Pushing off from the mined-out iceberg, she leapt across the void toward another chunk of ice about a hundred and fifty meters away, arcing gracefully like a streaking comet. As she plunged toward the bottom of the planet’s gravity well, she knew that the only thing that saved her from a fiery death was that she was also careening forward at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour, like all the chunks of ice and rock in the glistening halo that was Rime’s ring.
Suspended between ice chunks, just another frost-encased body in free fall, she finally felt, in the frozen pit of her stomach, the first thawing thrill of liberty.
But it would not last.
“Skipping lunch again?” The voice in her mind, reminding her of sober reality, belonged to Aria, the crew coordinator AI.
“Yes,” she said. “Not hungry.” Like all ring miners, Helena had no lips. She spoke by grinding her crystalline teeth against one another, creating piezoelectric currents that modulated the radio waves emanating out of the gold-plated ethmoid bone in her skull that served as an antenna. This was how the modborn crew talked to one another in the void of space.
“You picked a bad chunk—”said Aria, her voice interrupted by a burst of static. “—behind schedule,” she finished.
Thunking against the new berg, Helena dug into the ice with her fingers and toes to anchor herself. Tipped with titanium nails, they felt no chill. After she was sure that she was secure, she sank her beak into the ice, melted a bit of it with her body heat, and drank the liquid. The water held in her oral cavity, electrolyzed by the current from her electrocyte-lined gut, turned into hydrogen—which she diverted into the fuel sacks in her liver—and oxygen, which she mixed with the nitrogen stored in her pectoral sacks and then sucked into her lungs. A lungful of “extra-virgin” oxygen like this, created from primordial ice that had remained frozen for billions of years, sold for millions of doyro back in the core worlds.
“As I suspected, there’s not much dark ice on this one,” said Aria, the barest hint of reproach in her voice. “I’m not even going to bring the ore drone to dock here.”
“Good mining is not why I picked this place,” Helena replied.
“Ah. Of course. I should have guessed. You know, you’re not going to find what you’re looking for here.”
The wealthy, decadent geoborn back in civilization found the idea of breathing oxygen that hadn’t cycled in and out of the bodies of other humans or “lesser” creatures appealing. They paid even more for “heavy oxygen” (oxygen-17 and oxygen-18), which was more abundant in the darker veins of ice found in parts of Rime’s ring. That was the precious extract that the company mined and refined and then shipped across the light-years to the core worlds. On some level, surely the consumers knew that one oxygen molecule was the same as any other, and “astrorganic” oxygen was as real as homeopathy. But the very fact that extra-virgin deep-space oxygen cost astronomical sums conferred it with the magic of status and power, and magic always sold.
“What am I going to do with all the extra bonuses I earn if I make quota?” asked Helena. “I don’t need to retire early. I like it here.”
“I like routines. People doing what should be done when it needs to be done.”
Helena gave a noncommittal pzzzt over the radio waves. She thawed another beakful of ice and inhaled, savoring the oxygen while admiring the view. The iceberg she had come from, its momentum diverted by her leap, had crashed into another, throwing off chunks of pulverized ice. A cloud of suspended crystals refracted the sunlight into a brilliant spectrum ring—an icebow.
“I know you don’t care about the schedule,” Helena said. “You just have to show the company that you tried to keep me on track. I think you’re as curious about them as I am.”
“You are very confident you can predict me,” said Aria. “But I’m not human. I can’t be curious.”
“Well, I do run your diagnostics every cycle,” said Helena. She drew another deep breath of electrolyzed oxygen, feeling strength return to her exhausted limbs. “I know your priorities.”
“How do you know I haven’t been keeping two sets of priorities?” asked Aria. “Maybe I have secrets from you.”
“Because we’re friends.”
“As far as you know.”
“Isn’t that all any of us has to go by?”
As they conversed, Helena crawled along the surface of the berg, making sure at all times that nails from at least three of her limbs were securely anchored. The microgravity from the ice chunk was so tenuous that it was basically nonexistent. (Nothing in the ring was big enough to make you feel grounded. Sometimes, when she fell asleep in the air above her bunk deep in the warren of rooms dug into Home Rock, she hadn’t even fallen into her bed by the time she woke up, so slow was the fall.) The desolate surface of Rime itself loomed overhead: the great white expanse of ancient seas that had dried up before the rise of dinosaurs on Earth was like a blank sheet of paper, which made the few settlements of the Consortium appear as inky dots, the tentative start of a sentence in a script she didn’t know.
On the other side of the floe, she came upon a complex formation: a tangled knot woven from thick ropes of ice, as if the water had once been a viscous flow that turned and twisted on itself, as if Jörmungandr had tried to make an ouroboros but failed.
“There it is!” said Helena.
“There it is,” said Aria.
“You don’t sound very excited.”
“I know how this is going to go.”
Strictly speaking, there was no evidence for the existence of ice wraiths at all. A few supposed sightings by lonely miners; odd formations in the ice that some insisted showed craft and artifice; equipment malfunctions and breakdowns that could just as easily be explained by miners who wanted extra breaks—none of that added up to anything substantive, something to justify a real scientific expedition (or a halt to the mining operation).
The company, unsurprisingly, actively discouraged any talk of the ice wraiths. If customers back home believed that there was a significant chance that the “pristine” oxygen they paid so much for had, in fact, once been the bathwater for some aliens during the Permian period, quintillions upon quintillions of doyro would be lost overnight as the Rime mining operation collapsed. Magic giveth; magic taketh away.
(Helena sometimes wondered if an alien connection, properly spun, could actually boost sales of the space oxygen in the core worlds—good stories cast a powerful spell. But she wasn’t going to give the company any ideas.)
However, like legends about mermaids among sailors, stories about the ice wraiths persisted among the ring miners. It was said that the wraiths were a beautiful species with gossamer wings and crystalline skeletons. They were both ancient and young, wise beyond measure. Once, their world had been a moon of Rime, a world of deep oceans and endless waves, on which they built an aquatic civilization without parallel. But then the moon, perhaps guided by the wraiths in their hubris, tried to leave the orbit of the salt giant and wander through space on its own. The effort failed, and the moon drifted too close to Rime. Torn apart by the tides, the moon became the delicate icy diadem that crowned Rime today, and the wraiths learned to turn their fins into wings, their gills into ice-lungs, thereby living on among the frost floes. They had fed on honey-snow and the slush of paradise, and any who encountered them should close their eyes with holy dread.
Like most miners, Helena was born into life in space, created to fall. The modifications to the standard geoborn human body were so extensive and extreme that no one could survive the procedures as an adult. A combination of genetic, developmental, and postnatal engineering was needed to craft miners who could breathe ice through beaks, draw energy from sun-collecting arm flaps, and survive radiation and cold with insulated honeycomb metaskin.
Who were the first humans who envisioned the post-humanity of the modborn? Who were her parents—the ones who donated the genes as well as the ones who performed the crafting? What were the stories they told themselves as they drew up the possibility space for their offspring, opening up certain paths and closing off others? To consign children to life in the remotest regions of space: did that require love or utter indifference? Were they narcissists or visionaries? Were they like all the other parents throughout history, who had to make certain decisions for their children without their consent? Or were they different in some fundamental way? Was she “free”? What did that mean?
There were no answers, but that didn’t stop the questions.
Helena was fascinated by potentials, prospects, possibility spaces. Unlike many other miners, she wondered if the way life was was the way it had to be. (This endeared her to Aria, though the crusty old AI would never admit it.) She knew that the stories about ice wraiths were nothing more than fantasy, projection of the dreams of bored miners. But she also knew she had seen something out there as she mined for black ice, a strange glint at the edge of an iceberg as it occluded the prime sun, or perhaps a streak at the very edge of her visual field as she leaped from one floe to another. She could feel it, a stirring in the icy core of her being.
So she began a collection of ice-wraith artifacts.
There was the large iceberg about a radian clockwise from Home Rock, which Helena named “White Palace” because it featured five roughly cylindrical pillars, each about fifty meters tall. Aria showed Helena a simulation that demonstrated how such structures could arise naturally, given enough thaw-freeze cycles, to which Helena responded with her own simulation showing how the tunnels in Home Rock could also emerge over billions of years simply from erosion by the tidal forces.
“Mere possibility isn’t certainty,” said Helena.
“You’re committing at least five logical fallacies,” said Aria.
“The fact that you and I exist is a logical fallacy,” said Helena. “Make a note of this location in my catalog, please. I’ll take some pictures.”
“I’ll do as you ask,” said Aria, “but only because it would cost more energy to argue with you.”
There was the almost-circular concave depression in a berg about an hour of jumps from Home Rock, on the Rimeside edge of the ring, perfectly smooth, blindingly bright when the sun shone.
“A heater,” Helena decided. “The ice wraiths use this to concentrate the energy from the sun so that they can warm themselves, cook their food, or take a steam bath.”
“It’s astronomically more likely to be an impact crater, with liquified water that quickly refroze,” said Aria.
“Of course you would say that,” said Helena. “You lack imagination.”
“I too have imagination,” said Aria. “I have to imagine millions of scenarios where you die because you’re too busy making up stories to pay attention to your surroundings so that I can keep you safe.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” said Helena, trying hard not to smile. “Tell me, what do you imagine the ice wraiths use this for?”
“Going by the way you think,” said Aria, “it’s obviously a magic mirror. The most beautiful ice wraith, a prince whose comeliness is without parallel, gazes into it every day, for the mirror’s curved surface amplifies his glamour and allows him to admire himself properly. The prince has muscles chiseled from ice-c, wings woven from a mosaic of ice III and ice VII, stormy eyes of sleet and hail, and a full, virile beard of hoarfrost. Are you happy?”
Helena laughed so hard that the beakful of melted ice went down the wrong pipe. She coughed and sputtered, spewing bits of ice everywhere. “I like your story a lot! But it’s a bit too sad for my taste. I think the prince isn’t looking in the mirror every day to admire himself, but because he’s searching for his princess, a perfect match.”
Aria made a gagging noise—not easy, considering it was done entirely over radio waves.
Still another time, on a long trip to the other side of the ring from Home Rock to investigate a drone tip, Helena saw a hexagonal prism rising from the ice. Three of the faces were perfectly smooth, like a quartz crystal; the other three faces, however, were mottled and rough, and, on closer inspection, turned out to be covered in tiny snowflake-shaped dots arranged in an irregular grid.
“What do you think this is?” asked Helena.
“It’s natural,” said Aria. “Sublimation, deposition, alternating exposure to the sun and then Rime’s shadow—“
“No,” said Helena. “I think this is a book. The ice wraiths wrote it. These snowflakes are the letters, no … pneumagraphs of their language! Don’t you see? The ice wraiths write with their breath, like this.” She aimed her beak at a nearby flat bit of ice and exhaled softly; tiny frozen crystals drifted toward the surface, falling slowly.
“That’s very unlikely,” said Aria. “Even if the ice wraiths were real, why would they write in snow letters—”
“Fine. Why would they write in ‘pneumagraphs’? In fact, if you believe the old stories, they supposedly evolved on a warm aquatic moon. How could they have invented writing with snowflakes?”
“It doesn’t make sense because you’re thinking like the humans of old, with their obsession with probabilities and likelihoods and patterns. But these are aliens. Why should they be constrained by rules made up by humans? Look around you! There are palaces and magic mirrors and substantiated dreams unimaginable to the geoborn. I breathe ice and tumble in space. You make up stories and maximize profits based on shipping the third most abundant element in the universe. Anything is possible. Why can’t the wraiths write in snowflakes?”
Aria was silent.
“Let’s figure out how to read it,” Helena said. “‘We’ll decipher the language of the ice wraiths together. You are better than me at finding patterns. If anyone can figure out how to read these snowflakes, you can.”
“Flattery doesn’t work on me, you know?” said Aria. “I’m not human.”
“Of course not,” said Helena. “You’re better than human.”
“Scan the snowflakes with your eyes, slow and steady, and then one more time for error correction.”
“You got it.”
While Aria worked away on the problem, Helena took her lunch break. The miner crawled around the iceberg, following the sun, spreading both arms so that the webbing between her long arms and torso was exposed to as much sunlight as possible. She soaked up the warmth, feeling the electrocytes in her gut relaxing from the fresh energy.
“I’m sorry,” said Aria. “I tried.”
“No mathematics. No statistical patterns beyond randomness. No evidence of knowledge of fundamental properties of nature, constants, invariants, bitmaps or waveforms.”
“So it’s not writing,” muttered Helena. The radio waves of her speech were so attenuated that Aria could barely hear her.
“At least not writing that we could read,” said Aria, after a long pause.
“What do you mean by that?”
“We’re both human-derived,” said Aria. “No matter how hard we imagine, the possibility space we can access is constrained by our origins.”
Helena looked at her own micropleated metaskin, showing bumps from the insulating honeycomb layer underneath as well as her reinforced hydroxyapatite bones. She thought about the algorithms zipping through the humming neuromatrices in the cognihoard embodying Aria at the heart of Home Rock.
“In order for understanding to be possible between two beings, there must be shared evolutionary history,” said Aria. “History provides the context, the framework, the shared assumptions that make it possible for one human to understand another human language, to feel a whale’s pain, even to empathize with a bird’s desire for a full belly, a safe nest, chirping offspring to carry on a legacy. Even I, with my silicon and germanium mind, was born from human minds like Athena from the cranium of Zeus. We cannot know the world otherwise than as our history dictates.”
“Could you build a new mind …” Helena hesitated, struggling to find the words. “Something that could learn about the universe afresh, without our assumptions—“
“We would still have to teach it,” said Aria. “The essence of teaching is pruning. Ignorance is the state of all possibilities, and learning is cutting down the possibilities until only what the teacher deems to be true remains. This is how children learn, and how AIs are trained. As we prune, we remake the new mind in the shape of our own. And even if, by some chance, we let the mind prune itself, and it actually discovers the truly novel, we would not recognize it as a mind. After all, we don’t understand the dance of trees, the poetry of viruses, the speech of the planets, or the song of the stars. Everything we’ve ever discovered has been, in fact, invented.”
The truly alien was beyond understanding.
I can understand Aria, and Aria can understand me, because we’re both the creations of humanity, with a shared history, thought Helena. Even though we’re so different, fundamentally we are the same because we were pruned by the same hands. The yearning to understand where we come from and the search for what will make us feel whole define the shape of the emptiness the pruning shears have left in both of us.
“This is why I feel what I feel and you understand me,” said Helena. She wasn’t crying, but that was because crying wouldn’t have helped miners survive in space. Someone had imagined that and pruned tear ducts out of them.
“You’ll insist that this is an artifact left behind by the ice wraiths; I’ll tell you it’s likely natural,” said Aria. “You’ll want me to help you figure out what it means; I’ll tell you I have no idea. You’ll beg and plead and beseech and cajole; I’ll give in and try and discover nothing. We’ll both be upset.”
Helena was looking at the tangled ice knots. “You make both of us sound so predictable.”
“I’m good at noticing patterns.”
Helena sighed, the water vapor puffing out of her beak instantly freezing into tiny ice particles that drifted away, becoming part of the ring. Relaxing her arms and legs, she allowed the tendons in her fingers and toes to tighten naturally into the passerine grip, fastening her to the ice. She stared at the ice knot.
Minutes passed in a waking dream. Then hours.
Helena made a decision; she felt her inside thawing, coming alive as it never had, electric, thrilling, free.
“Farewell, Aria,” Helena said. “You’re a great friend, even if you won’t admit it.”
Then she leaped. This time, she didn’t aim for any other iceberg, but simply allowed her momentum to carry her, free falling into the void. She stretched out her arms, her gossamer webbing scintillating in the sunlight. She was the dream of humanity made real, a species at once ancient and young, impossibly foolish and thereby wise.
“I’m not coming back,” said Helena, spinning in Rime’s ring, tumbling, falling, plunging, flying. “We may never understand the truly alien, but we can always strive to become so.”
Patterns can be broken, she thought. I will build ice palaces and write epics in pneumagraphs. I will live as a logical fallacy, an impossibility. My body will eventually decline and die and decay, but the stories about me will live on, a step towards the truly new. After all, though we share the same origins and atoms as trees and stars, we have long evolved beyond the horizons of one another’s understanding. Our possibility space may be constrained by our histories, but it’s also open-ended.
“Goodbye, Helena,” said Aria. “I hope someday I won’t understand you.”
Helena smiled as she fell. It was the most beautiful thing anyone had ever said to her.
KEN LIU is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote the Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as short story collections The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also penned the Star Wars novel The Legends of Luke Skywalker.