ARCHIVE #10456 LAST RECORDED LOG BEFORE SEPARATION DAY 227, COLONY YEAR 22 LOGGED BY: EVGENIA TYMKIV B. SHIP YEAR 190 D. COLONY YEAR 32 (EST.) ***DIRECTIVE 17 GOVERNMENT USE ONLY*** ***SCHOLARLY ACCESS FORBIDDEN***
The planet looks so beautiful from up here. Bright white, peaceful, the mountains scattered little dots.
And that massive scar, that pit in the middle of the mountain range. Our new home.
My new home. Without Niki.
We should’ve just stolen the munitions in the first place. But we asked for them, knowing they’d refuse, and then they knew we were coming. And Niki…Niki said “It’s my idea. I have to go.”
So now I have to go on without Niki.
Not just Niki, of course. Alex and Tara. Meehra. Tamar. David. They didn’t think those bastards in the city would hurt them. They thought we were all on the same side. I guess we know now, don’t we?
I was meant to drop the power core next week, but there’s snow blowing through from the other side of the planet, and even without a windstorm I’m not sure the engines will give me fine enough control in-atmosphere. I’ve practiced it on the simulator, and I get it into the pit about sixty percent of the time. I get it in undamaged about forty percent of the time, but Connor says we can coat it in more ice if it splits.
Which is just shoving the problem into next year, but Connor’s sure the city will come around, and we’ll move back there and be one big happy family.
After Niki? I don’t want to be their family. I sure as hell won’t break bread with them. Which means I need to get the core down in one piece.
I understand it now, how the Old World destroyed itself. I understand how they could keep killing each other, even knowing they were tearing it all down, destroying the future. Because I would, if I could. I would tear them down. I know we’re the end of it all, the last of everything. I know if we die that’s the end of humanity, any dusty fingerprints we leave behind waiting to be discovered by the next quasi-intelligent species to wander into our stars.
But if I had the chance to take my revenge, I’d do it. Over and over and over again.
I always thought survival mattered to me. Turns out it was only Niki.
Anyway. Arkhangelsk is officially decommissioned, as of now. Random Aliens of the Future: please know that humanity was a horror show and we’re best left undone. For all the gods, even out here on this icy world we can’t keep from killing each other. Let us die. Let us die. Let us die.
Irina and I are running late again.
We should be traveling under the ice for safety, down the main spoke from the Hub to the Eastern Arc of the Inner Rim; instead we’ve climbed to the surface to save time, crossing the courtyard in the sunshine. Despite the bright skies I can feel the wind through my protective suit, and by the time I reach the airlock I’ll be chilled through. But Irina, dressed as always in fleece pants, white knit top, and boots too big for her eight-year-old feet, doesn’t feel the cold.
Irina can never resist unfiltered daylight, and even facing our grim errand she’s half-running, half-dancing, skipping over the intaglio etched into the icy ground. The inlay is changed after every storm and thaw, but the weather’s been clear now for twenty-six sunsets, and so frigid the sparse foot traffic hasn’t yet damaged the design. I’m glad. Sometimes the carvings in the courtyard are abstract, but this time they’re animals: fish and mammals and sinuous reptiles, Irina’s favorites. I like the animals.
There are no animals in Novayarkha.
The etchings grow sparse before we reach the Eastern Arc staircase. Irina leaps over a wise-eyed buffalo, following me down the stairs and waiting as I turn the wheel on the airlock. Her eyes on me are black and huge, but apart from that she doesn’t look like me at all. She has yellow hair and frost-colored skin and a smile that used to keep me warm.
I give the wheel a final tug, and the thunk of the hydraulic release vibrates through the soles of my boots. The door falls open into my hand, sluggish. Like so many things in Novayarkha, it needs to be fixed, but even when we have the materials we never have the time. I pull the door closed behind me, and as I spread my arms and wait for the decontamination cycle to complete, Irina stands on her toes to peer through the exterior window. There’s nothing to see besides the long, shadowed staircase arcing thirty meters up to a sliver of azure sky.
I pull off my protective clothing and enter the decon chamber; when the airlock’s green light appears, I peel the oxygen seal off my nose and mouth and push the inner door release. Lauren’s front door stands directly opposite, across the wide hallway: a prestigious location, with easy access to both the surface and the main passage to the Hub. The house itself is three luxurious rooms wide, lit by the extra-large solar tubes that adorn every Inner Rim residence. For two, it was opulence; now that Lauren’s alone, it’s become nothing more than empty space she has to fill.
Beside me, Irina slips her fingers into mine, and I ring the doorbell.
More than a full minute passes before Lauren answers the intercom. “Who is it?”
She sounds tired, disoriented; for a moment I wonder if I’ve misremembered the time. “It’s Anya Savelova.”
There’s a brief pause before she says “Of course.”
She’s forgotten. Whether that’s a result of the illness or stress, I don’t know, but it’s not typical for anyone in Novayarkha to forget an appointment with the city’s head peace officer.
A moment later the lock clicks free, and I drop Irina’s fingers as the inner door opens.
When I ran into Lauren last week in the Hub kitchens, she looked animated, almost healthy. Now she’s grown small, the deep circles around her albino-translucent eyes muddy gray, and she presses her palm against the doorframe, shifting her weight from foot to foot. The illness takes people at different speeds, but in Lauren the pace is accelerating.
She doesn’t smile when she sees me, but moves stiffly away from the door as I step into the bright front room. The space is over-warm, and I wonder for a moment about the ventilation system, but it’s not the air that’s left the stale taste at the back of my throat.
All around the room, Tamara is everywhere: a bas-relief of her as an infant, her head elongated from her natural birth; charcoal sketches focusing on her nose, her jawbone, her eyebrows; bust after bust showing her features blooming from childhood to elegant young womanhood. Expert work, much of it recent. There’s no other decoration, nothing else beyond the sparse furnishings. Lauren’s always been outgoing, productive, well-loved; she could have every luxury the city offers. Instead, everything is Tamara.
Tamara inherited her mother’s beauty, but inverted: dark and warm-skinned where Lauren is colorless. Lauren’s Selection was a surprise to some, but it stands to reason her rare expression of the variegated legacy of the Old World would be a variant we’d want to preserve. Tamara didn’t get her mother’s pigmentless skin, but she carries her genes.
Carried. She’s a loss, and of late we’ve had too many losses.
Lauren braces one hand against the wall, stepping carefully until she reaches the stone hospitality stove in the corner. The room doesn’t require a stove—the Eastern Arc sits squarely over the ore processing vents—but Lauren spreads her palms above the warm surface, and I catch a tremble in her hands. “I’m sorry, Anya,” she says. “I fell asleep again. It’s…difficult, these days.” She flexes her fingers one last time above the heat, then turns to me. “I need to know if my daughter is dead.”
There’s no other possibility. We don’t lose many in Novayarkha, but the ones whose bodies we never discover are just as gone as those we find frozen in the snow, or broken at the bottom of the quarry. “I checked the security records.” It’s an empty offering, but an expected one. “We haven’t had any breaches.”
Lauren’s response is predictable. ”They’re getting in somehow.”
With every disappearance, the family makes this argument. But the Exiles aren’t subtle. They don’t sneak. Tunnels under the city would require blasting; they could never dig in stealth. They storm our walls out in the open, take only what we don’t fight to keep, and leave again. In all the years I’ve searched for the missing, I’ve never found evidence the Exiles are kidnappers, or even particularly creative thieves.
And yet it’s the story, what people believe. It’s what we tell our children: don’t play outside, or the Exiles will take you. I feel the same dread as anyone when I think of them. They’re our existential enemy, the opposite of us, anarchic and disruptive and selfish.
They didn’t take Tamara. But I understand why Lauren needs to believe they did.
“I’ll check again,” I tell her, even though there’s nothing to check. “You said you have her diary?”
Lauren pushes herself off the wall and shuffles toward the couch. I stand close, in case she needs help, but she doesn’t ask, and I don’t offer. Leaning over she pushes on a panel inset into the stone coffee table; it slides aside noiselessly, revealing an old electronic tablet. I hadn’t known any of them were in private hands anymore.
Lauren hands me the tablet, and I touch the screen. “NO ACCESS” it reads, in low-res lettering, and to myself I curse. Fingerprinted, or maybe even retina-printed. I don’t know enough about the old tech to be able to tell which, but it won’t be easy to get into it. All I say to Lauren is “Thank you.”
She slides the panel back into place and turns back to me, not quite meeting my eyes. “Tamara’s young,” she says. “I remember youth. Whatever she says in there—unless it’s going to help us find out where she is, I don’t need to know.”
Preserving the victim’s innocence: they all do that, too. With all of the vast illogic that goes into being a survivor, this is the part that makes sense to me. They’ll never have more of their loved one than they have in this moment. They’ll cling to an image that was never fully realized, and slowly excise impurity and imperfection until they are left with a sweet-natured, smooth-edged ghost to keep them company.
I could tell Lauren jagged edges are better, that they take longer to blunt and to fade. She wouldn’t believe me.
By the time I disengage from Lauren, I am more than twenty minutes late to the governor’s office, and I must wait until Yulia decides to acknowledge me.
She sits at the desk, her back to the monitors displaying the camera feeds from the surface, and I study the silver-gray top of her head as she writes in her tight, precise hand. The graphite stylus in her fingers is trembling, just a little; I briefly abandon my post to fill up her glass at the utility sink in the corner. Angry with me or not, she’s almost certainly been pushing too hard again.
“Thank you, Anya,” she says when I set the glass down by her hand, but she doesn’t invite me to sit in my customary chair.
Eventually she lays down the stylus and looks up. My guess was right: she’s exhausted, her typically gold-tan skin waxy and almost green, as if she’s bruised all over. She’s smiling, but her tawny eyes, usually full of good humor, betray mild annoyance. “We have talked about this, Officer Savelova.”
I’ve learned to answer no unasked questions when talking with Yulia. “Yes, Governor.”
Her eyebrows creep up. She’s a small woman, her head barely at my shoulder when we’re both standing, but her slim form conveys an authority earned in her thirty years as our city’s leader. “Then perhaps,” she says, “you could explain why you’ve missed half our meeting pursuing something you know will have no satisfactory resolution.”
I swallow my first response. No matter my schedule, I wouldn’t have denied a mother’s plea for help, and after all our years together this is a thing Yulia should know about me.
“Loss isn’t so easy for someone like Lauren,” I say instead.
“It’s not so easy for any of us.” But Yulia’s voice has softened; she knows grief as well as I do. “Your kindness speaks well of you, Anya. But you know we owe too much to the living to spend ourselves on the dead.”
Lecture completed, she sits back. “You may take six sunsets to cater to Lauren’s speculations. No more than that, and all investigation must be on your own time. I will not tolerate further lateness.”
I’ll be expected to repay her generosity in the future, but for now she only gestures, at last, at the chair.
We spend the next half hour going through the block reports. Most of the items are mundane—public arguments, noise complaints, property disputes—but there’s been an increase in vandalism and fighting, the sort that’s often concomitant with sudden death. We’ve never been a people who discuss our losses, and grief suppressed, I’ve found, often comes out sideways. Most of the vandals are Tamara’s friends, but after Yulia’s earlier concession I choose not to point that out.
We’re reviewing the supervised work schedules when a voice comes from beyond the office’s rear door.
“—wouldn’t have thought it’d have such a strong—Oh! Anya.” Doctor Halvorsen catches my eye as the door swings shut behind her. “I’m sorry, I thought you’d be finished by now.”
I check the time—five minutes over. “My apologies. We started late.”
“I’m glad to hear that. I thought I’d forgotten how to read the clock.” She smiles at me, bright and guileless. “I was surprised to miss you at the ceremony earlier.”
Doctor Halvorsen is our oldest citizen, at eighty-three nearly twenty years older than Yulia, and a full thirty years older than me. She’s been present at every birth in Novayarkha, natural or incubated, and for those of us born of incubators, she’s the first parent we know. Her age alone gives her authority, but it’s her status as Mother that keeps me from pointing out to her that I never attend the monthly Remembrance ceremony, and she knows why. “I was attending to other duties,” I tell her, and I almost sound civil.
Her lips thin in anticipation of delivering a rebuke; but Yulia’s on my side this time. “Leave the girl alone, Magda,” she snaps. “Remembrance isn’t mandatory, and I’m not about to make anyone stand in that dark, cramped crypt if they don’t wish to.”
Doctor Halvorsen recovers effortlessly. “Of course not. It’s only that I find it such a comfort, honoring those who’ve come before us.”
I don’t believe she’s being deliberately cruel, but the morning has frayed me, and I get to my feet. “Do you need anything else from me, Governor?”
“Not today, Officer Savelova.” Behind Yulia, Doctor Halvorsen loiters by the big monitors, her face lit by the images of the sun-brightened snow. “Thank you for your time.”
It’s a sound from Doctor Halvorsen that stops me from leaving: a wordless interjection, fear or excitement I can’t tell. She’s staring at the center screen, and she isn’t looking at the expanse of snow-covered ice, or the distant granite mountains. Instead she’s looking into the sky, above where our yellow star sinks toward the horizon. Between Doctor Halvorsen and the screen, Irina stands on her toes, bracing her fingers against the wall and staring along with the old woman.
“There it is again!” Doctor Halvorsen exclaims. “Just like yesterday. I told you, Yulia.”
Slowly, with more effort than Doctor Halvorsen notices, Yulia pushes herself to her feet and joins her friend, studying the pre-sunset sky. After a moment her eyebrows twitch together, and she turns away. “There’s nothing there, Magda,” she says. “There wasn’t anything there yesterday, either. It’s your old eyes, staring at the sun too long.”
“Hmph.” Doctor Halvorsen looks away. “My eyes are better than yours. And my mind obviously a good deal more open.”
“Your mind is a chasm, that is certain.”
Irina drops back on to her heels and returns to my side. I’m always an intruder when Yulia and Doctor Halvorsen begin to bicker, and it’s past time for us to go. I meet Yulia’s eyes briefly, and she nods her dismissal; I don’t bother taking my leave of Doctor Halvorsen. With half an hour left before first dark, I should have time to talk to Tamara’s friends before the quarry shuts down.
The exterior quarry path isn’t carved, but Irina spins and jumps anyway, restless and manic. This is my favorite time of day in Novayarkha, when the sky deepens from azure to violet, and the sun turns bloody orange before sinking below the icy horizon.
Today I can’t think about the sunset at all.
“Irina,” I ask, as we reach the outskirts of the quarry, “did you see something?”
Irina stills, and looks at me with her sober dark eyes. She nods.
”I saw something, too.” And we cross the courtyard in the indigo dusk.
Excerpt copyright ©2022 by Elizabeth H. Bonesteel
Arkhangelsk available worldwide on March 8, 2022.