“The year is 4701,” said Rachel in the big square on the side of Clay’s view screen, as the little fleet decelerated into yet another star system in the loose empire of the Ngugma. “The future is more future than it’s ever been.”
“We have two stars,” said Clay, “a large yellow, and a compact one, collapsed, it’s gaining material from the large star, just a little at a time. Can’t see the smaller ones yet, but we have a couple of gas giants circling the large star. Surprised the compact object isn’t disrupting the orbits more. Yeah, there’s definitely a terrestrial on an inside orbit. Yeah, we left Earth in 2334? What day is it, exactly? I was born in 2305. I’m nearly two thousand four hundred years old.”
“Clay, I can’t get my head around it. Is that bad?”
“You mean you can’t fathom being two thousand years in the future? Heck, back in the old days, we were closer to the birth of Jesus than we were to today. By the time we get where we’re going, you could say the same about the last ice age.”
“Mm,” said Rachel. They both watched their readouts. She said, “Hey. No mouthholes.”
“Don’t know,” said Clay. “Okay. You’re right, no mouthholes. You guys get any mouthholes?”
“Scans on a broad range of frequencies,” called Emily Gray from the Tasmania, “show no mouthholes. There is an Ngugma spacecraft: no, it’s an unmanned satellite, orbiting the outer of the two giants.”
“Nothing orbiting the terrestrial,” called Ram Vindu.
“How come we can’t see that yet?” asked Clay.
“Padfoot tweaked their sensors,” said Vera. “Something to do with putting antennae at far ends of the freighter. Better res. We can’t do that, we’re too small.”
“We could join together and make an interferometer,” said Clay.
“Any life or tech?” asked Kalkar.
“No tech,” said Gray. “Life, um—!”
“If I may,” called Fonnggark, “it would depend on one’s definitions.”
Twelve hours later, Tasmania, Fonnggark’s ship, and the ten Ghosts were coming into orbit of the outer gas giant, taking up a position near but out of radiation range of the robotic station: just being safe. The robotic station sent a signal every ten hours or so in the direction of Shzhannahr, the photons embarking on a 500-year journey. There was no other live technology.
Aliya and Grohl were sent out on patrol around the immediate vicinity of the planet. The rest of the fighter pilots assembled on the Tasmania bridge. While Emily Gray flew the ship, Kalkar, Vindu, Padfoot, Bell, and Jack Dott and the eight pilots watched the left side big screen, where the high-res video showed fine detail on the fuzzy, brown face of Fonnggark, with little moveable white teeth all around its round mouth, and little wriggly tentacles with eyes on them sticking out of tufts of fur, as if its hair were home to creepy worms.
“Well, Captain,” said Kalkar. “I can tell you’re bursting with information. We can’t even decide if there’s actually life on the inner planet. And the station, it’s not really built to house anyone, it’s robotic. We don’t even pick up bacteria, even there.”
“You should land and see it for yourself,” said Fonnggark. “It is called Ghhokhur, Ghhokhur-1. You need not fear contamination. It is harmless by now. But I will tell you what happened.”
“They got here, didn’t they?” said Natasha. “The Enemy.”
“There were 75 million Ngugma living here, and 60 million of the, uh, subservient population. Then they came. Then, we returned and destroyed them. One had to be, you say, ruthless. Rooothlusss.” Clearly the captain liked the word. “We left nothing alive. It was, ah, it was one hundred thousand orbits of that planet, that’s how long it’s been like this.”
“Like what?” asked Rachel.
“It is harmless. You should go look.”
“You’re with me, Hubbylicious. Apple and Izawa. Li, could you take charge of patrols? Are we all filling up our solar batteries?”
“I think we all are,” said Kalkar, “unless my fellow captain has some other form of engine power. Do you use solar energy to power virtual ions?”
Fonnggark made a peculiar noise and gesture. “I can tell you,” it said, “that we gather solar power. I am not permitted to tell you anything else about the, uh, drive system.” It made a noise Clay thought of as its version of a chortle. “We too will need to fly past the star.”
“We’ll go down,” said Rachel, “and have a look, and then take back off and meet you on the way out.”
So four Ghosts dropped from the Tasmania bay and peeled out to head for the surface of the sole terrestrial planet, orbiting about where Mars would be. Its shape was a result of plate tectonics and wind and rain: there were high mountains and broad plains and river valleys, sinuous or majestic. It was about 30% covered by water, and its air appeared breathable. Large scale shapes seemed to indicate cities and roads and ports, all defunct now. After some discussion, Rachel selected a landing site on the edge of one of the highlands.
The four Ghosts circled what seemed a rare completely bare spot on the ground, a wide rock outcrop next to a cliff down. They paused in air, forty meters up.
“Getting kind of strange readings now,” said Izawa.
“What is that goo?” asked Apple. “We in danger here?”
“Supposedly not,” said Rachel. They observed for another minute. Rachel said, “Okay. Let’s go down. Me first.”
She dropped down in hover mode, and came to a stop a meter off the ground. The others followed suit, and then, after more testing, they dropped gently to the rock. More tests. The hatches popped and they climbed out, in their vac suits.
“Getting a ‘Colour out of Space’ vibe, not gonna lie,” said Clay. “You guys read that?”
“I had to, in high school,” said Izawa.
“I know,” said Apple. “Maybe this is where they come from. Maybe ol’ H. P. wasn’t making it up?”
They strode down a shallow slope, away from the cliff edge. Back here, the rock disappeared under the soil, or whatever. They stood looking at it: the place where soil should be.
It was brownish-green, but somehow the wrong green and the wrong brown. It didn’t sway like grasses or move about like vermin or wash and swish like water: it looked burnt up from inside, bubbling and brittle.
Rachel popped her visor and pushed back her helmet. “Okay,” she said. “It’s definitely dead. It’s not a pathogen, anyway. It actually rained down spores here and the blobs ate everything they landed on and became a single blob. And the Ngugma ruthlessly killed it.”
“So this is what they’re fighting?” said Clay. He looked at the pathetic remnant, a dried and half incinerated scum washed up from the shores of space, fouling everything. Then he thought of what it had accomplished in its lifetime: the consumption of all life on Ghhokhur.
He looked around. They all did. It was the opposite of the sort of look around one takes if one thinks something is sneaking up on one. Nothing was sneaking up on anything in the Ghhokhur system anymore. It was already here, it had been here, all over. Everything was covered in this thin coating of deteriorated slime: everything but the tops of mountains and a few places like this where the surface was bare rock. It had been different before: the slime had been alive, had had, presumably, a consciousness of some sort. It had been a different color, he was sure: lime green, at least, or possibly a pulsating pink.
The plains. The valleys. The hillsides. The towns, full of bouncy furry Ngugma. The lakes. The rivers. The oceans, forsooth. The burnt green-brown slime ran right down to the shores, and off shore, sensors picked up the signatures of the stuff, give or take a sea change, on the sea floor.
“Full fathom five thy father lies,” said Clay.
“What?” said Apple.
“Think of how long the Ngugma lived here. Think of them swimming under the sea, wandering the plains and hills. Their cities, their, oh, great libraries. All those millions of years.”
“I don’t know how to think of that much time,” said Gemma Izawa. “That much life, that much—death. I can’t figure out how to think of it.”
“So, yeah, that’s where Shakespeare comes in,” said Clay. He couldn’t keep himself from going on: “Full fathom five thy father lies. Of his bones are corals made. Those are pearls that were his eyes. Nothing of him but doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange.” He looked back at the others. “Not so rich in this case, but strange.” He kicked the edge of the bubbly burnt stuff, which made Apple and Izawa both retch a little. “Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell. Ding-dong. Hark, now I hear them: ding-dong bell.”
“They got their spores in here,” said Rachel. “This far inside Orion Arm. The fear is that they’ll infect the whole arm. That’s why the Ngugma are so ruthless.”
“And it was what, a hundred thousand years ago?” said Apple.
“220,000, in Earth years,” said Rachel.
And they all thought a series of thoughts, the four of them, as they took pictures and videos and readings and just stood there aghast, at the extent of the dead scum, covering almost the entire surface of this old world, dry or wet. They looked around. Clay could feel Shakespeare abandoning him. Full fathom five: there lay the burnt scum, fatherless and childless. Looking up at them with bubbles where its dead eyes, its pearly eyes should be.
Just as Clay was deep into the willies and ready to leave immediately, Apple said, “135 million died. I mean, Ngugma, yeah, and their slaves or whatever, but still. 135 million. Think what that must have been like.”
“Thank you for that,” said Clay. “And what if this happened at Bluehorse?”
“Thank you for that,” said Apple.
They stayed there for another ten minutes, took a few samples, and got off the ground. Within an hour they were leaving the Ghhokhur system for a star more than 600 light years away.