Note: This is a double post, Yesterday we got up at 4:40 am, drove to Portland, trained to Boston, subwayed to Logan Airport, picked up my fiancee’s son, subwayed to South Station, had lunch, walked to the Children’s Museum lugging all the luggage (that’s why they call it luggage), museumed for two hours, walked back, subwayed to North Station, had some junk food, trained back to Portland and drove home, arriving in Wilton ME after 10 pm. Then we had to get the two boys (hers and mine) to bed and us to bed and I was EXHAUSTED. So. This one is a double. The second half was what I wrote on the train on the way down.
The distant beacons of 667 A and B gleamed like brighter versions of Venus in the indigo sky, and the much nearer red orb of C spread larger than the Sun from Earth, if dimmer. The two Ghosts, now separated by ten meters of vacuum, slowed into the neighborhood and took up the same orbit as the middle planet, the one that would have been slightly preferred by a divine Goldilocks, and began to examine it carefully.
“No water to speak of,” said Clay. “No life on the surface, well, not enough to see from up here.”
“We couldn’t see the algae in Algaeville from space either,” said Rachel.
“No indeed. I was evading your questions about my relationship with Vera, and I stuck my probe in and there it was.”
“You told me you weren’t evading my questions.”
“I wasn’t very successful,” said Clay.
“Well, of course not,” said Rachel, “you’re a guy and I’m a girl. So should we land and you let me needle you about the relationship you’re in now?”
“Oh, you can help me figure that one out. Sometimes I really wonder what’s going on in her pretty little head, but all she has to do is smile at me that way and I do what she says.”
“Then what’s to figure out?”
They kept on bantering, in among chess and Set, as they began to catch up to the planet in its private elliptical race course. “We’re up to three little moons,” said Clay.
“Well,” said Rachel, “the largest is two kilometers long. It could almost fit inside the Canada. Anything interesting about them?”
“No,” said Clay. “They’re icy rock, and not much for metals. The whole system is low on metals, it must be a very old star system. It outlived a generation or two of stellar death and rebirth. On the other hand, none of these have the same signatures as the planet, so I guess they’re captured asteroids.”
“Not surprising,” said Rachel. “Three stars makes for a lot of turbulence, the asteroids must get kicked around a good bit, there’d be lots of chances for asteroid capture.”
“Roger that,” said Clay. “I think there may be groundwater, by the way, at least at the north pole. No ice or anything, but I have a definite on water erosion patterns, I bet it’s gone from the surface but it’s still there on top of bedrock.”
“I get that. Check the spectra on the surface soil there, I’m looking at about 85 degrees north, that patch of open dunes. Got crystals, I think that’s aragonite, or something like it. Definitely was water on the surface once.” She paused, then snickered, the official laugh of Alpha Wing. “Listen to us. Space jockeys.”
“Doesn’t it feel weird to you? That somehow we’re experts on star systems? I was a freight shuttle jockey. I knew how to land on the Moon, which is not exactly challenging when you get down to it. What were you?”
“I tried med school,” said Rachel. “Didn’t I ever tell you? I dropped out, and I thought I’d take the pilot tests to get into pilot school and do what you did.”
“You killed those tests, I bet.”
“Oh yeah. I got a call from Su Park herself. Ah, the days.”
“You realize, my dear Rachel, that you and I know more about space than just about anyone else who is not part of Alpha or Beta or possibly Gamma Wings.”
“Or the Tasmania crew. Don’t underestimate ol’ Alfred Kalkar.” They flew on for a minute, the planet slowly growing into disk-ness before them. “So. Game of—?” She stopped.
“Clay. Do you pick anything up out, oh, heading 172, elevation 20 degrees?”
He checked. He checked again. “Oh man,” he said. “Oh, that would be yes.”
Back there, almost directly behind them, ships were appearing: one, and another, and then a third. They seemed to come from the vicinity of the outer planet of 667C. The planet was co-orbital with a misty cloud of particles, which may or may not once have been a moon or a comet or another very small planet: possibly the cloud hid a very small planet, and possibly that was where the three ships came from. There wasn’t much doubt who was inside them.
“Bleeping primoids,” said Rachel.
“The question is, are they good Primoids or bad Primoids?” asked Clay.
“The question is, do they see us or not?” Rachel replied. “All things considered, we’re better off not being seen than being seen. I’m setting a course that should take us into the planet’s sunny side and then down, and we’ll pick a landing spot when we know more.”
Clay waited patiently, watching the Primoid cruisers—he was getting surer by the minute that was what they were—and watching the planet grow before them. The new navigation came through, and he approved it without thinking about it. After a minute, he said, “Rachel.”
“So I get that those cruisers or whatever they are might be friends or might be enemies, and either way we’re safe being out of sight. But what about the Primoids on the planet? How do we know they’re better than the ones in space? Are we going to hide from them both?”
“We don’t know who’s good or bad,” said Rachel, “but if they were the same, why would the ones on the ground be hunkered down like they are? And if they’re different, then which one would you guess are rebels, the ones hunkered down on the ground or the ones in space who suddenly appear when we’re in the system?”
“Okay. I’m with you. But you do remember that even the rebels shot at you back on Candy One.”
“Yes, Clay, I do remember that.”
“And you have a plan.”
“Yes, Clay, I have a plan.”
“Rachel, I never doubted you for a minute.”
“A second or two, maybe, right?” asked Rachel. “That’s fine. You never know when I’m going to lead you astray. So, do you want to watch those guys while I scope out the surface?”
So they continued to catch up on the planet, and presently the navigation was taking them to the left, to pass over the sunny side. The high deserts glowed orange in the light of the star, which was close but dim. The cloud cover was patchy, but there wasn’t much for geological landmarks: the atmosphere seemed to be in constant motion, washing the sand and dust around and filling in any rifts or craters that the years in their billions might have accumulated. Toward the poles, the land appeared to rise in a series of rugged highlands lined with hundred-meter cliffs.
He tore his eyes from the daunting hunk of rock glowing in the red sun before him, and made his sensors focus on the ships in their rear view. They were three of the Primoids’ escort cruisers, which, in Clay’s experience, had served mostly as tenders for their fighters. The Primoids themselves were not especially large, but their ships, including their fighters and their missiles, seemed at least double the size they needed to be. These were still a long way away, at least two hundred million kilometers, i.e. more than ten light minutes. They were closing, however, and they were also multiplying as the sensors cleared.
“Gah,” he said all of a sudden. “Fighters. They have fighters too. Not that I’m surprised.”
“No, me either,” said Rachel. “Let me guess. Nine?”
“That’s what it looks like.”
“Okay, well, each of us is worth at least three of those fighters, but that still leaves three plus the cruisers to dance on our graves, so that’s not acceptable odds.”
“Nope,” said Clay, “not even for us.”
“Any indication that they see us?”
“Other than the fact that they’re in space at all, and headed toward the planet?”
Rachel didn’t reply. The Ghosts were coming around, and the planet now cut off the view to the little Primoid fleet. Rachel took them down over the highlands and slowed them to a few thousand kilometers per hour. She was transmitting now toward the structures near the pole: simple bursts of noise, ||, |||, |||||, |||||||, |||||||||||, |||||||||||||.
And then, just as those structures began to be visible under low magnification, just as the fighters stirred dust devils on the ground just ten or twenty meters below them, they began to receive bursts of noise in return: |||, |||||||, |||||||||||||…