Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 49
Into Dust
by Sofie Bird
Souls Are Like Livers
by Aurelia Flaming
...Or Be Forever Fallen
by A. Merc Rustad
Going Green
by Jennifer Noelle Welch
The Soul Mate Requirement
by Kelly Sandoval
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
Accept the mystery
by Chris Bellamy
Vintage Fiction
Yesterday's Taste
by Lawrence M. Schoen
Bonus Material
Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard
A Novel by Lawrence M. Schoen

Into Dust
    by Sofie Bird

Into Dust
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

Nothing sharpens my isolation like the pinprick of Sol on the horizon after dusk. She cradles our motherworld a thousand light years away while we cling to our deadly, beautiful foster-planet. For all we know, she's already long gone.

My suit's ten-minute warning pings. I pull my gaze from the constellations, glittering behind the meteor startrails. Around me, the rock spires of our world Azure grasp at the sky, their usual hue lost to midnight ink in the darkness.

I try to keep my breaths slow and shallow as my suit's O2 meter hovers above red.

I should get moving. Anna's been out here even longer than I have; she'll be running on fumes by now. I have to find her - no, I know exactly where she'll be, I knew when I walked past her quarters and I didn't hear her obsessive mutter through her door. But while I'm looking for her, I don't have to go back.

I turn east, along the giant vertebrae-like ridge we nicknamed Atlas, following the opalescent cords of minerals that sweep along the rippled stone. In the sunlight, you're an insect in this sculpted world, a minutia, towered over by stone spires and rock formations in every blue and green of the spectrum. Above you, the burnt-orange sky fades to amber near the horizon, and blazes with purple flames of aurora every sunset, before the meteors come. At night, without a moon, you're a ripple beneath shadowy gods.

I round the crest of Atlas' ridge and there she sits, slumped against the rock where a spire curves over like a doorway to her canyon, Hades. Her favourite place. The rock is scoured almost a kilometre down to stone ripples of a blue so brilliant it defies the depth.

A blip on my headset: Anna knows I'm here.

"Seris is going to be pissed." Her voice is breathless.

"Commander Seris is right. We don't have the oxygen to waste."

"We're terraforming tomorrow. It might be my last chance." Her suit doesn't move as she speaks. With her voice in my ear, I almost feel like I'm talking to the planet.

"It will be if you don't get back inside. What're you on, five percent?"

"Two." She still doesn't move. "I want to stay."

I could have just reported her. I should have, not donned a suit of my own and gone out after her. But if I'd done that, I'd be inside, staring at the bone-white walls of my quarters, and she'd be in the brig again.

Or dead. We lost four people in the first month. They wandered away into beauty and forgot to come home.

I found two of the bodies in the same spot; where the wind has carved green sandstone into twisting, coiling ribbons that fold over the valley like a canopy. Through the coils you can see that burnt-orange sky. The rock floor is covered in mineral deposits that shimmer from every angle, and with a lichen-like growth that flushes a deep indigo with heat from the sun.

I love that place. It's like my spirit-home. I picture it when I sleep, when I need to calm, to breathe. If ever there was somewhere I would go to die, it's there.

I lower myself next to Anna, on the edge of Hades, as the last of the meteors blazes across the horizon.

"They shouldn't be beautiful," she mutters. "They ruined everything, they don't get to be beautiful."

We've had this argument before. The meteors didn't show on the scopes when we entered orbit. They took out our primary oxygen garden and put two dozen holes in the bulkhead before we landed. Our terraforming timeline shrank from six years to one and a half, even with a skeleton crew and the colonists in cryo. Anna can't let it go. She can't let anything go, especially Hades.

I lean over and point to my latest constellation.

"There, like a dancing figure, her left foot just touches that spire. I named her Mytyr, the Mother. She bore all the others from her breath and skin and blood."

Anna sucks in hard, slow breaths. "I don't know why you bother."

"We need to make this our world. We make stories in the dark to keep us sane; to tell us who we are, why we're here, where we'll go. We need myth. History is just myth with a calendar; it's the stories that matter."

"We already have myths." She twitches one hand to the chasm before us. "Isn't that why we named Atlas and Pyrrha and Hades and all the others?"

"But myth is tied to place as much as people." My breath grows ragged in my exuberance. "We're a superstitious creature, wearing a blanket of reason over proto-human nightmares. Underneath, we still want our world to have a soul, not an echo."

Anna leans against me. "No engineer should ever talk like that. You sound like a philosophy student."

"Hey, I'm a psychologist too, remember." I try to shape the words for the feeling. "Mytyr and the others, they give me hope. That this place can be ours, that one day we won't be interlopers, we'll be a part of it."

She pulls her feet towards her and eases up into a crouch. "If you're going to keep talking like that, I'm going back inside." Her voice is too weak to deliver the joke, but at least she's moving. I catch her elbow and help her to her feet. We turn back to the colony, but I hesitate.

That canopy - my place - is two klicks west, more walking time than I have oxygen, and Anna won't get back alone. But it whispers to me. I want to brush my ungloved fingers over the lichen, bury it against my skin. Is it hard and crystalline as it looks, or soft like a moss? Anna's right; if it needs the acidic atmosphere, it probably won't survive the terraform. I'll never know.

My O2 monitor hits red.

I breathe a soft farewell to the lichen and the spires and guide Anna back to the colony doors.

We're confined to quarters before the pod's descent under the rock. Seris brooks no argument. I chew through the battery of my console reading and countersigning the fourteen-odd psych reports of our skeleton crew, and eat my dinner meal portion two hours early just for something to do.

With a shriek of metal that rings in my ears, the gears fire up. The pod shudders and groans, drilling down underneath and depositing a crumple zone of rock over the top. I try to drown it out with the sound of my breath. I can see our fragile shell swallowed into the belly of the planet, a speck within its gut, and my own gut churns, shooting sweat to my temples and palms. I override it, calling up Mozart on a disembodied piano, one key at a time.

A buzz of comms interrupts me mid-note. I flip up my wall display. Justin's face stares back, sweating and sickly pale, wide pupils all but hiding the blue of his eyes. Internal comms are restricted while we descend in case of emergencies. He must've hacked the protocols.

"What are you doing?" I use a stage whisper, like it makes any difference.

"I have to get out of here," he whispers back. "We're going to die."

"Breathe, Jus'. Deep breaths. Where would you go?"

"Five years, it's supposed to take. Spread it out, so things don't go critical. You can't change a whole planet in ten months." He grips the screen, pressing his face so close the camera can't focus.

"We've got it covered. We'll be miles underground before it starts."

"Even worse. With the reaction compressed like this, temperatures'll go haywire, you'll get earthquakes, cataclysmic storms. The pod's not built to take it, you know that."

"We can't risk the meteors in orbit, and we don't have the oxygen to wait. We'll sit it out and tunnel back up when the coast is clear. It's out of your control, Jus'." I try to keep my voice even against the image of the planet's maw grinding us to dust.

"I can't breathe in here."

"You have plenty of air. Have you eaten? Food will help."

Justin makes a face. "I hate the hydroponics grain Anna added. It's like eating dust."

"She said there was a fungus, it chews up the cell proteins. Try it as oatmeal."

Justin's face blanches even further. "It's mouldy?" he squeaks.

"It's fine, it doesn't affect people." I aim for soothing sing-song tones. "It's a symbiotic of the apple trees we brought. We just don't know how it's getting into the grain."

"Why don't they just replace the seed stock?"

"They have, twice. And the substrate. It keeps coming back."

I search for another topic to distract him. He chews his lip, peeling off a near-white layer of skin. His lips are cracked and blotchy-red from where he's done it before. He's whirling over something in his head, I can see his breathing quicken.

"I made it part of my myth, you know." My voice is too bright, it sounds false.

"What, the fungus?" He's only half listening.

"In a way." I clear my throat for a storytelling voice. "Mytyr's first son, Yllikos the wolf, still in his mother's womb, wanted all the heavens for himself, to shape as he saw fit.

"He refused to be born and instead, ate his way out from inside her. And once he was out, he kept eating, devouring every bit of her until his own belly was so big and round and heavy that it descended from the heavens and formed our planet, Azure."

Justin shifts back from the screen, his lip forgotten. I keep my relief from showing.

"In the blaze of the sun, Azure woke and rolled and stretched, and breathed Mytyr's soul back up into the sky, where she was reborn. But Yllikos was not so lucky, stuck as he was with his swollen belly. He was trapped on the south horizon, never to touch the heavens, let alone shape them. Mytyr left him there as a warning to her future children."

Justin narrows his eyes. "But why would she let him devour her in the first place? Surely a mother is stronger than her infant."

I'd wondered about that myself when I'd written it. But I have Justin's full attention now. "It's a common thread with myths; being subsumed and reborn. Maybe she wanted to give him the choice."

"And he did it anyway," Justin says with an almost-smile. I nod.

Sometimes I worry if we're a bit too much like Yllikos.

Justin's comm cuts off - Seris must have discovered the breach. I try to get him back, but she's locked it down tight. He doesn't buzz again.

I collapse into sleep before the pod reaches the end of its tunnel, half a kilometre down, and wake to the comm announcement that the terraforming catalysts have been released. Half awake, I shuffle myself to the celebrations in the mess hall, by way of Justin's quarters.

Anna's reporting to us all that she's traced the fungus to the hydroponics water supply when the first tremor crashes through. The walls groan and shudder, the floor tilts crazily. I try to keep my lunch in my stomach as the hydraulics struggle to keep us balanced. In my mind I can see great talons of stone crushing us, spearing in so the acid air can devour our skin. I blot it out, jaw clenched against the spinning in my head, smother it with blue-green twists of rock under burnt-orange, the rasp of the O2 filters, the brush of shimmering lichen.

Anna grasps my hand, her grey eyes flicking over my face, and I force myself away from the wall and nod reassurance. I shove the images down, bury them deep in my bones, and smile. This is my job, to be the calm one.

The quakes come almost every day. Some are merely terrifying, spinning the floor like a gyroscope. Others nearly cripple the colony. People are flung into walls, warps ripple across the skin of the floors. Chomsky starts a book on how big a quake will rupture the bulkheads; I don't have the guts to bet.

When the generator housing cracks, the surge takes the backup system with it. With no power or life support, we huddle in the mess hall with emergency O2 canisters and headlamps while Chomsky and Renna scramble to get us back online before our air runs out. I clutch the thumb-sized drive that holds my constellation stories, running my fingers over the access port until they're numb. There's no talk, people sit and squeeze hands, conserving air.

A shout cuts through the silence.

"You're sick! Why would you do this?" Lights flash as people turn to look. A crowd of four or five are up on their feet near the door, ringed around something on the floor. The lights move again. I glance across to Anna, but she's looking at me. So are others.

I'm supposed to handle this. It's my job. I squeeze the tension back down in my gut and stand.

"Alright, go easy on the air," I call out. I pick my way between people's limbs, and force a smile into my voice. "What's the matter?"

A fist brandishes something in my face - a blue sculpture, a waxy model of a Buddha cradling a child. Or an almost-Buddha. It's the rock formation Justin loves, that he saw six klicks from the colony. It's a perfect copy, near as I can tell. I take it and look down at Justin. His face is pinched, indignant, but he's still crouched on the floor.

"You made this?" I try to make it sound like praise.

Two of the group haul him up off the floor. "Out of the generator sealant," one says.

"While we're gasping in here," the other adds.

"They were scraps. We're not even low, there's plenty," Justin says, hunching his shoulders in. "It matched the blue of the rock."

With a snarl, one of the mob buries his fist in Justin's stomach. They throw him back to the floor and lay in, kicking and yelling and screaming. I scramble at shoulders and arms, trying to pull them off or dig them aside but it's no use. I stand back, hold out my little thumb drive and suck in as much air as I can.

"Stop or I will tase every one of you!" My voice fills the hall.

They actually hesitate, and half-turn toward me.

"Since when do you have a taser?"

"For security." Seris' voice rings out firm, backing me up. "I need people I can depend on. Each of you, separate corners, right now. We don't have the air for this."

There's a pause, a precipice. I swallow and force my hands steady, sure they're going to call my bluff. But it passes, and they skulk away to their corners. I sink down next to Justin, hoping it looks more like I'm concerned for him than that my legs have given out in relief.

He's in bad shape, but he's breathing. We wheel him to the medibay on a food trolley, headlamps cutting through the dark. I prise the model from his broken fingers so we can set them. He must have grabbed it in the fight after I dropped it. The little figure crumbles in my hands.

It takes twelve hours to get the power back.

Anna finds me later, staring at my star charts. She stills my fingers; I hadn't realised they were tracing my constellations.

"What's that?" She points to a blank spot I've ringed in red.

When the sun sets in its blaze of purple, there's a hole in the sky above us where there are no stars. A place of emptiness, a ravenous darkness.

"It's where Yllikos was meant to be, if he hadn't eaten his mother. She left the gap as a reminder."

Anna gives me a chuckle. Anything to break the strain.

I don't think that patch is anything so benign.

I can't tell if it's moving; I need better telescopes than we have, and more time. Maybe it's fleeing our presence, carving a swathe of nothing out from us. Or it might swell up around us, eat everything down to the atoms and scatter them to the wind in a few billion years. When the colony marker for each sunset strikes, I can feel it yawning above, something inside me reaches back, and I close my eyes and count a Fibonacci sequence with my breaths until I can keep my face in check.

Two days later, the tunnel walls above us collapse.

It's a quake beyond all our measurements; it feels like the whole planet is convulsing in a death spasm. The impact pierces through to the top stasis layers, crushing the pod down so that it bulges at its equator and tears apart at the seams.

We lose fifty people inside a heartbeat. There's no way to get to them safely. We seal off the top third of the pod and the outer layers near the equator, and hold a day-long memorial for the friends we've lost, and the ones we barely knew. I keep my Fibonacci mask on over the darkness, talking to each of the crew, weekly hour-long sessions about the loss and the dark and the fear, and the beauty above that will make it worthwhile.

Seris sits straight-backed throughout her sessions, no talk of sculptures or canyons. She never flinches, those gold-green eyes clear and firm. The woman has control like steel. You could bend girders around her will.

We should have made her the psych.

The wind unearths us in the final months of the terraform. We've lost all external cameras and sensors from the quakes, so while the rest of the crew slowly revive from cryo, we send drones and probes to sample the air and the soil from the ruined layers of the pod and ascertain if it's safe. Seris orders the doors welded shut to stop anyone leaving prematurely. I catch Justin trying to sneak out through a weakened bulkhead and have to handcuff him to his bed. Seris keeps us blind and waiting three whole days before she lets us out onto our paradise.

We walk out into a dead sea of rust.

The rock spires have been scoured down to sand by the storms. The brilliant blues and greens are gone, replaced with a glaring red-orange dust. It washes over the splintered shell of the pod, filling the cracks like water.

We're meant to be on recovery detail. I go AWOL. From the radio traffic, I'm not the only one - most of the terraform crew disappear. We're all looking for the same thing, I think. Some semblance of the world we loved. Our own secret, sacred places. I go looking for that canopy. I want to touch the minerals that shimmer on the rock surface, brush my fingers over the lichen.

I walk for two hours across the dead salt desert until the GPS says I've arrived. The spires are gone; nothing can hide on this planet anymore. I can see to the edge of the world; featureless and barren. The same emptiness howls inside. I sink onto my knees in the fine, ruddy dust, bury my hands and my face in what's left of that place and I sob.

I don't know how long I stay. Hunger comes and goes, and a weakness takes my limbs. But if I close my eyes and breathe the dust deeply enough, I can go back there under the spires. I can go back and wait to die.

Visions fill my head: the spires and the great storms that destroyed them. I imagine the planet writhing as we wrench her skin away and smother her in foreign air, and I spin back in the whirling darkness as the pod shudders and splits around me again. I brace for the force of the earth to crush us. I almost want it to.

When they find me, I'm too weak to walk. I wouldn't even if I could. They pull me from the dust and drag me back to the colony and lock me in an observation room.

Two others join me in that empty whiteness: Justin and Anna. They sit on the floor with the same expressions, the same vacant, shell-shocked faces. Red rivulets run down their cheeks where tears have plastered the dust to their skin. Dried blood clots on their fingers where the sand has shredded them. The whites of their eyes are orange with dust. I can feel the same grit in mine. We are the colour of our world; the only colour in the room.

We don't talk. I can see myself in them, my loss. I can see the spires and that sky we obliterated, Anna's deep pit of Hades and Justin's Buddha. I will them back again, try to crawl back into memory, force my belief they're still there until my chest aches, but the void in my gut sucks everything away until even the colours hurt.

Everything we loved of this world, we destroyed by trying to touch.

It takes them a week to decide Anna and I aren't a danger to ourselves or others. We eat, if tastelessly, and we answer questions. We're released to our assigned tasks on the condition that we check in each evening with the resident psych nurse. Justin is less fortunate. With each day, he withdraws further and further into himself; at first reducing his answers to monosyllabic mumbles, and then to nothing at all. Twice, his apathy snaps into a near-psychotic rage, and he launches himself at the nearest available surface, throwing himself against it until he's restrained.

I walk out again onto that lifeless dustball, trying to slip back into my engineering role. The glare of the sun in that garish blueness burrows into my brain and sinters my nerves. I want the soft, warm orange, the amber glow. Even the stars, my ridiculous constellations, would be better than that alien blue.

The wind razors my skin raw with sand. I force myself to remain standing and scoop a handful of the dust. It pours through my fingers, so fine it's almost liquid. A dull throb starts in the base of my brain, reaching around to my temples. I try to ignore it and walk further out into the heat.

The colony has soldiered on without us, starting the foundations of our new life. Skeletal scaffolds erupt from the sand like desiccated ribcages, the only interruption to that flat, dead horizon, but they splay and twist, slowly sagging instead of bearing true. I'd designed them to be sunk deep into a rocky ground, but now there's only sand and dust.

Seris will make us relocate, if there's anywhere with rock on this planet. The thought of leaving my canopy, even its remains, hollows me. I shuffle through the sand back toward the engineering labs - there has to be a stable scaffold we could build. The muscles in my thigh spasm, like they're crackling. I ease one hand down each leg as I walk, trying to look inconspicuous. Last thing I want is to end up back in isolation.

I step over attempts at mud bricks and glass on the way; clearly they've already been trying. In a neat little grid marked with specimen numbers lie two dozen crumbled bricks and slabs and patches of blackened dust. A few paces on, another half-dozen are being baked in a makeshift oven. Seris eyes the progress critically, her mouth in that steel line, gold-green eyes squinting against the dust. Anna's at her side, talking softly, her once-animated hands reduced to subdued flutters. She looks up as I approach but keeps talking, as if her body is on automatic.

"... doesn't matter what we add, it's not going to bind. It's slightly alkaline, but not too much; at best, it can act as a substrate like the hydroponics, but the nutrients sink straight through it; it's too fine. I've even found microscopic particles needling their way through cell walls."

Seris's gaze snaps up from the oven. "It's a contaminant?"

"No ill-effects that we've observed, but yes. We've already been exposed, Seris. And it's not something we can avoid. It's in the air, even inside. There's no point in a quarantine, and we don't have the oxygen reserves anyway."

Anna's voice is exhausted. If Seris is irritated at the too-familiar phrasing, she doesn't show it. When I look at Anna more closely, I can see the pinched expression around her eyes, the signs of tension in her jaw. She's as brittle as I am, and Seris knows it.

Seris answers a buzz on her comms, and waves a dismissal at us as she turns back to the colony pod. I try to muster an appropriately quizzical expression for Anna.

Anna shrugs. She isn't bothering to maintain the pretence with me. "I have to - " she waves vaguely at the makeshift hydroponics station. "We keep finding drowned bees in the irrigation units." She massages the palm of one hand with her thumb, slowly working her way down to her wrist.


"All the time. Like I'm being electrocuted."

"And a headache, like the back of your head's being broiled."

Anna looks at me, fear replacing the pinched expression for a moment. "Justin," she murmurs.

I know what she means. "I won't tell them if you won't. It's probably just stress."

She nods mutely, staring at her hand, and walks back to the hydroponics station.

The cramps spread until my whole body twitches. My muscles ripple and spasm under my skin like insects are crawling along my bones. I take a double-dose of muscle relaxants at night, but I stop sleeping at all two nights in. I'm exhausted, but it's better than the dreams. The blue-green spires, perfect and whole, tower above me, cradling me while I burn in the acid air. I can feel the lichen soft under my skin, burrowing into my nerves, blossoming with my heat as my body is etched away to bone, and up above the great maw in the stars sucks at my mind, gnawing it to pieces.

When I wake to my sterile, white quarters, I can't tell if I'm crying from relief or despair.

I spend my time out under the stars instead, huddling over a telescope where my canopy once was, hiding in numbers and calculations. I tell Seris I'm studying the gap in the stars. There's a flash of something in her face when she agrees. Pity, perhaps, for the poor sod barely keeping it together. Or maybe relief that I'm keeping my angst to myself, unlike Justin. I don't know what to say to either.

Anna joins me out in the dust the third night, unannounced. I'm calibrating the equipment for the thinner atmosphere, and she appears beside the scopes, watching dust clouds wash over the stars at the horizon. She says nothing for ten minutes, and then:

"I think we're dying."

I still my hands, thumb paused to close off the recalibration commands. Her voice is bald, like she's discussing the drowned bees. For a moment, I think that's all she's going to say, but she continues.

"My temperature's almost two degrees below normal, but my heart rate is elevated. All my enzymes are off-kilter and my potassium is low - which should lower my heart rate, not increase it. My neural activity is above normal, and there are growths in my brain where the tissue is denser than it should be."

I open my mouth to find a response, and settle for, "Did you tell anyone?" She ignores my lack of bedside manner.

"You have the same cramps. The headache. And you're not sleeping, are you?"

I adjust the tilt of the display by a fraction of a degree, trying to steady my hands.

"I keep seeing them," she whispers. "The spires. The planet. Like we killed a whole world and the ghost remains. And - " she checks herself, finally glancing over to me. I try my best 'this is between you and me' expression.

She exhales an almost-laugh. "Not so good at the human reaction thing right now, are we?"

"It's just grief," I say. "It's what people do, when..." I gesture helplessly to the empty planet.

"Justin committed suicide tonight."

I try to make an appropriate response. I can't even find one inside. Justin's my friend, I'm the one who defended him, who found him halfway up a vent shaft and talked him down, but it's like she's just told me we're out of oatmeal. In the silence, my equipment buzzes to announce it's started recording the starlight. I watch numbers flow over the screens as it scans.

"I'm hearing things." She turns to me fully, now, and I see a shadow of real feeling in her face. Fear. "I don't know what they are, it's like I can almost hear, but I don't understand."

"You did say there were tumours."

She doesn't blanch. "I want to scan your brain."

"How are you doing all this without the results getting flagged?"

"I said I needed to run scans on the bees from the irrigation units. They left me to it when mealtime was called. I have the shrink convinced that working keeps me stable, and hydroponics needs every hand it can get." She walks over to my scopes, her back to me. "That will run itself, now, right?"

"Yes, but I should be here to - "

"The labs are empty. Tomorrow they won't be. I need to scan your brain."

I feel something then, an almost-sound that isn't from my ears. A need for information, for understanding, and it didn't come from me. My scalp prickles like it's hollowing out, cold pins down my spine and arms and I lean over, sure I'll be sick. I let my knees sink and dig my hands into the dust to hang on while I suck in air and remind myself I'm grieving and sleep-deprived and most likely hallucinating and feeling a little weird is not going to kill me.

When I look up, Anna's silhouette is most of the way back to the colony.

I follow.

Anna's scans find the same tumours in my brain. Only they aren't tumours, she insists - they have a much denser, more organised structure than typical cancerous tissue, and it lights up with electrical activity. Whatever it is, the neurones are doing something.

She runs the other tests, more from a need for completion than any real expectation of surprise. I have the same low temperature, same elevated heartbeat, same potassium and enzyme levels, and I have static on the cusp of my hearing, now, too.

If Anna's dying, so am I.

I'm trying to form an opinion about that.

The lab is littered with her dissected bees. Some of them are drowned adults, others barely out of a pupal stage. I ask her why she'd scanned them, what she'd found, mostly as a way to fill the silence while the machines tell me I'm not human anymore.

"It's using the bees. The fungus that keeps eating our grain, the bees lost their defence against it."

"But the bees don't pollinate the grain."

"No," she agrees. "But when they pollinate the apple trees, they pick up spores and feed them to their larvae."

"So how does it get into the grain?"

"Remember how the bees were drowning?" She flashes up a series of scans. I register colours and shapes. "The fungus alters their brain chemistry, it makes them go toward water. So they drown, the fungus spores get into the water supply and reproduce into the grain."

I stare at the tiny, furred bodies on her bench. "This isn't what's happening to us, is it?"

She shakes her head. "There's no trace of the fungus in our systems, it was the first thing I checked. Our symptoms are caused by . . . something else." Her jaw clenches.

I turn a bee corpse around so it's not facing the dissected remains of its friends. "Kinda hard on the bees."

"Some of them are still immune. They might carry the fungus, but it doesn't affect them. We can figure out how to control it."

I have the strongest sensation of wondering if we should. Like ants dictating where a river will flow. Anna looks at me, and I sense the same thought in her. For a moment, I feel her sensing that, and the world threatens to disappear inside a mental feedback loop between us. She sinks onto the floor. I white-knuckle the lab-bench edge and count my breaths.

"It's all unravelling," she whispers. "Everything inside me, it's like ashes floating away. I don't even remember my mother's name."

I crouch down beside her to hold her, but she pushes me away and staggers from the room. I can feel the rising panic in her. She wants to be alone. And she wants to be alone, no interloping non-human connections.

Our scans and results are scattered all over the room for anyone to see. I encrypt every file, check every report she created that day, every machine.

She has a sample of my cerebrospinal fluid under one of the microscopes. I wonder at the pale tint on the slide, and peer down the lens. Orange specks drift through the fluid, spiralling around each other and chaining in a dance, too coordinated for random movement. Too alive.

The dust, the liquid-fine, rust-sand of the planet, is in our spinal fluid. It's in our brains, probably in every cell, and it's more than simple minerals.

Anna has seen this. She knows it, but she won't accept it. She'd rather insanity than inhumanity.

I hide the rest of the scans, line the bees out in order of age along one edge of the bench and square the microscope and terminal against the other, marking off little boxes of thought and rules that the world should obey. I wait for the panic to rise, for the rush of cold pins and hollowness, wait ready with my mantras and lists and calculations but the fear swirls in the background, caught in the eddy of something else.

I never thought I'd want to panic about not panicking. I lock up the lab and sneak back to the dust.

Dawn finds me hunched back over my scopes, staring blindly at their readouts. Sunlight filters through my headache. I'm dizzy from lack of sleep, and cramps rage through my muscles like I'm the planet herself, with her skin torn off and shredded, my body ripping itself apart. With my eyes squeezed shut, I call up my canopy, raise the spires and ribbons around me under blessedly cool night sky, summon the fires of the meteors and the ink of darkness, paint over my mind with anaesthetic.

I slump forward, resting my chin on the lip of the terminal. I can almost feel the impact of the meteors through the air as they explode, silent fireworks raining down on us. I picture them, waiting up there to fall in the shadow of night, motes floating out in darkness.

I float like one of them through mist and foreign soil. The soil swallows me and I am buried, sucked under, my skin peeling painlessly and falling away into molecules while the ground above ripples with rivers and valleys. As the planet whirls through space, its guardian sun expands and consumes it whole, taking my atoms into its fire. I am a memory of molecules, now scattered. The sun explodes, and I am stardust, flung out into space to coalesce and be born again. I feel the fire of a new sun on my planet-skin, and -

I wake with a jolt that topples my terminal. It takes a few moments for my sense of self to return: I am standing as a human on a planet of dust. I have been sleeping. The sun is well into the sky; I have been sleeping some time. And something has been severed, has been lost while I slept.


I launch myself up, leave my equipment half-buried in sand.

The dust sucks at my feet as I run, holding me back. I slog through, lungs burning and muscles screaming, churning it up my nostrils. The colony's a speck on the horizon, so tiny, growing so slowly. My knees start to give, but I push forward anyway, legs moving, left, right, don't fall, keep going, forward. I haul air through my throat so hard it burns, but it's never enough, and the colony nears so slowly.

I heave myself through the doors, stumbling at the change in surface, and shove my way down corridors, past people and equipment to her quarters, my whole body heaving breath.

But I'm far too late.

They've covered her with a sheet, and look up in surprise as I burst through the door. One of them mutters something about keeping it quiet. I don't hear the reply.

She injected air from a syringe. The bubbles hit her brainstem ten minutes ago. She's gone.

There's no blood, no syringe on the floor, not a clue. I shouldn't know, there's no way to know, but it's a fact in my mind, like the whiteness of the sheet, the red of the rust on her fingers. An impossible fact, and I should be shaking, should be scrabbling at my thoughts as they churn over themselves but I stand like a spire and stare at the last place she breathed with nothing in my head but air.

I follow them back to the medibay. It's full; almost a third of the colony sitting on beds and chairs, some on the floor, queuing for tests. There's a buzzing in my skull, a hundred voices on the edge of hearing. Seris paces back and forth through the room.

"We've got a damn epidemic," she mutters at me.

"What are their symptoms?"

"Headache, muscle cramps. Some have elevated heart rates. Low potassium."

There should be something to say to that. There should be something to think.

She takes a breath. "Renna had a cardiac arrest. They're still trying to stabilise her."

"Oh," I say. She eyes me, clearly suspicious. I keep my face blank; I can't remember what the right expression is.

I walk out of the medibay and back to the dust.

The cramps fade that evening, but it's almost impossible to think. Memories squabble in my skull: the death of a brother I'd never had, a hundred wives and husbands and lovers, and stranger thoughts: purple tides of foam swelling over my four splayed feet, the crack of my surface under gravity's pull. A panicked din in the back of my head scatters my thoughts like confetti; I kneel in the dust while the sun sinks under that vacant horizon and snatch at the ones that might be mine, digging my fingers into my scalp like I can hold my mind still.

My fingers come back red - with dust or blood, I can't tell. Am I made of dust, now? Am I Mytyr, eaten and breathed back out? I can't hold a thread of logic, thoughts flip and fly like paper. Is this why Justin left, why Anna left, to have something, a decision that was theirs? A moment of control?

Hands grasp me, pull my fingers from my scalp, steal my body from the dust - am I not dust, then - and entomb me in white. I can hear them, in my head, the hands that carry me. They are not unkind; in fact they welcome me, but into chaos. They tie me down, they take the last piece of control I might have had: I cannot follow Anna and Justin, though they know I want to. They leave me there with the Others.

The Others, I cannot hear. They watch me, and I hear words that I think I speak, and I think they speak, and one, made of steel and strength, whispers to me.

"They're priming the shuttle, they're going to leave. They're going back to the central hub. I have to stop them - we have to stop them, they'll infect everyone."

Words. There is a word for her, a special noise - Seris. I cling to it as something I can know. Her breath rasps my ear like the sand outside, and those gold-green eyes stare down but I can feel tools in my empty hands and see dust and wires and pipes and terminals and sky and doors. I screw every muscle up tight and force air through my throat so it drones and I hang onto that noise like a tether, but also a noose because I am the noise and I'm running out of air.

"We're going to rush the door next time they feed us, but you have to tell us how long we have. There's nearly a hundred of them, and they're all going up. How long will it take to prep the shuttle?"

She can't hear them like I can, can't feel them, and they can feel me, my hands pinned and desperate, she can't know they can hear her, and I try to tell her through the noise, but the words won't line up and the air leaves my lungs, my mind splinters across a hundred eyes and hands and thoughts echoing and calling to each other and I spiral down and scramble to snatch back which one of them is me.

"I'll make it stop," she says. "I know what you want. I can do it right now, I can make it all go away, just tell me what I need and you can let go."

I am a splinter of sight, a moment staring at the ceiling, a muscle tearing at restraints, and I understand Mytyr then, why she let herself be eaten by Yllikos. She was birthing something new, like a chrysalis, something she couldn't control. To stop him, she would have had to kill him and she couldn't bear to, but she trusted she would be reborn, so she let go.

She let go.

The splinters blossom inside. Their shards soften and coil through me, slipping around my cells like silk. I am not shattering, but expanding, reaching out through a hundred voices like a whisper brushing a hundred petals. I am held aloft by a hundred hands and I envelop them. The tight darkness of my panic dissipates across their warmth, and I breathe.

I am whole.

We walk out among the spires, where the wind sighs through them. The lichen is brittle and crystalline, but so fine it is almost soft, and the gradient of silver to indigo shows where the warmth of the sun has struck first.

She is still a desert, of course, desiccated dust under our strange human feet, but within us she is whole, her memory reaching back before her burnt-orange skies, before the heavy skin of earth she wore, through gas and space and suns to star-fire swallowing her shimmering hive, belching her consciousness across the galaxy in a cataclysm, a thousand motes echoing across space.

We share our selves like air or sunlight. What one knows, all know. What one is, all are. We are hive, we are stone, we are human, we walk in the light of distant stars and dwell in waters we've never touched. Feeling and thought wash through us as waves, unique experience echoes across us. There is room for any and all, and we carry each other within us when our bodies crumble.

We no longer dream of retribution, of penance for lost wonders. Amongst the stars, where our old memories saw ravenous dark, a yawning maw of destruction, we feel the radiance of time, streaming fragments of places long past, scraps of moments shared beyond their birth. Not destroyed, merely transformed, as we transformed her, and she us. It carries us forward; everything is reborn, in time.

We don't need words, but we used them for the unborn. We tried to welcome them, but they fought for isolation, resolute, even as their muffled fear and grief rippled across us. We helped them as far as we could. Some of them, slowly, were born into us, but others chose to sever themselves completely.

We mourned memories that could have been, and buried their bodies with our mother's when we left. It was the way they honour their dead, and who are we to argue.

They are stardust now, just like us, waiting to be reborn.

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