I dream about the volcano again. The broad bowl of its crater is filled with shimmering light. I am standing at the rim like always, watching the warm and welcoming glow eddy and dance just a few feet below me in a swirling ocean of opal. I keep thinking I can see something beyond, or under, or within the lights, but it’s too distant to view clearly.
I hear voices, too. That’s new. The voice sounds like my brother, David, back on Earth.
I kneel and stretch out my hand toward the light. Maybe David will reach up and grab my hand and I can pull him out. Even if he’s not there, I’ll finally touch the lights, after dreaming of them for so many nights. What will they feel like? Will they cling like mist to my skin, or wisp between my fingers like a breeze?
I never find out. I wake with my brother’s sobs ringing in my ears.
It’s sunrise on our fifteenth day on Janus. Through my small window, I can see the roof of the rover garage and a butter-yellow sky. The utilitarian gray blocks StellBio used to construct their research facility look misplaced among the fuchsia palm trees and coral-pink grasses that flourish on this island.
I sit down in front of the computer, which displays the StellBio logo as it wakes up: the stars of the Big Dipper multiplying and twisting into a DNA helix. Once the computer finishes reminding me whom I’m investigating, I open my messages. There’s still only one: the message I received from David on our fourth day here.
David and my mom each had their reasons for not wanting me to take this job. My brother is tired of not knowing where in the world I am; my mother likes to be able to get drunk and call me to complain about why I’m not dating Logan anymore and why she doesn’t have grandchildren yet.
Before I was called to take part in this investigation, I was working in a cubicle maze in Berlin; before that, a cubicle maze in Kyoto. I stopped dating Logan three years ago, after I realized I was happier in relationships with women. Mom kept needling me to quit working and settle down with a nice man and neither Berlin nor Kyoto were far enough away from her and her expectations. I keep hoping Janus is.
At least she hasn’t called me, though I’d rather have endured daily calls from her than what I got from David.
I take a deep breath and open his message. My brother’s face is pale and distorted by flickering waves of static. It’s the same pattern afflicting the StellBio footage I’ve spent the last two weeks studying. The audio, at least, is unaffected, though by now it’s burned into my memory:
“Hey, Rosa. Um… Dad died.” David rubs his face and stares off to the right of the camera. “He, uh… He’d written you out of his will. Looks like he did it a long time ago, when he, uh, found out about you. Look, I didn’t want you to find out like this, but Mom said you should know right away—”
I shut the message off; the sting is still fresh. I wasn’t surprised Dad did what he did, nor was I surprised that Mom would want to inflict the knowledge on me as payback for the way I left things. What does surprise me is how much I still care.
As I get dressed, I hear the door across the hall open and close. It’s probably Colin, heading to the biology lab to tend to his patient: the infant thunderer we rescued from a nesting site that had been attacked by Janus’ primary predators. It was wounded, and from what we can tell, what remained of the herd left it behind.
StellBio gave the herbivores a more official name than “thunderer”, but it’s long and absurdly Latin, so we gave them our own name. They behave like cows and are vaguely cow-shaped, but that’s as far as the resemblance goes. Maybe scaled-down cows with dinosaur tails, participating in a drag show.
What interested StellBio wasn’t the herbivores themselves, but the feathery gold tufts of fungus that grow on their backs. The StellBio scientists on Janus claimed aliens like the baby we rescued could host the basis for anything from anti-aging cosmetics to a cure for cancer.
Then everyone on Janus disappeared, as did more than half of the thunderers on the island. StellBio claimed—or feigned—ignorance, hence the multinational investigation into StellBio’s activities on Janus. Whatever miracle cure StellBio might have discovered, they won’t be the company to bring it to fruition.
It’s a clear day. I breathe in the warm, cinnamon-scented island breeze as I walk to the cafeteria for breakfast. We are now halfway through our scheduled mission. The ship that brought us here, now parked like just another building behind the rover garage, is programmed to power up and bring us home in fifteen days, and not an hour sooner. Beyond the ship, the black cone of the island’s volcano rises innocently against the brightening sky.
Someone nudges me: Colin, the investigators’ top pick for a large-animal veterinarian—an essential role, given how key the thunderers were to StellBio’s research—and the youngest person on our team. He acts like it, too, waking up each morning cheery, still as ruddy-cheeked as the day he left the pastures of Queensland. Even worn out from emergency surgery on an infant alien, he’s chipper.
He cocks an conspiratorial eyebrow at the volcano. “You’ve got cameras on that thing, right? In case it blows?”
“Lot of good it’d do, since our ship won’t let us leave early.”
“Couldn’t cameras at least tell us which way the lava’s flowing?”
I hesitate. “You’ll think I’m crazy, but I’m not sure there’s lava in there.”
He grins. “Weird alien lava, then?”
“For starters, StellBio took down those cameras—”
“Of course they did.”
“But I found surveillance footage showing the crater, in a folder someone at StellBio marked for deletion.”
“What did it show?”
“The crater looked…white.” It’s hard to describe what I saw, particularly because the footage, like all the other video I’ve been working on, was in bad shape. “Like it was full of white light, flashing different colors.”
“You’re right,” Colin says with mock seriousness, “I do think you’re crazy.”
“I’d show you, but the lights did something damaging to the camera. It’s like staring into a strobe light.”
He raises one eyebrow. “You said StellBio had deleted this stuff?”
“Tried to. I managed to find it.”
“Cheers, then, Nancy Drew—you found the one thing StellBio deleted just ‘cause it was bulldust and not because they were covering something up!”
I think they are covering something up—and not just the disappearance of their staff—but I stay quiet. He’s probably right that the footage had been deleted simply because of its quality, not its content, but I suspect the latter. The damaged footage showed the lake of light I’ve been dreaming about ever since we arrived. I’ve never seen the volcano’s caldera in person, but somehow it’s gotten into my mind, and I think StellBio might have known why.
“How’s the baby?” I ask, hoping to change the subject away from my conspiracy theories.
“Recovering beautifully,” Colin responds, “but she might be an orphan.”
“How do you figure?”
“I couldn’t bring any of the tracker tags online, so I looked through that footage you sent over, everything from when StellBio was keeping the thunderers in pastures up to the newest footage from just yesterday.”
StellBio quickly discovered that the fungus they were so interested in only existed in a symbiotic relationship with the thunderers, and only in the wild. They couldn’t grow the fungus in the lab, and apparently when they tried to domesticate the thunderers, the fungus never appeared, and the animals grew up weak and sickly. StellBio then began tagging the thunderers and returning them to the wild. As far as we can tell, they never got a chance to see if the released animals grew the fungus— people began disappearing just a couple weeks later.
“What did you find out?” I ask.
“Well, you weren’t kidding about how badly corrupted that footage is.”
“That’s what I deal with every day here. Sure you don’t want to trade jobs?”
“We’re pretty sure Ripley’s herd is gone. The reapers just annihilated them.”
The predators also have an absurdly Latin name. We call them ‘reapers’. It describes them pretty thoroughly. Despite the grim news, I have to smile. “Ripley? As in, ‘believe it or not’ aliens?”
“As in Ellen.” He grins. “‘Alien’. Figured we should name our baby after a survivor, right?”
“Makes sense. So where is Ripley going to go next? Will another herd take her in?”
He shrugs. “Hard to say. And the proximity of the attack is concerning. We’ve never observed the reapers so close to the facility. There’re thunderers all over this island; I can’t figure out why they went out of their way to attack the ones here.”
“Sounds like a question for Saida.”
“She’s out searching for their trail right now.” He looks closely at me. “You all right? You look tired.”
I laugh. “Sorry, I forgot to pack concealer for my interstellar video analyst job.”
He chuckles, hands raised disarmingly. “Not trying to start anything—we’re just a few light-years from any decent counselors, so I wanted to check in.”
“I’m fine.” The lie rolls off my tongue as easily as ever.
“Well, if you need a break from staring at screens, you should come meet Ripley. I think she’s ready for visitors, and she’s damn cute.”
“I’ll think about it.” I move to enter the cafeteria, but Colin is lingering.
“Rosa, you sure you’re alright?” he asks.
What’s the worst that could happen if I tell him? Sometimes people have bad dreams and they sleep poorly. It’s not such a big concern. Right?
“I keep having weird dreams,” I admit. “About a lake of light. I dream about it almost every night.”
Colin glances around. “I do, too. I thought I was going crazy.”
“And the fact that we both dream about it makes you feel less crazy?”
He grins. “Well, at least I won’t be the only one. Any family history I should know about?”
He’s teasing, but he comes so close to the truth that I can’t laugh. His smile fades.
“Sorry. I wasn’t, uh…sorry.”
“It’s okay. Family’s just not…”
“You’ve never really spoken about them.”
I imitate a breezy shrug. “Well, they were enough for me to take a job in a different solar system, if that tells you anything.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
I nod. I want to get out of this conversation and back to work—back to evidence of the volcano. If Colin is dreaming about the crater, then Huy and Saida might be, too. Maybe the StellBio employees were as well. “If you need me, I’ll be in my lab.”
“You don’t want to see Ripley?”
After breakfast, I make one more stop: the pharmaceutical lab. StellBio originally loaded their facility with all manner of scientific instrumentation and experts in everything from linguistics and sociology to epidemiology and ecology to physics and geology. Back then they were Stellar Enterprises, sending ships through the wormhole they discovered, prepared to study—and hopefully profit from—whatever they found on the other side. After they discovered the fungus, the facility’s resources were entirely devoted to its study. Now only two of the labs are in use: one for investigating the thunderers—Colin’s specialty—and one where Doctor Huy Thahn tries to decipher StellBio’s research on the fungus.
Huy waves at me when I stick my head in, but he’s in conversation with the fourth member of our team: Saida, on the other end of a very garbled video call from one of the rovers. Her face fills Huy’s display like a beautiful Picasso, the choppy transmission breaking her down into sparkling brown eyes and omnipresent black headscarf. She’s a predation specialist, a household name to nature documentary fans, and she splits her time between research in the field and consulting on big-budget documentaries with celebrity narrators.
When I first saw her on the ship that brought us from Earth, I thought it was an amazing coincidence, but it turned out that the real reason the investigators called me was Saida. She remembered working with me on a gig for the BBC nearly seven years ago, back when I thought I wanted to be a documentarian. Someone on that crew took issue with Saida in a way that could have been dealt with by HR if we were in civilization, but we were in the middle of the Amazon, so I dealt with it with my fist.
Apparently that made a good enough impression on Saida that when she heard the investigation needed a video editor, she gave them my name.
I still need to thank her. That she remembered me at all is flattering; that she recommended me for a job like this is humbling. Did she notice—or does she remember—that I fell hard for her?
“Say again?” Huy is saying, frowning. “All four of the tagged thunderers in that herd were killed?”
“Yes—trackers are dead,” she says. “And I’ve gone practica—all the way to the volcano—no sign of any other thunderers.”
“Colin wasn’t able to bring their trackers online,” I say, loud enough that Saida can hear me. “I guess now we know why.”
“Oh, hey, Rosa—seen the baby yet?”
I smile back. “I hear she’s cute.” I see Saida’s jumbled features morph into a smile.
Huy spins his pen between his fingers. “The rest of the herd must’ve gone somewhere. The reapers wouldn’t slaughter an entire herd like that—would they?”
Saida shakes her head. “Abnormal pred—behavior wouldn’t be—weirdest thing we’ve—een on—”
“Saida, you’d better come back,” I call. “We’re losing your signal.”
“It’s that damn volcano,” Huy says with unexpected vehemence. “The closer we get to it, the worse our signals are.”
“Don’t worry—urning back soon.” The screen goes dark. Huy is already back to work, swapping petri dishes in and out of a microscope. He looks like he’s not in much mood to converse. Then again, if I were the microbiologist responsible for delivering on a promise to find a cure for aging, I would be stressed, too.
I’ve set up my video lab in the facility’s security office. All their data, including the archived footage from two dozen security cameras across the island, is backed up here. I’ve been trying to recover what seems to add up to several terabytes’ worth of missing footage, while simultaneously attempting to clean up the quality of the footage that remains. About half of it has been damaged or degraded, and it’s finicky about my scrubbing and deconvolution algorithms.
Plus, it isn’t just the archived footage, it’s ongoing. My message from David was affected, and the bank of security monitors ripples with a flickering distortion. Today it’s stronger than it usually is, a pulsing flutter like a sporadic tremor.
There are many possibilities for what could be causing the distortion, like competing signals, solar flares, or electromagnetic variations. Those are just the possibilities I can make an educated guess on—and I feel like StellBio wasn’t the type of company to be unprepared for any of them.
Which brings me back to my earlier suspicions: that StellBio knows more about what happened here than they admit. Maybe the missing footage was deliberately destroyed. Maybe something, or someone, else is on Janus with us, and their signals are interfering with ours.
My bracelet pings me. Originally it was only designed to communicate with the four drones I brought with me for additional surveillance, but I programmed it to operate on StellBio’s frequency. I tap it and Saida’s face appears, the projected image suspended over my wrist. I can barely tell it’s her beneath all the distortion.
“Saida? Where are you?”
“—just found two more dead—erers. These—kill—several weeks ago—you still hear me?—important.”
Two more dead thunderers, from a different herd? It doesn’t sound that important. “Maybe it should wait until you get back.”
“Rosa—both tagged.” Her image jostles—she’s driving fast, trying to get back into range. “There’s no sign—other dead animals. It almost—they were targeted.”
“Saida, just come talk to me when you get back, okay? The signal is too choppy.”
“Keep—eye out for reapers,” she said slowly, so most of the message gets through. “If they’re somehow target—our signal—the facility itself could—danger.”
She hangs up. I can’t remember whose idea it was to start referring to the predators as “reapers,” but it makes me shiver every time. The creatures are bipedal, reminiscent of ostriches but with arms that end in scythe-like claws—hence the reference to the Grim Reaper—and tongues that lash out with paralytic saliva. They are swift and talented killers, certainly capable of slaughtering an entire herd of their prey. The only question would be why—and Saida’s theory is alarmingly plausible. After all, there are creatures on Earth that navigate using senses humans don’t possess. Maybe the reapers can detect the radio tag signals.
But why would that drive them to mass slaughter?
I raise my bracelet again and key up one of my drones. I’ve been storing them outside the rover garage for quick deployment, and I watch as the big building falls away beneath the rising drone.
I send a series of coordinates: the nest where we found the injured infant, the four known reaper dens in this quadrant of the island, and the approximate location where Saida called about the other dead thunderers. Maybe the drone can find what StellBio’s stationary cameras can’t, and tell us where the reapers have gone—and when they might be coming back.
Then I return my attention to StellBio’s bottomless archives. Our research can’t keep turning up more questions. Somewhere among all the bytes and pixels they tried to erase are the answers we’re seeking.
I jolt awake. I’ve dozed off in front of my wall of monitors.
Saida hasn’t noticed. “You have to see Ripley eat,” she says, laughing. “It’s the cutest thing.”
From the clinic next door, I can hear Ripley keening. It sounds like a cat going through puberty. I rub my eyes, trying to dislodge the memory of swirling lights and unaccountable frustration. Yet another crater dream.
“Maybe the next meal.”
“You’ve been in here for hours.” Saida leans over my shoulder. No one would have guessed she spent the morning driving around looking at decaying animal remains. That’s the thing I find most inspiring and simultaneously irritating about Saida: no amount of death and gore can stop her from cooing over an adorable baby. “Watching for reapers?”
“Trying to find footage of that crater.” I lean back, rubbing my eyes. “I found one file that they meant to delete but missed. I keep hoping there’s more.”
“What did that footage show?”
I find it just as hard to describe the footage to her as I did when trying to explain it to Colin. “Blinking,” I say finally. “Like a buffering glitch, but massive, and colored like an acid trip.”
“So, not helpful.”
“Not really. Look at this, though.” I pull up a spreadsheet. “StellBio’s people went missing longer ago than StellBio said—between six and nine months ago.”
“How do you know that? Their personnel records are lost.”
I gesture at the screen. “Cafeteria inventory.” She looks impressed and I have to hide a smile. “They had to log all their consumables,” I continue, “and those numbers start plummeting about nine months ago.”
“That is interesting, really, but don’t you think you should take a break? Come on, come meet Ripley.”
“There’s more.” I bring up a text file. “This came up in connection to one of the two cameras that used to watch the volcano. The cameras and almost all their recordings are missing, but the incident reports written based on what those cameras caught are still in the system.”
She squints, reading it. “A captive thunderer went up the volcano and disappeared?”
“It doesn’t say it died,” I emphasize. “It just left the herd and vanished, eight months ago.”
“‘Presumed missing’,” she reads in a whisper.
“And it wasn’t the only one. I’ve found two other cases where a tagged animal went up the slope to the volcano and didn’t come back. In all three cases, no remains were found, and all video footage from all cameras on that date was deleted.”
Saida straightens, frowning. “And if it happened to the tagged animals, it’s a safe bet it was happening to the wild ones, too.”
“It’s the volcano,” I insist. “I don’t know if it’s erupting something or emitting something or what, but I think the volcano is having some kind of effect on the animals on this island, and I think it was affecting the StellBio employees, too.”
She shakes her head. “A dormant volcano, though? Doesn’t it seem like it ought to be something else?”
I should tell her about the dreams. I was able to tell Colin; why can’t I confide in Saida?
I barrel on with my theory. If Saida is going to think I’m crazy, she may as well hear the full story first. “Notice how StellBio never claimed the missing animals died. No remains were ever recovered.”
“So, that’s not just a crater full of weird light—it goes somewhere.”
She gives me a pitying look. “Rosa, it’s a 130-meter drop into a crater bigger than Kilauea. I think the more likely conclusion is that things fell in and died.”
“Then why hide it like this? It wasn’t just their research subjects, it might have been their people, too! Why delete the footage?”
“We don’t know for certain that they were deleting files.”
“I know,” I say grimly. “Trust me, I’ve been sorting through their stuff for days.”
“Exactly, Rosa, days of missing footage! I don’t think one strange file is enough to prove anything.”
“So why conceal it?”
Saida spreads her arms. “Because it was deleted on accident? Or by coincidence? I know it’s weird—very weird—but I need you to focus on tracking the predator pack. Learning their movements must be our highest priority if we’re to protect the thunderers, all right? Then we can focus on the volcano.”
I rub my eyes again. My drone hasn’t reported much. So far it’s only located one hunting pair, and there’s no sign of the main pack. “Right.”
“Have you been having weird dreams?” The question could jeopardize everything, but I need to know.
She blinks, taken aback by the change of subject. “I usually don’t remember my dreams. But now that you mention it, I might’ve dreamed about a rainbow or something last night. Why?”
“No reason.” Three for three. “Probably not getting enough sleep.”
“Don’t work too hard, then?” Her tone is gentler; I think she’s genuinely worried about me.
“And you really do need to go see Ripley. She’s—”
“The cutest thing.” I slump forward, resuming my endless scroll through StellBio’s labyrinth of files. “I will.”
We never had pets growing up. My friends’ cats seemed to hate me, while their dogs knocked me over in their attempts to befriend me. Once I moved out, my life felt too hectic and unstable to involve something as dependent as a pet.
Seeing Ripley, though, I almost get it. She is incredibly cute. Colin has built a makeshift pen by circling several upturned desks, and Ripley, who’s about the size of a cocker spaniel, clambers around inside, chirping. I toss her tufts of the pink grass that Colin picked for her and she makes contented chuffing sounds while she eats. Her turquoise scales still resemble down more than scales, but she’s already growing a thin coat of golden fungus along her spine. If she can be returned to a herd, the fungus will hopefully spread across her entire back.
Saida comes back in. I expect her to be delighted that I took her advice and visited Ripley, but she’s frowning distractedly.
“Can I talk to you?” she says in an undertone.
I follow her out into the muggy afternoon. “What’s wrong?”
“I trust you. You know that, right?” She looks into my eyes, as if she’s willing me to see some deeper truth in her words.
“Saida, what’s going on?”
“I found your missing aliens.”
“Well, I didn’t find them, but I found records of them. All the artificially-bred animals were tagged, right.”
“And loads of the data on those tagged animals was deleted, like your security footage.”
She looks anxious. “We assumed it was to cover up some kind of loss or error—a mass die-off from disease, perhaps, or a genetic defect—but I managed to find the identification numbers for those specific creatures.”
My heart starts to pound. She actually believed me. “And?”
“They’re marked as missing—not deceased,” she says. “And the tracking data is incredibly thorough: their exact locations are mapped out for their entire lifetimes, every step they ever took, and then their paths just…end.”
“And they end at the crater.”
I step closer. “Saida, you have to admit that we might have found something huge here. Something that might explain why StellBio deleted everything they could and went dark.”
Because they were dreaming, too; because everything and everyone here, sooner or later, wants to see what’s in the light.
She chews on her lower lip for a moment, and when she looks back up at me again, her gaze is resolute. “All right,” she says, “let’s go see for ourselves.”
The rover is intuitive and easy to handle despite its size. We keep the glass canopy open to feel the tropical breeze on our faces. Within twenty minutes, we’ve reached the juncture: left to return to base, right to proceed to the volcano.
I turn right.
The jungle closes in around us as we drive inland. Purple branches hang heavy overhead, their shade pink. The cool ocean breeze is replaced by oppressive mugginess.
We haven’t spoken to each other since we left the facility. I’m not sure either of us knows what to say. What we suspect—what we might discover, and everything it might imply for Janus, for StellBio, for us right now—it’s too much for words.
Without warning, we reach the tree line, and then we’re heading up the steep black slopes of the volcano. The road looks disused, and deep fractures split through large sections—probably caused by seismic activity, but after everything we’ve discovered today, I wouldn’t put it past StellBio to have attempted to destroy the road.
When the summit finally stops advancing towards us, I stop the rover. The observation outpost is a few meters east of us, a little metal cube perched on top of a lattice of struts. According to StellBio’s power schematics, that’s where a camera used to be. Aside from the file of crater footage I found, everything that camera ever saw is lost.
We get out and begin to walk towards the outpost. I feel an unsettling sensation of physically reaching the horizon, that the edge of the world is just a few steps away. My heart is hammering. I’m about to see something StellBio has put a lot of effort into me not seeing.
And the crater I’ve been dreaming about is about to come into view.
I look at Saida, who nods encouragingly. We scramble up the rest of the slope, palms scraping on the rough stone.
Two stories below us, a pool of shimmering light spreads out across the caldera. It’s the root of a rainbow, liquefied gems, a quantum weaving of light and color that feels as warm and pleasant on my face as sunshine. Even though I’ve never seen it up close, it looks exactly the same as it does in my dreams. I half-expect to hear my brother’s voice next, crying out to me from the depths.
The recovered footage didn’t come close to conveying how beautiful—how alluring—the crater is. There are still many blanks to be filled in. What’s in the crater? Why did StellBio try to hide it?
And why do I keep dreaming about it?
I kneel. I barely feel the sharp edges of the crater digging into my knee. The lights are so close.
“Rosa.” I start; I’d almost forgotten Saida is next to me. She, too, is staring down into the crater, its glow sparkling in her eyes. “You brought your drones, right?”
“Send one in.”
I stand and take a few steps backward, as if a small amount of distance could protect me from the crater’s thrall. I summon two of my drones from the rover and bring them up to hover by me at the crater’s edge. I park the first on the pole where the original StellBio security camera was and program the other to dive into the crater. I say a little prayer that the drone won’t immediately be disintegrated by volcanic gases and watch it plunge into the light.
“Well, what’s it seeing?”
“I’m giving it time to collect data,” I tell her. “We don’t just want to see what’s down there, but how far it goes. I went with power longevity over quick results.”
Saida nods. She gazes into the light as if trying to pick out the drone. “Right. Smart.”
I feel like I’m reliving my dream, vivid déjà-vu combined with an aching sensation of destiny. The lights look like mist at times, other times like swirling water. Again, I yearn to touch them, to know what they feel like. I stick my hands in my pockets, trying to counteract my longing with the tactile feel of cloth.
At some point it occurs to me that I’m hungry, that we should go back and get some dinner. I turn to say this to Saida and realize that the light around us is different. The sky is on the verge of sunset. Have we really been standing here for hours?
Saida looks at me, blinking, like she’s trying to remember my name.
“Ready to head back?” I say, forcing cheery reassurance into my tone. I might be afraid of this crater—and rightfully so—but I’m not letting that fear take hold of me. In fact, in the warm glow of the crater, the fear is unsettlingly easy to push aside.
“Sure.” Saida smiles, but I know her well enough by now: it’s a forced smile, the kind of smile you put on when you want someone to believe nothing is wrong. A smile just like mine.
After dinner, I resume the same routine that I’ve been following since we arrived on Janus: clean up and file archived security footage until I fall asleep at my desk.
Or at least that’s my plan, until I leave the cafeteria and find Huy standing outside, staring up at the volcano. Clouds thickened as night fell, and now the sky over the volcano is lit up with rainbow flashes of light.
“Huy?” I ask gently. Of the four of us, Huy has been the most reticent, even more so than me. We know that he taught microbiology at Berkeley for many years, and he sees the Janus mission as his last hurrah, his final professional achievement before retiring to wine country. Colin joked about getting more time with ‘the missus’, but that made Huy go still and somber, so no one brought it up again.
He faces me. Maybe it’s just the dim lighting, but he looks like he has tears in his eyes.
“Do you ever think about what we’re doing here?” he asks softly. “The lives we might change, if we can bring StellBio’s research home? The fates we might reverse?”
I think about my brother sending me a message from light-years away to tell me that cancer claimed our father. I think about perpetually cheerful Colin suffering through the same maddening dreams as me. I think about whatever might have happened back on Earth to make Huy respond to mention of his wife as if he’d been physically struck.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” I say tentatively.
He waves me away. “You were headed somewhere. Don’t let me keep you.”
“Have a good night.” I walk away slowly, casting a glance over my shoulder every few steps. He’s already gone back to staring up at the volcano.
I have my hand on the door to the security office when my bracelet pings me. Instead of the friendly message alert, though, it’s a blinking red light: an indicator of disaster.
I rush inside and bring up the drone interface. The drone I sent into the crater is gone. As part of its failsafes, it transmitted everything it had recorded as its power levels plummeted, then vanished.
Someone knocks on the door, then enters without waiting for my answer. It’s Saida.
“Figured you’d be here,” she says. Then she notices my screen and her face lights up. “Is that from the crater?”
I nod. Saida does a little dance in place. “Play it!”
I can’t tell if the recording is distorted like everything else on the island, or if this is really what the volcano looks like inside: we see only churning white, intercut with static, and the occasional bright flash of blue or gold that shakes the camera. There’s no sound; the mic must have been damaged.
The camera shakes more violently and the colors surrounding the drone begin to take form: tall stretches of steel blue, clumps of green, sparkles of peach and silver. It all swirls into a dizzying spiral before cutting out altogether, showing us only blackness.
“Wow.” Saida looks astonished. “How long did it take that drone to get back?”
“Well…it didn’t,” I admit.
“Rosa,” she says slowly, “what happened?”
“The drone broadcast this footage upon its demise.”
“We know that volcano puts off weird energies—maybe they drained the battery, or damaged its gyroscopes—”
“Well then, StellBio did one thing right.” Saida shakes her head. “They didn’t go anywhere near the volcano, and we won’t, either.”
“Saida, no! This is even more reason for us to see what’s down there!”
“Do you see what it did to your drone? You want to send people down there?”
I jump to my feet. “I’ll go.”
“I’ve been dreaming about it,” I confess. “So is Colin, and I think you are, too, you just don’t remember.”
She looks horrified. “What?”
“At least let me send another drone.”
“You want to continue exploring a gas-filled volcanic crater that puts out electronics-disrupting radiation and apparently has been influencing our minds—”
“We know that animals have gone down there—”
“And probably fallen to their deaths!”
“I have one drone available,” I continue doggedly. “I can make modifications, strengthen it—”
“No. All available drones should be watching the reapers.”
I turn away, rubbing the back of my neck. I’d completely forgotten about the predator threat; the drone currently searching for them hasn’t found any further trace of them. That alone should have concerned me, had I not been so fixated on the volcano.
“Rosa, I’m sorry,” she says. “Really. Whatever’s in there… I want to see it as much as you do, but we have to be responsible. If that crater really is affecting our minds somehow, all the more reason to keep away from it. We lost hours up at the summit without realizing, remember?”
“Yes,” I admit.
“We were sent here by StellBio’s investors to get answers,” she continues, “and the families of the people who worked here deserve answers, too. Besides, we have our own families to go home to.”
My story comes to the tip of my tongue, weaponized, something I can use to get what I want: a mother who will never be proud of me, a father who died hating me, siblings who don’t know how to talk to each other, and me, running back and forth across the world—and now across the galaxy—trying to avoid the memories.
I swallow it all back down. She’s right that the inviting pool from my dreams is a dangerous unknown. I just would’ve thought that the Saida who’s faced down lions and jaguars would be willing to explore it with me.
“I’m going to run some filters on this footage,” I mutter. I don’t look at Saida. “See what I can see.”
“I’m sorry,” she repeats. I still don’t look at her.
The footage is a nightmare to clean up, and the readings the drone took along the way are useless. Whatever is in the crater, it contains radiation or energies that refuse to be recorded, parsed, or observed. The grayish shapes at one point take on the regularity of a skyscraper’s windows; a splash of blue and silver suggests a sparkling waterfall. At one point I could swear I see a smiling face, but I can’t make the image resolve, and my eyes blur when I try to make sense of what I’m seeing.
I’m able to glean one fact from my hours of editing: at the speed the drone was traveling, and the angle at which it was descending, it went much farther than the supposed 130 meters to the bottom of the caldera. When the footage cut to black, it wasn’t the drone being destroyed—the recording continued for another hour, until the drive was filled.
There is no bottom to the crater.
There is no crater.
When I finally curl up on an empty desk late that night to sleep, I dream, not of a glowing crater, but of an endless well of light through which I might float. I spread my arms. I’m about to step off the edge when I wake.
My drone interface is pinging me. The drone I left parked at the observation tower was programmed to alert me if there was movement up at the rim—and something is moving.
I bring up the display and my heart stops. It’s Huy.
I open the channel to the biology lab. “Colin, Saida—Huy went up to the volcano!”
There wasn’t any point to calling them; even at top speed, the other rover can’t reach him in time. I change the frequency on my bracelet to speak through my drone.
“Huy, can you hear me?”
He’s only a few feet from the edge. The rover is just behind him. I adjust the settings on my drone, zooming in as close as I can on Huy. The picture is terrible, choppy with blinding flashes of color. The only constant is Huy’s black silhouette, frozen at the edge of the crater.
“I hear you, Rosa.” His voice is faint.
“Huy, it’s not safe up there, come back.”
“I—dreaming about it.” He’s so close to the volcano, his words are obscured in static. Even through the noise, I hear his voice tremble with emotion. “I hear—wife—forgiven—”
The blinding flashes are too much; I have to end the feed. When Colin and Saida burst in, they find me bent double in my chair, sobbing.
“He’s gone,” I manage.
I feel Saida rubbing my back. I can’t stop shaking. Deeper than my shock, stronger than my grief, is something shameful: anger. I’m angry at Huy for giving in. I’m angry that he found his answers before I did.
I’m angry that he’s free, and I’m still here.
I wake up in the cool dawn, standing at the door, my fingers on the cold handle. Was I sleepwalking? I’ve never sleep-walked before. It should make me nervous, but all I feel is frustration that I still can’t touch the light.
Then I remember what happened last night, and I have to run down the hall to the lavatory to vomit.
I skip breakfast. I go straight to my office, but this time I don’t dive into the video files. I dig into the tracking records. I pull up pages of mind-numbing information about radio frequencies, transmission distances, and circuits.
Someone at StellBio must have noticed. If the volcano was affecting the radio transmitters—or vice versa—or if it was influencing the behavior of the predators, someone must have noticed. If they did, though, that information is gone, like everything else that would’ve helped us figure out what the hell is happening on this island.
I stand and kick my chair across the room.
Of course, that’s the moment Saida comes in, with Colin in tow. Colin looks like he’s been crying.
“Tell her what you told me,” she says gently. If she heard my outburst, or notices the overturned chair in the corner, she ignores both.
He sniffles. “I was dreaming about the crater,” he admits. “I dream about it a lot. I told you.”
“You did,” I say. Saida shoots me an unreadable look.
“Last night…” Tears well up in his eyes and he clenches his fists. “Last night I heard voices. That hasn’t happened before.”
“What did you hear?”
“It was a lullaby.” He looks down at his feet. “It was a lullaby my mum used to sing. She and Dad both died in a car crash when I was six. I hear them out there, though.” He jerks his head in the direction of the volcano.
“But they aren’t really there, Colin,” Saida says. She looks at me like she wants me to back her up. “It’s a volcano emitting strange energies that we don’t understand yet. There aren’t people down there. Isn’t that right, Rosa?”
Logically, I know I should agree with her. Of course our loved ones are not calling to us from the depths of a volcano.
But oh, does it feel nice to hear them.
Alarms blare. For a moment, I’m not sure what is going on. Is this the fire alarm?
Then I look at my screens. The reapers are here. They’re attacking the fence.
“Rosa, look where they are!”
“Yeah, they’re here!”
She points at the screen and I realize that the reapers are clustered at the southeast corner of the facility.
“The broadcast tower,” I realize. “Our signal.”
“Shut it down! Shut everything down!”
I flip switches and enter emergency passcodes. One by one, screens go dark.
“The power grid, too!” Saida snaps.
“What about the fence?” It’s a twenty-foot-tall high-tensile wire mesh, tough enough to stop a charging rhino, but it’s also carrying ten thousand volts of reaper-stunning electricity.
“All of it!”
She’s the predation expert. I run to the wall and haul down on a massive switch.
The room around us goes dark. I only notice the electronic hum that’s been hanging omnipresent in the air since our arrival when it goes silent.
On a wordless agreement, we go out into the hallway. Saida is armed with a dart pistol; she must have been carrying it this whole time. She leads us outside into the warming morning.
“It’s quiet,” Colin whispers. “Did it work? Did they leave?”
Saida leads us across the facility. The jungle surrounding us is silent. I keep my gaze on the broadcast tower, its red light darkened.
The reapers are gone. The tower is untouched; the fence seems to have repelled the predators, even without the electricity. Once we get closer, though, I can see damage: three-inch-long punctures through the taut mesh. There’s blood, too—they were throwing themselves at the fence hard enough to injure themselves. Their desperation to reach us—to do this to us—makes me shiver.
“Rosa, of all of us, you’re the best with computers,” Saida says, carefully touching the punctures. “Do you think you can get the ship to power up?”
“We need to leave.” She begins leading the way back to the security office, holstering her dart gun decisively.
Colin looks stunned. “But…we can’t!”
“There’s got to be a way to override the ship’s programming and leave ahead of schedule,” Saida says. “There must be a failsafe. They can’t have just stranded us here.”
Colin is shaking his head, wide-eyed. “No, I mean, we can’t! We have to see what’s in the crater!”
Saida stops and seizes his shoulders. “Colin, I know you want what your dreams are showing you—believe me, I know—” Her voice catches and I wonder what she hears in the light. “But there are things on this island trying to kill us and we are thousands of light-years from home. Right now we have to focus on surviving. Maybe after that, later, we can worry about coming back to study the crater. Okay?”
No one will be coming back; I know that in my bones. Once officials on Earth realize just how dangerous this place is, no one will ever pass through that wormhole again.
Saida releases Colin and keeps marching. She turns on a flashlight and leads the way back into my office. “So, Rosa, do you think you can get the ship up and running?”
“I’ll have to power up to look for a failsafe,” I say, gesturing to the dark screens. “And the ship was programmed back on Earth—it’s possible there’s no way to alter it on this end.”
“We won’t survive another two weeks here. If the reapers don’t get us, the crater will.”
“I know, it’s just…” I turn away, pressing my hands to my temples, trying to think.
I feel her hand at the small of my back. Her touch pulls me back from the edge of panic. “We can figure this out,” she says encouragingly. “Let me help you. Talk me through it.”
I take a deep breath. “First of all, I’m going to need power.”
“So boot up whatever systems we need—”
“I don’t know enough about the systems. I’m going to have to turn everything on, and…”
She flinches. Turning the power back on means restoring the radio signals—and luring the reapers back. “And?”
“And work fast, I guess.”
She nods resolutely. “I’ll stay at the door and keep watch.”
“We can send out a decoy,” I say. “I have two drones left. We can attach radio tags to them and send them up along the coast. Hopefully they’ll be more interested in that than in us.”
“Good idea. Wait—where’s Colin?”
I turn instinctively to the monitors, but they’re still off. I see only my panicked face, reflected in multiple. Saida runs outside and I run after her.
“Do you see him?”
“Where would he go?”
Then we hear it: metal hammering on metal. We chase the sound as it echoes off the StellBio buildings, tracing it to its source.
Colin has climbed into the enclosure where the ship rests on its launchpad. There’s barbed wire along the top of the fence, but Colin doesn’t seem to have cared—a strip of fabric and drops of blood cling to some of the spikes. He’s wielding a handaxe, a standard-issue component of the emergency packs in the rovers, and drops of blood fly from his arms as he swings, again and again, into the ship’s underbelly.
Saida screams Colin’s name. He doesn’t stop swinging.
“It’s for our own good,” he shouts. “We have to see!”
Something hisses. A huge seam tears opens in the underbelly of the ship, throwing Colin to the ground and spitting shards of metal across the launchpad. Saida and I throw ourselves to the ground. I’ve got my hands over my ears, anticipating an explosion that never comes.
Saida taps my shoulder and I sit up. Colin is gone.
“He targeted the fuel lines,” Saida says heavily. “Hydrogen. It’s all in the upper atmosphere by now.”
“Can we refuel?”
“There should be backup fuel cells…”
Her words trail off. She’s staring at something over my shoulder. I turn to look.
The red light is blinking atop the broadcast tower.
We both scramble to our feet. A moment later, the remaining rover roars out of the garage, streaking north towards the volcano.
“Backup generator,” I groan. “He switched it on.”
“He’s luring the reapers back. Bastard.” Saida draws her dart gun again. “Back to security. I’ll get the generator.”
The brightly glowing monitors welcome me back. I catch a brief glimpse of the rover as it hurtles past one of the cameras.
I raise my bracelet. “Colin, you’re going to get us all killed!”
“Maybe you have families to go back to, but I don’t. I’m not losing them again!” He’s crying, but I can hear him clearly. He’s still far enough from the volcano that the signal isn’t being disrupted. He’s driving fast and the rover’s canopy is open; the wind whips his hair across his face.
“Whatever you think is down there, it isn’t your parents!” My heart races like I’m lying to him. Am I not hearing my own brother down there, aching for comfort? Isn’t my family out there, too? “Come back,” I continue through gritted teeth. “Help us. We can refill the ship and go home where we belong.”
“You and—both know where—belong, Rosa.”
Something catches my eye on the monitors: reapers, heading for the road. “Colin, turn back! You’ve got reapers coming for you!”
“I can beat them.” He’s rocking back and forth, pushing the engine harder. “I can—”
There’s a splash of red and a blur of scales and a scream. The trees in the background judder wildly, then come to a sudden halt. I’m left watching the reapers tear into Colin, then into the rover’s instruments, then there’s only static.
On the other monitors, I see the reapers coming for the facility. Then the power dies. I’m left in dark with the afterimage of Colin’s face burned into my sight.
I tap quickly on my bracelet interface. The display unfolds blinding white in the darkness. I bring up the two remaining drones, not as bait, but as my eyes. They take up position along the northern fence. So far, the jungle looks quiet.
I look for Saida in the garage, but there’s no sign of her. Dread fills me—has she left, too?
Then I see her jogging across the facility. A few strands of black hair have escaped from her headscarf, and she’s carrying a squirming armful of turquoise and gold: Ripley.
“Why are the drones still sitting here?” she shouts.
“Why do you have the baby?”
“The security office is the safest place. We can barricade ourselves there until the reapers leave.”
“They killed Colin.”
She bites her lip and looks away.
“Saida, we can’t stay here. This isn’t normal predator behavior. Even I know that.”
“You’re right.” She closes her eyes. “I don’t know what the StellBio signal did to them, or what the volcano did to the signal…you’re right, though. By now they’ve associated this location with whatever torment they’re experiencing, and that’s overridden all normal instincts. By now they’ve probably killed every other animal out there with a radio tag, so now the only remaining source of the signal is here.” She hugs Ripley closer and looks at me. “So, what do we do?”
“Colin’s rover,” I say. “He didn’t get far. If we send the decoys like we planned, we can reach it on foot.”
“And then what?”
I take a deep breath. “What do you think?”
She hesitates. “Power or no, they’re going to tear this place to the ground and then they’re going to keep hunting for us.”
I nod. “We need to leave.”
She looks past me at the ship, as if about to argue that we can’t leave, not with the ship damaged—but then she remembers there’s another way out, or at least a way that doesn’t end with reaper claws.
She shakes her head, as if she can’t quite believe what she’s agreeing to. “Then let’s go.”
Around us, the jungle is a cacophony of rustling leaves and reaper chirps. Maybe they’re chasing the decoy drones’ signals, maybe all of their madness is focused on the facility, but nothing attacks us.
We find the rover askew in the road, the canopy still open, blood everywhere. Saida wordlessly hands me Ripley and goes to pull Colin out. I turn, facing us both away. The creature is surprisingly warm; I assumed it would be cold and reptilian. It looks up at me with wide dark eyes and squeaks.
“We can go,” Saida calls softly.
I hand Ripley back to her and take the wheel. The engine roars to life and I hear answering bellows from the reapers.
We launch out of the trees, off the road, and straight up the slope of the volcano. The treads skid and judder on the rock. I look back towards the facility and see flames: the reapers must have ruptured a fuel tank or torn into some old wiring.
“I guess we really aren’t going back,” Saida murmurs.
“We couldn’t anyway,” I remind her. She nods.
The morning has turned cloudy; a storm is blowing in off the ocean. The crater’s glow sparkles against the gray sky overhead.
“What do you hear?” I ask. “When you dream about it—who do you hear?”
The smile she gives me is almost shy, like even after all of this she’s still embarrassed to admit to her dreams. “I hear a family talking, and silverware on plates. It sounds like friends or family, but it’s always faint. I can never hear them clearly. What about you?”
“My brother. David.”
“What does he say?”
Sorrow closes my throat and it takes me a moment to answer. “I can just tell that he needs me. I never felt like he needed me before.”
I bring the rover as close to the summit as I can get. I hop out and help Saida, who’s still cradling Ripley. Some of the golden fungus has come off on Saida, leaving her shirt glittering. She doesn’t let go of my hand after I help her down from the rover.
The fire in the distance is growing. Other roars and shrieks join the reapers’ calls as the creatures of Janus flee the destruction.
Far below us, the reapers are sprinting up the slope.
“Maybe we were wrong.” Saida’s gaze goes blank and hopeless. “Maybe it had nothing to do with the signals and they just wanted to eat us all along.”
“There’s still a way out.” I tilt my head towards the crater. Just a few feet away, the air is alive with color. The baby stares up at the sky, chirping quietly, as if she’s afraid she’ll scare off the lights.
The reapers are coming faster. Even at this distance, I can see their eyes rolling wildly in their sockets. Their furious charge up the slope is tearing them up; they leave shiny black footprints in their wake.
Saida is shaking her head. “We still have no idea what’s really down there.”
Other reapers have caught up to us. Off to my left, one hisses and launches—but its claws slip on the uneven shale and it trips. Saida and I scramble closer to the edge, even closer than we went last time.
“Are you sure it’ll be okay?” she whispers. She’s squeezing my hand, and I shift my grip so I can hold her other hand. The baby lies between us, cradled in our arms, as Saida searches my face for confirmation I can’t give her.
“No,” I admit, “but we know what will happen if we stay.”
She bites her lip and nods. Gripping my hands, she inches us closer, step by step, to the edge. Her eyes are locked on it, their obsidian depths reflecting the swirl of light in front of us. I let her lead; I’ve been ready to step into these lights since I first dreamed of them. I can wait a few more moments.
Maybe the family Saida hears around the dinner table is her own. Maybe I’ll get to meet them. The possibility makes my heart feel lighter than it has in years.
“Take your time,” I whisper to her.
She takes a deep breath. “I’m glad I got to see you again, Rosa.”
She tears her gaze from the light and looks at me. I forget about the snarling hunters and the weight of the alien in our arms and let her black eyes carry us over the edge.
Light closes over my head. I can breathe it. It’s warm and smells like fresh rain on grass. I can’t tell how fast I’m falling, but Saida is smiling, and Ripley stays calm in our arms. Were the other animals calm when they made this journey? A flash of blue whisks past, swift as a fish, and the baby chortles.
More colors coalesce out of the white: the same steel-blue as before, but also spots of rosy pink, neon, and grassy green. The rigid expanses of steel-blue resolve around me: flashes of skyscrapers. I glimpse poppies, and sand, and brick. I see a green stone tower and a flying car. I see tundra and blue desert, forests and markets, luminescent waters, cities under stars and cities among stars.
We are going somewhere.
StellBio, I’m certain now, went there, too. The light called to them, one by one, and they answered. Saida tries to say something to me, but the sound doesn’t carry; she sees that I don’t understand and shrugs, still smiling. The baby’s huge dark eyes catch the reflections of worlds.
And the falling isn’t soundless, either: there’s music, all of it, every beautiful note that’s ever been played and some that haven’t yet. There’s the roar of waves, the hum of a desert highway, and the silence of snow falling. There’s laughter over the clink of silverware. There’s a lullaby. There are no faces yet, but I’m convinced we’ll see them soon. Already they feel familiar to me—welcoming.
I hug Saida and Ripley tighter and we fall into everywhere.