Previously in Only Slightly... forty years after the events of Future Prefect, a united Earth is finally establishing a permanent settlement on Mars. Among the settlers are The Geraldine, and a young wizard named Bidet, the son of The Geraldine's former companion Bath.
At the airlock through which the settlers would be boarding their transport ship, there was a surprise waiting. The Geraldine rushed forward when she saw a familiar face in the crowd.
'Bill!' she exclaimed, pushing her way past an environmental support engineer and a moderately famous construction witch named Fridgara. The President of America looked up and broke into a large grin.
She broke through the last of the people between them, and stopped on the edge of his personal space, feeling suddenly foolish. The excitement she'd initially felt upon seeing him faded somewhat.
'So you're going to Mars,' Bill said after an awkward silence.
'Yes,' The Geraldine replied, rather unnecessarily. She was, after all, wearing a Mars colonisation flight suit. Bill scratched his neck.
'I... I heard you were going. I thought...' he looked away, at some anonymous part of the high, shadowed ceiling. 'I thought you were going to come back some day.'
The Geraldine smiled. 'Back to your government, or back to your bed?'
'Either,' Bill said. 'Both.'
There was a long silence. They hadn't seen each other for twenty years, but suddenly it was like when she'd left to explore the oceans of New Earth.
'Mr. President,' someone said, 'it's time for your speech.'
Bill looked over at his aide, distracted slightly, then glanced back at The Geraldine.
'Do you... do you have to go this time?'
'Yes,' The Geraldine said. She paused, then smiled. 'Maybe I'll come back sooner this time.' She winked, grinned and turned away, catching Bidet by the arm and dragging him off towards the airlock door. Bill stared after her for a few moments, then let his aide take him onto a dais, where he stood for a few moments looking blankly out over the assembled settlers.
'Today,' he said when he finally started to speak, 'is an historic day in the history of humanity. Although as a species we have colonised many worlds out amongst the stars, today marks the first time we establish a permanent settlement on another planet in our own solar system, a planet we can see from the surface of our home world. Today you carry forth the torch of human progress, of human development and evolution, to a new milestone. Go forth, let the torch burn brightly, and come home safely.'
He looked at The Geraldine when he said that, and she knew he was only talking to her. Avoiding his gaze, she slipped into the airlock and ended up in her seat on the transport a full hour before boarding was supposed to start, staring up at the ceiling and wondering how things might have been.
Bidet came to find her after about half an hour, and settled himself in the seat next to her.
'Dad always wondered why you left Bill,' he said when she ignored his presence. 'He wondered once if you'd caught Bill with someone else.'
The Geraldine laughed, a short, sharp sound in the quiet passenger cabin. 'Oh, I caught him with someone else,' she said, 'but that's not why I left.'
Bidet waited, but The Geraldine didn't elaborate any further. A couple of minutes later, a few other settlers came in and found seats, and the opportunity was lost. They sat in silence through the preflight, then a low hum started and the intercom came on.
'Ladies and gentlemen, please ensure you are strapped into your seats and settled comfortably. We are about to launch on our pre-jump trajectory.'
The Geraldine gripped the arms of her seat, and looked over at Bidet. The young wizard looked back.
'I'll definitely be coming back,' she said. Bidet drew breath to reply, but his body spasmed suddenly and violently against his harness. The Geraldine started to call out for help, but he slumped, still looking at her. His eyes, she noticed, were glowing an eerie green.
'I wouldn't be so sure about that.'
The voice which came out of Bidet's mouth wasn't Bidet's. It was a dry, gritty voice, strangely accented. Like nothing she'd ever heard before.
'What-?' she began to ask, but the transport launched, and the acceleration pushed her back into her seat so hard all the air rushed out of her lungs. By the time it stopped, Bidet's eyes had returned to their normal orange, and he was looking around in confusion.
'Did I black out during the acceleration?' he asked. The Geraldine hesitated.
'Yes,' she lied. Now didn't seem like the appropriate time to tell him what had happened, but as they made the short jump through hyperspace to Mars, she saw the glowing eyes again, and heard the voice echoing in her mind. What if she couldn't ever come back? A ridiculous notion, with hyperdrive technology developed by the extra-solar humans they could travel to Mars in a few hours, although light ships like the transport required a two-day recharge time at each end, deploying massive solar sails to gather the sun's energy for their next jump. Fusion reactors were large and impractical beasts for craft travelling within the light of a star. Earth would only be a week away at most.
But a lot could happen in a week...
Round and round her thoughts went as they slipped through hyperspace, and when they came back into normal space Mars looked more like a prison than an opportunity. Strange how a chance meeting could change a mind so much. A chance meeting and something else, of course. She looked over at Bidet again, but he clearly had no recollection of the incident, and nobody else seemed to have noticed either. She would tell him about it after they landed.
Mars had a thin atmosphere, so entering it wasn't quite the same bumpy ride she had experienced landing on Earth or some of the other planets she'd visited. Surprisingly soon the bumping was over, and they were descending gracefully down to their landing area, a fairly featureless patch of red ground which looked much the same as the red ground visible all the way to the horizon. The Geraldine unstrapped herself and was the first in the rush to get out onto the surface - largely because of her ability to survive outside without a spacesuit on.
She stepped into the airlock and overrode its warning about her not having a suit on, then cycled the air to the local atmosphere and stepped out of the door.
Her foot hit water, and she fell, landing with a resounding splash. The shock of cold water temporarily distracted her, and she surfaced, blowing out a jet of water she'd accidentally inhaled and splashing around a bit before she realised she was supposed to be on Mars. A quick check around confirmed that the transport ship wasn't anywhere to be seen. Only water, stretching from horizon to horizon in all directions, and a clear, blue sky.
'Where am I?' she asked the sky. Unsurprisingly enough, it didn't respond.
Where is The Geraldine? What happened to Bidet just before launch? Will Bill and The Geraldine renew their former relationship, assuming that they ever manage to see each other again? What is the significance of this story's title? All this and more in a future edition of Only Slightly (just not necessarily the next one).