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Thin Ice
by Dave Freer
Part of a geology team is trapped by an alien creature on a one-face world.

Science Fiction, 13 pages.
Originally Published in Jim Baen's Universe, 2007

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

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

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

Dammit, ARI! I told you—”

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

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

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

“Describe the color.”

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

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

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

I shuddered.

“Tell me as much as possible about the contact incident.”

“You were listening. You heard it!”

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

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

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

“Seventeen seconds until Mr. Ougo commented on it. Yes. Continue.”

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

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

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

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

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

“That is highly probable. Continue.”

“Oh, mother. It doesn’t seem worth it.”

“I am recording.”

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

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

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

“Yeah, look, we were nearly past it when I shone my head-torch up that gully and spotted the damned thing. We’d moved on a bit so we could see it properly. The thing was moving so slowly that it didn’t seem any kind -- [End of Preview.]