Jeff sat down at the piano and lifted the lid. The white keys were slightly yellowed with age, and some of the black keys in the lowest octave were chipped at the ends. He depressed middle C, and the note was pure and resonant. Meredith lifted her head and pulled back her furred hood and shook her hair out. It lifted around her head for a moment like a steel halo, and then fell back into place. She slipped the respirator out of her mouth.
“I’d say that this room was built for that piano,” she said. “Did you feel that resonance?”
Jeff shook his head, but he’d heard it though. He played two quick scales, listening as the music filled the room. Meredith half-smiled at him, and sat back in the chair. She was still wearing the static-suit as though she intended to go out again, but she looked relaxed.
“Play me something?” she suggested.
Four hours earlier she’d raised one hand and called a halt. The snow swirled around them and she heard mutterings and growls over the com-link, the radios that connected the suits together. She pointed, and the pack gathered around her looking at what she’d found. In the sulphate snow, a declivity in brownish-bluish crystalline salt, was a humanoid corpse. It was wearing a static-suit but the electronic readout on the front was dead and crystallised over, and the helmet and hood were missing. A white skull lolled eyelessly, turned casually to one side. The growls faded away and were replaced by appreciative snuffles. Meredith picked two the pack to pick the body up, and picked the skull up herself. The pack were obedient, but they were clumsy.
The wind buffeted them as they picked up the trek back to base camp again, and tiny slivers of crystal shattered constantly against their coats. Meredith’s scarf blew out from underneath the jacket at one point and she had to spend a moment tucking it back in again. It was more a psychological affectation that a real need for warmth, but she didn’t care. The pack didn’t perceive it as a weakness.
Jeff’s fingers caressed the keys and for a moment he wasn’t sat in a pre-fab building in a hermetically sealed bubble but was back in Hall 3 of the Crown Conservatory. The piano was beautifully tuned and the strains of Für Elise seemed almost tangible in the small room. Each note flowed seamlessly into the next without him needing to think about it. His fingers knew their job and it freed his mind to enjoy and appreciate the emotion that the music raised.
As the piece ended he seemed to relocate inside himself again, and he sighed softly. He looked round. Meredith had her eyes closed and looked as relaxed as he felt. She remained that way for a moment longer, and then her eyes opened again and she half-smiled at him.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’ve no clue where you got the piano from, but it was the right choice. We need more of that here.”
“I don’t know where it came from either,” said Jeff. “I’ve not seen it in here before now. I found it just as you came in.”
Meredith picked something up from the bag next to her chair and put it on the table in front of her. Jeff recoiled.
“It’s only a skull,” she said.
“Say that when it’s your skull!” yelped Jeff.
“How can this be your skull?” she asked.
“It’s not, but that’s not the point! If it were your skull, would you be happy about it being there? No! Well I’m not happy about it being there, and it’s not even my skull. It should be buried.”
“We found it outside,” said Meredith ignoring him. He back away until he was pressed up against the piano. “Guy in a static-suit just dead, out there in the open. It’s a minor miracle that we found him at all. Problem is that I don’t know who he is, and I’ve counted all the pack.”
Jeff shivered at the mention of the pack. “They’re all locked up, right?”
“They’re in their quarters, not locked up.”
“But they can’t get out, right?”
“Jeff, can you try and be more rational, please? They’re pack. They’re safe.” Meredith was aware as she spoke that she wasn’t completely telling the truth, but she wasn’t trying to explain the complex behaviour and bonding of pack-life to someone who couldn’t even handle a simple skull on the table. “Do you recognise this skull at all?”
“Fine, then do you know if anyone left here and didn’t come back recently? Is there anyone you’ve not seen around lately?”
When Meredith arrived back at the edge of the bubble she stood off to one side and counted as the pack went in. The airlock contained two people at a time, and she made sure that they went through that way. The pack were loyal, but were more loyal when they weren’t on their own. Only when they’d all cycled through did she come through as well, with the body and skull of their find. On the other side the pack picked the body up again, and she noted that they looked hungry. She sighed, and pointed north, and they headed off.
There was still snow inside the bubble as it was programmed to slow down the weather but still let it through, so as not to damage the native ecosystem too much. The snow was shallower though, and wetter, as the bubble was a little bit warmer inside than out. Off to the left was the laboratory block and she wondered about dropping the body off there directly, but then decided against it. She wanted to get the pack fed and watered and settled down before they got restless and hard to control. The body could go outside in a lean-to until later; it had been out in the snow outside for who-knows how long already.
“It’s weird,” said Meredith. “I’ll have to take it over to the labs. You want to come with me?”
“No!” said Jeff. “I’m not touching a dead thing.”
“I could use a hand, Jeff.”
Meredith sighed and picked the skull up off the table. As she did so she felt something shift inside it. Cautiously she shook it, and it rattled. Jeff sounded nauseated.
“That’s not organic,” she said, listening to the rattle. “There’s something in there that shouldn’t be.”