In the Time of the Sixth
The Ephesian asteroid belt
A bulkhead door whined open, letting sho-sa Kōsho step into number two boat bay, her thin shoulders draped with tool belts and spools of gearwire. With the Cornuelle under maneuvering thrust, there was gravity in the main ship’s core, which was a blessing for this kind of work. Susan wound her way through a platoon of Marines with their combat rig spread out on the deck. Squad gunso were going from man to man, checking every piece of assigned equipment. The Marines had their combat armor and webbing laid out in neat sections, their shipguns and shockpistols disassembled for realignment and cleaning.
As she passed, one of the Marine lieutenants nodded politely at her. Kōsho dipped her head slightly. She could see the troopers were in good humor; faces flushed, voices brisk and filled with grim cheer. Rumor on the mess decks said the Cornuelle was heading into a ‘hot’ action against a pirate. The very real possibility of a boarding action was in the offing and their usual boredom had vanished in a haze of adrenaline. Nearly every man and woman in the platoon was concentrating upon their equipment check with admirable intensity.
As usual, Kōsho ignored the Marines and they returned the favor with studied indifference. Aboard ship there was a strict division between the two services. Save for occasions like this, when they both needed to share a common space, the Marines did not mix with Fleet and vice-versa. The Cornuelle was cramped, but crew quarters were traditionally separated. Meals were taken in alternating shifts. Ground-side or on a station, the respective contingents took pains to avoid each other in recreational areas.
In Fleet Academy, Susan had heard an old ‘service legend’; the master gunnery sergeant and the master chief petty officer of each ship were supposed to keep a logbook of stations, ports of call, and planetary facilities. In this legendary “black book” were listed all of the bordellos, pubs, stimshops, cheap restaurants, and resorts in each locale. By some means – tossing a knife, casting patolli beans, taking a tlachco shot – these venues were divided between Fleet and Marine on a ship by ship basis. Should an unwary crewman wander into a den of his own Marines, he would be politely shown the door. If a crewman from another ship entered, however, then all bets were off. Inter-ship rivalries were strong in the Fleet and those reflecting disputes among the Seven Hundred families often became violent.
For herself, Kōsho usually took the duty watch aboard ship when they made port call. Occasionally, if the Cornuelle were in Anáhuac orbit, she would take a shuttle down to visit relatives or even her family. Lately, as years had passed, she’d found civilian conversation less and less interesting. Sometimes she missed obasan Suchiru, but the old woman had many more concerns than entertaining one of twenty-three riotous granddaughters. Kōsho reminded herself to send a t-relay letter to her parents. A dutiful daughter, even one in Fleet, could do that much.
Susan reached the far side of the boat bay and slung the loops of baling wire into the hands of a waiting engineer’s mate. The man grinned in relief, giving her a sketchy salute.
“Ah, thank you, ma’am! We can finish this one up now.” The engineer passed out the rolls of wire to his mates. Engineer Second Yoyontzin had managed to avoid taking charge of the drone modification project himself, which did not bother Kōsho at all. She knew exactly what to do and how long it would take. The four technicians she’d commandeered were all veteran petty officers and as skilled with repair and modification as she was.
“Have you stripped the other two drones?” Kōsho scrambled up onto the steel cradle holding the Huehuetl-6B. The maintenance hatches on all three of the ten-meter-long, self-propelled countermeasures devices were wide open, showing cavernous interiors. Wiring racks and comp modules were stacked neatly beside each drone.
“Yes, ma’am.” Master engineer’s mate Helsdon climbed up beside her, his utility jumpsuit stained with oil and carbon soot from a cutting torch. His pockets were crammed with sensors, small tools and sections of patch conduit. “We’ve pulled all the ECM packages and their power-supplies. Brunt is running diagnostics on each one and packing them away.” The engineer scratched a clean-shaven chin. “We’ve labeled the racks and the pulled modules so we can mate them up again at top speed if we need to.”
“Good.” Kōsho peered into the empty cavity in drone one. “Stow the packs close by. I expect the captain will be missing his ECM shield soon enough and he’ll want us to revert these units immediately.”
“Aye, ma’am.” Helsdon’s eyes crinkled up in a smile. “They always do.”
Kōsho ignored the aside, fingering the edge of a newly installed fuel cell frame. “How long to load up the first of these cells?”
“Another couple hours.” The engineer clicked his teeth together. “The manual says we should be doing this changeover in a fleet repair depot by pulling the whole side of the drone off. Well, we don’t have the cranes for that, not in this space. So we’re rigging a sliding track inside the cargo space instead. Each cell will be winched in from above, then run back along the track.” Helsdon craned his head and pointed towards the back of the drone. “We’ve welded in one-way clamps so each cell locks into place once they go past the spacer. The cells have passthrough fuel feeds anyway, so we’ll chain them end to end.”
Susan frowned, thinking of six connections that could fail under maneuvering stress. “Will there be a leakage problem?”
Helsdon grimaced. “Maybe. Maybe not. The feeds are double-gasketed on each side and have a shutoff mechanism if they start to lose pressure too rapidly… but hydrogel is tricky stuff. Sometimes it’ll just sublimate and dissipate without triggering a flood alarm. Brunt’s used these cells before on groundside powerplants – he says they’re pretty tough – but I’m not sure they’ve been tested under combat acceleration stress.”
“They will be now.” Kōsho stood up, wiping a dust of metallic shavings from her hands. “Does the manual say what kind of fuel cells we should be replacing these packs with?”
“Sure. A single type 243-B module.” The engineer shrugged again. “But we don’t have any of those in stores.”
“Extra sealant around each cell, then. Wire them in tight.” Susan unsealed both her sleeve cuffs. She’d left her uniform jacket hanging in her cabin. The shirt’s silky oatmeal fabric was already stained with thin streaks of oil and grease from a tool-belt slung over her shoulder. “I’m going to tune up the remaining sensor packs. Chu-sa Hadeishi will want them to be as accurate as possible.”
“Of course, ma’am.” Helsdon pursed his lips, then ventured to say: “would you like some help with the calibration? That’s a lot of…”
Kōsho shook her head, giving the Englishman an icy stare. She turned away. “Time is wasting, engineer. See to the fuel cells.”
Helsdon stiffened to attention, the tips of his fingers making a sharp angle against bushy white eyebrows. “Aye, ma’am! Right away.”
A tone signaling the end of the watch sounded through the cavernous boat bay. Kōsho paused in mid-motion, her head cocked to one side. A drone side panel lay open before her, dozens of wires and leads snaking into the opening. One of the sensor modules was held gently between her fingertips – a brick of black metalized plastic with recessed openings for the telemetry leads, power and connections to the rebroadcast transmitter. Though the drones were run out on a monthly basis and given a stem-to-stern inspection before use on exercises, Susan was well aware the technicians rarely pulled the individual modules apart to test each connection.
Unless the ship were undergoing a complete refit, they would not extract each module from its titanium cradle and clean the connectors, then test and adjust each telemetry feed to make sure there was no interference, no drift, no flutter. Beyond the simple mechanical problems, the comp interfaces needed to be carefully examined to make sure removing the ECM modules did not break the sensor suite or introduce incorrect data. Susan found the process to be time consuming, though very calming. She could shut out the world and its distractions, fear, even a slowly percolating irritation with her chu-sa.
The Marines in the boat bay were making a great deal of noise as they prepared to depart.
Kōsho glanced over her shoulder, face composed, and was relieved to see the troopers had managed gather up their gear, repack their rucksacks, and kilt on their armor, weapons rigs and commo gear. The gunso were making sure the bay floor was policed and spotless. Kōsho nodded to herself, pleased with their efficiency. Susan had never found the detachment to be anything but professional, but she had been surprised before.
“Ma’am?” Helsdon was standing a respectful distance away. “We’ve finished installing the fuel cells. They’re doubly sealed and we’ve tested pressure in all the feed lines.”
Susan looked down at the mess of wires and modules sitting on a plastic sheet draped over her knees. “I’m not done,” she said, disappointed. If day-watch was complete, she would need to see to her usual duties in the after-watch and then – perhaps – get some sleep. “But this one is nearly finished.”
“We’ll just…” Helsdon paused, his leathery old face pinching tight as he saw the kinds of tools and diagnostic sensors the sho-sa had spread out around her. “Ma’am – are you hand calibrating all the sensor packs?”
“Yes,” Kōsho said, injecting a vast icy chill into the single word. “If you are done, clean up any mess, reseal the drones and prepare them to load back into the launch magazine. When I’m done here, I’ll seal the avionics compartments and let Weapons know they can be prepped for launch.”
The engineer nodded, then stood frozen, dithering whether he should say something or leave. Kōsho fixed him with a particularly glittering stare and raised one ink-dark eyebrow.
“Yes, engineer Helsdon? Is there something more?”
The petty officer gathered himself, swallowed and visibly stiffened. “Yes, ma’am. I’ve been rated master sensor tech for three tours… a hand calibration of these drones would go faster with two sets of hands working. Ma’am.”
Kōsho’s expression did not change, though the porcelain complexion might have become a tinge paler. After a lengthy pause, she looked down at the module in her hands and Helsdon heard a thin hiss of expelled breath. The sho-sa then replaced the component in the drone avionics bay with meticulous precision. She said nothing. Mortified by his own impertinence, the engineer slipped quietly away, leaving the exec working quietly amid her fan of tools, wire and diagnostic comps.
In the wasteland
A pair of glittering white contrails made two rule-straight lines against the velvety darkness of the Ephesian sky. Both Midges hummed along, wing surfaces finely tuned to squeeze as much lift as possible from the thin atmosphere, ice crystals spiraling out behind them. Starlight gleamed in the wing-struts and fairly blazed from the photocell layers on the upper wing of Hummingbird’s ultralight. In the Gagarin, Gretchen was letting the comp fly, her attention turned to the geologist’s travel logs. Their flight path had carried them out over a truly vast desolation, leaving the uplands of the Escarpment far behind. Russovsky’s notes indicated she’d passed this way three times. In the first two overflights, the geologist had kept to a northerly course, following rockier, rougher ground and skirting a thousand-kilometer wide sea of dunes, shining white gypsum flats and endless vistas of hard-packed dust. The third flight path struck directly across the dune sea. Gretchen chewed idly on a writing stylus, wondering why the geologist had changed her mind.
But, she thought, this last time it wasn’t Russovsky, was it? It was the copy. Which raised an interesting point – did the copy know more about the planet than the geologist did? Was it safe to cross the open plains? Anderssen guessed Russovsky had taken the slower northern route so she could find shelter among the hills if the weather turned bad. But… did the copy need to sleep? If not, then she – it – could drive straight on.
Gretchen looked over the maps one more time. Russovsky had marked them up with a variety of notes and scribbled amendments. Not all of them were in Náhuatl or even in Norman. Anderssen scowled, trying to make out a note marking an area they would fly over near dawn if they held their current course. What is this? Slavic Russian, maybe… She scratched her jaw thoughtfully, trying to remember how to read the blocky letters. Her grandmother had some books… thoughts of childhood yielded nothing but a memory of pine-smoke, nutmeg and pumpkin. Checking her comp found at least a phonetic alphabet.
“B-r-i-l-l-e-a-n-t,” she spelled out, rather laboriously. Russovsky’s handwriting was not the clearest in the world. “Or… brilliant. Hmm.” What does that mean? Well, something she saw from the air. Something very bright – perhaps even visible at night. “Hummingbird? Are you awake?”
“Yes,” came the answer – and the nauallis, for once, did not sound half-asleep.
“I’m looking at Russovsky’s maps,” Gretchen said, taking a moment to eyeball the horizon and the ground below. Sand. A barren flat covered with faint linear shadows. Anderssen grimaced, looking ahead. The field of pipeflowers disappeared rather abruptly into darkness. “And we’ve two options to reach the base camp. We can keep on this heading and enter an area she has marked ‘brilliant’ or swing north to follow a section of uplift.”
“An odd thing to mark,” Hummingbird replied. “Can I see the map?”
“It’s on your comp… now,” Gretchen said, tapping a glyph to send the file to his console.
There was momentary silence and then she heard the nauallis make a curious hmm-hmm sound. “This is in old script – Kievian Rus, I believe – and among those savages, the word ‘brilliant’ refers to ‘almaz’ or what we would term ‘diamond in the rough’.”
“Diamond?” Gretchen shook her head. “So a geometric figure on the ground? That would explain why she could see it from the air…”
“Not the shape,” Hummingbird said, sounding a little puzzled himself. “Almaz is a cheap, colorless gemstone. There are Mixtec mining colonies on Anáhuac which mine the mineral for industrial purposes. It makes a particularly fine abrasive for certain processes.”
“Hmm. If it’s a mineral, perhaps Russovsky could see an open drift of the material as she flew overhead. Or… or her geodetic sensors revealed a vein of the stuff in the earth. She’d be sure to note something like that.”
“Indeed.” Hummingbird sounded satisfied. “So, do we swing north or not?”
“I think we should be careful,” Gretchen said, checking her fuel gauges. “A day won’t make an enormous difference one way or another and there’s no sense risking…”
Out of the corner of her eye, Anderssen caught sight of Hummingbird’s Midge suddenly lurch in the air and lose a hundred meters of altitude. At the same moment, her comp squawked in alarm and she heard the nauallis shout in surprise.
“I’ve lost an engine,” he barked, the ultralight falling away towards the desert floor in an ungainly spiral. “Number one has shut down completely… I’m losing fuel on tanks four and five.”
“Set down,” Gretchen snapped, the Gagarin banking sharply to the right as she reacted. “I’m right behind you. Shut all your fuel feeds and go to an unpowered glide.”
“Understood.” Hummingbird’s voice was calm and precise, though Anderssen immediately lost visual sight of the plunging aircraft. The contrail ended abruptly in a slowly falling cloud of ice. The Gagarin nosed over into a steep dive, wind shrieking under her wings, and Gretchen felt the pit of her stomach squeeze tight.
Her radar showed Hummingbird’s Midge lose nearly a thousand meters of altitude before staggering into a kind of glide. By that time, Gretchen was swooping down out of the night sky, the falling ultralight in sight again. The upper wing of a Midge made a good reflector and by starlight her goggles could pick him out. Below them both, however, the land was dark and featureless, though Gretchen doubted the ground was soft as a pillow… At least we’re past the pipeflowers!
“Switch your radar to ground-scan,” she said tersely. “You’ll need to find someplace flat…”
“Too late,” Hummingbird snapped and his breath was harsh on the comm. Gretchen cursed – the altimeter spun wildly down and the radar revealed a broad, deep canyon rushing past below her – and pulled up, turning wide around Hummingbird, whose aircraft was skidding across the crown of a mesa-like hill rising above the canyon floor. The Gagarin made a swooping, leisurely circle as the other ultralight bounced to a halt and Gretchen could see rough, jagged cliffs on every side.
The mesa and canyon were formed of some dark, featureless aggregate. In the dim starlight, Anderssen had trouble picking out any details. Hummingbird’s Midge was a pale ghost, perched atop a mountain barely discernable from the night sky. Gretchen dialed up her wing lights, making another pass over the mesa. There seemed to be room enough to land…
“Turn all your lights on,” she said, hoping Hummingbird hadn’t been knocked unconscious by the violence of his landing. “And put out your anchors.”
Her breath puffing white in the chill air of the cockpit, Gretchen ignored everything but the radar image of the rock and stone and precipices below as she lined up to land. “Gently now,” she whispered to the Gagarin as the ultralight drifted down out of the sky, airspeed dipping low, almost into a stall. “Easy… easy…”
The front wheel touched down, sending a shock through the airframe, and then the Gagarin was rolling to a halt a dozen meters from Hummingbird.
“The number four fuel pump is clogged up,” Gretchen said, her voice muffled by the cowling around the engine. White fog billowed around her shoulders, oozing from the maintenance hatch in thin streamers. “Looks like a line cracked when you crashed and has been leaking hydrogen vapor into the casing. Everything’s frozen solid.” A little shaky from too much adrenaline and too little rest, she climbed down from the upper wing, holding tight to the wing struts to keep from slipping.
“Can it be fixed?” Hummingbird was unloading gear from the cargo compartment. He made a vague gesture at the dark, still night hiding the rugged mesa and canyon beyond. “Here?”
Gretchen gave him a sharpish look – completely lost on the man, given the lack of light – and ran her hands over the tools on her belt. “If we have a schematic of the engine and component details, I might be able to fabricate a new fuel line or fix the old one… but I don’t know if the maintenance manuals are loaded into either comp.” Gretchen tried to keep her voice light, but the prospect of doubling-up in one single remaining Midge made her feel sick. We need both aircraft for the pickup, she thought desperately. The skyhook won’t work with just one…
“If they’re not… we’re in serious trouble.” Anderssen cracked frost from her gloves, keeping her eyes away from the old man. “The weight ratio in one of these aircraft is marginal with one person and supplies… two can fit, but not with much food, water or equipment. We could probably make base camp, but I don’t know how long we’d last then.”
“Don’t worry.” Hummingbird’s tone was still perfectly even. “The Cornuelle will come looking for us soon and base camp is filled with Company supplies.”
“It was,” Gretchen said, picking her way across splintery, loose shale. There was a bitter edge to her voice. “You’re thinking everything is still in place because we left so quickly. Maybe it is… but I’ve never seen an abandoned camp last – and with the microbiota here – well, I think we’ll find bunkers filled with calcite flowers and beautiful stone cobwebs.”
“Well…” The nauallis seemed to have lost track of what he was going to say. “What can I do to help, then?”
Gretchen pulled open the door of the Gagarin and slid into her seat. The lumpy confines were starting to fit properly, but she didn’t know if that was because the chair had changed or she had. Biting her lip nervously, Anderssen started to punch up a document search.
“Anchor both aircraft,” she said, fighting to keep a rising tide of despair from overwhelming her. “And… and set up the tent. Find someplace out of the wind – we’re all… exposed up here…” Her voice trailed off in surprise.
Her search for ‘fuel line repair’ had returned an immediate hit and the comp had helpfully opened a series of v-panes on the display, showing a complete schematic of the fuel pump, the circulatory system on Hummingbird’s Midge, the specifics of the lines and tubes, and a checklist showing how to repair a broken one.
“What the…?” Gretchen was entirely nonplussed. “There is no way,” she said to herself, tabbing through the array of documents, “Russovsky shoehorned an AI into this comp. This is impossible. Just…” She blinked, staring at the checklist. The last entry read: Buy your beautiful, smart pack-sister a drink, when we get back to the den. Paw Paw, Magdalena.
“Maggie?” Gretchen stared around the deserted, windswept mesa-top in amazement. Outside, vapor was still boiling out of the damaged Midge and she could make out the outline of Hummingbird as he stomped around, stitching the anchors into the rock. A creepy shiver ran up her back, making her switch her comm to a private channel. “Can you hear me?”
There was no answer, just the usual warble of tuneless static.
“Ok… maybe dear Magdalena is psychic.” Gretchen read the checklist again. Everything seemed straightforward enough, except one part about checking all of the fuel lines for microfine cracks. “How are we going to do that?”
Anderssen pulled off her work goggles and checked the model number against an equipment database in the comp. Though there was an entry, nothing about the goggle specs indicated they could dial down far enough to resolve the level of detail mentioned in the checklist.
The Gagarin rocked gently as Hummingbird unspooled an anchor line. Gretchen started to sort through her tools, reading each section of the instructions as she worked.
“All done.” Hummingbird leaned against the Midge, one hand on the raised door. “I’ve put the tent in a crevice not too far away. Should be out of the wind.” He stopped, watching her suspiciously. “What is it?”
Gretchen was regarding him appraisingly. “So, Hummingbird-tzin, an unbroken fuel line has a certain … wholeness… doesn’t it? So someone with the sight should be able to see a crack or break or even a weakness – that would be a distortion of proper order, right?”
“Yes.” The visible parts of Hummigbird’s face became rather sour-looking. “They would.”
“Good.” Gretchen tapped the panel in front of her. “Here’s a layout of the entire fuel system in your Midge. You need to check every centimeter for leaks or fissures. I’m going to fabricate a replacement for the broken line.”
“Very well.” Hummingbird stared stoically at the complicated spiderweb filling the v-pane. “Are these data on my comp?”
Gretchen nodded, hanging one of the work-lamps from the edge of the door. The strong white light filled the cabin, giving everything a suffused color. “Make sure you have the hydrogen tanks locked off – we can’t afford to lose any more fuel.”
The old man nodded and turned away, disappearing outside the circle of light. Gretchen looked around the tiny cockpit and sighed. Too small. She gathered up all her tools and plugged her hand comp into the main panel to make a copy of the instructions. “Maybe the tent is big enough.”
A pale wash of violet was just beginning to tint the rim of the world when Gretchen climbed back up onto the Midge and unscrewed the engine housing. Hummingbird, wrapped in his cloak and a blanket, was squatting beside the main body of the aircraft, rubbing his hands together. Out in the open like this, without even the marginal shelter of an overhang or a cave, the night was ferociously cold. Gretchen had burned through another power cell just keeping her suit temperature at a nominal level while she worked. Luckily, the cells would recharge during the day. The air temperature was far sub-zero – enough to keep the frost clogging the fuel pump from sublimating.
“Pass me the other heater.” Gretchen wedged the tube-shaped unit in above the pump and turned it on high-radiate. The unit was low on power, but she hoped there was just enough juice left to melt the ice and run the forced-air fan to disperse the resulting fog. While the heater hummed and glowed and blew blessedly-hot air against her chest, Gretchen laid out her tools and parts on a technician’s clingpad.
“You were able to make a replacement?” Hummingbird moved up next to her, angling himself into the warm draft from the heater.
“Yes,” she said dryly, craning her head to peer inside the housing. “Modern science and technology triumph again. Did you check all the fuel lines?”
The nauallis nodded, arms wrapped tight around his chest. “Two show signs of damage. I marked them with colored tape. They’ve not cracked through.”
“Yet.” Gretchen brushed melting ice out of the way and began unscrewing the two valves holding the broken section of line. “We’ll wrap them in steeltape tomorrow…” She stifled a yawn. “Tomorrow afternoon we’ll press on and see if we can reach the camp in one long flight.”
“Very well.” Gretchen felt the old man shivering, even with his suit and the blankets and djellaba.
“Get in the tent,” she said, giving him a concerned look. “You’re losing too much body heat out here.”
For a moment, Anderssen thought he would refuse and some sharp words about pig-headed men were on the tip of her tongue, but he nodded and climbed stiffly down. He’s had a big day, she thought, watching him disappear in the direction of the tent. Almost crashed twice. Very lucky, these Judges, very lucky.
The broken section of line came free in her hands and she put the part aside. A little can of compressed air blew out the usual gunk fouling the valves. “Huh. Should talk to Delores and Parker about maintenance on this bird… needs a tuneup.”
Squinting, her goggles dialed up into a moderately high magnification, Gretchen eased the new line into the first valve. Her fingers were getting stiff from the cold, making things difficult. After the third failed attempt to line them up, she eased herself back and took a moment to warm her hands on the heater. Her eyes, back and shoulders were hurting from tension and cold and weariness. Got to loosen up, Gretchen thought, flexing her gloved fingers. Maybe I should empty my mind and count, she smiled a little at the memory of Hummingbird’s pedantic, measured voice. Her brow furrowed, considering the situation. Maybe I should… maybe I should try this with my eyes closed.
The tube felt cold and round beneath her fingers, only a few centimeters long, ending in two delicate valve stems and a counter-rotating jacket to fix the connection tight. Gretchen let her shoulders and arms settle, head stuffed into the engine housing again. She let herself count until the busy noise in her thoughts settled down and then faded away.
The warmth of the heater was almost hot on her left shoulder, but she shifted the tube gently until a familiar prickling heat suffused her fingertips. Trying not to lick her chapped lips nervously, Gretchen leaned forward slightly, letting the tube slide into proximity with the sleeve. Eyes still closed, working in complete, chill darkness, she slid the tube into the stem and finger-tightened the jacket, first on one side, then on the other. A moment later – it seemed like only seconds – she opened her eyes and smiled slightly to see the tube in place. That was easy.
The Midge toolkit had a specialized microdriver, which torqued down the two connections to the proper, factory-approved tightness. Gretchen sighed in relief when she was done and closed up the compartment with trembling fingers. A wave of complete exhaustion had crept up upon her and now dragged at every muscle in her body.
“Dawn soon,” she muttered, climbing very stiffly down from the wing. The tools and the portable heater were slung over her shoulder, making what felt like an enormous, bone-crushing weight. “At least the tent will be nice and warm.”
But the tent was too hot and the ground too hard. Hummingbird was snoring again, and she couldn’t take the heep-snort-heep sound of his breathing. After laying in the sleepsack for an hour, too tired to remove her breather mask or even brush her teeth, Gretchen crawled out of the tent and into the mind-numbing cold again.
She climbed back up to the ultralights and made a desultory circuit, checking their tiedowns and anchors. The old Méxica had done a fine job, each cable taut and balanced. The cargo compartments were latched down, the cockpit doors closed, the engines asleep, even the comps in hibernation. Irritated, Gretchen walked to the edge of the mesa, stepping carefully among weathered, wind-blasted slabs and boulders.
The canyon below was entirely, impenetrably dark. Anderssen considered pitching a glowbean over the edge, just to see what might be revealed in the flickering blue-green light as the bean fell. The thought of wasting a resource held her back. The stars gleamed on her goggles, very bright and steady. The air had chilled to a supernal level of stillness, much as it did during the polar winter on Old Mars. Good place for a telescope, she thought, beginning to walk along the rim of the mesa, her back to the eastern sky. But is there anything to see out here?
Ephesus sat at the edge of one of the abyssal gulfs running through the spiral arm. There were few nearby suns, only clouds of dust, dark matter and interstellar gas. A lonely outpost on the verge of nothingness, hundreds of light years from another habitable world. Gretchen wondered, as she climbed a rough, rectangular outcropping, if the long-dead inhabitants had ever managed to pierce the envelope of air around their home world. Had satellites or orbital stations seen the valkar burst from the nothingness of hyperspace? Had anyone tried to escape? Or were the Ephesians still grubbing in the mud, trying to trap their dinner in woven nets or pit-traps when the sky darkened with the killing cloud? A million years… Earth was still a raw, primitive world. Only megafauna and proto-hominids fighting to survive in Pliocene swamps. Did we escape a similar fate by some quirk of chance?
The thought made her feel despondent. Her heart did not easily agree with the prospect of a universe where man only lived and thrived by the fall of some random cosmic die. Gretchen realized Hummingbird’s vision of a universe of frightful powers – of gods – offered a strange kind of comfort. He believes men can alter the course of fate. He believes he can divert the engines of chance. Huh.
Beyond the outcropping was a deep ravine or crevice split in the face of the mesa. Gretchen halted and began moving to her left. The chasm was far too wide to jump. I should head back… she started to remind herself, but then ...what’s that? A light?
Anderssen stopped and knelt down, peering over the edge into the darkness. There was a light. There were many lights, spreading in a delicate cobweb across the rock, making the ravine gleam and glitter like the stars above, a hidden galaxy of jeweled-colors and shining motes.
Like moss, a firemoss, she thought, lips quirking in a smile. Life blooming from nothing. Even here, at the edge of annihilation. Gretchen concentrated on the nearest filaments and was rewarded by a vision of delicate tendrils radiating out from a cone-shaped core. The surface seemed to glisten, though she doubted there was any kind of moisture in this system. A superconducting energy trap, maybe? I wish Sinclair and Tuchachevsky were here… they would love this. Ha! They’ll be jealous when I tell them about all the things I’ve seen. God, I even miss that tub-vodka of theirs…
A sound interrupted her delight. Gretchen looked up, surprised. A cloaked figure knelt a few meters away, silhouetted by a wash of stars, djellaba and kaffiyeh wrapped expertly around narrow shoulders. An instant of surprise was replaced by a certain sense of recognition.
“What are you?” Gretchen stood up slowly, hoping to leave the firemoss undisturbed. Flakes of rock spilled away from her gloves, falling among the thready clusters. “You’re not Russovsky, are you?”
“I am,” answered the dark outline. The voice was hoarse, rusty, as if long unused. The shape stood as well, long blond hair hanging loose around her shoulders. “What are you?”
“A human being,” Gretchen said, then stopped, horrified. Hummingbird wouldn’t want her to give anything away… “A visitor.”
“Am I a human being?” Russovsky came close and Gretchen could see her pale, lean face glowing with an inner light. Stunned, Gretchen realized she was seeing the pattern of a vibrant crystalline lattice seeping through the woman’s skin. “My memories are strange. I was flying, high above the world. I was walking under the sea, seeing the bones of the dead.”
“Yes… yes, you were. But you are not a human being now. You are an Ephesian… like the moss.”
Russovsky looked down at the colony, her bare, unprotected face perfectly still. “No. I am not. The hathol are an incurious people, content with their long slow lives. I am restless. I need something I do not have.”
“Everyone is restless,” Gretchen laughed softly, breath puffing white around her breather mask. “Perhaps you are human.”
“Are you content?” Russovsky moved closer and the light within her skin grew brighter. Her eyes shone like stars themselves. “Show me!”
Gretchen began to back away, feeling her way along the edge of the ravine. Something in the shape began to change and she felt the prickling of alarm. The voice continued to echo in her suit comm, but she realized there was no way Russovsky could make such a sound in the thin atmosphere, not without a comm link. She scrambled up and over the crest of the rocks. Russovsky had stopped and was staring up at her. Without waiting for the shape to do something, Gretchen scrambled away as fast as she dared, heading for the tent and Hummingbird.
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