The lander sloped down from orbit towards the jagged peninsula that leaked westwards from Earth’s great landmass. Salzmann’s eyes tracked across the surface as they broke the cloud cover. It stretched brown-green to the limits of his vision, shorn of angles and straight lines.
He heard Nguyen grumble under her breath as she wrestled with the command console, urging the craft towards a suitable landing site. When he had offered to co-pilot, she declined, and told him that if he wanted to help, he could kindly get out of her line of vision and shut the hell up.
So, he watched the foliage swirl beneath him from the window as the ship buzzed above the thick carpet of trees like some parasitic wasp hunting for a bare patch of flesh in which to lay its eggs. Eventually, Salzmann saw the ground begin to clear, the forest opening into a broad plain.
His bones rattled as Nguyen brought the craft into contact with the Earth. For the first time in years, after so long dropping through the void, the solid mass of a planet now held up his feet and everything beneath them. Sunlight hit the window, flooding his eyes.
Nguyen killed the engines and the systems stuttered into silence.
They stood, listening and looking at the readouts covering the interior of the command cabin. The lander had been specifically designed to explore new worlds, had been rigged with paraphernalia to detect weird alien life. It was ironic, Salzmann thought, that the tools should get their first real usage on Earth.
But for the soft, insistent signature of the Amritsar far above them in unmanned orbit, there was nothing. No radio activity, no electromagnetic signature, no communication on any bandwidth nor any residue of technology. The world was bursting with organic matter, but people appeared to have gone.
“What now?” said Salzmann.
“Narrow down the possibilities.” said Nguyen, eyes still fixed on the console, as if waiting for some lagged signal to jerk into life.
“There’s no one here,” said Salzmann. “The way down was empty. No orbital stations, no elevators, no cities, no roads. No people.”
Nguyen started to talk, but she trailed off, something catching in her throat as she spoke, and she put her hands to her face. Salzmann waited for her to start again. He felt a physical discomfort he had not felt since being revived on Napier.
“You’re upset, Captain,” he said.
“Shut the hell up. Shut your damn mouth.”
He felt his skin bristle. She stared at him, sclera dappled red.
“Yes, I’m upset, Salzmann. Aren’t you?”
Salzmann shrugged. “We knew what we were signing up for.”
“I signed up for a reason,” she said, shaking her head. “Maybe you didn’t. Maybe this was just a job for you. I could believe that. But I wanted to make a difference. I thought we could save something.”
She had been one of the programme’s first recruits, he knew. An early volunteer for a one-way ticket to Napier and a role in building humanity’s new home in the stars. Salzmann had come later, when they had found enough purposeful leaders and started selecting volunteers with ‘atypical’ personality characteristics. Even when the rest of the crew was still alive, before Napier, no one could match Nguyen’s drive. She was staring at him. He angled his eyes to the floor.
“Jesus Christ,” she said. “If it’s just going to be the two of us, we’re going to need to find a way to get along.”
He raised his eyes. “Yes, Captain,” he said.
“So, technician; How do we narrow down the possibilities?”
“We should get out, start a survey. Instruments can only tell us so much.”
She grunted. “What about environmental diagnostics? We don’t know what’s out there.”
It didn’t seem like anything was wrong with the environment. The opposite, in fact.
“We can run a test or two,” he said, “if that will make you happy.”
Nguyen’s face hardened again. “It won’t make me happy, technician. It will contribute to the damn mission.” He returned his eyes to his boots. Nguyen groaned. “It’s time to get with the programme, Salzmann. The situation is serious. I’m starting to think you’d be more use to the mission back in the pod”.
He tried to return her stare. His last time undergoing stasis should have been on Napier. Waking up from that had been hard enough. He could still vaguely recall the sick, sinking feeling as he went back under again for the return journey to Earth, a journey that was never supposed to happen. Nguyen had brought him out again a week ago, as the Amritsar was passing Mars. He could still taste the cryptoprotectant, cold and chemical, on his tongue.
“I’m going to run remote tests,” she said. “The full suite. You run diagnostics. And make sure the crew got down in one piece.”
Salzmann ran his hands gently over the doctor’s eyes, cold and crystalline like fat marbles. They were open. He wondered if the man had woken up, just for a moment, before the devitrification went wrong. Or maybe the vitrification itself had malfunctioned, and after making the long journey from Earth and those few dark months of wakefulness on Napier, putting the processes in place to make the planet liveable, he’d only had minutes in the planetary stasis crypt before his body shut down. The doctor hadn’t made much of an impression on Salzmann when he’d been alive. He thought the man’s name had been Silva, but then it might have been Singh, or Simpson.
The doctor’s eye moved.
Salzmann jerked his hand away.
No; it was the light – the long-absent light of Earth – creeping in through the hold door and playing against the glassy eyeballs. The doctor was dead. Nguyen had wanted to close his eyes, out of some sense of martial honour, but it was impossible without smashing the man’s whole face into shards, and that would hardly be an improvement. It had been Nguyen who had insisted that they return the other forty-eight colonists to Earth for ‘proper burial’. Salzmann would have been happy leaving them on Napier, in the ruins of humanity’s miserable, failed, efforts there. But Nguyen was still the captain, and Salzmann was still the assistant technician.
He returned to the viewing deck. The deep green of the grass and trees outside seemed unreal after years of nothing but the grey of the ship, the blackness of space, and the sick reddish-brown of Napier. He could see birds flitting between branches, insects hovering over flowers in the field. It looked like summer – not the oven-like season of his youth on Earth that roasted the fields brown, but the bustling green summer of history and books.
Nguyen was up in the command web. He could see things from her point of view. She made no effort to hide her resentment of him for being the only other colonist to survive. Some part of him resented it too, or at least found it offensively unlikely. He pictured himself cold and glassy in the hold of the lander, his life-systems suspended interminably after a century of stasis. It seemed much more probable than him being here, now.
He could parse from the readouts that she had ordered to the Amritsar to scan for approaches from outside Earth’s orbit. That was a long shot. The ship was the first of its kind, and given the controversy of the Napier programme, had seemed likely to be the last. But they had been gone a long time. Salzmann imagined a shoal of ships swimming back through space towards their ancestral home, like the wild salmon that had once slunk in the cold corners of the Earth, before his birth. Perhaps they would come. Or perhaps the Amritsar would be like the last of those fish to go extinct, waiting in silent solitude at the head of the stream for the return of companions that never came.
This new Earth was a different place. Life wasn’t hiding here, chased into corners and holes. From the windows of the lander he could see it: grass, trees, flowers, birds, bugs clustering on the windows. The environmental diagnostics had concluded without detecting a hazard. It was time to deepen the survey. Salzmann quietly opened the lander doors and stepped out.
The forest presented Salzmann with an organic mass that offered no admission; a barrier of rigid branches, hardwoods and softwoods packed thickly above ferns, tangled shrubs and the rotting carcasses of fallen trunks. He walked along its boundary. Beyond the tree-wall there was a stillness. At the edge of perception, he could hear the slow drip of water on leaves and the twitching of invertebrate life in the leaf-litter.
The sky above was pale, inscrutable as to its intentions.
He closed his eyes, listening again. A new sound reached him. Even faint as it was, it was unmistakeable; the movement of water. He turned his head to pin down its origin. It seemed to bounce between his ears and the riot of textures at the wood’s edge. A water source would be useful.
Branches and leaves dampened the sunlight as he walked. His pupils dilated, and his breath quickened. The undergrowth cracked and groaned beneath his feet. He came to a rocky channel that led downhill; a dried-up stream-bed. He followed it, glancing from side to side in response to the sounds of the forest. Plant matter rustled. Light and darkness shifted in the distance.
He had known a different Earth. Endless fields of biofuel crops, solar arrays, and turbines, rolling across continents slashed by fat grey roads. The concrete termite mounds of hab-blocks, the stasis bunkers filled with corpses awaiting some distant reincarnation. He was not sure that he had ever really smelled the wet, chlorophyll-charged air of a forest like this. Now, as it surrounded and pressed down on him, it seemed more familiar than his memories of the blistered cities he had lived in. Like something he had always carried inside him.
It was hard to say when the forest became the river. The trees gave way to short thickets of scrub, which then became grass. Beneath Salzmann’s feet the ground began to soften and yield. The grass thinned as the soil grew softer, and then it became low dunes, peppered with flecks of tangled weeds. Little white birds, previously invisible against the sunlit sand, fluttered up into the sky as his boots crunched towards them. He kept walking until he reached the point where the dunes became an archipelago of tiny islands, before they subsided entirely into the broad body of water.
He found a raised bank and sat down. The water lapped at the river’s rough edges, and the birds wheeled overhead, squawking and cawing. Sitting still, he became attentive to the constant, low buzz of insects. As his eyes grew accustomed to the sun, he began to see them. Bees crawling in and out of the purple sand-flowers. Flies, little more than black specks, tracing senseless arcs in the air; beneath him and all around him, ants proceeding in multitudes across the dunes.
Salzmann had been a child when Napier was discovered. He remembered the excitement clearly, marked off against the dull loneliness and awkwardness that had characterised his upbringing. It was probably what had made him want to be a scientist: news reports visualising jungles roaming with fantastical alien fauna, the spectrographic reports showing hard evidence of organic life in a distant solar system, people called ‘astrobiologists’ speaking on television. This was a turning point in humanity’s understanding of the universe; mankind was not alone. An infinite number of worlds bearing an infinite number of lifeforms, scattered across the galaxy, waiting to be discovered. Humans’ ambition as a species would not have to end with their own, dying planet.
At first, Salzmann had wanted to be an astrophysicist, hunting the skies for new worlds to settle. Then enthusiasm waned with the years; the more people strained their eyes at the sky, the less life seemed apparent. Our baseline shifted back. Napier was the exception, not the new rule. It hung there, across the void, A container for all hopes, its atmosphere unsullied with the signature of the civilization that clung heavily and insistently to the Earth.
Trillions of dollars and vast quantities of human capital had gone into the terraforming programme. Plans for Mars, long deemed impractical, were finally retired. The great scientific endeavour of a generation became the settling of human life on a world orbiting a different star. Salzmann’s own training in the new interdisciplinary science of terraforming absorbed his entire life. His personality, the thing that had always held him back, finally worked to his advantage. Then, on Napier, after decades of travel in stasis, they woke up to a toxic rock that alternated between burning and freezing, home to no more life than a thin coating of microbial mats and soupy ponds, respiring limply.
They had been trained to deal with that eventuality; that was what the terraforming programme was for. They were ready to go into stasis again, this time for longer, as the programme executed, seeding Napier’s systems with the ingredients of a world fit for large, naked mammals. Salzmann still remembered Nguyen shaking everyone’s hand before they went back into their vitrification chambers. He and she had woken up to another nightmare. Everyone else had not.
All along, they could have had this. Underneath their feet, the Earth had been waiting to be reborn. Life – real life, wild and uninhibited – had been hiding in the forgotten places, ready to burst forth and gorge itself on the sun and soil.
So much had been wasted. But now Salzmann was here, and he let the warm wind fill his lungs and the low cries of flying things fill his ears. He felt an energy he had not felt before, his sinews and muscles adapting, reverting to the environment in which his DNA was forged. Everything was gone now, except this. No time, no money, no Assistant Technician Salzmann. He let it all go and let himself be.
The impossibility of it pulled him back. There should have been something – some ruined cities, blasted battlefields, or at least the outlines of roads and fields running across the landscape. Not like this, as if humans had never been here at all. They hadn’t been gone that long. He was sure they hadn’t.
He shifted on the sand and small stones. It wasn’t right that he was here, he knew. It wasn’t his place. He should have been glassy and lifeless, entombed with the others. Nothing made him special enough to be here.
Something moved on the other side of the river; something large.
Salzmann stood. He held himself perfectly still, his body tense as taut wire. On the other bank, he saw two shapes emerge from the trees and walk down towards the water. The two creatures were bulky, four-legged, shaggy things. They reached the water and lowered their horned heads to drink; more were joining them now, emerging from the trees. Their soft lowing rode across the river on the wind. He scanned the far treeline, anticipating with a twisted gut the emergence of some cowherd or wrangler.
No-one came. Some of the beasts, their drinking finished, began to wander back towards the forest. They were wild creatures, moving under their own command. Salzmann relaxed for a moment. Then, as the herd hastened back towards the trees, another thought came. Where there were herbivores, there would be carnivores. Instinctively, he threw his head back over his shoulder.
There was nothing there but the gently waving grass and the trees beyond. The sun had gone down, and the humming of insects had quietened. A thrill of fear ran up Salzmann’s spine. He gripped his multitool tightly and began to retrace his steps to the lander.
Nguyen was outside, dressed in hazard gear. She held a torch in her right hand, mobbed by a cloud of moths. Something else was in her left hand; Salzmann couldn’t make it out in the darkness.
“Where the hell did you go?” she said between her teeth.
“I was surveying.”
“You don’t just go for a stroll, Salzmann. This is still an Expeditionary Force operation, and I am still in command. Do you understand me?”
She was shaking. He couldn’t tell if it was anger, or fear, or something else.
“It’s incredible, isn’t it?” said Salzmann.
“What did you find?” she asked, suddenly snapping her gaze level.
“Fresh water. And, just…this. So much life.”
“Signs of technology?” Her eyebrows arched. He shook his head. He didn’t expect her to understand.
“No, nothing. Everything is gone.”
She banged a fist against the lander’s hull. The noise brought a cloud of small birds fluttering up out of the grass.
“Don’t you get it?” Nguyen said. “We could be all that’s left.”
She looked away from him and leant against the ship, as if she were now making sense of the implications of that fact. The light shifted, and Salzmann realised what she was holding in her other hand. It was her sidearm, a compact titanium pistol. He wondered if he had been in line for a battlefield execution, punishment for the crime of risking his own life.
Nguyen had not left Earth in the same way he had. He had gone to Napier to leave people behind. She had gone there to save them. She had expected to build something new. He decided he should say something.
“Captain,” he said, “Just because you were responsible for the deaths of the rest of the crew, I don’t think you should worry so much about me. You shouldn’t blame yourself that they died, even if you were the responsible person.”
Nguyen swivelled around and sunk a heavy blow into his gut with her knee. His breath sucked out and he doubled over into the dewy grass. He reached a hand out to support himself with Nguyen’s leg, but she stepped away and let him fall.
“Fuck you, Salzmann,” she said. “I didn’t fail. You were meant to turn Napier into somewhere we could live. I did my job. I’m still doing it.”
Even if Salzmann had wanted to say anything, he had no breath to say it with.
“I’m not giving up,” she said. “We’re taking this thing back up in the air. We’re going to carry on looking. Everything can’t just have disappeared.”
She stepped back into the lander. The trees and grasses thrummed with the rattling of insect membranes. Above him, the stars wheeled against the blackness.
They had been conducting their aerial survey for forty-eight hours. Nguyen had reverted to her clipped captain’s manner, dispensing orders to Salzmann with a studied disinterest as if they were back in the training facility. Salzmann complied in silence. He could still feel her eyes on him, watching as he worked. She seemed to be waiting for him to break the deadlock. Perhaps she wanted an apology. For surviving, for not being someone else. She would be waiting a long time if she did. He was very comfortable keeping his mouth closed.
The survey itself had taught them precisely nothing. Multiple-vector imaging, subsurface scans and all other observations revealed only overgrown wilderness. They gathered resources; organic material to feed into the lander’s bioreactor and give the solar cells a rest. The corridors had begun to fill with logs and foliage.
“There is something else we could use as fuel first,” he suggested, tilting his head towards the cargo hold.
Nguyen ignored the comment at first, as he expected.
“We’re suspending the operation,” she said a few minutes later. “The least we can do is give them a final resting place.”
The hill she had selected for the crew’s barrow was topped with a plateau of copper-tinged soil. As they hacked at it with their entrenching tools, it crumbled into fat, stoneless chunks. Even so, Salzmann felt his body scream at the labour. The stasis-entombment had rendered him brittle, as if the muscles and tendons inside him had fused into a single lump. Nguyen was the same, he could tell, her teeth clenching and the sweat dripping from her back as she worked.
The grass around them writhed with arthropod life, a feast for the chattering squadrons of small birds that danced among the blades. In the distance, herds of herbivores wandered and grazed across the grass. Salzmann felt the red earth cling coldly to his hands, and the heat of the sun on his face. He strained his eyes towards the horizon; at every angle it rolled into mystery, a chaos of growth and twisting earth. Everywhere there was movement in the stillness.
After digging two graves, they took a break. Nguyen went silently back into the lander. Salzmann sat for a few minutes, then began to dig again. He shifted a metre of earth, then stopped. There was something in the soil. It was angular, hard, and inorganic. He stared at it for a moment. His back groaned as he knelt. The object was cold and smooth. Delicately, he shifted more earth away with the tip of his tool. The thing was small; a disc that fit comfortably within the palm of his hand. One surface was irregular with engravings.
The object was undoubtedly metallic. He couldn’t be sure of the alloy; some melding of iron, copper, and zinc, he supposed. Around its perimeter ran a string of symbols, in a carefully consistent, blocky lettering. At its centre was a figure, long and bipedal. The broad contours of its face gave it a likeness to a human being.
Nguyen re-emerged from the lander, and he slipped the disc into his pocket. His tongue quivered with intention, but his mouth kept shut. He was sure that Nguyen knew more than she was telling him. Why shouldn’t he have a secret of his own?
When Salzmann practised field biology as a student, he had worked with soils that were practically dead, whole clumps falling through his fingers inert and lifeless. Here, the Earth was animated. Every blow into the loamy brown ground brought annelids and isopods to the surface. Their writhing and scuttling delighted him.
The disc sat heavily in his pocket. Like him, it didn’t belong here. It was part of an older world that had been swept away. How it had been swept away didn’t matter. A new, bountiful era had been born, geological in its ambition. There were no laws and no systems except the swirling gases in the sky and the endless chains of minerals filtering through the Earth.
Soon, within the timescales of this new era, he would rejoin that chain, would become part of that world. Each of the three times Salzmann had gone into stasis, he had been terrified of the process failing, that he would spend eternity as a vitrified husk. Now it felt almost calming when he thought about being down in the Earth, with the worms and ants pulling him apart, along with the rest of the Amritsar’s crew.
Nguyen was leaning on her shovel, looking sadly at the bodies in front of her. The ship’s pilot, Hernandez, and Chief Technician Gunnersson, Salzmann’s old boss. She exhaled deeply.
“I owe you an apology, Salzmann. I haven’t reacted well to this. You deserved more of me as your commander. Maybe we can start again?”
He nodded. Even where they were, despite everything, Nguyen was trying to be a leader. It made him feel uncomfortable. She carried on talking.
“You were right, it’s incredible. The way life has reasserted itself. Even as a non-specialist I can appreciate that.”
“All it needed was for us to get out of the way,” he said.
“We’ll do better, when we get another chance,” she said. He wasn’t sure what that meant, but he could tell she wasn’t looking for a response. She had something else to say.
“I shouldn’t have said what I said. Blamed you for our failure on Napier. That was wrong.”
“We did fail, though.”
“Yes, but not in the way that you think.” She looked straight at him. “Our mission to Napier was never about terraforming, not really. Everyone at the strategic level understood that the terraforming technology wasn’t advanced enough to succeed, and the chances of finding liveable conditions laughably remote. We were set up to fail.”
Salzmann paused to consider this. He had never really believed that the terraforming would be successful, but he had the submissive quality and fatal indifference to trust that his superiors did. It was gratifying to know that he had been right.
“We were always meant to come back here,” he said.
Nguyen nodded. “We were an insurance policy for human civilisation on Earth. Napier was a staging post.”
It made sense. The Napier system was far enough away. They would lie in stasis for centuries, millennia, as long as it took – letting the terraforming process run in the small chance that it would succeed. Then, when it most probably all went wrong, they would wake up and travel home across the void. They would never know how long they had been asleep.
“You knew this all along?” he asked. He could see irritation work its way back onto Nguyen’s face, before she made a conscious effort to wipe it off.
“I knew that things would be different. But I didn’t expect everything to be gone so completely. And I thought that there would be more of us.” She gestured towards the bodies scattered outside the lander.
Salzmann now understood what she had meant. We’ll do better, when we get another chance. Nguyen was a fighter. The mission had faced setbacks, but it was not terminally compromised. She had found the willpower to face up to what must be done. His stomach shifted in unease.
“It’s going to get dark again soon,” he offered, trying to shift her focus before any more revelations emerged with which he would be required to engage emotionally. “Should we try to bury a few more of them?”
“I have a better idea.” she said.
It took a while to carry each corpse out and pile it at the bottom of the hill. The heap of death was incongruous against the backdrop of the plain; a blot of orderly human destruction soiling the wilderness. Nguyen descended towards it, testing the flame of the plasma torch as she walked.
The funeral pyre lit up quickly and burned with a power that neither of them had expected. They sat and watched the sky grow dark and the flames grow brighter. It was a waste, thought Salzmann, for those bodies to have lasted so long, and now to be disassembled so completely and quickly under the influence of oxygen and heat.
Nguyen and he were both silent. When the pyre had cooled to embers, she rose to go back inside.
He waited for the lander’s shutter to close, then carefully pulled the strange metal disc from his pocket. It was dusk and, the light was thin. Hundreds of bats swooped across the sky, their wingbeats a soft pattering. From somewhere – he could not tell if it was near or far – he heard a low feline growl that quivered in his bowels. He moved closer to the lander.
Taking his multitool in an overhand grip, he held the object closer to his face, bringing the text into optimum focus. Salzmann couldn’t read it, but he understood something about it. The writing was wrong; not with the neutral meaninglessness of a foreign language, but a quality of deep and burning incomprehensibility. As if he could never understand even the way of understanding it. As if it would not reveal its meaning to him even if he studied it for another hundred thousand years.
A frisson ran over his skin. He held the object at arm’s length. From the centre, framed by the impenetrable scrawl, the lanky figure looked up at him. He saw it more clearly now. Its arms were outstretched, its face the three wide circles of two eyes and mouth; somewhere between screaming, questioning, and accusing. It was basic, but not artless or primitive.
Steps rattled on the lander’s loading ramp. He slipped the disc back into his pocket. Nguyen was leaning against the entryway. She looked smaller than she had before. She sat down beside him again.
“It’s funny,” she said, “I knew all along that this was what could happen. I signed up for it, like you said. It wasn’t easy, when we woke up on Napier, finding everyone dead except you. I’m a soldier; I dealt with it. But somehow, I thought it wouldn’t be just the two of us. That we’d come back, and everything would be like it was before. The future, but the future of a past that I knew.”
“It could have been worse,” said Salzmann.
“Exactly,” she said. She leaned back on the grass, propping herself against a rock. “We could have come back to an asteroid field. Or a radioactive tomb world, or a burning second Venus. But it’s not. It’s perfect. As if it was waiting for us.”
He stayed silent. A stream of decisions and consequences began to suggest itself. The range of possible paths had been broad when they brought the lander down. Now he could hear only one thing in Nguyen’s voice. They would start again, like she had said. He saw the lander repurposed into a shelter, solar rigs running at full, rough awnings flying out from hatches propped open. He imagined himself as a hunter, whittling bows and spears and wearing the skins of beasts. The hides of animals splitting under his knife, the blood flowing out and the richest meat torn from the bone.
Nguyen hated him for surviving. She probably always would. Not just because of that, but for who he was, who she was. It wouldn’t matter. She had been given a mission and a set of objectives, and she would complete them, even if it meant settling down with Salzmann. His skin prickled at the thought.
The lander had been designed to transport up to twenty individuals; with only two, it was roomy enough for both passengers to have their own quarters and choice of bunks. Compared to the sweeping scale of the world outside, however, it felt to Salzmann like a cell within which he could barely move. He had been worried that Nguyen would try and come in, but she kept her distance, and he lay in silence on the mattress, still in his overalls. As his eyes circled the slats above him, the meaning of things had become clear.
He lowered his hand into his pocket and withdrew the metal disc. He understood what was wrong with it now. He saw the completeness of the cycle. Mankind had already died. Twice, at least, maybe more times than that. The world he had known in the infancy of his now geological lifespan had been wiped from the Earth. From the ashes of that death had risen the unfathomable makers of his disc. Perhaps there had been others in between, coming and going without leaving as much as an artefact. He saw the future. He and Nguyen would be the parents of another epidemic of humanity. Their children and their children’s children would multiply; and his descendants would once again strip the world of its life and fatten themselves on its bounty, until the sickness passed, and they too went extinct.
The thought was unbearable, almost bringing tears to his eyes, until his realisation. There was a way he could stop it, if he had the courage. It was in his power.
He left the lander early the next day. Fog was quickly clearing over the plain. It mixed with the charnel ash of the colonists’ mass grave to leave a wet smell of death in the air. To the East, in the direction of the rising sun, the plain began to climb into low, forested hills. He headed towards them.
As the sun filled the sky ahead of him, the land began to heat. With it, the chorus of the living planet rose its voice. On top of the constant chatter of birds began to be layered the insistent humming of invertebrate life; and above this the shuffling, grunting mass of the herds that ranged across the plain. He had not appreciated before how far they stretched, only picking out small groups against the waving grasses. He walked for an hour past a single, mixed herd of hoofed beasts. They turned their heads to watch him as he passed.
He thought about the world at it had once been; the lost civilisations that had sprawled vainly across the face of this planet. On the herds of buffalo and antelope he imposed a city, spires and chimney stacks erupting from the plain and stretching towards the clouds, slums and suburbs rolling themselves out across the grasslands like a terrible carpet, flattening all life before them. Over the din of the wilderness he recalled his faint memory of the city’s sounds; the voices of humans and machines raised against each other in permanent anger. He imagined the air thick with particulate matter and the water slick with oils, a cocktail of nitrates pumped clean of life. It could happen again, he thought. Because of him, it could happen again.
He looked back across the plain. The lander, perched on its mound, was just a point through the haze of the shimmering heat. He wondered if Nguyen was still asleep.
“I’m sorry” he said aloud, into the savannah.
He began to walk again. The forest began to close around him, stifling the sun and softening sound. At a narrow stream, he stopped. He tossed his multitool into the water and watched it sink and roll along with the current, knocking against rocks and branches. Then he carried on. The ground rose. He scrambled upwards over rocks, scrabbled up banks.
He had known what he had to do since last night. Now it began to seem real; or at least as real as it ever could. If it had all been down to him to do it, he would not have been able to. But there was something easy about this way. He just needed to keep walking, and nature would follow its timeless pattern.
He wasn’t sure that he understood what he was doing any better than Nguyen would. But every breath he took of the life-drenched atmosphere, every footstep that sent small things scurrying into the shadows; they were all the argument he needed. This was how the world was meant to be. There was only one thing that was wrong. He was in it. They were in it.
The moment came quicker than he expected. In a clearing, the shape was hunched and mottled against the trees; by the time he was close enough to see it, it was too late to do anything, even if he had wanted to. It had probably been following him for hours. The feline shape, coiled and muscular, brought a clanging peal of fear from his genetic memory. It was aggressively real, the vegetation parting around it.
The leopard’s low growl echoed through his organs. For a minute it stood still, watching him and waiting, ears twitching. It took one pace forward, then another. Then it began to move; accelerating in seconds from statue-still to death dash. It hit Salzmann like an asteroid colliding with a young moon. Instinct took control, writhing and screaming, sending the forest around him into panicked flight. As everything around him ended, he saw and smelt the earth, rich and red with his blood. He would be a part of it again.