The little colony on the 500-km stony ball of Vesta, an improbable success until just recently, now consisted only of burst bubbles and dead hydroponics. Its population of several thousand humans, supported by several thousand acres of water gardens, had been consigned to mostly hidden frozen graves. Flying over, Rachel and Clay saw only three definite human remains, all adults, all in vac suits, all with holes in them.
Flying over, at an altitude of a dozen meters, Rachel and Clay were not tempted to land and investigate. “Big tall glass of nope,” said Rachel. “Maybe on the way back.”
“Full fathom five thy father lies,” Clay quoted.
“What was that?”
“Full fathom five thy father lies, of his bones are corals made, those are pearls that were his eyes, nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea change, into something rich and strange.”
“Hm? Shakespeare, forsooth?” she guessed. “What made you think of that?”
“I don’t know,” he said, a lump in his throat. “I expect we’ll need that thought.”
“Well, let’s get there,” said Rachel. “I say no Mars flyover. It would be just a little out of the way.”
“Again, there will be time,” said Clay.
“Ah. T. S. Eliot, now.” They both smirked, invisible to each other in the blackness of space.
So they came up off Vesta and set course across the gulf of three hundred million kilometers to Earth. They both thought, separately, about evasive or covert approaches, but they both, separately, concluded that they might as well just go, and so they made the crossing exactly as if they were the only sentient beings in the solar system.
The huge vessels, and the not so huge vessels that were nonetheless huge, and the vessels so bleeping huge that the huge vessels looked tiny next to them, paid no attention to the two fighters approaching at up to five percent of the speed of light. They flew along ten meters apart, shooting chess and Set moves at each other, then playing through a variety of navigational scenarios, then discussing in an abstract way what sort of firefights they might get into.
But they had no way of knowing what kinds of weapons, what maneuvering skills, what sensor systems, what thrust technology might be ranged against them. So they threw up their hands and moved on to cartography, and while that was far less abstract, and thus was far more satisfying, it was not a happy way to pass the time.
On careful inspection, Africa, Europe, North America, South America, Australia, Antarctica were all discernable. Asia was there: the Himalayas were hard to miss, but the eastern wing, Kamchatka and Japan and lowland China, were gone, along with the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos. The miners had presumably determined that the crust under the oceans was thinner than that under the continents, and had consequently dug big holes, somehow, in the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean. Finding some sort of weakness north of the Black and Caspian Seas, they had drilled several hundred kilometer holes in what had once been the Steppe; these had filled with water and constituted new inland seas. The Pacific mining area was the primary one, as they had presumably found the Ring of Fire a good entry to the upper mantle, and there were mining operations ongoing in the sectors that had once been the East China Sea, the Aleutian Islands and the California and Mexican coasts.
“I have definite on animal life,” said Rachel as they decelerated toward Earth orbit. “Fish in, um, that’s Hudson Bay. Black Sea has something.”
“Bears,” said Clay.
“Bears. Look.” He sent her s short clip of a blowup of the northern wastes of what had been Russia, and sure enough, there was a family group of half a dozen brown bears galumphing across the battered grasses. They chuckled over this, then moved their views onward. “No people yet,” said Clay.
“Nope. No people.”
They came into high orbit, trying to stay antipodal to the seven gigantic mining ships and the gigantic—was it a starbase or was it a sort of death star? There were satellites in orbit, dozens of them, but not the human ones: these were clearly made things, made of composites that were partly metallic and partly something else, and how they were not human was not obvious, but they were distinctly alien. Clay was aware of a slight temptation to go into a reverie about the mysteries of the alien minds that made them, but the situation at hand was not conducive to reverie. Even to wonder about the last minutes of civilization or the long night ahead or the ironies of the troubled race of H. sapiens meeting its end in such a prosaic way: Clay did not feel up to it. Instead he and Rachel just shut down and took readings, bugs flitting slowly across the high airs, too tiny for the great beasts to wonder about.
“Clay,” said Rachel, in that tone.
“There are no humans alive down there. None. Know why?”
She sent him an image. It was a puddle on a beach. She let him take that in, then zoomed him in to see what was in the water. It was many dots, many little dead things: many single cells, broken, just floating. He didn’t say anything, waiting for her to explain. She did. “Phagocytes,” she said. “Human-like. But not human, artificial. Made somewhere else. How can I tell?”
“Yeah, and nitrogen, N14 and N15. Not from around here. Wrong proportions.”
“So. They made human phagocytes and seeded the ocean with them? So they could eat us up?”
“Nope. They’ve got virus. They didn’t inject the world with virus, they injected it with phagocytes that carry something like a virus. Clever.”
“Rachel, I don’t understand. Can we land? Those things can’t get through our vac suits.”
“Clay. We can land. I bet we can open our helmets. The things did their work, killed humans and only humans, and then promptly died. Oh, very clever indeed, mining aliens. Well played.” She pulled the view in close, and he could see that the phagocyte-like cells were all torn up, as the viroids or whatever escaped to infect someone. Then she pulled out: the puddle, the beach, the nearby sea, the Atlantic off North Africa. “Well,” she said, “where shall we land?”
“I don’t know,” said Clay, who felt like turning around and flying the other direction. But he scanned across the world and spotted a spot. “Quebec,” he said. “Yeah. They haven’t done too much to Ville de Quebec. Might as well go back and see how it looks.”