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one giant leap

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Two of the Cocytans come with them back to Earth.

Maggie'd thought they might send at least one, if only to bring back the ship after—though for all she knows, they've built this one with a homing function just like Attila, and it could have dropped them off and sailed back to Cocytus all by itself.

But two of them are already in the ship when Maggie steps inside. Maybe it's a number thing, Maggie thinks, wanting to make an even five—pentagons, the Cocytans seem pretty fond of pentagons. Funny, considering they only have two digits. Maggie hadn't found anything that talked about the pentagon thing in the library, but then she'd only had time to read a fraction of the stuff in there. Is it some kind of aesthetic principle? Or is their math base 5?

Aliens just brought Maggie back from the dead, and that's what she wants to ask them. Maggie leans against the ship's inside wall and tries not to laugh. She's a reporter, for crying out loud—she ought to be able to come up with better questions.

They brought Brink back from the dead, too. Maggie glances over at him: he looks almost the same, really—older, of course, after whatever they did to free him from the crystals' grip, but still so obviously Ludger Brink that the unnatural aging doesn't make as much of a difference as Maggie might have thought. He's sitting in one of the ship's five corners a little ways away, and Maggie would have expected him to be inspecting the ship's crystalline surface, maybe muttering to himself about the material, but he's not. He's propped his elbows on his knees and he's staring at one of his hands, flexing it, stretching it. His left hand.

Maggie crosses the space between them and sits. "You all right?"

"Ja, fine," Brink says, "fine. I think I—remember." He goes silent for a moment, still gazing at his hand, and then adds, more slowly, "But should I?"

Maggie blinks at him. "Well, don't dwell on it or anything—you weren't yourself, Brink, Boston and I know that—"

"No, no," Brink says, waving a hand like he can brush the words away. "I mean—how can I? What did they do? They used Spacetime Six somehow to bring us back—are we from an alternate timeline? From the past, plucked free the moment before our deaths and granted the knowledge of what would have happened next? If we are not, if I am the same Brink who fell off that cliff, how did they reconstruct me?"

Brink's tone is full of scientific interest, a curiosity that's intent but still somehow distant, objective; but Maggie wants to flinch away from the memory of Brink's body, of what it had been like to look over that cliff-edge and see what was left of his head smashed across the rock. If they're copies of themselves—is Brink's body still there? Is Maggie's withered corpse still lying in the coils of machinery underneath the Eye?

How does she even know that's where it should be? She remembers too, she realizes. Maybe later she'll even try to remember how it felt—how many people get to know what it's like to die, after all? Her best exposé ever. She'd always thought idly that she'd like to write a memoir someday, that it would be one hell of a book—it's almost a shame, really. A career like hers, and this is the only part anybody's ever really going to pay attention to, once they get home.

"It is fascinating," Brink is saying, flexing his hand again, and then his expression turns graver. "And the addiction, the life crystals—I remember that, too."

Maggie reaches for his shoulder, ignoring the way her heart pounds when she hears Brink's voice say life crystals. "They said they fixed that—"

"They did, they did," Brink assures her. "I remember it, but I do not feel it." He shoots her a funny little sideways glance, there and gone, quick and almost apprehensive. "I told you that I would kill you. Twice, I think, or maybe three times." He pauses again, and then elaborates, "I am not sure, I also thought it many times, and near the end the distinction between those things—became unclear." He looks down and shakes his head. "I am sorry, Maggie," he adds at last, very low.

Maggie's hand never quite landed on Brink's shoulder; now she does touch him, deliberately, unafraid, and he shifts his weight uneasily but doesn't knock her arm away. "You weren't yourself," she says again, quiet, and then, more lightly: "Besides, you only shoved me. Boston's the one you punched and then tried to bean with that rock—if you're going to apologize to somebody, it should be him."

Brink doesn't quite laugh; but he snorts out a breath through his nose and then smiles, and underneath Maggie's hand, his shoulder relaxes.

"What about me?" Boston says.

Maggie looks up: Boston was talking to the Cocytans about something, but now he's coming toward them, crossing the clear gleaming floor of the ship. It looks like there's nothing underneath his feet but ocean—

Ocean? Maggie glances down, around. They took off without a sound, without any feeling of acceleration—while she was talking to Brink, it must have been, but she didn't even notice. There's a wide span of glimmering sea underneath them, the sky clearing to starry black above them; the horizon becomes a deeper and deeper curve even as she's watching, and off at the edge of it she sees a dark flatness that isn't ocean—a continent? Lines, shapes, regular and orderly—a city? Filling up even now with re-embodied Cocytans, maybe, rediscovering the dusty quiet homes and streets and lives that have been waiting for them all this time. (Do they have streets? Or more trams—a city full of round blue lights, rolling endlessly. What must that have looked like from above, at night, back when Cocytus was alive?)

"Nothing, nothing, just that thing where I tried to kill you," Brink is saying, and his tone is bland, conversational, his clipped accent making it sound even drier than it would otherwise. Boston laughs. It's easy to laugh now, when it's all over. It's easy for Maggie to smile at Brink, to pretend she doesn't remember Brink shoving her down, knocking the breath out of her—to pretend she doesn't remember lying there gasping, listening to Brink move, telling herself that if he did kill Boston, she needed to shove him off the ledge herself or else he'd kill her next.

She glances up at Boston again and this time he's looking at her, not Brink. He's glad to see Brink, she knows he is—he took it so hard, like he'd killed Brink himself, even though they'd both seen Brink just plain lose his balance. But since the moment she stepped out of Spacetime Six and back into reality, Boston's been looking at her like she's a damn miracle.

If he doesn't cut it out, she's going to start getting used to it.

Boston smiles at her, slow and warm and glad, and then seems to catch himself at it; he looks down and clears his throat, and then glances back at the Cocytans.

Do the Cocytans have a meaning assigned to the act of throat-clearing? They must, because they look up—or maybe they just know what it means to humans because Maggie and Brink and Boston know, and in Spacetime Six seeing what other people know is as easy as looking at them. The Cocytans speak English now, after all, and that's got to be because they learned it from Boston's mind. Or is it that Maggie and Boston and Brink understand Cocytan, after being in Spacetime Six? Maggie can't decide which would be weirder.

"Yes?" one of them says, the paler one of the two; Maggie watches its mouth move, and she's pretty sure that really was English. Pretty sure.

"We need to figure out what we're going to do when we land," Boston says. They're whipping through space, now; Cocytus is palm-sized—moon-sized—a pale little marble over Boston's shoulder—gone.

"You said you had been given orders," Brink says, "to look for signs of alien life. Did any of the protocols cover—this?"

Boston hesitates, glancing at Maggie again. "It was more about—securing things that could be studied, I think. Technology, or maybe weapons. If we found anything, they had NDAs about a hundred miles long ready for the two of you. Miles and Borden, too, if they saw too much." He shakes his head. "I think the people who gave those orders would want to keep a lid on this, at least for a while. But I meant what I said earlier. This—this should be for everyone." He motions to the ship, but that isn't quite what he means, Maggie thinks: he means all of it, the strange spare beauty of Cocytus and the endless knowledge of the Cocytans, the wonder and terror of walking on a bridge of solid light or having nothing between you and vacuum except a pane of crystalline something. The library alone—the linguistics, the art, the chance to answer so many questions about life and science and the human experience. The knowledge, at last, that Earth isn't alone in the vast dark space of the universe.

"I agree," Brink says.

Maggie nods.

"So we are going to tell everybody," Boston summarizes, satisfied, "and that means I'm not the one on point anymore." He nods toward Maggie. "You are."

Maggie blinks at him, and then at the Cocytans, who both blink back at her amiably. The easiest way to control how this works out, at least in the early stages, is—"Can you both pretend not to speak English?"

The Cocytans look at her and then at each other. "Certainly," the dark gray one says after a moment. "Will it be of value to do so?"

"It'll mean nobody will try to talk to you without me around," Maggie says. "I know you can take care of yourselves, but I think it would be better if you didn't have to mash anybody like a bug. At least not right away." Not knowing any human languages will make them tourists, a curiosity, interesting. Trying to explain how they learned English in—what has it even been? A day? Two?—might lead to talking about Spacetime Six, the Eye, bodiless eternity; Maggie saw it and she still almost doesn't believe it, and if nobody else does, what will they think the real explanation is? That the Cocytans have been spying, maybe, or secret Cocytans are already on Earth, or the Cocytans can pull anything they want to know out of anybody's head whenever they like. And not one of those trains of thought ends in a good place.

"But we will be permitted to explore your—Earth?" the pale one says, tilting its head.

"Couldn't you see it?" Brink says curiously. "From Spacetime Six?"

The Cocytans look at each other again. "All of space and time was there," the pale one says. "We perceived Earth many times—watched it form, watched it cool, watched lifeforms begin to proliferate across its surface. Eventually, as you know, we tired of watching; but we observed many millions of years of its history. And yet we never saw anything like you."

"No, no, of course you didn't," Brink murmurs, aged face alight. "You couldn't have, unless you picked just the right ten thousand years to look at. Billions of years to choose from, a geological time scale—human history would be like a needle in a haystack."

"The—dinosaurs, that is what you call them? They were beautiful," the dark gray Cocytan murmurs. "A rare find; such variety! But they did not last. We watched them die and could do nothing. We did not like to look at Earth after that."

"In that case," Maggie says, "I think you'll find Earth looks a lot better now than it did right after an asteroid hit it."

"And a lot different," Brink says, dry. "The continents are in entirely new places these days."

"A thing I have not yet seen!" the dark gray Cocytan says, sounding downright delighted.

"A new experience," the pale Cocytan muses dreamily, at almost the same time—and then the Cocytans look at each other and sort of hoot. Maggie finds herself grinning, laughing under her breath almost helplessly—the way people laugh when they see other people laughing, even though there's no reason for the noise the Cocytans are making to give her that feeling. Probably another thing her mind learned from that one Cocytan during those few moments she spent in Spacetime Six, she guesses.

"Oh, plenty of new experiences," Boston says—he's grinning, too, Maggie sees. "Probably even some you'll wish you hadn't had—microphone feedback, reality TV, traffic jams—"

"Light salad dressing," Maggie murmurs, just loud enough; and then Boston does laugh.

With Cocytans actually at the controls, the jump is much smoother and faster than it had been with Attila's autopilot: everything flares purple and there's that same vast whooshy sound, but Maggie doesn't have to clutch at her stomach or wonder morbidly about how awful it'll be if she vomits while wearing a spacesuit helmet.

It turns out one of the things Boston was talking to the Cocytans about earlier was their names: there wasn't much call for personal identifiers in Spacetime Six, not with the way things worked in there, but the Cocytans still remember the names they used before walking into the Eye. Both of them are kind of long and tricky, though, so Boston's shortened them, calling the pale one Ted and the dark gray one Lisa—and it feels like Maggie barely has time to finish laughing at that before the ship makes a gentle sound and the whooshing stops.

"Something wrong?" Boston asks.

Ted is closest, standing by one wall with a hand splayed against one of the pentagonal crystal panes—there are colors flaring on that pane, Maggie sees, and even as she's watching Ted swipes a thumb sideways and the colors change, tinge purple. "We are nearly there," Ted says.

"But that's—" Boston visibly swallows down the impossible before it can come out, because they all know better now, but he still looks incredulous.

"You have conferred upon and chosen a strategy for managing our arrival," Lisa says serenely. "There was no reason to delay any longer."

Boston glances at Maggie, wide-eyed, and Maggie looks back at him, raises her eyebrows, and shrugs. Of course Cocytan interstellar travel is just a matter of deciding exactly how fast you'd like to defy relativity. Why not?

And she can tell that they're not wrong after another few moments. Space has a lot of beautiful things in it, but most of them are really far away—plenty to look at, but nearly all of it flat as a painting, a distant vista. But now they're coming toward a star, one light growing steadily larger than all the rest. Maggie can't help glancing around like they're somehow going to amble past Jupiter, even though for all she knows it's on the other side of the solar system from them, hundreds of millions of miles away.

With the Sun to measure by, she can tell the ship's slowing again even before she turns to watch Ted's hand move, that one pane going deeper violet. They come closer and closer—they had to pass the Sun on the way to Cocytus, Maggie remembers abruptly, and has just enough time to shield her eyes, the backs of her eyelids blazing gold.

"Oh!" Lisa says, and the light dims, a moment before it fades properly. Maggie blinks away a dozen brilliant afterimages in time to see the way the ship's sides have gone opaque, and Lisa's blinking and squinting, too.

"What," Boston says, "you can cross a galaxy in five minutes, but you didn't know stars were bright?"

"Retinas were immaterial in Spacetime Six," Ted says, and Maggie's never heard anyone sound so pleased to be reminded of the existence of eyeballs. "We watched countless stars explode—from the inside, when we wished to—and were quite unaffected."

Ted's hand moves, flexing—like Brink's, Maggie thinks, except Brink hadn't even gone without his hand for a full day. How much stranger must it be for the Cocytans, to have hands again after all that time in Spacetime Six? To need to breathe, to find themselves blinking, to feel their own weight pressing down on the soles of their feet? Even getting their own ordinary everyday sensations back must feel like a gift—no wonder they're so delighted to think about experiencing new ones on Earth.

It's like Earth heard Maggie thinking about it: the dim bluish star next to Ted's elbow chooses that moment to prove itself not a star at all. For all that they've slowed down, they're still coming at it incredibly fast, and in the space of a blink it's large enough for Maggie to separate the white swirl of clouds from the blue background of ocean.

"Nice to see you again," Maggie murmurs. Boston's standing close enough to hear; he was staring at Earth gratefully, too, but he drags his gaze away long enough to smile at Maggie, and bumps his arm companionably into her shoulder.

The ship must heat up when they go through the atmosphere, it must, unless the Cocytans have actually managed to develop a completely frictionless material—but Maggie can't tell by looking, none of the red-orange flare she remembers from the shuttle visible at the ship's edges. And a dodecahedron has got to be one of the least aerodynamic shapes imaginable.

Brink directs them toward North America—that's where the mission was organized, that's where the shuttle took off from, it only makes sense to come back down there—and they're whirling lower in the general direction of the east coast when Ted and Lisa both make a little burbling sound. "Have you communicated with your people in some manner we are not aware of?" Lisa asks.

"No," Maggie says, "no, we haven't—why?"

"There seems to be a landing field of the correct size and shape prepared."

"The correct shape?" Boston says, frowning, and then looks horrified. "No, god, no, do not land on the Pentagon!"

Ted and Lisa both blink at him uncertainly; and then at Maggie, who's giggling helplessly; and then at Brink, who's covered his face with his hands and started laughing. "As you wish," Ted says. "Where, then?"

Maggie takes a deep breath and tries to think about it seriously. They could turn around, aim for Houston—come down where they took off, and have the first people who see them be scientists, engineers, people who have spent their whole lives caring about space. But Boston was right before when he said this should be for everyone; NASA ran the mission, it was American work, but this ship, these discoveries, are going to change the entire world. Where can they land that will say that? Say that and still be big enough, public enough—

Of course. "That way," she says, pointing out Manhattan.

They're still high enough to see it even though they're somewhere over West Virginia, and they end up following the sweep of the Appalachians toward it, tracing the bend of them east over Pennsylvania. The way the ship flies, it's like zooming in on a map: there's no inertia, no sense of motion, only the gradually increasing nearness of the ground.

"Slow down a little," Maggie requests, peering down at New York City. The first burst of press coverage will be better the more time people have to prepare, to see them coming and get to where they're landing. And the slower they're going, the less they'll look like some kind of missile.

Ted nods and does something else to that control pane, and now they're drifting along at a gentler speed—Maggie thinks maybe she sees a helicopter taking off. Hopefully it's a news copter, not the police or the National Guard or something. Have they shown up on radar? Is the Cocytan ship detectable by conventional means? Attila had been, but maybe that was because it had been covered in rock.

There's Roosevelt Island—it's visible from there, Maggie knows, and scans the eastern edge of Manhattan. "Down," Maggie says to Ted, "straight down a little more," and then she spots it: the dome on the General Assembly Hall, the traffic circle, the long curving arc where the flags are.

"You want us to land in the middle of the UN Plaza?" Boston says, evidently having followed her gaze.

"If there's enough space," Maggie says, glancing at Lisa; Lisa looks at her and doesn't seem to move as far as Maggie can tell, but the walls of the ship draw in somehow, sliding together. Maggie stares at them incredulously, and then looks at Boston and can't help grinning at the expression on his face.

"Guess that answers that," Boston murmurs.

Maggie laughs, and then explains: "It's not on American soil, not technically; and if there's anywhere where the Cocytans can find information and people representative of every nation on Earth, that's it. Best staging ground for international publicity that I can think of," she adds, and then, because she thought it but hasn't said it, "You were right, Boston. This should be for everyone."

Boston grins at her, pleased; and then the grin changes, softens into a smile, and Maggie wants to blush like a teenager. They're dropping lower and lower, now, dipping beneath the level of the highest buildings around them, and Maggie can see how the traffic's moving wrong beneath them, gridlock, people swarming the sidewalks for two or three blocks in every direction—they've definitely been spotted. That helicopter she saw, or maybe another, hums past them, and Boston grips her shoulder. "You're up," he says.

The ship touches down the same way it took off: noiselessly, without so much as a bump, settling to the pavement as gently as a feather. The ship material blocks out some sound, reduces the shouts and car horns to a background murmur like being underwater, but the panes are clear as glass, and Maggie looks out at all that loud uncertain curious humanity and wants to laugh, or maybe cry. Nothing about the universe will ever be the same again after she leaves this ship.

"Hey," Boston says, more softly. "Maggie—you've got this."

He thinks she's afraid—and maybe she is, just a little. But she's got Boston and Brink at her shoulders, and whatever's coming, they'll be at her side every step of the way; and Ted and Lisa are waiting, bright-eyed and eager, for the first new thing that's happened to them in thousands—maybe millions—of years. "Damn right I do," she tells Boston, smiling, and steps out onto a whole new world.