Chapter 4: At 581

IV. At 581

1.

The Gliese 581 system was conventional, if small. It centered on a dwarfish red star, and it had five medium to large planets inside the range of what would have been Earth’s orbit. The planets’ names dated back to the system’s original identification as possibly life-supporting in the early 21st century. Planet e was an overgrown Mercury, blasted dry and airless in the lap of the star; b, a Neptune moved to much warmer climes, with four modest-sized moons; c, a big Venus, just on the inside of the Goldilocks zone but cursed with a runaway greenhouse effect; d, the most Earth-like of the planets, with a bit of atmosphere and a bit of liquid water and polar ice that covered most of the planet; and finally f, just inside where the Earth would be in the system of Sol, was another Neptune-sized planet, blue-green with blue-green rings and three blue-green moons. Far out, eight times the orbital distance of the outermost of the five, lurked a previously unknown planet, as big as Saturn and dark as charcoal with wide sandy rings and a coterie of little coaly moons.

“That fourth one,” said Clay.

“I thought it was always the third planet that got colonized,” said Rachel.

“In this case it’s the fourth,” said Clay. “The third looks problematic. So that’s what, d? Yes. It’s on the outside of the Goldilocks zone, but the oatmeal isn’t quite too cold, it’s almost just right. It looks like glacier city, of course.”

“But apparently there’s room enough for them to colonize. Listen, Clay.”

“Yes?”

“I mean, are you ready for orders?” He looked down at Rachel’s pretty little nipples in his chest hair, then back at her steely eyes. She smiled that smile of hers. “I’m assuming command, of course.”

“Of course,” said Clay.

“So first off, all I can tell so far, and maybe you can tell more from these data than I can, is that they’re Earthlings. I don’t have any idea, nor do you, what their attitude is going to be. They may all be infected with some weird virus, or they may be, um, evasive about all the platinum they’ve found. Or a million other things.”

“We also don’t know what contact they’ve had with Earth, uh, Commander. They’re only twenty light years away, and it is now what, 2560?”

“That’s what I got,” said Rachel. “2561.02, February that is.”

“We’ve been away from Earth for 227 years next month,” said Clay. “Who knows how many colonies there are, or whether they’re all fighting amongst themselves, or like 581’s all browncoats fighting the Alliance, fighting the Earth Federation or something. Maybe they’ve all been converted to Borg or some sort of space fungus.”

“Maybe they’re overrun with tribbles,” said Rachel.

They coasted on in, slowing into the system far out among its coaly asteroids and cometoids. The planets began to resolve.

“Oh my goodness,” they both said at once. Indeed, that fourth one, larger than Earth and mostly covered with ice, had a colony. It was in the thin equatorial band that wasn’t under the polar ice; at this moment, it gleamed just onto the night side at about six degrees north latitude, its rather messy energy output easily visible across the system.

Rachel and Clay didn’t feel the need to announce themselves, nor did they feel any need to hide: the fourth planet, the so-called Gliese 581d, did have human habitation but did not possess satellites. There were no spacecraft in the system that didn’t contain Rachel and Clay. “So,” said Rachel, “do they have space flight but they don’t use it, or are they just idiots?”

“Well, they knew space flight,” said Clay. “They’re here.”

“Let’s scan those moons of f and the outer. No moons at d.”

“Nope,” said Clay. “A bit of rubble. I read a thin ring, if you’ll believe it, just gravelly stuff, granite, quartz. Huh, anorthosite. Must have been lava. Busted moon. Must be.”

“Roger that.” They kissed, then they watched as her fingers danced about the touch pad. “I don’t pick up anything outside of planet d but a couple disturbed spots on f’s two largest moons, yeah, those are just volcanic-seismic sites, nothing sentient.”

“So d is pretty much it,” said Clay.”

“Pretty much it,” said Rachel. “It’s more than I actually expected, I didn’t expect anything at all, really. But still. That colony, it can’t be more than fifty or a hundred thousand people. They certainly haven’t colonized anywhere else in this system, just that planet. I mean, I can detect technological activity, lots of it, but it doesn’t cover much area and they just do not seem that advanced.”

“I wonder about those moons,” Clay said. “Nothing out in the coal zone. Seems like the outer regions of the system are very carbony.”

“If those miners have been here, those outer reaches sure wouldn’t be irony. Ha! That’s irony!”

“Funny.”

“Okay, so I say we land on one of the f moons and have a look at the colony from a distance before we do anything rash like land.”

“Okay, commander,” said Clay. “Man. I wonder what it’s like down there. Okay, that was a dumb thing to say. Make that, I dread finding out what it’s like down there.”

“Yeah,” said Rachel, “it could be bad in so many different ways.”

2.

So Rachel and Clay separated their Ghosts (to a distance of a few hundred meters) and charted a course to the third largest of Gliese 581f’s turquoise moons. They landed in a broad crater, clamped down, and stepped out onto glass-flat ice, the panoply of the galaxy streaming across the sky above them and gorgeously reflected on the ice below. They each took a dozen pictures.

“I’m trying to decide,” said Clay, “if the constellations are starting to look familiar.”

“I think the Big Dipper’s coming into focus a bit,” said Rachel. “Isn’t that it? No. Wait.” She used her gloved finger on the outside of her visor to do the poking and sliding, and then announced, as Clay continued to inspect the blue-green ice, “No, it’s over there.” She pointed. There was indeed a scraggly line of stars, but it was no dipper Clay had ever seen.

“Well,” he said after a moment, “the Milky Way is pretty obvious at least.”

“It is,” said Rachel. They marveled at it: a spill of milk across the sky that would never be cleaned up. “Okay,” she said, “what about this planet we have here?”

They gazed in the direction of d. Clay ran a glove over the back of his helmeted head as if he were smoothing back his hair. “It’s not as good a situation as Bluehorse-3,” he said. “Ice caps cover 90% of the surface. The area covered by usable land is under 5%. Colony appears to cover maybe 1/10 of 1%, no, wait, way less than that. The atmosphere is very light. I’m picking up some natural poisons, not high level, but I’d say they haven’t cleaned up the air for their use completely.”

“I got 7% oxygen,” said Rachel. “And 12% CO2. Check it out. They have a bubble.”

They both poked and slid on the outside of their visors. “You know what,” said Clay, “you are right again, Commander.”

“Don’t call me that. That’s an order. Ha ha, I love this.”

“Okay. They have a system of bubbles. They’re supporting themselves under the bubble, rather than remediate their atmosphere. What’s that say?”

“It says I revise my estimate downward. I think they can’t have more than ten or twenty thousand population,” replied Rachel. “If these really are the Venture Project, they’ve been here since 2352, less than twenty years after we left Earth. They’ve been here for two hundred years.” They gazed on the distant Planet d. “It seems weird, doesn’t it? Standing here looking at the colony. They presumably have no idea we’re here. It’s like we’re the alien invaders. Spaceships appearing in the sky.” She laughed. “We come in peace, fellas. We’re just stopping by for a little visit.”

“The thing is,” said Clay, rubbing his helmet again, “I’m not that anxious to go knock on the door, are you?”

“No, actually,” said Rachel. “But it’s not like we have a choice. So?”

“So do we buzz right in, or do we maybe land on some rock somewhere very close by? There’s a co-orbital asteroid, it looks easy. It’s twenty km by twelve by ten, it can’t have much gravity.”

“But it’s what, twenty million kilometers from the planet? How much more can we learn there that we can’t see from here? I mean, if d had a moon, that would put us within a million, maybe within a hundred thousand, but twenty million isn’t much of an improvement in resolution.”

“I guess I was just approaching it as gingerly as possible,” said Clay.

“Of course we communicate with the ground,” said Rachel. “It’s entirely possible they’ll still have that much technology.”

“On balance,” said Clay, “it’s probably best to give them a call ahead. Seems unlikely they’d crank up their anti-spacecraft phasers.”

They stood a moment longer. Rachel said, “Why ‘phasers’? Why did they call the guns on Star Trek phasers? Did they put things out of phase?”

“No idea,” said Clay, as they stood and marveled at the beauty of the universe and wondered about the colony before them.

3.

The two Ghosts rose from the turquoise crater and followed a gently spiraling course in toward the fourth planet. They took all sorts of readings of all sorts of things, but they only had eyes for d.

“So according to the encyclopedia,” said Rachel, “Venture One started with three colony ships of 400 each. They would have brought 1200 colonists to start off with.”

“I read some mining operations,” said Clay. “Nothing else currently going on outside those bubbles they put up. Which look like original equipment, or copies of original equipment. I don’t see anything they have now that they didn’t basically bring. Lots of things they would have brought that they don’t have now. Satellites, for instance.”

“That farmland. You’d think maybe they just didn’t solve their atmosphere problem, but I can see where they laid out a hundred thousand hectares of farmland. It’s just not in use.”

“They definitely don’t have any farming going on outside the bubbles,” said Clay as they came into orbit over the narrow equatorial zone, the eight or ten degrees of the planet’s latitudes that were not covered by ice. “The sensor program puts their population at 19,100 plus or minus 5,500.”

“Two hundred years on,” said Rachel, “even just through reproduction they should have doubled every twenty years or so, right? That’s two to the tenth, which everyone knows is basically a thousand. They should have gone from their initial 1200 colonists to 1.2 million. And that’s not even counting immigration, but they’re close enough to Earth that they should have had plenty of that too.”

“They got constricted. They’re stuck.” He magnified a spot just outside one of the bubbles. “There. There’s one of the colony ships. It landed intact. Um, you going to communicate?”

“Here goes,” said Rachel. She sent the canned Su Park colony greeting, waited, then sent it again. They waited five minutes, then sent the canned greeting a third time.

“Anything?” asked Clay, unnecessarily.

“Nope. Okay. We wait till we’re in orbit.”

So Rachel and Clay flew along ten meters apart, approached planet d, and then took a high orbit, ten meters apart. Rachel sent the canned greeting one more time.

“Nothing,” she said after a minute. “Okay. I’ll just call them personally. Think they’ll like the personal touch? Gliese 581 base, this is Rachel Andros of the Human Horizon Project. Come in, please. —They won’t answer. I’ll try once more. —Venture One, this is Rachel Andros, request permission to land.” She waited another minute. “Nothing. Well, the equipment is broken or else they’re all out fishing. Shall we just land?”

“Or they’re all dead,” said Clay.

“Negatory on that one,” said Rachel. “I see people. Clay! I see people! Inside the bubbles! Well, I’m excited. I mean, this whole thing could go very wrong, but you know—people!”

“Okay,” Clay said after a moment. “And they don’t answer the phone. Where do we land?”

“Right by that colony ship. They’ll have a way in through it. In one bay from outside the bubble, out another bay inside the bubble.”

“What?” said Clay, who had missed out on all the explanations he’d probably been given of how the colony ships were supposed to work if the air was not breathable yet.

“Just follow me.” She plotted a course and sent it to him, followed by her smiling face. “It’s going to be fine,” she said. “I can just feel it.”

“Okey doke,” he said, half to himself, as her smile disappeared from his screen like that of the Cheshire Cat. Out there in space, her Ghost dropped its nose and started splitting the upper air to let it pass. Clay switched his flectors to atmosphere plow mode and followed. They came down around the equator, with its rolling seas and gentle barren hills, and as they came back around, she led him in for a landing. They circled the colony ship twice, but no one seemed to notice yet. They decelerated to a stop at 100 meters, then settled downward gently onto the sandy ground side by side. They got out of their Ghosts.

Out of a side port of the colony ship came three all terrain vehicles, open, with vac suited figures on them, two and four and four. Rachel gestured to Clay, and they both shut their hatches. The ATVs rolled to a stop in front of them, and two of the figures on the second ATV jumped off, aiming what looked like old fashioned rifles at them.

“Okay,” said Clay, “we have contact.”

4.

Behind the two who jumped off the second ATV, two more jumped off the third. They came up to Rachel and Clay. Their vac suits were different, but only as different descendants of the same great grandparents. Through the visors, the two pilots could see they were dealing with humans: two men with guns, two women without. The women walked up to Clay and resumed arguing, on the old reliable comm channel wavelength and therefore audible in full to the pilots.

“We need to take them to Sec,” said the first, muscular and as tall as the two men and about twenty-five centimeters taller than Clay. “I’m telling you. It’s standing orders.”

“Shut,” said the other woman, shorter and of much lighter build, but still too tall to fit into a Ghost. “You two. Uh, welcome to Landfall. We’re, ah, not used to greeting people much. Where are you coming from?”

“Vashir,” said the tall woman, “Glencal, take them to Sec. Take the front two ATV’s, leave the third for me and Relien. Come on, move.”

The two men with guns, apparently Vashir and Glencal, looked at each other and then at the short woman, Relien. “No, no, no,” said Relien. “Where are you guys from? You hungry?”

“We are from Bluehorse,” said Clay proudly. “Bluehorse-3,” said Rachel.

“We’re from the Human Horizon Project,” said Clay. “We left Earth in 2333, and we left Bluehorse in 2488.”

“And that would make this the year 2561, right?” asked Rachel.

“Jomes!” called the tall woman. “Blanda. Get over here and take these two. Relien, I’m warning you—!”

“Ts—ts—ts,” replied Relien, stopping her comrade with a finger. “Blanda, Jomes, stand down. Nee, what is your point?”

“Knee?” Clay mouthed to Rachel, who looked alarmed as well as mystified.

“Stand aside, Relien,” said Nee. “Come on, girls, let’s hustle.” Jomes and Blanda, both tough-looking young women, seemed more inclined to follow Nee’s lead than the men were.

“Ensigns,” said one of the two gun-toting men, “let’s compromise. We take one to meet the council and all, you take the other to Sec.”

“As a hostage,” said Relien.

“I don’t like it,” said Nee. (Clay went on for some time yet thinking her name was Knee.)

“No, no, that’s just what we should do, Ensign,” said the big blonde whose name was Blanda. “We take her to Sec, Relien takes him to meet the council and all.”

“Yeah, I go with that,” said Jomes, who had shaggy red hair.

Nee and Relien looked at each other, then at Clay and Rachel, then at each other. They shook hands. “I get the woman,” said Nee.

“What?” said Rachel. “Why? What is this ‘Sec’? Is it what it sounds like?”

“We come in peace, we really do,” said Clay. “We really didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.”

“Nobody does,” Vashir muttered to Blanda, who chuckled.

“You have nothing to fear,” said Nee. She grabbed Rachel by the upper arm and propelled her into the grip of Vashir, and with a backward glance Rachel found herself given the bum’s rush onto the middle ATV by Nee and Blanda.

“This is really unnecessary,” said Clay. Relien was about to say something placating—they were close enough to read facial expressions through their visors—when a commotion broke out and gunshots were audible even through their sealed helmets.

“Glencal!” cried Nee, getting back out of the ATV. “Jomes, let go,” Relien ordered. Two more gunshots went off, but Jomes and Glencal were just wrestling with Glencal’s weapon and firing into the heavens. No one Clay knew was in the line of fire.

“She grabbed my gun,” Glencal was explaining.

“He was waving it around,” said Jomes, “and what the hell was he doing with live ammunition?”

“I should check your guns,” said Nee. “You’re already breaking rules, I bet your weapons are loaded for bear.”

Relien took the liberty of grabbing Jomes’s weapon and checking it. “Live ammunition,” she said. “Nee, you should be ashamed of yourself.”

“First I knew of it,” said Nee, “unlike you and your pal Glencal. I promise I’ll put a reprimand in her record. I’m gonna report your ass, Glen. Come on, Jomes, grab on the back, let’s go, driver.”

“Clay,” said Rachel over the comm.

“Do not be communicating,” said Nee in their comms.

“We’ll get you out,” said Clay.

“Please do,” said Rachel. “Be a diplomat.”

“In a duck’s eye,” said Nee. Finally all settled, Nee and the driver in the front, Rachel and Blanda in the back seat, and Jomes hanging on the back handles, the ATV pulled out and pulled away.

“Well, there you have it,” said Relien. “Welcome to Landfall, 581. No one has visited us in thirty years, and we seem to have forgotten how to handle that. Well, we do hope you enjoy your stay.”

5.

Clay had felt hyper-aware of the events immediately following his and Rachel’s landing on Gliese 581d. Now he felt completely distracted, so off balance and frazzled by seeing Rachel hustled away by armed guards that he hardly noticed the odd sort of tour that Ensign Relien was giving him. They hopped on an ATV and headed off around the side of the bubble collection, Relien driving, Clay in the shotgun seat, Glencal and Vashir in back, Relien talking a mile a minute. He was conscious of little other than his own feelings, but Relien’s nervousness came through loud and clear. What she was nervous about did not come through: was she afraid of making a bad impression, or worried that Nee had been right and that Clay here was some sort of alien in disguise, or was she more worried about what lurked hidden in all these—all these transparent buildings?

The colony, from ground level, looked like a city of rounded glass. It looked like a city made up of snow globes. They buzzed around a small one that seemed to have more buildings inside, buildings built of plastic and local rock, which had a characteristic purple sheen. The next bubble was much larger and seemed to be full of crops. Its windows were a bit fogged. They rounded it and headed for a sort of city gate, an airlock for vehicles.

He wondered why they hadn’t gone in through the grounded colony ship. He wondered why they had passed at least two other entrances. He wondered where Nee, or Knee perhaps, had taken his beloved Rachel. He wondered just how mad his beloved Rachel would be at him. He wondered what he could have done, and every three minutes, like clockwork, he found himself shocked by the thought that he should be doing something right this moment, something desperate and just the brave side of stupid.

He finally steeled himself to take a chance and try asking politely what was happening to Rachel.

“Oh, they won’t do anything to her,” said Relien, and then, less reassuringly, she added, “They’d better not. Okay, so this is the North Port, through here to the left you’ll see the barley fields.”

“Barley?” Clay was thinking beer. Relien did not elaborate, but went off about the geology of the colony site. He was fairly sure she was covering something with all this talk, and he was fairly sure what she was covering was how nervous she was. He discarded the hypothesis that she was nervous about entertaining a visiting dignitary, because he was starting to have the strongest feeling that Clay Gilbert hardly rated notice right now.

Relien talked them through the North Port, a big air lock and then a cylindrical passage that looked and smelled like it belonged in a space port back on Earth: all long empty spaces and faint noxious fumes. Now everyone doffed their helmets and unzipped their vac suits a little: it was warm and moist in here, not to mention a little polluted. Clay thought about resealing, but figured it would seem hostile: wouldn’t want that. There was enough hostility already here. At the far end of the long chamber a dozen armed men and women in open vac suits loitered; there was some sort of argument with at least three sides; Relien’s sheer verbal force got them out of the place without bloodshed. Clay was not sure bloodshed wasn’t going to occur behind them; at least a dozen signs warned, in big block letter English, that loaded guns were totally prohibited. These did not reassure.

“What exactly is going on here?” asked Clay as they sped away inside the bubble. “How is our landing here controversial? Don’t you get visits from Earth?” He looked at Relien, who now seemed just a little too agitated to reply. At a loss for words, for once, she concentrated on barreling around the sandy roads inside the bubble.

“Not that often,” said Vashir. “Last time was what, thirty years ago?”

“So if we were from Earth,” said Clay, after spending a minute digesting that and gazing ruefully on what turned out to be sickly corn and barley, “would you have put out the welcome mat a bit? Or would you have had to send half of the visiting party to Security or whatever?”

“Ahh, who the merde knows,” said Relien. Clay smiled to himself, and Relien went on, seeming a bit put out by the question. “We’re going to show you both the welcome mat, trust me,” she said, “we just have to get this all sorted out. The Council will take care of this, at least if we get to, ah,” and her voice dwindled, “the right people on the Council.”

“Let’s go see Parthon,” said Vashir.

Relien swerved right and sped off down a sort of alley between purplish buildings. “Just what I was going to suggest,” she said.

They sped down the alley, then zig-zagged and turned hard right and then hard left and sped down another alley, now scattering a few children and some very large chickens and skinny looking cats. Then they swerved to a stop in a small square. The buildings around were all three stories tall: not so much brownstones as purple-stones. A few more kids sitting on steps ran for cover inside. A half dozen men and women emerged from two trucks parked on the sides of the square and gathered menacingly in the middle.

“Relien,” said the amplified voice of the leader of this group, a bullish-looking man with a shaved head. He would have made a great villain in an old video. “Yield up your prisoner.”

6.

“You mean me?”

The bullish, villainous-looking man scowled. Of course he did. He took Clay in for some seconds. Clay would have to estimate that the bullish man had about twice his mass. Then the bullish man scowled around the square. He looked back at Clay and raised his eyebrows as if he wasn’t sure what to say about the situation.

“He’s not a prisoner, Fulmar,” said Relien, “and neither is the other one.”

“I don’t have any other one,” said Fulmar, scowling at Relien.

“Then you need to see about getting her here,” said Relien. The two closed distance as they talked at each other and scowled. She was smaller than Fulmar (but a good bit larger than Clay) but her scowl was at least the equal of Fulmar’s.

“Who has her?”

“Nee has her.”

“Nee.” Fulmar scoffed.

“What the frip is going on out here?” announced a new entrant, a statuesque older woman in a slightly elegant tunic and shorts.

“Parthon,” said Relien. “Gor dang Parthon,” said Fulmar. “Frippin’ Parthon,” said several of Fulmar’s supporters.

“That’s Parthon,” said Vashir in Clay’s ear.

“I guessed,” said Clay. “Listen, Parthon,” he said in his loudest voice, but several other people chose to address the statuesque older woman in their loudest voices.

In her loud low voice, Parthon, pointing a long and emphatic arm at Clay, said, “Who or what exactly is this?” Another surge of voices resulted. Parthon lowered her pitch and raised her volume further and said, “You. What exactly are you?” She looked around the crowd, which quailed a little. “I want him to answer, you ridiculous rabble.”

Clay cleared his throat. It was sort of quiet. “Well,” he said, “I’m a fighter pilot. An explorer pod pilot, you know?” He looked around. People were at least muttering rather than shouting. “My, um, comrade and I come from the Bluehorse System, you wouldn’t know what that was because we, I mean, the Human Horizon Project—um, okay, so we left Earth in 2334, right? That’s over two hundred years ago now. Right?”

“You’re from Earth,” said Parthon.

“Yeah, they’re both from Earth,” Relien said, while Fulmar said, “How do we know any of this is actually—?”

“Oh, shut, for skin’s sake,” said Parthon. “What is your name, pilot?”

“Gilbert, Clay Gilbert. My partner is Rachel Andros. The Human Horizon Project left Earth with ten thousand colonists and oh, twenty-two fighters and, well, assorted other ships. And we.” He stopped and looked around. He had everyone’s attention. “Rachel and I are headed back to Earth with news of the colony we founded at Bluehorse. And the brass, the, uh, Commander, she thought it would be sort of nice to stop by 581, see what’s happening.” He looked around, past the faces and up across the tops of the buildings to the grimy surface of the bubble, where the red sun gleamed its noonday dusk light on the colony. “It doesn’t look like you’ve had a great time of it.”

“We’re fine,” said Parthon. She glared at Fulmar, then at Relien. “What did this one tell you, Clay Gilbert?”

“Who? Her? Nothing really. She was proud of the barley.”

“Parthon,” said another woman next to the councillor, “maybe they can—?” She quailed.

“Um,” said Clay, “we did notice that your communication isn’t working. You know that, don’t you?”

“Well,” said Parthon grudgingly, “the satellite systems all went down about twenty years ago.”

“All at once? Okay, that’s interesting. What about the farmland outside the bubbles?”

“That never worked,” said Fulmar. “Lot of people died in the early days,” said an old man.

“See, we could help,” said Clay. “Me and Rachel. All you have to do is get Knee or whatever her name is to—!”

Four ATVs roared into the square. Speak of the Devil, there was Nee jumping out with her gun ready, and Jomes and Blanda and bunches of friends jumped out with their own guns. Shouting ensued, and shoving, though Clay noticed that no one seemed to want to shoot: the bubble membrane, whatever it was, was vulnerable. Clearly this colony already had enough trouble. He was trying to figure out who was winning the melee when someone hit him over the head with something.

“Ow,” he said, turning. Someone turned out to be none other than Miss Jomes, holding her weapon. She was being wrestled down by several other people. “She hit me!”

“Come on,” said Parthon, grabbing him by the arm. She took a look around at the general strife, then looked down on him with her cool blue eyes. “Let’s go have a nice chat.”

7.

Parthon and five of her best young muscular friends swept Clay out of the madding crowd and up a set of steps. The planet’s gravity was roughly that of Earth—Clay couldn’t really tell if it was more or less, but it was more than Bluehorse-3, of that he was sure. By the top step of the second stair, he was feeling winded. The air didn’t taste great either, though his vac suit was still telling him it was fully breathable, with contaminants and poisons well within acceptable parameters. On the third floor, they came out into a large room full of what seemed like steel and plastic park benches. Everyone sat down: Parthon took her position in a big chair with a rolling desk next to her, a portable computer tablet beside her. It was the first computer Clay had seen on 581.

“Tea,” said Parthon. A big lug grunted, got up and went to make a big pot of tea. Parthon looked at Clay, who was at the near end of the bench closest to her. “So. Nee has your comrade.”

“Well, she took her away,” said Clay. “It was very strange. It seemed like Nee and Relien were going to come to blows—in fact, their underlings did come to blows—but then they made this compromise. Relien got me, and Nee got Rachel. She’s not going to hurt her, is she?”

“Not Nee,” said Parthon. “She knows all about chits.”

“Chits?”

“Wampum. Quid. Quid pro quid.” Clay looked blank. “Gold of the realm,” said Parthon. “Stuff to barter with? What do you trade for in Blue Thingy?”

“Ohhh. Bargaining chips.”

“Yes. No harm will come to your Rachel. Is she just your comrade, or—?”

“Or,” said Clay. “Can I ask another question? Or two?”

“Two is the limit,” said Parthon. “Go.”

“Okay. You all have guns but you hit people with them. You ever shoot them, inside the bubble?”

“No,” said Parthon flatly. “Some years back, when my maw was one of the Council bosses before me, there was a bit of a set to, pretty much brought down Dome 50a. Bunch of folks killed. Never have rebuilt that one, and it’s not like we could afford to lose a whole lot of domes. So we did manage to all agree to put the ammo away out of easy reach.”

“But Nee and Relien were outside,” said Clay. “One of the underlings had a loaded weapon. Apparently it was rather the faux pas.”

“They aren’t supposed to have any ammo,” said Parthon. “Or, they aren’t supposed to have any ammo anyone is allowed to know they have. Folks get in big trouble. We strung up one of Ullen’s group, young man was out shooting rocks outside the domes, still a no no. Could have had ricochets. We killed his butt. About fifteen years back. So, this tussle you were in on. There were actual discharges of weapons?”

“Oh, I’m sure it was an accident,” said Clay. “I’m sure they were trying to whack each other with the gun butts. They actually hanged a guy for shooting rocks?”

“Well, it was a bit more tense back then. But yeah. We hung him from a rope until dead.”

“Okay, I get two questions, right? I still have one more?” Parthon waved a long arm. “Well,” said Clay, “might I ask, how exactly did you guys get into this, ah, situation? What happened here?”

Parthon looked around at her dozen or so hench-persons, smiling. She looked back at Clay with those steely eyes and said, “We screwed up, that’s what we did. We wasted our opportunities.”

“Boss,” said the big lug, bringing back the tea on a big tray with a dozen cups and an enormous pot. He stood before her and said, “There were some disasters and stuff, weren’t there?”

“Everyone has disasters,” Parthon said to him. “We didn’t overcome them.” She turned to Clay. “They got all three colony ships down, but they crashed one of our two freighters. A lot of supplies and materials got wasted right there. The colony ship captains started right in tussling over everything. We didn’t know the planet would have sand storms, I don’t know why, so we lost a bunch of solar panels and stuff. We tried to set up big farms. But our decontamination gadgets didn’t do the job. I don’t know what all else went wrong that wasn’t anyone’s fault, but all of those things, you could argue someone should have sussed them out. It’s not quantum physics.”

“Rocket science,” Clay muttered, nodding. He was thinking about what the difference was between his group and Venture One: Human Horizon was more rubust, more duplicated, more technologically seamless; oh, and they had Su Park and Alfred Kalkar and Natasha and Vera and Rachel.

“So things went wrong and a generation later we were having famines. People fought all the time. We had a civil war, basically. And another. And then no one could really win, so we settled for a, what do you call it? A modus modo or something. A mode of living. What is that?”

“Modus vivendi,” said Clay.

“Yeah, that,” said Parthon. “So we don’t have a system. But we have to stick to certain rules, even though we don’t agree what they are. It may not look like it, but, Mister Gilbert, what can I say. The stupid system works, it sort of does.” She challenged him with her eyes. He tried hard not to smirk. “So we can’t reproduce too much. So people have two kids, that’s it. And we keep the ammo out of the way. Supposedly. And no one messes around about the air locks and valves and filters and stuff. It sort of works.”

“But you lost space. You lost space travel.”

“You gonna serve that tea?”

“Uh, yeah, boss,” said the big lug, who had been standing there with the tray. He put a cup on an end table between her and Clay and filled it. Then he gave Clay, and then everyone else in the room, a slightly smaller cup. Clay lifted his. It was a bit grungy, it was dinged and cracked, but Parthon was right. It did sort of work.

“I don’t need space,” she said.

“But you do. There’s all kinds of aliens out there. You don’t know?”

“I have enough problems, Mister Gilbert,” said Parthon. “We never had much for space craft anyway. No one thinks about it anymore.”

“You lost all your spacecraft too?” Clay waited, gazing blankly into her eyes, then added, “You need your comm back anyway. What about your satellites? You must’ve had satellites.”

“We used to. They just went down. All at once. A dozen or more of them. Twenty years back. You think we actually need them, right?”

“I’m sure you do,” said Clay. “Just because you’re blind doesn’t mean you can’t get run over.”

“Sure,” said Parthon, parsing that bit of wisdom. “You think you can fix them?”

“Maybe we can. But I need Rachel back.”

Parthon sipped, so everyone else did. “That’s fine with me,” she said. “I’ll agree. You need Rachel back.”

8.

Parthon was not the President of Gliese 581 or anything near that, but after several more rounds of tea, and without further messaging, she stood up and announced, “It’s time.”

“What?” Clay babbled, but Parthon’s followers all got up and the whole gang shambled back down the stairs and out into the square. There Clay fidgeted for a few minutes while Parthon conferred and joked around with a few old ladies, and then up roared three ATVs, and out of the middle one, Rachel was pushed. To Clay’s relief, Rachel did not flop on the ground inert, but rolled neatly to her feet and dusted her vac suit off. She looked around: she had her helmet off, hanging behind her. Her eyes fell on Clay like an eagle spotting a squirrel far from its home tree.

For some reason, the words of the poet came to Clay just then: All in green my love went riding. Only she was not in green but black and grey, and that poem, which Clay had once memorized, ended with the line “my heart fell dead before.”

They were put in an ATV belonging to Parthon, and, escorted by two more ATVs, one of which was driven by Relien, they were taken out to their Ghosts. Rachel put her helmet up and she could perfectly well have talked on private line with Clay just by touching him, but she did not.

He knew what that meant. She was mad at him. He didn’t know exactly what he should have done differently, but it was suddenly clear to him that all his actions since their landing here were of dubious wisdom at best. He also did not know what to do to get out of deficit with Rachel. He reflected that he had never known how to do that, not with any woman, although really, his deficits with Rachel had all been far deeper than those with, say, Wendy or whatever her name had been, and it was only Rachel he really felt the strong need to get his debts paid off with.

Perhaps Parthon knew what was going on between the two pilots, but all she said was, “Go check around and come back and we’ll talk.”

“Okey doke, uh, roger that, yes,” babbled Clay.

Rachel was forced to utter a few words as they got into their Ghosts, hovered up and took off. They got into orbit, and her Ghost, a few hundred meters away, seemed to be steaming with brooding anger. The data she sent seemed sarcastic and her graph colors struck him as a bit rude. He sent only the most reassuringly colored charts and tables back, but he kept the commentary to a minimum.

The data were certainly suggestive.

Clay made note of the gauge of the debris in orbit around Gliese 581d. In effect, the largest moons of the planet were chunks of twisted composite material the size of garbage cans. There was not really a whole lot of debris—not enough, for instance, to make a decent moon, or a decent set of rings. “No,” he said in a low voice, “just about enough to make a decent set of satellites.”

“What?” Rachel challenged him. Clay wasn’t sure if he knew he’d left his comm on, or not. He wouldn’t have put it past himself to do so without thinking about it, as a way for his subconscious brain to reach out to her. What the hell. Clay was born in 2301. By some ways of reckoning, he was over two and a half centuries old. He wasn’t sure he was ready to grow up yet.

“Rachel,” said Clay, swallowing the feeling that he was trying to distract an angry and indignant school administrator, “this stuff was the satellite system.”

She was silent. Then she said flatly, “What makes you think so?”

“Rachel. Circumstantial evidence. Add up all this debris, and you have oh, ten or fifteen little satellites. And the one thing there isn’t is solid metal. There’s composite, but it’s like a ceramic composite, it’s not like, you know, what spaceships are made of. And there is no iron. Not one bit of iron or steel.”

Again that moment of silence. Then she said, “And what else?”

He smirked. Yes, the official facial expression of Alpha Wing. He was looking at his rubble pictures: here was the biggest piece, one of the garbage can size pieces, a twisted clump of composite orbiting in the midst of an almost geostationary cloud of blackish powder over the equator. A close-up showed the base of a metallic stalk still embedded in it. It was not broken so much as sliced, chopped, by something sharp, strong and curved.

“Well,” he said, “how about bite marks?”

An even longer silence. Then she said, “Okey dokey, not like we should be surprised. And you know what else we shouldn’t be surprised by?”

“What’s that, Rachel?”

“The fact that I’m picking up osmium and iridium out in the Oort cloud.”

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 4: At 581”

  1. ‘The data she sent seemed sarcastic and her graph colors struck him as a bit rude. He sent only the most reassuringly colored charts and tables back, but he kept the commentary to a minimum.’

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