The Hatch-registered freighter Godolphin drifted in space, about two hundred thousand kilometers from Merritt’s skiff, the Crane. The Crane’s sensors reported the details. The Godolphin’s hull was breached and the ship had lost propulsion, engines, most life support. The distress call was on auto and getting weaker. No one could be alive. Merritt flipped the readouts to visual and zoomed in to see for himself, and sure enough, the freighter was dark.
Likely raiders had cleaned her out and took the crew as captives for ransom.
“So why didn’t they tow the boat in for salvage?” he said out loud. He was the only one on board the Crane, but it didn’t stop him from talking. He thought better that way, and right now, he had a puzzle. The ship had been left to drift when arguably she was the biggest prize of all. He flipped back to the datastream, sat back in his chair and considered. He could tow the freighter in to Crowe’s World to one of their notorious chop shops, or play it the other way, tow her into Hatch station for the reward or stake a salvage claim. All without firing a shot. He let himself dream for a bit. If the ship were still sound, he could set himself up as a skipper, hire a crew, and get ahead of sector police. “You know, go straight,” he told the datastream, running in heads up display in front of him. “Settle down somewhere.” Make the family proud.
It was a nice dream. He indulged it for a few seconds more, then turned down the datastream. More likely, if he towed that ship in, he’d find sector cops just waiting to bust him one more time and he would never see space again.
The Godolphin would have to continue her solitary journey through the galaxy’s spiral arm, and Merritt would be the last one to see her. That didn’t mean he shouldn’t at least board her and confirm she was derelict. It was the charitable thing to do. And if he happened to pick up anything of value that might have been left over, well, even a good Samaritan deserved something for his trouble. He went to suit up.
He was surprised to see that the Godolphin still had atmosphere when the airlock whooshed and opened up for him, but with a hull breach the ship could vent at any time, so Merritt left his faceplate closed. His breathing was loud in the confined space of his helmet, and for a moment his readouts flashed that he had elevated pulse and respiration. The ship’s interior was dark and his headlamp flashed through the smoky darkness. He needed to get some lights working on the old girl. That was confirmed when he tripped over the first body, killed with a pulse weapon. The woman’s uniform had the Beauchamps logo on it. Beauchamps — one of the smaller merchant clans. Merritt’s own clan was Crane, though he was only a distant relative of the great family and he didn’t doubt they had as little care for him as he did for them. A Crane ship would not have been attacked. Raiders were smart enough to go for easier meat.
He counted three more bodies, scanning slowly. There had been a running gun fight, and there was plenty of scarring along the bulkhead.
Merritt tamped down his sudden desire to get the hell out of there. His suit sensors kept up a data feed, along with a ship schematic, that it displayed the inside of his helmet. The hatch to the bridge was down the corridor, and Merritt headed that way, sidestepping the dead. There’s not gonna be any salvage, he told himself, but he kept going anyway, knowing it was sheer stubbornness that kept him on. His helmet readout flashed a single dot, signifying his position along the schematic, and then, faintly, another dot flashed out of the corner of his eye.
There was someone else alive on the Godolphin.
Merritt stopped. With great care he thumbed the button on his suit to replay. The dot flashed again, flickered, came back. With his other hand he unholstered his pistol. Whoever it was might be dying, might not be human, might be trying to shield from his suit. He got a lock on the other dot and saw it came from the bridge. A hatch was about twenty meters ahead. He found it, and climbed up, his boots clicking on the rungs. He was sweating by the time he got into the control room, and he found the body, suited up with the helmet latched. He muscled between overturned chairs and broken panels and knelt stiffly next to the body. The man opened his eyes and muttered something that Merritt couldn’t catch. Under his faceplate, blood crusted around his mouth and nose.
“What happened?” Merritt said, hardly expecting an answer. “Raiders?”
The Beauchamps captain moved his head slightly inside the helmet. Yes.
Merritt’s suit beeped, letting him know he was running low on air. “I need to get you to my ship,” he said. “I can’t carry you — is there a float?”
The captain shook his head again. He tried to say something, spoke hoarsely. “Get off my ship.”
Merritt kept from rolling his eyes. Man’s dying, and he’s still pushy. “Sorry, captain. Looks like this is a rescue.”
“Damn fool,” The Beauchamps captain said, and that came through clearly. “You. Are. In. Danger.” He grabbed Merritt’s arm, his bloody fingers leaving prints. “Jumped by raiders, and disabled. But they hit the D-space navigator.” He stopped, gulped a lot of air. “We’ve been cycling in and out of space-time, each time it’s getting worse. We’re due for another cycle any second, and if you don’t get out of here, you’re dead too.”
Merritt’s status sensors told him what he already knew — respiration, heart rate, adrenal glands, all pouring forth accelerated data. He holstered his gun again and knelt, trying to lift the Beauchamps captain. He grunted under the effort; his suit didn’t make things easy. “Then I guess we better be going.”
Beauchamps cried out in agony. “No time. I’m cycling too.”
Merritt looked down and almost dropped him. Beauchamps was fading. D-space was happening all around them. Great for getting from place to place without having to take, say, 100 years to make the next star. Not so great when a wormhole opened up inside you. Beauchamps got a lot heavier and Merritt saw that he was dead. He set the man down and backed away, then ran for the ladder. He slid rather than climbed down.
The ship shook all around him, coming in and out of reality. The central corridor seemed longer this time, even though he was sprinting. The heads-up display flared and shook, transmitting streams of unintelligible data. Merritt kept running, hit the controls for the airlock, and froze. The door had changed. It was made of wood and iron and had an old-fashioned doorknob. Tentative, he touched the doorknob and the door whooshed open, an airlock once again. He stepped in and reflexively slapped at the side of the door to close it.
His glove hit wood and something fell to the floor. An old-fashioned key, an iron skeleton key, lay at his feet. It’s not really there, he told himself. It was a ghost of the D-space nav malfunction. His brain was making sense of what it couldn’t understand, creating familiar images out of multispace. The ship was coming apart at the subatomic level, and so would he. He saw the great gathering darkness rushing toward him, pulling him into the wormhole that gathered at the bow of the ship. Breathing hard, Merritt pulled the door closed.
“Come on, come on,” he muttered, sweat slicking down his back. Would the airlock work, or would he be trapped inside the wormhole forever? With agonizing slowness the rising whine indicated the airlock begin to pressurize. Merritt heard a noise and looked out the tiny window in the wooden door.
A face filled it, a face contorted in hatred and fear.
“Shit!” Merritt flung himself backward, fumbling to pull up his weapon. The man was snarling, his teeth showing like spikes through his beard. That’s not the captain, he thought crazily. What the hell was going on?
The power whine stopped and the airlock stopped pressurizing. The man continued to snarl like an animal, and he was pulling the door open. Shit shit shit. Merritt knelt and scrabbled for the key, fumbling it in his panic and haste. He held the door closed, desperation giving him strength, and pushed the key in the lock, turning it. The door locked with a click. Again the slow rising whine, again the long wait as the airlock pressurized. The face dropped away and Merritt allowed himself a slow breath.
With a shuddering crash the man threw himself against the door, teeth bared, eyes bulging. The small compartment was rocked again and again as the creature threw itself at him, and Merritt drew his gun, faced the door, and waited for the moment when the creature burst through. If the explosive decompression didn’t get him, he might survive.
A polite chime sounded, signalling the atmosphere had stabilized, and the airlock opened behind him.
Billy’s was crowded that night, the little roadhouse bar spilling music and laughter out into the parking lot. Edith parked her battered old work truck, with Crane Farrier and Blacksmithing stencilled on the side, at the end of the parking lot, and got out, stretching. It had been a long day. She had shoed five horses that day. Her business was picking up, but it meant that she had spent a lot of time bent over double, and some horses were lazy about supporting their own weight.
“Edith Crane!” shouted Melissa Andrews from over by the front deck with a bunch of friends. “Bout time you got here!”
Edith made her way over to the group and slid into an empty space on the bench. Melissa poured her a beer from the pitcher and Edith sipped and relaxed.
“Oh my, that’s good.” She looked around at all of her friends. There was Melissa and her boyfriend Brian, and a half-dozen people her age, all young, all making their way in the little Tennessee town of Pilot’s Forge.
Melissa leaned across the table at Edith and spoke low. “Listen, Edith, have you heard from Sam Grenady?”
Edith felt a shiver of unease. She and Sam had dated briefly when she came to town. She was drawn by his rough good looks and a kindred liking for physical labor. He was a carpenter and jack of all trades, and had an easy smile that, she realized after about a month, he could put on and take off as easy as a jacket. The smile and the charm hid a sizeable chip on his shoulder that came out when he drank, and he drank a lot. He had lots of plans for her, he told her. Big plans that she had no say in. After three dates she made sure they were at Billy’s when told him she wasn’t the girl for him, and the expression he gave her was cold and empty. And then he smiled, gave her a kiss on the cheek, paid for their beer, and walked away. She hadn’t talked to him since.
“Why, what’s up?” She asked it carefully.
Melissa said, “He’s been heard making noise about you. Says you lamed Cindy Dupre’s warmblood with lousy shoeing.”
Edith’s heart sank. Pilot’s Forge was a small town and Sam was an old-timer. He could sink her business in no time. “That son of a bitch.”
Melissa snorted. “Don’t I know it. He sweet talks plenty, but the minute he doesn’t get his way, he goes ballistic. He was always like that, even when we were in high school. “
Edith was reminded again that she was the newcomer. It didn’t matter that her grandparents farmed here eighty years ago. If Sam Grenady wanted her out of Pilot’s Forge, all he had to do was spread a few rumors. Well, she wasn’t going to go without a fight. She’d call Cindy Dupre and all of her clients and let them know that Sam was full of it. She looked straight at Melissa.
“If you hear anything else, you let me know.”
“You know it, California girl. I’ve been telling everyone that this town has always needed someone to put it on the map, and that’s going to have to be you.”
Edith laughed. “Melissa, I shoe horses. That’s not glamorous,”
“Oh honey, in these small towns you have to make your own fun.”
It was late when Edith drove up the mountain road to her old farmhouse, her Ford F-150 growling in low gear as it rounded the turns toward home. Trees massed around her, and now and again her headlights reflected on the eyes of animals in the dark. A whitetail bounded on stick-thin legs across the road in front of her, its twin fawns leaping behind it. She was glad to be heading home but Sam’s lies made her uneasy. She remembered his expression when she broke up with him. Should have known it wouldn’t be that easy, she thought. She would have to look out for him.
Her porch light was a welcoming sight, as she pulled in to her driveway. She got out, locking her truck, and the cool summer air swept over her. Overhead the stars glittered between the trees. She hadn’t even seen the Milky Way before she moved out here from smog-filled Los Angeles. The swath of stars filled her with peace and awe.
Edith yawned. Straight to bed for me, she thought, but she needed to check on her own horses. She let herself in, turning on lights, and went through her kitchen, with its jumble of mismatched crockery, Formica table and chairs, and old stove that came with the house when it was remodeled in the 1950s. Out back was the old barn, well over one hundred years old and still sound.
The only light came from the dusty night light by the door. Katahdin, her big seventeen-hand retired show horse, nickered, but Cowboy and Blackjack both slept, Cowboy curled up like a foal. Edith made sure he wasn’t cast in his stall; a cast horse could break a leg trying to get to his feet. Cowboy had plenty of room. Edith was about to leave when she heard the noise.
She turned toward her tack room door. It sounded like a machine was in there. She could feel the thrumming of an engine deep in her bones. Edith backed away, fumbling for the iron prybar she left in the corner of the barn. Behind her Blackjack snorted and whinnied, and Cowboy lunged to his feet.
Katahdin kicked at the back of his stall, shaking the wall of the barn. Edith jumped. The tack room door jerked open and someone stumbled out.
She had little time to register before whoever it was, in a streamlined G-suit, collapsed in front of her.
Oh my God. There’s a dead astronaut in my barn.
Merritt opened his eyes and wondered if he was still cycling in D-space. A woman stood over him with dark curly hair, dark eyes, and a long metal bar poised to strike. She was good-looking too, he noted; trim figure in a simple shirt and trousers. And scared and determined enough to take the prybar and smash him with it. She didn’t look like Beauchamps crew — where the hell was he? And where was the man from the freighter?
He stayed as still as he could. Sometimes the best thing to do was to play dead and hope for the best. With her free hand the woman fumbled for something in her pocket.
“Don’t move,” she said, her voice coming through his helmet’s comm. “I’m calling the police.”
Crap. That was all he needed. He started to get up.
“I said, don’t move!” Her voice rose.
He didn’t have time for this. He might only have a few minutes before whoever was chasing him on the Godolphin came through the airlock after him. He pulled his gun and trained it on her. Her eyes got big and she back away.
“Lady, the way I see it, you just brought the wrong weapon to a gunfight.” He nodded at the prybar. “Drop it.” She hesitated and set it down. “Now the comm.”
She frowned in confusion, but he held out his hand for the strange little comm, and she handed it over. He tucked it into his suit pouch.
“What do you want?” she said, swallowing to get her voice going.
“Same thing you do. To get out of your hair.” He gestured with the gun. “Move.”
She didn’t. She stood her ground. “Who are you? Did Sam Grenady put you up to this? What did you put in my tack room?”
What? He followed her gaze, turning his head. There was the door, and behind it, the Godolphin. The woman started toward the door, which had fallen ajar. For an instant he was back inside the scuttled freighter, the wormhole chasing him down and drawing him in, toward the crazy screaming man.
“NO!” Merritt shouted, as she pushed it open.
She flicked on the light.
Without thought Merritt plastered himself up against the opposite wall, aiming at the door, his heart hammering, as he registered what he was looking at. There was no D-space, no wormhole, no freighter, no madman, just a tidy room lined with gear, harness, and metal grain bins. Stand down, he told himself, just as something big snorted just behind his ear. Merritt whirled around and almost screamed. An enormous quadruped stood there, long-necked and big-headed. It eyed him and snorted again.
“What the hell is that thing!?”
“Don’t shoot him!” the woman said, and she threw herself at Merritt, grappling for the gun.
They wrestled. The suit gave him extra weight and boosted his strength and he soon had her pinned to the floor.
“I swear to God, if Sam Grenady is behind this I will kill you both!” she shouted, still trying to squirm free.
“Stop,” he said. “Stop. You keep fighting, the suit will keep compensating, and I can sit on you all day, and you’ll never get up.”
She listened to him, sullenly, fury still in her eyes. Merritt was suddenly enjoying himself. Finally, something was going his way. And even through the suit, he could get a sense of how it felt to be straddling her.
“Now. I’m going to get up and I’m going to let you up. You’re not going to try that again, right?”
He waited. She didn’t want to, but she nodded. He got up, and held out his hand to help her up. She ignored it and got to her feet.
“Like I said, I just want out of here. I need to know where the nearest port is. What world is this?”
She looked as if she were trying to come up with the right thing to say, and one of her choices was not going to be complimentary. Finally, she settled on, “Get the hell out of my barn.”
“My pleasure. After you.” He gestured with the gun and she went in front of him. He followed. One of the quadrupeds stuck its long neck out and eyed him with interest. Merritt scraped along the opposite wall, but she reached out and stroked the animal’s neck. A pet? A thing that size was a pet?
Outside the barn the skies above the trees were filled with unfamiliar stars. Merritt stopped, enjoying the rush of wind against his face, and wishing he had the Crane’s nav service to tell him where he was. There was a swath of galaxy above him, but he couldn’t tell which spiral arm he was marooned on from here.
She led the way through an ornate gate that swung silently on oiled hinges, past a small stone house and pointed down the mountain. In the pale starlight a road shimmered faintly before him. “That road leads to town. I don’t know who you are, or what you are doing here, but I would appreciate it if you didn’t come back.”
You and me both,” Merritt said. The sooner he got off this rock and back to civilized space — well, the sooner he would be back to dodging the police and trying to hustle a living. He remembered the key and opened his glove. With a sudden surety that took him by surprise, he said, “I think this is yours.”
She stared at it in the faint light from the stars. It lay in his glove, flat and heavy, and he waited patiently. She took it finally, and through the extra sensitive glove material he felt the gentleness and warmth of her fingers. He turned and began to walk down the road.
In the warm light of the kitchen, her heart still pounding, Edith began to dial 9-1-1, then hung up before the call connected. What the hell was Sam up to? If he had put this guy up to it, what could he mean by it? To make her sound crazy when she called the cops and said there was an astronaut in her barn. She got up and paced.
What if Sam wasn’t behind it? What was crazier, that there was a guy pretending to be a spaceman in her barn —
Or that there was a spaceman in her barn?
Her gaze fell on the key. It was an old-fashioned skeleton key. A shiver ran down her spine. The old farmhouse had been modernized more than fifty years ago, but before that, it had a key very much like this one. And that key had been lost for generations, she knew that for a fact.
She should have called the cops on him. She could still call the cops. She looked over at her phone, but she didn’t call.
Crazy guy hides out in my barn wearing a spacesuit, pretends he’s an ET who doesn’t know what a horse is. Yeah, she should have called the police.
Except. She remembered the sound coming from the tack room. That hadn’t sounded like anything she had ever heard. And he was terrified when she pushed the door open.
And then there was the feel of his gloves when she reached out and took the key. Thick gloves, yet so sensitive that she could feel his hand beneath them. Her hair rose at the memory, even as she scoffed.
So, you are out here in the back end of nowhere, making a living at a centuries-old craft. What do you know from new technology?
Edith got up. She went around her house, closing windows and turning locks. She went upstairs to bed, and looked out the window at her barn. The building was dark and peaceful, the small glow from the night light a comforting sight. For the first time she was unsettled by the loneliness of the mountain.
It took her a long time to fall asleep.
One-gee normal, his suit told him, and Merritt could feel every bit of it as he trudged down the mountain road, helmet in his hand. The cool mountain air felt good against his face. As the road curved down the mountain he could glimpse the lights of a small settlement in the valley below, and further away, a much larger city. There was no sign of an air transport grid though, and surely he’d be able to see port gantries from here. He craned his neck to look up at the stars again. Through the trees he could see a tiny, fast-moving point of light. Too small to be a space station though. Most planets were orbited by the wheel-and-spoke standard stations that could be seen even in daylight.
Wouldn’t that be his luck, to come out of D-space on one of the lost worlds.
Merritt stopped. He wiped sweat from his eyes. Night noises rose up around him. A faint wind rustled through the leaves, and in the distance he could hear hooting, a rippling cry, and a rhythmic call. Animals, he told himself nervously. Just basic animals. He didn’t get dirtside on too many worlds, but most terraformed planets were rife with flora and fauna. This one looked like it was pretty well along in the process. Merritt checked his sidearm. It was fully charged.
The sound of an engine caught his attention. Merritt looked down the road. Someone was coming up in a groundcar, and whoever it was wasn’t running their lights.
Had the woman called for reinforcements after she sent him on his way? Merritt melted back into the woods, and touched his suit controls. The suit obligingly made itself match the shadows in the woods. The smell of low-tech fuel made him gag. Internal combustion? What the hell?
When the car was swallowed up into the night he played back the recording made by the suit.
A cargo vehicle much like the one he saw at the woman’s house. The man driving it was shaggy, bearded. Angry. Obviously racing up the mountain to help out a friend who was in trouble. I better get the hell out of here before he comes looking for me on the way back.
Still, Merritt hesitated. He stopped the video, zoomed in on the truck. There was lettering — his suit chittered as it ran itself through standard transliteration modes and finally settled on one he recognized.
Did Sam Grenady send you?
Merritt cursed under his breath. The last time he tried to help someone, he had gotten kicked through D-space to a lost world and would likely never see his ship again. Forget it. She could handle herself. He actually took two steps down the mountain, when he stopped, cursed again, and charged back up the road.
The sound of breaking glass jolted Edith out of her uneasy sleep. She sat upright. There was another crash of glass, and Edith threw aside the covers. She grabbed for her phone and remembered. The guy in the tack room had taken it. Edith ran down the stairs in her T shirt and shorts, getting into her boots along the way. She hit the light switch and flooded her front yard with light. Sam stopped only for seconds and looked toward the house, then took another swing at her truck, battering the hood.
“I’m calling the police!” she screamed. “I see you, Sam Grenady! You will go to hell for this!”
“Screw you, bitch! I’m just giving you what you deserve!”
He swung the sledgehammer once again into her windshield. Edith ran for her kitchen phone. Nothing. No dial tone. Son of a bitch, she thought. He cut the wires. She would have to stop him herself.
Sam was sledgehammering at the back of her camper shell and had gotten the door open. He pulled out her tools and supply of keg shoes and had begun to dump gasoline all over them. Dear God, nothing would stop a fire that caught up here. Her house, her barn. Her horses. She burst from the house with a wild scream, brandishing the fire extinguisher.
“Get away from my house!”
He looked up just as she sprayed him full in the face. He staggered back, scraping foam from his eyes. Then he roared, and swung the gasoline at her. It spattered over her, and she stumbled backward, the smell of gas overwhelming. She kept spraying at him until the fire extinguisher was out and she threw the empty canister at him, screaming a wordless war cry to meet his howls of rage.
“Hold it!” came a voice from outside the pool of light. They looked up into the darkness, Sam with blood and foam cascading down him, Edith wild-eyed, reeking of gasoline. A glowing red light began to gather to a point. It was her spaceman, and he had his raygun.
“Don’t move!” he ordered and came into the light.
With a curse Sam grabbed Edith and threw her at the man, and bolted for his truck. The man pushed Edith away and ran after him, but Sam was lost to the darkness. An instant later they heard the engine roar and he peeled out down the mountain. Edith looked at the destruction of her truck. Her yard was full of glass and tools, and her truck listed to the side.
The spaceman came back. “He’s gone,” he said, his voice grim. “I couldn’t get off a clear shot.”
Edith turned to him. She ached and stung all over. Adrenalin was fading, leaving her with anger. She looked at him and shook her head and then slapped him as hard as she could. He staggered back, shock turning to anger, but she didn’t care.
“You stupid –” she said, her throat so thick she could hardly get the words out. “You took my phone.”
The police came, their blue and red flashing lights washing over her yard and the damaged truck. They took down her account and took pictures, and promised they would look for Sam, though at least two of the cops were related to him. Yeah right, thought Edith, bitter and cynical now. One of the cops looked at the spaceman. He was no longer in his suit. He had stowed it and his gun inside the house, upstairs in her bedroom. Now he just looked like a normal guy, though his shorts and T shirt were made out of an odd material that she almost wanted to touch, just to see if it felt as strange as it looked.
She hadn’t wanted to cover for him, but if the police thought he was a crazy spaceman, they might be distracted from Sam. Better not to confuse things any more than they already were.
“How are you involved?” the cop said.
“He’s a friend,” Edith put in. “He’s here visiting.” The man nodded, his expression showing no surprise at her explanation, like he was used to lying about who he was and what he was doing. She hoped like hell they didn’t ask her for his name.
“He can talk for himself, can’t he?” the cop said. “You have a name?”
The man closed down a little. “Merritt Crane.” His voice was cautious.
Edith tried to keep surprise off her face. What was he playing at? The cop caught it too.
“So let me get this straight — you a friend or a relative?” he asked, suspicious now.
“Friend,” she hastened. “Just a coincidence.”
Now the man looked at her, his expression guarded. Secrets, she thought. There are too many secrets for one front yard to handle. The cop went on.
“So you were here for the attack?”
Merritt nodded, a helpful easy attitude. “I just went for a walk down the road a bit, to stretch my legs. I saw him drive up in his ground vehicle, and thought that looked suspicious. Especially after — my friend — here said she was worried he’d try something.”
Ground vehicle. My friend. The cops looked from one to the other. “Right,” one said. “All right, that’s it then. We’ll keep up patrols for the rest of the night. We’ll find him. He won’t go far.”
Edith sat back in the kitchen chair and looked at the stranger. She was exhausted. She smelled of gas and she was covered with bruises. Tears bubbled up just under the surface and with the last of her effort she kept from breaking down into sobs.
“Won’t this night end?” she said. “I don’t think I can take anymore.” She looked at him, the crazy stranger who wasn’t so crazy any more. He watched her with concern. She got a good look at him, finally, in the light. Handsome, with a lean face and dark eyes, short dark hair. He looked like he was around her age, early thirties. Her voice shook a little as she asked,
“Who are you? Is your last name really Crane? What are you doing here?”
He hesitated and then said, “Yeah. I’m really a Crane. As for what I’m doing here — I don’t know.”
“Why did you come back?” she said.
A muscle twitched in his cheek. “Something didn’t feel right.”
If he hadn’t come…if Sam hadn’t been outnumbered… The tears came at last and she covered her face and sobbed, her shoulders heaving. He reached out and put his hand over hers, and squeezed.
“Hey,” he said. “Glad I could help. You did good by yourself.”
` “My livelihood — my truck. I don’t know how I can repay you.”
“You don’t have to repay me,” he said, but it sounded as if he had to force the words out. “You just need to tell me. What world is this?”
She was silent for a long time, the ticking of the clock the only sound in the kitchen. If she answered his question, it meant she took him seriously. Edith shook her head. She was too tired to second-guess anymore.
“It’s Earth,” she said. “You’re on Earth.”
She watched as comprehension dawned — comprehension and something else. Wonder. Disbelief. Fear. She expected him to say something but he only said, gently, “Go clean up. I’ll keep watch.”
“Aren’t you tired too?” she said. He smiled, and it lightened his expression.
“The suit’s been stimming me til I took it off. I can push it for a few more hours.”
She couldn’t even protest, just got up and pushed herself away from the table. Then she stopped, remembering something.
“Merritt. I’m really sorry I hit you.”
He gave a rueful grin and rubbed his cheek. “I’m sorry I sat on you.”
She laughed despite herself. “Even then.”
Earth. He was on Earth. The Earth Merritt knew was a wasted planet, with seas of glass and dead cities, its oceans boiled away, the losing side in a war with an unstable sun that had gone from even-tempered to angry giant in the cosmic blink of an eye. The arks had left Earth for other star systems eons before. There were about twenty planets that called themselves Earth, but he didn’t think she meant one of those. She meant Earth.
First things first, he told himself. Secure the house. Merritt started on the top floor, making his way up the narrow wooden stairs. There were two rooms. He opened the door to the first one. It was a sleeping room neat and tidy, sparsely furnished, its ceiling slanting down over the window. He looked into the second one. This was where she slept. The bed was untidy, the covers thrown back. Clothes were piled on a round-armed chair under the window, and there was a closet full of more clothes, its door ajar. The room smelled of her, warm and clean.
He went down the stairs, hearing the water running as she washed up in the bathroom. He imagined himself in there with her, grinned and shook his head. Need to keep my mind on what I’m doing, he thought. The downstairs held two rooms in front and the kitchen in the back of the house. He figured out the controls for the lights and he flipped the switch. Light came on to show another tidy room, not used very much. A word came to him, dredged up from distant memory. This was a parlor, for guests.
He heard the water shut off. There was one more door, at the end of the hall. He opened it and stumbled back. It opened on to a black hole, a void, and for an instant he thought that he had come upon another wormhole. He realized that he had stopped breathing, and forced himself to take a breath. He fumbled at the wall, but there was no switch. So he turned on his torch and pointed it downward. Now he could see stairs going down.
“What are you looking at?” she said from behind him. He turned, absurdly relieved that she was there. She still smelled faintly of gasoline, but she was in a clean sleeveless shirt and drawstring trousers, and toweled at her hair. His heart stuttered again but not from fear. He tried not to stare at the way she filled out her plain white shirt.
“What’s down there?”
“The old cellar. The foundation of this house dates to the 1800s, and they gutted it and modernized it, oh, about sixty years ago. That’s the root cellar.” She wrinkled her nose self-deprecatingly. “It creeps me out. I don’t go down there much.”
Funny how he knew exactly what she meant without knowing the words. He nodded and closed the door and they both breathed a sigh of relief.
“All right. It looks all clear. Sleep sound. I’ll take the downstairs.”
“Thanks.” She hesitated, and a bit of color touched her cheeks. “I mean. I don’t know how to thank you.”
“It’s all right. I’m glad to help.”
He watched her go, and shook his head. Merritt, don’t even think it, he told himself, but it was too late. He was already thinking it.
Sam Grenady holed up a swale off the road. He was covered with dried foam and blood, and smelled of the gas he had used to douse her truck. Crazy bitch, he thought. He shivered in the night air, and tried to cover himself with leaves. She found herself another guy in record time, and he had some kind of taser thing. It glared in Sam’s eyes, and he couldn’t see, couldn’t think. Well, if she thought she could get away with dumping Sam and taking up with someone else, bitch had another think coming. It was time to finish the job he started.
He’d have to do it quick though. He heard the police cars screaming up the road after he drove off into the underbrush near her place. Come daylight, they would be able to find his tire tracks easy.
“Don’t underestimate Sam Grenady,” he muttered. This was his town, his mountain. He’d been hunting on Crane land ever since he was a boy, and he knew its secrets. Sam kicked his feet into the soft dirt at the end of the swale. His boots banged against wood, and he kicked again and again til he smashed it in.
There were tunnels and caves all over this mountain, some natural, some manmade from when the locals ran moonshine. Sam slid inside as cold wet air rushed at him from under the ground and wormed his way through the low tunnel into the pitch-black underground. He’d teach Edith Crane a thing or two about her family history.
Birdsong and sunlight woke her, and Edith got up and dressed quickly in jeans and a T shirt, throwing on a plaid work shirt to ward off the morning chill. It was already eight o’clock. She never slept in this late. She paused before going downstairs, looking out the window. She loved this view. Beyond the barn and her forge, the green mountain rose up over the homestead, culminating in the bare granite mountaintop. From here she could see her meadow, blanketed in low morning mist, and dotting her land were the sculptures that she had made of iron and steel. Some she meant to sell, and she was starting to get clients from the big cities, even a few museums interested in her work. Others were just for this place, and had meaning only for her.
Her gaze fell on the key and she picked it up. Someone had hammered it out of pig iron. Not a method she would have used — she would have gone with an alloy and molded the molten metal into the right shape. It was made out of old iron, heavy and anachronistic. A mystery, she thought, part of a bigger one downstairs.
She padded down the steps as quietly as she could. Her spaceman dozed in the chair by the window, the gun lying in his lap. He didn’t wake, and she just took him in for a minute. Tall and lean, with dark hair, stubble on his face. Not classically handsome — someone had broken his nose at one point and it set awry, and she bet he had been teased about his ears when he was a kid — but oh, nice just the same. She took another step down the stairs, hitting the step that always creaked. He jerked awake, handgun up, then relaxed as he took in his surroundings. He looked at her.
“Damn it,” he said. “The stim wore off. I didn’t mean to sleep.”
“It’s okay. We both needed it.” She bit her lip. “Look, if you want to wash up, the bathroom’s through there. I’ll make breakfast, but I have to tend to the animals first.”
He went off to the bathroom and she waited, wondering if he was going to need help with her old-fashioned bathroom. Hmmm, that might be kind of fun, she thought, then scolded herself. Bad girl, Edith, but she was grinning as she went out to feed her horses. Katahdin had his nose out the door of his stall, neighing furiously at her, kicking the walls of his box for good measure, irked at his late breakfast.
“Get over it,” she told him, as she shook out flakes of hay and freshened their water. She left their stall doors open. When they were finished eating they knew enough to take themselves out into the meadow.
She stood at the split rail fence, breathing in the clean mountain summer air. It stayed cool up here even in summer, and the birds sang their hearts out in the clean sunshine. It was so peaceful, she could pretend that nothing had happened last night. Only the faint smell of gas told her otherwise.
Instead of tears, anger welled up. She was through crying. The police had better find Sam first, because if she did, she was going to make him pay.
Her kitchen door opened and Merritt came out. He looked freshly washed, his hair wet. Her mood rose.
“Figured it out?” she said.
He nodded. “I haven’t washed with water for a long time. Felt good.”
She couldn’t help it; she laughed. “Merritt, are you bullshitting me?”
He laughed too, but a little uncertainly. “I don’t –”
It didn’t matter. She was suddenly happy. Sam had done his best but he hadn’t broken her spirit. She put a hand on his arm, and nodded at the barn. “Watch.”
He followed her gaze. Led by Katahdin, the horses filed out of the barn, their heads nodding peacefully as they walked out to meadow. When they reached their pasture they began to trot and then to canter and buck. Merritt tensed. “Watch,” she whispered. Katahdin moved in a floating trot, the big bay horse lifting each hoof as if he were in a dressage test, his neck arched. The horses circled the pasture, disappearing down the hill and then they could hear the thudding hooves as they galloped back up.
When they settled to graze, Edith finally stirred.
“Gets me every time,” she said.
For a second a flash of sadness shadowed his eyes. “That was…that was incredible.”
She still had her hand on his arm and blushed. She turned the caress into a comradely slap on the shoulder. “Come on, I’ll make you breakfast.”
She made him scrambled eggs, grits, toast, and strong coffee and they sat at her kitchen
table. Earth food tasted pretty damn good, Merritt decided after the first few cautious bites. He hadn’t had a home-cooked meal in pretty much forever. He was so deep into his breakfast, he was almost surprised when she spoke.
“That key you gave me last night. How did you get it?”
“I doubt you’ll believe me,” he said. “I hardly believe it myself.”
She listened as he gave her the whole story, and when he was finished, she was silent for a long time, swirling her spoon in her grits. “You’re right,” she said at last. “I don’t believe you. But that key you gave me last night? In the Great Depression, when my family left Tennessee for California, they brought that key with them. It was a symbol of this place. That key went missing in my grandparents’ day.”
He thought of how the key landed at his feet, with the wormhole behind him and closing fast, drawing him toward the attacking madman. At first he thought it was a figment of his brain, trying to make sense of the collapse of space-time. Had he conjured that key out of the past — their past? But his past was her future, and maybe in more ways than one.
“I told you I was Crane, right?” he said. “Well, I’m part of the Crane clan, though I doubt we share much of the same DNA.”
“Distant cousins,” she said, her voice dry.
He laughed. “Really distant. Yeah. In my time, the Cranes became one of the greatest clans in the galaxy. Three hundred years ago, the Cranes built the arks to take humanity off Earth, and we settled the known worlds, terraforming and transforming as we went.”
She looked puzzled. “What? Why would we leave?”
“Because Earth died. The sun became unstable and became a red giant, way sooner than anyone expected.”
Watching her absorb the news was like watching someone get kicked in the stomach in slow motion. She looked out the window and he knew what she was thinking. This beautiful country with its horses, her home, her land — consumed by an angry sun.
“All of it?” she said. “I mean, it’s all gone?” She turned to him. “How do you stand it, knowing that Earth is gone?”
He surprised himself with his own answer, because until she asked him he never knew that it was something he had to stand.
“We spend our lives looking for her,” he said. “No matter where we live, no matter what station or what planet, no one ever stops looking.”
She looked stricken. “I wish you hadn’t told me. I wish I never knew. I’ll never be able to stand it, never.”
Merritt got up and went to her. He meant only to comfort her, and he put his arms around her but she lifted her face to his and they kissed. Her lips were soft and he pulled her close, letting his hands fall to her waist and then smoothing over her hips. She put her arms around his neck, and their kiss deepened.
Somehow they made it upstairs to her bedroom, scattering clothes along the way, and in the cool breeze from the open window they made love on her rumpled bed.
It was afternoon before Edith woke from her doze. The room had gotten chilly. Merritt had both his arms around her as if he didn’t intend to let her go, but he dozed too, and when she stirred, he muttered a protest.
She kissed him. “Not going anywhere.” She didn’t want to. It felt good, lying in his arms, their legs entwined, but there was a residual sadness too. The iron key lay on the bedside table where she had put it the night before. She sat up to pick it up. It was cool and heavy in her hand.
Merritt sat up behind her, wrapping his legs around her, nibbling along her neck. “What is it?” he said, between kisses,, keeping his hands around her waist. She shivered, losing her concentration for a moment.
“I think this key is the crux,” she said. “Somehow this key got lost so it could bring you here. But a key is nothing without a lock.” Edith pulled away and started to get into her clothes. She tossed Merritt’s to him. “If this is my grandparents’ key — what does this key go to?”
They both hesitated at the top of the stairs to the cellar, shining their flashlights into the dark. The stairs weren’t steep but they were in darkness by the bottom. Merritt got the impression of an earthen room, supported by timbers. Trash hulked in the corners, old ceramic jugs and rusty washtubs, and a tangle of copper tubing in one corner.
“What’s all that stuff?” Merritt asked.
Edith laughed. “It’s our sordid past. The Cranes were bootleggers back in the day. You’d never believe it by my grandmother, but the Cranes ran on the wrong side of the law now and again.”
Merritt gave a short laugh. Some things never changed.
They picked their way down the stairs, brushing away cobwebs. At the far end of the cellar was a wooden door, its threshold dull with dust. Edith put the key in the lock. It fit but resisted her attempts to turn it.
“Damn,” she said. “Here, hold this.” She handed him the key while she rummaged through the junk piled up by the stairs, her flashlight shining wildly. She held up a can. “I knew I saw some down here. WD-40. This and duct tape — keeps the universe together.” While Merritt kept the light steady, she sprayed the lock and tried again. Sluggishly it turned. They both pulled the door open and it shrieked on stiff hinges as it came open.
With a scream of fury, Sam Grenady burst through the door.
For a second Merritt was back on the Godolphin, watching the wormhole close in, the figure of the man rushing toward him. It was him, he thought dazedly. The cycling of the Godolphin had brought him here, through time and space, to this moment, and sent him the key to save himself.
He realized all this even as Sam threw himself at Edith. Merritt jumped on Sam’s back and pulled him off. He grabbed the man under his arms and held on. The flashlights rolled away, illuminating useless corners of the cellar, so the only light came from the stairs. Sam screamed and fought, and Merritt wished he brought his gun.
Light began to grow from behind them, and Merritt heard a familiar noise, the gathering sound and energy of a ship’s mechanics. He could see the dawning wonder on Edith’s face and he knew what was happening behind him. The airlock had returned, and behind it was the Godolphin corridor. He probably even had time to get to his ship and cast off from the freighter, bolting before the Godolphin’s final destruction. He could pull Sam through too, and the man would remain in the stasis forever on the edge of the wormhole exactly as Merritt found him.
Merritt dragged Sam toward the airlock. The whining noise rose and the soft chime of the warning system told him he was running out of time. He backed into the open door, the white light of the Godolphin airlock all around him. Sam struggled and fought, screaming and cursing, and Merritt tightened his hold even as the man threw himself backward, trying to break Merritt’s nose with the back of his head. Over Sam’s head Merritt could see Edith struggle to her feet.
The airlock whooshed shut. As he waited for the atmosphere to balance, he could see Edith through the tiny airlock window, impossibly far away. They stared at each other, and in the split seconds that remained, he could see her dawning despair, and knew it mirrored his own.
Edith worked steadily at the forge on her land, coaxing the iron into shape with fire and hammer. It was a facsimile of the airlock that had appeared in her cellar weeks before, made out of iron, to match the key and the lock. Crazy, she thought to herself, more than once, but the concentric rings were beautiful. Looking through, you had the impression you could see an infinite distance.
Edith took off her goggles and wiped back her hair with gloved hands that smelled of metal. As far as the police knew, Sam had left town. They found his truck off the side of the mountain, but he had disappeared. They promised Edith they would make sure they caught him if he tried to sneak back into town. They never asked about Merritt. It was as if he had never been there. She had tried the key a couple of times, but the broken door always opened on the dark tunnel leading up the mountain, and never into the airlock. So she decided to build a new one, forged of iron and hope.
It took her all day to haul the pieces of the new door down into her cellar, and almost all night to set it up, under a rig of lights that illuminated the dirt cellar and the remains of an old life. The lights shed plenty of heat and Edith was drenched with sweat. The close cellar smelled of it, along with metal and warm dirt.
Finished, she stepped back and looked at her handiwork. The iron door with its concentric rings fit in the opening, almost filling the cellar. Merritt said he spent his lifetime looking for Earth. It didn’t seem fair that he should find his home planet, just to lose her again less than a day later. The key brought him here once before. It would just have to do it again. Plus, if she were going to found the clan that built the arks, she couldn’t do it alone.
She took a breath and fit the key in the new lock. It turned without resistance. There was a pause, and then she heard a rising whine of power gathering behind the door. A chime signaled that the atmosphere stabilized, and the door swung inward.