Through the Videx Effa could see that her little craft, no longer space-worthy, had come to rest at the shore of a lake, on the far side of which rose a great white wall. The window of thick plastic that gave her a 180-degree view forward also presented her with her own reflection. She saw she now looked worried. Evidently the surprise of having the Virginie disabled had worn off—or perhaps, as an experienced space traveler, she was properly concerned regarding her chances.
Under the dusty pink outsuit her shoulders rose and fell, just once. So be it, thought Effa. If commo is out, I’m stuck here on Earth for the rest of my life.
Now: what is that ahead? A glacier?
“Livia,” she said, addressing the Virginie‘s computer, and asked the question aloud.
The confirmation came immediately. “It is a glacier, domina.”
Effa leaned forward, arms aprop the instrumentation console, and peered up through the Videx, but she saw no end to the glacier nor the beginning of the sky. “It must be three kilometers thick,” she cried.
“Four point one eight two kilometers, domina.”
She mulled this over. Some two million years ago, a few of her people had visited Earth and had left a bit of themselves behind. At that time, much of the planet had been festooned with glaciers, and populated by humanoids who could barely start a fire. Surely that Ice Age would have ended by now, and the humanoids would have changed, grown, and sought out the stars.
So where was everybody?
She had come back to find the answers to this and other questions.
After making several orbits around the Earth, during which Livia had taken a multitude of scans and readings, the Virginie had suffered a brief power surge. By the time Livia had brought it under control, several programs functioned sporadically or not at all—the latter including those of landing and docking. Fighting the manual controls, Effie had managed to bring the craft to rest on uneven terrain broken by patches of rugged-looking, waist-high grass interspersed with low, scraggly shrubs. The small lake by which the craft now sat had formed from glacial meltwater, and rivulets reached out into the low areas of the land like tendrils of frost on glass. Though melting, the glacier showed no signs yet of leaving behind a terminal moraine.
Experience and procedure soon overrode worries, and Effa, seated now on the captain’s chair, asked, “Okay, Livia, how verflossed are we?”
“The Virginie is irreparable, dom—”
Effa gave a quick shake of her head, sending a cascade of bright yellow hair over her shoulders. “I got that,” she broke in. “What else? And stop calling me domina. We’re on equal footing here. We’re both stranded.”
“You will have to reprogram me, domina.”
“What,” she repeated, through clenched jaws, “else?”
“The hyperlink for communication is no longer functional, domina.”
“So no distress signal.”
“Incorrect, domina. A distress signal has already been transmitted.”
Effa barked a sardonic laugh. “At light speed? That’s wonderful! So it will only take 11,000 years to reach them. Well, at least eventually they’ll know what happened.” She paused to gaze at her reflection again. The blue of her eyes seemed just a bit darker now, as if her fate were already settling into a comfy chair and putting its feet up on the serving table in the living room of her mind. She drew a deep breath and exhaled, puffing out her thin lips. “Okay. Did you scan for life forms?”
“Intelligent life forms?”
She glowered impatiently. “And?”
“There is one species, domina.”
One is all I need, thought Effa. Someone to talk to, and keep me warm at night. And other things. Especially other things.
“Show me,” she commanded.
The central third of the Videx turned opaque white above the console, and against that backdrop appeared the hologram of a long, dark shape with streamlined contours and a pointed snout. It began to rotate horizontally.
Effa almost rose from her chair in surprise. “What is that verflossed thing? It looks like a missile.”
“It is a porpoise, domina.”
“A . . . porpoise.”
Well . . . the shape might prove useful, she decided wryly, if it was a small creature. A giggle tickled her throat as she inquired, “How long is . . . how big is it?”
“The adults vary from two to four meters in length, domina.”
“Oh.” She drummed the flat of her hand on the chair arm. “Intelligent, you said.”
“And those look like fins and flukes. So this thing is aquatic.”
“It lives in the oceans, domina.”
“Well, that’s just great. So for romance I would need underwater gear, and for procreation I’d need a verflossed DNA splice.”
Effa closed her eyes. Whatever had happened to the humans who were supposed to have developed on Earth? Livia was a top-of-the-line ship’s computer. Given a request for intelligent life forms, she would not have presented the porpoise first, unless that’s all there was. Because Livia did not possess a sense of humor.
Well, the fate of the humans was another matter to be investigated. But right now . . . perhaps if she rephrased the question.
“Livia, did you detect any humanoid life forms?”
Effa shot to her feet. “Well why didn’t you say so before!” she yelled.
“Their intelligence is still developing, domina.”
Whatever that means, thought Effa. Aloud, she ordered, “Show me.”
The porpoise vanished, to be replaced by a man dressed in animal hides and holding a spear with a fire-hardened point. His hair and beard were red-orange, his eyes pale. He appeared to be reaching for something.
Suddenly he drew his hand back.
Effa gasped at the movement. “Livia, is this a live projection?”
Now he jabbed at something with the spear. The tip of it disappeared from her view. Something thumped against the hull of the Virginie.
Effa’s eyes widened. “He’s just outside?”
“Does the universal translator still function?”
“You’re a terrible conversationalist, Livia.”
The man was standing slightly askew, as if he were favoring his left side. Intermittent flashes of ruddy skin showed signs of a bruise on the rib cage. Effa dug out her AllPurp and ran it through diagnostics, and finally sighed in relief—at least the verflossed thing still functioned. With it she might heal his injury, and in the process make a friend.
“I’m going out,” said Effa.
“I do not advise that.”
“I’m not spending the rest of my life in here,” she said peevishly. “And certainly not alone. Now open the verflossed hatch.”
Sunlight rammed its way into the Virginie as the rear hatch opened. Blinking rapidly, Effa stepped outside. The chill air raised goosebumps, but the temperature was bearable. She rounded the craft and came face to face with the man and his spear.
“Who are you?” she asked, through the universal translator.
He pounded his chest, and winced when he struck the bruised ribs. “At-om,” he declared. Then he pointed his finger at her and made a fist. “Mine,” At-om declared.
“Here,” sighed Effa, “we go again.”