Before the old church doors, in the warm darkness of the vestibule, Sabine’s mother stooped down to look her daughter in the eyes.
“What you were is past.”
She swept aside the veil of the girl’s communion dress—a billowy thing like a crown of unspooled gauze—and blotted her tears out with a thumb. Shrill music crept in from the sanctuary, dissonant chords from a heat-warped organ.
“What you will be is yet to come.”
Smiling wide, she held her child’s face in calloused hands. Her daughter, her anxious little girl on the threshold. Sabine was frightened by a simple ritual; that was good—it meant she’d done her motherly duty, protected the child from those things to be truly feared.
For now, at least.
Somewhere high above the stone ceiling, the great chrome shape of the Teardrop hung silent in the sky. Soon the first Greys would appear at the marketplace in Croix-des-Bouqets, slender bodies towering above the crowds.
Sabine’s dinner has gone cold.
So it was you. You killed our world.
“Not me, ch’atha—” Her husband extends a spindly arm, straightened at both joints to cross the length of the kitchen table.
She slaps it away. Turns in her seat to face the cupboards, the sink, the kitchen window—anything but him: Don’t call me dearest. Not in your language, not in mine.
Sabine rubs her forehead with a hand that comes away wet and clammy, fingers trembling. In her mind’s eye she pictures it: herself, her body, unraveling like the end of a frayed rope.
“I understand this must be difficult,” he says. Rehearsed. Sanctimonious. Typical Grey fashion. “You’ve lost a great—”
You have no idea what I’ve lost, she snaps. You can’t begin to fathom.
Forty-three, forty-four, forty-five… rows of tomato plants flew by the car window, all green blur and flashes of red earth where the furrows showed through. Almost too fast for Sabine to count.
“There used to be more than just tomatoes”—her mother said, laying out across the back seat—“Peppers, and leeks, and eggplants. Remember eggplants, sissy?”
Sabine’s aunt only grunted, hands on the steering wheel, eyes on the road.
Mother shrugged. “I always hated eggplants.” She let out a chuckle that became strained, gave way to a fit of coughing. Auntie clicked her tongue disapprovingly.
Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine… Sabine could only think of how old her mother looked, spasming under a light blanket, hair plastered to the car seat, mouth twisted by an unseen pain. Her skin strewn with pocks and blisters and jagged outgrowths.
It weighed heavy on Sabine’s mind, even at eleven years old: the idea of her mother as someone mortal, someone who would one day die.
She did her best to shut it out.
Seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three… The coughing fit subsided and the grimace faded from Mother’s face. She forced a smile and craned her neck to appear, beatific, in the rear-view mirror.
“See, sissy? No harm done.” Her voice was hoarse.
Auntie grunted, unconvinced.
What happened? With the egg-plants.
“Well… the sun got too strong.”
“Same reason your mum got sick, Sabine” Auntie said sharply. “Same reason you suit up when you go outside.” She kept her wet red eyes fixed ahead, always ahead.
The clinic came into view, a squat blue building on the slopes of the Mountain where Greys would come and go, flitting up and down between the earth and the Teardrop like angels on a ladder. People said they worked miracles there.
But Mother’s miracle didn’t exist on this planet, only theirs.
The tall Grey doctor explained, Sabine only catching a few words between the thump-thump-thump in her eardrums: “to the lungs”… “don’t have the equipment”… “can ease the pain.” Her mother nodding solemnly; the color draining from Auntie’s face.
On the drive back home, Mother sleeping in the backseat with a dream-band around her forehead (“this will keep her comfortable”), Sabine squirmed, fidgeted in her seat because she didn’t know what else to do. Twisting, turning, opening, closing—she found a roadmap faded and folded in the glovebox. Had there been more to the world than the Town and the Road and the City and the Mountain?
“Put that away, honey,” Auntie said, small-voiced. “Just reminds you of all that’s lost.”
What did I say about calling me that?
“It was a miscalculation made by the expedition planners; a side-effect of interstellar travel.”
You could have told me this sooner…should have…
“They knew that decelerating from the superluminal threshold would release energy; of course they did—the entirety of Drive Theory was based on this… bubble of contracted space-time, moving from star to star, picking up charged particles. They just didn’t anticipate how big the release would be… What it would do to the planet.”
On her feet now, she scrubs furiously at the remnants of that night’s dinner, dried tomato sauce on heavy plates. The kitchen window looks out on pitch night, glass reflecting the image of Sabine at the sink and her husband behind, compound eyes pleading. She does not meet his gaze.
“Ch—” He stops short. “Sabine.”
How long had he carried this secret between them? Had he hoped she’d never ask?
“Sabine, what are you thinking?”
He doesn’t deserve to know.