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Thin Ice

Written by Dave Freer
Illustrated by Adam Burch


"ARI, it's not going away. I'm stuck on a ledge on this crater-wall, like a fly in a closed pantry window. In about two hours the sunlight is going to come over that edge, and I'm going to fry. If my air holds out that long."

I took a deep, ragged breath, trying-and failing-to conserve my air. "And there isn't even a sign of Simmo and Lucy. They're . . . just gone. Into the damned thing."

"Describe the organism." ARI's voice showed no sign of emotion. They'd done a lot with AIs, but not solved that one.

" Dammit, ARI! I told you— "

"Repeat it. Try to add more details. Remain calm. You will use less oxygen that way. Your respiration rate is unnecessarily high."

I took another breath, just as deep and ragged as the last. If I got out of here, back to Earth, I would smash the silicon-hearted box to pieces. Little, little, tiny pieces. With a good, old-fashioned four-pound hammer. And I would never, ever go off-world again. And certainly never come within a hundred light-years of this hot-cold death trap.

"Okay. Look, it's about seven meters across. About as wide right now, but when it was chasing me it sort of elongated. Almost like, well, when I was a kid, somebody brought a blob of mercury to school. It moved like that . . . except more fluidly. No limbs or anything, or not that I can see. Not even eyes."

"Describe the color."

"Like polished chrome. That's how come we spotted it down here. I told you. Lucy's headlight caught it and the reflection was . . . We thought it must be an artifact. A piece of an alien ship or something. That's why we climbed down into this hellhole!"

We'd struggled to find a way down. Whatever had caused this terrible tear in the poor one-face planet's battered skin must have been massive. It had taken us a cautious hour in our cold-suits to get down there. The suits might be made of the toughest fabric known to humankind, but still, you had to be careful.

True, they weren't the damned "Michelin man" suits the first explorers had had to put up with. You could actually do pretty fine work in these gloves, and you didn't have to worry about rips and tears. However, even a garment woven from fibrous ceramic-fullerene wouldn't save the soft bits inside it from a quarter klick fall. And they hadn't saved Simmo and Lucy from . . .

I shuddered.

"Tell me as much as possible about the contact incident."

"You were listening. You heard it!"

"There is some confusion. Attempt to clarify the following: Why did the creature suddenly begin to pursue you? You had been observing it for some three minutes and twenty-two seconds, when Captain Colvine said 'It's coming towards us. We'd better get out of here.'"

ARI had, in true computer fashion, just patched Lucy's rich contralto voice straight into his dialogue. I blinked and swallowed. My voice felt tight.

"I don't really know, ARI. When we found it, and you know how we'd battled, it was just slowly edging along that fissure. It took us about half a minute to work out it was moving at all."

"Seventeen seconds until Mr. Ougo commented on it. Yes. Continue."

"We'd nearly missed seeing the thing in that side-gully. It was nowhere near where he had spotted it from the top. And it is so dark down here."

Hell, without an atmosphere it was dark everywhere, even now, with less than two short hours before the "dawn." Hades was a one-face world, but even so there was an axial wobble zone. Every thirty hours the sun would rise here, on edge between light and darkness. Then, less than four hours later, it would set.

I wouldn't need four hours. Ten minutes of that sunlight would fry me, in this suit.

"There is a point eight-five probability that this is not the same organism."

I nearly fell of my ledge, my precious seven hundred square centimeters of refuge. "You're kidding! You mean there are more of them? If I get away from this one there are likely to be more?"

"That is highly probable. Continue."

"Oh, mother. It doesn't seem worth it."

"I am recording."

If I ever get out of here, I'll find the son of a bitch who programmed ARI's psychology ROM. I'm going to have his brain looked at. Won't be hard. I'll pull it out of his nose with hooks so it's good and visible. I know I'm going to die. And now I can't even feel sorry for myself loudly because ARI will take my weeping and wailing home. Hell, why should I care? I'll be dead. But Sanji and the kids won't be . . .

I sighed. "It snuffled along until it came to the end of the fissure. Then it headed out, back into the main crater."

"It was, in fact, between you and the way you had followed down?"

"Yeah, look, we were nearly past it when I shone my head-torch up that gully and spotted the damned thing. We'd moved on a bit so we could see it properly. The thing was moving so slowly that it didn't seem any kind of threat. It didn't matter that it was between us and the way we'd come down. Your grandmother could outwalk it. Anyway, it didn't seem interested in us. Didn't even seem to notice us, when we shone our torches on it."

"I do not have a grandmother, but I think I understand. What happened to make the creature begin moving rapidly?"

" I don't know, damn you! One minute, it was cutting across the trail, and the next it accelerated like a juggernaut at Lucy and Simmo. Just a blue flash and they were gone. Into it! I was off to the side getting another pic of the two them and the thing. It all happened so damn fast. They didn't even get a chance to run!"

"In fact, Captain Colvine's last order to you was to run. I gather you successfully obeyed."

I hung my head, and didn't answer. Shame burned at my vitals. I hadn't even heard her say that. I'd already been running. Blindly. So fast I'd have won the ice-speed-trials in Oslo with ease, never mind any mere slow land sprint races. I still wouldn't have escaped if it had started after me straight away. And then I'd run into the same dead-end gully the thing had just left. When I'd hit the back wall I'd climbed it until I reached this ledge. Then I'd been forced to stop.

I was maybe six meters up. Above me stretched blankness. A long smooth slab. Recently a huge flake must have fractured off here. Fractured cleanly when the sun-lash whipped the space-cold rocks. There were not even the tiny handholds that had brought me up the overhanging wall to the ledge. The ledge bore the cluttered remains of the rock-burst. I'd nearly fallen, clutching one of broken fragments when I'd pulled up onto it. Below, but not very far below, the silver blob waited. Occasionally it s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d towards me. I'd tried flinging pieces of rock from the ledge at it. They impacted as into an over-soft mattress and then gradually disappeared, sank away into it. They certainly had not chased the damned thing away.

"Extrapolating from the limited data it would appear that the creature only became aware of your presence when it crossed the trail. Logic suggests that it must be able to follow that trail."

"Like a bloodhound," I said bitterly. "It hurtled in here. Hit the blank piece of cliff that I ran to first, in exactly the same place. Then it zipped along until it came to where I started to climb. Now it's sitting like a guard-dog straight below me."

"It cannot have followed you in the fashion of a bloodhound. In the absence of an atmosphere we must discount a sense of smell."

That was AIs for you. Nobody had yet managed to program them to be anything other than literal. "The degree of heat-loss through your boots is minuscule. The heat-loss directly from the suit is considerably greater. Why should the creature track an infinitesimal heat-trace along the ground when it could have homed in on the heat-leakage from your suit? Therefore it must have followed something else. The earlier behavior of the creature investigating the fissure is consistent with a quest for minerals or metals."

"ARI, for God's sake, this is Hades, not some biologist's paradise. It wasn't looking for mice. Of course the damn thing is a mineral feeder! It must eat rocks, because there isn't anything else."

ARI continued as if I hadn't interrupted. "Hades is a high-density world, with pools of molten metal on the dayside. Analysis of spectroscopic data show no such surface deposits on the nightside. Geomagnetic data indicate considerable subsurface deposits. This is statistically improbable. Therefore, I deduce your creature is a nightside metalovore."

I ground my teeth. We were a geological survey team, sure, but . . .

"ARI. I'm stuck on a ledge. The damn thing is just below me. It . . . engulfed the rest of your crew. It couldn't have broken down suit-polymer. Nothing, but nothing, damages suit polymer. If what it wants is metals I've got nothing for it. And neither had Simmo or Lucy."

"The paucity of surface metals suggests the creatures may be very effective at tracking metal elements in minuscule quantities. I suspect the creature is foraging here to collect the tiny quantities of metal vapor condensate that will occur here."

"And how does that get me off the ledge? Why did it eat the others?"

"For the metal cleats on their boots. Which I am sure is how it followed you, by the metal abrasions off those cleats. It would also of course have consumed any other exposed metals, including their suit antennae. And their headlights."

"What about the blue flash?"

"Electrostatic signal distortion suggests that you are in the presence of a fairly powerful electromagnetic source. I suspect this to be the biological organism you refer to as 'the creature.' I am having considerable difficulty in filtering your signal. The blue flash may have been caused by ionization, possibly caused by dust or breakdown of some of the metal elements outside the suit."

"But their suits should have insulated them, surely . . ."

"We are dealing with an alien life-form. There is insufficient data. Anyway, should they have been ingested, and then rejected after the metal had been stripped from their suits, they would have no lights or radio contact. It would be difficult for them to find you, or their own way out of the crater, before the light arrives."

Right. I'd have light soon. Excellent light. With plenty of X and Gamma rays too.

"So how do I get out of here? I know more about this creature than I want to, and I'm still stuck."

"Remove the cleats. Traverse sideways and then walk away. The creature should not follow you."

"I can't. I'm a geophysicist and an ice-skater, ARI. Even for the best damned rock-climber in human space there is no up, and no sideways from here. I'm stuck, ARI. Come and get me."

I knew he couldn't. He was bolted to the wall of the ship.


But AIs don't understand sarcasm. "I have raised ship. I am surveying for an adequate set-down area near you. I have also set search parameters for creatures with similar characteristics."

"The crater-margin's a mess, ARI. You'll never be able to set down near here."

"I am surveying." It was what ARI did best.

"I have identified forty-two highly reflective bodies of varying sizes. Ultra-spectroscopy of those specific areas reveals principally helium 4 and quantities of oxygen, calcium, iron, copper, antimony, barium, lanthanum, yttrium and thallium. I have also detected three traces on infrared scan. There is a high probability that they are yourself, Captain Colvine and Mr. Ougo."

"Phew! At least they're alive. Maybe they can get me out of here!"

"Radio triangulation on your signal confirms that one heat trace is you, Dr. Kaibo. The other traces are 0.4 and 0.52 kilometers away. They have plainly become separated and are proceeding away from you along different vectors. Their current paths will not bring them to the point at which you climbed down before sunup. I assume they are lost without light or radio contact."

Great. Just great. Not only could the other two not rescue me, but they actually needed rescuing themselves. It was like at the speed-skating trials where we'd all been relying on Yuri Abrinov to get our team in. He sprained his ankle half an hour before the first heats . . .

I shone my light onto the silveriness below me. We were all dead.

And then a collection of unrelated data points assembled themselves in my head. The electromagnetic distortion. The blue flash. The list of elements . . .

"ARI, you listed what these beasties are made up of. Correlate that against superconductor materials."

There was a moment's silence. That's a long time for ARI. "Four known superconducting combinations of listed materials. The best enlargement of the highly reflective bodies assumed to be your creatures reveals a grid patterning of copper oxide with barium, calcium, thallium and yttrium. The materials appear to occur in surface concentrations, rather than within the deeper structure, although this is difficult to establish from this range."

"Nerve nets. They find metals with electromag fields."

"I confirm that there are electromagnetic disturbance patterns, which suggest you are correct," said ARI. "It is also apparent that all the other creatures are moving away from the area that will be sunlit. It seems that they are avoiding the light, and if superconducting substances are an intrinsic part of their physiology, with the increase in temperature, the creature that has trapped you should also be forced to retreat."

"And how much time is that going to give me, ARI?"

"Based on the movement of the other creatures, about 16.5 minutes."

"Too short a time to get out of here and find the others." I took a deep breath. "Start working out the best route for me to get to them, ARI. I'm out of here, just as soon as I've finished stripping these cleats off."

"How?" asked ARI.

"I've got a geologist's hammer. That should work."

"To get past the creature, Dr. Kaibo."

I levered one of the cleats out, and put it in my sample bag.

"No time right now to explain, ARI," I said, popping the next cleat. "I'll tell you about if I get out of here. If I don't it won't matter, will it?"

The truth was I knew that if I did explain ARI's brain-box might just fry. The AI was a computer first and a geological survey tool next. And computers do vectors and probabilities better than I did. What I was going to do involved tossing one magnet at another and hoping the poles would repel . . .

Rather than do what magnets did best— flip over and stick to each other. If I was wrong about the superconductivity, I was going to be devoured, even if I was later excreted without lights and an aerial. If I was wrong about my ability, I'd probably get devoured too, if I didn't die of shame first.

"You must tell me, Dr. Kaibo. You are hyperventilating. Monitoring of your heart rate indicates that you are in a state of considerable agitation. Do not panic."

That wasn't what I would have called it, I thought, as I started to climb down towards the metalovore. I had seven meters of creature to cross. And then . . . I'd need to win some time to get away. Perhaps I could feed it my cleats. It had stopped to digest the metal off Simmo and Lucy, after all.

"I'm not panicking, ARI." I lowered my boots towards the silvery surface.

"Your heart rate is over 270. This is not safe."

Typical AI! "What I'm doing isn't safe."

My boots and my weight indented the surface of the creature. I started to sink slowly into it, into its —for want of a better word— flesh. The blubbery stuff was nearly over my toes now. I ignored ARI squawking and concentrated. Timing was everything. I had to do it butt first—because I needed to hold onto the rock&mdashand push off.

I looked at my feet. ARI had better be right about the superconducting material.

"ARI," I said, "if you lower an electromagnet toward a superconductor . . . You get an equal and opposite magnetic field. Electromagnetic levitation runs the trains of human space. I have E-M units in my boots for hull inspection in zero G."

"You cannot walk on what will effectively be a frictionless repelling surface."

"No." I said, grinning in spite of the situation. "But I can skate."

Now .

I turned on the hull-inspection electromagnets in my boots, and pushed off. Hard.

A skater needs have his skate-blade "bite" through the water layer onto the thin indent edge, which he achieves by turning the skate at a slight angle, giving him some resistance to push off. I had the wall&mdashlike a beginner skater had the rail.

It was a pity to do it butt first. Like the beginner skater I was probably going to land on it.

An ice-skater slides because ice liquefies under the pressure created by the body's mass concentrated onto a narrow blade. Direction of slide is determined by the shape of blade creating a narrow, linear path. Trains they run on a T-shaped electromag rail, enclosed by equal and opposite e-m units in the carriage. That levitates it and gives it a narrow linear path to slide down.

If I had the angle of my feet right, I was going skating on a frictionless surface. And if I had the depth and indent right it would be linear. Otherwise I was going to flip and lose my headlight, and radio aerial.

It all happened then, so fast. I landed a good twenty meters from the beast; and, just like a beginner skater, right on my butt. The only difference was that the landing was just hard, not wet.

I scrambled to my feet as the metalovore nudged away from the wall. With fumbling fingers I undid the rock sample bag and flung the metal cleats as far onto it as I could, and then turned and ran.

* * *

I only got around to answering ARI's squalling when I was out of the gully. "Point me at the others," I panted. "And get the coffee ready to brew. I'm going need it. So are they."

"Why did you shriek like that, Dr, Kaibo? Are you injured?" asked the AI.

"Nope." I couldn't stop smiling. "It was a shriek of glee."

"I understand your relief, Dr. Kaibo. Now . . ."

"It wasn't relief, ARI," I interrupted. "It was pleasure. You're talking to the only man who has ever skated on the perfect surface. Lord, I just wish the things were bigger. And if we had more time before the sunlight was going to get here, I swear I'd go back and do it again. Talk about the ultimate danger sport!" 193209302107.jpg

* * *

Dave Freer is the author of a number of novels and short stories.
To read more work by Dave Freer, visit the Baen Free Library at:

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