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Looking for the title and author of a short story. It’s AT LEAST 15-20 years old.

The story follows a pair of humans exploring a frigid planet to be terraformed. The premise was that they are inspectors from an inter species coalition approves planets for terraforming into habitability on a case-by-case basis.

The frozen planet in question was being explored by two people- a man in orbit and a woman on the ground who eventually learned that the world had been deliberately frozen with a network of sunshade mirrors in centuries earlier wiping out the sentient inhabitants- a sort of bird-like people depicted in surviving cave paintings.

The woman found the cave paintings, and the man found a fragment of mirror. Upon their attempt to report the destruction of this infant civilization their spacecraft’s piloting was overridden as a sort of revenge, plummeting them towards the planet.

The pair were saved by a number of strange pill-bugs which emerged from a kind wormhole within their vessel (the interstellar radio or warp drive?). These creatures were of dubious intelligence, but were known to survive the vacuum of space by simply curling into an airtight ball. They restored the ship’s capabilities and basically everyone lived happily ever after.

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  • Hi, welcome to SF&F! Did you read this in an anthology, a magazine, or online?
    – DavidW
    Dec 28, 2023 at 3:47
  • Very probably in print, and most likely in a multi author anthology. It MIGHT have been a single author’s short story collection, I just can’t recall.
    – Ben King
    Dec 28, 2023 at 4:11

2 Answers 2

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Ice and Mirrors by Brenda Cooper and Larry Niven. It has apparently only been published in Asimov's in 2001 so while the date matches you couldn't have read it in an anthology (or at least not a legitimate one).

This is longer than a typical short story and almost a novella. The frozen planet is Trine, the woman exploring the planet is Kimber Walker and the man on the ship is Eric Keenen. There is an alien race called the Thray who are assisting with the explorations, and it turns out the Thray froze the planet so they could claim it for themselves.

Kimber finds remains of the bird like aliens in a cave:

The frozen bones were large. Whatever wore them in life was more than twice as tall as Kimber, and it sure as hell wasn’t a Thray. The hollow bones reminded her of birds; the joints suggested the artist Escher. They differed greatly from Earthly designs. There was an elongated spine—twelve-centimeter-long vertebrae, oddly interlocked—and long bones that could have supported wings. She found scraps of leftover flesh frozen in strange shapes on the bones, like a mummified Andes sacrifice. How could the Thray have missed this in their survey? It couldn’t be the only accessible example of the species.

This might be just a cave-nesting bird, she thought. Thray would explore caves; the artist might have been a bored Thray surveyor. Bored, during a thirty-hour survey? She didn’t believe it. Still ... aliens ...

Kimber finds a frieze of the bird like aliens and the frieze included a picture of a Thray ship, plus Eric finds one of the mirrors used to deflect sunlight and freeze the world at the planets Lagrange 1 point.

When Kimber and Eric report their findings a Thray called Althared takes control of their ship and puts it into a dive straight towards the planet. As you describe they are saved by the Pillbugs who travel though some form of portal they called the Big Hole (BH).

Pillbugs were two and a half feet long and always came in groups. The workers she’d seen had hard-shelled back plates of silver armor that would lock when they rolled up. Any drop in pressure, a Pillbug could seal itself against vacuum and await rescue. Kimber had seen a dozen Pillbug workers do that at a loud noise.

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    Ah sweet, thank you! I haven’t gotten much out of niven since highschool (apart from The Mote in God’s Eye which i still recall fondly) but I kept thinking this MIGHT be one of his. I liked the deep time aspect of this, that this was a crime countless generations or millennia in the making. Thanks for your help!
    – Ben King
    Dec 28, 2023 at 21:22
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    @BenKing Please will you click the tick mark next to my answer to mark it as accepted. Thanks :-) Dec 29, 2023 at 7:08
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"Ice and Mirrors" by Brenda Cooper and Larry Niven in Asimov's Science Fiction, February 2001 has most of those matching elements. I'm still reading it, but it's got some matching elements besides ice and mirrors in the title.

It's got a race of aliens called Pillbugs, and a planetary survey team of one woman and one man, who were former lovers. ("To an alien it must be clear that we get along.")

The best match is what they find on the ice planet.

“Then the Thray froze the planet? Damn it, Eric! You’re accusing a whole species of premeditated genocide!”

More:

“What if the Thray found this place and made it cold?”

“Don’t laugh yet. They’d need a mirror bigger than whole planets. When Althared was talking alwut arming Trine, he said . . . what? Sunlight from a hundred thousand klicks around Trine? That’s ten to the sixteenth square meters. Three hundred thousand trillion. A mirror bigger than whole planets. Now laugh.”

Pillbugs rescue their ship from direct reentry.

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    Thank you for this! i enjoyed this one years back and just couldn’t remember it. You’ve been really helpful!
    – Ben King
    Dec 28, 2023 at 21:23
  • You're welcome. John Rennie's answer came in seconds before I edited the blockquotes and pressed "Answer.". Dec 28, 2023 at 21:34

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