“A believable and interesting cast of characters, and the political intrigue both on board the Rockhopper and among the various forms of alien intelligence they eventually meet will keep readers guessing.”
—The Rocky Mountain News
“A fantastic tale of survival and adaptation to strange surroundings. Wow!”
—The Weekly Press (Philadelphia, PA)
“Spectacular . . . [Reynolds] has a genius for big-concept SF and fans of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Larry Niven’s Ringworld will love this novel.”
“It’s often possible to guess at what lies ahead, but such guesses only flesh out so much of the story. As a result, there’s still a wonderful sense of exploration that echoes the experience of the Rockhopper’s crew. In any case, the story is so well-paced that it’s preferable to just put your feet up and go along for the ride than to try and second-guess the author. Pushing Ice is a brilliant read and demonstrates that Reynolds is continuing to travel from strength to strength. It comes highly recommended to all readers of SF, no matter their individual predilections.”
“Pure space opera . . . the beauty of the piece isn’t in the decidedly familiar plotlines but in the way that the writer re-works them . . . Reynolds takes in all of these great ideas and plays with our assumptions, producing a surprising ending that is more upbeat than most pieces of space opera, arguing that the fact that intelligent life exists in a cold and hostile universe is a fantastic and beautiful thing that should be celebrated rather than mourned . . . The combination of the nicely re-thought familiar plot devices and Reynolds’ solid prose and beautifully crafted pacing make reading this book not unlike enjoying a really well made version of your favorite comfort food.”
—Revolution Science Fiction
“Reynolds . . . does not take the expected route . . . Pushing Ice is very well done indeed . . . well worth a read.”
“Where this transcends the average ho-hum space opera is the über-text that contemplates the incomprehensible immensity of the universe and the relative insignificant presence—yet nevertheless unique fact—of human existence . . . entertaining and . . . hopeful.”
“Reynolds possesses the true and awesome widescreen SF imagination . . . an exciting, thought-provoking novel.”
“Century Rain fuses time travel, hard SF, alternate history, interstellar adventure, and noir romance to create a novel of blistering power and style.”
“For Reynolds’s efforts, the reader is treated to concepts that engage on a galactic scale and snippets of humor in touchy situations. Yes, the pace is easy, but it belies a low hum of excitement that crescendos to a counterpoint of science and humanity saving one or two worlds.”
—The Kansas City Star
DIAMOND DOGS, TURQUOISE DAYS
“A tale of blood and brainpower . . . nonstop thrills.”
—Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine
“Astronomer Reynolds’s two far-future space exploration novellas . . . confirm his mastery of noir SF . . . brilliantly executed parables.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
One of the Best SF Novels of the Year, Locus
One of the Top Ten Science Fiction Novels of the Year, SF Site
“Reynolds’s plot rapidly builds momentum, hurtling to a stunning conclusion. Cinematic imagery and strong characters ably carry this juggernaut of a story, with Big Ideas strewn about like pebbles on a beach.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A book of great fascination, rich description, and memorable action.”
Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year, Chronicle
One of the Best SF Novels of the Year, Locus
“The best of the new breed of space opera. Wild action on a grand scale spans well-imagined and developed worlds—bold and new with sharply defined differences in both characters and the changed definitions of humanity.”
—The Denver Post
“Clearly one of the year’s major science fiction novels . . . The book Reynolds’s readers have been waiting for.”
Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year, Chronicle
One of the Best First Novels of the Year, Locus
“A terrific treat. I was hooked from page one . . . Ferociously intelligent and imbued with a chilling logic—it may really be like this Out There.”
—Stephen Baxter, co-author of
The Light of Other Days
“Intensely compelling; darkly intelligent; hugely ambitious.”
—Paul J. McAuley, author of Whole Wide World
Ace Books by Alastair Reynolds
DIAMOND DOGS, TURQUOISE DAYS
Table of Contents
“Stars have their moment, then they die.”
Her name was Chromis Pasqueflower Bowerbird and she had travelled a long way to make her case. The faint possibility of failure had always been at the back of her mind, but now that her ship had actually delivered her to the Congressional capital world, now that she had actually frameshifted to New Far Florence across all those dizzying light-years, the faint possibility had sharpened into a stomach-churning conviction that she was about to suffer imminent and chastening defeat. There had always been people eager to tell her that her proposal was doomed, but for the first time it occurred to her that they could be right. What she had in mind was, even by her own admission, a deeply unorthodox suggestion.
“Well, it’s certainly a nice day for it,” said Rudd Indigo Mammatus, joining her on the balcony, high above the cloud-girdled tiers and gardens of the Congress building’s footslopes.
“Abject humiliation, you mean?”
Rudd shook his head good-naturedly. “It’s the last perfect day of summer. I’ve checked: tomorrow will be cooler, stormier. Doesn’t that strike you as suitably auspicious?”
“I’m worried. I think I’m going to make an idiot of myself in there.”
“We’ve all made idiots of ourselves at some point. In this line of work it’s almost obligatory.”
Chromis and Rudd were politicians, political friends from different constituencies of the Congress of the Lindblad Ring. Chromis spoke for a relatively small grouping of settled worlds: a mere one hundred and thirty planet-class entities, packed into a volume of space only twenty light-years across. Rudd’s constituency, located on the edge of the Ring—where it brushed against the fractious outer worlds of the Loop II Imperium—enveloped a much larger volume of space but only a third as many planet-class entities. Politically, they had very little in common, but by the same token they had very little worth squabbling over. Once every five hundred years, when the representatives were summoned to New Far Florence, Chromis and Rudd would meet to swap world-weary tales of scandal and chicanery from their respective constituencies.
Chromis fingered the ring on her right index finger, tracing the interlocking, hypnotically complex design embossed into its surface. “Do you think they’ll go for it? It’s been eighteen thousand years, after all. It’s asking a lot of people to think back that far.”
“The whole point of this little exercise is to dream up something to commemorate ten thousand years of our glorious Congress,” Rudd said, with only the slightest trace of irony. “If the other representatives can’t get off their fat backsides and think back another eight thousand years before that, they deserve to have the reeves set on them.”
“Don’t joke,” Chromis said darkly. “I heard they had to send in the reeves on Hemlock only four hundred years ago.”
“Messy business, too: by all accounts there were at least a dozen non-recoverable dead. But I wasn’t joking, Chromis: if they don’t bite, I’ll personally recommend a police action.”
“If only everyone else felt the same way.”
“Then damn well go in there and see to it that they do.” Rudd offered his hand. “It’s time, anyway. The last thing you want to do is keep any of them waiting.”
She took his hand chastely. Rudd was an attractive man, and Chromis had it on good authority that she had many admirers in the Congress, but their friendship was strictly platonic: they both had partners back on their home-worlds, held in stasis cauls until they returned from New Far Florence. Chromis loved her husband, although many days might pass between thoughts of him. Without his help convincing one hundred and thirty worlds that this was something they had to support, the memorial plan would have stalled long ago.
“I’m really worried, Rudd. Worried I’m about to screw up nearly a thousand years of preparation.”
“Keep your nerve and stick to the script,” Rudd said sternly. “No last-minute clever ideas, all right?”
“Same goes for you. Remember: ‘intended recipient’.”
Rudd smiled reassuringly and led her into the stratospheric vastness of the meeting room. The chamber had been constructed in the early centuries of the Congress, when it had aspirations to expand into territory now occupied by neighbouring polities. Space not being at a premium on New Far Florence, the hundred-odd representatives were scattered across nearly a square kilometre of gently sloping floor space, and the ceiling was ten kilometres above their heads. Slowly rotating in the middle of the room, lacking any material suspension, was the display cube in which their enlarged images would appear when they had the floor. While it waited for the session to begin, the cube projected the ancient emblem of the Congress: a three-dimensional rendering of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of a naked man encompassed within a square and circle, his limbs drawn twice so that he stood upon, and touched, both shapes.
Chromis and Rudd took their positions on either side of the floor. The last few delegates were arriving by transit caul: black humanoid shells popped into existence in the chamber before dissipating to reveal the occupants within. The femtomachinery of the cauls merged seamlessly with the local machinery of the Congress building. Every artificial object in the Congress of the Lindblad Ring—from the largest frameshift liner to the smallest medical robot—comprised countless copies of the same universal femtomachine element.
Routine business consumed the first hour of the meeting. Chromis sat patiently, shuffling mental permutations, wondering whether she should consider a change of approach. It was difficult to judge the mood of the gathering. But Rudd’s advice had been sound. She held her nerve, and when she had the floor she spoke the words she had already committed to memory before leaving home.
“Honoured delegates,” she began, as her magnified image appeared in the display cube, “we are nearing the ten thousandth year since the founding of our first colony—the beginning of what we now recognise as the Congress of the Lindblad Ring. I believe we are all of a mind in one respect: something must be done to acknowledge this coming milestone, something that will reflect well upon our administration, especially in light of the similar anniversaries that have recently been celebrated in two of our neighbouring polities. There have been many suggestions as to how we might mark this occasion. A civic project, perhaps, such as a well-deserved terraforming or a timely stellar rejuvenation. A Dyson englobement—purely for the hell of it—or the frame-shifting of an entire world from one system to another. Even something as modest as the erection of a ceremonial dome or an ornamental fountain.” Chromis paused and looked pointedly at the delegates who had proposed these latter projects, hoping that they felt suitably abashed at their dismal lack of vision.
“There have been many excellent proposals, and doubtless there will be many more, but I wish to suggest something of an entirely different magnitude. Rather than creating something for ourselves, a monument in our own galactic backyard, I humbly suggest that we consider something altogether more altruistic. I propose an audacious act of cosmic gratitude: the sending of a message, a gift, across space and time. The intended recipient of this gift will be the person—or the descendants of the person—without whom the very fabric of our society would look unrecognisably different.”
Chromis paused again, still unable to judge the mood of the delegates, the blank faces of those close enough to see conveying neither approval nor disapproval. She took a deep breath and pressed on. “Doubtless we would have achieved some of the same advances eventually—but who is to say that it wouldn’t have taken tens of thousands of years rather than the mere handful of millennia it actually took? Instead of a mosaic of polities spread across nearly twelve thousand light-years of the galactic disc, we might very well be confined to a handful of systems, with all the risks that such close confinement would inevitably entail. And let us not forget that the insights that have allowed us to leapfrog centuries of slow development were given to us freely, with no expectation of reward. Our Benefactor sent that data back to Earth because it was the right thing to do.” Here Chromis swallowed, uncomfortably aware that some might be thinking—not without cause—that the very same data had almost wiped out humanity as it struggled to assimilate dangerous new knowledge. But at a remove of eighteen thousand years, such thoughts were surely churlish. Fire had singed more than a few fingers before people learned how to use it.
She heard a few unconvinced grumbles, but no one chose to interrupt her. Chromis steeled herself and continued, “I know that some of us have forgotten the precise nature of that act of charity. In a moment, I hope to jog our collective memory. But first let me outline exactly what I have in mind.”
She craned her neck to look at the display cube. On cue, her image was replaced by a simulation of the galaxy, as if viewed from far outside: ancient and huge, littered with the humbling relics of the Spicans but empty of life—so far as anyone knew—save for the smudge of human presence spreading out from one spiral arm, like an inkblot.
“The Benefactor and her people are still out there somewhere,” Chromis said, “almost certainly beyond the Hard Data Frontier—perhaps even outside the galaxy itself. But unless the universe has more tricks up its sleeve than we suspect, they can’t be more than eighteen thousand light-years away, even if they’re still moving away from us. And perhaps they’ve already arrived wherever they were headed. Either way, I think it behoves us to try to send them a message. Not a transmission, easy and cheap though that would be, but rather a physical artefact, something that we can stuff with data until we’re knocking on Heisenberg’s own back door. Of course, there’s an obvious problem with sending a physical artefact as opposed to an omnidirectional signal: we have no idea where to send it. But that’s easily remedied: we’ll just send out a lot of artefacts, as many as we can manufacture. We’ll make them by the billions and cast them to the four winds. And hope that one of them, one day, finds its intended recipient.”
That was Rudd’s cue to interject. “That’s all very well on paper, Member Chromis, and I don’t doubt that we have the industrial capacity to make such a thing happen. But I wonder if you’ve considered the risks of such an object falling into the wrong hands. Not all of our neighbours are quite as enlightened as we might hope: we already have enough trouble policing the harmful-technologies moratorium as it stands. Stuffing all our worldly wisdom into a bottle and tossing it into the great blue yonder doesn’t strike me as the wisest course of action, no matter how well intentioned the gesture.”
“We’ve thought of that,” Chromis said.
“Oh? Do tell.” Rudd sounded innocently intrigued.
“The artefacts will have the ability to protect their contents from unintended recipients. They won’t unlock themselves unless they detect the presence of the Benefactor’s mitochondrial DNA. There’ll be a margin of error, of course—we won’t want to exclude the Benefactor’s children, or grandchildren, or even more distant descendants—but nobody else will be able to get at the treasure.”
Again, Rudd played his part expertly. “Nice idea, Chromis, but I’m still not convinced that you’ve done the detailed work here. There is no Benefactor DNA on file in any Congress archive. All biological records were lost within a century of her departure.”
“We’ve got her DNA,” Chromis said.
“Now, that is news. Where from, might I ask?”
“We had to go a long way to get it—back to Mars, as it happens—but we’re confident that we’ve retrieved enough of a sample to lock out any unintended recipients.”
“I thought they’d already drawn a blank on Mars.”
“They did. We dug deeper.”
Rudd sat down heavily, as if the wind had been snatched from his sails. “In which case . . . I must congratulate you on your forward thinking.”
“Thank you,” Chromis said sweetly. “Any further questions, Member Rudd?”
There were disgruntled murmurs from some of the delegates, but few of them could begrudge Chromis and Rudd this little piece of theatre. Most of them had participated in similar charades at one time or another.
“Member Rudd is right to draw attention to the technical difficulties associated with this proposal,” Chromis said, “but let’s not allow ourselves to be daunted. If the project were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing. We’ve had ten thousand years to do the easy stuff. Now let’s bite off something big, and show history what we’re made of. Let’s reach across space and time and give something back to the Benefactor, in return for what she gave us.”
Chromis allowed herself a pause, judging that no one would interrupt her at this crucial moment. When she continued speaking, her tone was measured, conciliatory. “I don’t doubt that some of you will question the wisdom of this proposal, even though it has already been subjected to every conceivable scrutiny by the combined intelligence of one hundred and thirty worlds. The problem is that, for most of us, the Benefactor is no more than a distant historical figure—someone with whom we have no emotional connection. But there is every chance that she is still out there somewhere, still living and breathing. She’s not a God, not a mythic figure, but a human being, as real as any of us. There was a time when I had trouble thinking of her that way, but not any more. Not since we recovered this, and heard her speak.” Chromis nodded gravely in response to her audience’s speculative murmurs. “That’s right: we’ve recovered an intact copy of the transmission that started all of this: the Benefactor’s original statement of intent; her promise to give us all that she could. Recovering this transmission was, in its way, as difficult as finding a sample of her DNA. The difference was that the recording was always part of our data heritage: just misplaced, buried, corrupted beyond recognition. It took centuries of forensic skill to piece it together, frame by frame, but it was, I believe, worth the effort.”
Chromis looked to the display cube and sent a subliminal command, causing it to begin replaying the clip. Music welled up and an ancient symbol—a globe and three letters in an alphabet no one had used for nearly fourteen thousand years—spun before them. “Please adjust your language filters,” Chromis said, “for English, mid twenty-first century. You are about to hear the voice of the Benefactor.”
Right on cue, she spoke, identical copies of her face projected on each facet of the cube. A delicate-boned woman: looking less like the kind of person who made history than the kind who became a victim of it. She sounded diffident, uncertain of herself, forced into saying something that did not come naturally to her.
“I’m Bella Lind,” she said, “and you’re watching CNN.”
Parry Boyce looked up from the rippled red surface of the comet. He cuffed down his helmet binocs, keyed in mid-zoom and waited for the image to stabilise.
Only a breath of thrust held fifty thousand tonnes of ship over his head. The precious mass driver was fully extended now, but still braced alongside Rockhopper. A spray of flickering blue lights near the head of the driver showed activity still taking place around the jammed deployment gear. Chrome-yellow robots worked the repair duty, with one tiny, suited figure hovering to the side. He knew it was Svetlana even before his helmet dropped an icon onto her figure.
They hadn’t parted well. He’d been on her case about the repairs, but only because Bella was on his case. It was getting to them all, sitting out here, doing nothing.
Parry stood on the floodlit edge of the abyss that he had cut into the skin of the comet. The cylindrical shaft was geometrically perfect, an intrusion of order into the otherwise chaotic landscape of the crust. It was a hundred metres deep and fifty metres wide, the curving side already lined with a neat, laser-smooth plaque of hardened blue-grey sprayrock.
He voiced on some music from the Orlan nineteen’s files and lost himself in the soaring qawwali of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. After what could have been minutes or hours, the floods picked out the moving shadow of another suit lumbering towards him. Whoever it was had just emerged from one of the dome-shaped surface tents set back twenty metres from the rim of the shaft. Beyond the tents sat the angular, splayed-leg form of Cosmic Avenger, the heavy lander that had carried them from Rockhopper.
Parry tried to read the walker’s gait before his head-up ID’d the approaching figure. Feldman and Shimozu moved with the cautious economy of underwater workers—they’d been transferred from DeepShaft’s marine division on Earth—but Mike Takahashi was a spacewalker to the marrow. Even wearing a thirty-year-old Russian surplus Orlan nineteen, ballasted with nearly a tonne of depleted uranium, he moved with a loping grace, unafraid to lose contact with the surface for long moments.
The HUD bracketed Takahashi’s nineteen and appended his name in pulsing blue letters, accompanied by a Manga-style face icon.
“Nice hole, Chief.”
“Thanks,” Parry said.
“Thing is, it isn’t going to get any nicer just because you keep staring at it.”
“I’m thinking it might need another layer,” he said, hands on his hips. “Maybe just a dab down there?”
Takahashi stood next to him, their bulky shadows spilling into the abyss. The other man favoured glacial Estonian choral music: Parry heard it seeping over the voicelink.
“We need you inside,” Takahashi said.
Parry wondered what was up. Takahashi could have called him inside easily enough without making the trek in person.
“What’s the story?” he asked, as they walked back to the tent.
“Don’t know. Something’s going down, that’s all. You checked out the ship lately?”
“A while back.”
“Maybe you should take another look.”
Parry cuffed down the binocs again. Rockhopper leapt into view as the Nikons found their focus. Everything looked the same, except that the flicker of repair torches around the head of the driver was absent—nor was there any sign of Svetlana’s hovering figure.
“Interesting,” he said.
“Good or bad?”
Parry stowed his binocs. “Could go either way.” He reached for the tent flap and pulled it wide enough to admit the two men.
The tent was unpressurised: a stiffened dome-shaped shelter, fabric wired with superconducting mesh to afford the bare minimum of protection against charged particles. Gillian Shimozu and Elias Feldman sat either side of a plastic packing crate, playing cards spread across the lid. The cards, some faded and crudely redrawn in magic marker, were printed on thick, texturised plastic, better for handling with spacesuit gloves.
The four suits exchanged protocols with a warble.
“Still time to deal you in,” Shimozu said, looking up as Parry sealed the flap behind them.
“I’ll pass.” Behind Shimozu, balanced on a bright-red oxygen pump, a flexy showed a picture of Saturn, with the blue logo of China Daily in the top-left corner.
“Spoilsport,” Shimozu said, taking a card from the table.
“Any word from Batista or Fletterick? There are signs we might be in business,” Parry said.
Feldman lowered his hand, revealing a set of aces. “The driver?”
“Looks like work’s been called off. Unless Saul’s managed to swing shift changes for his robots, it’s got to mean we have a functioning deployment system.”
“Whoop-de-doo,” Shimozu said. She had her antiglare visor tipped down: its near-matte coating blocked any possible reflection from the cards in her hand.
“You could tone down the enthusiasm a smidge,” Parry said. “I’ll ask again: any word?”
Takahashi pointed at the screen. “Maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with the driver at all. They were showing Saturn just now.”
“That why you pulled me in?” Parry asked.
“I thought it was weird. Why show Saturn?”
“Batista and Fletterick,” Parry said patiently. “Anyone?”
“Maybe there’s been an accident,” Takahashi said, wonderingly. The other two had dealt him into the game, but he appeared to be more interested in the screen behind Shimozu. “Anyone know how to get that feed on my helmet?”
“Use your drop-down menu,” Feldman said testily, as if he’d been over this before. “Select preferences, then HUD audiovisual display options, then—”
Parry walked past the game to the oxygen pump and picked up the flexy, squeezing it gently so as not to injure the quasi-living thing. The main image was still Saturn, but now a pundit in an overlaid box was talking. Nobody he recognised. Chinese text ticker-taped along the bottom of the screen.
Maybe Takahashi was right. Maybe something was happening around Saturn. But what could be big enough to hold the attention of China Daily this long? The major newsfeeds made Bella Lind’s fish look like masters of sustained concentration.
That was when his HUD rearranged itself spontaneously, a priority window popping open, filled with Bella’s face.
“Parry,” she said. “Thank goodness. I was beginning to think we’d need to send Crusader to pick you up. It appears that the repair squad cut through the power bus to the downlink.”
“Hope you give them hell.”
“Ordinarily I would, but . . . now isn’t the time.”
No one said anything. They were waiting for Parry to speak for them. The cards were on the table.
“What’s up, Bella?”
“Something big,” she said, “big enough that I’m going to need you back on the ship, and quickly. But before you leave, I want the driver shaft prepped to accept an FAD.”
“We don’t need to chip anything off this one, Bella. She’ll fall nice and stable all the way home.”
“I’m not talking about reshaping,” she said. “I’m talking about blowing it out of the sky.”
* * *
Svetlana Barseghian dabbed bright-green disinfectant onto the pressure sores around her groin, then snapped a dosimeter cuff from her wrist and checked that the mission dosage was still on the low side of four hundred millisieverts. She pulled on jogging pants and a black Lockheed-Krunichev Fusion Systems T-shirt, jammed stained grey sneakers on her feet and raked a hand through hair flat and itchy after the spacewalk. She pushed in a pair of pink ear protectors, muting the background noise. Except for the two hours a day when they turned off most of the machines, it was noisier in Rockhopper than in the Orlan eighteen.
A warren of interconnecting corridors brought her to the number-two centrifuge. When she reached Bella’s office she saw that Craig Schrope was already there. She reminded herself to be on her best behaviour.
Bella invited her in, pushed a cigarette into an ashtray and said something to Svetlana. Her lips were moving but no sound was coming out—Svetlana realised that she still had the ear protectors in. She popped them out and squeezed them back into their little plastic case, then secured it against the Velcro band of her jogging pants.
“I was suggesting you might want to take a seat,” Bella said nicely. She waited patiently until Svetlana was settled on a lightweight folding chair.
Bella’s soundproofed and carpeted office was the largest private space in the ship; it doubled as her sleeping quarters. The walls were pastel-grey, papered here and there with false-colour seismic survey maps: grainy images of shipwrecks and coral reefs grabbed during scuba expeditions. The only fixture that never changed was Bella’s fish tank, all five hundred litres of it.
Schrope hated the fish tank, Svetlana knew. It was a rule-twisting indulgence, exactly the kind of thing he’d made so many enemies stamping out on Big Red. Terrier-boy, they called him back there. Word was DeepShaft had put Schrope aboard Rockhopper to get him as far away from Mars as possible.
He sat there now, next to Bella, behind the same desk—the one Jim Chisholm should have been sitting behind—twirling a company ballpoint pen and looking pleased with himself.
“Sorry to bring you inside at short notice,” Schrope said, his voice a low, throbbing, catlike purr.
Svetlana shifted on her folding seat, but didn’t reply.
“How’d the shift go?” Bella asked. She wore shark’s teeth around her neck and a faded red lumberjack shirt, open over a black vest embossed with a gold foil picture: the Titanic Bar and Grill.
“I’ve had better. Blacking out isn’t one of my favourite ways to spend EVA time.”
Bella raised a knowing eyebrow. “The eighteens again?”
“Same old trimix problem.”
“Don’t forget to file the LOC log. Headquarters may make us use that reconditioned shit, but we don’t have to like it.”
“Everything’s industry standard and space certified,” Schrope said, picking a speck of fluff from his crisp blue DeepShaft zip-up. “On Hammerhead they make do with a lot older than Orlan eighteens without bitching and moaning.”
“That’s Hammerhead’s problem,” Svetlana said.
“The difference is they don’t make an issue of it,” Schrope said evenly. “But since it’s clearly an issue here, I’ve okayed a consignment of new twenty-twos on the next rotation.”
Like ticking that one box on a consignment spreadsheet had been the favour of the century . . . “Which would be when, Craig?” Svetlana asked, sweetly. “Before or after Jim gets his ticket home?”
Schrope batted aside her question with a flick of the pen. “Bella, maybe you should fill Svetlana in on developments. Since this does, obliquely, concern Jim—”
“What developments?” Svetlana interrupted.
“We’ve had a request to disengage,” Bella said. “They want us to tag the driver and leave it out here.”
“And the comet?”
“Plenty more where that one came from.”
Svetlana shook her head in disbelief. “We can’t just abandon it, not after all the work we’ve put in. Driver pit’s dug, parasol’s already locked in and prepped for spin-up—”
“Could be we’ve bigger fish to go after. I need some tech input.”
Schrope took over. “Could we move quickly, if we had to?”
“We’re always ready to withdraw to a safe distance,” Svetlana said.
“I mean immediate full power, for an extended cruise?”
Svetlana worked her way through a mental checklist. “Yes,” she said, cautiously. “Normally we’d run a few more tests, especially after an extended shutdown like this one—”
“Understood,” Bella said, “but there’s no compelling reason why we can’t fire up?”
“No. But Parry and the others—”
“Avenger’s on its way back up. They’ll be aboard shortly. One more thing, Svieta: specs say we can push the engine to half a gee, if we talk to it nicely . . .” Her voice trailed off; Svetlana knew what she was asking.
Bella narrowed her eyes. “Yes or no?”
“All right, yes, but it’s not something you’d want to do for more than a few hours. You’d be looking at accelerated wear in expensive, non-replaceable components . . . elevated risk of mission-critical failure modes—not to mention the increased structural load on the rest of the ship.”
Bella tapped a finger against a hardcopy of a plaintext e-mail. “Lockheed-Krunichev tell me the loads are within design lims. If you tell me the engine can hold, I’m a happy bunny.”
The document was upside down from Svetlana’s perspective, but she could still make out part of the subject line: something about Janus. Mythical and Roman, she thought. The two-faced god of . . . what?
And the name of one of Saturn’s moons.
“It’s doable,” she said.
“Good,” Bella said. But Svetlana noticed that she said “good” with a sigh, as if she had secretly been hoping for a different answer.
Svetlana pushed her way through the crush of people until she spotted Parry.
At the last rotation there were one hundred and forty-five souls on the ship, most of whom had gathered to hear Bella’s announcement. They were plastered around the inside wall of the cylindrical gymnasium, tethered in place with hooks and Velcro and geckoflex and the friction of body on body. The gym—which doubled as a commons and radiation storm shelter—was normally spun to provide centrifugal gravity, but that would have kept Bella from floating into the middle to address the crowd.
“I’m sorry about—” Parry began hesitantly when Svetlana reached him. “You know . . . that little thing earlier. I guess you didn’t need me giving you a hard time on top of everyone else.”
“No. Not today.”
“It’s just that we badly wanted to play with our comet, babe.”
“Boys will be boys, I suppose.” She gave him a quick squeeze, letting him know it was all right.
“All ancient history now, though.”
“So Bella tells me. Any idea what this is all about?”
Parry’s concerned expression softened—he knew he was off the hook, for now at least. “Didn’t get a chance to check ShipNet. Was there—?”
“Nothing. No CNN, no Space.com, no nothing. Guess Bella pulled them.”
“That’s what I figured. The football fans weren’t happy, I can tell you.”
Svetlana tried to look concerned. “They weren’t?”
“Bella pulled the plug on the Kiev game halfway through the shoot-out.”
“The poor darlings.”
Parry scratched his moustache, looking endearingly puzzled. He was a short, stocky man with an open, friendly face, clean-shaven save for the moustache, with a thatch of unruly black hair bursting from underneath his knitted red diver’s cap.
“You think something’s happened there?” he wondered. “An accident, something like that?”
“Don’t think so. I pulled up a system map—we’re on the other side of the Sun from Saturn, so Earth and Jupiter are a lot closer. Red could get a ship to Saturn quicker than we could.”
“That’s all I’ve got. I think Bella would have opened up more if Terrier-boy hadn’t been there with her.”
“Maybe we should leave the little shit behind on the comet,” Parry said, voice low. “You know, send him out on an errand, say someone left some paperwork behind. Then forget to pick him up.”
“Unfair to micro-organisms, though. The complex molecules might get upset.”
“Good point, babe. Wouldn’t want to offend those poor, unsuspecting pyrimidines, would we?”
“Absolutely not. Even pyrimidines have feelings.”
Parry looked up as a hush fell across the gymnasium. “Here we go. Guess we’re about to find out what’s got the little lady in such a tizz.”
Bella coughed. “Thanks for your attention,” she said. The pumps had been turned off ahead of schedule so that she could be heard without having to shout. “I’ll keep this brief, since we’ll have a lot to discuss.”
Floating free at the core of the gymnasium, Bella had her arms folded and one leg tucked behind the other. By accident or design, she had retained a slow residual spin so that she faced everyone in the room once a minute.
“Eleven hours ago,” Bella continued, “I received a message from headquarters. The message was—to say the very least—startling. Even more startling was the request that followed. I’ve had half a day to digest this information, and I’m still only starting to get my head around it. I’m afraid the rest of you have even less time.”
Somehow, amongst all the people crammed into the room, Bella managed to spot Svetlana. She made brief eye contact, nodding her head so slightly that the gesture would have been imperceptible to anyone else.
“Once I heard the news,” she went on, “I took an unprecedented step. As some of you will have already realised, I blocked all outside news from ShipNet. I didn’t do this lightly, but please believe it was necessary. Shortly after the initial announcement, it became clear the networks were contributing nothing useful to the discussion, and what we need now is clarity—absolute clarity—because we have a very difficult decision to make.”
As Bella paused, Svetlana looked around, picking out faces. Tethered near her were Chieko Yamada and Carsten Fleig, from her own flight-operations team, lovers who went everywhere together. A little further around the curve of the gym was Josef Protsenko who, despite looking like a potato farmer, was one of the best mass-driver specialists in the business. There was Reka Bettendorf from EVA ops: one of the three people responsible for checking out suit safety and making sure people didn’t black out because of malfs in the air trimix. There was Judy Sugimoto, from the medical section; she’d taken off her glasses and was rubbing away a smear on one lens against the collar of her smock.
There was Thom Crabtree, the taphead, standing alone and isolated, as always.
None of them looked as if they were in on any secrets. Svetlana turned her attention back to Bella, who was speaking again.
“I’ve talked to my technical team,” Bella was saying, “and they tell me what we’re being asked to do is feasible—risky, but feasible. But so is everything we do.” Bella closed her eyes, as if she couldn’t quite remember the next line in her script, then took a breath and went on. “Now we get to the difficult part. It concerns Janus, one of Saturn’s moons.”
Svetlana allowed herself a small, guilty flicker of pride. She’d figured that much out, at least.
“Or rather,” Bella interrupted Svetlana’s thoughts, “Janus used to be one of Saturn’s moons. Now we have to redefine it. About thirty hours ago, Janus’s orbit began to deviate from its expected trajectory around Saturn.”
People started talking: they couldn’t help it.
Bella held up a hand and waited for silence. “Janus stopped orbiting Saturn,” she said, “and broke away, following what was initially a very sharp course towards ecliptic south, out of the plane of the planets. That didn’t last long, though: after twelve hours, Janus changed direction again, this time turning in the rough direction of Jupiter. The course it’s following is strictly non-Keplerian, which means it isn’t showing any signs of being influenced by the gravitational fields of the Sun or the other planets. All the same, the specialists say they have a good handle on it mathematically. It will miss Jupiter by slightly less than one AU. Assuming that nothing happens during its Jupiter approach, the moon will cross to the other side of the system. By then it’ll be headed out of the ecliptic plane at eleven degrees south, in the direction of the constellation Virgo.”
Bella paused to draw breath, as if even she were having difficulty believing her own words. “Ladies and gentleman,” she continued, “Janus is accelerating. It’s managing around one quarter of a gee. There was no sign of any encounter with another massive body, nor of any natural outgassing mechanism that could even begin to explain such behaviour. The simple fact is that it very much looks as if Janus was never a moon in the first place.”
“A ship,” Svetlana said under her breath, along with about half the room.
Parry’s hand tightened around hers. Whatever had happened to sour things between them in the last day was over now, erased into insignificance by this astonishing news.
Bella responded to their murmured speculation. “Yes,” she said, “that does appear to be what we’re dealing with. It even looks as if the icy surface is starting to peel off in wisps, like camouflage. If that continues we might begin to see what’s really underneath.” She smiled at them all. “There’s a problem, though: Janus is getting further and further away, so the view isn’t getting any better.”
“Oh, no,” Svetlana said.
“There’s only one ship in the system in anything like the right position to intercept and shadow Janus on its way out. No prizes for guessing which ship I’m talking about. The plan is we put the pedal to the metal for three weeks. At half a gee, we can meet Janus and still have enough fuel left to shadow it for five days. Then we turn tail and head back home.”
Bella said nothing for another slow rotation of her body, allowing the commons to erupt into noisy questions before speaking again.
“It’s up to us,” she said, raising her voice until the clamour died down. “No other ship in the system, manned or otherwise, can do this.”
Parry raised his voice. People respected Parry Boyce; they fell silent to let him speak.
“This isn’t in our contracts, Bella.”
“Actually, there is a clause that covers ‘additional non-specified activities’,” Bella said, “but that doesn’t mean there won’t be compensations. Triple our usual danger bonus, from the moment we commit to chasing Janus until the moment we dock back around Mars, with discretionary rewards on top of that, depending on the conditions near Janus.” She waited a beat, before adding, “That’s a shitload of money, people.”
“Triple our usual danger bonus?” Parry repeated.
“That’s the deal.”
“I’ll buy a nice headstone.”
Bella let them have their laughter. “Parry’s right to mention the danger,” she said, when the room had simmered down. “That’s why this isn’t something I’m going to enforce without a clear mandate. I’m giving you all one hour to think this over. In one hour, report individually to your section chiefs. In ninety minutes the section chiefs will report to me. Based on their findings, I’ll make my decision.” Bella spread her hands. “I wish I could give you more information. I can’t: there isn’t any. I wish I could give you more time, but there isn’t any of that, either. The fuel situation is tight.” Bella acknowledged Svetlana again: she had timed the remark with her usual care. “One hour,” she said. “I’m sorry there’s no other way of doing this.”
Bella grabbed a nylon line stretching across the room and began to haul herself towards the wall of the commons. Then she paused and looked back at the gathering. “Oh, before I forget, since I know some of you are dying to find out. It went to Dynamo Kiev, on penalties.”
* * *
Some impulse made Ryan Axford pause on his way to the patient’s bedside. He picked up his flexy from his desk and called up the most recent tomograph of Jim Chisholm’s skull. He stroked his finger against the false-colour image, rotating it so that the intricate three-dimensional structures became clear. The inside of his patient’s skull was now as familiar to Axford as the architecture of his own house, far away on Albemarle Sound. He knew its passages and alcoves, its attic and cellar, its concealed chambers, its cavities, cracks and flaws. He knew its secret monsters.
He had already looked at the scans with a clear, clinical eye, and he knew that he had missed nothing. The disease was already progressing along textbook lines: diffuse infiltration of contiguous and regional structures of the central nervous system; compression, invasion and destruction of neighbouring brain parenchyma. It was irrational to expect the images to have changed, yet he could not resist examining them one more time, hoping that he had indeed neglected some detail, a hint of shrinkage.
Axford dimmed the flexy and placed it gently back on his desk. Nothing had changed; nothing could have changed.
He caught Gayle Simmons, the duty nurse, leaving Chisholm’s curtained-off bedside. She held a blood-filled syringe tipped with a plastic safety cap, a saline bag clutched in her other hand.
“How’s our guest?” he asked.
“Comfortable,” she said, her Southern drawl, with its questioning upwards lilt, elongating the word. Simmons was young and keen, transferred into DeepShaft from Northside Hospital, Atlanta. She wore her black hair long and was popular with the other men.
Axford touched her sleeve and lowered his voice. “Any thoughts about what Bella just told us, Gayle?”
“Whatever’s best for the patient, I’m cool with that.”
Axford nodded and peered into her eyes, searching for a clue to her real feelings. She blinked and looked away.
“That’s what I was thinking too,” he said.
Chisholm was listening to Charles Mingus playing “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”. Axford lowered the music to a murmur as he entered the screened-off area. Chisholm’s expression was neutral, neither welcoming nor shunning his visitor—he knew that Axford could be the bearer of the worst kind of news, as well as the best.
“Bella talked to me,” Axford said. “She wanted to make sure you had all the facts.”
“She didn’t talk to me,” Chisholm said.
Axford sat down next to the bed. “Bella was concerned that you’d feel persuaded against your own judgement if she spoke to you in person.”
Jim Chisholm blinked and squinted upwards, as if taking an interest in something on the ceiling. The light in the room was low, green-tinged and calculatedly soothing. Around the bed, machines ticked and hummed and bleeped in an endless, numbing chorus.
Chisholm reached for a glass of water. “Did Bella ask you anything?”
“Yes,” Axford said, “she did. She wanted all the facts at her disposal.”
“What did you tell her?”
“The truth, or at least my understanding of it.”
Axford chose his words with care. “You have a progressive condition that, untreated, stands a good chance of killing you within three months.”
“I know this.”
“I still think it’s worth spelling things out. I can’t cure you, and I can’t stop the disease from advancing. I can relieve the intracranial pressure; I can administer anticonvulsants; I can try to stabilise your neurotransmitter and cytokine levels. But the best I can do is slow things down. Short of—” Axford caught himself before he went on, “Realistically, your only hope of survival is to return to Earth within three months. Sooner would be better, obviously.”
“I know this,” Chisholm said again.
“But I need to know that you know it.” Axford leaned closer to him, lowering his voice. “Here’s the deal. When you signed up for this mission, you accepted certain medical risks. We all did. We have to accept that it simply isn’t practical to carry a hospital’s worth of state-of-the-art surgical equipment, let alone the expertise to use it, on board a ship. That’s why we go through such intensive medical screening before they let us aboard. But there is always a statistical risk of something getting past those tests.”
“Where’s this heading?”
“If I could have arranged a shuttle to take you home, I would have. Failing that, I have to look at the quickest way to get you back given the options currently on the table.”
“Go on,” Chisholm said.
“Bella’s polling the crew. If the answer that comes back is ‘no’, we’ll simply resume normal operations. We’re due another crew-rotation shuttle in five months. I’m pushing them to send that ship out earlier, but I doubt that they’ll be able to shave more than four or six weeks off the schedule.”
Chisholm looked at him, his eyes narrowed. “Back there you almost said something. ‘Short of’, you began . . . and then you stopped. Short of what, exactly?”
“I shouldn’t have said anything. I don’t agree with it.”
“Don’t agree with what?”
“The company has a contingency plan,” Axford said, reluctantly, “for cases like yours where the prognosis is poor, and where there is no prospect of an early return to Earth. It’s called Frost Angel.”
“Frost Angel? No one’s ever mentioned anything anything called Frost Angel to me.”
“It isn’t widely discussed outside the medical section. It’s something we hoped never to have to put into practice.”
“You have no idea how encouraging that sounds.”
“The contingency is . . .” Axford hesitated, momentarily unable to continue. He had never expected to find himself talking to Jim Chisholm like this. Chisholm was still his effective superior, Bella Lind’s second-in-command. What business did the company have in not telling Chisholm about something like this through formal channels?
“Ryan,” Chisholm prompted.
Axford steeled himself and said, “The idea is that we kill you now. It’d be a controlled, painless transition into unconsciousness. Once you’re unconscious, there are a couple of options open to me to complete the euthanisation. After inducing cardiac arrest, I’d proceed with a rapid exsanguination, flushing out your blood and replacing it with a cold saline solution. The object is to get as much oxygen out of your body as possible. Oxygen is the engine that causes ischemic damage if your heart stops pumping, so the less of it we leave in you the better. That’s one option.”
“I’m just dying to hear the other one,” Chisholm said.
“Instead of the saline flush, we keep the heart running and expose you to an atmosphere containing a high concentration of hydrogen sulphide—around eighty parts per million. After a few minutes, respiration will slow and your core body temperature will plummet. The hydrogen sulphide molecules will start binding to the same cell sites that oxygen normally uses, so—in effect—we lock oxygen out of the loop. It achieves more or less the same result as the saline flush.”
Axford waited for that to sink in. He looked at Chisholm’s smooth, untroubled face and read nothing.
“Maybe I’m missing something,” Chisholm said, “but in either scenario, wouldn’t I still be dead at the end of it?”
“Dead, yes, but protected from ischemic damage. That’s the point of Frost Angel. The damage doesn’t get any worse.”
“And then—when we make it home—they’ll bring me back?”
“They’ll try their best.”
“How many people have been through this?”
“As part of the official Frost Angel programme? Not as many as I’d like.”
“Meaning none, right, Ryan?”
“I’m not sugaring any pills here. The way things are going, in ten years, fifteen years, they might be able to bring you back. Then again, they might not.”
“I don’t get this. You’re saying you can shut me down, but you can’t operate on my brain?”
“The process isn’t complicated. It’s—how shall I put this?—within the scope of the services we’re set up to provide.”
“You mean you’d be running that saline flush through me no matter what happens?”
“Frost Angel means doing it before the damage becomes extensive.”
Chisholm stared off into the distance for a few uncomfortable moments as Mingus played on. “You think this is a good idea?”
“I accept the medical logic, given the situation. That doesn’t mean I’m jumping for joy at the idea of going ahead with it. It would depend on the severity of the condition, and on the odds of reaching home in time.” Still torn, Axford paused. “If you wanted it, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t oblige. I’d need your consent—otherwise it’s murder. I could get into serious trouble for that.”
“And we wouldn’t want that.”
“But maybe we don’t have to freeze you,” Axford said. “Maybe there’s still a way to get you back in time.”
Chisholm nodded shrewdly, like someone who had just got the punch line of a joke. “Janus, right?”
“My professional recommendation,” Axford said, “is that you vote for the mission. I’ve spoken to Bella; when we’ve completed the Janus rendezvous, we’ll return home on the fastest possible trajectory. We may even be able to meet the shuttle halfway. Even if we can’t, I still think we can get you home in seven or eight weeks.”
“Is that soon enough?”
“When we get back home,” Axford said, “everyone will want a piece of us. And when they find out there’s a sick man aboard, every nation on the planet will be fighting for the privilege of treating you.”
Chisholm closed his eyes and slumped back against his pillow. Barely audible above the machines, Mingus had moved on to “Open Letter to Duke.” For a moment the two of them listened to the music, as if somewhere within it there might be an answer neither of them had so far imagined, an option that involved neither freezing nor a risky encounter with something alien.
“They’ve never brought anyone back, have they?”
“They’re getting better all the time. They’re up to mammals now. They did a rabbit last year.”
* * *
As the car slid along Rockhopper’s spine, Bella unzipped her jacket and removed the flexy that had been recharging itself from her body heat. A deft flick of her wrist stiffened the sheet of leathery plastic. The ShipNet menu formed in its iridophores, tinged with a blue-green cast where some of the flexy’s living cells were beginning to die.
Bella navigated to her private area and retrieved the latest message from Powell Cagan.
He sat in a living room, its surfaces gleaming with reflected moonlight. Bella heard the faint roar of what she first took to be road traffic, but then realised must be ocean breakers. She thought she recognised the room. One of the framed prints on the wall—a reproduction of one of Cagan’s favourite Nu Metal album covers—looked familiar to her. Across twenty-five years she could almost place the villa and the island.
Cagan never changed much. His white hair was still spiked and gelled in the manner of his youth. He wore a black shirt unbuttoned at the collar, with a pale sweater draped over his shoulders, sleeves tied together across his chest. He was nearing his eightieth birthday, but he could have passed for a retired tennis pro in his late fifties, holding down a good game and a good med programme.
“Hello, Bella,” he said. “Excuse the interruption, but it appears we’ll need to move faster than we expected. The Chinese are further ahead than we thought.” He held up a hardcopy of China Daily. The paper cast a pallid glow across his desk. “They’re talking about their own unilateral expedition. They say they’ve got a crew together and that they’re ready for engine start-up. More than likely it’ll blow up in their faces, but we have to be ready in case it doesn’t. I’ve spoken to Inga and—although she clearly can’t go on the record about this—she agrees with me.”
He said “Inga” with such affected casualness that it took Bella a moment to realise that he meant Inga de Jong, the Secretary-General of the United Economic Entities.
He shifted in his chair as the roar of surf rose like static. “A lot of water has passed under our mutual bridges, but I’ve never doubted your strengths. If—when—you have that ‘yes’ vote, you can move on it immediately. There’s no need to wait for my confirmation before you begin the chase.” His excellent teeth flashed silver in the moonlit room. “Good luck, Bella. For old times’ sake, all right?”
She smiled at that: not because it pleased her, but because she found it amusing that Cagan still expected her to look back on their affair with something like fondness. The depth of his lack of understanding was awesome, even after twenty-five years.
The image faded. Bella softened the flexy and slipped it back under her zip-up.
The car slowed as it neared the mid-spine machine shop and slid into a reception dock. Bella climbed out and hand-propelled herself through access corridors reeking of lubricant and ozone. In addition to Craig Schrope, there were seven chiefs present. Some of them floated, some had lashed themselves to floor or wall with tie-lines, Velcro or geckoflex, while others lounged on or straddled the outstretched manipulator arms of the deactivated robots.
Bella centred herself, taking time to make careful eye contact with everyone in the room. “Thank you for getting here on time,” she said.
“Has anything changed in the last ninety minutes?” asked Svetlana.
“Not to my knowledge,” Bella said, “although it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pick out signal from noise where the news is concerned.”
“Janus still doing its thing?”
“I’d like numbers for its trajectory,” Svetlana said.
“Now?” said Schrope softly.
She looked at him. “It can wait until we’re under way.”
“Well, let’s not the jump the gun,” Bella said. “We may decide we’re not going anywhere. Or have you reached a collective decision while you were waiting for me?”
The team chiefs glanced at each other, but no one volunteered to speak for the group. Bella looked at Parry Boyce. His people were the workers who actually had to crawl into comets, taking core samples and figuring out the best way to anchor the unwieldy mass driver if a comet turned out to be worth steering home. They were tough; they formed the largest and most volatile element of the crew.
Beneath his red diver’s cap, Parry’s open and friendly face gave nothing away.
“Well?” she asked.
“I’ve a small majority in favour of chasing Janus,” he said, “split down aquatic and orbital lines, with a narrow win for the orbitals.”
“What do you think?”
“I think we should do it. I think it’s madness, but I still think we should do it.”
“You had high hopes for this comet,” Bella said.
“There’ll be others. There may never be another Janus.” She thought Parry was done, his verdict delivered, but after a moment he spoke again. “We still want guarantees. We want that triple-bonus agreement in writing. We want it paid even if something prevents us from catching up with Janus.”
“We’ll have to be under way before I have any of that confirmed,” Bella said.
“Fine. But if we don’t like the terms when they’re rubber-stamped, we turn the ship around.”
“Acceptable to me,” Bella said, before Schrope could contradict her.
“That means no company horseshit in the small print.”
“Fine. Anything else?”
“Just a bit.” He handed her his own flexy. Bella stared at the numbers Parry had blocked in: a sliding scale of danger terms, linked to proximity to Janus, far exceeding the bonus she had offered in the gymnasium. “It’s all nonnegotiable,” he added.
Wordlessly, Bella passed the flexy to Schrope, who glanced down at it and pulled a sour expression.
“You’re talking about terms that will bankrupt the company.”
“It’s the company’s call,” Parry said easily. “If they feel Janus is worth our time, they’d better be ready to pay for it.”
“If you bankrupt the company, you won’t have jobs to go back to when we get home,” Schrope said.
“The idea is that we won’t need jobs,” Parry said.
Bella scraped grit from her eyes. “You should listen to Craig,” she said. “This isn’t only about the company. We just happen to be the one ship with a chance of doing this. The fact that there’s a company logo on the side doesn’t matter. We’re representatives of the entire human species.”
Parry laughed at her. They all laughed at her. She felt like a child in a roomful of adults, coming out with something naive and touching.
“I’m serious,” she said, feeling her cheeks redden.
Parry shrugged. “So are we. Deadly bloody serious.”
“Parry did the sums,” said Denise Nadis, the head of mass-driver operations. “In accountancy terms we’re still a blip. No one’s coming out of this bankrupt.”
Bella sighed, knowing there was no point fighting this one. She looked around at all the other chiefs. “Let’s hear your piece, Denise.”
Nadis leaned forward on the robot arm she had picked for a support. She was thirty-one, a small, intense black woman with long purple fingernails that she somehow managed to keep intact despite being one of the best teleoperators on the ship. She had a nose stud, eyebrow ring and tribal tattoos, worn as a tribute to her late grandmother. “My people overwhelmingly say no,” she said. “We push ice. It’s what we do, what we came here to do. But if we have to accept—if the final result is ‘yes’—then we’ll expect the same terms that Parry’s proposing.”
Bella turned to the bald man sitting next to Nadis: Nick Thale, the unassuming head of remote cometary geoscience. Thale’s small but dedicated team used remote-sensing techniques—radar, lasers, spectroscopy—to survey comets from a distance of many light-seconds.
“We say go for it,” he said. “My team would actually kill for the chance to turn their expertise onto something other than another dirty snowball. If you can get us close to Janus, we’re confident that we can do some real science for once.”
“Good,” Bella said.
“We do, however, want a modifier to Parry’s terms.” Thale glanced at the other man. “In general we find the terms he’s suggesting acceptable. Our quibble is with the clause for surface conditions. As soon as surface operations commence, we demand that everyone is paid at the same rate, irrespective of whether they’re in a suit or not.”
“You call that a quibble?” Bella said.
“As Denise pointed out,” Thale said, “no one’s going to lose any money over this.”
“I don’t like it,” Parry said, turning to the other man. “Nick, I know your people are good at their work, but it won’t be any of your guys sweating in a fucked-up Orlan nineteen when we reach Janus.”
“Those are the conditions you work under anyway,” Thale said. “If Janus reacts we’ll all have to deal with it.”
“We could use a little less speculation,” Schrope said.
“Right now speculation’s the only game in town.” Thale shifted on his perch. “Here’s another thing, too. Whatever happens when we get to Janus, it isn’t going to be the usual drill. We won’t be running core samples or scouting out locations to attach a driver, so why assume that Parry’s people are automatically the ones best suited to go crawling over the thing? The one thing we know about Janus is that it isn’t a comet.”
Parry started to interject, but Bella cut him off. “Parry’s people have the most experience at EVA,” she said.
“But there isn’t a person on this ship who hasn’t been trained in basic suit functions,” Thale said. “Face it: we’ll be dealing with an environment completely unfamiliar to all of us. It seems to me that we’ll be making a terrible mistake if we don’t make maximum use of our scientists.”
“By putting them in suits, you mean?” Bella asked.
“I’m just saying I don’t think it should be a foregone conclusion who gets to wear those suits.”
“It isn’t,” Bella said, “and nor is it a foregone conclusion that there’ll even be surface operations. Maybe once we get a close look at this thing I’ll decide not to send people out at all.”
“What about robots?” asked Saul Regis. “Do robots count as surface operations?”
“Saul,” Bella said, with a straight face, “please don’t tell me you want danger money for the robots now?”
Regis answered in his usual borderline autistic monotone. “I mean we should all be on Parry’s maximum rate of pay even if we only send robots into the vicinity of Janus. Robots are just as likely to provoke a hostile reaction as people.”
“Robots—and people, for all I know—have crawled over Janus in the past. They didn’t provoke any kind of reaction.”
“Janus was hiding then. It isn’t now.”
“Maybe we’ll all go onto danger money as soon as we look at Janus,” Bella said, tired of arguing. “Or as soon as we dream about it. Maybe we should be on danger money now, just because we’re debating the faint possibility of going there.” There was a chorus of objections, but she shouted them down. “Svetlana, say your piece.”
“You’ve already heard it. There’s no technical reason why we can’t make this trip.”
“And your people?”
“The majority support the Janus operation.”
Bella wasn’t surprised. Svetlana’s people were engineers, all with an interest in spacecraft design and propulsion. Of course they wanted a close look at Janus.
Bella watched a flicker of uncertainty cross Svetlana’s face, as if she had made up her mind, but had just been stricken by renewed doubts. “Yes,” she said, tentatively. “I think we should go, despite all the risks.”
“And you’re still happy about the engine output, and the stress loading?”
“I can’t guarantee anything,” Svetlana said. “All I can give you is probability.”
“Spoken like a true engineer,” Bella said resignedly.
“Thank you. And the balance of probabilities is that the ship will hold together, although they may have to scrap it when we get back home.”
“That’s somebody else’s problem,” Bella said. “All right: anything else to add?”
“I’d like to check the numbers on the fuel.”
“Absolutely—I’d insist on it.” Bella turned to face Ash Murray, the head of EVA technical support. He wore a denim shirt open over a yellow T-shirt printed with the ship’s drilling-penguin mascot. Murray’s team was the smallest on the ship, but one of the most essential.
“You want to go crawling over Janus, we’ll supply the fucked-up Orlan nineteens,” Murray said, looking pointedly at Parry Boyce.
Bella nodded, knowing that was as close to a “yes” as she was going to get.
That left Axford and his medical team. “Ryan,” she said pleasantly. Axford was a man she liked and trusted. “We’ve talked already, and I think I know where you stand. Have you changed your mind?”
“I have a sick man in my care whose best hope of survival is to get back to Earth as quickly as possible,” Axford said. “Since you can’t turn the ship around, and since DeepShaft won’t send out an unscheduled shuttle, Janus represents his best hope.”
“Is that what you told him?”
“I didn’t pull any punches,” Axford said. “I don’t think he’s any happier than I am about nosing around near that thing, but he recognises the lesser of two evils when he sees it.”
“Then you’d vote against the mission if Jim wasn’t ill?”
“I’m voting to safeguard my patient’s life. You have my word that the people under me feel the same way.”
“I’ll see that we don’t let Jim down,” she said. “Or any of your team, for that matter. We have leverage now. It’s too late to send out a shuttle, but they can damn well send one to meet us on the way home.”
“You’ll guarantee that?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Then you have my consent to take us to Janus.”
That was Axford done: he would shrink back into the scenery now, just the way he had been before she talked to him, listening intently, but with a distracted, faraway look that suggested (quite wrongly, as it happened) extreme inattention.
With Ryan’s vote in, it was clear that Janus had won the day, though not by an overwhelming majority. In Bella’s estimation some sixty per cent of the crew were in favour of the mission, subject to haggling over bonus pay and working arrangements near the moon. Twenty per cent were unenthusiastic, but would go along with it. The other twenty per cent were strongly opposed, irrespective of the bonus terms.
Bella would have preferred a stronger majority, but at least the ship wasn’t split down the middle—and she knew exactly how she felt: Janus was an unprecedented opportunity, not only for her crew, not only for her company, but for humanity as a whole. She’d believed that before she entered the room, and she believed it now.
She held up her flexy, showing the tally of poll results to the assembled chiefs.
“Back to your teams, people,” she said, “and tell them to start battening down the hatches.”
* * *
When Rockhopper pulled away from the comet four hours later, a robot had already dropped the fragmentation-assistance device into the shaft that Parry had dug to take the mass driver. The nuclear device was military surplus, recycled from the decommissioned warhead of a forty-year-old NATO surplus Bush III MIRV. It had been dialled to its maximum civilian yield of ten megatonnes.
The comet went up nicely.
That was one piece of ice no one else would be getting their hands on.
“It’s the last good close-up picture we have,” Bella said, “taken about a year ago, when a cargo slug swung by on a routine slingshot.”
The object displayed on her wall was irregular in shape: two hundred and twenty kilometres across at its widest point; one hundred and sixty at its narrowest. The surface was lightly cratered and gouged, the craters soft-edged and shallow. The ice was a tarnished grey-white, the oily colour of roadside snow.
“What was a slug doing taking pictures?” Svetlana asked.
“University of Arizona paid to piggy-back a cam: some kid finishing off a Ph.D. thesis on dynamic ice chemistry. There are better images on the feeds, and maps that cover the entire thing down to a rez of a few metres, but this is the most recent snapshot in existence.”
“Still looks like a piece of ice to me,” Saul Regis said.
“That must have been the point,” Bella said. “Janus is about the last place in the system we’d have thought to look for signs of alien intelligence.”
Nick Thale stirred in his seat. “If they meant to camouflage their activities, why didn’t they pick something a bit less weird than a co-orbital moon?”
“I don’t know. Hide in plain sight? Pick the one place we wouldn’t seriously consider looking?”
The image revealed no hint of wrongness: no suggestion of alien mechanisms lurking just beneath that shell of icy camouflage.
Regis tapped a stylus against the flexy he had spread across his lap. He was a burly man, bald at the crown but with his remaining long black hair worn in a ponytail. His goatee beard tapered to a long braided tail. “I’m not sure I follow,” he said. “What was so unique about Janus? Aren’t there a bunch of water-ice moons orbiting Saturn?”
“Not exactly,” Thale said, turning to face the robotics specialist. “Janus was co-orbital with another small moon named Epimetheus. They shared almost the same orbit around Saturn, at about two and half Saturn radii. One of them was a tiny bit closer to Saturn, so it moved just a little bit faster. Once every four years the fast one lapped the slow one, overtaking it from behind. When that happened, the two satellites exchanged orbits: the slower one became the faster one, and vice versa.”
“Freaky,” Regis observed.
“It is freaky. Every four years the same thing happens. The moons take turns going fast, like skaters running a relay.”
Bella had read up on it before the meeting. “It’s a pretty unusual set-up. Definitely not the sort of thing you expect to happen by chance, just because two independent moons happened to settle into that—”
She stopped, because they had all felt something shiver through the room. The glass of water on Bella’s desk trembled.
She looked at Svetlana. “Are we okay?”
“It’s just that I don’t remember that sort of thing happening before.”
“It’s expected,” Svetlana said. “We’re running the engine in a different operating regime.”
“So it isn’t anything I need to worry about?”
“No. Just some mixing eddies in the precombustion tokamak.”
“Fine,” Bella said, but like everyone in the room—with the exception of Svetlana—she had just been forcibly reminded that they were not sitting in some anonymous corporate office building, but were in fact riding fifty thousand tonnes of nuclear-powered spacecraft to the edge of interstellar space, with the pedal to the metal.
They had been under way for three days now, and Rockhopper had already picked up thirteen hundred kilometres per second of speed compared to their initial vector around the comet. They were travelling at a shallow angle to the ecliptic, in an almost radial direction away from the Sun. Every second they were crossing the width of the Gulf of Mexico: putting that much extra distance between them and their places of birth. And they were still accelerating.
By the time they reached Janus, they would be thirteen light-hours from home: far enough that a round-trip signal would take more than a day. And they would be moving at three per cent of the speed of light, a figure that was enough to put the fear of God into anyone. Three per cent of the speed of light was nine thousand kilometres per second.
With every minute that passed, they’d be falling further from home than the distance between the Earth and its Moon.
A minute or two had passed since the tremor; the ship’s ride was now limousine-smooth once more. Everyone was waiting for her to continue speaking, their faces expectant. It was a nice show, but she doubted that any of them were convinced. Their nerves were already stretched paper-thin. For three days the ship had been creaking and groaning like a submarine sinking to crush depth.
“Where was I?”
“Janus,” someone said helpfully.
“Right . . . right. It’s just that until four days ago our best guess was that the two moons must once have been part of the same body.”
Craig Schrope had done his homework as well. “A bigger moon—maybe something Charon-sized. A few billion years ago something must have hit it, smashing it into pieces. The two largest chunks drifted apart from each other on nearly identical orbits.”
“Hence your co-orbital moons,” Bella took up the discussion again. “But the Janus event shows that it didn’t happen like that. It was set up to look that way, but the co-orbital situation was clearly staged: an engineered occurrence designed to look natural.”
“Before any of you ask,” Schrope said, “there are teams crawling over Epimetheus even as we speak.”
“With kid gloves, I hope,” Nick Thale said.
“I think we can assume that they’re exercising all due caution,” Bella said. “Not that it seems to matter: nothing they’ve done or observed in any way suggests that Epimetheus is anything but what we always thought it was. Unless the interior mechanisms are spectacularly well camouflaged, it’s just a lump of ice.”
“The best guess,” Schrope interjected, “is that Epimetheus is just an ordinary satellite. The Janus artefact must have been introduced from outside the Saturnian system, and its orbit carefully tuned to produce the co-orbital situation we thought we understood.”
“There are other situations like that, right?” asked Parry.
“No,” Schrope said, “at least not in our system. Janus and Epimetheus were the only two moons that acted like that.”
“And elsewhere? In other systems?”
“The data isn’t good enough for us to tell,” Bella said. “We have some images of the big Jovians in nearby systems, good enough to pick up major weather systems, ring complexes and Titan-sized moons, but we still can’t begin to resolve Janus-sized objects.”
“So in other words this might be unique,” Parry said.
“Or it might be a common enough situation that you can expect to find one or two co-orbital pairs in every system,” Bella said. “Right now we have no idea.”
“But it could be unusual,” Parry persisted, “in which case, doesn’t it begin to look like maybe that was the point?”
Bella leaned forward, interested. “A calling card, you mean?”
“I’m just saying we shouldn’t rule anything out.”
She nodded sagely. “Parry’s right. We keep open minds and we consider all possibilities, no matter how outlandish. The instant we start making assumptions is the instant we’re going to run into trouble.”
“But we’re not trained for this,” Svetlana said, looking around the room. “We’re tool-pushers. Bella says we have to keep open minds. I say it isn’t our job even to worry about that.”
“It isn’t that simple,” Bella said, “although God knows I wish it were. We have just five days at Janus; less if the moon speeds up. That’s one hundred and twenty hours, of which every single minute will be precious.”
“The problem is timelag,” Schrope said. He spoke softly, but with a measured ease that suggested a planned statement. “We’ll be too far out to phone home.”
Bella nodded. “We’ll be compressing and transmitting all our data back home, of course, from the moment we’re in sensor range, and the experts in near-Earth space will be on it like a pack of hounds, but the earliest we’ll hear from them is twenty-six hours after we send back the first images. Once we reach Janus, we won’t be able to afford to wait that long for instructions.”
“Still won’t make us specialists,” Svetlana said.
“But we’re still eighteen days from our objective,” Bella said. “That’s why I’ve called you here. I want you to start thinking like specialists.”
Parry laughed. “Just like that?”
“You’re all smart cookies,” Bella said. “If you weren’t, you wouldn’t have got within a country mile of my ship.”
“None of us knows the first thing about alien life,” Svetlana said.
“Maybe not now,” Bella said, “but a lot can change in eighteen days. No one’s expecting green monsters to come crawling out of that moon when we pull alongside, but we have to be ready to answer if Janus says ‘hello’. We have to be ready with something.”
Saul Regis fingered his elaborate beard. He wore a Cosmic Avenger sweatshirt showing the fictitious crew standing around the workstations of their sleek thirtieth-century starship. “How would this work? Us becoming specialists, I mean.”
“As of now,” Bella said, “I’m putting together a contact working group. I want to keep it small and flexible, which is why I haven’t invited all the chiefs to this briefing.” She nodded at Regis. “I want you to chair it, Saul. I’ve looked at the background files of everyone on this ship and of all of us you look to be best equipped for the job. You’ve studied cognitive science and artificial intelligence at research level—and our best guess at the nature of Janus is that it’s some kind of robot.”
“I feel overqualified already,” Regis said.
“I’m not expecting blinding insights—just some basic familiarity with the landscape. Does anyone have any objection to Saul chairing this working group?” She waited a heartbeat. “No? Good; that’s settled, then.”
Regis held up his hands in mock surrender. “I still don’t know what you actually want me to do, Bella.”
“Start by assembling your team. I think we can take it as a given that the people in this room ought to be on it, if only because we’ll be the ones at the sharp end when we start near-Janus operations. I want you to keep the team focused and agile, but you shouldn’t discount bringing in anyone else you feel can add something.” Bella flicked her flexy across the table. “There are some names you may want to look at.”
Regis peeled his own flexy from the wall: it had fluttered there to recharge its batteries, drinking power from the embedded grid. When he touched it, the two devices exchanged secure data via the myoelectric field of his own body, bypassing ShipNet’s open channel.
“I still don’t know where to begin,” he said.
“Let me show you something,” Bella said. She turned to the year-old image of Janus on the wall. Her hands moved across the keys on her desk. With a flourish of flickering hexels, the image changed abruptly. It was still Janus, but now the image was fuzzy, like a photo of a stone taken through smeared glass.
“This is a synthetic image,” Bella said, “a visible-light composite assembled using long-baseline optical interferometry, put together from data obtained by six different deep-space telescopes within the orbit of Mars. It’s the most recent long-range picture we have of Janus: it was taken less than a day ago.”
The picture showed a different angle from the fly-by snapshot, so the shape of the moon and the distribution of craters looked different, but more than that had changed. There were dark patches in the ice that had not been there before. A second glance showed that the patches were actually wounds: voids where huge scabs of ice, kilometres thick, had come free, or boiled off, or simply ceased to exist. In the dark zones, suggestions of mechanical structures twinkled at the limit of clarity: enormous dark machine parts, curved and coiled, nestling tight as intestines.
“Definitely the money shot,” Parry said.
“The camouflage is breaking away,” Bella said. “Janus—whatever it is—is starting to show its true form. We already have something to work with: the fact that we really are dealing with an alien artefact, and not some bizarre physical process we just didn’t understand.”
“That’s not much,” Parry said.
“There’s more. I mentioned that Janus is leaving our system at a shallow angle to the ecliptic. Well, now we have a much better handle on the trajectory.” Bella made the image shrink until it was an off-white pinpoint against a star map marked with star names, constellation boundaries and faint lines of right ascension and declination, the astronomical counterparts to latitude and longitude. “Ladies and gentleman: we have a star, and we have a name.”
“Which is?” Parry asked.
“Alpha Virginis, the brightest star in Virgo.” Bella highlighted the relevant star: it was the nearest one to the small image of Janus. “Now, I’ll admit it’s not exactly the kind of sun we’d have expected aliens to come from,” she said. “Not only is it hot, heavy and blue, but it’s also part of a binary system. Maybe they didn’t evolve there. But we can’t ignore the evidence. That’s where Janus is heading. That’s the place it now calls home.”
“So the Janus builders,” Svetlana said, “what do we call them? Virgins? Virginians? Alphans?”
“None of the above,” Bella replied. “We name them after the classical name of their destination star. Alpha Virginis is Spica.” She pronounced it carefully, “spiker”, lingering over the syllables. “The Janus builders are the Spicans, and they live two hundred and sixty light-years from Earth.” She beamed at her little gathering. “There. Don’t you feel as if you know them better already?”
“About this mission,” Parry said, “is it too late to change my mind?”
They all laughed. But not as much as Bella might have hoped.
* * *
CNN wanted an interview. Bella took a cam down into the aeroponics lab, attaching it to one of the plant racks with a dab of geckoflex. Aeroponics, with its humid air, mechanical breezes and the soothingly regular chuffing of the aerators, always put her at ease. It was the only place on Rockhopper where she could close her eyes and feel, fleetingly, as if she were back on Earth.
“It must be quite a burden, to be leading this mission,” the anchordoll said in her perky, almost cartoon-like voice.
“It’s a responsibility, certainly,” Bella said, “but I have a good crew under me. I couldn’t ask for a better team.”
“You must be apprehensive, though.”
“I have a duty to exercise professional concern. Janus may throw some surprises at us, but that’s been the case with every comet we’ve ever steered home. There’s never been anything routine about pushing ice.”
“How do you think you’ll react if you meet a real-life alien?”
“As opposed to a not real-life alien?” Bella fingered one of the plants on the rack. Patent numbers and copyright symbols were embossed into the glossy green leaf. “I don’t think it’ll happen. I think we’ll find automated systems, that’s all.”
“How do you feel about that?”
Bella shrugged. “We’ll take pictures, run scans, maybe try to extract a physical sample. But I’m not expecting great conversation from a machine.”
The anchordoll huffed. “Well, we machines may have something to say about that!”
“Yes,” Bella said.
The doll brightened again. “Captain Lind, you’re in charge of a pretty big ship. But it was never designed for this kind of mission, was it?”
“Show me a ship that was.” Bella tried not to sound defensive. “But we’re versatile enough. We’re equipped for remote science studies: it’s just that we’ll be doing a different kind of science from the sort we’re normally used to. But we’ll cope. We’re professionals.” She looked into the cam with what she hoped was the right steely-eyed expression. “Out here we have a saying: ‘We push ice. It’s what we do.’”
“You’ll have to run that by me again, Captain Lind!”
“What we mean is this: we get a job to do, and we finish it. My crew are the best. We’ve got people from the Moon, people from Mars, people from the orbitals, people from marine projects . . . a bunch of underwater guys. Vacuum and water: they’re not that different, really.”
The anchordoll’s face defaulted to one of its blank states: Bella had lost it again. “Could you tell us a little bit more about the rest of your crew?”
“Well, they’re all good people. I wouldn’t want to single any one person out—”
“We’ve had reports that your second-in-command is going to die!” the doll said cheerily.
“Jim Chisholm has a condition, that’s all,” Bella said testily, “one that needs treatment sooner rather than later.”
“How do you feel about that?”
“I’m not thrilled about it, obviously. Nor’s Jim. But we can still get him home in time. In fact—and Jim agrees with me here—Janus is actually our best bet for getting him the medical attention he needs. We’ll be home and dry in six, seven weeks.”
“Let’s hope so, Captain Lind! Moving on, do you deny reports that you’re carrying nuclear weapons?”
“Nothing to deny. We’re carrying FADs—Fragmentation Assistance Devices—that’s all. If we hook up to a comet that’s an odd shape, we might want to chip a few pieces off before we try to push it back home.
“Some sources say Rockhopper’s mission is to plant those devices on Janus and destroy it. Can you comment?”
“I can comment by saying I find that a ludicrous suggestion. Isn’t there something more constructive you’d like to ask me?”
“How do you respond to accusations that much of the technology aboard Rockhopper that is now being used for commercial purposes was developed with UEE funding specifically ring-fenced for the purposes of averting Earth-grazing asteroids and comets?”
“I can’t comment. I just have a job to do.”
“Thank you, Captain Lind. And now to finish, would you like to issue a personal statement to the people back home? Something that encapsulates the way you feel about this mission, your hopes and fears, as you carry the torch of humanity to a place beyond our wildest imaginations?”
Bella stared into the cam. The moment dragged. The anchordoll kept looking at her with a lopsided smile of hopeful expectation. Somewhere in the aeroponics lab the aerator wheezed moisture into the air.
“No,” Bella said. “Nothing.” She reached for the cam and was about to tear it from the rack when something like surrender washed over her.
“Okay,” she said, knowing that CNN would morph out her hesitation, making her responses appear seamless. “I’ll say this. This is a hard job we’ve got to do, no question about it. The entire world is depending on us not to make a mistake. We’re embarking on one of the most critical expeditions in the history of space travel—maybe in the history of travel—and not one of us has been trained for it. Take my word: my crew are the best in the business. But the business is comet mining. We push ice, and we do it pretty well. Exploration of alien artefacts definitely wasn’t in the fine print when any of us signed up for this line of work. But we’re going to do our best. When we get to Janus, we’re not going to sleep until we’ve squeezed every last bit of data out of the thing. No matter what happens, we’re going to keep sending information home. That’s our promise to the world.”
Bella caught her breath before continuing. “I just want to say a word or two about my people. None of us got orders to go to Janus. We received an official request, one that we were free to disregard. I put it to the vote. Some of us wanted to do it, and some of us didn’t. It happened that the majority won the day, but since we took that decision, there hasn’t been a second when I haven’t thought about the others, the good people of my crew who didn’t vote for Janus. These are all people who have families and friends back home. And yet I haven’t heard one damned whisper of dissent from any of them. From the moment we lit the engine, they put themselves into this endeavour with absolute, unflinching commitment. It’s no more than I expected from my team, but that doesn’t mean I’m not proud of them. I couldn’t ask for a better crew. And we’re coming back in one piece. You can quote me on that.”
“Thank you,” the anchordoll said. “And now would you mind reading out this brief promotional statement?”
* * *
Bella poured a nip of Glenmorangie into Svetlana’s glass. They were sitting together in Bella’s office, as they often did at the end of a busy or stressful day. Bella had dimmed the lights, allowing the fish some rest. She’d also put on some music, a soothing cello piece that Svetlana didn’t recognise. It was nice just to have something washing over them quietly. This was one of the few places on the ship where music didn’t have to compete with pumps and generators.
Bella tipped up the bottle, coaxing out the last few drops. “That’s the end of our fun. Until the next rotation, at any rate.”
“You get whisky on the resupply?” Svetlana asked, startled. For some reason, it had never occurred to her to question Bella’s source for this rare treat.
“Not officially. If there’s a resupply tickbox for single malt, I haven’t found it yet.” She laughed. “But I do have my sources.”
Bella lowered her voice, as if the two of them were sharing confidences in a playground. “Cargo-shuttle pilots, mostly. Usually guys with at least twenty years’ service under their wings, and most of them started on the Earth–Mars run—like Garrison, of course.”
Svetlana found herself glancing at the picture of Garrison Lind on Bella’s desk, even though she had seen it a thousand times. He was a startlingly handsome young man in a bright orange spacesuit, his helmet tucked under one arm, grinning broadly, backdropped by an enlarged emblem of one of the old multinational space agencies.
She looked back at Bella. “I guess they knew Garrison.”
“Knew him, or knew of him. Ever since, of course . . . well, it’s not been a problem for me if I need little favours doing. They could get into trouble if they’re ever found out, so I do my best not to abuse their kindness.” She shook the bottle one last time and returned it sadly to its shelf, next to another empty one. “However, it may be time to abuse it again.”
“I’m sure they love doing something for you.”
“They’re good guys.”
“They must have had a lot of respect for Garrison.”
“I guess they did.” Svetlana thought that Bella was about to change the subject, the matter concluded, but then she was off again. “He was popular with most of the people he worked with. Only had to walk into a room and people just clicked with him. I know there are a lot of people like that, but it wears off pretty quickly. But with Garrison, people never stopped liking him.”
They sat in silence for a long while.
Sometimes when Bella spoke of her husband, Svetlana judged that it was only because it was necessary to mention him at a particular point in a story. At other times, Svetlana was less sure. On more than one occasion she had left the room feeling as if Bella had been guardedly hoping they might continue talking about Garrison, but as strong as their friendship was, Svetlana had always backed off. She had never lost the fear that pursuing the subject might hurt Bella more than she realised.
Yet now, more than at any other time, she sensed that Bella was inviting her to talk about Garrison, to voice the unasked questions that always sat between them.
“How long has it been now?” she ventured, knowing that answer without being told. She could count as well as anyone.
“Twenty-one years,” Bella said with a quick smile. “I can tell you to the number of hours, if you want. I don’t know why, exactly, but I’ve been thinking about him a lot in the last few days.”
“I suspect Janus might have something to do with it.” Svetlana sniffed the amber liquid in her glass, sampling the peaty aroma.
“I suppose so. Garrison would have loved to have been part of this. He’d have killed to have made it aboard if he knew what we were going out to do.”
“He’d already have been proud of you.”
“That’s what I keep telling myself—as if I haven’t already lived up to enough imaginary expectations.” Bella looked carefully at Svetlana, seeming to wait until a lull in the music before continuing. “I’ve never told anyone this, okay?”
Svetlana nodded and said nothing, almost holding her breath in expectation.
“Ten or twelve years ago—maybe longer than that—I went through a bad patch.” Bella paused and lit a cigarette. “Garrison was always the more ambitious one. He was the one with the big ideas, the big dreams. I never saw myself sitting aboard a ship like Rockhopper, with a hundred and fifty people under me. Even Garrison would have considered that somewhat optimistic.”
“Times change,” Svetlana murmured. She didn’t want to interrupt the story.
“Not as much as all that.” Bella smoked unhurriedly before continuing, “After Garrison died, I kept on moving. Mostly it was sheer momentum, not looking back, making all the right career moves. Earth to near-Earth ops. Near-Earth to the Moon—I hated it. I can still feel that dust in my eyes.”
Svetlana smiled. “Everyone hates the dust.”
“So I skipped to Mars. Then skipped Big Red to deep system. And then this thing happened. All of a sudden I crashed and burnt. Couldn’t function for shit. They cycled me back to Earth and the tender mercies of the company shrinks—depression, they said. Trying to live up to Garrison’s lost potential, they said. Like I was trying to have his career since he couldn’t.”
“Were they right?”
“I think they were half-right. Another part of me thinks they just couldn’t deal with me. Little Bella Lind, daring to have a career in space.” She let out a self-deprecating laugh. “Okay, so I burnt out, but the men around me were burning out as well. You didn’t hear the shrinks telling them they were trying to live up to someone else’s potential.”
“It’s still a man’s world out here,” Svetlana. said. “Every now and then something happens to remind me of that. Like I’m on some kind of probation. We’ll let you manage this expensive toy for now, but the moment you slip up—”
“I know you work twice as hard as anyone else in your team.”
“Not because the work’s that difficult,” Svetlana said, though she knew there was no need to explain, “just because they won’t tolerate one single mistake.”
“I know. I know exactly how you feel.”
Svetlana sipped at the whisky, determined to make it last. “I get a bit defensive sometimes. Before this Janus thing happened, I snapped at Parry. He was on my case about the repairs taking too long.”
“Probably because I was on his case,” Bella said.
“We were both to blame, Parry for not knowing that I was already doing everything possible to get that work finished, and me for not understanding how much pressure he was under to get that driver tapped.”
“You squared things with him?”
“You know how it is with Parry and me. We’re pretty tight. Things like that don’t last long.”
“You’re a good couple,” Bella said. “Takes some doing, keeping a relationship together out here. Not many places you can sulk on a ship.”
“I guess if we were going to murder each other, we’d have done it by now.”
“That’s a good sign.”
“Parry wants to go home. Says he’s soaked up enough sieverts for one lifetime. He’s talking about putting in for transfer.”
“I heard,” Bella said quietly. “He’s flagged Mike Takahashi as a possible successor. I suppose he wants you to go with him?”
“That’s his plan: move back down to Earth, get married, have a kid or two. Parry says he can find work at one of the training centres. Failing that, he says we should open a dive school, dust off those PADI certifications.”
“Sounds pretty idyllic to me.”
Svetlana sighed. “The trouble is, I worked damned hard to get out here. I’m the chief of flight systems on a fucking nuclear-powered spaceship, Bella. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
“Except when someone’s squeezing you about repairs.” She smiled and Svetlana grinned back.
“Okay, so that part sucks. But the rest of it’s pretty good.”
Bella stubbed out her cigarette and lit another. Svetlana wondered if the cigarettes came up on the cargo shuttle with the Glenmorangie.
“So what’s the plan? Rotate or stay?”
“We keep putting off having a proper discussion about it—or rather, Parry does.”
“Maybe putting it off isn’t such a bad idea,” Bella said. “To a certain degree, we’re going to be famous when we get back. Not all of us, but certainly the senior crew . . . you’re going to need a damned good agent, put it like that. There’ll be book and film deals. Chat shows. Lecture circuits. Game development. A lot of possibilities are going to open up.”
“That’s what Parry keeps telling me.”
“I’ll be sorry to lose him from the team, if it comes to that, but my loss would be your gain.”
“I could do a lot worse than Parry.”
“You making it work gives me hope for the human species.”
After a moment, Svetlana said, “You could make it work too, if you wanted to.”
Bella smiled tightly. “I don’t think so.”
“Why not? You’ve got a good few years ahead of you.”
“Let’s not go there, all right?”
Svetlana persisted. “You still turn heads. I know you’ve had relationships since Garrison died: we’ve talked about them often enough. What would we do without in vino veritas?”
Bella shrugged philosophically. “Right now there isn’t time in my life for anything but this job. Especially now.”
“Okay, fair enough, but what about later, when this is all over? Like you just said: a lot’s going to change.”
“I worked hard to get here, Svieta, just like you did. I’m not sure I could give all of this up.”
“You’ve run this ship for four years without a hitch. If there was ever a point that needed making, I think you can consider it adequately made.”
“Time to move on, you mean?”
“Like Parry says, there are only so many sieverts you can soak up in a lifetime.”
Bella gazed at her fish, dark shapes patrolling the unlit gloom of the tank. “It’ll be good to get back home for a while, that’s for sure.”
“But sooner or later you’ll want to come back out here.”
“I want to see the things Garrison never got to see. Before it’s too late.”
“I understand,” Svetlana said. And she knew that whatever emotional ties still bound Bella to her dead husband, whatever matters of the heart remained as yet unresolved, they were too complex, too fraught, to be unknotted in a single conversation. Even between the closest of friends.
Bella’s tone lifted. “Before I forget—I wanted to thank you. You could have made life a lot more difficult for me with that tech input. Instead you came through and gave it to me straight. I appreciated that.”
“I guess we’re all in the same cattle boat.”
“All the same—it was appreciated.” Bella leaned over to pat the wall of her office, her hand dimpling the soft display surface. “And—barring the occasional tremor—she seems to be holding together pretty well, doesn’t she?”
“She’ll hold,” Svetlana said. “Lockheed-Krunichev build them good.”
* * *
Powell Cagan had attached a media file to his latest message: an image of the rival spacecraft, captured during engine start-up tests by the long-range surveillance cameras of the UEE’s Replicating Technologies Inspectorate. The new ship looked recognisably Chinese; some lingering influence in its pale blue-green architecture spoke of dynasties and dragons.
“The unofficial word is that they’re calling it the Shenzhou Five,” Cagan said. “It means ‘Sacred Vessel Number Five’, apparently, and that name has some historical significance for them.”
From time to time an irregular stutter of hot white light shone from the flared trumpet of the ship’s fusion drive. Chemical rockets, stationed around the hull, counteracted the impulse from the fusion motor. The Shenzhou Five was still encased in a cradle of support modules, with a mothlike shuttle docked at the largest habitat block. It looked tiny next to the looming new spacecraft.
“The RTI has demanded inspection rights,” Cagan said. “They’ve credible evidence that the Chinese have put a forge vat aboard so that they can grow equipment after the ship’s left Earth orbit. Beijing’s stonewalling, unsurprisingly. Inga will keep up the squeeze to get those inspectors aboard, but even if she fails, it doesn’t look like the Chinese will be going anywhere fast.
“Our analysts say their tokamak design’s flawed—they’ll be lucky if they get that thing out of orbit, let alone onto a Janus intercept. But in the unlikely event that luck turns out to be on their side—and if our political leverage fails—you’ll need to be prepared for a more complicated scenario than we originally envisaged. I’m pressing Inga to rubber-stamp an upgrade to your status: if we can rebrand Rockhopper as an official UEE expedition, that will give us a lot more room for manoeuvre.”
“How so?” Bella mouthed soundlessly.
“There’s still some fine print to be looked at,” Cagan said, “but our reading of the situation is that UEE expeditionary status would automatically designate an exclusion volume around Rockhopper. If they ignore it, you’ll be authorised to use reasonable force to prevent commercial claim-jumping. Of course, Rockhopper is not technically an armed vessel—” Cagan paused. “I’ll speak to you as soon as I have word from Inga.”
He signed off.
Bella sat staring at the blank flexy in a stunned funk. She had not asked for her ship to be reclassified as an instrument of the UEE, nor had she asked for permission to shoot another ship out of the sky if it violated her company’s interests.
Rockhopper had been under way for a week now. Around the system, a massive coordinated observation programme saw every large civilian telescope trained on the fleeing moon. Even military spysats had been pressed into service, diverted away from the monitoring of hair-trigger frontiers and treaty-violation hotspots to peer into deep space, in the direction of Virgo. Commercial communications networks had been reassigned to cope with the mammoth effort of merging the data from this awesome concentration of surveillance. From near-Earth out to the cold, dark territory of the outer system, space hummed with intense, fevered scrutiny. Every day took Janus further away; but every day also saw more aperture and processing power coming on line, and for a little while the human effort outweighed the moon’s increasing distance.
The images had sharpened, revealing the urban intricacy of the Spican machinery under the now broken and incomplete icy mantle. What they were looking at was definitely alien, but at least it stayed still and allowed them to feel as if it obeyed something like logic. The newest images uploaded to Rockhopper came with nomenclature: features in the machinery that had been given tentative, resolutely unofficial names. Junction Box, Radiator Ridge, Big North Spiral, Little South Spiral, Spike Island, Magic Kingdom, Crankshaft Valley. None of it meant anything, but it was comforting to put some human labels on the alien territory.
Bella thought she could deal with the alien territory—she had signed up for that when she agreed to take Rockhopper out to Janus. But no one had warned her that she might also become embroiled in a hair-trigger standoff with Beijing.
Not technically armed, Cagan had said, but both of them knew full well what that really meant.
She looked at the fish tank, idly contemplating the mistake everyone made in assuming she’d used part of her mass allowance to make it happen. That wasn’t the case. As she’d explained to Svetlana, everything in the tank was already mass-budgeted into the ship, except for the fish. Even the glass was surplus window material, stored here as opposed to somewhere else aboard Rockhopper, glued into a temporary watertight box. If refurbishment ever came calling for the glass, they’d have a fight . . . but it was theirs, in the small print.
No, the tank hadn’t cost her one gram of her mass budget, but she’d had to pull some serious strings to make it happen. It was a perk. So was the big room with the carpeted floor. No one else on the entire ship had a carpet. No one else had decent soundproofing. This, she supposed, was when she started paying for the perks. She had always known it would happen one day.
That didn’t mean she had to like it.
* * *
“Sorry to dump on a friend,” Bella said when Svetlana arrived in her office, “especially when you’ve just got off-shift, but I need your help with something.”
“What are friends for, if not for dumping on?” Svetlana scrunched a finger through her hair, still wet from the shower. She wore jogging pants and a dive-chick T-shirt printed with a mermaid and moving shoals of animated fish. “What is it now: someone wants another slice of you?”
Bella shook her head grimly. She had already farmed out several interview requests to her senior officers, including Svetlana, and they’d lapped her up: the bright Armenian-American girl with the mind of a nuclear engineer and the body of a one-time champion free diver, one who just happened to be romantically entangled with a space miner with several commendations for bravery during EVA operations. Now even the diffident Parry was getting his fifteen minutes, squirming like something found under a stone.
Too good to be true, they said.
Bella pulled a thick stack of printouts from her desk. “This is a bit different, I’m afraid. It’s delicate—very, very delicate. It can only be entrusted to a safe pair of hands.”
“Suddenly this is beginning to feel like a major dump.”
“They don’t get much more major.” Bella passed the stack to Svetlana. “What you’ve got there are copies of one hundred paintings, selected from over fifty-six thousand individual entries submitted by American school kids between first and third grades. Artistic media range from finger smears to . . . well, something approximating brushwork.”
Svetlana slipped off the rubber band and leafed through the first few sheets. “Aliens,” she said, in a numbed tone of voice. “They’ve got the kids painting aliens.”
“It’s educational,” Bella said.
“It’s scary.” Svetlana held up one of the pictures: something that resembled the business end of a blue toilet brush, smeared with enthusiastic daubs of green. “Aren’t we supposed to be stopping the kids getting nightmares, not encouraging them?”
“That’s for the education system to decide, not us. Our job is to grade the efforts, that’s all.”
“Oh, right. So: five minutes’ work, right? We just pull a few out at random—”
Bella grimaced. “There’s a bit more to it than that, I’m afraid. They’d like us to comment on the pictures—say something nice and constructive about them. All of them—even the more—ahem!—artistically challenged ones.”
“All of them?”
Bella nodded sternly. “All of them. In enough detail that no one’s going to get offended . . . no one’s going to think we’re not approaching this with due diligence.”
“Holy shit, Bella.”
“And we’ll be steering clear of expletives, obviously.”
“Oh, I’ve got my own stack of homework to grade, don’t you worry. You drew the long straw on this one. I’m the one who’ll be up all night reading creative assignments about me and my ship meeting aliens.”
Svetlana slipped the rubber band back around the printouts. “This can’t get any worse, can it? I mean, as if we didn’t have enough to be doing as it is.”
“This is nothing. Yesterday I had the Cosmic Avenger fan club on my back. They wanted me to comment on which of my crew members best approximated the various fictional characters . . . and how I’d have dealt with scenarios from the show, if they happened to me.”
“I hope you told them where they could shove it.”
Bella feigned horror. “Oh, no. I just put Saul Regis on the case. Man for the job.”
“Man for the job,” Svetlana agreed, nodding. “Well, I guess that made him happy.”
“As a pig in shit.”
“Talking of which, I do hope you’ve lined up something nice and juicy for Craig Schrope. There’s a man with way too much time on his hands.”
Bella leaned back in her seat, sensing an opportunity to get something out in the open that had been troubling her lately. “You and Craig . . . it’s not exactly an eye-to-eye thing, is it?”
“We’ve been over this.”
“I know, I know—he’s a suit, you’re a hands-on type. But we need suits as well as tool-pushers. Craig’s a damn good asset to this company. As bitter a pill as this might be to swallow, he’s actually quite good at his job.”
“We’re off the record now, aren’t we?”
“He rubs me up the wrong way. He’s always giving me shitty looks, especially if I venture even so much as an opinion in his presence—as if I wasn’t head of flight systems, but some lower-echelon grunt with only a few hours of wet time under my belt.”
“Craig gives everyone shitty looks. I think it’s genetic.” Bella paused, wondering how much it was wise to disclose. “Look, I’ll let you in on a secret. He’s not had an easy ride out here. DeepShaft tried to keep a lid on it for obvious reasons, but his last assignment on Mars—”
Svetlana looked mildly interested. “Go on.”
“Head office sent Craig into the Shalbatana bore project. There’d been reports of corner-cutting, dangerous working practices, questionable accounting.” Bella lit a cigarette, taking her time. She always enjoyed spinning out a story. “Craig uncovered a viper’s nest of high-level corruption. At every turn he met with obstruction and hostility, mostly from hands-on types like you and me. Physical violence, death threats, the lot—but Craig sorted that mess out. He turned Shalbatana around. Within six months they were digging faster than any of the other bore sites, and they had the best safety record on Big Red.”
“I heard he made a lot of enemies on Mars.”
“Enough that head office decided the only way to keep him on the payroll—and in one piece—was to move him onto another project. Hence Rockhopper. But don’t give Craig a hard time because he has a grudge against tool-pushers. Good ol’ tool-pushers sabotaged his suit, tried to throw him down a service elevator, threatened to get to his family.”
Svetlana looked down. “I didn’t know he had a family.”
“There’s a lot we don’t know about each other,” Bella said. “And he’s wrong about us, of course—this is as tight and well-run an operation as any in DeepShaft. But you can’t blame him for carrying some suspicion over from his last assignment. It’ll just take a bit of time to rub his corners off. Then he’ll fit in, I’m sure of it.”
“Okay, I’ll try to be patient,” Svetlana said. “But I still want to see him getting his share of homework.”
“Don’t worry, that’s taken care of. He’s got a list of high-school science questions as long as my arm.”