Lang dangled his feet off the edge of the pier, trying his best to ignore the strong smell that seawater seemed to develop around any kind of manmade structure. Perhaps it was something from the power plant, or an effect of the plants growing there. Priss and Aubrey were there as well, although neither of them were that interested in touching the water.
“What do you think they’re going to say?” Priss asked.
“I don’t know.” Aubrey leaned against one of the titanic support pillars, a concrete pile as wide as two people that raised a good three feet above the walkway it supported. “Honestly, I’d hope UNIGOV would be willing to talk to you after everything that’s happened over the past six weeks but I also never expected I’d be happy being friends with martians either. So I don’t think I have the best insight to go off of.”
“Reminder who just got pulled into issues of interplanetary diplomacy,” Lang said, pointing at himself. “I’m getting worried I’ll be anointed the leading authority on Earthling psychology by the time the fleet’s done here. Your insight is just as valid as mine. Better, because you’ve actually lived through the changes we’re hoping everyone else will have.”
“When your tour’s up maybe you should retire and join the diplomatic corps,” Priss said, elbowing him.
“When I cycle out I’m buying my own ship,” Lang muttered.
Priss looked surprised. “Really? I always figured you were a lifer, in it ’til they force you to retire. When do you plan to pack in your exo?”
“I haven’t decided,” Lang said. “It’s something I only started thinking about since the first time we grounded.”
“What kind of ship were you thinking about?”
“Are there a lot of different kinds?” Aubery asked.
“As many as there are kinds of cars or boats,” Lang said. “The big ones are all owned by passenger of freight liners but I’m thinking about finding a small private charter ship. I may need to sign on with a charter company for a few years to get through the licensing and safety procedures but I’ve got more than enough flight hours to get accepted anywhere.”
“Private passenger charters always like ex-military fliers,” Priss mused. “Although your record of crashing ships might be a real turn-off when you have to sign up for pilot’s insurance.”
“Is there really enough demand for travel between planets for there to be private charter flights on a regular basis?” Aubery asked.
“You might be surprised.” Lang scratched his chin. “Although I’m not sure I want to have to deal with a bunch of rich passengers for a week at a stretch on the Roddenberry to Galileo run. Pay’s better than small time freight, though.”
“Two weeks a trip.” Aubery shuddered. “I’ve been away from home for maybe twice that and sometimes I think I’m going crazy. How can you put up with it?”
Lang shrugged. “It’s just part of the job, I suppose. Gotta say, this trip to Earth has been a lot nastier than the war was, given how out of touch we’ve been, but you expect to be off planet a lot in the spacer corps. At least on a passenger or freight run you get a week off between runs. Of course, by the time we get back they may have another new generation of superluminal drives to cut down on travel time.”
“If you want my advice, get a spot on a passenger liner,” Priss said. “You spend too much time alone with no one to reign you in and you’re going to go off the deep end and fly yourself straight into a black hole or something.”
Lang shrugged. “If you’re that worried about it you might as well come along and do it yourself.”
“Don’t have the skills for it. Comms are a dime a dozen out there in the stars, unlike you flyboys. My medical training isn’t up to snuff as an onboard doctor, either. I might be able to rate as a nurse but I don’t want to spend my flights wiping noses on a passenger flight.” Priss folded her hands behind her head and lay down flat on the docks. “It’s the corps or nothing for me. If I do cash out and go civilian I’ll probably settle down and get married, make a few tiny terraformers and spend my days proof reading legal filings for contractors like I was doing before the war.”
“Sounds nice,” Aubrey mused.
“You’ve never had to edit for paralegals,” Priss said dryly. “If I had a credit for every time I was told to mind my own business I’d be able to buy a ship for both me and Lang.”
“Nice because you’ll be done.” Aubrey tucked her knees up under her chin and looked out at the ocean. “You make it sound like you’re practically done with Earth. I don’t even know when I’ll have a chance to go home.”
“There’s no such thing as done, Aubrey.” Lang pulled his feet out of the water and scooted back so they rested on the pier, enjoying the feeling of them quickly drying in the warm afternoon air. “It looks like there is but that’s a trick. I thought I was done after I came home from Galileo. I was going to hang out in the fleet, do really easy patrols around the system and along the Copernican-Newtonian corridor and never have to worry about getting shot at again. Two years later, I’m here. Two years from now, who knows where I’ll be?”
“Flying charter ships, it sounds like,” Priss said.
“Maybe. Maybe I’ll change my mind, re-up and do another tour in the Corps. I did originally planned to be a lifer.”
“What made you start thinking about changing your mind?” Aubrey asked.
“The actual war part wasn’t great,” Lang admitted. “Coming to Earth seemed like a chance to make history in a more positive way but it hasn’t really worked out that way. I kind of just want to step back and see if I can make something of myself before messing with history again.”
Aubrey gave a hollow laugh. “Good luck. Sometimes history decides to mess with you.”
“Point taken.” Lang stared out at the oceans of the Homeworld and tried to reconcile his own feelings for the place. For all that it was the cradle of humanity, it hadn’t treated him that well in his time there. Then again, it’s not like the Triad Worlds were any better. He certainly felt more invested in it than he ever had on Copernicus, though. He’d never payed nearly as much attention to things back home as he had on Earth – or Minerva, for that matter. “I think you Earthlings will be able to sort it out eventually.”
“I wish I had your confidence.”
“I’m more worried about the Malacandrans,” Priss put it, taking great care as she pronounced the unfamiliar name. “Those kids have had a really rough go of it and I’m not sure what we’re doing is the best way to help.”
“You could put in to join the delegation to Mars the Admiral is thinking about sending,” Lang said. “See things there up close.”
“They’re sending a Copernican delegation to Mars?”
“Oh.” He realized that was something he’d heard Carrington discussing with Naomi while they were waiting to set up Mond’s entrance into Shutdown. Not something for general dissemination. “Maybe?”
Priss gave him an arch look. “You know I’m in Comms, right? I’m duty bound to put that out on the rumor mill.”
“Can you wait a few hours to give me plausible deniability?”
“We do our best to protect our sources.”
“Didn’t sound like a yes, Priss.”
“It wasn’t one.” She sat partway up, resting on her elbows. “I’m not sure I want to go to Mars. I kind of like it here on Earth. There’s oceans and deserts and a whole lot of other stuff we don’t have on Copernicus. We say we’re terraforming the planet but we’re not really making a place that looks a whole lot like Earth based on what I’ve seen. There’s a lot of temperate land going up around the planet. Not a whole lot of deserts or jungles.”
“You want a jungle?” Lang asked. “You’ve never even been to a jungle so why do you want one on Copernicus?”
“I dunno. Maybe I just want to go see a jungle before I decide whether I want one or not.”
“How long do your tours last?” Aubrey asked. “You said you traveled a long time just to get back to Earth so will your time be up soon?”
“It’s about six months to get to Earth at the pace the Fleet came at,” Lang said, “although that’s with the old supply ships thrown into the mix. If we moved at the pace of the Principia, which is the fastest thing in the fleet, we could do it in two.”
“Everyone in the Fleet had to re-up before we left,” Priss added. “Standard tours are four years long so we’ve actually got a lot of time left to do before any of us can think about leaving the Corps.”
“Oh.” Aubrey relaxed a bit. “So you’re not taking off any time soon.”
“Why? Were you going to miss us?” Lang asked.
“A little. All my old friends still live in Texas and I’m not likely to see them again any time soon.” She shrugged eloquently. “You’re the next closest thing I’ve got, outside of Sean, and he’s gotten obsessed with interfacing your systems and ours via AI, so much so I barely see him outside of the computer labs these days.”
“I thought you both worked in AI programming.”
“We did. He’s still interested in it and I’m… I feel like other things are more important these days.”
Lang started pulling his boots back on. “That’s another thing that happens a lot, Aubrey. People all have different ideas about what’s important. Can’t say I blame him, I really want to find some of those air cars we saw on our first visit and take a few out for a spin. New tech is catnip to people like us.”
“Well then you really don’t want to get an independent freighter,” Priss said. “You don’t see anything newer than the First Galilean War in tramp freighters these days. Stay in the Corps, Lang. They’ll give you all the neat toys you want.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it. The lander I flew off the Armstrong hadn’t had a new component installed on it in the last six years.” Lang clambered to his feet and helped the two ladies up as well. “Besides, there are all kinds of new just like there’s all kinds of important.”
“What kind of new do you have in mind?” Priss asked.
“We can’t be sending an entire fleet every time someone wants to run some cargo or people out this way,” Lang said. “Gonna be a lot of call for independent ships to move things on the Earth-Copernicus run real soon. Mars needs a lot of stuff and it’s not going to be easy to manufacture using just the resources the Fleet has on hand, even assuming the Admiral doesn’t put us on full war footing in the next couple of weeks.”
“Shrewd thinking,” Priss said, tapping her chin. “And by the time you’re ready to muster out in three years the Copernican Senate will just be starting to think about normalizing travel. You may be able to get subsidized in picking up your own ship.”
“Not to mention the improvements we could see in superluminals over that time, especially with shortening the trip to Earth to set the goal posts.” Lang grinned. “The one way transit time may get down under a month by then.”
“And if anyone from Earth wants to go the other way they could do worse than to charter the Triad World’s foremost expert on the Earthling mindset to fly them,” Aubrey added, grinning back.
“Oh!” Lang grabbed his chest in mock agony. “E tu, Brute?”
Her face screwed up in confusion. “What?”
“Never mind. UNIGOV probably got Shakespeare, too.” Lang started off the docks, shaking his head ruefully. “We can worry more about that in the future. I’ve got to get back to Vesper and Priss has some rumors to monger. What about you, Aubrey?”
“Keeping an eye on Naomi and Director Mond for the moment. Hopefully we get some good news from the Admiral’s call but if all we hear is hurry up and wait I think I can deal with that, too.”
As the three of them split up and went their separate ways Lang wondered if it was worth getting his hopes up about a simple, straightforward diplomatic solution to the mess they’d made of things since they arrived at Earth. If he was honest about it, there probably wasn’t any point. However they’d muddled through everything up until that point and that suggested they could muddle through the rest. That, he decided, was good news enough for him.