Shadoua arrived early at his home, just after midnight in the full planetless darkness Kutraya’s farside enjoyed, a darkness he was all too aware of on this night. Only a farside astronomer such as myself could have discovered this danger, he thought. Little comfort, but perhaps some small consolation.
Normally he wouldn’t be home until after Seyel’s brilliance caused the wise, eternal stars to hide behind the curtain of dawn. As he entered the sleeping chambers of their modest apartment near the observatory, he saw that his true-mate Alaria slept quietly. Her world is about to change, he thought. That’s true of everyone in the world, but for her the change will come before anyone else.
As he undressed, Shadoua admired the smooth rise of Alaria’s crest of bone at the top of her head, her chin which jutted forward at such a pleasing angle. As he slipped into bed with her, she stirred, momentarily startled, but calmed at his touch on her neck where her soft smooth green skin gave way to her beautiful tan fur. “You’re home early,” she said.
Shadoua embraced Alaria as she snuggled against him. In his excitement, his penis began to emerge from its protective sheath, but he willed his body not to enter reproductive mode, as he knew Alaria would, as well. “I couldn’t work anymore tonight.”
Alaria turned her face toward him. “You sound worried.”
Shadoua ran red-furred fingers across his true-mate’s pleasingly pointed ears. “I am.”
“Something I need to know about — ?”
“Something the whole world needs to know about. Especially since I’ve never loved you more.”
“And especially since you have a one-mate about to give birth.”
“Yes. That, as well. And I know you wish to have a one-mate soon, as well. So let me tell you.”
After he told her, he held her tightly with his upper arms even as his lower arms left their sheaths and caressed her as well, their strength kept in check as they could only be with the one he loved as they reached out for the only comfort they could provide one another, no matter how fleeting.
Raytier was having a light lunch in her commonage, which was devoted to the study of science, Kutraya’s capital of Arsek. She was still unused to working in such close proximity to others — as many as ten to fifteen other scientists in the admittedly broad and open area filled with spectrophotometers, mass spectrometers, odor analyzers, and with plenty of computers and display boards. I don’t know how farsiders manage it, she thought. This is bad enough, but to actually live in a city as they do — I don’t know whether I could stand it.
Even Arsek was a settlement of nearly a thousand nearsiders, much too densely packed for comfort as far as Raytier was concerned. But that’s part of the job, she thought.
A glance out a wide window that gave a live view of the gas giant Gisreth provided a bit of relief. Gisreth was an unmoving presence in the nearside sky, its wide, convoluted bands of methane and ammonia barely visible in the midday darkness. Kutrayan orbital missions were exploring the planet more closely, but their crews never discovered enough to satisfy her.
Raytier’s comm buzzed. Looking at the ID, she realized, It’s Shadoua. Must be something interesting. He usually doesn’t call in the middle of his work night. Though they’d met in person only at scientific conferences, Shadoua kept up a brisk phone and text correspondence with her on issues both astronomical and political.
Raytier punched the comm and her farside friend’s image appeared before her. “Shadoua, it’s so good to hear from you. But — are you at home?”
“Yes. I had to … tell Alaria first. Before I told anyone else what I’ve found.”
“It sounds serious.”
Shadoua said, “Two comets have collided out in the system. Their normal orbits have been altered. One will eventually strike Gisreth.”
“Which will absorb it as it does all the other comets it attracts. It’s a common enough sight. But — the other one?”
“You’ve guessed it. It’s actually going to pass us here on Kutraya once without any harm. But it’ll make a close pass around Gisreth, go into an elliptical orbit, and come back again.”
Raytier ran a white-furred hand across the top of her crest. She said, “And that’s when it’ll hit?”
Shadoua’s image stood with his hands folded in front of him and the tips of his ears dipped downward. “You know I’m not one to brag. But I also acknowledge my own skills. Yes, I’m sure.”
“And it’s big enough to do considerable damage?”
“We’d see major shock waves throughout the world’s crust. Tsunamis. Firestorms.”
“Could we destroy it while it’s still heading away from us?”
“Possibly. But the largest pieces would maintain their orbit and strike anyway. It might actually make matters worse, spread the destruction over a wider portion of the world.”
“So we have to divert it.”
“Which means quick work — I’d suggest developing several booster engines that use the comet’s own materials as fuel. If we can land them there and increase its speed, it’ll still loop around Gisreth, but on a path that misses us.”
Raytier said, “That’s my kind of work. I’ll need all the help you can give me figuring out the orbital mechanics.”
“I’ll come to your side of the world as quickly as I can. But you know the engineering and science won’t be the biggest challenges. Those will be in the World Council.”
“You’re being cynical, Shadoua. The future of the whole world’s at stake.”
“Both Alaria and I want children.”
“Your one-mate is about to give you a child.”
“Not if this comet strikes. And Alaria hasn’t yet found a one-mate. While my hope eventually is to find a two-mate and three-mate.”
“I’ve never been one for children, myself. True-mates have been enough for me. But I understand what this means to you.”
Shadoua said, “Even our most opportunistic politicians will eventually realize this isn’t a political issue — that they’ll have to work together if we’re going to survive.” But I know all too well, Shadoua thought, how political realities can hover over you, unspoken, unseen, then burst forth and take away everything you’ve worked for.
A day later, Shadoua gave Alaria a passionate embrace as he left their home. She told him, “Tell Trenori I hope I can find a one-mate and, later, a two-mate as dedicated as she is.”
“I will,” Shadoua said. Soon he arrived at Trenori’s commonage, a grouping of simple homes in which nearly a hundred Kutrayans specialized in caring for children. Trenori greeted him warmly, with a clasping of upper arms and a slight bow. Shadoua felt himself beaming with pride at the sight of her swelling belly.
“Come inside for a drink,” Trenori said.
“I can’t,” he told her, outlining the danger from the comet.
Trenori rubbed the back of her crest of bone, a nervous gesture. “What’ll happen if you can’t destroy that comet?”
“Unfortunately, that’s up to the Council.”
“I so want this child for you. And I know Alaria is eager for a one-mate as well.”
“She sends her best — and admires your dedication.”
A final handclasp, and Shadoua left Trenori and her commonage behind. He took the next flight to farside and accompanied Raytier to the Council. Seyel rose through clear skies toward its midday rendezvous with Gisreth, which stood in its accustomed place in the heavens half in shadow, half resplendent in crimson and golden bands. At least, Shadoua thought, the need for nearsiders to take their eclipse nap should keep the debate short.
The Council stood within a natural amphitheater overlooking the settlement of Arsek. Councilors mingled around, and Shadoua caught snatches of conversation, everything from gently prodding for political insights to compliments on one another’s fur. Nerves led him to brush a hand down one arm, then the other, making sure his own fur beneath his short sleeves was straight. This isn’t the time for wrong impressions, he thought.
Shadoua said to Raytier as they sat within the observers’ section, “You look tired.”
“Just adapting to the time change. I’m often up overnight anyway, but I’m used to being in darkness then.”
World Sovereign Farasor called for quiet and summarized Shadoua’s findings, as photos of the colliding comets were projected behind him.
Afterward, debate began and the amphitheater quickly reverberated with Councilors’ loud voices:
“If we delay, everyone in the world could die!”
“There are things more important than mere survival!”
“This is no better a theory than a multi-colored could come up with.” Hearing that last phrase, Shadoua made a mental note to touch up the color of his crest where a thin line insisted upon coming in white instead of red. Talk about wrong impressions, he thought.
The Councilors continued:
“How do we trust this Shadoua?”
“Our own Raytier vouches for his findings.”
“How can we spend such money based on images on a screen?”
Shadoua, his anger building, felt his lower arms stirring at his sides, felt his ripping teeth straining to expose themselves. Ancient drives made it difficult to suppress those urges, but he sat as calmly as he could, contenting himself with a low growl, otherwise resisting the temptation to go on all sixes and tackle his opponents. He watched the many speakers trying to take control of the main podium and asked Raytier, “Not a political issue?”
“You should acknowledge your worth as a political savant, as well.”
“What needs to be acknowledged is the legitimate danger to the world. And I didn’t come here to be insulted. Especially not to be compared to a multi-colored.”
Shadoua saw Raytier hesitate before she said, “I abhor their prejudices. And I’d hoped you didn’t share them.” Kutrayans whose fur was of more than one color were considered by many to be genetically inferior to the majority whose fur was of a single hue.
“I know the science doesn’t back up those kinds of feelings,” Shadoua said. “But people are comfortable around their own kind.”
Raytier looked pained. “Let’s not talk about that anymore. Those Councilors are looking toward next year’s election, not anything else.”
Shadoua said, “There won’t be an election next year if they don’t act.”
Sovereign Farasor turned his back on the Councilors and raised his arms toward the gas giant Gisreth, as if in supplication. Shadoua leaned toward Raytier and asked, “Is the Sovereign really paying homage to Gisreth?”
Raytier said, “He’s a true nearsider, no more a believer than I am. But he’s primarily a politician, and he needs the support of those who do believe.”
“By which you mean he’s appealing to farsider ignorance — to religion instead of science.”
Raytier indicated the many politicians vying for attention, who were only now drawing quiet at the sight of Sovereign Farasor’s silent appeal. “Look at the loudest of them, the ones appealing primarily to emotion, no matter what your evidence shows. Who are they?”
Shadoua’s ears stood straight up in exasperation. “I can’t deny they’re mostly from farside. But your nearside Sovereign is making an equally reprehensible appeal to cynicism.”
Sovereign Farasor turned toward the Council. “My friends. We may not agree on where to place our faith. For many of us, especially here on nearside, the scientific evidence alone is clear and sufficient. Others, including many of our farside friends, want a signal from Father Gisreth. After all, it is He who stands in our skies as a constant protector. It is He who provides us with our notions of morality and family.”
That’s literally true, Shadoua thought. But how many are aware that our notions of one-mates and two-mates and beyond derive from the need to maintain genetic diversity against the mutations Gisreth’s magnetic radiation causes?
Farasor pointed toward the observers’ section. “We have here possibly our top farside scientist,” he said. Shadoua was aware of becoming the focus of attention of everyone in the amphitheater.
Sovereign Farasor continued, “Imagine the signs — a scientist brings us the most precise scientific evidence of the danger ahead of us. Yet he is a farside scientist — one who also understands the stars, which are best seen on that side of our world. One who understands how they speak to us.”
The worst part, Shadoua thought, is that he may be right. Thoughts I believed I’d banned since childhood return at the most inopportune moments, when I need my objectivity more than ever. He could even look up toward the gas giant Gisreth and feel that it was peering down at him. Father Gisreth knows I’d never reveal a bit of that to Raytier.
Farasor turned his attention back toward the assembled Councilors, imploring them for their vote to provide the money Shadoua and Raytier needed for the space mission that would save the world. As he sat, a quieter debate began. The vote will come at any moment, Shadoua thought. Here is the turning point for our civilization — for our species.
Raytier told Shadoua, “I know what it took for you just to sit there quietly.”
“I wanted to stand up and shout that I’m not one of those stereotypical farsiders who worships the stars.”
“I know you’re not. But you understand them. And we have to work with them. We have to be better than them, and better than any of my nearsider colleagues, too. We have the facts. We know the consequences.”
“If we don’t succeed in this,” Shadoua said, “the entire world will know the consequences.”
Later that day, Raytier brought Shadoua into her workspace, shooed away several hovering colleagues, and blocked incoming calls on the comm. She served a hot herbal drink they both enjoyed as they stood at a large window overlooking the capital — apartment buildings that housed dozens of people at a time, the council amphitheater they’d just left, the more soothing sight of the wooded areas beyond.
The sun, Seyel, had disappeared behind Gisreth minutes earlier. The gas giant itself was a waning crescent that soon would be completely in shadow and bring the darkest part of the day here on nearside.
Raytier showed Shadoua a small telescope in one corner. “Like to do a little planet-gazing before we talk? It can be relaxing.”
“I won’t relax until those comets are past,” Shadoua said. “Besides, we should settle a few things quickly. I suppose you’ll want to take a nap soon.” Nearsiders were accustomed to intermittent sleep cycles, given the daily interlude of darkness during the daily eclipse and the bright face of Gisreth shining throughout the night.
“I can put it off until later,” Raytier said.
“Very well, then. First of all, I can’t believe we got the Councilors’ support.”
“We got their money. They can withdraw their support at any moment.” Just as you might withdraw your support from me, my friend, if you knew the secret I’ve kept from you all these years.
Shadoua ran a hand across the hidden line of white that would otherwise mar the tuft of red hair covering his crest. “All the more reason to hurry.”
“So, we should figure out how to save the world.”
“Given its trajectory,” Shadoua said, “We’ll have to catch up to the second comet on its first pass. Waiting for it to come around Gisreth will be too late.”
“Any spacecraft that does that will need its own boosters. I’ve seen your numbers — that comet will just miss reaching Gisreth’s escape velocity. All we’ve ever achieved is a close orbital velocity.”
“I can supply the hard numbers that will result in the rendezvous. That lets you get a grasp on the engineering.”
Raytier said, “The political fight isn’t over yet, either. But we can’t let ourselves get distracted.”
“The religious arguments against us are nonsensical. Their side won’t endure.”
“Don’t underestimate them. We’ve got to stay ahead of them in our planning. I’ve got other engineers at Arsek Spaceport already looking at a way to mount extra boosters onto an exploratory shuttle.”
“One was already scheduled to go?” Shadoua asked.
“There’s a mission already orbiting Gisreth. We keep a rescue flight ready in case of an emergency. I suppose it’s still a rescue flight — just for the whole world, now.”
“Which means the rescue flight itself won’t have a backup.”
“That’s right,” Raytier said. “But if they get in trouble, there won’t be a world worth returning to, anyway.”
Only days before the rescue mission was to launch, Shadoua was watching the mating of the giant booster rockets to the shuttle that would take part in the rescue mission. The craft was a standard exploratory cruiser, the Akhir, named after a great peacemaker of many years past. Raytier was supervising that effort, but when she saw him, she approached him and said, “I’d like you to be part of the crew aboard this shuttle.”
The fur on Shadoua’s back raised. “I’m not an explorer, except through my telescopes over on farside. I’m certainly not an adventurer. Why me?”
“You know the mathematics involved, and the orbital mechanics. Landing those booster engines is vital, and it’s all got to be done by remote. The crew can’t land on the comet, and it can’t just trust to the computers — the world can’t.”
“I can be in Project Command the entire mission if you need me.”
“And what if there’s a problem with the radio?” Raytier asked. “The comet eclipses the ship, perhaps. No, I won’t take the chance.”
Shadoua felt his ears begin to sag, and immediately perked them up again. “I’d rather not do this. But you’re right. Will you be going?”
Raytier smiled. “My job is essentially done once the ship lifts off. I’d be dead weight. I’m the one who’ll be in Project Command during the mission.”
“I’ll be glad to hear your voice. But — I’d like to return home to see Alaria before I go.”
“We can arrange that.”
“And — I’d like you to go with me.”
Raytier folded her hands in front of her. “This should be your time together.”
“And we’ll have that. But you and I — we’ve known each other for so long and you’ve never met her. I want you to know one another.”
Raytier said, “We can only stay a day or so. But we could use the travel time to discuss details of the mission without distractions.”
“Thank you, Raytier. I suppose without faith in Father Gisreth, we’ll have to find it within ourselves.”
During the flight to Kutraya’s farside, Raytier marveled at just how nervous she felt watching Gisreth slowly fall beneath the world’s horizon. She told Shadoua, “I know it’s completely irrational. I’ve never worshipped “Father Gisreth” or had the slightest faith in anything except knowledge — but I have to admit the thought of an ‘empty’ sky unnerves me.”
Shadoua smiled. “Perhaps you can understand how I feel coming to nearside. Certainly I know all the gravitational relationships between the planet and our world. But every time I look upward and see Gisreth looming in the sky, something within me wonders what’s holding it up, and suspects it’s about to fall on me.”
After the better part of a day, the plane landed in Shadoua’s hometown of Beyarna. When they arrived at his home on the outskirts of the city — countless people packed into a single settlement even more densely than her research building! — Raytier stood quietly as Shadoua’s true-mate Alaria embraced him. To Raytier’s surprise, Alaria grabbed her into a tight hug, as well. “Shadoua has told me so much about you,” Alaria said. “Do come inside. I’ve a late supper ready. Shadoua told me yesterday neither of you had eaten for a couple days. I do hope you enjoy farside cuisine.”
Raytier said, “Recent events have made me more adventurous. I’m willing to try most anything.”
Shadoua spoke up: “You’re more adventurous? I’m the one who’s shooting off into space.” But his smile set the mood as they settled in around a table filled with sunleaf salad, grilled blueroot, and roast gorzon.
Afterwards, Raytier leaned back in her chair and told Alaria, “I can’t recall when I’ve had such an excellent meal. Both my stomachs are full — I can go two or three days now.”
“Thank you. I felt I had to fix something special. You’re helping Shadoua so much, and it’s going to take both of you to save our world. It makes me feel as if we’re family.”
Raytier felt a twinge of guilt: If I say one particular word, you may not feel the same way, she thought. But she told Alaria and Shadoua, “Thank you. I don’t have much in the way of family, and that means a lot to me.”
Shadoua said, “I know your work has been so important to you. You should slow down, get to know someone outside work.”
Raytier turned to Alaria and said, “The world is in danger and he’s worried about my love life.”
“And I’m right to be,” Shadoua said, “since apparently you’re not.”
“There was someone last year. You must remember Eladar, my true-mate for a time.”
“I do. But that didn’t seem to last long.”
That’s because he heard that particular word, Raytier thought.
Alaria said, “I’m sure everything happens in its own time.” She stood and embraced Shadoua. “I’m an early riser, so I’m heading on to bed. Besides, I’m sure you both have plenty to talk about.”
Shadoua watched his true-mate leave, then said to Raytier, “Why don’t we go out back? I’d like to show you something there.”
They stepped out beneath that “empty sky” that Raytier had feared. As she had anticipated, the lack of Gisreth’s comforting presence casting light across the landscape was unnerving, somehow wrong. An irrational part of herself wondered if the gas giant had somehow been eliminated forever from the firmament.
Once she accepted its absence, however, Raytier began to see the sky’s own beauty, which Gisreth mostly obscured nearside. Shadoua’s home stood far away from the city of Beyarna’s lights, allowing the stars themselves to shine with an intensity she’d never experienced. And there are so many of them, she thought. Scientifically, subjectively, I knew how many stars I should be able to see here on farside, but to see them sprawled out across the heavens as if an omnipotent painter had laid them out across a canvas — it’s breathtaking.
Shadoua pulled a small telescope on a rolling stand over to Raytier’s position. “I have something to show you.” A few adjustments as Shadoua looked through the eyepiece, and he motioned Raytier over.
“I think I know what I’m about to see,” Raytier said.
“As I expected. But you should still look.”
Raytier leaned over and looked through the eyepiece. Seyel’s light illuminated the comet so that it stood out before the more detailed starfield the telescope revealed. A brilliant white at its center, it grew dimmer and “fuzzier” toward its edges. “So that’s our enemy,” Raytier said.
“The second comet,” Shadoua said, then leaned over and made an adjustment to the telescope. “And here’s the comet that will actually approach first — the one that’s going to fall into Gisreth.”
Raytier looked into the eyepiece again. “Its angle doesn’t look much different from the other one.”
“Just enough to make all the difference,” Shadoua said. “I realize that a lot of nearside scientists wonder why farside astronomers even exist. ‘There’s nothing there,’ they say. I know they’re wrong.”
“Forgive me,” Raytier said. “In my younger days I probably said it a couple of times myself. But no more.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Shadoua said. “I imagine viewing Gisreth is marvelous, too, especially from orbit. But Gisreth is real to us. It’s a world just as Kutraya is, and we understand a lot about it.” He indicated the vast starfield. “Out there is mystery. Oh, we understand a lot about the other planets and the stars and their movements — quite a few things about their composition and lifespan — but there’s so much more we don’t know.”
“Such as — are other people out there?”
“And how much of what we understand about life is universal? Is life inevitably based on carbon? Do lifeforms elsewhere pass on their genetic heritage through a triple helix? Do they all have fur?”
Raytier said, “Perhaps some of those things apply some places, but not others. I’ve even heard speculation that life could exist upon a planet, rather than a moon.”
“I suppose it could. But without such a world always overhead beckoning, would such beings even be drawn to travel into space?”
“Once we divert the comet, the universe opens up to us.”
“Of course, if we don’t divert the comet, none of this means anything. Unless some of those other beings arrive later to view the remains of our civilization.”
Shadoua was awakened early the next morning by a pounding at his door. Even Alaria, the early riser, wasn’t up yet, though she was just awake enough to mutter, “Who could that be?” Shadoua motioned for her to stay in bed as he dressed quickly and went to the door.
A familiar figure stood there, rotund, dark-furred. “Niaghos,” Shadoua said. He was a Councilor who represented Shadoua’s province.
“Forgive my intrusion so early, Shadoua, but we live in difficult times.”
“Come inside. What’s so important? Has someone died? Is some sort of political crisis going on?”
They sat as Niaghos said, “Died? No, not yet. Political crisis? Certainly. And you’re the cause.”
“I am? How?”
“With your blasphemous idea of a mission to go after this comet.”
“A comet that threatens to kill us all!”
“And which Father Gisreth himself is guiding toward us. Don’t you understand? How many times have we seen such gifts fall into Gisreth himself? Surely this one will also be harmless.”
Another voice said from behind Niaghos, “Can we take that chance?”
Niaghos turned and said, “You must be Raytier.”
“I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“I’m a typical nearsider — we nap a lot, given that so little of our day is spent in darkness.”
“And you’re the one who’s put these ideas into our friend Shadoua’s head.”
Shadoua spoke up: “I made the initial discovery. I went to her.”
Niaghos kept his gaze on Raytier, telling her, “All the same, you’ve not tried to sway him from this dangerous path.”
“You must forgive me. I’m not spiritual. Besides, if we’re wrong, what can happen? The comet flies by harmlessly, leaving you alive to brag of the rightness of your theories.”
“I have no wish to brag. I only want to avoid angering Father Gisreth.” Raytier didn’t respond, and Niaghos continued: “I understand that He is only a symbol for the underlying truths of the universe. I’m not a fool, neither am I uneducated or naive. I’m only concerned that you may be be working with forces far more powerful than mere worldly intelligences are meant to understand.”
Shadoua said, “I respect the old beliefs, Niaghos, perhaps more than you realize. But the forces we’re working with are as natural as Seyelshine and the wind on our face. Marvelous, sometimes more powerful than we can imagine, but not supernatural.”
Niaghos said, “Now it is you who must forgive me. This injures my soul, Shadoua, but I came here hoping to convince you away from this awful path. It seems I cannot. So, in fairness, I tell you I will be back on nearside soon, and I will do everything I can to halt this disgraceful venture, whether in the Council or the launch site or on the streets.”
“Serve your conscience as you see fit,” Shadoua said, “and Raytier and I will serve ours the same way.”
Niaghos told Raytier, “I wish we had met differently.” To Shadoua, he said, “I believe the better of our opinions will triumph.”
“That’s odd,” Shadoua said. “I believe the same thing.”
Raytier, back on nearside at Arsek Spaceport, watched glumly as a crowd of protesters chanted their rage at the spacecraft that would, this day, be launched with the purpose of saving their world.
But none of these idiots care, Raytier thought. They’d rather fall back upon their pre-scientific beliefs that may have served us well as a primitive people, but threaten our very existence now.
The metal fence surrounding the launch pad didn’t seem tall enough or strong enough to be sufficiently secure to Raytier, but the massed security personnel trying to push the protesters farther back looked to be making headway without resorting to violent measures. In their upper arms they held stunner rifles, and kept their lower arms sheathed. But she couldn’t help but notice that most of them also had more lethal weaponry strapped to their backs, weapons their lower arms could grab in an instant. Raytier thought, This spaceport was once a place for explorers, and they were acclaimed and admired. We never anticipated facing a serious threat of violence here.
Raytier forced her attention away from such unpleasantness and returned it to the spacecraft standing beneath Gisreth’s full midnight brightness. The Akhir would carry four people, including Shadoua, into an orbit parallel to the threatening comet. It was capable of spending many days around Gisreth and of altering its orbit many times during its exploratory missions. And it featured all the modifications that Raytier had designed for its next, most crucial mission.
The tall boosters attached to either side would allow it to catch up to the second comet as it whipped around Gisreth in its elliptical orbit. This spacecraft’s going to need every bit of maneuvering ability it possesses to rendezvous with the comet, Raytier thought. It’ll almost have to break free of Gisreth’s orbit to approach it at all. Then there’s the small matter of landing these rockets on it.
A voice behind her said, “I suppose I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.” It was Shadoua, who approached wearing the spacesuit that would activate to press firmly on his stomach and legs during the high-gravity maneuvers of liftoff and comet rendezvous.
“Captain Direl’s as good as we have,” Raytier said. “And I’ll be in touch with you the entire trip.”
“You’ll be busy back here fighting off Niaghos and his followers. I think I may have the easier task.”
“This ship is taking off today. After that, they can yell and demonstrate all they want.” Raytier embraced her friend. “Do well, but stay safe. It’s almost enough to make me ask Father Gisreth to look after you.”
Shadoua smiled. “We’ll be close enough. I’ll make sure we put in a good word for ourselves.”
A volley of stunner fire behind them, and Raytier turned to see a mass of protesters charging the guards. Without thought, she ran toward the confrontation, barely aware of Shadoua’s shouts of concern.
Another blast of stunner fire, and more protesters fell. But many of the security guards found themselves with their backs against the metal fence, sections of which actually bend inward slightly from the pressure.
As she ran, Raytier went to all sixes even as her lower arms unsheathed themselves, hard fists forming, and her ripping teeth emerged. A couple of the protesters were struggling with the guards, trying to wrest their stunner rifles from them. A broad section of fence buckled and several protesters stepped across it or jumped over it.
Raytier tackled the first person who’d made it through the fence, her upper hands grasping him by the shoulders as her auxiliaries punched him repeatedly in the torso. The protester slumped to the ground. Raytier went bipedal again and stood over him, resisting the primitive urge to bite into his neck.
More shots from the guards — Lethal ones, Raytier realized, ducking. But they were warning shots only, with the ones aimed at the protesters remaining stun shots only. More of the protesters who had breached the gate collapsed all around her. Most of the rest hesitated, then began running away from the spaceport. The guards didn’t pursue them, but detained the few who stayed behind.
A touch on her shoulder, and Raytier turned, teeth bared. “It’s me!” Shadoua said, and Raytier forced herself to calm.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just…”
“I know. Our primitive side touches all of us one time or another.”
Raytier consciously sheathed her lower arms and within the next moment her ripping teeth retracted of their own accord. “Let’s move away from here as quickly as we can,” she told Shadoua. “We have much more civilized work to do.”
By the time Seyel was close to rising, Raytier’s emotional outburst had subsided and she watched from the safety of the sprawling command bunker as the spaceship meant to rescue the world lifted off. The ship’s fiery launch banished what remained of the early morning darkness as Raytier stepped outside and watched the rocket’s exhaust disperse within a cool breeze. She continued watching as Gisreth became a thin crescent, then returned to the bunker to await the Akhir’s approach to the comet.
Shadoua thought he knew what to expect when the Akhir’s main engines cut off, and he dreaded it. He’d hesitated eating anything that morning, fearing he’d throw up the contents of both stomachs once weightlessness arrived.
The actual sensation, though disconcerting at first, was actually pleasant. With his body still restrained by his tight harness, he didn’t have as much sensation of floating as he’d assumed he would. When Captain Direl said they could leave their seats, Shadoua did so tentatively, even as he watched the other four crewmembers, experienced space travelers all, eagerly release their harnesses and float free.
He caught a glimpse out the nearest viewport and grabbed the backs of seats and handholds on equipment to get there, however clumsily. Kutraya stood beneath them, sunlight glinting off the surface of the Lucerian Ocean, clouds a pure white covering much of the land. He looked back the way they’d come and saw that they were swiftly leaving Gisreth behind. Even as a farsider, I find that somehow disturbing, he thought. But — patience — he’ll be back soon enough.
The Akhir was to make a single circuit of Kutraya, using its gravitational pull to whip itself away from the world and toward the gas giant, presumably in a course just ahead of and parallel to the comet’s path.
Captain Direl’s voice interrupted Shadoua’s thoughts. “All crew, prepare to double-check all ship’s systems. I want everything in order before the insertion into the comet’s path.”
Time to get to work, Shadoua thought. I’ve got to make Raytier proud of me.
Before it seemed possible, the Akhir was crossing into Kutraya’s nightside, and their preparations became all the more frenetic, especially since now they could see the second comet, the one that was bearing down on their home. The first one, which would strike Gisreth, was taking a different path, one not yet visible from their current position. By the time the ship swung around toward daylight again, the second comet’s image filled the rear viewscreens even at the lowest magnification. It’s as if it’s abandoned all plans of striking our world and is, instead, consciously bearing down on Akhir!
Raytier, in Project Command, was surprised to hear that Councilor Niaghos had arrived and was demanding to see her. She found him waiting in an unused room. It was bare, windowless, and musty, and Niaghos was standing there, arms folded, facial features set. “Raytier, you must cancel this project immediately and rely upon Father Gisreth to protect us.”
“It’s a little late for that, don’t you think? The Akhir is right in front of the comet and ready to begin diverting it.”
“My constituents have been watching both comets approach and are terrified. They’re demanding answers.”
Raytier said, “And I’m providing the best ones I know. You may not accept this, but I respect your faith. Mine, however, lies elsewhere.”
“In your science that turns us away from real truths. My constituents demand to know why the government has not built shelters for them, or spacecraft that could take them to safety.”
“There’s no shelter from this. Earthquakes, floods, firestorms — there’s nowhere to hide. Besides, how could we build shelters for billions of people? Or spaceships to take them anywhere? And where would they go?”
“So your science doesn’t have as many answers as you claim.”
“I thought you were trusting in Father Gisreth to protect the world.”
Niaghos said, “That was before your blasphemous spaceship proclaimed a lack of faith in Him. That is the reason the comet is bearing down upon us.”
Raytier turned toward the door. “I don’t have to listen to any more of this. I’m going back to the real work of saving us.”
“You’d better stop and listen to me.”
Reluctantly, Raytier stopped and turned back toward the Counselor. “What is it?”
“I know your secret,” Niaghos said. “And if you don’t turn that spaceship around and bring it back to Kutraya, I’ll reveal it for all to hear.”
Raytier held her breath at Niaghos’ words. She knew what he must be threatening to reveal. How did he find out? she wondered, thinking of all the consequences of her carefully guarded secret getting out. I’ll lose my job. All my friends, maybe even Shadoua — all gone.
She considered her response for only a moment, and as she told Niaghos of her decision, she felt a peacefulness washing over her that she hadn’t experienced in years.
Captain Direl’s voice came over the ship’s comm: “Shadoua, please come to the cockpit.”
Shadoua wondered what could be so important — he’d not even been to the cockpit this entire mission. He pulled himself along within the cramped confines of the ship and entered the cockpit.
Captain Direl was alone. “Close the door behind you,” he said.
Shadoua did, then maneuvered himself into the co-pilot’s seat. He found himself staring at the immensity of Gisreth. With the Akhir making a close approach around the gas giant, it dominated the view, its illumination overwhelming any glimpse of the stars. Shadoua was able to perceive its largest bands of ammonia and methane slowly moving against one another, their edges undulating against one another, and how some borders even braided together.
Captain Direl spoke up: “An amazing view, isn’t it?”
“I’ve seldom seen it at all, living on farside. And I’ve only viewed it through a telescope a couple of times. To be this close, to see this much detail….”
“It’s almost like a living thing, isn’t it?”
“And I can tell this isn’t why you called me up here,” Shadoua said.
“You’re right. I’ve just received a message from Project Command. Raytier just resigned from the mission and is headed home.”
“Headed home? Why?”
“Politics. It turns out she’s a multi-colored. A former lover of hers — Eladar was his name — revealed her secret to the Council.”
Shadoua felt the hair on his crest rise. “I can’t believe that!” As many times as we’ve spoken from one side of the world to the other, as closely as we’ve worked together on this rescue mission — and I never suspected.
Captain Direl asked, “Are you all right?”
“I’m…fine. Just getting used to the idea.”
“I have to ask — which idea? That Raytier is off the project, or that she’s a so-called multi-colored?”
“Oh, the, uh — that she’s off the project, of course.”
Direl looked at him with a skeptical eye, but said, “I’m glad to hear that. After all, you’re a scientist. You have no reason to believe this nonsense about the color of a person’s fur. Keeping people out of jobs, sometimes even assaulting or killing them — it’s shameful.”
Except — it’s a genetic deviation, a sign of other problems that can’t be seen. Can we trust the engineering work she performed for this mission? Can we trust her even to want this mission to succeed?
“Shadoua — are you sure you’re well? You look like you received quite a shock.”
“Yes. I’m sorry. I really should get back to work.” But when Shadoua left the cockpit, he didn’t immediately rejoin his colleagues who were preparing the spacecraft for the rendezvous with the comet; instead, he shut himself up for a time in his personal bunk, a space so small he could barely float free.
Raytier stood outside the back door of her home, moments before Seyel was to set, and watched as the first comet bore down upon the gas giant Gisreth. Its long tail of gas and dust made the comet easily visible even without a telescope. Despite the immense speeds involved, she was struck by how slowly the comet seemed to approach the planet — it gave the impression of being unwilling to be drawn in to Gisreth as so many others had been.
Though not an uncommon event, such comet strikes were rare enough that Raytier had never witnessed one as it happened. She savored the anticipation in the last moments before the comet gave in to the inevitable and allowed itself to plunge into Gisreth — a crimson fireball probably the size of Kutraya itself bloomed languidly, almost seductively, from the planet. Raytier heard a scream from several houses away, then other voices, more muffled, urging that person to remain calm. Don’t worry about Father Gisreth, Raytier thought. He’s taken much bigger punches.
Kutraya wouldn’t survive, though. And the second comet will be on its way within moments.
It’s all up to Shadoua and everyone else aboard Ahkir.
Raytier heard muffled steps behind her, and turned to see two people approaching. Silhouetted against Seyel’s dying rays, she couldn’t make out whether she recognized them, but their purposeful strides told her this was not a random encounter.
Before she could react, one intruder grabbed her upper arms as the other advanced toward her unlocked door. Raytier struggled, but the grip against her upper arms only tightened, and the intruder’s lower arms held hers in check, not even able to unsheath. “We’ll do this quietly and quickly,” the intruder holding her said as he pushed her into her home. “No reason to draw this out as you did the buildup to your blasphemous space mission.”
Raytier shouted, “Get out of my house!”
The other intruder slapped her on the side of her head, and she fell to the floor. The first one told her, “I said ‘quietly.’” He motioned to the other. “Follow through on ‘quickly.’” The first intruder leaned down next to her and said, “Take comfort in the fact that your suffering is alleviating that of Father Gisreth.”
The filthy rag they stuffed into her mouth kept her from screaming as the first blows rained down upon her and the first intruder pulled out a razor-sharp blade and bent over her.
Shadoua approached Raytier’s house one night three days later. He wasn’t concerned about the lateness of the hour, knowing of nearsiders habits of napping, especially with Gisreth shining nearly full as midnight approached.
His joy over the success of the rescue mission remained tempered by concern for her. She won’t answer when I call, he thought. I’m told no one in her commonage has seen her.
Local security forces had told him they’d checked in on her and everything was fine, but Shadoua didn’t trust that report.
I heard a frightening tone in their voices, even over the comm line, he thought. As if it didn’t matter whether anything had happened to her.
It’s the same tone I heard in my own voice when I told Captain Direl I was ‘getting used to’ the revelation that Raytier’s a multi-colored.
Shadoua walked up to Raytier’s door and knocked, waited. No response. He knocked louder. Finally he heard movement inside. A weak voice spoke from behind the door: “Please go away.”
“Raytier — it’s Shadoua.”
“I know. Why would you want to speak to someone like me?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I was wrong to feel the way I did.”
“I wish I could believe you.”
“Let me in. I’ll convince you. I’m…worried about you.”
A moment passed, and the door opened on her darkened house. Raytier wore a hooded robe that covered her entire body except for part of her face. Shadoua took a step forward and Raytier took two steps backward. “There’s no reason to be afraid of me,” Shadoua said.
“Then — you don’t know what happened?”
Shadoua fought to keep anger from flaring: “I know that I went on a space mission when I didn’t want to. I know I helped save the world. We couldn’t have done it without you, but I did my part, too, and I think that gives me the right to an answer — what’s going on here?”
Raytier lowered her hood and pulled the robe down to expose her shoulders. “Oh, dear Father Gisreth,” Shadoua said at the sight, a phrase from his more faithful youth he uttered without thinking.
Raytier’s face, the side of her head, and even parts of her crest were heavily bruised. The tips of her ears hung down forlornly. And where her white fur was supposed to begin at her neck, there was only bare green skin, which was marred by many small but deep cuts in the first stages of healing.
“They shaved off all of your —”
“Yes. They beat me and stripped me and shaved my entire body.”
“Who did this?” Shadoua asked.
“They didn’t say. But I’d suspect they’re some of Niaghos’ followers.”
“I don’t agree with the man’s views, but I have a hard time believing he’d order something like this.”
“I don’t say he ordered it,” Raytier said. “But he may have some overzealous followers.”
“I can’t imagine the shame…”
“Could it be worse than the shame I suffered all these years, knowing I was a multi-colored, knowing I’d never be able to advance as I knew I could…”
“I have to apologize, “Shadoua said. “I’ve seen who it is who makes such statements. I have no wish to be associated with them.”
“We saved the world. Nothing else matters.”
“They want to honor me before the Council. I’ll refuse unless you can stand there with me.”
Raytier laughed, rolled up her sleeves to show her naked arms, hitched up her robe to show her naked legs. “Is this who will appear before the Council? No, they will not embrace me.”
“I won’t accept the honor unless they do embrace you.”
“Thank you, Shadoua. That, I will accept,” Raytier said as she took Shadoua’s hands in hers. Shadoua kept himself from flinching, despite the unnaturally warm feel of smooth unfurred skin and a sense that this was inappropriately intimate, a type of touching he should share only with his true-mate whenever he caressed her smooth face.