“How frozen and how faint I then became.” —Dante Alighieri
Desperate burning gasps of air overrode everything else in the frozen landscape of her world. There were other things, of course: the crunch of her boots as she loped awkwardly through the hydrocarbon sludge typical of ice worlds; the sour odor of sweat; the stabbing pain in her side; the metallic taste in her mouth from an excess of hemoglobin rushing to her lungs, trying desperately to supply her body with the oxygen it was demanding; her eyes stinging and blurred from salted tears; the nagging certainty that she would soon die.
None of these other things mattered. The only thing that mattered was the sound of her own breathing, loud and harsh in the echo chamber of her helmet: In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. This was her focal point, her mantra, her proof of life.
Being alive was a thing not to be taken for granted on this world. The likelihood of her having made it this far was laughable small. It was even less likely that she would live long enough to complete her mission. She had started out with a power sled but ran it into a crevasse before she was halfway across the frozen methane lake. Now she was on foot, her thudding boots driving angry shocks up her legs, her heart banging against her rib cage, her lungs bursting, her muscles cramping.
These things she shut out of her mind, as she had been trained to do. If she allowed any of them to claim more than ancillary attention, they would overcome her will and she would give up. Then it all would have been for nothing.
But she damn well wasn’t going to give up, was she? Not now. Not after having come this far. She was going to finish her mission or die trying, because SysSec needed to know what she had found, because what she had found was bigger and more dangerous than any of them had imagined. So she continued pounding across the surface of a frozen lake on a frozen world in the frozen reaches of the Kuiper Belt; a world not made for life, a world that had reduced itself to an unending succession of gasping breaths and pounding boots, a world that would eventually, inevitably kill her.
She glanced at the sky. The stars were almost painfully bright because the planet didn’t have enough atmosphere to blunt their intensity or make them twinkle. They leaped out from the black velvet background: bluish-white, orange, deep red, yellow. So many stars. So far away. Except the brightest one.
The sun sat low on the horizon, a roiling thermonuclear furnace every second hurling out unimaginable amounts of energy, as it had done for five billion years and would do for another five billion years, giving light and heat to its little family of planets and moons, making life possible.
Morning had come to the ice world but made little difference. At fifteen billion kilometers the sun was too far away, its light and heat exhausted by the time it got this far out. Day and night were the same here: eternally dark, eternally cold, Dante’s ninth circle.
The suit’s headlamp provided the only illumination, vainly trying to pierce the impenetrable darkness. She kept it aimed at the ground in front of her so she could see rocks and crevices and anything else that might trip her up. A single mis-step, a twist of an ankle, a tear in the environment suit . . . it would be over.
Outside the headlamp’s dancing circle of light was only inky darkness. She knew that steep cliffs stood like ice giants ahead of her, waiting for her in the dark. Hills and depressions and jagged upheavals of ice surrounded her. Eternal night swallowed them whole. If not for the virtual map overlaying her heads-up display, she would be utterly and hopelessly lost, like everything else on this god-forsaken world.
Of the wealth of information offered up by her helmet’s HUD, only two data points mattered. One told her she had twenty-seven minutes of air left at her current rate of consumption. Twenty-seven minutes of life. It was enough to get her to the ship as long as nothing else went wrong. Like that was going to happen. It was a standing joke at SysSec Special Ops that something always went wrong, and if it didn’t you weren’t trying hard enough.
Heat was the other data point that mattered. The environment suit was doing a surprisingly good job of keeping her warm. She was shivering from head to toe and her feet ached from the cold and she couldn’t feel her toes anymore, but that was to be expected. She had not been able to get hold of a heavy-duty environment suit and had to settle for a light-duty suit designed for inside work around dangerous hazardous chemicals, a suit never intended to handle minus 240 degrees Celsius, at least not for any length of time. At that temperature hydrogen, helium and neon were the only gasses that were still gasses. A few degrees colder and she would be swimming in a lake of liquid neon instead of walking on frozen methane.
According to the HUD, the suit’s internal heating unit was operating well beyond its maximum capacity. It had been for some time. A blinking red light in one corner of her visual field served as a constant reminder that it could fail at any moment. It was a testament to somebody’s workmanship that it hadn’t already. When the suit’s heating unit finally got around to dying, the temperature inside her suit would plummet, anxious to obey the second law of thermodynamics by equalizing the temperature differential between the inside of the suit and the outside. In the end everything came down to a handful of universal laws, none of which cared one iota about whether she lived or died.
Nineteen minutes of air left. A glint of light appeared in her peripheral vision and vanished. She resisted the almost primal urge to look, instead forcing herself to keep her eyes on the ground in front of her and keep moving. The flicker of light appeared and disappeared again. The third time it did not disappear. A flier was headed her direction.
Panic welled up from some place inside her, seeking to overwhelm her, trying to paralyzing her with fear. In an act of mental violence she drove it out of her mind. She had been trained to ignore fear, just like she had been trained to ignore pain. Neither one was going to defeat her, not today.
She saw the ice wall too late to stop her forward motion and ran headlong into it, bounding off the unyielding surface and landing on her back. Kind of funny, really. Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Such a simple, elegant law; such a rude demonstration of its real life application.
Panic clawed at her again when she realized that the light from her headlamp was shining straight up into the thin neon atmosphere, a beacon shouting, “Here I am. Come and get me.” Except it wasn’t. The lamp was broken, leaving her blind in the forever night.
She needed to get up. Lying on the ground exposed too much surface area to the ice. If she didn’t move, she would die. She rolled off her back and scrabbled onto her hands and knees. A burst of pain erupted from somewhere in her lower back, bringing a groan to her throat and tears to her eyes. The fall had done something to her lower back and hip, something bad.
It seemed to take every last bit of her strength to thrust herself up onto her feet. She swayed, her legs threatening to collapse and throw her back onto the killing ground. A few moments flailing around in the dark brought her outstretched hands into contact with the offending wall of ice. The pain in her back had reduced her to shuddering sobs but she had to keep moving. To stop was to fail, and that was not an option she was willing to entertain.
Twelve minutes of air. She ordered her feet to move and was surprised when they did. She groped along the wall of ice, one impossibly difficult shuffle after another. Jolts of pain shot through her right buttocks and upper leg. The ice wall abruptly ended and she tumbled forward, her knees hitting the ground with a jarring thud. She cried out; violent sobs again wracked her body. It took a while to get herself under control. Her virtual map had vanished; she didn’t know why. All she knew was that she no longer knew where she was. If she was incredibly lucky, she had fallen into the ravine she was looking for. If not … well, there was no point in thinking about that.
She couldn’t feel her feet anymore. They had become dead weights hanging off the ends of rubbery legs. Not willing to risk standing up, she began crawling up the incline of the ravine on her hands and knees. She felt her way around the invisible upthrusts of jagged ice that cluttered the ravine floor, threatening to puncture her suit if she gave them a chance.
The ravine abruptly exploded with light, forcing her eyes to squeeze shut. She dropped face down on the ground. She couldn’t stay like that for very long but she didn’t know what else to do. She needed to offer the least possible profile.
Her body was shaking, either from cold or fear or both. Her back crawled with snakes trying to escape the laser that would burn a hole through her any moment now. Strange that she should die by fire on a world of ice.
She had known the risks. Seven of SysSec’s best, crammed into a stuffy conference room, listened to the briefing. The OSR had a new weapon — some kind of advanced nano tech — that broke down molecular bonds, reducing whatever it came into contact with to its constituent atoms. SysSec had to get hold of that technology to even the playing field.
They had developed low-level contacts inside the terrorist organization and now had an opportunity to inject an agent further up the ranks. It would be a long-term, deep cover operation. The mission: Locate the weapons facility and retrieve the technology. Whoever went in was unlikely to come out alive, but they might be able to get information back to SysSec. She had said, “I’ll do it,” before he even asked for a volunteer.
Eventually, they would notify Quinn that she was dead. Maybe mention her heroic sacrifice on a mission they couldn’t tell him about because it was classified. Quinn would grieve in his own way. So would their mom when he told her. Beyond her brother and her mom and a couple people in Spec Ops, she couldn’t think of anyone who would miss her. The life of a SysSec Special Operative was of necessity a solitary life. It was somehow fitting that she should die the same way she had lived, alone and far from home.
The light vanished as abruptly as it had appeared; darkness rushed in to fill the void. Somehow they hadn’t seen her. SysSec agents didn’t count on luck, but she wasn’t about to turn her back a little luck when it put in an appearance.
She pushed herself to her hands and knees and started moving again, dragging a hand forward, then a leg, then the other hand, then the other leg. Hand, leg. Hand, leg. Over and over and over. A new mantra to replace the old one as the most important thing in her world.
Her lower legs were numb. So were her hands. The cold penetrated her gloves now that they were in direct contact with the ground, sucking out precious heat, leaving a dull ache in its place.
Her air was down to eight minutes. She knew she wasn’t going to reach the ship. It was too far and the pain too unbearable. Even if by some miracle she did reach it, without light she could pass within a meter of it and never know it was there.
She kept moving anyway, lifting her numb hands, dragging her dead feet. If she was going to fail, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying. Not that it would matter to anyone; nobody would know how she died. But it mattered to her.
She didn’t remember stopping. Her eyes stared unseeing at the dirty, slush-covered ground beneath her. Slowly her mind wrapped itself around the fact that she could see the dirty, slush-covered ground. How was that possible? She lifted her impossibly heavy head and looked at the ship. It was giving off a faint glow. Some kind of static electricity effect? It didn’t matter. What mattered was that it was off to her right only four or five meters away. People had died to ensure it would be there for her. She could do a few more meters to close that loop and give meaning to their deaths.
She shuffled her body around so that she was facing it. Slowly and painfully, still on hands and knees, she made her body move forward. It seemed to take forever for her helmet to finally bump against the base of the ship.
Four minutes of air left. She had reached the ship with four minutes to spare. “Hoo-rah,” she said. It was the best she could manage. She maneuvered herself into a sitting position and opened a hatch at the base of the ship. From an exterior pocket of her suit she tried to retrieve a tiny chip but her gloved, numb fingers wouldn’t cooperate.
“Fuck that.” She used her other arm to grab the glove, twist it, and yank it off. The environment suit cinched tightly around her wrist to keep air from escaping. She pulled the tiny chip out and inserted it into the slot exposed by the open hatch.
She didn’t bother trying to put the glove back on. Her hand was already turning granite gray. It didn’t hurt. She used her gloved hand to punch the launch code into the key pad and closed the hatch. The ship — a small rocket, really — would take care of the rest.
She shuffled herself around so that she was facing away from the ship and crawled away. In a shallow depression a few meters from the ship, behind a boulder, she lay down. Her exposed hand had broken off somewhere but that was all right; she didn’t need it anymore. The roar of the probe blasting off made no sound in the thin atmosphere, but the ravine lit up in blinding bright light, and tremors rumbled through the ice beneath her. Flames licked at her legs but her suit protect them. For a moment the heat felt wonderful.
She rolled over on to her back and watched the probe climb. Go, baby, go. Bright at first, then dim, and then just another star in the ever-night sky. It’s small profile and high acceleration made it nearly impossible to shoot down with a missile. It would put some distance between itself and the frozen planet. She had finished her mission. Tears rolled down her cheeks and a sense of relief flooded over her, tainted with only a little sadness.
The blinking red light in her HUD wasn’t blinking anymore. That meant something, something important, something that floated around the periphery of her consciousness, just out of reach. Yes . . . there it was. It meant the suit’s heater unit had finally given up the ghost and died and gone to heaven. Or wherever heater units went when they died. She should probably do something. There must be a procedure to follow, there was always a procedure. She couldn’t think of one and frankly she was tired of thinking.
She couldn’t feel her arms anymore. In fact, she couldn’t feel anything, not even the pain in her back. Her body started shivering violently. That meant something. If she could just . . . okay, it was her body’s last-ditch attempt to generate heat to keep her alive. She still had a minute and a half of air, so it was the cold that would get her in the end. Not that it mattered. Either one was as good a way to die as the other.
She located the brightest star in the sky. The sun. Her sun. It looked so small, so far away. No, that wasn’t right. It wasn’t the sun that was too far away. It was her that was too far away. Too far from the burning sun.
The shivering stopped as abruptly as it had started. Somewhere in the back of her mind she knew that meant she could rest now. She smiled at the ten thousand points of light fading in the sky. She wanted to say goodbye to them, but they were already gone.