VI. There Goes the Neighborhood
After a minute, Rachel and Clay settled down in their response to what lay before them. Rachel said, “So. What exactly the hell are those bleepin’ things?”
“Well,” said Clay, “not to state the obvious, er, hypothesis,” and then he paused for some time as if he really did not want to state the obvious hypothesis, “but I’m going to guess that those are what those mining fleets look like.”
Another period of silence ensued. Rachel finally said, “Well, hell. What exactly is one supposed to do at this point?”
“I dunno. Assess the damage?” Rachel gave a little grunt of disgust. Mastering his fear, Clay went on. “Clearly Earth is in trouble. Clearly there are problems. Okay? But I still see atmosphere, I still read the usual amounts of oxygen and nitrogen, it’s not poisoned, it’s still got oceans, they’re, ah. Well, they are not in the same places exactly, but—!”
“What do you mean, they’re not in—?” She slid and poked and pushed at their mutual screens. “Frickin’ hell. Bleep this bleepin’ bleep, Clay Gilbert! God damn it! Ugh.” She slid the graph bar off into infinity and threw her hands in the air. She put them over her face. She looked up, then poked and slid and prodded a little, then did a bit of typing and calculating, then put her hands over her face again. Clay was now poking and sliding and typing and calculating. He heard sounds near him. Rachel was weeping.
“Rache,” he said. “Rache. It’s—!” He stopped.
“Do not tell me it’s okay, Clay Gilbert. Do not tell me it’ll all be fine. It will not be fine. It is not okay. It is not.”
He stared at the screen a little longer. “No,” he said. “It is not.”
The orbital space above Earth was currently occupied by eight spaceships so large that each of them could have fit a hundred colony ships inside its main hull with plenty of room to spare. Each had a dozen or more tanks, hexagonal prisms rounded at the ends, each tank the length of a colony ship but much wider. The big ships were served by thirty or more smaller craft, each of them the size of a colony ship, and hundreds of spaceships of a size that would have seemed large to Clay and Rachel before coming here. Below them, the planet seemed to have been rearranged, though not to the level of hodgepodge they had seen at Holey: perhaps the miners had learned some subtlety. By now the sensors were able to identify coastlines and continents, and coastlines and continents were duly identified: one could at least still tell which hemisphere one was looking at. There were five or six massive, ocean-filled holes and four or five massive piles of rubble. From the ocean-filled holes, craft that must have been shuttles of a sort but which were the size of star freighters rose and descended. They watched as one of these dropped into the sea and vanished, and then Rachel gasped and pointed at where another rose out of the sea and plodded upward toward orbit.
“Well,” said Clay, “let’s see. There’s definitely still life down there. I pick up signatures of forest and algae. I think the atmosphere hasn’t changed much, the water hasn’t changed much. Can’t tell much more from way out here.”
“Agh,” said Rachel. “Oh my god Clay.”
“Clay, do not tell me to get a grip. Do not.”
He sighed. He went back to punching and sliding and typing, bringing up data, compiling informative maps and graphs. Finally he said, while laying out an altitude map, “Rachel, don’t jump down my throat when I say this. It’s bad down there. There’s no doubt this is bad. But we have this situation. We have to deal with,” and he stopped himself from saying anything that sounded like “deal with it,” and instead went on, “we have to figure out what is going on and what we have to work with and what all we can salvage.” He swallowed.
There was no chance that Earth’s peoples had made any kind of business deal for this operation. There was no chance they had built the mining ships themselves. This was not an economic decision made by Earth’s peoples. This was an invasion. It was clearly a very successful invasion. There was no sign of resistance. There was no sign of Earth’s peoples.
“We need to see what they did,” he said quietly, holding down his own panic. “We need to know, because,” and he stopped before his voice broke.
Rachel said, in a voice both soft and firm, “Because, whoever they are, whatever they did, whatever they are going to do, we need to keep them from doing this to Bluehorse.”
Rachel lapsed into a long silence, which Clay joined in on wholeheartedly. They coasted in through the distant realm of Sedna and Montanus and 2307 P-201, on their eccentric, deci-millennial orbits, and began to close on Eris and Pluto. The news continued to come in from their home planet. The orbits of Earth and Moon were not noticeably perturbed. The atmosphere showed no signs of tampering or poisoning, though it was certainly stirred up. Life persisted, though only plant life was definite, and even that signal was weaker than it should have been. Mining operations continued, bringing up something in the tens of millions of metric tons of material on each trip. The mass of the planet was being reduced at a rate of a billion tons per day.
They were approaching the orbit of Neptune, which was a quarter of the way around the solar system just now in its 165-year orbit, when Rachel woke with a start from an unintended nap. She took a minute to cuddle up against Clay, who felt her mood on its almost celestial upswing. He wasn’t sure at first she remembered the situation.
“Maybe there’s not too much damage yet,” she finally said.
“We wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell about the state of life on the planet from way out here,” said Clay neutrally. “I mean, there’s definitely some life surviving.”
“The air’s okay,” said Rachel. “The water’s okay. There’s still land surface. I mean, there’s not any obvious human technology going, but there could still be people.”
“Nothing seems to have been done on the other planets,” said Clay. “Oooh. They did dig a bit on the Moon. Looks like they have some operations in the inner asteroid belt too.”
They were both silent for a minute. “Mars colony,” she said. “Do you think there are people still alive down there?”
“Jeezum,” said Clay. “Jeezum. Crap. Oh crap.” They hurried and fumbled to zoom in on the Valles Marineris. And there it was: they were seeing what they feared they would see, and not seeing what they feared they would not see.
A couple of hours later, passing Neptune’s orbit and looking at the neatly cut crater where the Mars colony had been, Rachel said, “So why did they have to do that? Why destroy a colony like that? They aren’t even doing mining ops on Mars.”
“They got the colony on Vesta, the one on Ganymede, Callisto,” said Clay in his flattest voice. “I guess we know their modus operandi. They come in and neutralize any possible resistance. Then they can do what they please. Well, it’s not too different from what we used to do.”
“Clay Gilbert, do not rationalize for them. They destroyed innocent lives. They’re wrecking our home planet. And you know what else? They’re not wrecking it too much, while digging out pretty much the whole upper mantle or whatever. I bet they’re stinkin’ planning on colonizing here after they’ve finished mining. They’re probably a lot like us—God damn it, Clay, you’ve got me doing it.”
“Rationalizing for them. Making excuses. Clay. What if they’re already at Bluehorse?”
“I don’t know. Why would they be there? Maybe they have only the one big fleet. I mean, it’s a huge operation obviously—!”
“Only one big fleet!” said Rachel. “Clay, what the bleep?” She started pulling on her vac suit.
“What are you doing?”
“Separating, Clay. We need to get separate so we can maneuver.”
“What? I mean, maybe we separate, but maneuver? What’s the plan here?”
“We can not sit here and let them do this. We can’t! We need to get in there and—I don’t know! Are you planning on just cruising through and taking pictures? What the hell! That’s your bleepin’ home planet, Clay Gilbert. What are you going to do?”
“Rachel. We are—gosh darn it, Rachel.” They stared at each other. “Look,” said Clay, as calmly as he could, “we have two Ghost 201 fighters. The scourge of the Outer Colonies indeed. These guys—do you think these guys have something that could take on a Ghost 201?”
“Clay. What are we going to do. Just watch? While they—?” She got her arms in her sleeves.
“Rachel. We are not going to make a suicide run at them. That is not going to do any good.”
“Clay—!” She zipped up her suit. She pulled her helmet over her head. But then she started in pushing and sliding and poking her screen. After a minute, Clay looked over and saw that Rachel was playing a practice Set puzzle.
Hours passed. They hardly spoke. Uranus, knocked on its colossal hiney by some unimaginable collision billions of years ago, fell behind. The orbit of Saturn approached. Jupiter himself sat in his majesty before them.
“Clay,” said Rachel.
“What do we need to do?”
“Clay. We may be the only surviving humans in the Solar System. We have a mining fleet chewing up our home planet. But we are alive and undamaged. For now. What are we going to do?”
“Well,” said Clay, “we need to do some investigation. Assess the, um, situation.” He looked at her. She had her serious face on, not her angry face. “Is there anyone left down there. Vesta’s gone, so are Ganymede and Callisto. What about Miranda? We didn’t get any signal from there, but we don’t know. What about Mathilde? Maybe they missed Mathilde. Can we evade detection and land on Mars. Can we land on Earth?”
“Okay,” said Rachel. “Let’s go straight to the top of the list. Let’s land on Earth.”
The two fighters chose to aim straight for the colossal and colorful belly of the King of Planets. They turned to the right to pull alongside Callisto, and they followed the big black ice moon around Jupiter. They passed directly over the hydroponic farms of the Callisto colony, all blown up and refrozen, no bodies visible. They did not stop to look closely, but continued around the Callistan equator. Along the way they got a decent view of Ganymede, the biggest moon in the Solar System.
“The Ganymede colony’s a crater too,” said Clay. “Dead as a doornail.”
“No sign of life,” Rachel agreed. “Not a single tech emission. Why? Why did they bother? It wasn’t huge or dangerous. They didn’t mine Ganymede or Callisto. Any metal on either one is going to be under fifty km of ice.”
“They were eliminating a danger on their flanks,” said Clay. “They were covering their retreat.”
“More like their freight route,” said Rachel.
“How do you think they dispose of the material? Do they ship it across the Galaxy?”
“I wonder.” She pushed and prodded and poked the screen. “Okay,” she said. “In command. Let’s separate the Ghosts but stick together. Let’s hang near Callisto a bit and see what we see. Formulate a bit of a plan. Okay?”
“Yes, Acting Commander. Your word is my command.”
Rachel smiled. “I command you to adore me,” she said.
They separated the two fighters, but kept within a few dozen meters of each other and of the icy ground. Their batteries were already storing small amounts of the familiar rays of old Sol while they floated in the Callistan sky in “exactly the way that bricks don’t,” in the words of the immortal bard. They took readings as best they could of the state of the inner solar system. The lifeless ruins on Mars and Vesta were just close enough and big enough to be sure they were lifeless ruins. The Moon showed scars where the familiar ground bases had been: the installation where Clay and Rachel had trained for the Human Horizon Project was wiped clean off the surface of the Sea of Serenity. The Serenity Valley indeed, thought Clay.
Meanwhile humongous dark ships, definitely not Earth make, moved about in Earth orbit and to and from the surface. Not only were the largest of the spacecraft not of a scale even with the colony ships Clay and Rachel were familiar with, but the next smaller class and the next smaller class than that were far bigger than colony ships. Then through several more classes of freighter or escort or shuttle they descended.
“But there’s nothing like a fighter on patrol,” said Clay.
“I wonder what the beings themselves look like,” said Rachel. “See that one thing? Looks like a, I don’t know, one of our escorts? Like the Abstraction? Maybe that’s a fighter.”
“Rachel, that thing is the size of a freaking two story house.”
“So? Maybe the aliens are the size of two story houses. It could be.”
“I think I read some article,” said Clay, “that claimed that any sentient life form would be within a factor of two larger or smaller than us in mass. And have two to four arms and two to four legs and a head on top.”
“So how’s that square with the Primoids?” asked Rachel.
“They’re just a bit bigger than us,” said Clay. “I mean, they have lots of arms and legs and tentacles and stuff, but the size thing is pretty spot on.”
“I know the theory, Clay. I just think it’s convenient thinking. I mean, everyone thinks aliens will be basically our size, but will be way beyond our tech, but I think it might be the other way around, there isn’t that much more tech beyond where we are, but they could be ant size of whale size. I just—well, looking on the bright side, we may be looking at the battered remains of our home planet and the graveyard of 99.99% of our species, but we are learning a ton!”
“Great.” They puttered around a bit more, gathering data. A lumbering freighter, big enough that its hold could contain the island of Manhattan, was slowly accelerating outward past the orbit of Mars, about eighty degrees to the left of their position relative to the Sun. “It’s so slow,” he said. “We could totally catch up with it and take it on.”
“I think not,” said Rachel.
Clay waited a minute, inspecting the details of the big lummox of a spaceship. “Wait,” he said. “We go in low over this groove here, I lay down covering fire, you aim for the vulnerable spot right where this intake node—!”
“Ha and ha and ha ha ha,” said Rachel. “Okay, I’m totally over that first impulse. Sort of waiting for the second impulse. Well, shall we head for Earth?”
“Got an actual plan, a course and stuff?”
“I have a course,” said Rachel. “We track through the asteroid belt, I have plots for six of those objects so we can jump between them like rocks in a stream. We can fly right over Vesta, and then we hold our breath and slide across the orbit of Mars to Earth. With any luck, they won’t even bother sending anything to stop us. So. Can do?”
“Sure,” said Clay. “That’s the course. The plan?”
“Well,” said Rachel, “I guess we don’t go in with intent to parley. And I guess we don’t charge in to attack. So that leaves landing.”
“That leaves landing,” said Clay. “Boy, that sounds like a fun vacation.”
“It’s not how I’d imagined we’d be returning to Merrie Olde Earth,” said Rachel, “but it’s certain to be unforgettable.”
The little colony on the 500-km stony ball of Vesta, an improbable success until just recently, now consisted only of burst bubbles and dead hydroponics. Its population of several thousand humans, supported by several thousand acres of water gardens, had been consigned to mostly hidden frozen graves. Flying over, Rachel and Clay saw only three definite human remains, all adults, all in vac suits, all with holes in them.
Flying over, at an altitude of a dozen meters, Rachel and Clay were not tempted to land and investigate. “Big tall glass of nope,” said Rachel. “Maybe on the way back.”
“Full fathom five thy father lies,” Clay quoted.
“What was that?”
“Full fathom five thy father lies, of his bones are corals made, those are pearls that were his eyes, nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea change, into something rich and strange.”
“Hm? Shakespeare, forsooth?” she guessed. “What made you think of that?”
“I don’t know,” he said, a lump in his throat. “I expect we’ll need that thought.”
“Well, let’s get there,” said Rachel. “I say no Mars flyover. It would be just a little out of the way.”
“There will be time, there will be time,” said Clay.
“Ah. T. S. Eliot, now.” They both smirked, invisible to each other in the blackness of space.
So they came up off Vesta and set course across the gulf of three hundred million kilometers to Earth. They both thought, separately, about evasive or covert approaches, but they both, separately, concluded that they might as well just go, and so they made the crossing exactly as if they were the only sentient beings in the solar system.
The huge vessels, and the not so huge vessels that were nonetheless huge, and the vessels so bleeping huge that the huge vessels looked tiny next to them, paid no attention to the two fighters approaching at up to five percent of the speed of light. They flew along ten meters apart, shooting chess and Set moves at each other, then playing through a variety of navigational scenarios, then discussing in an abstract way what sort of firefights they might get into.
They were picking up smaller ships, even things that seemed like fighters, spidery little black craft no bigger than a Ghost 201. These clearly had some sort of security function around the giant ships. But Clay and Rachel had no way of knowing what kinds of weapons, what maneuvering skills, what sensor systems, what thrust technology might be ranged against them. So they threw up their hands and moved on to cartography, and while that was far less abstract, and thus was far more satisfying, it was not a happy way to pass the time.
On careful inspection, Africa, Europe, North America, South America, Australia, Antarctica were all discernable. Asia was there: the Himalayas were hard to miss, but the eastern wing, Kamchatka and Japan and the coast of China, were gone, along with the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos. The miners had presumably determined that the crust under the oceans was thinner than that under the continents, and had consequently dug big holes, somehow, in the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean. Finding some sort of weakness north of the Black and Caspian Seas, they had drilled several hundred kilometer holes in what had once been the Steppe; these had filled with water and constituted new inland seas. Similarly, the Rift Valley of East Africa had attracted attention, and now there was a small sea where Lake Victoria had been. Some descendant of the Nile now flowed into it from the north. The Pacific mining area was the primary one, as they had presumably found the Ring of Fire a good entry to the upper mantle, and there were mining operations ongoing in the sectors that had once been the East China Sea, the Aleutian Islands and the California and Mexican coasts.
“I have definite on animal life,” said Rachel as they decelerated toward Earth orbit. “Fish in, um, that’s Hudson Bay. Black Sea has something.”
“Bears,” said Clay.
“Bears. Look.” He sent her s short clip of a blowup of the northern wastes of what had been Russia, and sure enough, there was a family group of half a dozen brown bears galumphing across the battered grasses. They chuckled over this, then moved their views onward. “No people yet,” said Clay.
“Nope. No people.”
They came into high orbit, trying to stay antipodal to the seven gigantic mining ships and the gigantic—was it a starbase or was it a sort of death star? There were satellites in orbit, dozens of them, not the human ones but not natural either: these were clearly made things. What they were made of was composites that were partly metallic and partly something else, and how they were not human was not obvious, but they were distinctly alien. Clay was aware of a slight temptation to go into a reverie about the mysteries of the alien minds that made them, but the situation at hand was not conducive to reverie. Even to wonder about the last minutes of civilization or the long night ahead or the ironies of the troubled race of H. sapiens meeting its end in such a prosaic way: Clay did not feel up to it. Instead he and Rachel just shut down and took readings, bugs flitting slowly across the high airs, too tiny for the great beasts to wonder about.
“Clay,” said Rachel, in that tone.
An image appeared on his screen. It was an open area, the plaza of some town: the site was tagged with coordinates that placed it in western Europe. It was brown and grey and a little green. The long things in the picture, sometimes lined up and sometimes scattered willy-nilly, a bit like bacilli in a microscope: those were hundreds of human corpses.
“Rachel,” he said. She didn’t say anything back. After a minute of coasting through interstellar space staring at deceased humans, Clay said, “That’s quite the death toll.”
“Clay,” she said. “There are no humans alive down there. None. Know why?”
She sent him another image. It was a puddle on a beach, and its coordinates were hundreds of kilometers away from the previous image. She let him take that in, then zoomed him in to a microscopic level to see what was in the water. It was many dots, many little dead things: single cells, broken, just floating. He waited for her to explain. She did. “Phagocytes,” she said. “Human-like. But not human, artificial. Made of stuff from somewhere else. How can I tell?”
“Yeah, and nitrogen, N14 and N15. Not from Earth or even from our solar system. Wrong proportions of isotopes.”
“Clay.” She started sending more images, some of them moving scans: a field with a few bodies in it, a river with decayed bodies along its shore, a street of houses with a few corpses and a few live farm animals and dogs, a playground scattered with decaying corpses, adult and child. The corpses looked like they’d been corpses for weeks or months already: there were no fresh dead. Some of them were partial: those dogs had not been fed for weeks or months.
“Definite negative on human life,” said Clay, checking his own scans, and then he felt his gorge rising, not for the last time. He hummed to keep from vomiting.
“I’d say that’s pretty much the situation,” said Rachel.
“So. They made human phagocytes and seeded the ocean with them?”
“They mass-produced phagocytes and injected them with virus. Then they dumped the phagocytes all over the ecosystem, all over the planet apparently. Some of them wound up inside people, who presumably then spread them to other people, but they would make sure that not even hermits could escape being infected. No doubt the infection was very contagious as well, just to be sure. Clever.”
“Rachel, I don’t understand. Can we land? Those things can’t get through our vac suits.”
“Clay. We can land. We can open our helmets. The things did their work, killed humans and only humans, and then promptly died. Months ago. Clay, not one human I’ve seen was alive here sixty days ago. The infection ran its course. The virus killed everyone and then promptly and quite obediently died off. Oh, very clever indeed, mining aliens. Well played.” She pulled the view in close, and he could see that the phagocyte-like cells were all torn up, as the viroids or whatever escaped to infect someone. Then she pulled out: the puddle, the beach, the nearby sea, the Atlantic off North Africa. “Well,” she said, “where shall we land?”
“I don’t know,” said Clay, who felt like turning around and flying the other direction. But he scanned across the world and spotted a spot. “Quebec,” he said. “Yeah. They haven’t done too much to Ville de Quebec. Might as well go back and see how it looks.”
The Canadian Shield had not attracted much attention from the mining ships. Out in the wastes of northern Ontario and Saskatchewan and Manitoba, new ugly highlands were piled, rising higher than Everest already, but the Fleuve Saint-Laurent rolled on in its majesty, north from the puddle-like lower Great Lakes, widening at Ville de Quebec and opening past Gaspé into the Gulf of Saint Laurence. The two Ghosts slanted down across the hill country of the southeastern sections of La Belle Province, then cruised up the Plains of Abraham and settled on the cannon-strewn grassy lawn along the Terrasse Dufferin, in the shadow of the Chateau Frontenac, overlooking the river. It was still there, more or less as it had been, but the ferries were half-sunk or half on shore, the ships in the harbor were tipped on their sides, and one sightseeing boat was stranded on the highway. The city buildings, Chateau and walls and cathedrals and Hotel Dieu, were intact.
Their hatches popped open. The two vac suited figures got out. They both had their sensors waving about. “Seems okay to me,” said Clay after a minute.
“Seems okay, huh?” Rachel replied. She opened her visor and pulled her helmet back off her head. “Actually, I calculate that there is a less than one one millionth of one percent chance of surviving pathogens.” She looked around and sighed. “So there’s that.”
Clay, walking away from her along the broad expanse of rotten board walk, pulled his helmet off and let it hang behind his head. He said nothing. He came to the metal railing over the Saint-Laurent and stood there looking down, the sun of midmorning boiling through a thin haze.
“Hey Clay,” called Rachel, running a little to catch up with him. “Hey.”
He turned to her, and then they looked around. At first it had seemed as if the place was just abandoned, as if the myriads had simply crowded somewhere else, Old Orchard Beach perhaps. But now they could pick out a body here, a body there. Rachel took a few steps toward a corpse perhaps ten meters from them, which seemed to have sat down with its back against the railing before expiring. She stopped, then looked back at Clay.
“No thanks,” he said. He bent forward over the railing. She wondered if he were about to vomit.
“Well,” she said quietly, “I’m just going to, you know, look around.” She wandered toward the sitting corpse, checking and rechecking with her sensor gizmo. She knelt before the corpse: it was in an advanced state of decomposition. She couldn’t even tell if it had been male or female, and its clothes, from two centuries beyond Rachel’s birth era, didn’t offer any clues she could read.
A black shadow went over. Rachel looked up: two crows landed on the boards a little way away and gawked at her. They wandered off a few steps and then took to the air again. She went on down the Terrasse twenty more paces, taking readings, and then she turned around and came back. She paused before the corpse. “You’ll have to pardon me,” she said. “I just need a sample of tissue.” She took a sample kit out of a pocket and managed to snip a bit of flesh and bone off the pinky of a hand the corpse was no longer using. Rachel plunked the bit of finger into a tube, and then she jumped up as the corpse suddenly fell on its side, destabilized or demoralized by the violation of its bodily remains.
Trying to control how shaken she was, Rachel half staggered back to Clay. He had a gloved hand out, with a wafer in the palm, and a couple of chickadees were sitting on his fingers taking pecks and eying him.
“Died of hemorrhagic disease,” said Rachel. “Widespread cell death, and lots of viral remains. Absolutely no active virus, but, yeah.”
“Poor thing,” said Clay.
“Yeah, tell me about it,” said Rachel. “I feel bad about the finger, but she, yeah, definite on it’s a she, she wasn’t using it anymore.”
Clay watched his bird friends as they ate, and then he put the wafer on the board walk and the birds dropped down to finish it off. “I’m sorry, Rache,” he said, as the two of them walked away in the direction of the hulking Chateau Frontenac. “I wimped out there. I couldn’t handle it just right away. I’ll sample the next one.”
“Sure,” said Rachel. “It seems like the event, um, the plague or whatever, it was six months to a year ago. Does that seem right?”
“Sure,” said Clay. “Whatever. And the miners aren’t finished yet? I guess that seems believable.” He stopped and sighed, and she stopped, and they spent a minute just looking around as if things were about to come at them from around a corner or drop on them from the sky. Clay sighed again and resumed walking, there being nothing else to do.
They came to the big building, its windows broken, its doors standing open. They peered in on a lobby, a gift shop. The gift shop was empty and looked peremptorily looted. The lobby was crowded with corpses. These had decomposed mostly without the attentions of dogs or birds, and the result was as if they had been slightly stewed. The smell was still intense.
Rachel turned, holding her gorge down, and found Clay missing. She turned away from the building: Clay was walking across the street and the little park beyond. She followed him, and they walked in silence along the streets of the Old City, up the Rue St-Jean, toward the walls and the ancient gate. They imagined it the way they remembered it, what, last year? Two centuries ago? And they imagined it, the Pub St-Alexandre, Le Pub Zoot, the streets, the hotels, the cafes and creperies and patisseries, full of bodies. But the bodies were rather few. St-Alexandre almost looked like it could open tonight for dinner; Zoot was a bit ransacked, as if in their last spasms of sickness its patrons had staged a bar fight. There were a couple of bodies, just legs and boots sticking out from under piles of broken furniture and bottles and glassware. A rat peeked out from under a fallen table.
It was all recognizable: the same street, most of the same buildings, the same sunlight. Clay could look in there and see Vera and Tasha and Gil Rojette and Jana Frickin’ Bluehorse partying down. But it was an effort of mind. It felt like he had accidentally landed on a different, but curiously parallel, planet.
Outside, an alley was piled with corpses, but they didn’t seem very human in their current state. The buildings were not deteriorated enough to fall down, but they were clearly abandoned, paint peeling, glass broken, birds and rats moving in and out. A few dogs came sauntering across a square outside the gate, saw the two people and bent their course to avoid contact. Cats sunned themselves in safe window ledges. Traffic lights were off and starting to fall, but signs still gave speed limits and instructed nonexistent drivers en Français.
Finally Clay stopped on a narrow sloping side street in the sunlight. He turned aside and up the steps to a little brick house. The door stood open. Inside, up a few more steps, they found the residents, sitting in chairs and lying on the floor, perhaps a dozen people.
Clay staggered back out. Rachel followed him. “Can we go home now,” he said.
“Not yet,” said Rachel. “I’m sorry, Clay. We need to make sure there isn’t, oh, a pocket of resistance somewhere.” She looked up, as if at the ships in orbit. “We need to think about what we can do.”
“What we can do,” he repeated. “You mean, other than give the bleep up?”
Just as she was about to reply, he turned and went back down the street, and they retraced their steps to the Old City and to their Ghosts resting among the cannons, and ghosts, of Vieux Quebec.
Rachel and Clay got their spaceships up off the lawn and hovered to an altitude of fifty meters. Then they flew off just above the treetops, headed westward at speeds exceeding a hundred meters per second. They did not speak for some time.
“Rachel,” said Clay at last, while they were still over the Ontario forests, “can we go somewhere a little faster than this?”
“Where are we going?” Rachel replied in a weary voice.
“I don’t really care,” said Clay. “You say we need to keep looking around or something.”
“Okay, okay,” said Rachel. “Atmospheric flectors up. Let’s go up to 300 meters and increase speed to a kilometer per sec.”
They crossed the broad plains of Manitoba and Saskatchewan in a couple of hours. They scanned as they went, and were not rewarded with any evidence of surviving humans, but at least the orbiting aliens didn’t take any more notice of them than before. Soon the Rocky Mountains were approaching, first as a slight bumpiness on the horizon. Rachel slowed them down and took them lower, and presently they were zipping up the line of a double railway track.
“There was a time in this fair land when the railroads did not run,” Gordon Lightfoot sang from Clay’s playlist, and Clay was surprised when Rachel took to singing along:
“When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun,
Long before the white man and long before the wheel,
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real…”
The mountains were now towering around them, still wild and majestic but without a speck of snow in the summer sun. Rachel took Clay to the left, following a broad highway through a sequence of unimaginably beautiful vistas, towering mountains, rolling swift rivers, climbing forests, lakes an impossible color of turquoise. Even Clay and Rachel would not have noticed especially that the old glaciers were all gone, leaving expanses of wet or dry mud. Up at the far end, Rachel took Clay to the right and west again, and down over the British Columbia forest they swooped. They dropped to follow another highway, then another, and a dirty abandoned village shot past before they could think about it. Presently they were approaching a not insignificant town, with hills and a river and farmland and forest around it. Rachel took them down and to a hovering stop over a major intersection with a railway and two highways.
“Fancy a stop?” she called. “This would be Revelstoke.”
“Beautiful British Columbia,” said Rachel. “We used to say, Beautiful British Columbia, Friendly Manitoba, because Manitoba sure isn’t beautiful and BC sure isn’t friendly.”
“Very amusing. What’s the chance of zombies wandering the streets?”
She drew an audible breath and said, “Let’s have a look, shall we?”
So they landed in the intersection. There were vehicles, electric trucks and buses, a locomotive with a dozen passenger cars, two more with a long train of freight cars, but they were all out of the way. The road vehicles were all empty, some with their doors open, but the passenger cars of the train had people in them, leaning dead against many of the windows, several spilling out the open doors. Several more people lounged dead on the streets of downtown Revelstoke. No one made a move.
Clay and Rachel did not say much of anything as they walked a few hundred meters, turned, went down a side road, walked a few blocks more and stopped in front of a diner.
“Fancy a coffee?” asked Rachel, holding the door open.
“I don’t want anything they have in stock at present,” said Clay, but he stepped inside. “I do note approvingly a lack of corpses, however.”
“I do too. I’ll give them a good review for that. Booth?”
So they sat down on opposite sides of the table. The place had been looted in a businesslike way—they could see where appliances had been pulled out, and the payment computers which would have been there were all gone. But the windows were mostly intact, and the place had not suffered much damage. And there was a definite lack of dead people. Outside, birds played among the brush and flitted across the deserted streets: long strips of paved desert gradually returning, via vegetation in the cracks, to forest. They looked at each other. Rachel put her hands out palm down on the table, and Clay put his hands on top of hers.
“So,” said Clay. “It’s bad.”
“Yep. It’s bad.”
“So what do you think they did? The miners? Why go to the trouble of killing everyone? And how did they do it? All those questions.”
“Well,” said Rachel, spreading her hands on the table, “I suppose they assumed it was easiest to just get all the sentient life forms out of the way first. All of them. So they did something specific to kill off Homo sapiens. Why do that? Well, the alternative is to kill everything, or most things, with, oh, a poison or radioactivity, but if the miners were planning on ever colonizing here, or even landing for some reason, fixing the equipment maybe, well, radiation might be problematic. And we don’t know, based on past human history, they might have had some religious compunction that prevented them from doing too much harm while they were murdering a couple of hundred million humans.”
“Of course they could have made a deal instead, gotten us to sell our metals to them.”
“Riiiight,” said Rachel. “Or enslave us, but that would be way more trouble than it was worth.”
“So they must have studied us first,” said Clay. “Figured out our weak spot. And that was what, a hemorrhagic virus?”
“Some of the worst diseases ever discovered or invented are hemorrhagic,” said Rachel. “Ebola, Marburg, the Blur, the blue mumps. Blue mumps could have wiped us out in the 2080s. Of all those, I think only Ebola wasn’t at least partly engineered: it wasn’t very contagious, if I remember correctly. The others all were bloody contagious. So they must have come to the conclusion that they could build, you know, a better blue mumps.” She turned, to look across the diner and out a different window. “So they scatter those infected phagocytes all over the world and everyone, absolutely everyone, ends up infected. 100%.”
“Looks of it,” said Clay, “those people died fast. The folks on the train?” They both shuddered.
“Well, what to do now?” said Rachel. “Where to go?”
Clay stood up. “I don’t care,” he said, smiling. “It doesn’t matter. Constantinople—no. Beijing. The Great Wall. No. Kathmandu! Why not? Ever been to Kathmandu?” He held out his hand. “Want to get married there?”
She looked at his hand, then smiled wide and stood up. She took the hand. “It seems like the thing to do,” she said. “Let’s get married.”
Their buoyant mood lasted all the way out over the Pacific Ocean. That was when they got a good look at the mining operations.
They were flying at ten meters above the wave crests when, a hundred and fifty kilometers southwest of them, a freighter-sized shuttle splashed up out of the sea and began its ascent into the heavens. Another was just coming down through the clouds, and another behind that was just starting down into the top of the atmosphere. As the two fighters sped past, they watched the shuttles pass each other, perhaps exchanging some sort of alien hail. The descending ship plunged into the wild sea fifty kilometers northwest of where the ascending shuttle had emerged. As Rachel and Clay shot onward, another heaved itself out of the surf and began its upward struggle just as billions of generations of insects had done for hundreds of millions of years. The next shuttle coming down dropped into the water, and the next after that came down out of the unhappy sky.
The two pilots didn’t have anything to say to each other as they sped across the middle Pacific. It was a world now devoid of islands, for whatever reason: no Hawaii, no Midway, no Okinawa or Iwo Jima, nothing in the way of Philippines. Borneo was a wreck. About where Manila would have been, another huge hole lay under the wave, and another sequence of huge freight shuttles rose and fell.
“It’s like they’re big mosquitoes, or ticks or something,” said Rachel.
After a moment, his heart in his throat, Clay could not resist adding, “It’s like they’re humans, only more so.”
A long moment passed. They approached the distorted remains of the Chinese lowlands. Rachel would be irate at Clay. Clay was already irate at Clay, for the suggestion of equivalence. But Rachel sighed and said, “Yeah, that’s the worst thing.”
“We would so do this ourselves,” said Clay.
“We would do it to ourselves,” said Rachel.
“We did do this to ourselves.”
“We would do it to someone else,” said Rachel, “and pat ourselves on the backs about how clever and great we are.”
“Well,” said Clay, “it goes to show. Homo sapiens really is an advanced species.”
“We belong among the great,” said Rachel. “Clearly. Among the winners.”
“Too bad we’re among the losers.”
“Clay,” said Rachel, suddenly serious. “Clay, we are not among the losers. That we are not.” Her face flashed up on his screen where a view of the devastated China coast had been. “We will survive this. We will be a better species for it. That is a sworn thing.”
He looked her in the video eye. “I swear it,” he said.
“We should drink to it,” said Rachel.
“We already did, sort of, back on Bluehorse. But yeah. Let’s drink to it. Let’s land somewhere and drink to it.”
“Yeah. Let’s do Kathmandu. And we can get married while we’re there.”
“Actually,” she said, “I have another idea about that. But—well, setting course, big boy. You following me still?”
“Into the maw of Hell I will follow you,” said Clay.
“What’s that from?”
“I don’t know. It should be from something. Anyway, it’s true.”
“Okay,” said Rachel. “Not Hell, I hope, but into the maw of something.”
She disappeared from his screen and immediately sent him a course. They rose up to 500 meters and increased speed back to a kilometer a second and soon they were climbing over the dirt dumps of lowland China. Evidently somehow the ships in space dumped out what they didn’t need, and this was forming a brand new, poorly made highland across the Middle Kingdom. Clay took to looking down again, letting his camera eye wander the vastness of China. There was no sign of the Great Wall: perhaps it had simply crumbled under the constant little earthquakes. Beijing was just gone. Here and there, a village on high ground was devastated: one untouched hilltop was crowded with decayed bodies. Mostly, the most populous nation on Earth was notable for its vacancy.
Ahead of them now Szechuan rose, untainted by the mining operation, and beyond it, the heights of the Himalayas under a sudden sunset. While behind them cyclopean ships dove into the ocean and climbed from it stuffed with metals from the mantle, two tiny fighters shot across the highest natural mountains on Earth on an inscrutable errand of their own.
It was night when Clay and Rachel came down over the peaks, Everest and Lho-tse, which still kept their shrunken snow masses, and dropped from the sky toward a city at a nexus of little rivers. They landed in the moonlight in a big intersection near a big bridge and a little broken dam. They got out and looked around: there were only a few vehicles, all of them freight-carrying trucks, all of them quite dilapidated. The buildings of the city were a mixed lot, as were the corpses.
The area the two pilots stood in was pretty in an eerie way. The buildings were all two or three or four or five stories, and mostly residential, and largely intact, but represented a synthesis of styles: Nepalese, Tibetan, Chinese, Indian, European, New World. Further off, especially south of the river, the buildings were ruins. All around the big intersection, in the houses, in the streets, down along the river, all over the bridge: that was where the corpses were. They seemed particularly unreal in the moonlight.
Rachel signaled to Clay and the two of them flipped their visors up and then pushed their helmets back off their heads. They took several long breaths. The rotting had reached its end long ago; the air was almost clean. They stood, as it were, on a small bare stage decorated only with their fighters, amid an audience that did not need to be knocked dead.
They stood there, and Clay turned to say something to Rachel, and Rachel held up a finger. And then he saw that in her hand she held a little flask. “To the survival of Homo sapiens,” she said. “We shall be a better species.” She took a drink and handed the flask to Clay.
“We will survive,” he said, and he drank, and while the whiskey (distilled somehow from Rachel’s wastes) burned pleasantly down his throat, he added, “and we will be a better species.” He handed her back the flask. “Nice stuff,” he said, looking around recklessly at the audience.
“Nepal,” said Rachel quietly.
“I’ve never been there,” said Clay. “Uh, here.”
“I was,” said Rachel. “I came here with my dad once. I was sixteen, he wanted to show me where he’d been when he was sixteen. Funny memory. Sort of dislocated from everything else. I haven’t thought of it in a long time.” She turned to him and smiled. “I’ve been a long way. A lot has happened.”
“That’s a tiny little understatement, Rachel.” They kissed, amongst the dead.
“Let’s walk,” said Rachel.
And they did. They managed to find a corpse-free path out of the intersection, and in a block or two they were among empty buildings. For a couple of short people, they set a fast pace in the high altitude night air. Well, they were now the two tallest people on Earth.
“Nepal,” said Rachel. “They must have gotten glancing blows from the nuclear wars between India and Pakistan. I guess by 2100 or so, the poor old town was down to a few thousand. I know it came back, so it must have been low. It burned to the ground, the city did, a couple of times, there were diseases, there was a fair amount of just plain radiation. But people started to come back, people came here from all over, China, Europe, North America. Indians, Indians who survived, came up here because of the climate. I suppose the mountains drew them here: it’s pretty, that’s for sure. And there’s that certain style, and you know, look at the buildings, they really tried to make the new city look like the old, but they couldn’t help bring their own styles, it was kind of cool really.” She laughed a little. “It was a neat place. Too bad my dad was so messed up.”
“Your dad was messed up?” said Clay. “My dad was messed up.”
“So was Tasha’s.”
“Yeah, he was beyond messed up. I wonder if Vera’s dad was messed up. Or Su Park’s.”
“I wonder what her folks were like,” said Rachel. “I always assumed she just sprang from nothing.”
“She commanded her own existence,” said Clay.
They laughed and held hands and talked as they walked, their voices echoing off the buildings and pavements and floating out on the wind and up over the mountains and up toward the stars. One of the visible stars, though not one of the more prominent ones, was 55 Cancri, and as the two stopped on the high spot on a street, Clay found himself thinking of Algaeville, and whether that thin band of alien green stuff might be looking his way. He laughed.
“What?” asked Rachel.
“Oh, Algaeville,” he said.
“Not, whether a falling star will give us a wish? Not whether our love is written in the stars?”
“Don’t start with me,” he replied, “I’ve been to those stars. Well, some of them.”
“Not romantic at all,” she teased him. “You’ll have to dance with me.”
“Where else? Then we head for Greenland.”
“Greenland?” Clay repeated.
“To get married! Of course.” She took his hand. He spun her around and kissed her hand.
“Of course,” he said, and he kissed her, and then he put on his play list, and skipped “Gimme Shelter” for “Dancing in the Dark.” You can’t start a fire, worrying about your little world falling apart. And then they danced, and danced, and drank and had a smoke in the Himalayan night, and danced some more while the dead settled slowly into the dust.
Mining operations continued in various parts of the world: the Russian steppe, the Mediterranean Sea, the middle of the Atlantic, several sites around the Pacific Rim, one in the Indian Ocean. Rachel and Clay hardly noticed: their eyes were for the old Earth, not its attackers, and for each other’s sleek black fighters.
Over the empty cities of Europe’s north plains, across the swollen Channel and the abandoned, diminished and mutilated British Isles, over the rolling North Atlantic they flew, charting a path north of a mist-shrouded Iceland, across the grey ocean of the Denmark Strait and up onto the mass of Greenland. They flew up onto the ridge of East Greenland’s mountains, and found an area of flat, windswept rock in the kilometer or so between a cliff up some tens of meters and a cliff several hundred meters downward. Rachel led Clay in to a landing in the lee of the inner cliff, where the wind was baffled by rock wall and patches of pine.
They got out, and Clay took a wide look around. He was about to sum up the rugged yet dowdy beauty of the Greenland highlands when his eyes lit on Rachel.
She was standing there, clad in her dark grey vac suit, her helmet already all the way off. Her black hair, a little shaggy, spilled over her shoulders. Her face, her small, precise mouth, her dark, almost unified eyebrows, her eyes shining greenish blue in the midday arctic light, her tight V of jaw: he could not take his eyes away. Her right eyebrow rose.
“Shall we disrobe?” she asked.
“Well,” he said, “that brings up a whole range of ideas, but on the whole, I think it—makes sense,” he trailed off, as she unzipped down the front.
“Couldn’t have done this up here three hundred years ago,” she said, shrugging the suit off her shoulders.
“Couldn’t do this now,” he said, disrobing quickly as far as the waist and then reaching back into her Ghost to get that flask. “Not without some of the whiskey burn, anyway.”
“Mmm,” said Rachel, “out of the wind here we can have some smoke too. I think we need to make a whole ritual out of this.”
“I was thinking,” said Clay, stepping out of his boots and pants, “whether this was official or anything and then I realized.”
“Nothing’s official,” said Rachel. “It’s not like there’s a town office. We could have a freaking society wedding, because we’re all that’s left of society.” She spun around once and curtseyed, and laughed at the look on his face, the residue of the reminder of that mole. “You love me?”
“I love you,” he said. “Do you love me?”
“I love you so much,” she replied. “You comfy?”
“Surprisingly so,” said Clay, stepping away from the cliff into the breeze. He turned and let his eyes feast on her. “Ah,” he said, “I am warming right up.”
“All right,” she said. “I am too, you hunky hunk. Music? I kind of feel like the wind is sufficient music, don’t you?”
“The hymns of our ancestors,” said Clay, “all the way back to anomalocaris and opabinia and the stromatolites.”
“Mmm,” said Rachel, coming to join him, atop a table rock surrounded by low bushes. A pair of ravens who had been scouting the sky landed on a pointed boulder a little way away and watched them. The cliff down to the coastlands was still most of a kilometer away, but the cliff up was now some distance off. The sun shone down on them hot and pure, while the wind blew over them, cleansing them of the evils of the world. She took his hand. “I’m glad we came back. I’m glad we’re here. I’m sorry about the welcome we’ve had, but I’m glad we’re here.”
He turned to face her. She was smiling, and Clay, warmed by that smile, was smiling wider, and Rachel smiled even wider. He took her other hand and kissed her, and then they both dropped a hand and wiped tears from their eyes.
“We better start,” said Rachel, “or we’re both going to be bawling.”
“I agree,” said Clay. He took a breath. “You’re sure you want to marry me?”
“I am so sure, Clay Gilbert. Where would you be without me?” They laughed, wiping more tears. “Where would I be without you,” she added, her voice ragged. “There’s not that many people left, you know. And you, I know I can,” and she wept into her left hand a little, then smiled.
“Rachel,” he said, waving a free hand.
“Wait,” said Rachel. “Bouquet. I need a bouquet.” They looked around, while the ravens watched. He couldn’t get over it. Part of his mind took time to actually work out what alpine flora might serve as a bridal corsage, while the rest stood aghast at the fact that he stood here, on an Earth under attack and with its entire human population minus two dead, here, on a ridge in northeast Greenland that until just a couple of centuries ago had been buried under a kilometer of ice, here, naked under the Sun, with Rachel, with amazing Rachel, with beautiful unique Rachel, with clever, brainy Rachel, with Rachel and her smile and her black hair and her anger and her joy and her laugh and her nice little breasts and her mole, and, well, everything.
“Flowers,” he said, picking a few of a patch of white flowers. “Is this enough?”
“These,” said Rachel, “and oh, a couple of those, but we don’t want to wipe out any species.”
“There,” said Clay, holding out his half of a bouquet.
Rachel took his flowers and arranged them a little and then smiled at him, smiled like he had never been smiled at before. Then she giggled. She made to sniff the flowers. She giggled again. “You want to start?”
“You start, Rachel.”
“I, Rachel Andros,” she said, “I take you, Clay Gilbert, as my man, forever, before all others. I am yours from this day on and you are mine. You are my man. My husband.” She grinned through a pane of tears.
He took that smile, straightened his face and his body and said, “I, Clay Gilbert, take you, Rachel Andros, as my wife, my woman, um, forever before all others. I am yours and you are mine from this day on. You are my woman and my wife and I am your man.” They laughed. “Oh, my goddess,” he said, looking at her hand. “Where were you hiding those?”
“On my pinky finger,” said Rachel. “Hold out your hand.” He did. “Your left hand,” she amended, and he switched hands. She put a golden ring on his fourth finger. “With this ring, I marry you, Clay. You’re mine forever.” She handed him a ring.
“With this ring,” he said, “I marry you, Rachel Andros, you clever woman. You are mine forever and ever.” He slid the ring on her left ring finger. “Wherever did you get them?”
“Off dead people,” said Rachel. “In Kathmandu. They fit perfectly!”
“They do, actually.”
“So kiss me, gosh darn it Clay!”
And so the two fighter pilots, stark naked but for golden rings appropriated from Nepalese corpses, melted into each other’s arms and each other’s kisses, while their raven attendants watched and preened, while the wind blew, the Earth continued to spin, the human population (other than them) continued to decay and the alien mining vessels continued to rise and fall, and a little ways away, their two Ghost 201s gathered solar energy and waited to bear Clay Gilbert and Rachel Andros homeward again.