The Heart, a mysterious ancient life form around which the Earth’s moon was shaped, contains the secrets of the ages. Secrets it is willing to share with humanity. Only the British Empire is telling no one, not even their allies. In a concealed base, researchers are developing a method to push the Empire beyond the limits of the Asteroid Belt. To succeed they need certain, previously unknown, minerals and metals.
To that end they have assembled a top covert team: Scientific genius, Professor Nathanial Stone; American adventuress, Miss Annabelle Somerset; and the former captain of the Royal Navy’s flagship, Jacob Folkard, who is linked telepathically to the Heart. Before the mission can begin, though, they require one more person: French mineralogist extraordinaire, Arnaud Fontaine.
Their journey takes them on a detour to Messor Base, a mining instillation on Ceres, the largest body in the Asteroid Belt. Things are not running as smoothly as they appear. People are missing, fresh meat is being served in the canteen… How far will Dylan Blayney, administrator of the base, go to keep the truth hidden?
For in the world of Ceres something has been disturbed and a great price must be paid.
Available now from Untreed Reads.
He’d walked so long his calves began to ache. Shortly after that his ankles, and he knew at once it was not entirely owing to the unaccustomed exercise. Arnaud stopped long enough to break off more leaves, to locate vines and tie them around his legs under his trousers, looping more vines around the fabric on the outside. Although distasteful next to his skin, his garments helped to hold the leaves in place and they acted like boots, adding insulation. His muscles still ached from the exertion, and he had to wonder how long he’d been walking. No sun marked the passage of time, although there was plenty of light. Did it ever grow dark in here? Arnaud feared snow-blindness, and took to taking the darkest mineral he had found out of his pocket just to look at it. Immeasurable respite came from looking at that deep, brown colour instead of something pale or clear.
This time he stared so long while concentrating on putting one foot before the other, his eyelids drooped.
I’m in danger of falling asleep.
The thought held no power, and quite possibly Arnaud walked a few paces while unconscious before he came awake at the sound of his stomach rumbling. A second later and he slipped, his left foot shooting out from under him, throwing him backwards so that he sat down heavily with an oof.
The white sandbank had given way to a solid sheet of…ice? Arnaud spent a few seconds righting himself, rubbing his hands over his face, and blinking. When he was sure he was awake and not dreaming, he knelt down by the edge of the frozen lake. At first he judged the top layer to be thin, for he could see down into clear depths, but even as he watched another strange creature came into view, one that reminded him of a cephalopod, but which had more legs than an octopus. It stopped to look at him, adhering to the undersurface. Both the animal’s action and the apparent thickness of the crust surprised him. If this was ice, it shared only some of the same characteristics as its counterpart on Earth for it looked like glass all the way down instead of growing densely white.
Was it thick enough to take his weight?
Arnaud stood up. Glancing back the way he’d come and then out across the lake, he weighed his options. He didn’t need to listen to know his pursuers had gained ground―he had been aware of that fact for some time. Walking across the lake—if he could manage it—might finally disguise his tracks. They would know what he had done, but if he was able to disappear into the undergrowth at some point before they spotted where, he’d have a chance.
If the ice didn’t crack and plunge him into the icy depths first. He couldn’t swim, although even a strong swimmer stood little chance trapped under ice. In all likelihood the water was cold enough to kill him swiftly, though he took little solace in that thought. He didn’t want to drown. He didn’t want to freeze.
“I do not want to die.” He spoke because so far this world had been too silent. “Non, I do not want to die.” This time he said it with less fear, more determination. His chances on the ice were questionable, but those hunting him were still angry enough to kill him for certain. He had to chance the ice, unless his first step knocked him on his posterior.
Too slippery. Arnaud realised that the moment he tried. For a few seconds he was almost grateful and then he thought of the rubbery texture of the leaves and set about at once gathering more and tying them around his feet. His first step was taken with a captured breath. He didn’t slide, so he took another. The idea seemed to work, but would the leaves stick to the ice and leave a trail? Only one way to find out. Arnaud took several paces, looked back.
Nothing. He was free and clear, and…
His first mistake was looking down. Never having suffered vertigo, it took Arnaud several seconds to identify the sensation. Just those few paces had taken him out over greater depths and the glass surface gave him the feeling of standing on thin air. On water. He experienced something that felt like a religious epiphany but a perverse one that made him want to spit.
His second mistake was in pausing in one spot too long. Where his weight would likely not have been an issue had he kept moving, the crust gave an audible cracckkkk, a zig-zag of fractures running out in all directions beneath his feet.
Thought froze as solid as the landscape. Fortunately, he moved by instinct. Arnaud staggered along, throwing himself forwards at the edge of the bank. A thundering sound of splintering reverberated—one that he felt more than heard as it rattled his teeth. A great whoosh and splash finished off the explosion of sound, and Arnaud didn’t need telling that the men chasing him would Home in on it. Was it his imagination or did he hear a shout of triumph? It hardly mattered. He was up and running, pausing only long enough to rip the leaves from beneath his shoes when they hindered him, and then off again, darting full-pelt, experiencing a horrible repetition of how this endless day had begun.
(c) Sharon Bidwell, all rights reserved.