Chapter 5: Earthbound

V. Earthbound

1.

Clay and Rachel presented their findings about fifty hours later, in an amphitheater that had apparently once been a roofed meeting hall. They stood on a stage in the center of the arena, with a dozen leaders of factions or gangs or branches of government or battling business units or whatever they were. Around these, milling about on the sloping concrete surface or sitting on benches or stones or plastic crates, another three dozen watched.

The locals had found three different-sized video screens and contrived to stream the feed from the two Ghosts. Rachel was holding forth. Clay watched with pride and a sincere hope that she was not especially mad at him by now.

“Okay,” she was saying, flashing some clips of their fights with the hungry space balls, “this is what we call a mouthhole. We don’t know if you call them aliens exactly—we’re not sure they have brains and stuff. But they eat spaceship, they seem to eat metal, and the debris in orbit seems to be from your satellites getting eaten by mouthholes. Don’t worry, they don’t like air, they don’t seem likely to come down here and eat your, um, ATVs.” On the screen, now, everyone was looking at the garbage-can-size chunk, with its mouth marks. “See,” she said, circling the spot, “that’s what you call diagnostic. A mouthhole chewed up your satellite.”

“Are they still out there?” asked an old woman who was some sort of medic and therefore respected. “In this system?”

“We didn’t see any here,” Rachel replied. “But they can sweep in quickly if they think there’s something to eat. They have basically three characteristics we know of: they eat spaceship, they accelerate and decelerate at these ridiculous rates, and they dislike atmosphere. Oh, and we have a frequency we can set our laser guns to that can crack them open and make them explode. I guess we could equip you, if you had any fighters, any explorer probes or anything.”

The leaders all shook their heads. “We have a couple shuttles,” said Parthon, “but they haven’t flown in fifty years. We used to have a space station, you know. We had abandoned it already. We wondered what happened to it.”

“Don’t look for it to crash anywhere,” said Rachel. “It’s powder now. But listen, I need to advise you about a couple of other things. One is this: you can avoid the mouthholes by staying on the ground, that’s fine, but there’s other aliens you would want to meet up there rather than let them catch you all down here. We met a species we call the Primoids because the only way we can communicate with them started with the fact that they know their prime numbers just like we do. And they have these big ships and some of them, anyway, might use them to blow your bubbles into little bits. We managed to fight them off, but we had help from some other Primoids, I guess you’d call them Primoid rebels. But even that’s not all. There are at least two other species out there. Three, really. There’s someone who comes in with big mining fleets and mines all the iron in a system, even if they have to blow big holes in inhabited planets. Then there’s a species we know of that left a record on platinum disks. We don’t know what those say yet but we’ll find out when we get them back to our linguists. You have any linguists? We can give you guys the scans we made, maybe you can figure out something.”

“Sure,” said Parthon. “Copy for me,” said Relien and the medic and two older men with beards. “Me too, of course,” said Fulmar. “It’s a bunch of bleep,” said Nee.

“You’re just bleep for brains,” said one of the bearded men. “No bleep,” said the other.

“Oh kay,” said Rachel, and they all gave her their attention one more time. “Then there’s this.” She fingered the display on her Ghost’s open hatch, and there on each screen was a hexagonal plaque, turning in three dimensions. “We’ve found plaques like this, they’re made of an osmium-iridium alloy, at every place we’ve been including Bluehorse. The evidence is that they’re quite old, maybe hundreds of millions or billions of years old. They have symbols on them, but the linguists say there’s too few to decipher so far. But maybe with one from here and one from Holey, they might have enough. And the next place we’re going might have one too, you know.”

“That would be Earth,” said Parthon.

“You mean,” said the medic, “ that our space boys have been flying past a thing like this on every mission, and we never noticed. A hundred spacecraft exploring the outer solar system and we never noticed it.”

“We flew by it,” said Rachel, “if it’s there, we did, and we have the sensors to see stuff like that, but maybe it was on the other side of the solar system, or maybe our solar system didn’t get one.”

“It’s just a picture,” said a muscular and truculent young man. “It ain’t real.”

“Mister Gilbert,” said Rachel. Clay turned to his fighter, leaned in, and came out carrying the Gliese 581 plaque. Down here, the thing was heavy, but he managed to cart it ten meters into the midst of the leadership and drop it with a dusty thump. The leaders stepped back and then surged forward to examine the thing. Clay, backing away, felt a hand on his rear end. Yes, Rachel was copping a feel. He dropped back next to her and they held hands. He sent a silent prayer of thanks to whomever.

“So,” he said, “are we ready to head for home?”

Rachel looked up at the sky. It was clear over the bubbles, the sun at sunset again. Stars were starting to pop up here and there, though the Sun would not be bright enough to stand out much even in a dark sky. “Yeah,” she said, “that’s going to be interesting, isn’t it?”

2.

Before Rachel Andros and Clay Gilbert could be allowed to leave Gliese 581, they were subjected to a party that wasn’t all that different from a battle except for a relative lack of lethal weapons. At some point they were snuck out of the collection of plazas where they were being feted, and back to the home of the medic, who was named Audra Cole.

Dr Audra Cole sat them down in her kitchen in an apartment in one of the nicer bubbles. She lived with four cats, one of whom, a handsome fat black and white fellow, sat on the table as Audra and Clay and Rachel had a glass of berry wine.

“So,” said Rachel, running her fingers through the neck fur of the fat black and white fellow, “you weren’t born in the 581 system?”

“Actually not,” said Audra. “I’m new here. I was actually born in Vermont.” She looked out the window, over the expanse of purple stone buildings under the bubble. “Been here 47 years, but it still seems weird. Being on a different planet orbiting a different star. Still seems weird.”

“How did you come to be here?”

“I volunteered to help repopulate 581. We heard oh, it would be eighty years ago now in Earth time, that there had been problems here. There used to be Earth ships come and go here, I mean, it’s twenty light years, so you send a fleet and it comes back and the crew are a year older and everyone they knew on Earth is forty years older, but it could be worse. So we put together about 400 scientists and technicians and came here. I’ve been here 47 years, I came here when I was 25, maybe half the group turned around and went home. I mean, it was already the way it is now, it’s hopeless but it’s actually kind of weirdly sustainable.”

“How is it sustainable?” asked Clay. “Because they don’t use live rounds?”

“They do kill each other sometimes, don’t they?” asked Rachel.

“Oh, sure,” said Audra. “I felt probably about the way you do at first. How do they manage? It’s really sort of awe-inspiring. They have no system. They have a bunch of rules—they even have a set of Articles they all supposedly agree with, about fair trials and how the Council is elected, but everyone sort of decides for themselves how to read the rule book.”

“Yeah, I kind of noticed that first,” said Clay. “So why did you stay?”

“I just thought I could do some good here,” said Audra. “Maybe I couldn’t save the world by myself, but I could come here and contribute a little and make just a tiny little difference, you know, like my dad would say, accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, make things better, think how much difference a little difference makes after fifty years.” She put her wine down and spread her hands on the table face down, looking from Clay to Rachel and back.

“And has it worked that way?” asked Clay.

“No, not at all,” said Audra. “Not in any way I can see. Except maybe I don’t think they’re really going to blow the place up, I don’t think that’s in their repertoire anymore.” She took a drink. “I think they feel sort of defeated,” she said, holding her glass up. “I think their failure to resolve anything at all by violent means has them in a sort of funk.”

“Yeah,” said Rachel, “you have to be a frickin’ positive thinker to come up with an actual scheme to destroy your planet. We’re worried about things that might come from outside.”

“That space stuff,” said Audra. “Yeah, about that, I don’t think it’s wise to let these people have space fighters. It was good you brought yours in and put them in my living room.” They all looked back toward the doorway into the next room, where the two Ghosts nuzzled. Clay and Rachel sat in kitchen chairs holding hands. “So it looks like we’re going to need some help from Earth. You’re going there next, right?”

“Yeah,” said Rachel. “What can we expect?”

“Well, bear in mind, I left there seventy years ago.” She took a drink, then leveled her brown eyes on Rachel’s blue-green. “Honest, most people aren’t going to give a flying fig. The leadership might or might not, it goes in cycles, it’s just a matter of where they are in the cycle.”

“Well, one thing’s for sure,” said Rachel, “they won’t have blown themselves up, they were over that. Or maybe I shouldn’t say that.”

“Go ahead,” said Audra. “They aren’t going to do that. Question is whether they’re going to care about anything more than a light hour from Earth.”

“I wonder if they have a starfleet,” said Rachel. “That could be exciting, especially if we can talk them into giving us, you know, upgrades. Of course, it could be bad too, if there’s like this big fleet and they’ve built death stars and stuff.”

“Rachel,” said Clay, “why would anyone really build a death star?” He looked back at his Ghost, then took a drink and smiled at Audra. “I wonder if my sister has a bunch of descendants.”

3.

Clay and Rachel slept together in Dr Audra’s spare bed, got up and had a nice breakfast of actual coffee, actual toast and actual honey (and synthesized butter and cream) and then allowed themselves to be driven with their Ghosts out to their landing site by Relien’s underling Vashir. Ensign Relien and a few other underlings were standing guard with guns that may or may not have been loaded. The peculiarly pink dawn was well underway over the dead farmland and the grey-brown sea.

“Anything live in the water?” asked Clay.

“Yeah, you don’t want to see it though,” said Vashir.

“Ready, boy-toy?” called Rachel.

“Ready, dear.” They spanked each other’s vac-suited rear ends, then turned to smartly salute their escort. “Take care of yourselves,” Clay told Relien.

“You too,” said the ensign.

“Let us know how it all goes,” said Audra. “You come back here, I might still be alive, I feel like I’m good for forty more years.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Clay. With a smile and a wave each, Rachel and Clay climbed into their fighters, hovered up ten meters, and took off, slanting up through the thin, tainted atmosphere over the bubbles of Landfall Town. They came around for one full orbit, and again Rachel sent off their combined, compressed data logs, and then they were off, setting coordinates for 0, 0, 0, also known as Sol. They left Gliese 581d dwindling behind them with all its particulars and problems and personalities, and the knowledge that they would not be coming back this direction, not this trip, and that if they ever did return to 581, everyone now alive there would have been dead for a hundred years or more.

And as the planet, and then the whole system, dwindled in the rear view, Clay and Rachel joined their fighters and got out of their vac suits and took up their wonderful, isolated, simply complicated life at relativity’s doorstep. They were not shooting for speed records anymore, so they would have a good week or more in their closet together. They joked around, they made love, they slept, they played Set and chess and simulator, they ate, they made love some more, they slept.

And Clay woke up in the dark with a strange feeling. And he checked his sensors and found nothing strange. They were doing 97% already, but they were due to crest in the 99.99997% range. Still bothered by whatever it was, he lay back in his side of the closet and did his exercises, thinking through what they had seen and what they were going to see.

And the fact that it was Rachel Andros who lay across from him asleep, her arms behind her head, her legs crossed chastely, her little tiny bosoms round in the lack of gravity, the lack of any acceleration felt inside the ship, her black hair draped around her head and neck.

All those things about Rachel. How he had fallen in love with her from at least the time they had flown over the lunar surface, fighting two on four. How, skinny dipping with her and Natasha, he had been knocked out by that mole on Rachel’s buns. How, well, how he had never felt worthy of her, how he had gone through romances with Tasha and Vera before he let himself fall head over heels for Rachel, give in to the inevitable with Rachel.

How strange it was.

How strange, to be in love with all women, with Woman, to hope against hope to be worthy of any woman, of all women, and then, and then to narrow it down to one and only one, no abstraction, not a collection of common features like a cartoon superhero babe, but a very particular mouth, a very particular face, one pair of eyes unlike all others, two breasts not even entirely like one another but totally different from any others in the universe, a pair of interesting feet, a head of interesting hair, and then inside that head: beyond interesting, beyond unique, all the way to miraculous, to amazing. And narrowing it down from abstraction to particular, it seemed strange: how was he here, how had she chosen him, how had he chosen her, or had he? In the cool dark, in the shadows of his heart, he regarded her as she slept, as they shot from system to system and across twenty years in a week, wondering about everything.

Faintly, his old timey playlist was going in his helmet. You’re so beautiful, but that’s not why I love you. Why do we fall in love? All that we’ve been through.

He reached out and touched her hair by her face. Yes, he was sure of it. He was in love with her. He was in love with her more than ever, more than he ever thought he would ever be in love with anyone ever, ever.

Is forever enough? A fair question.

Rachel opened her eyes and saw him reaching to her. She pushed her cheek against his hand and smiled, then rolled on her side, kissed his hand and dozed off again. He took his hand back and kissed it. Why fall in love? Yes, that was why.

And it’s a good thing, too, he thought, seeing as we’re the only beings within fifty light years that we have ever met and will meet again.

4.

“Clay,” said Rachel. “Wake up.”

“What? What?” He shook it off. He was still quite groggy, but he forced himself to examine the readouts. “What the?”

“Oh, nothing’s wrong, Clay. I just wanted to talk.” She smiled at him and shrugged, which would have been sexy just in being a complete relief, but in this particular case, with the colored lights and gleams of the screens reflecting on her naked skin, it was beyond sexy and almost to ridiculous.

“Oh, good,” he managed to say.

“Clay,” she said seriously, “do you feel the need for coffee or a smoke before you reassure me?”

“Yes,” he said, “both.”

So they made her ship create a latte to share, and they made his ship produce a couple of bubbles full of the smoke of cannabis. A minute later, he was leaning back into his cushions and she was using him for cushions. She half turned on him and kissed him.

“You look pretty relaxed,” she said.

“I’m not going to be really relaxed,” he said, “until you tell me what you want to talk to me about. You woke me from a, a—!”

“Clay,” she said, “did I wake you from a strange dream?”

“Yeah,” he said. “You and I were riding horses. Like, in the Middle Ages. There was a war on, I think, but there was like radioactive—I don’t know—wait, I’m sorry, Rachel, what was your dream?”

“Well,” said Rachel, “we got back to Earth and it had been taken over by wasps. Or something. Giant freaking wasps. We managed to hide, and then eventually we came out into this big city, it was like New York in the bad old days from the films, actually it was like the New York you’d see in all the romantic comedies. We kept seeing people but then we’d get up close to them and they’d turn out to be dead. People just rotted before our eyes.”

“You mean like zombies? Were the wasps still after us?”

“Clay.”

“Rachel. I’m listening. I’m definitely not judging. I get that this was scary. I get that you can’t even put into words how scary it was.”

“Sorry, Clay. No one was after us. People weren’t zombies. They were just dead. We kept thinking we were about to meet someone alive, they’d be waving at us, but it would turn out they were just sort of waving in the wind, and then they’d fall down and break into pieces and rot away before our eyes. I felt dirtier and dirtier.”

“And I bet I was no help.”

“At least you didn’t rot.” She pulled her vac suit up from beneath her, unzipped one sleeve at the wrist, turned it inside out, and started using it to swab her skin clean, not that she was actually dirty. “Sorry,” she said when she realized what she was doing. She ran it over her front, and Clay smirked at her lovely and newly clean chest. “Just felt dirty,” she said, smiling.

“It wasn’t silly,” said Clay. “It was scary. We’re going home, we’re almost there, but we know that everyone we know is going to be long gone. Dead. That’s what you were dreaming.”

She took a long drink of their cup of joe, then half burped and said, “That would pretty well explain it. We’ve lived, what, a year, fifteen months, since we left Earth? But when we get back it’ll be what, 240 years later? 250?”

“Maybe you’re just getting your big ol’ brain around the idea that you’re stuck with me for the rest of your life.”

“Maybe,” she said as huskily as she could. “No, Clay, don’t get all hurt on me. You’re stuck with me too. The only other person left who remembers that reggae band at Le Pub Zoot.”

“Yeah,” said Clay. “They were pretty good. Now explain my dream. Why horses? And why no Black Plague? Why radioactivity?”

“Was I your princess and you my shining knight?”

“No,” said Clay, “we were traveling mercenaries or something. I don’t remember the gist of it. Someone woke me.”

“Sorry.” She kissed him. “So what do you think we’ll see? What do you think will be waiting for us? Zombies? A fascist dictatorship?”

“Maybe they’ll throw us in the lockup,” said Clay. “I don’t know. I can at least say that for sure.” He pushed a few lit spots on the screen, and then slid a few shapes around. A window opened showing a schematic of a system, not from the sensors but from Clay’s computer’s archive. Four blobby planets circled a yellow star. Far within the orbit of the largest and innermost of these, four little rocky planets circled too, one of them with a big rocky moon. Between the big blobs and the little rocks, a belt of littler rocks turned. Far outside, a few dozen more chunks of icy rock slowly moved along highly elliptical or highly slanted paths. Clay gestured at the diagram, poked and shifted it, but didn’t say anything. He shrugged.

“I don’t know either,” said Rachel. “It’s bugging the crap out of me. But we’ll find out. In about two more days.”

5.

And in 38 more hours, the two fighters slipped below 30% of the speed of light, decelerating at 110 times the surface gravity of the third planet out from the star they were now just beginning to see on their combined screen.

“Sun’s still there,” said Clay, lazing in Rachel’s arms. They had been making love an especially large proportion of the time. This was made possible in part by mild chemical enhancements built into the life support and food processing systems, in part by the biological and psychosocial rhythms of their relationship, in part by the strength of their shared interest and pleasure in the pastime itself as such, and in part by the fact that there wasn’t that much else to do.

“You can’t take the Sun from me,” Rachel sang vaguely.

“It’s ‘You can’t take the sky from me,’ if you’re quoting Firefly,” said Clay.

“How could that video have gotten so many things wrong and still be so darn good?”

“How did they stop making it after fourteen episodes?” asked Clay. “When they went on and on with Moonbase 2100 and remade Battlestar Galactica four times?”

“I have to admit,” said Rachel, “I peed a little when Zoe tells Wash, ‘we live on a spaceship, dear.’ That is you and me.”

“Oh, I’m Wash and you’re Zoe?”

“You thought we were Mal and Inara or whatever her name is?”

“You have the looks,” said Clay, “but you’re not a prostitute.”

She smiled patiently at him, then kissed him. “Okay,” she sighed, “here we are. In a few more hours we should be able to get a clear idea of what shape the ol’ Solar System is in. I’m a bit nervous, aren’t you?”

He looked out over the width of the double screen, wrapped all around them, a few stray lights appearing now amongst the noise, in particular the one, now comprising a blob of a dozen pixels, to whose gravitational influence they were willingly committing themselves, the one that had shone down on their baby footsteps, their childhood games, and their skinny dipping way back when Clay had first learned of Rachel’s mole. “Yeah,” he said, checking inside himself. “Yeah, I’m a little nervous. I feel kind of like I’m about to knock on the door of a friend I haven’t seen in twenty years. Does he have kids? Has he turned into a jerk?”

“Probably both,” said Rachel. “So. Let’s say we wake up the close sensor system in two hours. What shall we do with ourselves in the meantime?”

“I don’t know, Rachel,” said Clay, turning to face her, her nipples in his chest hair. He kissed her. “What shall we do with ourselves in the meantime?”

“You’re not too nervous?” she asked from a few millimeters away.

“I am definitely not too nervous,” he murmured.

They kissed, and they kissed some more, and they giggled and whispered sweet nothings, sweet somethings about how lucky they were and how good it all felt, and then they made love again, and they were a little worn out from having made love so much, but that just meant that their love didn’t come to any conclusion, so for many, many minutes they simply enjoyed each other, stopping every so often, still entangled, to giggle and remark on how they could go on forever and how, how amazingly good it felt, and they would pause and whisper and giggle a little, and then they would find themselves resuming, and giggle again and kiss and then one of them would do something that astonished the other one, because they were still totally capable of that, and the fighters somehow, through their cushioned couches, kept cleaning the sweat off them, the air filters kept blowing pleasant cool air on them, and so finally, despite much reluctance on both their parts, Rachel and Clay separated themselves and found that the timer had advanced two hours and a few minutes.

“Oh crap, look,” said Rachel. “Time to check on the system.”

“Okey dokey,” said Clay.

Working together, they pushed and poked and slid and got their combined sensor arrays to concentrate enough on the system before them that small regions they focused on came sharply into focus. And there was Saturn, still dull brown and awesome with glittering rings, and there was some part of the asteroid belt, and there was Mars, where the forecast included dust storm warnings, and then there was Earth. And the next eight or ten words either of them spoke were expletives.

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