VII. Blasted Gliese
The video from Gil Rojette’s fighter—no one in the fleet called them explorer pods anymore—showed two, then three very dark, roughly spherical objects coming at him very fast from different directions. Over a matter of seconds they seemed to get larger very fast. One of the things did hit Rojette’s fighter, just after he said, “Whoa, look out.” In momentary closeup, something like a black, bony beach ball came up, grew a round, lamprey-like mouth (visible on infrared as a slightly warmer black within the cold black shell) and rammed this new mouth into the Ghost. Rojette cursed floridly: the video was shaken up but the sound kept on.
Rojette: Oh God.
Bluehorse: I got you. 220, 55, 7200. Re 1.5, green 40.5, full amp. Direct hit… Did nothing. Gil, I got nothing. Get out of there.
R: I’m getting, there’s three. I got a hole, I got a bite out of—
B: What the—? Where did they—?
R: I don’t know, okay? Ah, I’m screwed, just run, Bluey.
B: Not going to. Direct hit. Dangit. Nothin’, man, up the blue, dump the stupid green. Got 1.5, 3.5, uh, 50 or so, there, hey…
R: What were those numbers?
B: 1.5, 3.5, 51.4, full.
R: Dang. Bluey, get out of there, I’ll cover.
B: Negative, wing second, you got damage, just cover me, got the settings? Dangit.
R: Fire, Bluey. Look, oh man. Oh bleep…
Vilya: Rojette, Bluehorse, get out of there.
Li Zan: Rojette. Get out.
Three of the things became four and then five. Rojette’s maneuver in the one second after the initial impact had been to back up at full acceleration: the snapping shut of his helmet was audible, as was the air departing his fighter through a hole the size of a large pizza. Then another Ghost 201 could be seen cutting in front, between Rojette and the black bony beach balls. It was Bluehorse, and they could see her firing, to little effect. Two seconds later she was shooting again, and her fire, whether you called it an amplified mechanical laser or a photon cannon, was noticeably more efficacious. The thing she shot at froze in space and was propelled away, and took no further part in the fight, although it did not do anything like explode spectacularly.
But now there were four of them coming at her. She whirled and shot one, just enough to stall it, and then whirled again and missed. Shots from Rojette seemed to connect, to some effect. But two of the things hit Bluehorse’s Ghost from opposite directions and tore her craft to bits. It was difficult to watch, but everyone gamely watched it before Park ran it back to the beginning of the encounter and left it there.
She looked around. They were in the Captain’s meeting room on the Canada: not the big hall where they had space for hundreds, but a sort of board room with a big table and room for twenty to thirty to hold a Productive Meeting. All twelve wing fighter pilots were there, including Bonnie Bain, around one end of the table; the same number of big ship people were in attendance. These included the three armored freighter captains, the four colony ship captains, their four “mission administrators,” and Tasmania’s mechanics, Patricia “Padfoot” Hixon and her assistant Gene Bell. Alice Grohl, the colonists’ universally accepted chief representative, made twenty-six.
They were not yelling at each other or manipulating each other. They mostly looked dazed, though several appeared nauseous.
Captain Schwinn of the Canada sashayed over to float near Park. “That was quite, uh, graphic,” she said. “I guess we owe a fair amount to the sacrifice of pilot Jana Bluehorse.”
“We do,” said Captain Ted Trein of the Argentina. “But I guess there’s at least the possibility that they might only chomp on little ships. What do you guys think? Uh, I ask the, uh, fighter pilots,” he added, putting emphasis on the last two words, while looking Sister Shia Tang in the eye.
“Commander,” said Gil Rojette, who, like most of the pilots, was more or less seated, his pants clinging loosely to the chair.
“Mister Rojette,” said Agneska Vilya, leaning against the wall behind.
“I don’t know for sure, but I would be surprised if they turned up their noses or whatever at a colony ship. Maybe the size might intimidate them, but I doubt it. And we have the France’s disappearance still unexplained.”
“All right,” said Schwinn, “so did you think you found the proper combination of wavelengths?”
“Based on what Jana was trying,” said Rojette, “I think we had a decent combination to deter them, and even maybe stun them a little, but we surely can do better. We’ve been monkeying around and we think we might have some new combinations to try.”
“They’ve gone out to all the fighter pilots,” said Park. “Miss, uh, Padfoot, and Mr Bell, were very helpful. Your engineers have them as well, in case you see your way to adjusting some of your exterior mechanical lasers.”
Schwinn looked around the other three colony ship captains. They all nodded except Trein, who raised his eyebrows and shrugged.
“All right,” said Schwinn, “so what do we think they are, these things? Are they carbon based? Are they sentient? What do we know?”
“As it happens,” said Park, “my wing third is an exobiologist. Miss Kleiner?”
“They’re not entirely carbon-based,” said Natasha, sitting next to Clay. “Their spectra show carbon and silicon and iron in their shells or whatever. As to sentience,” she said, and stopped to look around. No one was in a mood to interrupt. “Well, who knows, really, but do they show intelligence? Maybe they do. They do seem to communicate. One found us, Alpha Wing, and chewed through our conduit. Within days, a dozen of them were sort of exploring that area. If you look at the hour or two before the attack that killed Jana, there was one at a distance, sort of wandering between Rojette and Bluehorse on one side and Vilya and Li Zan on the other.”
“We picked it up a couple times and lost it,” said Li Zan.
“Well, the colony ships start to appear, and what, five of them are there all of a sudden. Either they communicate or they can smell in space.”
“And smell things, like, light hours away,” said Natasha.
“And they can accelerate at a thousand gees or more,” said Captain Kalkar.
“And they have mouths,” said Rachel.
“We noticed that, actually,” said Captain Garant of the Egypt. “So what are we calling them? I don’t think we can call them ‘those things’ much longer.”
“Bleeping little bastards with mouths,” suggested Gil Rojette.
The pilots thought they’d go take over the Canada’s main observation deck and get drunk and dance, but they couldn’t get up the enthusiasm. Rachel got herself a pale ale, and Clay got one and sat down with her, and when Natasha came over, Rachel said, “The heck with this. So, I made up a little simulator thing.”
“A simulator thing?” said Vera Santos, sitting down next to Rachel.
“I’m going to guess,” said Natasha, “she’s fed in the data about the BLBM’s.”
“BLBM’s?” repeated Vera.
“What Rojette called them. Bleeping Little Bastards with Mouths.”
“Lumpoids of Death,” said Clay.
“Shadowballs,” said Bouvier, hovering near.
“Mouthholes,” said Timmis.
“Jana’s Bane,” said Clay.
“What?” asked Bonnie Bain, next to him. She was one beer ahead, and a little giddy: Clay was feeling waves of affectionate pal-ship from her direction. She handed him a pipe, lit.
He looked up at Su Park, who reached down and took the pipe from him. She took a drag on it and handed it to Vilya.
“No, Bane, like something that causes your doom or something.” For some reason this line caught people’s attention: at least seven fighter pilots were looking at him, which Clay was not used to. “Okay,” said Clay, “gonna guess that Rachel wants us to go try out her simulator.”
So they repaired to the Canada’s bay, where each of the twelve climbed into her or his fighter and set up the simulation. They formed up into wings in cyberspace, Bonnie Bain taking tail in Beta Wing.
“All right,” said Rachel, “let’s try Simulation Level One.”
Each wing had its own little bony black beach ball. The frequency patterns that Bluehorse had worked out were somewhat effective, but they didn’t seem to do it any actual damage and eventually the thing would get to one of them: it was Clay, the first time, who suddenly saw it careening toward him, seemingly standing still as it got larger and larger. And then it hit him. Mouth open. And then there was a cute animation of a cartoon version of the thing eating his display, and he was dead.
He climbed out of his Ghost. Against her ghost, right next to his in Beta’s row, Bonnie Bain leaned, having another pipeful. He floated over and she handed him the pipe. “So,” she said, “got killed first, you too?”
“Yeah, but unlike in life, in a simulation you always get more tries. We should vary the frequencies. Oh, maybe try missiles. I wonder what we could do with one of those.” He was waving the pipe, and Vera Santos appeared out of her fighter, took it and had a drag.
“One of what?” said Vera.
“A missile. You know, the scout probe, except that I think we’re allowed to call it a missile now.”
“Well,” said Bain, who had spent less time in simulators than he had, but more time in the mechanics’ shops aboard the France and the Corsica, “our current missile guidance system is all about chasing a signal, and we don’t have a signal here, or do we?”
“A signal? What sort of signal are we talking about?”
“Oh, you know, if you wanted to use missiles against another Ghost, you’d aim it and it would go blow up anything that emitted the same types of signals that a Ghost emits. You can fool systems like that, but they’re smart systems and it’s not easy to fool them. But these things. What would you hear?” She took the pipe back and took a pull. “Digestion?”
“Okay,” said Clay, “let’s think about that.”
More hatches opened. Tremblay got out, looked at Natasha getting out, and they both laughed. In a minute everyone was standing outside their Ghosts.
“So, any luck?” asked Park. “I had plenty of luck. I was the last one to get chomped.”
“Me too,” said Gil Rojette. “Ironic, huh?”
“Yeah,” said Vilya, “love the little graphic at the end, Rachel. Very cute. Anyone got any ideas? Because that was just one of those guys, folks. Gil and Bluey went up against five of them.”
“Yeah, I do have ideas, actually,” said Rachel. “I got some ideas. Don’t know if they’ll work.”
So they tried some new ideas. They tweaked the photon frequencies. They changed them wholesale. They fiddled with the missiles. They tried changing their guidance to pick up something that the mouthholes emitted. None of it was much help, but then neither Rachel nor anyone else knew what might blow one of the things up, so that couldn’t be built into the program, at least not with any reliability.
They did get a little better at it. Four on one, Alpha Wing, with slightly altered photon numbers, managed to surround their single foe and beat it mercilessly: it became no more than a punching bag with a biting mouth. Later, facing three at a time, the Alphas dodged and shot and dodged and shot and survived four whole minutes before Clay, then Natasha, got the bite put on them, rendering them less maneuverable; soon they were being chomped. From there, Park and Rachel were goners, though their missiles, at short range, did seem to put the simulated mouthholes off their feed for a bit.
The other wings reported similar progress, if that was what it was. “Rachel,” said Bouvier, “you have to build in some way we can kill these guys.”
“I did, actually,” said Rachel, “but I was just guessing on that. I told the simulator what I thought they were made of, and it made them that way. I guess I could assume a bit less.”
“It would do wonders for morale,” said Bouvier. “And who knows, it might possibly be accurate.”
“Accurate, schmaccurate,” said Vilya. “Let’s go have a drink or ten.”
This time, the observation lounge was full of colony ship officers. It looked like they were having a
sort of Christmas party. They looked like giants to the fighter pilots, of course, and giants floating
around weightless and drunk.
“Tasmania,” said Park, and they repaired thither, taking over the open regions of Main Freight. Rojette and Rachel and Jane Tremblay set up the sound system, which involved three different music disks, each one representing a different wing second’s take on music history: somehow this all fell naturally into the job description of wing second. So the pilots drank replicated wine and sake and ouzo and rum and whisky and pale ale and even egg nog. They passed around pipes of all sizes, mostly made from spare ship parts. Kalkar and Padfoot and Jack Dott all put in an appearance, and Park left with them, in animated conversation with Kalkar. They were all carrying sippy cups of wine.
Clay tried to keep his drinking down to a low level, and he had a very polite relationship to the various kinds of pipe that were being passed around. He found himself chatting with Rachel about weaponry and programming the simulator; just when he was feeling a little bored, she said, “Enough shop talk. I’m going to go try and get Timmis to dance.” Clay smiled at her, then looked up as Natasha floated over.
“You wanna dance, Romeo?” asked Natasha, and they danced for a couple of songs, the usual Tech Dreck of 2331, which, Clay supposed, might now pass for classical music. He did love dancing with Natasha. He never felt, with her, that she was grasping at his heart: her aim was always a little higher or a little lower or both. Between the first dance and the second, they looked around, giggled, and smooched a little in the middle of the dance floor. After the second song, Clay went to see what he could order up on the music list, mere tail pilot that he was.
Clay managed to get “Gimme Shelter” onto the list before Timmis and Li Zan interrupted to get him to talk about weapons. Bonnie Bain joined them. He let the talk wash over him, while Natasha was dancing with Vera and Tremblay, Rachel and Gil Rojette were dancing, and Vilya and Bouvier were engaged in a sort of vague terpsichore, while still talking. Clay supposed they were talking about photon frequencies and missile guidance. He floated a little away from the other three, gazing at Natasha and Vera. Love, sister, it’s just a kiss away, it’s just a kiss away.
“Everyone’s having such a good time,” said Bonnie Bain from about a centimeter away.
“This is your first fighter pilot party, isn’t it?” asked Clay.
Bain said something he couldn’t hear. She was dancing, floating in the air, her short blond hair flouncing around her head, her vac suit unzipped almost to her navel. She said something else and laughed.
“What?” asked Clay.
“I said, do you want to dance?”
“Can I stand here like this and pretend to dance?”
“We can do other things and you don’t have to pretend,” he thought she said.
“Clay,” said Vera right next to him. She grabbed his arm. “We need to talk.”
“What? What about?” he said, looking at Bonnie Bain. She and Vera looked like they were about to start a shoving match. “Vera.”
“God damn it, Clay,” said Vera. “We’re in trouble here and you’re—!”
“What? He’s what?” Bain challenged her. “I thought the idea was to party. Or am I not part of the group enough yet? Is that it?”
“Yeah, that’s it, actually,” said Vera. “I don’t think you get it yet. Bain,” she added, as though it were another word starting with B.
“Hey, hey,” said Clay.
“Hey, settle down, you guys,” said Natasha, coming over.
“Hey Clay,” said Rachel in Clay’s ear. “I had a bright idea. Want to help me work on it?” He turned: she nodded toward the forward freight door. “Doesn’t that sound better than being in the middle of this?”
He followed her through the door, and she padded it shut behind them. “I’m so confused,” he said. “Does Vera still care for me? Or what?”
“Typical ex behavior, actually,” said Rachel. “I’ve seen it all before.”
“Seriously? You have?” he asked. “And Bonnie?”
“She only wants you because you’re the Chosen One,” Rachel quoted.
“But I am the Chosen One,” replied Clay, dazed as much by Rachel knowing the Harry Potter films as by anything else that had happened.
Rachel and Clay, not terribly drunk, wandered through the halls of the Tasmania, then floated across, or down, or up, a straight gangway tube to the colony ship Canada, and then through the spacious hallways of the Canada to the fighter bay. They saw a couple of colony ship crew, who nodded and smiled, but no one else.
“Okay,” said Rachel as they entered the bay, “bear in mind I don’t have any assurance my brilliant idea will work.”
“Can you tell me what your brilliant idea is?”
“Well, where’s the fun in that?”
“Let’s just put it this way,” said Rachel. “I came at the problem from a conflict-averse standpoint. Get in your fighter. We’re a wing of two.”
“Okey dokey,” he said, getting into his Ghost. In a minute they were flying through a simulated universe. There was the dim gleam of colony ships just dropping to a speed at which they could meaningfully reflect photons. Then there was a speck of blackness blacker than the blackness of the heavens. Then there were three of them, shooting toward Rachel and Clay, zigging and zagging like bugs while accelerating like subatomic particles.
“Engage your PCM,” said Rachel.
“Passive countermeasures? Really?”
“I’m your commanding officer and if you don’t engage your PCM in the next 2.2 seconds, buster, you are going on report. And dying.”
He said to his Ghost, “Engage PCM.”
“Give it zeroes across the board, and a ten in each of places 22, 23 and 26. Got that?”
“Got that,” said Clay, fingering the dials. “So with all those zeroes,” he said, “we’re not actually masking anything to do with the power system. What are we masking or whatever?”
“Graviton signatures from the engines,” said Rachel. “Now let’s fly up and see if they’ll talk to us.”
The two fighters shot across space, and the three black things shot toward them. And then past. The middle one went overhead, from Clay’s point of view, at a distance of a few thousand kilometers. They dwindled into the distance, then turned and began to chaotically search the region they had just crossed. Clay and Rachel flew around the same region, approaching each of the three at one point or another, but they didn’t seem to notice. Finally Rachel sent a new maneuver to Clay, and they both turned tail and fled at maximum acceleration.
This time the three things came after them. “It’s like I thought,” said Rachel. “You accelerate too hard and you can be heard.”
“What shall we do now? End the simulation?”
“Nah,” said Rachel, “why not see if anything else we’ve done makes a difference?”
So they dropped the countermeasures and turned to fight. As it turned out, only their cumulative experience seemed to have made a difference. The two of them lasted a lot longer than they had the first time they had faced numbers, but at some point two of the mouthholes managed to snag Clay and eat him, and then Rachel was toast as well. She climbed out and found Clay waiting for her.
“So we can probably hide,” said Clay. “Can you hide a colony ship?”
“I really doubt it,” said Rachel. “I’m not sure about anything bigger than us. Their PCM systems work differently from ours. They’re definitely not as good.”
“It’s more of a struggle to manage the signals a big ship emits,” said Clay. “So how realistic is this anyway? What were your assumptions?”
“Oh, I’m totally guessing about what they detect. It stands to reason, that’s all: they move super fast, but they chase a prey that’s super fast. Anything they want to eat is accelerating hard.”
“You know what that means, though, right?”
Rachel looked mystified. “I don’t know, I think it means that anything they want to eat is accelerating hard.”
“It means, my dear Rachel, that there is something for them to eat out here.”
Rachel came around Clay’s fighter and floated up to look him in the face. “It means there’s an ecosystem,” she said, “consisting of things that go to light speed.”
“It means,” said Clay, “that there are more aliens out here than just these guys. There must be more, because these guys eat something and they’ve never had human before. And oh, by the way, they frequent Earth’s neighborhood.”
Rachel and Clay didn’t go back to the party. They got back in their fighters and simulated against each other just for practice, and talked the whole time, while Rachel killed Clay seven times and Clay killed Rachel six times.
After the second time she killed him, while they were resetting, Clay was expecting some trash talk. Instead, Rachel’s voice from the comm said, “Can you work this out for me? I can’t seem to work it out. Bluehorse, I mean. Why she’s dead.”
“What? Well, she hadn’t had a chance to figure out the, um, exact—!”
“Clay,” said Rachel in That Tone. “Clay, I’m serious. She’s gone. Just gone.”
Clay was at a loss for what to say. He was just never sure with Rachel: was she messing around, being silly or snarky, or was she super serious? Was he actually in the position of trying to help Rachel come to terms with the concept of loss?
“Yes,” he said, for in doubt, Clay generally chose truth. “She is gone. There’s no why. She didn’t die for a purpose. But she did die to make a particular thing happen. She died to save Gil Rojette’s life, and she managed it.”
“So she traded herself for him. I mean, I don’t mind, really, he’s a great dancer and I like him as a person and all, but—!”
“But it’s not just that. She thought she had a chance of surviving. She always thinks she’s going to win, she always thought that. I mean, bless her heart, she lost more often than not in the simulator, but you know, you fought her. And besides.”
“She gave us information,” said Rachel. “And we have to use it. Because that way her death counts for something somehow. It has meaning.”
“Rachel, perish the thought,” said Clay. “Are you ready to try and blow me up a few more times or do you need to work out all the philosophical ramifications first?”
“I need to work out all the philosophical what you said,” replied Rachel. “You have to understand. I’m actually not a person who ever really thought she’d be possibly killed by, like, an enemy fighter. Or see her friends killed and want to kill the enemy, but was a tad concerned she might be next.”
“Yeah,” said Clay, “that’s the hard part.”
“Imagine how it is for Gil.”
“Yeah. That would suck. But look,” said Clay, and then he fumbled for words.
“You’d think he’d think he’d need to compensate, somehow,” said Rachel. “Fight the next one for Bluehorse. You know. Earn the right to have been saved.”
“That’s a good one,” said Clay. “I don’t know, though. Do you have a purpose? I never thought I had a purpose. But out here, just the, you know, eight thousand of us or whatever, we’re just so on our own. We have to rely on each other, we have to be willing to sacrifice a few of us for the good of the whole. Not just scatter when there’s a threat.”
“What if,” said Rachel, “scattering was the best way to survive out here?”
“Well, don’t forget,” said Clay, “there’s at least one other species out here, probably more. Scattering is probably dangerous under those conditions: we need to keep together and be ready to dig in and defend our perimeter. Guess what. Turns out, it’s scary out here.”
“Great,” she said. “The night sky always looked too tranquil. I go out here among the ordinary red dwarfs and stuff, and I find myself in the middle of a free fire zone.” She punched up the start of the simulation again. “Ready to go again? Let’s do a ground level scenario.”
So they fought a few ground level fights. Clay was better in those conditions, and he kept even with Rachel. Then she punched up another scenario, and the two of them were navigating over lunar terrain—it was 55 Cancri d’s third largest moon—fighting pairs and quartets of low-quality enemy fighters. As they flew down an ice canyon, parts of four imaginary enemies strewn over the snowy peaks behind them, Rachel asked Clay the other question: “Clay, what is the situation with Natasha and Vera right now? And you? Just confidentially, between us.”
“Confidentially between us, I don’t have the slightest clue.”
“Bull bricks, Clay. You are serious about Tasha, aren’t you? But are you also serious about Vera? Because I would get that, I really would. In a way, you figure there are just so many more women than men in the wings—and of course, of the other ten, the colony ship babies, they had ten, and one’s dead, and I think only one other is a guy, the rest are chicks. And now of course we’ve got Bonnie Bain, of whom more later. But so there are more women than men in the fighter corps. It’s just that—!”
“I’m not the boyfriend of five different women,” said Clay. “I can hardly manage one.”
“You’re not managing Bonnie Bain, too, are you?”
“Ha! No. I let Ron eat all the chocolates with the love potion in them. So if you’re Hermione and I’m Harry, then does that mean Natasha is Ron?”
“Natasha is Ron,” said Rachel. “But actually I’m Harry and you’re Hermione. Tres amusant. But look. Whatever Tasha believes, and I love her, you probably know she’s a whole lot of messed up inside. But if it were me, I would expect a man to be a one woman man, and I would be a one man woman. That would be very important to me. Okay. Coming up on a target—oh, look, four more of these guys. I need to program them to be a little more varied. Maneuver 3A?”
“Is that the one where we drop into the rift valley, split and go up different side valleys, and you lose yours and catch me up?”
“That’s the one,” said Rachel. As they dropped out of the path of the oncoming simulated fighters and started their mad careen down the ice valley, she added, her voice in Clay’s ear: “Why ever would you get to be Harry Potter?”
They simulated till they couldn’t stand to hit the START button anymore, and then they climbed out. Rachel, leaning against her Ghost, pulled out a tiny pipe made of, well, tiny pipes. She filled it with the herbage that Captain Schwinn let the colonists grow hydroponically.
“Rachel,” said Clay, “I didn’t know you smoked.”
“They don’t let the colony ship pilots smoke,” she replied, holding in a lungful. “Here.”
“If you insist,” said Clay.
“Even Schwinn,” said Rachel, breathing smoke out her nose like a dragon. “They think it’s not safe. So Bouvier asked Alice Grohl and they got us some. Even Park says it’s okay as long as we’re not flying low over real planets.”
“So anyway,” said Clay, passing the pipe back, “you smoke.”
“Natasha introduced me,” said Rachel. “Rojette introduced her. Boy, you’re out of the loop.”
“I think it helps with the post-traumatic stuff,” said Rachel.
“Post-traumatic stuff?” he repeated.
“I think you know what I mean,” she replied. “So you and Tasha. Spill. Are you in a relationship or are you not?”
“It’s a secret,” said Clay, taking a second pull on the pipe. It was cleverly designed: it was all low-tech, but the smoke came out cool and thick. He looked at it and laughed. “Odd, we have a good reason to keep it secret, and it’s well known to everyone. Whereas apparently the wing commanders have actually ordered us to smoke up a bit, and no one told me.”
“Well, you and Tash were in your fighters all that time. You couldn’t light a pipe in that small volume, you’d fill up with smoke faster than the system could ever clean it out. And you’d probably melt something. Besides, the new liquor replication software is kick-butt.” She took the pipe back from Clay. “And besides besides,” she said, slipping the pipe into a special side pocket, “the herb they grow isn’t exactly the strongest.”
“It’s strong enough,” said Clay.
“Well, you have a couple of beers in you.”
“One. And half another, but I left the rest rather than get hit by flying glass from those girls fighting over me.”
Rachel grinned. “You can honestly say they were fighting over you. Weird, huh?”
“You don’t even know how weird it is for me. I ever told you about my old girlfriend? No. I told Tasha.”
“You’re confusing me and Tash,” said Rachel. “Funny. Um, so, you wouldn’t be jealous at all, would you? If I was, sort of, you know, going out with Gil?”
“Rojette?” Clay said a little too quickly. He shrugged a bit too much and said, “Why would that make me jealous?”
“I don’t know, guys are weird. Shall we head back?”
So the two pilots came out of the Canada’s bay and swung their way up the halls toward the Tasmania and the party. Around the first bend they heard something they had not heard in either three months or forty years: a commotion.
One of the entrances into the big meeting hall was ahead to the right. The region in front of the entrance was a sort of lobby, ten meters across and shaped like a tetrahedron with flattened edges. Cables stretched through the middle, with potted plants growing out from porous pots in midair, and hand holds for people to linger outside discussing the fascinating lecture on metaphysics they had just heard. That was not what was being discussed by the fifty or so colonists in the room now.
“You are not going to shut us up or shout us down,” a woman yelled over a chorus of disapproval. There was argument, but all Rachel and Clay could make out was that a male voice was arguing with two female voices, and other voices of both genders chimed in on both sides.
“Those people on the India, the Argentina,” said the male voice, “they are ready to rumble, I’m telling ya. Folk look to us to see what side we come down on.”
“So you want to drop anchor here??” asked the other woman. People yelled themselves hoarse. They seemed evenly divided between wanting to stay—here? At Gliese 163? Seriously?—and wanting to go on somewhere else, or go home to Earth. It emerged that the man, a red-bearded gent about twice Clay’s weight, favored staying and trying to terraform one of the Gliese 163c moons. The women did not favor that option, but neither of them was sure whether to go on or go back. The crowd was fiercely against at least two of the three options, but as soon as anyone suggested a particular choice, all the loud voices were against it.
“Sounds like a town meeting,” said Clay. “Shall we go around?”
“Everyone, everyone,” said another woman’s voice. There were immediate shouts against her. A male voice shouted, “Let her speak!”
“Everyone, please,” said the new woman, who turned out to be Ally Schwinn herself.
“Listen up, people,” shouted Alice Grohl, who had not become the People’s Voice without having a loud voice.
“You’re just her tool!” shouted various people in various ways.
“Ahh, you can have it,” shouted Alice Grohl. “I don’t have to put up with this. You can have anyone you like as representative. You just have to agree on someone.” That seemed to work: as many voices were raised in her support as in opposition to her. Clay could see, now that they’d drifted closer, Alice Grohl with her arms up, nodding and smiling patiently. “So are you ready to come in and talk it all out now?”
“I don’t trust that woman,” shouted another woman, and a young man yelled, “The other ships are rising!”
“They’re not rising,” said an old lady not far from Clay and Rachel, to people near her, and they all snorted derisively.
“They wouldn’t know how to rise if they was bread,” said another older lady. She turned and saw Clay and Rachel floating about five meters up the hall. “Well, hello, dearies,” she said. “Come up, come up. Come to the big meetin’ with us, won’t you? We could use a little common sense.”
Rachel and Clay looked at each other. If this were a movie, Clay thought, the rebellious colonists would take them hostage. Rachel shrugged and said, “Well, if you put it that way.”
It took a few minutes to get the crowd into the meeting hall, and somehow the fifty or so turned into the hundreds it took to fill the place. Word, apparently, got around. Rachel took the opportunity to contact God, meaning Su Park, via her helmet.
“She says we can give them the general outlines of what we’ve learned,” said Rachel. “But not take any policy positions, that’s how she put it.”
“On, like, whether to stay here or go home or go on.”
“Well, we’re going on, aren’t we?” asked Clay. “I just assumed.”
“Yes. We are. We just don’t want to say so and get in an argument.” She looked around the room. “Are you feeling the herb as much as I am?”
“You’ll be fine,” said Clay.
It did not appear likely at first. The meeting began with a long warm-up session in which the loudest mouths shouted themselves hoarse, mostly yelling at each other. Alice Grohl had not gotten to be whatever she was by arguing with people who weren’t inclined to listen. She was in her element, perhaps, but Captain Schwinn and her three underling officers were not. Schwinn was not a military type: Clay could not help wonder how she had gotten to be whatever she was. At least she was built on the same size scale as the people who yelled disturbing suggestions at Grohl about what to do with the Canada’s officer corps. Clay and Rachel were built on significantly smaller chassis, and their considerable self-defense skills were all predicated on the assumption that they were inside their Ghost 201s.
But Ally Schwinn’s skills became clearer once the assembled throng had released the initial wave of their concerns, which fell under four headings: the old ones, which were:
1. Not knowing and having no control over where they were going to be dumped with their families and meager possessions, and
2. Missing their old lives on Earth and, you know, such amenities as blue sky and forests and rivers and dirt
and which were now joined by:
3. Rumors and guesses about what had happened and what might happen if they went to light speed again, or if they tried to establish themselves here in Gliese 163, and
4. Suspicion of everyone who actually did know something or was in control of something, in particular, the captains of the colony ships and the pilots of the fighters.
That last one hit Clay like a brick to the head. He was fidgeting, trying to follow the arguments and work out who really thought what, when one of the young hotheaded men pointed at him and Rachel and said, “What I want to know is, who has any control over what they’re doing? Who gives them their orders? Who’s in charge of our lovely scouting pilots and what they’re up to?”
“They are,” said Grohl.
“They are what?” several yelled back.
“They are in charge of themselves,” said Alice Grohl. “It’s dangerous out there, they have to face things by themselves. Every place we go, they have to go first and how do they know what they’re going to run into?”
This did not meet with general approval. “I think they’re laughing at us,” said one voice. “Who knows what they’re up to, and with who,” said another. “These aliens they met,” said several in several ways, “how do we know they haven’t taken them over?”
But the pilots had their defenders too, and another crescendo of voices ensued. Indignant answers were given to insinuating questions. Fingers were pointed in all directions. Accusations that were already exaggerated were exaggerated further by the accusers’ opponents. People gradually got quiet, however, as they noticed Rachel standing out from the wall, holding up her right hand.
“I can’t out-shout you,” she said. “Would you mind letting me talk?”
After one more round of yelling and counter-yelling, they subsided. “Miss Andros, isn’t it?” said Captain Schwinn.
“Yes,” said Rachel. “Okay. My name is Rachel Andros. I was born in Winnipeg. I went to school in Anchorage. I worked as a waitress in college. Okay? I’m here because I’m short and light and I have good eyesight and good reflexes.”
The crowd quieted down more or less all the way. Good eyesight and good reflexes: Clay was thinking about how Rachel, who was probably the shortest and lightest adult human in the Gliese 163 system, was in the 99th percentile of the 99th percentile among Earthling humans in eyesight and reflexes and possibly chess skill as well. She was never a public speaker or a military officer, but she was managing.
“And like you,” she was saying, “I gave up family and friends and everything else when I came on this, and there is just no going back. There is no, going, back.
“So. We met something. That’s not too surprising. We came into a new star system and we met something we didn’t expect. I am authorized to tell you everything we know about that thing. So here goes. It seems to eat metals. It lives in outer space and moves really fast. It communicates and can operate in groups. And while we don’t know yet how to damage it, Clay here and I have managed to work out a way we think will make us invisible to it. We have never seen the things attack a big ship, only fighters. We lost one of our own to them, we almost lost two of our own, so no, we’re not in any danger of making a separate peace with them or something. We’re their enemies.”
There was mostly silence, and while the colonists’ many questions bubbled up, the first one was voiced scornfully by a hotheaded youth: “Enemies? Like you’re gonna fight them?”
“Yeah,” said Clay, pushing up to float out past Rachel, who grabbed him to keep him from floating too far. “Enemies. And if they’re going to go up against Rachel, I’m glad I’m on her side.”
“So we aren’t any safer going back,” Rachel summarized, “and we don’t see a lot here in Gliese 163 that we can work with. We really don’t have much else we can do but go on.” She was floating out about three meters above what was generally thought of as the floor and the same distance below what would then be considered the ceiling. People were listening to her, talking amongst themselves in low voices, nodding. Rachel looked like she was talking to just a few friends, not an initially hostile crowd of hundreds. “We can’t guarantee anything, but that’s just the way it’s always been, right? But the only ships they’ve actually attacked have been little ones, so it may be that they don’t go for larger food. And we may have a way of deflecting their interest in us. So.”
“So you suggest we go on,” said a mustachioed man who stood, or floated touching the floor, not far in front of her. “I can’t see any other way myself,” he added, looking around. People, old ladies and young hotheads alike, nodded.
“Mind you,” said Rachel, “we also figure there must be other aliens around because these things are eating something and as far as we know, Jana Bluehorse is the first H. sapiens they’ve gotten a taste of. So we just have to go on expecting the unexpected.”
“Can’t you all fly on ahead to the next place and report back?” asked an older woman.
“Look,” said Rachel, “if it’s thirty light years, we would make the round trip in sixty years. Due to the amazing magic of time dilation, we wouldn’t experience that as more than a few months, but to you it would be sixty long years. If you’re going to wait here that long, you might as well just put down roots and live here.”
“And the only way we can share in the amazing magic of time dilation is to go to light speed ourselves,” said a middle aged woman named Olivia who was a medical doctor. She was a sort of voice of reason and could only be heard because almost everyone else had lost their voices. “And that carries risks, obviously,” she concluded.
“But it’s better than staying here,” said the man with the mustache, “so we may as well get with the program. Where is the next place anyhow?”
Rachel shrugged, looked at Clay, who shrugged, and then everyone looked at Ally Schwinn, who looked at her navigator, Tony Han, who looked very shy. “Mr Han,” said Schwinn, “oh, Tony, don’t be bashful, we’re all friends here.”
“We just needed to get our anxieties out in the open,” said Rachel to Clay.
Tony Han got unstuck from his seat, cleared his throat and said, “We have a candidate picked out.” Schwinn handed him a little remote control, and he used it to wake the big screen at the front of the room. They could see the Earth and the Sun, and then they swept off along the dark road to 55 Cancri, and then they turned about ninety degrees and headed for blasted Gliese 163. And from there, the projected road showed in blue dashes: to a little yellow star, smaller than the Sun, with at least three planets. “It was not on the Gliese or Kepler charts,” said Han. “It was not known to have planets until observations we just made here. It lies about thirty light years away, in the direction away from Earth. As you can see,” and he did something to make a faint green zone glow around the star, “two planets at least orbit in the habitable zone.”
“Does it have water?” asked a young man, one of the hotheads, now just curious. “I would kill for a dip in a pond.”
“Well, of course we can’t tell,” said Han. “But it has signatures that might be water, or ice perhaps, or vapor. There could well be water.”
“This became the leading candidate,” said Schwinn, “when we considered the spectroscopic data. It was clearly the most likely to have what we need.”
“What’s it called?” asked a man.
“Uh, we call it Candidate One,” said Schwinn.
“Candidate One?!” several people called out, as everyone had a small laugh.
“We can have a naming contest later,” suggested Olivia the doctor. “If we like it.”
“Okay,” said Alice Grohl, “I’m sold. Are you all sold? At least a little?”
There was not a chorus of argument. Several people said they were sold, and then there was a light rain of applause.
“All right then,” said Schwinn. “We will make arrangements. It should be a couple of weeks before we are ready to leave jolly old Gliese 163 behind. Thank you for letting this happen, and I want to say that in the future I promise we will consult more effectively. If we can all be polite, I think this format works, don’t you?” There were a variety of responses, none especially impolite. “Then I thank you,” she said. “Thank you, Alice. Thank you, Miss Andros, Mr Gilbert.”
“Yes,” said an older woman, “thank you kindly, Miss Andros.” There was another rain of applause. Rachel raised her hands to wave it off, but she was smiling, not smirking.
“This went well,” said Schwinn to Alice Grohl and Rachel and Clay as the colonists were starting to empty from the room. “And you know what that means.”
“It means we’re off to Candidate One,” said Rachel.
“It means,” said Grohl, “that you two are going to do this same thing on the other three colony ships.”
Before the colony ships could get unlimbered for another journey to light speed, it was decided that all and sundry would parade past the star at fairly close range and charge up their batteries. Getting within ten million kilometers, even with a red dwarf, was plenty; the fighters only needed one slingshot pass, while the colony ships had to do an orbit and a half. Alpha and Gamma wings went out ahead, while Beta and the remaining eight colony ship fighter pilots flew security for the big mamas.
Clay and Natasha snuck out of the inevitable pre-flight party. They sashayed up to the Canada’s smallest observation deck and locked the door behind them.
“So what do you think?” Natasha challenged Clay, just after they flew into each other’s arms and kissed.
“What do I think about what?” he replied.
“They’re sending you out with Rachel again. I get Park. Again.”
“Natasha,” he said, smiling, hoping that would be enough, “that’s why we’re here now. Our elders don’t want us to be together.”
They kissed again, but Natasha was distracted. “I just don’t know where we’re going with this, if we can’t just stand up to Park about it.”
“Do you want to stand up to Park about it?” he asked, his heart sinking.
“No, actually,” she said. She turned her serious green eyes on him. She was indeed beautiful. “Kiss me some more.”
“All right,” he said, and he rather abandoned himself to her.
Their hands roamed. Their vac suits came unzipped. Natasha suddenly fixed him with That Look again. “Clay,” she said.
“You aren’t attracted to Rachel at all, are you?”
“Ha! No,” he said. “Not at all.” They kissed. “Isn’t she seeing Gil Rojette or something?”
“I don’t know,” said Natasha. “I thought you were the one she talked to. She doesn’t tell me anything. I think they were dancing at the party.” She smiled. “Okay. That’s fine then. You may kiss me some more.”
A little later, they were floating near the window. They had found that the narrow space between the window and the sofa was very convenient for leverage. Their vac suits were floating a little ways away.
“Mmm,” said Clay, “Natasha.”
“Clay.” They floated, loosely embracing. “So do you think we’ll see any of those things?” she asked slowly. “And is the repellent going to be effective? And do you think they only eat stuff our size? And is the next place going to have indoor plumbing?”
“Anything else, dear?”
“No, that should do.”
“Okay. Well. One. Do I think we’ll see any of those things? I’m going to guess no, because we may have chased them away somehow. It’s just a guess. Is the PCM thing going to be effective, the passive countermeasures? I have to bet yes, because I was in on programming it, and we thought we’d done it right. But again, how do I know? What were the other ones?”
“Do they specialize in fighters, and will the next place have plumbing.”
“Okay. No, I don’t believe that. I bet they’d love us to leave one colony ship unprotected. They’d put more holes in it than the Albert Hall.”
“Sorry. Old song reference. Okay, plumbing? No. I’ll bet there’s liquid water somewhere in the system, I could see that.”
“Sounds optimistic,” said Natasha. “I’m not used to it. Okay, speaking of plumbing. I need to put the bottom half of my vac suit on.”
“They have a sanitizer room,” said Clay.
“This is easier,” said Natasha, pulling her vac suit on up to her hips. “Don’t you have to pee?”
“I peed in my vac suit before I took it off.”
Natasha got a pensive look, then flashed her eyes at Clay. “What has happened to us? We’ve become fighter pilots. Look at us. Making love in zero grav. Peeing in our vac suits.”
“Getting ready to put our lives on the line to fight off something that could eat us,” said Clay. “Hoping the technology works. All to provide 8000 colonists a safe place to put down roots.”
“Mmm,” said Natasha, peeling off her vac suit again, “now you say it, it doesn’t sound so bad.”