II. Holey Moley
Hours and hours passed as Clay, moving at a speed unimaginable on the rails or even the spaceways of the Earth-Moon region, crawled around the outer fringes of this beaten-up star system. He became pretty sure that Rachel’s Ghost wasn’t operating under its own power, but was tumbling along at about one half rotation per second while it coasted through the vacuum at ten percent of the speed of light. He continued to fail to receive a response to sent communication, even as he closed the distance and began to curve around to match Rachel’s vector.
He was comforted by the discovery that Rachel’s ghost was pursued—by three, no, four little guitar-pick missiles. They could only have been fired by her, presumably in the heat of battle, and now they followed her like baby ducks following their mom. Mama Duck was either dead or very drunk, and the murderous baby ducks were fully capable, given Padfoot’s modifications, of blowing up attackers on their own initiative.
But as he got nearer and nearer, now four billion kilometers, four light hours, from the pink-orange sun, and speeding away at 30,000 kilometers each second, he still seemed unable to raise Rachel Andros. A mix of boredom and excitement and desperate hope and dread crept across his heart, so his brain took over; he could almost feel his emotions shutting down or getting shut out. Turning in behind the tumbling ghost, he ambled along, catching up at a thousand, then a hundred, then ten kilometers a second as he closed the distance to a million, then a hundred thousand, then a thousand kilometers. Now she was within a hundred, now ten, now one kilometer, and he was creeping up on her, going 31,912 kilometers each second even as he gained on his lady love at a dozen meters in the same second.
She still wasn’t doing anything. She indicated her awareness of his presence in no way. Her Ghost continued its slow rotation; her baby ducks continued to follow her. At least they weren’t turning on him. He could see now that she had been chomped on a couple of times, but nothing serious as long as she had her vac suit sealed; he had flown with worse than that. But of course he didn’t know if she had her suit sealed, or if it hadn’t had some sort of malfunction.
Clay got closer. Clay watched. Clay considered how to approach the tumbling Ghost.
And then he dropped a hundred meters and flipped and came up firing. Three mouthholes came through where he had been, converging out of the night on Rachel’s helpless space ship.
One lit on fire, then blew up on Clay’s second shot. Another took two of the baby ducks in kamikaze attack, and burst like an awful bubble. The third went in for the chomp. The other two baby ducks went for it, and both missed, whipping about to come back but too late to do anything.
So of course it was on Clay to do something, and on he came, his laser cutting across the horrid thing until it blew out and scattered its silicate and metallic guts across the void.
Clay found he was clenching his teeth. He pushed out a breath as he flashed past Rachel, then hit the reverse and let her catch up with him. The two surviving Rachel missiles resumed their baby duck pursuit. He considered. Still traveling at an insane speed relative to the nearby star and planets, but at a crawl relative to Rachel, he drifted back to within a few meters of her tumbling ghost and considered some more. He popped his hatch open and let himself get within centimeters.
A gloved hand came out a hole in the other Ghost. It grabbed onto his hatch edge. He grabbed the hand and it pulled him and his ship close. The hand squeezed his hand, squeezed again. Then it released him and patted the outside of its own hatch, then gave a what now? gesture.
“I get it,” he said to himself. “Hatch not working.” He pounded and patted and probed around it. He started to get a little desperate: and then, with a flick of a thumb on the fighter’s surface, he had it open.
Out came a figure in a grey and black vac suit. In its helmet visor, Rachel’s face was visible, streaked with sweat or tears, her black hair wet against her forehead. He hooked up his hand connector to hers: he had forgotten they even had these.
“Thank Goddess, Rachel,” he said. “I was so afraid.”
“Bleep bleeping bleep,” said Rachel. “Power out. It stinks in here.”
“But you’re okay,” he said, holding down his own wild mix of emotions: relief, confusion, relief, fear that all was not well, relief, weariness, relief, carnal desire, extreme relief, and a suspicion that she blamed this all on him.
“Yes, I’m bleeping okay,” said Rachel. “I bleeping stink. Comm out, life support out, no thrust, nothing. Absolutely zero. I could eat a frickin’ horse, I need to get out of this stinkin’ vac suit, this literally stinkin’ vac suit, I’m about out of even half decent air and why did it take you so stinkin’ long? Why did we even do this in the first place?”
“You’re welcome,” he said.
“I’m sorry, Clay,” she said. “Thank you. Thank Goddess. Oh Goddess Clay. Let’s get inside your Ghost, and get naked ASAP. Then bleepin’ feed me.”
Clay got Rachel into Clay’s Ghost, and the two of them, leaning out, managed to get Rachel’s Ghost clamped on firmly enough to decelerate at eighty gees. They shut the hatch and got their visors open. She took him in a kiss, as if taking her first drink of water in days, and then abruptly they parted so she could get her first drink of water in days. Then she checked status. He checked status too. The system they had just sped through was already starting to fall behind them. “Should we go back and have a look, or what?” asked Clay.
“Of course we should go back,” Rachel replied as though it was the dumbest question in the history of this star system.
“Well, of course,” said Clay mildly. “Though I don’t think they have a service plaza.”
“Clay,” said Rachel, and he thought he was going to get a tongue lashing, but she rolled her eyes and added, “Service, Clay. Service.”
“Oh. Vac suit too stinky to wear?”
“Very. But get this crate turned around first, ‘kay?”
“Okey doke,” said Clay. He got his thruster control up and pulled it all back from 8% plus to 80% minus. The Ghost started decelerating hard, or, just as validly, accelerating the other way: still for some time they were moving away from the pink-orange star. The last two baby ducks obediently kept pace. Clay hit a couple of on-screen buttons, then typed a quick command, and the two missiles zipped back into the open missile launch port of Rachel’s dormant fighter.
They got Rachel’s vac suit off. Just to be sporting, Clay took off his as well. They stuffed them both down at their feet and checked each other thoroughly for ticks or whatever. Clay felt like he ought to show some curiosity about what had happened to Rachel, but she responded with an impatient request for affection of a very particular sort, and he fulfilled her request to her satisfaction.
They floated there facing each other. She was still, pleasantly, a little stinky. The spacecraft was filled with the pleasant scent of them making love, while his life support system hastened to clean the air.
“So what happened?” asked Clay. “Ready to talk about it?”
She gave him a series of looks worthy of Hermione Granger, and then she burst out, “Clay, you bleeping bleep-hole, why, why did you think it was okay? Why did you think it was okay?”
“You know bleeping what. You know bleeping what, Clay.”
“Oh, you mean to follow the Commander’s commands? And hey, I didn’t come to that idea all on my own, you know, I—!” His heart wasn’t in it, and he was sure he wasn’t getting anywhere anyway. He could hear his hollow words echoing and whistling through the air like so many wiffle balls.
Rachel closed her eyes, then opened them. Her mouth was absolutely tiny. She shook her head. That tiny mouth opened, then shut. She sighed. She made a couple of suggestions about what the whole situation could do, which in fact would be impossible for an actual situation to actually do.
They were crammed close together, facing each other, naked, sweaty, smelling of one another, but Clay had rarely as an adult felt less romantically inclined. He slumped back, his face taking on a defeated sneer. Rachel, carefully extracting her left leg from around him, turned half to the right and pretended to examine a reading on one of the fourth planet’s moons.
“Rachel,” said Clay after a minute, gathering all his courage, “would you tell me what happened, at least?”
She sighed again. She didn’t turn. She finally said, in a flat voice, “One of them came out of nowhere and whacked me good. It took a bite. I should have been thinking about it. We both should have, Clay. We have passive countermeasures. Why weren’t we using them.” The last sentence came out as a statement rather than a question. Clay only just started to answer it before he stopped himself.
She sighed again. She said, “I blew that one up. But there was blood in the water. I still didn’t think to get ECM up. I was getting my missile load out there, and I think that helped, but it might have attracted their attention. Anyway, four more came out of nowhere and chased me down. I took those ones out, but just as I was feeling a little less shaky, two more came from the sides and hit me hard.”
“That’s when your power went out.”
“And then you were pretty much helpless.” She just nodded. “But you were invisible too, perhaps,” he said. “Right?” She gave him a look with a glitter of tears. Then she turned all the way away, and while he found the reverse side of Rachel quite attractive, he was not getting an attracting vibe. Rather the reverse.
So Clay turned away too, and, butt to butt, the two of them flew backwards through the outskirts of the system. Back, back, back. Clay thought through everything he’d seen or felt from this moment back to the day they left the orbit of Earth.
Why, why, he wondered, why was he with Rachel of all people, Rachel who had found him wanting and would never forgive him for—whatever? He thought of Vera, he thought of Natasha, both of whom had at one point or another been his lady love. But then he realized, with a stomach-turning jolt, that however Rachel might seem to him at the moment, both Vera and Natasha were far more irrational and neurotic than Rachel.
And then, just as he was feeling the tiniest reopening of affection for her, Clay realized he was glad there wasn’t a mirror in the darkness of his Ghost, because he wasn’t sure he wasn’t the most irrational and neurotic of them all.
Rachel hardly spoke in the next twenty hours, and Clay limited himself to what he felt were necessary updates. She hooked up her vac suit to his life support system, and after a few hours it was clean enough for her to live in again, and at that point they both put on their suits. He slept a little, then she did, then he did, then she did, and when she woke up, she opened her eyes and said, “I’m still mad at you.”
“Okay,” said Clay, “I’m still mad at you.”
“Why are you mad at me?” she challenged him.
“Why are you mad at me?” he replied. “Hey, do you want to go straight for that third planet? Or land on one of the outer one’s moons? Or what? I need to know.”
“Well, is that atmosphere breathable?”
“Let’s see.” He brought up the Planet Three data. “Overall, a bit low in oxygen, a bit high in CO2. A lot of argon, two percent plus. Radioactivity is at a nominal level. I don’t see any obvious poisons. Gravity is about 80% of Earth. Some volcanic activity, not a lot. It’s got three moons.”
“Let’s land on this highland,” said Rachel, running a finger along the high ground. The screen changed color slightly, and then marked where she pressed. My screen likes her, thought Clay. Pity I’m not on such good terms with her. He was suddenly feeling very, very attracted to Rachel, and it irritated him, because he was so mad at her. He couldn’t remember why.
“Whatever you say, dear,” he replied. She arched an eyebrow, as if to say, so, you wish to continue the struggle? Then she rolled her eyes, let out a breath and turned her vac-suited back on him.
Three hours later, he asked her, after weighing the question for most of three hours, “So are we planning on landing with your fighter in tow? And then what, fix it?”
“Clay,” she said, not turning, “I trust you can put this little combo arrangement on the ground safely. Trust me once we land.”
“Okay,” he said, amicably, “it’s eleven hours till we put down, and only a 3.5% chance the extra drag will destabilize our descent and cause us to crash and become, dead or alive, permanent residents of this system.”
“Oh, fine,” she said, turning. “put us down somewhere up out of the atmosphere, then. On that big moon, maybe: it’s airless up there. No drag.”
He thought a moment, mostly out of a desire to slow down. “Okay. And if you need air, we can probably stage safely there and then drop down into the atmosphere down in the holes.”
“Mmm,” she said, looking at the planet display to his right. “We need a name for this place. I think we should call it Holey.”
“Holey.” He studied her. “Holey,” he said, still amicable. He was giving her suggestion due consideration, assuming that the bosses would veto it. “Sounds great to me. Holey. Huh.”
“Yes,” said Rachel. “As in, the Holey Place. I’m Holey, Fred. Is it George who gets a hole in his head?”
“Goddess, Rachel.” She turned to him, smiling. He smirked. “Are you still mad at Ron?” he asked.
“I’m always mad at Ron,” said Rachel, as they melted together in a long, slow, very thorough kiss.
They curved around and dropped toward the largest of the third planet’s three moons. Below them, the planet gleamed dark with a shimmer of atmosphere in the low parts of the horizon; seen mostly from behind, it was a crescent in the sunlight, brown to grey to purple where Earth would be white and blue and green. The moon they were landing on was mostly rock with a thin and unnourishing atmosphere of noble gases; it appeared as if vast augers had drilled holes in it here and there, hundreds of kilometers deep and hundreds wide.
“Holey indeed,” said Rachel as they set down on a peaky rock. Grey-black in the unfiltered light of the pink sun, it rose a kilometer or more from its tumbled environs, its sides sloped at 45-degree angles, the north side curved, the south, sun-facing side roughly flat. The whole thing seemed to have been pulled up out of a titanic hole it had been plugging. At the top, possibly some rock from space had glanced off it and busted off a chip, leaving a flat area the size of a racquetball court. There Clay set his Ghost down, Rachel’s Ghost still clamped on.
They got out and got the two craft separated. The gravity was just about that of Earth’s Moon, and it was easy to find a small boulder to set the disabled ship on. Rachel and Clay could have moved the empty Ghost in Earth gravity as easily as moving a sofa; in this milieu, either one of them could have handled it alone.
Rachel got into the back panel, clanked around, then leaned in her hatch, then went back to the back panel and clanked some more, making no actual clanking since the scanty noble gas atmosphere didn’t make it up to the top of the peak.
Rachel came out from the back hatch. She stalked over to Clay, her vac suit boots’ tiny wrinkles gripping the cold stone. “Clay, lift,” she said over the comm.
“Lift the stupid Ghost,” she said.
“Whole thing, okay?” He could sense her rolling her eyes. He lifted the Ghost off the boulder, and she crouched down to get under it. “Now,” she said, “I have never in my life opened this hatch. I hope this doesn’t dump poo all over me. I just cleaned this vac suit.”
“Hey, my ship did,” Clay pointed out. “Hey, it was the inside that was a mess before, this would just be the outside.”
“Funny,” said Rachel. She got the hatch underneath open and commenced to clank around soundlessly.
“Rachel,” said Clay. She continued doing whatever she was doing. Presently she backed downward and spent a minute looking up into the hatch. Clay said, “Rachel.”
“Are you, uh, still mad at me? I mean, are we still arguing? I mean, I know, you’re always mad at me and all that, but are we still arguing or are we making up or what? Am I allowed to say?”
Rachel spent another long minute looking and probing and then came out with a sort of solid glass prism ten centimeters long. She held it up to Clay, who took it.
“Alternator or whatever,” said Clay.
“The thing that takes the solar energy and converts it into battery power.” He looked at it. “End’s blown off,” he said, fingering the broken end. The glass was busted off in groovy curves.
“Can fix it?”
“Can replicate another one,” he said. “Pretty sure I can. Need some silicate. Sand.”
“Okay, Clay,” said Rachel, “I know what silicate is. Let me fix a few other items and we can buzz down to the planet. Can you also replicate some sealant for the skin? I have holes.”
“I know you do. I’ve always liked that about you.”
“Clay.” He looked at her. She said, “I don’t remember even whose idea it was to separate. I don’t even know if it was on balance a good idea or a bad idea.”
“I don’t either. So. Make up?”
“Clay. We have sixty light years to go yet. We have lots of time to fight and make up and fight and make up. To everything there is a season.”
“So make up.”
“Clay.” He raised his hands in whatever. She went up to him and took his raised hands in hers and they clicked visors in a cool kiss. Then they strapped her Ghost on top of his, climbed into his Ghost and headed down to the holey planet below.
Clay zipped the Ghost down to the planet, his infuriating best girl beside him in the lack of passenger seat. He was grooving just a little on the memories of driving around Maine and New Brunswick at night with his old girlfriend. He wondered where she was now—Wendy or whatever. Yes, Wendy. No, dead this century and a half. And yes, she too was far more neurotic and weird than Rachel.
The third planet of the Holey System was indeed dominated by holes, and by the mountainous piles excavated from them. Its low orbits were strewn with bits and pieces, not so much a lost satellite or moon as random trash, heavy in corroded metals. The double Ghost cruised right on through the thin layers. Landing on the sunset side—the planet’s day period was just under sixty hours—the colors were golden pink toward the star, brownish grey in the highlands, condensing to a deep green in the cleft where some sort of plant life seemed to manage. The great hole of a sea or lake was black as night, a pupil without an iris.
He circled over a long cleft between overturned chunks, looking for a landing spot, his hover thrust easily balancing the planet’s gravity against his doubled mass. The atmosphere lay mostly down low, so he scanned along a V-shaped cleft between upturned chunks of planetary crust. Rachel read off what the sensors picked up: fifteen percent oxygen, traces of pollution, cracks in the side of Cyclopean mountains venting gases.
“I’ll tell you what they did,” said Rachel. “They came here, whoever they were, and they bored holes into the planet and then they dug underneath, following the veins of whatever. Iron, I guess. Then over time the volcanism took over, after they left, and whole underground sections started collapsing. That’s why it looks so weird.”
“It would look weird anyway,” said Clay, “but what you describe is why it looks even weirder.”
“Yeah. So. Hmm. Beachside property? Down this cleft, yeah, see? Big hole there. Full of water. But the cleft runs right down to the waterside. We could skinny dip.”
“Think there’s any life?”
“Definite on greenery,” said Rachel. “Nothing moving. Nothing. Yep, chlorophyll’s evolved here or been brought here, but I wouldn’t say it’s thriving. I read some sort of topsoil like stuff, but then there’s a lot more of that scattered about—I guess someone brought life here and it got established, but then the miners came and blew everything up, and it’s just starting to get back to equilibrium.”
“Which doesn’t include tigers or T. rexes waiting to munch on us.”
“Nope. Not even mosquitoes.” She turned her helmeted gaze on him. “So you have a go to land.”
“Okey dokey,” said Clay. “Here goes.” He took the fighter down into the valley and into the atmosphere, and slowed down to a mere eight kilometers per second. “Does it annoy you when I say ‘okey dokey’?”
“No, it doesn’t annoy me especially,” replied Rachel, scrunched in next to him. They were both in their vac suits. She had given up on helping and was just letting him drive.
“Not more than everything else about me?”
“Clay,” said Rachel, “I can choose to be annoyed, I mean, one can choose to be annoyed, at any time and by anything. I’m not feeling annoyed right now. Take advantage of that.” He smirked. She added, “Am I annoying you right now?”
“Ha!” he said. “Hardly. Rachel, nothing you do ever annoys me.”
She smirked in her turn and made a little laughing noise. “Bull-sticks,” she said quietly. They smirked at each other, and then he pulled up to a stop a hundred meters up, and they dropped gently down to the shore of the black water. They climbed out and walked to the water’s edge, where the cleft, now almost flat, met the odd little sea. A stream ran down from behind them. Plant life of a sort seemed to be managing here, though he didn’t pick up anything like an animal: all those stalky or lurky grey-green-brown things seemed perfectly rooted. Without a breeze of any significance, they weren’t stirring a bit.
The fighter pilots looked around. They had the sense of ruins, though everything looked like loose piles of garbage. A trip to the dump was called for, Clay thought. But something about the ruins attracted his attention. The shapes, left in a moist atmosphere, with just about enough oxygen, for tens or hundreds of thousands of years, were still suggestive. He let them keep suggesting in the back of his mind while he trailed after Rachel.
This little ocean was almost perfectly round and 110 kilometers across. They could see the other side, because, everywhere along its shoreline but here, black cliffs rose tens of kilometers. Down, Clay’s ship sensors had told them, the water ran to a depth of over a hundred kilometers and ended in a very uneven floor, possibly with side passages. He shuddered: he was thinking Lovecraft thoughts again.
“What?” she said.
“Ever read ‘At the Mountains of Madness’?”
“Yeah,” said Rachel. “I had to, in high school.” They spent another ten seconds considering the deep and what might come up from it, and then they turned to their repair job and forgot all about H. P. Lovecraft.
Considering the shape Rachel’s Ghost had been in, and considering that less than a year ago, in their personal chronologies, Rachel and Clay had no more been able to repair spaceships than to make a decent vegetarian rib roast, the actual repair went pretty smoothly. Clay was at his Ghost synthesizing seal tape, glass wiring and parts; Rachel was under hers, which was propped up between two low rocks. Presently she climbed in and hovered up a few meters, the hatch open; she dropped gently down again, hopped out and fiddled some more.
“That should do it,” she said at last. Clay had wandered off and was using his scientific sensor to examine stuff. “Of course we’ll have glitches which we’ll only know about when I try her in space, but we’re not on a timeline, right?” She walked over to him. “What’s up, hunk-o-rama?”
He smirked at her (the official facial expression of Alpha Wing). “Hunk-o-rama?” he repeated. “Anyway, that aside, um, yeah, not on a timeline. Just like this poor thing.”
They looked down. He was kicking pieces of a spherical shell. He bent and pushed several of them together. It was nearly black and seemed like anodized steel. It had veins on the inside.
“Dead mouthhole,” said Rachel. “Huh. You didn’t do that, did you?”
“No,” he said. “There’s a couple more, buried under rubble. See?” He pointed his sensor’s light into the wreckage: sure enough, there were a couple more pieces of black sphere. It looked like it all added up to three or more of them.
“So? What do you think happened?”
“Every picture tells a story,” said Clay. “And I think I can tell this story.”
“Okay,” said Clay, “bear with me here. First off, this equipment.”
“Equipment?” replied Rachel. “Sorry. Bearing with.”
“Thanks. Anyway. Short version? Miners came here, big huge ships, zip into the system, chew through the asteroid belts, dig up the moons, then they get to the planet. They can’t do the whole planet like they did the asteroids, but they can dig these huge holes and get down to the good stuff maybe fifty or a hundred kilometers down, you know, the mantle or whatever. They open up the lower layers of the geology and even if it was solid or semi-solid under pressure, now it’s released and they are basically harvesting lava. Can you picture this?”
“No,” said Rachel.
“Well, no one really can until you see it and I hope we never see it. But I picture like big space ships, so big they’d make the colony ships look like Ghosts. Tankers like these propane tanks the size of Greenland. Not the Greenland, but actual Greenland, right? I mean, they’re not just hauling a few hundred tons of platinum or iridium or something, they are hauling iron and and nickel and you’d be hauling that by the cubic kilometer, don’t you think? I mean, you can see from the moon how much they were prepared to take out of here. They were doing this interstellar mining in a big ass way, whoever they were.”
“How do we know they didn’t live here? How do we know they weren’t natives, just using it themselves?”
“Do you see how big a mess they made of the place? Even Earthlings didn’t tear their own planet to shreds. I don’t think any alien race could be quite that destructive and yet also achieve the technological advancement to do that much destruction. One or the other, but not both. Anyway, there’s not much infrastructure on the ground, is there? No, you know, cities, highways, rail lines, houses, farms. Just this stuff.” He waved at the wreckage. “It’s processing equipment, pumping equipment, I see stuff that looks like both. It’s not that old, either, maybe what, ten or twenty thousand years?”
“How do you—?” Rachel frowned, raised her eyebrows and punched some buttons on the sensor on her left arm. Clay watched her, glad she had her helmet off so he could see it. She raised her eyebrows again, those black line eyebrows. “22,000 plus or minus 5500. ‘Kay.”
“So you see the bite marks?”
“Bite marks.” She looked, raised her eyebrows again. He went on, “Miners finish up. How long to do all this? I’m guessing they worked fast. Maybe they spent five years on the planet. They had all kinds of ships up there, fighters, cruisers, freighters, whatever. Big ass mining ships. Tankers. Insulated frickin’ tankers to hold all the lava or whatever. I don’t know. Anyway, mouthholes remain at arms’ length till they’re finished, then when they leave, the mouthholes come swooping in to eat whatever they left, satellites—you notice the metal debris in orbit still? But there’s stuff down on the planet too. Tasty stuff. Mouthholes don’t dig atmosphere, of course they don’t—they’re built for outer space, way outer space. But too much tasty stuff to resist, and the atmosphere at that time was probably still pretty perturbed. It hadn’t all settled back into the low areas yet. So they start diving in, chomping, charging back out before they get too, I don’t know, oxygenated. Yeah, maybe they corrode in air, I bet they do. They’re escaping back to space and going, phew, made it, hate that stuff, that air stuff. You kind of get it?”
“Yeah,” said Rachel, her hips cocked in that sexy way only women seemed to have perfected. Rachel was very good at that. She said, “Weirdly enough, I do get it. So these three or so?”
“They chomped what they shouldn’t have chomped. Mouthholes don’t have much experience with gravity. They never played Jenga in their lives. They took the wrong bites and the whole thing came down on them, the whole whatever it was structure. They got trapped.”
Rachel took a long look at the victims, then looked Clay in the eye and said, “Okay. I believe that. So what does it tell us?”
“It tells us that this part of the galaxy is even more populated than we thought.”
“Well,” said Rachel, “it tells me that you are a very observant guy.” She picked up a piece of plant, a weed stem that could have been a sort of flower, unless, that is, it was actually a fungal spore head or some sort of slow-moving crinoid. “And do you observe anything else?”
“I observe that you think this is not the whole story.”
“No,” she said. “I don’t. I don’t know. Something about the life on this place—mosses, or flowers, or tiny trees—they don’t strike me as the apex of evolution in a limited ecosystem, like Algaeville was, more like the leftover after someone else had their own catastrophe, you know? And I’m not talking about the mining. Something before that. This isn’t twenty-two thousand years. This is like millions.”
“Is this all intuition? Or are you saying I should have made you a bouquet of those?”
“No, no,” she said, holding the grey-green weed at a safe distance. “Sniffing it might kill me for all I know. No, I’d just like to get back in my stinkin’ Ghost and have one more look around. Can we do that?”
“Sure,” said Clay, utterly relieved at having the old Rachel back, the Rachel for whom using her brain, problem solving and hypothesis testing, was a kind of foreplay. “Let’s get in space and make a survey, sexy lady.”
“That’s the way I like to hear you talk, hotness,” she replied.
Clay and Rachel took a few minutes to investigate the plant life, starting with the “flower” Rachel had picked. They continued to not find anything that moved under its own power. The plants or fungi or whatever they were did have cells and some sort of genetic material, did not seem in any way related to Earth-based life, did have a sort of pollen and a sort of chlorophyll and a sort of rhizome and did not produce anything quite like a fruit or a seed or even a leaf. They seemed to subsist on water and minerals from below and the thin pinkish sunlight they got for about a quarter of each day period from above; the rather high carbon dioxide level wasn’t hurting them a bit. The “flowers” were their pollen-producing bodies; what was clever was that they let the pollen wash down and mix around their planty-fungal feet, where they all had their female parts. The result of pollenation was a new plant that began as a runner, growing away from its mother plant for a meter or two before making the leap upward.
Ten minutes documenting these exciting lives was more than sufficient. Clay took lots of pictures, Rachel put away a few samples, and they got off the ground.
“So here’s what we think,” said Rachel as they hovered up from the cleft.
“Your fighter seems to be in fine fettle,” said Clay. “I trust you’re paying attention to the status.”
“Yes, Clay, I am paying attention to the status.” Good, he thought, she’s her usual sarcastic self, she’s not mad at me. “So we think—can I go on with that thought? We think this place had these life forms here already evolved, and then along came this mining fleet and they mined the heck out of the place, and the local life forms are still recovering.”
“That’s what we think,” said Clay.
“And here’s the thing. You remember before we left Earth, there was all this talk about the Drake Equation? The factors that were involved in whether we would meet alien species?”
“Admiral Georges never put up with that kind of talk, Rachel. I guarantee no one said the words ‘Drake’ and ‘equation’ side by side at any of our panel discussions back in Ville de Quebec.”
“Okay,” said Rachel, “maybe it was just my friends back in Vancouver I stayed with that fall. We talked all about it. But you know what I’m talking about?”
“Sure, everyone knows the Drake Equation. You take, what, the number of stars in the galaxy times the likelihood of a star having planets times the probability of a planet developing life times this times that times the other thing and you get the number of alien civilizations.”
“Riiiight. So here we have one of those factors: the chance that a planet that evolves life manages to develop sentient beings. I mean, it’s never going to happen in Algaeville, but here? Not counting the miners, that is? You’d think, given the millions of years it must have taken to develop what they already have, these, um, plants or whatever you want to call them, they’d eventually develop animals and stuff and then, at some point, something that had brains. But maybe you’d be wrong, maybe you really could just stop with plants.”
“Or maybe they’re not from here either,” said Clay. “Maybe someone else just accidentally contaminated the place.”
“Or maybe,” said Rachel, “you’re going to say the miners evolved here and then wrecked the place and moved on.”
“I don’t think I’m going to say that,” Clay replied. “It just doesn’t feel right.”
“No, I agree.” They were rising well up above the highest peaks of the planet now. Rachel said, “Commencing scans of surface. So: or maybe the miners wiped out the local civilization and pretty much all the local life forms and even now all that’s growing here is weeds. No, I don’t believe that either, if it was 22,000 plus or minus 5500, and if the local civ was even moderately successful before, you’d see some wreckage of theirs, but this does look like equipment, not residences or temples or libraries or anything.”
“Which begs the question of how alike civilizations are,” said Clay, watching several dozen readouts superimposed on his screen view of the greenish greyish brownish black planet below them, with its glints of water and glimmers of air. “But I’m not going to argue. That wreckage was all built around the same time, and all for one or two purposes. It’s not diverse enough, somehow, not varied enough to be what’s left of a civilization.”
“Agree,” said Rachel. They continued skimming a hundred kilometers above the level of the highest peak. “Increase speed to 7.5 km/s. Interesting formations.”
“Sure,” said Clay. “Reading clouds over that hole there.”
“Oooh, it’s monsoon season. That’s a double hole, that is. It must generate quite the weather, huh? Light rain predicted for low-lying areas. No chance of—Clay.”
“No chance of Clay? I’d say there’s an excellent chance of clay. All you need is fine particles and water, and I’d say they have both—!”
“Clay. Clay.” Her face appeared on his screen, giving him her full glare. Then she raised that left eyebrow. Then she vanished and a region on a highland below them appeared, magnified and highlighted and circled in bright yellow just for good measure.
“What the,” said Clay.
“Civilization,” said Rachel. “Rewrite the history books. Stop the presses. I am frickin’ brilliant. We have civilization.”
It was a pile of humongous rubble. The chunks of crust averaged fifty or a hundred meters on a side, tossed up on top of a plateau about three kilometers above what was now sea level. The chunks betrayed sedimentation and metamorphosis and all the things geologists read with a glance. It was what the chunks lay on top of that interested Rachel and Clay.
Half obscured by scree and by a two-hundred-meter boulder was a series of broad faint lines meeting at 120 degree angles. Zooming out and blurring the view, more design resolved: a honeycomb of perfect regular hexagons with sides 330 meters long. Many were partly erased, many were distorted, many were obscured by a thin dust that seemed to blow about up here in the nearly nonexistent upper airs, but the pattern covered a section at least eight kilometers long and four wide, and presumably continued under the scree.
“And it’s not the same all over,” said Rachel as they hovered a kilometer up. “It’s definitely centered. See how this line of hexagons and that line are clearer? I’m sure of it—see the designs? Those ones have those little paisley designs.”
“They’re not just clearer,” said Clay. “Those aren’t just paisleys, Rache. Those are signals. They’re just dead.”
“What?” She fiddled. “Man. That’s technology down there. That’s solar. Those are beacons.”
“Or something,” said Clay. “And they focus just under the rubble.”
So they landed in a hexagon close to the edge of the scree. They got out, suited up: the atmosphere up here was vanishingly thin. They walked around the hexagon, which was nowhere near as clear down here as it had been from a kilometer up. Its linear edges were not ruts nor ridges, but slightly different colored substrate. On close examination they weren’t even sure it could be called rock: was it highly metamorphosed asphalt, or highly metamorphosed soil, or some alien applique?
The “paisley” pattern Rachel had noticed was actually a curlicue of small embedded pieces. They looked like crushed light bulbs, with metal bits stuck down inside hard-pressed bits of colored glass or plastic. Rachel poked around with a probe tool that came out of her sensor, another of Padfoot’s little innovations: with prodding, they could see bits of device. The whole paisley wasn’t at the center of the hexagon, but within ten meters of the vertex nearest the rubble.
“Weird,” said Clay. “I keep thinking about the beings that left this. Who left this. Right? I’m trying to get the, uh, relative pronouns right. These were a who, not a which. Think about that.”
“Think about this,” said Rachel. She kicked some of the debris around. It was thin and corroded but also dense and metallic somehow: a dust of dead steel. “This was laid down long before the miners got here. To them, this was just rock. They dumped their stuff on this. There is no sign of actual things here, just these hexagons. The whole place was ruins by the time the miners got here. I’m sure of it.” She kicked her way to the vertex of the hexagon and glared at the scree. “And the signs all point, literally point, to something under there.”
“How the heck do we get under there?”
“With our amazing brains,” said Rachel.
An hour later, using their amazing brains and some navigational software in their helmets, Clay and Rachel had worked their way back under the boulders. Once they had found their way in past the scree through a narrow gap, they found mostly spacious halls of stone formed by the chunks of rock above and the flat highland below. Their helmet screens overlaid the hex pattern on the dim scene before them, and presently they found themselves standing in the middle of a huge vaulted chamber formed by truly Cyclopean boulders. At their feet was a hexagonal hatch sixty centimeters on a side.
“The guys who left the plaques,” said Clay, “you know, the iridium plates? They liked hexagons.”
“So do bees and wasps,” said Rachel. She bent and started using her probe to get into the cracks that marked the edge of the hexagon. “Help me out here.”
Clay continued walking around the hexagon, then bent and looked at what seemed to be a central design, a sort of sixfold paisley. He stuck his own sensor’s probe into it, then probed around, poking and stirring. Rachel rose to kneel and watched.
Suddenly the hatch popped up a centimeter or so and dropped back askew. They looked at each other. Then they carefully lifted it up and set it aside.
Beneath, there was a hexagonal space only about ten centimeters deep. It was filled with glittering metallic disks, a couple of dozen of them, each five or six centimeters across.
“Gold pieces,” said Clay. “We just rolled real good for treasure. Where the hell’s the dragon?”
“It’s not treasure,” said Rachel, picking one of the disks up. She glared at it, then turned her sensor on it. “Letters. No, grooves. Coding.”
“But it’s gold, right? Tell me it’s not iridium-osmium.”
“Platinum,” said Rachel.
“Why platinum, I wonder,” said Clay. “I mean, for coins—?”
“I told you,” said Rachel, still glaring at the sensor. “It’s not coins. Platinum is the least reactive of all the metals. It’s rare, but that’s not the point, except that whoever they were, they would only have used it for something really important. It’s not treasure. It’s records.”