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The Garden, Again

Chapter Text

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, and let them have dominion over the fish, and the birds, and over all the earth, and over all the wild animals of the earth.” And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. And he said to them, ”Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over all the earth.”

- Gen. 1:26-28


In truth, he did not want to go back.

Not that there was anything that was left for them here. Machines and outposts that they had been forced to abandon, half of which were now likely unusable without the regular upkeep that six people could not do all alone; plant specimens running wild in the ditches next to the paths and invading the broken ruins of Soren’s greenhouses; all projects which had fallen through when those assigned to them were recalled with a promise of replacement that never happened. It hadn’t been fast – the others had left in twos and threes and fives, when their assigned terms had been up or when the administration back on Earth had decided they would be more useful somewhere else. All legal and organized, with the right messages sent out and all the right leaves given. And the replacements just... hadn’t come.

And now it was just down to the six five of them, who had been the first to come and would be the last to go, and maybe that was fitting. And they would go of their own will, without any legalities or organization or orders. On Flain’s word, just like everything had been on his word for the first few months, when the ansibles had been patchy before the setup of the satellites and when the plan had been laid out in perfect steps to follow.

(Back then, he hadn’t remembered the old adage: no plan survives contact with the enemy.)

Did they have to go? No, in the sense that the choice was not leave now or die now. There were enough resources even in the aboveground portion of Maar to last the rest of a human lifetime, and the power wouldn’t give out for even longer than that, being geothermal. Because apparently mankind couldn’t build things to last on Earth but could on other planets. If they stayed, they could survive. But it would only be survival. And then they would all die one by one, without knowing what had happened back on Earth, and all alone in the vast distances of space.

And yet Tamar still wished, somehow, that they could stay. Not for any remaining love of Anara itself – that had soured a long time ago, too long to remember but for a general sense that it hadn’t been like that in the beginning. But because the instant he stepped through that portal, none of it would have meant anything. The last several years of his life would have been devoted to an abandoned project. If Anara had been meant as a place mankind could move to, to stop or at least relieve the pressure that had for decades and decades been building up on Earth’s biosphere, and to satisfy the basic need of humans for reproduction, population growth, expansion. Meant to be a new home, an open gateway to the vast new vistas that were the galaxy’s thousands upon thousands of Earth-like planets. Leave it alone, and all the tears (sometimes), sweat (sometimes), and blood (definitely) that they had devoted to the project would have been wasted, worthless.

The tiny bar in the corner of the screen was pulsing at heartbeat pace (he’d always thought that timing computer notifications to the rate of human heartbeats or human breathing was unnecessarily unsettling, but apparently the systems designers disagreed), indicating that he still had at least a minute to go on the upload. He had already put almost everything else to sleep, electronics and animals alike – the smaller with CO2 and the larger with barbiturates, and left their remains in a mess of fur and skin in the woods, and a part of him wanted to be able to watch and see what such a glut of resources would do the ecosystem in that area – and now this was all that was left to do: back up all his notes, all his data, all his research, so he could bring it back to Earth. All their observations, so that, hopefully, someone could look at it and sort out what had happened. What had failed, and so that ultimately the sum total of human knowledge would be increased. After all, the whole point of science was increasing that, bit by bit.

(This would be the same human knowledge that hadn’t deigned to answer them in years, would it? the small spiteful voice in his head asked. The same humans that had cut the six five of them from their number? The same humans that – although he refused to let himself think about it, that certainly counted as catastrophizing and should not be done without proper evidence – depending on where the lines the Factions would not cross lay, or the whims of geology and notoriously-capricious orbital dynamics, might not even still be there?)

Although he supposed that would be answered soon enough when they went back through the portal. It was only meant for emergency, after all: non-targeted, the only guarantee that it would dump them out somewhere on the surface of Earth. For the rest, to be retrieved to civilization they had been given personal locator beacons, so that should they be compelled to return they could be scooped up by the Administration, who, with their satellites and shuttles, could be anywhere within a day. And, barring freezing water or ice cap, they could survive anywhere for a day. The emergency portal had been intended for situations where they had no other options but to flee back to Earth. Situations where the risk was worth it.

Tamar had very little faith that the Administration would scoop anybody up anymore. They were going to have to find civilization on their own. But it was still better than life on a dying world.

This office had been his when they had first grown Maar, and everything was achingly familiar. The walls were the same steel-and-silicate matrix, and his chair and desk sat in the same place, and his computer hummed calmly along like it always had, encoding file after file into the drive. It was just retracing their steps again, and further. From all their scattered outposts to the central one at Tasceron. From Tasceron back to Maar, the first base. And now, from Maar back to Earth, and that was the last one, the line in the sand, the point of no returning. Take that step, and everything was over, and Anara was gone forever.

Silently, for he had turned off the sound a very long time ago, the computer flashed up a notification.

Upload complete.
> OK
> Eject device
> More infor...

Tamar ejected the drive – this was information he could not risk losing – and yanked it out of the port. Unattached like that, smaller than the littlest of his fingers, it seemed very mutable, such a strange thing to entrust his data to. What made him think that the metal and plastic and the arrangement of electrons therein would endure any time at all? After all, under the right conditions mountains, and seas, and whole worlds could be brought to ruin within only years. And yet there it lay in his palm, acting like such a trustworthy steward for his reams of tables and figures and notes and matrices.

Tamar Zakariyah, this is your life.

He slipped the drive into his pocket, and buttoned the flap to ensure it wouldn’t slip out, at least not until he had a database to download to again.

“Tam?”

Flain hadn’t bothered to knock, and so Tamar turned just a bit too quickly in surprise. He’d left the doorway open, though, and Flain was standing there, one arm pressed against the frame by his head as though it was helping him to stand. And maybe, through all the exhaustion and grief, it was.

“Yeah, I’m all done,” he answered, and crossed the few steps to the door. It felt odd, not to be shutting off the computer first. Not locking up, not checking on the animals, not doing any of the small maintenance things that constitute a relationship between man and edifice, that make up the motions of life. Of course, none of that mattered anymore, now that they were leaving Anara to the mechanisms of its biosphere, its wind and weathering, and to the relentless approach of entropy. It still seemed wrong. Made the loss that much more final, since he couldn’t even pretend he would ever return to this room, would ever wake the computer up again and continue his work.

He followed Flain in silence from there to the common room. There they’d stashed their packs, and their packs, and the one plastic transport case that held the few samples and specimens that they had selected that could be transported without ice or further preservation, and that merited it. There wasn’t much to bring: not much they could bring, and still be able to carry it. The inventory was in fact much the same as it had been when they had come on the very first expedition to Anara: sleeping bag, food, warm clothing, a stove, bivy setup, knife, locator beacon. Survival gear, with analytics to come later.

Theriss was crouched against the wall by the gear pile like a guard over the specimen box, and Soren and Halen stood together in the corner, talking quietly. When Flain and Tamar entered they fell silent and turned, awaiting instructions.

Not for the first time, Tamar wondered just how much of a toll his status as head of the project was taking on Flain. Ultimately, the responsibility for every choice made in the project, for good or for ill, as the best idea at the time or because there was no other option – it all came back to him. He’d had to tell them to give up, to sever the last few threads of hope that still bound them to this planet and its life and the project itself. To say, out loud if not in so many words, that all of it had been for nothing. He’d had to decide when they’d failed.

That could break someone, even without all your experiments and life’s work crumbling around you. It might have broken him; he didn’t have any empirical evidence on that front.

“Is –“ started Flain, and then stopped. “Have we all everything that we need?”

There were a few muted yeses, a couple of nods. There would be no chance of returning, but... well, none of it mattered, right? Anything other than what they needed to live could be forgotten without consequence.

Nobody seemed any more willing to talk than he did, as they each shouldered their own pack and went out, out through the corridor and through the external door and into the yellow-green of the sunlit afternoon. The air was warm, and still except for the buzzing of tiny insects in the plants and the call of a bird. All seemed well, and in that moment, it was hard to think that this was a world trapped in inevitable, if slow, disintegration. That this was what brokenness looked like, because it seemed far too beautiful for that to be possible. It would have been easier, by far, to leave had it been dark or stormy out.

Their feet crushed grass as the six five of them went the requisite ten meters from Maar’s walls. When they were far enough away, Flain stopped and slung his pack back off and down onto his feet. He unzipped the top and removed from it the golden circle that was to form the emergency portal. Their master key. One last use, and nothing more.

Flain closed his eyes and put the circlet on, with all the solemnity of a girl being dressed in her Confirmation veil. For a moment nothing happened, at least nothing visible, as the signal flashed from interface to satellites, and to the other machines that would do the work of pressing spacetime into a way. Tamar waited, silent, both yearning for it to work and give them a way back to Earth and yet desperate for it not to, for it to take away all choice all together, so he wouldn’t always have to wonder what would happen if they chose to stay.

First, there was a soft sound of displaced air. And before them, the portal opened, silvery and man-height, like a hole in the world. It only had two dimensions, and behind it the sward of green grass and small dicots continued, but not through. Through it he could see very little, for all was velvet blue and black massed shapes – it must have been night where the other end had opened – and a few pinpricks that were Earth’s alien stars shining above. It was always hard to wrap his head around, a tunnel between worlds; although he knew logically how it worked and what he was seeing, the instinctual animal part of his brain remained convinced that the universe was simply ceasing to function, and got nervous every time.

Once the gateway had stabilized, Flain lifted the interface off his hair again, and lowered his hand, letting it hang from his fingers. Now it would stay open for three minutes (which should have been exactly, but since this particular function had long gone unused, Tamar couldn’t be sure), so they had that much time to get themselves all through. That much time to say some final goodbye, if they wanted to.

Halen, evidently, did not want to, because he marched through without looking back at all. Soren was slower, and she dragged her feet through the grass, mashing leaves beneath the lugged soles. He understood: she had to pretend it was her own choice. Pretend she hated all the flora she left behind, in the hopes of avoiding mourning their loss.

Theriss went after her, the transport case clutched tightly in her arms like makeshift body armour, and Tamar missed seeing her enter because at that moment he realized that the space beside him was empty. Where had Flain gone? Was there anything that he had to go back for? There shouldn’t have been. But his pack was still there, so... Heedful of the three-minute deadline, Tamar turned his back on the portal and hurried back towards the door to Maar. But just as he was reaching for the touchpad to open it, it flashed open from the inside, and there was Flain, who stepped out past him and sealed the door again behind him. He turned and gave Tamar a slightly apologetic look. “Sorry,” he said.

“What did you have to do?” Tamar asked.

“Leaving the circlet. Not like it’ll be much use back home, will it?” he asked bitterly.

Without an answer to that, Tamar turned and headed back again, towards that dark doorway standing in the middle of all the green. Someone had a fist around his heart and was squeezing, harder and harder with every step. I don’t have a choice, he reminded them, himself. We cannot stay. We have to go.

Behind him, he heard Flain pick up his pack again and begin to follow. Four steps, three, two, and then he was at the threshold and he thought it should have been harder. It should have felt like someone had turned his muscles into steel or cleaved his feet to the ground. But his body moved like it always had, and it was far too easy to take that last step across the silver line on the ground, into the hole. And so Tamar crossed over and into the portal, and left Anara behind him.

Chapter Text

Earth smelled different. Someone more inclined to poetry would have said that all planets have a soul of their own, which we can only dimly sense through our sight and smell and taste and touch and hearing, or that all people have an innate knowledge of home and can recognize it after any length of time spent away, or something of that ilk, at least.

To Tamar, who was not inclined to poetry in the slightest – after all, if he had been he would not have ended up a zoologist – it just seemed dusty. Grass and half-rotted leaves crunched under his feet as he took five quick steps forward, both to get out of Flain’s way and to get out of the portal’s safe radius, and joined the three waiting there. In the darkness, his eyes having had no time to adjust, they were more quiet voices than figures, do-you-thinks and should-wes, but it was good to have them close in the night. Yes: it smelled of dust and dry crumbling loam, and although the air was cooler it was not too cold. Summer, then, it must be. Maybe late summer, judging by how dry it felt. Behind, the grass rustled again, and Tamar turned to see Flain step through finally, and become just a silhouette as he cut through the line separating the whitish sunlight from the shadow.

Behind him, the silver raveled away, the door closing to a window, then a keyhole, a pinprick, and nothing. The sunlit green sward of Maar vanished, leaving only the dark outlines of trees and shrubs.

And that was it. Anara cut off, forever and ever, so be it.

There was some rustling from the place where Soren was, the sound of a backpack zipper being opened and closed again, and then the beam of her flashlight flicked on, slicing a bright circle on the ground surrounding all their feet. Tamar dropped his own pack into the pool of light and dug his flashlight from its head. One by one, four other circles of light emerged, the beams bouncing over grasses and ferns, trunks, the underside of a canopy of leaves. Enough to indicate that the forest was deciduous, mostly – a few half-nibbled cones testified to the presence of a few conifers above the lower canopy. Well, that restricted the possibilities for their location somewhat. There were only a few regions with contiguous temperate mixed forests.

Theriss took out the personal locator beacon, setting down her flashlight for a second to have both hands free. The machine beeped cheerily as it turned on, and the tiny screen glowed green for a second under her scrutiny. Once sure it was successfully transmitting, Theriss shoved it unceremoniously back into its foam caddy and tucked it back into the head of her pack. “There. See what that’ll do.”

Once a personal locator beacon had been activated, one was supposed to stay still in order to make oneself easier for searchers to find. Which they would all have been fully willing to do, if there had been reason to expect any response would come – which, after seven years of no responses to anything at all, it would be more folly than wisdom to believe. So what if their movement screwed up a search? The Administration could handle that. The Administration had lost the right to them caring about it.

“Should we just camp here,” Flain asked, “or should we see if there’s a more open space somewhere?” If there was any receiver out there to receive the PLB signal, or anyone to try and come find them, getting somewhere more open would make them more visible.

They thought about this for a moment. Generally, in the wilderness, any kind of activity past sundown was verboten, given the increased risk of getting lost or falling into holes in the dark. On the other hand, setting up camps after sundown was no less difficult, and flung as they had been straight from day to night nobody would sleep anyway. They might as well try to put a few kilometers behind them right now.

Theriss shrugged. “Keep going?” she said. “Sure, we can try,” said Soren, and Halen murmured his assent too.

“Any suggestions for which way?” Tamar asked. Anyone have a better clue than he did where they were? Or a better memory for the distribution of humans on the planet Earth?

“North?” suggested Soren.

Whatever the others’ suggestions had been, they faded into mumbles of assent. He supposed it would be the easiest direction to navigate using only a compass, given that there would be no worry about adding or subtracting degrees. And if they didn’t know where they were anyway, north was as good a direction as any to hope to find signs of civilization in.

Soren fumbled the compass out of her pocket, cord trailing. She clamped the end of her flashlight in between her teeth, in order to use both hands, and peered at it. Light wobbling wildly, she gave the dial a turn, trying to line up the needle with its shed. The plastic gave a quiet squeak – it had spent a long time unused, just sitting with the emergency supplies.

“Here,” Flain said, aiming his own flashlight over her hands. “Better?”

“Thanks,” she responded, pulling the light back out of her mouth and dangling it from her wrist.

A few more minutes passed, with Soren peering alternately at the compass and up at the stars. She aimed a hand off into the forest, counting out something. Tamar hadn’t ever really been skilled in navigation – he could line up a map with latitude and longitude or with landforms, and could use a GPS to map out plots and take location data, but nothing more precise. Besides, it had been generally assumed that he would always have a GPS or other geolocation system with him.

“Everything all right?”

“Yeah, just... I don’t know what our declination would be,” she said. “If we haven’t got a location already...”

“Thir- twenty-three and a half,” Tamar proposed.

“That’s axial tilt,” Halen corrected.

Flain shook his head, making the light wobble slightly. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “As long as we’re not going completely in circles we ought to get somewhere.”

Soren agreed, “Yeah, I guess so.” She gave the housing one more careful twist, then looked up. “This way.” Compass in one hand and light flipped back up into the other, she set off, slowly, dried leaves and needles crunching under her boots. The others fell in line behind her, with Tamar penultimate and Flain bringing up the rear, mainly following the spots of the others’ lights. There was enough light from the stars, though – the sky was clearer than Tamar thought he’d ever seen it before, enough to show even the faint stars – and the sliver of moon occasionally peeking silver through the canopy that it was not as difficult to navigate as it could have been. Small mercies, he guessed.

The journey became just a continuous sequence of crushed branches and stumbles over roots. Soren jagged occasionally, trying to keep their bearing towards the north in despite of hummocks, thickets, and small gullies. Once, they came to a stream, riffling black and white in the moonlight over its bed of small stones, and had to splash carefully across, the water cooling Tamar’s boots but thankfully not soaking through, or rising to over his ankles. Lost in a strange forest, with no succour from the Administration, no idea of the political situation, and nothing remaining of all their work, he had no desire to add cold or immersion injury to his list of woes.

It could be worse. You could be dead.

He shoved a branch out of his way angrily, cracking it off at the base and sending a small shower of needles to the ground.

“Break,” Halen called eventually, just when Tamar was beginning to consider calling for one himself. Everyone stumbled to a halt where they were, Theriss dropping into a relieved crouch, and Halen swinging off his pack and settling onto a nearby log. Brushing powdery lichen from his face and hair with the other hand, Tamar fiddled his water out from its pouch by his hip, unscrewed the top, and took a swig. Then he set it down and quickly did up his coat, because it had gotten colder, and with flashlight in hand he hadn’t been able to before without stopping.

“Can you tell how far we’ve gone?” Flain asked Soren.

She shook her head. “Can’t tell,” she answered, combing back strands of hair that had escaped her long ponytail. “I’m thinking maybe we should just stop. Going probably won’t get any better from here on out.”

“All right,” Flain agreed, to a chorus of nods as all their diurnal natures flared up again, reminding Tamar that really, night was the appropriate time to be curled up, and asleep, and not tramping around in the darkness trying to locate signs of human activity. He had no idea what time of night it would be here, but back on Anara it would have been approaching sundown; the afternoon had already been waning when they’d left. And now, having stopped, he realized that tiredness was starting to creep in. Not really a physical tiredness – they hadn’t been going for quite long enough for exhaustion yet – and not the bone-deep, thought-slowing one that had developed over a long time, had required a lot of dead animals and failed experiments and ecological cascades for its genesis. A more normal tired. The call for sleep.

“It looks flatter over there.” Theriss pointed and aimed her flashlight beam off to the right, revealing vertical bars of tree trunks and an area of small groundcovers that did seem slightly less rooty and uneven to the patch they currently inhabited. They marched the few steps over.

“Good enough,” Flain decreed. Before anyone could argue, he set his flashlight down atop a patchy log and pulled open the top of his pack.

“Can you go see if we have any signal?” Theriss asked Soren, handing her over the beacon. She took it and trudged out into the ferny clearing, sending up a puff of grey spores. The four of them remaining took on the task of digging out the bivies and laying them out, alternating in turns between holding the flashlight and scrabbling inside the packs or threading poles. Tamar scratched a strip of skin off the back of his thumb on the rim of one, and cursed. This shouldn’t have been happening. They shouldn’t ever have had to fumble around like this in the darkness, on their own world, should have still been safe within Anara’s concrete and brick. If only it hadn’t been for damned Kest and his damned blood, so they couldn’t do anything to the Administration’s standards and so -

“Guys?” called Soren anxiously.

“What is it?”

“...you have to come look at this.” She sounded oddly hesitant.

Dropping the pole in a crescent on the ground, Tamar crashed out to where she was standing, staring up, the beacon completely forgotten in her hand. The others followed, bending more ferns. “What- ?”

Look!

So they all did, raising their gazes to the point in the sky she was indicating, where the bright disk of the moon had risen higher, and shone clear through the gap in the canopy.

Even after so many years away on Anara, Tamar remembered what the Moon was supposed to look like. He remembered, at least, the smooth rounded profile, the vague dark shapes of the maria, and the bright burst of Tycho in the south.

None of that remained, anymore. Craters from what must have been a wave of impacts marred the entire surface, overlapping over almost every inch. The maria had been smashed into vast tangles of jumbled blocks, visible even from this distance, and vast sprays of white ejecta and crater chains cut across the face like knife slashes. Gone was the smooth profile, as the new basins shredded the edges into jagged lines of mountains and hollows – a large chunk of the southern hemisphere appeared to be missing entirely, like a massive bite taken out of the mantle. The ruin was vast, and it was complete; if it had just been an image, and not right there in the night sky, he would never have guessed this shattered scarred body had ever been the Moon.

His first thought was wait, this is Earth, right? which was absolutely moronic given one second more of thought, given that even he had managed to recognize Cassiopeia and the seven-star curve of Ursa Major, though higher than normal. And then bombardment? and no, this side is shielded, and the Moon wasn’t even tectonically active so it couldn’t have even been any kind of volcanic activity. And so what in the world could have done this, could have thrown up the surface as easily as flinging stones into a pond? And how?

For a long while they all just stood, silent and monochrome, staring up at that monumental desolation. It was Theriss who finally voiced what all of them were thinking. “What the hell happened?”

Chapter Text

The next morning dawned bright and far too early, with no sign of the ruined Moon above the treetops. Tamar had managed to go straight from exhausted to sleep-deprived without the benefit of sleep in between. Probably eating only two granola bars in lieu of any actual food last night hadn’t helped either, but no-one had been up to lighting a stove and actually boiling anything.

Tamar finished mashing the bivy away into its sack and shoved it, with more force than was probably strictly warranted, down into his backpack again. He pulled the ties and stood up, shoving back his hair. The fast zip of a drawcord indicated that Theriss was finished with hers, as well. He slung it back onto his stiff back and straightened, joining the other five four in their small cluster.

No-one else looked like they felt any better than he did. Soren had tied her hair back into a ponytail but had clearly not bothered to pull out any tangles beforehand, and Flain kept pulling the hood of his coat up around his ears. As he did when he was afraid (more and more frequently, recently. Since the first time Theriss and he had dredged up a fish with sequences that matched both the native Anaran chenn and to the salmonids. Since the first swarms chewing brown holes into the shrubs within the entire temperate ring.) Like it might work to grant him any protection from the mess reality was ravelling into.

Tamar still could not figure out what could have shattered the face of the Moon like that. Over and over, he’d gone through all the natural disasters he could think of, none of which was sufficient to explain such a change. At least, nothing that could leave the Earth intact, walkable-on, breathable-on. No volcanic trap event, because the mantle was solidified nearly all the way through. There were some minimally-manned mining operations on the surface (or had been, at least, the last they’d heard of; there undoubtedly weren’t anymore), but it would have taken those millions and millions of years to make any kind of dent in that much crust. And the chance of any impactor slipping between the Earth and the Moon was minute, and anything that near would be far more likely to hit Earth, with the deeper gravity well, than the Moon. It would be incredibly unlikely to leave the planet unscathed. If it truly was: for why else would the Administration have cut off all contact with them?

In the hopes that it would help, Tamar dug out another granola bar from his pocket and peeled away the wrapper. It tasted like ash with grain in it, and it hurt to swallow.

You have to eat actual food sometime, you know.

Damn well watch me, he thought savagely back at himself.

What he really needed was coffee. Something to drive off the glass wool packing his skull, something that could hopefully stimulate his brain into remembering it was alive, and hadn’t just died with the planet, been amputated as the portal flashed shut.

No, actually, what he really needed was paracetamol, which worked on everything, but since he didn’t have any more of that than he did coffee, there was no point wishing for that either.

He crumpled the wrapper up in one fist and tucked it back into his pocket, although there was really no point, when he thought about it. Such an old-fashioned way of thinking about environmental consciousness, the idea of individual actions, individual purities. Such a... deontological view of things.

Even so. If he could avoid doing at least one sin, might as well.

“Set?”

No. “Yes,” he answered, and was fairly sure everyone else lied about it too.

Soren reoriented them to north, and they continued on. The going got harder after a few hours – more hills and more bedrock outcrops, more time spent whacking through thickening shrubs and stumbling in small holes. He couldn’t remember what this landscape type was called – geology had been a long, long time ago – but Tamar was grateful. The more effort it took just to keep walking, the less he had to spare for worrying over the growing mysteries. Like whether anyone would be able to help them.

(Like whether he still deserved help, anymore.)

Nobody spoke, each one of them having retreated deep down inside themselves for refuge from the exhaustion, the terrible mix of boredom and bewilderment, and – frustration. Whatever had happened – dear God, it would be better, just to know. That was the thing that hurt the worst. At least if he knew what had happened he could categorize it, line up the catastrophe atlas-axis-C3, and make it make sense, like everything should. When you devoted your life to trying to make the world make sense, it almost physically burned not to.

Soren called, up ahead.

“What is it?” Flain shouted back up at her.

“A road!”

It was. They crashed through the narrow cleared strip edging it, knee-high grass and yellowing dicots, to step out onto the road surface. It was a gravel road, clearly rural, fading into the dirt on the edges. Tamar scraped a toe across the surface, sending up a small cloud of grey dust. So it really was dry. He wondered if this was normal, too, a standard late-summer temperate-region drought, or if weather had changed also, like the Moon, without them. Climate-control machinery couldn’t be entirely automated, unlike for example mining machinery or generators, because the climate was changing, still. Always continuing to warm, so they had to reset the sequestrators, adjust rainfall, and mitigate storms every few years or so. But if the Factions had changed their policies and the acceptable temperature ranges, it could still have changed. Or if climate regulation had been shelved in the name of other issues.

On the far side, there was a field, evidently laying fallow for the year for the yellow mustards and clovers sprawling over the ground. But it was edged with a fence of wooden posts and wire, and that was a sharp relief. Fences meant humans, fences meant civilization somewhere near. Thank God. Thank God for that bit of rotting wood and rusting iron. Since there were no cars in sight, the six five of them plodded across to that side, as near the fence line as they could be. Soren turned them left, and unquestioningly they followed. Left or right, there was equal chance of finding people either way. (The absolute size of that chance was incalculable, given the little information at their disposal, but he did not wish to dwell on that longer than necessary. Proportionally, the chances were equal.)

It took barely five minutes for his ankles to start aching. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d walked on an actual road – that is, one with cars to pack it down solidly, and not just a track of dirt and roots with grasses sprouting in the middle where the transport wheels didn’t touch. Such were the perils of fieldwork, always. It didn’t seem right that he should face the same consequences now as when he had been only newly started in academia, scrambling around in the wilds thrusting his arms down gerbil holes to measure the depth (and occasionally encounter some pups, soft and burning-warm and mewling), not when the world – two worlds had been so changed. Not when, since Tamar’s last setting foot on an actual road, Anara had lost thirty percent of its ice caps, acquired the kingdom Fungi, warmed an average of five degrees, been introduced to agriculture and the eukaryotic state and gained seven satellites, while Earth had warmed too by who knew how much, silenced its continuous shell of radio emissions, and had lost one. It wasn’t right. Nothing should have been the same.

Four and a half billion years. Four and a half billion years Earth had had a moon, since before the first life – every creature that had ever lived, all the odd Cambrian microfauna, every Lepidodendron and Calamites, 165 million years of dinosaurs, 2 million years of humans, and the entirely of civilization had lived, had risen and fallen and fed and procreated and died under that moon.

And in a dozen years it was unrecognizable.

When Halen stopped, Tamar practically walked into him. “What, why –” And then he looked up to the sharp green relief of the trees, and saw the line curved right and from around the corner it had concealed the figure of another person had appeared.

Thank you God. Oh, thank you so much.

“Excuse me!” Flain called, and his exclamation startled the man, who had until then been focussed dully on the road surface. He slowed, taking them all in with wide eyes, and halted several paces away. Wherever he had been heading from – and wherever he was going to – it couldn’t have been that far away, not since the only thing he carried with him was a single leather satchel, and his shoes were low, ordinary and not the boots necessary for a genuine journey.

“Thank you, I -” Flain started matter-of-factly, and then hesitated, mentally figuring out what he could tell about them that would be no lie and yet not reveal their identities or purpose. “We seem to be lost,” he finally compromised. “Can you tell us where we are?”

He expected a road name, or at least a municipality name. He didn’t expect another anxious look and an “Um,” as though there was something else the man thought they should know.

“Or at least how far it is until the next town? Please?”

For his sake, the man appeared to be thoroughly considering whether to answer. “Two hours worth, maybe?” he finally said. “Look, I really have to be going –”

Flain stood aside, and he hurried off, clutching his bag closer. That was odd. Or, not so if he thought about it, anyone outnumbered and two hours from civilization would be a fool to just trust anyone coming along blindly, but anyone making that trek had to expect to encounter someone, and not look so panicked upon its occurrence. Had something else changed, so that groups of backpackers were suddenly threatening now?

Tamar shoved that out of his mind, given that there was no way to know that either. Only two hours. They could make two more hours. And then they could ask. They could get help. They could get in touch with the Administration and finally be retrieved. There could be explanations, for everything.