Orna, a representative of a universe-wide trade union, undergoes a drastic change in perspective while investigating the disappearance of three planets and their inhabitants on a newly terraformed world.
By the time Orna reached the stone house high up the mountain, Yasimir’s sun had begun to set, and only the tallest peaks still shone in its silvery light. The climb had been difficult, and Orna had stopped often to catch her breath and take in the majestic views. Fields of grass and wildflowers lined the valley, and hundreds of waterfalls, fed by furiously melting glaciers, stirred up huge clouds of rainbow-filled mist. For a station-hopping jeek like her, it was breathtaking. The climb had left her soaked, and the sun was dropping fast; Yasimir’s day was only fourteen hours long. She thought about setting up a tent and heater and changing into something dry. But the mists lingered like smoke, and the leaves steadily dripped with moisture. Changing, she knew, would be an exercise in futility, like her mission here. She dragged herself up the last few meters toward the stone house and sighed.
A doorless opening led into its shadows. “Hello?” she called. “My name is Orna Liat Obote Manashampo,” she said in the local dialect of Mandreen. “I’m Acting Representative of the Free Trade Union, Outer Deep Region 59. Is anyone home?”
When there was no response, she sighed again. She should have been home, enjoying some well-earned time off, and now she had hauled herself across hundreds of light-years for nothing more than a rumor. Well, almost nothing more. It had been years since she had set foot on a planet, and Yasimir was truly beautiful. There was no other word for it. It was hard to believe that a few decades ago this world had been a frozen, lifeless rock, and likely to reach the heat death of the universe without a single microbe gracing its surface. Now its valleys blossomed with alp grass and coneflower, pollinator bees skipped gleefully across the plains, and the air smelled sweetly of pine and humus.
What a marvel, she thought, inhaling deeply, savoring the fertile smell, so different from the recycled air of orbitals and stations. Eventually, she crept through the arched doorway of the house and called out, “Hello? Is anyone home?”
As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, a man came into focus. He sat on a stone pedestal, naked except for a dun cloth around his waist. He sat in a meditative pose with his eyes closed, while a blue-gray beam of the day’s quickly fading light shone onto him from a hole in the ceiling. In its light his skin looked as pale as bone. His ribs poked from his chest, and his mop of greasy gray hair and beard hung past his shoulders. Orna wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting. It definitely wasn’t this.
There were a few containers and urns on the stone floor. Two or three ratty carpets more dirt than fabric. Arranged in neat piles around the pedestal were bouquets of flowers, bundles of food and incense, piles of polished stones, and other unidentifiable things. No tech that she could see. Or, for that matter, a toilet.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” she said. “I’ve come a long way, and it’s a long trip back to town.”
“Distance is meaningless,” he said, eyes still closed.
“Okay . . . ,” she said. “Anyway, I’m here because—”
“Because you have heard I am responsible for the missing planets,” he said. His voice rasped, as if his vocal cords had been modded or injured. He opened his eyes and stared at her with pupils so dilated his irises were mere thin white rings around hollow dark spheres, like the double eclipse of two dying suns.
She suppressed a shiver. “There are people down in—” She blinked up her eie to help recall the name. “—in Melisianda who say that you’re responsible for the missing planets.”
His pupils flickered oddly, as if reflecting lights not in the room. Unnerved, she looked away. This ascetic waif, responsible for the missing planets? She swept her eyes over the many items around his pedestal. Tributes? From supplicants come up the mountain to see the “holy” man? She wondered if one of them had told him something about who or what was responsible.
She glanced out the door, surprised that the stars already glimmered. Out here, on the galaxy’s Outer Arm, there was a small chain of planets like Yasimir, newly terraformed, brimming with nascent life. And nine days ago, suddenly and inexplicably, three of them had gone missing: Ecruga, Oxwei, Charlotte’s World—all vanished from the universe. Like water rushing to fill a hole, their absence sent gravitational waves rippling across space-time. Ships emerged from slipstream to find empty space where there had once been worlds. And, Orna thought with a painful tightening of her chest, people.
She swallowed the knot in her throat before it could turn into a sob. Mother had been on Charlotte’s World when it vanished, doing Shiva-knew-what. Besides a few token messages on birthdays and whatnot, Orna hadn’t spoken with her in years. It couldn’t be true. Mother wasn’t dead. She was just far away, as she’d always been, and one day soon a message would arrive wishing Orna a happy whatever and asking if she’d produced any grandchildren.
“How could you possibly be responsible for the missing planets?” Orna said.
He grinned wickedly. “I knew someone like you would come, that it would take time for my message to propagate across the human sphere, for you to exhaust all your paths of inquiry. Tell me, what is your working theory?”
“For why the planets went missing?”
“Right now,” she said wearily, “we have none.”
“You have people working on it?”
“Yes. Hundreds, maybe thousands. From all across the galaxy. Some of the brightest minds in the universe.”
“And so far they’ve come up blank?”
“So far,” she said. “Yes.” Then for a terrible moment she felt as if she were adrift in deep space, a thousand light-years from nowhere, with no hope of rescue or even death.
“So here you are,” he said, “Orna Liat Obote Manashampo, Acting Representative of the Free Trade Union, Outer Deep Region 59, sent to me because your people are out of ideas, because you are desperate for answers, and though you think you’ve been sent on a fool’s errand, that I am a madman living alone on this ever-dripping mountain, the truth is your search is over. I am the answer you seek. I alone know the truth of why those worlds were taken.”
“Taken?” she said.
“Taken by whom?”
“Her name is Hri.”
A chill rolled down her spine, though she had never heard the name before. “Who is that?”
He laughed, and while Orna prided herself on her composure under pressure, she had never met a person who laughed at the death of half a million people, Mother among them. A fire kindled in her belly, and she balled her fists. Diplomacy was the sworn FTU way, though she had made the occasional exception.
Suddenly the man leaped up from his pedestal and bolted out the door.
“Where are you going?” she shouted.
She followed him out. Night had fallen, and a million stars shone down from an unfamiliar sky. He stopped beside the dripping forest, his body a thin silhouette almost invisible against the pines. He turned his gaze up, and as she stepped beside him she looked up too, wondering which star was Pnei, her home, if it were even visible in the sky.
“We thought we deserved them,” he said. “We thought they were ours to do with as we pleased.”
“They?” she said.
“The stars,” he said. “And the worlds that spin around them. We assumed that because we could, we should.”
She was cold and tired and had no patience for riddles. “What the hell are you going on about?”
“The First Diaspora!” he snapped, his voice echoing across a million folds of rock. “The waves of humanity spreading out to the stars! How long before Yasimir swarms with people? Now, there are a few thousand in scattered villages. In a decade, there will be millions. In a century, this world will be yet another human sewer, home to billions.”
“A sewer?” she said.
“How else do you describe the self-replicating mass of vermin that is humankind?”
Not that way, she thought. She had seen heaps of human ugliness; in her job, it was unavoidable. She had seen its opposite too, astounding beauty in the most unexpected places. If Mother were here, she’d quip some pithy response to put this man in his place. But Orna couldn’t find the words, so she stayed silent.
A brisk wind rolled down the mountain, hissing and shaking the pines. Orna shuddered with them, hugging herself against the cold. She longed to change into dry clothes and curl into a warm bed, but she couldn’t. Not yet. Because even if he was regurgitating some baseless rumor, she had to find out everything he knew. If not, the FTU would send her back here with any unanswered questions.
“Who is Hri?” she said, bracing herself against the wind.
“She is a god.”
Orna cocked her head. “A god?”
“There is no other name for them.”
“Her sisters, who dwell in the heavens, whom you thought were mere clouds of gas and dust.”
“Your gods took the planets?”
“They are not my gods! They do not belong to anyone! They dwell alone, masters of space and time.”
Down in the valley, Melisianda glimmered with artificial light, and Orna stared longingly at it. Down there were restaurants and people and warm beds. Civilization, she thought, and sanity.
It was too dark to hike back now. She might stumble over a stone or get bitten by a viper. She had planned to call a flyer to come pick her up, but her eie was reporting a loss of signal. Yasimir was too young, its hubspace network still in its infancy. People came out here to get away from the hubbub of humanity, and they were in no hurry to connect back to it. She would have to wait until morning for a signal. So she could either risk grave injury, or she could spend the night here, on this mountain, with this stranger.
“Soon,” he said softly, “they will come for this planet too. They will work their way across the human sphere until, like roaches swept from a house, the human stain is purged from the universe. All our works will be forgotten. In a few tens of millennia, a blink of an eye to them, it will be as if we never were. As it should be.”
Then he abruptly turned and strode back toward his house, leaving her alone under the stars.
Her tent was self-assembling, and as soon as it was pitched she leaped inside and turned on the heater. Trembling, she slipped out of her wet clothes and slid into a dry jumpsuit from her pack. Then, for a good long hour, she basked in the heater’s glow, savoring its orange warmth. Crickets and other insects chirped loudly from the forest. Larger animals skittered on the rocks, and she knew there were black-bellied chamois, hop lynx, and cliff vultures skulking about. Humanity had built this world. That didn’t mean humans were safe from it. Natural habitats required balance, and balance meant predators and prey. She activated the tent’s shield so that nothing, not even a stray photon, could get through while its power held. There were still six hours of darkness left.
Feeling more relaxed in the warmth, she prepared her daily report for the Central Office. When she’d first arrived on Yasimir, she had downloaded a copy of the local dataspace records to her eie. She used it to facerec the man she’d spoken to as Adair Joshua Ohanko, born on Mars, in Solsys.
“Solsys,” she said. “Huh.” It was not unusual, she knew, for jeeks from Solsys, conditioned as they were by the collapse and rebirth of Origin Earth, to have extreme views on terraforming and the human presence in the galaxy. A return to an earlier age, a slowing or ceasing of the human diaspora—these were common themes. Less common was the desire for human extinction. In fact, Orna couldn’t recall ever meeting anyone before Adair who had felt this way.
Local records said he had come to Yasimir on a small ship from Tarphonsys two standard years back without cargo or suitcase. A medscan found him free of pathogens and with minimal gene mods. The records said little else, and she’d need to wait for a hubspace connection to conduct a deeper query.
She was in the middle of dictating her report when she stopped short, because there it was again, that knot in her throat. This time, she couldn’t push it down, and she gasped.
Was Mother really gone, forever? No more surprise messages? No more birthday wishes? Did her story really end like a period at the end of a sentence? Orna couldn’t grasp the finality of it. Death had always been an intangible thing. She wondered for a moment if there was something she wished she had said or done, if she had any regrets. She surprised herself by finding none. Mother had chosen a path far from Orna, and there was nothing she could do except live her own life. Orna had often wished that she and Mother were closer, that they could share in each other’s daily joys and disappointments. And after a long while she’d realized that Mother preferred to stay aloof. You cannot get hurt if you never let yourself become vulnerable. But, Orna knew, neither could you love.
She composed herself and continued her report: “Adair is a misanthrope who believes humanity is vermin and whom his gods will wipe out. I’m attaching a recording of our conversation. I’ll follow up with additional questions tomorrow; however, I’m leaning toward the hypothesis that Adair is suffering from grandiosity related to religious delusion.”
She ended with a report on local trade, which had dropped precipitously since the planets vanished, though it had increased by a few percentage points in the last two standard days. “A positive sign,” she noted, “that trade may soon return to normal levels.”
She paused, thinking of Mother.
Eventually, she made the finger-knotted FTU bondsign with her hands and said, “I swear to Time, Space, and Eternity all I’ve said is true. May your bonds stay firm. May your paths lie open.”
She ended the recording and told her eie to transmit the report as soon as the hubspace connection resumed. Her supervisor and her supervisor’s supervisor would need to review her data. And, because it dealt with the event, it would likely reach the Court of Sents themselves before she got a reply. She hoped it would come soon. She had never missed home this much in her life.
She was falling into a dreamless sleep when she heard the voice.
“Ornalia . . . Ornalia . . . !”
She sat up, thinking she had dreamt it. Then it came again, a whisper above the sigh of the trees in the wind.
No one had called her that in decades, not since she was a girl. She switched on the light, and the tent’s interior glowed bright yellow, hurting her eyes. She checked the power cell. It still had a full charge. The shield was up, or so it said, which meant no sound, let alone a damn quark, should have gotten through. It came again.
“Ornalia . . . !”
A woman’s voice. How could that be?
She powered off the shield and stepped outside. The stars spread above her like twinkling crystalline dust. The mountains were tall black hands reaching into the sky. Yasimir had no moon, and Melisianda, once a constellation of light, had gone dark.
She spun toward the voice, peering into the forest, and saw only shadows. She tried to amplify the light, but her eie would not respond. She could not even blink up a basic display.
“Who’s there?” she called. “Adair, is that you? I don’t like games!”
“Ornalia . . .”
As her eyes adjusted, a faint blue-gray figure a few shades lighter than the forest appeared in the trees. No—it couldn’t be. It was dark, and she was tired, and the shadows were playing tricks on her eyes. But the figure standing there was unmistakable.
“Mother?” Orna said.
The figure backed into the forest, and Orna followed. A thick mist lit by the stars hovered at her waist, and as the figure ran through it she left behind a dark, swirling wake. Orna rushed after her, growing colder and wetter the farther she went.
The figure climbed rocks and leaped over trickling streams, and Orna struggled to keep up. “Stop!” she cried. “Wait!”
The figure kept climbing. Soon the path was so steep that Orna had to grasp onto slippery roots and stones to keep herself from falling. She knew this was foolish. If the fall didn’t kill her, exposure would. It might be days before someone found her. But unable to stop, she kept climbing.
“Mother?” she called. “Is that you?”
The woman climbed a nearly vertical rock wall as easily as if it were stairs. Orna found it impossibly treacherous. Her instincts told her to turn back, that if she continued she would fall to her death. But she had only to go a little more before the mountain leveled out, so she forced herself to climb higher.
Soaked and gasping, she pulled herself onto the ledge. She stood on a circular plateau a few meters wide. At the opposite end the forest continued its steep ascent into the sky. Before this—there was no doubt about it now—stood Mother.
She wore dusty overalls, the same clothes she’d worn back on Varouna, when Orna was a child, when they had lived in the small wooden cottage, where she and Mother had planted a garden, and where they had watched evening primrose slowly open under Varouna’s enormous red moon.
Mother opened her mouth as if to speak, but instead of sound, out came stars. Inside Mother’s mouth was another universe, orders of magnitude larger than the one they presently occupied. This new sky expanded from Mother’s mouth in a dark cloud that glimmered with a billion jeweled suns. The cloud obscured Mother completely and, inflating like a universe, rushed for Orna.
She backed away from it, slipping on a root. She fell backward, over the cliff’s edge. She screamed as she stared up at the endless sky. Instead of stars, a gargantuan eye, larger than the planet, larger than the galaxy, stared down at her—through her, and in that vastness she knew she was less than dust.
A beeping woke her, and she sat up with a start. She was in her tent, and it was morning, according to her eie, and there was an urgent message waiting.
She examined herself for wounds or bruises, and found none. A dream? No—there was grass and mud on her shoes, and her jumpsuit was soaked. If not a dream, then how did she fall from that cliff without a single bruise? The message beeped for her attention and she reluctantly opened it.
Text only, it was marked urgent, with two attached files. With a start, she saw it was from the Court of Sents themselves.
“You are hereby directed to remain with Adair Joshua Ohanko until a relief team arrives, estimated forty-one standard hours earliest arrival. Do not—emphasize—do not let Adair out of your sight. Place a tracker on him. Most urgently, you are to have him explicate his statement of the following: Her sisters, who dwell in the heavens, whom you thought were mere clouds of gas and dust.”
She sat back, awestruck. In her nineteen years of service for the FTU, the Court of Sents had directly contacted her twice. The first was to congratulate her on her promotion to field agent, which they did with all new field officers. The second was during her investigation of the deadly starship accidents near Abedabun, where she had infiltrated a group of mercenaries destroying ships for salvage. Their message to her had ended up saving thousands of lives.
The Court of Sents didn’t bother with minutiae. They were too busy regulating the value of the galaxy’s material exchanges, making sure the myriad trade routes between worlds remained stable, and tracking the huge number of ships navigating the slipstream, all of which had the positive effect of keeping a centuries-long peace between worlds. Gods stealing planets? She had thought Adair’s story preposterous and had assumed the Court of Sents would too. Perhaps they were just being thorough. Or, she thought with an uncomfortable shift in her stomach, maybe they had found some truth in Adair’s story. Either way, she needed to know more. She barely remembered him mentioning these clouds of gas and dust.
She blinked open the first attached file, a scientific paper describing an uncrewed probe’s encounter with a huge cloud of hydrogen gas in Outer Deep Region 59/1004.b. The cloud exhibited what the scientists hypothesized might be intelligent behavior, but the probe and cloud mysteriously vanished, and all further investigations found no evidence of either.
Astonished, Orna blinked the paper away. Microbial life was common throughout the galaxy, and in a few rare pockets, simple multicellular life had arisen on its own. But animals and sentience—they were unique to Origin Earth. She had read about the strange cloud a few months back in the FTU’s private feeds. There’d been a lot of speculation about what it might have been, but like everything else in the universe, the talk faded, and Orna had forgotten all about it until now. Maybe the Court of Sents knew more than they were letting on. Maybe Adair was describing a wholly natural phenomenon that, filtered through his religious lens, he interpreted as coming from “gods.”
She opened the next attachment, a background file on Adair. It confirmed he was born on Mars, and added that he had lived in more than thirty systems and visited more than two hundred, spanning more than two decades. From the bustling and crowded Inner Terra worlds all the way out to the sparsely populated and newly terraformed planets of the Outer Deep, the jeek really got around. To her surprise, he had lived on Chadeisson Station in Eriksdatter Ring, a short distance from where she lived now. For all she knew, they might have passed each other on the street.
She looked for something in his history, a tragedy or circumstance that might have spawned his hatred for humankind, and found nothing. In fact, as far as she could tell, he had lived a comfortable life. Then why the misanthropy? Was his hate, she wondered, a simple choice?
Disturbed and restless, she closed the files, turned off the tent’s shield, and stepped out into the morning light. Tahira, Yasimir’s silver-white sun, was bright and warm, and she tried to let it soothe her chilled bones. A huge rainbow arced across the glacial mist, though most of the valley still lay in shadow. The grasses, laden with dew, twinkled as they rippled in the wind. It was breathtaking. To think that humanity, which had once succumbed to beasts and weather, could now create worlds. Truly, Yasimir was a work of art. How could Adair look at this and see only ugliness?
She wanted to put on dry clothes, but the steady drip of the forest changed her mind. The pines shivered in the morning breeze where last night Mother had walked in the trees. A fever dream, Orna thought, from standing under the light of too many suns. But dreams did not leave mud and grass on her shoes. Answers, she knew, lay with Adair.
The house’s interior still lay in shadow. Adair sat on his pedestal with his eyes closed. A bundle of fresh flowers tied with a red string lay at his feet. A new addition.
“You had a visitor?” she said. She didn’t like that someone had been here while she slept.
“I always have visitors.”
She looked around, afraid someone was hiding in the shadows. As far as she could see, they were alone. “Who came?” she said.
“Someone from the village.”
“A woman?” she said. Someone, Orna thought, who looked like Mother?
“A tired old man.”
“You’re certain it was a man?”
She stepped closer to him. “Why do they come to see you?” It was an accusation as much as a question.
“Because I tell them the truth.”
“About our existence. That our lives are mere infinitesimal drops in the totality of consciousness. That we ascribe ourselves with exaggerated importance when we are ultimately extremely insignificant creatures.”
“That gives them comfort?”
“Truth is seldom comfortable.”
“That doesn’t explain why they come.”
“They come because they find relief knowing that, as far as the universe is concerned, all their problems are small, and all their troubles will soon be forgotten.”
“Some of us might want to be remembered,” she said.
“By whom?” he said. “Those who remember us will soon be dust too. Look around. Everything you see will eventually be dust.”
“In a billion years, perhaps.”
“A blink of an eye in eternity.”
She felt as if his words were squeezing her chest, and she gasped. Was it possible, she thought, that he was responsible for half a million deaths? For murdering Mother? She had to consider the possibility, as far-fetched as it seemed, that he was. Seething with rage, she paused her recording of their conversation with her eie.
“Where were you last night?” she said.
“Where else would I go?”
“You didn’t leave this house? You didn’t walk in the woods?”
“Why would I? Hri takes care of all my needs.”
She glanced down at the bundle of flowers tied with the red string. “How many visitors did you have last night?”
“Besides you, none.”
“And these?” she said, pointing to the flowers. “Who brought them?”
“That tired old man from Melisianda.”
“I have no instruments to measure time besides the sun. He came with the dawn, and he left before you arrived.”
“Someone was here last night,” she said, and for a moment she was falling off that cliff again, staring up at that enormous eye. She pushed through her fear and continued. “A woman. In the woods.”
He looked at her oddly for a moment. “It was someone from the village. People are always wandering up here.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “She looked like . . . someone I know.”
He gave her another strange look, then shook his head dismissively.
She had caught a flash of fear in him. “What is it?” she said. “What were you thinking?”
“Nothing,” he said. “An impossibility.”
“Care to elaborate?”
Orna ground her teeth. Perhaps he had drugged her or used some kind of tech to manipulate her. She scanned the place with her eie, and it came up empty. Nothing here but stone and dust.
Frustrated, she turned on her recording again, and this time she also activated a tracker. Too small to be seen with an unaided eye, the nano-scale spider climbed down her leg, leaped across the floor, climbed up the pedestal, and with a tiny dose of anesthetic nested itself securely into Adair’s thigh. He’d need a scalpel to remove it now. If he tried anything tonight, she would know.
“You said we mistook these gods for clouds of gas and dust,” she said. “Explain what you meant by that.”
He smiled to reveal long gray teeth. “Better if I show you.”
He hopped off his pedestal and headed for the door, and she followed him out. Then he dashed into the pines, away from the path, and she sped after him. Dripping branches brushed against her body, their millions of little fingers sliding wetly across her skin. He laughed as they went.
“Where are we going?” she said, struggling to see him through a tangle of branches.
“You’ll see,” he said.
They soon emerged into a clearing nestled between two sharp ridges of lichen-covered rock, and at the sight of it Orna gasped. Silver light, dappled by a wall of pines, slanted down into this mist-filled meadow, lush with grasses and wildflowers. Insects swarmed the air, buzzing in her ears. Floating balls of pollen, picked out by sunbeams, drifted by in delicate clumps. She felt as if she had stepped into a fairy tale, a scene taken straight from one of the books Mother might have read to her as a child, and her heart suddenly ached for a place and time forever lost to her.
Adair sidled up to a patch of purple blossoms that leaned heavily on long green stems. Bees, laden with pollen, crawled all over them.
“Do you like this place?” he said.
Surprised by his question, she answered honestly. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s . . . astounding.”
“It’ll be gone in a year.”
“Gone?” she said, feeling an unexpected pang of dread. “Why?”
“This is a microclimate. This meadow exists only because of a chance confluence of events. The melting glaciers provide moisture, and its location between the rocks moderates the temperature. The glacier feeding this meadow is almost fully melted. No more water means no more meadow.”
“It will still rain,” she said. “The planetary engineers weren’t that clumsy.”
“Yes, but this microclimate will be gone, and the riot of life with it.”
If he had a meaning behind all this, she couldn’t quite grasp it. “Tell me about those clouds of gas and dust, Adair,” she said.
“I am,” he said. He leaned over a bee crawling across the petals of a flower. “Humanity is like this insect, blithely unaware that it lives on a cliff’s edge, skirting death.”
“There are other flowers. Other meadows.”
“None quite like this.”
“No,” she said. She used to dream about places like this as a girl, wishing with all her heart they were real. Now she stood in one. Such a waste, she thought, that it would soon perish and be forgotten.
“Do you think this bee knows we’re here?” he said.
“Maybe,” she said.
He shook the stem, and the insect buzzed off. “And now?”
“Of course. You scared it away.”
“From its point of view, a large creature came between it and its work. It had a choice: should it keep foraging, or fly off? It decided fleeing was wiser. Humanity, unfortunately, is not so wise.”
“I’ll be honest, Adair. You’ve lost me.”
“We are like insects to them, small and insignificant. They are aware of us in the same way we are aware of insects. We ignore them, until they become a nuisance. Then they must be exterminated.”
A hawk, silhouetted by the sun, leaped from one of the pines and flew away. Orna felt adrift, as if she were tumbling in deep space again.
“So we are like bees to your gods?” she said.
“They are no more my gods than we are these bees’ humans! And they are as inscrutable to us as we are to insects.”
“Do you speak to your—to these gods?”
“So far, only to Hri.”
“How do you speak with her?” In dreams? she wondered. Visions?
He smiled. “I’ve traveled to hundreds of worlds, seeking to know humanity in all its colors. I lived high and low, with the rich and with the destitute. And everywhere I went, I saw the same thing. Slothful, indolent, self-indulgent vermin. We breed and multiply, and our filth spreads across the stars. I came to Yasimir to escape all that. I built my house to be alone and contemplate all I’ve seen. I spent hundreds of days meditating, hoping to find a purpose behind the madness. And in that stillness and silence, Hri reached out to me. She opened her mammoth eye and looked down upon me.”
Orna remembered falling backward, screaming and terrified, as an impossibly large eye stared down at her. Was that Hri, she , looking down at me too? She reeled at the possibility as he went on.
“It was terrifying,” he said. “To be seen by something so vast and ineffable. It made me feel utterly small and insignificant. It was also liberating, because I finally knew the truth. All our lives are nothing. We are just insects in a field.” He flicked at a bee, and it buzzed away.
“Insects serve a valuable purpose,” she said, struggling against her fear. “Each species fills an ecological niche, especially here.”
“What niche does humanity fill as it multiplies across the stars, devouring planets like termites in wood?”
Mother would know, Orna thought. Mother would have the perfect answer for this hateful man. But dizzy and unmoored, Orna could not think of one.
He seemed to sense her discomfort and smiled. “We serve no meaningful purpose,” he said. “We exist, like this meadow, as a cosmic fluke. We were never meant to be, and this mistake must be corrected.”
Orna shook her head, but the dread would not leave her. Was he right? she wondered. Were we a cosmic accident?
“I surprised her, you see,” he said, grinning, “as you would be surprised if this insect suddenly spoke to you. Hri and her sisters have been aware of Origin Earth since the first multicellular creatures swam in its oceans. And they did not pay us much heed, even as we spread across the stars, because our works were so small and transient compared to theirs. They did not think it was possible for us to develop the states of consciousness necessary to commune with them.
“Yet my mind, out here at the galaxy’s edge, unpolluted by the noise of humanity, refined by meditation, sharpened by fasting, touched their realm. I swam in cosmic seas you could not comprehend. I saw all time and space spread before me like an ocean, past and future intermingling in universe-sized waves. “This”—he waved at the meadow—“is nothing compared to that.”
More nonsense, she thought. The ramblings of a diseased mind trying to spread poison! She would not accept that the man who murdered Mother and half a million others was smiling gleefully before her. “Why did Hri take the planets, Adair?” she said, trembling.
“Because she looked down at me and saw my soul as clearly as the bottom of a placid lake. She knew all I had seen and felt. She saw the sordid worlds of Terra Diaspora, humanity spreading our infestation across the stars. She saw through my eyes what would happen if we continue. We will infest the galaxy, and one day we might even expand into their domain. So Hri did what we have been unable to do for millennia. She stopped us from growing. The rest, as you say, is history.”
Humanity is not vermin, Orna thought. We do not mindlessly spread across the universe like termites. But a part of her, small and growing, had begun to doubt.
“Hri took the planets?” Orna said.
“Where?” she said, her voice breaking. Where, she wondered, was Mother now?
He shook his head. “Where does a flower go after it blooms and dies? Nature converts it into other forms.”
“And Hri plans to take more planets?”
“Her and her sisters, yes. If we don’t stop growing. The first three were meant as a warning, to see how wise we are.”
“Why did they have to kill half a million people?” she said, holding back tears. “Couldn’t they have sent us a goddamned message?”
“Don’t you see?” he said. “The planets are the message.”
The sun had risen above the trees, and she was soaked in sweat. She hadn’t eaten in forever, and her stomach rumbled. She was tired and emotionally spent. She desperately wished to believe that Adair wasn’t responsible for Mother’s death, no matter how much he longed to be, that planet-eating gods didn’t exist, that this was all one man’s insanity. But she had already accepted the possibility that everything he had said was true.
Inches from her hand, a bee alighted on a flower, and she wondered if it even knew she was there.
She spent the rest of the day sitting in her open tent, making use of the working hubspace connection and trying to shake off her dread. On the private FTU feeds, there had been few new developments. Two scientists had published a paper hypothesizing a convoluted theory about random N-brane interactions, which they said might be responsible for the planets’ disappearance. Without evidence, however, their theories remained pure speculation. She doubted anything would come of it.
She transmitted another report and her most recent conversation with Adair back to the Central Office, while keeping one eye on the stone house and his tracker. For the entire day Adair remained on his pedestal in his cold house, meditating. According to her tracker, he hadn’t eaten or urinated all day. This did not sit well with her.
In the late afternoon, a man with long black hair and big green eyes hiked up to the house. She asked him about Adair, why he had come to Yasimir, and what he thought about the missing planets. Adair, the man said, was a “holy being,” who gave people spiritual peace. As for the missing planets, the man shrugged. “Who can say, really? Who can truly say?”
The day waned, and right before the hubspace satellite dropped behind the mountains and the signal cut off, she received a priority message from the Court of Sents with an additional directive: Find out from Adair which planets are next and when, and transmit at the first opportunity.
They believed him, she thought. And they were scared. Terrified. She was too. What could humanity do against powers like that? The winds shifted, and she put on a sweater to stay warm. With a steaming bowl of soup heated using the tent’s power cell, she watched the silver sun set. The first stars were up before she was done. This planet was beautiful, even peaceful, she thought. And in another time and place she might have enjoyed her stay here. Then night swept across the valley, and dread slipped back into her heart.
Are we really vermin? she thought. A stain on the cosmos? What, she wondered, are we doing by spreading across the stars? We think we’re so mighty. But maybe, as Adair said, we’re less than nothing. How long before Hri comes to snatch this world away too? Her legs shaky and weak, she entered Adair’s house.
A single candle flickered at his feet, and his face shifted in its yellow glow.
“You don’t eat?” she said.
He did not open his eyes. “Hri takes care of my physical needs. I haven’t eaten in forty-one days.”
She wondered if perhaps he had a gene mod which let him go for days without eating or expelling waste, then remembered the local medscan had detected no such thing, and Yasimir, as far as she knew, didn’t have the tech.
“Do you speak with Hri every night?” she said.
“Once you speak with a god,” he said, “you are never not speaking with one.”
“Did she tell you which planets she would take next?”
“No. And even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because you would evacuate the people, and they would live to infest another world.”
“You’d let millions die to prove a point?”
“All of us are dust already. Most don’t know it.”
She wanted to strike him on his smug little jaw, to squeeze his neck until he gasped his last breath. But she was better than that. She would not tell him that her mother was on one of those planets. She would not let him know he had hurt her.
“I want you to ask Hri a question,” she said.
“A god does not care about our petty human concerns.”
“Yet she talks to you.”
“Talking is a human concept. We commune.”
“Please,” Orna said, surprised at the desperation in her voice. “Ask her where she took the planets.”
“I told you, they go to the same place a flower goes after it wilts and dies.”
“Is that her answer, or yours?”
He didn’t seem to like this, and his face contorted. “Fine,” he said. “I will ask her. Don’t expect a response.” Then, for a good long while, he sat with his eyes closed while she waited. Eventually, he opened them.
“Well?” she said, eager.
“I told you, human concerns are meaningless to her. She did not answer.”
“Why does she even speak to you?” Orna spat. “Who are you to her?”
“A novelty, perhaps. An exotic pet. Her kind underestimated us, what we are capable of. When I soar with her I feel as if she’s testing me, the limits of my consciousness, to see what I notice and what I miss.”
Orna shook her head in disgust. “I’m going to stay with you tonight,” she said.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” he said.
“I don’t want to either. My people have asked me to watch over you.”
“If I said no, would you leave?”
“I’d wait outside.”
“No,” he said. “Stay. It’s cold and windy out there. You can sleep in here if you wish. My mind will be elsewhere.” He closed his eyes again.
She fetched her bedroll and thermal blanket from her tent, then returned to a dry spot in the corner. She sat on the bedroll, the blanket draped over her shoulders, and propped her back against the wall. She had traveled to hundreds of planets, orbitals, and stations, many with diurnal cycles far different from Terran Standard. Long ago, when she had joined the FTU, she’d received a gene mod that allowed her to adjust her circadian rhythm at will. If she wanted to sleep, her body would take the cue and rest. If she wanted to stay awake, she could do so for days without too many ill effects.
She would stay awake then, her eyes and tracker on him, until the relief team arrived to make sense of this. She had once stayed awake for one hundred and nine hours. Compared to that, this would be easy. Which was why, when she awoke sometime later from a dreamless sleep, she gasped and jumped up.
The house was dark. The candle had gone out.
“Adair?” she called. She tried to blink up her eie; it didn’t respond. No eie meant no tracker. He could be anywhere. She stepped toward his pedestal and found her movements oddly slowed, as if she were walking through fluid and not air.
Starlight trickled through the hole in the ceiling, a faint blue-gray beam that shone onto the flower bundle tied with a string. It lay in Adair’s spot on his pedestal. The man himself was gone. Something compelled her to touch the flowers, and as she lifted them they turned to ash, leaving a gray stain on her fingers.
There came a great shifting roar, as if dozens of mammoth stones were being ground against each other. The walls of the house moved, aligning and realigning into new shapes. A corridor opened behind the pedestal, roofless and open to the stars. Adair stood at the far end, naked, with his back to her.
“Adair?” she said. “What’s going on?” Her voice echoed as if she were standing inside a great marbled hall. He stepped to the left, vanishing from view, and she took off after him. As she ran down the corridor the far end moved further and further away, until it seemed to stretch on forever. Terrified, she stopped.
A cold gray mist poured over the stone walls. The airy waterfalls pooled coolly at her feet, and the ground lay hidden beneath the fog. The walls shifted again, sliding left and right with a great grinding roar. For an instant, when the walls had momentarily lowered, she spotted an enormous labyrinth sprawling endlessly before her, expanding toward an infinite horizon. At its center shone a single brilliant white star.
Then the walls grew taller again, obscuring the scene. “Adair?” she cried. “Hello?” She trembled as tears spilled down her face. She hadn’t been this scared since she was a child.
A breeze blew, and the mists parted a few meters away to reveal a girl covered in dirt, as if she had been playing in mud. The girl had short dark hair, and strangely familiar eyes. When she saw Orna, the girl said, “Oh, hello!”
“Who—” Orna said, her voice breaking. “Who are you?”
“Ornalia! Ornalia!” called another voice. At the sound of it the girl said, “I have to go!”
The girl dashed into a side corridor, and Orna leaped after her. The girl ran right, then left, always a few paces ahead. As they ran, the stars slid across the sky. They changed colors and size, a billion suns throbbing like hearts.
The girl ran free of the maze onto a wide plain. A huge gibbous moon was cresting the horizon, casting the world in its crimson hue. Grassy hills rose under a twilit sky, their mounds covered with neat rows of grain. There were no mountains here.
The girl ran toward a wooden cottage. A small garden grew on its southern wall. At the sight of it, Orna gasped. This was Varouna, where she had lived with Mother, decades ago.
“Ornalia, there you are!” A woman in coveralls stood beside the garden, hands on her hips. “Hurry or you’ll miss it!”
Mother? Orna thought. Is that really you?
The girl ran to Mother, and Orna followed. “Where were you?” Mother said.
Orna was about to speak when the girl spoke first. “I was playing in the fields, Mommy. Pretending the wheat rows were a maze with doors that led to other worlds. I saw a woman there.”
“Who?” Mother said.
“I never got her name,” said the girl.
Orna blinked, and with a shock recalled this day, when she had seen a woman in the wheat.
“Well, it’s this world I want to show you tonight,” Mother said. “I’ve been waiting all summer for this!” She pointed to several bulging flower buds at the peak of a bushy green stalk.
“What flower is that?” the girl said.
“Evening primrose,” said Mother. “An old-gene species dating back to Origin Earth. They open at dusk, and tonight is the night!” Mother looked up at the enormous ruddy moon. Its limb had barely crested the hill and still filled half the eastern horizon.
“It’s moving!” the girl said, pointing to the stalk. “Mommy, I saw it move!” She was right. One of the green buds shook as if there were a worm inside.
“Yes!” Mother said. “I see it!”
They watched under the light of the enormous moon as the yellow evening primrose slowly opened its petals.
“It’s magical!” the girl said.
“It really is,” said Mother.
“Look,” the girl said. “Another!” She pointed as a second bud began to unfurl. Then a third, and a fourth. They watched for many minutes, until seven flowers spread open to the sky.
“How do they know when to bloom?” the girl said.
“Same way our bodies know when to wake up. It’s built into their genes.”
“They’ll be here all summer?”
“No, dear. These flowers will wilt in tomorrow’s sun.”
“They only bloom for one night?”
“Then what’s the point?” the girl said, pouting. “Why bloom at all?” As she spoke a huge white moth alighted on one of the flowers. “Oh!” she exclaimed.
“Hush, or you’ll scare it off!” Mother whispered. “This is why they bloom, Ornalia. For the night moths, one of few species that can pollinate it.”
“Why only for one night?”
“Well, that’s what makes them precious, because they’re here for just a short while.”
“Like us,” the girl said.
“Yes,” Mother said, pulling the girl in close. “Like us.”
Orna longed to join them. She reached out her hand and the vision dissolved into mist.
Mother! Orna cried, though her voice made no sound. No! She would not let Mother go again! If only she could place a tracker on her, so she could keep Mother close forever, but no matter how hard she tried, she could not blink up her eie.
The moon had risen fully above the hills, a crimson disc filling half the sky. All at once its mottled surface pulled back like a great lid opening. Underneath was an eye, larger than the solar system, larger than the galaxy, and maybe even larger than the universe. The eye stared down at her, through her, and Orna knew what—who—this was.
You took her! Orna screamed to the sky. You stole my mother from me!
Who are you? a thundering voice replied in thoughts and not words.
She trembled under its vastness, struggling to speak. I am Orna! she cried. I am my mother’s daughter!
Who are you? it said again, and Orna split apart. Her atoms collapsed into quarks, and her quarks dissolved into pure energy that stretched across infinites so vast that time lost its meaning.
Time and space opened up before her in an unending landscape, each vertex a moment of her history. She fell into a point and was a girl on Varouna, laughing joyously as she played in mazes of wheat. She leaped up, away from this scene on a long parabolic arc, and came down again on Chadeisson Station, in the Central Office, while Mother was introducing her to the people and workings of the FTU; Orna stared, then as now, in utter fascination. Then she leaped up again and came down in the rainforests of Origin Earth, walking in religious awe, and marveling at this one place in the galaxy, as far as humanity knew, where intelligent life had arisen. Another leap and she was on Jackson Station, on her first field assignment, full of youthful excitement for her future as the twin moons rose above the gleaming skyscrapers. Another hop and she was on Torem Pali, administering the old FTU salvage yards under the planet’s hot sun; she stared out at the derelict starships laid across the dunes, knowing each ship had a story that spanned thousands of light-years. She leaped up again and came down in Akina Machi, officiating the wedding of two of her colleagues and dancing drunkenly through the night with their family and friends. Another hop and she was twirling with joy on Chadeisson Station, when she received her notice of promotion to field agent. For hours, which took no time at all, she stared out her apartment’s big window at the hundreds of ships coming and going to destinations across the galaxy, and felt so utterly proud to be a part of all that.
Like a stone across a pond, she skipped across time and space. She visited a thousand worlds and twice as many stations. Many more than Adair. In all of that, she did not see ugliness. Yes, she thought, humanity has its flaws. We have many. But we have done astounding things too. Once, she thought, we painted the walls of caves. Now we paint worlds. We climbed down from the trees and leaped out to the stars. Some of that growth was painful, even horrible. But in the end it was, like Yasimir, beautiful.
She was adrift in deep space again, floating in silence. This time, though, she was not alone. Perhaps she never had been.
We made a grave mistake, the voice told her. Your kind are too different from us. We did not understand. We do now. We will not interfere again. This is our promise.
Mother! Orna cried. Where is she?
Gone, the voice said. But never forgotten.
Then Orna was back in the stone house, sitting on her bedroll, and the light of dawn was leaking through the open ceiling. On the pedestal, Adair lay on his back, moaning.
She climbed to her feet, and as she approached him, he opened his eyes. The strange light in them was gone.
It took her a long time before she spoke. “They didn’t judge humanity,” she said, her voice hoarse. “They judged you. You have only hate in your heart, and they saw us through your eyes. Now they’ve seen humanity through mine, and their eyes have been opened.”
“You . . . you spoke to Hri?” he rasped.
Orna blinked. It didn’t seem real. “I did, and—” She let the tears come. “She told me they made a grave mistake.”
“No, we are the mistake! We deserve annihilation!”
What a pitiful creature that squirmed before her, she thought. “You are so convinced of your own importance,” she said, “even as you diminish the importance of others. Nihilism is not just intellectually lazy, it’s a failure of imagination. It’s grotesque. And most of all, it’s cowardly. If we had listened to people like you, we would have died out on a ruined Origin Earth centuries ago. But here we are, on a once-dead rock we brought to life. Transient life, yes. And that’s what makes it beautiful. This is what you could never see.”
“I can’t hear her anymore!” he said. “She’s stopped talking to me!”
“Because she knows what you are. A coward. And what you feel is nothing compared to what my colleagues will do to you when they arrive. They’ll be here soon.” With this, Orna turned, picked up her things, and stepped out into the morning light.
The silver sun crested the mountain peaks, warming her face, and with it came a hubspace connection and a dozen urgent messages in her eie. She would deal with them later. The relief team would come and she would explain everything. They would ask her a thousand questions, and then another ten thousand more. That would have to wait.
She took off into the forest, toward the meadow Adair had shown her. A mist hovered over the ground, rippling like slow-moving ocean waves. Most of the meadow still lay in shadow, and the crickets were still singing their nightly song. The first bees, awakening with the dawn, began to forage among the many flowers. Weeks from now, Orna would learn that Adair’s tracker had gone dead sometime in the night, and moments later that same tracker had pinged a hubspace repeater, not far from where Charlotte’s World used to be, once before going silent.
Gone, Hri had said. But never forgotten.
Now, as the sun rose over the pines and the mists slowly burned off, Orna leaned over a flower, and to the bee crawling upon it she said, “Hello.”
“Now We Paint Worlds” copyright © 2021 by Matthew Kressel
Art copyright © 2021 by Scott Bakal