This is Part 20; click here to read Breaking the Ice from the beginning.
 

Going through his mail at the start of the workday, Woods skimmed the fan-letter summary prepared by an administrative assistant on Earth: this week he had received 80,236 messages from well-wishing admirers. They’d all been sent a canned video in which he thanked them for their kind words, attached to the agency’s form letter explaining that time and bandwidth didn’t allow for personal replies.

The crew members had recorded these videos several times during the mission, updating them as needed. Although a few letters had come in earlier, the fan-mail deluge hadn’t truly hit until the discovery of extraterrestrial life was announced. Mastroianni definitely had been right when she said they would all be celebrities. Woods still couldn’t wrap his mind around the concept, after working for so many years in relative obscurity on Mars. He was just grateful that the agency had been taking care of the situation efficiently.

Next up in his inbox was a video message from his cousin Carole, who lived in Delaware and hadn’t corresponded with him since their college years. He remembered her as thin and athletic, with straight mousy-brown hair. The screen image showed plump cheeks and a well-coiffed head of bright red curls. He surely never would have recognized her if they had happened to meet at random.

“I wouldn’t have bothered you, knowing that you’re so busy,” Carole began apologetically, in a soft voice that still had a familiar cadence, “but it’s about your mother. She hasn’t been doing well since your father passed away a few years ago. After losing interest in her usual activities, she mostly just stayed at home watching TV, and last summer she was diagnosed with cancer. Although it’s a kind that usually can be treated, she hasn’t responded well to the medication. I’m beginning to think she has simply lost her will to live.”

Taking a deep breath and looking down as if reluctant to continue, Carole went on, “I know she hasn’t told you. Don’t take it personally—that’s just the way she is. Can’t deal with anything that has to do with disability or weakness, but stays in denial and pretends that the problem doesn’t exist. Well, of course you know that. Anyway, please don’t tell her I sent you this message, but just go and visit her when you get back to Earth. I know you haven’t spoken to her in many years, but it’s time to show some understanding and to let go of that old grudge. She never meant you any harm, Mark, and she’s really very proud of you—always watching the news reports on your mission, with a big beaming smile.”

After a few more words that sounded like they were meant to be reassuring but didn’t at all have that effect, the message ended. Woods sat there staring at the bright screen without really seeing it. His mind seethed with anger and turmoil, which he pictured vividly as a hydrothermal vent spewing high-pressure boiling water into the depths of a dark ocean. That image was one he had constructed all too often as a boy learning to put words to his feelings—abandoned, unwanted, cast aside, an entire unseen ecosystem far from the rest of the world.

Why had he always been the one expected to show more understanding?

A wave-touch intruded upon his thoughts: Tiny Leaf’s signal to start a conversation. Just what he didn’t need right now, the telepathic equivalent of an alien phone ringing. Especially when he had no idea how to tell her to shut up and go away. Something like a Decline button would come in very handy right now; but other than basic arithmetic that consisted mainly of counting seaweed stalks and leaves, he was pretty much clueless. Deciphering alien languages wasn’t supposed to be his job anyway.

The image of a thermal vent, still bubbling furiously away in the background of his thoughts, shifted into a more distant perspective. He could still feel the difference in the water temperature and the disturbance in the currents, but now he floated far above. It took him several seconds to realize that this would have been Tiny Leaf’s perspective in the sunless ocean of Europa. Then she spoke into his mind in a calm tone that seemed weirdly misplaced: “Not equal.”

Number-images and others he couldn’t identify came next. “Six minus five. Three plus fourteen.” Something like an eel slithered by, twisting into a shape that resembled a sine curve. Woods waited for a spoken translation of that image, but none was forthcoming. His thoughts subsided into an irritated silence.

“Tiny Leaf, I have no idea what you’re saying. Less than none,” Woods declared out loud, his words sinking pointlessly into the empty room and the well-insulated bulkheads. He added an image in Tiny Leaf’s own language to underscore his frustration: ice, a broken-checkmark seaweed stalk, and another stalk with one leaf. Zero minus one.

The reply was immediate—another set of images in the weird ice-and-seaweed arithmetic, representing zero plus one. Woods fully expected to hear Tiny Leaf’s virtual voice saying just that. When the translation came, however, it unexpectedly took on a more complex sentence structure while still maintaining the gentle tone.

“You understand a little.”

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