Last year, we brought you an exclusive look at Frozen Sky by Plague Year author Jeff Carlson — and now, here's the first chapter of the sequel, Frozen Sky 2: Betrayed — in which the situation with the alien sunfish on Europa is only getting more drastic. Plus some exclusive illustrations!
The ice shook again. Vonnie felt a groaning movement through the steel floor of Submodule 07. Every vibration traveled through her bare feet into her legs and spine, invading her bones, rippling through her nerves and flesh.
It scared her. Submodule 07 was ten meters beneath the surface. A thousand tons of ice encompassed her, and she'd darkened the room except for one heads-up display.
The display had shown a stream of alien hieroglyphics. Now it flickered. The eight-armed shapes winked on and off like a living mass of sunfish.
Vonnie tried to stay calm. She was thirty-six years old and had worked for Arianespace or the ESA for a decade, first as an engineer, then as a member of an elite off-world crew. She trusted their sensors. Ben didn't forecast any quakes. This is just another tremor, she thought until the module shuddered with two noises like rifle fire — like the insulated hull had ripped apart. Krak kak!
Red alarms filled her display. Inside, the module was a steel box lined with cabinets and her data/comm station. Outside, struts and mooring cables bristled from the exterior.
Three struts had torn on the west side. The hull was under stress, although if it had split, the fractures were thin since she hadn't experienced decompression. Not yet. But there were other dangers in the ice.
Suddenly the floor dropped. Vonnie's jaw muscles tightened and her posture changed as she spread her arms, struggling for balance. Her tall, lean body bent at the hips.
Behind her in the darkness, a sunfish screeched.
The alien's scream was real, not a simulation like the complicated dance of eight-armed shapes on her display. A living sunfish was inside the module with her. Its beak clacked as it inhaled the oxygen-rich air.
Vonnie turned to fight. She bared her teeth and raised her fists, which were unprotected like her feet. Submodule 07 was as warm as a summer day on Earth. She wore a tank top, shorts, and a med systems bracelet. Her forearm and the bracelet made a poor club. Its nano circuitry weighed a few ounces and its wrist band was soft mesh — but the alumalloy edges of its casing would appear bright and hard to a sunfish.
The alien screeched again, reading Vonnie with its sonar calls. Then it leapt at her.
More than a meter wide, it was a writhing albino monster. The body at its center was a flattened ball ringed with eight tentacles. Blunt dorsal spikes armored its topside. On its underside, its arms were lined with thousands of tube feet and pedicellaria like squirming hair. Gill slits and a sharp, compact beak were the sole features on its belly. No eyes. No nose. No ears except well-protected nubs hidden in the grooves between its arms.
"Come on!" Vonnie yelled.
Deafening the sunfish was her first weapon. Crouching on the floor — taking the low position — was her second.
As the sunfish flew closer, Vonnie pistoned upward to block it, using all of the sinewy muscles in her abdomen and thighs. She knew better than to let it get behind her. At the same time, she swung her right fist up and over in a high roundhouse punch. She wanted to strike its topside. She needed to avoid the grasping, cutting snarls of its pedicellaria. One good blow would stun it. She was stronger than a sunfish. But it was faster.
It curled two of its arms and glommed onto her wrist. Then it clutched at her head with six more arms. It scratched her ears, her collarbone, her temples, her chin.
The floor shuddered again and threw Vonnie sideways. Outside, the ice rumbled.
Impossibly, the sunfish anticipated the complex interaction of the seesawing floor and her jerking body. It scrabbled past her hands, spreading its arms like a hideous flower. It stank. Its breath smelled of feces and carrion.
"Yaaaaaaaah!" Vonnie screamed.
She grabbed one of its gill slits with her right hand, then locked her arm and neck, using her skeleton like a jack to hold the sunfish at bay.
It twisted bonelessly around her. It slithered toward her face. She pummeled its topside with her left fist, but the dry cartilage of its skin felt like rubber. The pedicellaria beneath its arms were an undulating nightmare.
Yanking on her short hair, it dragged her face closer to its snapping beak.
One of its arms had been severed in its past. The scar-ravaged stump was a weak spot. Vonnie wrestled her shoulder against the amputation. She let the sunfish enfold her right arm. Then she levered it away from her head, barely noticing when it peeled her skin apart.
She slammed the sunfish against the ceiling and roared, "You son of a bitch!"
It screeched at her. Its high-pitched sonar caused an eerie ringing in her skull, but she leaned closer, deliberately exaggerating her grimace.
Its species understood threat displays — and in its culture, the submissive position was above. Standing on the module floor, Vonnie had the dominant position. Her size added to her bid for control.
She yelled again. "Yaaaaah!"
Its arms cinched tighter on her wounds. Blood fell onto her cheek. The hot moisture stung her eyes, yet she refused to lean back. She kept her teeth bared.
I'm hurt, she thought.
Worse, the sunfish was surely tasting her gore through the tube feet mingled among its pedicellaria. Second by second, it was regaining energy, absorbing protein from her with the accelerated metabolism of its race.
Vonnie had fought her battles in an armored suit or standing at a data/comm station. Her species conducted war by mecha, satellites, missiles, and SCPs. To the sunfish, combat was a pheromone-infused spasm of rock clubs, beaks, and cannibalism. Its tolerance for pain and filth far exceeded her own. It would eat from her until her victory was indisputable both physically and mentally.
"Stop!" she yelled. "Don't make me kill you!"
It screeched again.
Now it shrilled — a plaintive sound? — and Vonnie risked a look over her shoulder to assess the module.
Outside, the ice was settling. She heard a bang as a chunk dropped onto the roof, but there were none of the louder noises of an ongoing quake. The tremor was over.
She hadn't lost her air. Was the module intact? The room was lighter now, not red, which meant her display had turned off its alarms. She saw a flurry of reports from the ESA grid. Faintly, she realized she'd also been listening to human voices. The radio was loud but not as loud as her heartbeat or the agony in her arm.
"Von! Von! Talk to me!" Ben shouted as Koebsch said in the background, "Pull her up and warn the tribes. Keep our mecha on alert. We can't—"
"I'm all right!" Vonnie yelled.
"We can't do this again," Koebsch said.
"Don't pull me up. I'm all right." Vonnie kept her face aimed at the sunfish as she spoke. Holding its compact body against the ceiling, she jammed her elbow into its stomach like a bully taking a cheap shot. "Right!?" she yelled.
The sunfish pulled four of its arms from her torn flesh. Then it rustled its body in a clockwise movement, curling each arm tip.
Vonnie recognized the gesture. She relaxed, and her grin faded. She felt woozy. She needed medical care, but dealing with the sunfish was more important.
She stepped back and let go.
"What are you doing?" Koebsch asked as Ben said, "Von? Are you sure?"
"Yes. It was my fault." Carefully maintaining her assertive tone and posture, Vonnie clamped her left hand on her wounds.
The sunfish stayed above her. It clung to an unilluminated light panel, bunching its arms in rapid patterns as it emitted its sonar calls.
Vonnie nodded in response. From the very beginning, sunfish had understood human physiology well enough to identify the head as the center of their best sensory organs and their primary source of communication. It answered her nod with another clockwise movement of its arms.
"The quake surprised us both, but I acted wrong," Vonnie said. "I showed fear. I showed mistrust."
"You're injured," Koebsch said.
She managed to smile. "It won't be my first skin graft. The AI can handle it."
"Von, he mutilated you! He was chewing on your arm! What if he gets to your eyes next?"
"It wouldn't be my first transplant, either," she said. "Please. Be quiet and let me work."
Koebsch was eleven years older than Vonnie, more conservative, even fatherly since she'd rebuffed his overtures as a potential suitor. His exasperation with her grew into disappointment. "That woman is a lunatic," he announced as if speaking to someone else. Vonnie knew the comment was meant for her and for the virtual presence of leaders in Berlin, Washington, Tokyo and Brasilia.
She smiled again. Nine weeks after First Contact, there were less than sixty people on Jupiter's ice moon Europa, but they were heavily outnumbered by electronic ghosts.
Hundreds of AI proxies had been transmitted from Earth by government bureaucrats, generals, corporate heads and the officials of various space agencies. Homo sapiens always tried to install top-down hierarchies. It was their nature. Her rules of engagement were extensive. Everything she did was monitored. Every day the proxies argued with Koebsch, wasting time, wasting energy, while Vonnie and the other astronauts dealt with the situation in real-time. Earth was too far away to interfere effectively.
"Okay," she said. "Okay."
Blood dripped lazily from her arm, slowed by Europa's .13 gravity. She knelt over the red splatter on the floor. Then she gestured with her fingers bent as wide and as far back as possible, an invitation.
"Come on," she said. "It's okay, Tom."
The sunfish was her friend.
Tom leapt down beside her, shrilling. Vonnie's skin prickled at the sensation. Most of the frequencies he used were imperceptible to human ears, a torrent of sound that she felt rather than heard.
Is he reading me from the angles of my skeleton as well as the tension in my voice? she wondered.
On Earth, searching for prey, bats produced ten to twenty clicks per second, a rate that briefly intensified when they located their targets. Moments before killing their prey, bats' sonar calls escalated into a "terminal buzz" of two hundred clicks per second. But they couldn't sustain these screams.
With four air sacs squeezing the same breath back and forth through a corded larynx, sunfish were capable of creating sounds almost without pause. Their talents also went beyond mere echolocation. They used ultra- and infrasound.
Tom could "see" through her. Emitting more than four hundred pulses per second, he screeched again, adjusting many of his cries to wave-lengths that were audible to her. Vonnie recognized the tone. He was questioning her, challenging and probing her.
"We're okay," she said. She extended her bare foot. Tom caressed her ankle, then explored her toes. "I need medical," she said. "You know medical? The machine?"
Tom shrilled again, snarling himself around her leg. Vonnie shivered at his grip, but she did not flinch.
His hellish needs and reflexes were why the ESA biologists had warmed the module. They'd wanted to entice him. Deviously, they'd also planned to calm him. Sunfish loved heat. Most of the time, Tom grew unusually sluggish as he basked in the high, steady temperature.
Vonnie had decided against wearing armor with the same intent, not because the module was hot, but to soothe Tom. Her fingers and toes were an integral part of talking with him. The sunfish communicated mostly by sonar and touch. Her shape was wrong for their body language, and she could never smell or taste right, yet when she rocked her ankle, Tom nestled closer like a child might respond to a tickle or a hug.
She didn't believe his attack had been meant to kill. Within their tribes, the sunfish were rough on each other. They provoked and intimidated their peers. Their group dynamic was always in flux. Drawing blood during an exchange of ideas or moods was normal — and outside their tribes, they were absolutely savage.
The sunfish were quick to fight, quick to heal, quick in everything except to make peace. They matured quickly and bred quickly. Their lives were short by human standards. After twenty Earth years, a sunfish was elderly, although it was rare for them to reach old age. They also died quickly, either in natural catastrophes like quakes and volcanic eruptions or during their wars with each other.
"Careful now," Vonnie said. Her mild tone was for the benefit of everyone watching her as well as Tom. "Med systems up. Move at half speed. Don't upset him."
"Roger that," Ben said on her display.
The medical AI would operate with more skill than anyone using manual control, so Ben merely confirmed its decisions as it extended two wire probes from the wall. Nevertheless, she appreciated the comfort of his voice.
Ben was closer to her age than Koebsch. He was forty-three, squat and coarse and sweet. He'd been a hothead when they first met. Weeks later, he'd mellowed in some ways. He was less sarcastic with their crewmates and saved his most biting remarks for Koebsch, harassing him. Ben obviously hoped to widen the distance between Vonnie and Koebsch.
Men, she thought with irritation, trying to suppress the pain in her arm. She shouldn't have let her wounds unsettle her. Fidgeting in discomfort, she moved Tom closer to the wire probes. He clacked dangerously. Then his arms cinched on her leg like a knot of heavy snakes.
"Watch it," Ben said.
"Let me route the probes away from him."
"Thank you, Ben."
Finally, the AI slipped its tools into her flesh, injecting her with trauma meds and nanotech. Vonnie sagged in relief.
"You're gonna have one long sexy scar," Ben said.
Vonnie laughed. The noise evoked a new pattern of stroking from Tom, who recognized the joyful sound. Simultaneously, he screeched at the probes.
Was he jealous of the probes' intimacy with her bleeding arm? Did he feel excluded or threatened?
Vonnie glanced at her display. She'd learned to read Tom with some reliability by herself, but, ironically, she wasn't always certain what she was saying, so the AIs did more than transcribe Tom's cries and body language. The AIs also interpreted the totality of her body, voice, and biochemistry as Tom might perceive her.
VONNIE: Wary and hurt / I'm hurt / Determined / I can hurt you if you attack again.
TOM: You taste like fear but you show patience.
VONNIE: We are friends / You hurt me.
TOM: Friends / Fear.
VONNIE: Show patience.
TOM: Don't like your fear / Hate your machines / Hate your homes / Need food and air.
VONNIE: I can protect you from the machines.
TOM: Yes / Protect.
A third probe extended to spray bandages on her arm. Tom's agitation increased. He recoiled, then screeched at the plastic stink.
TOM: Kill it / Hurt you / Kill it.
TOM: Hurt you / Make it go.
The third probe was done. It withdrew. "Shhh, Tom," she said. "They're fixing me."
What did she smell like to him? Her gore must have had an inviting aroma. Now her injuries were sealed beneath the spray. Tom had lost the scent of her blood, and new pain flared through her ankle as he squeezed.
Koebsch is right, she thought. I'm too obsessive.
Not everyone understood the responsibility she felt to help the sunfish. Fewer shared her commitment. Many people, even highly trained astronauts, had difficulty seeing past their own egos.
Two months ago, the same had been true for Vonnie. She'd forced her way into a tunnel carved with hieroglyphics because she'd wanted to be the first explorer inside Europa. Her wish had come true. The cost had been the lives of two friends and uncounted sunfish. Lost in the ice, she'd left a path of destruction through their colonies. She'd killed dozens of them, so she could accept some risk and pain to settle her debt. The main thing was learning to communicate.
I should have waited to deal with my arm, she realized. If I was a sunfish, I would have bled until my tribe stopped it by applying pressure. We could have bonded over the taste and scent.
"Ben, take off my bandages," she said.
"Why the hell would I do that?"
"The nanotech will stop the bleeding," she said. "Take off my bandages."
"There are fractures in your ulna and thumb. If I—"
"Don't use a new probe. Tom is too edgy. The micro clusters in place can do the job."
"Christ. You're going to feel it."
"Not with the meds."
"I warned you," Ben said. He sent new commands to the AI. Then the surgical tools in her arm bulged, opening holes like pores through her bandages.
It didn't hurt. She was numb. But the pressure was abrupt. "Oh!" she cried.
"Are you all right?"
"Oh, fine," she said, modulating her voice like a song as Tom lifted two arms. He'd scented her wounds. His muscular grip eased on her leg and she crooned, "I'm fine. We're fine. It's not bad. Thank you, Ben."
Tom chirped, his pedicellaria rasping on her skin. Was he happy? Restless? Angry?
He feels all three, she thought before she looked at her display. Her instinct was correct. The translation of Tom's behavior showed pleasure mixed with belligerence.
The sunfish never let go of their hostility. Europa was far more unstable than Earth. Their decisions were always for the short term, ready to fight, ready to die, and Vonnie enjoyed the challenge of introducing them to larger things. Her ancestors had been problem-solving apes who'd actively sought new mysteries as they spread from jungles to grasslands to mountains to shores. The sunfish possessed many of the same characteristics. They were clever and nomadic and unique. Vonnie didn't understand people who didn't understand her excitement or the kinship she felt.
We have every advantage over the sunfish, she thought. Knowledge. Medicine. We can afford to be charitable. What would it say about us if we weren't generous?
While the probes operated on her arm, she rubbed her left hand on Tom's bumpy topside, increasing her physical contact. As quickly as his species resorted to violence, they were also mollified by the simplest gestures.
If they had fur, she assumed they'd be more popular. They would seem more like dogs or cats — fuzzy little inferior creatures who were easy to manipulate. Instead, millions of people regarded the sunfish with horror. Many said humankind should leave Europa and abandon the tribes to their dying world. But they were sentient. Once upon a time, they'd created an empire within the ice before it was destroyed by volcanic upheavals. They were capable of philosophy and laws.
Yes, they were vicious. She'd been forced to kill them in self-defense. The sunfish had swarmed her. First she'd crashed through their air locks, their farms, and their hatcheries. How would people have acted if a giant monster stumbled into Berlin?
"Surgery is done in thirty seconds," Ben said. "Looks good. Your arm will be sore for a few days."
"If you're lucky, I'll share my meds with you."
She decided she could do better than joke. "No, I'm serious," she said. "Take out most of the nerve blocks. I need to use my arm. Don't immobilize it."
The AI shut off thirty percent of the numbing agents.
"More. Stop," she said when it hit fifty percent. She flexed her arm and grimaced.
Silently, the AI extracted its probes. They'd ordered it to communicate with her via data and imagery on her display, which Tom couldn't see. Originally she'd also used an implant to listen to her crewmates. They hadn't wanted to frighten Tom by broadcasting disembodied voices into the module, but he'd sensed the murmur of her implant, which confused him because their voices rarely matched her demeanor. Koebsch tended to worry. Ben offered wry humor and encouragement. Meanwhile, crewmates like Ash, Henri, and Harmeet ranged in attitudes of disgust toward the sunfish to bright fascination.
Vonnie had limited her radio channels to two men. She craved Ben's support, and Koebsch was the boss, so she couldn't stop him from barking at her when he disapproved.
As the medical AI posted green bars on her display, Koebsch said, "Von, if Tom hurts you again..."
"You don't have to do this. We should be using mecha for our ambassadors."
She continued to massage Tom's topside. "Koebsch, we've tried mecha," she said. "This is better. It's more productive."
"You're too vulnerable in there."
"It's necessary. Face to face is how the sunfish approach everything."
"Nobody wants to see you get killed," Koebsch said, and Ben added, "Well, some people do."
For everyone who called her a hero for her role in the ESA's breakthroughs with the sunfish, others had condemned her as an idiot, a would-be martyr, or a traitor to the human race.
Fortunately, most of the crew stood in her corner. Sometimes they'd jeopardized their careers to help her, although they had the unusual advantage of being irreplaceable. Their leaders in Berlin could dock their pay or issue reprimands, but at the moment, Jupiter and Earth were nearly on opposite sides of the sun. Radio signals took thirty-eight minutes to travel in one direction. The crew had more independence than Berlin wanted, which put Koebsch in the difficult spot of enforcing his protocols on real-time situations.
"Von, this isn't funny," Koebsch said.
"If you die, Koebsch is in trouble," Ben explained, trying again to make her laugh at the other man's expense.
Vonnie frowned uneasily at their competition. "We can argue later," she said. "Please. Let me work. If you look at my display, I'm making progress. Tom and I are closer now. Our fight was actually good for us."
Koebsch grunted, but he said nothing else. She was correct. The translation AIs had doubled her affinity scores, which calculated her rapport with Tom based on a thousand factors from voice intonations to skin temperatures.
Hour by hour, Vonnie was learning to think more like a sunfish while Tom acted more human.
She eased his weight from her leg, then stood up, keeping her toes in contact with two of his arms. "Sing with me," she said. "Sing." Then she danced. "Danach lasst uns alle streben, Brüderlich mit Herz and Hand..."
Tom chirped and swayed, matching her cadence.
"Einigkeit under Recht and Frieheit, Sind des Glückes Unterpfand."
Three years of clarinet lessons in a Frankfurt elementary school had been Vonnie's highest musical training. Her singing voice was raw at best. Ben said she sounded like a boy. Tom cared more about emotion than harmony. Resynchronizing the moods of every tribe member after a battle or a hunting party's return was a sunfish ritual.
They moved together.
The experience was surreal, singing with an alien inside a man-made structure on another world. It was magical. It surpassed her childhood dreams of visiting distant stars at lightspeed.
I may be the luckiest woman alive, she thought, glancing at the cues on her display. She tended to forget the lyrics of trendy songs, which was why she repeated Germany's national anthem, having memorized it long ago when her mother enrolled her in those clarinet lessons.
Koebsch had urged her to change her repertoire. Politics overshadowed every move they made. Back on Earth, thousands of citizens and hundreds of officials had objected to what they viewed as Vonnie's nationalism, so she'd varied her play list with the anthems of France, Britain and the U.S., mangling her French but having fun with a mock British accent. Once she'd tried some limericks Ben had taught her.
People got upset about everything. People were self-centered and self-absorbed. The sunfish were selfless. For them, the tribe was paramount. They were maniacal in their devotion to the whole — they went too far — but Vonnie admired their purity.
She believed Tom had been partnered with her for the same reasons he'd served his tribe as a scout. He was remarkably independent for a male, durable and smart. With his severed arm, he was also a cripple and therefore expendable.
The matriarchs of his clan hadn't expected him to emerge in one piece from Submodule 07. The joke was Vonnie's superiors had also doubted she would survive.
The greatest similarity between humans and sunfish was that they ruled their respective food chains because they were paranoid, adaptable omnivores. Their greatest difference was that the sunfish did not — could not — lie. They had no modesty. In combat, they'd mastered ambushes and trickery, but their bodies were their language like living Braille. They did not have hidden motives or subconscious thoughts. Their minds were a fluid ballet. Everything they felt, they exhibited in a staccato rush.
VONNIE: Show me trust / My tribe is strong.
TOM: You show fear.
VONNIE: You hurt me / I can help.
TOM: Show fear / Taste good.
VONNIE: No / Trust / Don't hurt me / My tribe is strong.
TOM: More tools / More food.
VONNIE: Tools / Food / Yes / We can give you food and tools / Show trust.
TOM: You show fear.
"He can't get past it," Ben said on her display, adding a guarded tone to their dance.
"He can," Vonnie said. "He will."
TOM: Many voices / Other voices / Your tribe shows fear.
VONNIE: Show trust / My tribe can help / Help you / My lover possesses me.
TOM: My tribe possesses me.
VONNIE: Don't listen / Don't / I show trust.
"Oh shit, did you see that?" she asked.
Ben chuckled and said, "Yeah. It's funny what slips through."
"Don't laugh at me."
"I'm not," Ben said, but she heard the grin in his voice. It made her annoyed and glad, a conflict of feelings that intrigued the sunfish.
TOM: You spurn him / Want him / Are you fertile?
VONNIE: No / Show embarrassment.
TOM: You mate with him / Your smell / Your heat / Are you fertile?
VONNIE: He protects me / Pleasures me / Embarrassment.
"Gah," she said, struggling with her loss of composure. She wondered how many scientists and administrators would review her transcripts on Earth, but Tom didn't comprehend her urge for secrecy.
TOM: You show surprise / You don't know you?
VONNIE: I know / They see / Small shame / Large pride / My tribe sees shame and failure inside large pride.
TOM: Humans and sunfish / Treaty / Show pride.
VONNIE: Yes / Show pride.
She smiled at Tom's mental leap. He often found her puzzling or dense, but he'd learned to sift through her surface thoughts. He'd identified the heart of her feelings. Her embarrassment was less important than her conviction or her sense of accomplishment, and he shared her desire to work through their differences.
TOM: Determination and trust.
VONNIE: Yes / Show trust / I can hide my lover from you.
TOM: Why hide / Where / I hear chaos in you.
VONNIE: Impatience / Chagrin.
TOM: You are distant from yourself.
VONNIE: No / Show trust.
TOM: I hear distance and chaos in you.
Folding her arms in a pose that meant wait, she took a breath. Tom was swift to perceive nuances she'd barely seen in herself. Trying to keep up with him was dizzying. Too often he led her into spirals of negative feedback, pressuring her, digging and gnawing at her like she was a tunnel in the ice.
"Don't worry about me," Ben said. "Tell him whatever you want."
"I shouldn't," she said.
"You have to."
She nodded pensively. "All right." So she tried to dance about human lust, explaining this side of herself.
Vonnie and Ben hadn't violated regulations by sleeping together. The ESA knew it couldn't require adults to live in isolation for years without sexual relationships. In fact, their agency's leaders had balanced the crew's genders and ages with the certainty that some of them would pair up, and maybe break up, while others adopted the roles of mediators or rivals or confidants. Healthy people needed romance. The tensions it created were a driving force in any group.
The problem was Vonnie had become a celebrity. How she cut her hair or which books she read during breakfast were the subjects of endless debate. Fan clubs had voted for her to sleep with various men (and women) on Europa.
Her detractors were waiting for a mistake. Offending the sunfish with her sexual activities would serve as the ideal crime for certain politicians and faith-based leaders. Part of her also worried about getting Koebsch in trouble. Would their slight mutual attraction show through?
Mostly she didn't want to hurt Ben. What if he was humiliated by what she revealed to the world?
She didn't think she loved him. He felt more like a great friend, good in bed, great at his job, great on the radio and great in their labs. They worked together, so she wanted a little separation from him. The mission came first. But she thought he loved her. He was too protective.
It wasn't fair for his passion or her softer affection to become public news, so she tried to inject more into her voice and body than she'd genuinely experienced.
VONNIE: Excitement / Satisfaction.
TOM: I hear more voices in you.
VONNIE: Yes / Guilt / Respect.
TOM: You are chaotic and weak.
VONNIE: We are not sunfish.
TOM: You are unstable.
VONNIE: No / Yes.
Vonnie shouldn't have laughed. For once, it seemed like she'd overwhelmed Tom rather than the other way around. He retreated from her with his arms curled against his sides. Then her laughter stopped. With dismay, she realized he was signaling an end to their session.
She followed him across the module with her arms down, mimicking his shape, shuffling her feet when she could have run to cut him off. "Come back," she said.
VONNIE: Listen and talk.
TOM: No / Go.
She knew better than to crowd him, not unless she wanted more wounds. He pounded at a latch installed specifically for him on the floor. It opened a small, customized air lock leading out of Submodule 07.
"Tom!" she said. Then she turned and called, "What did I miss?"
"His last readings seemed positive," Ben said.
"What if it's a negotiating tactic?" Koebsch asked.
The AIs translated Tom's mood as matter-of-fact. The sunfish were never apologetic, but Vonnie thought she sensed sadness. Maybe she was projecting.
Tom entered the lock and closed the door, leaving her by herself in 07.
"Do we have more food for him?" she asked.
"Roger that," Ben said. "We set another container outside while you were talking. We've prepped others, but he can only carry one by himself."
"He could tell his tribe," she said. "They'd come back for more."
"Do you want me to slow the lock or send a mecha around to meet him?"
"No. Don't slow the lock. He knows how long the cycle takes."
"The outer door is opening now."
"Don't send our mecha, either," Koebsch said. "He might think they're a threat."
"Damn it." Feeling lost, Vonnie paced away from Tom's air lock and said, "Cameras. Full grid. I want to see what he's doing."
"Get back to the surface," Koebsch said.
"I will." She traced her good hand through her display, holographically enhancing the best angles without moving her exterior sensors. If a single lens swiveled or zoomed, Tom would notice. She didn't want him to feel like he was being hunted.
She wondered if something had happened outside. Were other sunfish calling him?
Watching her display, Vonnie saw nothing unusual. Suspended by its struts and mooring cables, Submodule 07 perched at one end of a man-made cavern in the ice. Above it and alongside it, two steel shafts connected the cavern with the surface. The first was an access tube for people. It opened into Hab Module 06, a new structure they'd built above 07. The second was a larger cargo tube. It led to a staging area for mecha.
At the other end of the cavern, the ice crumbled. Narrow cracks led into an eroding maze where the few open spaces fell toward a larger series of catacombs forty meters below.
Tom had stopped breathing as soon as he left 07 for the toxic air outside. Sunfish hemoglobin was a twisted iron-rich protein, which allowed them to retain spectacular concentrations of oxygen. Tom could run two kilometers without another breath. Because he had gills in addition to lungs, he could also endure on puddles if necessary or fully submerged in rivers or seas.
In infrared, he was a graceful star surrounded by the frigid bulk of the ice. Vonnie watched him leap through a short, perfect arc. He sailed to the thirty-kilo metal container they'd left for him.
He grabbed it. He screeched. Then he flung himself across the cavern with his prize. The AIs interpreted his cry as challenging and triumphant, even warlike.
Fifteen times before, Tom had reported back to his matriarchs. It was conceivable that this meeting — their sixteenth — marked a vital step. The sunfish counted in twos and eights like human beings counted in fives and tens. Vonnie's crewmates believed his tribe was approaching a decision of some kind, but she couldn't fathom why Tom had waited until now to press her about Ben.
Days ago, he'd learned every detail of her anatomy in his shameless, unpretentious way. During their first meetings, Koebsch had also allowed Tom to interact with a few types of mecha, which thrilled him more than any human.
The sunfish revered power. They had been stunned to discover people controlled mecha, not vice versa. Understanding the symbiosis of man and machine had led Vonnie and Tom through several discussions about life on Earth. The idea of nations was similar to that of tribes. More alien to him were the concepts of monogamous sex and children born to one couple, especially because human civilization was rife with adultery, divorce, abuse and neglect.
Reporting to his matriarchs, Tom must have shared every trait he'd discerned in Vonnie and the voices of her friends. She hoped his impressions were favorable. The sunfish had enjoyed the ESA's lavish gifts of tools and food, but they always thought in the short term.
What if they'd decided a few gifts were enough?
Bypassing the nearest gaps in the cavern floor, Tom brought his container to a wider chasm. He disappeared into the maze. Soon he would travel out of range.
Vonnie's crewmates had seeded the ice with spies, yet they remained blind in thirty percent of the immediate area. Two disasters had cost them hundreds of mecha. They were still building new rovers and probes to meet their needs.
Because they couldn't afford to lose any resources, they had been cautious to infiltrate while Tom and other scouts were gone. Then the sagging ice in the maze had pinned several of their machines, crushing one of their hard-won mecha and immobilizing four more.
The larger catacombs below Submodule 07 were uncharted territory. Somehow his tribe had identified and destroyed every beacon hidden in the ESA's containers. Previously, other sunfish had chewed nanotags from their own skin. Now the ESA's containers were free of devices. The AIs had said her crew was losing Tom's trust by attempting — and failing — to deceive him.
So much of what we do is false or two-faced, Vonnie thought. She worried that she might not see him again. We may be too complicated for them to accept. We're so loud in our heads, so convoluted in our social groups.
"I'm sorry," she said. Her words were for Tom even though he was gone.
Both men answered. "You were fantastic," Ben said.
"Get to the surface," Koebsch told her. "I don't like how Tom screamed before he left."
"The AIs think it sounded like goodbye," she said.
"It was more than that," Koebsch said. "There were some aspects of goodbye in his arm movements, but his scream was defiant. It was aggressive. Get to the surface or I'll pull the whole module."
"That would ruin everything."
"Do you remember what happened to Pärnits and Collinsworth? The sunfish don't need to kill you themselves. If they open another geyser..."
"Our sensors would hear them digging."
"Not if they're too far down."
"Koebsch, they know when I leave the module. If Tom challenged me and I retreat, it demonstrates weakness. Let me stay. We need to show confidence."
"The sunfish could have caused the tremor. They could be preparing another collapse."
"Ben, what do your models say?" Vonnie asked.
"His models weren't predicting a quake and he can't explain where it originated," Koebsch said. "Get out. You can go back after we see what happens."
"What's happening is I let him down," Vonnie said. "We need to try harder, not expect them to figure everything out for us."
"Look. Don't be so hard on yourself." Koebsch's voice was encouraging now. "Nobody else is willing to walk in there with a sunfish," he said. "You've been exceptional, but I'll be damned if I'm going to watch more of my people die. Get out or I'll pull the module."
Vonnie nodded reluctantly as she walked to the escape hatch. "Yes, sir," she said. Then she opened the locker that held her boots and gloves, delaying as long as possible, wanting to stay and needing to go.
Nothing on Europa was easy.