February 2021

Adda felt that the greatest mystery of being a parent was the way it tied you, with such powerful bonds of love, to a person with whom you would continuously fail to communicate successfully.

She always looked forward to her daughter’s yearly visits, even though they always meant more arguments that left her feeling both guilty and misunderstood. Cia usually waited until the last possibility of storm was long gone and the warm season was fully established, but this year icy rime crunched under Adda’s boots as she walked out to greet her daughter, and cold air pressed against the exposed skin of her face and hands.

Cia turned from pulling a bag out of her suborbital hopper. She was certainly dressed for the cold, in thermal layers whose slim profile spoke volumes about their cost. Adda felt the usual mixture of wonder and pride that this person, who had once lain asleep with her head below Adda’s chin and her feet on her stomach, was now flying herself between continents in a rented jet.

Cia said, “Why aren’t you wearing gloves, Ma?”

Adda laughed. “Which one of us is the mother here, girl?”

Cia wiggled well-covered fingers. “I’m dressed appropriately. I was brought up well.”

Adda scoffed and gave her a squeeze around the shoulders. “Well, come on in, then. I knew we were barely going to be out.”

Her observation station was a small building, half-sunk in the ground, with its own power panels and the bulk of a skimplane hangar visible off to one side. Adda gave the hangar walls a furtive once-over as she held the door of the main building open for Cia—yes, there was nothing more than a shadowy smudge, indistinguishable from weathering. No one now would be able to tell that yesterday she had woken to find a block-lettered scrawl: STAND BACK AND SHUT UP, ROCK-LOVER.

It had taken her most of a morning, and a lot of retching, to clean out the mess of garbage and refuse they had left on and around her skimplane, and another couple of hours to repair and reinforce the damaged locks. Adda had forced down the feelings of outrage and violation, telling herself that fear was capitulation. This was an expression of popular opinion, not a direct threat—there was no sabotage to the vehicle itself, and no attack on her actual living space.

Yet, Cia would say if she knew. Adda didn’t plan on telling her.

Inside, Cia settled herself in the second sleeping quarters. They were officially designated for visiting researchers, but Adda had been thinking of them as “Cia’s,” reserved for her semi-annual visits, for at least the last five years.

Adda made tea in the closet-like canteen, and then brought it out to her dining-cum-work table, where she had to push the clutter of battery packs and recording equipment farther back to make room for two.

“How are things?” she asked when Cia reappeared, preparing herself for at least a half hour of free-form rambling on Cia’s work- and love-life, helped along by Adda’s occasional interested noise or leading question.

Cia shrugged. “They’re good. Same-same but different. How are you doing, though?”

Uh oh. It looked like they weren’t going to pretend that things were casual for even as long as Adda had hoped. “What makes you ask?” She gave her daughter a look.

Cia had the grace to look uncomfortable. “Well,” she said, “you know we end up being party to a lot of the discussion around new settlement development…” Cia worked for the city manager’s office in Istvan, the oldest city on the South Continent. Her position often gave her a line on issues that impacted the cetalith population, though not from a perspective that Adda could agree with. She gritted her teeth in anticipation as Cia continued, “there’s been—well, I saw the footage of the town hall meeting. I was worried about you.”

Adda closed her eyes. I was worried about you. Not, How could they? Not, The situation’s appalling. Not, What can we do?

She opened them again, stared past Cia to the wall over her terminal station, where she had pinned an excerpt from a flimsy printout:

“The giant cetaliths of Krishnan IV are another puzzling example. These silicate creatures, who move at speeds not exceeding 6 centimeters per U-hour, and leave as the marks of their passage enduring tunnels that permeate the surface of their world, may have a level of sentience that would guarantee their planet Protectorate, if not Sovereign, status under the Cygni Accords. Although they are solitary beings, whose paths cross only occasionally over the course of their long, long lives, their ‘songs,’ which gave rise to the name ‘whales of stone,’ may be a form of communication. This implies a level of sophistication and consciousness, but researchers have yet to establish firm proof of either. This ambiguity has led to the current impasse in official decision-making.”

The whole document, the Report on Resources of Non-Sovereign Satellites, Planets, and Exoplanets, Appendix A: Sentient Fauna, was one of the supports that the first settlers had used to make their case for access to the planet. Give us this world to do what we like with as long as we don’t understand it. Adda kept the flimsy on display as a reminder of what was at stake.

Cia was frowning at her. “Ma?”

“It’s a worrying situation,” she said dryly.

Cia rotated her cup in her hands. Still staring at it, she said “The thing is, speaking like that at the meeting… I don’t think it does any good.”

“You mean you were embarrassed.” Adda’s response came out harsher than she meant it to. The truth was, she had embarrassed herself. In the moment, she had been caught up in trying to convince the town shareholders to see what she saw, until she was half-shouting:

“How can we be so selfish! This isn’t our world. To just come in and take what we like because it suits us—we have no right! This is an ancient species, a mystery worth unravelling! What you’re doing isn’t even legal—sentient-status ruling is still pending!”

Chair Horace Grish nodded impatiently, while the crowd behind Adda shifted and muttered. “That status ruling has been pending since Krishnan’s was first surveyed, Doctor Oram. It’s hard to believe that a decision is forthcoming. In the absence of official status—”

“You’re just going to batter this planet and destroy a potentially sovereign species! The ruling isn’t the point—this is wrong!”

She had felt so large at the time, full of righteousness and fire, containing multitudes. On the recording, though, her voice was thinner and higher, and she looked like what she was, an old woman, speaking words that meant nothing to her listeners.

“Ma!” Cia’s voice cut through her reverie. Adda looked at her. Cia had pushed the tea aside, her forehead creased. “Who do you think is going to stop them? Continental governance? Sharevote results show there’s only a minority favoring holding off expansion until the non-Sovereign ruling is official.”

“I know that,” Adda snapped. She had correspondents besides Cia, other scientists and citizen enthusiasts who followed her research from the southern continent, where human settlements had spread. Some shared their own work with her, their explorations of the cetalith routes that ran through this world—although that work could only be the archeology of dead spaces and still remnants. There were no moving cetaliths left on South Continent, and Adda was the only researcher who had committed to an isolated life on the northern landmass—isolated, at least, until the arrival of the recent wave of separatists from the south, who had founded the town of New Beginnings.

Cia shook her head. “How many reports have you sent, Ma? For how long? After all this time, it’s not just sharevotes; most people don’t think Cygni is going to designate the Rocks as sentient.”

Adda sighed. “That’s not an accurate term.”

“That’s not the point—”

“It is the point!” Adda’s voice rose. “We don’t understand, and our ignorance is killing them!”

“Ma!” Cia wailed, “Killing them? They’re not even aware! But this could get you killed! New Beginnings has their own sovereignty up here. What if they decide you’re disrupting the peace, or impeding growth?” She gulped, sending a pang through Adda—You make your daughter cry.

Cia took a deep breath, regaining control. “I know how much you care about your research, but it’s been years of nothing to show. There’s work you could do on the Southern Continent. Research positions in the capital, where it’s safe. You’re in danger here—don’t try to deny it!”

Adda started to argue back, sputtering in her effort to find the words that could communicate her urgency, but Cia banged her tea down, cutting her off. She reached out to uncurl Adda’s fingers from her own mug. “I love you and I’m afraid for you. Please come home with me, Ma. This isn’t worth it.”

There was a long pause before Adda said stiffly, “They have no right to do anything. New Beginnings didn’t even have the right to incorporate, officially.”

Cia dropped Adda’s hands and put her head down on the table. “That doesn’t seem to bother them.” Even muffled, her words rang with fear and frustration.

Adda had no answer to that. Cia was right, but she didn’t see the real problem. If I can’t make my own daughter understand…

She pushed herself to her feet. “You need to see for yourself. Come on.”

“What? No, Ma…” Cia’s protests disappeared as Adda went into her sleeping quarters to find better clothes. She was damned if she was going to let Cia mother her about gloves again.

It took 10 minutes for them to reemerge into the afternoon’s chill. Cia had taken one look at her mother’s outerwear, sighed deeply, and redressed herself for the elements. She followed Adda with an expression of long-suffering filial piety. Fine. Adda would take filial piety when she couldn’t get authentic understanding.

Outside, the land was sere and rolling, irregular brown with patches of frost and the simple fungusoid varietals that were this planet’s only plant parallels at this latitude. The sky above was big and deep, with thin skeins of clouds wisping across it.

Cia grimaced after they climbed into the little skimplane. “It smells like a bad batch of fertilizer.”

Adda shrugged dismissively. “It’s just old. Let me concentrate.” The skimplane was putting her through seconds of flickering controls. Her stomach clenched. It was possible she’d missed something when she checked for sabotage this morning. She closed her eyes and mentally ran through everything she’d checked: seals, power-cells, flight mechanism, stabilizers—

The hum of the engine drive coming online interrupted her frantic listing, bringing her back to the present. Adda sighed in relief and Cia in impatience.

The horizon expanded below them as they climbed in silence, until Cia couldn’t keep her peace anymore. “Ma, if you wanted to fly, we could have taken the sat’.”

“Just look,” Adda said, slowing the skimplane to a near-hover. Cia glanced down obediently.

At this height, the patterns on the land were easy to notice. There were the hills and gullies made by eons of landmasses pushing against each other, and the irregularities shaped by wind and this planet’s scant waters moving the dust and crumbles of stone and biomass, but within the chaos-formed shapes were others—regular lines that cut across the surface of the world in mismatched arcs and segments, appearing and disappearing like poorly erased cursive.

“Think of the years they’ve been here,” Adda said. “Think of the ages. And we came in three generations ago, spreading and spreading as humans always do. Now half of them have gone still and dead.”

Cia started to say something, swallowed down her words with an effort, and put her hand over Adda’s on the flight controls. Adda bit back frustration. She didn’t want Cia’s sympathy for her sentimental mother. She guided the skimplane back down, towards her recording site.

Adda ghosted the little craft down with the utmost possible care, so that they barely felt the settling contact with the earth. Rationally, she was aware that the evidence of harm to the cetaliths came from intense and prolonged impacts—the vibrations caused by large-scale construction, the drilling and digging that came with building energy-efficient sunken habitats and mining for the resources to support them. Irrationally, though, she didn’t like the idea of adding insult to injury.

Adda tried to unobtrusively scan signs of disturbance as they disembarked. Her site closest to town had been torn apart last week, perhaps by the same enthusiast who had left their mark on her hangar. It was a relief to see that no one had come out this far. She turned back to find Cia, who was raising an eyebrow at her.

“Looking for something?”

Adda forced a grin. “Don’t give me that sass. I haven’t shown you anything yet.” She clambered up the nearest curving slope. It was regular as the exterior of a tube, a convex arc that ran away from them for a handful of meters before disappearing into the earth. Adda dusted away the thin loose dirt with her hands (the fungusoids were not dense enough to contribute much richness or permanence to the soil), shifted a plastofiber shield that she had laid to keep out the elements, and let herself down through the hole she had painstakingly tapped in the stone.

Going by feel, she found her work lamp. Once lit, it revealed a tube-like tunnel that disappeared into darkness in both directions. Its diameter was perhaps three meters; Adda stood on a platform that she had constructed to avoid the drop to the curving floor. There was a low hum in the air, a faint rumble just on the edge of perception.

She helped Cia climb down and they set off, Adda carrying her lamp and Cia trundling dubiously in her wake. The tube curved to the right and slightly down, so the light from the opening disappeared before they had gone 100 meters. The interior surfaces were smooth enough that Adda could have walked in darkness without stumbling, but she kept the light trained on the ground in front of them, for Cia’s sake. The humming continued, so low that it felt more like a pressure on the ears than a sound.

After a while, Cia said, “You’ve shown me pictures, Ma. And recordings.”

“Witnessing is different,” Adda said, and kept walking.

They reached the cetalith — #32 in Adda’s research notes — after about 500 meters. Actually, it was 512 meters from her tunnel entrance, and 8 meters from where Adda had left it a week ago, going by her last marks on the tube walls. #32 was really booking it. Adda held the lamp up in silence, letting Cia take it in.

The cetalith was an immense bulk reaching up over their heads, perfectly filling the diameter of the tunnel it had made. Its irregular surface, rocky and hard as the planet itself, trembled slightly, but that was all. Its forward progression was not visible, and its moving parts, cilia that tore away the earth it swam through, were microscopic and buried in the recesses between it and the surface of the stone. Adda’s earliest research had focused on those tiny, piston-like appendages, which ate away at the stone and earth of the cetalith’s environment, allowed the rubble they produced to be ingested through the feeding cracks in the cetalith’s forward-moving side, created the long tube it left behind, and caused the rumbling vibration that marked its passage.

It was impossible to tell the age of a living cetalith. Their digestive processes meant that they took on the mineral profiles of their surroundings at the same time that the silicate structures of their outer surfaces sloughed off with their movement, adding to the stony composition of the paths they delved. Those paths could be found running through layers of rock and sediment hundreds of thousands of years old, though. Adda had followed this particular tunnel back to where it was warped out of existence by the movements of the earth. She had seen cetalith tunnels that crossed each other, tunnels that ran together for a time, and sometimes points where two tunnels crossed and a third, new cetalith trail emerged. No one had ever witnessed behemoths meeting, though.

I need more time. These creatures don’t operate on human scale. How can we give up on understanding them after a handful of years?

Next to her, Cia stood wide-eyed. Adda had a sudden memory of leading a tiny Cia out of a shuttleport gate for her first vision of the overwhelming reality of a planetside sky, the day they had arrived on Krishnan IV. Her daughter’s face now had an echo of that child’s wonder.

Slowly, Cia reached out a finger, before looking back at Adda questioningly. Adda nodded. “Go ahead. That’s not the sort of interference that disturbs them.” She watched as Cia touched the surface of the cetalith and then jerked away. Adda knew what she felt: the source of that bone-humming alien song.

“Here,” Adda pulled out her handheld, and called up the audio version of her most recently collected recording. It kept the periodic, rhythmic patterns and relative intensities of the cetalith’s oscillation through the earth, while translating it to a frequency within human hearing range. The noise bassooned into the tunnel, echoing away from them in the dark.

It had an irregular variation: Adda had yet to map any pattern or repeating signature in its complexity. She still had a limited data set, even though reports of cetalith song dated back to the first settlers.

The earliest builders on South Continent had spoken of feeling vibration akin to drumbeats resonating out of the stones they cut into. Adda bitterly regretted those settlers’ complete lack of investigative spirit. It had been far too long before anyone had thought to make recordings, and those were compromised by human interference. Adda had spent these long years designing programs, comparing snatches and segments, consulting with seismologists and linguists, and trying to build a persuasive theory out of the conviction that this rumbling was meaningful and its source aware.

The sound washed over them for long moments, alien and opaque.

“You really believe these things deserve the world?” Cia asked. Skeptical or not, her voice was hushed.

“It doesn’t matter what I believe,” Adda said. “We haven’t established their sentience one way or the other. There’s a possibility, a space of uncertainty. If we destroy first, there’s no way to ask questions later.”

“Here,” she took Cia’s hand and laid it flat against the surface of the tunnel. After another long moment, she asked, “Do you feel that? Do you understand it? What happens if we ignore—”

“Ma, be quiet!” Cia was frowning with a sudden intensity and focus that made Adda swallow her affront and wait silently while Cia pressed both hands against the tunnel wall. The cetalith’s sound was much more powerful in the earth it moved through; the vibration that transferred to a faint hum in the air around them was a call through the earth that spread outward for miles.

“Is that recording from this one?” Cia asked finally.

Adda blinked. “No. It’s from 27. That’s my recording point nearest New Beginnings, actually….”

Cia waved a hand furiously to silence her, the other still plastered to the wall. “Ma, it feels different now.”

Adda put her hand on the wall next to Cia’s, feeling the irregular hum, powerful enough this close to its source to travel up her arm. “Listen,” Cia breathed, and Adda did.

The two vibrations, the recording of the cetalith amplified in the air around them and the living cetalith in the earth they touched, intertwined.

They stared at each other, eyes gleaming in the low light. Adda was suddenly afraid that, after this long, after so much wanting, she was tricking herself into imagining patterns where none existed. She opened her mouth, but Cia spoke first.

“I think there’s some kind of rhythm or beat…?”

Adda pushed herself away from the wall, and set off back along the tunnel, almost running.

“Ma, wait!” Cia was nearly left in the dark.

Adda was short of breath by the time she reached her platform and her limbs were trembling. She bundled up half of the recording equipment she’d staged there. Thank goodness for secondary systems. By the time Cia followed her up out of the tunnel, Adda was already climbing into the skimplane.

“Is it like breathing?” Cia asked as they surged across the landscape, “Was that the first time you heard that?”

“They don’t breathe. But the noise—all these years, I was only listening to one voice. You showed me—it sounds different when there are two of them. I need more data…” Adda’s gaze flickered between the land ahead of them and the map display, which had the locations of all her recording points highlighted, along with an overlay of the cetalith tunnels she had mapped, topographically coded for depth.

She brought the skimplane down again on a stretch of ground free of distinguishing landmarks—but roughly halfway between the line of 32’s path and another, almost parallel tunnel to the west, 33. Adda took a breath before clambering out. “Just bear with me on this—okay?”

“O-kay,” Cia drew the word out, managing to telegraph skepticism and forbearance at the same time. “Can I help?”

Adda reached into the storage bench behind them for a hand-shovel. “I’m so glad you asked.”

It took almost an hour for them to dig down to earth that was hard packed enough for Adda’s satisfaction. “If we used an earth-mover,” Cia said at one point, pulling off her hat and using it to mop her forehead, “we could be down to bedrock in half this time.”

“And rain the acoustic equivalent of hellfire down on all local cetaliths in the process,” Adda returned. “I’m not doing that.” She continued shifting the dirt Cia was turning up, away from the hole they were creating.

Arid Krishnan IV did not have much topsoil, particularly on this continent, which lacked the forest-style growths of the south, and the earth a few feet down was so hard as to be almost indistinguishable from rock. Adda had brought all of her extra battery packs from the skimplane, as well as the recorder she had removed from the tunnel, and, most precious of all, her calibrator and “Excess Ear,” the most sensitive instrument she possessed, which she usually carried with her from site to site. It took some creative fiddling to embed the Excess Ear in the dirt, connected to the secondary recorder and even more supplementary batteries. She packed loose dirt around the whole for insulation, leaving only the batteries’ light receptors uncovered. She considered spraying the mound with an instant concrete for further protection, but chipping it away might upset the integrity of her recording, and it wouldn’t take more than a few days to generate enough material to show—well, whatever it showed. Standing over it, she dusted off her hands. “I’m ready for dinner. Are you?”

“Ma,” Cia groaned. “What’s all this about?”

“I’ll know when we’ve gotten some more information.” Adda gave her daughter a hug around the shoulders. “Thanks to your help, love.”

Adda spent the next three days trying not to speculate ahead of her data and failing to attend to Cia’s conversations. Cia took her mother’s abstraction with remarkable patience, cooked meals while Adda combed through her old recordings or stared off into space, mulling over the possibilities. She spent hours in a vain search for other segments that might resonate together, either played unmodified, or shifted upfrequency, like the tape she’d played for Cia in front of 32. She would have slept in the chair in front of her terminal, if Cia hadn’t pushed her into bed each night.

“Now you know—what I went through—when you were a teen,” Adda told her between yawns.

“You don’t get to hold that over me anymore,” Cia told her tartly, “Go to sleep, or you won’t be able to make sense of your new data when you do get enough of it.”

In fact, on the fourth morning, when Adda actually let herself start going over the overlapping recording of 32 and 33—probably too soon for a really robust dataset, but she couldn’t wait anymore, and, besides, there was another town hall meeting in New Beginnings at the end of the week—it was excitement rather than exhaustion that made her hands flutter over the interface. She forced herself to take deep, steadying breaths, laying out the parameters of her analysis.

The shape of what the new recordings suggested, though, was something so massive, so revelatory, that she forgot emotions, consequences, forgot even the demands of her own body, as she started to explore her results.

Some unmeasured time later, Cia leaned over her shoulder. “Well?”

Adda input a few more commands, and then sat back as a new graphic flowed across her display. “Look.”

Independently, the frequencies that sped out from each cetalith through the rigid ground appeared random, without signature or repetition. In the interference between the two frequencies, though, there was something. Caught on her analytics program, it showed resonances in recognizable periods—begun in one voice and finished in another.

Adda swallowed, half afraid to put it into words. “They’re responding to each other. It’s communication.” She tapped at the display again, entering in another set of parameters, programs that would run back through her library of recordings, correlating timestamps, searching for echoes, trying to find patterns between what she was sure now was a symphony of voices, chorusing together underground, perceptible to those beings whose rocky bulk was attuned to the faintest shiver of frequency.

That done, she pulled up another document, and began hammering out an initial report to the research group on South Continent. Cia put a hand on her arm.

“Ma—wait. Why don’t you go talk to them? Come home with me for a while; take some time to discuss what this could mean with other researchers before you write anything.”

Adda frowned at her. “How can I leave now? I need to follow up on what I—what you found. Awareness. They recognize each other. They’re talking.”

Cia hesitated. “Ma… I see the pattern, but communication? What’s it about? Is it a mating call? Challenge? Are they sharing the latest tips and trends?”

“Of course I don’t know yet—” Adda began, irritated, but Cia cut her off.

“Exactly. You just found this and, yes, it’s huge, but we don’t know yet what it means. This isn’t enough, alone, to get a Sentience ruling from Cygni. If you come back with me, you can work on a paper about it, somewhere safe…”

“The cetaliths don’t have time for me to do that!” Adda thought of the building projects going up in New Beginnings, the percussion of digging projects and construction spreading toxic shockwaves through the region’s earth. She pulled her arm out of Cia’s grasp and turned back to writing.

There was a long pause, during which Adda tried to think only about how best to describe her data.

Cia finally said quietly, “I know I can’t stop you.” Adda could feel her daughter’s expression. “I just don’t trust these settlers. They’re dug in here, and they aren’t going to listen to any new arguments about why they should wait for the ruling. Please come with me.”

Shut up, Rock-Lover. Cia wasn’t wrong. The memory of the sabotage and graffiti warnings hung in Adda’s mind, its weight on her almost physical. If their positions were reversed, and her daughter revealed that she had been ignoring threats to her safety—well, Adda could only imagine her own fear and anger. She took a breath, but didn’t look away from her display. “I can’t not fight for this, love.”

Cia’s work-leave was up the following day, and she went back alone, resigned but clearly unhappy. She wrapped her arms around her mother before she left, and buried her faced in Adda’s shoulder. “Call me every day.”

Adda hugged her back and agreed, half her mind squirming with guilt, but the other half composing a new message to the Administration of Sentience Establishing Research Enterprises. There was a several-week communication lag between Krishnan IV and the nearest jump-point, a gap that had been a boon when the messages from ASERE had become more and more discouraging and she had counted on the distance to protect her from a preemptory declaration that the cetaliths weren’t sovereign and the planet was free for further development. Now, though—if only she could show up in New Beginnings tomorrow with the authority of an official designation of Sentience behind her—or at least able to make the argument that this new discovery had opened some eyes at ASERE.

Cia finally released her, seemed about to say something else, but then shook her head and left with many backward glances. It was all Adda had asked for—understanding, forbearance, recognition. It was more than she deserved.

Adda arrived at New Beginnings at dusk. The sky was still luminous, although the sun had slipped below the horizon and the buildings of New Beginning were shadowed geometric mounds whose silhouettes hunched together. The door to the community meeting hall was open, and several figures were standing in its light, talking. They watched as Adda left her skimplane parked and approached, rubbing her hands together. She had forgotten her gloves again.

Adda recognized all of them; she knew almost everyone in town, at least by sight, after years of visits to what had once been an explorers’ outpost and supply depot, and, more recently, months of visits to planning and development meetings after the town was established. They knew her, too.

She nodded at the group, but they didn’t nod back, and as she came up to the door, a man who had been leaning against its frame shifted his bulk to stand in her way.

“Rock-Adda Oram,” he greeted her, unsmiling. “Have you come to tell us our business again?”

“Sean Rios,” Adda returned. “It’s an open meeting, I believe.”

Rios’ frown deepened. The woman beside him spoke up next. “You’re not a shareholder.” She paused before adding, “Doctor,” in a tone that made it almost a question.

Adda squared her shoulders. “I’m an expert witness. I have information—new information—that throws the status of our settlement here even further into question. This isn’t our place, or our land. Under Cygni—”

“Oh, Cygni!” scoffed another man, cutting her off. “Not all this again. Didn’t you get it all out of your system last time? That ruling’s never gonna come—and if it does, what of it?” The group was arrayed against her now, between her and the light. “Why should we pack up and move back to South Continent, or, even worse, leave this planet that’s been our home for generations, because of a bunch of rocks?”

Adda shoved her cold fingers into her pockets. “I just want to be heard.” She took another step forward. The group of settlers drew together, the mass of their bodies cutting off the light from the doorway.

“Don’t do it, Rock-Adda,” Rios’s voice was quiet, “Don’t make it hard on yourself.” He took a step forward to meet her, arms loose, while the rest looked on.

Adda stiffened her shoulders and glared at them all. She tried to imagine the words that would reach them, that would make them understand. Cygni’s authority was lightyears away. Here and now, she might as well be voiceless: in the settlers’ eyes, she was as devoid of meaning as the cetaliths. Cia was right, and she’ll never forgive me.

Cia will listen to me. It wasn’t the protection of policy or government, but it was what she had, what she could do.

She let her posture fall, took a step back in the face of their threat. Even shadowed by the light behind him, she could see Rios’s smile, and it felt like a slap. “That’s right, Doctor. That’s a good choice.”

She felt their eyes on her back as she walked away.

At home, she double locked the doors, and then used her terminal to call her daughter. Half a day away and to the south, Cia answered groggily, but within seconds. “Ma? Everything okay?”

Adda took another breath, steeled herself to let go. “I can’t convince them, and they won’t listen to me. They’re making threats. No, wait—I know, you were right, but please, listen to me now. I need your help. I need the settlers to know I’m not alone up here; I need people on SoCo to know about what I’ve found, to believe it, to care. I know it’s a lot; I know you have your own life, but this is bigger than some research project of your mother’s. You saw the pattern; you felt them speak. Will you help me keep them all from falling silent?”

Cia’s face on the video shifted with a mixture of emotions. Adda hoped that her words had struck a frequency her daughter could understand, that she could make her hear what the settlers were deaf to. Time that would have meant nothing on a cetalith’s scale dragged by as Adda waited for her daughter’s response.

Finally, Cia nodded. “Alright….” Her eyes shifted to focus on something beyond Adda’s face, and her fingers came alive, tapping and shifting through her displays. “You stay where you are. I’ll come get you.”

Adda’s heart broke a little more. “But didn’t you hear what I said?”

Cia actually stopped what she was doing to roll her eyes. “I said alright! You want people to care about the cetaliths; you want them to understand the consequences? I’ll help you tell that story, make sure it gets publicity, gets sympathy, get people to believe, maybe even commit to stopping more settlements. But that’ll take time—and I’m not going to let you sit up there, vulnerable to those people. You can’t make any new discoveries if you’re dead. You have to leave this battlefield if you want to win the war.”

Adda started to respond, but Cia didn’t let her. “No! You wanted me to hear you; now hear me. I’m coming now, as soon as I get these messages off.” She cut the connection.

Adda sat in the stillness that followed, letting Cia’s last words echo in her head. Finally, she turned back to her terminal, opened up her analytics program. There were still hours until Cia, even traveling at top speeds, could reach her. She pulled up the newest recording, the “conversation” between 32 and 33, and tuned it to human-audible frequencies. The alien sound filled the air around her, and Adda set herself to listening carefully, alert for signatures and repetitions in the schematic on her screen. She knew this song might be an elegy. She might not be able to stop the settlement in time, and these might be the last recorded communications of two sentient beings—but Cia was right. The fight wasn’t over. There were still cetaliths who might send their resonant calls through this planet’s earth for eons to come.

Your thoughts?