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Leon Gratz was nearly finished with his second EVA day-shift when it began to snow.

He was working on the port instrument pod forward, and had just inserted a replacement power pack when the first flakes whirled in front of his face plate and stuck there.

He wiped the plate with a thickly gloved hand, but it didn’t help much.

Snow swirled about him in a sudden flurry, blowing in from his right, the direction of the infant star spewing out its first plasma wind into the dense molecular cloud the Orion had been probing.

Leon looked towards the star, his vision blurred, and saw something bright and huge hurtling towards him. “Zeke, I got a problem out here,” he gurgled into his throat mike.

“We see it, Leon. Better get back in here quick!” Behind Zeke’s voice was the shrill shout of the emergency klaxon.

“On my way,” Leon replied.

He pulled on his tether to the midship access hatch, and began hand-over-handing his way back, pausing to claw snow from his face plate, amazed at the sight of it flowing on his glove like liquid, then freezing into ice sticking his fingers together. The buildup on the hull was moving too, flowing like some plastic thing around pods and extensors towards the dark side of the ship. The flurry intensified, and he was blind again, pulling hard on the tether and panting for breath. Hyperventilating? He willed calm, but the suffocating feeling wouldn’t go away, and his arms felt numb. “I’m not getting air!” he yelled.

No answer. Leon pulled hard, black specks dancing on the white nothingness in front of him, then he was slammed forcefully into the hull, ears ringing. His hands lost the tether and he flailed as something jerked at him, battering him back and forth before consciousness faded.

Fresh air, voices, the hum of the ship. “Okay, Leon, okay, you’re back inside now. Jesus! You’re a mess!”

He was lying on his back in the airlock, and Zeke Peltros was kneeling beside him, pulling at his gloves. “Sorry about the rough entrance, but that stuff was pouring in here.”

The airlock floor and walls were covered with dirty slush melting before his eyes, globules detached by the ship’s vibrations floating lazily about them. Zeke waved some away from Leon’s face, pulled him upright with the aid of a fuzzy-faced tech II Leon didn’t know. “Let’s get out of here before we breathe any of this stuff. God knows what it is.”

The two men dragged him through the interior lock to suit-up bay, and by the time they got him unfrocked, the suit was a dripping mess of water and greenish slime, smelling like garbage. Zeke wrapped the suit in plas-sheet, and gave it to the Tech. “Take it to Boris. He’ll want to analyze this stuff.”

The tech left in a hurry. Leon felt cold, and the sewer smell in the room made his stomach queasy. “What the hell happened out there? We ran into something.”

“More like someone threw a dirty snowball at us out of nowhere. We caught the edge of the thing, and the rest of it kept right on going.” Zeke fiddled with Leon’s environmental pack. “Here’s the problem, I think. Your return line is frozen. That snow must be super-cold.”

Leon shivered. “I’m cold to the bone, Zeke. I need to dry out.”

“Checkup first,” Zeke said. He hustled Leon to sick-bay, then left to report to Captain Waisley. Meanwhile, the pudgy little doctor thumped, poked and prodded Leon — checking every orifice — finally did a scan, then ordered him to take a shower. “You smell like shit,” he said. “Don’t you guys take baths?”

“It’s that snow-stuff,” complained Leon. “It sticks to everything, like grease!”

The smell seemed to go away after a hot shower. Leon put on a fresh jumpsuit, and found Zeke and Captain Waisley waiting for him in sickbay. Waisley cared about his work crews. He was the best captain Leon had ever served under. The fisherman’s cap he wore made him seem more a part of them, but the white beard and cold, intense stare of those blue eyes reminded them of his many years of probe-ship command. He took Leon by the arm and sat down next to him on a cot. “What happened out there? What did you see?”

Leon told him, including the part about the flowing snow and ice. Waisley listened carefully, looked up at Zeke’s thin, scarecrow face. “The stuff hit starboard and is all portside, now, clogging up half our reaction ports. Figure that one out.”

“Ice that flows like water?” Zeke asked.

“That’s what I saw,” said Leon. “Did it on my glove, too, like it was trying to get in between my fingers.”

“Whatever it is, we have to get it off, and quick,” said Waisley. “Half our maneuvering capability is gone. Those ports are clogged, and the stuff is a meter thick in places. We’ll have to torch it.”

“It’s not just ice, Captain,” said Zeke. “There’s a lot of organics in it. You can smell ‘em when the stuff melts. Cogs is doing an analysis now. We’d better find out what we’re burning out there.”

Waisley nodded. “Okay, but make it fast. I don’t like drifting so close by a T-Tauri star when it’s getting as near to ignition as our neighbor out there. That last burst of plasma wind saturated all our detectors; it probably blew that snowball right into us. God knows what kind of primordial goo is floating around in a molecular cloud as thick as the one we’re in. Hell, we have planets and new stars forming in every direction here, and now I’ve had to power-down.”

The Captain turned to Leon, clapped him on the shoulder. “Glad you’re okay, Leon. You get some food and sleep. We’ll need you for EVA again, and soon, but if that’s too quick for you I’ll understand. You had a bad experience out there.”

“I’ll be ready, Captain,” said Leon. “You just say when.”

“Good.” Waisley gave Leon’s shoulder a squeeze. “Zeke, you call a crew briefing for ten-hundred tomorrow, and get Command on the horn for me. They’ll wonder why we’ve stopped moving.”

“Yessir,” said Zeke, and he hurried away. Leon followed Waisley out of sick-bay, went to mess for coffee and what the synth-dispenser described as meatloaf and cheese potatoes, then retired to his cubicle and sacked in, falling asleep immediately.

He dreamed about snow, and was awakened twice by the faint odor of organics in the air.

The briefing was thirty minutes late because Cogs refused to leave his laboratory for it. Waisley settled for a written brief, and let the man do his work. Next to the Captain, Boris Cogs was the power on the ship; half the budget of the expedition to this big molecular cloud complex was invested in his lab. Even the EVA crew knew why. Their sole mission, funded by eight planets in the Procyon Triad, was to map and economically evaluate every stock of hydrogen and organics within a hundred light years, a job now twelve years old and just getting started. The cloud they drifted in now was the richest they’d encountered, and the T-Tauri protostar had been an exciting bonus for the astronomers back home. It had been analytical heaven for Cogs, and now he had a new toy to play with: ice that flowed like syrup.

The crew of six was bloated with coffee when Waisley finally returned from lower deck, one sheet of printout in his hand. “Okay, listen up. The stuff was water ice, loaded with organics. So far Cogs has identified nine amino acids, along with whole fragments of proteins. Among other things. ‘An organic soup looking for a warm ocean to fall into.’ That’s Cogs talking.”

Somebody chuckled. Despite Cog’s dreaminess, he was liked by Leon and the rest of the crew. Never condescending, he even drank with them occasionally, laughing at their dirty jokes, and his almost childish enthusiasm for his work could infect you like a virus.

“The stuff freezes at two-fifty Kelvin. Acts more like water bound to protein than normal water. Real viscous stuff, binds hard to everything. That’s it, so far.”

“That mean we can’t scrape it off?” asked a crew member.

“Maybe. Boris wants you to try chipping it first. He wants a solid sample, a few kilos at least. All he had to work with was the liquid from Leon’s suit. I told him what I’ll tell you: try the chipping and scraping, but not for long, then take the flamers to it. I want to be totally operational in forty-eight hours.”

“When do we go out, Captain?” asked Leon.

“Two hours. That T-Tauri has flared again, and we should see another plasma burst within the hour. The thing is pretty irregular right now, so when you’re out there, stay on the dark side of the hull. Take hammers, chisels, and flamers, and get a nice block of dirty ice for Cogs. He seems to think it’s something entirely new. Other questions?”

There weren’t any. Then Zeke spoke up: “Captain, another thing I’d like Boris to look at. We’re getting a lot of broad-band noise now in communications. Pretty flat spectrum, except for some peaks around a micron, and a sharp one at ninety meters.”

“Cloud emissions?” said Waisley.

“I don’t think so, sir. Wasn’t there before the snowball hit us. It’s not a problem, but I thought you should know.”

“OK. I’ll run it by Cogs. Better start suiting up.”

Leon was paired with Arnie Solvido on the list Zeke circulated. Arnie was a good man, strong but easygoing, a slow breather with not much to say. Leon had pulled over a week’s work on the man’s tether with only a handful of words exchanged. Just the way Leon liked it — outside. Arnie showed up with a twenty pound sledge to go with the smaller tools and flamers they were going to try on the mass of starboard ice mounded on the hull, clumped in blocks at beam intersections of the instrument trellis. They saw all this with the forward video-cam. Right at the sun-line, it was the only instrument not covered with ice.

Six of them suited up an hour after another blast of plasma wind had raked the port side, carrying with it icy particulates that scoured metal like sandpaper, making an audible screech they could hear inside. Space in this dense molecular cloud was not so empty. And Leon still remembered the freezing snow with its flowing ice.

They tethered up at the port hatch and went out by twos, Leon and Arnie last, winching out three tool packs, each with flamer, then moving quickly to the dark side of the hull. Up close, the job looked bad: a solid, amorphous-looking mass of dirty ice up to a meter thick, covering vents and reaction ports. During the first hour they whacked at hull ice, Arnie swinging the big sledge, Leon working with a five-pounder and chisel. Solid ice, no layering or cracks to work with, bonded ferociously to the hull. In minutes they were surrounded with a cloud of ice chips and fist-sized chunks, pushing them away from the hull into Orion’s shadow. Leon finally called in.

“Zeke, this is going nowhere fast. It’ll take weeks to break this stuff up, and chisels won’t get it off the hull. I say let’s flame it.”

It was Waisley who answered. “OK, but get some samples for Cogs first. Big chunks, if you can.”

What they got was a couple of soccer-ball-sized blocks Arnie had whacked off. They trundled them back to the lock, then broke out the hydrogen flamers as Zeke came on the line.

“See anything out there? The radio noise has gone way up since you guys started working.”

Leon looked around from the darkside, the cloud of icy debris dully illuminated by girder-scattered light from the T-Tauri, beyond it only a few stars showing through channels in the thick molecular cloud around them, streaks of red and green far off where a newly born star was glowing. “Just the cloud,” he said. “Flamers on, Zeke. This should go a lot faster.”

And it did — at first. At ten thousand Kelvin the flames flashed the dirty ice to vapor on contact. But then the most amazing thing happened.

The ice began to move.

A flamer would make initial contact, flashing vapor at a point, and beyond that point the ice seemed to slump, color suddenly greenish, changing shape and flowing away from the flame. “What is this shit?” growled Arnie. “It’s running away from the flame!”

“This ain’t no ice,” said Leon. He’d held his flamer at a shallow angle against the hull before a man-sized mound of ice covering a reaction port, and watched the entire mass retreat to form a thick shelf beyond the port. It had moved a full meter in seconds. The port itself was still clogged. He blasted it, saw ice flow out in all directions away from the flame as he went in deeper and deeper, and suddenly the port was clear all the way down to the reaction nozzle throat. “It’s working!” he shouted. “We can clear the ports out with flamers, but we’re not melting the stuff. It’s flowing away from the heat!”

Now it was suddenly a game. Three flamers, pushing masses of ice around without effort, but it was eerie, watching that stuff move like it was alive, running away to escape the heat. When Zeke came on line, his voice was nearly obscured by a hiss.

“Get the other reaction port cleared out first. Once we roll the ship, the sunlight and plasma wind will take care of the rest.”

“We can barely hear you,” said Leon.

“I know. The radio noise is all over the band now, and getting stronger. Clear the port, and get back inside.”

Zeke sounded a bit anxious, and that bothered Leon. The ice had retreated to the sun-line, forming a two meter ridge forward to aft, though untouched blocks still covered girders and instrument pods in the superstructure. Three flamers went to work on the remaining reaction port, and ice flowed like milk, but then Leon caught something in his peripheral vision and looked up.

Something huge and white filled half his view, rushing towards him at terrible speed on a collision course. Its center glowed like a giant, green eye, and tendrils extended before it, reaching out towards them. Leon lurched backwards, and dropped his flamer.

“Get out of there!” screamed Zeke. Then the ice storm hit, the first tendrils reaching for the three flamers and snuffing them dead. Icy slivers, sleet and snow crashed into them, knocking them down, and Leon felt a terrible cold come with it.

“Arnie!” he yelled, and felt a gloved hand on his arm. “Move fast, before we freeze up! Everybody move!” He felt Arnie scrabbling at his back, the jerk of the tether behind him like a fish on a line, four other men stumbling blindly to their feet in swirling whiteness. But nobody panicked, not this crew, and in seconds they were back to the lock, already open for them. They tumbled inside, tools and flamers left behind on the hull, and the T-Tauri was glaring at them as the hatch slid shut.

“What the fuck was that?” asked one of the crew.

Leon brushed greenish slush from his suit. “The dirty snowball that hit us,” he said. “It’s come back.”

It’s sitting about two klicks off, right in our shadow,” said Waisley. “It backed off after you came inside, and the one reaction port is still clear, but all your gear is frozen to the hull.”

“We’ve got plenty more flamers,” said Leon. Now he was angry, and he wasn’t sure why.

“You want to go outside with that thing hovering around? The one fact obvious to me is that it was going right for the flamers. It didn’t give a damn about you guys. Once the flamers were gone, it backed off.”

“You make it sound intelligent, Captain,” said Zeke. “Maybe it is. Cogs thinks so.”

They were still wet, sitting in the briefing room with tubes of scalding coffee in their hands. The air in the room still smelled like organics. “If he’s right, then we owe the fucker something,” said Leon. “It tried to kill us out there. Let’s roll the ship, let the plasma wind take care of the rest of that ice, and get the hell out of here!”

“I think he’s right, Captain,” said Zeke. “That T-Tauri is flaring several times a day, now. It might be a thousand years until it ignites, or it might be a day. I’d just as soon not stick around to find out. Let’s roll the ship, clear off the ice, and get out of here.”

“I don’t think we should be so quick about that,” said someone behind them. Cogs. He stood in the doorway, arms folded, a mop of hair down over his eyes, thick lenses giving him a bug-eyed look. He rubbed his chin reflectively. “At the same time, I find it curious that our visitor left the one reaction port open, when it could have filled it up again. We’re not just dealing with a dirty snowball, gentlemen.”

“Yeah. You think it’s alive,” said Leon sarcastically.

Cogs got a tube of coffee from the dispenser and sat down with them. “I didn’t exactly say that. What I said was that it shows directed and purposeful behavior. Call it intelligence. Or simple, programmed logic if you like, but the thing is directed, and it’s communicating. That piece you brought in for me is sitting in the lab right now, chirping away in a broad band with a peak around one micron. There’s your radio noise, Zeke. It’s coming from the ice on this ship. And my bet is the ninety meter peak is coming from the snowball itself. A part of it is stuck to Orion, and the snowball wants it back. When you started flaming, it returned to remove what it perceived as a threat. It’s probably been lurking out there in the cloud ever since we collided with it.”

Leon thought of the glowing eye in the center of the snowball rushing towards him, the tendrils reaching out like claws towards the flamers. And cold. “So why did it hit us in the first place? I nearly died out there, Cogs.”

Cogs nodded. “I know, but that could have been an accident. It was outbound and just ran into us. A direct collision would have splattered Orion, and my guess is it made a course correction at the instant it saw us.”

Waisley looked thoughtful, raising an eyebrow. “It was moving out— away from that T-Tauri star?”

Cogs smiled briefly, then said, “Looking for a cooler place, Captain. It’s probably had tens of millions of years to evolve while that star was moving down the Kayashi track to ignition, but now something’s about to happen, and whatever we’re dealing with is trying to get the hell out of here. For all I know, the star has already ignited, and the energy just hasn’t reached the photosphere yet. We can’t detect neutrinos, but maybe the snowball can.”

“Jesus,” said Zeke.

“It could get hot here in a hurry. We’re less than an AU out from that thing.”

“But not as vulnerable as exposed ice,” said Cogs. “You’ve seen how sensitive it is to temperature. There’s an organic matrix in that stuff, a matrix it’ll take me months to figure out, even with the Cyber II back at base. Too cold and it’s immobile, but communicative. Too hot and the matrix breaks up, ceases to function. In other words, it dies.”

“We were killing it with the flamers,” said Leon, his anger suddenly tempered. “But if that star blows, and it’s us or them who survives it, then my vote is for us. That ice has to come off the hull.”

There was mumbled agreement among the men, including Cogs. “I have an idea for doing that,” he said, “but we’ll have to move slowly with the snowball watching us. And its participation will be vital. It has to figure out what we’re doing, and have time to react to it.”

“Okay,” said Waisley, “let’s hear it.”

Cogs proceeded to outline a simple yet crazy and delicate plan none of them believed could happen. Midway through the conversation, Zeke left to see if the snowball had changed position. When he returned, Cogs had finished, and everyone was ready for a meal and some sack time.

“We have a new development that doesn’t do your plan any good, Boris,” said Zeke.

“What the hell has happened now?”

Zeke shook his head. “Your snowball has disappeared.”

“Shit,” said Cogs softly.

“So let’s break out the flamers and get at it,” Arnie growled, the only thing he’d said during the entire meeting.

“No!” shouted Cogs. “Captain, we’ve got to wait, even if it’s just a few hours. There must be a reason that thing has gone away.”

The men groaned.

Waisley thought for only seconds. “You’re all tired and hungry. Take care of that first; then we’ll decide. Get to it.”

Everyone headed to mess, Cogs still pleading his case with Waisley as they left the room.

Thirty minutes later, drinking coffee over the remains of still another unidentified meal, they heard the screech of a horrible plasma wind raking the sunward hull of the ship.

Leon was finishing breakfast with Arnie and the others when an intercom call from Zeke ordered them immediately to suit-up bay. “Looks like you’ll get your wish,” said Leon to Arnie, but the man scowled and just said, “About time.”

So much for morning conversation with Arnie Solvido.

When they got to the bay, Zeke was watching the big monitor screen. He pointed to it, and what they saw sank their expectations into oblivion. “Snowball’s back,” said Zeke, “and it brought a couple of friends along with it.”

Three glistening orbs showed on the screen, two much smaller than the third. “The big one is a klick off,” said Zeke. “The two little guys are only three hundred meters out, sitting right in our shadow. They moved in a couple of hours ago from that dusty cloud patch at eleven o’clock, streaming trails of vapor that Cogs says is normal water. And the radio noise is terrific, now. Waisley is going ahead with Cog’s plan, crazy as it sounds, but he wants you suited up to clear out that last reaction port if things don’t go right.”

They got suited, and racked up six flamers this time, one per man. One port, six flamers. Could they work fast enough, before those things moved in to stop them? Leon suddenly felt like he was readying for battle, and he was sweating immediately after his suit was on.

The ship shuddered for one instant, and the orbs moved downwards on the screen, Zeke bringing them back to center with his camera controls. Another shudder, and motion ceased on the screen.

“A small rotation, and the top of that ice ridge should be warming now. It was right at the sun-line,” Zeke said.

The small orbs on the screen grew larger, the big one remaining as it was. “They’re coming in, just like Cogs said. The guy is amazing,” said Zeke. Then, “Switching to forward cam.”

What they saw astonished them, the sight of a two-meter high ridge of ice rippling, undulating, rising to a crescent-shape peak to wave like cloth in a gentle breeze. Zeke switched back, and the entire screen was filled with a cloud of glistening crystals.

“They’re coming for it, Captain!” shouted Zeke. “They’re right on us!”

“We’re watching,” came the reply.

Zeke switched back as Orion shuddered again, then again. Another short rotation. The ridge ice was flowing from base to crest, now, stretching several meters above the hull, waving like a field of grain, and then the blackness beyond was covered with sparkling white, visible tendrils reaching towards the dancing crest, fanlike, moving along it to form a bridge along which ice flowed as if sucked on by some giant mouth. As they watched, astonished, the entire ridge, thousands of kilos, flowed upwards and across the bridge, leaving behind the dull yet unmistakable clean surface of the hull.

“They sucked it up!” said Leon. “They actually did the job for us. How could Cogs figure that would happen?”

“They’re taking back the part of them they almost left behind,” said Zeke softly, and there was a kind of reverence in his voice.

Leon barely noticed the sweat pooling in his suit. He watched in awe as Orion continued its slow, methodical rotation, the big snowball maintaining its distance, the small ones dutifully sucking up ice as it became warm enough to flow. Last to go were the chunks in the superstructure, the mass deep in the reaction port, fine tendrils reaching out gently to form a narrow bridge for the flow. And then it was clean; every square meter of hull and superstructure was barren of ice.

They waited for the two smaller snowballs to retreat.

The dirty things stayed where they were, hovering only meters from the ship.

“Now what?” said Leon. “Why don’t they go away?”

“Zeke?” said Waisley over the intercom.

“We’re watching them, sir.”

“Well they’re not moving, and we’ve got to inspect that reaction port before we get underway. Someone’s going to have to go out and check it. One small ice plug would be enough to blow the nozzle throat out when we fire up. Get someone on it.”

“Got it, sir,” said Zeke, and Waisley clicked off. Zeke looked at them, shrugged his shoulders. “Any volunteers?”

Someone laughed, but otherwise there was silence in the bay. Leon looked at Arnie, but the man only rolled his eyes at him.

“Come on, men, one or two to make a quick check on the port, then back inside. The hull is clear.”

“Those things out there are nearly close enough to touch,” said Leon. “Maybe they’re just waitin’ for one of us to come out, to get back at us for using the flamers. You ever think of that?”

“I hear you,” said Zeke softly, “but I don’t believe it, Leon. Not after what we’ve just seen. There’s some kind of brain behind all that ice and snow. They know exactly what they’re doing, and I don’t think that includes waiting around for a human sacrifice.”

Zeke stepped up and put a hand on Leon’s shoulder. “How about it? You’ve been out there twice with dirty snowballs all over you, and they haven’t killed you yet.” He smiled.

Zeke was right; first time probably an accident, second time when they were using the flamers. Leon swallowed hard, and said, “I ain’t taking anything out with me, no tools, no flamer. And I want Arnie to anchor my tether in case they try anything.”

“Thanks a lot, Leon,” snarled Arnie.

“Just stay by the hatch, and pull me in if they make a move. I’m the one taking the chances!”

Everyone was looking at Arnie, and Leon knew he had him, even when the man glared back. “You’ll owe me for this, buddy.”

Leon nodded, and slapped Arnie’s shoulder. And ten minutes later, the hatch slid open, and they were looking at the roiling mess that was a baby star trying to get born, deep red polar jets spewing forth with force against expanding, boiling clouds of gas and dust. Leon hooked up, Arnie locking in at the anchor point a meter from the hatch. “Two tugs,” he said, “and I’m pulling you in, standing or not.”

Leon rapped Arnie’s helmet with a gloved fist, and grinned. In four strides he was at the sun-line, and the two snowballs were rising like star clusters above the hull, masses of crystals sparkling, faint, green glows at their centers — pulsating. He’d misjudged their distance, or maybe they’d backed off, but they filled his vision, hovering several meters off, each nearly the diameter of Orion. He took a deep breath, exhaled slowly and marched straight to the reaction port, bent over, looked inside. Clear. “Port’s cleared out!” he shouted.

“We hear you,” said Zeke. “Make a hull check while you’re at it, and grab anything loose.”

Leon walked the hull twice, fore and aft, neck getting tired from jerking his head around to keep one eye on the snowballs. “Tools and flamers are gone. I guess they were blown or sucked away. All clear out here. Now what?”

“You’re done. Come on in, Leon,” said Zeke.

He was back at the sun-line where he’d started, and turned one last time for a close-up look. His heart nearly stopped.

The snowball on his left had suddenly moved closer, was nearly on him. His hand tightened on the tether, ready to jerk hard.

The snowball stopped, drifting so close he could take two steps and stretch out to touch it. The greenish pulsation was suddenly mesmerizing. He stared at it for a second before exasperation overcame his reverie. He held his arms up from his sides and waved them like an injured bird. “Why don’t you go away? What the hell do you want?”

Leon Gratz would never forget what happened then. He talked about it for weeks after, until the crew was sick of it.

As Leon lowered his arms, a tendril of icy stuff the size of a man’s arm snaked out from the snowball, its shining tip fluttering like smoke near his face. The tip suddenly bulged, a fist-sized chunk breaking off to float within a meter of his faceplate. And then the tendril reached out again, wrapped once, twice around the icy piece, drew it slowly, gently back into the mass from which it had come.

“Oh, shit,” said Leon. His face was flushed, yet his body was soaking wet and freezing.

“You back inside, yet?” asked Zeke.

“He’s just standin’ there,” said Arnie.

“I’m OK, I’m OK! Zeke, does Cogs still have those chunks of dirty ice we brought in?”

“Well — yeah. They were still chirpin’ away in his lab a couple of hours ago.”

“Zeke, I think these things want the chunks back. I think they’re signaling to each other, and that’s why they’re hanging around. I’m willing to bet money they won’t leave until they get everything back.”

“I’ll tell the Captain; you hang on. Leon, you OK out there?”

“Yeah — yeah, I’m fine. Just get the ice.”

“We don’t have air out here forever,” said Arnie.

“Thanks for reminding me, Arnie.”

“Well, we don’t. We’re out here, and they’re not. Can you see Cogs giving up his precious ice sample?”

“That’s what Captains are for, Arnie. Take it easy.”

They waited — and waited, Leon nose to nose with the snowball, Arnie cooking sunside and giving an occasional, irritating tug on the tether to show his displeasure.

Finally, Zeke came back on line.

“OK, we got it. Cogs understands. He doesn’t like it, but he understands. He’s up to his ass in data on this stuff anyway. We’re bringing it out in a bucket, and right away.”

“I don’t think I’d better move,” said Leon, staring into that greenish glow. “This guy might take it the wrong way.” Even saying so, he somehow didn’t believe it. The glowing ball of snow and ice with the pulsing green heart just floated there, as if it knew what was happening. An organic matrix in water ice. A brain?

“You stay there, Leon.” said Arnie. “I’ll bring it out if you just stand still.”

Leon knew fright when he heard it, but Arnie would do what he said he’d do. He was that kind of man. In a moment he felt a tug on the tether, and snapped a glance over his shoulder. Arnie had hooked himself up to the tether, was shuffling up to the sun-line, head down, a bucket dangling from one hand. When he neared Leon, he looked up, and his eyes were huge behind the faceplate. He put a stranglehold on the tether, with one hand, gingerly held out the bucket at arm’s length with the other, and stopped where he was. “Here, take the damn thing,” he muttered.

Leon leaned back to take the bucket by its rim, felt the mass nearly filling it, looked inside and saw flickering, emerald flashes in black ice. He pulled down on the bucket, and the mass floated free at his waistline.

“It’s got to heat up, Leon! Get it up in the sunlight.” It was Cogs on the line, not Zeke.

Leon left the bucket to float beside him, took the sparkling chunks of ice in both hands, held them up to the snowball like some kind of offering, then raised them over his head and poked them with a finger. The chunks rose slowly, rotating slightly, and for a long, horrible moment the two men stood before the Orion-sized snowball — waiting for a reaction.

Nothing, at first, the ice chunks a meter off, then two, tumbling still. And then they began to change: first dirty ice, now a dark green, then lighter, changing shape, flowing into a single mass and spinning faster, twisting into a coiled cylinder. The cylinder writhed like a snake, stretching out towards the snowball as a tentacle of white stuff emerged there to grasp it like an elephant’s trunk taking a peanut. It was gone in a flash, sucked up like all the other ice on the hull.

“Jesus,” said Arnie, barely audible to Leon, the sound of his own heartbeat pounding his ears.

There was nothing else to say, and all they could do was stand there and watch as the snowball backed off to where its companion waited. The things turned together, moved off slowly, and suddenly the space around the two men was sparkling in crystals of flawless white, a light dusting of snowflakes pure as spring water. They stood gaping for minutes, until the two snowballs joined the bigger one, melding into its sides, disappearing into it. The big one pulsed green, turning, its emerald glow steadying, and then it moved away, slowly at first, trailing a sparkling plume that widened as the thing suddenly accelerated. In seconds, it was only a bright spot flickering in and out within the dust lanes of the dense nebula beyond.

“Good job, guys. Time to come inside,” said Zeke.

“Yeah,” said Leon, still looking outwards. He followed Arnie back to the hatch, where Arnie leaned forward, their face plates touching.

“Leon — those things out there — they’re alive.”

“I know,” said Leon — and then they went inside.

Four months later, on their way back to the picket platform Harrison, and the entire EVA crew was just finishing breakfast in the mess room. A young Tech was having a problem with one of the synth dispensers, and had started banging on it with his fist when Waisley walked in, and then the banging stopped.

“I have an announcement,” said Waisley, grinning. “Molecular cloud complex 3G7 wishes to announce the birth of a new star!”

“Let me guess where it was born,” said Leon.

“Cogs says the color-T is ten thousand Kelvin, but it’ll settle down to eight. A nice Sol-type sun for whatever’s out there.”

“Good enough for snowballs?” asked Arnie.

“Could be. They seemed to know where they had to be. Anyway, we’re gonna find out. As soon as we retrofit at Harrison, we have orders to go back out there to look for them.”

Everyone groaned.

“Hey, this is important! First contact, and all that, and besides, there are some planets forming back there. It’s our job to look in on them happening, men; don’t forget what you signed on for.”

“We gonna try talking to them?” asked Arnie.

“Maybe, if the scientists at base can figure out what we’re dealing with. Cogs is their hero right now. He’s in heaven.”

“What the hell could we say to each other?” said Leon.

Waisley laughed. “I’ll settle for a thank you,” he said, then left the room.

The Tech started banging on the synth dispenser again, and Leon jerked around to shout at him, “You got something against that machine, Keith? Jesus, the racket!”

“Pop’s coming out warm again. Ice is gone. We never have any ice around here when we need it!”

And then he quickly ducked, to escape the barrage of wadded-up napkins simultaneously thrown at his head by every other man in the room.

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