Chapter One

Such excitement. You’d think this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

I guess for the kids it genuinely was. Most of the ships had made it here at least a generation ago, a couple of hundred years after leaving Dead Earth. When I was young, one or two straggler ships still showed up each year to connect with the other ships in our Conglommora. But then that became every couple of years. It’d been a long while since anything new at all showed up on our doorstop out here, all alone, in deep space. No planets, no systems nearby. Just us. Only now, something was coming.

The streams indicated it was literally headed straight for us. Well, at least about a dozen houses from here. That family, the Rheads, had an exposed docking tube. They kept watch and waited—for decades—for a relative who never made it. Hope is a hard thing to let go of. Looked like they were getting company now, at long last. Whatever it was, it was on a direct course for their docking tube.

I had met the Rheads more than a few times over the years, and we sort of knew each other, but I didn’t know them very well. My wife and I used to hang out with other couples and families more when she was alive, but I fell out of the habit without her encouragement. But now, a ship was headed for us. That would be something to see first-hand.

What if it wasn’t even a ship? Could be anything, really, from a dull piece of space junk to a derelict ghost ship. That had happened a few times—everyone on board died at some point and their ship just kept going, hurtling through the void. I shuddered a little at the thought of a desiccated skeleton at the bridge of a dusty hulk.

The Rheads’ house was on the large side, as I recalled. I think their family had combined resources with several other families when they first got here. There would be room enough for a bunch of us locals to go visit and greet the newcomer—and everyone else in the world would probably be watching on a stream.

Okay, it really was exciting. I didn’t exactly want to go, but how could I not?

Alain was already en route to his friend’s house. I debated telling him to stay put. How many times had I warned him not to wander too far off? Maybe he wouldn’t see the news. Yeah, right. He was probably over at the Rheads’ already. So much for sticking close to home. Sigh. Kids.

Fear of missing out was only slightly stronger than my personal discomfort of leaving the house. But it was enough. I put on a clean coverall and headed out of the house through the convoluted set of tubes and corridors that would eventually get me over to the Rheads’ house.

Well, me and virtually everyone else in the world.


I walked, climbed and made my way through the immediate neighborhood of connected ships over to the Rheads’. I pinged the hatch and it opened nearly immediately, sliding up quickly and silently.

“Charlie Neylan! Wow, been a long time, how’ve you been?” Bil Rhead warmly greeted me.

I stammered some sort of polite but perfunctory reply.

Bil was ushering everyone into his main living area, where he had his largest screen installed. The room was pretty packed. Most of the local kids were here already—including Alain—playing on the kids’ screen while waiting for something to happen. I knew many of the folks here, but not all. But it wasn’t like anyone was looking at each other; the nearly black starfield on the main screen was the center of attention.

Against that endless black, there was a single, tiny, glowing dot. Slowly, inexorably, it was getting bigger.

“Has anyone called them?” someone asked.

Bil answered, “I’ve tried raising them on the qradio a few times, but nothing yet.” The quantum radio was great for very long-distance comms. In fact, you could send a message all the way back to Dead Earth if you wanted. People used to do that, to keep in communication with the handful of family members who stayed behind, who were too elderly or too sick or too stubborn to make the journey. But before long, there wasn’t anyone left to respond.

Back in the day, when ships came to join the Conglommora more regularly, they’d qradio ahead with a stream that they were coming, make arrangements with friends, or like-minded folks, and dock alongside them. But this ship hadn’t sent anything at all.

“Maybe their qradio is down,” my next-door-neighbor Jef offered. “If that’s the case, they’ll be coming into range for standard pretty soon.” He nodded toward the screen showing the approach.

It was a good point, and while you could fix almost anything yourself with a functioning reclaimer and printer, there were times when you needed someone else’s to help fix your own—and a lone ship out in the void wouldn’t have had that luxury. Maybe that wasn’t the only thing that was broken. Watching the dot get bigger, heading straight for us, I really hoped that they at least had brakes.

Now, if this were a script I were writing for the gamers, I’d get all dramatic and have the lead character ask the computers if there was any imminent danger, like, “Arty! Does the approaching ship pose any danger to us?” and the soothing synthetic, computer voice would reply, “There is no evidence or forecast of imminent danger at this time.”

But that’s not how things work in the real world, of course. Arty would tell us if there were a problem. No need to ask, but it does make a nice dramatic device. I’ve used that in the scripts I write, sometimes. And it’s not like you just chat with Arty. You could, of course, but people would think you were a little crazy. Conversing with the computer itself just wasn’t something people did.

“Okay,” said Bil. “According to my screen,” he looked at the small black shiny in his hand, “they’ll be in standard radio range in about eighteen minutes.”

We’d have to wait until then. I supposed even if standard radio was out, we could probably still make contact once they’d docked and were in range of the mesh. That’s what our pocket screens and everything used for comms. Unless the ship was completely dead, surely that would still work.

Unaccustomed to hosting this many people in his house—no one would have been, really—Bil Rhead started visibly, as if he had a sudden thought. He looked around at the crowd and asked, “Can I get anyone anything to drink? I’ve got some great brew from a trade with the barley farmers a couple of sections past the Marlins’ place.”

Well, that got everyone’s attention. A good quality brew wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to manage. And Bil was offering it to us freely. Well, not really free. The implication was that we’d stay and protect him and his family—if needed—from this curious interloper. It was a pretty smart investment on Bil’s part, if you asked me.

Of course, everyone would have pitched in and helped Bil out if there was a problem, refreshments notwithstanding. Apparently, folks back on Dead Earth weren’t real good about that. They would have just as soon have killed you and stolen all your goods. But we take care of each other out here. We take care of each other even if we don’t always like each other. Forgive, assist, and move on. That’s the Conglommoran way. Bil knew that of course, but still better to have a good crowd close at hand already.

His wife, Li, had the printer spit out a few dozen cups quick-and-dirty, and started pouring for us. It was nice, a little more faux-citrus flavor than I would have cared for, but hey, it didn’t taste like algae at all, and that was a definite plus.

The few remaining minutes passed quickly, and quietly. No one really wanted to speculate on our impending visitor. They could be publicly wrong with some outlandish, fearsome theory, or far worse.

They could be right.

Chapter Eight

The lights turned down to simulate a nocturnal cycle for the plants and animals, and the dark, the warm, and the still gentle lapping of the waves did me in. I slept solid for the longest time since we’d set off on this trip.

Breakfast was simple but well-executed, and I have to say their algae juice and cooked kelp was a lot better than I was used to. This whole trip was really pointing out how lazy, how complacent, how limited I’d become.

We gathered ourselves and got back on the transit to head to the other side of Sea. It surprised me a little that I didn’t really feel like leaving. It was nice here. Really, very nice.

Chalu would drive us from their town—there were apparently a dozen other surface towns like it within Sea–over to the far edge platform for the next corridor. He noticed my pensive look as we boarded and asked if I was okay.

“Oh, I’m fine,” I reassured him. “It’s just… I mean, wow, I had no idea you guys were out here, doing this sort of thing, and doing it so well.”

Chalu shrugged as we separated from the house platform. “It’s not like it’s a big secret or anything. Anyone can find us; you just need to know to ask.”

I realized how little I knew about all of the nooks and crannies of Conglommora and sighed a little. “I should get out more.”

Chalu looked up as the transit turned around and asked earnestly, “What’s stopping you?”

“Nothing,” I admitted, with lift of my eyebrows.

“Yeah, that’s what gets in everyone’s way, doesn’t it?” Chalu observed as we headed away from town. “Just nothing at all.”

He smiled a wise, old smile as we shot along the water in the bright, warm, wet world.

Chapter Sixteen

Fear is gasoline. Hatred is fire. You can hold on to a little fire for a short time, like with a match. Normally it just fizzles out. Arty and I were hoping—if an AI can hope—that the Old Path nonsense would just fizzle out. Like a single, small match.

But if you’re covered in gasoline, the fire will spread and engulf you. Now you’re on fire. And it spreads, everything you touch is on fire. And now you’re in hell.

No one has used gasoline since the last days of Green Earth, and for good reason. Hundreds of megaliters of flammable liquid are not a good idea on a spaceship. The electromag drives don’t use combustible fuel, so we don’t need it.

Fear and hatred are also not a good idea on a spaceship. We don’t need them either.

They are just as combustible, just as easily spread, and just as destructive as old-fashioned fuels. We may not have gasoline anymore, but fear and hatred were now spreading: viral, contagious, leaping from house to house and section to section, engulfing all of Conglommora.

We’d been successful at avoiding this sort of thing, at this scale, up to now. But today was a stark reminder that we’re just apes, who grew our shiny toys faster than we outgrew our superstitions and fears.

The first explosion really took me by surprise.

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