Mission ICE 19

Standard

I heard someone calling…calling to me.

“Captain?”

Is it the voice of the woman on the other side of the airlock window?

“Captain!”

Or is it the voice of the ghost that’s trying to possess me?

“Captain…”

I saw my reflection on the glass.  There was moisture at my temples, above my lip.  Was it sweat?  Or was it water?

I shook off my questions for the time being and gathered myself.

“How is everyone?” I asked.

Nomi’s wide eyes relaxed just a touch.  She said nothing, but she nodded, and I took that to mean that everyone else was okay for now.

“You saved him,” she said.  She exhaled through her mouth, her eyes still locked on me.  “You saved him.”

Nomi Bradley looked like a woman who had just realized, in her gut, that if anything happened to me, she was the mission commander.  Major Holmes was in charge of the astro-soldiers, but she would not take command unless Bradley conceded it to her.

We came here, to this frozen rock hurtling by us on its way to wherever it was going next, to solve one mystery.  What happened Mission ICE 19?

I couldn’t let myself get distracted by this new mystery.  Or maybe I could.  Maybe it was connected.  Maybe whatever just happened to me, or was still happening to me, was the same thing that happened to the fifty-seven people who got stranded on this asteroid over thirty years ago.

~***~

Water is water, I once thought.  One oxygen.  Two hydrogens.  There are isotypes of the atoms.  I’d heard of heavy water.  And radioactive water.  But it was only after meeting Fergus Lee and Nomi Bradley that I heard about all the different kinds of ice.  Gus called himself a pagobiologist.

“That’s a new one,” I’d said, sticking out my hand after Nomi introduced us.

Gus had smiled as he explained he studied the effects of water ice on biological organisms.  He joked about all the new prefixes being added in front of “biologist” in those days, and then launched straight into “have you heard of Mission ICE 19”?

Of course I had.  Everyone had.

I was a kid back when I heard about the mission, the first of its kind.  And I was in high school when I heard about the emergency.  The year I graduated was the year it was decided that nothing could be done.  That those who were lost could not be saved.

Before I finished my first degree, I decided that I would at least go looking for them in the only place they could be.  I would look for them, the next time the rogue asteroid that everyone called Angrboda flew close enough to Earth.

I had forgotten though, that it all started with ice.  I had even done a report on it in the fifth grade. There were dozens of different kinds of ice.  We only experienced one naturally occurring kind on Earth.  In labs, people used temperature and pressure to create other kinds.  Space was mostly filled with amorphous ice.  The water molecules cooled so fast they couldn’t form organized structures like the pretty lattices of snowflakes.  It came back to me when Gus started talking about the ICE 19 mission.

Scientists studying the Angrboda asteroid from a distance got an inkling that it contained something special.  It was giving off interesting matter and energy signatures.  Orbiters and landers sent back data about a new form of ice in particular that convinced the space agencies of a dozen countries to band together to build and launch a three-ship mission to the asteroid.  An international cosmic exploration.

At the speed the asteroid was traveling, the mission could last for several years before the ships passed the point-of-no-return, when they would run out of fuel and other resources they’d need to return home.  Resupplying was not practical.

Two ships landed on the asteroid.  One remained hovering above, collecting physical evidence and data sent from the explorers below.

What they discovered was “ice XIX.”

They were excited, and so was the world, because there was something special about the new form of ice they discovered.  They sent back videos of themselves handling the stuff, and people back home argued that it must be sleight-of-hand.  Someone would put what looked like an ordinary ice cube made of good Earth-fashioned “ice I” in the palm of their hand and watch as it sunk into the hand, not because it was melting, but because it was passing through the hand.  As the hand flipped so the palm faced downward, the ice cube would appear to rise up through the back of the hand.

The more they studied it, the more they became convinced that ice XIX was an even bigger discovery than they’d first thought.  It shielded from radiation.  It seemed to pass through different phases of matter at temperatures and pressures that were typical of ordinary sea level on Earth.  It responded well and predictably to experimental manipulation.  It was remarkably stable for something so dynamic.

And most importantly, early experiments demonstrated that it was friendly to the human physiology, and it just happened to be made up of the same molecule that made up a good percent of our bodies.  Water.

They were studying what they believed might be the most fundamental discovery relevant to human beings since a handful of people in the world unraveled the mystery of our genetic codes.

Mission ICE 19 had only just started their work, but there were those on Earth who were already dreaming of applications, starting with making it easier for the human body to withstand prolonged and frequent space travel.  Because the human body was composed of so much water, ice XIX might be a far less invasive and extreme way, than something like gene adaptation or embedded armor, to bolster the human body against the ravages of prolonged exposure to outer space.

One of the ships, the one that never landed, was called home.  And it came home, laden with large samples of ice XIX.

The other two ships were to remain and establish a base.  The asteroid would be within range for their return for several more years.  They had enough resources—food, fuel, and even entertainment—to last that long and then some.

They kept sending reports.  It took longer and longer to receive them.  And they never gave any indication that anything was wrong.  So it took a while for us to figure it out.

They were supposed to be on their way back.  We expected to hear from them more and more often.  But we just stopped receiving communications.

They stopped answering our calls.

And there was nothing we could do to help them.

Debate raged for about a year, and then we received the last message from Mission ICE 19.

Their ships’ drives were damaged.  It was the ice XIX.  It had properties that allowed it to breach environments that should have been water-tight.  They were still trying to fix the drives.  They would still continue their research and send whatever they could for however long they could.  They still had hope that ice XIX would ultimately be of great help to humanity.

***

I had mixed feelings about ice XIX.  I didn’t know any of the people who went on Mission ICE 19.  Or anyone who knew them.  But I still felt sad that the very thing they were so excited about, so hopeful about, ended up killing them.

I had no mixed feelings about the members of Mission ICE 19.  They were all heroes.  From the mission commander who was responsible for every life on that cold rock to the technician who kept the sewage processors in good repair.

I would leave pagobiology and paramedicine to Gus and Nomi.  I would leave the investigation of what went wrong with the drives to our mission’s exoforensics experts, Major Holmes and her team.

My mission was to find the dead, and gather their remains.  They had sent notes to their families.  And some of those families were content to have their loved ones’ remains return to stardust.  But many still longed for bones to bury, burn, or honor according to their custom.

Even if bodies were buried in the rocky earth of the asteroid, I’d be able to reach them while hovering above them.

And then I would make sure that what happened to them didn’t happen to us.

We would not be landing on Angrboda.

***

I still held to that no less than three Earth hours ago.

We would not be landing on Angrboda.

But then the distress call came.

***

I sat down on the bench in the airlock where a person could sit and put on an excursion suit.  Minus the helmet, I still had mine on.

There’s time, I thought.  Time for them to go back home, get some supplies, fly them back to me—to us, and then…

Then I would spend the rest of my days on an asteroid, all alone, until I ran out of food or went insane.

A sudden hollow bang sounded on the hull.

I glanced over at Nomi.  Her eyes had widened again.

I tied up my braids at my neck and reached for my helmet.

The hollow bang sounded again.  I was terrified.  Not of whatever—or whoever—was outside the ship.  I was terrified because I may have doomed my crew by landing.  I was terrified that the drives might already be damaged.  We had a little ice XIX onboard properly contained.  One ship had managed to carry the stuff all the way back to Earth without any issues thirty years ago.  And none of the ice XIX that was brought to Earth had done any harm to any machines.  But now that we had landed on the asteroid, we were exposed.

The stuff probably did its damage over a long time, just as the major had surmised.  So our drives were probably fine.  But we all knew what that hollow banging was.

Something—someone—was trying to get inside.  And I had to decide when to order the crew to take off.

I was still onboard.  And something else was in that airlock with me.  So we had to be smart about how and when we opened the airlock doors.

Nomi called to me again.  “Captain, hang in there.”

“One of them is here,” I said.

Nomi gulped.

“I think you’re right about what they are and what they were trying to do.”  I stood and put my helmet on.  “And why they followed you.”

I approached the airlock door.  I saw Major Holmes walking up behind Nomi.

That hollow bang sounded again.

I straightened my shoulders.  “Doctor Bradley, inform the crew to prepare for take-off on my—“

“I’m relieving you of duty, Captain,” Nomi said.

By the look on the major’s face, I could tell that she did not expect that move.

“You’re infected with an unknown substance,” Nomi said, “or else your body has absorbed it.  It may be affecting your mind.  We can’t be sure.  Until we can fix you, I’m assuming command.”

I nodded.  “Agreed about the you assuming command part, but if I may make a suggestion, I think the wisest course of action is to make sure that nothing else gets in the ship, and that I—and that everything in this airlock, gets out.  We’ll have to break away from the asteroid’s gravity, and then some.  It’s not safe to use any physical tethers I think.  So I’ll have to make sure I’m pointed toward Angrboda and fall toward her once you open the airlock.”

Nomi nodded.  “I’ll take it under consideration.  I’ll get back to you within the half-hour.”  She quickly turned and walked away.

Major Holmes stepped up toward the window.  “Well that was unexpected,” she said.

“I’ll head to the base,” I said.  “I’ll put myself in one of those pods.  Gus and Nomi can help me program it so I don’t turn…so I survive.  And the next time she swings around to Earth, you guys should have things figured out, and…”

“We’ll all be thirty years older than you and you’ll finally listen to us for a change.”  The major smiled, but the smile did not reach her eyes.

I returned her smile.  “Sure, out of respect for the elderly, I’ll maybe listen to a thing or two that you have to say.”

Another hollow bang sounded through the hull.

I glanced up.  “Was that coming from above us?”

Major Holmes pointed up.  “That used to be a human being.  Someone who did everything they could to survive until we found them again.  But it didn’t work.  Why would it work for you?”

“Sam, you have to take off, now.  It’s going to find its way in here.” I paced for the few steps that the airlock afforded me.  “Maybe madness set in.  Maybe it’s like Gus was saying the other day, without a physical brain, the non-physical mind took over.  But maybe that mind dissipated too far away, and now it’s like a primitive beast that remembers just one thing.  Maybe the last thing on its mind before it went into that suspension pod.  ‘Wait for a ship.  Get on that ship.’  It’s not going to stop.  And it will find a way to phase through these walls, like an ice XIX cube passing through the palm of your hand.  Or it’ll phase through them by chance, but it will get in here.”

“I know, but there’s no harm in—“

“There is harm!”  I walked back to the airlock window and banged on the wall.  Major Holmes stepped back and frowned at me.

She could see it now.  I knew she could see it, because I could feel it.  Half my face was flesh and blood, and the other half was ice, plasma ice.  It burned, and in the glass of the airlock window, I could see that it flickered.

~***~

The researchers of Mission ICE 19 tried everything they could to survive, to continue working.   They helped each other, loved each other, buried each other.  We learned that from their logs.  But when we first arrived, we found the remains of only three people.

As we investigated, as we searched the laboratories, the research notes, the personal logs, we pieced together their story.  In their experiments, they discovered some properties of ice XIX that might do more than just allow a human being to withstand exposure to radiation and perhaps even to naked space.  It had the potential to allow the human body to endure extremes of heat and cold without cellular damage, without brain damage.  But all of that was only in simulations, both virtual, and with a few synthetic organs that they managed to grow.  Before the correct conduit and procedure for replacing the body’s water with ice XIX could be determined, before the qualities of the ideal volunteer could be determined, great harm, perhaps even fatal harm would be done to those who would volunteer.  And still some did.  But they continued only with simulations.

Then, when it was close to the time they should start their journey home, they discovered that their ships’ drives were irreparably damaged.  They were supposed to test the drives regularly, but they couldn’t actually fire them up to full capacity without using up too much fuel.  The drives always passed the preliminary tests, but didn’t start up when they were needed to leave Angrboda.  The engines had become what they called “waterlogged.”

It was then that they started more aggressive experimentation with ice XIX, on the ships’ drives and on themselves, in the hopes that they would discover some way to save themselves.

They had a few years of resources left by then, and they managed to stretch those to several years.

They began experimenting on themselves, and as expected, there were many failed trials that led to death.  But later on, when they had refined the process somewhat, failed trials led to worse than death.  People would lose limbs because those limbs turned to vapor and dispersed.  Or go blind because the aqueous humor in their eyes adapted poorly to the infused ice XIX.  Or even go mad, because even after they managed to master the ice XIX exchange process, they were unprepared for how the matter phase issues would affect not just the human body, but the human mind.

It was no wonder then that only a few bodies remained.  Because everyone else, one by one, as their resources dwindled, chose to undergo ice exchange, with the hopes that whatever further refinements had been made based on what was learned by previous trials and failures, would finally succeed.

And it seemed that they did have a breakthrough, just when they were preparing to give up, just as they consumed the last of their resources.  Several people underwent the latest version of the ice exchange process.  And it saved them, for a while.  But the water seemed to have, as one of them put it, “a mind of its own.”  They noted amazing adaptive properties that protected them from radiation and even kept them from feeling hunger and thirst for weeks.

But then they began to report feats that were outlandish if untrue (and maybe indicative of the strain these last few survivors were under) or extraordinary if they were true.

One reported weeping “tears of plasma.”  Another reported being able to turn completely into vapor and even dissipate some ways before being able to reintegrate.  The water apparently pulled apart every cell and helped keep it suspended and protected.  And likewise, it could bring those same cells back in the same positions as before.  This person spoke of “being able to think without a physical brain.”

However spectacular the results, it was not enough.

Since the beginning, the crew had attempted to build suspended animation chambers for each of them using only the materials from the two ships, and whatever wasn’t being used for shelter.  The ice exchange was meant to help keep everyone’s bodies stable during suspension.  The crew managed to build only three chambers.

By the time they finished only about half a dozen survivors were left.  They calculated that they might be able to share the chambers, do rotations through them.  They drew straws to see who would go into the chambers first, and who would remain outside to maintain the chambers.

***

Gus and Major Holmes were the ones who found those three chambers.  All three were unoccupied.

Or so we thought.

I brought up the video feed from hours earlier and played it for Sam.

“Tell me what you see,” I said.  And I watched with her.  And another watched alongside me.

The video I brought up was from Sam’s own feed.  I’d been watching it live only a few hours past.

“Wait a minute,” Gus says.

The camera sweeps quickly toward his voice.

“Not unoccupied.  At least not until recently.”  He’s tapping a dusty screen to bring up the most recent readings from the suspension chambers.

“But there’s no air in this room.  They wouldn’t survive without suits.”  The person speaking walks into frame.  Nomi.  She stretches her neck up.  A habit she’s developed from the discomfort that the neck of the excursion suit causes her.  “Do you think…did they dissipate into vapor, like the others?”

“Terrible,” Sam says.

And as her camera sweeps again, slowly this time, I see something that she—and I—has missed seeing the first time around.  A wet glimmer in the air just beyond Nomi, in the shape of a torso with flailing arms.

“Major!”

The sound of blast fire to the major’s left sets her running.  She sees two of her soldiers, one lying on the ground looking stunned, the other crouched above his comrade, holding his weapon at the ready.

The stunned soldier gets up.

“What were you firing at?” The major asks, but before she gets an answer, she turns in response to Nomi running up to them.

Dr. Bradley points her outstretched arm back to the room they’d just left.  The suspension chamber room.  “Something’s in there,” she says.

Major Holmes rises.  “Okay, everyone.  Let’s back off a bit until we get our bearings.”

They begin to move.  Sam’s camera watches everyone else pass through the hallway.

“Where’s Doctor Lee?” she asks the last soldier who passes her.

She doesn’t wait for his answer.  She runs back into the suspension chamber room and finds Gus on the floor.  He’s holding something in his right hand.  Some kind of pressure generator.

The left glove of his excursion suit is frozen into a loosely curled fist.  Within seconds, it bursts into a rolling green and purple flame that goes out when Sam bats at it.  She helps him up.  And as they back away, they see it.

It’s vapor.   It’s ice.  A million little shards of ice, glittering as they advance, forming the vague shape of a torso, the vague orb of a head, and a not-vague-at-all hand, an icy hand curled into a loose fist, mimicking Gus’s hand.  It reaches out toward them.

Gus raises the pressure generator and sends a pressure wave toward the thing.  The million shards of ice waver, and then they begin to advance again.

The camera doesn’t see, but it hears as Major Holmes opens a channel to the ship.

And she sends a distress signal.

And the captain who was resolved not to land her ship on the asteroid that had already claimed two of theirs, gives the order to land the ship.

***

Gus had not been by yet.  He was in the med bay getting the frostbite on his left hand treated.  But he’d sent his communications to the airlock speakers and reported that the suspension pods opened when a proximity alert detected the arrival of a new ship, our ship.  From Gus’s preliminary assessment, those pods didn’t actually work.  They couldn’t have.  As brilliant as the members of Mission ICE 19 were, they didn’t have what they needed to build suspension chambers.  Those chambers were little more than sleep pods.

The people in those pods had undergone ice exchange, though, and that if anything, might have preserved them, but only for a while.

The ice exchange process would result in eventual dissipation, if not for the one thing that the suspension chamber did manage to do.  It kept the ice particles in close proximity to each other.  Close enough so that when the pods opened, they tried to reintegrate, to solidify, but they couldn’t.  Ice XIX could not protect all the organic material of the human bodies from degrading over the course of dozens of years.  So these last few survivors seemed to exist in the twilight between life and death.  Gus called them ice ghosts.

***

I switched the video to the ship’s airlock.

It showed me rushing into the airlock like a fool, holding a tool I didn’t really know how to use.  A pressure generator that was supposed to force ice XIX into a solid-phase.  Sam and Gus were the last ones aboard, and I saw the things chasing them.  One of them was reaching toward Gus with both its arms, as if it wanted to hug him.  Its icy fingers grazed his back and he cried out and fell on the ramp.

I fired the pressure generator at the thing.

And it worked.

The arms contracted back toward the torso.  The whole thing solidified.

Then a blast of energy burst the thing apart, searing the ice.

I began to turn my head back.  In reality it felt slower.  In the video it was a matter of seconds.  I half-turned my head to see behind me.  I saw Sam and her soldiers dragging Gus into the ship, and one of them blasted the ice ghost apart after it solidified.  Then, Sam reached out toward me.

I stopped turning my head back and snapped it forward, just in time to see what was coming toward me, but not in time to stop it.

A million tiny shards of ice.

She phased into my body.  Another of the survivors from the suspension chambers.  I’d been feeling the change.  The prickling, freezing, burning change for the past few hours.

I felt something else too in that first few seconds.  I felt another mind, hovering just behind my own, like a shadow.

I used voice commands to close the airlock door, retract the ramp and close the outer hull door, and then lock myself out of all further commands.

***

“We got one,” I said.  “One of them got me.  And now there’s one left.”

“We’ll get him,” Sam said.  “Or her.  Whatever.” She tipped her head toward me.  “And we’ll get that one too.”

I shivered.  My kneecaps suddenly felt too light.  I leaned down to rub one of them, but found nothing there.  I shook my head.

Alarms began to sound.  The ambient light in the airlock dimmed as lights flashed.

I didn’t need a console.  I recognized the pattern of sound and light.

Sam gaped at me.  “Hull breach,” she said.  “I have to go.”

I nodded.

But just as Sam ran off to help with the hull breach, Nomi reappeared.

“How bad is it?  Can we still take off?” I asked.

“I have something for you,” she said.

I blinked at her.

“It will fit into the sample exchange box.  If I could fit, I’d get in there with you, but I can’t.  So you’ll have to do it yourself.”

The sample-exchange box.  I glanced around at the airlock wall until an indicator light went on and I pressed the button to receive whatever Nomi had sent through.

Then I saw it.

“Doctor Bradley, did you bring aboard more ice XIX than you were authorized to bring?”

“No…that is, not while you were captain.  But once I took over, I…rescinded that order.  The ship landed on a big pile of the stuff.  Wasn’t hard to collect.”

“Is that why there’s a hull breach?”

Nomi frowned.  “Give me more credit than that.”  She gestured to the items in the sample-exchange box.  “This is only as much as you’ll need.”

The equivalent of ten gallons of ice XIX was contained in the box.  Assistor arms slowly walked the tank full of ice out of the sample-exchange box.  The container was connected to a device that I was only familiar with because of Nomi’s daily briefs and reports.  It was a portable ice exchanger.

I glanced between the exchanger and Nomi.  “I’m infected with ice XIX and you want me to pump more of it into myself?”

“You’re not infected with the ice.  You’re…I don’t know, possessed?  By one of those people who went into those suspension pods.”

“All of their organic matter is gone.  They’re only ice now.”  I gestured to the tank.  “How is that different?”

“I cleaned it up.  Filtered it.  Gus learned the method from the research notes.  If we can exchange the regular water in our bodies with ice XIX, then we can exchange it for better—less possessive—ice XIX.”  She pointed to the exchanger.  “I’ll make you a deal.  Start the exchange process, and I’ll get this ship off the ground.”

I hesitated.  “What about the hull breach?”

“It’s being handled.”  She put her hand on the glass.  “Selena, I’m not sure, okay?  I’m not sure if what’s in that tank will hurt you.  But I am sure that what’s in your system now definitely will.”

“What do you mean?”  She couldn’t be sure.  She hadn’t taken any blood or tissue samples from me.  It wasn’t safe to send them over.  The excursion suit I was wearing only had limited vital signs information.  What else could she have studied?

I looked at Nomi.  “Gus,” I said.  “How’s Gus?”

She pressed her lips together.  “Do we have a deal, Captain?”

I took a deep breath, and I started to nod, but a sudden sharp pain struck the back of my neck.  I cringed and closed my eyes.

“Captain!”

I frowned.  “You’re trying to stop me.”

“What?” Nomi blinked at me.

But I wasn’t talking to her.

I took my helmet off, and unzipped the front of the excursion suit.

“Keep it on and keep the helmet close,” Nomi said.  “You’ll need it once we break gravity.”

I nodded.

Another sharp pain jarred me and sent goosebumps prickling down my arms.

I pulled the ice exchanger toward me and lay on the ground.

I felt something raging.  Something that wasn’t me, but was within me.

Organic matter, I thought.  They lost it and they need it. 

“The only problem is, this organic matter is occupied,” I said to myself.

“I’m sorry I can’t be in there with you, Captain,” Nomi said.  “I’ve got to go.”

I raised my arm and gave her the thumbs up.

And I turned on the ice exchanger.

***

The ghost thrashed as the pure ice XIX from the tank poured into me, pushing her out.  And I thrashed with her.

Heat, like lava, seared my veins.  Cold, like fog, seeped through the cracks in my skin.  Bursts, like lightning, zapped me every few seconds, just long enough for my muscles to begin relaxing by reflex.

I remembered all the people who’d walked this path before me.  People who’d lost their limbs, their senses, their lives.

The pain was so relentless I couldn’t even cry out.

But I kept hoping I would soon pass out.

My mind wanted to.  It drifted that way.  I felt it.

But something kept snapping me awake, like a hand slapping my face.

It was her.

I could see through the corner of my vision that a cloud of tiny shards of ice was forming beside me.

She was being cast out, like a demon, and she was resisting.

She snapped me awake again after plasma fires rippled through me.  It hurt, but it wasn’t too bad that time.  It was like muscle cramps.

I slapped back, but not with my hands.  It felt…as if my mind had reached out and just pinched hers.  And when it did, a flash of something appeared in my mind.  A piece of…something.  Awareness.  Knowledge.  Something about the structures and phases of ice.  The mind I touched pushed me back.

But I started laughing.

Not with my voice, which still couldn’t work.  But with my mind.

Because I could feel the rumble of the ship’s drives spinning up.  We were preparing for take-off.

My mind began to drift again.

It drifted.

***

I snapped awake and sat up.  Alarms were sounding and it felt as if the ground was dropping.

I glanced at the ice tank.  It was empty.  I pulled the ice exchanger off me.

Filling the airlock were a millions shards of ice XIX.  Some of them were trying to reach through the seams in the sample-exchange box.

I rose and walked to the hull doors.  I opened them, just a few inches.  It was dark outside.  But if we were falling, than we had not yet escaped Angrboda’s gravity.

The shards of ice XIX in the airlock were sucked out.  I watched them go, and even after I saw the last one go, I kept the airlock open.  I glanced at the sample-exchange box.  Maybe a few got through.

It wouldn’t matter.  She couldn’t reintegrate now.  But I would still search for them later.

It was only after I closed the hull doors again that I realized I hadn’t put my helmet and suit back on.  And I hadn’t had any trouble staying standing or breathing as the airlock was losing pressure.

I checked the console.  The airlock had still not re-pressurized.

I felt something rippling through me.  I took the excursion suit off.  I looked at my arms.  They didn’t look any different.

I peered at the door to the airlock and I took a deep, deep breath.

***

The hull breach was on the upper deck, in a hallway close to the bridge.  It wasn’t bad, but it was growing, because something—someone—was ripping it open.

The last ice ghost.

This one was more solid than the others.  I could see that it was once a woman.

The other members of my crew were wearing excursion suits and weighted boots, and they were trying to blast the intruder without doing further damage to the ship.  The ship was still falling.  It seemed as if the ghost was trying to crash the ship.  It didn’t make sense.  But she was definitely causing the hull breach on purpose.

I didn’t know everything I needed to know about having ice XIX in my body.  I’d stolen some knowledge from the mind that had hitched a ride with me for the past few hours.  But I didn’t know everything.

Ice XIX didn’t just respond to pressure and temperature and other physical stimuli.

It also responded to the mind.

I strode forward, feeling my body go solid and heavy.  I grabbed the ghost around her waist and flung her out of the way.  I glanced over and saw her trying to reach me, but she was bombarded by white-hot blasts.  She hid from the blasts.  She must have seen the effects on the other ghost.

I put my hand against the breach and summoned plasma, blue-green fire rolled over my hand and into the breach, and purples sparks followed.  I seared a scar into the hull of the ship.

“Look out!”

Something rammed me, and pinned me against the wall.  The breach wasn’t quite sealed yet.  It cracked opened a bit.

The ice ghost had her arms around me.  She was turning heavier.  She had one of my arms trapped.  But she wavered.  She teetered on her feet.  She seemed stronger than the others, more corporeal.  But without organic matter to anchor her, she couldn’t match me.

I turned my pinned arm to vapor and pulled it free.  I spun her around until her back was to the hull.  I wrapped my arms around her, braced one leg behind me, bent my front knee, and propelled myself forward.

***

I knew I could phase through the hull.  But I didn’t know if I could phase her as well.  I summoned that plasma fire across my whole body, hoping it would startle her into a semi-vapor that could pass through solid objects while still retaining form.

I did it.

I pushed harder.  We both passed through the wall into outer space.

I felt the ice in my body roil and ripple and separate, tiny droplets holding my cells inside, shielding them.  I focused and reintegrated myself.

The million shards of ice that once was the last survivor of Mission ICE 19 drifted apart from each other and away from the ship.

I took a moment to watch them.

She was one of fifty-seven heroes.  We had killed her friends.  Because through no fault of their own, they had become these monstrous things that clung to life and sought to drain life from others.

I turned and phased back through the hull into the hallway.

I had left the breach repair incomplete.  The crew was on it, but when I reappeared, everyone turned toward me.  Weapons turned toward me.

I raised my hands.

“Lower your weapons,” Sam said.

Nomi gazed at me with her eyes wide.  It was an expression I was becoming quite familiar with.

“Captain on the bridge,” she said.  “Well, almost.”

“Are you…”  Sam narrowed her eyes at me.  “…still you?”

I nodded.  I smiled at Nomi.  “It worked.”  I pointed to her.  “But you’ll remain captain until—“

“Don’t go.”  Nomi stepped toward me.  “I know what you’re thinking of.  The same thing you were planning on doing before.  You’re going to go down to the asteroid and stay there until we figure out a way to exchange out the ice XIX for regular water.  I’m sure we can do it.  We can adapt the ice exchanger for liquid water.”

I shrugged.  “There’s no way to tell if I’ll end up like them.  Three survivors who went into those suspension chambers as people and came out as…husks.”  I turned to Sam.  “Major, please advise your captain that it’s too risky to keep me onboard.”

“I don’t know about that,” Sam said.  “We still need your help.”

***

Gus lay on a gurney in the med bay.  Nomi had anesthetized him.

“There’s obviously a phase or form of ice XIX that is dangerous,” Nomi said.  “It seems to be toxic.”

“What can I do?” I asked.

“I was hoping you could purge him.”

“Can’t you perform the ice exchange?  Like you did with me?”

Nomi shook her head as she gazed down at him.  “It’s not the same.  This is not Gus being infected with ice XIX.  This is the damage caused by ice XIX.  He doesn’t actually have any of the ice in his system.”

“But then…why do you think I can help?”

“Because of the logic of opposites.”

I raised my brows.

“If ice XIX can harm…”

I caught on.  “…maybe it can heal.”

Nomi shrugged.  “Worth a shot.  Otherwise, I’ll have to amputate.”

Gus’s left hand was still curled into a claw, and it looked frost-burned and irradiated.  Nomi said there were scratches on his back that looked much the same.

I searched my mind for any stolen knowledge about healing.

I had none.

“I don’t want to end up hurting him more,” I said.  “How long do we have until it’s too late to save his hand?”

“I really can’t say.  I’ll preserve it for as long as I can.”

I gazed down at Gus for a long while.

“Captain?” Nomi said at last.

I raised my right hand and showed her what I knew.  Flesh to plasma to ice to vapor, even liquid fingers that could bend and flex as if they had no bone.  But I didn’t think any of those forms could help Gus.

“I think you’re right,” I said, as I felt the ice rippling through me.  “I have work to do.”

 

 

Copyright © 2018  Nila L. Patel

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