The third planet of the Holey System was indeed dominated by holes, and by the mountainous piles excavated from them. Its low orbits were strewn with bits and pieces, not so much a lost satellite or moon as random trash, heavy in corroded metals. The double Ghost cruised right on through the thin layers. Landing on the sunset side—the planet’s day period was just under sixty hours—the colors were golden pink toward the star, brownish grey in the highlands, condensing to a deep green in the cleft where some sort of plant life seemed to manage. The great hole of a sea or lake was black as night, a pupil without an iris.
He circled over a long cleft between overturned chunks, looking for a landing spot, his hover thrust easily balancing the planet’s gravity against his doubled mass. The atmosphere lay mostly down low, so he scanned along a V-shaped cleft between upturned chunks of planetary crust. Rachel read off what the sensors picked up: fifteen percent oxygen, traces of pollution, cracks in the side of Cyclopean mountains venting gases.
“I’ll tell you what they did,” said Rachel. “They came here, whoever they were, and they bored holes into the planet and then they dug underneath, following the veins of whatever. Iron, I guess. Then over time the volcanism took over, after they left, and whole underground sections started collapsing. That’s why it looks so weird.”
“It would look weird anyway,” said Clay, “but what you describe is why it looks even weirder.”
“Yeah. So. Hmm. Beachside property? Down this cleft, yeah, see? Big hole there. Full of water. But the cleft runs right down to the waterside. We could skinny dip.”
“Think there’s any life?”
“Definite on greenery,” said Rachel. “Nothing moving. Nothing. Yep, chlorophyll’s evolved here or somewhere, but I wouldn’t say it’s thriving. I read some sort of topsoil like stuff, but then there’s a lot more of that scattered about—I guess someone brought life here and it got established, but then the miners came and blew everything up, and it’s just starting to get back to equilibrium.”
“Which doesn’t include tigers or T. rexes waiting to munch on us.”
“Nope. Not even mosquitoes.” She turned her helmeted gaze on him. “So you have a go to land.”
“Okey dokey,” said Clay. “Here goes.” He took the fighter down into the valley and into the atmosphere, and slowed down to a mere eight kilometers per second. “Does it annoy you when I say ‘okey dokey’?”
“No, it doesn’t annoy me especially,” replied Rachel, scrunched in next to him. They were both in their vac suits. She had given up on helping and was just letting him drive.
“Not more than everything else about me?”
“Clay,” said Rachel, “I can choose to be annoyed, I mean, one can choose to be annoyed, at any time and by anything. I’m not feeling annoyed right now. Take advantage of that.” He smirked. She added, “Am I annoying you right now?”
“Ha!” he said. “Hardly. Rachel, nothing you do ever annoys me.”
She smirked in her turn and made a little laughing noise. “Bull-bleep,” she said quietly. They smirked at each other, and then he pulled up to a stop a hundred meters up, and they dropped gently down to the shore of the black water. They climbed out and walked to the water’s edge, where the cleft, now almost flat, lapped the water. A little stream ran down from behind them. Plant life of a sort seemed to be managing here, though he didn’t pick up anything like an animal: all those stalky or lurky grey-green-brown things seemed perfectly rooted. Without a breeze of any significance, they weren’t stirring a bit.
The fighter pilots looked around. They had the sense of ruins, though everything looked like loose piles of garbage. A trip to the dump was called for, Clay thought. But something about the ruins attracted his attention. The shapes, left in a moist atmosphere with just about enough oxygen for tens or hundreds of thousands of years, were still suggestive. He let them keep suggesting in the back of his mind while he trailed after Rachel.
This little ocean was almost perfectly round and 110 kilometers across. They could see the other side, because, everywhere along its shoreline but here, black cliffs rose tens of kilometers. Down, Clay’s ship sensors had told them, the water ran to a depth of over a hundred kilometers and ended in a very uneven floor, possibly with side passages. He shuddered: he was thinking Lovecraft thoughts again.
“What?” she said.
“Ever read ‘At the Mountains of Madness’?”
“Yeah,” said Rachel. They spent another ten seconds considering the deep and what might come up from it, and then they turned to their repair job and forgot all about H. P. Lovecraft.
Considering the shape Rachel’s Ghost had been in, and considering that less than a year ago, in their personal chronologies, Rachel and Clay had no more been able to repair spaceships than to make a decent vegetarian rib roast, the actual repair went pretty smoothly. Clay was at his Ghost synthesizing seal tape, glass wiring and parts; Rachel was under hers, which was propped up between two low rocks. Presently she climbed in and hovered up a few meters, the hatch open; she dropped gently down again, hopped out and fiddled some more.
“That should do it,” she said at last. Clay had wandered off and was using his scientific sensor to examine stuff. “Of course we’ll have glitches which we’ll only know about when I try her in space, but we’re not on a timeline, right?” She walked over to him. “What’s up, hunk-o-rama?”
He smirked at her (the official facial expression of Alpha Wing). “Hunk-o-rama?” he repeated. “Anyway, that aside, um, yeah, not on a timeline. Just like this poor thing.”
They looked down. He was kicking pieces of a spherical shell. He bent and pushed several of them together. It was nearly black and seemed like anodized steel. It had veins on the inside.
“Dead mouthhole,” said Rachel. “Huh. You didn’t do that, did you?”
“No,” he said. “There’s a couple more, buried under rubble. See?” He pointed his sensor’s light into the wreckage: sure enough, there were a couple more pieces of black sphere. It looked like it all added up to three or more of them.
“So? What do you think happened?”
“Every picture tells a story,” said Clay. “And I think I can tell this story.”