Lauren Aroeste had never encountered anything like it. The moondust. It was hypnotic. The finest powder she had ever seen, it poured through her fingers like liquid as she sifted it. Again and again. Her hand tingled beneath her glove and she found herself longing to remove the layer of protection, to feel it on her bare skin. She was also convinced she could smell it, an enticing, seductive fragrance that was both nostalgic and utterly alien.
They were on Celeia, the largest moon of the sixth planet in the 40 Eridani A system. None of the planets had shown signs of life, or even the potential for it. But Celeia had an atmosphere of its own. It was like a planet orbiting another planet.
The Earth Alliance ship Love had sent a transmission to Blackstar Station at once about their find, informing them that they were going down to explore. Her sister ships Luck and Liberty were light years away in different systems and there was friendly competition throughout the fleet to be the first to make contact with another species.
Celeia was only a moon, so the odds weren’t good. Still, the presence of an atmosphere meant that it might at least support life one day, even if that life was transplanted human colonists. The air was the right chemical mix, but the ground was completely barren. So far they had only found stones and dried salty riverbeds.
But then Lauren had discovered the moondust.
A furtive backward glance showed her the positions of the rest of the crew. Trivers and Ralston were investigating something on the other side of the ship. Sabaroff was even further away, taking readings of a jagged rock formation to the east. None of them could see Lauren. They could have no idea about the lake of moondust she had found, and she felt curiously compelled to keep it to herself. A light breeze ruffled the surface, causing the dust to ripple like liquid waves. Billowing, beckoning.
There was something poignant about it, something so alien it was almost heartbreaking. It stirred feelings in her that she had always fought to keep suppressed. Her feelings of never fitting in. Her loneliness. Her alienation.
All her life she’d been accused of being hypersensitive, of getting too involved, too connected, of feeling too much. And she’d come to regard affinity as a curse. She knew the others didn’t respect her, didn’t value her contributions to the mission. Sabaroff hadn’t even wanted her on his crew at all and had made no secret of his dislike of her. A liability, he’d called her behind her back. It had stung, just like the countless other barbs that had wounded her throughout her life. Wounds were supposed to heal. That’s what she’d always been told. But hers never did. Every little dig, every harsh word ever said to her – they were still there. Buried like stones at the bottom of a lake, but unmistakably there.
The sky was pearlescent. Pale, lemony sunlight penetrated the haze, turning the ground into beaten gold. Lauren felt the sun’s warmth even through her heavy starsuit. She closed her eyes as she continued to sift the moondust. It slithered soundlessly from her hand, sinuous as a snake. Exquisite. Her skin prickled with something like arousal.
She shook her head to clear it of the strange sleepy feeling and thumbed the button on her helmet to open a private channel to the ship’s computer.
“Is the air safe to breathe?”
After only a split second’s computation, Love replied softly. “Yes, it is safe. There is no indication of anything toxic or dangerous to humans.” She had the same slight accent and careful pronunciation of her Chinese programmer, and Lauren had found cold comfort in the illusion of having at least one female friend on board.
“What about the surface? Is it safe to touch?”
“I do not know.”
“Should I risk it?”
Love hesitated, apparently grappling with the dilemma. She was programmed to protect the crew and warn them of potential danger, but her creator had also endowed her with a sense of adventure and romanticism. They were all explorers, after all, and Love had as much curiosity as any of her human companions. She had to weigh that against the necessity for study and research.
“Don’t worry, Love,” Lauren said. “You don’t have to answer that.”
Asking the question had decided it for her anyway. Or rather, the moondust had. She unfastened her left glove and slipped it off. Alien air rushed in, the scent at once overpowering and intoxicating. For a moment Lauren was dizzy, but then her body began to acclimatise, adapting to the atmosphere. The powder seemed to be writhing below her, tempting her closer.
Lauren couldn’t resist its allure any longer. She plunged her bare hand in up to the middle of her forearm with a gasp of delight. It was like stroking a cloud. The moondust slid over her skin, sensual, cool, impossibly soft. The dust couldn’t be alive, could it? And yet there was no denying the sensation of bonding, of communing.
She desperately wanted to peel off her starsuit, to sink naked beneath the lake of moondust. The urge was almost irresistible. Slowly she began to pull her arm up and out of the powder. It slid over her skin. Its individual particles were too tiny to see, but she could feel each single grain. Even stranger, she sensed desire in it. Was it intelligent? Or was it just some kind of weird chemical attraction, like iron filings drawn to a magnet?
It was all she could do to withdraw her hand completely and she felt the absence of the moondust instantly and acutely. Her skin ached to touch it again. It whispered against the dead surface of the moon, calling to her.
She was barely aware of loosening the clasps of her helmet and pulling it off. Celeia’s atmosphere caressed her face and hair and Lauren savoured the wonderful, indescribable aroma. She thrust her hand into the lake once more, surprised and a little embarrassed at the euphoria that flooded her mind and body. It was beyond any sexual experience she’d ever had, beyond any she could even imagine. And before she knew what she was doing, she had filled her hand with the dust and drawn it to her nose. She inhaled the scent deeply, drunk on the experience. Then she opened her hand and buried her face in it.
The dust flowed over her, as insubstantial as smoke. She opened her mouth to it and the taste was beyond her capacity to process. Every nerve in her body felt stimulated past bearing, awake and alive, as though she had suddenly woken from death. She belonged here. This was where she was meant to be. The powder caressed her, silky and refreshing. It seeped into her pores, kissing her veins, carrying her awareness far, far away.
Far away . . .
From far away there came sounds, alien sounds that meant nothing to her. She closed them off in another part of her mind and immersed herself fully in the sensations gifted to her by the moondust.
It took several long moments before she began to dimly recognise what she was hearing. A voice, familiar and commonplace. It grated, hurting her ears. Then a name. Hers.
“Aroeste! What the hell!”
Then she was assaulted. Unwelcome sensations crashed through her body, pulling her away from the source of pleasure. Her skin burned as she was torn away, as though billions of tiny filaments had entered her skin and were now being ripped out, like velcro. At the same time she felt a different kind of pain, a pain that wasn’t hers. The pain of another’s life.
“No!” she screamed. “Leave me alone! Don’t hurt it!”
But it was too late. The spell was broken, and even as her crewmates pulled her from the moondust lake, she understood that she hadn’t been quite herself.
“What the hell happened?” Sabaroff demanded. “What are you doing?”
He was slapping her exposed face, swatting and brushing at her hair and her chest as if she’d been attacked by a swarm of wasps, and she realised with a start that she had taken off her helmet and unzipped her starsuit.
“I’m fine,” she said, catching his wrists. “Don’t touch me!”
He withdrew, but the three men shared a concerned glance as they peered at her. “You were lying face-down in that stuff,” Ralston said. “You looked like you were drowning in it.”
Trivers brushed something off the back of her neck and she batted his hands away.
“That stuff might still be on you,” he said.
“It doesn’t work like that,” she said sadly, gazing at the pale lake, now silent and still. “You won’t find a single grain on me. It’s all right there. It left me.”
They stared at it, their faces a mix of horror and fascination.
“What do you mean,” Trivers asked, “it left you?”
Lauren blinked at him in confusion, only comprehending half his words. “Can’t you smell it?”
They shared a look of concern and confusion, as though she’d gone mad.
“Look,” she cried, reaching out to touch the moondust again. “Just touch it. It’s alive!”
It slid through her bare fingers again and she couldn’t repress the sigh of pleasure at the sensation. Even so, she sensed a kind of sorrow in it, a wistful longing. Their bond had been cruelly broken, the connection damaged.
Trivers filled his gloved hand with dust and let it cascade back into the lake, but his expression of puzzlement and worry didn’t change.
“It’s just moondust,” he said.
Ralston nodded as he tried it too, clearly experiencing nothing unusual. “Yeah. The moon’s dead, Lauren. No sign of life at all, not even this stuff.”
Lauren shuddered at his use of the phrase. This stuff.
Trivers put his arm around her and hauled her to her feet. “Come on, let’s get you back to the ship. Love, prepare to run a decontamination programme on Aroeste.”
“But there’s no reason ––”
“Yes there is,” Sabaroff snapped. His concern was gone, replaced by his usual gruffness.
The computer took his side. “It is a mandatory procedure after contact with an unknown substance. I am sorry.”
Lauren sagged in her crewmates’ arms as they led her away. She glanced back longingly at the moondust, which shivered like a disturbed pool of water. Her insides ached with every step that took her further away, and by the time they got her back to the ship, she was crying.
The readings were unequivocal: Celeia was completely dead, just like the rest of the system. There were no signs of life, not even the simplest bacteria. Love had analysed the moondust through its contact with Lauren’s starsuit and found it to be nothing more than powdered rock, the kind to be found covering any moon in the galaxy. Its consistency was finer than most but it was otherwise entirely unremarkable. It was surprising that there wasn’t even a single particle of it on Lauren’s suit or her skin, but the rest of the crew, Love included, seemed satisfied that the breeze had simply blown it away.
Lauren knew better.
That night she lay in her bunk, wide awake and listening. The others were talking about her, but she didn’t have to hear them to know what they were saying. She had glared icily at Sabaroff earlier for suggesting that her judgment might be impaired by processes going on within her own body. It was no surprise that he felt that way; she’d sensed that her gender was at the root of his dislike of her from the beginning.
“I get it,” she’d said coolly. “Impressionable female. Hormones out of control. Biological clock ticking. I thought that kind of sexist talk had died a long, long time ago.”
The others had come to her defence and at least Sabaroff had had the good grace to look ashamed. He’d shrugged and apologised – grudgingly, at a loss to offer any other possible explanation for her experience.
It didn’t matter anyway. They were leaving in the morning. Love had sent her report to Blackstar saying they’d found nothing.
So that was it.
Except it wasn’t. Not for Lauren.
The wind whistled outside on the supposedly dead moon of Celeia while Lauren waited for the others to go to sleep. She checked her bedside scanner every few minutes until she saw that they were all in their individual compartments, and then she asked Love to monitor their breathing until she was sure they were asleep. Then she crept out into the corridor.
She left her starsuit hanging in the decontamination chamber. She didn’t need it where she was going.
“Listen to me, Love. I’m going to go outside, but I don’t want you to alert the others. Can you do that for me? Keep a little secret?”
“I am not allowed to withhold information from the crew.”
“Let me rephrase it, then. Don’t wake them up. You’re not withholding information; you’re just not volunteering it.”
Love was silent for a few seconds, just like a human contemplating a difficult moral decision. “The moon is safe,” she said after a while, as though thinking aloud. “There is no danger. Therefore I am comfortable not waking the crew.”
Lauren smiled and stroked the console affectionately. “Bye-bye, Love.”
She opened the airlock and slipped out into the night. Three of the planet’s other moons were overhead, casting varicoloured light across the surface of Celeia, but Lauren didn’t need their help to find her way back to the lake. The rock was cold and hard beneath her bare feet, the night air chilly against her naked skin. But she would be warm soon.
She could see the glow of the moondust as she made her way towards it, and as she drew nearer, it began to shimmer. A bluish light flickered within it, conveying a sense of joy, like that of lovers reunited.
Lauren didn’t hesitate. She walked straight into the lake as though it were snow, sinking up to her knees, her hips, her chest. She lay back and spread her arms and legs wide, offering every inch of her skin to its contact.
The moondust reacted instantly, flowing over her like waves, welcoming her. She felt chosen. Cherished.
The others were wrong. There was life here, just life of a kind inconceivable to cold circuits and microprocessors, to close-minded humans. Unimaginable to those it couldn’t connect with.
Lauren sank beneath the surface as the particles filled her, the moondust permeating every pore. It smelled of rapture, it tasted of freedom. It was sublime order, exhilarating chaos. It was killing her. It was bringing her to life.
The dust swirled around and within her, the spores of a living world. There was no life on Celeia because Celeia itself was life. How long had this lonely organism been here, adrift on a sea of stars, waiting for a compatible being it could join with? Millions of years? Billions? Lauren couldn’t bear to contemplate it. So much solitude, so much yearning. It made her flesh and blood ache.
The painful empathy was edged gently from her mind as she gave herself completely to the lake, letting the moondust cover her, absorb her, free her. There would be no trace of her, not that any instruments could find. She would be here forever, part of a living world, one with the stars.
Her last human thought was a message sent out into the cosmos. Not a farewell, but a greeting.
She said hello.
(for David Bowie)
(c) Thana Niveau