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The Ganymede Club
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The Ganymede Club

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Author: Charles Sheffield
Publisher: Tor, 1995
Series: Cold as Ice: Book 2

1. Cold as Ice
2. The Ganymede Club
3. Dark as Day

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Charles Sheffield returns to the Solar System of his novel Cold As Ice, to spin a tale of the years immediately following the Great War, a horrifying spasm that was over in weeks, but killed half the human race.


Excerpt

1

Saturn System: 2032 A.D.

After fourteen months in space and ten weeks of irritation, the culprit had at last been discovered: Jason Cayuga was scraping clean the underplate of the air scrubber, while Athene Rios stood ready to bolt the cover back in position when he was done.

"I signed up for hardship and I signed up for danger." Cayuga spoke between vigorous sweeps of the scraper. "But I didn't sign up for this." He lifted the tool to his prominent nose, wrinkled his face in disgust, and transferred another film of blue-white mold into a sealed container. "Phew! What a stink. We should get medals."

"Where do you think it came from? We've made a dozen stops in the past six months." Small, dark, and delicate-featured, Athene Rios looked like what she was, a Spanish princess. She swore that in her own twenty-three years and in the hundreds of years of her known ancestors, no one of the Rios line had ever been called on to deal with what was, in essence, a plumbing problem. But on board the Marklake royal descent meant nothing. She and Jason Cayuga were the junior crew members, which meant they were automatically given the dull and unpleasant jobs.

"Came from? We brought it with us." Cayuga glanced across to the little port, where the Sun was visible as a tiny disk of yellow brilliance. Earth itself was too small and distant to be seen, but each member of the crew knew just where to look. "The big mystery is why it waited ten months to start growing in here. It's a home-planet mold, though; no doubt about it. Munzer keeps talking contamination, but she's off the wall. You've seen the places we've been. The chance that a life form could survive on any of them is a flat zero."

"That's not what you said before when we left Earth."

"Course it isn't. I wanted to come, didn't I, same as you? If we'd said we thought there wasn't a chance in a billion that there could be life anywhere in the Saturn system, you'd still be in Madrid and I'd be sitting on my butt in Calgary. But extraterrestrial life is like danger. You say you're ready and waiting for it when you sign up, but you sure as hell don't expect it."

He had finished his efforts with the scraper, and now he was carefully sealing the cylindrical container. The foul-smelling mold would be stored away in the ship's hold along with the samples collected in the Saturn system: rock shavings and regolith from Enceladus, dirty ice crystals from the inner rings, probe returns from Titan's atmosphere, and the mysterious obsidian needles that Costas had found on the surface of Tethys. They would remain sealed in the hold for another two years, until the Marklake returned to Earth orbit.

"You can still hope for it, though," said Athene. "Alien life, I mean--not danger. Move your bulk, Jason." She was easing her way past Cayuga. The Marklake's equipment room was scarcely big enough for two people, but it offered more privacy than the ship's cramped crew quarters. "What do you think?" She was leaning close and dropping her voice to an unnecessary whisper, at the same time as she swabbed the scrubber plate with a strong disinfectant.

"Jing-li said that you or I might get the next one. Think she'll stick to her word?"

"I don't see why not." Jason Cayuga's bark of laughter held more disgust than humor. "No one else is going to be fighting for it. Think of it this way: Costas will go down in history as the first person to set foot on Tethys. Jing-li was the first human on Mimas and Rhea; Dahlquist the first on Dione. Those are all major satellites, and one day they'll be as important for colonies as Mars or the Jovian moons. Von Neumanns will be working them all within twenty years, the way they are on Ganymede. But how many centuries before they work Helene? If ever. Who cares about the place?"

"I do. If you don't want Helene, I'll take it."

"Be my guest, dear." Cayuga watched as Rios slid the cover plate back into position. "Who's interested in colonizing something only thirty kilometers across? If Helene weren't at a libration point, it wouldn't even have a name." He turned, easing his broad shoulders through the hatch that led back to the main crew quarters. "You can have my whole share of Helene exploration," he said, without turning his head. "Me, I'll hold out for something decent sized. Maybe I'll get lucky and snag Hyperion or Iapetus."

* * *

It had sounded good at the time. Five days later, Jason Cayuga was regretting his generosity. The Marklake was approaching Helene, the little satellite that occupied the L-4 point of the Saturn-Dione system. Athene had been at the high-magnitude scope every spare moment of the past two days, ever since Captain Betty Jing-li had agreed that she would make the first landing on Helene.

Athene was becoming more and more excited. Jason could see why, even without benefit of the hi-mag scope. As the Marklake drifted steadily closer, it was clear that Helene was different from the other fragments of broken rock that the unmanned scout probes had reported a thousand times in the Jupiter and Saturn systems.

This planetoid was grainy and speckled, like a chalky egg covered with grains of black powder. It was also smoothly round, rather than jagged. There was no way that Helene's gravitational field could be strong enough to enforce such symmetry. The body must have been formed by the steady accumulation of small particles and dust that over the millennia had sintered themselves into an approximate sphere. But then Helene should appear more uniform in color. It ought not to possess that grainy texture.

Athene was puzzled more by the appearance than the shape. "I don't see ow you could make a surface look like this," she said. She was squinting into the scope's main viewer. "Meteorite impact won't do it, and accretion won't do it, either. It's not cratered, and it's not smooth and even. It's pitted. I can see little holes all over it. It looks crumbly and porous. Like it's been nibbled by worms."

"What do you mean, nibbled? Mind if I take a peek?" Simone Munzer had silently entered the forward observatory without Athene's being aware of it. Now, although she asked the question as a formality, Munzer did not hesitate to push Athene away from the scope. As the expedition's anomalist she had the right to take over whenever any crew member hinted at something inexplicable.

Athene glared at Simone's angular profile, while Jason tried to appear sympathetic but was not too successful. He was sure that Athene had exaggerated what she was seeing, just so that he would think he was about to miss something special. On the other hand, if by some miracle Helene did contain something unique, Jason would have given away to Athene Rios much more than he had ever intended.

"I see what you mean." Simone Munzer was making delicate adjustments to the scope's focus. "They do look like holes, and the whole surface is peppered with them. Ten to twenty meters across. But the sun angle's wrong to see down inside." She glanced up briefly at Athene and Jason. "One of you bring Captain Jing-li up from the cabin, would you? She has to take a peek at this for herself."

They both went. Athene was seething. "You know what's going to happen, don't you?" she said. She was half a step in front of Jason in the narrow corridor, barreling along, with her black eyes glaring at nothing. "That bitch, she's going to say that Helene appears anomalous; therefore it might be dangerous. Then she'll tell Jing-li that because it might be dangerous, Munzer has to go there herself. She's been drooling for a first landing ever since Tethys."

"I'm sure you're right." Jason knew that he would be just as angry as Athene if it had happened to him, but he hoped he would hide it better. She was still young. It had taken him all his twenty-eight years to learn that it never paid to show your emotions, least of all when you were angry.

"I wouldn't panic yet, though," he went on. "Simone wanted to replace Luke Costas as soon as he found the obsidian needles on Tethys, because she said we had no explanation for them. But Jing-li didn't go for that. She probably won't go for this, either. Cool off, Athene--or you'll blow your own chances."

He said the last words in an undertone that only she could hear. She was sliding the door to the main cabin, and as it opened, Jason could see that four other crew members were sitting in there. The two engineers, Roald Dahlquist and Luke Costas, were playing chess and talking. Hamilton Polk, primary physician and assistant anomalist, was, as usual, leaning back with his eyes closed, apparently sleeping but probably listening--no one was ever sure. Captain Betty Jing-li, who was at the far end of the table doodling on a computer pad, looked up inquiringly at the new arrivals.

"I wondered if it's too soon to suit up for Helene." Athene slowed her pace as she came into the cabin.

"That's up to you." Jing-li nodded at the clock on the cabin wall. "It's still a couple of hours before we'll be in matching orbit and at transfer distance."

"I know. But I'd like to be ready well ahead of time."

"Sure." Jing-li stared at Jason. "Not you, Cayuga. Just Rios. You passed up the chance of going to Helene in favor of another target."

"I know."

"If you want to suit up, though, you can serve as Rios's emergency standby."

"Thank you. I will."

Jason sounded suitably ungrateful. Betty Jing-li was not doing him any favors, because standby was one job that everyone on board had learned to hate. In each of the twenty-nine target encounters in the Saturn system, one of the crew had been forced to sit in a suit for periods ranging from five hours to sixty hours, waiting for an emergency signal from the landing party that never came.

Athene and Jason headed on through the cabin, skirting the long table. Opposite Jing-li, Athene paused. "Simone is up front using the scopes to take a look at Helene. She asked if you would join her there."

"She's seen something?" Betty Jing-li was rising to her feet.

"Nothing special. I saw it first, and I think Simone's overreacting. The surface may be porous and a little softer than usual; that's all. But with Helene's low surface gravity I expect no problem landing there." Athene spoke casually and carried on without waiting for Jing-li's reaction, passing into the corridor that led aft to the sleeping quarters and the exit locks.

"What do you think?" she asked, as soon as there was no chance of being heard in the main cabin. "Did you see her face?"

"Yes." Jason had deliberately remained a few steps behind. "She didn't look worried, and now she's expecting a pitch from Simone. Pretty good damage control. Don't worry, you'll go to Helene. And I'll sit in my damned suit for a day or two, playing with myself and waiting for you to come back. I should have sided with Simone. Then you'd have been acting as emergency standby to her. You owe me, Rios."

"Not necessarily." Athene was lifting down her suit and Jason's, and beginning the standard thirty-six-point check: air, filters (dual), heat, insulation, temperature, communication, nutrition, elimination (dual), medication, attitude control (triple), position jets (dual), joints (thirteen), seals (four), and suit condition displays (three).

"You may luck out," she said, when at last the check was satisfactorily completed. "You just have to hope that I'll run into trouble." She smirked at him. "Then you'll be the one who gets to play the hero and come to my rescue."

"Sure." Jason's voice showed that he gave the event the same low probability of occurring that she did. "I'll be waiting. But I won't hold my breath."

* * *

Close-up, Helene displayed more surface irregularity. The smooth ovoid visible from a distance became a wilderness of rocks that ranged in size from gravel and pebbles to white boulders taller than a human. The holes in the surface were less variable. None was narrower than a couple of meters, and none wider than twenty.

Athene had made her approach with due caution, while the Marklake hovered two kilometers away. Her suit video saw exactly what she saw and returned its images in real time to both the ship's central data files and Jason Cayuga's in-suit monitor. In spite of Simone Munzer's warnings there was nothing to suggest any cause for alarm.

Expedition protocol required that the landing itself be made with appropriate ceremony. Athene handled it by the book: "Recognizing the historic nature of this first human contact with another world, I, Athene Linda Rios, crew member of the Earth exploration vessel Marklake, on this fifteenth day of April, 2032, set foot on Helene, moon of Saturn, at fifteen hours and twenty minutes standard solar..."

Impatient as she was, she forced herself not to hurry through her final sentences. As she spoke she was inspecting the body below her. The planetoid turned slowly on its axis, with a period of seventy-eight hours, and solar illumination at the landing point was close to optimum for surface inspection. The sunlight was weak, one ninetieth of its intensity on Earth or the Moon, but it easily was enough for her to make out horizontal striations within the holes. She was itching for a closer look at the one nearest her. Nothing remotely like this had been encountered before in the Jupiter or Saturn systems, and although the Belt's mining colonies were notoriously secretive in dealing with the rest of the system, not a rumor of such banded holes had come from any of their many worlds.

"...will be added to the shared resources of the Inner and Outer Solar System," she concluded. And then, without a pause: "Captain Jing-li, I request permission to explore the surface and structure of Helene."

"I oppose any notion of investigating the interior structure." Simone Munzer's voice, jarringly loud in her suit, cut in before Jing-li could reply. "I have been given no time to evaluate the records obtained so far. There is no urgency for such exploration. The surface of Helene is qualitatively different from any previously known, and the interior may present unknown hazards."

"It may." Betty Jing-li sounded calm as ever. "But chances are, it won't. May I remind you, Dr. Munzer, that the Marklake is, after all, an exploration vessel. We are fourteen months and a billion kilometers from home, and acceptance of a certain level of risk and a reasonable urgency in completing our mission are expected of us. Rios, you are authorized to proceed."

"Thank you, Captain."

"With suitable caution."

"Yes, Captain."

Athene was already moving. Jason found himself looking, through her telemetry feed, down a long narrowing tunnel illuminated by sunlight for its first thirty or forty meters.

"You can see the banding on the tunnel walls clearly now," said Athene's voice. "It's the sort of strata you might expect on a planet with sedimentary rocks, but of course that's out of the question here. I wonder if we're seeing the effects of zone melting and refreezing. The field is only a few thousandths of a standard gravity, but it might be enough. Of course, we still have to explain the source of heat for successive thawing. And the proportion of volatiles would have to be high. All right, I'm starting my descent. I'll be taking samples as I go."

The sunlight was gradually fading, direct illumination replaced by down-scattered light from the tunnel walls. The width narrowed steadily and then seemed to hold constant at about four meters. Soon the range data showed Athene at close to three hundred meters down. Still there was no sign of an end to the shaft. The descent continued in dead silence for another thirty seconds.

"I'm beginning to wonder if this thing goes right the way through to the other side," Athene said at last. She sounded different--breathless, slightly nervous, oddly distorted. The only illumination came from the lights in her suit. "No, it doesn't! The tunnel ends down there, with a different sort of formation. Strange. It looks like there's a milky layer of something across the end of it. See?"

Except that Jason didn't. The image in his suit monitor had been deteriorating for the past minute. Now it was a dim and grainy picture that flickered and faded as he watched.

He began, "I can't see what's--"

"No further, Rios." Jing-li cut in. "We're losing your signal. We shouldn't be having a problem at that depth, but we are. I want you to start back up again--now."

"Right. But I'm not getting..." The distortion was much worse: "...the over... up to the walls... coming..."

A long pause. Then, "...touch it..."

Faint crackling, like static--nothing more. Jason found himself unable to breathe. Captain Jing-li's voice, close and calm, cut in again: "I'm taking the Marklake to within two hundred meters. We'll be in position three minutes from now. Cayuga, what is your status?"

"I'm ready."

"Suit checked and sealed?"

"Yes."

"When I give the word, you head for the surface where Rios landed. Take a cable with you. Go into the hole, get her, come right back. Go slow. And no matter what you find, don't investigate. If you get stuck, signal along the cable. If you don't see her in the tunnel, come back. Costas and Munzer, into suits in case we need you. Dr. Polk, stand by for possible medical emergency."

Jason stood at the lock, waiting for the go-ahead from Captain Jing-li. It took forever to come. He was shivering in his temperature-controlled suit. He did not feel excited at the prospect of a major discovery. He did feel scared.

The cable attached to Jason's suit could stand a load of hundreds of tons, but it was light and perfectly flexible. He was scarcely aware of it as he drifted toward the waiting bulk of Helene. The Sun, off behind his right shoulder, seemed a remote and ineffectual spark of light. Saturn loomed as a half-disk to the left, the rings a thin bright line across the planet's equator. But it was Helene, the little planetoid that he had dismissed five days ago as insignificant, that now seemed to fill the sky. The pocked surface was fast approaching. The pinprick hole for which he was heading became a dark violet shaft, leading to unknown depths.

"Go into the hole, get her, come right back," he had been told.

If only he could.

"Go slow"--that was the hardest order to obey.

Jason took a deep breath and entered the tunnel. The light level dropped abruptly. His suit imagers compensated at once, and he could see far ahead. He peered down. There, no more than a few hundred meters away--he gasped with relief--he saw a familiar shape. Reflected light was gleaming from a white suit.

Athene.

"She's here," he said loudly. "Right in front of me. I can go down and get her."

He heard the sudden buzz of conversation in his radio link, and realized for the first time that no one had spoken since he left the Marklake.

In the same moment he realized that Athene had remained silent, though he was right above her and must be outlined against the sunlit shaft. She ought to be able to see him. Also, the arms and legs of the suited figure were not moving, except that the whole figure was rising slowly up through the shaft. He felt overwhelmed by the implications.

Although his mind was stunned, he found that his body knew exactly what to do: He dropped farther, steadily and surely. In half a minute he was at her side. He saw, far below, the odd milky surface that she had talked about. There was no time to worry about that now. He attached a grapnel to her, then jetted the two of them gently up to the surface and toward the Marklake.

"Polk to the air lock, if you please," he said, surprised at the calm tone of his own voice. "Dahlquist, prepare the emergency treatment facility. We have a medical problem."

And pray it was no more than that.

The Marklake loomed ahead. Jason used the grapnel to pull Athene close and move her in front of him into the lock. Her suit felt stiff and unbending, as though the body inside was already frozen to a final rigor. He peered in through the visor. Her face was pale, in places almost silvery. A trick of the sunlight, weak but at the same time harsh?

No time for a second look. He was in the air lock, cycling it at maximum speed. And Hamilton Polk was there, taking Athene's body from him, dismissing Jason with a casual, "Get your suit off. Then come back here."

Jason wanted to ask a question--the question--but he could not, because Jing-li and Munzer and Costas were hustling in, all talking, crowding him out. He went to the next cabin, stripped out of his suit at record speed, and squeezed back in through the door. He was just in time to hear Polk say, "A breach of suit integrity, can't say how it happened. Slits and tears, lots of them--see, here and here and here." Polk pointed to the suit's chest, arms, and upper legs. Athene's helmet was off, revealing her face--silent and pale and with faint, silvery blotches on her cheeks.

"We'll have to check every one of the suits," Polk went on. "They could all have the same potential problem."

Jason's question seemed unnecessary now. He had to ask it, anyway: "Is she dead?"

"I'm afraid she is." Simone Munzer had been standing next to Jing-li, and now she turned to him. He was glad to see that there was no trace of "I told you so" in her manner. "I'm sorry, Jason."

"But it's most peculiar," added Polk. The physician was bending low, peering at Athene's face. "Dead and already cooling. Yet it doesn't seem like a case of asphyxiation, which is what the suit punctures would suggest. Fascinating. Did you see anything strange, Cayuga, while you were in the interior?"

It had all happened too quickly, and Jason had been totally focused on what had to be done to rescue Athene. He shook his head.

"Of course, it may have nothing to do with her visit to Helene." Polk began to release the wrist seals on Athene's suit.

"We must prove that, one way or the other." Simone Munzer turned to Jing-li. "It's not like a normal ship fatality, where the body can go into sealed storage and await investigation until our return to Earth orbit."

"I agree." Jing-li's face was grim. The warning from the ship's anomalist--that Athene Rios should not explore the interior of Helene--was already in the ship's record. The official investigation would be unpleasant for Captain Betty Jing-li. "Dr. Polk, please prepare for and proceed with an autopsy."

"Already getting ready for it." The physician, unlocking Athene's ankle seals, seemed fully awake and enjoying himself for the first time in months. "But I'll need an assistant."

Athene had been his designated backup for medical emergencies.

"Of course." Jing-li turned to Luke Costas. "We will follow the usual--"

"If you please," Jason cut in. "I would like to help."

You interrupted a captain's order at your own peril, and Jason knew it. But Jing-li merely stepped closer, studied his face, and nodded.

"Very well. I understand. The autopsy will not be pleasant, they never are. If you have problems handling it--or yourself--tell me and I will arrange relief. Dr. Polk, please proceed. Dr. Munzer, I need to meet separately with you."

At her nod, Luke Costas turned and left the room. Jing-li and Simone Munzer followed, while Polk dispassionately watched them go.

"Wouldn't mind hearing that conversation," he said.

Jason believed him. Hamilton Polk disliked both women. He resented Captain Jing-li because she, a non-doctor, could give him orders, and he hated Simone Munzer because she ignored all his suggestions as assistant anomalist. She was also willing to challenge Jing-li where he dared not.

"What do you want me to do?" Jason didn't care to get into the middle of Polk's shipboard animosities.

"Finish getting Rios out of her suit. I'll go and prepare for the autopsy. When you're done, put the suit in a sealed container, then bring both it and Rios to the med center. We can't work here."

Polk's tone made Jason very glad that he had asked to be involved. As far as the doctor was concerned, Athene's body was no more than a piece of dead meat, to be examined with curiosity but no sympathy. Jason would treat her with proper reverence.

He waited until Polk had gone; then he began. With the helmet off and the suit's seals released, it was simple to open the front completely and ease the body free. He had to take hold of her hands and feet to do so. Athene had been barearmed and barelegged within the suit. Lifting her, he noticed that the odd body stiffness he had felt when he had removed her from the shaft on Helene was no longer present. Her flesh was soft and smooth, and much warmer than he had expected from Polk's comment. Her eyes were closed, her face calm. He wanted to believe that her death had been as easy and painless as her expression suggested.

He paused. There were silvery patches on her thighs and upper arms, and also on her hands. They were far more pronounced than those on her face. After a few moments he unzipped the front of her one-piece garment. It felt like an intrusion when he opened her clothing to examine her bare chest.

More patches, and brighter. He ran his fingers along a big one on her lower rib cage, and found it slick to the touch. He knew Athene's body well. There had been nothing like this, as recently as twenty-four hours ago.

Contamination.

He had not believed it until this moment, but suddenly he was sure of it. Simone Munzer had been right to warn, for something in the interior of the planetoid had entered Athene's body and killed her.

He had to get the corpse into a sealed container and report what he had found. But his fingertips were still on Athene's chest. Before he could remove them he felt a tremor, a movement.

Jason jerked his hand away. The bare chest was moving, the first faint tremble slowing and strengthening to a regular up-and-down motion. She was breathing. A thin wisp of vapor was creeping like a pale-blue tendril from her right nostril.

"Athene!"

He reached out again, wanting to help, not sure what to do. Her eyelids were flickering. As he watched, they opened. She was trying to lift her head.

He put his hand forward, intending to assist her. At the same moment he felt a wave of heat sweep over him. It began in his fingertips and spread rapidly through his whole body. With it came a tremendous feeling of strength and well-being.

But with it also came dizziness. He found himself unable to breathe. As the cabin around him began to fade, he saw that Athene was sitting up, turning in his direction. Her eyes were bright and unblinking. The last thing that Jason saw was the streak of silvery skin creeping along the back of his own outstretched hand.

Copyright © 1995 by Charles Sheffield


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