January 2021

“Doran?” Michaela says. “I don’t like you.” She closes her eyes as our docking clamps release and we slide into the launch chute. “I want you to know that.”

I nod.

The world falls away.

Dropping onto a colony world is always an adventure. The Union spans a quarter of the galaxy. The distances between our worlds make it impossible for us to touch any given colony more than once every few centuries, and a lot can happen in three hundred years. Sometimes we find apes. Sometimes we find angels. Michaela and I, though—we’re Unifiers. Our job is to remind them all how to be human.

“This is your fault,” Michaela says. “No matter how this turns out, the record will reflect that.”

“Yes,” I say. “You’ve made that very clear.”

“Survey sequencing is your responsibility, Doran. I accept none of the blame for this. None.”

I nod. She is correct to say that I accepted full responsibility for sequencing long ago. It seemed my best option for hiding worlds like this one from Michaela’s tender ministrations.

Unfortunately, it seems that the Union cannot in fact be put off forever.

We skim through the upper atmosphere, bleeding off velocity, converting kinetic energy into heat and light. The inertial dampers on this lander are ancient. I can feel the waves of plasma breaking over the hull and thrumming through the soles of my feet.

“Fifteen hundred years,” Michaela says. “These people could be anything by now.”

I sigh.

“I suppose they could.”

“Uniformity is the bedrock of the Union, Doran. Without it, we are no longer children of Earth. Without it, we are nothing.”

“Yes,” I say. “I’m well aware of Union doctrine.”

“Gross negligence,” she mutters, eyes fixed on the deck now. “Gross, utter negligence.”

“Well,” I say. “Let’s see what we see.”

We’re slowing now, the lander’s stubby delta wings riding the air rather than hammering through it. The screens have cleared, and the day side of the planet is just coming into view, thirty kilometers down.

“They might simply be gone,” I say. “This world is not a friendly place.”

This is an understatement, honestly. We’re descending onto a tidally locked planet that hovers just at the inner edge of its red dwarf star’s habitable zone. The day side is sun-scoured desert, too hot for anything that the Union would accept as human to endure. The night side is a frozen wilderness, buried under an ocean’s worth of water ice and carbon dioxide. The twilight strip that separates them is no more than a few hundred kilometers wide, and the storms that sweep across it looked terrifying even from orbit. I’m having trouble imagining what it must be like to stand on the surface, helpless and exposed, and watch one of them rolling in.

“You may be right,” Michaela says. “I’m not seeing any evidence of habitation.” I’m just opening my mouth to reply when she adds, “We should have been here twelve hundred years ago. Clearly, there has been a terraforming failure. We could have prevented it. We could have kept this place from spinning off the rails.”

“Colonies fail,” I say. I don’t add that, as often as not, it’s Unifiers like us who are responsible for their failure. Some worlds are simply not suited to habitation by the children of Earth, and terraforming is a chancy process. The available records indicated to me that this world might well be one such. Nothing we’ve seen so far indicates that this assessment was anything but accurate.

Michaela touches the control screen as we cross the terminator, and the lander swings around to the north.

“We’ll circumnavigate the twilight zone,” she says. “No point in looking anywhere else, I think. If we don’t pick up any signs after a full orbit, we’ll write this place off.”

She doesn’t need to mention what this outcome would mean for my standing in the Union. This is not the first wayward world I’ve tried to shelter from Unification. If Michaela were to finally realize that these anomalies are not simply the result of incompetence…

Best not to think of that now. Michaela has an exquisite nose for fear.

“There,” she says. We’re following a sad, winding river through dusty grasslands toward a shallow sea that covers most of the planet’s north pole. Michaela gestures to the main view screen, and it zooms in on the delta where the two come together.

There, in and among what appears to be a grove of sickly banyan trees, squats a village.

Michaela brings our altitude down to twenty kilometers, then ten, then five. We pass the village and swing out over the sea, then come around in a wide, lazy turn. Michaela engages the gravitics, and we slow to a hover.

“I don’t see any inhabitants,” she says.

“No,” I say, “but they must be here. Those huts are built from wood, grass, and mud. Without maintenance, they wouldn’t last a season.”

We descend slowly. The village grows in our view screen. Michaela is correct that there doesn’t appear to be anyone about. Who can say, though? There is no variation in daylight here to drive circadian rhythms. We may have come upon them in the middle of the night.

There are twenty-seven identical huts, arranged in two concentric circles around a single larger structure. Michaela sets us down gently in the dusty square facing its entrance. The low hum of the gravitics disappears as Michaela cuts power.

“We should follow biological containment protocols,” I say. “These people have been isolated for a very long time.”

Michaela shakes her head.

“Their biological isolation is one of the things we are here to end.”

“They may be vulnerable to our microbiota.”

“They may be,” Michaela says, “and if they’ve fallen far enough from compliance, we may be vulnerable to theirs. This is a risk doctrine requires us to take.”

Michaela stands. Behind us, the airlock cycles, and the inner door swings open. I sigh, unbuckle my webbing, and follow her into the light.

“It’s surprisingly pleasant here,” Michaela says as we step out onto the square.

This is true. The air is cool and still and dry, and the sun is a fat red ball hovering just above the horizon. Michaela crouches, rubs her fingers in the dust, then brings them to her nose.

“The soil is acrid,” she says. “Standard crops won’t grow here. I wonder what they’ve been eating?”

“The quarter-gram of dust you just sampled may not be a fair representative of the entire planet,” I say. “Perhaps we should reserve judgement?”

She looks up at me, then slowly stands.

“Perhaps.” She gestures toward the central building, a low, rectangular structure with bare wooden framing and a clay-shingled roof. “Shall we announce ourselves? It doesn’t seem that a welcome party is coming.”

I glance around. The trees at the edge of the village look less sickly from the ground. They loom over the huts, ten or fifteen meters tall, with wide-spread canopies of broad, blue-green leaves hanging limp in the soft, still air. When I look back, Michaela is already half-way to the building. By the time I catch up to her, she’s pounding with the flat of one hand against the door while rattling the broad wooden handle with the other.

“That seems aggressive,” I say.

Michaela scowls.

“They didn’t bother with a doorbell.”

She’s raising her hand to strike again when the handle turns. She takes a half-step back as the door swings part way open. A small, round, nearly bald head pokes out of the darkness inside. Its owner squints up at Michaela, blinks, then turns to look at me.

“Oh,” he says. “Hello. Can I help you?”

“No language drift,” I say. “No anatomical modifications. No obvious mutations. No evidence of genetic alteration. He appears to be entirely human, wouldn’t you say?”

Michaela narrows her eyes and brings her teacup to her lips.

“As you said earlier,” she says. “Perhaps we should reserve judgement.”

Our host leans back in his chair, and folds his arms across his narrow chest.

“Friend Doran, friend Michaela… I can hear what you’re saying, you know.”

Michaela rolls her eyes and sips delicately at her tea. We’re gathered around a rough wooden table in a small, dimly lit room in the mud-and-thatch home of our host, who tells us that his name is Kirin.

“It’s simply not plausible,” Michaela says.

“Really?” Kirin says, one eyebrow raised. “Which part?”

“Any of this,” Michaela says. “Your skin tone, for example.”

Kirin leans across the table to place his forearm next to mine.

“It’s exactly the same as yours,” he says. “Medium taupe. Human standard.”

“Precisely,” Michaela says. “On this planet, with this sun, that skin tone should make it next to impossible for you to synthesize sufficient vitamin D. Fifteen hundred years of uncontrolled adaptation should have left your skin nearly translucent.”

“But that would place us out of compliance.”

“It would allow you to survive.”

Kirin smiles.

“Clearly, we have survived.”

“Yes,” Michaela says. “Clearly.” She takes another sip. “How many are you?”

“Oh,” Kirin says. “A hundred or so.”

“That seems too few to be a viable breeding population.”

“Well, yes,” Kirin says. “It’s closer to two hundred, really.”

“Are there other settlements?”

“No,” Kirin says. “We are self-contained. This is not the most hospitable world, you know.”

We sit in silence then, for what seems a very long time. Michaela stares at Kirin. He returns her gaze, unblinking, a placid smile on his face.

“Bring your people together,” Michaela says finally. “I’d like to see them all, please.”

“Oh,” Kirin says. “Oh, no. No, friend Michaela. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Mmmm hmmm,” Michaela says. “I’m sure you don’t.”

“He has a point,” I say. “From a standpoint of biological containment…”

Michaela dismisses me with a wave.

“As I said, I am not concerned about biological containment.”

“This is actually the beginning of our sleep cycle,” Kirin says.

Michaela scowls.

“We can wait until morning.”

“Also, many of us are away at the moment. You know—hunting and gathering and whatnot.”

Michaela sets her teacup down on the table and leans toward Kirin, elbows planted on her knees.

“How many humans are currently in this village?”

“Well,” Kirin says. “That’s difficult to say.”

“Try.”

“Perhaps… fifty?”

“Fine,” Michaela says. “I wish to see fifty humans in your town hall, as soon as they have awakened. Is this acceptable?”

Kirin looks from Michaela to me. I shrug. He turns back to Michaela and smiles.

“I will see what I can do.”

“He’s hiding something,” Michaela says.

We’re back in the lander now, running diagnostics on soil and water samples while we wait for our host to let us know that local morning has arrived.

“Look at this,” she says, and points to the streams of numbers flowing across her monitor. “The proteins used by the microfauna here are left-handed.” She waits expectantly, then rolls her eyes at my blank stare. “Left-handed proteins are toxic to Union-compliant life, Doran. A human exposed to this environment should develop prion disease almost immediately.”

“Prion disease?”

Michaela gives me a tight-lipped smile.

“Relax. Unless something very unexpected turns up here, prion disease will be the least of your worries.”

“You know,” I say, “that’s not nearly as comforting as you probably imagine.”

She shakes her head and returns to her work. After long minutes of strained silence she says, “I can see now why you tried to keep me from this place.”

And there it is.

“My carelessness—” I begin.

“No,” she says. “No more of this, Doran. You knew what we would find here, and you knew what I would do when we found it—to them, and to you. I suspected you of deviance at Asher’s World. This place confirms it. The biochemistry, the soil composition, the planet’s orbital and rotational periods—all should have been engineered to Union standards centuries ago. This is a deviant world, Doran, and you have tried to protect its deviance.”

I start to answer her, but what is there to say? In the end, I shrug and look away. Michaela’s eyes narrow, and her mouth twists with disgust.

“No argument, Doran? No explanation, even?”

“No,” I say softly. “None that you would care to hear.”

She stares at me for what feels like a long while, then finally shakes her head and chuffs out a sigh.

“Fine. Sleep now, Doran. I suspect tomorrow will be an unpleasant day.”

I wake to a hollow tapping at the airlock’s outer door. I glance at the chronometer over the control panel. It’s been nearly ten hours since Kirin escorted us back to our lander.

“Well,” Michaela says. “It seems the locals have finally awakened.”

She stretches in her seat, rises, then turns to look at me.

“Are you coming?”

I sigh.

“Is there a point, Michaela? It seems likely that you’ve made up your mind.”

“Oh, I have,” she says. “Still, there are forms to be followed. We will give Kirin’s people a full hearing, as doctrine dictates. I find it impossible to believe that they can be brought back into the fold, but the universe is wide, and I suppose stranger things must have happened—and if not, perhaps we’ll learn something that will benefit the next colony we drop here.”

We step into the airlock. The inner door closes behind us. The tapping at the outer door comes again. When the door swings open, we find ourselves looking down at a slightly younger, slightly less bald version of Kirin.

“I brought breakfast,” he says, and holds up a basket of brown, misshapen pastries.

“Yes,” she says. “I see that.” She takes the basket, turns, and hands it to me. “You can have these, Doran. I’m afraid I’ve already eaten.”

Young Kirin smiles up at me. I set the basket down in the airlock, then step down beside him as the door swings closed behind us.

“Thank you,” I say. “I’m sure we’ll enjoy those later.”

His head bobs in acknowledgement.

“We’re ready for you now,” he says, and gestures toward Town Hall. “Come.”

“You must be joking,” Michaela stage-whispers as we take our seats on a small platform at the rear of a large, dimly lit room. Gathered before us is a multitude of Kirins. There are old Kirins and young Kirins, male Kirins and female Kirins, bald Kirins and slightly less bald Kirins—but every one of them is just a minor variation on the overriding theme.

“As we noted,” I say, “low population has clearly led to a limited gene pool.”

Michaela’s face twists into a scowl.

“Doran, please. You’re embarrassing yourself.”

She’s right, of course. This isn’t an extended family. This isn’t even an inbred family. The people in front of me could not plausibly have been the result of any sort of genetic mixing whatsoever.

Michaela leans toward me to say something more, but before she can, Kirin—our original Kirin, I assume—steps up onto the platform beside us, and turns to face his doppelgängers.

“Friends,” he says. “First, let me thank you for taking time out of your busy days to come here this morning. I know you all must have had many important things to do.” Michaela groans audibly at this. Kirin gives her a worried glance over one shoulder, then goes on. “We have with us today two representatives of the Union. They have come here, after an absence of over fifteen hundred standard years, to ensure that we are still a part of the human family. I have tried to assure them that this is so, but apparently some doubts remain.” He turns to face us now. “Is that correct, friend Michaela?”

Michaela folds her arms across her chest and stares back at him.

“Yes, friend Kirin. That is a fair assessment.”

“Yes,” Kirin says. “Yes, well. As you can see, we have gathered together as many members of our little community as could be found on short notice…”

“Stop,” Michaela says. “Please. I’ve had quite enough of this farce, thank you.”

“But…” He turns to look at me. I find myself unable to meet his eyes. “Friend Doran, can you not intervene?”

I look to Michaela, but her eyes are locked on Kirin. Her jaw is set, and her mouth is compressed into a thin, hard line.

There will be no happy ending here.

“I am sorry,” I say—and I truly am, both for these people, and for myself. “It seems unlikely… It seems…”

“What are you?” Michaela asks. “The details matter little, of course, but I am curious.”

Kirin hesitates. The crowd on the floor behind him stands silent and motionless. He glances back at them, then squares his shoulders, draws himself up, and turns to face Michaela fully.

“We are humans,” he says. “We are children of Earth.”

“You are not,” Michaela says. “Setting aside the fact that every creature in this building other than Doran and myself is obviously either a clone or a manufactured thing, a rudimentary analysis of this planet’s biology makes it clear that humans could not survive in this place as it is.”

Kirin looks back and forth between us.

“If this is so,” he says. “If this is so, then how can we be blamed if we are not precisely human? Should our ancestors have simply come to this place and died?”

“Your ancestors,” Michaela says, “should have changed this place to suit them. This is Union doctrine. Our worlds are decades between them. Uniformity and compliance are the only things that bind us together. Without them, the children of Earth will forget their mother, and it will be as if she had never been. You should know this, friend Kirin.”

Kirin opens his mouth, then lets it fall closed again without speaking. His shoulders slump, and his eyes drift down to the floor between us.

“Our ancestors came to this place,” he says softly, “and found a world whose chemistry was poison to them.” He looks up, and his voice strengthens. “As important, their chemistry was poison to it. This was not an empty rock to be terraformed. This world was alive. There were swimming things in the sea, and crawling things in the sands, and flying things in the air. If my ancestors had done as you suggest, all of those things would have died.”

“Those things are not children of Earth,” Michaela says. “No more than you are.” She rises to her feet. “This interview is over, I think. I will return to my ship now, and I will prepare a report on my findings here.” She glances around the room. “Don’t worry. You should have several decades at least to put your affairs in order before the terraformers arrive.”

“How can we convince you to reconsider?” Kirin asks.

“You cannot,” I say softly. “Michaela is a true believer in Union doctrine. She will not bend.”

“This is true,” Michaela says. “It has become increasingly apparent to me, however, that you, Doran, are not. You hid this place from me deliberately. If we had come here sooner, there might have been some possibility of salvage, but as it stands…”

“As it stands,” I say, “Kirin’s people, whatever they are, have lived in harmony with this world’s native life for fifteen hundred years.”

Michaela’s face colors, and the expression it takes on is a perfect admixture of anger and disgust. She stares at me silently for what seems a long while, then turns and stalks to the edge of the stage.

“You won’t be returning with me, Doran.” She steps down to the floor, then turns back to look at me. “Given your past actions, it seems clear that even without this, even without what you just…” She shakes her head. “You would not survive a hearing on this matter. Given that, the least you can do for these… people… is to stay here and die with them.”

She hesitates, as if waiting for my response. When it becomes clear that I have none, she turns away and walks briskly into the crowd. They part before her, then close up behind, and follow her to the door and out. Kirin stands staring at the floor for a long moment, then heaves a sigh and looks up at me.

“Come,” he says, and gives me a sad half-smile. “We should see friend Michaela off.”

“A storm is coming,” Kirin says as we step out into the square. I follow his gaze past our lander, past the ring of huts and the overhanging trees, past the delta and out over the shallow sea. Just over the horizon black clouds boil and writhe, tendrils reaching out toward us like a kraken’s tentacles. My stomach knots, and I have to fight back a sudden urge to run after Michaela as she climbs the two steps up to the lander’s open door. She steps into the airlock. The basket of pastries flies out behind her, and the outer door swings closed.

“How long?” I ask.

Kirin looks up at me.

“Until what, friend Doran?”

I gesture toward the storm, now blotting out almost half of the bloated red sun. He nods.

“Not long. These storms move quickly.”

I can see that. The leading tendrils are nearly over us now.

“You have shelters? Something underground?”

He gives me that sad half-smile again. The lander’s gravitic drive engages with a low hum, a sensation felt more than heard. A moment later, Michaela lifts slowly, straight up above the square. At fifty meters or so, the main thrusters engage and she begins to accelerate.

“I am sorry for this, friend Doran,” Kirin says. “I truly am.”

I’ve just opened my mouth to reply, to say that my stranding is not his fault, that I knew the risks I took in undermining our mission and that these events have been entirely beyond his control, when a beam of actinic light leaps up from below the southern horizon and spears the lander, pinions it there in the sky for a long moment, then blinks out as the lander—as Michaela—erupts into an expanding ball of plasma.

For the first time in many years, I am speechless.

The remains of the lander are still descending in a half-dozen smoking arcs when the beam reaches up again, straight up this time, and an instant later a new star appears in the rapidly dimming sky.

“My ship,” I say.

“Yes,” Kirin says. “I’m sure you understand the necessity.”

Unifiers do not travel in warships, but all Union starships are built to withstand any conceivable assault.

“Your people build well,” Kirin says.

A second beam lances up to join the first, then a third, and a fourth. The star becomes, briefly, a sun, and after that a slowly expanding wound in the sky.

“Not,” I say, then have to pause to moisten my bone-dry mouth. “Not well enough, it seems.”

“No,” Kirin says. “Not well enough.”

“You are not human.”

“We are not biological,” Kirin says. “Given the chemistry of this world, we could not be. When the Union dropped us here, we considered our options. As friend Michaela said, nothing the Union would sanction could survive here. Doctrine stated that we must wipe this place clean, that we must make it over into yet another Earth—but faced with the decision, faced with genocide, we found that we… were not true believers.” He shrugs. “So, we made ourselves into something different.” He holds up one hand. The skin shimmers and breaks apart into fractal patterns, showing muscle and then bone beneath before closing up again. “This village, these bodies… they were our poor attempt to forestall another Union colonization effort without resorting to violence. We were not particularly hopeful that this farce, as friend Michaela called it, would convince you to leave us in peace, but in our defense, we had limited warning of your arrival. If another survey comes, we will try to do better.”

“Nanites,” I say. “You are… all of you…”

“We are dust on the wind,” he says, and smiles. “We chose to become so rather than to destroy what we found here—but we are still children of Earth, friend Doran. Despite your judgement, we are still human.”

A sudden gust nearly takes me off my feet, but Kirin stands unmoved.

“These huts,” I say. “They won’t survive this storm, will they?”

“No,” Kirin says. “They will not. Again, friend Doran… I am sorry.”

And with that, Kirin dissolves before me, the building storm carrying him away in bits and pieces until nothing remains. I straighten and turn a slow circle as the first fat drops of rain slam into the dust of the square.

I am entirely alone.

The wind strengthens, and I am driven to my knees. A mix of rain and dust and gravel rattles against my back like a spray of bullets. I look up through slitted eyes as the roof of the Town Hall lifts up, then breaks into a dozen pieces and flies away. Most of a hut, nearly intact, slides past me, accelerating slowly until it slams into another on the opposite side of the square.

It seems I won’t need to worry about prion disease.

I close my eyes as the rain begins in earnest, digging my fingers into the dissolving earth as the wind pulls at me until finally it’s torn away and I’m flying, mouth open in a soundless scream. Lightning flashes, painfully bright even through my clenched eyelids, and in the same instant thunder rolls, reaching its fingers deep into my chest, loud as the end of the world.

Your thoughts?