Jeff Carlson, bestselling author of Plague Year, has just self-published his new scifi novel The Frozen Sky. It's "a near-future sci fi thriller set beneath the ice of Jupiter's sixth moon, Europa," and is seriously action-packed. Check out this excerpt.
THE FROZEN SKY
By Jeff Carlson
Vonnie ran with her eyes shut, chasing the sound of her own boot steps. This channel in the rock was tight enough to reflect every noise back on itself, and she dodged through the space between each rattling echo.
She knew the rock was laced with crevices and pits. She knew she might catch her leg or fall with every step.
But she ran.
She crashed one shoulder against the wall. Impact spun her sideways. She hit the ground hard. Sprawled on the rock, Vonnie pushed herself up and glanced back, forgetting the danger in this simple reflex.
The bloody wet glint in her retinas was only a distraction, a useless blur of heads-up data she couldn’t read.
Worse, her helmet was transmitting sporadically, its side mount and some internals crushed beyond saving. She’d rigged a terahertz pulse that obeyed on/off commands, but her sonar and the camera spot were dead to her, flickering at random — and the spotlight was like a torch in this cold.
Vonnie clapped her glove over the gear block on her helmet, trying to muffle the beam. She wasn’t concerned about the noise of her boot steps. The entire moon groaned with seismic activity, shuddering and cracking, but heat was a give-away. Heat scarred the ice and rock. For her to look back was to increase the odds of leaving a trail. Stupid. Stupid.
She’d never wanted to fight. Yes, the sunfish were predators. Their small bodies rippled with muscle, speed, and unrelenting aggression, but they were also beautiful in their way. They were fascinating and strange.
Were they smarter than her?
The sunfish had outmaneuvered her twice. More than anything, what Vonnie felt was regret. She could have done better. She should have waited to approach them instead of letting her pride make the decision.
In some ways Alexis Vonderach was still a girl at thirty-six, single, too smart, too good with machines and math to need many friends. She was successful. She was confident. She fit the ESA psych profile to six decimal points.
Now all that was gone. She was down to nerves and guesswork and whatever momentum she could hold onto.
She lurched forward, pawing with one hand along the soft volcanic rock. With her helmet’s ears cranked to maximum gain, each rasping touch of her boots and gloves was a roar. Larger echoes hinted at a gap above her on her left. Could she climb up? Trying to listen for the opening, she turned her head. Her face struck a jagged outcropping in the wall. Startled, she jerked back. Then her hip banged against a different rock and she fell, safe inside her armor.
Standing was a chore she’d done hundreds of times. She did it again. She kept moving.
Vonnie didn’t think the sunfish could track the alloys of her suit, but they seemed like they were able to smell her footprints. Fresh impacts in the rock and ice left traces of dust and moisture in the air. There was no question that the sunfish were highly attuned to warmth. She’d killed nine of them in a ravine and covered her escape with an excavation charge, losing herself behind the fire and smoke... and they’d followed her easily.
What if she could use that somehow? She might be able to lead them into a trap.
Vonnie was no soldier. She had never trained for violence or even imagined it, except maybe at a few faculty budget meetings. That was an odd flicker of memory. Vonnie clung to it because it was clean and bright. She would have given anything to return to her old life, the frustrations and rewards of teaching, her classroom, and her tidy desk.
She fell once more, off-balance with her hand against her head. A heap of rubble had caught her boots and shins. She scrabbled over what appeared to be a cave-in. The noises she made were loud, clattering booms — but the echoes stretched at least ten meters above her, defining a tall chasm.
I can pin them here, she thought.
If she burned the rock and left a false trail, she could drop the rest of the broken wall on them when they passed. Then they would give up. Didn’t they have to give up? After the bloodbath in the ravine, she’d killed two more in the ice, and others had been wounded. Could the sunfish really keep soaking up casualties like that?
Vonnie could only guess at their psychology. Although she was blind, she knew of the existence of light. Although she was alone, she believed someone would find her.
She thought the history of this race was without hope. The sunfish had a phenomenal will to live, but the concept of hope required a sense of future. It required the idea of somewhere to go.
The sunfish had never imagined the stars, much less reached up to escape this black, fractured world.
This damned world.
No less than four Earth agencies had landed mecha on the surface to strip its resources. Then they’d sent a joint team in the name of science, handpicking three experts from China, America, and Europe — and Bauman and Lam had both died before First Contact, crushed in a rock swell. Would it have made any difference?
The question was too big for her. That the sunfish existed at all was a shock. Humanity had long since found Mars and Venus stillborn and barren. After more than a century and a half, the SETI radioscopes hadn’t detected any hint of another thinking race within a hundred and fifty lightyears of Earth.
Looking so far away was like a bad joke. The sunfish had been inside the solar system for millennia, a neighbor and a counterpart. It should have been the luckiest miracle. It should have been like coming home, but that had been Vonnie’s worst mistake: to think of the sunfish as similar to human beings. They were a species that seemed to lack fear or even hesitation, which might be exactly why her trap would work.
She decided to risk it. She was exhausted and hurt. If she stopped running, she would have time to attempt repairs and regain the advantage.
I hope they don’t come, she thought.
But she found a small shelf in the cliff above the rock slide, then settled in to kill more of them.
Jupiter ’s sixth moon was an ocean, a deep, complete sphere too far from the sun to exist as liquid on its surface — not at temperatures of -162˚ Celsius. Europa was cocooned in ice. The solid crust ran as thick as twenty kilometers in some regions, which meant that for all intents and purposes, it enveloped Europa like a single continent.
Human beings first walked the ice in 2094, and flybys and probes had buzzed this distant white orb since 1979. Europa was an interesting place. For one thing, it was as large as Earth’s moon — nearly as large as Mercury — which meant it could have been a planet in its own right if it orbited the sun instead of Jupiter. It also had a unique if extremely thin oxygen atmosphere caused by the disassociation of molecules from its surface. It was water ice.
It was a natural fuel depot for fusion ships.
Before the end of the twenty-first century, the investment of fifty mecha and two dozen more in spare parts was well worth an endless supply of deuterium at the edge of human civilization. The diggers and the processing stations were fusion-powered, too. So were the tankers parked in orbit.
Spacecraft came next, some with crews, some piloted by robots, and eighteen years passed.
That quiet period might have been much longer. The mecha were on the equator, where it was easiest for the tankers to hold position above them without constantly burning fuel, fighting Jupiter’s gravity and the tug of other moons — but Jupiter’s mass created other conflicts.
Deep inside Europa, its rocky core flexed, generating heat and volcanic activity. The ocean rolled with murderous tides. On the surface, the ice suffered its own turmoil, creating different environments such as “canyons,” “melts,” “domes,” and “chaos terrain.” Especially on the equator, the ice bulged and sank and turned over on itself.
Only the smoother, so-called “plains” were deemed safe by the men and women who guided the mecha by remote telepresence. Looking ahead, they sent rovers in all directions, surveying, sampling. At the southern pole was a smooth area that covered nearly thirty square kilometers.
Many rovers went there.
Vonnie shivered, an intensely ugly sensation inside her suit. She’d locked the joints and torso to become a statue, preventing herself from causing any movement whatsoever, and yet inside it she was skin and muscle.
The feel of her body against this shell was repulsive. She squirmed again and again, trying to shrink away from it, which was impossible.
The rut in her thinking wasn’t much better. She wished Choh Lam hadn’t tried to... She wished somehow she’d saved the rest of her crew. Lam understood so much so fast, he might have already found a way out, a way up.
She’d cobbled together a ghost using his mem files, but she couldn’t give it enough capacity to correct its flaws. In order to expand the ghost’s abilities, she would need to shut down her ears or the override she’d programmed into her heat exchanger, each a different kind of death. If she couldn’t hear, she would be utterly lost. And if her suit exuded body heat instead of storing it, her ambush would fail.
It would be better to forget Lam. She thought she should erase him, but even at three-quarters logic he was useful. He’d suggested a tranquilizer and Vonnie had popped one tab, which slowed her down enough to feel clear again. Clear and cold. She shouldn’t be cold, sweating inside her hard shell, but the waiting was like its own labyrinth of ice — the waiting and the listening and the deep bruises in her face.
She didn’t care how sophisticated the medical systems were supposed to be. On some level, her body knew it was hurt, even numbed and shot full of don’t-worry.
Her head had a dozen reasons why she was safe, but her body knew the sunfish would come again. The lonely dark was alive. That truth no longer surprised her, and she strained her senses out into the dark, frozen spaces of the chasm below her.
She was more afraid of missing the sunfish than of drawing in an attack. It was superstitious to imagine they could hear her thoughts, she knew that, but at the ravine they’d run straight to her hiding place despite three decoys. How did they keep zeroing in on her?
She needed to learn if she was going to live.
This rock shelf seemed defensible. There was nowhere to retreat but she only had one approach to cover. Overhead was a spongework of holes where she could dump her waste heat before leaving.
Vonnie laid on her belly, facing outward, trying to eat and trying to rest, trying to ignore the nasty, anesthetized pressure of the med beetles slithering in and out of her temple, her cheek, and her eye socket.
Both eyes were damaged, yet she’d elected to deal with her left eye first in case something went wrong. The nanotech might need to scavenge one eye to save the other. Step by step surgeries had been Lam’s idea. He’d also agreed that her helmet would retain its integrity if she broke off her gear block and stripped it for parts. What else would he have tried?
The plastisteel of her suit should contain all sound, but there was another risk in talking, a risk she ignored just to be with someone.
“Are you still there?” she whispered.
His voice was uneven and rushed, too emotional for an artificial intelligence:
—Von, listen. Don’t close me down again, please.
“Tell me what Lam would do,” she said. “Am I safe here? I need to rest. I laid down a false trail with my spotlight.”
—They’ll catch us.
“Did you check my map? I made it almost three klicks.”
—They will. The probability is eighty-plus percent, but I can talk to them. We have enough data now. With temporary control of the suit, I could at least establish...
—Vonnie, most of their language is postures and shapes. I can’ttell you fast enough how to move.
“No. Self-scan and correct.”
“I said scan for glitches and correct. Off.”
Could a ghost be crazy? If so, it was her fault. Lam was the first she’d ever made. She’d rushed the process because she was angry with him — the real him. She’d let him remember how he died, and it had made him erratic. Maybe he’d never doubted himself before.
Bauman would have been a better friend. Bauman had been older, calmer, another woman, but she was a geneticist and Lam’s biology/ecology skills were too valuable. The decision had been obvious. Vonnie didn’t have the resources to pull them apart, then build an overlay with Bauman’s personality and Lam’s education.
She was alone.
She itched her fingertips inside her rigid glove. Too soon, she prompted her clock and was discouraged. It would be six minutes until her skull was repaired, thirty before she regained her optic nerve.
Can I improve him? she wondered. I can’t give him more capacity,but maybe I can talk him through his error lists. He’s a learning system. He should respond.
Patience was supposed to be one of her strengths. Four years ago, she’d been a top instructor at Arianespace. She’d led classes in cybernetics, although her specialty had been ROM welding and construction, using remote operated mecha in low gravity environments,
zero gravity, underground, or underwater. Then she’d been recruited by the European Space Agency for the same job with better pay and better students.
Vonnie enjoyed working with her hands. She loved igniting a spark in people who wanted to learn. Tailoring her approach for each new individual kept her job interesting. The ESA was full of ambitious, hyper-educated men and women who challenged her with their egos, their experience, and their own expectations.
“You can’t wait until you can see,” she argued with herself. “Otherwise he’ll keep trying to take over the suit. Run more voice checks. Keep command. If he gets twitchy, just lock him down again.”
A noise echoed through the blackness like two rocks clacking together, barely audible in the distance.
On my left, she thought.
Was it a rock fall? Tremors and avalanches regularly split these caverns. The noise could have been a natural event, but Vonnie knew better.
Something was coming.
Europa ’s volcanoes added to the unrest in the ice. Below many of the “dome” and “melt” environments, subsurface peaks of lava had proved common, elongated fins and spindles that could not have existed if this moon had more than a thirteenth of Earth’s gravity. The movements in the ice eroded the rock, then distributed it everywhere.
Rock was a problem for the mecha. It damaged blades and claws. It jammed in pipes. Even dust would make a site unattractive, and ESA Rover 011 was quick to give up on a wide area of the southern plain when it brought up contaminants in its drill cylinder.
But the rover was well-engineered. Belatedly, it noticed the consistency of shape among the debris. Then its telemetry jumped as it linked with a tanker overhead, using the ship’s brain to analyze the smattering of solids. Finally the rover moved again, sacrificing two forearms and a spine flexor to embrace its prize, insulating the sample against the near-vacuum on Europa’s surface.
Impossible as this seemed, given the preposterous cold and the depth from which the sample came, the contaminants were organic lifeforms, long dead, long preserved: tiny, albino bugs with no more nervous system than an earthworm.
Vonnie opened her blind eyes to nothing and her ears were empty, too — but she was sure. Something was coming. Inside the rigid shell of her suit, she moved but could not move, a surge of adrenaline that had no release.
Trembling, she waited. Brooding, she cursed herself. She’d spent her life making order of things, and she couldn’t get her head quiet. She made everything familiar by worrying through the mechanics of her trap again and again.
She’d snapped her next-to-last excavation charge in two and rigged a second detonator, setting one charge in the ceiling beyond her rock shelf, the other below and to her left. The blasts would shove forward and down, although in this gravity, she could expect ricochets and blowback.
The sunfish fought like a handful of rubber balls slammed down against the floor, spreading in an instant, closing on her from every angle. Their group coordination was beyond belief. To a species whose perceptions were based on touch and sonar, language consisted of gesture and stance. They always knew each other’s mood and seemed to share it like a flock of birds.
Without her eyes, their synchronized attacks were an even greater threat. Her terahertz pulse was better at sounding out large, immobile shapes than at following objects in motion. Vonnie knew she would lose track of some of them, so she’d smash everything within fifty meters.
Her armor could sustain indirect hits from the porous lava rock. She planned to bait them, bring them close, then roll into a crevice behind her and hit the explosives, after which she would slash any survivors with her laser.
It was a cutting tool, unfortunately, weak at the distance of a meter. Worse, if she overheated the gun, she would probably not be able to repair it. Her nanotech was limited to organic internals. Most of the tool kits on her waist and left hip had been torn away.
“Stop thinking. Damn it, stop talking,” she murmured, the words as rapid as her heartbeat.
Just stop it.
Could they really hear her mind? She’d studied the sunfish with the acute concentration of a woman who might never see anything else again, and with all the skills of a teacher evaluating her newest class.
The sunfish definitely had an extra sense, maybe the ability to... feel weight or density. That would serve them well in the ice. So they would be able to differentiate her from the environment.
For once, she wanted them to find her. Vonnie reactivated her suit and rose into a crouch, strobing the chasm below with a terahertz pulse. She thought her signals were outside the sunfishes’ range of hearing, but she’d revealed herself as soon as her armor scraped against the rock.
Nothing. There was nothing.
“Oh God.” She choked back the sound and swept the bent spaces of the chasm, quickly locating pockets in the ceiling that she hadn’t anticipated and couldn’t reach with her signals. The angle was too steep. Using her terahertz pulse was like turning on a light in what she thought was a closet and finding instead that half of the house was gone — and her enemy needed only the thinnest openings to surround her.
Were they already too close? She’d seen it before, a dozen sunfish upside down on the rock like fat creeping muscles.
Vonnie aimed her laser at the ceiling even as she groped with her other hand for a chunk of rock. There was gravel, too, and a headsized boulder. She’d gathered every loose piece of lava she could find.
Should she throw it now? Try to provoke them?
Her thumb gritted in the rock as she clenched her fist. She was a decent shot with a ball. She’d grown up with three younger brothers. But the suit itself was a weapon. The suit had lowlevel AI programs that could make her something like a passenger inside a robot. There were voice menus designed for activities like climbing or welding because human beings got tired. The suit did not. It also had radar targeting that she could not see, and it would limit the velocity of its throws only to avoid damaging her shoulder and back.
She didn’t trust it. She’d used most of her AI programs to hold an imprint of her
ghost. The suit was rotten with Lam’s mem files. Twice the ghost had caused interrupts, trying to reconfigure itself, trying to seize control, and yet Vonnie was afraid to purge him. Deleting his mem files might affect her suit’s amplified speed and brawn.
“Are you still there?” she hissed.
—Von, listen. Don’t close me down again, please.
That was the same thing it always said. God. Oh God. She didn’t have time to hassle with him.
“Combat menu,” she said.
She hesitated. Right now, the ghost was somewhat contained. That would change if she gave it access to defense modes. Doing so was a bad gamble. The extra capacity might be precisely what the ghost needed to self-correct... or the stupid, miserable AI might corrupt
the most basic functions of her suit. Was there any other way?
“I need auto-targeting only,” she said. “Fire by voice command.”
—Von, that drops efficiency to thirty percent.
“Fire by voice command. Confirm.”
—Listen to me.
Four slender arms reached out of the ceiling.
Copyright ⓒ 2012 Jeff Carlson. All rights reserved.
Cover art by Jacob Charles Dietz Copyright ⓒ 2012. All rights reserved.
Orbital diagrams and maps by Jeff Sierzenga. Copyright ⓒ 2012. Reproduced with permission.
For more of The Frozen Sky…