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Retrograde




This is the beginning of a novel.

Chapter 1

Near Sarakka Crater, on Callisto


Freyja’s pickaxe hit on the rock-solid ice hard. It made a small dent, but a small dent was all that was needed. After a few more hits, the cavity was wide enough to install a miniature spring-loaded cam device to secure a safety line. With the line tightly fastened to her pulley, she placed both feet on the ice wall, locked her legs straight and gently leaned backwards, letting her weight sink into the harness. Only then did she loosen her grip on the line and, eager to appease her screaming arms, let them drop to her sides.

She could see the narrow cone forming the top of the ice peak from her vantage point. Sarakka’s inner crater was a relatively flat surface, one hundred and five kilometres wide, surrounded by a crater rim hundreds of meters tall. The distant sun hung low over the rim, etching long shadows within the crater. She clenched and unclenched her tired hands.

‘No stopping next time,’ she said to herself, then turned around to view the panorama. In all directions, as far as the eye could see, a myriad of hundred-meter-tall ice structures shaped like cones formed what the Callistoans called the Great Ice Forest Park. Faint sunlight painted the cones white on their bright side. Amidst this world dominated by black and white, a yellow and brown crescent lay low on the horizon, Jupiter in its first quarter. The scene gave her a lightness in her chest.

A motion on the horizon attracted her attention. She knocked the zoom hood on her faceplate. A small rover snaked through the ice cones, leaving a cloud of white dust in its wake. It was approaching fast.

‘Ugh,’ she said and quickly grabbed the safety line to pull herself back towards the ice wall. That’s when the ice cracked. She didn’t hear it - Callisto’s tenuous atmosphere couldn’t propagate sound - but the line vibrated. Specks of ice fell past her towards the bottom two hundred and thirty meters below. Freyja held her breath. Her muscles tensed, waiting for what would come next.

She watched in horror as a piece of ice fell, and with it, the cam, sending the safety line and her off the wall and into a free-fall.

Only one thought dominated: would the other cams hold?

She passed the cam placed ten meters below and kept falling with her hands, desperately trying to grasp anything that might stop her. The line tensed up abruptly. ‘Fuck!’ she shrieked, pain jarring her hips as her body was slammed into the ice wall. She panted as she tried stabilising herself, beads of sweat tricking down her forehead. After a few more swings, each shorter than the next, the line finally stopped.

Despite the moon’s low gravity, which made her fall slower than she would have done on Earth, she would have hit the surface with a speed of over thirty meters per second due to the lack of wind resistance. Enough to kill a person.

Freyja dangled from the line. Her breath was loud in her helmet. She swallowed hard as the pain throbbed in her right hand. Her saliva tasted like iron from a cut lip.

Calming herself, she reviewed the visuals inside her helmet. Her heartbeat was higher than usual. No surprises there. But the main air tank had ruptured and leaked a tiny amount of air. She couldn’t feel it as the suit had automatically switched to the primary backup tank. Forty-five minutes of breathable air.

‘Guess it’s time to go,’ she said.

She grabbed the line with both hands, wincing as she felt an acute pain in her right hand. ‘A sprain.’

She clutched the pulley with one hand only and started her slow descent.

‘Soloing again?’ said a man’s voice in her helmet’s intercom, half-surprising her.

‘You’re a day early,’ Freyja snapped.

‘It is you who’s a day late,’ the man said with a hint of amusement.

‘How did you find me?’


‘Need I remind you that switching off your rover’s geoloc is a criminal offence, as well as soloing?’

She turned to look down at the small rover approaching below. ‘And yet, you never report me.’

There was a moment of silence before the man replied. ‘Did you reach the top?’

‘Would have if you hadn’t interrupted me,’ she said.

‘I saw you swaying off the wall.’

‘It was very windy up there.’

She heard a heavy sigh over the intercom, and then she said, ‘I’ll see you at the bottom, Nyrkez.’


‘Your suit’s geoloc,’ he replied.

‘What about it?’

‘You forgot to deactivate it. I’ll see you at the bottom, little cuz.’

Twenty minutes later, Freyja sat in her cousin’s rover, nursing her wrist. Sunlight spilled through the small window, highlighting the small space crammed with two padded benches, a table and lockers.

‘How’s your injury?’ Nyrkez said as he walked in, holding two steaming mugs.

‘Feeling better. Painkillers did their job.’

Nyrkez tutted as he placed the mugs on the table and slouched on the bench opposite. ‘You’re as reckless as grandfather.’

‘Audacious is the word you’re looking for,’ she replied, cupping a mug with her left hand.

His face tightened. ‘Soloing won’t solve your problems, little cuz.’

‘Who says I’ve got problems?’ she snapped.

‘Freyja. Please. I’m being serious.’

‘I like the views up there.’

He shook his head. ‘You could end up in house arrest.’

‘They give me solace.’

Nyrkez waved a hand in dismissal. ‘Escapism.’

‘One’s fix is another’s medication, I guess.’

He grunted and tapped his fingers on the table. ‘I’ll let Uncle and Auntie know you’re doing fine. You didn’t answer their last message, apparently.’

‘Told them I’d be out for a few days.’

‘Yeah. With friends,’ he frowned.

‘Two. You’d like them. They’re cute.’ She winked.

He leaned back. ‘Reckless and deceitful.’

‘Audacious and imaginative,’ she said and sipped from her mug.

He sighed. ‘Can’t believe we’re related.’

She offered a smile. ‘When are we leaving?’

‘As soon as possible, little cuz. And don’t forget, I’m in charge of the trip, so we’re doing this the regular way - none of your dicey stuff. Safety first.’

She shrugged. ‘When soloing, one doesn’t get to live long if safety is not first and foremost.’

He mumbled under his breath, something she didn’t understand.

‘How long will the drive be?’ she asked.

‘Three days.’

‘Sarakka crater,’ she said, nodding.

‘Been there?’

‘Nope. And you?’ she asked.

‘A few times.’


Tightness grew in her stomach; climbing to the top of a hundred-meter peak was one thing, but diving into one of Callisto’s glacial subsurface lakes was another.

‘I’ll need help,’ she said.

‘I know. That’s why I’m here.’

‘No. Moving my stuff to your rover,’ she replied, showing her right wrist. This would be a problem in the next few days, she thought. It was bad enough to have a sprain, let alone having it while she would have to descend into the bowels of the moon.

‘I’m starting to regret this already,’ he said.


***

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