By Eric Del Carlo
I KNOWT ABOUT CRASHED empires. I frommed one. Not galactic principality, not a star-faring military, but family. A crashed Clan. So I ’miserated with the Eon Ship junk Ez and I dirted up.
’Fit seemed stupid, it was. Junk wasn’t junk; ist valued. By the Ecclesiastic.
So me and Ez dug in the mauve ashy soil. Seek-pings ghosted deposits, making twenty or thirty out of one Eon Ship artifact. But I had Ez convinct I could dope the right spot. And I ist right some of the time, so ...
Poor goofy Ez. Sweet boy, Low-Planet local. Scav. Father my child, three months in my womb.
Green sun pressed our backs. I wanted to work topless, but it was cruel to Ez, having look at my firm sweaty breasts with his aboriginal mammarian hangups. I felt for him. Lovt him, maybe. We kissed once, and it was okay. Mean, was nice, tingly; more, nothing bad happent. We did it again, and his tongue darted out, and I flipped him and breakt a rib of his doing it.
Now I just talkt sexy to him and undresst when we alone together, and he toucht himself. He loved me certain, no maybe.
We spaded an hour, purple dirt flying. Excavator gear too heavy for our skimsailer, and we couldn’t afford ’quipment anyway. I didn’t mind. Travelt light and got into places serious scav outfits couldn’t. I didn’t mind much about our life, spite fromming a onetime megawealth Clan. I’d adjusted to Low-Planet ways.
But it still touched my heart when we findt an unimaginably ancient Eon Ship thingie.
Yern’t alone. That was the old saying, going all way back to Real Earth. You are not alone. And humans weren’t. The galaxy teemed with intelligent life, just not at the same time. Galactic civilizations kept missing each other, separated by minute epochs. Spark of life, evolution, space travel, empire, crash, extinction. Seemt a long time—all time in the universe—to a single species; but hardly counted on the big clock.
Humans did it small-scale, planetary clusters rising to power and then crashing due to war, famine, solar mishap. My Clan had been vastly powerful, but allied rivals undermined our economic position, bringt us down. We had to flee the estate world, splitting off into smaller and smaller groups, getting picked off. I ist with Dogsbody Drogan, not even a bodyguard left, family dead or lost, careening in a stealth shuttle.
Drogan died on impact on this Low-Planet. I walkt away, then crawlt, dying thirst. Ez found me in desert. Actually he findt the first people who found me, the ones tried to ’vade me. They couldn’t know I was jiggered, set for whirlwind-defense mode against invasion. Clan wantt no outside-blood babies. Even a starving rag, I had kept off rapists. Ez never tellt me how many I killed.
At twenty-six (in the R.E. years we all used) no one hast ever ’vaded me but Ez. It was a tricky biz. I wantt him to, but we had to fool my jiggering. Now I had child inside me, and I ist happy.
How longgo I landt here? Longnough for cotillion-bred Clan girl to think in Low-Planet pidge.
Ez and I were alternating spade strokes in the deep hole. Perfect rhythm. Even chance he would hit first ’fthere anything to hit down here. I ist anxious. I chose the hole site, and we were a long time dirting. My hard hands sang with strain. My muscled limbs acht.
Ez’s spade came down with a clang. He fallt down from the jolt but was grinning. “Jadesola!”
We uncovered it with our hands, gently, though you couldn’t do anything to hurt the thing ’fit wasn’t already decayed. The artifact was roundish, half meter across, a typical shape and size. Its surface ist puckered and stippled, markt in the peculiar way of Eon Ship stuff.
I sitt back on haunches a moment and gazed at it, really looking. The object had a faint but durable dignity. No saying what it was. What it ... had been. Some piece of the ancient crasht empire. The Eon Ship culture had covered a swath of the galaxy, same what humans were doing now. Artifacts buried on lots worlds. Pretty easy digging in this soil, though, spite how the junk scattered search signals.
Science folk researcht hell out of artifacts, but they knowt everything they were going to know by now, with lots secrets left. But items were valuable to the Ecclesiastic, which where we take this one.
Ez let me have my moment, aware I felt for the crashed Eon Ship empire in a personal way. I frommed something much bigger once too. Now we were both little pieces in same hole.
Digging had taken us down out of the green sun. We got planks and rollt the artifact up to where we’d left the seek-ping gear. The skimsailer dragt low, but we headed steady for the Post.
We tacked the mast’s snapping canvas. Desert flowt past, no sign other scavs. I grinned with Ez, liking motion, liking the feel of life inside me. Ez and I had a good life, by Low-Planet standards, which were my standards now. We laughed together. We wore each other’s clothes. He ist excited about being a father, and that didn’t just mean he was scared.
The carrying wind blew up a mauve haze, and out of it the Post came toward us.
There was no getting rich on a Low-Planet. Economic structure not built for it. Ez and I would never scav ourselves to wealth, but the Ecclesiastic paid decent and didn’t cheat. Ez was about born in skimsailer; didn’t think strange not to grow up in city or even village, which this world hardly hast anyway.
The Post ist for trading. We had a tarp over our artifact and an iffy rifle within reach, but no need skimming in flashing iron. People weren’t all outlaw.
We blew through the maze of tents and flashstand structures, recognizing faces and other skimsailers. Folk waved, called raucous greetings. I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of camaraderie, coarse and powerful and truer than anything I still remembert about austere loyalty within a Clan. These rough people—who were my people too, of course—shared in a general comradeship. They were surviving on a tough world, and they hadn’t lost their dignity or humanity.
Tears warmed my cheeks, even as I ist smiling. Ez startt ask what was wrong, but he’d sawt this more than once and knew more was to come. Hormonal. Like being jiggered again, a process I didn’t even remember. Messy emotions that felt like a different kind of defense. Reflex/strength augmentations kept any would-be impregnators from ’vading me; but the tears and sudden laughters and weird appetites felt like defense for baby, like preparing it for life’s most extreme feelings.
I couldn’t wait to meet that little life.
We stopped at the Ecclesiastic’s place. He sermoned once a week, and this wasn’t the day. People still hung around anyway. A wizard or holy person would probably always draw a crowd. I remembert the gold-threaded gowns of Clan thaumaturges, otherly figures who frightened and fascinated me.
Ez went to go inside, first giving me deep look meant to stand in for a kiss. I stood with our skimsailer, the back end pressing down against the grav-cushion. It would take Ez a little while to negotiate through the Ecclesiastic’s sycophantic circle, then begin process of reaching deal on our object.
The Post was its usual mild bustle. Scavs, merchants, mechanics, farmers, hunters. I ist hyper-aware of movement and voices all round me after so long just Ez and me and wide spaces. I jumpt a bit at sounds and motions, even though I liked these people in general.
But when figure in odd garb stepped up toward me, I didn’t see him coming. I jerkt back, my hand thinking about the rifle on the floor of the skimsailer.
The person was tall and robust-looking, a well-built male. I tried to figure what was strange about his clothing, which suitt desert conditions, then realized tunic, cloak and headcloth were what High-Planet types would wear to come to a world like this, so to blend in.
To his credit, though, the outfit lookt worn, like he’d been out on the purple plains some. All this wasn’t so important as what he might want from me.
“Say your name,” I told him in a hard croak. It was what was said when a stranger didn’t know ways or manners, when he might need a warning before gunplay happent. Others gathered round the front of the Ecclesiastic’s flashstand shanty stirrt at the possibility of a disagreement.
In a strong even voice he said, “Dr. Jinochi Keys.”
“What’s your doctorate in?”
My question visibly startled him. He recovert to say, “When I say doctor around here, people begin listing their ailments to me.” He paused again, this time his hardy features going blank in a way tickled some memory in me. His eyes dulled, then came back sharp. “I am a xenoarchaeologist. That’s—”
“I know what.”
A smile moved his lips with too much knowing. I felt a different kind of uncomfortable. He didn’t come any closer, but he lookt past at the loaded down skimsailer. “I don’t suppose I could take a look at what you’re bringing the local priest.”
He could have said local priest with a High-Planet contempt, but he didn’t. “Nothing for you to see, Doctor, even ’fI got anything.”
His expression made grudging peace with that. He nodded toward shanty. “I await an audience.”
Made sense; ist where local Eon Ship artifacts ended up. The Ecclesiastic used the objects on sermon day, calling them “holy relics.” That something made me feel contempt, despite my generally liking the Ecclesiastic.
I tellt him, “Good luck,” as a way of ending our conversation. But also because I meant it, maybe. Whatever Dr. Jinochi Keys was here for, I didn’t think it ist me. He returnt to the hanging around crowd, and did sort of blend in, though he looked healthier and stronger than anybody else.
I snuck him looks until Ez came back out with payment, and the Ecclesiastic’s followers collected the artifact.
It was time for my boyfriend and me to relax some.
I went for a bath, deep hot perfumed soak that left me limp. It would been the perfect time for Ez to see me naked—body chestnut-glowing, hair springy and shiny—but he always had cousins to see at the Post. We would meet at supper.
We had stowed the skimsailer, lowering the mast, locking up the hull. I wasn’t so jumpy now with people around. The luxurious bath had woke bygone muscle memory of thronged Clan functions, full of ritual movement and exasperating formality.
The green sun was down.
Even though this wasn’t the Ecclesiastic’s sermon day, I overheart plenty of Eon Ship talk. Whatever else, the faith united. Hunters, herders, farm folk. Anyone who wantt could believe the Eon Ship was coming back, delivering ... what, exactly? Salvation. Absolution. Transubstantiation.
Of course, anyone could also not believe. With or without deriding those who did.
I went to the Tavern, which ist the Post’s most permanent structure, an old cargo pod. If human civilization crasht completely, this would decay into dust like everything else we put on this Low-Planet. No artifacts for next great star-faring species to find. The Eon Ship empire had left better junk. More durable, anyway.
The Tavern was busier than the Post’s “streets.” I was early for supper with Ez, but I lookt to see if he ist even earlier. Nope. Mischief with his cousins always took longer than he figured.
A month or so back I tellt him I was okay with him having a girlfriend, a sex friend he could touch without worrying about another busted rib. I’d had him for my child; didn’t mind sharing. Ez got so upset he cried.
On my second visual pass over the converted cargo pod’s interior, a seated figure leapt figuratively out of the crowd. Somehow I’d missed him on first sweep; now my eyes fastened on him. He gazed back. And waved me over with a mannerly confident gesture.
It was okay to join him at his table, I told myself as I walked over. Even with people I knowt watching. Better them watching, in fact. It showed I had nothing to hide.
He rose and pullt out the opposite chair, archaic courtesy. Sitting, I tried not to feel like a soft clean Clan girl, even as the softening and cleansing of the bath helpt illusion along.
“Please. I’m Jinochi. I have food coming. Would you care to dine with me?”
“Eating with my boyfriend here soon.”
“A fortunate lad, I’m sure. How about a beverage? They have a few nonalcoholic ones, as no doubt you know. Tea? I’ll be right back.”
He fetched me a tall steaming glass. He smiled across the table.
“Why’d you think I wouldn’t want alcohol?” I askt.
“Did you realize I don’t even know your name?”
“Jadesola.” It wasn’t, of course, but it reminded me enough of my birth name.
“Well, Jadesola, I presumed you were avoiding alcohol.”
He blinked innocently. “You’re pregnant.”
No way. Not in these billowy clothes, not with me barely showing anyway.
He saw my incredulous expression. “My fathers were both midwives,” Jinochi said. “I was around pregnant women all of my boyhood. My mother was a metallurgical engineer.”
I sipped my tea. It was the Tavern’s best. I asked, “You’re frommed?”
He named the High-Planet, then tellt me about it, and I listened like it was all new. Almost no news made it to this world. He speakt so good I had to fight not to fall back into well-bred Clan locution.
“You get in see the Ecclesiastic?” I askt.
“Yes. Eventually. And briefly. Though he did let me glimpse a few of his ... holy objects.” He made a wry sound clearing his throat.
“What’d you think of them?”
“Spun silicate compound, with that elusive molecular matrix. Decomposition-resistant to a ridiculous degree. Just like the Eon Ship itself.”
I ist used to the Eon Ship being spoken of as a revered thing, mystical, magical. It felt strange to hear it in base, physical terms.
I couldn’t reveal who I uset to be, so I had to ask as a Low-Planet scav would. “Eon Ship so far away. Stuff in the ground here ghost-dances seek-pings, makes you see two dozen when there’s one and no clean reads. How does a xenoarchaeologist know about the Eon Ship in such detail?”
That disquieting knowing look touched his robust face again. Maybe I askt too smart-sounding. Maybe he knowt too much about me already. My Clan didn’t exist as an economic entity anymore. Killing every last vestige seemt picayune at this point, but someone might still want my death.
“The Eon Ship,” Jinochi pronounced, laying his hands flat on the table. And with those words I could see him lecturing, holding forth to learned types. This ist an intelligent man, proficient in his field. “It is the greatest artifact, the crown jewel. It has been studied—yes, from afar—for R.E. centuries. It does indeed resist probing in the manner of the remnants you find on this and many other worlds. But we have learned from the Eon Ship nonetheless. It is on a vast elliptical course as it continues to generate propulsive power. We have reverse-plotted its path. Everywhere it’s been that our own lesser starcraft can reach, we have found the detritus of its civilization.”
And it’s coming back round. I heard it in the Ecclesiastic’s booming voice.
What I said was, “Think anything alive on it?”
“Could be. It’s the size of a healthy protoplanet. But I share the doubts of others.”
“The doubts? The Eon Ship is deliberate. It’s steadfast to the point of monomania. It doesn’t correct for bodies in its way. It doesn’t send out probes. It’s not doing anything but traveling its mind-bogglingly long ellipse.”
The Ecclesiastic had never said specifically who or what ist on the huge ancient craft. Best kept vague, left to congregants’ riled up imaginations. Belief was a thriving industry on this Low-Planet.
“I’m not offending you with any of this.”
I sipped more of the good tea, realizing he’d said not askt. Did he know I wasn’t faithful because I scavved artifacts?
“Not offended,” I said. Then added in a blurt, “You interesting.”
Jinochi smiled differently this time, with warmth. Something tingled in me.
At that moment, one of the Tavern’s beleaguered staff bringt the doctor’s plate from the kitchen, and at same time Ez showed up.
I introduced, and Jinochi caught on right away. Warm smile went away, and he ist cordial. But Ez catcht something too and got pouty-aggressive, like a boy. Jinochi’s eyes went dull briefly, like they had with me, then he dismissed Ez, saying his food getting cold. I could kill both men given the proper triggering, but it was also obvious the rugged High-Planet xenoarchaeologist could pummel skinny Ez without much effort.
As I pusht my boyfriend away from the table, Jinochi looked up intently and whispered direct to me, “Of course, everything about the Eon Ship changed three months ago.”
The push turned into Ez pulling me protectively, my wide eyes staring back at Dr. Jinochi Keys as he digt into his plate of the Tavern’s finest fare.
With shaking hands, Ez undressed. I did the same while he lay on the bed in our rented tent. He surged into full arousal. I felt excitement too, but erratic and scattered like seek-pings going after an artifact.
I really gave it to him tonight. I danced naked. I talkt sexy as hell. I toucht my breasts. My jiggering didn’t care ’fI pleasured myself. It ist how I tricked it. That night months ago Ez lay before me too, but blankets covered most of him and dope knockt him out so I wouldn’t even sense his presence. Also he took something to keep him hard. That way he was like a tool, not a man, not a ’vader.
Now I had a child coming. Happiness.
Ez moaned and shuddered, my name on his lips. Then he slept.
I went out into night.
No shuttle had landed at the Post. I put up the mast, and the wind blowt our skimsailer out onto the plains. Ez had taught me skimsailing, but I almost never did it alone. I managed it and the search gear at same time. After half an hour the seek-pings came back, clear and strong.
His bay door ist open, light pouring out. No idiot, though; traps out for animals the hunters huntt. I avoided those as I halted, got out, and walkt toward his ship.
Jinochi lurched into view. He had a bottle in hand. He jerkt to a stop, turned his heel in the ashy mauve soil, and gazed at me. A grin twitched to life on his face.
“Jadesola. And alone. I’m delighted.”
“Don’t get ideas.”
“I shan’t. I like my neck in its unbroken condition, thank you.”
It was the pause, the dulled eyes. Cyber-visuals. Maybe a brain wired with analytics too. So many Clan support personnel were similarly amplified. His augmentation had let him perceive my augmentation, the defensive jiggering.
“How you managed to get pregnant out on this dust ball is some kind of miracle, no doubt.” He chuckled and drinkt from his bottle. I couldn’t have alcohol, but he apparently had no problem imbibing in front of me.
“Won’t be virgin birth,” I said.
That got real laugh from him, bent over slapping knee. He wiped windblown dirt from his eyes. “Come on inside, Jadesola. It’s much more comfortable. And no, you’re in no danger from me. I don’t know or care what Clan you once belonged to.” He turned again and swayed up the ramp.
I hesitated a moment, then followt. This was a High-Planet craft, with luxurious interior. Once, I had thought nothing of being ferried around in such style. Now I felt like a trespasser.
Even drunk, the doctor recognized my unease. “Please, do sit down. There. Relax, I implore you. There’s a food dispenser beside you. Please make use of it if you care to.” He sat opposite in the shuttle’s lounge area. The pilot cage was sealed behind him.
I got a small brick of meal from the dispenser, than after a pause added several more succulent items, as well as a brewed citrus beverage the like of which I hadn’t tasted since my own shuttle had crasht on this world.
“Tell me about the Eon Ship, please,” I finally said. “What happened to it three months ago.”
He lowered the bottle, swiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Your native patois is going in and out, I notice.”
“The Eon Ship, Jinochi.”
“Yes, my dear. Unlike every other memento of that past galactic civilization, this one remains active, even after an unthinkable amount of time since its supporting network collapsed. The Eon Ship powers on. Slowly—slooooowly—touring the graveyard of its once-populated worlds. It’s no wonder certain people worship it.”
The Ecclesiastic. And all the others who preached on this and many other harsh worlds. I had never been entirely convinct the Ecclesiastic genuinely believed in the beatific splendor he insisted the Eon Ship would deliver when it completed its circle and came back around to these clusters newly populated with humans. But congregants gave him money and goods to keep him sermonizing.
“The trick to religion,” Jinochi went on, plainly enjoying sound of his own voice, “is indefinite delay. Something miraculous is coming, but it ... must ... never ... come. Always anticipation. Never consummation. The Eon Ship will, effectively, in lifespan terms, never arrive. But it shall forever be impending. Perfect!”
I had been eating steadily, appetite woken, dormant high-end range of taste buds rioting at this encounter with rich half-forgotten flavors. In mid-chew, with eyes watering with pleasure, I had the revelation. I wasn’t wired with analytics, of course. No one in a Clan ist expectt to be a scientist.
Slowly I set aside the food tray. My gut tightened. “The Eon Ship,” I whispered, “... it’s moving faster.”
“You know, you really are a most attractive woman.”
“Not accelerating, exactly. It has always moved at light, even in its unimaginative plodding way. Rather, it is manufacturing a series a wormholes. And leaping forward. Toward us. Toward that part of its old empire which our species, currently enjoying alpha dog status in the galaxy, has settled.”
The information rolled through my mind, upending fixed ideas as it went. Yern’t alone. No, we weren’t.
A hundred questions to ask but only one mattert. “What happens when it gets here?” My voice sounded frail.
He started to shrug broadly, comically, but the humor died in him. He dropt his head into his hands and spoke through his fingers. “No one in the sciences or military knows. But the arrival is already causing damage. Panic. Revolts. Whole systems are in effective lockdown.”
“We haven’t heard anything here.”
“No,” he grunted. “I envy you your Low-Planet station. You can continue as normal ...” He left the sentence unfinished.
So I said, softly, “Until.” Still not finishing it but completing the thought.
My hand fell gently to below my navel, cupping the small precious roundness there. I waited until Jinochi raised his head again for a drink before I askt, “You here why?”
“Come now, Jadesola. Ask me properly.” He smiled the warm smile again.
“Why have you come to this world, Dr. Keys?”
“I only meant use correct grammar. I’m still Jinochi. I was ... dispatched. I drew a lonesome backwater. We were all dispatched. The Science Corps. We are to observe the Eon Ship artifacts.”
“To see what they do. If anything. Half the Corps believes they retain a latent power matrix. Half thinks they’re fascinating junk.”
“What do you believe?”
“I believe this shuttle can take me where I will. To worlds never touched by the previous galactic empire. And I believe you could accompany me, as I can provide a very decent life for both of us.” He said it in his confident manner, but I detected a vulnerability in him nevertheless. And a loneliness.
It touched something sympathetic in me, and tears welled into my eyes. I wondert how it would be to share a life with this accomplished handsome man, to speak in a well-bred manner again, to know comforts. Maybe he could even arrange to have my jiggering undone, so that we could truly experience one another.
How different a relationship it would be from the easy trifling laughter shared with Ez. Jinochi would never trade clothing with me. He would also never be the father of my child.
I realizt what tears meant; just hormonal misfire. I wiped my eyes angrily and standt.
“Jadesola ...” Panic sudden on his face. Like the panic gripping other worlds he mentiont. “Don’t leave me alone! You, I and that child—we could be safe. We could start again if humans are wiped out.”
The audacity of proposal ist stunning. He wasn’t nearly the man my boyfriend was.
“Do your job, Doctor. Watch artifacts.” I strode down the ramp.
I heard his reeling steps behind and almost hopt he’d grab me. Might be enough to set off my jiggered defenses.
But he let me go to the skimsailer. I ist back to the tent without Ez ever knowing I’d left.
First we makt sure rifle in working shape. Then we use all our money and credit to provision the skimsailer. We go out. Way out, where so rocky even mobile independent scavs didn’t bother.
Four months now since I got pregnant and since the Eon Ship came ... alive? On autopilot alert? Might not be any beings on board. But might. What most likely not is fancy picture the Ecclesiastic makes, the immense craft like a masted vessel, star winds billowing sails, bearing a crew of wise glorious creatures, a cargo of stunning wonder. Probably not that coming.
I exercise. I want stay healthy. Ez and I hunt, to stretch supplies. In my alone times I try to reach inside myself—to feel baby of course, but also to try to touch and harness my hyper-sensitive reflexes and micro-animated strength reserves. What ’fI could tap those abilities when I want, not when my precious Clan girl body fears ’vasion? I like be able to defend myself on my terms. Because my body doesn’t house just me anymore.
Sometimes I think I perceive the jiggering’s outlines, that I can follow the micro-thin tendrils. And at those times I imagine I can just start to pluck those tiny potent threads.
What happens when the Eon Ship reaches human space? We won’t know right away on this backwoods Low-Planet, not unless all the ancient artifacts come back to life to lay waste to the intruding species rudely populating so many worlds. Maybe the artifacts were built to survive when everything else decayt, eternal offspring of the Eon Ship. ’Magine stippled surfaces growing claws or gun barrels, going on rampages, like Jinochi seemt to be expecting. That would sure disrupt the Ecclesiastic on sermon day. But maybe the protoplanet-sized Eon Ship, even as it spits out wormholes and hastens toward us ... maybe it’s just a hunk of old junk.
But I don’t underestimate a mothership.
Eric Del Carlo has been published in “Asimov’s,” “Strange Horizons,” “Redstone Science Fiction,” “Shimmer,” and many other venues. His recent story for “Perihelion” in the 12-JUN-2015 issue was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize.