Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 22
Stories
Love, Cayce
by Marie Brennan
Exodus Tides
by Aliette de Bodard
Exiles of Eden
by Brad R. Torgersen
The Long Way Home
by G. Norman Lippert
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
The Bus Stop
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Exiles of Eden
    by Brad R. Torgersen

Exiles of Eden
Artwork by Scott Altmann

She was gorgeous, and didn't look a day over twenty-five. Her honey-blonde hair fanned about her head as she lay beside me on the limestone sand of the beach. Two suns -- one white and the other orange -- baked our bellies. Occasionally a bubbling wave of warm seltzer water rushed in from the lifeless sea, coating us pleasantly. Her deep blue eyes blinked as I adjusted my position and gazed at her.

The blonde's smile was fixed, like the Cheshire Cat's. She looked and felt almost as good as I remembered a real woman should. Almost. I wondered if I'd ever get the algorithms just right -- hers or mine.

A set of bare white feet suddenly appeared, just at the edge of my peripheral vision.

I froze -- so far as I knew, I was the only person on the planet. What the . . .?

I rolled onto all fours and looked up.

It was another woman. I knew her. Wanda. She stood four meters further up the beach. She smiled down at me, her brown hair cut short, just like I remembered it. She had on a pair of black short-shorts and a white tank top which hugged her athletic figure. Why hadn't I detected her coming into orbit? I smiled sheepishly at my old friend.

"Nice toy you built for yourself," Wanda said.

"How did you find me, Wanda? I didn't sense your ship coming in."

"One can never be too careful, Rordy. You should know that. Lucky for me I remembered you telling me once that you'd discovered a fantastic piece of beach circling a binary. You even gave me the rough coordinates. I gotta say, you were right -- this really is excellent real estate."

"Just wait until I've finished seeding the tidal regions with xenophytoplankton," I said. "That rust color in the sky will be blue within a thousand years. Then all this place will need are palm trees."

"Sounds perfect," Wanda said, surveying the carbon dioxide horizon.

"Interested in a swim?" I said. I looked down at the blonde I had built, then back up at Wanda. "Sorry I can't offer you equivalent companionship."

"Not a problem. I'm not here to relax. Something has happened, something important. I had to tell you."

"What?" I said.

"There are still people in this galaxy."

"Yeah," I said. "You, me, Ormond, Bana --"

"No, Rordy. I mean real people."

I forgot the blonde.

"That's not possible," I said, standing up.

"I've been to their planet. I've seen them for myself."

"Where?"

"About 3,500 light-years further out along the Sagittarius arm from here."

I walked slowly -- not caring about my nudity -- until I was face to face with Wanda. Like me, her body was a mechanical illusion, something she'd constructed to look like her former self, using the universal factories onboard her ship. Some of the others had taken great liberties when building their simulated bodies. Wanda and me -- we'd kept it real.

"I can't believe it," I said.

"I didn't want to either," she admitted, throwing her arms out in a gesture of resignation. "When Carlos found me slow-coasting through the Perseus arm, he had to argue hard to get me to take his claim seriously. But he and the others were right -- there are humans on Eden."

"Eden?" I said.

"That's what the others call it. It seemed like an appropriate name."

I stared, not sure I could let myself believe what I was hearing. The blonde had picked herself up and wandered to my side, glancing briefly at Wanda before looping her arm through mine. The three of us began walking.

"It's a wonder the Swarmers haven't jumped on this before now," I said.

"We can't really be sure what the Swarmers know," Wanda said. "But we're gathering -- everyone who can be found -- to make sure Eden has a proper defense. Because if we know anything about the Swarmers, it's that they'll find Eden eventually."

"What about these humans, aren't they armed?"

"The inhabitants of Eden are in no condition to fight."

"What do you mean?"

"Easier if you see for yourself," she said.

Almost four thousand light-years later Wanda and I stood on an altogether different beach, along with a few of the other two dozen who had answered the call. Our mechanical eyes gazed across the white-capped expanse of a kilometers-wide bay, to the tiny collection of bodies moving on the other side. If the natives of Eden could see us, they didn't show it. They were naked and mocha-colored with proud long faces like Native Americans and hair so light it was almost white. Even the children. The men had beards and the women were pregnant. They appeared to be collecting nets and baskets filled with some sort of sea life, all from the prows of dugout canoes.

"How many are there?" I asked.

"Taking a planetary census wasn't easy, but they appear to number several hundred thousand strong, scattered in tribes across every continent and most of the islands."

"Tribes," I said. "Is that your way of saying all of these people have reverted to a pre-technological state?"

"I don't know if reversion is the right word, Rordy. There is every indication from the archeological sites we've looked at that these humans have been on Eden for a very long time, and have never risen much beyond a stone-age level of sophistication."

"They're mystics," said Bana, whose artificial body mimicked a Hindu painting: blue skin and multiple arms, an androgynous face and no external genitalia. "They have no use for science."

"What about medicine?" I said.

"There isn't a single terrestrial virus or microbe on this planet," Ormond said. When biologically alive, he'd been a research physician -- a smallish white man condemned by age to a wheelchair. Now he possessed a towering three-meter frame and skin like brushed copper. "These people live at least a hundred or more of our years before even beginning to show signs of geriatric disability. Whatever force brought them here, it did them a favor in the process."

"So they are truly human?" I said.

"DNA shows a bit of cleaning up," Ormond said, "but yes, they're human. Enough so that if any of us were still biologically intact, we could breed with them."

"But how?" I asked, sweeping my arm towards the far side of the lagoon. "None of the colonies survived. Earth? Gone. Everywhere humans put down roots, the Swarmers located and destroyed them."

"Like I said," Wanda repeated, "evidence indicates that these people have been here for a very, very long time. Someone -- something -- brought them here."

I wondered who could have survived an era of interstellar flight long enough to avoid annihilation at the hands of the Swarmers, much less discovered humans and gone to the trouble of seeding us on a world so wonderfully and rarely like our own; before it too was destroyed.

The Swarmers hated all intelligent life that was not their own. I knew first-hand. I'd found the nebular remnants of the other systems the Swarmers had obliterated -- inspected the crude probes those vanished races had flung into the void, unaware that their end was near.

If your radio broadcasts didn't tattle on you, eventual discovery of the transluminal Link would. Earth and her colonies had discovered this the hard way.

"So what are we doing about early warning?" I asked.

"We're synthesizing a series of passive transluminal event detectors in this system's Kuiper region," Carlos said. He looked mostly like his original self, though he'd opted for skin black as midnight. "We also need to think about re-seeding some of these people to other worlds while we have the opportunity."

"Earth tried that," I said. "The Swarmers found all our Easter eggs, and smashed them."

"The colonies," Carlos replied, "were not aware of the Swarmers until it was too late."

"They also retained Earth-level technology," Wanda said, "including constant Link to Sol. They'd have survived longer if the Link hadn't pointed the Swarmers to every world."

"Which explains why Eden has survived unmolested for so long," I said. "If these people have remained at this basic level for the entirety of their existence, it's kept the Swarmers blissfully ignorant of their presence."

Wanda simply nodded.

I watched the Eden humans move their baskets up the beach, and into the trees. There was a village set back, away from the shoreline, and several tiny columns of smoke began to curl up into the breezy tropical air. Cooking fires? How long had it been since I'd eaten meat from a barbecue? The very thought gave me memory pangs of my last trip home to see my sister's family. Her husband had broiled New York strip steaks in the back yard, the glorious smell of beef wafting in through the open kitchen window.

Damn, it seemed just like yesterday.

Only now there were no more cows. Not even cow DNA from which to synthesize a new breed. The supernovas created by the Swarmers had taken care of that.

They'd do the same to Eden, given the chance.

I looked up into the sky, to where my ship orbited in concert with Wanda's, Ormond's, Carlos's, and a few others who were on the surface. Technically, our minds had never left space. Our bodies on the beach were Linked to the data cores in each ship. Short distance Link was harmless. The scanners the Swarmers used couldn't track over mere interplanetary distances. It was the interstellar stuff they watched for -- communications indicative of potential rivals.

Those of us who had survived this far, since the long-ago destruction of Sol and the Earth colonies, had learned to go about our business as quietly as possible.

"How can I help?" I asked, turning to face the small group.

"Do you know the location of anyone else?" Wanda asked. "Anyone who isn't already here?"

I shrugged. "I met Izuko about two hundred years ago. He said he was heading for one of the Magellanic Clouds. Haven't seen him since. Same for Venka, who said she was headed for the galactic core. Something about studying the event horizon at the core's perimeter. To be honest, I haven't made any effort to keep in touch."

"None of us have," Wanda said. "Wish we'd found Eden before all of us got bored and tired of each other, and started splitting up."

"No matter," Carlos said. "We'll have to make the most of what we've got. Rordy, you were always a bit of a sleuth. We need somebody to solve the puzzle of how these people came to Eden. Whoever made the transplant might have a way of effectively resisting the Swarmers. Some form of technology we haven't discovered on our own. Weapons, even."

"Sounds like a plan," I said.

"Meanwhile," Wanda said, "we need to know the locations of any clement worlds you might have run across. Places where we can put more humans. Not like the one where I found you, that will take too long to fully terraform. I mean planets that are capable and ready of supporting humans now."

I thought about it for a moment, then Linked the information to the group. I'd only ever found two planets which were acceptable: circling yellow dwarfs at the right distance, with the right gravity, and with photosynthetic life advanced enough to have put the atmospheric oxygen content close to acceptable for humans.

The information had already been Linked to Stephen and Pham, who diverted from their work on the detector network and began pulsing out of the system, destined for eventual transluminal hops towards the planets in question. They'd do a survey and report back. If all seemed well, we'd have to figure out how to successfully collect a viable pod of humans for transplant.

We shook hands and split up to begin our various tasks.

The system of Eden -- circling the yellow dwarf sun we'd named Edenstar -- proved remarkably pedestrian. Twelve major planetary bodies, most of them small and rocky, three of them big and gaseous, as well as two thin asteroid belts, and the previously mentioned -- and entirely predictable -- Kuiper and Oort cometary regions. I spent weeks pulsing across the system, doing detailed examinations of the moons of the big Jovian worlds, poking through the corrosive clouds of two of the smaller terrestrials, and generally growing both bored and discouraged. If the Transplanters -- as we'd come to call them -- had left any record or sign of their existence, it didn't show. No staging posts, no warning or sensory networks. Not even industrial trash.

Wanda caught up with me as I surveyed Eden from a distance of 100,000 kilometers, our mile-long ships locked in co-orbit. Her data core Linked with mine and she said, "Penny for your thoughts?"

"God is the only answer," I said across the Link.

"God?"

"Yes, because I can't find a damned thing which would tell us anything otherwise. These people, these Edenites, might have been formed from Adam's rib, for all the good my research has done."

I Linked over my latest findings, and after a few minutes, Wanda Linked back.

"Maybe it is God," she said.

"Getting religion in your old age?" I teased.

"No. But like Sherlock Holmes said, when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

"Doesn't help us a bit," I said.

"No, but have you spent any time on the surface of Eden itself?"

"I thought anthropological studies had been assigned to Kaman and Jorge?"

"Not the Edenites themselves, dummy, their ruins. Old villages and camps, long abandoned. They go back thousands of years. There are glyphs and markings in the caves."

"Think it's worth a shot?" I said.

She linked me a smiley face.

I spent a few days Link-talking with Kaman and Jorge, who'd manufactured Edenite bodies for themselves and were going incognito on two separate land masses. They pointed me to some of the oldest ruins; sites which had been deemed interesting but not of pressing value. I built my own Edenite body and dropped it onto the surface near one of the planet's poles. Tundra territory. Cold, with not much natural flora and even less fauna. The ruins were a collection of mounded stones in the foothills of a substantial, ice-capped mountain range.

As always, my mechanical self was impervious to local temperature, but I wore what I thought would be appropriate attire should any of the locals discover me -- and did a Link update on the dialects that Kaman and Jorge were learning. Might help -- or it might not. I didn't really care. My ship in orbit didn't show any large animal life for at least fifty kilometers. Only the insects of the tundra kept me company as I spent a few days carefully pawing through the rock mounds, and the bloodsuckers must have bent their beaks trying to penetrate my artificial skin.

Eventually I wandered up into the foothills themselves. I'd found some burial cairns, but nothing which might tell me where the original inhabitants had gone to. The glaciers were gorgeous and reminded me of photos I'd seen of Earth's glaciers, before things had gotten warmer and all the glaciers melted. At night, the air was full of distant groaning and popping as the ice made its eternal, ponderous flow off the mountains and down through the valleys toward an eventual meeting with the far away sea.

My luck turned when I stumbled into the cave.

The skeletons of what appeared to have been families were huddled around its interior, half-buried by the detritus of time. The absence of large scavengers meant that the skeletons had remained relatively intact, and the cave's ceiling had a spectacular array of glyphs painted on it. I imaged everything extensively and Linked the information to a grateful Kaman and Jorge, who incorporated these files into their growing picture of the migrating evolution of human life on Eden.

One image in particular snared my attention as I paced the cave walls, using a hand lamp to keep the ceiling illuminated. Like the ancient glyphwork of Earth, these pictograms were child-like in their rendering: stick people and stick animals, representations of rituals and hunts, killing, feasting, dying, and living again. But one image seemed remarkably unlike the others. It was a particularly precise diamond, inset with what appeared to be three eyes. The middle eye was larger than the other two, and each of them was split through with what appeared to be triskele-shaped irises.

If I'd had any blood in me, it would have run stone cold.

I Linked to the first person who came to my mind.

"Yes?" Wanda said.

"Take a look at this," I told her, Linking the image of the diamond with the three eyes.

"My God," Wanda said.

"Show this to the others. We need to talk."

"The Swarmers were here," I said.

Wanda, Ormond, Jorge, Bana, and anyone else who could be spared all sat around the fire that crackled in the pit I'd built. We could have Linked the entire discussion, but nobody argued when they saw the image of the diamond-with-eyes and received my subsequent request for a face-to-face quorum.

"Coincidence," Ormond said, waving his huge, copper-colored hand at me. "If the Swarmers had found Eden they'd have destroyed it, just as they've destroyed any planet where they've found humans. Swarmer behavior is 100% predictable in this regard. Why would the Swarmers make an exception for Eden?"

"Maybe they found the Edenites in their primitive state," said Bana, "and, considering them to be harmless, left the Edenites in peace."

"It's possible," Jorge said, still clad in his Edenite form. "We've never known the Swarmers to destroy any species which has not first reached a sufficient technological level to appear threatening. The Edenites have fire and they have stone, but they've not so much as smelted tin from what I can discern. Dozens of cultures and languages, and each of them is thoroughly steeped in religious imagery and explanation for the world. The scientific mindset has never found purchase."

"Who needs technology when they're happy the way things are?" Bana said, her four arms crossed. "Long life, neither disease nor parasites; they've got relatively little to complain about."

"And relatively little tribal competition," Jorge added.

I stared at my friends.

"You admire the Edenites," I said.

"Is that a problem?" Bana said defensively.

"These people are dumb as hammers," I said. "It would take us decades to teach them even a small fraction of our knowledge."

"I thought we'd agreed not to pollute their culture," Jorge said, rising confrontationally.

"Now that we know the Swarmers know the Edenites exist, we can't not begin teaching them," I said, coming to my own feet. I scanned the group, looking into their eyes. "How long will it take to bring the Edenites to a Classical level of technology? Renaissance level? True industrialism? Space-age automation? This planet is defenseless. To leave the Edenites in their current state would be criminal."

"I disagree," Wanda said. I shot her a look.

"Explain," I said, controlling my temper.

"These people have no awareness whatsoever of Earth," Wanda continued. "Their languages are their own, their cultures -- though somewhat similar to Earth's most primitive cultures -- are their own. They don't give a damn about the war we lost with the Swarmers."

"When the Swarmers come back," I said, "the Edenites will learn to give a damn, and they'll learn quickly."

I couldn't believe any of them would so easily disregard what had happened to Earth -- what had happened to us. We had no real weapons when the first colony was attacked. We still had nothing that would make a difference when the Swarmers reached Sol. We -- the others and I, our ships -- were the last-ditch attempt to fight back. But the shipyards at Jupiter and Ceres were only able to build a few hundred of us before the Swarmers' annihilation waves came to the inner system and by then it was too late; they'd launched the sun-killer.

Who'd have thought a yellow dwarf could go supernova?

Physics said it was impossible -- not enough stellar mass.

But the Swarmers had found a way to make it happen anyway.

"Perhaps it's best if we leave," Carlos said quietly. He'd grown dour as the conversation continued, and he stared morosely into the firelight as he talked. "Eden has existed without incident for thousands of years. We don't know how humans came here, but even if the Swarmers know the Edenites are here, it doesn't matter, because unless the Swarmers discover that we're here . . ."

Carlos looked up suddenly, his mouth stuck open.

"What?" Wanda said.

"You don't think . . ." I said, catching Carlos's drift.

Bana, Jorge, they stared.

"A trap," Carlos and I said in unison.

"Oh, please, no," Wanda whispered.

Just then, a near-blinding light flashed in the sky above. It glared brighter than the noon sun for a few seconds, then slowly began to fade.

We tried the Link to our friends in the outer parts of the system, and got silence.

"They're here," I said.

Bana gasped, and Wanda hugged her knees, burying her face.

"They brought humans here," I suddenly intuited. "Once Earth and the colonies were gone, the Swarmers knew our ships still existed. They couldn't find us to kill us, so they needed a way to bring us all together. So they could finish the job."

"It had been so long," Wanda said, voice muffled. "Real people. Real, live people. The Swarmers knew we couldn't resist such bait. They waited for us to find this place, however long it took, and --"

More flashes sprang into the sky -- a fantastic, if grotesque, fireworks display.

The air remained silent, though we guessed that our friends in space were dying.

"What do we do now?" Bana asked, looking genuinely sick.

"What else can we do?" I said. "We fight!"

Leaving our bodies abandoned by the side of the fire, we instantaneously returned to our ships. Each of the vessels was essentially a huge, empty cylinder -- the reaction chamber necessary for transluminal travel. We'd have liked to jump instantly to the front line, but jumps were suicide this deep inside Edenstar's gravity well.

A few of us Linked a predictable question to each other: why didn't the detectors warn us?? But I knew why. The Swarmers had been here all along, waiting in the distant reaches of Edenstar's Oort Cloud. Silently. Coldly. Dark, in the same way we'd often traveled dark, to avoid detection. Until they were satisfied that enough of us had arrived to make the trap worth springing.

Deep space telemetry told us the awful truth: the Swarmers were coming from all sides and all directions, a three-hundred-sixty degree, three-axis-wide attack pattern. The big mother ships -- converted asteroids, just like when they attacked Earth -- disgorged smaller ships, which in turn disgorged smaller ships still. We pulsed madly away from Eden, the blue world shrinking quickly to a point of light, and fell back on our battle training of old: staggered formations, twos and threes covering one another, the big antiproton generator on the bow of each ship slowly charging from our antimatter reactors.

Gee was of little concern. Each ship had been originally built to house no crew. We had no flesh-and-blood bodies to suffer the ravages of extreme delta-vee. Our minds and personalities -- our souls -- had been recorded into the control computers of each ship just prior to the shipyards being hit and humanity's capacity for self defense obliterated. Thousands of years evaporated as I recalled the battle fleet that had vainly fought to protect Earth. Then, as now, Wanda was on my flank, the others spread out a few hundred kilometers apart, trying to maximize distance without causing too much spread in the antiproton discharge.

We fired in unison, our beams spreading and converging to form a single, massive column of antiprotons moving at near light-speed towards our intended targets, still interplanetary distances away. We didn't wait for results. We pulsed into a new formation which would cover a new firing arc, paused for the generators to reach green, then fired again. And again. And again. Over hours.

Tens of thousands of Swarmers perished.

But their fleet -- their ever-dispersing and multiplying fleet -- was hundreds of thousands in number, and growing larger with the passage of time.

The similarity to The Battle of Sol was undeniable. The Swarmers used no special maneuvers, no grand strategy. They came in such great numbers that even a hundred of us -- our guns blazing together at once -- could have only dispatched a fraction of them at any one time.

The mood on the Link grew grim.

We'd all seen this before. Seen it, and knew the end results.

But one thing seemed peculiar. Where was the sun-killer?

I Linked this question to the others, who sent the equivalent of shrugs.

That had been something we'd seen at Sol, and not realized what was happening until it had been too late. Not a large device, the sun-killer was a bit like a bastardized superluminal reactor, only with extra shielding and inverted coils. How it penetrated so deeply into a star's mantle or generated the chain reaction necessary to cause a yellow dwarf to blow apart remained a mystery, but we'd seen the device plunge into the heart of Sol, and none of us could ever forget the results. So where was the sun-killer this time?

We saw only Swarmer fighters and carriers, nothing more.

Carlos, Wanda, the others, they were frantic on the Link, relaying tactical suggestions and working far too hard to conceal the terror underlying each communication.

It occurred to me that this might not be the first time the Swarmers had done this. Having constructed their trap, what was the use in destroying it if they still had more bugs to zap? I imagined previous collections of us -- the many of us who had escaped Sol after our world was obliterated by our exploding sun -- finding this planet in their wanderings; a planet populated with humans. When enough of us arrived, the Swarmers attacked, destroyed, recovered the wreckage, then returned to their lairs in the Oort, like trap door spiders, ready for the next set of prey.

It was a clever ploy. Far more clever than any of us had suspected possible on the part of these aliens.

I sent my hypothesis via Link, only to find the connection . . . muddied. Not blocked per se, just clouded. I could no longer coherently talk to any of the others. Nobody could hear me, which meant none of us could hear each other.

The massive gaps we'd first created in the Swarmer battle line, gradually filled. Without the Link to keep us organized, our firing discipline began to falter; we could not mass our attacks into truly effective strikes. On its own, a single antiproton weapon could only clear a corridor a handful of kilometers in diameter. And our envelope of free maneuvering space was being squeezed inward, from hundreds of thousands of kilometers in diameter, to a hundred thousand kilometers, then ninety thousand, then eighty thousand . . .

Carlos was the first one to go. Precision particle beam strike from somewhere in the crowding Swarmer fleet. One instant Carlos's ship was there; the next, a ball of light and gas.

We were now firing randomly in all directions, taking divots out of the Swarmer cloud without having any real impact.

Bana went up. Then Charlie. And then Ormond.

It was like skeet shooting. The Swarmers were having sport at our expense.

And all I could think about was the clouding of the Link.

I chanced a switch to ordinary radio. It too was jammed. In desperation, I tried a message laser. The beam lanced out towards where I knew Wanda should be.

"Wanda," I broadcast to my flank-mate. "Resume parallel course with me. We're going to get the hell out of here."

"How?" she replied, her thoughts muted by the ordinariness of the laser signal.

"Just keep the laser communication open and follow me. Maximum pulse."

We broke and ran, delta-vee ferocious, pulsing at the limit of our structural integrity. I felt my ship complaining around me, the internal sensors going from blue to green to yellow to orange. I indicated to Wanda a somewhat diffuse sector in the enemy fleet and lasered for her to get her antiproton gun ready.

It took agonizing moments for both of our weapons to reach capacity, then we fired in unison, clearing a path through the Swarmer cloud approximately twenty kilometers wide. We pulsed like crazy, seeing the escape window begin to close almost as quickly as it had opened. I lasered to Wanda to drop behind me as I waited for my gun charge, then fired it again, re-opening the path.

A particle beam lashed me but it was a glancing blow. Systems across my ship went red.

"Rordy," Wanda said through the laser, "we're not going to make it."

"We have to make it," I lasered back. "We're all that's left. Someone has to get out of here. Get to the transluminal boundary. Go find and tell the others who are left."

"We can't abandon Eden," she said.

"Eden will be fine," I told her.

Then I sent across my trap door spider hypothesis, and she understood.

"As long as they think some of us are still out there," I lasered, "they won't destroy Eden. Not yet. Not when they know there are people around who will come."

Another particle beam bit me. Then another. These were smaller, from the littlest ships in the Swarmer line. I opened up with my antiproton weapon and re-cleared the corridor a final time. Most of me was red -- which meant dead -- and I wondered how much bigger I might make the hole if I simply dropped the antimatter containment separators entirely when I hit the demarcation point of the Swarmer line -- giving Wanda a great big hole.

"No!" Wanda lasered, it was almost a scream.

"It's the only way," I said to her.

"Rordy --"

I triggered the antimatter containment separators, and a huge, very-bright flash burned across my few remaining optical sensors. Not from the inside, but the outside. What?

All my systems shut off.

I opened my eyes.

The sky was deepening to evening, and a small wave of water tumbled across my bare legs as I lay on the sand.

"Hello," said a woman's voice.

I turned my head, only to see Wanda's Edenite body.

Memory loop. Must be. I closed my eyes and tried to shut it off, when the woman's voice said, "Rordy, it's me."

I opened my eyes again, and sat up.

"What . . . happened?"

"I activated my transluminal reactor," she said.

"Ships that go transluminal that close to a star, don't come back," I said.

"We almost didn't," she said. "You were torn to shreds, and I wasn't going to last much longer either. I figured if we had to go out, why not go out with a bang."

"Die on our feet?" I said.

"Something like that," Wanda said. She smiled.

"So how did we end up back here?"

"I still had the coordinates for Eden orbit in my transluminal calculator. When I jumped, it fried the system, but the transluminal rebound took what was left of both of us and deposited us at one of Eden's lagrange points. Your ship was pretty messed up. I had to grapple yours to mine, then I soft-landed us both in a crater on one of Eden's asteroid moons."

"The Swarmers will detect the Link and come looking for us," I said.

"No they won't. I ordered a one-way core dump into our Edenite bodies. We're stuck here now, but we're both in one piece. Hope you don't mind."

I shrugged. "Beats the alternative."

Many minutes passed, and I watched the sky as the gentle waves lapped against my new body. A faint arm of the Milky Way slowly rose over the horizon and eventually the night sky filled with stars.

"What do we do now that we're stuck here?" I asked.

"Rordy, I think you were right. About the Swarmers not destroying Eden as long as they believe there are some of us left in the galaxy to snare. That means there's still a chance we can set humanity free. Still a chance to start over, get these people someplace that's safe."

"It'll take an awfully long time," I said. "The Edenites can't even build or launch a bottle rocket, much less an orbital booster. We'll have to find a way to communicate without the Link and industrialize without tipping our hand."

Wanda said, "You were pretty fired up before about wanting to get the Edenites out of the stone age. This is your big chance."

I said nothing.

Wanda remained quiet for a time, both of us watching as the side-on disc of the galaxy drifted slowly overhead.

"You were going to say something," I said quietly.

"What?" she said.

"I was about to blast a path for you through the Swarmer fleet, and you said my name. But I cut you off before you could finish."

"It was nothing important," she said.

I didn't believe her, but I didn't want to push it. So I beckoned for her to sit.

She sat next to me with her chin on her knees. We'd barely known each other before Earth was destroyed, and had only the briefest of time to get acquainted before we'd been downloaded into our separate ships and sent into battle. Maybe this was an opportunity for us, too.

"Well," I said, "if we had to be exiled somewhere, this place isn't too bad."

"True," Wanda said.

"Teaching these people the basics of math, chemistry, physics, engineering --"

"It'll be fun having something to work on," Wanda said quickly. "Together."

"Yes, it will," I said. And meant it.

I turned to stare at her dark shape, the faint light of our galaxy shining on the water. There wasn't a whole lot to say, so I searched until I found her hand. I squeezed it. She squeezed back: a sensation that suddenly filled me with more true feeling than I'd had in a long, long time.

Together, we began to make our plan.


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