Chapter 10: 667

X. At 667

1.

Some hours later, Clay and Rachel were accelerating out of the Alpha Centauri system, still discussing that question. Their data logs were already ahead of them en route to Bluehorse.

“On the one hand,” said Rachel, floating beside Clay naked in their joined fighters, “humans are known survivors. On the other hand, oh, somewhere around, what is that, 1% of 1% of the species survived the attack on Earth, and we’re not exactly in a defensible mode. I mean, 18,000 here, 15,000 there, maybe—maybe!—a million or two at Bluehorse. The Solar System’s population is down to the 1300 at Mathilde. Still, I have to give us the nod. 99.99% is not good enough. Sorry, Ngugma. I used to weed my aunt and uncle’s garden when I was like five, eight. You get 99% of the weeds, they come back.”

“I did that too, as a kid,” said Clay. “You get 100% and they come back.”

“Well, they’re blowing in from outside the garden. Like we could blow back in from outside the Solar System. That’s really possible, right? I mean, get back to Earth after a hundred years, there’s already no chance of infection, by then it’ll all be washed clean. We could totally resettle.”

They flew along, side by side, Rachel’s naked right side against Clay’s naked left side, thinking their own thoughts. Presently Clay said, “It’s just, you know, I think of the platinum disk people, whatever they were. I mean, the mouthholes abide, right? But nothing else seems to. The Ngugma, the Primoids, they don’t seem any more permanent that we are.”

“Well, what matters is, we’re a going concern right now. We’re still breathing.”

“That’s something, anyway,” said Clay. “It’s better than the alternative. But don’t you wonder sometimes what the average life expectancy of a species is? Of a sentient, space-faring species? I give us ten thousand years at the upper end. Maybe five hundred at the lower end.”

“Oh, that’s not depressing,” said Rachel. “Our five hundred years are about up. Wait, what year is this supposedly? 2588 or something?”

“2586, when we were at Alpha C.”

“Yeah. We first space-fared about 1960, 1970.” She glared at the screen. “So, great. Thanks.”

“Look,” said Clay. “I admit I have no data. I admit it’s not the happiest subject ever. But I think it’s true, I think it’s really hard to last as a civilization. There’s just too many things.”

“But the mouthholes survive,” said Rachel. “Because they’re adaptable, simple, and just not all that caught up in how frickin’ brilliant they are. Unlike, say, us.” They flew along for a while, accelerating by a further hundred or two hundred kilometers per second. “So Clay.”

“Yes, Rache?”

“I’m just curious. While you’re prognosticating.”

“Okay.”

“What do you think Alpha C’s chances are? Or Mathilde? Or 581?”

“Or Bluehorse?”

She got a look on her face, then said, “No, let’s leave them off the table for now.”

“Fair enough,” said Clay. “Rank them?”

“Yes. Rank them.”

“Oh, let’s say, Alpha C, then 581, then Mathilde. I think the Centaurians have it together. They have problems, but their population is pretty solid, they have good, um, leadership, they’ve developed their tech pretty well, they had real problems from the start but they’ve made it work, and they have no, and I emphasize this because I think it’s a real advantage, they have no resource base in the system worth plundering.”

“Ha. Well,” said Rachel, “that’s actually very astute. Um, funny, ironic even, all us colony projects, we all looked for places with lots of metals, lots of resources, and the Centaur Program was the only one that had no real choice where it was going, had to settle where it first went, and they’re the one that’s strongest. Granted, they have a cryo section full of 200-year-old corpses, but I guess they can regard it as historical or something. Alpha C still has a certain amount of gumption you don’t see elsewhere. I mean, I could argue for 581, they have some arable land even if they’re not capable of using it, but I didn’t think much of them.”

“No, me either. But sad to say, I just think Mathilde is in too much danger, there’s just too high a probability that they’ll get found and blasted. I think 581 can sort of muddle through.”

“If the Ngugma want to mine there,” said Rachel, “they are toast, you know that. Anyway, I’m rooting for Mathilde to outlast the mining operation. Maybe they can then move back to Earth, like I said.”

“Oh, I’m rooting for them too,” said Clay. “Totally. Do you think there’s anything we can do to help? Help the Mathildeans and the Centaurians to work together? Maybe even with the, uh, 581eans or whatever?”

“Well,” said Rachel, “considering it’ll be 180 years at the earliest before we’re back at good ol’ Mother Earth, I think the most we can hope for is that we encourage whoever might be surviving at Gliese 667 to check them out. Maybe they can share patrols or something. Gosh knows they need to share technology.” They cruised along another two hundred thousand kilometers. She smiled at him and said, “But we’ll soon see what 667 is all about. Want to make a prediction?”

Clay laughed. “No, no,” he said, “considering that I have yet to see what I expected to see at any system we’ve ever arrived at. What do you predict?”

She turned to face him, and her look made him turn to face her. “I can’t predict what we’ll see when we get to 667,” she said, running the backs of her fingers down his chest. “I can totally predict what’s going to happen in the next hour or two inside these two fighters.”

And so their predictable light speed lives spun out, and a week and a half later, in their biological chronologies, they were lying in each other’s arms gazing at the unpredictable nature of the situation at Gliese 667.

2.

The first thing to know about Gliese 667 is that it has three stars, imaginatively named A, B and C. A and B orbit close to each other, between the distance of Jupiter from Sol and that of Neptune, performing a gentle waltz that allows them to separate a little, then approach an embrace, then separate again, a couple too romantically entangled to bother about planetary children. At a distance of 34 billion kilometers, around six times as far out as Pluto from Sol, the red dwarf Gliese 667C orbits the other two, a lonely single mom with three kids.

The outermost of these children was undiscovered by Earthlings until the Venture mission arrived, and its deep water ice and methane ice crust did not tempt the arriving colonists. The innermost, a smaller, much hotter Neptune, its moons stripped away by the closeness of its star, likewise held no promise. The middle of the three, the one Goldilocks might have found to be just right, alone had signs of habitation.

This planet, whose original Earthling name was Gliese 667Cc, was perhaps fifty percent wider than Earth. Even from the far distance, they could tell it was warm, a good deal warmer than Earth; on the hottest days, perhaps, water would boil at the equator. It was hidden in haze, but the cloud cover did not seem completely opaque; they thought they could pick out landforms, mountain ranges or lakes and streams or just differently colored deserts. The cloud cover seemed, even from the far distance, to be turbulent. Above all that, the planet’s orbital zone was not exactly bustling with life, but it was not empty.

“Wrecked orbital stations, two,” said Clay. “Functioning orbital stations, zero.”

“One of those is not Earth origin,” said Rachel.

“What?”

“It’s Primoid. I swear it is.”

“Huh.”

They coasted in, still joined. They played Set and chess, they simulated (their simulators now contained believably spidery Ngugma fighters), they made love, they ate and drank and smoked and slept and made love some more, they watched old videos, they played some more, ate some more, drank and smoked some more, made love some more. They analyzed the stations. These were different in recognizable ways but seemed like they had been on about the same scale, and were about the same age, both as stations and as wrecked stations. The one from Earth was unmistakable; the other was, indeed, clearly Primoid work. It was hard to say what it was about it—the Primoids were, stylistically, much like Earthlings, even if the Ngugma were a lot closer to being human ethically. But there was no doubt in either of their minds that the station was Primoid. It orbited over a pole of the planet, while the Earth station’s remains orbited over the equator.

A day later, when they were down under 10% of light speed, Clay said, “You know what’s funny about those wrecked stations?”

“One is human, one Primoid?”

“No. Okay, that’s funny. But what else? They were not destroyed by mouthholes. They were not destroyed by Ngugma. They were not destroyed, that’s what’s funny. Someone went to just enough trouble to disable them, and left it at that. The Ngugma would have had no difficulty grinding them both down to powder. The mouthholes would have—well, they would have left obvious mouthhole marks.” He shuddered.

“You’re thinking of that one,” said Rachel. “That one we came face to face with.”

“Yeah, I had the most interesting nightmares about that,” said Clay. “So anyway, not to change the subject, but what’s the plan?”

“Well,” said Rachel, “are you up for separating? Not immediately, but maybe in an hour or two? Go fly around and figure out what’s on the planet?”

“You think there may be someone or something on the planet?”

“I do, actually. Ask me why I think so.”

“Well,” said Clay, “would it be anything to do with the structures I’m picking out near the north pole?”

“I’m glad you see them too,” said Rachel. “I was worried it was just me and my paranoia.”

“Just because you’re paranoid,” Clay quoted, “doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you. So, what are those things? Not human structures.”

“Bleeping Primoids,” said Rachel. “Frickin’ Primoids on the planet. No humans, nope, nothing on that, of course, but we definitely have an extant Primoid colony here.”

3.

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. Well, no locally evolved life.”

“We couldn’t see the algae in Algaeville from space either,” said Rachel.

“No, we didn’t find the algae till we were standing on it. I remember 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 driver. 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.

“Yeah?”

“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.”

4.

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.”

“Clay.”

“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 do notice a distinct lack of humans on this planet.”

“I do notice that, yeah.”

“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. Ahead of them they could see the polar highlands, and their sensors began to identify metal structures along with local stone structures that were obviously made, though not man made. Clay studied these: definitely a couple of gun emplacements, probably a couple of antennas.

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: |||, |||||||, |||||||||||||…

5.

Clay and Rachel set down on a piece of windswept rock under a brilliant sky. Bars and wings of cloud stretched up the sky, colored red and purple and orange in the permanent sunset or sunrise of the north polar highland. Beyond the zenith, the night side of the heavens showed a few stars. Low over the day horizon, two very bright stars shone close together: Gliese 667 A and B. Just into the night sky, another star shone brighter than the rest: the distant yellow dwarf companion, invisible from Earth, that might be called Gliese 667 D.

The ground was likewise painted in oranges and reds, though the shadows of rocks were black. The rock itself was some sort of anorthosite, grey to nearly black and coarse-grained, with scattered small crystals showing white or grey or a sky blue. A thin grey sand played over it in the breeze, which was primarily nitrogen and carbon dioxide with oxygen in third place and argon and neon vying for fourth and fifth. Gravity was a bit strong: Clay had a false start climbing out of his Ghost. It was hot, around seventy degrees centigrade, and quite breezy: they kept their visors shut.

Rachel and Clay looked around, and then started walking toward the structure, which really was barely distinguishable from native rock outcrops and had looked like the other Primoid structures they had seen mostly by accident. It consisted of two huge slabs laid against each other in a sort of A frame, with the front covered by an assemblage of unfinished rock and some sort of cement. The pilots didn’t say anything; Clay’s soundscape was primarily composed of the wind on the outside of his suit and his heart pounding on the inside.

They could see where the entrance to the structure was: an oval hatch of steel set in the shadow of an overhanging flat piece of rock. Two of a familiar-looking type of gun emplacement flanked this steel door. They could also see, outside it as if taking five for a smoke, a pair of blobby aliens on multiple stick-like legs, their stick-like arms unmoving, the tentacle-like sensory appendages on top of their trunks trying to remain still.

Clay and Rachel advanced to within twenty meters. They could see the Primoids clearly now. It was much, much closer than they had ever been. The two creatures were wearing some sort of close-fitting suit, but all their appendages stuck through holes in their suits, apparently uncovered. The tentacles, nine each, were aiming eyes or whatever straight at the two Earthlings. They were not, however, aiming anything like a weapon, of manning, or Primoiding, the gun emplacements.

The door opened and out came three more figures: one Primoid and two humans in vac suits. The two humans, both female and both a good deal taller than Clay or Rachel, took one look and started hurrying over to meet the pilots. One, halfway there, broke into a dash and in a moment was hugging Clay, then Rachel, then both.

“I can’t believe it,” she was crying out, in their helmets, even before she got to them, and she kept on crying it out, even when she was done hugging them and was just standing in front of them. “I just can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.”

“Well, ah,” was basically what Clay and Rachel said, looking at the other woman.

“Welcome,” came her voice, a little older and a little more melodious, in their helmets. “May we invite you in? Our hosts are a little unusual, but they are your hosts as well and they will definitely do you no harm.”

Clay looked at Rachel, despite his instant strong feeling that they had no choice but to accept and that the woman was correct. Rachel, after all, had been shot at by them, not out in space in a fighter battle (as pretty much everyone in the three wings had) but personally, in air, from a hidden ground base on Candy One’s fourth planet.

“Of course,” said Rachel. “We accept.” She smiled sweetly at Clay. “Ready to make some new friends, Hunk-a-licious?”

They followed the two women inside. The base was not obviously human or Primoid. Its entry corridor ran straight back through a large airlock and onward, six meters wide and four meters tall, and presently came to a large chamber which had clearly once been a sort of welcome center. It had what looked like ticket counters and kiosks, and a variety of doors ran out of it back and to the right and left, some of them evidently for use by vehicles or conveyor belts. The one conveyor belt still in evidence looked like it had been still a long time.

Old computing and power systems had been replaced by new, entirely different ones, which were odd in design and composition but clearly set up long after the base had been built. There were screens, but they were all hexagonal, and many of them fit together in an irregular arrangement. They showed the outside in several views, space in several views and data in several views. Four more Primoids watched the screens. Their data representation, anyway,. seemed familiar: they favored the stacked bar graph, in bright oranges and greens and purples. The four all had a look at the newcomers, without turning: their sensory stalks did the looking.

The two women both doffed their helmets, as did Clay and Rachel. The older one was a greying blonde, and the younger was a redhead, perhaps fifteen. They both had quite long hair, braided; they looked pretty healthy.

“Okay,” said the older woman, “so we need to do some explaining. And we could, um, use something to drink, okay, Ange?”

“Sure,” said the younger woman. She turned to one of the Primoids who had been outside with them: the others had remained on guard. The Primoid was just a little taller than her. Its blobby body ended about at the top of her head, and the tentacles rose another ten centimeters. “Can we get them some refreshment?” she said loudly and slowly, but she also made gestures over her head in view of its tentacles.

The Primoid responded with some tentacle waving and some odd bowing, bending and wrinkling its blobbiness as it bent.

“It says yes,” said the younger woman.

“I’m sorry,” said the older woman. “I’ll explain everything. I need some coffee and I bet you do too. Um, my name is Karen, Karen Zane. This is my daughter Angelica.”

“Hi,” said Angelica.

The Primoid bumped Karen with one of its stick-like arms, its four-pronged claw clenched in a fist of sorts. She looked and it waved tentacles some more and made an odd farting noise.

“It wants you to move your fighters inside,” said Angelica.

“Oh kay,” said Clay. He looked at the Primoid. It looked at him. “Shall we?”

It waved its tentacles and farted again. “It says you have some time still,” said Angelica. “I think you can have that coffee first. I know Mom will need it.”

“I know I will need it,” said Rachel.

6.

The next few hours of Clay’s life were pocked by little what-the-hells. He was practically pinching himself the whole time. He was already surprised that someone had allowed him to fly a Ghost 201, and his relationship with Rachel continued to astonish and perplex. The danger and sudden death and the closeness of cold space were so real sometimes that he had to put them out of his mind, and still he could not entirely believe that he had flown over two hundred light years and blown up any number of aliens in space. He had seen and smelled what the situation was on Planet Earth—let’s just leave aside how strange he found it to think of returning to Planet Earth from another star.

The immediate presence of the Primoids was of another order of befuddlement. He had almost felt it when he had finally touched a piece of mouthhole shell, and again when he had seen a Primoid dissected. He remembered that he had not approved of dissection. But here were three of them, along with the grey-blond human Karen, meeting Clay and Rachel as they came back into the airlock, having passed the two Primoid sentries.

Here they were, blobby orange things bouncing ever so slightly on stick legs, their stick arms sticking out or waving vaguely or grasping some small object. Their tentacles watched him and Rachel and everything else in the big hall. They didn’t seem to communicate well with Karen, though she seemed happy enough with them. There passed five minutes of small talk, which the Primoids seemed to engage in on their own via movements and color changes on their tentacles. The small talk between the humans was not very small.

“Primoids,” said Karen. “That’s an interesting name. We call them the Orangemen.”

“Oh, that’s good,” said Rachel. “But I’m afraid the word primoid is pretty well established on Bluehorse. They communicated with us first by showing us they knew about prime numbers.”

“So, what about the human race,” said Karen.

“You saw the video,” said Clay.

“We saw the video,” said Karen. “All the videos. So did the Primoids. They didn’t like it either.”

“What happened to you?” asked Rachel. “What happened to the human race on 667 Cc?”

“We got sideswiped by the Orange Empire,” said Karen. “These guys are rebels. They came here about twenty years ago, they came to establish a rebel base on the far side of the planet from us, but they were followed closely by the, uh, empire or whatever. The empire wiped us out. They blasted the space stations, then they came down and blasted the Earth base to kingdom come. It was about fifteen years ago. I was lucky, I happened to be out with Angelica, who was like two at the time, out checking things, I’m, it’s funny, actually, I’m an exo-paleobiologist. These guys are very interesting to me, but they’re not paleo enough for me to write a paper about.”

“But they took you in?”

“They took us in, they practically waved us in. We were so welcome it was weird. They thought we could just set up their guns perfectly or something. I didn’t know a thing about guns, of course.”

“You’re the only two survivors?” asked Clay.

“Yeah,” said Karen, her blue eyes at full heat on Clay. “Me and the girl.”

“So you still can’t communicate with them?” asked Rachel, businesslike. It felt exactly like she was changing the subject.

“Well,” said Karen, still staring at Clay, “I’m nowhere near as good as Angelica. She should be here soon.”

“So the Evil Empire attacked,” said Clay, who also felt like he was changing the subject. “They destroyed all life on 667.”

“Practically all human life,” replied Karen. “My two older kids. My ex-husband,” she added with a disgusted sigh. “Twenty thousand people. We were the only two survivors.”

“Whoa,” said Clay, shocked somehow still by a death toll that was only in the tens of thousands.

“They just came in and blasted the colony?” asked Rachel.

“And they attacked the rebels too?” asked Clay.

“Oh yeah. The human base was about a thousand kilometers south of the pole, and it stuck out, you could easily see it from space, unlike the Orangemen’s colony here. They bombed the surface buildings flat, and that was basically all our colony was, surface buildings and some farm land under domes. But this place, they really couldn’t do much. They tried. They made the ground shake. But the rebels didn’t seem too concerned.”

“And the rebels fought back?” asked Rachel.

“Oh yeah. First they prepared. The rebels took apart my little sand shuttle and put it together again and I guess they learned something because their photon cannon suddenly became very effective. They launched their three fighters and their one cruiser, and cleared off whatever was left in orbit. And we’ve actually sort of had peace. And we’ve been living here.”

“Right up through finding out that Earth had been cleared of all human life?” asked Clay.

“What did the Primoids think of that?” asked Rachel.

“Oh, how the hell should I know,” said Karen. “They seemed sort of concerned. I did not get the impression they knew what the Ngugma were. Hell. Why don’t you ask them? I’m sorry. I’ve almost forgotten how to talk to anyone who isn’t my now teenage daughter.” She looked at Clay from about a meter away. She had steel blue eyes and about ten centimeters on Clay height-wise. “Must be nice to be able to leave, of course.”

“Well, I,” Clay started.

“Hey mom,” said Angelica, breezing in with another blobby orange rebel. “Big Thing thinks we should all sit down and have some tea and try to talk. It thinks we need to coordinate our warrior units or something.” She looked at Clay. She was at least a meter away from him, but it felt like a lot less. She kept her gaze on him for what seemed like minutes and then walked over to one of the other Primoids. She waved her hands over her head and said, nice and slow, “Meet room two coffee plan Earthlings.”

The Primoids, of whom there were now at least eight in the hall, began madly gesticulating. “You see,” said Karen, giving her daughter a warning look, then turning a half smile at full force on Clay, “they’re really a lot like us.”

7.

Clay and Rachel, over the next hour, experienced the most unusual staff meeting of all the many staff meetings they had ever attended. The two women did not know much about battle in space, though Karen was an ace on what she called her sand shuttle, and Angelica apparently had scored well on Galaxy Fighter 8. The Primoids seemed to have a lot to say for creatures who could not possibly be understood by humans. Talking with them, or “talking” with them, was rather like digging a hole with a fork. And with these ingredients, they all needed to agree on a plan of action for a space battle in which they would be on the same side.

Still, information was exchanged. A plan was made.

The rebel Primoids (what they called themselves was pointless, since whatever they called themselves, if they called themselves anything, was not represented by sounds other than the occasional farting noise) had been gradually reinforced over the years. The rebels had were also, very slowly, building ships on the planet. They now possessed four functioning cruiser-level ships, a smaller version of the escort cruisers Clay and Rachel had blown up a few of, along with eleven of their big fighters. Of these, conveniently, the rebels could make a triple wing of nine fighters and a row of three cruisers, and leave something in reserve. In other words, they matched up evenly with their invading foes. And they were foes: the rebels and whoever had sent the incoming ships were deadly, sworn enemies. That, at least, translated. By the end of an hour even Clay could tell when a particular Primoid was upset or angry or troubled or just feeling very emotional. He couldn’t tell which it was, but he could tell when it was one of those, and that was fairly often as the meeting progressed.

The rebels had hundreds of their folk here, and there were at least fifteen at the meeting, but Clay only got the sense that there were some physical differences among them. He could no more remember how a particular individual looked than he could tell what parts of their writing were the words and what was punctuation. At least they did have writing, though it was oddly pictographic and all connected. What amounted to their spoken language seemed to consist of gestures and changes of color in the tentacles and the occasional farting noise, and again, what were morphemes and what was filler he could not tell. Clay had heard men say that if they could look their enemy, their ally, whatever, in the eye, they could take his measure. Clay was doing little other than looking the Primoids in the eye, and he wasn’t any closer to figuring them out.

He knew that their language was not like a human language. That was interesting, as far as it went, but it had no predictive value. He knew that their technology tended to be on the big side, like the 23rd Century steam punk novels he had read as a 14-year-old, before he discovered the classics like Rowling and Tolkien. They weren’t orcs or trolls or ents, but they weren’t quite dwarves either: their weapons were big and heavy and their vehicles built to take some hard knocks, but they could do a good plain job of wiring a computer network or an energy system or setting up plumbing. Their replicated coffee, which they had adapted from borrowed replicators from the Earthlings’ base, was pretty good. Their bread—well, they actually ate something like bread. Their mouths were on top of their heads, so Clay still didn’t know or want to know how that worked, but they seemed to eat actual food that was also edible to Clay, and they drank lots of water. Their water was pure and tasted good. Their food was unutterably bland yet spicy, and somehow both homogeneous and crispy, but Clay tried it and found himself eating it, in thick wafers, all through the meeting.

On the other hand, the part of them he could ever understand was just a thin membrane, and the region he would never understand was the vast space behind the membrane, from which they looked out, each one watching him with a waving orange tentacle.

On the other other hand, he trusted them. He trusted all of them.

It was decided that Clay and Rachel would jump the enemy from behind once the rebels had lined up against the Empire or whatever it was. They hoped this would be just outside the orbit of Gliese 667 Cc, this planet that had lost all but two of its human population. The hope was that they would turn the battle odds suddenly enough that the rebels might be able to win without losing anyone.

“It makes sense to me,” said Rachel as they all pushed groups of spaceships around a big three dimensional zone. She gave Clay a smile: this technology was distinctly cool.

“They want to know how they can show you they’re the rebels and not the enemy,” said Angelica. “So you don’t shoot at them during the battle.”

“We’ll show them our transponders,” said Rachel. “Do they understand we can’t share much of our tech with them?”

“They haven’t asked for that,” said Karen. “I think they assume it’s incompatible with theirs.”

“Maybe,” said Clay, still grooving on the 3D battle map. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we actually could help each other, but yeah, now is not the time.”

“No, it’s not,” said Karen, smiling sweetly at Clay. “Well, I think we’re done?”

Angelica smiled at Clay too, then stepped up to four Primoids who wore shiny metallic insignia on their vac suits. She waved her arms and nodded for ten seconds, then said, “Is there unknown thing?”

The four Primoids gazed on each other’s tentacles for a few seconds, and then the one on the left leaned forward, practically touching Angelica with its tentacles as it bowed. Then it swayed ponderously left and right two times before stepping back.

“They shake their heads to say no,” Karen explained. “They learned it from us. Give them credit for trying, right?”

“Meeting over,” said Angelica. She looked at Karen.

“We have about thirty hours,” said Karen. “Want us to show you the place? Or we could whip up some human food.”

“Let’s do both,” said Angelica. She sidled up to Clay. “I need to talk to you about something.”

“What would that be?” asked Rachel. Angelica looked at her as if she hadn’t noticed Rachel standing there. “You can talk to both of us.”

“Let’s do the tour together, then,” said Karen, grabbing Clay with one hand and Rachel with the other. “Dessert first: their museum of art or technology or whatever.”

“Which is it?” asked Clay.

“Maybe they’re the same thing, to them,” said Karen. She smiled at him: what on Gliese was going on here? Oh. Two humans of the same gender, one the parent of the other, had been stranded on  a planet among inscrutable aliens for fifteen years. And he was the first human of the other gender they had seen in fifteen years. He was tingling in spite of himself, and Rachel was eying him like a hawk eying a mouse.

Karen met his blue eyes with her blue eyes. “Do you think they’re the same thing, Clay?” she asked. “Art and technology?”

“Sure,” said Clay, while Rachel stopped even pretending to listen to Angelica’s teenage babble.

8.

The tour was extremely interesting, except that both Karen and Angelica seemed to be thinking about something else, and both Clay and Rachel spent half the time thinking about what they were thinking about. They spent the rest of the time thinking about the fight. So, through twelve hexagonal chambers of art as technology or technology as art, they held a conversation that was entirely separate from what they were seeing.

“We’ve probably made some difference in the way they do things,” Karen was saying, “but we’ve been here fifteen, sixteen years.”

“Have you been back to Earth at all?” asked Rachel. “No, of course not, you couldn’t have. We got there just after the plague. We got married, you know, right there in Greenland.”

“You can’t even imagine what it’s like,” said Angelica to Clay. “No one has ever had the childhood I had. Not that I’m complaining, I could be dead, but still.”

Clay was thinking about the Primoids, rather than think about the humans. They were into threes, and nines and twenty-sevens, but that had nothing to do with their preference for hexagons or the fact that they had nine tentacles. Humans loved rectangles but humans aren’t rectangular unless you blur your eyes a lot. Primoids had six legs and four arms, although a few had an extra arm and a few were missing an arm or a leg. They were happy to use rectangles when they made sense. It just kept striking him how like humans they were and were not.

“Have you guys picked up anything from them?” he suddenly asked, in a long hall full of murals, or possibly slow-moving screens. “Like, habits of mind or anything?”

“You don’t want to know how they go to the bathroom,” said Karen.

“I don’t want to know how you go to the bathroom,” said Rachel.

“Oh God, just get me off this place,” said Angelica. “Please. Please. Please take me with you.”

“Hey,” said Karen.

“Take Mom too,” said Angelica. “You can’t know how weird it’s been.”

“But you like them,” said Rachel.

“Well, yeah,” said the girl. “But to be the only two humans—!”

“From my perspective,” said Clay, as they came to a stop in a small vestibule at the far end of the mural hall, “this is not the worst place to have grown up. It’s at worst tied for the third worst place to have grown up. You didn’t grow up on Earth so you aren’t painfully and horribly dead. You didn’t grow up on Mathilde, so you’re not under siege and in danger of soon being dead, along with everyone you know. For that matter, you didn’t grow up on the Moon or Mars or Callisto or Ganymede or Vesta or Miranda. Or you’d be dead. I suppose you might prefer 581, or Alpha C, but I bet there are people there who are your age who would trade in a second.”

“Or you could be us,” said Rachel. “We left everyone we ever knew behind on Earth, never to see them again, and then we left all our new friends behind on Bluehorse and we may never see any of them again. There’s just the two of you, there’s just the two of us.”

“Excuse me,” said Angelica, “sorry to disagree, so sorry to present a counter-argument, but you have left out a key facet of the situation, which is that you are a woman and a man, and you’re not related, and we are two women, a mother and a daughter. I think that’s kinda relevant.”

“Look,” said Karen, “I would stay here forever except that unlike you, Miss Andros, I have not gotten laid in the past, oh, sixteen years. Because the Orange Guys are nice and all, and very trustworthy, and endlessly fascinating and everything, but they don’t have sex.”

“How many genders do they have?” asked Clay.

“I don’t know and I don’t want to know,” said Karen. “Take us the bleep off this planet and get us to this Bluehorse of yours. I’m sure we’ll be fine there.”

Rachel and Clay both leaned back perceptibly. They exchanged glances. “Well,” said Rachel, “it’s better than letting you have your way with my man, and I emphasize the possessive frickin’ pronoun there, that’s the ‘my,’ Miss Angelica, in case your schooling has been lacking.”

“I know what a possessive frickin’ pronoun is, Miss Andros,” said Angelica. She looked at Clay longingly. “And—oh, never bleepin’ mind.”

“I don’t share,” said Rachel. “And I shoot very straight.”

“She does,” said Clay. “Look, we can try, we can try. It’s hard. Okay? We have a job and it’s not to ferry you two around space.”

“And no,” said Rachel, “we can’t fit you two in with us.”

“But I have to leave! I have to,” cried Angelica, throwing herself into Clay’s arms. He held her for just a moment, and she turned her beautiful face, not to mention her beautiful body, to him. She so wanted kissing. It was all wrong, of course, starting with the fact that her lovely feminine submissive seduction was ten centimeters taller than him.

Clay looked at Rachel, whose expression was quite perilous. He held his arms straight out away from his body and Angelica’s. “I’m really sorry,” he managed to say.

“I’m really sorry,” said Karen, pulling her daughter off of Clay. “I didn’t raise my daughter to throw herself at men.”

“Oh, you just want to—!” Angelica began.

“Uh, Clay,” said Rachel in a very perilous voice. “Come here, please.”

“Happily,” said Clay, retreating toward his wife. “Um, I think—!”

A bright light flashed yellow and then stayed greenish-blue, and what must have been a low alarm sounded, down around the 50 Hertz level. “Oh crappy poo,” Angelica said fervently. “They’re ready to make final you know, prep or whatever.”

“Well,” said Clay, “saved by the bell, or whatever.”

“This discussion is not over,” said Angelica to all three of them. “I am not staying here. You are taking me away and I’m never coming back.”

“I’ll agree on one thing,” Clay muttered, looking at Rachel. “The discussion is far from over.”

“No, it’s not,” said Rachel, “but the fighting is just about to resume.”

9.

“So what do you mean the discussion is far from over?” asked Rachel in a low voice as they examined some minor damage to the skin of Clay’s Ghost.

“You agreed with me when I said it,” Clay replied.

“I don’t frickin’ care who I agreed with. What did you mean?”

“I didn’t mean anything. No. That’s not what I mean. What I mean is, I didn’t mean we were going to keep an open mind or anything, just that—!”

“Well, that’s good, because when it comes to—!”

Karen appeared, bending over between them. Rachel glared at Clay, then looked up. “Excuse me,” said Karen, “but Angelica needs one of you to talk to the Orangemen. I can help with this.”

Rachel gave her an are-you-bleepin’-serious look, then made a quick estimation by glance at Angelica, who was standing ten meters away with three Primoids, looking angelic. “Dang it,” she said, “I’ll go. Do not take Clay’s frickin’ machine apart. And Clay—!”

Clay took her glare with what he felt was just the right sort of cower. She got up and stomped over to Angelica, who did not quite mask her disappointment. Clay was somewhat relieved as Karen started right in listening to what he wanted and doing what he told her as they repaired a flector and the skin under it.

“So your sensors and weapons can move around under the skin?” she asked after a minute.

“No,” he replied, “the whole skin is the sensors, and the photon cutter that we souped up into our guns was set up to be used out of any point on the skin.”

“But the flectors don’t move.”

“Nope. They just sit there and take the damage. They’re great against things like Primoid guns. They’re not that useful against mouthholes—you don’t know what mouthholes are.”

“Do they have something to do with Ngugma?”

“Well, actually,” he said, standing up. She stood up next to him and there she was, ten centimeters taller than him, those pale blue eyes filling his sight, her suit unzipped just enough for her breasts to loom along the lower half of his view. She was right in his space in a way that no one but Rachel ever was, and he found himself a little intoxicated by it. He felt like he was flying over the Moon’s surface and hadn’t realized how drunk he was.

“You think two people could fit in there?” she said.

“No, actually,” he said, “no, not really, not, well, actually,” and he fumbled because in point of fact it was possible to fit two little people into one Ghost, at least for a short trip. Those two people would have to both be fighter pilot sized, or get pretty intimate, or perhaps both. He was thinking: Natasha. Vera Freaking Santos. Rachel. Karen?

But he’d said no, hadn’t he?

“Excuse me,” said Rachel, wedging herself between them. “What exactly is going on here?”

“I’m trying to get him to take us away from here, obviously,” said Karen.

“Not going to happen,” said Rachel. “Right Clay Gilbert?”

“Definitely,” said Clay, his skin hot. “Not going to happen. Sorry.”

“Oh you are not,” said Karen. “You’re just going to abandon us here and it’s—!”

“Hey hey,” said Angelica. “What’s up here? We’re supposed to be—!”

“You,” said Rachel, turning, “are staying here, and so is your,” and she gave Karen a withering look, “mother.” She turned away and said to the nearest Primoid, “I cannot believe this is happening.”

“Look,” said Clay, “maybe you can talk the Primoids into taking you to Bluehorse. They’ll have room in one of those escort cruisers.”

“Riiight,” said Karen. “They’re going to totally want to give up Angelica, who can do what no one else can and interpret for them.”

“I can’t really interpret,” said Angelica, “it’s more a sort of, hello?”

Two Primoids loomed over them. They bent and waved their tentacles at Angelica.

“What are they saying?” asked Clay.

“They say, um, they say two human fly cruiser. Help talk humans. Um, star far away, distant. Colony star.”

“Wait,” said Rachel. “Are they saying they can take you to Bluehorse? Really?”

“Uh, yeah, I think,” said Angelica. The Primoids were still gesticulating with the tentacles on top of their bodies. “And, um, they think it’s time to get into some simulations. Before battle. Okay?”

“Oh yeah,” said Clay. “That.”

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