As Saturn’s icy moons swung around the gas giant, their leading faces were bombarded with high-energy electrons that over thousands upon thousands of years compacted the original surfaces of fluffy water-ice grains to hard-packed ice. Human beings following paths around the moons had altered their surfaces, too. Over the centuries, walkers wore down the ice and created holloways that in the most heavily-trafficked parts were depressed a metre or more beneath the original surface. Sunken paths or grooves with branching tributaries that linked present walkers to all the walkers of the past.
The equator of every large moon was girdled with at least one holloway, worn by countless people who trekked around them on wanderjahrs, seeking adventure or enlightenment, or escaping from the noisy crush of civilisation. There were races to circumnavigate the moons by foot, while others engaged on solitary pilgrimages. Sky Saxena was one such pilgrim, a clever, headstrong man in his early twenties. After fleeing from his family and the obligations of his inheritance, he had decided to impose shape and order on his life by attempting to walk around the largest of Saturn’s regular, icy moons – Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, and Iapetus. A quest only a celebrated few had completed since the Saturn system had first been settled more than four centuries ago.
Sky had set out from Camelot, Mimas, twenty-two days ago, travelling east. A straight path girdling the little moon’s equator would have been a little more than twelve hundred kilometres long, but there were no straight paths because Mimas’s frozen surface preserved the cratering caused by the period of heavy bombardment, and one especially large crater, Herschel, was about a third of Mimas’s diameter and floored with a chaos of ridges and tabular mounts and canyonlands that circled a gigantic central peak. There was no easy route across it, and despite the help of his suit’s eidolon Sky discovered that he had spent six hours trekking down a long and crooked canyon that ended in high cliffs impossible to climb. It was night. His air was low, barely enough to make it back to the shelter he’d set out from that morning, and a fault in the lifepack’s catalytic purger meant that the partial pressure of carbon dioxide was building to critical levels. Faint and dizzy, with twenty kilometres still to go, he sat on a block of pitted ice under the pitiless stars, and by starlight saw a shadowy figure beckoning to him from the top of a steep slope of tumbled ice blocks, and heard a faint voice on the common channel.
Come with me if you want to live.
With the last reserves of his strength and resolve, Sky followed the figure across a series of ridges like frozen waves to the lee of a cliff. There was a narrow passage, an airlock hatch, and a small, utilitarian shelter beyond: cell-like rooms off an H of short corridors dimly lit by failing lamps, the air chill and stale but breathable. Sky’s rescuer was an old man with a shock of white hair and a bent back who moved restlessly amongst the shadows, instructing Sky on how to link his p-suit’s lifepack with the shelter’s antique machinery, showing him where ration packs were stored. The shelter dated from the Quiet War, according to the old man, built by the resistance to the occupying powers from Earth three centuries ago.
After he had eaten, Sky sat in a slingbed in one of the little rooms, and fell asleep listening to the old man’s stories of the war. When he woke, he was quite alone. The old man was gone, although his p-suit remained in the airlock’s dressing frame, with his name, Leonardo Santos, stencilled across its stout, scarred chestplate.
When Sky told the story of his rescue at his next stop, a farm tent, there was a short silence as the farmers studied him, and then one of them said that he’d been rescued by a ghost.
‘My mother told me that he had been a Greater Brazilian trooper in the old war,’ she said. ‘He and his comrades massacred twenty resistance fighters, and after the war he became a hermit, living in one of the old shelters, helping travellers. He died at least two hundred years ago, but people still claim to glimpse him now and then. He’s said to have led several people to safety after they became lost in the canyonland, but you’re the first to have met him that I know of.’
There were rational explanations, of course. Sky thought long and hard about them as he walked on the next day. He had been suffering from carbon dioxide poisoning, and the old man had been an hallucination, or some kind of dream. In reality, his p-suit’s eidolon had led to the shelter, or perhaps the eidolon of the old man’s p-suit had somehow reached out to him. But whether he found the shelter himself, or whether he had been led to it, Sky knew that owed the old man his life, and knew now that there was no need to define himself by solitary pilgrimages, no need to become a kind of wandering ghost. He was too proud to return to his family, not yet, but knew that he could find some good and useful work in the cities and settlements of the Saturn system, and walked on along the holloway in long bounding strides, light as a bird in the minimal gravity, the rugged little moon wheeling away beneath his boots.