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Sublimation Angels

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Sublimation Angels

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Author: Jason Sanford
Publisher: Interzone, 2009

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Book Type: Novella
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Artificial Intelligence
First Contact
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Nebula-nominated Novella

On an alien planet where the atmosphere has frozen, humans must continually mine the icy air simply to survive. But for Chicka, a young man struggling with the death of his identical twin brother, survival isn't enough. He wants to understand both the rigid nature of their harsh society and why his brother was killed for questioning their place in the universe.

John DeNardo of SF Signal gave Sublimation Angels "five stars" and called the novella "A captivating story about freedom, rebellion, and seeking the truth." Science fiction author Colin Harvey said this is "One of the best novellas of the year, written by a writer whose reputation grows with each story."

Sublimation Angels was a finalist for the Nebula Award for Best Novella, won the Interzone Readers' Poll for best story in 2010, and was longlisted for the British Fantasy Award.


Alna and I stood on Eur's mirrored-in surface, taking a breather in our sweat-stenched slush suits. The hole we'd dug through the frigid reflective ash smoked a haze of oxygen toward the blue and orange maw of the Crab Nebula, which hung in the sky near our planet's distant mother star. Across the vacuum black, countless Aurals shifted the star field into a mnemonic ROY G. BIV of circles and exclamations. As I watched the alien balls of energy fly by, I remembered something my brother said shortly before he died. How our skies - and our whole existence - were merely the backdrop on which the Aurals played their indecipherable games.

While I rested, sore from digging in my ill-fitting suit, I watched a yellow Aural. The illuminated ball shot toward the horizon, its parallel reflection flashing across the planet's mirror surface. The yellow Aural and its reflection flew closer and closer until they merged at the horizon, an illogical sight which shoved my eyes to vertigo and my stomach toward vomit - a fatal thing to do in a sealed pressure suit.

To calm myself, I cranked my suit's tick-tock ventilator, blowing scrubbed-clean air across my face. I then scraped away more of the superinsulating ash with my ice cleaver, revealing the frozen light-blue oxygen below. Soon an even larger cloud of air bubbled around us.

Alna grabbed my shoulder. "Moms... mad... this," she shouted, her shout carrying as weak whispers because of our touch. I gave a thumbs up. Moms were always mad when anyone messed with the Aurals' precious mirror ash, which kept the oxygen and the rest of the frozen atmosphere from returning to gas as Eur's eccentric orbit took us back toward the planet's mother star.

Alna chunked her ice cleaver aside and kneeled reverently. When I didn't join her in prayer, she grabbed my suit's ventilator crank and pulled me to my knees. Like many low kids, she believed clouds of air like this were sublimation angels, or the spirits of those denied rebirth. By releasing enough air into the world, you freed the soul of anyone you loved. In this case, the angel and prayers were for Omare, Alna's husband and my twin brother.

"Pump me up, Chicka," Alna shouted/whispered when she finished praying. I detached the backup hose from her suit, attached it to our spare oxymix canister, and cranked her pressure to four times normal. After checking that the partial pressure of the nitrogen in her suit was enough to hit narcosis - the needle dial showed 3 bar - I ran my own suit through the same procedure, then lay back in the ash and stared at the sky.

Above us, a red and purple Aural lit multiple tracers as it blossomed into a flower of light, creating the rainbow petals of six brand new Aurals. Alna rapped on my helmet and grinned. "I feel Omare," she said, tears dotting her facemask.

I laughed. This was silly. My dead brother wasn't bubbling into the sky. Instead, frozen air naturally sublimated when the light from Eur's mother star hit it. But before I could say anything, movement from the mirror landscape snagged my eye. To my surprise there stood Omare, buck naked and waving at me.

My twin looked impossibly thin, his body and arms reaching for the horizon as he smiled. The nitrogen narcosis caused me to imagine - for the briefest of moments - that I was the one standing on the surface. That my own body waved at me. Then I remembered the moms grinding Omare's body to kibble and dumping him in the decay pit. I moaned.

As if to distract me from such ugly memories, Omare pointed to a passing Aural. Even though enough rationality survived my narcosis to know my dead brother couldn't be standing naked on a world so cold its atmosphere long ago froze and fell from the sky, I smiled.

Alna touched her helmet against my helmet and we heard each other giggle. For the first time since being born on this cursed world, I felt like I truly, truly belonged.

* * * * *

I am stupid. Omare was smart. Of the expedition's two thousand people, he was chosen. I was not. Everyone knows this. The smart boy and his dumb brother. The special one - and the one who fears the Aurals.

But it shouldn't have been so. I was born a mom. Born to know things. And I do. I know we aren't meant to live on a frozen world. I know the tech our ancestors created for us six hundred years ago - all the suits and cleavers and tick-tock mechanisms keeping us alive - are wearing down. I know the Aurals are not our friends. I know all this, but because I wasn't chosen like Omare, no one listens.

Omare and I were born in the highest level of the cave in as much heat and good air as our expedition could give. While low kids raised their children in the lower cave's cold, Omare and I never knew this deprivation when we were young. We only knew that our mother and father loved us, and if we climbed down the cave's spiral tunnels we wore clumsy pails of frozen oxymix around our neck. The insulated pails contained a tiny tick-tock heater, and you cranked them every few minutes to smoke out the extra air needed to live.

When we were ten, our parents led us to the surface for our ceremonial joining with the expedition. They sealed Omare and me in a tuber, a clear bubble used for emergency pressure drops. Once outside the airlock, I poked the bubble over and over, amazed that something so flimsy could keep our air and warmth inside. We walked awkwardly across the frozen surface to where a handful of other bubbles waited, each holding two kids from our age class.

Omare, being Omare at even such a young age, whispered that this bubble was like all the expedition's dead technology - the slush suits, the cave, the rebreathers and heat exchangers - built for us long ago and still functioning with only minimal repairs. "This tech might as well be magic," he said, "because we sure can't create it anymore."

I suppose he would have gone on like that, a ten-year-old babbling of things his brother didn't care about. But right then the burning ball of an Aural flashed across the sky. No larger than the tuber Omare and I stood in, the indigo Aural dipped for a moment before flying back toward the Crab Nebula, where it exploded into several smaller Aurals, each spinning spirals across the star-burned blackness.

Omare stared in amazement at the disappearing aliens. Heck, we all stared. But for Omare, it wasn't enough to simply see a beautiful sight. No, he had to understand. "They're playing," he whispered. "There's no logical reason for such displays unless they're playing with us."

I shrugged, having no way to know. But mother and father, touching our bubble with their slush suits, heard Omare's comment. Mother leaned over the tuber until her facemask pushed the clear bubble in. "Be quiet," she ordered nervously, her voice tinny to what I now know was my first experience at suit to suit talking. "And keep quiet when Big Mom starts the ceremony."

Omare and I nodded, and I was suddenly aware only the thinnest of barriers separated us from a quick and cold death.

Soon the bubbles were pushed together so the clear surfaces touched and we heard the other kids still laughing in amazement at the Aurals. However, one age mate was quiet and merely glared at Omare. His name was Gunetar. He was a big, nasty boy my brother had fought with numerous times. Gunetar loved picking on low kids, something Omare refused to tolerate.

"Chicka," Gunetar whispered. "She's gonna pop you."

"Who?" I asked.

"Big Mom. She makes an example out of two kids at every ceremony. Orders the enforcers to cut open their bubble. Slice. Bang. Dead."

My face paled and Gunetar laughed. Omare started to tell Gunetar to decay off, but right then Big Mom walked out of the airlock in her black space suit. Big Mom was tens of thousand of years old - with over six hundred of that spent on this planet - and her word was life or decay for everyone in the expedition. Before coming to this world, Big Mom had been an artificial intelligence, one of the numerous AIs who oversaw humanity's affairs. But in order to enter the Aurals' system, she gave up that power and encased herself in a flimsy human body.

Beside Big Mom stood three large enforcers in black suits, each holding a combat cleaver. One of the enforcers lowered her cleaver until it hovered a handspan above the bubble holding Omare and me. Behind us, Gunetar made a soft popping sound with his mouth. He snickered when I grabbed Omare's hand.

Big Mom stepped forward and placed her suited hands on the tubers so everyone heard her. "You are privileged to be here," she whispered in a majestic, harmonizing voice, which hinted so perfectly at her AI origins. "This is the six hundredth and third year of our amazing voyage. You already know why we're on this planet. To learn about the Aurals. To contact them. So far, we have failed. Perhaps you will succeed where we have not."

As Big Mom fell back into the history we'd all studied, I yawned. We all knew the Aurals were the only intelligent spacefaring species discovered so far by humanity. We also knew that each attempt by humanity and our AIs to either contact the Aurals, or expand into the systems they claimed, resulted in the destruction of our ships and probes.

Noticing my eyes glazing over, one of the enforcers kicked our bubble. I sat up straight, hoping Big Mom hadn't noticed.

"The Aurals hate humanity's high technology," Big Mom said. "That's why they attack us. But perhaps they're also receptive to coexistence. So here we are, on this frozen planet, presenting ourselves to the Aurals in simple, unadorned peace. No technology but the most basic. No way to leave until this planet's eccentric orbit takes us back out of Aural space."

"Do they really want us here?" Omare asked. "The Aurals, I mean."

The silence of vacuum fell into Omare's question, although I heard Gunetar snicker softly. Big Mom stared at Omare, and one of the enforcers raised his cleaver as if to slice open our tuber. Big Mom waved for him to stop.

"An innocent's question," Big Mom said, placing her hands on our bubble alone. "The short answer is yes. This is the Aural home world. Long before humanity reached into space, the Aurals pushed their home world out of its normal orbit, causing Eur to travel to the edge of this star's gravitational field and leave Aural territory for a brief period every five hundred years. A single message, one of the few we've received from the Aurals, humbly offered us their home as a means to travel into their realm and meet them as equals."

I thought of the power of the Aurals. Able to throw their home planet into a new orbit as if a toy. How they coated Eur with mirror ash once the atmosphere froze, preserving the world as easily as a ball of food thrown onto ice. Even though this didn't seem like a meeting of equals, I thanked Big Mom for telling us what we already knew. But Omare wasn't satisfied. He wanted to know why we hadn't left Aural space, since Eur's orbit was five hundred years long and we'd been here for more than six centuries. As his mouth opened to spout that deadly question, the guards shifted their tuber-cutting cleavers.

I quickly kicked Omare. "Please excuse my brother," I said to Big Mom. "He's simply excited about the Aurals."

Omare glared at me as he rubbed his sore shin, then nodded agreement.

With no more intruding questions, Big Mom ordered our bubbles spread across the mirror ash to see if the Aurals would communicate with us. This had been attempted with every person born in our expedition for six hundred years, and in all that time none of the Aurals had taken the least interest in us. But that didn't stop the moms from trying again and again to gain the Aurals' attention.

So much for our meeting of equals.

For a moment nothing happened. A few random Aurals arched through the sky. I glanced down at the mirrored surface to watch their reflections, causing my stomach to almost explode from vertigo.

Gagging, I looked up in time to see a pink Aural spin out of the sky. It fell scary fast, causing several startled enforcers to jump back. The ball of energy shot around the moms and veered right at our tuber, where it stopped.

As I looked into the pure light of an Aural, the vertigo of a moment before returned, as if instead of an Aural I watched my own reflection dancing a jig while my body remained perfectly still. The Aural hovered silently for a moment, then bumped our tuber gently, even though the Aural didn't appear to be solid. Omare - again, merely being Omare - reached out his hand and touched the thin bubble separating us from the alien.

But where Omare wanted to touch the Aural, I wanted to get away. I could only think of the power of this damn thing. How they threw their home world across space. How they destroyed any high tech which dared approach their system. But if the Aural noticed me clawing in panic against the back of the tuber, it didn't respond. It merely nuzzled against the bubble separating it from Omare's hand, rang like a ceramic chime, and spun silently back into the sky.

And so Omare became the Aurals' chosen one.

Everyone celebrated that day. Moms. Low kids. Middle workers. Even Big Mom couldn't wipe the smile from her face. Our first true contact with the Aurals.

Or I should say, everyone celebrated but me. Back in our tiny bub, I cried in my mother's lap. Told her our mission was stupid stupid stupid. That we didn't belong on this world. That the Aurals were evil.

"You should be happy for your brother," she said as she hugged me. "This means a lot. Not only to him, but to all of us."

I wanted to scream, but instead I wiped my tears and said I understood. I then waited until Omare came back home and punched him in the stomach.

Copyright © 2009 by Jason Sanford


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