Place : Gemma, a "snowball" planet, i.e. a terrestrial extrasolar planet with overall glaciation, orbiting around the binary star, Altamira (an Alpha Centauri type), discovered in 2012 by Michel Mayor's team at the Geneva Observatory. We are in the same galaxy as our own, 6.5 light-years away. This is the most distant human colony. A one way trip of more than seventeen years.
Context: A huge spaceship in orbit, Le Grand Arc, a phantom vessel which has never shown any sign of life and remains inaccessible. In addition, on the planet itself extremophile micro-organisms discovered by the first wave of explorers one hundred and fifty years earlier, prove that more complex forms of life must have developed before the glacial period. A fascinating research project for the ambitious young microbiologist Ambre Pasquier.
Soon after she settles there the young woman starts to be haunted by dreams that put her in contact with the traces of the first visitors to Gemma, the Constructors... It becomes an obsession and she organises a scientific expedition - the Archea Mission - whose official aim is to look for primitive forms of life in the glacial layers. In fact, she has a completely different objective - keeping it secret to avoid interference by the militia, a pseudo-military organisation having recently taken control of the colony. A passage has to be cut through the ice by means of a giant tunnelling machine to get to the rock substrata and ruins that Ambre is certain of discovering there. Around twenty scientists have been recruited: Glaciologists, geophysicists, exobiologists, geneticists, climatologists, engineers, doctors... Two people have infiltrated the team: one on behalf of a group of physicists who for over ten years have been studying the particularities of a specific planetary zone affected by fluctuations of the space-time field. The other works for the military personnel who have recently taken control of the colony.
The expedition turns into chaos.
Individual and "cosmic" destinies converge in the character of Ambre, who becomes the link between fundamental forces.
Vestiges was awarded the Prix Bob Morane 2013
Available in ebook [https://www.7switch.com/fr/ebook/9782367935348/vestiges]
Laurence Suhner : QUANTIKA I - VESTIGES
"What would become of the Universe, without the trepidations of the electron?"
"Not only is the Universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine."
Sir Arthur Eddington
The crack of a branch. The long cry of a silsil with transparent wings chased from its shelter for the night.
Then silence falls again. Oppressive.
Tékélam's agile silhouette slips between the creepers and the roots. He wants to be as invisible as the spirits that haunt the forest. Above, in the starless sky, Doïyna, the moon of late hours, casts its tawny light over the peaks of the trees. In the confusion of vegetation, its glow struggles to thread its way to the ground, covered with a carpet of leaves. The scent of moss rises from it. Tékélam would like to roll in it, to taste the damp earth. To forget the outburst of violence in which he has just taken part.
The odor of blood clinging to his body is intoxicating, as he trembles with both rage and excitement. He moans, licks his soiled limbs. He wriggles his fingers into his crusted clothing, looking for injuries, skimming over his ceremonial jewelry. Blood. Blood everywhere.
His blood. That of his kind. Blood he spilled.
The Watchers' celebration had transformed into a savage frenzy, a war game that no ritual could appease. By the time the sun rose, it was already too late. Madness had invaded the village, overwhelmed its people. It would possess them until the following morning.
Tékélam recalls every rake of his claws, every bite. Victim first, then predator, he left his quota of death and suffering behind him.
He thinks of Amin'Tadjé. Would she still be hoping to see him alive?
With the back of his hand, he pushes the climbing ferns aside. The ground grows steeper and steeper. The Temple is not far. Moreover, he can make out the murmur of the ocean, a sound ordinarily so familiar, yet filled with menace today. A branch cracks nearby and he shudders. Have they managed to follow him here? His night vision slices through the darkness. His muscles are tense. His skin quivers, is covered with dark stripes. He is bristling, ready to fight. From deep within the heart of the foliage, cold eyes watch him. They blink once and then are swallowed up by the forest. Tékélam makes out the hammering of a stampede, squeaking, the rustling of leaves shaking. Boring through the forest canopy, Numdjat - the moon that precedes dawn - makes a brief appearance. Nature is surrounded by a pale blue halo. Long shadows role down the tree trunks. Through the tight sleeve of the creepers. Tékélam sees the white walls of the Temple, collapsed, covered with engravings, its statues with their intriguing postures mimicking dance. They have never stopped calling to him, murmuring their secrets in his ear. Those that conceal the paran language, the language of memory, the forbidden language. One day, he will understand it. But, for that to come about, he has to leave. To leave Im'shâ, the island of his birth, forever. To become a Detached One.
Tékélam climbs until he's out of breath, wends his way through the ruins. In the past, the Temple was his refuge, his playground, but now all he feels is the heavy curse. This place has a soul. A damned soul. That of the ancient god for whom the blood flowed.
His climb comes to an end. Finally, he sees her, in the sanctuary with its carpet of creepers.
A frail silhouette squatting down on the rock, hunched over the sacred basin. Her chagrin as deep as an abyss. On the ground, a basket lies on its side, dried flowers spilt out. She fears that she has lost her childhood companion, massacred like so many others during the commemoration.
She looks up, in turn, and sees him. She can barely believe it. He's running toward her, covered with blood, but alive.
They embrace. The reflection of their entwined limbs floats over the surface of the water. Words are useless. Amin'Tadjé buries her face in Tékélam's tattered clothes, his battered, shivering body recounting the tale of his hardships. She relives his battles, moans with each blow given, each blow received. Her complexion darkens, melding with his. She bristles, frantic, excited. Distraught by what he is about to tell her.
He's only come back to bid her farewell.
He will never find peace. He's been different ever since he hatched: his particular attachment, the mysterious things he foresees, his dreams of unknown creatures and places, so frightening.... And then, he bears the mark. The mark of the Devourer. The one who inflamed the wrath of his kind and forced him to kill in order to survive. One thing is certain, he'll go there, to Naha'netché, the Southern Conch. Nothing and no one will hold him back. And from there... It is a universe Amin'Tadjé will never know.
She feels Tékélam's fingers loosen their grip, forsaking her. Even now, his eyes focus on the horizon, looking for the tapered figure of the Conch, just barely visible. Since the night of time, it has stood above the ocean, facing the forest temple. There are four, one for each of the four cardinal points. They lead the traveler to distant worlds: Pawani'Nyan, the Celestial Archipelagos.
Amin'Tadjé's skin ripples, her scent grows more acidic, her eyes turn red. Her hand brushes against Tékélam's torso and he feels the bite of her claws. She's angry. How she hates him at this very moment! He remains calm. His breath burns. He violently rejects the waves of memories that assail him.
Never before has one Timhkân felt such a strong attachment for another. As if they were hatched from the same egg. Yet, soon, he will become as strange as they are, as those who dwell in the conch, the Detached.
Amin'Tadjé's rage ebbs, sterile. Her fingers slide to her neck and untie the string of her pendant, its polished surface covered with delicate glyphs, the same as those on the Temple. It's a talisman, a lucky charm, the only gift she gives him. In this way, even beyond the most inaccessible oceans and frontiers, she will remain at his side. Sooner or later, he will give it back to her and they will talk of the memories of their spent lives.
Tékélam promises her. He will come back to Im'shâ with the memory, the forgotten knowledge of his people. He will translate the mysterious words engraved on his necklace and on the walls of the forest temple. A promise he guesses is impossible. The Detached have never returned to Timhkâ. He will never see Amin'Tadjé again.
Now, he must flee. Before the furious madness of his people catches him. He plunges into the night, a sharp pain in his chest, just beneath the Devourer's mark. His feet hammer the ground, furiously tearing through the ferns. He pays no attention to the branches that whip him, inflicting new wounds on his flesh. This moment is reserved for suffering. Let it be perfect!
The grumbling of the ocean is omnipresent, a harbinger of a terrible vengeance about to rain down on Im'shâ. As in the past, as in the future. A vengeance that could surge even farther away, well beyond the Celestial Archipelagoes. The Devourer is insatiable.
In the sanctuary, Amin'Tadjé remains alone, prostrated over the water in the basin. At her feet, heaps of garlands and fragments of memories sound the death knell for her youth.
"Do you not understand?
There is no point in running,
Eternally, he will catch you.
Agile, coming back to life from the depth of the ages.
Always growing, shadowy.
Knowing, threatening, inclined to games.
One and many at the same time.
He seduces you.
The time for flight is gone.
You belong to him already."
The Myth, first portico, upper left quadrant of the central casement, approximate translation by Professor Seth Tranktak, Project Manager, Archea Mission, Earth year 2310.
A jolt more violent than the others threw Haziel Delaurier against the windshield.
In his haste, he had forgotten to do up his seat belt. He strapped in as well as he could as he continued to operate the snowcat with one hand. The all-terrain vehicle plunged ahead at breakneck speed on its large caterpillar tracks. He glanced at his bottle of scotch, making sure it had not suffered from his driving. All fine. He'd be needing some soon.
Radio Alabina spit out its flow of morning information. Automatically, Haziel slipped his right hand into the inside pocket of his coat, fumbled about for a moment before bringing out the recording Kya had left him the previous evening. He turned the token over in his fingers and inserted it in the player. He'd have hell to pay if he didn't listen to it before they met again. And he'd already stood her up once!
Interrupted mid-sentence, the voice of the cosmo-news anchorman was replaced by an explosion of drums, followed immediately by guitar salvos. The volume increased to cataclysmic proportions, as a furious base shook the frame of the vehicle like an earthquake.
Haziel felt as if someone had punched him in the gut, several times, knocking the wind out of him. The notes vibrated in his stomach, disrespectfully turning over what he had hastily eaten before setting out for the Glacier. A veritable internal upheaval, perfectly suited for the circumstances: anything that could keep him from thinking, for even just a second, would be welcome.
Thank you Kya, you're just what the doctor called for.
The sound changed again, into something akin to a melody. Kya strummed her guitar as if she wanted to skin it alive. A primary, visceral, sound. Nothing remotely like what he'd been trying to teach her in the few rare lessons he'd attempted to give her before she would disappear, claiming to have some urgent, ultra-secret, mission to perform. The drumming reproduced the sound of the drills boring through the ice; the guitar mimicked the whistling of the cooling machines, the geysers of raw materials. As for the base... perhaps the haunting lament of nature exploited. Go figure! And the voice - since a voice had now joined the ensemble, and what a voice - echoed the vociferations of angry workers. Not hard to figure out where Kya found the inspiration for her compositions.
Haziel burst out laughing.
He cranked the volume up a little more, solely to find out just how much aggression his guts could take.
"Rebellion for a planet," the young girl snarled in her frayed voice, as discordant as the moans of her strumming. Only those four words, repeated in a loop, shrieked rather than sung. She'd really gone all out this time.
The snowcat headed onto a narrower trail. On both sides, black cliffs, peaks lost in the fog. Haziel slowed just enough. Under his butt, the seat, abused over the decades by the uneven terrain, started to whine insistently. Yet, he recalled oiling the mechanisms just a week earlier. Nothing doing. Chinook, his trusty steed, had seen better days, like most of the Tetra base equipment. And to think that it dated back to the time of the first colonists - which wasn't impossible. He'd bought it from an old miner, who had in turn been given it by his father. It was always the antediluvian vehicles that stood up best to the tests of time. The more sophisticated the machinery was, the more likely it was to break down. The cold seized the joints of both men and machines. Everything inevitably turned irreparably stiff, creaking and cracking. It was a good idea to get used to it as quickly as possible. Gemma was the kingdom of the D system.
The vehicle cut a corner and changed heading. No road here, just a network of more or less straight valleys and gullies, bordered by nunataks, those black granite protuberances that poked through the ice. Above all, people had to deal with the passes, rock heaps, crevasses, snowdrifts, avalanches, fog, radiation, winds from the north, south, east, west: the unavoidable pitfalls that made up Delaurier's daily life.
A blast of wind whipped through the snowcat's cabin, carrying along its load of blown snow. At this spot, the valley connected with the great plain of the Glacier. Thousands of kilometers of ice without a single rock to break the attacks of the blast, a variety of katabatic tornado with a local flavor, born out of the contrast between the air temperature on the ground and that at an altitude.
In a few seconds, the ATV disappeared in a whirlwind of wild flakes. Horizontal squalls struck it from all sides at the same time, as if two gigantic hands were kneading it with sly pleasure. Haziel slowed. There was nothing else to be done. The two large wipers set to work on the windshield. The headlights lit a path through the storm.
Its attacks had doubled in intensity in recent months. Normally, it only blew in in any noteworthy manner at the beginning of the winter. Nothing good would come from this.
The music suddenly lost its prophylactic role, bringing Haziel back to his bleak ideas and worries. He was getting close to the place. The exact spot where he had had his... experience. He didn't quite know how else to refer to it. He'd never got up the courage to talk about it with anyone. Not to Alexis, nor Youri, not even to Stanislas. As for Kya... she would have laughed in his face. At least, that's what he imagined, rightly or wrongly.
He'd almost passed out this morning when the sanitary services called him to the rescue. An accident had occurred. Yet another one of those incomprehensible accidents, the third in less than 30 days... It had taken place at exactly 6:30 am, not far from the edge of the Glacier. In the middle of the transponder route connecting the largest liquefied gas and petroleum extraction sites in the northern hemisphere to the astroport at Alabina, the largest city on Gemma. The explosion had been terrifying. A powerful shockwave that had been felt deep in the bowels of the base at Tetra, making him nauseous, anxious. And it had grown a lot worse since he'd seen the exact coordinates of the crash...
Too late to back out. Once again, he'd join the ranks of the auxiliary workers. They needed his help to pilot one of the Hercules, since Bob was apparently sick. Sick! What an excuse. Afraid more likely! The miners - the extractors, as people called them - were starting to talk. So many inexplicable accidents. An entire convoy had been lost this time. Debris was scattered over more than three kilometers, a crater bored in the ice, almost as if a meteor had struck there, right on target. He'd checked the coordinates twice. No doubt about it. Yet, he'd sworn never to set foot in that sector again. The Glacier was vast. He had all the room he needed to set up his instruments. All he had to do was not talk about it with the others. Moreover, he was still too upset to confide in anyone. Maybe he'd hit the bottle a little hard that day. Maybe he only dreamed it.
And here he was, stuck in the middle of it all again, barely a month after his trauma. As if this spot - this tiny spot - was pulling him in with the strength of a magnet. Epsilon 47 influence zone.
Kya's riffs warped until they became inaudible, at least to the human ear. Haziel switched to the radio, just to check... Nothing but static, broken up by jerky whistling. Icy sweat rolled down his spine.
Shit, I can't believe it's starting again.
The sound increased, disappeared, came back altered. No point in insisting. He was already experiencing the effect of a disturbance, even if he was still more than a kilometer from his target. That's how it was. The manifestations of the Point followed no logic, he'd discovered that at his own cost. They deployed like vast concentric circles, zones of influence, as Stanislas Standford had baptized them. Those damned zones of influence. As unpredictable as a good bout of diarrhea!
It was time to switch to defense strategy B.
With one hand, he grabbed the bottle in the glove compartment, removed the cork, which fell to the floor somewhere in the cab. He gulped down a large mouthful, scorching his throat. Then a second. He stopped after the third, placed the bottle back in the glove compartment, upright. The cork had rolled to the back, joining a heap of waste and other detritus: half-eaten sandwiches, papers, beer cans, multi-purpose cables, spare parts, miniature bore, chain saw, nails, screws, drill, heating blankets, respirators, scientific equipment and, last but not least, multiple parts of an old generator he'd once tinkered with. All in all, the normal bric-à-brac found in any self-respecting Gemmian vehicle.
He finally emerged from the valley. More violent squalls welcomed him, but no snow. Thank God for that!
Ahead of him, the famous transponder highway. A real playing field for the blast. The crust of ice and snow was up to 4,000 meters thick in places, millions of tons of smooth looking surface. In actual fact, a succession of crevasses and traps, created by the tidal effects caused by the orbit of Marie-Antoinette, the planet's only moon. An area three times that of Earth's Antarctica, connecting the North Pole directly to the equator. A highway created entirely by Mother Nature. Just for them, the human explorers.
In a single word, the Glacier.
Haziel had always wondered why the first colonists had named it that. Everything on Gemma was made of ice. The entire planet was nothing more than one gigantic continental ice sheet.
Haziel drove another 20 minutes before heading for the eastern edge. The wind quickly dissipated the cloud cover. The clouds withdrew from the valley in a silent tide, revealing dazzling fragments of the arctic landscape. The Chinook's windshield automatically darkened. Over the speakers, electronic beacons chittered like mice.
Despite the early hour, Alta - a star with a solar mass of 1.4, about two billion years old - was high on the horizon. Its pale yellow light licked the black rock of the cliffs, studding the iridescent surface of the Glacier with diamonds. Mira, its stellar companion - more stunted, orange - followed closely on her heels. The twin suns, with a high magnitude, formed one of the brightest constellations in the terrestrial sky. As a result of their proximity, the two stars generally travelled together in the heavens, and it was common to see them eclipse one another for a few hours. In addition to causing both the light intensity and the temperature to fall, the phenomenon also resulted in violent, yet predictable, blast attacks.
But, apart from the inconveniences that transformed the Glacier into a refrigerated wind tunnel, people liked the place. In the core, the mountain ridges, which generally peaked at heights over seven thousand meters, were distant enough that people could enjoy the combined activity of the two stars year round, something that could not be said for the entrenched valleys running along either side. At the Tetra base, during the most acute phase of winter, people recalled just what the appearance of a sun meant.
And winters were long on Gemma. Terribly long.
The planet's elliptical orbit plunged it into the so-called "uninhabitable" zone, located between 1.8 and 2.7 astronomic units from the binary barycenter, for three-quarters of the year. As a result, winter lasted more than three terrestrial years, since a Gemmian year was equivalent to 1,642 days, or almost four and a half years. That's all it took for Gemma to make a complete circle of its star pair. The resulting distance that separated it from the barycenter was one of the things that guaranteed its stability.
As for the temperatures, they remained very low throughout the year. In the depths of winter, they frequently fell below -60°C and at the poles they could dip below -102°C.
The brief summer, during which the snowfalls were the heaviest, occasionally set records for mild temperatures. The thermometer had once climbed close to -9°C, an event worth noting.
The snowcat approached the first of the debris.
An armada of vehicles riddled the frozen expanse. Men hunched over under the attacks of the blast as they installed sign panels and markers. Haziel parked next to the Hercules-type articulated snowplows - three in all - and the snow trucks. He prepared quickly, in order to avoid thinking too much. A solid parka over his aviator's jacket, an anti-cold mask over his two days' growth of beard, a pair of gloves, UV protection sun glasses. His heat-regulating clothing would take care of everything else.
The door of the snowcat groaned as it opened - another obvious sign of a lack of maintenance - and he climbed down from his vehicle. The dry, icy air struck him like a whip, almost tossing him against the caterpillar tracks. Despite the squalls, he noticed Alta's timid touch on the skin of his face, through the openings in his balaclava. A few seconds of well-being before the wind swooshed into his fur-lined hood. He tightened the drawstrings and set off. A glance at the thermometer hanging, half torn off, on the flank of his vehicle showed him that it was a good fifteen below. A right pleasant day! Unfortunately, the wind chill factor dropped the temperature by a dozen degrees. Minus 25 in all. At least that's what he calculated.
Hunched over for protection against the tempest, he joined the other auxiliaries chatting under the roof extension on one of the Hercules. These machines were incredibly well designed, both inside and out. The designers had actually included an awning so the workers could enjoy a quiet smoke. Too bad they didn't make them like that anymore!
While mingling with the others, Haziel glanced around. The usually smooth surface of the Glacier was littered with jagged, blackened fragments. The carcasses of the tankers were almost done burning on the slope, about 100 meters away, along the edges of an obscure crater, which must have housed all the flames of hell a short while earlier. On the belly of one of the gutted mammoths, where the original material had been miraculously preserved, Haziel noted the logo of TechCom, a large extraction company that mined the deposits of liquefied gas and oil in the northern hemisphere.
Protected from the squalls, he took out a cigarette, then dug through his pockets looking for a lighter. One of the workers quickly handed one over.
The tip of the cigarette sparked. A cloud of blue smoke curled up in the frosty air.
"Thanks," Haziel said.
They smoked in silence, faces sombre. Seven solid guys.
Haziel knew most of them. Drivers, shovel operators, tractor-trailer drivers. All torn from their usual early morning activities. Around them, fluttering like swarms of shit flies, the sanitary workers were removing the cadavers from the tankers. The air reeked of melted composite materials and death.
After a moment, a small, swarthy guy that Haziel had frequently encountered during his rescue expeditions - Benji, if he recalled correctly - started up the conversation.
"Blowing early this season."
The entire gang agreed, Haziel included.
Obviously, the worker was talking about the blast.
"It's such a pain in the ass," said a second guy, blue eyes the only feature that could be seen through his balaclava.
"A royal pain," Haziel said, nodding.
And then they moved onto the topic of the accident, without transition.
"The news guys have just left," added Benji, sniffling noisily. "They've always got their noses in the deep shit."
"It seems that strange things are happening... on the tankers," whispered the second man to speak -laconically - a guy named Hansen.
"Strange things, yeah," chorused the miners.
You can believe it, Delaurier agreed deep inside. He thought back to his experience of the previous month and all the rest. He pulled on his cigarette, which purred like a wood stove.
"And why aren't they there, eh?" Benji suddenly snarled, raining spit over the crew.
Anger was rising within the group, chasing away the morning apathy.
"They're never there when you need them! All they do is get in our way."
Haziel, who was accustomed to this type of discussion, understood immediately. Now, they were talking about the militia. The next topic would inevitably be the separatists. That was how conversations here proceeded.
"Yet, they promised to double the security for the convoys," Hansen added heavily.
From where he stood, Haziel could smell his strong breathed, tainted with aquavit. A guy from the north. Like him. A guy who lived on rotgut just to hang on: aquavit, scotch, vodka and other local concoctions that he hadn't even tried himself.
"This has to be the work of the separatists," suggested a third extractor - thicker than he was tall, with a blotchy complexion - who went by the name of Frank.
That's it! The separatists! thought Delaurier. We're onto another round.
Tongues wagged, the atmosphere warmed. Everyone was explaining his own personal hypothesis. Haziel took a step back, crushed his cigarette butt out on the trampled snow. He didn't want any part in the lynching.
"They're after the mining companies, or so people say," continued the rotund guy with all the finesse of a bulldozer. "TechCom today, GemmaCorp tomorrow. I tell you, they're getting organized."
"Yeah, yeah," agreed the workers.
"And why don't the militia put them down once and for all?" Hansen exploded. "I mean, what good are they?"
"I found this at the mine," complained Benji. "‘Power to the people' or so they say. Whatever!"
He was shaking a crumpled tract under the noses of his colleagues.
"In any case, if I meet one of them, one of those eco-nuts, I'll skin him alive. Shut down the mines! And then what? And how is all this going to feed us?"
Hansen had just taken out a wide-beam hand gun. Haziel thought it would be a good time to intervene, to calm tempers a little.
"Whoah there, calm down. No one has formally accused them of anything. Like you said, they're just eco-nuts."
"Fundamentalists," added the Scandinavian, putting his gun away.
A foreman headed over to the group, a worried look on his face, dragging his feet. Hansen turned his back to him and slashed his finger across his throat with an explicit gesture.
Haziel didn't like that. All that pent up anger. If the situation turned any more poisonous, the separatists would become the colony's scape goats. There had been quite a few heated exchanges, a handful of injured people on both sides, some damage, stolen equipment and vehicles, but never any deaths. And that would all continue as long as the militia hesitated to intensify its repressive measures. What was happening today - the accidents, the gutted tankers, the cadavers - had nothing whatsoever to do with the Children of Gemma. He figured he was in a good position to know that.
"All right, there, Hercules drivers, man your vehicles," the foreman ordered. "They've almost finished cleaning up the bodies."
He stopped for a moment. He looked out of breath, defeated. Haziel felt his throat constrict. He didn't event dare imagine what the sanitary workers had discovered this morning at dawn. As he had expected, there were no survivors. The liquefied gas, when it came into contact with the oxygen in the air, swept the surface of the Glacier with the perfection of an atomic deflagration, sowing desolation and death for hundreds of metres around.
Within the group, people started to calm down. It was time to get down to work. Most of the guys had busy schedules. Winter was just around the corner. This was the last time they would be able to work at full capacity.
The drivers returned to their machines, shovels, trucks. Everyone knew what they had to do. Haziel climbed up the ladder that led to the Hercules cab, three metres above the ground. The gigantic snowplough snorted. Thirty-two tons of psychrolite metal polymer, two articulated arms, each five metres long, rows of caterpillar tracks with a traction capacity of six hundred horsepower, 512 kilo-newtons of tearing power. A mean machine.
In the distance, the rescue crew was still busy. Haziel was counting on their professionalism. Taking care of the wreckage was more than enough for him. Nothing but steel and composite materials, no flesh, no bones, no blood! His work started when theirs ended. Cleaning up what was left of the tankers, quickly clearing access to the transponder road. He continued to hope that the route would be changed one day. A simple little detour to the west would prevent a great many problems. But the Gemmian companies had neither the time nor the money to enlist engineers and make field surveys, or even to set up new beacons. No doubt, he would have to settle for aiding the auxiliary workers for many long years. That's the way things worked here. On a tight budget.
The other two Hercules set off. Slowly, they rolled up the gentle slope that led to the site of the carnage. The bitter odour of the smoke seeped into the cab, mingling with that of charred human flesh. Haziel felt nausea well up. He regretted having inflicted Kya's latest creation on his stomach.
The snowplough approached the edges of the crater. About 50 meters in circumference. It would take until nightfall to clear the area. A rescue worker, wearing orange coveralls, signalled him to remove a burnt out vehicle, peeled like a carrot. It looked like a satellite that had fallen from orbit. The other two machines were directed to identical piles of smoking debris.
Haziel couldn't help shuddering. He'd never seen anything like this. The memory of the explosion he'd felt this morning through the thick walls of the base pierced through his bones.
The Hercules moved closer to the wreck. It had been thrown into the air - to an altitude Delaurier considered inconvenient - before falling back several metres from the edge of the crater. He would have to proceed cautiously. The ice had been transformed into a black, gelatinous looking mass. Nothing to be too happy about. The arms of the mechanical shovel spread with the unsettling grace of a marionette. Its claws closed around the remains of the tanker, ready to carry it off in no time at all to the transhipment trucks which, in turn, would carry it to the Tchenkoville depot, a dozen or so kilometres to the south, where it would be recycled.
Haziel just about swooned. Upon contact with the claws, the tanker disintegrated into a very fine dust, as black as soot. Anthracite sand that was now flowing over the ground with a hiss.
He interrupted his operation.
It was just plain unthinkable.
It wasn't enough that the tankers had got into the unpleasant habit of exploding with their cargoes, something that was completely impossible given the confinement measures in use. As if their double hull and the nitrogen gas barrier - which made it impossible for the liquefied gas to react with the oxygen in the air - had suddenly disintegrated...
And now this!
He remained motionless on his seat for a moment, distraught, jaws clenched. He would have to clear things up. Quickly, he slipped out of the cab, cast a worried glance around. Once he was assured that no one was paying any attention to his actions, he walked over to the tanker remains. The air reeked of melted psychrolite, and other residues, which he refused to think about. He pulled the collar of his park over his nose then took a small box out of one of his pockets. He passed the laser tester over a portion of the wreck. The compound, which had once been a leading edge material, created by nanotechnology to endure the extreme cold of Gemma, was crumbling under the assaults of the wind. Unthinkable. Such structural modifications could not affect this type of polymer.
His brain overheated with the most implausible ideas.
The device purred a second, then uttered a significant beep. Haziel glanced at the results. As expected, it was impossible.
Increasingly anxious, he watched the Hercules snowploughs and the trucks dance their ballet on the ice. Everything started to spin. He took a few steps back, his nausea intensifying, and ran into the claws of his vehicle. He had to grab onto it, just long enough to get his bearings, then he repeated his tests. The measures were just too preposterous.
Another purr, another beep.
Device in hand, he raced back up into his machine. Once in the shelter of the cab, he waited, hands clenched on the controls, unable to decide what to do. The loudspeakers barked with the confused exclamations of the extractors. The tankers were literally crumbling when touched by the mechanical shovels.
Feverish, Haziel read the results yet again. There was absolutely no doubt about it: the isotopes of the polymerized steel that made up the tankers had collapsed. In other words, they had been altered by the passing of time.
Psychrolite wasn't supposed to undergo that type of deterioration before... what? A few thousand years? Even more?
For now, Haziel wanted only one thing: to run away. Anguish washed over him, more terrifying than ever. He had to talk to Stanislas right away.
But, first he had to finish his job.
He summoned up his courage, directed the claws of the Hercules toward the wreck. More rustling. The metal flowed like sand. Entire chunks of the tanker were dissolving as he tried to catch them and the blast of wind was spreading this infection over the sparkling expanse of the Glacier. What a horror!
After several unsuccessful attempts, he managed to grab onto something solid. A piece of the machine that had resisted the gangrene. As gently as possible, he took it to the snow removal trucks and got rid of it in a frightening cloud.
At the same time, an armada of vehicles appeared along the perimeter. Finally... reinforcements. The crew could start filling in the crater. The road would be open for traffic the next day. For more accidents. There might be an investigation....But that was no certainty. As long as the economy didn't come to a total standstill...
A glance at his watch revealed that it was already 11:30. Stanislas was waiting for him, to discuss his future mission. That was fine. He jumped down from the running board and joined the other workers. He needed a good smoke, to help him recover from his discovery. The faces of the men who had gathered under the awning of a mechanical shovel were filled with horror. No one was talking. They looked nervous, superstitious. People would be thinking hard, this evening, in their homes.
Once it was loaded, the first truck shifted into gear, not far from their small, distraught group. A piece of metal, poorly stowed, fell heavily to the ground, projecting shards of ice over several metres.
Haziel leapt back. Something had just struck his leg.
A charred human head, sliced off sharply at the neck, observed him from blackened eye sockets.
Around him, the blast of wind slowed.
Mira followed close on the heels of Alta in the autumn sky. It looked like the start of a beautiful day.
"Who am I"
Born from the night.
I am a ghost ship.
I turn humans away.
I frighten children.
I defy you from space.
I look at Gemma.
And Gemma looks at me.
I'm called the Great Arch.
Am I truly an arch?
No one knows.
I'm called the Great Arch.
I am the Mystery."
First verse of the Builders' Lament, song taught to kindergarten children in Albina, planet Gemma, AltaMira system, Eridan constellation.
Kya was singing.
None of her personal compositions. No, she was signing a verse from a song she had learned at her old school, in Alabina; the tune had been running through her head for a few days. Her voice, shattered by the cold and the attacks of the wind, sounded much like that of an old rubbie. That amused her, tempered her fits of rage. And she was absolutely furious. And her rage merely grew whenever she looked, just as she did now, at the gigantic orange torch that surged from the very heart of the ice, a hundred metres or so below, disfiguring the landscape she loved so much.
A factory. Another one.
It had opened at the beginning of the fall. Since then, a rain of ashes spewed out night and day onto the snow, turning it black. From her den, Kya could smell the bitter odour of the smoke and fumes resulting from the gas liquefaction process.
She'd made it a habit to come here. The rocky spur dominated the plain of the Glacier that stretched for kilometers, a veritable improbable toboggan smack dab in the middle of this country strewn with sharp peaks and sunken cliffs. Four hundred kilometers south, as the crow flies, stood Alabina, the city where she had been born, 18 years and one week ago. Her few rare memories of that place all centered on the school: years spent raking over pointless stupidities and stirring up trouble with her school mates. Already a rebel even then!
But then, her father had moved to this hole, far removed from the agitation of civilization. And it was definitely his fault that she was giving him such a hard time today. She'd found a wonderful remedy for her boredom.
The young girl started singing louder and louder.
There was nothing to be done for it; her rage continued to grow. Sitting on an icy rock, she brandished her fist at the factory, hammering her boots on the ground to keep time.
"I am a ghost ship.
I turn humans away.
I frighten children.
I defy you from space.
I look at Gemma.
And Gemma looks at me.
I'm called the Great Arc