THE SATURN GAME
If we would understand what happened, which is vital if we would avoid repeated and worse tragedies in the future, we must begin by dismissing all accusations. Nobody was negligent; no action was foolish. For who could have predicted the eventuality, or recognized its nature, until too late? Rather should we appreciate the spirit with which those people struggled against disaster, inward and outward, after they knew. The fact is that thresholds exist throughout reality, and that things on their for sides are altogether different from things on their hither sides. The Chronos crossed more than an abyss, it crossed a threshold of human experience.
—Francis L. Minamoto,
Death Under Saturn: A Dissenting View
(Apollo University Communications, Leyburg, Luna, 2057)
“The City of Ice is now on my horizon,” Kendrick says. Its towers gleam blue. “My griffin spreads his wings to glide.” Wind whistles among those great, rainbow-shimmering pinions. His cloak blows back from his shoulders; the air strikes through his ring mail and sheathes him in cold. “I lean over and peer after you.” The spear in his left hand counterbalances him. Its head flickers palely with the moonlight that Wayland Smith hammered into the steel.
“Yes, I see the griffin,” Ricia tells him, “high and far, like a comet above the courtyard walls. I run out from under the portico for a better look. A guard tries to stop me, grabs my sleeve, but I tear the spider-silk apart and dash forth into the open.” The elven castle wavers as if its sculptured ice were turning to smoke. Passionately she cries, “Is it in truth you, my darling?”
“Hold, there!” warns Alvarlan from his cave of arcana ten thousand leagues away. “I send your mind the message that if the King suspects this is Sir Kendrick of the Isles, he will raise a dragon against him, or spirit you off beyond any chance of rescue. Go back, Princess of Maranoa. Pretend you decide that it is only an eagle. I will cast a belief-spell on your words.”
“I stay far aloft,” Kendrick says. “Save he use a scrying stone, the Elf King will not be aware this beast has a rider. From here I’ll spy out city and castle.” And then—? He knows not. He knows simply that he must set her free or die in the quest. How long will it take him, how many more nights will she lie in the King’s embrace?
“I thought you were supposed to spy out Iapetus,” Mark Danzig interrupted.
His dry tone startled the three others into alertness. Jean Broberg flushed with embarrassment, Colin Scobie with irritation; Luis Garcilaso shrugged, grinned, and turned his gaze to the pilot console before which he sat harnessed. For a moment silence filled the cabin, and shadows, and radiance from the universe.
To help observation, all lights were out except a few dim glows at instruments. The sunward ports were lidded. Elsewhere thronged stars, so many and so brilliant that they well-nigh drowned the blackness which held them. The Milky Way was a torrent of silver. One port framed Saturn at half phase, dayside pale gold and rich bands amidst the jewelry of its rings, nightside wanly ashimmer with starlight and moonlight upon clouds, as big to the sight as Earth over Luna.
Forward was Iapetus. The spacecraft rotated while orbiting the moon, to maintain a steady optical field. It had crossed the dawn line, presently at the middle of the inward-facing hemisphere. Thus it had left bare, crater-pocked land behind it in the dark, and was passing above sunlit glacier country. Whiteness dazzled, glittered in sparks and shards of color, reached fantastic shapes heavenward; cirques, crevasses, caverns brimmed with blue.
“I’m sorry,” Jean Broberg whispered. “It’s too beautiful, unbelievably beautiful, and … almost like the place where our game had brought us—Took us by surprise—”
“Huh!” Mark Danzig said. “You had a pretty good idea of what to expect, therefore you made your play go in the direction of something that resembled it. Don’t tell me any different. I’ve watched these acts for eight years.”
Colin Scobie made a savage gesture. Spin and gravity were too slight to give noticeable weight. His movement sent him through the air, across the crowded cabin, until he checked himself by a handhold just short of the chemist. “Are you calling Jean a liar?” he growled.
Most times he was cheerful, in a bluff fashion. Perhaps because of that, he suddenly appeared menacing. He was a big, sandy-haired man in his midthirties; a coverall did not disguise the muscles beneath, and the scowl on his face brought forth its ruggedness.
“Please!” Broberg exclaimed. “Not a quarrel, Colin.”
The geologist glanced back at her. She was slender and fine-featured. At her age of forty-two, despite longevity treatment, the reddish-brown hair that fell to her shoulders was becoming streaked with white, and lines were engraved around large gray eyes. “Mark is right,” she sighed. “We’re here to do science, not daydream.” She reached forth to touch Scobie’s arm, smiled shyly. “You’re still full of your Kendrick persona, aren’t you? Gallant, protective—” She stopped. Her voice had quickened with more than a hint of Ricia. She covered her lips and flushed again. A tear broke free and sparkled off on air currents. She forced a laugh. “But I’m just physicist Broberg, wife of astronomer Tom, mother of Johnnie and Billy.”
Her glance went Saturnward, as if seeking the ship where her family waited. She might have spied it, too, as a star that moved among stars, by the solar sail. However, that was now furled, and naked vision could not find even such huge hulls as Chronos possessed, across millions of kilometers.
Luis Garcilaso asked from his pilot’s chair: “What harm if we carry on our little commedia dell’ arte?” His Arizona drawl soothed the ear. “We won’t be landin’ for a while yet, and everything’s on automatic till then.” He was small, swart, deft, still in his twenties.
Danzig twisted the leather of his countenance into a frown. At sixty, thanks to his habits as well as to longevity, he kept springiness in a lank frame; he could joke about wrinkles and encroaching baldness. In this hour, he set humor aside.
“Do you mean you don’t know what’s the matter?” His beak of a nose pecked at a scanner screen which magnified the moonscape. “Almighty God! That’s a new world we’re about to touch down on—tiny, but a world, and strange in ways we can’t guess. Nothing’s been here before us except one unmanned flyby and one unmanned lander that soon quit sending. We can’t rely on meters and cameras alone. We’ve got to use our eyes and brains.” He addressed Scobie. “You should realize that in your bones, Colin, if nobody else aboard does. You’ve worked on Luna as well as Earth. In spite of all the settlements, in spite of all the study that’s been done, did you never hit any nasty surprises?”
The burly man had recovered his temper. Into his own voice came a softness that recalled the serenity of the Idaho mountains whence he hailed. “True,” he admitted. “There’s no such thing as having too much information when you’re off Earth, or enough information, for that matter.” He paused. “Nevertheless, timidity can be as dangerous as rashness—not that you’re timid, Mark,” he added in haste. “Why, you and Rachel could’ve been in a nice O’Neill on a nice pension—”
Danzig relaxed and smiled. “This was a challenge, if I may sound pompous. Just the same, we want to get home when we’re finished here. We should be in time for the Bar Mitzvah of a great-grandson or two. Which requires staying alive.”
“My point is, if you let yourself get buffaloed, you may end up in a worse bind than—Oh, never mind. You’re probably right, and we should not have begun fantasizing. The spectacle sort of grabbed us. It won’t happen again.”
Yet when Scobie’s eyes looked anew on the glacier, they had not quite the dispassion of a scientist in them. Nor did Broberg’s or Garcilaso’s. Danzig slammed fist into palm. “The game, the damned childish game,” he muttered, too low for his companions to hear. “Was nothing saner possible for them?”
Was nothing saner possible for them? Perhaps not.
If we are to answer the question, we should first review some history. When early industrial operations in space offered the hope of rescuing civilization, and Earth, from ruin, then greater knowledge of sister planets, prior to their development, became a clear necessity. The effort must start with Mars, the least hostile. No natural law forbade sending small manned spacecraft yonder. What did was the absurdity of as much fuel, time, and effort as were required, in order that three or four persons might spend a few days in a single locality.
Construction of the J. Peter Vajk took longer and cost more, but paid off when it, virtually a colony, spread its immense solar soil and took a thousand people to their goal in half a year and in comparative comfort. The payoff grew overwhelming when they, from orbit, launched Earthward the beneficiated minerals of Phobos that they did not need for their own purposes. Those purposes, of course, turned on the truly thorough, long-term study of Mars, and included landings of auxiliary craft, for ever lengthier stays, all over the surface.
Sufficient to remind you of this much; no need to detail the triumphs of the same basic concept throughout the inner Solar System, as far as Jupiter. The tragedy of the Vladimir became a reason to try again for Mercury … and, in a left-handed, political way, pushed the Britannic-American consortium into its Chronos project.
They named the ship better than they knew. Sailing time to Saturn was eight years.
Not only the scientists must be healthy, lively-minded people. Crewfolk, technicians, medics, constables, teachers, clergy, entertainers, every element of an entire community must be. Each must command more than a single skill, for emergency backup, and keep those skills alive by regular, tedious rehearsal. The environment was limited and austere; communication with home was soon a matter of beamcasts; cosmopolitans found themselves in what amounted to an isolated village. What were they to do?
Assigned tasks. Civic projects, especially work on improving the interior of the vessel. Research, or writing a book, or the study of a subject, or sports, or hobby clubs, or service and handicraft enterprises, or more private interactions, or—there was a wide choice of television tapes, but Central Control made sets usable for only three hours in twenty-four. You dared not get into the habit of passivity.
Individuals grumbled, squabbled, formed and dissolved cliques, formed and dissolved marriages or less explicit relationship, begot and raised occasional children, worshipped, mocked, learned, yearned, and for the most part found reasonable satisfaction in life. But for some, including a large proportion of the gifted, what made the difference between this and misery was their psychodramas.
Dawn crept past the ice, out onto the rock. It was a light both dim and harsh, yet sufficient to give Garcilaso the last data he wanted for descent.
The hiss of the motor died away, a thump shivered through the hull, landing jacks leveled it, stillness fell. The crew did not speak for a while. They were staring out at Iapetus.
Immediately around them was desolation like that which reigns in much of the Solar System. A darkling plain curved visibly away to a horizon that, at man-height, was a bare three kilometers distant; higher up in the cabin, you saw farther, but that only sharpened the sense of being on a minute ball awhirl among the stars. The ground was thinly covered with cosmic dust and gravel; here and there a minor crater or an upthrust mass lifted out of the regolith to cast long, knife-edged, utterly black shadows. Light reflections lessened the number of visible stars, turning heaven into a bowlful of night. Halfway between the zenith and the south, half-Saturn and its rings made the vista beautiful.
Likewise did the glacier—or the glaciers? Nobody was sure. The sole knowledge was that, seen from afar, Iapetus gleamed bright at the western end of its orbit and grew dull at the eastern end, because one side was covered with whitish material while the other side was not; the dividing line passed nearly beneath the planet which it eternally faced. The probes from Chronos had reported the layer was thick, with puzzling spectra that varied from place to place, and little more about it.
In this hour, four humans gazed across pitted emptiness and saw wonder rear over the world-rim. From north to south went ramparts, battlements, spires, depths, peaks, cliffs, their shapes and shadings an infinity of fantasies. On the right Saturn cast soft amber, but that was nearly lost in the glare from the east, where a sun dwarfed almost to stellar size nonetheless blazed too fierce to look at, just above the summit. There the silvery sheen exploded in brilliance, diamond-glitter of shattered light, chill blues and greens; dazzled to tears, eyes saw the vision glimmer and waver, as if it bordered on dreamland, or on Faerie. But despite all delicate intricacies, underneath was a sense of chill and of brutal mass; here dwelt also the Frost Giants.
Broberg was the first to breathe forth a word. “The City of Ice.”
“Magic,” said Garcilaso as low. “My spirit could lose itself forever, wanderin’ yonder. I’m not sure I’d mind. My cave is nothin’ like this, nothin’—”
“Wait a minute!” snapped Danzig in alarm.
“Oh, yes. Curb the imagination, please.” Though Scobie was quick to utter sobrieties, they sounded drier than needful. “We know from probe transmissions the scarp is, well, Grand Canyon-like. Sure, it’s more spectacular than we realized, which I suppose makes it still more of a mystery.” He turned to Broberg. “I’ve never seen ice or snow as sculptured as this. Have you, Jean? You’ve mentioned visiting a lot of mountain and winter scenery when you were a girl in Canada.”
The physicist shook her head. “No. Never. It doesn’t seem possible. What could have done it? There’s no weather here … is there?”
“Perhaps the same phenomenon is responsible that laid a hemisphere bare,” Danzig suggested.
“Or that covered a hemisphere,” Scobie said. “An object seventeen hundred kilometers across shouldn’t have gases, frozen or otherwise. Unless it’s a ball of such stuff clear through, like a comet. Which we know it’s not.” As if to demonstrate, he unclipped a pair of pliers from a nearby tool rack, tossed it, and caught it on its slow way down. His own ninety kilos of mass weighed about seven. For that, the satellite must be essentially rocky.
Garcilaso registered impatience. “Let’s stop tradin’ facts and theories we already know about, and start findin’ answers.”
Rapture welled in Broberg. “Yes, let’s get out. Over there.”
“Hold on,” protested Danzig as Garcilaso and Scobie nodded eagerly. “You can’t be serious. Caution, step-by-step advance—”
“No, it’s too wonderful for that.” Broberg’s tone shivered.
“Yeah, to hell with fiddlin’ around,” Garcilaso said. “We need at least a preliminary scout right away.”
The furrows deepened in Danzig’s visage. “You mean you too, Luis? But you’re our pilot!”
“On the ground I’m general assistant, chief cook, and bottle washer to you scientists. Do you imagine I want to sit idle, with somethin’ like that to explore?” Garcilaso calmed his voice. “Besides, if I should come to grief, any of you can fly back, given a bit of radio talk from Chronos and a final approach under remote control.”
“It’s quite reasonable, Mark,” Scobie argued. “Contrary to doctrine, true; but doctrine was made for us, not vice versa. A short distance, low gravity, and we’ll be on the lookout for hazards. The point is, until we have some notion of what that ice is like, we don’t know what the devil to pay attention to in this vicinity, either. No, we’ll take a quick jaunt. When we return, then we’ll plan.”
Danzig stiffened. “May I remind you, if anything goes wrong, help is at least a hundred hours away? An auxiliary like this can’t boost any higher if it’s to get back, and it’d take longer than that to disengage the big boats from Saturn and Titan.”
Scobie reddened at the implied insult. “And may I remind you, on the ground I am the captain? I say an immediate reconnaissance is safe and desirable. Stay behind if you want—In fact, yes, you must. Doctrine is right in saying the vessel mustn’t be deserted.”
Danzig studied him for several seconds before murmuring, “Luis goes, however, is that it?”
“Yes!” cried Garcilaso so that the cabin rang.
Broberg patted Danzig’s limp hand. “It’s okay, Mark,” she said gently. “We’ll bring back samples for you to study. After that, I wouldn’t be surprised but what the best ideas about procedure will be yours.”
He shook his head. Suddenly he looked very tired. “No,” he replied in a monotone, “that won’t happen. You see, I’m only a hardnosed industrial chemist who saw this expedition as a chance to do interesting research. The whole way through space, I kept myself busy with ordinary affairs, including, you remember, a couple of inventions I’d wanted leisure to develop. You three, you’re younger, you’re romantics—”
“Aw, come off it, Mark.” Scobie tried to laugh. “Maybe Jean and Luis are, a little, but me, I’m about as other-worldly as a plate of haggis.”
“You played the game, year after year, until at last the game started playing you. That’s what’s going on this minute, no matter how you rationalize your motives.” Danzig’s gaze on the geologist, who was his friend, lost the defiance that had been in it and turned wistful. “You might try recalling Delia Ames.”
Scobie bristled. “What about her? The business was hers and mine, nobody else’s.”
“Except afterward she cried on Rachel’s shoulder, and Rachel doesn’t keep secrets from me. Don’t worry, I’m not about to blab. Anyhow, Delia got over it. But if you’d recollect objectively, you’d see what had happened to you, already three years ago.”
Scobie set his jaw. Danzig smiled in the left corner of his mouth. “No, I suppose you can’t,” he went on. “I admit I’d no idea either, till now, how far the process had gone. At least keep your fantasies in the background while you’re outside, will you? Can you?”
In half a decade of travel, Scobie’s apartment had become idiosyncratically his—perhaps more so than was usual, since he remained a bachelor who seldom had women visitors for longer than a few nightwatches at a time. Much of the furniture he had made himself; the agrosections of Chronos produced wood, hide, and fiber as well as food and fresh air. His handiwork ran to massiveness and archaic carved decorations. Most of what he wanted to read he screened from the data banks, of course, but a shelf held a few old books, Childe’s border ballads, an eighteenth-century family Bible (despite his agnosticism), a copy of The Machinery of Freedom which had nearly disintegrated but displayed the signature of the author, and other valued miscellany. Above them stood a model of a sailboat in which he had cruised Northern European waters, and a trophy he had won in handball aboard this ship. On the bulkheads hung his fencing sabers and numerous pictures—of parents and siblings, of wilderness areas he had tramped on Earth, of castles and mountains and heaths in Scotland where he had often been too, of his geological team on Luna, of Thomas Jefferson and, imagined, Robert the Bruce.
On a certain evenwatch he had, though, been seated before his telescreen. Lights were turned low in order that he might fully savor the image. Auxiliary craft were out in a joint exercise, and a couple of their personnel used the opportunity to beam back views of what they saw.
That was splendor. Starful space made a chalice for Chronos. The two huge, majestically counter-rotating cylinders, the entire complex of linkages, ports, locks, shields, collectors, transmitters, docks, all became Japanesely exquisite at a distance of several hundred kilometers. It was the solar sail which filled most of the screen, like a turning golden sun-wheel; yet remote vision could also appreciate its spiderweb intricacy, soaring and subtle curvatures, even the less-than-gossamer thinness. A mightier work than the Pyramids, a finer work than a refashioned chromosome, the ship moved on toward a Saturn which had become the second brightest beacon in the firmament.
The door chime hauled Scobie out of his exaltation. As he started across the deck, he stubbed his toe on a table leg. Coriolis force caused that. It was slight, when a hull this size spun to give a full gee of weight, and a thing to which he had long since adapted; but now and then he got so interested in something that terrestrial habits returned. He swore at his absent-mindedness, good-naturedly, since he anticipated a pleasurable time.
When he opened the door, Delia Ames entered in a single stride. At once she closed it behind her and stood braced against it. She was a tall blonde woman who did electronics maintenance and kept up a number of outside activities. “Hey!” Scobie said. “What’s wrong? You look like—” he tried for levity “—something my cat wouldn’t’ve dragged in, if we had any mice or beached fish aboard.”
She drew a ragged breath. Her Australian accent thickened till he had trouble understanding: “I … today … I happened to be at the same cafeteria table as George Harding—”
Unease tingled through Scobie. Harding worked in Ames’ department but had much more in common with him. In the same group to which they both belonged, Harding likewise took a vaguely ancestral role, N’Kuma the Lionslayer.
“What happened?” Scobie asked.
Woe stared back at him. “He mentioned … you and he and the rest … you’d be taking your next holiday together … to carry on your, your bloody act uninterrupted.”
“Well, yes. Work at the new park over in Starboard Hull will be suspended till enough metal’s been recycled for the water pipes. The area will be vacant, and my gang has arranged to spend a week’s worth of days—”
“But you and I were going to Lake Armstrong!”
“Uh, wait, that was just a notion we talked about, no definite plan yet, and this is such an unusual chance—Later, sweetheart. I’m sorry.” He took her hands. They felt cold. He essayed a smile. “Now, c’mon, we were going to cook a festive dinner together and afterward spend a, shall we say, quiet evening at home. But for a start, this absolutely gorgeous presentation on the screen—”
She jerked free of him. The gesture seemed to calm her. “No, thanks,” she said, flat-voiced. “Not when you’d rather be with that Broberg woman. I only came by to tell you in person I’m getting out of the way of you two.”
“Huh?” He stepped back. “What the flaming hell do you mean?”
“You know jolly well.”
“I don’t! She, I, she’s happily married, got two kids, she’s older than me, we’re friends, sure, but there’s never been a thing between us that wasn’t in the open and on the level—” Scobie swallowed. “You suppose maybe I’m in love with her?”
Ames looked away. Her fingers writhed together. “I’m not about to go on being a mere convenience to you, Colin. You have plenty of those. Myself, I’d hoped—But I was wrong, and I’m going to cut my losses before they get worse.”
“But … Dee, I swear I haven’t fallen for anybody else, and I, I swear you’re more than a body to me, you’re a fine person—” She stood mute and withdrawn. Scobie gnawed his lip before he could tell her: “Okay, I admit it, a main reason I volunteered for this trip was I’d lost out in a love affair on Earth. Not that the project doesn’t interest me, but I’ve come to realize what a big chunk out of my life it is. You, more than any other woman, Dee, you’ve gotten me to feel better about the situation.”
She grimaced. “But not as much as your psychodrama has, right?”
“Hey, you must think I’m obsessed with the game. I’m not. It’s fun and—oh, maybe ‘fun’ is too weak a word—but anyhow, it’s just little bunches of people getting together fairly regularly to play. Like my fencing, or a chess club, or, or anything.”
She squared her shoulders. “Well, then,” she asked, “will you cancel the date you’ve made and spend your holiday with me?”
“I, uh, I can’t do that. Not at this stage. Kendrick isn’t off on the periphery of current events, he’s closely involved with everybody else. If I didn’t show, it’d spoil things for the rest.”
Her glance steadied upon them. “Very well. A promise is a promise, or so I imagined. But afterward—Don’t be afraid. I’m not trying to trap you. That would be no good, would it? However, if I maintain this liaison of ours, will you phase out of your game?”
“I can’t—” Anger seized him. “No, God damn it!” he roared.
“Then goodbye, Colin,” she said, and departed. He stared for minutes at the door she had shut behind her.
Unlike the large Titan and Saturn-vicinity explorers, landers on the airless moons were simply modified Luna-to-space shuttles, reliable but with limited capabilities. When the blocky shape had dropped below the horizon, Garcilaso said into his radio: “We’ve lost sight of the boat, Mark. I must say it improves the view.” One of the relay microsatellites which had been sown in orbit passed his words on.
“Better start blazing your trail, then,” Danzig reminded.
“My, my, you are a fussbudget, aren’t you?” Nevertheless Garcilaso unholstered the squirt gun at his hip and splashed a vividly fluorescent circle of paint on the ground. He would do it at eyeball intervals until his party reached the glacier. Except where dust lay thick over the regolith, footprints were faint, under the feeble gravity, and absent when a walker crossed continuous rock.
Walker? No, leaper. The three bounded exultant, little hindered by spacesuits, life support units, tool and ration packs. The naked land fled from their haste, and even higher, ever more clear and glorious to see, loomed the ice ahead of them.
There was no describing it, not really. You could speak of lower slopes and palisades above, to a mean height of perhaps a hundred meters, with spires towering farther still. You could speak of gracefully curved tiers going up those braes, of lacy parapets and fluted crags and arched openings to caves filled with wonders, of mysterious blues in the depths and greens where light streamed through translucencies, of gem-sparkle across whiteness where radiance and shadow wove mandalas—and none of it would convey anything more than Scobie’s earlier, altogether inadequate comparison to the Grand Canyon.
“Stop,” he said for the dozenth time. “I want to take a few pictures.”
“Will anybody understand them who hasn’t been here?” whispered Broberg.
“Probably not,” said Garcilaso in the same hushed tone. “Maybe no one but us ever will.”
“What do you mean by that?” demanded Danzig’s voice.
“Never mind,” snapped Scobie.
“I … think … I … know,” the chemist said. “Yes, it is a great piece of scenery, but you’re letting it hypnotize you.”
“If you don’t cut out that drivel,” Scobie warned, “we’ll cut you out of the circuit. Damn it, we’ve got work to do. Get off our backs.”
Danzig gusted a sigh. “Sorry. Uh, are you finding any clues to the nature of that—that thing?”
Scobie focused his camera. “Well,” he said, partly mollified, “the different shades and textures, and no doubt the different shapes, seem to confirm what the reflection spectra from the flyby suggested. The composition is a mixture, or a jumble, or both, of several materials, and varies from place to place. Water ice is obvious, but I feel sure of carbon dioxide too, and I’d bet on ammonia, methane, and presumably lesser amounts of other stuff.”
“Methane? Could they stay solid at ambient temperature, in a vacuum?”
“We’ll have to find out for sure. However, I’d guess that most of the time it’s cold enough, at least for methane strata that occur down inside where there’s pressure on them.”
Within the vitryl globe of her helmet, Broberg’s features showed delight. “Wait!” she cried. “I have an idea—about what happened to the probe that landed.” She drew breath. “It came down almost at the foot of the glacier, you recall. Our view of the site from space seemed to indicate that an avalanche buried it, but we couldn’t understand how that might have been triggered. Well, suppose a methane layer at exactly the wrong location melted. Heat radiation from the jets may have warmed it, and later the radar beam used to map contours added the last few degrees necessary. The stratum flowed, and down came everything that had rested on top of it.”
“Plausible,” Scobie said. “Congratulations, Jean.”
“Nobody thought of the possibility in advance?” Garcilaso scoffed. “What kind of scientists have we got along?”
“The kind who were being overwhelmed by work after we reached Saturn, and still more by data input,” Scobie answered. “The universe is bigger than you or anybody can realize, hotshot.”
“Oh. Sure. No offense.” Garcilaso’s glance returned to the ice. “Yes, we’ll never run out of mysteries, will we?”
“Never.” Broberg’s eyes glowed enormous. “At the heart of things will always be magic. The Elf King rules—”
Scobie returned his camera to its pouch. “Stow the gab and move on,” he ordered curtly.
His gaze locked for an instant with Broberg’s. In the weird, mingled light, it could be seen that she went pale, then red, before she sprang off beside him.
Ricia had gone alone into Moonwood on Midsummer Eve. The King found her there and took her unto him as she had hoped. Ecstasy became terror when he afterward bore her off; yet her captivity in the City of Ice brought her many more such hours, and beauties and marvels unknown among mortals. Alvarlan, her mentor, sent his spirit in quest of her, and was himself beguiled by what he found. It was an effort of will for him to tell Sir Kendrick of the Isles where she was, albeit he pledged his help in freeing her.
N’Kuma the Lionslayer, Béla of Eastmarch, Karina of the Far West, Lady Aurelia, Olav Harpmaster had none of them been present when this happened.
The glacier (a wrong name for something that might have no counterpart in the Solar System) lifted off the plain abruptly as a wall. Standing there, the three could no longer see the heights. They could, though, see that the slope which curved steeply upward to a filigree-topped edge was not smooth. Shadows lay blue in countless small craters. The sun had climbed just sufficiently high to beget them; a Iapetan day is more than seventy-nine of Earth’s.
Danzig’s question crackled in earphones: “Now are you satisfied? Will you come back before a fresh landslide catches you?”
“It won’t,” Scobie replied. “We aren’t a vehicle, and the local configuration has clearly been stable for centuries or better. Besides, what’s the point of a manned expedition if nobody investigates anything?”
“I’ll see if I can climb,” Garcilaso offered.
“No, wait,” Scobie commanded. “I’ve had experience with mountains and snowpacks, for whatever that may be worth. Let me study out a route for us first.”
“You’re going onto that stuff, the whole gaggle of you?” exploded Danzig. “Have you completely lost your minds?”
Scobie’s brow and lips tightened. “Mark, I warn you again, if you don’t get your emotions under control we’ll cut you off. We’ll hike on a ways if I decide it’s safe.”
He paced, in floating low-weight fashion, back and forth while he surveyed the jökull. Layers and blocks of distinct substances were plain to see, like separate ashlars laid by an elvish mason … where they were not so huge that a giant must have been at work … . The craterlets might be sentry posts on this lowest embankment of the City’s defenses … .
Garcilaso, most vivacious of men, stood motionless and let his vision lose itself in the sight. Broberg knelt down to examine the ground, but her own gaze kept wandering aloft.
Finally she beckoned. “Colin, come over here, please,” she said. “I believe I’ve made a discovery.”
Scobie joined her. As she rose, she scooped a handful of fine black particles off the shards on which she stood and let it trickle from her glove. “I suspect this is the reason the boundary of the ice is sharp,” she told him.
“What is?” Danzig inquired from afar. He got no answer.
“I noticed more and more dust as we went along,” Broberg continued. “If it fell on patches and lumps of frozen stuff, isolated from the main mass, and covered them, it would absorb solar heat till they melted or, likelier, sublimed. Even water molecules would escape to space, in this weak gravity. The main mass was too big for that; square-cube law. Dust grains there would simply melt their way down a short distance, then be covered as surrounding material collapsed on them, and the process would stop.”
“H’m.” Scobie raised a hand to stroke his chin, encountered his helmet, and sketched a grin at himself. “Sounds reasonable. But where did so much dust come from—and the ice, for that matter?”
“I think—” Her voice dropped until he could barely hear, and her look went the way of Garcilaso’s. His remained upon her face, profiled against stars. “I think this bears out your comet hypothesis, Colin. A comet struck Iapetus. It came from the direction it did because of getting so near Saturn that it was forced to swing in a hairpin bend around the planet. It was enormous; the ice of it covered almost a hemisphere, in spite of much more being vaporized and lost. The dust is partly from it, partly generated by the impact.”
He clasped her armored shoulder. “Your theory, Jean. I was not the first to propose a comet, but you’re the first to corroborate with details.”
She didn’t appear to notice, except that she murmured further: “Dust can account for the erosion that made those lovely formations, too. It caused differential melting and sublimation on the surface, according to the patterns it happened to fall in and the mixes of ices it clung to, until it was washed away or encysted. The craters, these small ones and the major ones we’ve observed from above, they have a separate but similar origin. Meteorites—”
“Whoa, there,” he objected. “Any sizeable meteorite would release enough energy to steam off most of the entire field.”
“I know. Which shows the comet collision was recent, less than a thousand years ago, or we wouldn’t be seeing this miracle today. Nothing big has since happened to strike, yet. I’m thinking of little stones, cosmic sand, in prograde orbits around Saturn so that they hit with low relative speed. Most simply make dimples in the ice. Lying there, however, they collect solar heat because of being dark, and re-radiate it to melt away their surroundings, till they sink beneath. The concavities they leave reflect incident radiation from side to side, and thus continue to grow. The pothole effect. And again, because the different ices have different properties, you don’t get perfectly smooth craters, but those fantastic bowls we saw before we landed.”
“By God!” Scobie hugged her. “You’re a genius.”
Helmet against helmet, she smiled and said, “No. It’s obvious, once you’ve seen for yourself.” She was quiet for a bit while still they held each other. “Scientific intuition is a funny thing, I admit,” she went on at last. “Considering the problem, I was hardly aware of my logical mind. What I thought was—the City of Ice, made with starstones out of that which a god called down from heaven—”
“Jesus Maria!” Garcilaso spun about to stare at them.
Scobie released the woman. “We’ll go after confirmation,” he said unsteadily. “To the large crater you’ll remember we spotted a few klicks inward. The surface appears quite safe to walk on.”
“I called that crater the Elf King’s Dance Hall,” Broberg mused, as if a dream were coming back to her.
“Have a care.” Garcilaso’s laugh rattled. “Heap big medicine yonder. The King is only an inheritor; it was giants who built these walls, for the gods.”
“Well, I’ve got to find a way in, don’t I?” Scobie responded.
“Indeed,” Alvarlan says. “I cannot guide you from this point. My spirit can only see through mortal eyes. I can but lend you my counsel, until we have neared the gates.”
“Are you sleepwalking in that fairytale of yours?” Danzig yelled. “Come back before you get yourselves killed!”
“Will you dry up?” Scobie snarled. “It’s nothing but a style of talk we’ve got between us. If you can’t understand that, you’ve got less use of your brain than we do.”
“Listen, won’t you? I didn’t say you’re crazy. You don’t have delusions or anything like that. I do say you’ve steered your fantasies toward this kind of place, and now the reality has reinforced them till you’re under a compulsion you don’t recognize. Would you go ahead so recklessly anywhere else in the universe? Think!”
“That does it. We’ll resume contact after you’ve had time to improve your manners.” Scobie snapped off his main radio switch. The circuits that stayed active served for close-by communication but had no power to reach an orbital relay. His companions did likewise.
The three faced the awesomeness before them. “You can help me find the Princess when we are inside, Alvarlan,” Kendrick says.
“That I can and will,” the sorcerer vows.
“I wait for you, most steadfast of my lovers,” Ricia croons.
Alone in the spacecraft, Danzig well-nigh sobbed, “Oh, damn that game forever!” The sound fell away into emptiness.
To condemn psychodrama, even in its enhanced form, would be to condemn human nature.
It begins in childhood. Play is necessary to an immature mammal, a means of learning to handle the body, the perceptions, and the outside world. The young human plays, must play, with its brain too. The more intelligent the child, the more its imagination needs exercise. There are degrees of activity, from the passive watching of a show on a screen, onward through reading, daydreaming, storytelling, and psychodrama … for which the child has no such fancy name.
We cannot give this behavior any single description, for the shape and course it takes depend on endlessly many variables. Sex, age, culture, and companions are only the most obvious. For example, in pre-electronic North America little girls would often play “house” while little boys played “cowboys and Indians? or”cops and robbers,” whereas nowadays a mixed group of their descendants might play ?dolphins? or ?astronauts and aliens.? In essence, a small band forms; each individual makes up a character to portray, or borrows one from fiction; simple props may be employed, such as toy weapons, or any chance object such as a stick may be declared something else such as a metal detector, or a thing may be quite imaginary, as the scenery almost always is. The children then act out a drama which they compose as they go along. When they cannot physically perform a certain action, they describe it. (“I jump real high, like you can do on Mars, an' come out over the edge o’ that ol’ Valles Marineris, an' take that bandit by surprise.”) A large cast of characters, especially villains, frequently comes into existence by fiat.
The most imaginative member of the troupe dominates the game and the evolution of the story line, though in a rather subtle fashion, through offering the most vivid possibilities. The rest, however, are brighter than average; psychodrama in this highly developed form does not appeal to everybody.
For those to whom it does, the effects are beneficial and lifelong. Besides increasing their creativity through use, it lets them try out a play version of different adult roles and experiences. Thereby they begin to acquire insight into adulthood.
Such playacting ends when adolescence commences, if not earlier—but only in that form, and not necessarily forever in it. Grown-ups have many dream-games. This is plain to see in lodges, for example, with their titles, costumes, and ceremonies; but does it not likewise animate all pageantry, every ritual? To what extent are our heroisms, sacrifices, and self-aggrandizements the acting out of personae that we maintain? Some thinkers have attempted to trace this element through every aspect of society.
Here, though, we are concerned with overt psychodrama among adults. In Western civilization it first appeared on a noticeable scale during the middle twentieth century. Psychiatrists found it a powerful diagnostic and therapeutic technique. Among ordinary folk, war and fantasy games, many of which involved identification with imaginary or historical characters, became increasingly popular. In part this was doubtless a retreat from the restrictions and menaces of that unhappy period, but likely in larger part it was a revolt of the mind against the inactive entertainment, notably television, which had come to dominate recreation.
The Chaos ended those activities. Everybody knows about their revival in recent times—for healthier reasons, one hopes. By projecting three-dimensional scenes and appropriate sounds from a data bank—or, better yet, by having a computer produce them to order—players gained a sense of reality that intensified their mental and emotional commitment. Yet in those games that went on for episode after episode, year after real-time year, whenever two or more members of a group could get together to play, they found themselves less and less dependent on such appurtenances. It seemed that, through practice, they had regained the vivid imaginations of their childhoods, and could make anything, or airy nothing itself, into the objects and the worlds they desired.
I have deemed it necessary thus to repeat the obvious in order that we may see it in perspective. The news beamed from Saturn has brought widespread revulsion. (Why? What buried fears have been touched? This is subject matter for potentially important research.) Overnight, adult psychodrama has become unpopular; it may become extinct. That would, in many ways, be a worse tragedy than what has occurred yonder. There is no reason to suppose that the game ever harmed any mentally sound person on Earth; on the contrary. Beyond doubt, it has helped astronauts stay sane and alert on long, difficult missions. If it has no more medical use, that is because psychotherapy has become a branch of applied biochemistry.
And this last fact, the modern world's dearth of experience with madness, is at the root of what happened. Although he could not have foreseen the exact outcome, a twentieth-century psychiatrist might have warned against spending eight years, an unprecedented stretch of time, in as strange an environment as the Chronos. Strange it certainly has been, despite all efforts—limited, totally man-controlled, devoid of countless cues for which our evolution on Earth has fashioned us. Extraterrestrial colonists have, thus far, had available to them any number of simulations and compensations, of which close, full contact with home and frequent opportunities to visit there are probably the most significant. Sailing time to Jupiter was long, but half of that to Saturn. Moreover, because they were earlier, scientists in the Zeus had much research to occupy them en route, which it would be pointless for later travelers to duplicate; by then, the interplanetary medium between the two giants held few surprises.
Contemporary psychologists were aware of this. They understood that the persons most adversely affected would be the most intelligent, imaginative, and dynamic—those who were supposed to make the very discoveries at Saturn which were the purpose of the undertaking. Being less familiar than their predecessors with the labyrinth that lies, Minotaur-haunted, beneath every human consciousness, the psychologists expected purely benign consequences of whatever psychodramas the crew engendered.
Assignments to teams had not been made in advance of departure. It was sensible to let professional capabilities reveal themselves and grow on the voyage, while personal relationships did the same. Eventually such factors would help in deciding what individuals should train for what tasks. Long-term participation in a group of players normally forged bonds of friendship that were desirable, if the members were otherwise qualified.
In real life, Scobie always observed strict propriety toward Broberg. She was attractive, but she was monogamous, and he had no wish to alienate her. Besides, he liked her husband. (Tom did not partake of the game. As an astronomer, he had plenty to keep his attention happily engaged.) They had played for a couple of years, their bunch had acquired as many as it could accommodate in a narrative whose milieu and people were becoming complex, before Scobie and Broberg spoke of anything intimate.
By then, the story they enacted was doing so, and maybe it was not altogether by chance that they met when both had several idle hours. This was in the weightless recreation area at the spin axis. They tumbled through aerobatics, shouting and laughing, until they were pleasantly tired, went to the clubhouse, turned in their wingsuits, and showered. They had not seen each other nude before; neither commented, but he did not hide his enjoyment of the sight, while she colored and averted her glance as tactfully as she was able. Afterward, their clothes resumed, they decided on a drink before they went home, and sought the lounge.
Since evenwatch was approaching nightwatch, they had the place to themselves. At the bar, he thumbed a chit for Scotch, she for pinot chardonnay. The machine obliged them and they carried their refreshments out onto the balcony. Seated at a table, they looked across immensity. The clubhouse was built into the support frame on a Lunar gravity level. Above them they saw the sky wherein they had been as birds; its reach did not seem any more hemmed in by far-spaced, spidery girders than it was by a few drifting clouds. Beyond, and straight ahead, decks opposite were a commingling of masses and shapes which the scant illumination at this hour turned into mystery. Among those shadows the humans made out woods, brooks, pools, turned hoar or agleam by the light of stars which filled the skyview strips. Right and left, the hull stretched off beyond sight, a dark in which such lamps as there were appeared lost.
Air was cool, slightly jasmine-scented, drenched with silence. Underneath and throughout, subliminal, throbbed the myriad pulses of the ship.
“Magnificent,” Broberg said low, gazing outward. “What a surprise.”
“Eh?” asked Scobie.
“I’ve only been here before in daywatch. I didn’t anticipate a simple rotation of the reflectors would make it wonderful.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t sneer at the daytime view. Mighty impressive.”
“Yes, but—but then you see too plainly that everything is manmade, nothing is wild or unknown or free. The sun blots out the stars; it’s as though no universe existed beyond this shell we’re in. Tonight is like being in Maranoa,” the kingdom of which Ricia is Princess, a kingdom of ancient things and ways, wildernesses, enchantments.
“H’m, yeah, sometimes I feel trapped myself,” Scobie admitted. “I believed I had a journey’s worth of geological data to study, but my project isn’t going anywhere very interesting.”
“Same for me.” Broberg straightened where she sat, turned to him, and smiled a trifle. The dusk softened her features, made them look young. “Not that we’re entitled to self-pity. Here we are, safe and comfortable till we reach Saturn. After that we should never lack for excitement, or for material to work with on the way home.”
“True.” Scobie raised his glass. “Well, skoal. Hope I’m not mispronouncing that.”
“How should I know?” she laughed. “My maiden name was Almyer.”
“That’s right, you’ve adopted Tom’s surname. I wasn’t thinking. Though that is rather unusual these days, hey?”
She spread her hands. “My family was well-to-do, but they were—are—Jerusalem Catholics. Strict about certain things; archaistic, you might say.” She lifted her wine and sipped. “Oh, yes, I’ve left the Church, but in several ways the Church will never leave me.”
“I see. Not to pry, but, uh, this does account for some traits of yours I couldn’t help wondering about.”
She regarded him over the rim of her glass. “Like what?”
“Well, you’ve got a lot of life in you, vigor, sense of fun, but you’re also—what’s the word?—uncommonly domestic. You’ve told me you were a quiet faculty member of Yukon University till you married Tom.” Scobie grinned. “Since you two kindly invited me to your last anniversary party, and I know your present age, I deduced that you were thirty then.” Unmentioned was the likelihood that she had still been a virgin. “Nevertheless—oh, forget it. I said I don’t want to pry.”
“Go ahead, Colin,” she urged. “That line from Burns sticks in my mind, since you introduced me to his poetry. ‘To see oursels as others see us!’ Since it looks as if we may visit the same moon—”
Scobie took a hefty dollop of Scotch. “Aw, nothing much,” he said, unwontedly diffident. “If you must know, well, I have the impression that being in love wasn’t the single good reason you had for marrying Tom. He’d already been accepted for this expedition, and given your personal qualifications, that would get you in too. In short, you’d grown tired of routine respectability and here was how you could kick over the traces. Am I right?”
“Yes.” Her gaze dwelt on him. “You’re more perceptive than I supposed.”
“No, not really. A roughneck rockhound. But Ricia’s made it plain to see, you’re more than a demure wife, mother, and scientist—” She parted her lips. He raised a palm. “No, please, let me finish. I know it’s bad manners to claim somebody’s persona is a wish fulfillment, and I’m not doing that. Of course you don’t want to be a free-roving, free-loving female scamp, any more than I want to ride around cutting down assorted enemies. Still, if you’d been born and raised in the world of our game, I feel sure you’d be a lot like Ricia. And that potential is part of you, Jean.” He tossed off his drink. “If I’ve said too much, please excuse me. Want a refill?”
“I’d better not, but don’t let me stop you.”
“You won’t.” He rose and bounded off.
When he returned, he saw that she had been observing him through the vitryl door. As he sat down, she smiled, leaned a bit across the table, and told him softly: “I’m glad you said what you did. Now I can declare what a complicated man Kendrick reveals you to be.”
“What?” Scobie asked in honest surprise. “Come on! He’s a sword-andshield tramp, a fellow who likes to travel, same as me; and in my teens I was a brawler, same as him.”
“He may lack polish, but he’s a chivalrous knight, a compassionate overlord, a knower of sagas and traditions, an appreciator of poetry and music, a bit of a bard … Ricia misses him. When will he get back from his latest quest?”
“I’m bound home this minute. N’Kuma and I gave those pirates the slip and landed at Haverness two days ago. After we buried the swag, he wanted to visit Béla and Karina and join them in whatever they’ve been up to, so we bade goodbye for the time being.” Scobie and Harding had lately taken a few hours to conclude that adventure of theirs. The rest of the group had been mundanely occupied for some while.
Broberg’s eyes widened. “From Haverness to the Isles? But I’m in Castle Devaranda, right in between.”
“I hoped you’d be.”
“I can’t wait to hear your story.”
“I’m pushing on after dark. The moon is bright and I’ve got a pair of remounts I bought with a few gold pieces from the loot.” The dust rolls white beneath drumming hoofs. Where a horseshoe strikes a flint pebble, sparks fly ardent. Kendrick scowls. “You aren’t with … what’s his name? … Joran the Red? I don’t like him.”
“I sent him packing a month ago. He got the idea that sharing my bed gave him authority over me. It was never anything but a romp. I stand alone on the Gerfalcon Tower, looking south over moonlit fields, and wonder how you fare. The road flows toward me like a gray river. Do I see a rider come at a gallop, far and far away?”
After many months of play, no image on a screen was necessary. Pennons on the night wind stream athwart the stars. “I arrive. I sound my horn to rouse the gatekeepers.”
“How I do remember those merry notes—”
That same night, Kendrick and Ricia become lovers. Experienced in the game and careful of its etiquette, Scobie and Broberg uttered no details about the union; they did not touch each other and maintained only fleeting eye contact; the ultimate goodnights were very decorous. After all, this was a story they composed about two fictitious characters in a world that never was.
The lower slopes of the jökull rose in tiers which were themselves deeply concave; the humans walked around their rims and admired the extravagant formations beneath. Names sprang onto lips; the Frost Garden, the Ghost Bridge, the Snow Queen’s Throne, while Kendrick advances into the City, and Ricia awaits him at the Dance Hall, and the spirit of Alvarlan carries word between them so that it is as if already she too travels beside her knight. Nevertheless they proceeded warily, vigilant for signs of danger, especially whenever a change of texture or hue or anything else in the surface underfoot betokened a change in its nature.
Above the highest ledge reared a cliff too sheer to scale, Iapetan gravity or no, the fortress wall. However, from orbit the crew had spied a gouge in the vicinity, forming a pass, doubtless plowed by a small meteorite in the war between the gods and the magicians, when stones chanted down from the sky wrought havoc so accursed that none dared afterward rebuild. That was an eerie climb, hemmed in by heights which glimmered in the blue twilight they cast, heaven narrowed to a belt between them where stars seemed to blaze doubly brilliant.
“There must be guards at the opening,” Kendrick says.
“A single guard,” answers the mind-whisper of Alvarlan, “but he is a dragon. If you did battle with him, the noise and flame would bring every warrior here upon you. Fear not. I’ll slip into his burnin’ brain and weave him such a dream that he’ll never see you.”
“The King might sense the spell,” says Ricia through him. “Since you’ll be parted from us anyway while you ride the soul of that beast, Alvarlan, I’ll seek him out and distract him.”
Kendrick grimaces, knowing full well what means are hers to do that. She has told him how she longs for freedom and her knight; she has also hinted that elven lovemaking transcends the human. Does she wish for a final time before her rescue? … Well, Ricia and Kendrick have neither plighted nor practiced single troth. Assuredly Colin Scobie had not. He jerked forth a grin and continued through the silence that had fallen on all three.
They came out on top of the glacial mass and looked around them. Scobie whistled. Garcilaso stammered, “J-J-Jesus Christ!” Broberg smote her hands together.
Below them the precipice fell to the ledges, whose sculpturing took on a wholly new, eldritch aspect, gleam and shadow, until it ended at the plain. Seen from here aloft, the curvature of the moon made toes strain downward in boots, as if to cling fast and not be spun off among the stars which surrounded, rather than shone above, its ball. The spacecraft stood minute on dark, pocked stone, like a cenotaph raised to loneliness.
Eastward the ice reached beyond an edge of sight which was much closer. (“Yonder could be the rim of the world,” Garcilaso said, and Ricia replies, “Yes, the City is nigh to there.”) Bowls of different sizes, hillocks, crags, no two of them eroded the same way, turned its otherwise level stretch into a surreal maze. An arabesque openwork ridge which stood at the explorers’ goal overtopped the horizon. Everything that was illuminated lay gently aglow. Radiant though the sun was, it cast the light of only, perhaps, five thousand full Lunas upon Earth. Southward, Saturn’s great semidisc gave about one-half more Lunar shining; but in that direction, the wilderness sheened pale amber.
Scobie shook himself. “Well, shall we go?” His prosaic question jarred the others; Garcilaso frowned and Broberg winced.
She recovered. “Yes, hasten,” Ricia says. “I am by myself once more. Are you out of the dragon, Alvarlan?”
“Aye,” the wizard informs her. “Kendrick is safely behind a ruined palace. Tell us how best to reach you.”
“You are at the time-gnawed Crown House. Before you lies the Street of the Shieldsmiths—”
Scobie’s brows knitted. “It is noonday, when elves do not fare abroad,” Kendrick says remindingly, commandingly. “I do not wish to encounter any of them. No fights, no complications. We are going to fetch you and escape, without further trouble.”
Broberg and Garcilaso showed disappointment, but understood him. A game broke down when a person refused to accept something that a fellow player tried to put in. Often the narrative threads were not mended and picked up for many days. Broberg sighed.
“Follow the street to its end at a forum where a snow fountain springs,” Ricia directs. “Cross, and continue on Aleph Zain Boulevard. You will know it by a gateway in the form of a skull with open jaws. If anywhere you see a rainbow flicker in the air, stand motionless until it has gone by, for it will be an auroral wolf … .”
At a low-gravity lope, the distance took some thirty minutes to cover. In the later part, the three were forced to detour by great banks of an ice so fine-grained that it slid about under their bootsoles and tried to swallow them. Several of these lay at irregular intervals around their destination.
There the travelers stood again for a time in the grip of awe.
The bowl at their feet must reach down almost to bedrock, a hundred meters, and was twice as wide. On this rim lifted the wall they had seen from the cliff, an arc fifty meters long and high, nowhere thicker than five meters, pierced by intricate scrollwork, greenly agleam where it was not translucent. It was the uppermost edge of a stratum which made serrations down the crater. Other outcrops and ravines were more dreamlike yet … was that a unicorn’s head, was that a colonnade of caryatids, was that an icicle bower … ? The depths were a lake of cold blue shadow.
“You have come, Kendrick, beloved!” cries Ricia, and casts herself into his arms.
“Quiet,” warns the sending of Alvarlan the wise. “Rouse not our immortal enemies.”
“Yes, we must get back.” Scobie blinked. “Judas priest, what possessed us? Fun is fun, but we sure have come a lot farther and faster than was smart, haven’t we?”
“Let us stay for a little while,” Broberg pleaded. “This is such a miracle—the Elf King’s Dance Hall, which the Lord of the Dance built for him—”
“Remember, if we stay we’ll be caught, and your captivity may be forever.” Scobie thumbed his main radio switch. “Hello, Mark? Do you read me?”
Neither Broberg nor Garcilaso made that move. They did not hear Danzig’s voice: “Oh, yes! I’ve been hunkered over the set gnawing my knuckles. How are you?”
“All right. We’re at the big hole and will be heading back as soon as I’ve gotten a few pictures.”
“They haven’t made words to tell how relieved I am. From a scientific standpoint, was it worth the risk?”
Scobie gasped. He stared before him.
“Colin?” Danzig called. “You still there?”
“I asked what observations of any importance you made.”
“I don’t know,” Scobie mumbled. “I can’t remember. None of it after we started climbing seems real.”
“Better you return right away,” Danzig said grimly. “Forget about photographs.”
“Correct.” Scobie addressed his companions: “Forward march.”
“I can’t,” Alvarlan answers. “A wanderin’ spell has caught my spirit in tendrils of smoke.”
“I know where a fire dagger is kept,” Ricia says. “I’ll try to steal it.”
Broberg moved ahead, as though to descend into the crater. Tiny ice grains trickled over the verge from beneath her boots. She could easily lose her footing and slide down.
“No, wait,” Kendrick shouts to her. “No need. My spearhead is of moon alloy. It can cut—”
The glacier shuddered. The ridge cracked asunder and fell in shards. The area on which the humans stood split free and toppled into the bowl. An avalanche poured after. High-flung crystals caught sunlight, glittered prismatic in challenge to the stars, descended slowly and lay quiet.
Except for shock waves through solids, everything had happened in the absolute silence of space.
Heartbeat by heartbeat, Scobie crawled back to his senses. He found himself held down, immobilized, in darkness and pain. His armor had saved, was still saving his life; he had been stunned but escaped a real concussion. Yet every breath hurt abominably. A rib or two on the left side seemed broken; a monstrous impact must have dented metal. And he was buried under more weight than he could move.
“Hello,” he coughed. “Does anybody read me?” The single reply was the throb of his blood. If his radio still worked—which it should, being built into the suit—the mass around him screened him off.
It also sucked heat at an unknown but appalling rate. He felt no cold because the electrical system drew energy from his fuel cell as fast as needed to keep him warm and to recycle his air chemically. As a normal thing, when he lost heat through the slow process of radiation—and, a trifle, through kerofoam-lined bootsoles—the latter demand was much the greater. Now conduction was at work on every square centimeter. He had a spare unit in the equipment on his back, but no means of getting at it.
Unless—He barked forth a chuckle. Straining he felt the stuff that entombed him yield the least bit under the pressure of arms and legs. And his helmet rang slightly with noise, a rustle, a gurgle. This wasn’t water ice that imprisoned him, but stuff with a much lower freezing point. He was melting it, subliming it, making room for himself.
If he lay passive, he would sink, while frozenness above slid down to keep him in his grave. He might evoke superb new formations, but he would not see them. Instead, he must use the small capability given him to work his way upward, scrabble, get a purchase on matter that was not yet aflow, burrow to the stars.
Agony soon racked him, breath rasped in and out of lungs aflame, strength drained away and trembling took its place, he could not tell whether he ascended or slipped back. Blind, half suffocated, Scobie made mole-claws of his hands and dug.
It was too much to endure. He fled from it—
His strong enchantments failing, the Elf King brought down his towers of fear in wreck. If the spirit of Alvarlan returned to its body, the wizard would brood upon things he had seen, and understand what they meant, and such knowledge would give mortals a terrible power against Faerie. Waking from sleep, the King scryed Kendrick about to release that fetch. There was no time to do more than break the spell which upheld the Dance Hall. It was largely built of mist and starshine, but enough blocks quarried from the cold side of Ginnungagap were in it that when they crashed they should kill the knight. Ricia would perish too, and in his quicksilver intellect the King regretted that. Nevertheless he spoke the necessary word.
He did not comprehend how much abuse flesh and bone can bear. Sir Kendrick fights his way clear of the ruins, to seek and save his lady. While he does, he heartens himself with thoughts of adventures past and future—
—and suddenly the blindness broke apart and Saturn stood lambent within rings.
Scobie belly-flopped onto the surface and lay shuddering.
He must rise, no matter how his injuries screamed, lest he melt himself a new burial place. He lurched to his feet and glared around.
Little but outcroppings and scars was left of the sculpture. For the most part, the crater had become a smooth-sided whiteness under heaven. Scarcity of shadows made distances hard to gauge, but Scobie guessed the new depth as about seventy-five meters. And empty, empty.
“Mark, do you hear?” he cried.
“That you, Colin?” rang in his earpieces. “Name of mercy, what’s happened? I heard you call out, and saw a cloud rise and sink … then nothing for more than an hour. Are you okay?”
“I am, sort of. I don’t see Jean or Luis. A landslide took us by surprise and buried us. Hold on while I search.”
When he stood upright, Scobie’s ribs hurt less. He could move about rather handily if he took care. The two types of standard analgesic in his kit were alike useless, one too weak to give noticeable relief, one so strong that it would turn him sluggish. Casting to and fro, he soon found what he expected, a concavity in the tumbled snowlike material, slightly aboil.
Also a standard part of his gear was a trenching tool. Scobie set pain aside and dug. A helmet appeared. Broberg’s head was within it. She too had been tunneling out.
“Jean!”—“Kendrick!” She crept free and they embraced, suit to suit. “Oh, Colin.”
“How are you?” rattled from him.
“Alive,” she answered. “No serious harm done, I think. A lot to be said for low gravity … . You? Luis?” Blood was clotted in a streak beneath her nose, and a bruise on her forehead was turning purple, but she stood firmly and spoke clearly.
“I’m functional. Haven’t found Luis yet. Help me look. First, though, we’d better check out our equipment.”
She hugged arms around chest, as if that would do any good here. “I’m chilled,” she admitted.
Scobie pointed at a telltale. “No wonder. Your fuel cell’s down to its last couple of ergs. Mine isn’t in a lot better shape. Let’s change.”
They didn’t waste time removing their backpacks, but reached into each other’s. Tossing the spent units to the ground, where vapors and holes immediately appeared and then froze, they plugged the fresh ones into their suits. “Turn your thermostat down,” Scobie advised. “We won’t find shelter soon. Physical activity will help us keep warm.”
“And require faster air recycling,” Broberg reminded.
“Yeah. But for the moment, at least, we can conserve the energy in the cells. Okay, next let’s check for strains, potential leaks, any kind of damage or loss. Hurry. Luis is still down underneath.”
Inspection was a routine made automatic by years of drill. While her fingers searched across the man’s spacesuit, Broberg let her eyes wander. “The Dance Hall is gone,” Ricia murmurs. “I think the King smashed it to prevent our escape.”
“Me too. If he finds out we’re alive, and seeking for Alvarlan’s soul—Hey, wait! None of that!”
Danzig’s voice quavered. “How’re you doing?”
“We’re in fair shape, seems like,” Scobie replied. “My corselet took a beating but didn’t split or anything. Now to find Luis … Jean, suppose you spiral right, I left, across the crater floor.”
It took a while, for the seething which marked Garcilaso’s burial was minuscule. Scobie started to dig. Broberg watched how he moved, heard how he breathed, and said, “Give me that tool. Just where are you bunged up, anyway?”
He admitted his condition and stepped back. Crusty chunks flew from her toil. She progressed fast, since whatever kind of ice lay at this point was, luckily, friable, and under Iapetan gravity she could cut a hole with almost vertical sides.
“I’ll make myself useful,” Scobie said, “namely, find us a way out.”
When he started up the nearest slope, it shivered. All at once he was borne back in a tide that made rustly noises through his armor, while a fog of dry white motes blinded him. Painfully, he scratched himself free at the bottom and tried elsewhere. In the end he could report to Danzig: “I’m afraid there is no easy route. When the rim collapsed where we stood, it did more than produce a shock which wrecked the delicate formations throughout the crater. It let tons of stuff pour down from the surface—a particular sort of ice that, under local conditions, is like fine sand. The walls are covered by it. Most places, it lies meters deep over more stable material. We’d slide faster than we could climb, where the layer is thin; where it’s thick, we’d sink.”
Danzig sighed. “I guess I get to take a nice, healthy hike.”
“I assume you’ve called for help.”
“Of course. They’ll have two boats here in about a hundred hours. The best they can manage. You knew that already.”
“Uh-huh. And our fuel cells are good for perhaps fifty hours.”
“Oh, well, not to worry about that. I’ll bring extras and toss them to you, if you’re stuck till the rescue party arrives. M-m-m … maybe I’d better rig a slingshot or something first.”
“You might have a problem locating us. This isn’t a true crater, it’s a glorified pothole, the lip of it flush with the top of the glacier. The landmark we guided ourselves by, that fancy ridge, is gone.”
“No big deal. I’ve got a bearing on you from the directional antenna, remember. A magnetic compass may be no use here, but I can keep myself oriented by the heavens. Saturn scarcely moves in this sky, and the sun and the stars don’t move fast.”
“Damn! You’re right. I wasn’t thinking. Got Luis on my mind, if nothing else.” Scobie looked across bleakness toward Broberg. Perforce she was taking a short rest, stoop-shouldered above her excavation. His earpieces brought him the harsh sound in her windpipe.
He must maintain what strength was left him, against later need. He sipped from his water nipple, pushed a bite of food through his chowlock, pretended an appetite. “I may as well try reconstructing what happened,” he said. “Okay, Mark, you were right, we got crazy reckless. The game—Eight years was too long to play the game, in an environment that gave us too few reminders of reality. But who could have foreseen it? My God, warn Chronos! I happen to know that one of the Titan teams started playing an expedition to the merfolk under the Crimson Ocean—on account of the red mists—deliberately, like us, before they set off … .”
Scobie gulped. “Well,” he slogged on, “I don’t suppose we’ll ever know exactly what went wrong here. But plain to see, the configuration was only metastable. On Earth, too, avalanches can be fatally easy to touch off. I’d guess at a methane layer underneath the surface. It turned a little slushy when temperatures rose after dawn, but that didn’t matter in low gravity and vacuum … till we came along. Heat, vibration—Anyhow, the stratum slid out from under us, which triggered a general collapse. Does that guess seem reasonable?”
“Yes, to an amateur like me,” Danzig said. “I admire how you can stay academic under these circumstances.”
“I’m being practical,” Scobie retorted. “Luis may need medical attention earlier than those boats can come for him. If so, how do we get him to ours?”
Danzig’s voice turned stark. “Any ideas?”
“I’m fumbling my way toward that. Look, the bowl still has the same basic form. The whole shebang didn’t cave in. That implies hard material, water ice and actual rock. In fact, I see a few remaining promontories, jutting out above the sandlike stuff. As for what it is—maybe an ammonia-carbon dioxide combination, maybe more exotic—that’ll be for you to discover later. Right now … my geological instruments should help me trace where the solid masses are least deeply covered. We all carry trenching tools, of course. We can try to shovel a path clear, along a zigzag of least effort. Sure, that may well often bring more garbage slipping down on us from above, but that in turn may expedite our progress. Where the uncovered shelves are too steep or slippery to climb, we can chip footholds. Slow and tough work; and we may run into a bluff higher than we can jump, or something like that.”
“I can help,” Danzig proposed. “While I waited to hear from you, I inventoried our stock of spare cable, cord, equipment I can cannibalize for wire, clothes and bedding I can cut into strips, whatever might be knotted together to make a rope. We won’t need much tensile strength. Well, I estimate I can get about forty meters. According to your description, that’s about half the slope length of that trap you’re in. If you can climb halfway up while I trek there, I can haul you the rest of the way.”
“Thanks,” Scobie said, “although—”
“Luis!” shrieked in his helmet. “Colin, come fast, help me, this is dreadful!”
Regardless of pain, except for a curse or two, Scobie sped to Broberg’s aid.
Garcilaso was not quite unconscious. In that lay much of the horror. They heard him mumble, “—Hell, the King threw my soul into Hell, I can’t find my way out, I’m lost, if only Hell weren’t so cold—” They could not see his face; the inside of his helmet was crusted with frost. Deeper and longer buried than the others, badly hurt in addition, he would have died shortly after his fuel cell was exhausted. Broberg had uncovered him barely in time, if that.
Crouched in the shaft she had dug, she rolled him over onto his belly. His limbs flopped about and he babbled, “A demon attacks me, I’m blind here but I feel the wind of its wings,” in a blurred monotone. She unplugged the energy unit and tossed it aloft, saying, “We should return this to the ship if we can.” Not uncommonly do trivial details serve as crutches.
Above, Scobie gave the object a morbid stare. It didn’t even retain the warmth to make a little vapor, like his and hers, but lay quite inert. Its case was a metal box, thirty centimeters by fifteen by six, featureless except for two plug-in prongs on one of the broad sides. Controls built into the spacesuit circuits allowed you to start and stop the chemical reactions within and regulate their rate manually; but as a rule you left that chore to your thermostat and aerostat. Now those reactions had run their course. Until it was recharged, the cell was merely a lump.
Scobie leaned over to watch Broberg, some ten meters below him. She had extracted the reserve unit from Garcilaso’s gear, inserted it properly at the small of his back, and secured it by clips on the bottom of his packframe. “Let’s have your contribution, Colin,” she said. Scobie dropped the meter of heavy-gauge insulated wire which was standard issue on extravehicular missions, in case you needed to make a special electrical connection or a repair. She joined it by Western Union splices to the two she already had, made a loop at the end and, awkwardly reaching over her left shoulder, secured the opposite end by a hitch to the top of her packframe. The triple strand bobbled above her like an antenna.
Stooping, she gathered Garcilaso in her arms. The Iapetan weight of him and his apparatus was under ten kilos, of her and hers about the same. Theoretically she could jump straight out of the hole with her burden. In practice, her spacesuit was too hampering; constant-volume joints allowed considerable freedom of movement, but not as much as bare skin, especially when circum-Saturnian temperatures required extra insulation. Besides, if she could have reached the top, she could not have stayed. Soft ice would have crumbled beneath her fingers and she would have tumbled back down.
“Here goes,” she said. “This had better be right the first time, Colin. I don’t think Luis can take much jouncing.”
“Kendrick, Ricia, where are you?” Garcilaso moaned. “Are you in Hell too?”
Scobie dug heels into the ground near the edge and crouched ready. The loop in the wire rose to view. His right hand grabbed hold. He threw himself backward, lest he slide forward, and felt the mass he had captured slam to a halt. Anguish exploded in his rib cage. Somehow he dragged his burden to safety before he fainted.
He came out of that in a minute. “I’m okay,” he rasped at the anxious voices of Broberg and Danzig. “Only lemme rest a while.”
The physicist nodded and knelt to minister to the pilot. She stripped his packframe in order that he might lie flat on it, head and legs supported by the packs themselves. That would prevent significant heat loss by convection and cut loss by conduction. Still, his fuel cell would be drained faster than if he were on his feet, and first it had a terrible energy deficit to make up.
“The ice is clearing away inside his helmet,” she reported. “Merciful Mary, the blood! Seems to be from the scalp, though; it isn’t running any more. His occiput must have been slammed against the vitryl. We ought to wear padded caps in these rigs. Yes, I know accidents like this haven’t happened before, but—” She unclipped the flashlight at her waist, stooped, and shone it downward. “His eyes are open. The pupils—yes, a severe concussion, and likely a skull fracture, which may be hemorrhaging into the brain. I’m surprised he isn’t vomiting. Did the cold prevent that? Will he start soon? He could choke on his own vomit, in there where nobody can lay a hand on him.”
Scobie’s pain had subsided to a bearable intensity. He rose, went over to look, whistled, and said, “I judge he’s doomed unless we get him to the boat and give him proper care almighty soon. Which isn’t possible.”
“Oh, Luis.” Tears ran silently down Broberg’s cheeks.
“You think he can’t last till I bring my rope and we carry him back?” Danzig asked.
“’Fraid not,” Scobie replied. “I’ve taken paramedical courses, and in fact I’ve seen a case like this before. How come you know the symptoms, Jean?”
“I read a lot,” she said dully.
“They weep, the dead children weep,” Garcilaso muttered.
Danzig sighed. “Okay, then. I’ll fly over to you.”
“Huh?” burst from Scobie, and from Broberg: “Have you also gone insane?”
“No, listen,” Danzig said fast. “I’m no skilled pilot, but I have the same basic training in this type of craft that everybody does who might ride in one. It’s expendable; the rescue vessels can bring us back. There’d be no significant gain if I landed close to the glacier—I’d still have to make that rope and so forth—and we know from what happened to the probe that there would be a real hazard. Better I make straight for your crater.”
“Coming down on a surface that the jets will vaporize out from under you?” Scobie snorted. “I bet Luis would consider that a hairy stunt. You, my friend, would crack up.”
“Nu?” They could almost see the shrug. “A crash from low altitude, in this gravity, shouldn’t do more than rattle my teeth. The blast will cut a hole clear to bedrock. True, then surrounding ice will collapse in around the hull and trap it. You may need to dig to reach the airlock, though I suspect thermal radiation from the cabin will keep the upper parts of the structure free. Even if the craft topples and strikes sidewise—in which case, it’ll sink down into a deflating cushion—even if it did that on bare rock, it shouldn’t be seriously damaged. It’s designed to withstand heavier impacts.” Danzig hesitated. “Of course, could be this would endanger you. I’m confident I won’t fry you with the jets, assuming I descend near the middle and you’re as far offside as you can get. Maybe, though, maybe I’d cause a … an ice quake that’ll kill you. No sense in losing two more lives.”
“Or three, Mark,” Broberg said low. “In spite of your brave words, you could come to grief yourself.”
“Oh, well, I’m an oldish man. I’m fond of living, yes, but you guys have a whole lot more years due you. Look, suppose the worst, suppose I don’t just make a messy landing but wreck the boat utterly. Then Luis dies, but he would anyway. You two, however, you should have access to the stores aboard, including those extra fuel cells. I’m willing to run what I consider to be a small risk of my own neck, for the sake of giving Luis a chance at survival.”
“Um-m-m,” went Scobie, deep in his throat. A hand strayed in search of his chin, while his gaze roved around the glimmer of the bowl.
“I repeat,” Danzig proceeded, “if you think this might jeopardize you in any way, we scrub it. No heroics, please. Luis would surely agree; better three people safe and one dead than four stuck with a high probability of death.”
“Let me think.” Scobie was mute for minutes before he said: “No, I don’t believe we’d get in too much trouble here. As I remarked earlier, the vicinity has had its avalanche and must be in a reasonably stable configuration. True, ice will volatilize. In the case of deposits with low boiling points, that could happen explosively and cause tremors. But the vapor will carry heat away so fast that only material in your immediate area should change state. I daresay that the fine-grained stuff will get shaken down the slopes, but it’s got too low a density to do serious harm; for the most part, it should simply act like a brief snowstorm. The floor will make adjustments, of course, which may be rather violent. However, we can be above it—do you see that shelf of rock over yonder, Jean, at jumping height? It has to be part of a buried hill; solid. That’s our place to wait … . Okay, Mark, it’s go as far as we’re concerned. I can’t be absolutely certain, but whoever is about anything? It seems like a good bet.”
“What are we overlooking?” Broberg wondered. She glanced down to him who lay at her feet. “While we considered all the possibilities, Luis would die. Yes, fly if you want to, Mark, and God bless you.”
—But when she and Scobie had brought Garcilaso to the ledge, she gestured from Saturn to Polaris and: “I will sing a spell, I will cast what small magic is mine, in aid of the Dragon Lord, that he may deliver Alvarlan’s soul from Hell,” says Ricia.
No reasonable person will blame any interplanetary explorer for miscalculations about the actual environment, especially when some decision has to be made, in haste and under stress. Occasional errors are inevitable. If we knew exactly what to expect throughout the Solar System, we would have no reason to explore it.
The boat lifted. Cosmic dust smoked away from its jets. A hundred and fifty meters aloft, thrust lessened and it stood still on a pillar of fire.
Within the cabin was little noise, a low hiss and a bone-deep but nearly inaudible rumble. Sweat studded Danzig’s features, clung glistening to his beard stubble, soaked his coverall and made it reek. He was about to undertake a maneuver as difficult as rendezvous, and without guidance.
Gingerly, he advanced a vernier. A side jet woke. The boat lurched toward a nosedive. Danzig’s hands jerked across the console. He must adjust the forces that held his vessel on high and those that pushed it horizontally, to get a resultant that would carry him eastward at a slow, steady pace. The vectors would change instant by instant, as they do when a human walks. The control computer, linked to the sensors, handled much of the balancing act, but not the crucial part. He must tell it what he wanted it to do.
His handling was inexpert. He had realized it would be. More altitude would have given him more margin for error, but deprived him of cues that his eyes found on the terrain beneath and the horizon ahead. Besides, when he reached the glacier he would perforce fly low, to find his goal. He would be too busy for the precise celestial navigation he could have practiced afoot.
Seeking to correct his error, he overcompensated, and the boat pitched in a different direction. He punched for “hold steady” and the computer took over. Motionless again, he took a minute to catch his breath, regain his nerve, rehearse in his mind. Biting his lip, he tried afresh. This time he did not quite approach disaster. Jets aflicker, the boat staggered drunkenly over the moonscape.
The ice cliff loomed nearer and nearer. He saw its fragile loveliness and regretted that he must cut a swathe of ruin. Yet what did any natural wonder mean unless a conscious mind was there to know it? He passed the lowest slope. It vanished in billows of steam.
Onward. Beyond the boiling, right and left and ahead, the Faerie architecture crumbled. He crossed the palisade. Now he was a bare fifty meters above surface, and the clouds reached vengefully close before they disappeared into vacuum. He squinted through the port and made the scanner sweep a magnified overview across its screen, a search for his destination.
A white volcano erupted. The outburst engulfed him. Suddenly he was flying blind. Shocks belled through the hull when upflung stones hit. Frost sheathed the craft; the scanner screen went as blank as the ports. Danzig should have ordered ascent, but he was inexperienced. A human in danger has less of an instinct to jump than to run. He tried to scuttle sideways. Without exterior vision to aid him, he sent the vessel tumbling end over end. By the time he saw his mistake, less than a second, it was too late. He was out of control. The computer might have retrieved the situation after a while, but the glacier was too close. The boat crashed.
“Hello, Mark?” Scobie cried. “Mark, do you read me? Where are you, for Christ’s sake?”
Silence replied. He gave Broberg a look which lingered. “Everything seemed to be in order,” he said, “till we heard a shout, and a lot of racket, and nothing. He should’ve reached us by now. Instead, he’s run into trouble. I hope it wasn’t lethal.”
“What can we do?” she asked as redundantly. They needed talk, any talk, for Garcilaso lay beside them and his delirious voice was dwindling fast.
“If we don’t get fresh fuel cells within the next forty or fifty hours, we’ll be at the end of our particular trail. The boat should be someplace near. We’ll have to get out of this hole under our own power, seems like. Wait here with Luis and I’ll scratch around for a possible route.”
Scobie started downward. Broberg crouched by the pilot.
“—alone forever in the dark—” she heard.
“No, Alvarlan.” She embraced him. Most likely he could not feel that, but she could. “Alvarlan, hearken to me. This is Ricia. I hear in my mind how your spirit calls. Let me help, let me lead you back to the light.”
“Have a care,” advised Scobie. “We’re too damn close to rehypnotizing ourselves as is.”
“But I might, I just might get through to Luis and … comfort him … Alvarlan, Kendrick and I escaped. He’s seeking a way home for us. I’m seeking you. Alvarlan, here is my hand, come take it.”
On the crater floor, Scobie shook his head, clicked his tongue, and unlimbered his equipment. Binoculars would help him locate the most promising areas. Devices that ranged from a metal rod to a portable geosonar would give him a more exact idea of what sort of footing lay buried under what depth of unclimbable sand-ice. Admittedly the scope of such probes was very limited. He did not have time to shovel tons of material aside in order that he could mount higher and test further. He would simply have to get some preliminary results, make an educated guess at which path up the side of the bowl would prove negotiable, and trust he was right.
He shut Broberg and Garcilaso out of his consciousness as much as he was able, and commenced work.
An hour later, he was ignoring pain while clearing a strip across a layer of rock. He thought a berg of good, hard frozen water lay ahead, but wanted to make sure.
“Jean! Colin! Do you read?”
Scobie straightened and stood rigid. Dimly he heard Broberg: “If I can’t do anything else, Alvarlan, let me pray for your soul’s repose.”
“Mark!” ripped from Scobie. “You okay? What the hell happened?”
“Yeah, I wasn’t too badly knocked around,” Danzig said, “and the boat’s habitable, though I’m afraid it’ll never fly again. How are you? Luis?”
“Sinking fast. All right, let’s hear the news.”
Danzig described his misfortune. “I wobbled off in an unknown direction for an unknown distance. It can’t have been extremely far, since the time was short before I hit. Evidently I plowed into a large, um, snowbank, which softened the impact but blocked radio transmission. It’s evaporated from the cabin area now. I see tumbled whiteness around, and formations in the offing … . I’m not sure what damage the jacks and the stern jets suffered. The boat’s on its side at about a forty-five degree angle, presumably with rock beneath. But the after part is still buried in less whiffable stuff—water and CO2 ices, I think—that’s reached temperature equilibrium. The jets must be clogged with it. If I tried to blast, I’d destroy the whole works.”
Scobie nodded. “You would, for sure.”
Danzig’s voice broke. “Oh, God, Colin! What have I done? I wanted to help Luis, but I may have killed you and Jean.”
Scobie’s lips tightened. “Let’s not start crying before we’re hurt. True, this has been quite a run of bad luck. But neither you nor I nor anybody could have known that you’d touch off a bomb underneath yourself.”
“What was it? Have you any notion? Nothing of the sort ever occurred at rendezvous with a comet. And you believe the glacier is a wrecked comet, don’t you?”
“Uh-huh, except that conditions have obviously modified it. The impact produced heat, shock, turbulence. Molecules got scrambled. Plasmas must have been momentarily present. Mixtures, compounds, clathrates, alloys—stuff formed that never existed in free space. We can learn a lot of chemistry here.”
“That’s why I came along … . Well, then, I crossed a deposit of some substance or substances that the jets caused to sublime with tremendous force. A certain kind of vapor refroze when it encountered the hull. I had to defrost the ports from inside after the snow had cooked off them.”
“Where are you in relation to us?”
“I told you, I don’t know. And I’m not sure I can determine it. The crash crumpled the direction-finding antenna. Let me go outside for a better look.”
“Do that,” Scobie said. “I’ll keep busy meanwhile.”
He did, until a ghastly rattling noise and Broberg’s wail brought him at full speed back to the rock.
Scobie switched off Garcilaso’s fuel cell. “This may make the difference that carries us through,” he said low. “Think of it as a gift. Thanks, Luis.”
Broberg let go of the pilot and rose from her knees. She straightened the limbs that had threshed about in the death struggle and crossed his hands on his breast. There was nothing she could do about the fallen jaw or the eyes that glared at heaven. Taking him out of his suit, here, would have worsened his appearance. Nor could she wipe tears off her own face. She could merely try to stop their flow. “Goodbye, Luis,” she whispered.
Turning to Scobie, she asked, “Can you give me a new job? Please.”
“Come along,” he directed. “I’ll explain what I have in mind about making our way to the surface.”
They were midway across the bowl when Danzig called. He had not let his comrade’s dying slow his efforts, nor said much while it happened. Once, most softly, he had offered Kaddish.
“No luck,” he reported like a machine. “I’ve traversed the largest circle I could while keeping the boat in sight, and found only weird, frozen shapes. I can’t be a huge distance from you, or I’d see an identifiably different sky, on this miserable little ball. You’re probably within a twenty or thirty kilometer radius of me. But that covers a bunch of territory.”
“Right,” Scobie said. “Chances are you can’t find us in the time we’ve got. Return to the boat.”
“Hey, wait,” Danzig protested. “I can spiral onward, marking my trail. I might come across you.”
“It’ll be more useful if you return,” Scobie told him. “Assuming we climb out, we should be able to hike to you, but we’ll need a beacon. What occurs to me is the ice itself. A small energy release, if it’s concentrated, should release a large plume of methane or something similarly volatile. The gas will cool as it expands, recondense around dust particles that have been carried along—it’ll steam—and the cloud ought to get high enough, before it evaporates again, to be visible from here.”
“Gotcha!” A tinge of excitement livened Danzig’s words. “I’ll go straight to it. Make tests, find a spot where I can get the showiest result, and … how about I rig a thermite bomb? … No, that might be too hot. Well, I’ll develop a gadget.”
“Keep us posted.”
“But I, I don’t think we’ll care to chatter idly,” Broberg ventured.
“No, we’ll be working our tails off, you and I,” Scobie agreed.
“Uh, wait,” said Danzig. “What if you find you can’t get clear to the top? You implied that’s a distinct possibility.”
“Well, then it’ll be time for more radical procedures, whatever they turn out to be,” Scobie responded. “Frankly, at this moment my head is too full of … of Luis, and of choosing an optimum escape route … for much thought about anything else.”
“M-m, yeah, I guess we’ve got an ample supply of trouble without borrowing more. Tell you what, though. After my beacon’s ready to fire off, I’ll make that rope we talked of. You might find you prefer having it to clean clothes and sheets when you arrive.” Danzig was silent for seconds before he ended: “God damn it, you will arrive.”
Scobie chose a point on the north side for his and Broberg’s attempt. Two rock shelves jutted forth, near the floor and several meters higher, indicating that stone reached at least that far. Beyond, in a staggered pattern, were similar outcrops of hard ices. Between them, and onward from the uppermost, which was scarcely more than halfway to the rim, was nothing but the featureless, footingless slope of powder crystals. Its angle of repose gave a steepness that made the surface doubly treacherous. The question, unanswerable save by experience, was how deeply it covered layers on which humans could climb, and whether such layers extended the entire distance aloft.
At the spot, Scobie signalled a halt. “Take it easy, Jean,” he said. “I’ll go ahead and commence digging.”
“Why don’t we together? I have my own tool, you know.”
“Because I can’t tell how so large a bank of that pseudo-quicksand will behave. It might react to the disturbance by a gigantic slide.”
She bridled. Her haggard countenance registered mutiny. “Why not me first, then? Do you suppose I always wait passive for Kendrick to save me?”
“As a matter of fact,” he rapped, “I’ll bargain because my rib is giving me billy hell, which is eating away what strength I’ve got left. If we run into trouble, you can better come to my help than I to yours.”
Broberg bent her neck. “Oh. I’m sorry. I must be in a fairly bad state myself, if I let false pride interfere with our business.” Her look went toward Saturn, around which Chronos orbited, bearing her husband and children.
“You’re forgiven.” Scobie bunched his legs and sprang the five meters to the lower ledge. The next one was slightly too far for such a jump, when he had no room for a running start.
Stooping, he scraped his trenching tool against the bottom of the declivity that sparkled before him, and shoveled. Grains poured from above, a billionfold, to cover what he cleared. He worked like a robot possessed. Each spadeful was nearly weightless, but the number of spadefuls was nearly endless. He did not bring the entire bowlside down on himself as he had half feared, half hoped. (If that didn’t kill him, it would save a lot of toil.) A dry torrent went right and left over his ankles. Yet at last somewhat more of the underlying rock began to show.
From beneath, Broberg listened to him breathe. It sounded rough, often broken by a gasp or a curse. In his spacesuit, in the raw, wan sunshine, he resembled a knight who, in despite of wounds, did battle against a monster.
“All right,” he called at last. “I think I’ve learned what to expect and how we should operate. It’ll take the two of us.”
“Yes … oh, yes, my Kendrick.”
The hours passed. Ever so slowly, the sun climbed and the stars wheeled and Saturn waned.
Most places, the humans labored side by side. They did not require more than the narrowest of lanes—but unless they cut it wide to begin with, the banks to right and left would promptly slip down and bury it. Sometimes the conformation underneath allowed a single person at a time to work. Then the other could rest. Soon it was Scobie who must oftenest take advantage of that. Sometimes they both stopped briefly, for food and drink and reclining on their packs.
Rock yielded to water ice. Where this rose very sharply, the couple knew it, because the sand-ice that they undercut would come down in a mass. After the first such incident, when they were nearly swept away, Scobie always drove his geologist’s hammer into each new stratum. At any sign of danger, he would seize its handle and Broberg would cast an arm around his waist. Their other hands clutched their trenching tools. Anchored, but forced to strain every muscle, they would stand while the flood poured around them, knee-high, once even chest-high, seeking to bury them irretrievably deep in its quasi-fluid substance. Afterward they would confront a bare stretch. It was generally too steep to climb unaided, and they chipped footholds.
Weariness was another tide to which they dared not yield. At best, their progress was dismayingly slow. They needed little heat input to keep warm, except when they took a rest, but their lungs put a furious demand on air recyclers. Garcilaso’s fuel cell, which they had brought along, could give a single person extra hours of life, though depleted as it was after coping with his hypothermia, the time would be insufficient for rescue by the teams from Chronos. Unspoken was the idea of taking turns with it. That would put them in wretched shape, chilled and stifling, but at least they would leave the universe together.
Thus it was hardly a surprise that their minds fled from pain, soreness, exhaustion, stench, despair. Without that respite, they could not have gone on as long as they did.
At ease for a few minutes, their backs against a blue-shimmering parapet which they must scale, they gazed across the bowl, where Garcilaso’s suited body gleamed like a remote pyre, and up the curve opposite to Saturn. The planet shone lambent amber, softly banded, the rings a coronet which a shadow band across their arc seemed to make all the brighter. That radiance overcame sight of most nearby stars, but elsewhere they arrayed themselves multitudinous, in splendor, around the silver road which the galaxy clove between them.
“How right a tomb for Alvarlan,” Ricia says in a dreamer’s murmur.
“Has he died, then?” Kendrick asks.
“You do not know?”
“I have been too busied. After we won free of the ruins and I left you to recover while I went scouting, I encountered a troop of warriors. I escaped, but must needs return to you by devious, hidden ways.” Kendrick strokes Ricia’s sunny hair. “Besides, dearest dear, it has ever been you, not I, who had the gift of hearing spirits.”
“Brave darling … . Yes, it is a glory to me that I was able to call his soul out of Hell. It sought his body, but that was old and frail and could not survive the knowledge it now had. Yet Alvarlan passed peacefully, and before he did, for his last magic he made himself a tomb from whose ceiling starlight will eternally shine.”
“May he sleep well. But for us there is no sleep. Not yet. We have far to travel.”
“Aye. But already we have left the wreckage behind. Look! Everywhere around in this meadow, anemones peep through the grass. A lark sings above.”
“These lands are not always calm. We may well have more adventures ahead of us. But we shall meet them with high hearts.”
Kendrick and Ricia rise to continue their journey.
Cramped on a meager ledge, Scobie and Broberg shoveled for an hour without broadening it much. The sand-ice slid from above as fast as they could cast it down. “We’d better quit this as a bad job,” the man finally decided. “The best we’ve done is flatten the slope ahead of us a tiny bit. No telling how far inward the shelf goes before there’s a solid layer on top. Maybe there isn’t any.”
“What shall we do instead?” Broberg asked in the same worn tone.
He jerked a thumb. “Scramble back to the level beneath and try a different direction. But first we absolutely require a break.”
They spread kerofoam pads and sat. After a while during which they merely stared, stunned by fatigue, Broberg spoke.
“I go to the brook,” Ricia relates. “It chimes under arches of green boughs. Light falls between them to sparkle on it. I kneel and drink. The water is cold, pure, sweet. When I raise my eyes, I see the figure of a young woman, naked, her tresses the color of leaves. A wood nymph. She smiles.”
“Yes, I see her too,” Kendrick joins in. “I approach carefully, not to frighten her off. She asks our names and errands. We explain that we are lost. She tells us how to find an oracle which may give us counsel.”
They depart to find it.
Flesh could no longer stave off sleep. “Give us a yell in an hour, will you, Mark?” Scobie requested.
“Sure,” Danzig said, “but will that be enough?”
“It’s the most we can afford, after the setbacks we’ve had. We’ve come less than a third of the way.”
“If I haven’t talked to you,” Danzig said slowly, “it’s not because I’ve been hard at work, though I have been. It’s that I figured you two were having a plenty bad time without me nagging you. However—Do you think it’s wise to fantasize the way you have been?”
A flush crept across Broberg’s cheeks and down toward her bosom. “You listened, Mark?”
“Well, yes, of course. You might have an urgent word for me at any minute—”
“Why? What could you do? A game is a personal affair.”
“Uh, yes, yes—”
Ricia and Kendrick have made love whenever they can. The accounts were never explicit, but the words were often passionate.
“We’ll keep you tuned in when we need you, like for an alarm clock,” Broberg clipped. “Otherwise we’ll cut the circuit.”
“But—Look, I never meant to—”
“I know,” Scobie sighed. “You’re a nice guy and I daresay we’re overreacting. Still, that’s the way it’s got to be. Call us when I told you.”
Deep within the grotto, the Pythoness sways on her throne, in the ebb and flow of her oracular dream. As nearly as Ricia and Kendrick can understand what she chants, she tells them to fare westward on the Stag Path until they met a one-eyed graybeard who will give them further guidance; but they must be wary in his presence, for he is easily angered. They make obeisance and depart. On their way out, they pass the offering they brought. Since they have little with them other than garments and his weapons, the Princess gave the shrine her golden hair. The knight insists that, close-cropped, she remains beautiful.
“Hey, whoops, we’ve cleared us an easy twenty meters,” Scobie said, albeit in a voice which weariness had hammered flat. At first the journey, through the land of Narce, is a delight.
His oath afterward had no more life in it. “Another blind alley, seems like.” The old man in the blue cloak and wide-brimmed hat was indeed wrathful when Ricia refused him her favors and Kendrick’s spear struck his own aside. Cunningly, he has pretended to make peace and told them what road they should take next. But at the end of it are trolls. The wayfarers elude them and double back.
“My brain’s stumbling around in a swamp, a fog,” Scobie groaned. “My busted rib isn’t exactly helping, either. If I don’t get another nap I’ll keep on making misjudgments till we run out of time.”
“By all means, Colin,” Broberg said. “I’ll stand watch and rouse you in an hour.”
“What?” he asked in dim surprise. “Why not join me and have Mark call us as he did before?”
She grimaced. “No need to bother him. I’m tired, yes, but not sleepy.”
He lacked wit or strength to argue. “Okay,” he said, stretched his insulating pad on the ice, and toppled out of awareness.
Broberg settled herself next to him. They were halfway to the heights, but they had been struggling, with occasional breaks, for worse than twenty hours, and progress grew more hard and tricky even as they themselves grew more weak and stupefied. If ever they reached the top and spied Danzig’s signal, they would have something like a couple of hours’ stiff travel to shelter.
Saturn, sun, stars shone through vitryl. Broberg smiled down at Scobie’s face. He was no Greek god, and sweat, grime, unshavenness, the manifold marks of exhaustion were upon him, but—For that matter, she was scarcely an image of glamour herself.
Princess Ricia sits by her knight, where he slumbers in the dwarf’s cottage, and strums a harp the dwarf lent her before he went off to his mine, and sings a lullaby to sweeten the dreams of Kendrick. When it is done, she passes her lips lightly across his, and drifts into the same gentle sleep.
Scobie woke a piece at a time. “Ricia, beloved,” Kendrick whispers, and feels after her. He will summon her up with kisses—
He scrambled to his feet. “Judas priest!” She lay unmoving. He heard her breath in his earplugs, before the roaring of his pulse drowned it. The sun glared farther aloft, he could see it had moved, and Saturn’s crescent had thinned more, forming sharp horns at its ends. He forced his eyes toward the watch on his left wrist.
“Ten hours,” he choked.
He knelt and shook his companion. “Come, for Christ’s sake!” Her lashes fluttered. When she saw the horror on his visage, drowsiness fled from her.
“Oh, no,” she said, “Please, no.”
Scobie climbed stiffly erect and flicked his main radio switch. “Mark, do you receive?”
“Colin!” Danzig chattered. “Thank God! I was going out of my head from worry.”
“You’re not off that hook, my friend. We just finished a ten-hour snooze.”
“What? How far did you get first?”
“To about forty meters’ elevation. The going looks tougher ahead than in back. I’m afraid we won’t make it.”
“Don’t say that, Colin,” Danzig begged.
“My fault,” Broberg declared. She stood rigid, fists doubled, features a mask. Her tone was steady. “He was worn out, had to have a nap. I offered to wake him, but fell asleep myself.”
“Not your fault, Jean,” Scobie began.
She interrupted: “Yes. Mine. Perhaps I can make it good. Take my fuel cell. I’ll still have deprived you of my help, of course, but you might survive and reach the boat anyway.”
He seized her hands. They did not unclench. “If you imagine I, I could do that—”
“If you don’t, we’re both finished,” she said unbendingly. “I’d rather go out with a clear conscience.”
“And what about my conscience?” he shouted. Checking himself, he wet his lips and said fast: “Besides, you’re not to blame. Sleep slugged you. If I’d been thinking, I’d have realized it was bound to do so, and contacted Mark. The fact that you didn’t either shows how far gone you were yourself. And … you’ve got Tom and the kids waiting for you. Take my cell.” He paused. “And my blessing.”
“Shall Ricia forsake her true knight?”
“Wait, hold on, listen,” Danzig called. “Look, this is terrible, but—oh, hell, excuse me, but I’ve got to remind you that dramatics only clutter the action. From what descriptions you’ve sent, I don’t see how either of you can possibly proceed solo. Together, you might yet. At least you’re rested—sore in the muscles, no doubt, but clearer in the head. The climb before you may prove easier than you think. Try!”
Scobie and Broberg regarded each other for a whole minute. A thawing went through her, and warmed him. Finally they smiled and embraced. “Yeah, right,” he growled. “We’re off. But first a bite to eat. I’m plain, old-fashioned hungry. Aren’t you?” She nodded.
“That’s the spirit,” Danzig encouraged them. “Uh, may I make another suggestion? I am just a spectator, which is pretty hellish but does give me an overall view. Drop that game of yours.”
Scobie and Broberg tautened.
“It’s the real culprit,” Danzig pleaded. “Weariness alone wouldn’t have clouded your judgment. You’d never have cut me off, and—But weariness and shock and grief did lower your defenses to the point where the damned game took you over. You weren’t yourselves when you fell asleep. You were those dream-world characters. They had no reason not to cork off!”
Broberg shook her head violently. “Mark,” said Scobie, “you are correct about being a spectator. That means there are some things you don’t understand. Why subject you to the torture of listening in, hour after hour? We’ll call you back from time to time, naturally. Take care.” He broke the circuit.
“He’s wrong,” Broberg insisted.
Scobie shrugged. “Right or wrong, what difference? We won’t pass out again in the time we have left. The game didn’t handicap us as we traveled. In fact, it helped, by making the situation feel less gruesome.”
“Aye. Let us break our fast and set forth anew on our pilgrimage.”
The struggle grew stiffer. “Belike the White Witch has cast a spell on this road,” says Ricia.
“She shall not daunt us,” vows Kendrick.
“No, never while we fare side by side, you and I, noblest of men.”
A slide overcame them and swept them back a dozen meters. They lodged against a crag. After the flow had passed by, they lifted their bruised bodies and limped in search of a different approach. The place where the geologist’s hammer remained was no longer accessible.
“What shattered the bridge?” asks Ricia.
“A giant,” answers Kendrick. “I saw him as I fell into the river. He lunged at me, and we fought in the shallows until he fled. He bore away my sword in his thigh.”
“You have your spear that Wayland forged,” Ricia says, “and always you have my heart.”
They stopped on the last small outcrop they uncovered. It proved to be not a shelf but a pinnacle of water ice. Around it glittered sand-ice, again quiescent. Ahead was a slope thirty meters in length, and then the rim, and stars. The distance might as well have been thirty light-years. Whoever tried to cross would immediately sink to an unknown depth.
There was no point in crawling back down the bared side of the pinnacle. Broberg had clung to it for an hour while she chipped niches to climb by with her knife. Scobie’s condition had not allowed him to help. If they sought to return, they could easily slip, fall, and be engulfed. If they avoided that, they would never find a new path. Less than two hours’ worth of energy abode in their fuel cells. Attempting to push onward while swapping Garcilaso’s back and forth would be an exercise in futility.
They settled themselves, legs dangling over the abyss, and held hands and looked at Saturn and at one another.
“I do not think the ores can burst the iron door of this tower,” Kendrick says, “but they will besiege us until we starve to death.”
“You never yielded up your hope erenow, my knight,” replies Ricia, and kisses his temple. “Shall we search about? These walls are unutterably ancient. Who knows what relics of wizardry lie forgotten within? A pair of phoenixfeather cloaks, that will bear us laughing through the sky to our home—?”
“I fear not, my darling. Our weird is upon us.” Kendrick touches the spear that leans agleam against the battlement. “Sad and gray will the world be without you. We can but meet our doom bravely.”
“Happily, since we are together.” Ricia’s gamin smile breaks forth. “I did notice that a certain room holds a bed. Shall we try it?”
Kendrick frowns. “Rather should we seek to set our minds and souls in order.”
She tugs his elbow. “Later, yes. Besides—who knows?—when we dust off the blanket, we may find it is a Tarnkappe that will take us invisible through the enemy.”
Fear stirs behind her eyes. “What if I do?” Her words tremble. “I can dream us free if you will help.”
Scobie’s fist smote the ice. “No!” he croaked. “I’ll die in the world that is.”
Ricia shrinks from him. He sees terror invade her. “You, you rave, beloved,” she stammers.
He twisted about and caught her by the arms. “Don’t you want to remember Tom and your boys?”
Kendrick slumps. “I don’t know. I have forgotten too.”
She leans against him, there on the windy height. A hawk circles above. “The residuum of an evil enchantment, surely. Oh, my heart, my life, cast it from you! Help me find the means to save us.” Yet her entreaty is uneven, and through it speaks dread.
Kendrick straightens. He lays hand on Wayland’s spear, and it is though strength flows thence, into him. “A spell in truth,” he says. His tone gathers force. “I will not abide in its darkness, nor suffer it to blind and deafen you, my lady in domnei.” His gaze takes hold of hers, which cannot break away. “There is but a single road to our freedom. It goes through the gates of death.”
She waits, mute and shuddering.
“Whatever we do, we must die, Ricia. Let us fare hence as our own folk.”
“I—no—I won’t—I wit!—”
“You see before you the means of your deliverance. It is sharp, I am strong; you will feel no pain.”
She bares her bosom. “Then quickly, Kendrick, before I am lost!”
He drives the weapon home. “I love you,” he says. She sinks at his feet. “I follow you, my darling,” he says, withdraws the steel, braces shaft against stone, lunges forward, falls beside her. “Now we are free.”
“That was … a nightmare.” Broberg sounded barely awake.
Scobie’s voice shook. “Necessary, I think, for both of us.” He gazed straight before him, letting Saturn fill his eyes with dazzle. “Else we’d have stayed … insane? Maybe not, by definition. But we’d not have been in reality either.”
“It would have been easier,” she mumbled.
“We’d never have known we were dying.”
“Would you have preferred that?”
Broberg shivered. The slackness in her countenance gave place to the same tension that was in his. “Oh, no,” she said, quite softly but in the manner of full consciousness. “No, you were right, of course. Thank you for your courage.”
“You’ve always had as much guts as anybody, Jean. You just have more imagination than me.” Scobie’s hand chopped empty space, a gesture of dismissal. “Okay, we should call poor Mark and let him know. But first—” His words lost the cadence he had laid on them. “First—”
Her glove clasped his. “What, Colin?”
“Let’s decide about that third unit, Luis’s,” he said with difficulty, still confronting the great ringed planet. “Your decision, actually, though we can discuss the matter if you want. I will not hog it for the sake of a few more hours. Nor will I share it; that would be a nasty way for us both to go out. However, I suggest you use it.”
“To sit beside your frozen corpse?” she replied. “No. I wouldn’t even feel the warmth, not in my bones—”
She turned toward him so fast that she nearly fell off the pinnacle. He caught her. “Warmth!” she screamed, shrill as the cry of a hawk on the wing. “Colin, we’ll take our bones home!”
“In point of fact,” said Danzig, “I’ve climbed onto the hull. That’s high enough for me to see over those ridges and needles. I’ve got a view of the entire horizon.”
“Good,” grunted Scobie. “Be prepared to survey a complete circle quick. This depends on a lot of factors we can’t predict. The beacon will certainly not be anything like as big as what you had arranged. It may be thin and short-lived. And, of course, it may rise too low for sighting at your distance.” He cleared his throat. “In that case, we two have bought the farm. But we’ll have made a hell of a try, which feels great by itself.”
He hefted the fuel cell, Garcilaso’s gift. A piece of heavy wire, insulation stripped off, joined the prongs. Without a regulator, the unit poured its maximum power through the short circuit. Already the strand glowed.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to do it, Colin?” Broberg asked. “Your rib—”
He made a lopsided grin. “I’m nonetheless better designed by nature for throwing things,” he said. “Allow me that much male arrogance. The bright idea was yours.”
“It should have been obvious from the first,” she said. “I think it would have been, if we weren’t bewildered in our dream.”
“M-m, often the simple answers are the hardest to find. Besides, we had to get this far or it wouldn’t have worked, and the game helped mightily … . Are you set, Mark? Heave ho!”
Scobie cast the cell as if it were a baseball, hard and far through the lapetan gravity field. Spinning, its incandescent wire wove a sorcerous web across vision. It landed somewhere beyond the rim, on the glacier’s back.
Frozen gases vaporized, whirled aloft, briefly recondensed before they were lost. A geyser stood white against the stars.
“I see you!” Danzig yelped. “I see your beacon, I’ve got my bearing, I’ll be on my way! With rope and extra energy units and everything!”
Scobie sagged to the ground and clutched at his left side. Broberg knelt and held him, as if either of them could lay hand on his pain. No large matter. He would not hurt much longer.
“How high would you guess the plume goes?” Danzig inquired, calmer.
“About a hundred meters,” Broberg replied after study.
“Uh, damn, these gloves do make it awkward punching the calculator … . Well, to judge by what I observe of it, I’m between ten and fifteen klicks off. Give me an hour or a tadge more to get there and find your exact location. Okay?”
Broberg checked gauges. “Yes, by a hair. We’ll turn our thermostats down and sit very quiet to reduce oxygen demand. We’ll get cold, but we’ll survive.”
“I may be quicker,” Danzig said. “That was a worst case estimate. All right, I’m off. No more conversation till we meet. I won’t take any foolish chances, but I will need my wind for making speed.”
Faintly, those who waited heard him breathe, heard his hastening footfalls. The geyser died.
They sat, arms around waists, and regarded the glory which encompassed them. After a silence, the man said: “Well, I suppose this means the end of the game. For everybody.”
“It must certainly be brought under strict control,” the woman answered. “I wonder, though, if they will abandon it altogether—out here.”
“If they must, they can.”
“Yes. We did, you and I, didn’t we?”
They turned face to face, beneath that star-beswarmed, Saturn-ruled sky. Nothing tempered the sunlight that revealed them to each other, she a middle-aged wife, he a man ordinary except for his aloneness. They would never play again. They could not.
A puzzled compassion was in her smile. “Dear Friend—” she began.
His uplifted palm warded her from further speech. “Best we don’t talk unless it’s essential,” he said. “That’ll save a little oxygen, and we can stay a little warmer. Shall we try if we can sleep?”
Her eyes widened and darkened. “I dare not,” she confessed. “Not till enough time has gone past. Now, I might dream.”