Domain Day 115, 2217
IF THERE WAS a place within the realm of the living where a traveler could pause to behold the stark geography of death, to examine its terrain from behind a transparent veil so thin that the slightest accident—or deliberate act—would tear it asunder and deliver him into that eternal wasteland, Aiden Macallan had found it. He had, in fact, been drawn here by its siren song, compelled by the curse of his own insatiable curiosity . . .
“Aiden, we have a Priority One transmission from the Argo.”
The AI’s thin, metallic voice forced Aiden’s attention back to the task of steering his surface rover across a frozen terrain scattered with boulders and hidden crevasses. Turning away from the forward-facing viewport, he scowled at the comm board, where a red indicator pulsed in the rover’s cramped crew compartment. What now?
It was day 13 of Aiden’s solo survey mission here on a frozen rock called d-II—the second moonlet orbiting the fourth planet in the Ross 248 system. He was finally on his way back to his survey habitat after a two-day sample-collecting excursion that had taken him nearly 30 kilometers north of the habitat. The outing had been plagued by unexpected delays, starting with the M2 core-drill just five kilometers out, where he’d found the main servo unit seized up solid by temperatures hovering around minus 220 C. Repairs had taken over five hours. Then, with three drill sites left to inspect, the rover’s four-wheel drive mechanism had balked, slowing him down even more. Those repairs had taken another three hours. They just didn’t make surface rovers like they used to back in the old days. At least Terra Corp didn’t.
“Thank you for keeping me so well-informed, Hutton.” The AI was developing a disturbing knack for telling him things he didn’t want to hear. Not in a good mood, Aiden squinted out the forward port, searching the bleak terrain for a level patch of ground. Spotting one about 40 meters ahead, he steered the vehicle down a rocky slope and came to a shuddering halt on the shore of a frozen methane lake. Somewhere on the lake’s opposite rim, three kilometers to the south, his one-man survey habitat sat broadcasting its locator beacon. He peered into the gloom for visual contact, but queasy indigo vapors obscured the near horizon. Just above that spot, the moon’s parent planet, a huge Jupiter-like gas giant, leered down at him, its face quarter-full and menacing. To the east, rays of crimson light lanced over jagged mountain peaks as the system’s primary star, a red dwarf, began its six-hour vault overhead. Long, eerie shadows crept across the lake’s rock-hard surface. Aiden shivered.
He stood from the drive seat, unlatched his helmet, and tried to stretch the stiffness from his back. The articulated segments of his p-suit snapped and creaked in protest. He didn’t need to wear the damn thing inside a pressurized crew compartment, but since he was the only living thing on this godforsaken moonlet, 10 light-years from home, it was better to be safe than dead.
He bent over the comm console and tapped off the blinking light. The transmission was from the Survey Vessel Argo, the mother ship, hailing him from afar, like beckoning one of her wayward children lost in the Deep. The Argo’s survey team had been stationed here in the Ross 248 system for a standard month now, and the Argo had all four of its survey shuttles deployed among the resource-rich moons of the system’s outer gas giants. As usual, Aiden had volunteered for the Zetes, the ship’s only solo shuttle. He’d been deposited here on d-II to conduct a science/survey investigation.
Right. As if real science had anything to do with it. “Open the comm, Hutton.”
Aiden waited for the visuals to resolve on the screen, shifting his feet restlessly. Other than the routine 24-hour log-ins and his automated status reports to the Argo, he hadn’t conversed with another human being since his arrival. Now the command ship was hailing him from the far side of the system using a priority channel. A face deeply creased and impatient materialized on the screen. Ben Stegman, Argo’s commander and chief surveyor, glared out at him with fierce, dark eyes. The gray hairs of Stegman’s eyebrows stood up from his forehead as if electrified. “Macallan, what’s your status? I’ve been trying to reach you for over an hour. You know my standing orders: your comm channel remains open at all times!”
“Greetings, Commander.” Aiden tried on a guileless grin. He’d switched off his comm days ago, annoyed by the chatty data flow from the Argo intended to keep a lone surveyor from going mad. He relied instead on a customized access program he’d entered into Hutton’s neural net to notify him of any priority transmissions.
“My comm was temporarily . . . out of commission,” Aiden explained. “What’s up?”
He gauged the millions of kilometers separating him from the Argo by the time it took for Stegman’s expression to change from blustering rage to genuine concern.
“Out of commission?” The commander’s eyebrows lifted. “Listen, Aiden. I don’t like these solo missions. You’ve seen the stats. Spacers get starstruck ten times quicker on solo missions. You’re not that different from everyone else.”
Aiden stroked his short beard, nodding. The company had equipped each of its survey vessels with one solo module—on a trial basis, they said—in yet another attempt to minimize operating costs. They’d tried unmanned robotic survey missions but found them far less productive than ones operated by flesh and blood. Survey Branch had been forced to admit that the human element still made a critical difference. Predictably, they responded by asking why use two or three Survey Branch personnel where one might be sufficient? The answer, of course, was obvious to any experienced spacer working the Deep. But then nobody bothered asking them.
Aiden, however, preferred the solo missions, volunteering for them regularly. When his psych profile confirmed a unique tolerance for solitude, Terra Corp was more than willing to oblige him, bypassing Branch protocol requiring survey teams to rotate solo missions evenly among their members.
“I’m fine, Ben. Really. Just a spot of trouble with my comm gear, that’s all.”
Stegman stared back with an expression of a man trying to read a book from which pages were missing at random. Then he refocused, his jaw set. “There’s been a change of plans, Dr. Macallan. Terminate your mission as of now and get off that rock. Set course for the planet’s L5 point. We’re on our way there to pick you up. Rendezvous in 36 hours. Do you copy?”
“Terminate the mission?” Aiden stepped back from the comm screen. “Commander, with all due respect, that’s ill-advised. I’ve got a dozen core-drills still operating here, each one over two kilometers down, and twice that many geo-monitors scattered over both hemispheres. I’d need at least three days to secure all that equipment. And you’re giving me a few hours?”
He paused to calm his voice. Indignation was the wrong approach to take with Stegman. “Commander,” he continued, “I’ve got valuable data coming in from all stations, pieces of the puzzle I need to complete the picture here. This rock is starting to look like high-priced real estate. It’s rich down here. Resources Branch is going to love my report.”
No doubt about it. As soon as Terra Corp nailed the legalities, its mining crews would be swarming this place, hacking away at the vast ice mountains, taking not only water, methane, and nitrogen, but also extracting metals and rare elements.
“Abandon the stations, Aiden,” Stegman replied, unmoved. “That’s straight from Terra Corp HQ. Something’s come up. It’s hot, and we’ve got the call. A Delta-priority directive from Farthing himself. No room for argument. See you at L5. Stegman out.”
Abandon the equipment? In Aiden’s eight years with Terra Corp, he’d never known them to discard anything of value, especially multimillion-dollar survey instruments. But the directive came straight from the company chairman, R.Q. Farthing himself, with a Delta priority. That meant some kind of covert action—something Terra Corp wanted to conceal from ARM, the Allied Republics of Mars, its sole competitor out here in the Deep.
“Bloody hell!” Aiden slammed his fist on the console. He was fed up with System politics and of Terra Corp’s growing influence in it. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone to do the job they sent him here to do?
The United Earth Domain and ARM had coexisted peacefully within the System for decades. But by now, year 2217, their colonies had proliferated, and mining for water, ores, and organics had grown brutally competitive. Political maneuvering was still the rule, but things had deteriorated rapidly over the last year, and several shooting skirmishes had already occurred. Survey ships like the Argo were now equipped with heavy laser weapons, as were their ARM counterparts. Speculations of war played daily on the NewsNet, and the entire System was on edge. It was insane. A system-wide resource war would be the ultimate stupidity, especially now, when all of Bound Space was readily accessible through the voidoids.
Aiden just shook his head, floated back to the control seat, and engaged the rover’s drive. Rendezvous in 36 hours? It would take over half that time just to secure his shuttle, launch, and get out to L5. Most Survey personnel would just do as they were told, drop everything and get the hell off this desolate rock. But not Aiden. His mother, before she’d been killed, taught him otherwise: if you had a job to do—any job, small or large—you commit to it unconditionally and do the very best you can. You did it for self-respect and for the reputation of integrity it built around you. She would say to him, “Work for yourself, and soon you’ll see that self is everywhere.”
So if he wanted to salvage enough data to call this mission a success, he had a lot of work to do, and the only way to do it was back at his survey habitat. He had to get there fast.
The safest way around the lake’s perimeter would take too long. He’d have to take a shortcut, straight across the frozen surface. But he’d better do it quickly. Peering out the viewport, he saw that the brooding red sun had just cleared the serrated horizon. He probably had enough time to make it across the surface before it started to melt. From past observations, he’d noted that the lake’s two-meter-thick crust remained perfectly solid until the red dwarf sun stood a full 27 degrees above the horizon. After that, the frozen surface would begin melting, leaving only liquid hydrocarbons below, roughly 400 meters deep.
He steered the rover out over the blue-white plane, applying full power to the minifusion motor. About two kilometers out, the rover shuddered with a loud clang and skidded to an abrupt halt. “Dammit! Status report, Hutton.”
“It seems that the rover’s drive mechanism has suffered a 98 percent malfunction.” Hutton’s thin nasal twang sounded blissfully unperturbed.
“Run a primary diagnostic. Now!” Aiden stood up and grabbed his helmet.
“The diagnostic routine is complete. I regret to inform you that without available spare parts, the rover is beyond repair. The main drive spindle has snapped in half.”
“Shit! Looks like I’ll have to hoof it.” Aiden secured his helmet to the neck seal, locked it down, and hefted the EVA pack onto his back. When the suit pressurized, he cycled himself through the small airlock situated aft and stepped out onto the lake’s frozen surface.
“Excuse me, Aiden.” Hutton’s voice sounded small through his helmet comm. “The nearest shoreline is still over a kilometer away. According to my calculations, you might not have sufficient time to get there on foot before—”
“Shut up, Hutton!” He didn’t need the damn AI telling him the obvious.
After 20 minutes of bounding forward in graceless low-G lopes, the red sun had risen higher, and his next step left him stuck up to his knees in rapidly melting methane slush. Not far below his feet, methane and ethane existed in perpetual liquid state, thanks to gravitational friction generated by the moon’s massive parent planet. The only direction Aiden could go now was down.
He cursed into the clammy atmosphere of his helmet and tried to pull himself free, but without anything solid to grasp, he only sank farther. Through his frosted helmet visor, he could barely make out the distant shoreline, a thin, dark line of hope veiled by methane vapors, teasingly out of reach. His helmet sensor indicated an external temperature of minus 172 degrees C and rising steadily—a few degrees higher than the melting point of methane. Not good. And on a moonlet this size, there wasn’t even a remote chance of a random thermal inversion to keep things frozen solid a little longer. No chance in hell.
His heart pounded in his ears. The metallic smell of fear flooded his helmet. Panic transfixed him inside a familiar nightmare where his legs refused to move, his feet embedded in the substance of death, unable to outrun a surging tidal wave of terror.
He closed his eyes and focused on an exercise Skye had taught him: Do not deny fear. Make fear your friend. Let it show you the way.
He refocused and glanced back at the disabled rover. The vehicle’s bulk teetered tragically as it began to sink. Seconds later, the uppermost section of its comm antenna slipped out of sight, Aiden’s last beacon of hope snuffed out. He glared up at the gas giant, now filling half the southern sky. Its florid orange face offered no sympathy, only a mask of its own tortured atmospheres. Aiden started to shake his fist at it, but the movement only caused him to sink farther. He was already up to his groin.
He heard Skye’s voice again inside his head. When there is nowhere to escape, things become very clear. See with new eyes.
He chin-tapped the helmet’s comm control. “Hutton, launch the Mark III survey probe from the shuttle’s staging bay and home in on my suit’s transponder signal.”
It was a long shot. Stationed at the shuttle’s survey habitat, the Mark III was small, about 2.5 meters in length, but it had a geologic platform designed to retrieve material samples with a maximum carrying capacity of 100 kilograms, adjusted for local gravity. Unfortunately, he and his tempered p-suit together weighed slightly more than that on d-II. Even if the probe located him in time, and if he could climb into its samples net, the little craft might not have enough lift to carry him aloft. But he was out of options. The nearest human beings were aboard the Argo, 150 million kilometers out.
“The Mark III survey probe has been launched,” Hutton intoned.
With his gloved hand, Aiden wiped away the methane frost from his visor and scanned the dull red sky for the probe. A tiny black dot appeared against a bank of ruddy haze. It ranged out from the shoreline and headed straight toward him, zeroing in on his transponder signal. Then suddenly it veered off to the east, searching. Aiden’s stomach knotted. The probe must have lost his signal. He had to boost the transponder’s gain. Reaching for his beltline control mod, he saw he was up to his waist now, and the transponder unit was submerged in methane slush. The suit’s heating unit started to fail. His toes felt like ice. Numbness crept up his legs. In a few minutes, he would start sinking to the bottom, buried alive in liquid hydrocarbons. Terror assaulted him, icy hands clutching at his throat, robbing him of breath and reason.
He thought he saw Skye’s face materialize from the formless mists outside his faceplate. See with new eyes . . .
Reaching into the methane slush, he fumbled for the transponder control, keyed the transmitter to maximum gain, and waited. And breathed. Just breathe. That’s all there is. Breathe once. Breathe twice. Breathe . . .
By his fifth breath, he spotted the probe veering back toward him. By his ninth breath, the Mark III reached his position. By his tenth, he was up to his armpits. The insect-shaped probe descended and moved in, its fusion thruster pointed downward in hover mode. Aiden watched in horror as the thruster’s star-hot lance crept toward him, lethal, incandescent within a billowing plume of methane vapor. Damn! He hadn’t thought about how to stay clear of the thruster. It inched toward him blindly. He’d be incinerated within seconds. His mouth went dry.
“Hutton! Power down the—” Before he could finish, the fusion thruster suddenly shut off a mere two meters from his head. Simultaneously, the peripheral attitude thrusters kicked in, operating on compressed cryohydrogen to keep the probe aloft. It approached Aiden slowly and hovered just within his reach.
He shook the cold sweat from his forehead, splattering the inside of his faceplate, then reached up to curl his fingertips over the rim of the samples net. When he tried hoisting himself up, the probe destabilized and nosed down under his weight. His fingers stiffened on the rim, struggling to hold their grip. His body shook, cold to the bone.
The faceplate display in Aiden’s helmet told him his body’s core temperature had dropped below 29 degrees C. Way too low. He’d be checking out very soon. Already he felt himself slipping away, fading out of place and time.
The probe’s residual heat had liquefied the slush around him even more, causing him to sink completely below the surface, his faceplate now submerged. Darkness closed in. Only his arms remained above as he dangled helplessly from the probe’s rim.
At least he’d stopped sinking. The craft’s upward lift was just enough to support his weight, but not to pull him free. The hydrogen thrusters were designed for attitude control, fine adjustments only, not heavy lifting. Aiden forced his mind to work. The probe’s main fusion engine probably had enough power to lift him free, but first he’d have to pull himself up into the samples net before the fusion nozzles ignited, or else he’d be vaporized. Right. He could barely move, much less pull himself up. There had to be another way.
“Hutton. If you can hear me, open the hydrogen nozzles wide and apply maximum lift.”
“I have already tried that. And the hydrogen tanks will be empty in 30 seconds.”
Aiden tried to speak, but his voice froze. Panic thrashed inside his chest, a wild beast threatening to annihilate him. He forced himself to visualize his fear as a black hole inside his body, a point of collapsed reality that sucked energy into its insatiable center. He could see it now as a thing unto itself, to look fear in the eye and find his strength within it.
In a last desperate effort, he tried to hoist himself up again, but his arms felt frozen in place by the cold. The probe dipped, lowering him deeper into his methane grave. He’d stopped shaking, his muscles grown rigid. His mind clouded over, hypothermia advancing. As the sole bearer of life in a place forever dead, Aiden Macallan’s future was now measured in heartbeats, an ever-slowing countdown of failing breath and fading hope. So cold, so easy to die . . .
Then, with star-hot brilliance, the fusion thruster reignited. The probe lurched forward, pulling his body halfway out of the slush. It accelerated abruptly, yanking him free, and began dragging him forward. Aiden glanced sideways at the searing exhaust plume. It was directed away from him at an impossibly acute angle, leaving him unharmed beneath the vehicle’s fuselage. But how? Hutton?
Cold gray mists seeped into his head, darkening his vision. His right hand lost its grip on the rim, leaving only his left hand clinging for life. Hold on, dammit. Hold on!
The Mark III picked up speed and headed toward the shoreline, holding a steady altitude of one meter above the surface. Aiden hung on like a bewildered infant clinging to his mother, stretched out face up beneath her metallic belly. His last memory before blacking out was the sight of his boot-encased heels skimming along the liquefied surface, casting huge fantails of shimmering methane up into the blood-red light.