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V. Earthbound


Clay and Rachel presented their findings about fifty hours later, in an amphitheater that had apparently once been a roofed meeting hall. They stood on a stage in the center of the arena, with a dozen leaders of factions or gangs or branches of government or battling business units. Around them, milling about on the sloping concrete surface or sitting on benches or stones or plastic crates, another three dozen watched. The locals had found three different-sized video screens and contrived to stream the feed from the two Ghosts. Rachel was holding forth. Clay watched with pride and a sincere hope that she was not especially mad at him by now.

“Okay,” she was saying, flashing some clips of their fights with those hungry space balls, “this is what we call a mouthhole. We don’t know if you call them aliens exactly—we’re not sure they have brains and stuff. But they eat spaceship, they seem to eat metal, and the debris in orbit seems to be from your satellites getting eat by mouthholes. Don’t worry, they don’t like air, they can’t come down here and eat your, um, ATVs.” On the screen, now, everyone was looking at the garbage-can-size chunk, with its mouth marks. “See,” she said, circling the spot, “that’s what you call diagnostic. A mouthhole chewed up your satellite.”

“Are they still out there?” asked an old woman who was some sort of medic and therefore respected.

“We didn’t see any,” Rachel replied. “But they can sweep in quickly if they think there’s something to eat. They have basically three characteristics we know of: they eat spaceship, they accelerate and decelerate at these ridiculous rates, and they dislike atmosphere. Oh, and we have a frequency we can set our laser guns to that can crack them open and make them explode. I guess we could equip you, if you had any fighters, any explorer probes or anything.”

The leaders all shook their heads. “We have a couple shuttles,” said Parthon, “but they haven’t flown in fifty years. We used to have a space station, you know. We had abandoned it already. We wondered what happened to it.”

“Don’t look for it to crash anywhere,” said Rachel. “It’s powder now. But listen, I need to advise you about a couple of other things. One is this: you can avoid the mouthholes by staying on the ground, that’s fine, but there’s other aliens you would want to meet up there rather than let them catch you all down here. We met a species we call the Primoids because the only way we can communicate with them started with the fact that they know their prime numbers just like we do. And they have these big ships and some of them, anyway, might use them to blow your bubbles into little bits. We managed to fight them off, but we had help from some Primoid rebels. But there are at least two other species out there. Three, really. There’s someone who comes in with big mining fleets and mines all the iron in a system, even if they have to blow big holes in inhabited planets. Then there’s a species we know of that left a record on platinum disks. We don’t know what those say yet but we’ll find out when we get them back to our linguists. You have any linguists? We can give you guys the scans we made, maybe you can figure out something.”

“Sure,” said Parthon. “Copy for me,” said Relien and the medic and two older men with beards. “Me too, of course,” said Fulmar. “It’s a bunch of bleep,” said Nee.

“You’re just bleep for brains,” said one of the bearded men. “No bleep,” said the other.

“Oh kay,” said Rachel, and they all gave her their attention one more time. “Then there’s this.” She fingered her fighter display, on her open hatch, and there on each screen was a hexagonal plaque, turning in three dimensions. “We’ve found plaques like this, they’re made of an osmium-iridium alloy, at every place we’ve been including Bluehorse. The evidence is that they’re quite old, maybe hundreds of millions or billions of years old. They have symbols on them, but the linguists say there’s too few to decipher so far. But maybe with one from here and one from Holey, they might have enough. And the next place we’re going might have one too, you know.”

“That would be Earth,” said Parthon.

“You mean,” said the medic, “ that our space boys have been flying past a thing like this on every mission, and we never noticed. A hundred spacecraft exploring the outer solar system and we never noticed it.”

“We flew by it,” said Rachel, “if it’s there, we did, and we have the sensors to see stuff like that, but maybe it was on the other side of the solar system, or maybe we didn’t get one.”

“It’s just a picture,” said a muscular and truculent young man. “It ain’t real.”

“Mister Gilbert,” said Rachel. Clay turned to his fighter, leaned in, and came out carrying the Gliese 581 plaque. Down here, the thing was heavy, but he managed to cart it ten meters into the midst of the leadership and drop it with a dusty thump. The leaders stepped back and then surged forward to examine the thing. Clay felt a hand on his rear end. Yes, Rachel was copping a feel. He dropped back next to her and they held hands. He sent a silent prayer of thanks to whomever.

“So,” he said, “are we ready to head for home?”

Rachel looked up at the sky. It was clear over the bubbles, the sun at sunset again. Stars were starting to pop up here and there, though the Sun would not be bright enough to stand out much even in a dark sky. “Yeah,” she said, “that’s going to be interesting, isn’t it?”