Zoya Kundara has lived on the space vessel Star Road for 250 years. As Ship Mother, she is awakened from Deep Sleep in times of crisis, providing counsel to generations of its Romany crew. Now the starship has returned home, only to discover an Earth on the verge of extinction, blanketed in a crystalline substance called Ice. But it's not ice. This pearl-white mantle is a grand and mysterious ecology of information-bearing crystals. And it is relentlessly enclosing the last free lands.
To find a home for her crew, Zoya must approach the denizens of this strange new Earth. She will discover the Ice Nuns, who seek sole control of the physics-defying crystals; people huddled like moles in underground techno-warrens; and the snow witches, creatures of Ice, both mad and prophetic . . . and one snow witch in particular, who will defend the kingdom of Ice with power and immortal cunning.
I can count on Kay Kenyon to take me to a deeply realized world, then unleash a dynamic story that will keep me on the edge of my seat. Maximum Ice delivers an urgent apocalyptic tale. The multi-talented Kay has written extensively in fantasy, as well as science fiction. I'm delighted to include her excellent science fiction in the Philip K. Dick Award Bundle. – Lisa Mason
"A vivid cast of characters, some interesting asides on religious authority, and the bleakly beautiful landscape make this a uniquely powerful tale reminiscent of Greg Bear."– Booklist
"Full-bodied characters, palpable environs, layered mystery and heady suspense combine like the many facets of "Ice" in this sparkling SF novel. . . .Kenyon is a surprising new talent, and SF enthusiasts will appreciate her imaginative world and characters."– Publishers Weekly
"Kay Kenyon is science fiction's newest master at creating worlds unlike any we've encountered before, but which are so deeply and convincingly portrayed that we wind up feeling as though we've actualy set foot in them. Maximum Ice is her best yet."– K.W. Jeter
"In a stark and compelling story with a unique twist, Ms. Kenyon delivers a well-written, action-packed SF thriller."– RT Book Reviews
"A topnotch cyberfable that kept me turning pages into the wee hours. Powerful stuff."– Julian May
It was a cold homecoming. By some accounts, no homecoming at all. After 250 years, Star Road's crew were prepared to be strangers to earth, but not like this.
Captain Anatolly Razo sat well away from the porthole, his face averted from the view. He kept a watch instead on the physio chamber, where Zoya was at last beginning to wake up. The view of Ship Mother was much preferable to the other. Her eyelids trembled, as the realm of stasis held her for a few more moments. When you'd been asleep for fifty-four years, waking up was no simple matter.
The lid of the chamber had been removed, and the med officer had been running revitalization lines for several hours. Ship Mother Zoya Kundara lay on her right side, her dark hair now carefully brushed away from her face. The diamonds in her left ear glinted like a control panel.
The captain withdrew his hand from Zoya's shoulder, resisting the urge to nudge her as if from a night's sleep. He was both eager for her to wake and dreading it. As captain, it was his task to tell her the news. He thought of opening lines, all of them bad.
At seventy-eight, Anatolly Razo had never struggled to express himself—except in Zoya Kundara's presence.
"Dim the lights," he told his assistant. Zoya was sensitive to light on awakening.
The med officer gave some advice: "Music helps."
Nothing helps, the captain thought, but nodded an assent.
Violin music flooded the room. It was a traditional piece, the music of the Rom, his gypsy people. The soaring melody moved him to take Zoya's hand. It was still cool. He rubbed her hand between his own, gazing at her still-youthful face, her dark beauty. She was thirty-six years old, with high cheekbones, an aquiline nose, and a glorious figure. His heart crimped a little, looking at her. But all that was long past. Half a century past.
During those decades Star Road had pursued its homeward journey, much of it under his captaincy. They were eager to come home. They must come home. On a vessel that had begun its journey with 7000 men, women, and children, 1146 crew members remained. To be sure, it was a gradual decline, measured by the death rate of a robust people—robust in all ways but one.
Zoya stirred, mumbling something. She waved at the tubes around her, as though parting cobwebs. Her eyes opened. Deep brown—trailing dreams, the captain thought. She looked around the cabin, registering reality.
Her voice was a scrape. "How long?"
"Fifty-four years," the captain answered, making his voice gentle. It was an awful pronouncement, but it was the truth. He never understood how she could bear it—this waking and long sleep and waking again. It took a toll on her body, and no doubt, on her soul. But gypsy women were tough. After all, they had to live with gypsy men.
She focused on him. "Anatolly," she murmured, "you look awful."
He shrugged. "I'm an old man."
Her mouth attempted a smile. "No excuse." She glanced at Kristof, the med officer hovering nearby. "Drink," she said.
Kristof brought her a thimble-sized portion of water as Anatolly helped her to sit up.
Zoya eyed the water, then brought out a more convincing smile. "Surely a little wine, instead?"
Anatolly intervened. "Water first, Zoya. Easy does it."
She uttered a rusty laugh. "Oh, Tolly, nothing is ever easy Especially without wine." Her hand went to her ear, to touch the four diamond studs, counting them, as was her habit on awakening. They winked in the dim lights of the physio unit.
Stretching out an arm, she wiggled each finger in turn. She seemed to have forgotten about the wine. "So, Anatolly," she said, her voice slurred, "why so glum?" She licked her teeth, trying to clean the coating from them. Zoya claimed that fur grew on her teeth during these sleeps. An assistant appeared with brush and paste.
His courage fled. "It can wait, Zoya. Bad news can always wait. You should gather your strength." He added feebly, "Brush your teeth."
The assistant helped Ship Mother to do so. Then Zoya looked from the captain to the doctor to his assistant. She put on her patiently waiting face, that catlike smile. "My teeth are cleaned, Anatolly. Now tell me."
He cleared his throat. "Well, Zoyechka, it's earth, you see ... we've arrived. But with the situation ... we decided ... that is, once we ... discussed everything ..."
"Yes, Anatolly. Go on, I'm listening."
Caught in her brown gaze, he blurted. "Ship Mother, we have a problem."
Now her laughter came freely, the rich, deep laugh he remembered from their time together during her last awakening. "Yes, a problem," she said. "Of course." But she could have guessed that much. They always woke Ship Mother in times of trouble. She was their counselor, wasn't she?
He looked to the doctor. Kristof was no help at all, suddenly busy with tubes and instruments.
In a stronger voice, she said, "Get me out of this thing."
They helped her to sit on the edge of the pallet, trailing wires and monitors, her slippered feet barely touching the deck.
"Unhook me, Kristof."
Kristof looked surprised that she called him by name, but it was written over his breast pocket. He was in no hurry, though, to remove her life support.
"You look like your father," she said, flashing a brilliant smile. "But even more like Emil, your father's father. A good man, your grandfather. Come to see me when we've got rid of these tubes, and I will tell you a good story about him."
As Kristof removed the lines connecting Zoya to her physio unit, the doctor looked at her with that expression Anatolly had seen before, the one tinged with hero worship. He sighed. It was the old Zoya.
Sitting up, she murmured to Anatolly, "Is it bad, then?"
"It's ... bad. Yes."
She nodded. "So then, Anatolly, the worst is over. You've managed to tell me we have a bad problem. That was well done." Her eyes held him. "Now tell me the rest."
He knew, then, that talking was the wrong approach. She must see for herself. "Come, Zoya," he said, "and tell me what you see."
Slowly they walked together toward the porthole, he supporting her on one side, Kristof on the other.
"Earth ..." she said, as they walked. "It's still there?"
Before she looked out the porthole she turned to Anatolly." You're going to show me why we haven't heard from them."
For most of their 250-year voyage, no radio messages from earth.
Anatolly nodded. He wanted to comfort her, to protect her. Simultaneously, he wanted her to comfort and protect him, as she had always done, for all her ship children. He watched her as she turned to look out. It pained him to see her look of vulnerability, the same look he'd seen in every crew member's face as they'd gazed on ancestral earth.
Below, light glinted off a pearl white globe, a world so pale and barren it could not be earth—yet it was. Gone were the familiar continents and oceans. In their place, a new landform clutched the planet, squeezing the oceans into an equatorial remnant. Thin clouds hovered in the equatorial region like a ghostly ring, further confusing the observer as to which planet, exactly, this was. Jutting through the white mantle, great mountain chains could be seen, now merely islands in a hardened sea.
It cooled the heart, to think that this was earth. Barren was the best word for it, barren like so many worlds they'd seen. They'd thought earth would always abide. But it hadn't, not at all ...
They stood thus for several minutes, gazing at the ruin of earth.
She struggled for control. Of all the inhabitants of Star Road, only Zoya was of earth. She could remember how it had once been.
Trying to reassure her, Anatolly said, "We're picking up weak radio signals. There are people—we don't know their language. A breathable atmosphere, remarkably. It's not a dead world ... not entirely."
Finally, she managed to say, "What happened?"
"We don't know."
"Is it an ice age?"
"No. It's ... not water. Not ice. We don't know what it is."
"But it's home," she whispered.
Anatolly allowed his despair to seep out. "Is it?"
" 'Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.'" Zoya knew her poetry, and she sometimes used it to her advantage.
"But they don't have to, Zoyechka. We've been gone ten thousand years, in their time, as they measure it." He didn't presume upon a warm welcome from earth. The People of the Road had never had a glad welcome from earth's people. So they would make no assumptions about being taken in—especially given their state of ignorance about this new earth. Not even the orbiting satellites could enlighten them. They had captured a half dozen of them and downloaded their data. Only there wasn't any. The satellite data-storage units contained only noise.
The science team hadn't slept since Ship arrived in orbit. Spectography, electron diffraction, all their analytical tools probed and pried at answers. There were a few discoveries. A huge and fluctuating electromagnetic signature came from the surface. Average temperatures were cool, but not cold. The chemical composition of the new landforms was familiar—yet anomalous. To learn more, they must go down to the surface.
Zoya was so quiet, just staring. Her thoughts were likely what his own had been when he first saw the altered earth: What calamity had befallen their home world? What remained of life and land?
There was a stirring behind them. People had started to trickle into the room from the corridor. Anatolly could see a crowd assembled there.
Zoya took a very deep breath, as though testing her lungs for what they could hold, then exhaled. She composed her expression and turned from the porthole. He marveled at her composure, her courage. No, that wasn't it. It was her faith—that they would go on. He saw it in her eyes, the lift of her chin. The others saw it too, and crowded into the room to be near her.
Anatolly had ordered everyone to stay away, to give Ship Mother a decent interval to wake up. But ordering the Rom, of course, was often a hopeless enterprise. Here was Sava Uril, pushing forward, grasping Zoya's hand. And Rebeka Havislov, Jozsef Mirran, Sandor Laslo, Anna Mijanovitch, Viktor Novic, and others, gathering around her.
She gazed at them, looking at each person in turn. Whatever generational features she recognized, it must have warmed her heart, for she smiled, a broad smile of pleasure.
One of the men came forward with a single red rose, in the traditional greeting that normally would have come from a child. Her hand shook as she accepted it. By her glance around the room, she had just noticed there were no youngsters present. She caught Anatolly's eye—but that story could wait.
"My children," she said, as she always did, referring to old and young alike.
It made Anatolly glad to hear her say those words, her voice steady and deep.
She looked toward the portal, then back at them. "Yes, I've seen it." She nodded. "Things change. Every time I waken, things have changed. Who knows that better than our people? You are still my beloved children. And that"—she nodded at the window—"is still home." She drew herself tall. "Or it will be, when the Rom make their footprints in the snow."
Rebeka Havislov dabbed at her eyes with a kerchief. But she was smiling.
Anatolly sighed. The women were crying and making plans. Perhaps things would be all right, after all.
Then the crowd was surging forward to embrace Ship Mother and shake her hand.
Amid the press of well-wishers, Zoya's voice came unmistakably: "Bring me my boots."
As someone ran to do so, she called after him, "And some wine."