Exile

15 06 2010

Cane

We detected the beacon in the last hour of the dust storm. Mierhof thought that the beacon might be one of the many transponders scattered about the crater in which the Colonies were situated. But I knew that our crawler had ventured farther than that ring of transponders before the storm had hit.

I’d parked the crawler facing into the storm, which presented a smaller profile to the wind and the regolith it whipped so furiously. When the sky lightened, Mierhof checked the plastic sheets attached to the chassis behind the eight, all-terrain wheels – these sheets were a field modification, meant to keep the regolith from the axles and brake pads.

The eastern horizon was a wall of mahogany brown. The high pressure front was moving away to the east, leaving behind a featureless plain of soft, stirring dust. Above us, the sky was a faded grey-brown, and the ring barely discernable through this haze. The finest regolith was now suspended in Fram’s thick atmosphere.

Mierhof’s e-suit was layered with regolith when he squeezed through the airlock. “Right, let’s see what this thing is.”

He began geo-caching, feeding the beacon telemetry into the GPS.

We headed north-north-west for ten kilometres. Here we found a sharp-edged crater, its walls steep and inaccessible. I circled the crawler around the circumference of the crater. On the western side, the dust storm had deposited a bank of regolith which had lessened the outer incline. I worked the crawler laterally across this regolith ramp, angling toward the rim.

Beneath the crest we disembarked and continued on foot. We hiked upwards through a series of switchbacks. From the crater rim, I watched the dust storm receding to the east. Mierhof oriented himself toward the north, and looked from the GPS readout on his handheld to the horizon and back again.

“There,” he said, and pointed toward a knot of darker regolith about fifty meters below us and away to the north.

I thought that what he had pointed to was a bolide, perhaps of basalt but more likely a nondescript silicate, ejected from any number of impacts that scarred Fram’s surface. But as we drew closer, we saw the glint of sunlight on metal, and made out the shape of a Sprat.

The Sprat was leaning at an angle, and drifts of regolith had built up by its western side. I saw that the dust storm had begun to weather the paint from the edges of the frame. The buggy had been here for some time; even on its leeward side, the regolith had built up past the hubcaps.

Mierhof walked around the far side of the Sprat. He pointed at the ground but made no noise over our intercom. Where he pointed I saw a dark purple shape: a torso, the back of a head, and an arm, dusted by rust-red particles. The rest of his body was buried.

“Huh,” Mierhof said. “This must be that guy who killed that woman.”

“Cane.”

Mierhof pulled at the body’s right arm. On the inside of his arm was his wristpad. He brushed a gloved finger across the screen, and woke it from hibernation.

Mierhof read aloud from the screen:

“My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou has drive me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face I shall be hid; I shall be a fugitive and vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.”

I was instantly reminded of something I had read once, long ago: that when community was synonymous with survival, exile was an especially lethal threat. How more true could that be, than here on Fram? I suddenly felt very far from home.

Mierhof unceremoniously dropped the man’s arm.

“I will not miss him.” He spoke with venom. “Let’s see if we can get this Sprat working. Head back to the crawler and get some digging equipment, will you?”





Cello Sonata No. 1, in E Minor

7 06 2010

And then, one day, I simply…gave up.

I couldn’t tell you why. I couldn’t even leave a note. But I could no longer bring myself to imagine her; nor her cello, nor her smile, nor eyelashes, nor skin. I could no longer look at our photograph. The memories of her, always painful, became somehow asinine, forgettable – and for the first time I wanted to push all of it away.

It wasn’t resignation or surrender so much as a renunciation, and it seemed an alien thing, after so long. What had the last six years been but a single, brave face? There had been a certain triumph in solitude. As though I’d kept the brave face only for her, my arresting, distant lover. But that triumph was now gone, and the cold comfort gone with it. Even the first sip of hot soya, the last of my pleasures, felt utterly empty.

My feet crunched through the duricrust, with a sound like stepping in soft snow. I thought of that French psychologist. I looked back over my shoulder – my footprints trailed away and below me, into the crater basin; and, diminished to the size of my clenched fist by the distance, the abandoned skeleton of Alpha-2. I could see the flash of magnesium-white welders across the surface of the colony pod, and, occasionally, a cascade of sparks. The pod was still being dismembered, picked clean, all its most useful parts stripped from it and carried away. The pod would one day soon be alone and forgotten, and then it would understand the tyranny of distance as I did.

These thoughts saddened me not at all.

Here, beneath the lip of the crater, the ridge flattened into a bench. I knelt down, dug my hand into the regolith, cracked a delicate sheet of frozen methane which began to sublime once exposed to the dense atmosphere. These vespers were remarkably beautiful. I thought of the history of those atoms, stretching over billions of years, from a protoplanetary nebula to meet my gloved hands at this moment. I desperately wanted to touch the world that had taken me from my Home; I pulled away my glove and slipped my fingers into the cold regolith.

I reached up to the clips around my mask. I paused a moment, looked at my wristpad, thought to write a note or leave a hint but realised anything I communicated would now be meaningless; I then realised that there was nothing left to do.

I flicked the clips, ignored the warnings of the computer, pulled free the straps and peeled my face mask away.

The pressure was strange and uncomfortable. I felt like I was drowning, so thick was the air. There was a feeling like weightlessness, a dislocation I couldn’t identify until I realised just how much carbon dioxide I was breathing. And then a rapid wave of dizziness, and I fell sideways.

I lay on my back and looked up into the sky.  I saw a thin, wispy cloud stretched apart by the winds. The cloud caught the light of one of the stars and was lit yellow and orange in a sky the colour of port. But then it was no longer a cloud, it was the outline of Amundsen, lost in the daylight glare. I looked closer, and Amundsen became Earth’s Moon, and I could see the lights of all the colonies, and my lover lying at the basin of Mare Crisium looking toward Alpha Centauri.

I imagined the sound of pianos, sweeping movements of music: grand, orgiastic, Wagnerian. Then the baroque sound of a cello and keyboard, mournfully working through Brahms’ sonata.

No belongings, no friends, no love, no memories. Everything seemed so simple and so exquisite. I was a child of the Universe, free from all that had prevented me from existing among the other protons and neutrons and electrons.

For the first time since I had met her, my cellist, I’d felt a beautiful moment without her.

Tears now spilled from my eyes: nucleons surrounded by electron shells, and formed into hydrogen, oxygen, sodium. I felt like falling.

I smiled, briefly, before –

 





41, 627, 214, 079, 352 Kilometers

5 03 2010

Two weeks after Cane murdered Gingrich and disappeared into the northern wilderness, a psychologist came to my quarters. He was very friendly but clearly tired. He introduced himself as Jacques.

“Some people I speak to think that we have failed,” Jacques explained, speaking on behalf of the many mental health specialists among the Colonists. “Perhaps we did. But psychology has received more emphasis of late.”

I nodded.

“And if everyone is like me, then you can’t help that people don’t seek out your services.” I gave Jacques a cup of soya. “I guess that’s why you’re here.”

Jacques sipped his drink but didn’t answer. Since the murder, the role of the psychologists had been re-evaluated, and in many cases their services became mandatory. They couldn’t see everyone, of course; instead they focussed on people who had displayed symptoms of poor mental health in their work or social lives.

“Some of your colleagues are concerned,” Jacques stated flatly.

Denunciations. But not made without basis.

“Undoubtedly,” I replied, “but I’m not going to beat someone to death with a wrench.”

Jacques smiled. “That’s not why I’m here. That’s not why we – ” again the royal ‘we’, in reference to the psychologists, as though they were separate from the mentally unhealthy “ – are doing this.”

“This?”

“Coming to people, talking to them.”

“Interviewing them?”

“If you like.” Jacques sipped his soya again, and a look of satisfied, energised relief washed over his face. “On the Quoqasi, we had to worry about cabin fever. Four thousand people cooped up in a starship for five years. But the reality was less of a concern than we had anticipated.”

“Because we all passed the psyche eval.”

“Yes. But also because we had something ahead of us: Planetfall. And this great endeavour of colonising another star system. Something to look forward to.”

I sipped my own soya. I didn’t watch Jacques as he talked, but instead stared absently at the floor. Surely he would jot that down in his mental notepad, maybe underline the comment or star the margin. I felt as though I were in a public bath, for the first time, when my heart skipped a beat as I first appeared naked before everyone.

Jacques continued talking, although I found it difficult to concentrate on what he was saying. Something about the Bottleneck, suggesting that the murder should have happened when we were overworked and fatigued and on rations.

“But we buried ourselves in our work, and looked forward to the Mayflower.”

Mayflower. How long had it been since the arrival of Mayflower? I couldn’t remember. I had trouble conceiving the passage of time. Every soya tasted the same, every shift involved the same tasks, each face stayed the same. When I thought back on the voyage in Quoqasi, sometimes it had felt like decades of my life had passed. But then I had problems remembering much of the trip, and with a spin of somatic dizziness, suddenly the voyage seemed like weeks in my memory.

I shook my head, and asked, “And now?”

Jacques explained that in the absence of something to look forward to, the early fears of psychological trauma were revisited. The murder only evidenced the thesis.

“And that’s what happened to that mechanic, Cane?”

Jacques was sipping his drink as his shook his head. He cleared his throat. “No. No, he and his partner had incompatible personalities, and had been in conflict for a long time. Each had made requests to be reassigned.”

I nodded, still staring at the floor. “They obviously weren’t.”

“I’m not here to talk about him. I’m here to talk about you. Let’s start by talking about her.”

I didn’t need to look up from my space to know what Jacques was talking about. I turned straight to the picture I had on my small desk; the only decoration in my quarters. If my eyes could fade an image like the light of a star, then the picture would have long ago been washed of colour and detail, left only to exist in my faulted memory.

We were both wearing white shirts. She was sitting in front of me and leaning back into my chest, and the top button of my collar was open. She was smiling that resplendent, wide smile of hers; but her eyes were closed, her black lashes pointed downward. Her hair was swept across her forehead. I could almost smell her hair now.

“Her name is Ali.”

“She was a musician?”

I looked back at the picture. The neck of her cello could be seen in the foreground.

“The best.”

“Was she a candidate for the Project?”

“Mmm.”

Where had the years gone? I looked at myself in the picture, then down at my reflection in the syrupy, black surface of the soya. Grey had spread from my temples like solar wind across the magnetosphere; deep lines were carved around my eyes. But there was nothing to show for these years. The feel of her soft, white skin under my fingers; the tensing of her muscles when she came; the lazy stretch of her arm across my chest as she slept; the political arguments; the way her big, blue eyes lit up when she learned something new; the tattered, hardcopy books held so tenderly in her hands. What had I done in those years without these things?

These memories felt so new, so fresh, so important; but really they were old and constantly revisited. What other memories had I lost, to preserve these with such strength?

Jacques was looking at me with a strange expression. I realised that he was waiting for an answer to a question I’d never heard. His soya was empty. Perhaps he had asked the question some time ago.

“I never thought it would be so hard,” I confessed. I saw the tears in my peripheral vision, rather than felt them fill my eyes. “Even when there were five AUs between us, a letter from her was never more than forty minutes away. Now, even if she could write to me, it would take four years to reach me. Four years!”

“You’re homesick,” Jacques said.

“I’m lovesick.”

“No. Lovesickness involves periods of mania, interspersed with depression and obsessive-compulsiveness. You’ve exhibited only depression, almost exclusively, since we left.”

“I’ve never been the most labile of persons,” I replied.

Jacques pressed on. “I also checked the maintenance logs. You’ve never checked out an e-suit, never qualified on a Sprat. You’ve only left this Colony once, for the conference in Alpha-1, and only then because you presumably had to.”

“Fram holds no meaning to me. No significance.”

“I thought not. A symptom. Ali is a proxy for your homesickness.”

I thought of Earth, and the inner system: teeming, crowded, overpopulated, noisy. How could she live there? I’d often asked her that. Government housing, population control, pollution, crime, political unrest; how could Ali possibly represent all of that, in my mind? And how could I miss that?

“No. I miss her. Not Sol. Your set of symptoms can’t be perfect. Or maybe this is just how lovesickness plays out, over light years.”

Jacques appeared shocked, briefly, as though he’d not considered the imposition of distance upon mental illnesses which involved separation. But he recovered quickly.

“Teleology. It doesn’t matter what the mind is acting upon, the effect remains the same.”

I looked down at the floor again.

Jacques said, “And you can’t go home again.”





To Its Limits

5 03 2010

“…Pushing the AMUF to its limits, the Karst-manufactured MREM-C (Multi-Role Earth Mover Component) module was one of the most useful machine upgrades in the colonial motorpool.  Instrumental in carving channels for the intercolonial light-rail system, the MREM featured a robust chassis that offered remarkable durability in the toughest of conditions.  Working in tandem with M10-10 catepillar rigs, the MREM teams were an undeniable asset in infrastructure projects.”

There was the AYLI before us, perhaps fifty meters away, its legs dusted brown with regolith. It was trapped in a pass probably too narrow for the skill of the driver. There were two figures standing at the feet of the walker; their e-suits were dark and clean compared to the legs of the AYLI.

“It’s not an AYLI,” Gingrich said condescendingly.  “An MREM.”

She pronounced it ‘em-rem’. I didn’t much care what random string of letters the super-corporates back in Sol had given the thing.

“Irrespective, these framming Twos shouldn’t have brought the thing so far from the Colonies.”

A quick glance at the GPS showed that we were three kilometres north-west of what amounted to Alpha-2, in the foothills of Henderson Ridge. The ridge had formed from the ejecta spewed out in the impact which created the crater in which our four Colonies were sited. It was relatively rough terrain, as far as Fram went: there were many large bolides scattered about, yet to be worn down by the winds and regolith, and benches of bedrock punched upwards by the force of the impact to the south-east.

The MREM had broken down in the shaded lee of a wadi, where several boulders formed a rough wall of chocolate-brown rock. The suspension on our Sprat worked overtime as we crossed the broken terrain.

Gingrinch was speaking to the two e-suited figures, although I wasn’t on that frequency and couldn’t hear their conversation. I angrily engaged the footbrake and began to circle the walker on foot. What point was there talking to them? The problem was obvious – not that the teeth of the lead road wheel in the left leg track assembly had been worn smooth, popping out the track sprockets; but that morons from Alpha-2 were given any equipment from the May, when they clearly had not the faintest idea how to use it.

I grabbed some equipment and spares from the stowage bins on the flanks of the Sprat, and went to work levering the remaining track from the guide wheels.

Gingrich eventually walked over, watched me work. She didn’t contribute. Of course. She came onto my freq and explained that the pair driving the MREM had come up into Henderson Ridge to site a good location for a weather station above De Lacaille Chasm.

“What a pair of clowns,” I said, although I looked from the corner of my eye to make sure they weren’t on our freq. “AYLIs, MREMs, whatever, they’re meant for hard-surface duty. In the Colonies. On the highways. What framming idiot takes them out here, into the countryside?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course, but Gingrich answered. She stood there, watching me work, hands on her hips, and actually argued their logic to me. A wretch. God, I was so sick of her.

She was engaging at length about the purpose of humanity to spread life throughout the Universe. Surely there were better places in that Universe for walkers to break down.

“Humanity?” I asked. “Nothing more than a few layers of translucent membrane stretched across a scaffolding of calcium, with some watery, soft tissue sandwiched between. No purpose there at all.”

She tried to rebut.

“And why the fram,” I continued, cutting Gingrich off, “did we even bother bringing KOVTARs? What was the point? If every monkey is going to run about in these fancy new toys, break down somewhere they shouldn’t be, and wait for us to come help them?”

Finally – with a suddenness that made me grunt with overexertion – the track links came off, and tumbled to the ground. I leaned over to pull the tracks out in a straight line. I would have to remove the worn road wheel, clean out the regolith, install a new road wheel with fresh teeth, and then run the tracks back through the idlers.

I struggled with the weight of the track, even in the low gravity. And still Gingrich stood there, watching; still she crapped on about utterly inane stuff. I threw the track back to the ground.

I felt an anger wash over me that I couldn’t stop. “Are you going to help? I mean, at all?”

Gingrich laughed.

“You’re a halfwit,” I said, in a cruel and resigned voice.

“And you’re a framwit.”

The anger exploded behind my eyes like fireworks. My muscles felt like taught steel wires. Somehow, the wrench was back in my hand, and I spun toward her.

And that was all there was – an arm swung, a wrench bloodied, a tight spray of cavalry brown blood over the grey regolith. And I had committed the first murder in the planet’s history.

Oh, God.

The Twos, resting in the shade, suddenly jumped to their feet. I couldn’t hear what they were saying; they were on the general freq. I looked down at Gingrich, motionless, the mask of her e-suit askew and blood oozing from her temple. I felt nothing.

I changed to the general frequency, and walked toward the morons from Alpha-2, those ungrateful, lazy, bloodsucking parasites from Alpha-2. I waved the bloodied wrench. “And neither of you are worth the bullet it would take to shoot you.”

I threw the wrench away. The next thing I knew, I was on the Sprat, driving north, my body shaking uncontrollably…





The Cellist.

30 04 2008

I remember lying in a body-warmed bed, the sheets clinging to the sweat of my body. She was naked on a stool across from me, her cello between her pale knees. Her shoulders and arms were bare and uncovered by the cello, giving her an alluring modesty. The fingers of her left hand walked across the strings: sliding and oscillating, glissando and vibrato, expressing more through each note than I could in words. Her right arm manoeuvred the bow with fluid, elegant grace, as if she alone were conducting a string section.

I lay with closed eyes, letting the notes fill my ears and slide into my mind. When I peeked from my closed eyes, I saw that she was not smiling as I was; her eyes were affixed to the neck  of her cello, and her face was furrowed with the slight frown of concentration that masked her thoughts when she played.

I was captivated by the way her hands moved when she held a note in vibrato, the way the bow slid over the strings, the purity and strength of the sound she drew from the instrument. It seemed that she held her cello with greater tenderness and love than she had held me just minutes before, as if sex was only a warm-up to the real pleasure.

This memory was from the night before the Project distributed data packets throughout the System to the candidates who had made it through to the final round of offers. That was six, no, almost seven years ago. I had relived the memory of Elgar’s Cello Concerto each time I fell asleep for almost two and a half thousand nights. That part of me disconnected by such timescales felt that it was no longer a memory, but a memory of a memory, the original having been long worn away.

I remember the feeling of the sheets sticking to my body, the way her music improved during turnaround, when her hands flitted like butterflies, unencumbered. She had made the six-month outbound trip from Copernicus to meet me on my way back to the Hub. I remember how much she hated the journey to the outer planets, and being cramped aboard a hauler between transfers. She was accustomed to the bright sunshine and the unending basalt plains of the maria. She shrivelled and turned pale from the conditions, like a flower without light.

Ultimately, that was why the Project rejected her application. The psyche evaluation was blunt, but necessarily so; I remember how personally she took the comments. She would not be able to cope with the five-year journey to Alpha Centauri if she could barely endure the twelve-month round-trip between the Moon and the Jupiter colonies. Her tears were made light and delicate by the zero-gravity of turnaround, but behind them I saw a suppressed, hidden, denied relief.

She came to see me eight weeks before the Quoqasi left Jupiter. She brought her cello. She did not ask me to stay, to change my mind, to give up the greatest adventure of history. Not once did she give voice to the thought that remained silent between us: that once the fusion torch lit and the colony ship slipped its moorings, we would never see each other again. Our lives would continue, diminished, separated by a gulf of a size incomparable to that endured by any star-crossed lovers in the history of the species.

She played Albinoni’s Adagio that night, her jaw set and face furrowed.

In the three months since the Mayflower had arrived, life had improved. It was becoming easier for us to remove Home from our intimate thoughts. But each time I saw Cassiopeia, and each night before sleep fogged my mind, I thought of her. And of her cello.





Velt Patrol

10 06 2007

Relay Maintenance 70%

“…One of the few vehicles that thrived on Fram’s surface, needing no initial retrofitting, was the Sprat-11, a two-man buggy with a remarkable load-bearing capacity of three-quarter tonne. They proved invaluable to maintenance crews tasked with the upkeep of the many remote-region sensor pylons that reported scientific data to the laboratories and monitoring stations at the colony. The Sprat-11 was perhaps the most efficient and rugged vehicle within the colonial motor pool, and would only prove itself further by becoming the trusted and reliable workhorse of the medical field-teams. The Sprat-11 chassis was also highly customisable, eventually leading to a broad variation in practical applications; from sporting excavator frames and forklift attachments to bristling with multi-band receivers and transferring data from isolated sensor fields back to the colony.”

The sky was ablaze with stars, bisected by the fuzz that was the planet’s ring. Cassiopeia had set, although Orion had risen far above the Sprat. We could see Betelgeuse and Mintaka and the whole Belt, but Rigel and Sirius were obscured by the ring. I kicked the buggy as hard as it could go. It was bounding off ridges of regolith with a spray of dirt and ice crystals. The engine over-revved after each jolt. I was grinning, of course, though I knew Gingrich, riding tandem behind me, was not. We’d both got our licenses on the same day, but I’d put in more hours, and so knew how to get more out of the Sprat than she did.

It was an automatic vehicle, with simple controls. It could be squirrely, though, especially in loose regolith or crunching along the lips of craters or ridgelines. Ours had been worked hard – almost every creak and rattle in the chassis, and strained growl of the engine, was my fault. There was a rock-strewn path up and out of a crater near Alpha-3 that I loved to belt the Sprat along; you had to hit the incline at just the right speed and with enough revs, or else it wouldn’t make it to the top.

Gingrinch, geo-caching behind me, overlaid our destination on the HUD in my faceplate. It appeared as a red triangle off to our left, with numbers counting down the distance as we approached, which I angled for immediately. The brakes were strong and in good order; I pushed down with pounds of pressure and the Sprat fishtailed to a stop. I kept pushing the brake until there was a click of the handbrake engaging.

Sensor Pylons were meant to be strapped beneath the crew cabin over the wheel clearance. But almost immediately we’d found that the all-terrain suspension of the Sprat, combined with Fram geography, meant that the wheels would at some point bounce up, carried by the loose suspension, and snap the Pylons. Now we stored them higher up on the frame, along the sides of the chassis, so that when stowed they became booms that locked to the sides of the driver and passenger seats. We unhooked these before we could dismount.

Gingrinch and I didn’t much like one another, which was one reason why I floored the Sprat so. We worked in silence, setting the Pylon into the regolith and initializing its systems. It was as close to night time as Fram got at this point in its orbit, and while both stars had set, their light still illuminated all the dust along the ecliptic. Every star was the same as Home, although there was only one pointer to Crux instead of two, and Home was now embedded in a constellation of its own.

Once the Pylon had been networked and was broadcasting telemetry, we headed back to the Sprat and on to our next waypoint. It didn’t have enough juice to kick over with the headlights on; I had to dim these and then start it. With a flick of methane ice billions of years old and, until now, undisturbed for that long, we headed off to the Northern Sky waypoint.





Supply & Demand

16 05 2007

Clerk

"…Nassimatissi was Quartermaster-Alpha for Outpost Alpha-3. He was the first to calculate and vocalise that, if things kept going the way they were; the colonial equipment continually being subjected to dust-related breakdowns, they wouldn’t have the propensity to expand at a rate requisite to an operational colony of that size.

The first stocks to rapidly drop in number were seals and filtration sleeves for the heavy movers. The KOVTARs kept throwing their actuator seals after gear aggravation by the dust, not to mention the maintenance they required after a few days out on the surface. The M-1010 catepillar tractors had a poorly designed engine manifold, at least for this landscape, which led to the fleet of twenty being garaged while the defects were patched up, dust-proofed and spot-welded. Stopping damage from happening was one thing, repairing what had already occurred was another.

…Nassimatissi hoped that the supply frame had more welding rods stowed within its silent bays. Vacuum caulk would stop a starship from turning inside out, but it wasn’t enough to put together an outpost or keep the ground fleet operational."

We were working in the plant room when we saw the Colony’s QA – I couldn’t remember his name, but Mierhof insisted it was Nassimatissi. He was with QA4, too, of course. Oddly, Alpha-4’s Quartermaster noticed us, but Nassimatissi did not.

We couldn’t eavesdrop in the plant room, of course, not near the massive carbon filters. The Quartermasters were walking between the filters, inspecting each of the spheres before moving to the next. There were sixteen spheres in this plant room, for Alpha-3’s hydroponic dome, each sphere easily the height of two men. The Quartermasters seemed to be checking the filtration: maybe someone got sick from the food, or maybe, with plans to connect each Outpost and our mining operations, we were running out of carbon, too.

Mierhof didn’t care – he seemed to think that, with our mining operations setting up, the Quartermaster-Alpha had better things to do than micromanage the hydroponic filtration of each Outpost of the Colony.

But I cared, because Nassimatissi, who had become somewhat of a celebrity across these fractured microcommunities, was not as impassive as he’d been made out. His face was furrowed, even when examining something as trivial as these carbon filters, with the edge of worry.

We had only five weeks to go until our supply ship arrived. They said that when Alpha A set, through a telescope, you could see the glow of the ship decelerating. People were excited, for different reasons: either for the resources, raw or prefabricated, which would ease the current bottleneck; or, more disturbingly, for the lifeboat the supply ship represented.

Our colony pods, now the center of our Outposts and the source of our warmth and light, would never again see the Quoqasi which bore them to this place. But the supply ship represented a second interstellar engine, and a second cargo module.

Many had begun to feel that all of our setbacks and problems were pandemic, and emblematic of what was to logically come next: a dieback, mass death caused by the collapse of life-support loops or a reactor accident or an impactor. These were the people who saw the supply ship as a lifeboat to Sol.

I cared – no, I worried – only because Nassimatissi seemed resigned, even defeated. And that suggested he was one of these latter.