by Stanley Schmidt
Art by Tomislav Tikulin
To the offworlders, he was “Bob,” but to himself he was “Longlooker.” But since this narrative has been adapted for folks like the offworlders, let’s stick with “Bob.”
On this day above all others, Bob hoped he could live up to his hard-earned “Longlooker.”
Hanging from a ceiling perch on the most exclusive balcony in Surfcrag (“Ottertown,” to the offworlders), he beamed with pride at his only son (called Bob Junior, since he had not yet earned his real name) perched on the edge of the balcony. Junior gazed out over the starlit sea crashing far below, his wings quivering slightly with anticipation. Not long before, Bob would have considered Junior’s position alarmingly precarious, but now he was ready for it.
Surrounding them on the balcony were a few of Junior’s best Zoey friends, both male flyers and female swimmers. One of the latter, Coppersmith, lay with her streamlined body and tail stretched out on the balcony railing near Junior, sometimes gently stroking his wings with her nose and foremost hands. Junior’s mother, whom the outworlders called Sylvie, was there too. Also his sister Goldie and several of the teachers who had guided his growth from his birth to this, his crowning moment at Surfcrag.
One by one they made their way to touch him and speak soft words of farewell and encouragement, some in Hetalk, some in Shetalk. Then they all drew back and fell silent.
Junior pivoted on the rail, his back momentarily to the sea and the world beyond, to sweep his eyes over them one last time. “I’ll be back,” he said. “But now . . .”
Wordlessly he turned back to the sea, and Bob spoke his one important line in the ceremony. “Lead me there, son. Make me proud.”
Then Junior leaned forward and released his grip on the rail. For a moment he fell toward the sea, but almost instantly swooped upward and flew strongly out over the waves. Bob followed, a respectful few seconds later, as the cheers of the assembled well-wishers faded behind them.
* * *
It feels so strange, Junior thought. For years he had anticipated this moment, imagining it as one of pure, unalloyed triumph and glory. In reality there was nothing pure or unalloyed about it. Instead he marveled at the rush of feelings pulling him in many directions. The glory and triumph were there; he had been to Bob’s lodge before, but on those flights Bob had led, and Junior followed at a respectful distance. He had gone as a guest, an outsider briefly visiting an alien land to which he was told he would “someday” belong, but knowing that in a few hours or days he would return to the familiar security of his female-run crèche in Surfcrag. Now “someday” had become now. Before this night was over, he would have to start thinking of Highcastle as home and trying to carve out a niche for himself in it.
Meanwhile, he must not let his mind wander. He forced himself to concentrate on the flight. He knew the way to Highcastle: out over the sea, with starlight glinting on its waves, then veering right toward the orange-glowing lighthouse tree that marked Point Peril, then up the left canyon at the base of the point. Two more turns up narrower and narrower gorges, then a steep climb to the head of the last one, with cliffs pressing ever closer in on both sides, till they converged in a dark opening at the very top. Scraggly trees wreathed the cave mouth, and anyone perched either in those or in the portal itself would have a far-flung view down the maze of canyons, with almost no risk of being noticed by anyone above or below.
Now Junior’s gaze was focused inward. Starlight and echoclicks guided him straight through the exact center of the door to a perfectly controlled landing on the floor beyond, leaving just enough room for Bob to land behind him.
Which he did, with a triumphant cry that echoed off the stone walls. Within moments, the big room filled with adults like Bob, all their eyes converging on Junior. “Welcome, Junior!” they chorused, and one, standing before the others and wearing gaudier ornaments, repeated it alone, in a voice as powerful as the others combined.
That kicked off another ceremony, welcoming him as the lodge’s newest resident and now, finally, one of them. The speechifying seemed to go on forever, filling Junior with pride and exhilaration—and awkward embarrassment, especially when he had to say a few words of gratitude, hope that he could be worthy, etc. Not only did the flowery oratory feel out of character, but after a life spent almost entirely among Shespeakers in the crèche, he doubted that his Hetalk was up to their standards.
But they seemed tolerant, even pleased by his efforts, and by the final burst of applause, his confidence and pride had almost pulled themselves back together. As the other residents dispersed into the tunnels radiating from the antechamber, he was beaming.
He hardly even noticed when one of the adult residents came up to Bob and said quietly, “I need to talk to you about the aliens.”
“Later,” Bob interrupted. “Maybe tomorrow. This is a special time for Junior and me. Don’t spoil it.”
* * *
The words rankled. It was almost dawn, but even though he and Junior were soon hanging in comfortable sleeping positions in an alcove off one of the tunnels, Bob didn’t sleep well; and he knew Junior didn’t either.
They made it fitfully through the day, and as the lodge began to come back to life at nightfall, Highguard again collared Bob in a moment of relative privacy. “I really need to talk to you about the aliens.”
Bob shrugged exasperated resignation. “If we must. Why me?”
“I think you know,” said Highguard. “You know more about them than any of the rest of us.” He paused slightly. “You may not know it, but some say you sold us out to them.”
“Yes, I do know that,” said Bob. It was one of the reasons he hadn’t been looking forward to this day as eagerly as he should have. “I don’t agree. I also know that some consider me a hero for helping to work out an arrangement for us to coexist peacefully with them.”
“They’re wrong,” Highguard said bluntly. “I speak for a good many friends who think your ‘peaceful coexistence’ is a huge mistake. It was pushed through in haste, and it’s not a long-term solution. We want to undo it before it’s too late. And we want your help.”
by Tom Jolly
Captain Jennifer Kelley still called it a burial even though the body was just getting ejected into space. Some of the crew had collected a variety of flowers from the plants growing everywhere on the Beagle-4 and placed them on Mary Cott’s chest before they wrapped her in a vented bag. There was no torpedo tube or fancy coffin involved. They just took the corpse to an airlock, manhandled it through in zero g and awkwardly pushed it out. Chief Scientist Anita Blackthorn heard one of the techs, Bob Lowenstein, talking about it earlier. “We’re just polluting space. You think just tossing out one body won’t make any difference, but it’s like beer cans. After a hundred years, you can’t walk down a road without stepping on a few.”
One of his friends laughed. Anita tried to ignore them and thought about this latest suicide, the corpse drifting slowly away from the ship, and the idea that she might be spending the rest of her life confined to an exploratory vessel with the likes of Bob. Mary Cott might have made the better choice, but now they were down by one biotech-engineer-cook, and Earth wasn’t about to provide them with another. What Bob said wasn’t true, anyway; they were coasting along at near light speed. When the body drifted outside their radiation shielding, interstellar gas, even as tenuous as it was, would start eating away at the corpse, turning it into a tiny gamma-ray source. In a year or two, there would be nothing to see.
“Haversham is taking it pretty hard,” Anita confided to the Captain. “He was working with her studying the slime. I think he and Mary were paired up.”
A sputtering squeak of a voice spoke on their comm, “The slime is listening.”
“Oh, sorry, Rosie,” Anita said. “I didn’t realize you were patched in. This has to be boring for you.” Rosie was a sub-body of sentient colonial bacteria removed from one of the moons of Rocinante in the Mu Arae system, where the ship’s crew just spent a year learning about the world-sized organism and bargaining with it for passage on their ship. They’d beamed some advanced materials engineering they’d learned from it back to Earth, though Earth would have to wait fifty years to receive the soliton packet from the Mu Arae system. God only knew whether it would still be useful to them by then.
But being in contact with any alien biology meant that they could never go home, despite Coleway’s Law about the inability for one alien ecosystem to infect and take over another. Most people classified the law as “a speculative hypothesis,” only valid until a catastrophic accident proved it wrong. Despite the evidence of contact with several bacteria-level alien ecosystems, nobody wanted the crew back home again, a decision made shortly after their first encounter.
“I don’t find this boring at all, Anita,” said Rosie. “I am just surprised you didn’t add Mary’s biomass to the existing organic supply for the ship. Why, I could have even . . .”
“Don’t say it, Rosie. Humans have strong taboos about eating each other,” Anita said.
“But she was . . .”
“Stop. It’s bad enough you slither around lapping up our dead skin cells like it’s a gourmet buffet.”
The comm officer, William Haversham, approached the captain in the viewing lounge from where they observed the burial. He looked pale and distraught, his attention torn between the space-burial and his comm pad. “Captain? We have a message from the Boden colony,” he said softly. The captain could hear the pain in his voice.
“Boden? They’re fifteen lights from here, aren’t they?” she said.
“It’ll wait a few minutes, then, Comm.” Or days, she thought. She leaned back in her seat, sighing, and watched Mary as her mummy-wrapped body tumbled slowly out of sight, finally becoming a winking white dot like a tiny pulsar lost against the background of stars. They really couldn’t afford to lose more people. They had to find a home, and then encourage other explorers to find them. Thirty people weren’t enough to start a new colony.
* * *
Zero g had been desirable for the burial, but the warp field ramped back up shortly thereafter, and the Beagle-4 continued toward the next unexplored star system on their manifest. Going from zero g to one g usually resulted in what the crew referred to as “the tomato catastrophe,” where many of the ripe tomatoes came off their vines, somehow evading the confines of their planters, pots, and hydroponic trays to end up splattered on the floor, or rolling around looking for a place to hide until they rotted. Apples were a minor hazard, too, but they didn’t make as much of a mess.
Over the years, a considerable fraction of the floor space and shelf space on the Beagle-4 had been dedicated to a wide variety of plants, even though they didn’t need them for food since they could synthesize everything from the recycler. But the captain felt the fresh food and greenery was good for morale, though the room with the sleep pods had been renamed “the graveyard” due to the number of flowering plants that ended up there. It was a nice environment in which to wake when you came out of a three-week sleep cycle, but the captain wished the morbid nickname hadn’t stuck.
She found Haversham cleaning up tomato guts from the nursery with a little help from Rosie. “So what’s the message from Boden?” the captain asked.
Haversham stood up and brushed himself off. “The colony’s space telescope has picked up some strange readings from a planet orbiting a star they’re calling Hermit,” Haversham said. “It’s less than ten lights from here.”
The captain raised her eyebrows. “Really? That’s pretty close. How come Earth didn’t see it a hundred years ago?”
“Just bad luck,” he said. “It was concealed from Earth’s view by another star. Earth never saw it, and the proper motion of the two stars kept them lined up. It wasn’t until Boden got their space telescope up and pointed toward the right patch of sky that anyone even noticed.”
“What’s so unusual about the planet?” she asked.
“What’s not? It seems to be almost as big as Earth based on transit dimming, and it’s orbiting fairly close to the G3 sun. But they see almost no solar wobble caused by the planet. They also detected organics and oxygen in the atmosphere. Based on the measurements, the planetary mass can’t be more than 10 percent of Earth mass, perhaps a lot less. Maybe it’s hollow?”
“You mean, like a spaceship?”