Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.
More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.
Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi. The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…
From Emma Newman, the award-nominated author of Between Two Thorns, comes a novel of how one secret withheld to protect humanity’s future might be its undoing. Planetfall is available November 3rd from Roc.
Every time I come down here I think about my mother. I don’t want to; it just happens. My brain has decided it’s a critical subroutine that must be executed when the correct variables are in place: (when time = predawn) + (when physical location = beneath the colony) + (when physical act = opening the door to the Masher) run “unpleasant memory of mother #345.”
My hand is pushing the door open and I’m back at my old lab and she’s following me in, her heels clicking on the tiled floor. I’ve prepped the equipment to run one hour before her arrival so there’s something to show straightaway. She never was a patient woman.
“Is that a printer?” she asked, and I nodded. It started then—I know it now that I’m looking back—that tightening of my gut as I dared to hope I might impress her.
“Yeah.” I smiled.
She didn’t. “Like the one I have at home?”
“What’s it printing?”
“My latest work.”
She went up to the plasglass and peered through, seeing nothing but a few millimeters of tissue. She turned to me with her nose slightly wrinkled. “What is it printing?”
“A new pancreas,” I said. “For Dad.”
“Oh.” She’d hoped I was making something she could hang up in the hallway of her inert home. “I didn’t realize you were involved in this sort of thing. I’ve seen it on the news.”
And that was the moment I knew I’d been stupid to hope for anything. “The gene therapy isn’t working out for him. There’s an unusual base pair sequence in the—”
“Renata—” She holds up her hand. “You know I don’t understand this kind of thing.” The hand lowers to rest over her heart. “I’m an artist.”
I wanted to say that my colleague had called me that when he saw the final model I’d compiled for the print. I wanted to ask her why she wasn’t even the tiniest bit worried about Dad’s cancer. They were married once; surely an echo of something remained. But all I said was “I’m making him a new pancreas with cells cultured from a cheek swab and it’s actually fucking cool. I’m going to save his life. And thousands of other people who can’t—”
“I don’t think it’s right.”
“How can it be wrong to save a life?”
“Where does it stop? Making a person? Making copies?”
“Actually, they’ve already locked down the ethics on that, after the guy over at Princeton—”
“It’s going too far, all this science. Where’s the beauty? Where is God in all of this?”
“Everywhere,” I whispered. “Especially here.”
She didn’t hear me.
This is where I take a deep breath and look at the Masher instead of the lab in my past. I run a hand over the alloy and rub my fingers together. I know from patching into the environmental sensors and the color of the walls that the humidity levels are within satisfactory parameters, but I still do it. The alloy is the same gray-blue as my mother’s eyes. That must be the memory trigger. I used to wish I’d inherited them, but thank the Lord I didn’t. I wouldn’t want to see my mother’s eyes looking back at me in the mirror. I have my father’s dark brown eyes and his tight curly hair and his flat nose. It was genetically inevitable, but it was still a disappointment to her. It’s obvious in the postbirth footage I lifted from the family server. It’s the only time you see her. Days later she was the one doing all the filming. Drawn back. Getting the composition right, one step removed from her own retinal cam.
I walk from one end of the Masher to the other, peering through the plasglass at the sorted discards from the homes above instead of human tissue. I feel just as excited now as I did back then.
“What have you got inside you today, Mash?” I ask. I don’t know why; there’s no voice recognition or synthware or any kind of UI. There’s no point; the sorter is the only part with any AI and it’s not that clever. It doesn’t need to be to sort materials.
In the ceramics section an interesting curve in the collected pile catches my eye. I press the nubbin at the bottom corner of the door and it slides open. It’s a vase, I think, the design riffing off a Möbius strip aesthetic. The bacteria are destroyed by the household chute on the way down, so I know it’s sterile and safe to take out.
I turn it over a few times and rub my thumb over the shiny white surface. It tells me two things right away: the creator is a learner—they always want to play with Möbius strips when they get to a certain phase of the CAD training program—and their printer is going to break down soon. The imperfections in the surface are obvious to me; if it were my printer it’d be stripped down and cleaned right away, but these people don’t notice the signs. They know I’ll turn up and fix it when it breaks and that’s enough for everyone. Except the Ringmaster.
Even though the design is crude and the vase flawed, I rescue it from its fate. Someone with the potential to be a good visengineer tried so hard to make it an interesting shape. I need something to remind me there are still people creating for the love of it. I put it on top of the unit and rummage through the rest of the abandoned ceramics, but nothing takes my fancy, so I slide the door shut and move on to the plastics compartment. I’ve had time only to open its door when a message marked “urgent” arrives for me.
I don’t even question who it is from; only the Ringmaster has manners bad enough to tag any message that way. I decline voice contact—the acoustics would give away my location—and indicate that I’ll accept only text. He’ll think I’m on the toilet or having a shower. The only other times most people accept text-only is if they’re making love with someone boring, and he knows there’s no chance of that.
Ren—come to the west gate. Now.
I close the Masher compartment, actually interested. What’s Mack doing there? He never goes to the western edge of the colony.
With a simple thought command, a virtual keyboard appears in front of me, overlaid across my visual field. What’s going on? I type back.
What’s that supposed to mean? You want to have a meeting at the west gate?
No. Someone’s coming toward the colony. From outside.
The v‑keyboard disappears, my implant thinking it’s not needed anymore when the words fly from my brain and I stand there, motionless, too stumped by what he’s sent to respond.
Ren? What are you doing? Come now!
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.”
Excerpted from Planetfall © Emma Newman, 2015