February 2015 cover art

Under a Blood-Red Sky

By Edward Ashton

The sail hangs limp, and the boat rocks gently from side to side as I try to get my fishhook shoved through a nightcrawler. The sun is high and hot in a clear blue sky, reflecting in sharp bright speckles off the lake. The worm is writhing, slipping through my fingers as I try to thread him onto the hook, and I’m just about ready to give up when a soft voice speaks in my ear.

“Sorry to interrupt, Jim. You’ve got clients.”

I squint up at the hills looming over the far shore. Asif is standing there, a tiny brown figure at the edge of the trees.

“Seriously?” I say. “Already? Didn’t we just do this?”

Asif walks toward me, down to the shore and out across the water. Space compresses in front of him and stretches out behind, so that in a half-dozen steps he stands on the surface of the lake beside me, bobbing gently with the swells. I roll my eyes and go back to my hook.

“It’s been longer than you think,” he says. “We need you topside in six hours, realtime.”

I have no idea what that means in subjective time by now, but it had better mean I’ve got time to haul in at least one more trout. The hook pops out through the side of the worm. I push him a little further down, and then thread it back in.

“They’re biologicals,” Asif says. “In case you were wondering. We’re not bothering with advocates for mechs anymore.”

“Good,” I say. “I’ve got no interest in wasting any more of my time on walking garbage cans. Do we have a language?”

He shrugs.

“We think so. We’ve been monitoring their comm since they showed up. We’ll upload what we’ve got.”

The worm’s as secure as he’s gonna get. I let him swing loose, draw back the rod, and cast.

~~~~~

I wake up in the tank, lungs full of fluid, head pounding like I’ve just come off of a three-day bender. Even after all these times, I have to fight the urge to panic as the fluid drains away. Finally, I settle onto the padded bottom. I cough convulsively as my face comes clear, then turn my head to the side and vomit up what feels like a gallon of goo. Asif’s voice speaks next to my ear.

“Get cleaned up and dressed,” he says. “We’ve made contact. They’ll be down in less than an hour.”

The coffin-lid swings open. I sit up, wipe the goo from my eyes and my face, then pull myself to my feet. The skin on my hands and arms is loose and wrinkled. Blue veins show through on the backs, and the wet, matted hair on my chest is white.

“Hey,” I say. “I’m old. What the hell, Asif?”

“You’re old,” he says. “What’s the question?”

I turn my hands over, and watch how the mottled skin slides over my knuckles as I flex my fingers.

“If I have to take a piss every twenty minutes, it’s not gonna make a good impression on our visitors.”

He laughs.

“Don’t worry. We gave you a wrinkly backside, but a first-rate prostate.”

“Ah. Thanks for that, anyway.”

“Don’t mention it. Forty-eight minutes to showtime. Get yourself ready to go.”

~~~~~

Eight minutes. I pace around the Visitor’s Center. The last time I was topside, the dome looked out onto a broad, grassy plain. Now, all I can see is an endless expanse of sand, pocked here and there by jumbled, ruddy rock. The sun is a fat, sickly red ball, twice the size it ought to be, halfway up in a pale pink sky.

“Hey, Asif?” I say. “How long has it been since I was up here?”

He hesitates.

“A little over a billion years, Jim. I told you it’s been longer than you thought.”

I take a minute to let that soak in.

“You’ll notice that the Visitor’s Center has an airlock now,” he says. “Atmospheric pressure outside is down to about 250 millibars, and O2 concentration is under five percent. You’ll need to wear a re-breather when you go out to meet them. Also, outside temps are right around zero at the moment, so you might want to put on a sweater.”

I glare up at the spy-eye at the dome’s peak.

“Got it,” I say. “Thanks, Mom.”

I walk over to the near wall, lean over the metal railing, and press my hands against the cold inner surface of the dome.

“Is there anything biological left out there?”

“Oh, sure. There’s a fair number of extremophile microorganisms still hanging around, and a bit of multicellular life in what’s left of the oceans. That’s definitely on its way out, though. Another million years or so, and it’ll be strictly bacteria. Ten million, and this planet will be as sterile as a mule.”

A dust devil forms out in the middle distance. It makes its lazy way across the landscape for a few dozen meters, wandering around a huge black boulder and pushing the sand around in little circles, then slowly frays and dissipates. That’s the first motion I’ve seen outside since I came out of the tank.

“Just a thought,” I say, “but doesn’t all of this,” I wave vaguely toward the dome, the rocks, the fat red sun and the UV-blasted sand, “call into question the motivation behind this whole exercise?”

He doesn’t hesitate this time, and his voice takes on a sharper tone.

“No, Jim, it doesn’t. What happens to the biosphere hasn’t been any concern of ours for a long, long time. We’re buried deep enough now that we’ll still be fine when the Earth’s orbit is inside the corona. We’ve got a lot of future left to defend.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I get that. But still…”

“I know. But they’re alive. Well you know what? I’m alive, Jim, and I bet you think you are too.”

And that’s true, of course. Cogito ergo sum, right?

If what he’s telling me is right, I’ve been alive for damn near five billion years.

~~~~~

The ionization trail from the visitors’ lander stretches twenty degrees across the sky to the north. I can’t actually see them yet, but a heads-up on the wall of the dome shows me where they’re just curling around for their approach, maybe a hundred klicks off.

“No gravitics, huh?” I ask as I watch their descent.

“Nope. No zero-point either, at least since we’ve been observing.”

If I had a glass of water handy, I’d do a spit-take.

“Wait,” I say. “What? How the hell did they get here?”

“Don’t know for sure, obviously, but they came into the system riding an antimatter torch.”

I can just make out the delta shape of the approaching lander now, coming in from the northeast.

“A torch? Seriously?”

“Yeah, seriously,” he says. “We’re not sure Big Eye caught the start of their deceleration, but the maximum blue shift we saw would have put them at about 0.3c. Best guess on trajectory is that they’re only coming from Epsilon Eridani, but still probably thirty-five years in transit. It’s not a big ship, either. Speculation is that these guys must be hibernators.”

An antimatter torch. Holy crap. Slow, expensive, and just as likely to blow you into tiny glowing bits as to get you where you want to go. We were playing around with them when I first joined the Choir Immortal — but then we discovered zero-point, and that was that. Credit for courage, but these guys are more of a threat to themselves than they are to us.

Their lander comes screaming in from the east, a lifting body moving at three hundred meters per second, descending on a twenty percent glide path. They wait until the last possible moment to fire fore and aft thrusters. A giant cloud of sand and dust rises up as they approach the dome. When it clears, the damn thing is sitting on its tail, no more than a hundred meters away, perched on three spindly-looking landing legs. I have to smile.

“These guys have style, huh?”

“I dunno. Trying a little hard, aren’t they?”

That’s a fair point, actually. I’d guess that maneuver was intended to impress the locals. They have no idea who they’re dealing with.

“Better gear up,” Asif says. “Time to go say hello.”

~~~~~

I’m just starting to feel the chill seeping through my thermals when a hole irises open on the underside of their lander. A rope dangles out, almost long enough to touch the ground three meters below. A few seconds after that, the first visitor starts down.

My first thought is spider, but that’s not right. These guys are radially symmetric, with six limbs projecting from a plump central body, each limb ending in a six-fingered hand. They come down the rope fast, in what looks like a barely controlled tumble. The first one down drops the last meter to land on all six hands, then scuttles out of the way to make room for the next.

“They’re wearing pressure suits,” I say. “Will they be able to breathe inside the dome?”

“Based on what’s come out when they vented their airlocks, we think so. We’ve actually adjusted the mix of gasses in the dome to accommodate them.”

When the third one is down, the rope snakes back up into the lander and the opening irises closed. They approach me slowly, walking on four splayed hands, with one on either side raised and spread wide. Their suits have a transparent helmet in the center, protecting a furry brown knob ringed with flat black eyes. The biggest is maybe a meter tall, and a little less than twice that wide from fingertip to fingertip.

Time to test the comm gear. I blink to engage the speaker at my throat.

“Welcome,” I say. “Please come inside, and make yourselves comfortable.”

A string of pops and whistles comes from the speaker. The visitors stand stock-still for a solid ten seconds, until I begin to wonder if their suits might not have audio pickups. Finally, though, one of them shuffles a half-step forward and whistles back at me. Translated text scrolls down the right side of my field of vision.

Greetings. We <untranslatable> your <untranslatable>. Please <untranslatable> now.

Okay, so that was less than helpful. I bow deeply, turn, and lead them back toward the dome.

~~~~~

As it turns out, we don’t have nearly enough of their language to do what we need to do. After they’ve cleared the airlock and popped their helmets, we spend four hours inside the dome playing word games. I show them things on the holo projector, and then listen to them chatter amongst themselves. All the while, of course, our language algorithms are analyzing everything, and constantly updating the software in my translator.

The visitors are curious and restless, paying attention for short stretches, then pacing the perimeter of the dome on the railing, sometimes walking on top, sometimes hanging underneath. I offer them water, but they politely decline. When it gets to the point where I’m only seeing <untranslatable> every hundred words or so, I decide that it’s time to get down to business.

“Gentlemen,” I say. “If you wouldn’t mind, there are some things we need to discuss now.”

They freeze again, just like they did when I first greeted them. I disengage the translator.

“Hey,” I say. “I think they’re whispering behind my back. Are you seeing any EM here?”

There’s a moment’s hesitation before Asif responds.

“Affirmative, Jim. Looks like they’re using point-to-point SWIR.”

“Can we eavesdrop?”

“Not at this time. Their beams are pretty tight, and there’s not much spillover.”

“Keep working on it, right?”

“Will do. Don’t think it really makes much difference, though. Do you?”

I scowl.

“Probably not, but let’s at least pretend we haven’t made up our minds yet, okay?”

They’ve started whistling again. One comes over and crouches down in front of me. The other two resume their slow crawl around the perimeter handrail. I blink back to the translator.

Question: You are not <untranslatable> here?

“Sorry,” I say. “Can you repeat with different words?”

You came here from elsewhere. You are not <native?> to this planet?

I shake my head.

“No, I’m native. I was born here. I’ve never been off-planet.”

The two on the railing stop crawling. It’s probably easier for them to target their comm units if they’re not moving.

You require life-support.

“Well…”

“Jim?” Asif breaks in. “You’re supposed to be asking the questions, right?”

Right.

“Gentlemen, I need some information from you before we can proceed. Why have you come here?”

You require life-support. You are not native.

“Please answer my question,” I say, hoping the translator doesn’t project annoyance. “Why have you come to this system?”

Please explain why you require life support.

“Persistent little bastards, aren’t they?” Asif says. “Maybe they’ll trade an answer for an answer.”

Fine. I take a deep breath in, and let it out slowly.

“This planet was not always as it is now,” I say. “I did not require life-support when I was born.”

There’s a moment of silence while they confer.

This was very long ago?

“It was.”

Then you are <untranslatable>?

“Please repeat, with different words.”

You are not-dead-but-not-alive?

I glance up at the spy-eye, but Asif has nothing to say.

“No,” I say. “I am alive. I have been alive for a very long time.”

They stand frozen for a long five seconds.

This body is new, yes?

“It is.”

We know your kind. You are not alive.

The ones on the railing are moving again. Apparently they don’t need to confer anymore. For some reason, this makes me uneasy.

“I’ve answered your questions,” I say. “Now you must answer mine. Why have you come here?”

There’s a long moment of silence, and I’m about to repeat myself when one of the crawlers on the railing speaks.

We are <untranslatable>. We have come here to examine, and to decide.

I don’t like the sound of that.

“Decide?” I say. “Decide what?”

How many are you?

“What have you come to decide?”

How many are you? How many not-dead-but-not-alive?

“An answer for an answer,” Asif says. “Seems like they’ve got some rules of etiquette here.”

“Fine,” I say. “How many are we by now?”

“Seventeen, Jim.”

I let that hang for a moment.

“Seventeen million? Seventeen thousand?”

“No, Jim. Seventeen.”

Seventeen. The Choir Immortal numbered in the millions the last time I asked that question.

Over a billion years ago.

I disengage the translator.

“I don’t remember a billion years,” I say.

“Can we focus on the job at hand?”

“No,” I say. “We can’t. I don’t remember a billion years, Asif.”

“Yeah, well. Simulating your day at the lake over and over again draws a lot of power, Jim — power we don’t have, now that the trans-uranics are almost completely gone. We’ve slowed everybody’s clocks down over the years.”

“Slowed down. How much?”

“1:1000 subjective to realtime, at the moment.”

I need a minute to think about that.

“That’s still a million years subjective since my last time topside,” I say finally. “If you’d asked, I would have said it was a couple of months.”

“You’ve been repeating virtually the exact same experiences, day after day, for damn near four billion years, Jim. You stopped recording new memories a long time ago.”

The visitors are whistling at me. I blink back to the translator.

Please cycle the <airlock?>. We have learned enough.

“No,” I say. “I haven’t learned enough. What have you decided?”

They’re already halfway to the airlock, helmets dogged, but they freeze in place to confer. After a few seconds, one of them lifts its helmet back.

We have decided that this planet is dead.

“I could have told you that,” I say. “Hell, you could have seen that from orbit.”

We have decided to make it live.

It dogs its helmet again. Apparently, this conversation is over.

~~~~~

Their lander lifts straight up in a swirl of sand and dust, then accelerates hard to the northeast. The sun is directly overhead now, a fat festering pustule in the center of a blood-red sky.

“This one seems pretty clear-cut,” Asif says. “I didn’t like the tone of that conversation at all. Any objections?”

I rub my face with both hands. I’d like to object. I’d like to say that the continued existence of seventeen ghosts, buried in the mantle of a dead planet, re-living the best days of their lives over and over again ad infinitum, isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit — let alone the lives of God knows how many furry starfish.

But I don’t. I just shake my head and say, “No, Asif. No objections.”

A thin beam of shimmering light lances up from the north. It pins the retreating lander, turns it into a white-hot fireball, bright enough to cause the dome to darken. A half-second later, another beam, then two, then three leap straight up toward the mother ship, a black dot sliding across the face of the bloated sun.

“They’re running for it,” Asif says. “Boosting out at … twenty-five gees.”

“Zero-point?”

“Affirmative. We have contact…”

A new star appears, just east of the sun, accelerating hard enough that I can see it even from here. It grows brighter and brighter…

“How are they still alive?” Asif mutters.

Two more beams rise up from the south to join the others. The star flares, and the dome goes black. It stays that way for ten seconds, then twenty. When it slowly clears again, the star is sinking toward the horizon, still glowing brighter than the sun.

“Are we done here?” I ask.

“We are.”

“Five beams?”

“Yeah, and all five batteries are drained. Do you have any idea how many anti-protons those bastards just absorbed? That’s twenty thousand years worth of power dropping below the horizon over there. We’re gonna need to slow down the clocks again.”

I draw a deep breath, then let it out slowly.

“We could have let them go.”

Asif gives me a moment of incredulous silence before replying.

“Are you kidding me, Jim? They had a zero-point drive — a fact which they went to a huge amount of trouble to hide from us — not to mention whatever tech let them absorb damn near our entire energy budget before exploding. These guys came here loaded for bear. They were not wide-eyed seekers of knowledge.”

And he’s right, of course. This was the eighth time someone has stumbled into our system over the last four billion years, and the eighth time that we’ve taken them out. And I get it. Honest to God, I do. If they can accelerate a starship close to c, they can accelerate a projectile close to c. A few thousand kilos moving at that speed is enough to crack a planet, and there’s not a hell of a lot you can do about it, because the light that tells you that your extinction is on its way gets there ten seconds before the projectile does. We can’t let them live. We can’t, because they know all of this as well as we do, which means they can’t let us live.

I look out over the red desert. A black cloud is coming up over the horizon, far off to the north.

“They said they knew our kind,” I say. “You think they’ve done this before?”

“I’d guess so. Probably not with the exploding part, though. Probably not with folks who’ve been in this game as long as we have.”

That’s almost certainly true. I’d be surprised if there’s anyone out there who’s lasted half as long as we have at this point. The galaxy is a dangerous place.

“Any chance they got a call out?”

“None. Big Eye made sure of that. There hasn’t been a whisper of EM leaving this system since they crossed Neptune’s orbit.”

Fair enough. I take one last look around. I have a strong premonition that this will be my last time topside.

I won’t be missing much.

I walk back into the central office, crack the tank, take off my clothes, and lie down inside.

“Get me out of here,” I say. “I’ve got fish to catch.”

~~~~~

I’m running for shore, a light breeze filling my sail, three fat lake trout in my cooler, when I see Asif standing on the beach. Maggie’s there beside him, completely motionless, a blank smile frozen on her face.

Something is very wrong.

I pull up the dagger board twenty meters out, then hop into the water and pull the boat up onto the sand when I feel the keel touch bottom. The motion of the water stops dead as soon as I’m out of it.

“Asif,” I say. “What’s going on?”

Maggie still hasn’t moved.

“Hey, Jim,” he says. “Were they biting today?”

“They’re biting every day, Asif. You know this. What’s wrong with Maggie?”

“We don’t have the cycles to maintain her as a full-interactive right now, Jim. We’ll get her moving again when I’m gone.”

“What are you talking about, Asif?” I take two steps forward, and poke my finger into his chest. “You need to conserve power, do it somewhere else. I want my wife back.”

He takes a half-step back and glares up at me.

“It’s not about power, Jim. It’s about clock cycles. We’re running at better than 1,000,000:1 right now.”

I open my mouth, then shut it again.

“You mean 1:1,000,000, right?”

“No, Jim. That’s why I’m here. We’ve got a bit of a problem. Remember our furry starfish friends?”

My stomach drops.

“They got a call out?”

He shakes his head.

“No, we don’t think so. There hasn’t been enough time for a response yet, even if they had. More likely they had this set up as a dead-man switch — something they set moving before they came in-system, that they could have diverted if they decided we weren’t worth whacking.”

“How big, and how fast?”

“Mass is unknown exactly, but it’s big. Probably twenty million kilos at a minimum. Speed is 0.95c.”

I stare at him. He gives me a half-apologetic smile.

“It’s gonna hit us dead-center,” he says. “Best estimate is that it’ll punch through the planet like a bullet through a rotten apple.”

I’m not sure what to say to that. After a few seconds, Asif claps me on the shoulder.

“Oh, cheer up. There’s some good news. There’s a reasonable chance that this thing’s gonna dump enough energy into the system to shake the core loose, liquify the mantle, and re-start plate tectonics. Come back in a few million years, and this planet might have a magnetic field, maybe even a real atmosphere again.”

I sit down heavily in the sand and look out over the lake. A wave is rolling in, frozen in mid-swell.

“How much time do we have?”

Asif sits down beside me.

“Realtime? A little less than eight seconds.”

I laugh.

“Eight seconds?”

“Yeah,” Asif says. “That’s why we cranked up the clock. No sense in saving power now, right?”

“No, I guess not.”

He puts his arm around my shoulder.

“Don’t worry, Jim. You’ll get in plenty of fishing yet. And when the time comes, we just won’t re-instantiate you one morning.”

I turn my head to look at him.

“So I get to die in my sleep?”

He shrugs.

“Sure. That’s a good way to think about it.”

We sit together in silence, and watch the frozen lake. After a few minutes, Asif stirs, then stands. He offers me a hand up. I let him pull me to my feet.

“I’ve got to get back to Main,” he says. “Call me soon, though. I’ll bring Mandy down for a fish fry.”

“I’ll do that,” I say.

He winks, then disappears. The lake lurches back into motion. Maggie shakes her head, and her eyes focus on my face.

“Jim?” she says. “What happened? Weren’t you just out on the lake?”

“You must have been daydreaming,” I say. I lift the cooler out of the boat. “Good catch today. You up for cleaning some trout?”

She smiles.

“Aren’t I always?”

I drop the cooler and pull her close. Her arms wrap around me. I can feel her breath, soft in my ear.

“What a perfect day,” she whispers. “Tell me it’ll always be like this.”

I close my eyes tight. Her hair is warm from the sunlight and smelling of jasmine.

“It will,” I say. “I promise, Maggie, it will. Always and forever.”

~~~~~

~~~~~

Edward Ashton is the author of more than a dozen short stories, which have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, The Future Fire, and Escape Pod, among other places. You can find him online at smart-as-a-bee.tumblr.com.

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