Things Greater than Love
By Kate Bachus, illustrations by Taylor Fischer
19 March 2012
I hated this planet. I loved this planet. Kind of like the job, like how right now we were hanging off a cliff face, way the hell too close to a vent, wind whipping through the flow canyon and trying to tear us off, ropes and victim and all. Meanwhile? Volcanic tremors were picking up in intensity.
"That last one was a six-point-five," Kerry called down from the top, sounding as cheerful as if we weren't completely screwed. Mort had a foot jammed in a crack in the rock, trying to keep from blowing around so he could keep stabilizing our victim. Morty looked up at me, his huge hand keeping the ventilating tube steady while he taped it down, looked down at Arty on the flow canyon floor, belaying all our ropes from below. "You think T5 is going to go?"
"The fuck do I know?" I had a degree so they asked me things like this, like how long does it take a body to decompose when it's covered in volcanic ash or what works best for wart removal or if the nearest volcano is going to go from stable to raining down lava and burning rocks on our heads. "Kerry's the one watching the—" equipment, I was about to say, but then another earthquake hit. Mort curved his big body over the basket and the guy strapped to it; I bent to try and shield them both. We all have a huge overgrown hero complex, that's the problem. None of us would be here otherwise. You'd be crazy to. It's a dangerous, shitty, exciting job. The kind you love, the kind you hate. Both.
Sharp, glassy pieces of the cliff broke free, showering down on us, rattling off our helmets and the light plate vests we wore for just such an occasion. "Rocks!" Blue hollered from up top, in case we might not have noticed them all pelting and slashing us. I chanced a glance down—Arty had her face turned away, and I hoped we were blocking the worst of the debris on the way down to her but I could hear her cursing, even above the rumbling and tearing of the tremor and the terrible, howling wind. "—the fuck is that transport?"
"Good question." Mort's reply came just before most of the rock face we were on gave way, and we lost tension on the top ropes. Mort, me and the guy in the basket fell a good ten meters and like I usually do I thought "hey, Mom was right," and then the lines all went taut as the anchor up top and Arty on the canyon floor saved our necks. Again.
I fumbled feet and a hand into holds in the ridges of rock, grabbed for the rope, glanced down to where Arty was moving clear of the new pile of rocks and getting us tension again. I worked on getting us stable before I got my breath, checked on Mort, checked on the victim, did anything else. Nobody said anything top or bottom, until finally I clipped the last carabiner and Mort finally yelled "Jesus FUCK, Drake, what the fuck are you doing up there?"
I kept my head down, tried to figure out how the brake rack wound up twisted with Arty's stabilizing line, figured Drake could damn well answer Mort's question on his own.
<<Should I drop you?>>
Mort was trying to get his fear and temper both under control. "Was that humor?" he asked me. "Was that FUCKING HUMOR?" he screamed up, like the chip in his inner ear wasn't transmitting and translating for him. My glove was bloodsoaked and slipping on everything metal. Under me somewhere Mort had gone back to setting up the ventilator even though the injured eco-tourist and his basket were rotated halfway upside-down.
"Guys?" Kerry shouted down. "Sasha?" In theory, we had radios. In practice they were finicky high tech things that stopped working the moment the volcanic ash and dust got in, or whenever we inevitably dropped them from equally inevitable heights.
"He's still alive," Mort said below me, and I looked up and gave Kerry a nod like we weren't in a flow canyon practically inside a volcano vent that, yeah, I was pretty sure was about to blow. Like the victim's family was there, or the media. Old habits die hard.
"Whose blood—" Mort looked up at me as I reached down to hand him a biner to clip to the basket. "Your forehead's bleeding," he said.
<<Put pressure on it.>> Drake's voice, that wasn't a voice. That wasn't even language. But was something Mort would say, with almost his inflection, along with what Drake said next: <<If you have to, use both hands.>>
"Now that was funny," I said. "Two, three." And Mort and I rotated the basket around to right side up. "ETA on transport?" I shouted this up to Kerry, risking a hand off the lines to wipe blood out of my eye.
She took too long to answer. "Fuck. Fucking fuck." Mort was ripping something open; I reached down to hold the ventilator mask for him.
"Maybe another half an hour."
"How long?" Arty shouted up.
"Half hour," I called down.
"I'm going to lose this guy," Mort said.
There's a pre-quake, very often, a smaller tremor like the skin of the rock bunches up, muscles tensing before the ground opens and cuts loose and really shakes hard. We'd felt a few of those in a row, now. I glanced down the flow canyon towards the vent spire just then, which turned out to be a good thing.
Training took over. I sank an extra piton, my last.
Mort looked up. "What are you doing?"
I tossed the extra rope down. "Arty, CLIMB."
"Oh, shit. Oh, fucking, fucking shit." Because Mort had looked down the canyon too and had seen the same thing I had. Heat shimmer. An orange glow.
Arty was already in motion. All the belay released, leaving us reliant on the top anchor. She grabbed the independent line I'd clipped in for her and was already scrambling up.
"Not a full eruption, it's probably just this vent," Blue called down now. Like that was some kind of comfort. "But you guys better come up."
"There's no time to winch the basket up," I pointed out, which we all knew because our winch was the slowest piece of machinery on the planet but at least reliable and—
"No," said Mort abruptly, because he's like that, and it comes with the territory and we'd kept this guy alive for two fucking hours already. You get proprietary. Invested.
"Haul him?" I yelled up.
Kerry's voice, then. The last word. She lets us do our thing; we're a team, more than some kind of squad. No uniforms, no ranks, but it doesn't change that at the end of the day she's in charge. We didn't have the manpower up there. We needed the winch. "No."
"We have to climb, Mort." But I wasn't moving either, and Arty was almost up to us. We both looked, and could see the lava clearly now, less than a few hundred meters away, coming down the narrow canyon. Steam, smoke. A blurry smudge of orange at the base. Red.
"Hey?" Arty had reached us. It was mostly free climb, and a fast one, but then again the oncoming wall of hot lava was probably highly motivating. "What's he saying?"
They always want me to translate—or translate the chip's translation—for Drake. "I think . . . he's going to raise us," I said, not quite believing it myself.
"ARE YOU FUCKING CRAZY?" The thing about Mort was that he often sounded hysterical. He could also administer high quality paramedicine while in that state.
"Arty, prusik in," I called down. Then I reached over and made sure the basket was securely clipped to the safety with us. Then I answered "Secure," as in secure, go ahead, and Mort completely lost his shit but at least he did it quietly.
I felt the tension shift, all the way down the lines. Felt it shift, like you feel a pre-quake right before the big one. On my left side, I was starting to feel the heat from the lava, flowing towards us far too fast now.
"He's not strong enough," Mort said, then shut up as all the ropes creaked at once and Drake must have shifted the lines from the anchor to just holding onto them himself, because we slid a few inches down the wall.
There was some vibration, along the lines, some regular heartbeat-like steady thrum. We saw him, then. Like some huge black kite against the orange and grey sky, only it wasn't us holding the kite string, but Drake holding us.
He kept the tension, his wide, leathery wings working to maintain an angle as he gained altitude—slow, so fucking slow compared to how he usually went all rocket, aloft.
Then he was overhead. And we were moving off the rock face, and then we were hanging. Lava flowed into the channel under us, ropes burning up towards our boots and Drake's huge wings the only thing keeping us up.
We said, later. We said how there was no way, how it was impossible, with his size, our weight combined. We said, later, what would have happened if the heat from the flow had created a shear.
At the time we hung on. We tried not to be moving weight. We tried to keep the guy on the basket stable. All I could think was what they'd told us, in the endless fucking trainings.
They don't have our emotions. They may not even have emotions like we do. They may mimic what we do to get along and communicate, but that doesn't mean they have the reasons, they said, the kinds of reasons and motivations we do.
Drake got us all the way up, a good two meters above the cliff top where the rescue vehicle and bush truck were parked. Blue had the fire extinguisher out, grinning, although he put it down to help steady the basket as Drake lowered us slowly to the rock.
"Considering it wasn't you with your ass in the fire," Arty said, unclipping and dropping to the rock, "you're fucking hilarious."
I looked up. Drake was doing the closest thing he could to a hover, until Blue had a firm grip on the basket and we all got feet on the ground. Then the lines luffed abruptly, as he dropped away and down.
"We got this," Kerry said, waving me towards him. My head was starting to throb but I ran over there, once I'd gotten untangled from the mess of rope.
Drake had landed. Massive talons still gripping the rope, wings now folding in. As I got to him, he took a step sideways and wavered, but his talons didn't release the ropes they were still curled around. "Let me get those."
Don't touch them, we'd been told. We don't understand their social structure. We don't know if it might be an insult. Implied: you don't want to insult a creature that can rip your arms and legs off without much effort or thought. Just don't do it. We don't know what it means to them, so don't touch them.
Drake didn't say or do anything as I got in close, closer than I'd ever been even though I'd been working with him for almost three months. A few dozen rescues. Shift after shift in the station house. Now I touched his strange shape for the first time, my hands reaching for the knobbed black leather of his talon, then curling around the long curve. Less rigid than I expected. Cooler. "Shift your weight."
His meter-long sword of a beak was angled away, maybe in part so he could look down at me, head tilted. I sat there crouched with my hand around the smooth cool of the talon, until I felt him move, enough for me to pick his foot up. The four toes, ending in claws as long as my hand, were wrapped so tight around the bundle of rope that they'd cut back into his own flesh. "Okay, hang on," I said. I dug in my pocket for gloves.
We don't have any idea about their physiology. We don't know what diseases they might carry, or what we carry that might infect and kill them. Another good reason to keep your distance. It's safer for everyone.
I glanced up, as I pulled the clean gloves on. Drake was just watching me, silent, and I had this panic moment, thinking what if the fucking chip isn't working? But I reached out again and he watched as my gloved hands went back around the talon, slipping my fingers under his, trying to loosen his grip. "Hey, let go."
I watched the muscles in his foot shift, but his grip stayed the same, locked around the rope. Had his muscle gone into spasm, I wondered? Did he even have that kind of muscle? "Drake. It's good. We're done, man. All right? You did good, we all did. Let go." Once again I gently eased my fingers under his.
After a moment, the iron grip impossibly tightened, and then released. "All right, that works. Good."
"The fuck do you think you're doing?" Mort stopped a yard or so behind me. "Hey, wow, congratulations for going farther out of the bounds of all our protocols than anyone . . . ever." Silence. "You need a dressing?" He was changing gloves, getting into his pack.
"Yeah, I think so."
"Drake, hey Drake." Everyone talked louder to him, even with the chip. Like the problem wasn't that Drake was an alien species, but that he couldn't hear. "Is that flow normal?"
Don't ask them about their physiology. It's a no-fly topic. Don't start that conversation. Work together. They're our coworkers here, not test subjects.
<<Yes. Slow is normal.>>
"Speaking of protocol." I took the unwrapped dressing Mort handed me, even though he shouldn't have handed it to me, he should have taken over for me. I gently pulled the soaked ropes away and did my best to put pressure on the worst of the seeping wounds crisscrossing Drake's leathery palm.
"How bad do you think," Mort started, maybe about the pain. But for the first time he stopped himself before someone else stopped him, talking about Drake like he wasn't there. "Sorry."
"Your foot's fucking massive," I told Drake. "Mort, you got something bigger?"
Mort was already unwrapping and handing me a larger pad. I wondered if I was going to lose my job over this. I laid the dressing over his split, oozing palm, then yanked my hand back as the talon abruptly closed.
"He's just switching feet," Mort said, as my heart slammed and sure enough Drake offered me the other foot.
"Fuck you," I said. "Open your fucking fingers, Drake. Talon. Whatever." I almost just asked him what he called it but remembered the rules and shut up. I saw Drake flex his talon, like before, but this time it stayed closed.
A while later, it was me and Mort working on Drake with Blue and Kerry for an audience, and everybody including Drake kibitzing about how we should handle it, before finally Mort swore a whole bunch and started prepping a syringe.
"Mort, don't even think about it." Kerry shook her head and stepped forward like she might even physically stop him.
You can't measure a paramedic by deaths. It's not accurate or fair. But I'd been working with Mort for two years and I'd only seen him seriously fuck up once. And we'd only lost a couple of guys that I was surprised didn't make it, and I was pretty sure none of those were Mort's fault.
"It's a muscle relaxant. It works on anything with muscle tissue. Mammals, amphibians, reptiles."
Kerry made some frustrated gesture. "He's not a reptile! We don't know what he is."
Rules, things that we'd been told we'd get fired over. We were breaking them left and right.
"Drake," Mort said, more loudly again. Slowly, like that'd make a difference, as if with the chip these days Drake didn't understand the majority of what we said. "This is Corteprex. It'll loosen your grip on the rope. You'll lose strength in that . . . talon for a couple of hours but then we can get the rope out without hurting you."
Silence. Drake just looked at him then down at me where I still held the talon in my hand.
"Drake, man, I need your permission."
Mort put the syringe in. Drake put his beak through my shoulder, and it was white hot pain and everybody yelling—me included—and Kerry going for her gun and Mort of all people screaming "NO, fuck STOP it's a fucking reflex!!"
It was right then that the off-rock transport showed up, of course.
Somewhere in there they got the beak out of my shoulder and Mort deemed me sound enough to stay rockside and Blue called up a flatbed from Docenine because it turns out the talons are part of the flying apparatus and Drake couldn't control his wings enough to fly after the Corteprex and we had no other way to get him back to the station.
"You and your fucking pointy shit," I said to him later. The transport had gone, and the sun had finally gone down as far as it was going to go, leaving desaturated twilight. We sat outside the station, him on his perch-rock and me in a deck chair fairly looped up on the painkillers Mort gave me. "That was your cue to apologize."
I was going to get fired.
We could hear Arty's voice, praying. It was a rising and falling song that meant home, these days. Home and comfortable, familiar things. Drake lifted his big head, looked over that way.
"She's praying. That's what that is. Praying. Religion." What the hell; might as well discuss religion since I was going to get fired anyway.
Maybe he was trying to shut me up and keep me out of trouble. Maybe he knew already. Maybe he didn't give a shit. But after a while he lifted his head back up again and opened up that pointy-sharp beak, and an insane sound came out. Not his chip-voice, not the translated voice that wasn't his voice but was the arbitrarily male voice the chip gave him. It was a real sound, from him, that he made with his throat and belly. A crazy, earsplitting, sustained warbling.
I'd been working the rescue station on Az for almost a year when we were told that another species had made contact. ExCorps showed up, said the Drakes had been there all along but until recently they'd maintained a strict policy of non-interference with us. We didn't ever see them, although we'd speculated maybe they were watching as we hauled miners out of collapsed mine shafts or climbed into volcano vents to rescue extreme eco-tourists.
Then one day ExCorps showed up again with a Rescue 8 rep in tow and told us the Drakes would be coordinating with us to assist with local rescues. A model, they said, for future cooperation.
We went through weeks of orientations. Lectures and visual presentations all about how to get along with another species. What to do, but mostly what not to do. Explaining over and over again that while the Drakes were very intelligent, evolved and physically powerful, they were not superior. Not superior, our experts stressed. They had probably evolved at around a hundred times the rate we had, compressing thousands of years of evolution into a handful of generations, but they were not, absolutely not superior. Different, but equal.
ExCorps fit the whole team with translator chips, a device that sat on our tympanum and sent our voice waves to Drake and translated some kind of impulse he sent into words for us, in return.
The chip didn't work for shit, like much of the equipment ExCorps supplied us.
For the first few days Drake said nothing except to repeat our sentences back to us, which was what led to the first fight and probably what also saved us.
"You okay? Drake, you okay . . . he okay, Sash?"
"Yeah, he's fine."
Mort had come bolting out of the station, Arty on his heels. Drake kept going, and though at first the warbling sound made my hair stand up on end and my teeth go on edge, after a while it was kind of trance-inducing. Mort sat down. Arty sat down. Blue came and stuck his head out but didn't say anything and after a while went back inside again. It was an hour or so before Drake finally stopped.
"Wow," said Arty. "Wow. Drake, what was that?"
Don't ask them about what they do. Or why they do things. This is a cooperative effort, not a sociological study.
Drake turned his head to look at her.
"DNA." I was already deepest in shit here, so I asked, what the hell. "Drake, you just said DNA, like human genetic code. What did you mean?"
<<DNA. Your DNA.>>
The first fight broke out because we'd had Drake with us for four days and we didn't understand him and we were pretty sure he didn't understand us, and he kept repeating things we said and knocking shit off the shelves in the station house.
Somewhere in there Blue said fold your wings in and Drake—who didn't have a name then because they said we weren't allowed to ask him what we should call him—said fold your wings in and then Blue said fuck you and Drake said fuck you and Blue jumped for him. And we dragged Blue off before there was actually any contact but not before Drake had drawn a wing back looking for all the world like he was going to smack the shit out of him.
And that night we went outside and Drake perched up on a rock that he seemed to prefer to indoors anyway, and we brought out deck chairs and got as drunk as we could get but still be functional if there was an alarm.
Drake had sat on the rock and watched; Arty said he looked like some kind of hardcore bird, like a dinosaur bird and I didn't say allosaur even though I'd privately thought it. And Blue said like the tough guy bird, like a drake, and so Drake was suddenly a he. Named Drake.
"Drake," Arty said to him the next day when we were all more sober, and Drake said, <<Yes, Drake.>> Which was repeating us again and also wasn't, and after that we all noticed the repeating diminished until we could mostly have normal conversations or what sounded to us like normal conversations, anyway.
Now the sun simmered, perpetual on the horizon, plumes of steam from T5 still venting shuddering in front of it. Drake sat there silent on the rock and after a while Mort got up and walked over and checked his bandages. I sat in Drake's immense shadow, trying to work out what the fuck he was saying.
<<We keep DNA,>> Drake said out of nowhere as he held up a talon for Mort to look at. <<We religion it.>>
Arty looked over at me, accusatory. "You were talking religion with him." Then there was a look of sudden comprehension. "You were talking my religion with him!"
<<Praying. Religion,>> Drake said helpfully, and Arty flung her hands up.
Mort replaced the bandage he'd unwrapped and turned to look at us. "He means they pray DNA."
<<Yes,>> Drake said, before anyone could contradict Mort. <<Pray. DNA.>>
Silence. The three of us sat there and thought "Different but equal" a few times with some sense of waxing betrayal.
"You know . . . my DNA?" I finally asked.
<<Yes. I pray it.>>
"Why?" Fuck the rules. I thought of my hands, and Drake's black, slow blood. I thought of his beak, through my shoulder. I thought of the rough and smooth leather of his foot and how I could feel, in the ropes hanging under him, the steady thrumming heartbeat of his wings.
Drake was silent so long we all thought either he'd forgotten the question or was ignoring it.
<<Pray. To know. To choose. To think again . . . no. To remember.>>
He was fumbling, it sounded like. Trying to find the right word out of words that weren't his, and I could only guess how our word had come through the translator to make him choose it for this. Maybe we were sitting there wondering if "pray" meant to him what it means to us, and meanwhile he was trying to figure out if his idea of "pray" was really what Arty had been doing. And it occurred to me that even with the chip bouncing this word back and forth between us, we could be leagues from understanding, except somehow we all got something out of it that made sense. Maybe we always just make up what's in the spaces between our words, who knows. Because in the end, what the hell does "pray" mean to us?
The next day the ExCorps rep showed up, mostly because the Rescue 8 office was too far out in its orbit right then for someone to shuttle in and fire us. Mort and I were dismissed for gross dereliction of duty, and Kerry got fined and reprimanded. Probably the only thing that kept it all out of inquest and the whole team from being sacked was how far-flung we were, and the fact that no one else would work this type of dangerous, shit job on this dangerous, shit planet.
No one would work it except us.
Well. And Drake.
We picked up our stuff and most of mine fit in the bag I brought when I arrived, which told me something, I guess. Arty hugged me and cried, which was a little surprising and kind of gratifying, and I told her we'd talk and things would be okay and then I went out to say goodbye to Drake.
He was out on his rock like he'd never moved and, "Listen . . ." I said, and then remembered that early that morning they'd removed my chip and the fuck, I should have talked to him before then. But he was watching me, the same look he always had, the same gaze only broken by the occasional sweep of a thin, grey membranous lid.
"I wish things had been different," I said. No one out there but him and me, and he didn't understand what I was saying anyway. "I don't know. Maybe we should have asked each other more questions."
Out beyond Drake the lava fields were all greys and steel of morning, ash still hanging in low clouds where it would linger like that for days. Behind me I could feel the heat of the flow, still active, and the sun rising.
"They told us not to assume that things you did were for the same reasons we do them, or things you say mean the same thing as when we say them." I turned now, looked back out at T5. I hated this place. Hated it, and was really going to miss it. "But what else do we have to go on?"
My back was to Drake when he laid his long beak on my shoulder.
Eventually I had to move although I'd stood there a good long time and Drake showed no signs of shifting. But he lifted his head and looked at me and I looked at him and said "Yeah. So, it was good working with you, Drake."
He followed me out to the transport, awkwardly shuffling his still-healing feet, until he finally lifted off just enough to glide over the sand and land when I got to the shuttle, where Mort was stowing our luggage aboard. I forgot, every time, how massive those wings were until he opened them. The transport pilot looked at him mistrustfully. "So he attacks you and then you get fired," she said.
"We got ourselves fired," and "No," Mort and I said more or less simultaneously. I watched as Mort lifted his hand like he was going to pat Drake's neck then dropped it again. "See you," he said.
We watched Drake's shape as the shuttle rose, until he was obscured by heat and dust and then we were over the smoke and close atmosphere layer and could see nothing and everything. I thought of him below, sharpness and curves and wide wings. Tried to imagine what he'd think of seeing things from this vantage, where the grey and orange and brown spun away beneath, as we fell out into the dark and cold.
I thought about rescue, about what I'd do now. About being remembered, or forgotten. About the moment on a wind-torn rock face where you don't know if you'll fall or you'll hold.
I wondered if he'd find me, praying.