I think of the Masher and call up the menu, starting the machine off as I struggle to process what he’s said. I watch as the contents on the other side of the plasglass are rendered into the base powders they were printed from. By the time the last specks of it all have been sucked back into the communal feeds, the Ringmaster has sent three more messages and is starting to swear. He never swears.
Abusing my privileges, I access the cloud and look up what patterns he’s downloaded in the past twenty-six hours. When I see the one for the automatic pistol delivered to his home printer less than twenty minutes ago, my mouth goes dry.
I call up the v-keyboard again. Sorry. Getting dressed. On my way.
I can’t help but speculate about what it means. The only other people on the planet were never supposed to come here. And as soon as I think that, my heart races and I feel sick and I want to go home and curl up and not go outside for a week.
But I can’t give in to that impulse right now. I focus on walking up the slope toward the exit, forcing my mind to imagine going to the western gate. The thought of crossing the streets, of walking past homes and people looking out at me hurrying past, sweating and shaking, makes me feel worse. Why call me there? What does he want me to do? He’s already printed the solution.
The hatch down to the Masher’s hub is only a couple of meters from my home. At least if he’s looking out for me, I’ll come from the right direction. A few early risers might be mooching around inside their pods, but it’s too early to be outside and social. The hatch drops back into place and locks automatically, the seam between it and the path already fading as the gap is filled by the repair cells already growing.
It’s cool, with a gentle breeze, and if I try hard enough I can imagine it’s the edge of Paris in late April. I keep my head down and look at the crystal beneath my feet. I think about when Pasha grew this path, when we debated the most efficient mechanisms to make it durable but not slippery when wet. I remember printing the lattice underneath that he used as a base to train the crystal and keep it exactly where we wanted it. I remember the arguments over the color it should be and that twat whose name I can never recall asking if we could engineer it to look like it was made of yellow bricks. I had to look that up on the cloud. He was a pop culture historian and that was his contribution to the colony aesthetic? Why did the Ringmaster approve his place on the ship?
And then I see it: the western gate. Nothing more than a couple of symbolic pillars designed by Pasha’s wife, Neela. I like her style; it’s simple and elegant. I helped her to print them, but she thought them up. She liked the freedom given by the fact that no one cared about them on that side of our settlement; it was the side farthest away from God’s city.
Mack is standing there, the only other person out and about at this time, looking away from the colony. I can see the mountains in the distance and the vast plains between. The figure he’s watching is probably half a kilometer away, hunched over and moving slowly. The landscape is still relatively wild beyond the gate, with long grasslike plants.
“Do you know who it is?” I ask as I approach, more to signal that I’m there than anything else.
“A man, in his early twenties or so,” he replies. “The proximity alarm woke me up. I thought it was an animal.”
The man is staggering toward the colony. “Is he sick?”
“No obvious symptoms. Look for yourself.”
I shake my head. “I disabled the zoom in my lens. It gives me migraines and—”
“He must be from the others,” he says, not interested in me and my nervous babbling. “One of their kids. He must have walked for weeks.”
My palms are slick with sweat and I want to go home. “What do you want me to do?”
He turns and looks at me for the first time, a slight twitch around his left eye indicating he’s switching to normal focal range. He’s looking haggard with the stress of it all. Mack hates the unexpected almost as much as I do, but his clothes are smart, his black hair tidy and his beard neat. He has to present himself at his best, even when he thinks there’s just an animal to scare off the boundary.
“Do you think we should shoot him?” he asks, looking down at the gun resting on his palm, like a child he was holding has just crapped in his hand.
“Why are you asking me that? Why not Zara? Or Nabiha or Ben? They—”
“Because you were there.”
I close my eyes and I think about the vase I left on top of the Masher. I think about whose printer is likely to break down next and remind myself not to mention that I knew it was going to happen; otherwise—
“Ren. What if he’s here to ruin everything we’ve done here?”
“We’ve done?” It comes out like a croak.
“Yes, we.” His voice hardens. “Should I shoot him and make sure he—”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Mack, I’m an engineer! Not your conscience!”
His mouth drops open at my outburst and I regret the words. He just doesn’t want to be the only load-bearing object in this messy structure.
“I haven’t got any binoculars,” I say in the calmest voice I can muster. “Look at him again and tell me what he’s carrying.”
“A pack, not a big one,” he replies after a few moments of scrutiny.
“Any sign of a gun?”
“Any bulges around his midriff?”
“What, like growths or—”
“Like explosives,” I reply and he grimaces before looking back at him. “They wouldn’t have the tech for anything more subtle than something they could make from—”
“Nothing like that,” Mack cuts me off again.
“Does he look . . . I don’t know . . . angry?”
Mack shakes his head. “He looks desperate. Oh, look at him.”
The young man is waving both arms, like one lost at sea when sighting a chance of rescue. Mack looks at me, and when our eyes meet, we both know we can’t kill him.
“Shit,” I say and he nods. “Come on, then—let’s go bring him in. If we’re quick, we’ll get him to your house before anyone notices.”
I HAVEN’T GONE out of this gate for a long time. There’s nothing on this side of the colony that interests me and the sensor net maintains itself. There are animals that range nearby sometimes, but they tend not to come any closer than the edge of the zone monitored by the long-range sensors. I agree with Kay’s theory that God’s city emits something that keeps them away, but she’s still looking into it all these years later. Like all of us, she gets distracted by other experiments. It’s low priority.
“What do we say to him?” Mack asks, dragging my focus back to the young man.
“I was going to start with hello and then see how it goes,” I reply. I’m trying to sound light and relaxed because I don’t want to push the magma chamber of unspoken shit into an eruption. I’m barely handling it as it is.
“He must have been born after Planetfall,” he says, his pace fast but steady. “He doesn’t look old enough to have been born on the ship and there weren’t any babies in their pods.”
“Small mercies,” I whisper and thankfully he doesn’t hear. When I glance at him to check whether he’s looking pissed off at me, I see the sweat on his forehead and how white his lips are against the black of his beard. “Are you sure he’s alone?”
He looks at me like I’m an idiot. “I checked that.”
“But you didn’t see him coming.”
“I haven’t checked on them for a long time. I thought . . .”
He doesn’t finish the sentence, but the unspoken half lingers between us. We thought they were dead. We thought we had killed them.
The urge to turn around and go home and tell everyone to fuck off until it’s all over bears down on me. I can feel guilt and fear and ten thousand questions I’ve asked myself since Planetfall rising up with the contents of my stomach and I want all of it to stay deep down where it should be.
“We stick to the story,” he says with the firm edge in his voice that means he’s made up his mind and it’s not up for discussion.
“But he’ll know what really happened.”
“Stick to the story,” Mack says again and I don’t have anything else to say. There are too many unknown variables to make any useful predictions and I try not to speculate these days. “Let me do the talking,” he adds.
As if I wouldn’t do that anyway. He’s the Ringmaster. He knows what to say to the crowd and to the latecomer without a ticket. I just maintain the rigging and make sure the tent doesn’t collapse on us all.
The sky is now the same deep blue as that of a Mediterranean summer and when I look straight up and see a couple of clouds I can almost believe I’m on Earth again, like my brain cannot help but return to its default setting. Ahead of us the highest mountain nearby, dubbed Diamond Peak by the more romantic members of the colony, will soon be tipped by the sun rising over that exact point. They have a silhouette reminiscent of the Alps. It’s only when I look at the details here—the way the seeds are shaped on the grasses we’re walking through, the slight sparkle of the silicates in the soil beneath our feet that give it a magical quality and the hard shells of unfamiliar creatures tucked between the stalks—that I remember we’re so far from home.
The stranger has sunk to his knees, the exhaustion setting in now that he knows we’re coming to him. As we pick up the pace, he falls forward onto his hands, his black hair hanging straight. I can see his pack now. It’s a basic design from the survival pattern folder on the local server of each of the Planetfall pods. It has a built-in water filtration mechanism and a more primitive version of the porous fabric we use on houses in the colony, designed to absorb water and push it, via an osmotic mechanism, to the internal filter. He’s probably been living off dew and rainwater for the whole journey—and his own urine, if he had any sense in the dry spells. I have no idea what he would have done for food; there are gels designed to produce fast-growing fungi but not enough packs to sustain such a trip.
He’s thin and his clothes are worn and patched in several places. We knew their printers would fail, and without access to the cloud they had no way to run complex diagnostics. None of the people in that group were printer specialists and so unlikely to have any specs or spare-part patterns on their personal servers. The clothes he’s wearing are basic survival patterns designed to be durable and breathable with a sensor net built into them designed to help the body’s homeostatic system in adverse conditions. The built-in transmitter must have failed; otherwise it would have pinged our network when he was five kilometers away.
Mack and I break into a run when he collapses, disappearing in the tall reed-thin plants. While we run, I check the network to see who’s awake and whether there’s any talk of Mack and me leaving the gate, but no one seems to have noticed. The sun is rising and in a couple of hours the air will be teeming with insects. I don’t have any protective clothing nor repellents on me and I wonder how this man survived without them.
I half expect him to be dead by the time we get to him, but the pack is rising up and down and his head is turned to the side. I think of the parasites and organisms in the dirt only millimeters from his mouth and nose and the millions of microscopic assailants he can’t possibly be protected against.
“We’re here,” Mack says as we stop and kneel down on either side of him. “You’re going to be all right.”
“Hi,” the young man says with a slight American accent as he struggles onto his hands and knees to tip back and rest with his backside on his heels. He sweeps his hair off his face and both Mack and I gawk at him.
He looks like Suh. He looks like the Pathfinder.
I can see her in his eyes, his lips, the shape of his chin and cheekbones. The genetic signature of her Korean heritage is written across him and I want to laugh and cry and kiss him a million times and hide my face with shame. He is an echo of her beauty. He smiles at me uncertainly and I see her again that day at the observatory, holding the piece of paper in her hands.
“Holy crap,” she said and held it out to me. “It’s real. It’s a real thing. It’s . . . it’s a real place.”
I took it and scanned the numbers, but astronomy wasn’t in my repertoire. Then I noticed a string of numbers that were more than familiar—just the sight of them made me feel nauseous. They were the first things she wrote when she woke from her coma, before she even spoke or asked where she was or why she was in the hospital.
“It’s a place, Ren. There’s a planet in the exact location the numbers describe.” She laughed, the first time she’d laughed since the day she wrote them down. “Isn’t it wonderful? We know what it means now!”
I shook my head. “No, I don’t think we do.”
All these years later, this stranger has tears in his eyes too. “I knew it wasn’t true,” he says. “I knew it was real and I knew you wouldn’t kill me.”
Mack is speechless for the first time in the forty-odd years I’ve known him.
“Of course we’re not going to kill you,” I say.
“My name is Lee Sung-Soo.” He grasps my hand tightly and I can’t help but squeeze back. “My grandmother was the Pathfinder.”
I want to take a moment to let it sink in, but Mack is obviously struggling and I need to make this boy think everything’s all right. “I’m Ren—Renata Ghali—and this is Cillian Mackenzie, but we all call him Mack.”
He smiles at me—I want him to never stop and I want to never see it again, all at once—and then he looks at Mack, who musters one of his warmest smiles as he shakes Sung-Soo by the hand.
“How did you find us?” Mack asks.
“The planet’s topography was on one of the pod servers,” he replies. “I pieced together some of the things my parents said and worked it out.”
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