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Chapter 1


Triton Survey

John Bandicut couldn't have said exactly what made him drive his buggy past the invisible STOP HERE line, east of navpoint Wendy. It was almost as if the stately blue crescent of Neptune, overhead, were beckoning him onward, a deity calling him toward some mystical assignation among the rills and ravines of Triton. It was almost as if he had no choice.

That was lunacy, of course. Bandicut took the rover across into the unsurveyed sector because he was half out of his mind with silence-fugue. Though he was still perfectly capable of operating the equipment, he was hallucinating intermittently; and in some small corner of his mind he was aware that there was no way he should be out on the Triton surface risking his life, or for that matter the company's equipment. Now, Bandicut cared about company equipment the way he cared about cockroaches; but where his own life was concerned, he generally—in more lucid moments—had a pretty strong survival instinct.

But with each passing second, a little more of that lucidity was being swept away by the silence-fugue, by the terrible emptiness that was devouring the inside of his head. It was not that there wasn't plenty of information pouring through his senses: a clear view of the Triton landscape through his visor, occasional comm chatter in his helmet, the metallic stink of recycled air in his nostrils, the taste of bile in his throat, the bouncing of the buggy under his seat. But inside, deep in his thoughts, there lurked a dark, echoing, reverberating silence. This was the worst he had ever had the fugue; it felt as if some outside power were sucking his mind dry of even the memory of the flow and chatter and swarm of the neuro, stretching the inner silence as taut as a wire. He felt as if there were a black hole in his skull, and the only way to escape its awful hold was to flee physically across the Triton landscape.

He twitched the joystick and steered the rover down a shallow ravine, racing away from the sector that he was supposed to be detail-mapping. It was not a visibly hazardous direction; he was not looking for danger but for escape. He should have known, of course, that he was escaping nothing; but he wasn't thinking, he was just responding—to a desperate siren call in his mind, in the awful silence, a call to drive his buggy toward the planet Neptune, floating before him.

In time, he became aware of the exo-op calling him. The voice clanged in his headset like a hammer striking a metal pole. "UNIT ECHO, UNIT ECHO—DO YOU COPY? UNIT ECHO, BASE CAMP—WHAT IS YOUR PRESENT LOCATION? ECHO—BANDICUT, ARE YOU THERE? FOR CHRISSAKE, ANSWER—"

He reached for the comm control, as if to respond. Then he watched his hand turn the volume down to inaudibility. Now why had he done that? The thought and the question were carried away on the waves of emptiness and silence. He was riding on a tide, and there was no denying its mastery now. He nudged the joystick over and steered around a hump of ice and kept on rolling.

Neptune hung huge and majestic in the sky, her crescent a great blue scythe, her presence unsoftened by the tenuous nitrogen and methane atmosphere of Triton. Forget the old guy with the trident; this planet was a lady, seductive in her blue gown, beckoning him on. As he peered up at her through the scratches in his visor, he couldn't help reflecting how much more real she seemed in person than in the telepresence holos—more real, yet more remote. He had his light-augment turned off, so she appeared dim, ghostly, almost watery in the dark sky. The sun, not quite overhead, was little more than a bright star, viewed here from the edge of the solar system.

The Triton surface was a grayish-orangish brown, a frozen composite of nitrogen and methane ice and oxides barely illumined by the pale sunlight. This moon of Neptune was a buckled and broken place, ravaged by time, by impact, by gravity. It was impossible to gaze across Triton's face without wondering what stories were hidden in its history, what beings had once walked its surface, eons in the past. Beings had, of course; that was why humans were here with their mining encampment now. But as for who or what they had been, that remained a matter for speculation...and imagination.

John Bandicut's imagination was indeed racing now, as he nudged the joystick for another burst of power. With a disconnected part of his mind he recognized the approaching peak of the fugue; visions of aliens danced just beyond reach, their voices garbled and faint as they tried to communicate with him, tried to cross over that impregnable boundary of the missing neurolink. It was hopeless, of course; he was in silence, cut off from the datanet forever.

The buggy crested a rise and jerked over a ridged surface before nosing downward again into a low, narrow valley. He eased back on the power and coasted bumpily down the slope of the frozen terrain, almost relieved by the physical sensation. Off to his left, a soft dark plume rose into the thin air. It was a cryogeyser, dirty ice vapors erupting from beneath the surface, to be gently carried along by the thin Triton winds. Bandicut felt himself fixated on the eruption; it was an explosion of alien data, swept away by the winds before it could be drawn into the net. Madness: he knew it was all madness, but there was no stopping it. The alien datastorm hissed like static in the center of his mind, defying interpretation.

He felt a sickening lurch, followed by a floating sensation, then a thump back down in the seat of his pants. He blinked rapidly and pulled the power off. Too late. The lurch was a shifting of the ice beneath his buggy, and he knew he was already caught: he could feel one or more wheels mushing into a sinkhole. The underframe shuddered as it ground into the pebbly ice. He flicked the joystick into reverse, and the two right wheels chewed uselessly into snowy dust while the left two bit and slewed the buggy around. He was only digging the right side in even deeper.

Damn damn damn... His mind whirled in the void. He rocked the power forward and back, hoping that in the weak Triton gravity he would be able to dislodge the buggy. The effort was futile; a gravity of one-thirteenth gee meant poor traction, as well. More madness: how could there be a sinkhole in this frozen wasteland?

Cursing into the emptiness, he killed the power and unbuckled his harness. The alien hiss was gone. All he heard now was a choir of accusing voices, telling him how badly he had screwed up. The silence-fugue was fading; his thoughts were returning, shakily, to cold reality. He glanced at his suit's reserves, then disconnected from the buggy's life support. He raised the bubble canopy and stumbled out of the rover—to the left, to avoid the soft rut that had swallowed his right wheels. Peering around cautiously in his bulky suit and helmet, he only half wondered if alien shapes would loom over the horizon. He blinked hard, and with a silent curse, set about taking stock. He shuffled forward to inspect the vehicle from the front, to see how badly he had ground himself in.

His intention was to kneel carefully and peer beneath the buggy. He planted his modest weight on his left foot, on a solid patch of ice, and lifted his right foot to take a step past the bumper. With a sudden implosion, the ice collapsed beneath him. His body, the ice, everything twisted, and before he could even gasp in alarm, he felt himself falling through a glittering cloud of snow...falling into a hole that had not been there a moment ago...tumbling in slow motion, head over heels, falling.

He seemed to fall a long, long way into the thundering, silent darkness before he lost consciousness.

* * *

He awoke with his head pounding, wheeling with dizziness. The headache was almost welcome; whatever else had happened, the silence-fugue episode was over. The dizziness was another matter. He took several slow breaths, and finally realized that he was not just dizzy, but the world actually seemed to be spinning around him, in a strange, carousellike movement. He blinked and shifted his gaze around. He was underground, lying on his back in some sort of cavern. His visor's light-augmentation had kicked on automatically. An arched, translucent nitrogen-ice ceiling glowed faintly overhead. Around him, glinting back icily, were solid walls...solid, except for the great, ponderous, inexorable movement with which they were wheeling around him.

He took a deep breath and moved his head—or tried. He felt a sharp stab of pain in his neck, and his helmet did not budge. Terrified, he froze, moving only his eyes for a moment. He wiggled his fingers and toes, and felt them move painlessly inside his suit. Next he lifted his arms, then his legs. No problem there. But when he attempted to push himself up to a sitting position, he found that he was glued in place, stuck to the ice. The pain hit him in the neck, as before, but this time it seemed an ache rather than a stabbing pain. A bruise, probably, from the suit collar. Good. Bruises he could handle; it was broken bones and spinal damage that scared him. He scissored his legs, trying to roll over. He might as well have tried rolling out from under an anvil.

He gazed up at the ceiling, trying to evaluate his predicament. He had never been in a cavern quite like this before. The ceiling was a flawed bluish ice with a tinge of reddish-orange methane coloration. It was at least fifteen or twenty meters above him. The walls, also ice, were steep and slick. They were still wheeling around him, and it made him dizzy to try to focus on them for longer than a moment or two. Nevertheless, he glimpsed, as it revolved past, an almost vertical trough in the wall, which was probably where he'd slid down. Directly over that trough was a dark shadow on the ceiling, perhaps the buggy atop the ice. He could not see the opening he'd fallen through. He hoped it was visible from the surface, because if it wasn't, search parties from the base would never find him. Not unless he could think of a way to climb out of here unaided.

The thought made him shiver. He didn't much care for the idea of lying here in a near-absolute-zero environment, waiting for his lifepack to expire. He pictured himself as a part of the moon's lifeless deposits, one day to be revealed by the vaporizing heat of the company's mining lasers. He shuddered, not just with fear but with fury at himself for the insanity that had led him to this. The damn silence-fugue. Prior to this, he'd had some episodes of loss of concentration and fleeting, moderate hallucination, when the neural silence became too great—but never anything he couldn't control by effort of will. It had never hit him like this before, never actually put his life in jeopardy.

He shut his eyes, trying to think. He wondered how long he could safely lie flat on this supercold surface. The suit was not intended for prolonged contact in that position. How long had he been unconscious? How much longer would the power unit hold out?

With the neuro, he would already have had the answers pouring directly into his thoughts. But in the silence, he could not ask the questions merely by thinking them. Blinking his eyes open, he squinted at the tiny red numbers glowing in the corner of his faceplate. Either his eyes were watering or the numbers themselves were swimming; he couldn't read a thing. He tried to speak his questions, but all that came out of his throat was a thin, desperate rasp.

He struggled not to panic. He drew several deep breaths.

He knew this much: he could have been unconscious for as little as a few seconds, or as long as a few hours. But given the absence of warning flashers in his visor, he figured that at worst he had another forty-five minutes, and at best several hours more—assuming that he hadn't broken anything mechanical in his fall. That was a risky assumption, of course, considering that he had plowed his way to a landing, ending up flat on his back.

Flat on his back...

Covering up his exhaust ports.

Christ—all this time he'd been lying here, his heat exhaust had been slowly melting into the ice, embedding him!

No time to panic! he thought. No time to panic. He tried to think calmly. There were no datanet voices to help him; he would have to find his own answers.

Think, damn you.

The silence in his head echoed like a tomb. But in his ears, he heard the sound of his suit ventilator. He wasn't entirely alone. He cleared his throat carefully and tried his voice again. "Hello!" he grunted. "Suit control."


"Thank God," he whispered. "Suit control—what are my power reserves?"

Beep. "Forty-two percent," chirped the suit.

He cleared his throat again. Could have been better, could have been worse. He had a couple of hours left. A couple of hours to get free, call for help, be rescued. "Suit control—transmit." He heard the click of the comm switch and drew a tight breath. "Base Camp, Echo Unit. Base Camp, Echo Unit. Do you read?" He listened to the hiss of static; he swallowed with difficulty. "Base camp? Bandicut. Can you hear me? Anyone?"

He exhaled, and tried hard not to be upset. It would have been miraculous for any signal to have gotten out of this deep cavern, especially with his antenna buried in the ice under his back. Nevertheless, it frightened him not to get a response. He felt himself starting to hyperventilate, and he fought to control his breathing—slow and shallow. He took a sip of water from his feeder tube, then spoke again. "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! This is Unit Echo. Bandicut. I've fallen through ice and am trapped underground. My location—" he struggled to remember "—two klicks east of position Wendy. Does anyone hear me?"

The only answer was a hiss of static.

He scissored his legs again, trying to roll; then he scissored the other way. He rocked just enough to give him some hope. Probably there was some melted ice directly beneath his heat exhaust. But even a few centimeters out from it, the nitrogen was almost certainly refrozen, binding him in place. If only there were some way of melting it again...but he was as helpless as a turtle on its back, kicking and thrashing. He had hands and tools, all of which were useless to him. His mind spun, ratcheting in the silent emptiness. What would the voices of the datanet have said to him?

What could this lone, struggling mind come up with?

Suddenly he blinked furiously. Perhaps there was a way.

"Suit control," he murmured. "Raise internal temperature to maximum." He waited, holding his breath. An instant later, he felt heat pouring in around his torso, then his extremities. He waited for the heat to taper off. It seemed to take forever; sweat ran into his eyes, and he felt like a fool cooking in a sauna. He began moving his arms and legs in fast chops, adding body heat. Finally he heard a beep, and the influx of heat stopped.

"Suit control," he grunted, "reduce internal temperature to minimum. Fast." He felt a change in the suit's mechanical hum, and drew a sharp, painful breath as a blast of icy air flashed down his front. Within seconds, he was shuddering, his teeth chattering. He counted to three—then began scissoring his legs violently from side to side. Something creaked, and he felt a breath of hope. He wasn't free yet, but his suit was pumping all that excess heat out through the port beneath his back, and he could feel the ice melting.

He hoped he wasn't just melting himself in deeper.

He kept rolling, heedless of his bruises. Something kept catching, keeping him from going all the way over. The icy blast was tapering off; he had only seconds before it would all refreeze. He swung his left leg over hard, and dug his right elbow down sharply and levered himself up with the last of his strength. Something broke free, and he lurched, and suddenly was partway up, supported on his right elbow. Before he could fall backward again, he pitched himself forward to his hands and knees. He was free.

"S-suit c-control," he gasped. "Temperature...n-normal! Fast!" Heat poured back into the suit, sending new shudders down his spine.

For a moment he didn't even try to move. Then, as he caught his breath he struggled to his feet, supporting himself on an outcropping of ice. The low gravity helped, but he was fighting dizziness as much as weight. When he felt steadier, he told his suit to turn on his helmet lamp, and he played it over the cavern walls.

He nearly threw up at the sight of the walls spinning through the spotlight. He lowered the beam hastily and found that the movement stopped, closer to him. The spinning occurred only beyond a certain radius, about four meters from where he stood. Though he was sure that it must be only a visual illusion, he knew he had to keep from looking at it. He stared at the ground instead. In his headlight beam, the ice under his feet appeared solid and stable. Thank God. He turned around slowly to see what was behind him. He raised his gaze cautiously.

His headlight flashed crazily among some darkened ice formations—and his breath went out with a shuddering gasp, as he saw it. It. A machine of some sort.

A machine made by no one human.

Bandicut blinked hard and felt an almost overpowering urge to rub his eyes behind his visor. The artifact, a few meters from his outstretched hand, seemed to be squirming in his headlight beam. It seemed to consist of a great many spheres, some jet black and some iridescent, intersecting like clusters of soap bubbles. They were moving and sinking through one another, disappearing and reemerging in different positions, at various rates of speed. Beneath their mirror sheens, the spheres appeared to be spinning. The assemblage was about as tall as he was, standing on the ice floor, balanced on a single spinning bubble. It was strangely hard to focus his eyes upon.

It looked almost...alive.

In the silence of his mind, one word reverberated in his thoughts. Alien. And he knew, despite the violence of the silence-fugue that had brought him to this place, that the fugue had passed, and that this object, and its alienness, were no hallucination of the fugue-state.

It hurt his eyes to stare at it. He glanced away, and that was when he realized that it was at the center of the visual disturbance that made the cavern seem to spin. He clutched again at the ice outcropping, fiercely trying to suppress a new wave of dizziness.

It was at that moment that he felt something new pass through the silence—a whisper of something in his mind. He felt it for just a moment, then it was gone. A tingle ran up his spine, and for an instant it reawakened the blinding headache that he'd felt at the end of his fugue episode. But the tingle ended in a quick shiver, and the headache was gone as suddenly as it had appeared.

But the inner awareness was not.

He didn't know whether this object was alive or not, but one thing he did know—he felt it in his bones, like a creeping chill that had nothing to do with temperature.

He was not alone in this cavern.

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