Human life has outgrown Earth, and the survey team of the ES Valgard is searching nearby star systems for new worlds to colonize. No team has found one where human life could survive…until now. The scans from orbit as well as the probes launched to its surface tell Andy and Cory that the bonus for finding such a world is almost theirs. But when they set their feet on the ground they discover what the scans and the probes could not tell them, that this ancient world is already inhabited, and that magic rules. Or does it? Trapped by creatures whose true shape they cannot see, manipulated toward an end they do not understand, the two must find a way to escape a world where chaos is given form, where it breathes but does not live and has no soul.
~ ~~ Chapter 1 ~~ ~
I leaned back in the acceleration couch and forced myself to look away from what I saw on the screens. I stared at Cory instead. His eyes were still on what the screens displayed, the thing that should not have been there, a black jumble of angular structures rising out of an icy landscape. They were the ruins of a city, and it looked like it had been bombed.
“What is this, Cory? Why didn’t our scans see it?”
He unbuckled the straps of his couch, climbed to his feet, and walked over to a porthole. His breath fogged the glass. He made the smear worse by wiping at it with his fingers, then shrugged, “It’s a million years dead, Andy. Just more rocks among rocks. That’s why we missed it.”
I left my own couch and went to the other porthole that faced the mountain and the mystery at its foot. “Impossible,” I muttered. “Even if the builders are dead, there’d be other life here––”
“Will our suits handle the cold?”
“Yes, but the scans must be wrong. There’s got to be––”
“Great,” he cut me off again. He was not deliberately rude, only preoccupied with his own work, but my understanding of the reason didn’t stop me from being annoyed when interrupted mid-sentence.
I shook it off and studied the mountains behind the city, wondering briefly how much of an effect the sun would have on the temperature. The mountains stretched from horizon to horizon, as high and white as the Himalayas. Beneath the cold stars and small round face of the planet’s only moon, the valley around us lay barren and white in all directions for as far as we could see. Everything was buried in ice and snow except where our shuttle sat in a frozen lake of burnt earth created by our fiery touchdown.
The entire planet was white. Even the seas were covered in thick sheets of ice, in some places a kilometer or more thick. As we had worked to prepare the shuttle for a trip down to the surface, I had asked Cory why all of it was frozen. Conditions were otherwise perfect. It was a rocky little world occupying the habitable zone around a G-Type main-sequence star that could have been our own sun, and it was only a fraction smaller than Earth. It also had an atmosphere unexpectedly similar to Earth’s. That had surprised me. The high levels of oxygen suggested the possibility of organisms capable of photosynthesis. In other words, life. Did it take the form of algae? Grasses? Or was the accumulation of so much oxygen due solely to an inorganic process uninterrupted for a billion years. Scans taken from orbit had not detected any organic source. Obviously, the equipment was faulty, but we hadn’t known that before we landed.
After launching a dozen small satellites to continue with a more thorough analysis, and dropping as many probes on the other, much larger continent, we had come down to look for the source of the oxygen. The satellites and probes would gather samples and take measurements of the planet’s sun, atmosphere, land and frozen seas, and radio the data back to our ship, the ES Valgard, and from there to Earth.
Cory, meanwhile, had answered my question about the frozen planet by pointing to what one of the screens displayed, an enormous plateau on the larger continent.
“It’s above the snow line,” he said. “The result is almost three million square kilometers of ice and snow. This and a long list of other factors I’m still looking into, have pushed the average albedo for the planet very high. Too much of the sun’s energy is reflected away from the planet, leading to more glaciers, snow and ice everywhere else. A domino effect. Earth experienced similar ice ages, possibly because of the Tibetan Plateau.”
“Not all the way down to the equator like this.”
“There is some argument about that, the snowball Earth hypothesis. Personally, I believe there was more slush than ice.”
I had glanced up sharply, expecting to catch him in a joke, but if it was, I couldn’t tell. He had already turned away to grab another box of supplies for the shuttle.
Now, down on the surface and faced with several square kilometers of sprawling and broken cuboid structures, some of them as tall as anything I’d seen in New York City, we were confronting something completely unknown, something we were not prepared to handle. I knew we should leave it for a team trained in first contact scenarios and contingency procedures, but as Cory had said, the city was probably long dead. He would also object to the risk of someone else getting the bonus if the planet qualified for human settlement.
I stared through the porthole and wondered if that’s what it was. At last, after years of searching, had Cory and I found the world all the teams had been searching for, a world perfect for the life born on an overcrowded Earth?
Or were we finally about to meet an alien race, a race of beings we could talk to, a strange and exotic people that built cities?
Maybe not, if they were gone.
Or if this wasn’t a city.
We might be imagining intelligent construction behind something that was nothing more than a natural formation. If weathering and the passage of time can transform basalt cliffs on Earth into monumental works of art, then all that lay before us might be due to nothing more than the powerful forces of wind, water and ice.
And yet I could not convince myself those dark walls had been shaped by wind and ice. I would, however, make certain of it before we made fools of ourselves with hysterical messages to Earth.
I hit the switch to close the shields over the portholes. Cory blinked in annoyance but said nothing. As eager as he was to explore, he knew we were both too exhausted and needed rest. A few minutes later, without more discussion about the discovery, we crawled into our bunks.
Listening to the comforting hum of the shuttle systems, I waited for sleep. The generator was doing an adequate job of maintaining the temperatures required for all the equipment and for us, so I had no reason to worry about the frigid darkness wrapped around our fragile shuttle. And yet I did.
No, Andy. It’s not the cold that worries you. It’s the dead city out there in the moonlight.
I should have been excited. Finding it was important… No, it was bigger than simply important. This was an incredible discovery. My reaction to it surprised me. Why was I worried about it? Why so uneasy?
“Up to now, tonight,” I argued quietly with myself, safe from Cory’s ears because I could hear him snoring, “we’ve been alone. All other star systems explored by our teams, more than a hundred planets, have been dead. Not even bacteria, nothing. We’ve become resigned to the idea of being alone in this corner of the galaxy. Then Cory and I touch down half a kilometer from the black walls of an alien city. What are the odds? Impossibly huge.”
I stopped talking to myself and thought of the oxygen in the atmosphere that had forced our landing on the surface to draw samples and write reports based on direct observations. I had always believed landing the shuttle to be a thoroughly ridiculous risk of equipment and our lives when the probes and satellites would ultimately do an equal or better job. But the landing was inescapable, a requirement carved solid as stone into the mission directive. There was no way to avoid a trip to the surface the moment we detected oxygen.
Then we’d seen the dark bulk of an abandoned city at the base of a broken mountain. I was wrong, after all, about the need to risk equipment and lives to get human eyes on the ground.