The Cetian Sky
- A short story by Kevin Long
She checked her watch, then checked some numbers she'd scribbled in magic marker on the back of her hand. They were almost the same. She wrestled with the backpack she was using as a pillow, fumbled with her blanket, and put her hands behind her head, waiting. Almost too late, she remembered to take her glasses off. She laid them carefully in the grass to her side, then closed her eyes tight, pinching the bridge of her nose for a moment, and furrowing her brow in an effort to clear her mind while remembering not to turn her head to the right.
She opened her eyes the instant the sun crested the horizon. Shadows appeared, stretched, moved. The ocean was ablaze, a sunset-in-reverse, all golden, then orange dappled with bright lights, then mellower hues resolving quickly into azure. The sky changed from a primeval black beplagued with stars to a reassuring blue, then a beautiful blue, then a profound blue that was impossible to distinguish from the sea below. There was no line, no horizon anymore. There were no clouds she could really make out, though there was some fog in the valley below her. It was rapidly boiling away in the first lights. A breeze freshened from the sea, swaying a grove of trees. It wasn't unpleasant at all, though it was chillier than one would expect. She'd been right to bring the blanket, though of course this wasn't her first time up here.
She watched for a long while, a half smile on her lips, drinking it in, until her watch beeped, reminding her to get going.
She shut off the alarm and sighed contentedly. It was beautiful. It was almost—but not quite—like home.
Of course putting her glasses back on destroyed the illusion: That grove of trees had green hair instead of leaves. The sea air smelled wrong, lacking much of the ozone tang she expected. The waves were way, way too loud, and their breaking was accompanied by the uncomfortable sounds of creaking wood; massive freakish trees protesting the burden of two-hundred foot tides. The valley below her was already flooding. By lunch time it would be a narrow straight, and the mountain on the other side would be an island. By midnight it would be just a mountain across a valley again. To her right—where she steadfastly avoided looking—were the twin moons. And of course the sunlight was always just ever so slightly the wrong color. Not by much—a touch to one side or the other of the proper hue perhaps—not enough that you'd ever consciously notice it, but just enough to make one feel slightly off, slightly out of place.
But of course that was to be expected since it wasn't actually the sun. It was Tau Ceti, a star just under twelve light years from earth. She laboriously made her way to her feet—she was just about five months pregnant—rolled up her foam rubber yoga mat, gathered the rest of her crap, and walked back to the shantytown.
Along the way one of the Marines met her. The sun—well, a sun anyway—was behind her, so she couldn't see his face, but she recognized his silhouette and gait instantly. Corporal Wynans. He was a nice kid. When her husband had died, he'd instantly stepped in to help her out, make sure she was eating, make sure she made all her doctor's visits on time. He clearly didn't want anything out of it, he was just a good guy. She smiled at the sight of him, and wished him a happy, successful life. He wouldn't get it, but of course there was no way either of them could have known it at the time.
"Oh, Norah, there you are," he said, "I—gah!" He goggled a bit, then composed himself, but couldn't seem to remember he'd been saying something.
"The moons?" she laughed.
"The moons," he agreed. One of them was huge—roughly size of Mars—a massive blue, green, red and white Easter egg in the sky. The other moon was about the same size as earth's own, but was quite a bit brighter thanks to lots of ice on the surface. Generally grey, with large bright white bands here and there.
"It's damn disconcerting," she said, nibbling on a granola bar. I try not to look at it if I don't have to.
"It always takes me by surprise. I always feel like they're going to fall on me."
"We'll get used to it," she said.
"So they tell me. I dunno. A lot of people just refuse to leave their tents when the things are up. Crazy."
They topped a small rise. On a muddy plain beneath them, the shantytown of "Rychea" sprawled. The name was a corruption of the phrase "Right Here," spoken by one of the more hillbillyish colonists, and mistaken by one of the Russian colonists as a place name. It was oddly appropriate. Though there were expeditions exploring the continents beyond these islands, as yet no one had yet settled them. In all this new world, people lived only here. There was something dream-like and off-putting in that. "Right Here," indeed.
It was little more than a few hundred thousand tents, with thousands more added each time a new starship arrived. They were surplus from a half dozen armies back on earth. They slept in tents, they ate surplus military rations laid up years before; they even begun wearing surplus fatigues from various random earthly militaries once it became clear the local conditions were ruining their civilian garb. The difference between the three hundred thousand civilians living here and an armed camp was mostly notional at best. She tried not to think —for the hundredth time—that the difference between "pioneer" and "refugee" was equally thin.
"Not so crazy, I think," she said, picking up the dangling thread of conversation. "I saw Hale-Bopp when I was a kid. Well, not a kid, but, you know, still pretty young. It was just wrong, a big fuzzy white line in the sky, for days and days and days. You always think the ancients going all panicky when they saw comets was just ignorance, but seriously: you see something like that, it's just so completely out of place, it feels like the universe is broken somehow. Hard not to extrapolate that into end-of-the-world nonsense."
"Except," he said, "that in the present case, the sky is supposed to look like this, and it still affects us like that because...."
"Yeah, because," she agreed morosely. Neither wanted to quite say it aloud for fear of tempting fate, but here it was the humans were out of place, not the Cetian sky.
As they entered the camp, the PA was playing the end of some old Russian folk song about farmers attacked by Cossacks or some such nonsense. She hated that stuff. Then came a Johnny Cash song, and she hated that even more.
Wynans led her to her own olive drab tent. It looked like something out of M*A*S*H*, same as ever, but today it had a muddy Hummer parked in front, its hydrogen engine chugging away. Inside was a handsome, trim, slightly long-faced old man with thick eyebrows and a head full of surprisingly thick, grey hair. She could never decide if it was a toupee or a very meticulous comb-over. She caught his eye, and he burst to life, smiling, hopping out of the car, shook her hand amidst a flurry of oddly genuine pleasantries, and ushered her in to her own place.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, General."
"No wait, no wait, all the time in all the worlds. Don't call me 'General,' by the way." It was his standard greeting litany. He launched into the second bit, "I've never really gotten used to being called that. I was a Navy boy, after all..." She recited the last sentence in unison with him—everyone had heard the spiel a dozen times at least. Apparently no one had dared say it with him before because he looked slightly surprised. He thought that was funny, though, and laughed; his big electric smile lighting her up, his eyes inquisitive and happy and strong and young. He was a twelve-year-old boy in a seventy-three-year-old man's body. He was like Moses, only more fun at parties. He slept in a crappy tent, up to his knees in mud all day, eating Yugoslavian C-Rations and crapping in Port-O-Potties like the rest of them, and yet he strode through Rychea like a god. It was physically impossible not to love him. In abandoning home and coming here, their lives had suddenly become so small, and it made him seem that much bigger.
"So what's new?" she said, pouring him some water.
"Take a look at this!" He handed her a hunk of red amber with a Lovecraftian nightmare entombed inside.
"Ew." She said.
"I know, right? These things have been washing up all over Used Condom Beach since the storm two nights ago. Dr. Hu says she thinks they're probably coming off of those huge mangrovey tree things that pop up whenever the tide's low. Oh, and I've decided to send the Gabri'El out to survey the Pokebelt in the next month or so. I'm just waiting until the Iblis pulls in to orbit. That shouldn't be too much longer."
"What's 'The Pokebelt'?" She asked.
"That's what I've randomly decided to call the Tau Ceti asteroid belt. I got the idea from some of my grandkid's Pokemon cards I found stuffed in my luggage the other night. Anyway, Morozov has been trying to chart the belt, right? It's super-dense, way, way more dense than the asteroid belt back home. So dense it's kind of amazing we didn't lose any ships to it, really, so we need to get out there and survey it doubletime. Oh, and Dr. Drysdale says the recon boys have discovered some deep-sea life that is surprisingly like whales back home. He calls them 'Whaleoids'."
"Catchy," she lied.
"No it isn't. It's deliberately goofy."
"So how's the unmentionable plague?" she asked. His eyes never lost their smile, but it was clearly a mask now, not genuine.
"It's bad, Nora. I've got another funeral in an hour. We haven't even been here a hundred and fifty days yet, and we've had a thousand suicides, at least that many psychotic episodes; God knows how many brawls. It's accelerating, whatever it is." Gene never lied, but he was very selective about whom he shared the truth with. Her husband had been the first to go. A rapid-cycling manic depressive, he'd landed on the planet on December 11th, impregnated her amongst a wild day full of celebratory sex on the 12th, and on the 13th—a Thursday—he'd blown his brains out with a Beretta M9. No note, no reason, nobody knew why. Nobody knew why anyone did that kind of thing, but he was far from the last.
"When does the last of the starships get here?" she asked.
"That's almost five months from now. Will there be anyone left by the time they get here?"
Suddenly Gene's smile was real again. "It's not that bad. It's one third of one percent now, but if it keeps accelerating like that, well, I don't know how much longer we can keep blaming these things on hunting accidents and killer alien duck attacks. There's no biological reason for it, we're immune to all the Cetian diseases, or at least the ones we've found so far. If it's psychological, then why I..."
"We don't belong here," she said almost as a whisper.
"Well, maybe you don't," he laughed. She didn't smile.
"Ok, I'm sorry," he said, "Bad joke. Very bad joke. The fact is that... well. It's frustrating. We had everything so well planned out before we left, everything here should have been... set... when we hit the ground. But it just hasn't. The planet itself is what we were expecting, but those damn moons weren't, and the insane tides... among the command staff, there is a feeling that the situation is unraveling, and no one can figure out why. It's like humans don't have coping mechanisms for this kind of change or something."
He paused for a moment, debating whether to go on, then admitted, "Confidentially, We did a feasibility study last week, very quietly. If we have to evacuate everyone, can we do it?"
"Not an option. Landing people is easy, but putting three quarters of a million colonists in orbit again? It would take years, and there's lots of people we simply can't in good conscience throw on a shuttle. You, for instance. Do you have any idea what that would do to a fetus? I don't, but it can't possibly be good, can it? So you have the kid, we still can't take him until he's ten or twelve, otherwise he'll have all kinds of coup/countercoup and brain damage. We're stuck here Nora. Even if we don't belong, we've got no other option."
He downed the glass in one draught, then changed the subject: "What have you got for me?"
She blinked. It was difficult to keep up with him sometimes. "Nothing good," she admitted. "These are the latest batch of suggestions from the other members of the committee." She handed him a handful of rolled up sketches. He fumbled with them for a bit.
"Well, these aren't very good at all, are they?" he agreed, "What's this eyesore?"
"Oh, that one is a flag composed of all the flags of all the countries, states, provinces, and Indian tribes that the colonists came from. The engineering guys on the council pushed hard for it."
"Funny. Draftsmen always think that because they can draw, they can create. And this one?"
"Oh, that one shows the two moons in conjunction in an otherwise empty sky," she said.
"Looks like testicles. One's kind of swollen..."
"Moving on, we've got yet another green flag with only a dollar sign on it is from Edna Blume, our resident Ayn Rand whackjob."
"This is like the fifth time she's submitted that one."
"Oversight in the rules. Nothing we can do about it," she said.
"Oh my Good Lord! Is that a portrait of Yuri Gagarin?" Gene asked.
She grimaced in acknowledgement.
"I don't know anything about flags, but even I know that's terrible. Did the Russians suggest this?" There were tens of thousands of Russians in the shantytown, it seemed a reasonable assumption.
"Surprisingly no," she said, "The Chinese delegates proposed it. Said it was logical that if the planet itself was named after the first man in space, then...."
"No, no, no. Yuri himself would have been appalled by this. Throw it out."
"It's the front-runner, Gene. A whole bunch of others came around."
"Just something simple, just a simple flag, like the NATO one or the UN one, just come up with a device, slap it on a neutral blue background..."
"With all due respect, Gene, those are pretty bad flags. They're ok for an organization or something, but this is a new world, a new government, the planet Gagarin will be the first time in human history that an entire world has been organized under one banner. So we need a good banner. I'm quoting you, here, you know."
"I know," he admitted, "I just thought I'd pitch my 'Metatron's Cube' idea again."
"You're already using that for your starship's logo, and the Interstellar League's logo..."
"I just think it's neat."
"It is neat, for an organizational flag, but you've already used it. Twice. Besides, you never want to use an organizational seal or logo on a flag."
"Nonsense, there must be thirty state flags that do that back home."
"And they all suck. You can't tell the Virginia flag from the Minnesota flag from more than ten feet away, and you can't tell either from the Utah flag, or the Kansas one, or the Nebraska one, or, if you're colorblind, the Washington one, or..."
"Ok, ok," he conceded.
"Gene, why did you give me this job?"
"To keep you busy so you wouldn't dwell on your husband's death, obviously. But you were the only one in our personnel files who had a degree in velixollogy...."
"Vexillology," she corrected.
"...whatever. It seemed the wise choice."
"It was a wise choice. I'm absolutely positively not going to sign off on something that's going to humiliate my memory for the next three centuries or so. Just let me do my job."
The general chuckled. "Ok," he said, "I'm heading to the big moon. I'll be back in a month. This really has gone on too long, though. Have something ready by the time I get back, I'll approve it, we'll run it up the flagpole, the band'll play, it'll be done, ok? No pressure."
"No pressure. Right. The big moon is Ares, right? Why go there?"
"Simple ego. I eventually got to the moon back home, but I didn't get to be Neil Armstrong. Here I do. And I'll be the first man ever to have been on two moons."
"In addition to commanding the first starship, and being the first man to ever set foot on an alien world," she added.
"Yeah, I admit it. I'm working through an inferiority complex. Besides, I mean, look at that thing—" Gene was the only person she'd met in the new world who never seemed startled by the strange sky here—"It's beautiful and weird. A moon with seas? It's like something out of Flash Gordon. How can I not want to see that up close?" She thought, not for the first time, that Gene was a freak of nature. She envied the resolve in his eyes, but she never wanted to look out through them. "Just keep us from getting saddled with some dumb-ass Star Trek Federation crap, and I'm sure whatever you come up with will be fine."
Wynans loudly said "Knock Knock," then stuck his head in the flap, "It's time sir."
"Thank you, corporal." He hugged her, and thundered jauntily out of her tent.
"Well, thank God there goes that idea," she pulled a sketch of a Starfleet arrowhead out of the stack and crumpled it up."
* * *
Time passed, but she still couldn't settle on a design.
The Iblis arrived from earth, with another thirty thousand colonists. The people who'd already been on the ground for a while held a fair in welcome. The newcomers were regaled with music, largely fictional Gagarinish adventures, tales of impossible animals sighted on the as-yet-unsettled continents, nightmarish tides, even yet more nightmarish sea monsters, and plied with the local culinary delicacies: Nuts, fruits, glowing mushroom-like things, fish, fowl and, truth be told, a number of comestibles no one had been brave enough to try yet. They were known to be non-toxic, but beyond that? Who knew? Who would chance it? These were served up to the gullible as a practical joke. Those that produced projectile vomiting caused laughter, those that didn't were added to the overall Rychean menu.
Her profoundest memory was a bluegrass band jamming out "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" with a Chinese man on an Erhu. She didn't really like either style of music, and she certainly didn't like them together, but there was something compelling in the faces of the men on stage, putting things together in ways no one ever had before, much like the colony itself, she thought. She toyed with the idea of musical instruments on the flag, but never even bothered to sketch that one down. Flags shouldn't have emblems, they should be emblems.
Though racially no different from any other colonists, it was easy to tell the new ones from the old. The old were cautious about looking up, and tended to keep their backs to the moons. The new folk hadn't developed this reflex yet, and tended to sloppily let it distract them in mid-sentence or mid-mouthful (or mid-retch) and then stood there goggling at it until someone reined them in.
After the festival, things died down to the standard weird-yet-dull routine. Nora kept taking long walks around the island, trying to find something iconic, unique, indigenous. Something natural and inherently "Gagarinish." She didn't have any luck, though she got chased by a giant killer duck on one occasion, and probably would have died, had it not been for the serendipitous appearance of a hunting party made up of Chinese colonists. They eagerly slew the beast, and took her to the infirmary, just to make sure she was ok. She was very conspicuously pregnant, after all.
Some hours later, some of the hunting party showed up at her tent with several huge servings of what they jokingly called "Giant Killer Alien Peking Duck." It was the best thing she'd ever tasted in her life, but, alas, you can't make a flag from a flavor.
One night one of the younger colonists came by, and said he'd heard she had some "Drive-By Truckers" CDs. Could he borrow them? She shuddered and made a gift of them. They'd belonged to her husband. She never liked the band, but now she couldn't bear to hear them. She showed him some of her potential designs, a couple of which he thought were pretty good, then he thanked her and left. He gave her a bag full of crunchy frogs the next day in gratitude. She asked him if he could draw any of the designs from the night before from memory. He couldn't. Flag designs should be striking and memorable, but simple enough that a child can draw them from memory, so this last batch failed that test. The frogs were too sweet for her, so she gave 'em to her neighbor's kids.
She lay on her bunk, watching the news on the little battery-powered TV she'd brought from earth. As usual it was mostly dull stuff: a shortage of canned peaches, some fistfights, some thefts, rain coming in from the south, another fifteen people dead from suspiciously mundane accidents. There was some news from Gene's expedition to the big moon, full of crazy animals. They were loopy, bizarre things, as if Edgar Rice Burroughs had nightmares after reading Stanley G. Weinbaum, then hired El Greco to paint them based on his recollections. Still: they were on a new world trillions of miles from home. People grew jaded to this kind of stuff surprisingly quickly. She scribbled out and crumpled up stylized sketches of some of the more interesting beasts over and over again, trying to work them into some kind of emblem or design, but nothing would come. Flags shouldn't have those kinds of emblems, of course, she'd vetoed that a hundred times in a hundred other people's suggestions, but she was kind of desperate by this time. The clock was ticking.
The moons were in different orbits. She checked the almanac, and saw that the smaller one would remain out of sight for most of the night. That wasn't too bad. She steeled herself, then looked straight at Ares, the big, weird one. It wasn't too bad by itself. Way, way too big, but she concentrated and forced herself to remember that actually it only looked twice as large in the night sky as Earth's own moon had. In the last few days, a very large volcano had begun erupting on Ares. It was bright enough that she could see the flickering light across a quarter million miles of space. Strange to think of Gene up there with his team scuttling about on the slopes of that thing.
The Colonial Council For The Assignment Of Official Names Until Gene Randomly Decides To Change Them On A Whim—that was the actual, real title of the organization, by the way—had officially decided to call the smaller grey-and-white-striped moon "Selene." They asked that people please respect the decision, and asked that the Russian colonists please stop calling it "The Stalinist Christmas Tree Ornament." No one did. On the same day, in her diary, she commented that she'd decided on the color scheme for whatever flag she ended up designing: Red, White and Blue. The American and Russian flags both used those colors, and the Chinese flag used one of them. She thought that might make colonists from all three countries feel somewhat homey and comfortable. She mentioned this to the Flag Council, who that week were obsessed with the idea of the spectrum as a flag, with diagonal color stripes. She'd have rejected that even if it hadn't looked like something from a gay nightclub: Flags should never use more than four colors. Simplicity was the key to good aesthetics.
One of the council members had been a friend of her husband back when they were all on the Archangel. She'd seen him in the meetings endlessly scribbling. Notes, she assumed. One day she dropped by to visit him, and saw he'd actually been producing stacks upon stacks of pictures of Russian farm scenes, some with the Cetian sky above them. He suggested an all-blue flag, the way the ocean and sky looked on a clear day. She rejected that out of hand: Too simple. A flag should never have fewer than two colors.
It was rumored that several Chinese people had been stealing supplies and sneaking away in the night, though the Marines were ignoring it for some reason. She followed it up, and it turned out to be true. She moved through the hairy woods as stealthily as a pregnant black English woman could, which was not very. Presently the hoarders just gave up and said, "Oh come on, arready!" Then they took her to a brand new rice paddy they'd been building in the foothills of Big Ass Mountain.
The big news story one night was that the Gabri'El had stumbled across a maser signal from earth while they'd been surveying the Pokebelt. They had no idea who was sending it, or why, but it was mostly BBC and Itar-Tass newscasts, taped off the air and beamed at Tau Ceti by some well-meaning but unknown ally with access to a lot of energy and technology.
Picture quality was abysmal. Sound was little better. The news obsessed with the devastation the colonists had caused in Antarctica when they launched. They'd expected this to some extent: Nuclear Pulse Rockets were devastating things. There was a reason they lifted off from Antarctica and not New York, after all. The actual sight of it was still shocking, however. The broadcasts were saying several species of animals were likely now extinct as a result, that ocean levels were going to rise, that it would hasten Global Warming. The hole in the ozone layer now took up half the southern hemisphere.
Was any of it true? Maybe. The frenzied hyperbole in the news was identical to that following Pearl Harbor or 9/11, full of panic and impotent anger. Did they still feel this way? Maybe, but again hard to tell. There was a twelve-year lag time on these signals. All that they could say for sure was that everyone on earth hated them six months after they'd emigrated.
The suicide rate had jumped up quite a bit after that.
One day she got ambitious and decided to poke around under the tide line when the waters had ebbed out. She carefully wound her way through the huge, weird, mangrove/banyan/sequoia tree things that prevented erosion from the planet's massive tides. Hundreds of feet tall, perpetually wet and sticky with red sap, with huge plumes of something like kelp. They were completely submerged at high tide. There were fish and things flopping around here and there, what looked to be starfish moving in the kelp, a strange sweet, calming smell whenever the wind blew through the unearthly groves. It was here that it finally struck her—where she finally completely, fully, intellectually realized—that she was on an alien world. She had a momentary epiphany, and prayed silently to the God she didn't believe in, thanking Him. She felt at one, blessed, content, secure in the knowledge that this gnosis had been meant only for her, in this virgin wood that no one before had ever seen.
Then she turned and noticed "Tampa Bay Buccaneers Suck" carved into the massive trunk of one of the trees.
"Oh, dammit!" she cried in exasperation. She tried sketching some of the trees anyway, working them into Celtic knots but they were too complex, too irregular, too organic to use, and of course doing so violated the basic rules of vexillology anyway. Desperation. Time. No inspiration.
The Marines built a large brick wall and painted it white. They started projecting movies on it the next night. "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" was the first film ever shown on an alien world. She could not have been more bored. The next night they showed "Nostalgia" by Andrei Tarkovsky, and she discovered that she could, in fact, be more bored. A Cherokee friend invited her to a church service, and though she wasn't at all religious she went. An orthodox priest gave a mesmerizing liturgy that she didn't understand a word of under an open sky, while a black gospel choir composed mostly of people from South Carolina sang. She didn't believe a word of it, but it was stunning just the same. Her friend suggested Standhope Wattie's battle flag from the civil war after the service, but she laughed it off: A flag should never have writing on it.
It nagged at her that the answer must be in the sunken groves. She waited until the groaning, tortured sounds of the monstrous trees remerging from hundreds of tons of water stopped, then hiked down. She heard laughter, and followed the sound. A bunch of ten-to-twelve year olds were playing war, dashing about between the roots, shooting at each other with Nerf guns, and hurling grapefruit-sized pods, which burst open into a cloud of pea-sized seeds whenever they hit someone. A kid pretending to be Darth Vader was fighting with a Russian kid pretending to be Chang Kai-Shek, while some Chinese kid in a cowboy hat did a really bad John Wayne impression. She clucked condescendingly at all the cultural baggage people drag along with them. Here they were, actually sharing cultural baggage. Did that mean something? She didn't know what to make of it, so she just moved on. It was dangerous as hell for the kids to be down here, but she let it slide.
Eventually, when she could walk no more, she sat in the mud and pulled out a catalog of national flags from earth. She'd worked her way as far as the Australian flag, and wondered if an astronomical pattern similar to the one they'd done might be a good idea. She looked up through a clearing in the dripping forest canopy, and strained to find the constellation Crux, the Southern Cross, which, of course, she couldn't identify since they were so far from earth that the stars themselves appeared to be in different patterns. Still, she looked for Crux, looked for Crux, looked for Crux, feeling it was in front of her face all along, but she just couldn't see it. And then, suddenly, finally, inspiration!
She never found the cross she was looking for, but she knew, knew, knew, after all this time, without doubt she knew what the flag had to be.
* * *
"Is this a joke?" Gene asked. They were in his tent. He was smiling, but it was another of his mask-smiles, not a genuine one. "I have to tell you, if it's a joke, it's a bad one." He sat at his desk—a folding card table—looking at her prototype flag, and toyed absently with a sextant. A rather mod-looking one. Since when did Gene fiddle with things when he talked?
"Uhm... no?" she said. He shot a look at his wife, Jan, who took a short, chesty strawberry blonde girl in hand, and the two of them quickly left.
"You may as well have chosen a swastika. I have to say, I'm surprised at you, of all people pulling a stunt like this," he said.
"Oh, it is not like a swastika. Why are you surprised at me?"
"Because you're black, obviously!" he snapped. He got up.
"I'm British, too. I don't have a horse in this race. I'm not colored by all your cultural baggage. You wanted a flag that peo..."
"Do you know what that thing represents? It's a terrible, terrible flag," he yelled. Something was off, something was different Nora thought. Everything was the same as it always was—same Gene, same boundless energy, same smile—but there was something subliminal. Then she looked him straight in the eyes as he seethed, and she placed it. She'd seen it before. She had a moment's fear for the old man. It was the look her husband had had in his eyes when he went out for some MREs and never returned.
"Actually, from an objective point of view, it's a very good design," she said evenly, trying to contain the situation. How do you contain Moses when he's suicidal? "It's simple, it's elegant, it uses only three colors, the design is instantly recognizable from a distance, it has the advantage that no one else is using anything terribly similar. And it's obviously got some cultural significance."
"Unacceptable, Misses McKaskey."
"Gene, let's think about this objectively, it will help our present situation immeasurably because..."
"Unacceptable," he said again. "You've got a second choice? If not, get out, your services are no longer required."
"Uhm..." she balked for a moment, deeply, deeply hurt, then fumbled through her pack, pulling out a much earlier prototype, a rather generic combination of symbols from the American, Russian, and Chinese flags. It was ugly. "Yes," she said, and handed it to him.
"Thank you. Your services are neither appreciated, nor needed from this point on. Leave."
She exited in tears, which broke into wracking sobs as she walked. Since when would Gene yell at a pregnant woman? What the hell had happened up there on Ares?
She knew she was right, though, and in a flash she knew what she had to do. Once she'd composed herself somewhat, she stood hidden in the long morning shadows, across the aisle from Gene's tent. She watched people come and go for a bit. Presently, an enlisted man left, carrying the ugly flag folded up under his arm. He was heading to the parade grounds. She waited until he was a couple blocks away, and intercepted him.
"Sergeant, wait!" she called. The man paused. She decided to milk the pregnancy thing a bit, and made a show of being out of breath. "Wait up," she called, "There's been a mixup." He moved back towards her, they met half way.
"Ma'am?" he asked.
"There's been a mix-up. The General sent me. The flag he gave you was a rejected prototype. The one he'd intended to use got shuffled under some linens..." she laughed in a stagey, annoyed fashion as if to say, Officers, huh? Am I right? The man bought the act, and traded flags with her. She took the ugly one, and gave him the one she'd wanted Gene to use. He headed off to the parade grounds.
An hour later, about seventy-five thousand people were assembled on the parade grounds. The band played. Gene took the stage in his full dress uniform, looking like an elderly demigod. He gave a speech, oddly with his sextant still held absently in his left hand, then gave the word. The color guard ran the flag up the pole, the crowd seeing it for the first time.
She wasn't sure what she'd expected. Everyone recognized it, of course. There was some applause, but nothing thunderous. More than polite, though. A few people laughed. A few cheered, one guy very clearly yelled "Yes!" A few booed, but far less than you'd think. Most just nodded at it, as if they got it, as if they understood. Most seemed to understand.
Up on the stage, however, Gene turned purple.
* * *
She spent a week in the stockade. It wasn't materially different from her own tent, excepting she didn't have her books or her portable TV. When he finally came to see her, his face was unreadable. He came in without announcement, or guards, sat in her canvas director's chair, and put his feet up on an empty footlocker.
"No sextant today?" she noted.
"It's an antique," he said, "It went to the moon on Apollo 17. They were intended as a practical backup in case electronic navigation failed. It means a lot to me. I've taken it to two moons now."
"Would it really have worked?"
"Back home? Oh, hell yeah. I plotted our course all the way out and back. It was fun. Here? Not so much. I can't identify half of the damn stars in this sky. The principle is sound, though, I just need to learn new stars, I guess. I'm utterly furious with you."
"Because sometimes a sextant alone isn't enough?" she asked. He almost laughed at that, but not quite.
After a long pause, he said, "Those damn things are popping up all over the camp. Apparently a lot of people just happened to have some stuffed in their luggage. Other people have been making them. I'm kind of tied, there's not much I can do without looking like a fool."
"That was the plan," she admitted dryly. "Gene, what happened on Ares?"
He ignored her, "So you win, congratulations. You want to explain why you didn't even bother to design a flag? Why you used that twisted thing?"
"Yes, actually. Let's do the math on this: Traditionally there are thirteen stars on that flag, mostly because it looks best with that number. There are thirteen continents here on Gagarin. So that fits. The Saltire ties everything together, suggesting the thirteen are part of a larger whole, the colors are..."
"I don't care about that," he snapped, and simply asked, "Why?"
She breathed deeply, steeling herself, then said "When all twenty-four starships get here, the population will be about three quarters of a million people, right? Nearly half a million of them are—were—Americans, a hundred and eighty-thousand Russians, sixty thousand Chinese. In recruiting us, you and your cabal selected people who felt marginalized from society, shut out because of where they lived, or how they talked, or maybe their beliefs. You mostly went after poor, rural types who had nothing to lose, right? Poor Russian farmers, Chinese from the western provinces, American rednecks; they felt their own governments reviled them, and they may even have been right. These were the people you wanted, right?"
"Not really. These were the people who were available, who we could organize, who move about quietly without anyone noticing until it was too late. Getting bodies out here was more important than ideology or education at that stage."
"Well, on that note, the flag you unveiled has the advantage of notbeing American, but just the same two thirds of the population already have some emotional stake in it. And a lot of the Russians already know it. You can find that thing stapled to the wall of any bar anywhere in Europe that plays roots rock. You'd be surprised how popular that god-awful country crap is as a novelty. The Chinese think it's pretty, and they're just happy it's not the communist flag. They've got no love for it. They're willing to join. We're all willing to join something new, that's why we're out here. It was the flag of a rural people, and in case you haven't noticed, "rural" is all any of the colonists have in common. Have any of the Indians complained?"
"Ok, so there's what, about 90,000 of them? What about black people?"
"More than a few."
"But not nearly as many as you'd expect, right? Tobacco farmers and cotton farmers, they've been around this stuff their whole lives. Hate it or love it, it's nothing to be feared, it's just a piece of home. I know, I know, I know, I know what it means in a Midwesterner's eyes like your own, but think about it: isn't there some bad stuff wrapped up in the American flag, too? Slavery? Racism? The Indians? Vietnam?"
He said nothing.
"That's all in the past, though. The American flag also represents good things, humans at their absolute most daring and best. So let this other flag do that, too. Whatever it meant in the past, that's done. We all know nothing like that is ever going to happen here. So let it grow into something good. Let it redeem itself."
"We were supposed to represent all three cultures equally," he said.
"Then why are we all speaking English, instead of Esperanto? And why take such uneven numbers, instead of a quarter million people from each country? Culture is the one thing capable of holding this place together, and you won't let them use it?"
Again, he said nothing.
"The suicide rate has dropped, hasn't it?"
"A bit, yes, how did you know?"
"Cavemen took embers from the old fire to start the new one. There's symbolism in that, continuity with hearth and home, a feeling of safety. We didn't evolve for this place, we don't fit, we need that continuity, we need to learn new stars, we need to feel like we can live here. Think what you want about it, Gene, but you're heading back to earth in six months, and you'll likely never be back here again. This isn't something for you, it certainly isn't for me. It's for them, the people who are going to spend the rest of their lives on this weird-ass nightmarish mudball. Anything that helps them do that is a good thing, right?"
They were both quiet for a while. Finally, tiredly he got up, and said "You can go back to your tent. I've told the Marines to release you." He walked towards the flap, looking young, and energetic, and vital as ever, and yet strangely hollow.
"Gene, what happened to you on Ares?"
"You've forfeited the right to know," he said, "but I'm over it. I got better." He walked off.
Emotional to begin with, and, and stung by his formally shutting out, her eyes started to sting. "More will recover. The more we make this place feel like home, the more people will recover."
"We'll see," he said, not bothering to look back. He never spoke to her again.
* * *
Tuesday, December 10th. Three hundred and sixty one days since the first landing on Gagarin, three hundred and fifty nine days since her husband had died. A few moments before sunup, Nora lay on her yoga mat on a hillside, her tiny new baby—Roy—bundled up, but wide awake in her arms. It was so quiet that she could make out the faint sounds of a song in Cherokee on the PA system back in the camp. She watched a tiny pinprick of light pulsing in the dark sky. It was the Archangel breaking orbit, its nuclear pulse rocket firing. It wouldn't be back this way again any time soon, if ever. Then the sun edged up, and the engine light was lost in the first glow of day.
The sunrise was both familiar and alien these days, but she watched it every chance she could. Nowadays she could leave her glasses on when she did, and she didn't even have to be so meticulous about not looking at the moons. Roy sneezed like a cat, and Norah sighed contentedly. It was beautiful. It was almost—but not quite—like home.
But it was a little more like home now than it had been; and that stupid old rebel flag flew proudly in the Cetian sky.