Prologue: On Bluehorse
Clay Gilbert and Rachel Andros stood side by side in a very thin rain. They were on a stony pier into a small ocean, one of several on Bluehorse-3, and by now they didn’t notice the slightly weak gravity or the slightly thin air. There were people around them: indeed, Captain Ally Schwinn had just finished a short speech, and a priestly sort named Martin Cargil had added a wonderfully short prayer for the dead. Now the crowd, 90% colonists and 9% big ship crews, was starting to dissipate. Clay and Rachel and Natasha Kleiner and Vera Santos and Commander Su Park and the rest were still standing there gazing out on the water and the thin air into which the ashes that represented the dead were dissolving into the rain.
Not one of them made a move to leave the wharf and get out of the drizzle. They all wore their vac suits, but their heads were all uncovered and were gradually getting soaked. They said not a word.
The core of this one percent of a crowd was nine people: Clay and Rachel, Natasha and Vera, Park and her fellow commanders Li Zan and Jane Tremblay, and Timmis Green and Bonnie Bain, the nine surviving members of the fighting wings that had arrived at this system, then known as Candidate Two. Just outside that enchanted core were Lidi Moss and Gemma Ozawa, minor leaguers who had survived a suicide mission; Maria Apple, the replacement for the lost commander of Gamma Wing; and Jamaica Leith and Indra Singh, who had been added to Beta Wing on the loss of their commander and second. Just outside the larger circle, but still close enough to share its oddly scented magic, stood Meena Manan and Anand Ree and Sally Smit, who had gotten into the last of the fights; Smit had wound up with her Ghost practically demolished, while Ree had finished the battle with his feet sticking out the front of his fighter.
So there they stood, the actual memorial stone behind them, gazing out to sea, lost in their own thoughts. The memorial had 34 names on it, but they were only thinking of their own—Celeste Bouvier, Agneska Vilya and Gil Rojette, and of course Jana Bluehorse herself, crude, profound, valiant and foolhardy. Rachel squeezed Clay’s hand and he squeezed back: Vera leaned against Natasha, who put an arm around her waist. They were not foolhardy, perhaps they were not valiant, but they were here, ninety light years from the planet of their birth, survivors of half a dozen battles with unknowable aliens in the cold dark of space.
The Human Horizon Project had left the only planet known to have life on it in March 2334. There were five colony ships carrying a total of over ten thousand colonists, along with five escort ships, three armored “anchor” freighters and five large “box” freighters, and twenty-two “single crew explorer pods.” Unlike its predecessors, the Centaur Mission to Alpha Centauri and the Venture programs to Gliese 581 and 667, the Human Horizon Project would get so close to the speed of light that time dilation got involved in a serious way. This meant that a journey of thirty light years would take not much over thirty years—and that a journey that appeared to the planet-bound to take thirty years would be perceived by those on the journey, including their bodies and their brains and their clocks, as costing them only a matter of months or even weeks.
Unlike its predecessors, it also made allowance for the possibility that the very first star system it visited, which happened to be 55 Cancri, might not be habitable. It was not, and neither was the second (Gliese 163), nor the third (Candidate One, or Candy One). The little fleet, by far the largest group of starships ever launched from merrie olde Earth but still about the size, altogether, of a medium-sized state college campus, found paydirt on the fourth system it came to, Candidate Two, a. k. a. Bluehorse.
But the first three system visits had not been without event. The ships arrived at 55 Cancri only to discover that the flagship colony vessel, the France, along with two thousand colonists and the chief administrator of the mission, Admiral Henri Georges, had vanished without a trace. The only survivor of its little subgroup was the scout pilot Bonnie Bain, who had flown ahead of the France and its escort and freighter and lost track of them in the photon blur of near light speed.
The 55 Cancri system had turned out to have life: a thin layer of algae under a thin layer of ice on a brutally cold moon. Other than that, no surface in the system seemed in the least hospitable, and the consensus, after some argument, was to move on.
At Gliese 163, they found that a radioactive burst of the star millennia ago had sanitized the few planets in the system, which again had little to offer for colonists. It was there that the fleet met its first actual living enemies, blobs of relativistically moving space stuff that seemed to eat the things spaceships were made of. The first person attacked was Natasha Kleiner in her fighter, but she was saved, partly by Clay’s quick action; the only direct result of this was a brief but intense affair between the two of them. The explorer pods, which by now everyone was referring to as fighters, recognized the danger these blobs posed to the bigger ships that were coming behind them, but in the event, the only person to get eaten by one of these “mouthholes” was fighter pilot Jana Bluehorse, the bold, the daring, the valiant, perhaps the foolhardy. In death, at least, Bluehorse had given her colleagues a chance to learn ways to fight off the mouthholes. And again, the colony ships came, argued, and moved on.
They had run out of candidates that they knew about from Earth, but they were now 49 light years out into the galaxy and they had new candidates. The first of these, imaginatively named Candidate One, actually had two planets with liquid water on them. Candy One became the place where the Earthlings finally got the upper hand on the mouthholes, those interstellar animals with a taste for spaceship. Unfortunately, this was also the place where the Earthlings first met a definitely sentient alien race. Their communication on first contact, and second and third contact, was not especially good: Rachel and Natasha got shot at on Candy One’s fifth planet, and incoming aliens of the same type attacked Beta Wing, killing its commander, Agneska Vilya, and her wing second, Gil Rojette. Humanity had lost its very first actual fighter battle in space.
But at this juncture, the aliens on the planet, who had fired upon Rachel and Natasha, decided, somehow, that it was time to communicate, and communicate they did, in their own way. First they sent pulses in sets that equated to prime numbers—2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 and so on—and then they sent, without further annotation, blocks of data that the Earthlings managed to translate as settings for their beam weapons. And with these, Alpha Wing, Su Park and Rachel and Natasha and Clay, and Gamma Wing, Bouvier and Tremblay and Santos and Timmis Green, managed to deal the incoming aliens an unexpected defeat. Dubbed the Primoids by the fighter pilots, these newly met aliens were still a complete cipher except for two things: they seemed a lot like humans while actually being blobby orange things with multiple stick-like legs and sensory tentacles; and they had a civil war on. And the Earthlings had somehow sided with the rebels, verily the Primoid browncoats.
So the Human Horizon Project decamped twelve more light years to Candidate Two, which became the Bluehorse System. It was uninhabited by sentient beings, but it had a definitely habitable planet, Bluehorse-3, and in the space just outside that planet’s orbit, the Earthlings made their stand and managed to defeat, with not many lives lost, a significantly larger Primoid fleet. The four remaining colony ships landed, four colonies of two thousand humans each began setting up to feed themselves, and Clay Gilbert and Rachel Andros were designated to report back to Mother Earth, ninety light years away.
They looked at each other, he a mere 151 centimeters to her 148. She smiled at him. “You okay, handsome?” she asked.
“I’m more than okay,” he replied. “I’m ready for a trip back to the old homestead.”
There was a party after the ceremony, and Clay and Rachel danced and got drunk with their colleagues, a little knot of short skinny pilots in one corner of the plaza outside the colony ship Canada, surrounded by much bigger people. Vera and Natasha, both of whom had been old flames of Clay’s en route to Bluehorse, were slow dancing and kissing; Timmis and Li had excused themselves for the night together; Captain Alfred Kalkar and Commander Su Park were joking around and very drunk; Bonnie Bain and Jamaica Leith, having had a fight during their third glasses of wine, were now on their fifth and making out; Gemma Ozawa and Anand Ree were slow dancing; Lidi Moss and a dozen lesser-light fighter pilots were dancing loosely and giggling a lot. It was time for Rachel to lead Clay away from the crowd.
They turned their back on the settlement that had, in the past six weeks, spilled out of the Canada and onto the lowlands between it and the Parallelogram Sea. The two pilots found themselves drawn back to that stone wharf, where they turned to each other and into each other’s arms. The waves washed against the stone. The little moon drifted in a thinning scud of cumulus. They kissed, and kissed again, and giggled. He ran his hand through her shoulder-length mess of black hair.
“Sit, or walk?” asked Rachel.
“Walk,” said Clay. “Along the shore.”
So they turned, hand in hand, and made their way down a meter to the beach. The Earthling land plants that had spilled out with the colonists ran out almost immediately, but the wash of the waves and the slightly different smell of the sea surrounded them and they went at least a kilometer without saying anything.
“So,” said Rachel, “I think they’re well set. I mean, who knows, but—!”
“I think so too,” said Clay. “Who knows what we’ll find when we come back in, oh, a hundred and eighty years, but all four colonies seem headed the right direction. I mean, Alice Grohl’s taking over, what could be wrong with that? And even Ted Trein seems to have gotten better now he has ground under his feet.” Rachel smiled and grunted.
They walked a little further. “Clay,” said Rachel. “What’s it going to be like?”
“Being back on Earth?”
“Just being on our own. No one else with us.”
“Rachel,” said Clay, “it’s a good bet you’re still going to be in command.”
“Clay,” she said in that tone he already knew well. He shut his mouth and waited. “We haven’t ever been in a different star system from Natasha. We have not ever been very far from Commander Su Park. We’ve always had those thousands of colonists to think of. What’s it going to be like to be just us? For, jeez, how long? Three jumps, that’s what Park’s decided we should do.”
“See, she’s still with us,” said Clay. “Why three jumps? I thought two was plenty. It’s only ninety light years, and we’ve done nearly seventy at once.”
“The thinking is that we could explore this one system that’s along the way,” Rachel replied, “and they want us to pay a visit to see if there’s a colony at Gliese 581 or not. So three jumps.”
“I won’t ask why you knew this before me,” said Clay.
“I don’t see a problem with that.”
“Then I don’t either.”
“Clay.” They stopped and she took both his hands. She looked about to say something, but instead she came into his arms and they smooched. She gave him another long half-smile and said, “You’re not going to be trouble, are you?”
“Of course not. Why would I be?”
She kept that half-smile. She said, “Clay, do you love me?”
“Rachel, I love you. I love you more than anything. Rachel, Rachel. I know I’m difficult.”
She laughed. “Well, that’s convenient,” she said softly, “because guess what, I’m difficult too.”
“But I honestly figured out that it’s you. It’s you. You’re it for me. I’m yours. Goddess, I don’t even know how to say it.” He waved his arms helplessly.
“You’re saying it just fine,” she said, grabbing back his arms. “You’re it for me too.” They kissed, almost chastely. She pulled away to near arms’ length. “Clay,” she said, “you don’t want to get married on Earth, do you? I’m not trying to—!”
“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “Rachel. Will you marry me?”
She grabbed his hand and kissed it, and then kissed him, and then again, more slowly. Then she said, “Of course I will. Will you marry me?”
“Honestly, I will marry you anywhere and any time and as often as you want me to.”
They giggled and kissed and then resumed walking along the shore. Presently she said, “And I will honestly try not to kill you even though you can be quite annoying.” She stopped him and pulled him to her for a kiss. “Promise the same for me? Because I can be quite annoying too.”
“I promise the same for you,” said Clay.
There was a party after the ceremony, and there was a romantic walk after the party, and there was romance after the romantic walk, and there was sleep after the romance. Clay and Rachel woke up in Rachel’s Ghost, and except for the gravity and the faint smell of the sea, they could have been in space with the screens on sleep mode. There was a sound of pounding on the outside of the fighter. Clay smiled at Rachel and sat halfway up, his head against the inside of the hatch.
Rachel flipped on the outside sensor and the beach where they had parked the Ghost took over the whole screen. Right above him, not seeing him, were the people responsible for the pounding. It was Natasha and that honorary member of Alpha Wing, Vera Santos, ready for a swim without vac suits in the dawn, or actually what was still a deep twilight. The 41-hour day of Bluehorse-3 made one feel rather the early riser.
By the time they were out of the cold water, color had begun to return to the world. The heights of the distant plateaus waxed golden, the sea was turning from indigo to a deep turquoise, and the sandy ground was red and yellow and brown at their feet and climbing the sides of the white colony ship. Brand new shanties around it were already obscuring its boxy outlines, and from these children spilled and smells of food and coffee billowed into the innocent air. The pale pink of the three women, palest in freckly Tasha and darkest in light brown Vera, disappeared into vac suits, as did Clay’s somewhat hairier pale.
“Hey pilots,” called several colonists from several places. “Hey, pilots,” a woman not far from them insisted. “You want coffee, right?”
“Sure,” said Rachel. “And your sticky buns?”
“One minute,” said the woman, whose name was Jalis and who had become their barista. The pilots walked up to her little bistro, where she and two teenagers were putting pots and plates out on tables. Out came the coffee, and into five cups. Out came something like cream. The pilots took seats and chose mugs. Jalis sat down with them, and in a minute the teenagers were serving them sticky buns. “You have a meeting, I think,” said Jalis.
“We do?” said Rachel.
“Yes you do,” said Jalis, taking a thoughtful sip and then jumping up. “More mugs! Here they come!”
“Commander,” said Rachel and Vera, getting up. Natasha and Clay turned in their chairs and saw Su Park and Jane Tremblay coming toward them, with the full-bearded Captain Kalkar of the Tasmania, Alpha Wing’s anchor freighter, and the Canada’s navigator, Tony Han. Tasha and Clay got up too. Jalis and the teenagers came back with coffee and more rolls, and Jalis took the opportunity to sit down again among the starship people, where she quietly sipped coffee.
“As you were,” said Park. “Whatever you were. I am sorry, Captain Kalkar, but military discipline seems to have waned somewhat; I believe our star pilots were skinny dipping.”
“I would agree,” said Kalkar, taking a seat beside her and pulling his coffee close. “But military discipline was never a bright sun in our fighter pilot corps; and yet these four have left dozens of enemies of Homo Sapiens as floating dust in space; and on top of that, ahhh, my head does hurt from last night, and you drank as much as me on a much smaller body mass. So,” and he took a long drink of coffee, “I can’t remember what my point was.”
“Commander,” said Clay, “we’re sort of expecting you to tell us our navigation plan.”
“Exactly,” said Park. “Mr Han?”
Tony Han smiled and pulled out his tablet. With a little flourish, he turned it on. He set it up so the pilots could all see it, Kalkar leaning in from the side; Jalis sat back with her coffee and watched them all.
Rachel reached out to the tablet and began twiddling and sliding and poking. “Three jumps,” she said. “We could surely do it with less. Earth? We did 70 light years in a jump once. We could do 90 in two, surely.”
Park replied, “We want you to visit Gliese 581 on the way there, and Gliese 667 on the way back. Just to see if they have colonies. When you get to Earth, you may find out about 667—in fact, if 581 is a going concern, then they may tell you there whether 667 is a going concern, or Alpha C for that matter. At Earth, they will surely know whether Alpha C made it.”
“Okay, 581. We hit 581 on the way to Earth. What’s this other one?”
“Well,” said Tony Han, “it’s almost the exact midpoint of Bluehorse to 581. And we’re pretty sure it has planets in the habitable zone, the, uh, Goldilocks Zone. So Captain Kalkar and Commander Park both felt it was worth stopping there.”
“How dangerous have you guys decided this is going to be?” asked Clay.
“Especially since,” said Rachel, “colony ship guys like you, Tony, are never going to see us again unless you live to be two hundred years old.”
“I’m thirty-nine now,” said Tony Han. “I will be around two and a quarter centuries old when you return.” He ate a piece of pastry and then said, around it, “If you do.”
“How dangerous is this?”
“As dangerous as staying, no doubt,” said Park.
“Don’t forget,” said Kalkar, “the Primoids are doubtless going to come back with an even bigger fleet and be sure to stomp us, and we won’t have you two.”
“And,” said Natasha, “Vera and I have to go do dangerous things too.”
“We’re going to actually try and visit the Primoids,” said Vera. “And talk to them. Which no one has yet been able to do.”
“We’re sending them,” said Park, “with Ozawa and Moss and the Greenland. We hope to not involve them in a fight. I am going to take my lovely little wing of Bain and Leith and Mr Ree—!”
“Man of Mister Ree,” said Clay.
“Yes, very droll, Mr Gilbert,” said Park. “In any case, we are taking Tasmania with us to explore about a bit.”
“So,” said Kalkar, “my people will still be full of vigorous life in two hundred years. Assuming we don’t wind up blown to little bits.”
“And assuming that the Primoids don’t return to Bluehorse and blow the colony to little bits.”
“Hear hear,” said Jalis. “Let’s definitely assume that.”
“Assume that about us all,” said Rachel. “So, just the two of us? All the way to Earth and back?” She looked at Clay. “Interesting.”
In the event, of course, what Su Park suggested was law. Kalkar gave her plans the feeling of approval by a real ship’s captain, beard and all, and Han and his boss Captain Ally Schwinn lent the gloss of approval by the Human Horizon Project governance, or by the equally mythical Captaincy, but the pilots knew who the boss was.
Vera and Natasha, and Ozawa and Moss and the armored freighter Greenland under Captain Maya Nilsstrom, were assigned to visit the Primoid rebels at Candy One, and then possibly to attempt to contact whatever constituted the Primoid leadership at wherever the Primoid leadership might be found. With them would go the logician Jill-Ann Mooney and the linguists Milla Taravo and Art Johans; they were colonists, but they were experts as well, and they, and Natasha Kleiner, knew as much as any human about how to talk to Primoids.
“Which isn’t much,” said Natasha, as she and Vera and Bonnie Bain and Jamaica Leith drank wine with Rachel and Clay. “We know they can count. We don’t know if they have such things as adverbs.”
“You’d have to have adverbs, wouldn’t you?” asked Bonnie Bain.
“It’s a vexed question,” said Tasha. “I know it’s vexed because it vexes me every time Milla and Art get to arguing about it.”
Meanwhile, the Tasmania, under Kalkar, and a sort of ersatz Alpha Wing of Park, Bain, Leith and Anand Ree, were to go exploring the systems close by Bluehorse.
“The way I have it,” said Bonnie Bain, “we zip out twelve light years, have a look, then come back and everyone’s 24 years older.”
“If we don’t get eaten by space worms,” said Jamaica Leith, black and beautiful and long and tall at a whopping 154 centimeters. “Thanks loads for showing us the Star Wars videos. Someone had an active imagination.”
“Someone didn’t imagine mouthholes,” said Vera, “or dudes who talk by sending strings of prime numbers. Bonnie, you do know this is a huge honor.”
“Oh, I do,” said Bonnie Bain. “I totally get that. It scares the bleep out of me too, but I’m starting to get used to that. Are you, Jams?”
“Yeah,” said Jamaica Leith. “One battle. Lasted about ten seconds. Scared out of my wits for all ten of them.”
“You don’t stop being scared,” said Rachel.
“No,” said Vera. “I’m so scared I almost pee myself every time we go fight.”
“Killer,” said Clay.
“You bet,” said Vera. “They should be scared of me.”
“And you end up back here the same time as us?” asked Rachel.
“If not,” said Vera, “we do a quick jaunt to Gliese 5 Bajillion and Three just to pass the time.”
“And let time dilation preserve our youthful skin tone,” said Natasha. “You figure you’ll be the last to arrive back because you think you’re going furthest?”
Rachel and Clay looked at each other. They grabbed a quick kiss. Clay said, “I guess I kind of thought that, yeah, though it doesn’t make any actual sense.”
“What chance do you think 581 has a going colony?” asked Bonnie Bain.
“I’ll go with 25%, said Rachel. “They were a one shot deal. They had enough stuff to set up hydroponics, so I suppose they could build a sustainable colony on some bare rock moon if they had to, but, still, I’d have to say it’s a throw of the dice. And not a nice easy throw of the dice either.”
“Why 581 and not 667?” asked Bain.
“Well, 581 is sort of on our route. Maybe we hit 667 on the way back. How about Alpha C? When we get to Earth, they’ll probably know if Alpha C has a colony or not.”
“That was a real long shot,” said Clay. “The Centaur mission was already well on its way when Park and Vilya zipped out there and found out it had no good planets. And they couldn’t have made it to another system. Oh well.”
They all drank. Jamaica Leith shifted her legs, put an arm around Bain, kissed her, and then took another drink before asking, “What do you think Earth is going to be like? After all this time?”
They all got far-away looks. They all drank.
“Miss it much?” asked Bonnie Bain.
“Sort of,” said Jamaica Leith and Clay Gilbert at the same time. They laughed.
“Miss it a lot, sometimes,” said Rachel. She drank. “But I have never not been glad I went into space.”
“Never,” said Bonnie Bain, Vera Santos and Jamaica Leith.
“Anyway,” said Clay, “I don’t expect it’ll be any different. Different people, same crap.” They laughed. “But,” he said, “I bet the beer won’t be as good as I remember.”