Ice by Ann Mary Gamble

Lane Arcturus no longer opened the chatty messages from the people she’d known planetside. They had subject headings like “Update!” or “Birthday Bash,” but the contents were always random lists of events or closed with some statement of disbelief that she could stand it alone on the orbiter without going crazy. She deleted them in batches of four, one tetrahedron at a time, and went back to her research. Planetside she’d slogged through the study group of aminos trying to separate cause and effect. Not randomness—there was an explanation for everything on the molecular scale—but unexpected complexities, unknown compounds, and always the pull downward. In orbit, she’d eliminated variables one by one, cutting—every hundred hours, another cycle of starlight—closer to clarity.

“This is just ice, Lane.” Her thesis advisor moved awkwardly in the lab suit, making it look like he hesitated between steps as he got the boot seals to disengage. His tablet, tethered to him but drifting in the absence of gravity, threatened to knock into the structures she’d built to seed crystal growth.

He stopped next to her at the lab bench with a sigh that probably came from the boots settling into the floor. “What happened to the tyrosine project? You haven’t sent data in weeks.”

“I want to control the variables.”

The tablet kept drifting forward, bouncing to a stop as it reached the end of its tether. Lane watched a trellis of branched crystals sway slightly in the disturbed air currents. Just ice.

“Do more than eliminate variables, Lane. We need some progress on the project you were sent up here with, or you won’t be able to stay.” He released the seals on both boots a little too early in his turn, sending him into the lab bench instead of toward the door. The swish of the lab suit—anti-lint, anti-static—was followed by the thump of his hip against the bench, and the crystal lattice quivered in expanding waves. She flailed her arms to reach the floor and gain leverage, although salvage was pointless. The forms wouldn’t “fall” in zero gravity, but the disturbance ruined their structural cohesion.

She swatted at the lattice and watched the shards spin away toward the walls, the ceiling, the window, the floor.

 

The orbiter gathered power through crystals, sheets of silicates laid down in other zero grav labs and sliced thin so the energy they absorbed could be transmitted to generators on board. When the orbiter spun out of direct starshine, a night twice as long as its day, Lane spent more time setting up or measuring crystal growth and less time pulled by the view from the window—although there too, she had measured. Strongest band of visible light at the blue end of the spectrum, 440 nanometers, traveling 38 minutes from a star also orbited by several hospital ships, a spa, a hydroponic farm, and the planet that demanded the secrets that tyrosine unlocked.

Her advisor was probably still on planetary time, and the jump to the orbiter left even seasoned travelers tired. She’d be able to prepare the lab without interruption.

She could do this. She could give the committee amino acid data and simultaneously work on the crystal project. She just had to focus. She’d been cutting variables from the experiment; she would now cut them from her life. In one respect, her advisor was right: complete control was unrealistic. The variables could be held at bay only temporarily. The constants had been determined before time. She’d only achieved simplification, not perfection.

To accommodate any research, the shielding on the windows of her lab could be adjusted to block specific wavelengths of radiation or turned off entirely. Lane turned it off. On her way to the thermostat, she passed a large black glove, still drifting toward the wall, of a style to protect against planetary winters not keep contaminants out of lab work. She snared it with one wave of an arm and tucked it into a pocket. One less piece of insulating clothing for her advisor. She dialed the thermostat as low as it would go and gathered the tethers. They went into a storage hatch, precision milled so the door and fittings wouldn’t be anchors for crystal growth.

The door to the lab hissed open.

“That was fast.” Her advisor looked around the empty lab. “Ready to start fresh. Although I can see it’s easy to stay on task up here—what else are you going to do?”

“It’s the beginning of a new star cycle.”

“I hear the star rise is something to see,” her advisor said. He’d gotten a little better at maneuvering in the sticky boots. Adaptable, like the amino acid building blocks he wanted her to study.

“It’s a peak experience,” she agreed.

She typed commands on another set of controls. The humidity in the room would now increase, but at this temperature water molecules would seek solid state, would adhere to any substrate to launch a crystalline lattice. Now that the tethers and the test frames had been put away, there were only organic structures left in the room: her advisor and herself.

“This is a tough research environment,” he said. “But I think you’ve still got time to turn this around. You’ve got drive; you make things happen.”

Lane took off her visor. The screen filtered UV light if the window screening failed but damped the effect of leaving the black. “There’s the star.”

She could do both: crystalline properties of organics and the perfect ice lattice, perfectly encasing, purifying. The human body was 60 percent water already; aminos and minerals formed a kind of seed structure she could use. Ice within and without, a double lattice, crystals reaching through the organic material to join, build the regular structure that water alone could form.

“Now that’s blue.” Her advisor joined her at the window. He’d taken off his visor and was letting himself drift. “Every hundred hours, eh? I could work a cycle like this.”

Lane felt the prickle of ice crystals against her cheek. She touched the key fob in her pocket and locked the door of the lab. It could be that she heard the faint clink of molecules finding each other, adjusting, slotting together in the 109.5-degree angles dictated by their structure, every single molecule. Soon they’d be crystals large enough to refract the rays of starlight, blue beams shattered and illuminating every layer of the hardening lab.

Already frost dusted the back of her advisor’s coat. She took off her gloves, took a deep breath of the frigid air, and released the seals on her boots. She drifted toward the ice-blue star.


Ann Marie Gamble writes in several genres, edits mostly nonfiction, and eagerly awaits the next snowfall in the U.S. Midwest. She has enrolled in more than one graduate program.

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