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.
When Sabine was nineteen banebloom swallowed up her aunt’s farmland; she found work on a cut-crew the Greys organized to keep the plants at bay. She spent her days hacking at tree roots with tools that would glow and groan and pulse like living things. It was exhausting but the pay was good; she could keep herself and Auntie fed.
Mother had been buried three years.
Her manager, a Grey, was an oddity. Irritating in that he tried to relate, laboring with the human workers though he didn’t have to, speaking their language though he sounded ridiculous (and they were all obliged to smile and applaud and admire his efforts—meanwhile a human speaking anything short of fluent Grey provoked impatient stares and sharp corrections).
This Grey, he frustrated her—but he also kept his personal shield switched off, skin un-tinted by the crackling blue of a barrier field, and that endeared him to her. By degrees.
“You want to see something?” He asked her at work one day.
Sabine wiped the sweat from her brow and shrugged. Half hour left of the mid-day break; Sure, I’ve got time.
They entered a thicket of banebloom at the edge of the worksite, walking on between gnarled trunks that twisted and arched in all directions. Sunlight stippled their faces and arms through a canopy of violet fronds above.
It was pleasant, this stroll among the plants she was paid to destroy. The air was cool and fragrant, and Sabine understood why the Greys had first brought rachitha (as they called it) to this world.
“I need to survey the coast. It’d be better to have two sets of eyes on the task”—he ducked under a low-hanging branch and into a clearing—“And besides, you’re more familiar with the local flora than I…”
She slipped on a fallen frond, and the Grey took her arm to stop her from falling. His hands were moist—sweaty, maybe. Was that a nervous tell with them too?
“Would you come with me?” He gestured to a sleek black platform hovering an arm’s length above the forest floor.
So she had a choice.
You know you go through a lot of trouble just to ask for some company.
She smiled. He beamed.
From cloud-height Sabine saw more of her world than she ever knew existed. Beneath them the ground rushed one way and then another, a hyperfast parade of places Mother and Auntie could describe but were never able to show her: oceans and cliffs, beaches and hills, rivers and valleys.
There were things, too, Sabine came to know only with the Grey; she learned the words for them first in his language and then in her own: liaroi (salt-flat), thonnai (crater), mar-th’al (ruins).
The entire time you passed yourself off as saviors.
“We’ve been trying to set things right, Sabine. It’s not always perfect, what we do, but think of the things you’ve gained because we’re here—”
And the things we’ve lost, what about them?
“We wouldn’t have met.”
But I would still have a mother.
Wincing. “You don’t know that…”
You’ll never be one of us, you know that. You, you’re killing us.
Don’t what? She says, harsher and louder than she’d wanted to.
“Don’t pretend life was idyllic before we were in-system. We know your history; you were just getting by as it was. Only a matter of time before you did something like this to each other.”
A plate explodes in a bloom of ceramic and soapy water on the tile floor. Sabine readies another, hands shaking with anger. Her husband frowns. No shatterproofing, no anti-entropic fields; not on this planet.
The Greys thought they had the best of everything. Perhaps for some things that was true—technology and medicine, certainly—but Sabine could never understand why they took such pride in their cuisine. They loved tomatoes, unabashedly, uncritically, and to every marinara sauce or garden salad they added something of their own: clumps of spiraling purple fungus, long strips of dehydrated meat product, little yellow flakes that squirmed and wriggled all the way down the throat. And always, always, the food came out too salty.
She learned this waiting tables in the City. The Grey—her Grey—had arranged the job with a friend, he thought as a favor: a restaurant run by Grey expatriates for Grey clientele. The pay would be higher and the work less demanding; Sabine was already having pains in her back from hauling root cutters.
But if her back had ached on the cut-crew her entire face was sore at the restaurant.
Don’t make them feel guilty, she would recite under her breath, don’t let them feel the slightest hint of shame. Sabine paced the narrow corridors between dining booths, stopping where she was called to lean in through a service window and take orders, or deliver drinks, or apologize to unsatisfied patrons.
She was sure to smile—always smile—to keep her eyes open and bright and earnest; the customers expected a kind of polite cheerfulness. They wanted reassurance that she was happy to serve.
That wasn’t the way Sabine felt, of course, but she was not Sabine there. Wrapped in some kind of shimmering green fabric, decked with overblown garlands that weighed down her shoulders and strained her neck and pulled on her hair—Sabine was a symbol of the Earth itself.
No, she thought, there’s a more precise word for it. She was a caricature. The false ideal of an undying planet, ever-verdant and happy to be used.
At the end of her shift Sabine would clean out the dining booths. For a brief period of time each night, she could see the tall metal rooms as her patrons did: ceilings and walls alive, projecting planets and stars and entire galaxies into the air above her head—they hovered, spun, collapsed and exploded in bright flashes of light.
She wondered at the effort it took to bring these things here, these tools of amusement. If it would have taken any more effort to bring the machine that could have saved her mother.
The church is unroofed and empty, beset on one side by rachitha saplings that had grown their roots deep into the wall to displace entire blocks of stone.
Still, there’s a strange comfort Sabine feels as she lays on the hot concrete floor. This is where she was baptized, where she communed, where her mother told her stories of… she’s forgotten. Gods? Is that who the statues are? At every corner of the sanctuary, peering out from their nooks with hands or feet or sometimes whole heads missing.
Yes, these are the gods of her planet, indomitable men and women who have never been forced into service, never smiled when their hearts were heavy, never forgiven the death of a mother because they had no choice.
She will need their strength as the world dies.
The shield belt buzzes punitively. Hazard warning. She’s out beyond the City limits, where there is no solar shade draped across the sky to catch radiation. Sabine steadies her hand (still shaking from the argument, the crash of broken ceramic ringing in her ears) and turns a dial to check the energy remaining on her barrier field: about two hours’ worth.
It’s her husband’s belt, and in the old days—the romantic days, when he still tried to relate—it would have been fully charged, unused. But the sun had grown too strong for those kinds of gestures, even for a Grey.
No, not the sun, she corrects herself—by now Sabine knew better than to blame her troubles on an unchanging star. The sun hadn’t grown stronger, that was a polite fiction, a shorthand; the atmosphere was perforated, great shaggy holes torn into it when the Greys had arrived, holes that were only growing larger and shaggier by the day.
She rolls on her side, pressing her cheek against the floor. How many had walked up and down these aisles? And how many of those are gone and buried now? For a moment something wells up inside of her, something overwhelming and uncontrollable and wet and dreadful but with a sharp gulp and deep breath she holds it at bay.
She thinks of the statues, the gods of the Earth.
Sabine starts when she hears a noise behind her. Pebbles and dirt displaced, the quiet disturbed. Something heavy on concrete.
She pushes herself to a crouch and turns sharply.
Her husband, voice weak and arms outstretched, hobbles forward down the aisle.
Earth, viewed from space, is blue. Surprisingly, astoundingly blue.
“Are you ready?”
Sabine turns from the window and gives a quick nod. Her husband stands in the doorway and fidgets with his hands. Against the bright light of the hallway he looks thin, stretched-out even for a Grey.
“This kind of travel, it can be very disorienting. You may get nauseous, even vomit. I’d recommend you be sleeping when it starts, that way—”
I understand. I’ve read about this. She smiles, speaks as gently as she can. Thank you.
“Right, of course.” His eyes dart down to the floor, then back to hers. “Be safe, the both of you.”
We will. Sabine puts a hand on her swollen belly.
The Grey backs out into the hall; the door closes. Separate beds for the journey: the pregnancy had saved their marriage, that much was true, but it could not have salvaged anything more.
Then again, nothing could have bridged the distance between them now—there’s a whole planet there, an entire heat-killed world.
Darkness falls as the outer wall of the Teardrop eclipses her view. Sabine had always thought of it as a ship, or even a city—something solid, full of life and activity looming over her head for as a long as she could remember.
But the Teardrop is hollow.
This is how it was described to her: a net, a giant metal bowl on its side, floating in space. Built to absorb the energy released by interstellar travel—how the Greys jump from one end of the galaxy to the other with such ease, with such inconsequence.
Inconsequence for all except, of course, those who see their first arrival. Woe to them.
That was her fate, her whole people’s fate: caught in the wake of another’s progress, forced to a threshold not of their own making or choice, between what they were, in the past, and what they are to be, unforeseeable.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Sabine sighs from someplace deep inside of her. She sets her face like stone, like statuary, as the ship’s engines growl to life.
With her swollen belly Sabine is a bubble, one life wrapped up in another, moving from star to star towards something yet to come.