Rapture | By: John Coppinger | | Category: Full Story - Sci-Fi Bookmark and Share


Arianne watched the weird, pink light of dawn from a wind hollow in the lee of a boulder. She’d selected a landing on the night side deliberately, so she could wake at sunrise. And let the gravity sink in while she slept.
She’d done it – not named after an antique rocket launcher for nothing!
The others were probably days or weeks behind. Her final pull around Earth had been right on the limit, but it had given her the edge that she needed to win.
She smiled happily; allowed herself a feeling of pride. She knew her sail designs were good, but now they’d passed the test as well.

As she flicked out her tongue to drink, Arianne did a quick checklist of her options; deliberately savouring available choices. She could afford to relax and enjoy the dawn. The planet was hers for a while; she saw no need to rush.
After the intense concentration of finding an orbit, and choosing a land site on radar, she was content to just sit and stare.
The serrated horizon, the edge of a boulder field, cut and scattered the new light. Arianne’s eyes adjusted slowly; her skin balancing the input to a safe level after months of glittering darkness.
She could get back and win this. Claim her prize and go for full transfer. Being Skinform was fine, but now she’d proved she could adapt to the full. Become full Diamond.
She was hungry, but let the skin wet feed her; she’d celebrate with real food when she knew she could leave in the lead.

Arianne’s panels were clinging to the sunside of her boulder, balancing upright to catch all of first light. Radar and night heat had used almost all their reserve. She whistled a timeset and watched them shiver in reply. A request flag shimmered and died; they’d worked it out for themselves as usual. She smiled fondly.
Checking the sail bag showed processing was well under way; just over eight hours and she could start on wings or wheels.
Those were the realistic choices. She knew she was well inside the allowed zone, but not yet how far she was from the Viking. It’s whole area was archive, so there were no beacons to home on. Wheels would assemble faster, but wings would give faster transit and homing.
The panels flagged. They’d chosen just under the redline; knowing that time was short, and that they could self-sort later.
Arianne was confident. She’d kept her help points very low; and nav had always been one of her naturals.

Skin tickled her, making her wriggle in surprised pleasure. She’d forgotten that time-set. Decided to fine herself with denial - There wasn’t time for good sex anyway.
‘Fine and Tune’, she thought. ‘I’ve done well – So I’m allowed a dream’.
She settled back into the wind blown bowl, stretching and curling luxuriously in her skin, under the fluted overhang of the boulder. Timed herself to wake naturally.
She tried for the lightest level of rapture, semi-conscious, but found surreal instead:

Arianne’s dream flickered between her half closed lids; skin lenses unable to filter the drug-like hallucination.
[She was floating in a zero pond, being born; her mother’s face masked by a gill fish. The tendrils in her mother’s lungs were swimming out along the umbilical, singing little songs of trust and desire.
She spat the cord away from her belly, and was walking, growing as she went, up the spin shell of Lagrangia 9 and into a fresh gravity. Feeling pregnant in turn with new life.
Surprised, and flattered, that a tree would talk to her this early. And take the trouble to direct her on her way. Way where? Waypoints to an old man; who was her grandfather turned inside out. Or was it just his coat on backwards? She laughed with the dream, looking into the palms of both hands. Reading a map without any circuitry.]
Then – awake. Shivering in renewed clarity as the sun lifted from the horizon.

Whistling the panels in, and mating them to the sail bag, took less than five minutes. They’d had enough sun to lift themselves up now; spine legs bracing into the dusty orange sand. So she still had over seven hours to refine a design. Far too long. She considered sleeping again, but decided it would only spin the dream and leave her confused.
Arianne had conceived another option.
She would gain a few points for not strictly recycling but using a bit of local, for reaction mass, would be worth it. Simple and fast. Her nav after acquire would have to be ac so. And she’d have to grow eyes better than any she’d done before.
She sat back again, musing. Thinking about her brother, Joe, and how he’d never wanted to play with labs. Three years in a row she’d inherited the latest model, as soon as Christmas was decently past. Admittedly you weren’t allowed to make much then, but designing was most of the fun to her. More fun than the dusty old CD’s that Joe was always playing. He seemed to have grown too serious too soon. And now he was a last spark in a dying fire. A brilliant politician in a world that had begun to grow up.
Arianne suddenly felt terribly tired; pinned helplessly to the planet’s surface, and almost unable to move.
The Skin overrode on emergency, and injected her into sleep.

Joe was clamped tight into Deimos; his hiding place a fused funnel in the cindery rock. His sensors were all out roaming, most of them out of IR sight, trying to get a lock on the planet below. Surely the little buggers would find her soon.
His FormFitter was letting him itch again and he’d not persuaded it’s manager to do anything about it. He would fry in his own anger if he let it get out of hand; but there was little else to look at. His cloak was thin enough now, and he couldn’t afford to leak any signatures.
It had cost him a fortune in signtime to get his cover as a science flight and get out here unnoticed. He’d be on payback for the rest of the century and beyond.
His face felt slimy again, behind the mask, and he braced against the glassy rock tube; fighting down a wave of paranoid horror. He’d lied about his phobia ratings and somehow it hadn’t been peeled. One advantage of being a politician he assumed, but not much use to him now. He cursed.
Up to his neck in terror, and the only other option had been fear; it was a living nightmare. He laughed hoarsely then, the mask allowed him that much, and relaxed into waiting for the sensors to come back. They’d promised, on estimate, to be back in less than an hour. He could hang on that long. Then he’d have something to work with, and get his anxieties distracted, while they waited for his little sister to make her move.

Arianne woke up with her skin rippling. Two hours of the slow dawn had gone by, and the panels had barely changed their angle. She called a report; and they’d decided it was safe to come back from the redline. What she was planning would use less resource and they’d have a reserve by the time she wanted to jump.
She forbore from saying she hadn’t actually made the decision; the Joint Manager was close to achieving AII1 status on it’s own, and she didn’t want to upset it now.
The Skin offered her food, and this time she accepted. It seemed to be apologising for having slugged her. She was grateful, and it felt good to indulge it’s apparent desire to care.
As she was eating the design for a jump rig was coming together in her mind. She was nearly ready to load it across to Cad for a first opinion.
The boulder field in front of Arianne’s shelter looked like an electron shot of one of Joe’s CD’s; the long, sharp shadows like parallel series of dashes on the sand’s glare. The boulders were nearly uniform in size, and the ground flat to the horizon. Much more boring than all the romantic views artists had constructed. But it felt solid, and a thin breeze was hissing on the threshold of hearing, surprising her with the sense of being at home in this barren landscape. Close-to the colours were amazing; textures and overlays of rust and pink and powdery orange. A dry and fragile mosaic of platelets and small stones, bedded in grainy dust.
She couldn’t believe she was finally here – sailing solo to Mars as she’d dreamed of doing since she was eleven years old. A study trip to the old launch site in Kourou, and her father’s pride in the slender rockets that had given her her name.

When she was about five Arianne had tried to follow her brother as he scrambled up a shallow slope of crumbling shale. Somewhere in a desert, where their parents searched for rocks, that was hot and dry and full of hidden things. You had to learn to look very hard. At every step you could miss or break something.
She was angry that Joe told her to stay back. But if he hadn’t she would never have seen her magic stone. She looked closer and closer, and the more she looked the more she saw.
The stone was like a picture from space. She fell further in, and saw cities and roads and fields on the sides of mountains.
Then she wasn’t angry with Joe at all. He’d been letting her play with his new lab, and now she suddenly understood what it meant. She saw how things that were too small to be seen were still real. And she laughed in delight.
That night a little stick dinosaur was born. Arianne knew she couldn’t let it out, you had to be thirty then to actually build things real size, but she also knew that one day she would. She wasn’t even supposed to play in the lab, but Joe kept quiet about giving her his keys. Years later she realised their parents had known. She gave them a clock for a graduation present; a little stick dinosaur that could scratch out the time on a flake of desert stone.
Now she was here, where her parents had come in imagination with the first robots, sitting happily in her skin at minus fifty degrees, able to see and touch and smell the body of the planet. She only wished she had more time to search for microfossils. That would be the present of a lifetime, but also an illegal act of vandalism in the new, wiser climate of caution. Her licence to land was one of the last to be issued before the whole globe became archive.
The orbiting Sentinels were almost ready to launch from Earth, and the next move would have been impossible if they’d been in place.
Arianne’s designs were getting approval from Cad, and the processors and assemblers powering up to start building the rig. She was amused by her own impatience; ten hours to assemble a unit that would have taken months to construct only a few years ago. But time, as ever, was relative, and she had to be in place before anyone else arrived for her plan to work. None of it any use without the essentials though.
She stood up slowly, testing her ability in unfamiliar gravity, knowing the Skin would catch her if she stumbled but still enjoying the forgotten sensation. Eighteen months alone in zero, with only her skin to exercise against, had made her a shaky walker even with bone maintenance routines in her system. She improved with lightning speed, as promised.
Delight and familiarity with her natural elegance merged, while she felt the two-legged animal within restored. A confident memory of life’s evolution upwards. Last night she had crawled under the boulder to sleep. Now she walked around it, and then leapt upwards; floating to a perfect touchdown. A weird, thin cry of triumph in the tenuous atmosphere.

Joe’s sensors were conferring and analysing their data into a shared account. After a short technical argument they’d agreed on a probability for Arianne’s position on Mars; meaning they’d nailed her down to less than ten metres. Joe cut short the fiercer debate on her likely target. It seemed certain that she was going for the Viking 1 site; as soon as she could reconfigure her systems and equipment.
Now that he knew where she was he could relax a little; there should be time to aim a message down however she decided to travel.
He approved the common manager’s suggestion that optics and IR should process an image so he could see Arianne’s landing site, despite a suspicion that the machine was humouring his limited biosystem. He felt better now he could concentrate on the final form for his message. He’d had too long to think about it, and he still wasn’t sure if he could hide the real motivations from his sharp little sister. And if he didn’t stop thinking of her in those terms she’d be on to him for sure. She’d got out here on her own resources, and he’d used the fastest ion engine he could afford, with a navigation suite that left very little to chance.
Joe still wasn’t sure how his sister thought of him, but he hoped she might be proud of him even so. After all he was a politician, this was not his environment at all, and he’d survived the long period of solitary travel without cracking up completely. A lot of people ran for home when the reality of deep space overwhelmed fragile defences.
He refused to feel shabby about using this as a lever; Arianne could be in more danger than he wanted to dwell on.
A warning squawk made him jump; he felt sure the whole moon had rung to the sound. Somehow his managers had arrived at a prediction, and it wasn’t good.

Arianne had a go confirm for four hours. Cad had found at least three ways to simplify her designs, and she was caught in a familiar conflict; admiration for elegant solutions warring with wary envy of the machine’s ability. Implants could take her way above it’s level, but that would be like trading with the enemy.
Then, with no warning, a cascade of negative and fearful images - Inhuman and inhumane machines sweeping all flavour and love of life from under the sun. Just dark and soulless function ruling.
She was shocked by the nightmare revelation; surely that was exactly where she wanted to be? Everything about this race was aimed at her eventual full transfer to Diamond. Something was wrong. She’d had no warning of emotional dysfunction, apart from the expected side effects of fatigue and return to gravity, and now she was crashing to a level of doubt that was positively dangerous.
She ran three layers of Karm at once, two on relax and one on search. She had no reason to think family could be a problem, but that was what she was getting. If she had to break silence now her point score would more than double, and the chance of winning reduce to no more than even. She saw again the flicker in Joe’s eyes even as he wished her all health and speed on the launch day finals. Damn him; he was safe in Geneva, so where was this stuff coming from?
Arianne hated to cheat, she’d felt guilty all the time she’d carried a secret code, but now at least the ethical compromise made some sense. She beamed a flash code, disguised as a routine weather station reading, at distant Earth. In forty minutes she’d know if any of her family were in real trouble. If not, she was going to delete the illegal contact routine. It had been gnawing her conscience more than she had realised; not trusting the Sail Pro’s to reach her with emergencies.
She turned to check her panels, and a movement caught on the threshold of awareness. Out across the boulder field; hard to judge distance and scale. A mobile sensor, if it was really there? But the chances of meeting? And there’d been no notification of experiments in this area.
Arianne’s optics tensed to maximum as she swept the middle distance. Nothing. Then one boulder caught her eye. A hint of unusual structure, tiny but out of place, against the light.
She must be imagining things now; why on Mars would a sensor need a mast sight?
She’d not declared the power of her optics, not a requirement, but they’d been enhanced by the best researchers in the field; an unofficial sponsorship in return for data. The machine’s manager would assume it was out of visual range. Unless she stared at it for too long. She turned her head, still sidespying the boulder, and the mast very slowly sank out of view. Arianne was puzzled. Stealth sensors on Mars?
She shook her head. Other things to attend to. And not far off launch time.
The panels were slimming themselves down to thin, flexible sheets, and merging with the new rig. As they slid into place and tautened the rig requested a stage, and Arianne turned to crouch so it could climb up onto her back. It strapped and mated with the Skin, exchanging data and testing all interfaces, while new shields thickened down the backs of her legs. She sat back against her home rock, and waited.
Right on time her flash code returned. Empty.
So nothing was wrong at home. So good. Any message would have broken the cover, so she forced herself, and then relaxed, into being content.
Long ago she had decided the only way forwards was onwards and upwards. She was amused by the cliché now, but still held to the principle. Whatever it meant to be human would carry forward; it was her faith that this was intrinsic to the process of change. Change and ever faster acquisition and exchange of information. Ever since the mud pools that was the way life had been going, and Arianne’s only certainty was a need to be out in front of the wave. Where her little bit of free will could balance and move and live.
She had no real illusions about the next stage. Going from flesh to diamond. It was going to be amazing and terrifying, like any adventure worth pursuing. But this was the big one. A door opening into realms of magic that even imagination would drown in. The end of human history, and also it’s real beginning.
She gulped a breath, skin pucking inwards, as the enormity of it struck with undiminished force. She could never resolve that awe of the future that her life’s direction implied, whenever she thought this far.
But if she was going to be responsible to forever, she had better get on with the present. She conferred with Skin and Rig, and got an accelerated go confirm for ten minutes. Her systems were improving themselves even faster than usual. As if they felt the same excitement that she did. She laughed in simple delight. That could even be true.
It was still only mid-morning; she would be over the Viking at least ten hours sooner than her best first estimate. Then she looked down.
The after-form of the sail bags’ conversion was doing a final audit to stock. Arianne put out one foot, to take the magazine on board, then snatched it back with a soundless cry. Instinct pushed her away from the boulder, and spun her around to face it. She had no weapons, but pointed her laser interrogator and fired it; as the tiny machine swayed back to balance and stood on four of its’ six legs. Then fired again at its’ partner on top of her stock magazine.
No answer. No ident from either.
Arianne saw the mid-body casings opening, and hit Launch.
Her Rig manager reconfigured in a split second, and aimed the exhaust plume to blind both intruders. Overrode her G-limits and accelerated. She passed out at a thousand metres; dimly wondering where her emergency routines had got such rapid threat assessments from.
The Skin shot her awake at apogee and briefly boosted the air supply.
She had to go back. Leaving debris was an expulsion from race offence.
Then the laser hit, and she got the message.

Joe was furious. Arianne had launched better than nine minutes early on his sensors’ definitive prediction. And her ascent was three times over normal limits for Martian gravity. His burst had to be less than a millisecond long, and pinpoint accurate, or its’ line could be banked and the source routed back to Earth from one of the datasats. He’d agreed to wait till she flew, as there’d be less risk of detection, and better transmission, if she was partly out of atmosphere.
Luckily the common manager had seen and sent before Joe even realised what was happening. Part of his pique came from a feeling that he was secondary to his own equipment. Why the hell hadn’t he just sent the machines if they were so damn effective?
He already knew the answer to that one of course; no delegation during this particular crisis. If anything went wrong, even now, it was Arianne who’d crash out first.
Joe pushed back into his burrow; a laugh forced out of him as he realised what he was doing. Nothing was likely to spot him on Deimos, even if he got up and danced, unless his signal cloak failed. And that, as ever, was up to the machines. Depending on what his sister did in response he would either break cover or run for home under his original disguise. Either way he was totally dependent on the technology.
Why didn’t she answer? Joe was suddenly frightened. Arianne had come up off the surface like a military intercept. What had happened down there?
He thought he’d seen her stick one foot out, but the resolution wasn’t clear enough to see what she had seen. Two trace signatures from the site were being analysed; one double and one single. She was on aeroshell now, and still hadn’t answered.
Joe flash-backed to a holiday, or a collecting trip, when they’d gone schnorkeling. He was maybe eleven, they’d both had an intensive course on underwater emergency signals from their parents, and it was obvious that he was responsible for their joint safety. In water so clear that he feared falling Joe had followed his sister as far as he could. But she’d eeled down into the gloom of a deep canyon, beyond his vision, and stayed down long after he’d surfaced. Gasping and spluttering with anxiety, he was forcing himself to dive again when she bobbed up, laughing in triumph, beside him. She’d gone beyond buoyancy, and sat on the sand, looking around in wonder, and up at the sparkling ceiling far above. Then fought her way back on the verge of consciousness. So excited with her adventure that only Joe knew that her nose and ears were bleeding.
Now he felt the same hopeless, furious admiration.
And the signature analyses told him what he didn’t want to hear.

Arianne was struggling. The Skin squeezed her tighter this time, and she muttered a curse of protest. It was hurting, and she tried to kick back. Woke up. Message - - - What message?
Inside a tiny hurricane’s eye of ionisation. Curled into her aeroshell. Falling. Must have passed out again. Nearly glider time.
Don’t keep on about the damn message!
The aeroshell was unfolding; layers sliding and feathering together to form long, slender wings that swept back as it flipped over. Then flowed forward as the speed dropped. So that Arianne’s delicate cage became the fuselage of a glider. A masterpiece of carbon origami. She was suspended beneath it; legs held out and chin cupped and arms free to fly in the gentle air and easy gravity.
But her head and ears still full of the roar of questions and voices. One familiar voice.
Joe was here. How here? No: he had sent a message. A message from the moon.
A moon of Mars: Deimos.
Arianne snapped back to full alertness. Checked her bearings and circled into the warmest upflow of gas. Replayed the message from her brother.
He was on Deimos! Cloaked, but she had his co-ordinates. She sent the briefest possible acknowledgement; would call again from the surface on a secure code. Before his orbit took him behind the planet. She shook her head in amazement.
With no time to speculate she concentrated on her second surface landing in less than a day. Her escape, from whatever, had thrown the launch off course, but it seemed she had just enough height in reserve to glide to her target site. The illegal debris was probably fried with one intruders’ remains, so she might just get away with it. The current datasats were not as picky with their ground scans as the upcoming Sentinels promised to be. Whose signature would be charged with the offence though?
The glider banked through a series of lazy turns, following the track of an ancient water course. The lighter coloured deposits reflected more heat, and should give a little extra lift. The Rig was already converting its’ reaction motor to a parachute braking pod behind her, and gathering solar from the wafer thin wings to warm her in the Skin.
Arianne didn’t dare consider Joe’s message until she was safely down, so she stared in wonder at the landscape below her. A view she had dreamt of for so many years. The colours and patterns of Mars so much more vivid in real time motion than any replay. Canyons and water marks like the fossils of ancient ferns on sheets of rock. So many variants and tones of red and orange that the loss of blue and green was no regret. Her optics had been recording since a week before orbit, but she knew this was the time she would return to the most. If she ever got the chance.
The sudden chill of that thought gritted her teeth. Any time she’d gained was going to finding out what in hell was happening here. No paranoia that those things had been invasive. A refusal to give an ident meant a universal destruct order on any offending autosensor. The Laws of Robotics. And those had neither declared themselves nor answered.
All Arianne had really wanted to do, since she was eleven years old, was sail solo to Mars. The latest Last great Adventure maybe, but there’d never been any point in analysing the things and actions that became challenges. Anything that was there to be done would always call willing entrants to the race. She still couldn’t really believe she’d done it. Made it to Mars. And designed and made the means. So lucky to live in this bit of time.
She was rambling. Information floated in front of her eyes; ten kilometres to touchdown.

Joe’s managers were working flat out. This was beyond illegal. Weapons manufacture, even ownership, brought down the highest sentences. There’d even been suggestions, in Geneva, that carrying any weapon should be a capital offence.
But he couldn’t be sure his virus had tagged effectively; he had to have a backup. In forty minutes it would be academic anyway; he would be the wrong side of Arianne’s horizon.
He instructed the FormFitter to sleep him for fifteen minutes.

Nineteen minutes later Arianne was coming in to land. She marked a spot on her display and the Rig deployed a drogue. As the speed dropped the drogue blossomed by twenty, its’ attachment point angling upwards, and the glider flared to a stop at two metres. Settled gently onto down-folded wings; barely disturbing the dust as it touched.
The gossamer chute melted back into its’ own lines, and the lines were drawn in to process. As Arianne drew up her legs to kneel the shade of her wings was already folding away. Within a minute the re-formed panels were on their legs, either side of the Rig bag, and turning to catch the sun.
Two kilometres to the north was Viking 1.
Arianne’s breath drew in and held. She stared, fixed, at the squat machine she’d waited and worked so long to see. She was right on the rim of its’ archive. A small marker cylinder stood a few metres away to her left. It flashed a warning that confirmed its’ identity and hers. Any closer to the Viking and she would be tagged and charged. She confirmed to shut it down,
remembered to breath as she stood up, and with optics zoomed right in began to study.
No more than five minutes, she fought down the annoyance, and then she had to contact Joe. Why had he followed her? If she didn’t get this timed image, as proof of landing, she might as well not have started the race. As well as she’d prepared, she didn’t want to rush this.
She glanced over at the Rig. It was re-forming the reaction engine again; this time for insertion to orbit. In an hour she could be chasing Deimos; and ask him face to face.
A little corner of her attention was amused by this tourist activity. The datasats would have both her landings logged; but imaging one of the Vikings was a ritual and a rule of the race.
The machine had been on Mars since 1976, more than fifty years, and had suffered very little from the abrasion of dust storms and exposure to cold sunlight. Its’ bulky, rounded boxes and stubby legs and arms had the look of an expensive antique. Handcrafted and ancient, like a suit of armour, and the first visitor to make a landing. With power supplied it would probably function again.
Arianne logged every detail of the image at maximum resolution and confirmed her position again with the marker. It flashed a time coded log to her, and to the nearest datasat, then opened like a flower to power up its’ store from the sun.
She looked up at Deimos, half-lit and low in the sky. She couldn’t believe Joe was there; probably didn’t want to if her hesitation was any guide. She could just see the tiny, irregular moon that he was strapped to, its’ outline broken by crater rims. Which one was he in?
The Skin and the Rig exchanged data and gave her a position. She walked over and crouched, so the two could mate, stood, and the laser fired from her shoulder.
Joe’s return beam rode the same line of light.
‘What are you doing here!?’
‘you have to leave – surface not safe – urgent!’
Hair thin pulses of light as they talked.
‘the remotes? – I overreacted’
‘use weapons – no blame/charge to you – remotes hostile’
What weapons – she had no weapons?
‘no weapons here – you know illegal – I - - - - - -
The laser interrogator slid from wrist to fingertop before Arianne knew she had pointed.
Movement Skin-sensed behind her.
Not an interrogator. Something else; reactions so fast that she did not fire.
The mid-body was already open, six legs braced, so she fired then anyway. Shock, as the remote flared and writhed. No time to wonder; another warning to her left. And laser hits to the right. Not hers. Kill burns from Deimos. Almost below the horizon. Sears in the atmosphere, that surely would be seen. Joe reading her thoughts.
‘remotes not human – ancient – maybe martian/maybe et’
‘thanks! – new skin if hit me?’
‘get off surface!’
Unlike Joe to lose his sense of humour. He must be serious. Burns all around her; one through a panel, which squawked in protest. Like being inside a firework display.
Firing herself, faster than she could think.
The Rig screamed a border of green around both eyes.
Like poking a wood ants’ nest; they were everywhere.
Three more shots, the last as she lifted off, and a last look at Viking; receding in tunnel vision. One last thought; Joe had virused her skin. To make a weapon - - -

Arianne was coasting in low orbit. Ready for the burn that would lift her out to Deimos next time around. They were relaying verbal through a datasat now; no point not to after the fight.
‘I’m fine Joe, really. The Skin knows how to slap me awake.’
She didn’t know what to believe. Joe had come after her on the strength of a rumour. He’d not been sure till the real Sentinel specs had arrived just after dawn. How long ago was that? If he’d pulled her out earlier she might have lost the race for nothing.
‘You don’t believe me do you?’
Damn him; even if he couldn’t catch her, he could always guess her thoughts.
‘It’s hard Joe, is true. Little green insects on Mars?’ And she’d been their first real target; because she was going to Diamond. How would they know that?
‘They’ve been on low maintenance stand-by for billions of years. If the consciousness still exists, it’s stored somewhere. Waiting for a new host. Either way, they were going to have you as a first sample. Uncontaminated if possible.’ He spoke again, over her silence.
‘You’re wearing the latest Skin, with a few extras fitted if I know you, and they’ve been all over the surface since you hit orbit. I think the technology in those archive markers triggered an exponential build.’
‘So I was lucky they didn’t get me while I was sleeping?’
‘Very! - - Arianne?’ ‘We don’t know that they didn’t.’
A long pause for thought, as the planet rolled past beneath her. The chill of a new thought, as the night line marked a few more minutes of light for her panels.
‘I know Joe. I’m thinking - - - ‘
Joe’s voice was low. No irony at all.
‘I don’t believe they did. No good damaging the sample. They’d have gone non-invasive first.’
‘Yes. I see - - - ‘ ‘Joe? - - Was I set up?’
For the first time Arianne could ever remember, Joe didn’t reply immediately. Knowing how often she’d held him off, she felt herself want to cry. But she believed him when he spoke.
‘I don’t think so. I think it was just hurt pride.’ ‘That we aren’t the first to go Diamond – Not the first immortals. No-one wanted to believe that.’
His second silence was even longer. Arianne waited.
‘The Sentinels are, were, a black project you know. We’ve not grown out of those yet.’
And waited again.
‘Whatever grew on Mars, or landed here when there was water, I think its’ consciousness is dead. Or moved on. I’m not even sure the remotes are dangerous; probably just curious.’
‘But I’m still going to be the first civilian on Mars, and now the last?’ ‘Where did you get your systems Joe?’
‘Ah, well. I’m going to need to be immortal myself; to pay back all the time I’ve signed for them.’
Arianne was silent. The Rig wanted approval for the upcoming burn. The damaged panel asked for a check on its’ self-repair. Both suggested they ask again later.

Joe watched his sister coasting in towards him. Panels turning and folding as she drifted up to a contact with Deimos.
Her remote line touched, and felt for a hold, before reeling her in the last few metres.
She’d remembered to configure her skin as clothing. Always had been very formal with him, even when they were children. He smiled; nothing much he could do with his FormFitter. He’d not put much value on anything but basic function in that area. So he looked like a wrinkled, iridescent maggot. So what?
Arianne admired her brothers’ new dome. Smiled and waved at him, as he floated hesitantly in its’ hatchway. She had a suspicion they were going to be quarantined here for quite a time; she was going to have to have a serious word about his wardrobe.

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