Perhaps if she visited more often, he would be over it by now.

But she didn’t seem to be paying him any attention. Her hawklike profile was bent over the breakfast table as she dripped honey into her tea, the green sapphire stud in her nostril glinting through the dark, loose strands. A scholar’s robe of white and green drooped from her shoulders and draped her thin arms. She was as skinny as his daughter Perceval.

Benedick sighed silently. For the moment he, too, forced himself to focus on his bread and tea, and the words of Caitlin Conn.

“We would have expected more significant radio flux from a world inhabited by intelligent life.” Caitlin had an educator’s tones. “We would have expected to see them coming—or see them while coming at them. If we’d been expecting other people here, we could have arrived sneakily, or loudly broadcasting our good intentions. But based on the probe we recovered, they seem to rely on some form of tight-beam transmissions that we do not fully understand. We are continuing our analysis.”

“They are definitely human?” Chelsea asked, rolling crumbs of bread between her fingertips. It took courage to ask the obvious question.

“Definitely,” Caitlin said. “The markings on the probe are in an alphanumeric system derived from our own. And my engineers believe their machinery springs from the same roots, though we have undergone centuries of technological drift.”

Cynric sipped her tea. “I am engineering a device to receive and decode them, but these things take time.”

They must be spliced, they must be hybridized. They must be grown to parturition and to enough adulthood to be useful. Even in Cynric’s hands, that might mean days. Weeks.

Cynric licked at the edges of her teeth. “What other signs of life does Grail possess?”

Caitlin was shorter and more compact than Cynric—or Benedick, for that matter. It was from him that Perceval got her rangy build, while Caitlin had broad shoulders and a solid frame. Her auburn hair curled loosely about her nape and ears, cut too short to brush her collar. She had gray-blue eyes, the whites flushed with the pale cobalt tint of her colony, and she favored bright, warm colors—currently, a loose-sleeved tunic in flowing vermilion over a body-tight shirt in a complementary yellow.

When she turned to Cynric, she caught Benedick’s gaze along the way and offered a small, sympathetic smile. He let out the breath he was holding. Time and useful work were healing those wounds, at least.

And speaking of the useful work—or not speaking of it, as the case might be—it was time he was about it.

“Nova reports no structures of gross scale.” And lesser ones would not yet be detectable. “But that’s at this distance, which tells us only that they don’t have continental arcologies and they don’t have an orbital elevator.” He took a bite of the high-protein bread, careful not to drip the oil down his face. Though it was a breakfast meeting, and they were all family here, it didn’t hurt to present an adult appearance—or the facsimile of one. “Nova did spot one interesting bit of geography, though.”

Obligingly, the Angel—who was not present as an avatar, but was listening, as was her duty—popped up a crudely surveyed, low-resolution globe. Grail was second out from its home sun. It had a secondary, like Earth—and like Earth, it was the larger twin—but the smaller planet didn’t appear in this simulation.

“It’s so colorful between the oceans.” Chelsea leaned forward over the table, her dark hair falling in waves beside her long, angular face. Her mouth had dropped open slightly in concentration as she peered at the patterns of violet-black, red-black, swirled white, and azure. She cocked her head to the left. “Is that vegetation?”

While suffering the throes of memory, Benedick indulged himself in a more pleasant one: a brief interlude in a mad dash through the bowels of the world that he and Chelsea had undertaken, where they had met a colony of sapient, carnivorous orchids and been introduced to an archive of films from Earth, including footage of the homeworld’s mighty oceans. He imagined that Chelsea, too, was recollecting those images. The surface-level pictures had revealed oceans tinted glass green by algae and azure by reflection from the deep skies above. These oceans appeared similar, allowing for some astronomical units of difference in perspective.

But the landmasses of Earth as seen from space had been different. They’d been greener, and browner, with great swathes of tan and umber through the haze of atmosphere.

“Analysis of the reflection spectrum indicates it’s photo-synthetic,” Caitlin said. “So yes, it’s plants. Purple and black plants. Very efficient sunlight collectors. Grail’s sky is probably blue, based on atmospheric haze, ocean color, and still more spectrographic analysis. From here, the air looks breathable, though it’s an extremely rich mix by our standards. Benedick, you were about to …?”

Benedick beckoned, zooming the globe in until a blurry bit of detail on the smaller of two southeastern continents became visible. A circle, perfect as a water splash, reflecting the blue skies above.

Jsutien said, “Impact crater.”

“Fresh. Less than a hundred and fifty years old. Lingering traces of radiation.”

“Damn,” said Jsutien. “Guess they really blew the dismount.”


divergent evolution

No, ’tis the gradual furnace of the world,

In whose hot air our spirits are upcurl’d

Until they crumble, or else grow like steel—

Which kills in us the bloom, the youth, the spring—

Which leaves the fierce necessity to feel,

But takes away the power

—MATTHEW ARNOLD, “Tristram and Iseult”

Danilaw pulled his work coat off the hook on the inside of his office door when they walked past. As he and Captain Amanda stepped into the conference room—and Karen paused to wait outside—he shrugged into it, head bent. He could feel the frown on his face and wanted to hide it from Captain Amanda and his cabinet members until he had it under control. It was a frown of unease, not displeasure—but a responsible leader understood that those around him reacted to his moods and to those unconsciously perceived cues that told one to walk softly because the silverback was angry. A frown would upset them, and he needed his team focused on the problem—not on appeasing, avoiding, or supporting him, as their various natures might demand.

Captain Amanda latched the door quietly, letting everybody know that this was serious business. The City Council did not usually meet behind closed doors. The conference room was pleasant, airy, conducive to work without ostentation or extravagance, though it, too, had a couple of lake-view blisters—also empty of any dodecapodal observers.

The central table was the one element likely to impress, but that was due to it being a state-of-the-art piece of technology rather than to any calculated effect. A thick memory crystal embedded with data arrays, a solid-state quantum teleconferencing system, holographic displays, recorders, and other useful and interesting devices, it had the appearance of a palm-thick, armspan-wide slab of pale violet glass threaded with circuits and guide panels. The array rested atop four graceful C-shaped ceramalloy legs, like something that trembled on compressed springs. But it was solid as rock—and heavy as one, too, as Danilaw clearly remembered from the work party he’d hosted to move the damned thing in here. Even blunting the gravity hadn’t made that project easy.

The secondary task of carrying in the chairs had been handled by Danilaw’s sister’s kids, since it had been his day to watch them. Good life experience, and a few community service credits toward their citizenship, combined with a family outing. Sometimes, laziness was the next best thing to genius.

Two Administrators waited behind the table. The citizen on the right was Jesse Corelio, with his nut-brown

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