It always rained on Lorakast. Something about the orbital distance or screwy atmospheric modeling, they’d said in the preliminary report on the way here, but there had to be more to it than that. Years in the business had taught Rell that much. She watched the rain pattering and pinging off the thick window that separated her from death by hypoxia and wondered where they’d gone wrong. Interplanetary Resources Incorporated only sent upper-level inspectors like herself when something had gone wrong, so it was her first assumption. But the colonial governor wasn’t cooperating, and that made things tricky.
She’d been in situations like this before. There was the riot a couple years ago, where the Thevashi ambassador had thrown such a fit over IRI’s installation on Gasin b that only the threat of RSA navy support had called off what promised to be a slugfest in orbit between prospector escorts and a surprisingly large contingent of alien scouts and their human buddies. Rell could deal with aliens and had on plenty of occasions; it was her fellow humans for whom she couldn’t find an ounce of patience.
Nothing had gotten out of hand. The translators had done their job with consoling the vaguely ursine attackers that this wasn’t just a smash-and-grab operation by IRI, that the terraforming operations were proceeding on schedule to bring about a human-tolerable atmosphere and not just a Thevashi-intolerable one. By the end of the little scuffle, the aliens packed up and headed home, appeased but not for long. What bothered Rell the most was that some people out there still thought she was some kind of monster.
And for what? For accelerating nitrogen production on a cyanide-and-sulfur wasteland that not even a Josikan would look at twice? For pushing out a bunch of claim-jumpers like the Thevashi whose only dog in the colonization fight was getting there first, and not preserving natural habitats as they claimed? And natural habitats for what? The only things alive on Gasin b were extremophilic bacteria that were already found across half the system anyway. Let the xenobiologists—and yes, Rell would still call them that, no matter how often she was told it was wrong—take their samples and move on. It wasn’t like they were paving over Ryosh c, for heaven’s sake. Her boss might even balk at that one.
The door pinged softly behind her.
“What is it?” Rell asked.
“News from HQ,” answered a tinny voice.
“Well, get in here then.” A slight whooshing sound admitted her assistant, Arin. He was far too young for her, and that was saying something, either about IRI’s standards for new hires or how far her own ambition had taken her. She’d have to think about it later, after a few too many drinks and a blatant disregard for both of their duties the next morning. “What’ve you got?”
“It’s not good. Looks like we have friends coming in a few weeks out.”
“Yep. A whole fleet of ‘em.” It figured. They’d been blockading settlements all over the Rim Systems Alliance, all because the Colonial Council were a bunch of bleeding-heart pushovers. You’d think success at Gasin b would’ve stroked their egos enough to get them to intervene more often, but all it took was one bad election to put all the hawks out on the streets.
And now there was an enemy fleet inbound, with nothing but gas and dust between them and Rell. This never would’ve happened in HPEL space, she thought bitterly.
Arin’s silence afterward made her anxious.
“They say anything else?” Looking over at the young man, his fingers tapped at the side of the tablet they carried as if mimicking the raindrops. That made her feel worse.
“They’re… They’re armed. Big time. At least one Vanguard-class battlecruiser and a whole bunch of escorts.”
Her heart sank. How did the Thevashi get their hands on that kind of firepower? And what kind of person would just hand something like that over to a bunch of alien extremists, much less use it themselves? She wanted to grab someone by the collar and tear the answer out of them, but she knew Arin wouldn’t know and the governor’s staff would be just as useless.
“What’s the time stamp?”
“Three weeks ago, Earth Standard Time.”
Three weeks. That meant the fleet must’ve been spotted on the way out of Thevashi space or somewhere near there before the news was relayed on to Khorast. From there, regional reps for the Rim Systems Division would have to get together with corporate reps from Earth to decide what the company would do, then consult with RSA officials to settle on a cooperative course of action. It was clear now that that course of action was to just sit back and let it happen.
“So we’re already dead,” she said, with the same tone she’d use if she was pointing out that it was raining. “You don’t bring a battlecruiser this far out just to kindly ask us to move.”
Arin didn’t need to say anything to agree with her. Instead, he just sat down next to Rell on her bed and put the tablet next to him, fingers now tapping away at his right thigh. She wondered what his subconscious was trying to type out on there but figured it probably started with H and ended with ELP. That or it started with F and had the same number of letters. Either way, she was right there with him.
While everything else around them seemed to have changed with the news, the sky was still the same: rumpled, slate-gray clouds hung over the impermeable dome that would be required for human life here for at least the next seventy-five years. Or at least would’ve been required, until the Thevashi brought down whatever it was they had with them this time on top of their heads, possibly within the next few hours. Rell probably wouldn’t even be able to catch a glimpse of their drive flares in orbit before they did it.
The thought tore her mind in two directions at once. She’d always looked at death as some faraway thing for old people and soldiers, not climatologists. With it coming toward her now quite literally at the speed of light, the animal half of her brain wanted to slink away while the human half felt like some little guppy ensnared by a dangling light. She knew the light would kill her, but couldn’t she just take it in for a few more moments before those needle teeth snapped shut on her forever?
It was a tempting but unproductive thought, and Arin spoke again before she could take it any farther.
“I see why you do it,” he said, gesturing at the room with his hand. “Cut out all the noise and just have a room to yourself. I’d do it too if I made the big bucks like you.” It was true enough; she did make the big bucks, and taking calls from far-flung outposts and government officials was what attractive assistants were for. And it was also true that she liked it this way. No tablets, no net, just her and the problem at hand.
But there was more to it than just the silence that even Arin wouldn’t know about. No matter how silent it was outside, inside was always another story, especially here. All these conflicting reports, pushback from the governor, corporate directives left unchecked: they were all raindrops on the window and Rell had to pick which ones were seeded with something true or useful in the second between impact and rolling down the glass and into oblivion. Arin couldn’t know that, could he?
“Must be nice.”
“It can be,” she replied, then let out a deep breath. “I just figured I’d have a little more warning before I went, you know? Like ‘I’m sorry but the cancer’s inoperable and you have six months to live’ kind of warning, not some glorified telegram that came a few weeks too late to matter anymore. They could be in orbit right now, for all we know, just waiting to open up on us with a plasma lance. Makes me sick.”
“I don’t know. It kinda takes all the worry out of it. Like there’s no more sitting around and waiting for it to happen, because you know that it’ll get here soon enough.” Arin would be cheery about this, dammit. Or if not cheery, then accepting, even in the sort of way that didn’t even make room for the downsides. There were always downsides to everything—picking the chicken over the fish, taking one flight over another, rearranging entire planetary biospheres to accommodate human life unassisted by domes and pressure suits—and dying seemed like quite the thing to have its fair share of downsides.
But in a way, he was right. Rell said she’d wanted notice beforehand and she’d gotten it, albeit on someone else’s schedule than her own. But wasn’t that always how it was? The rogue planetesimal that took out your ship at a decent fraction of lightspeed didn’t call ahead and make a dinner reservation, it just kept on trucking until both of you were a rapidly expanding sphere of radiation in some Oort Cloud. Lightning bolts didn’t RSVP before they lit you up like a drive flare, and evidently Thevashi fleets that somehow managed to get their appendages on human ships didn’t either. They just happened to find you, these freak little gusts of wind, and pick up everything you tried so hard to hold on to.
Things like Arin, for some reason. Had she been given the pick of the litter back on Khorast, this fresh graduate with an easy smile and nut-brown skin would’ve been too talkative for her taste, almost like a ten year old who hadn’t figured out yet that there should be a funnel between your mouth and your brain. But take that same specimen fifty lightyears out and keep him bottled up with you for a few weeks at a time and he started looking pretty appealing, more so than he already did. Sure, it was disingenuous, even downright exploitative, but it’s what happened on these long-haul missions: you re-evaluated your standards, you hooked up, and then you separated once you got back home and only ran into each other awkwardly at the next company party.
The only difference now was that there wouldn’t be a next company party.
“I don’t even know what to say, really.”
“Shocker,” Rell said, letting a smirk touch her lips to balance out the sarcasm.
“Right? I mean, what do you say?”
“I’ve heard starship pilots who know they’re about to die don’t even bring it up, they just keep transmitting like everything’s normal. I don’t know if I could do that.”
“Well, you aren’t.” More evidence that Arin could snark with the best of them too, when he wanted to.
“Fair enough. But what the hell else are you supposed to talk about when you know the end’s on the way? Likes and dislikes? Favorite music? Last meal requests?”
“I just had some chips in the canteen.”
“See? That’s the kind of idiocy that people think about long before they anticipate they’ll actually bite the big one, but not now that the big one is imminent because it’s superfluous. Who gives a shit what you would’ve done if given a choice when the real deal’s this close?”
“It’s that or guess what it feels like to get vaporized by a plasma lance.” He had a point, as he occasionally did.
They would be guessing, since no one who’d ever gotten hit by one ever managed to send back a survey detailing whether they felt any of the heat transfer before it blasted them into subatomic particles, or whether they even had time for a last mental run-through of all their life’s traumas and regrets in the microsecond between ignition and impact. It was a hypothesis without data, and therefore a conclusion was out of the question. Rell filed it away for a later time which would get here when it got here. Just like the Thevashi fleet.
“So what do you want to talk about?”
“Well, hold on. It doesn’t work like that. You can’t just put me on the spot and expect me to get deep all of a sudden.”
“You must’ve been great on first dates.”
“I was, actually. They never wanted to talk.”
The rain continued outside as it had for the last Earth standard month, or what added up to forty-seven Lorakast days. That kind of orbital period would’ve played havoc with the seasons here if there were any, and the planet’s rotation was so close to being tidally locked that not even the day and night cycle made sense to her. It didn’t really matter where the system’s little yellow sun was in the sky, because no one on the ground would ever see it.
Oceans of cloud cut off all but the faintest shimmering light from anything on the surface, which kept itself at a balmy and nearly constant seventy degrees Celsius. Left to its own devices, the planet probably could’ve given birth to some fascinating life forms one day, assuming one had a billion or two years to just sit around and watch. Of course, those hypothetical animals of the immeasurable future might’ve stood a chance before someone here had managed to royally screw things up.
Rell suspected that this presently perpetual rain cycle had less to do with the atmosphere’s high ozone content, as the governor had offered, and more to do with overly eager cloud seeding by upjumped grad students looking to make a name for themselves with some imaginary Efficiency Department back on Khorast. If she’d gotten anything out of the last twenty years or so of hands-on work across a quarter of human space and half that in school, it was that you can’t rush a planet into doing anything. You could beg and plead and beat your fists on the table and pump out all the greenhouse gases you wanted, and the thing would still work according to its own schedule. That is, unless you pushed it too far.
Someone here had pushed Lorakast too far, and now it never stopped raining. Whoops.
Now it was her turn to break the silence if Arin wouldn’t.
“You ever done something you regret?” she asked.
“Something, someone… Sure have.” Rell looked up at him again when he didn’t say anything else, shocked that he would really attempt to call that an honest answer. “Am I supposed to go on?” She didn’t need to vocalize it for him to get the idea, and just cocked her head to the side instead.
“OK.” A big breath escaped him, shrugging those big shoulders down a full two inches. “I cheated on one of my last big business projects. Not the huge one that we spent the whole year working on, but one of the other ones that was still most of my grade.”
“Nope, I swear.” He raised his hand as if that would make a difference. “I copied everything and ran it through a scrambler to make sure it wouldn’t get caught by plagiarism software.”
“No, I mean that’s a stupid thing to regret. Anyone who says they didn’t cheat in college is lying. You mean you never broke someone’s nose when you were drunk or got back together with that one ex you swore was Lucifer in the flesh?” That brought a laugh bubbling to the surface.
“Can’t say I have. Why?” Rell wasn’t sure if she knew why. She knew she regretted things, and there were plenty of other things that many humans and aliens would tell her she should regret if she herself didn’t, but why think about it now? Was it really that hard to carry on when you knew you were going to die, or was she just bluffing herself earlier when she’d said the whole thing was superfluous?
“I’ll tell you one thing. It’s really a whole bunch of things but it all gets so rolled up in the job description that I can’t pull them apart anymore.” The little patterns her feet had shuffled into the short carpet below her bed suddenly became a lot more interesting, to the point where Arin had to remind her that she’d set herself up to confess.
“What is it?”
“The whole thing. Terraforming. Atmospheric modeling, greening, the salvage xenobiology that really only exists to appease a few consciences with fat bank accounts but that no one else in the company cares about. Sure, I get why the protesters care. But you know what? I don’t. Not one bit. Let the microorganisms adapt or die, because that’s all anything in this universe comes down to. We adapt or we die, and humanity isn’t going to die anytime soon. Not while we still have even the slightest chance of keeping ourselves going.”
“That wasn’t a regret. That was an excuse.”
“You think it’s an excuse because it didn’t come out all neat and pretty, like ‘I cheated on a test’. Boo hoo.”
“And you think my life was just perfect? That I never screwed up, while you’ve gotta carry your cross of genocide across a dozen planets all by your lonesome? Because that’s what it sounds like. Look at me, I’m a big climatologist, wiping out ecosystems but I don’t even care-”
Her fist connected with Arin’s jaw before she even had time to see how close it came to being a knockout blow. The next thing she knew, Rell was standing over him as he looked at her in a daze. Whatever was pulling at her to calm down before she went over the edge gave up, not wanting to be dragged over with her.
“Don’t you dare! You act like just because I can keep all this compartmentalized, it doesn’t mean that I don’t stay awake at night thinking about possibilities. That I don’t weigh the pros and cons, and sometimes fall back hard on the cons. I do, and I have done that for more nights than you’ve ever spent with me. More than you ever will, now.” Her left hand balled up almost as tightly as the right one, only with none of the bruising. “And it’s something I always thought I’d have to die alone with, because I figured no one else would want to hear me give a straight answer that had to take in all the quadrillions of lives that ended—even microscopic ones—so that I could get paid. But it’s not just about me, is it? Or a paycheck? Or any of that shit, OK? It’s about the species.”
“And you don’t think that’s presumptuous at all, do you?” Arin interjected, now sitting upright again and rubbing his jaw where an angry red blotch grew under a few days’ beard growth. “Taking all this on yourself, like you can just go to hell for your trouble as long as the species is safe?”
“Of course it is, but I don’t see anyone else jumping up to do it. Not when there are so many of our own kind chaining themselves to terraforming equipment or joining up with the Thevashi to burn us off these forsaken little rocks.” Adrenaline compelled her to go on, but her temper cooled a bit when she noticed that Arin wasn’t reciprocating. Only a bit.
“So what are you doing here if you think I’m the one making excuses or getting too messianic?”
“Getting paid, just like you. Wondering how I got into a business where I won’t live see the returns on my work, and that was before an exsen fleet was inbound.”
“It’s cute that you call them exsens, you know. Really. It makes them sound relatable, which is nice when shiploads of them are on their way to kill us both.”
“But they are relatable, that’s the thing. Just because they’re extraterrestrial doesn’t make them less sentient, less concerned about the same evolutionary forces that cause us to go rooting around on planets that by all accounts we should’ve left alone. Understanding them as something comparable to ourselves gives us a better picture. ‘Alien’ just puts up walls that don’t need to be there in the first place.”
“Don’t you see? That’s what terrifies me, that right there: how relatable they are. Because what do we do as humans that’s so special? We roll into some new place, put up a flag, and proceed to tear down everything that doesn’t resemble the comforts of home until this new place is unrecognizable, but that doesn’t matter because it’s home now. Hell, we do that to our own species, so what’s to stop us from doing it to another one? Or what’s to stop them from doing it to us one day?” Rell could feel the tears coming, like waiting on the rain back home, back on a planet where the weather wasn’t a mistake, but now wasn’t the time. Not yet.
“What happens when someone or group of someones out there decides that they’d do a better job with taking care of all these planets than we do and tries to push us aside? If we were still stuck on Earth, it wouldn’t even be an issue. One largish rock would solve the whole problem. But what can they do when we’re spread out on a hundred systems? Or a thousand? Or a million? And not just clinging desperately to some little metal domes, but really living full lives, out on the surface without suits or shielding? Sure, we might be less a species by then and more a group of a thousand species, or a million, or one for every planet we can touch, but at least we’ll stand a chance. At least we’ll mean something.”
Trying to stand up any longer may as well have been trying to stand in for Sisyphus. She plopped back onto the bed and then the tears came, messy and in one great, heaving sob. For once, Arin didn’t say any unnecessary words, but just waited until she was finished.
“This has got to be the least dignified way to go,” Rell said. “Blubbering about my feelings, punching people in the face… And I’m not even the worst off here. You had to watch.”
“I did more than that,” Arin replied with a chuckle. Now the typing hand was on her waist, and Rell had no intention of pushing it away. “I just don’t want to die angry. Not at you.” She turned to look at him with red-rimmed eyes, not caring anymore that there was probably a little snot mingling with the tears on her upper lip.
“So are you gonna do something about it or just sit there?”
Arin did something about it. And a few hours later, when not even frantic knocking at the door could wake them, the Thevashi fleet in high orbit opened fire.
They didn’t feel a thing.