, my brain state was supposed to be transmitted back to our ship, to a virgin sphere, written holographically into the crystal layer and stored for the journey home. We don’t have your skill at flesh and brains, but robot bodies are cheap and easy to make.

We can’t afford to waste minds. We don’t have enough people.

Instead, with the signal to our ship blocked, the technology…improvised. It etched me in nanoscopic blue lines onto the inside of your skull.

Was the tech was supposed to do that – maybe as some desperate backup mode? Or did it just malfunction?

Those crystal spheres are designed to hold the mind in a frozen state, three-dimensional data engraved onto a two-dimensional surface, but your living brain gives me just enough warmth for signal to flow along the blue canals. For me to be awake, aware. To reach across the few millimetres between us, joining our thoughts.

You cannibal – you’ve swallowed me!


Now you float in your lifeless ocean. We float. Staring at the hole in the sky.

You’ll tell your staff everything. Yes! The work is too important to let some freak accident— to smuggle in some rough, dirty, barely human— they can saw open your skull and polish the bone clean!

No.

You’ll have them spin up a fresh body for you, identical-brained, free from parasites.

No! Please God no!

You’ll drown yourself in heavy water.

No!

You pant with rage. Oh my precious beloved you can’t get rid of me. You can’t.

When you have your immortality, you and I will still be together. You are seduced. And I am enveloped, eaten, and you don’t dare spit me out. You will take me along on your eternal ride. The rest of my kind will die out, but I’m going to see the end of the universe.

Oh my precious darling I kiss your brain. ∎


Kate Orman is best known for her Doctor Who novels (most recently, The Dead Star, an audionovel from Big Finish). She lives in Sydney, Australia, with her husband and co-author, Jonathan Blum.

Juliana Pinho is a Brazilian illustrator who has recently immigrated to the US to live with her beautiful wife. Find more of her work at Behance.


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