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infinity plus - the anthology



an extract from the novel
by Eric Brown



The Helix by Eric BrownLovelock began to disintegrate while cruising at just under the speed of light. An explosion sheered the maindrive from the starboard sponson and seconds later the port drive blew. The starship hurtled through the emptiness of space, breaking up and shedding a hail of debris in its wake.

Hendry was dreaming about Chrissie when he came awake. He called her name, experiencing an aching, elusive sense of loss.

The crystal cover of the cryo-catafalque lifted above him and he sat up quickly, overtaken by a swift dizziness. His last memory was of the smiling tech who'd put him under, and it came to him that the woman, and everyone else he'd known on Earth, would have been dead for generations now.

He thought of Bruckner and wondered if the dapper German ever made it to the ESO island sanctuary north of Denmark.

Only then did the wailing alarms and the shriek of stressed superstructure penetrate his consciousness. Stuttering halogens blitzed his vision and across the aisle the sloping panel of the v-shaped cryo-hive had collapsed, revealing thrashing cables and banks of smouldering circuitry.

His stomach flipped. He wanted to vomit, but his last meal had been digested -- and its remains cleaned from his system -- centuries ago.

Further along the aisle he made out dark figures, their movements jerky in the failing strip-lighting. Friday Olembe carried his bulk like a drunken quarterback, barging the corridor walls in a zigzag lurch towards the command unit. Behind him was the tiny bird-like figure of Lisa Xiang, tottering to keep her feet.

The ship bucked and pitched. Hendry gripped the cold frame of the catafalque and rocked back into its padded cushions.

"Joe! Let's move it!" Sissy Kaluchek was already on her feet, punching Hendry's shoulder as she passed. In her wake was Gina Carrelli, and Hendry was amazed by the expression on her face. She was calm, for pity's sake. The ship was breaking up around them, Christ knew how many light years from Earth, and the Italian medic wore a look as beatific as a nun on judgement day.

He hauled himself upright, rolled with the yaw of the Lovelock, and launched himself in the direction of his colleagues.

He was the last into the cramped confines of the command unit, choking on the reek of burned-out electrics. Through the smoke and the jittery half-light he made out Greg Cartwright, already in the co-pilot's sling, telemetry needles locating the bare skin of his arms and burying themselves under his flesh. As Hendry watched, swaying on the threshold, Lisa Xiang swung herself into the pilot's sling. A dozen hypodermics arrowed towards her and seconds later she was integrated with the shipboard matrix, eyes rolling and whitening as she snapped out a litany of diagnostics.

"Slowing," she said. "Maindrives ruptured. Running on auxiliaries. Greg?"

"Copy. Sweet Jesus, how did this happen? Joe, AI status? Joe, for Chrissake?"

Hendry moved himself, squeezing past Olembe at his station. He slipped into his cradle and slapped a series of dangling leads onto the receptor sites across his skull. He closed his eyes and concentrated, but achieved only a staccato integration with what remained of the ship's smartware matrix.

He felt as if half of his own senses were missing, a loss almost physical in its pain. His awareness should have been flooded with information from all quarters, a virtual schematic inside his head showing him the status of the starship. Instead, vast areas were dark blanks, and what did get through was scrambled, unintelligible.

He called out, "Primary AIs down, getting nothing here."

He glanced at Kaluchek and Carrelli. Kaluchek, as the cryonics engineer, could do nothing in the command unit. Carrelli too was surplus to immediate requirements. They hung onto the pressure seal of the entrance, swaying like workaday commuters. Kaluchek at least looked scared, whereas Carrelli was still damnably calm.

"Friday?" Cartwright said.

The African engineer grunted. "Like the lady said, maindrives blown. Auxiliaries running the show. For now." He glanced at the screen bobbing on its boom before him. "Thirty percent efficiency, and falling. They been hit by whatever knocked out the maindrives."

"Any guesses what that was?" Carrelli asked.

"No way of knowing. Malfunction, sabotage? Who knows?"

Sabotage, Hendry wondered. The Fujiyama mob had got to know about the project and killed five of the original maintenance crew. Might they have succeeded in smuggling a bomb aboard the ship? How his wife would have laughed at his predicament...

He reached out, ran fingers over the touchboard. He shut down the failed primary AIs, brought up the secondary banks and waited till they'd downloaded sufficient information to apprise him of current status.

He concentrated and felt the patchy data seep into his sensorium.

"Okay," he said. "I have limited secondary capability."

Cartwright glanced across at him, and Hendry thought he saw pathetic relief in the American's college-boy blue eyes. "What gives?"

"We're just over five hundred light years from launch," he said. As he pronounced the words, the reality sank in.

Carrelli said, "So we must be somewhere near the destination system."

Beside him, Olembe shifted his sweating bulk. "Your secondaries capable of sorting out this shit and getting us flying again?"

Hendry shook his head. "Data stacks only. The flight secondaries are as dead as the primaries."

"Oh, Jesus," Cartwright said, almost weeping.

Hendry glanced past him, towards the dead wallscreen that should have relayed an image of deep space, had the telemetry been working. He didn't know exactly why, but he would have found a sight of the stars comforting.

He concentrated on the erratic data flowing into his head, trying to winnow vital information from the white noise of the failing system.

How long before the starship blew, he wondered, killing him and his colleagues along with the four thousand peacefully sleeping colonists? And Chrissie...

How could it all have gone so wrong?

Then he caught something, a line of garbled code he pounced on and deciphered. "Lisa, you get that?" He hardly dared hope, but the spark sent his pulse racing. "Last operation before the primaries blew."

"Check. Destination program, based on observed data." The pilot screwed round in her sling, smiling at him through her tears.

Sissy Kaluchek said, "What? What is it?"

"We're heading for a planetary body," Hendry said, "approximately a parsec away when we blew."

"Destination system?" Kaluchek asked.

Hendry said, "It must be."

"But is the fucking place habitable?" Olembe snapped.

Hendry sifted through the data, a sleet of maddening code like a migraine in his head. "No way of knowing. Any port in a storm."

"Je-sus!" Olembe shouted, hitting the padding of his station with a fist like a lump hammer.

"Got it!" Cartwright said, swinging in his sling. Again that pathetic note of relief, foretokening an optimism Hendry found oddly unsettling.

"Check," Lisa said. "We're coming down fast, too fast. Ship wasn't built for this kind of stress. Approaching a gravity well. A big one."

Cartwright screamed, "Atmosphere suits, for Chrissake! Everyone suit up!"

Kaluchek dashed back into the lateral corridor and returned seconds later with an armload of orange crashpacks. She doled them out like a kid at a Christmas party, the bucketing of the ship not helping the accuracy of her throws. Hendry retrieved his pack from the floor and pulled on the suit. He activated the filter and, after the smoke-thick fug of the command unit, felt the cold, clean air cut up his nasal passage and down his throat.

"Greg, hold her steady while I suit up," Xiang ordered.

She squirmed into her suit in seconds, then took control as Cartwright struggled into his own suit and resumed his sling.

Hendry found the straps and crossed them over his torso, securing himself to his cradle. Behind him, Kaluchek and Carrelli was frantically grappling with their own straps.

He thought of Chrissie, asleep in her cryo-unit and oblivious of the danger. He preferred to have it that way, rather than having her with him, facing the very real possibility of death on an alien world.

Then he thought of the blow-out, the destruction of the maindrive, and something went very cold within his chest as it came to him that whatever destroyed the engines might also have accounted for the cold-sleep hangars.

He closed his eyes, feeling hot tears squeeze out and down his cheeks, and tried to sort through the storm of garbled data for some record of the sleep units.

"Hitting the upper atmosphere in ten seconds and counting," Lisa Xiang reported.

"Here it comes," Cartwright said.

Hendry opened his eyes and found himself laughing. How many times had he and his team practised this emergency manoeuvre during that week in Berne, with Lisa and Greg battling ersatz heaviside storms in the simulator? And afterwards, in the bar, Greg buying the beers, all bright blue eyes and ginger buzz-cut. He'd bragged about his success in that loud college boy way that Hendry had found oddly endearing.

The image flashed through his mind's eye, and then was gone, ripped away by the reality of the drop and the fact that even now Chrissie might be dead somewhere way back in deep space.

The Lovelock tipped suddenly, precariously nose down. Something screamed behind Hendry, and his first thought was that it was Carrelli, losing her sang-froid. But the noise went on and on, and he knew it was the ship, some tortured lateral spar bending in a way not envisaged in the blueprints. Added to that was a constant, underlying thrum and intermittent explosions as bits of the ship were sheared off by the stresses.

He found himself drenched in sweat and knew that fear was only partly responsible. The heat in the unit was climbing steadily as they plunged through the planet's upper atmosphere. What would get them first, he wondered? Asphyxiation as the ship blew apart or cremation as the ceramic tegument lost its integrity and turned the unit into an oven?

Cartwright was swearing steadily as he wrestled with the controls, and beside him Xiang kept up a running commentary to herself in Mandarin.

Hendry tried to access the failing AIs, but banks were going down by the second, and what remained made little sense.

Xiang called out, "Five hundred metres and falling fast. We're nearly there. This is it. Hold on back there. It's going to be one hell of a-"

The impact seemed to go for ever. They hit something - that much was obvious from the rending scream of a million tonnes of starship fetching up against something just as implacable. Hendry was anticipating an explosion that would end it all, but as the Lovelock planed across the planet's surface the scream continued, punctuated by a series of concussive detonations as the auxiliary engines blew one by one.

Then the lighting failed and darkness like he'd never experienced before added to the terror. The ship hit something and flipped. Hendry was ripped from his webbing and felt himself falling. Someone screamed, the cry close to his head. He struck a surface with his shoulder, painfully. There was a deafening explosion, and instantly the searing heat was sucked out of the unit to be replaced by a bone-numbing cold.

Seconds later, miraculously, the Lovelock came to a halt and silence filled the unit. Except, he realised as the seconds elapsed, the silence had been only relative. He heard the ticking of contracting metal, the uneven breaths and curses of his colleagues.

The command unit had come to rest the right way up. Hendry was folded upside-down beneath one of the pilot's slings, his weight resting painfully on his bruised left shoulder. In the darkness he attempted to right himself, the operation hindered by shards of bulkhead that had punched through the fabric of the unit like so many deadly blades.

He felt something warm pouring onto his chest, imagined some hydraulic leak dousing him with flammable oil and shuffled backwards to get out of the way.

"Okay," he called out. "Okay, so we're down. Everyone okay? Sissy?"

He felt his heart lurch as a second elapsed, before the Inuit said weakly, "Here. I'm fine. A little shook up."


To Hendry's right, Lisa Xiang said, "Here. I'm fine."

"Gina?" he said. "You okay, Gina?"

It was Sissy who replied. "She's right here, beside me. She's unconscious, but I think she's okay."


"Here. I'll live."

"Greg?" Hendry said next. "Greg, you did a great job getting us down. Are you okay?"

A silence greeted his words, followed by the sound of someone moving around in the rear of the unit. Kaluchek said, "I'm trying to find the emergency power supply, get the lighting up and running."

Hendry reached up and felt the fluid coating his chest. It was coagulating in the intense cold. He lifted the same hand, towards the source of the drip, and came up against the underside of the pilot's sling, split like the rind of a ripe fruit.

Kaluchek succeeded in rigging up the emergency lighting. Actinic brightness flickered, blinding Hendry and filling the unit with a harsh glare that picked out the wreckage in stark detail.

A jagged section of the ship's outer skin had imploded, slicing the co-pilot's sling in two and with it Greg Cartwright. Hendry looked away, his stomach turning. It wasn't only blood that had leaked onto his chest. He scraped the mess off his chest, retching.

Lisa Xiang was staring at Cartwright. "He brought us down. Without him I wouldn't have been able..."

Hendry gripped her hand, silencing her. Through the rip in the nose-cone of the ship he made out darkness, and distant stars, and what looked like a plain of ice glittering silver in the spill of the emergency lighting.

He looked back along the length of the unit and saw Olembe and Kaluchek, just staring in silence at the remains of their dead colleague. He found the expression on their faces oddly more moving than the lifeless body in the bisected sling.

Olembe was the first to react. "Okay, let's move it!" He hoisted himself out of his station and helped Kaluchek drag the unconscious Carrelli from the unit.

Shivering, suddenly aware of the intense cold, Hendry upped the temperature of his atmosphere suit and extricated himself from the tangled wreckage, following Xiang out of the unit and along the twisted corridor. They passed through the cryo-hive and into an elevator, then rode up to the crew lounge situated on the brow of the starship. Sunken sofa bunkers dotted the floor, and on three sides rectangular viewscreens would have looked out over the ice plain, but for the titanium shutters that had maintained the chamber's structural integrity during the voyage.

Olembe powered up the lighting and Hendry crossed to the forward viewscreen, leaning back to compensate for the pitch of the floor. He palmed the controls and to his surprise the shutters inched open, revealing an inky darkness relieved by a sparse pointillism of scattered stars.

He stood and stared. Something about the arrangement of the distant points of light, the unfamiliarity of the constellations, brought home to him the fact of their isolation.

He peered down the brow of the ship. From this vantage point, little of the destruction of the Lovelock could be seen. He tried not to think of the hangars which contained Chrissie and the other colonists.

While Kaluchek broke out a medikit and attended to Carrelli, Olembe swung himself into a work-station to assess the extent of the AIs' failure. Hendry slipped into the station next to the African and attached the leads to his skull. He closed his eyes. At a quick guess, ninety-five per cent of the ship's smartware was down, and the rest was firing fitfully.

He tried to assess the damage to the hangars. The program routed to the cryogenic system was inoperable.

He looked across at the African.

"My guess is the fault's in the relay," Hendry said. "If we can reconnect the matrix, maybe we can get something worthwhile up and running."

Kaluchek looked up from where she was applying a bandage to Carrelli's head. "You really think we can survive in this place?"

Hendry let a second elapse, then said, "You saw outside?"

The Inuit nodded, and with a wry grin said, "Reminded me of home, and I left home at sixteen, swore I'd never go back."

Olembe grunted. "Didn't remind me of home. Never saw snow before Berne."

Lisa Xiang knelt beside Carrelli and stroked the unconscious medic's cheek. She looked up. "Winters were bad in Taipei. We survived minus twenty for months and months."

Olembe glanced back at the screen. "What little telemetry we have says it's minus forty out there, and falling fast."

"What about atmosphere?" Xiang asked.

Olembe concentrated. "It's breathable. Almost Earth-norm. A little oxygen rich, a touch more nitrogen and argon."

Brightening, Lisa Xiang said, "A breathable atmosphere is a start."

"A start," Olembe said. "But where do we go from here? When I was picked for this mission I expected some kind of Eden, man. We sure as hell can't get this crate up and running again. We're stranded here. You're saying we can colonise this ice cube?"

Hendry said, "We might have come down in the planet's polar region, Friday."

Olembe was shaking his head. "I don't think so... Hendry, access the back-up file coded 11-72-23."

Hendry touched in the code and watched the figures slide down the screen.

"What is it?" Kaluchek asked.

Hendry said, "A scan program got a little of the planet as we came down. Not much, but enough to tell us where we landed. And it isn't a polar region."

Kaluchek opened her mouth to speak, but instead just shook her head.

Xiang, still caressing Carrelli's pale cheek, closed her eyes as if in silent prayer.

Olembe snorted. "If you want to know the truth, we came down smack on the planet's equator." He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. "That's as warm as it get out there, sweethearts."

Hendry turned to the screen, going through what little remained intact of the ship's smartware matrix.

Xiang looked from Olembe to Hendry, something piteous in the size of her sloping eyes. "So... what do we do?"

"We do the best we can," Hendry said without taking his gaze from the screen.

"Which is?" Olembe said.

He thought about it. "We assess the damage. We go out there and see what's left. With luck, if the power plants are still functioning, and if the engineering stores are intact... maybe we can set up a colony, of sorts."

"That's a lot of ifs," Olembe said.

Kaluchek said, "Just two," and smiled across at Hendry.

"I'm a realist," Olembe said. "The way we came down, my guess is there's jack shit left back there."

"The first thing we need do is assess the damage to the hangars," Hendry said, thinking about Chrissie. "Our most useful assets now are the colonists."

Olembe laughed. "They might be a liability, man. You thought of that? I mean, how easy will it be to survive out there? It'll be hard enough for the five of us, never mind another four thousand."

Hendry stared at the African. "I'm confident we can build some kind of viable colony, no matter what the conditions." Even as he said the words, a small, treacherous voice was nagging away at the back of his mind, suggesting he was talking bullshit.

Kaluchek said, "So what next?"

Olembe shrugged. "It's over to you, boss," he said, smiling across at Lisa Xiang.

She was sitting next to Carrelli, stroking the Italian's cheek. She looked fearful, then, like a frightened animal. "I don't know. I think Joe's right. We can't give in. Perhaps it's not as bad as it seems."

Olembe sneered. "So much for your leadership qualities." He looked across at Hendry. "You're the senior party here. How do you feel about taking on the responsibility?" Was there a hint of a challenge in Olembe's question?

He felt three pairs of eyes on him, waiting for his reply. He wasn't a man of action, still less a leader. "We all take the responsibility. We assess each situation as it comes, talk it through and then come to some consensus decision, okay?" He looked across at Lisa Xiang. "Does that suit you, Lisa?"

She nodded, looking relieved.

Olembe nodded. "Sounds fine by me."

Kaluchek nodded in tacit agreement. "Fine, Joe."

"So first," Hendry said, "how about we try to assess the damage to the cryo-hangars?"



Hendry, Olembe and Xiang upped the temperature of their atmosphere suits, broke out strap-on illuminators from stores and set off through the maze of fractured corridors towards the cargo holds that stretched the length of the Lovelock. Kaluchek stayed behind with the still unconscious Carrelli.

Hendry led the way along the first lateral corridor, viciously bent out of true by the impact. As he made his cautious way forward, his headlight picking out buckled corridor floors and walls, it came to him that Chrissie was dead, along with who knew how many other colonists.

The disc of his headlight played over a sheared section of decking and a truncated section of corridor wall. He felt a wave of something ice-cold against the chest panel of his atmosphere suit and realised it was the wind from outside.

This was as far as the lateral corridor went. The rest of it was gone, sheared off in the crashlanding. He came to a halt on the threshold of the alien world a couple of feet beneath him, and waited for the others to catch up with him.

Olembe established radio contact and said, "There's no other way to get to the hangars. We'll have to cross the ice."

Hendry turned his head forward, playing the beam across a mess of mangled metal, much of it smouldering and glowing in the aftermath of the impact. The ice stretched beyond, pocked with dark gouges and blackened sections of what had been the Lovelock.

His heart thumped as he stepped down awkwardly and looked for the cryo-hangars. His boots crunched ice, the sharps cracks reminding him that he was the first human ever to set foot on extra-solar territory. If only the occasion had been a little more auspicious...

The Lovelock had been designed for functionality, and bore no relation to the streamlined starships so beloved of escapist holo-movies. It looked - or rather had looked - more like a series of children's building blocks connected by lengths of ugly lattice girders. Bruckner, during one briefing session, had referred to the Lovelock an oil-rig gone wrong. Now it resembled an oil-rig that had suffered a catastrophic blow-out.

Olembe pointed to the starboard sponson, or rather to what remained of it. Far to the right was a snapped spar, ending in a fused mass of metal. Hendry turned, looking for the port sponson. It too had been sheared off. The sponsons had held the maindrives, and he knew that with their loss went any hope of establishing the cause of the accident.

A thought occurred to him. "What were the chances of losing both sponsons?" he asked the engineer.

Olembe nodded. "Saboteurs could have got at both drives - but then again we might have lost one to a blow out in space, and the other during entry. There's no way of knowing." His voice sounded tinny, distant in Hendry's ear-piece.

"Wouldn't saboteurs have bombed the Lovelock before take-off, to satisfy themselves that they'd wrecked the mission?"

Olembe shrugged. "One group did try, but security caught the bastards. Maybe this was their back-up plan."

Hendry thought about it. "But what were the chances of the bomb or bombs detonating just as we arrived here?"

Olembe said, "Pretty good, if the bomb was set up to be triggered by the activation of the AIs when they came online approaching the destination system. It's possible."

Accident or sabotage, Hendry thought. He'd rather it be the former - the alternative, that the mission had been thwarted by jealous protestors, filled him with futile anger.

Olembe set off, picking his way through the debris. Hendry and Xiang followed.

He thought he saw something a hundred metres ahead, where the first of the hangars should have been. He stumbled, cursing the tight beam of his headlight. The only illumination, other than the three bobbing discs, was from the scant stars overhead.

But he could see enough to tell him that the hangar was intact, if dented in either the initial explosion or the subsequent crashlanding.

They came to a stop together, dwarfed by the flank of the cryo-hangar. A vast painted numeral told Hendry that this was hangar Two, and something withered within him. Chrissie was in hangar Three.

"Lisa," Olembe said, indicating the hatch. "Get in there. Run a systems check."

The pilot nodded, cycled herself through the hatch and moved into the hangar, disappearing from sight. Olembe signalled Hendry to follow him.

It was obvious that the metal-work holding the hangars together had not survived the crashlanding. The spars had snapped and buckled on impact, sending the cryo-hangars and cargo holds tumbling across the ice like so many casually scattered dice. A hundred metres beyond hangar Two, the broad monolith of hangar One squatted in the darkness.

They hurried towards it. Olembe entered the code into a panel beside the hatch and seconds later it sighed open. They stepped inside and automatic lighting sensed their entry and flashed on, dazzling them.

They were standing on a raised platform above the floor of the hangar. Below them, a thousand catafalques lined the aisles with reassuring, geometrical precision. Olembe was tapping at a touchpad set into the padded gallery rail.

He scanned the screen and turned to Hendry. Even behind the faceplate, Hendry could see that the African was smiling. "They're okay, Joe. They survived."

Without replying, Hendry turned and almost stumbled from the hangar. In slow motion desperation, careful not to lose his footing on the ice, he moved into the darkness. There were two more cryo-hangars somewhere, and one of them contained Chrissie.

He was aware of movement beside him: Olembe, keeping pace. He felt a strange concern that the African shouldn't be aware of his desperation.

Something loomed up ahead, the black shape of a hangar. He made out a tall white number Three stencilled across the corrugated flank. Beside it was another hangar, this one a smaller provisions store.

Hendry indicated the storage hangar. "We need to see what provisions we've got, okay? You do that, I'll check in here."

Olembe looked at him, the expression in his eyes registering Hendry's need to do this alone. He nodded.

Hendry turned to the hatch and tapped in the entry code with clumsy gloved fingers.

The hatch cracked and sighed open, easing outwards on lazy hydraulics. He paused on the threshold. A vast fear stopped him from taking that first important step. He wanted to know so much, wanted confirmation of Chrissie's survival, that he was too afraid to initiate the movement that would bring him the knowledge, one way or the other.

Like someone afraid of water and facing a vast ocean, he took a deep breath and stepped forward.

The automatic lighting failed to respond to his presence, and he knew.

He stumbled over to the com-screen set on the gallery rail, and with shaking fingers initiated a diagnostic routine.

The screen pulsed to life and a second later flashed up three lines of script. The words were in English, yet his brain refused to acknowledge the meaning of the simple message.

He read it again, then again, and felt grief fill his chest like something physical, as hard and cold as ice.




He swung his headlight around the interior, and a second later saw it. Across the chamber, where the banks of self-regulating fuel cells should have been, was a jagged, gaping hole in the corrugated wall revealing the darkness beyond.

He pushed himself away from the gallery rail and stumbled down three steps to the deck of the cryo-hangar. Maybe there was still hope. If the malfunction had occurred on crashlanding, and the resurrection program had already kicked in, then perhaps there was still a chance.

He stopped, swept his beam across the ranked catafalques. He found the third row and set off along it, counting the cryogenic units as he went. Chrissie was in unit Seventeen. She had always claimed seventeen was her lucky number.

He approached unit fifteen and slowed, trailing a hand across the cold surface of the catafalque. His footsteps clicked on the ceramic floor, loud in his ears.

He came to Chrissie's unit and stopped.

He should have turned then, walked away. He should have saved himself the sight that he would never, to the end of his days, forget. But a tiny futile hope pushed him forward. He reached out and took the lip of the crystal cover, and raised it, briefly.

His daughter was blue, and still, and when he reached out and touched her cheek it was frozen as hard as marble.

He wanted to lift her, to cradle her in his arms. He had the irrational desire to tell her that everything was all right, that she had nothing to fear, as he had done countless times in the past.

Instead he closed the lid, then turned and fled, following the crazily spinning disk of his headlight. Once on his way back to the hatch he stumbled painfully into a hard, unyielding unit. He fell to the floor, hauled himself upright and continued.

He emerged into the cold dark night and stopped, grabbing the frame of the hatch for support and taking deep breaths. For the first time he became aware of the wind, keening through the skeletal remains of the destitute starship.

He looked up. Fifty metres away across the ice was another cryo-hangar, this one marked with a giant number Four. As he watched, a small figure emerged from the shadow of its flank and approached him, growing larger. Olembe signalled with a wave.

"The sleepers in Five are fine," he called out. "But the stores are badly damaged. The fliers are wrecked. A couple of the trucks vehicles are operable, but..." He stopped, peering closely at Hendry. "Joe?"

It was all Hendry could do to shake his head, but the gesture conveyed all the meaning necessary.

"Christ, man. All of them?"

"All of... A thousand. All dead. Chrissie..."

"Christ." Olembe gripped Hendry's arm in a gesture both consoling and supporting. "Come on. Back to the ship."

He allowed Olembe to take his weight and somehow, his feet trailing through compacting ice crystals, they made their way back towards the towering structure of the Lovelock's distant nose-cone.

Halfway there, Hendry made out Lisa Xiang's small figure waving and running towards them. She skidded once or twice and almost lost her footing, before finally coming to a halt before them. "I was in the hangar-"

Olembe interrupted. "They're dead, right?"

Wide-eyed behind her faceplate, Xiang shook her head. "They're all fine. But while I was in there... I heard something."

Hendry was hardly aware of what the pilot was saying. He could only think of Chrissie, and the fact that of the four cryo-hangars only hers had malfunctioned.

"... so I came out. I was going back to the lounge when I saw it."

"Saw what, Lisa?" Olembe said.

She shook her helmeted head, as if in wonder. "It was... I don't know. A being... an extraterrestrial being." She looked from Olembe to Hendry, her expression behind the faceplate ecstatic. "It was over there, behind the microwave relay." She pointed to a downed antenna, perhaps twenty metres across the ice.

Hendry turned to look, his heart beating fast.

"We've been dreaming about this event for years, centuries..." She laughed, a little nervously. "Maybe... I don't know. Maybe they can help us. If they can survive in this climate, then perhaps-"

Olembe cut in, "Get real. Any creature making this their home is adapted, right? They've evolved to the hostile conditions. We couldn't live here, even with help. And anyway, what makes you think they'd help us? What makes you think they'd understand a fucking thing about us?"

Xiang stared at him. "This is a momentous occasion, Olembe. Need you be so cynical?"

"I'm being practical, sweetheart."

Xiang turned to look at Hendry. "What do you think, Joe? Should we try to make contact?"

He wanted to tell her that he was in no fit state to make such a decision. His head was too full of what had happened to Chrissie to contemplate the enormity of the fact that they were not alone in the universe.

He just shook his head, mute, and for some reason he recalled a book he'd read as a boy. It had been billed as an epic of first contact, and told the story of humanity's discovery of an alien race, and how the contact had brought humankind to another level of understanding...

It had awed him at the time, and later it had been one of Chrissie's favourite novels.

First contact... If it weren't for the nascent grief burning in his chest, he would have rejoiced.

He found his voice, "Perhaps Lisa's right. Perhaps we should try to establish some form of communication. We might learn from them. I don't know... perhaps they're technologically advanced. They might be able to help us repair..." He gestured around him at the wreckage, hopelessly.

Olembe snorted. "Look, we can talk about this all you want when we get back inside. Come on."

Hendry moved towards the nose-cone.

"Stop!" Xiang yelled. She was looking across the ice, pointing.

Hendry wheeled, made out a movement perhaps twenty metres away. Something emerged from behind the microwave relay, paused and regarded the three humans.

He made out a vague, silvery form, starlight coruscating in bursts from the angles of its attenuated limbs.

For perhaps ten seconds - though it seemed an eternity to Hendry - human and alien stared at each other across what was at once merely a matter of metres, and also a chasm of wonder and ignorance.

Without warning, Lisa Xiang stepped forward. She moved towards the alien, step by slow step, and raised her right hand in greeting.

Olembe said, "For chrissake, Xiang! Get back here!"

"It's okay, Olembe. I know what I'm doing..."

Olembe snatched something from amid the wreckage beside him - a length of metal which he held like a club.

Xiang paused, midway between Olembe and the alien, then adjusted the radio controls on the epaulette of her atmosphere suit. Her voice, when it issued from her helmet, carried across the ice to the extraterrestrial. "We come in peace," Xiang said. "We are from Earth, and we come in peace."

She would go down in history as they first human being to establish verbal contact with a member of an alien species.

And it was the very last thing she would do.

The alien moved.

Later, Hendry would have plenty of time to look back on what happened then as if it were a nightmare. An overwhelming terror eclipsed his grief, and the moment seemed to go on for ever. He and his colleagues were transfixed, rendered powerless.

The alien advanced with lightning speed and was upon Xiang before she had a chance to flee.

It was over in an instant. There was no time to register surprise or fear as the thing approached. One second Lisa Xiang was standing, knees flexed as if frozen in the act of flight, arms still outstretched, and then she disintegrated.

Hendry saw sections of body explode in every direction. Almost instantly she was no longer where she had been. In her place, stilled now and facing them, was her killer.

Hendry had the fleeting impression of something insect-like, bristling with a dozen scintillating blades, a glimpse that lasted a fraction of a second before Olembe acted.

The African leaped forward and swung his improvised club, and the metal made ringing contact with Xiang's killer. The creature moved, its retreat as swift as its attack. Hendry blinked and it was gone. Then he saw it again, fifty metres away, blades snickering the night air.

Olembe grabbed him. "You saw how fast it moved! Let's get out of here!"

Hendry was ten metres from the crumpled opening of the lateral corridor, though it seemed a mile away.

Olembe sprinted. Hendry scrambled over the ice after him, falling and crying out in panic. He climbed to his feet and took off frantically. It seemed an age before he reached the mouth of the crumpled corridor and passed into its shadow. He chanced a backward glance, heart thudding, fearing what he might see. The thing was still out there, watching them. It could attack at any second, cover the distance between them in an instant.

He sprinted along the uneven surface of the corridor, Olembe ahead of him. They came to a bend and Hendry almost wept with relief as he made out an open hatchway. Olembe dived through, grabbing Hendry and pulling him inside. He slammed the hatch shut and both men collapsed against the wall, breathing hard.

Olembe swore.


"The fool! The fucking stupid, idealistic fool!" Hendry looked at the African, and realised that he was weeping. "I told her, Hendry, I fucking told her! I should have stopped her!"

"You weren't to know, Friday. Christ, I said maybe we should communicate with the thing,"

"First contact," Olembe said. "What fucking disaster! First contact. It's been written about for a centuries, the glorious day when we'd meet sentient aliens-"

Hendry said, "That thing was sentient?"

The African stared at him. "You didn't see those choppers?"

Hendry shook his head. "I honestly don't know what I saw."

"It was armed to the gills, man. It wore armour. The mother meant big business. Sentient aliens, with manufacturing capability, and they welcome us like that." He slapped Hendry's shoulder. "C'mon."

All Hendry could think about, as they made their slow way back along the tortured passage-ways, was how they were going to break the news to Kaluchek and Carrelli. A thousand colonists dead, and Lisa with them - and they were imprisoned within a dysfunctional starship surrounded by a race of homicidal extraterrestrials on a planet that made Antarctica seem hospitable.

They reached the elevator pad and rose to the lounge.

Carrelli was sitting up, talking to Kaluchek. The women had found a stash of brandy and were holding squeeze tubes to their lips. As the pad lifted him into the chamber, Hendry pulled down the hood of his atmosphere suit and breathed the warm air.

Kaluchek indicated Carrelli. "Look who's back in the land of the living."

Carrelli smiled. "I'm fine. It was nothing. I'll be okay."

Hendry stepped off the pad, followed by Olembe. Silence filled the room like ice.

Kaluchek stared across at them. "What?" she asked, sensing something.

Carrelli stood and asked urgently, "Lisa? Where's Lisa?"

Hendry shook his head.

Olembe eased past him, walked down the sloping chamber and grabbed a tube of alcohol from the storage unit. He took a slug, ignoring the medic.

"Joe," Kaluchek said, "where the hell is Lisa?"

Hendry shook his head, words refusing to form.

Olembe snapped, "She's dead."

Hendry had never seen a face pantomime such incredulity as Kaluchek's did then. "Dead? How-?"

"Her breathing apparatus failed?" Carrelli said. "The atmosphere is deadly?"

Hendry just shook his head.

"Listen up," Olembe said. "We're not alone on this fucking ball of ice. We were attacked. Lisa was attacked."

Kaluchek raised fingers to her lips. Carrelli said, "What happened?" in barely a whisper.

Hendry had second thoughts about the brandy. He took a tube and drank. The liquid burned a path down his gullet. He fell into a sunken bunker and said, "Something... it looked like some kind of insect, armed with... I don't know, swords of some kind. It came at us faster than-"

Olembe interrupted. "Lisa approached the thing. She actually moved towards its and said..." He stopped.

Hendry finished, in a whisper, "She said that we were from Earth, and we came in peace."

"And then the fucker," Olembe said, "tore her to pieces."

Hendry looked from Carrelli to Kaluchek. Their faces were masks of shock, blood-drained and open-mouthed. "If it wasn't for Friday we'd both be dead."

The African shook his head. "I acted on instinct. Grabbed a piece of wreckage and hit the bastard. It gave us time to get back inside."

Dazed, as if she hadn't fully taken in what the men had told her, Kaluchek said, "It killed Lisa? Where is she? Maybe Gina could-"

"Sissy," Olembe said with pained precision, "imagine a samurai on speed, armed with a dozen scimitars. Lisa didn't stand a chance." Olembe paused, then said, "That isn't all."

Hendry's throat was sore with the effort of clamping back a sob.

Carrelli said, "What? What is it, Joe?"

He shook his head, words impossible.

With a gentleness Hendry found surprising, Olembe said, "The colonists in hangar Three... Joe found them. Chrissie was in Three."

"They're all...?" Carrelli said.

"The remaining three thousand are okay," Olembe said.

Carrelli moved quickly to his side. "Joe, I can give you something. A sedative, something to take the pain away for a while..."

Hendry stared at his brandy and shook his head.

She glanced around at the others. "If you need to be alone, Joe..."

"No." It came out faster than he'd intended, but he meant it. Right now, the last thing he wanted was to be left in the chamber by himself, prey to visions of the past.

He took another long drink, felt himself drifting. The conversation went on around him. He heard the words as if at a great distance.

At one point, Sissy Kaluchek said, "So... what now? What do we do?"

Olembe snorted, "There's precious fucking little we can do, sweetheart. The planet out there isn't exactly paradise, and the natives are hostile."

Kaluchek stared at him. "You don't think those things can get in here?"

Olembe looked across at Hendry. "Fuck knows. We'd better arm ourselves."

"And then what?" Kaluchek said.

"Well," Olembe grunted, "we can't get the ship up and running and fly out of here. We gotta face the fact, we're stranded, and there won't be no more starships coming thisaway, at least not human starships."

Carrelli said, "So we give in. Sit here and drink ourselves into oblivion. Is that what you're saying?"

The African turned and stared at her. "You got a better idea?"

Hendry found himself saying, "We could always go back into cold-sleep, set to wake in a thousand years..." The prospect was appealing.

Olembe laughed. "And what good would that do, Joe? We'd wake up, and what would have changed?"

Hendry shook his head and took another mouthful of brandy.

"We haven't explored the place," Carrelli said. "We have arms, technology. If this place has daylight..." she shrugged. "You never know, we might make a go of it yet."

"Strike up a pact with the friendly aboriginals," Olembe sneered. "Come on, Gina."

Carrelli faced down his stare. "I find your attitude very unhelpful," she said, her Italian accent suddenly very hard. "We're facing a bad situation, okay, and all you can do is give in."

"Hey, sweetheart, I ain't giving in."

"It sounds like it to me, Olembe," Kaluchek said.

Olembe shrugged. "Look, all this hot airing ain't gonna solve a thing. Right now it doesn't look too good. I'm a realist."

"So you're giving in," Kaluchek pressed. "You can't see a way out of this trap, right?"

Olembe stood and took a tube of brandy from the wall unit. "As of now, I can't see a way out." He moved up the incline to the far end of the lounge and slumped into a work-station, frowning at the screen.

Kaluchek watched him go, shaking her head. "Jerk," she said under her breath.

Hendry said, "Go easy on him, Sissy."

"Why the hell should I?"

Hendry shrugged. "He says what he thinks. He doesn't hold anything back." He looked from Kaluchek to Carrelli. "Admit it, he said what we were all thinking, but we didn't want to come out with it."

Kaluchek shook her head, staring into her brandy. "I don't give in. No matter what. No matter how bad things seems. There's always a way out, an answer."

Carrelli backed her up. "We'll survive. I know we will. All we need is knowledge. We can do anything if we have a full understanding of the situation we're in."

"I hope you're right."

The medic stood and moved to a vacant work-station. "I'll try to find out what we have left in the way of medical supplies."

Kaluchek watched her, then looked across at Hendry. "You should really have taken something from Gina, you know. Alcohol isn't the answer."

He ignored her. They drank in silence and stared out through the viewscreens at the dark night, the occasional star twinkling through the frigid atmosphere.

Hendry saw Chrissie lying in the catafalque, beautiful in death. Then the image was overlayed by the vision of Lisa Xiang, stepping forward, hand raised in peaceful greeting. He could not banish from his mind's eye her bloody and futile death.

His thoughts drifted, back to Earth, Chrissie.

He said, at last, "It's strange..." and stopped there.


He shrugged. "I was reasonably content, back on Earth. I lived alone." He told her about the Mars shuttle and the starship graveyard. "I talked to Chrissie every month or so, saw her every couple of years." He smiled. "It was enough to know that she was there, that sooner or later I'd see her again. Then she came and told me about the mission. She was going to the stars, leaving me for good. The painful thing wasn't so much being on my own, or even the knowledge that I'd never see her again -- though that was bad enough -- but not knowing what would happen to her. She'd live out her life among the stars, thousands of years after I was dead... and I wouldn't know a thing about it." He smiled. "Maybe I was a typical father. I wanted some control over her life."

Sissy smiled and shrugged.

"And now she's dead. It seems so damned pointless, so random. Why her? You know something, I was so looking forward to when she woke up and found me here."

"I'm sorry, Joe."

He stared at his brandy. "She was so fired up about the mission. She believed in the project. She wanted to build a world out here that worked, that didn't repeat the mistakes we made on Earth."

Sissy said, "We'll do it, Joe. Somehow, we'll..."

He said, bitterly, "Perhaps it's just as well she didn't survive. I mean, what are our chances-?"

"That's grief talking, Joe. We'll pull though."

A while later he said, "Did you leave anyone on Earth?"

She shrugged, looked uncomfortable. "Not really. I split up with a guy a year before I was selected for the mission."


"Mom left wen I was ten, ran off with some guy. Dad did a few years later. I had a sister I never saw. My kid brother... we did get along. He was killed in the cholera epidemic that swept through Canada a few years ago." She laughed, unexpectedly.


"Listen to me. 'A Few years ago'! All that happened hundreds of years ago!" She stopped, then said, "Wonder what happened to Earth? Do you think anyone survived?"

He thought about Old Smith, the people he'd lived with on the commune, Bruckner and all the other admin staff at the ESO... long dead and forgotten. Well, almost forgotten.

"If humanity did survive... five hundred years is a long time... who knows what might have happened. Maybe some groups did struggle though, build a better place."

She looked at him. "But you doubt it, right?"

He grunted. "Yes, I doubt it. We'd wrecked the planet. Left a nice mess for the generations who followed, if any did."

He looked across at her, her brown eyes reminding him so much of Chrissie. "Who do you blame, Joe?"

"Blame? You mean the politicians of the twentieth, early twenty-first century? The industrialists?" He shook his head. "They were just human, and greedy. They'd inherited systems and infrastructures it was almost impossible to change and break out of. I don't blame anyone."

"Human, and greedy? We're human and greedy, Joe. Does that mean there's no hope?"

"I had the same conversation with Chrissie. Do we carry with us the seeds of our own destruction? She had faith in the ultimate success of the project. We were starting from scratch, we'd learn from our mistakes."

"I think I would have liked Chrissie," Kaluchek said. She sipped her drink, staring across the room. Hendry took another tube of brandy. He lay back in the bunker and thought about his last meeting with Chrissie, the pain he'd felt when he'd said goodbye.

He slept eventually, and dreamed, and in his dreams Chrissie was five again, and they were playing snakes and ladders, Chrissie bewailing her luck when she landed on a snake...

He woke up suddenly, cut to the core by the realisation of his daughter's death. He sat up. Sissy was comatose across the bunker from him, sprawled out with a brandy tube clutched possessively to her chest. Carrelli was curled in a far bunker, quietly sleeping. At the far end of the lounge, Olembe sat hunched over a screen.

Chrissie was dead: all his time with her was in the past, now. The future he'd envisioned, with his daughter a major part in it, would remain nothing but a dream.

He looked up, and only then did he realise that it was no longer night-time beyond the viewscreen. While he'd slept, daylight had come to the planet. A weak, watery daylight, granted, but nevertheless a light that perhaps betokened some small measure of hope.

He stood and crossed to the viewscreen, realising as he did so that he would be the first human being to witness sunrise on an alien world. He looked out across a vast white-blue ice plain, as smooth a regular as the surface of a mirror. He scanned the horizon, looking for the sun - then lifted his gaze.

Zeta Ophiuchi was a small point high in the sky, almost directly overhead. He tried to work out the physics of so rapid a sunrise, and then gave up.

Then he saw something, but couldn't quite work out what he was looking at. He had never seen anything like it before, and it was as if his brain were having difficulty processing the unfamiliar data relayed by his staring eyes.

He leaned forward, gripped the rail, and tried to make sense of the celestial display above him.

Weakly he called out, "Sissy. Sis, look at this."

He heard a tired, "What?"

He said, "Get yourself over here."

He heard her climb from the bunker and pad towards him. He glanced at her, not wanting to miss the look of wonder that spread across her face.

"Gina!" Sissy almost screamed.

Olembe looked up from his workstation, then hurried over. Across the lounge, Carrelli woke up and stretched. She joined them and said, "What is it, Sissy?"

Olembe could only stare, eyes wide, before he began to laugh.

Carrelli smiled quietly to herself, her optimism vindicated.

Hendry gazed through the viewscreen. "Salvation?" he said to himself.


© Eric Brown 2007.

Helix is published by Solaris (June 2007; ISBN 1844164721).
Helix by Eric Brown

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