Chapter One

I was back at my home, the Neylan, briefly, just to get a few things I wanted to have with me in Skyville. The screen in the wall lit up in the darkness and chimed at me, and I made an answering gesture.

“Charlie! How are you doing, buddy?” Chalu’s warm manner shone right through the screen. Even though he was down on Earth, untold light years from here, you probably could have seen him beaming with the naked eye. Chalu always seemed to glow with an unquenchable joy. The hair helped. Chalu sported multicolored strands of long hair, sometimes down to his waist, braided in parts, and always in a wide mix of colors.

“Hey Chalu. I’m well, just on my way back to Skyville for a while. You seem pretty excited for a guy who spends all his time underwater.”

There was a pause. Communications over qradio had improved a lot but still wasn’t quite real-time. The image froze and jittered a bit. It took a little patience still, but you could pretend to have a conversation. Sort of. A dozen seconds, maybe more, slipped by.

“I am excited. Denisova has grown so quickly, we’ve added so much to the station. It’s more like a small city now. And we’ve really improved the whole docking/surface vessel thing. You really should come visit us. Bring Alain! Ahdom’s been asking after him.”

Ahdom was Chalu’s son. Looked just like him, for the most part, with very similar features and the same burnished brown skin, although Ahdom kept his hair jet black instead of colorful. He and Alain had grown to be friends over the last few years.

Chalu really wanted to get us to visit Denisova. That’s what they called the new underwater base on Earth, located in the middle of one of their very large oceans.

It had started as a small research station, built just after our very first visit. But within a few years, it was clear this was an excellent way to visit Earth and avoid any interaction with the natives, our descendants. Arty, our collective AI, approved and considered it perfectly safe for us to visit Denisova.

But the Earth natives—and the Earth itself—were now over 100,000 years ahead of when we’d left, which had only been a couple of generations for us. Strange place, this universe of ours. All evidence of our civilization on Earth was gone; most of it we’d scavenged in our hasty flight from the planet, the rest eroded into dust from time and nature. It wasn’t our planet anymore.

A lot of folks seemed to think it was nice to visit, though. There were minimum physical requirements, of course, so not everyone was automatically allowed to go. Arty had to approve.

For me, the thought of going back to Earth, and then staying underwater, was truly claustrophobic. I barely survived that first historic trip. Chalu was a good friend, and we stayed in touch even through his lengthy sojourns to Denisova, but I felt that was his adventure, not mine. Speaking of adventures…

“You still there?” Chalu asked.

“Oh, sorry. Mind wandered a bit. Yeah, I haven’t see Alain in a good long while now. He’s still out on his Walk.”

“Still?” Chalu’s brow furrowed, his head tilted forward, and a few of the multicolored strands of long hair hung into his face. “I thought he was done with all that by now.”

“Nope,” I said with some resignation. “He’s still out there. Still looking. How’s your family?”

“Doing well. Sundara is almost old enough to join us; she and my wife are planning on coming down full time next season.”

“And Ahdom?”

“My son takes after his father too much, I think.” Chalu laughed lightly. “He wants to explore the whole of the planet, pole to pole and everything in between.”

“Hah, he’s welcome to it.”

Chalu nodded to someone off-screen. “Be right there. Hey, I’ve got to run. But really, I think you and your lady friend should come on down and visit. It’s safe; we’ve had no problems here. Nothing like your first visit to Earth!”

“There’s still the joy of being sucked through the resonance wave,” I commented dryly.

Chalu winced, slightly. “Yes, well, there is still that. But such a small price to pay.” His eternal joy bubbled back up quickly, an irrepressible fountain. “Okay, we’ll see you soon one way or another.”

The screen went dark, matching the rest of the lighting on the Neylan. Had I always kept it so dark here, in the home I grew up in? Skyville seemed so much brighter, so much more open. Granted, it was a big dome instead of a just this small little ship house. But still.

I got up, ambling through the darkened passageway and into the living area. Waved my hand along the wall, a chairform popped out and I slumped into it.

So much had changed.

Maybe it was brighter in the house when Alain still lived here. Ah, probably not. He seemed to always have his head stuck in a game or vr of some sort. Well, not anymore, I guess. Now he’s out and about, who knows where. He pinged me every once in a while, let me know where he was and what he was up to. But not often enough, not for me. And here I was, sitting alone in the dark. Waiting for the ghosts of my past, my wife, my life…

I got up in one quick move, quick enough to leave my glum thoughts behind. Enough of this. I had plans to have dinner with my good friends Ronny and Janel, spend the night here, then set off for Skyville again in the morning. Better to be with Ronny than mope around in this empty shell of a former life.

I pulled on a fresh coverall, tossing the old one into the reclaimer, palmed open the hatch and was back into the corridors once again.

Another one of those endless, mostly featureless corridors of the sort that connected all of the original ships together into the Conglommora. Blue and amber lights, and not much else. All these corridors connected our ships, our houses. Ronny and Janel’s place wasn’t far.

I caught myself going around a junction as the gravity field shifted slightly. Midway up a narrow corridor before it met with a broad, circular tube—this was one of the spots where Eddie used to hang out. Crazy. I always thought he was just plain crazy. Ranting, incoherent. But not wrong as it turned out. Eddie had discovered the first readings of a recovered Earth. The Earth that killed him and the others on that first landing.

Guess I hadn’t completely left my gloomy thoughts behind at the Neylan. The narrow, skinny corridor joined up with a larger, circular tube at the junction, lit in the familiar muted colors of amber and blue from the service lighting. I walked on to the last narrow corridor at the next junction and had arrived. I took a deep breath, determined to leave my shadows behind.

The hatch slid open and Janel Q’tel swept me into their house grandly. “Welcome, Charlie! Oh, man, we haven’t seen you in… well, I don’t know how long. Too long, for sure. Come on in.” That last bit was redundant, as she had maneuvered me halfway into their front room and sealed the hatch by now.

“Hey, Charlie!” Ronny Sullivan called out from the back. “Be right with you. You all sit and make yourselves some drinks.”

We did, and I once again had the opportunity to ask Janel what she was up to. Usually, Janel’s research and passion was focused on Dead Earth. Or rather, what led up to it. Geopolitics, psychology, history, anthropology, that sort of thing. It was good someone around here knew our history so well, I suppose.

Glad it didn’t have to be me.

Janel and Ronny seemed like complete opposites in every respect, starting with their exteriors. Janel was tall and lanky; both her skin and hair were jet black, just like the void itself. Ronny was short, stout, with pearly luminescent white skin. But they were nearly just as opposite on the inside as well; Ronny, frank and even abrasive; Janel, well-studied and thoughtful.

“So, what’s new in the annals of Dead Earth?” I asked, after clinking our glasses of sweet-brewed algae in welcoming celebration.

“Dead Earth?” Janel looked askance. “Not so dead as we thought, apparently. I’ve been looking into that more and more lately, and it just doesn’t make any sense.” She fanned her hands out in a gesture of frustration. “Green and fertile again, no sign of pollution, radiation… no sign of us. No sign of our civilization at all. Nothing Arty can detect. There’s no way Earth could have recovered so completely, not even in 100,000 years.” She leaned back in her chairform. “But here we are.”

“Huh,” I responded with my usual eloquence. “Well, maybe it was actually longer than that. Maybe things decay faster than we think. Maybe a meteor did hit the planet and wiped everything clean!” I grinned. Janel punched my arm and rolled her eyes at the same time, preparing for a retort.

Ronny came in just then, bearing a mouth-watering tray of appetizers of all kinds. Bright primary colors, geometric shapes; it smelled wonderful even if I had literally no idea what it was.

“It’s called plenare,” Ronny said. “The folks in the outer arc are most fond of it.”

I tried a bite and found it had a wonderful texture—crispy and salty on the outside, light and creamy in the middle, with a tang I couldn’t quite identify.

“What’s it made—?” I started.

Ronny waved his hands and grabbed a couple more for his plate.

“Shhhh. Don’t ask. Nothing harmful.”

I had my doubts, but it was really good. I took another one of the bright, electric blue ones and let it evaporate in my mouth before continuing the conversation.

“So everything on Earth is gone. Well, to be fair, we lost so many records of ancient civilizations—and even more modern ones”

“The Erasures,” Janel added.

“That. It wasn’t just people, right? Whole fields of knowledge were destroyed? Artifacts as well?”

Janel sighed and hesitated, a plenare in her hand. “At first, it was the usual. Politicians would have an opponent assassinated and all records of the victim erased. Then they started in on the scientific records—climate research, even animal and environmental research. We lost the names of whole species, even entire ancient civilizations. Their ruins were destroyed, their names erased. All by the fearful, the superstitious. We don’t even know how much was lost by the Erasures. Maybe it doesn’t really matter. It’s all gone anyway.”

“Think of it as a fresh start,” I said, trying to lighten the mood a little. Janel could be a little grim at times. I only got a glare for my troubles. Well, might as well really stir things up.

“Any plans to go down to Earth and see for yourselves? Check it out again? Visit Denisova? Chalu keeps after me to come visit,” I said.

Janel shot Ronny a look. Their first camping trip to Earth back in the day ended badly, and Ronny had to regrow his arm when they got back. Still a sore point, so I tried to bring it up every so often. Just for fun.

Ronny took a swig of the algae ferment. “No, no plans. I think I’ve had my fill. Janel talks about it sometimes. Try and get more data on Earth’s recovery, find out the real story. But nothing serious.”

Janel was put out. “How do you know I’m not serious?”

Ronny looked sideways at her. “Because as I remember it, you said you’d kill me with your bare hands if I ever made you go to Earth again.”

“Doesn’t count if it’s my idea,” Janel proclaimed and popped some more plenare in her mouth.

“Ah,” Ronny acknowledged with a smirk, wisely not continuing the conversation.

Janel brought out the main courses later, and we chatted and ate through the night, like old friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while. Which happened to be exactly the case. The hour grew late.

“What’s wrong with recolonizing Earth?” Ronny was asking. “Get rid of the damn bears and lions, poisonous snakes and deadly viruses. We could do it, at least for a region at a time. Remake the world to suit us.”

“Terraforming isn’t that easy,” Janel countered. “It’s been tried. Remember your grandfather’s story about the near-belt asteroid colonies?”

“Well, that was just plain damn stupid,” Ronny retorted. “They didn’t have nearly enough natural resources, no Arty to keep the minerals and nutrients in balance… nothing. I could have told them they were all going to die.” He drained his glass and got up for yet another.

“Okay,” Janel played along. “Suppose we get all the tech right, manage to figure out to re-engineer an entire, planet-sized biosphere with all its quirks and subtle nuances. Suppose we get all that perfectly right and remake the planet in our own image. What about the humans who already live there? What about the animals in the food chain who depend on the ‘pests’ you want to eliminate? What happens to all of that?” Janel asked, with more than a hint of agitation and accusation on her breath. And a fair bit of fermented algae, too.

Ronny sighed. They’d had this conversation before, of course, and despite his hopes, it always ended up the same way. Our large-scale presence wouldn’t be fair to the humans on Earth now. Our children. Perhaps cousins, some said. Either way, the Earthans were our kin. And considering how few of us there were in the whole of the cosmos, “don’t screw up the humans” was a compelling argument all by itself.

“Besides.” Janel drained her glass as well. “Arty wouldn’t let you, even if you wanted to.”

Ronny pursed his lips. “But Arty let Lucille go down and teach those poor natives God knows what.”

The room shrunk a little. Maybe a chill came over us. Over me, certainly. I tried not to dwell on those events, on how I lost Grace, the only love of my life after my wife died, on how Grace somehow became Lucille.

Janel shook her head. “Yes, it did allow that. Arty still thinks it’s a reasonable idea to have small teams go down and help the Earthans along. And who knows, maybe it’s right. I don’t trust Lucille. I know you don’t trust Lucille,” she said, flailing an arm at me. “But Arty runs on quantum logic, not stupid human fears.”

Ronny harrumphed. “True enough, I suppose. But fear is a good thing. Keeps us safe. Arty doesn’t know fear from waking up in the morning. Not in its programming. It doesn’t know to be afraid of Lucille.”

In the ensuing silence, he got up, swooshed open a panel in the wall, and retrieved an ornate, decorative bottle, covered in a delicate filigree of silver and shiny gems. The good stuff. He poured a round for us.

“It’s not worried about Lucille,” he continued. “I’m just saying maybe it should be.”

I did not disagree.

Chapter Two

So. Many. People. The hatch closed behind Alain, and he scanned as much as he could, as quickly as he could, as far as his eyes could see.

Edge to edge, he couldn’t even see the floor of the dome, and really not even the walls. Just a sea of people, a giant ocean with waves of humanity of all different colors, heights, and speeds as they flowed their way around. Clothing of dark red, fluorescent green, and watery blue. Skin of shining silver, gold, pink, brown, alabaster white, and iridescent black. And that was just the batch immediately in front of him, elbow to elbow with almost no space in between at all.

Maybe this was a mistake. There’s no way I can even get through here. He struggled against the crowd, but only made it a short way inside the dome before the tide pushed him back toward the hatch he’d entered from. He tried again in a slightly different direction but wasn’t making much headway.

“Welcome to the Hive! What’s your name?” shouted the girl with silver skin and matching hair.

“Alain.” He tried for as much volume as he could without actually screaming.

“What?” The girl was trying to make conversation, but it was so loud in the dome. Filled with loud, happy people, going about their daily lives. Trading, cooking, eating, telling stories, all trying to be heard over each other. Hard to hear anything other than the dull, continuous, roar of the crowd.

And the smells! A whole section looked like food shacks, or carts, or both, cooking a vast, mind-numbing variety of offerings. Mostly magnetic cooking, but it smelled like there were some real open fires as well.

“What’s your name?” she belted out again while still smiling.

“Alain Neylan,” he repeated, as she turned her ear closer to his head.

She noticed the piece attached to his right ear. “You an imager?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Alain smiled. “I’ve been all over Conglommora taking images and talking to folks. So much to see.” He drew a long breath and looked up at the silver dome—same color as the girl—and back down at the immense sea of people ahead of him.

“But I’ve never seen a crowd like this,” he admitted. “I was hoping to find a place to stay tonight, but I’m not sure I can even get through this crowd.”

“Oh, this?” she said dismissively. “This is nothing. You should see it really packed on the local holidays. I’m Essi.” She grinned, wider now. “I’ve got room. My place is just over there.” She gestured vaguely toward the middle of the dome.

“There’s a trick to navigating crowds like this. It’s just a like a river back on Green Earth. Here, follow me.” And with that, she darted farther into the crowd. Alain was startled but dove in after her.

Sure enough, there was a flow of people within the thick of the crowd. Several flows, in fact, rushing and conjoining, losing and gaining members. Essi had a knack for finding the rivers, the eddies, backwashes; the current and flow of the crowd. Alain had a time keeping up, bumping into quite a few people with less grace than he had hoped. They didn’t seem to mind or even notice.

Finally, they were swept out of the main crush and up against the hatch of a modest house. Essi palmed the wall and they entered. The sudden seal of the hatch behind them felt like earplugs; the sudden quiet was like a silver blanket, warm, enveloping, comforting.

“Wow.” Alain waited a moment before breaking the stillness. “You weren’t kidding. River of people, all right.”

Essi shook her head, as if to clear it, and Alain noted her long, flowing hair. She motioned for a chairform, and Alain did as well, sitting next to her.

“That’s really a great metaphor,” Alain continued, then paused a space. “I… I don’t usually tell people this, but I’ve seen a real river, once, back on Earth. Teeming with life, just like the river of people here in Hive.”

“You’ve been?” Essi startled, her eyes widened. “I haven’t met anyone who’s been down yet.”

“I was lucky… I guess.” Alain smiled. “I was on the very first ship down with my Dad, Charlie Neylan.”

“Neylan. Alain Neylan,” she echoed, then chuckled. “Well, I’ve got a genuine celebrity here for the night! And here I thought you were just another handsome wanderer.”

Alain may have blushed, may have simply stood up too quickly as he started to pace.

“Oh, I don’t know about that whole celebrity business, but thanks for the lodging. I was hoping to stay at Hive for a couple of days, is that okay?”

Essi got up from her chair as well. “Sure… plenty of room here. You can stay as long as you like.” She smiled warmly.

“I don’t really have any Raw to trade or anything,” Alain admitted. “Well, I mean, I did, but then there was that incident back at the Chance Dome and…”

“Not a problem at all,” Essi said, undimmed. “You will be required to tell me that story, however. And all the others. Tell me about Earth! Your trip there and back, tell me what you’ve seen of Conglommora, tell me…” She paused for breath, having suddenly run out. “Tell me all of it.”

“All?” Alain raised an eyebrow. “Okay, I suppose. Seems a fair trade. But that’s a lot of work on an empty stomach. Perhaps we should cook up some dinner first?” He nodded hopefully back toward the galley.

Now it was Essi’s turn to look surprised. “What, cook ourselves? Huh. I suppose some folks do that. Not here, though. Come on,” she grabbed his arm, “I’ll show you how to get a proper dinner here in Hive.”

She propelled him out the hatch and into the river of humanity once again, tacking against the current of bodies toward a row of free-standing cooking carts. The most incredible smells wafted past them, richer now and more focused.

Alain thought he might learn to like Hive after all.

They stood together past the third cart, nibbling on some sort of very spicy food on a stick, cooked over a real open fire with its own oxygen feed. Alain had no idea what it was, but ate gratefully.

“This is fantastic. What is it?” Alain mumbled between mouthfuls.

Essi shrugged. “Food.”

He swallowed. “Could you be a little more specific?”

“Oh, I don’t know what they call it. I think these folks make up new names every day anyway. That old lady over there…” She pointed, “I swear I’ve never gotten the same thing twice from her. And this guy,” she gestured at the most recent stall featuring a very large gentleman with an equally large and bushy mustache, “I get these same things here almost every day, and he still won’t tell me what they are. The names don’t matter. You learn to get what you like from who you like. And where to get surprises if you want that, too!”

Alain captured a bunch of images of the stalls, of the unending crowd, of Essi.

“I don’t think I’ve ever tasted these particular spices before,” he said as they headed for a row of dessert offerings.

“As I hear it, the recipes are all closely-guarded family secrets. Most using descendants of original spice plants rescued from Dead Earth itself. But that’s just talk—you’ve actually been!” Essi exclaimed. “Come on, let’s grab something cold and sweet and head back to my place, so you can tell me all about it.”

“Wow. Just wow.” Essi was sitting in her living area, leaning forward, her head in her hands, her legs at an awkward, outward angle, completely enthralled at Alain’s tale. They were each sipping a sweet, glowing blue concoction. “What were you thinking when the ship exploded and you were stranded? I would have pissed myself, I think. At least.”

“Hah, I’m not sure I didn’t.” Alain sat back in his chairform, looking rueful. “That was pretty damn terrifying. Stuck in that little lander craft, the ship we came in blown to bits.” He shook his head. “But you know, once we landed back on Earth and started gathering supplies, I felt better about the whole thing. I mean, it was a huge, devastating shock at first, of course. All of it. Those first couple of folks on our crew who died on our first landing, that crazy guy Robert blowing up in the ship, and there we were, all alone, in orbit, no food, no water… nothing. But once we started doing something, I felt better. I thought we might really make it after all. My dad was great through the whole thing, too, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think any of us would have made it back without him.”

Essi finished off her dessert drink, leaning back in her chairform. “Incredible. A real, genuine adventure. Arty showed me the summary points back when all that happened, but I really had no idea what you’d been through. And here you are now, wandering all of Conglommora? I would have thought that was enough adventure to last a lifetime!” She laughed.

“Maybe it should have been.” Alain pursed his lips, rolling his hands around his drink. “But I’ve had some pretty wild times in the darker corners out here, too. Nothing quite as dramatic,” he added hastily at her worried look. “But I’ve been threatened, been in trouble, nearly gotten killed a couple of times—mostly accidents.”

“Then why do you keep doing it?”

“Hmm.” A short puff of a smile, and Alain looked down at his now-empty dessert cup, wistfully. “Why, indeed. A couple of reasons, I guess. I’m looking for something. I’ll know it when I find it. And I’m looking for someone. A girl.”

“Well, maybe you’ve found someone,” Essi said, leaning in closer and tilting her head to one side, eyes bright and hair flowing.

“Oh!” Alain exclaimed, a little slow on the uptake. “I mean, I’m sort of looking for someone for my father.”

Essi raised an eyebrow and moved back. “That’s a little weird, don’t you think?”

“No, no, not like that,” Alain laughed gently. “It’s… complicated. Family matters, I guess you could say. Here, here’s a picture. Have you seen her?” He held up his shiny and made a few motions until the image came up.

Essi peered over at it.

“Ah. No, can’t say I’ve ever seen her. But I don’t wander too far from The Hive, so that’s not saying much. But, maybe I’m someone you’re looking for, too?” Essi said hopefully.

“Just might be.” Alain moved closer to her, leaned in, and kissed her gently.

Essi awoke the next morning, same as any other day. But not exactly the same. She smiled, eyes still closed, vividly remembering Alain the night before. She rolled over to wake him, but he wasn’t there. Must be up already.

She slid out of the bedform, still naked, and groggily wandered into the galley. It was dark. No Alain here. Now she was more wide awake and darted to the front of her house. Nothing. His pack was gone.

He was gone.

Damn. She slumped a little in the hatchway. He had seemed so nice. But those wandering types, they did like to wonder. Well, there goes plans for today.

Essi meandered back to the bedroom and pulled on a simple coverall, the standard utilitarian clothing popular throughout Conglommora. It was snug, optimized for her particular body type and weight at the moment. On a whim, she asked aloud, “Arty, where is Alain?”

Arty’s voice came from the nearest speaker, “Alain Neylan is no longer in The Hive.”

At least he’s making good time. One other thing to do before she forgot. Essi pulled the shiny out of her pocket, stiffened it, and searched through the contacts. There was no name on this entry, just a stylized icon of a heart. She pinged the contact. A woman with dark golden hair and uncommonly deep, dark green eyes answered.

“Faith?” Essi asked.

A slight eye roll. “I’ve asked you not to call me that. Or call me, for that matter. What’s up?”

“Some guy was through here yesterday, asking about you. Looking for you.”

Faith frowned slightly. “What guy? What was his name?”

“Alain Neylan. He and his dad were on that first mission to Earth—”

“Yeah, I got that,” Faith interrupted. “What did you tell him?”

“Nothing,” Essi answered. “There is nothing to tell.”

“Thanks for letting me know.” Faith terminated the connection, and Essi’s screen went dark.

She stuffed the shiny into a pocket on her coveralls and strode purposefully back to the front of her house, palmed open the hatch, and silently rejoined the massed throng of humanity in the great expanse of The Hive.

Chapter Three

After I left Ronny and Janel’s, I headed back to Skyville. Where Ronny’s place was more or less in my old neighborhood, near the Neylan, Skyville was a considerable distance.

On my first few trips, I walked and contorted myself through the several day’s worth of corridors, connectors, and hatches. I figured a gravsled would have been more trouble than it was worth, having to stop and constantly recalibrate it every time the gravity field shifted—which was often. But the constant long walks were a little more than I could take, so I started using the gravsled anyway. I got better at the whole quick-recalibrate thing, and it wasn’t so bad once you got the knack of it.

I was on approach up the last, long, lonely corridor to Skyville, gliding pretty damn fast up the straightaway. Not as fast as a hyperloop car, but maybe a little faster than I should have. I backed off as I approached the hatch, entered, and headed for the house.

The gravsled ramped its field down, gently settling onto the lush green lawn in the middle of the massive Skyville dome. I took my packages off, and the sled slid up and nestled into the niche right next to the hatch. I went inside.

The house was dark at the moment. But not dark like the Neylan had been. That was a dark of energies spent, of a light lost to the past. This was warmer, more comforting. A temporary dark of resting, only. Light was on the way—she’d be back shortly.

I leaned into the hatchway, looked out at the broad expanse of the Skyville dome, with its azure blue ceiling. Kind of like the sky on Earth. Close enough for everyone here, I guess. I was one of the few who’d actually seen the color of the sky on Earth. Not just the color, but the breadth, depth, and richness of it all. The sky here was none of that, but it was still very pleasant.

As far as I’d seen, Skyville was pretty unique in Conglommora. Sure, there were plenty of other large domes, dedicated to different aspects of life as our grandparents and great-grandparents found it back on Green Earth. And other biospheres had large animals, too. But Skyville was a little different, because the people lived and worked right alongside the beasts. All together, sharing an endless grassy field under an Earth-like, bright blue sky.

To me, that pretty much summed up Skyville. Kind of like Earth. But not as deadly. Large, peaceful animals going about their business. Folks doing the same. Peace, quiet—but not isolated and lonely. I enjoyed what I thought was the peace and quiet living on the Neylan, but in hindsight, I was just disconnected. I withdrew from what friends I had after my wife Haily died and hadn’t noticed how cut off I’d become. It wasn’t until Arty asked me to spy, and my son Alain and I had that whole adventure through the resonance wave back to Earth, that I really began to appreciate life again. Had to see the dark to appreciate the light, I guess. Like one of those poems I never appreciated as a youth. Some of those you just have to get older to finally understand. You have to live the light, live the dark to appreciate the subtle nuances of real life. And the light on Earth was so much more dazzling than this pale simulacrum. That was real light.

So, at some point, I realized that the dark and quiet of the Neylan, which I had cherished for so long, wasn’t healthy. Especially after Alain had left.

But here in Skyville, walking and working side by side with good friends under a bright blue sky, I found peace and quiet, done properly. This was where I belonged now.

Alain had asked me to go with him a few times, but wandering all of Conglommora on a Walk was a young man’s game. Or at least, someone else’s game. Not mine. I’d had my share of adventure. Alain was welcome to dig for whatever excitement he could find out here. I did worry about him, though. He’d gotten in a couple tight spots and scrapes already, especially when he first set out. Nothing too bad—Arty was always there to protect against any serious problem, if it could. But still. A parent’s worry never ends.

I hadn’t heard from him for a while now. What wonders was he exploring today? The joy of surreal fabrication in the Mech Section, wonders of the deep in Sea? Outside of Skyville, those were my favorites. Probably not his. He was probably off with some other wild young people doing who knows what. I guessed I’d hear from him in due course. I always did.

Ah, she was on her way back now. Good timing. Picking her way through the fields of large animals and their droppings. Golden hair flowing behind her, golden skin. Just gold all over. I straightened.

“Charlie! Right on time. I missed you!” We hugged, kissed deeply. I hadn’t been gone that long, but our relationship was still in the early years. The hatch slid open, and we went inside.

Some folks talk about love at first sight, and I think that was definitely the case when I first met Grace. A strange, rare, electrifying experience. Which made losing Grace—her mind, at least—very hard to take. Maybe you only get one “love at first sight” moment in your life. When Haily and I met and married, it was a slower process. Both Haily and I had a firm goal at the time to find a mate, so it was all very conscious and deliberate but hardly instantaneous.

And now, with the latest love of my life, the process was different yet again. This one had taken some time. In fact, I didn’t even like her when we first met. I thought we were far too different, nothing in common. I didn’t find it easy to talk to her at all. Maybe I felt out of my league—she remains incredibly beautiful. One of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen in real life (vr models don’t count). And I’m not, frankly. So, no, we didn’t hit it off on our first meeting.

Or our second.

No connection on our third, fourth, and so on.

But I was spending more and more time in Skyville. I got to know some of Grace’s friends, where she worked and hung out. She didn’t have any family left. Well, there was a sister, Faith, but she’d been on an extended Walk for many, many years now. No one knew where she was or really remembered what she looked look—apparently, she was very shy if you had an imager pointed at her. Didn’t like pictures of herself. By now, she was close to passing into myth, or legend even.

I thought getting closer to Grace’s world would help me feel closer to Grace, to the Grace I knew, but it didn’t. It did make me appreciate Skyville more and more, however. And as I spent more of my time there, I, of course, kept running into Käthe. Which wasn’t fate, or destiny, or even unusual. Käthe was the coordinator for Skyville, which was as close to a leader as anyone had, so, of course, we had dealings with each other frequently. I still found her hard to talk to, hard to get to know.

Until one night.

There had been an issue with contamination in the dairy process. After milk is extracted from the cows, it is lightly processed to remove any harmful bacteria or other dangerous bits. Well, something had gone wrong and a few children got sick as a result. Nothing dangerous, but that sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen—and hadn’t happened in many years.

With some extra hand-scanners and Arty’s help, we were checking all aspects of the dairy. Käthe and I happened to end up in the same place, the back of a storage area of one of the barns, filled with pipes, nanophotonic circuits, and mechanical devices.

“Anything yet?” I asked, somewhat redundantly but trying to make conversation.

Käthe put down her scanner and looked right at me. “No. Absolutely nothing. But I will keep on trying.”

She was still looking at me, not the scanner. Something in the dim of my brain clicked, and I realized that maybe she wasn’t talking about the dairy issue. The rest of my brain, especially the talking part, seemed to go offline and shutdown. I sputtered a little to get it going again, voicing a few nonsense syllables like a useless, damaged life form. A complete do-over. I managed to get a reasonable sentence going, something along the lines of, “You’re not talking about the scanner, are you?”

“No, Charlie, I’m not.” Käthe took my hand. “Charlie, you’re an amazing person. Do you know how many folks I know who’ve led a mission to Earth? One. Who’ve survived exploding ships and treacherous natives? One. Who’s kind, and funny, witty and fun to be around? One.”

My brain exploded at the sudden notion that Käthe wasn’t out of my league, after all. I leaned in and kissed her passionately.

Let’s just say it’s a good thing we had the barn to ourselves that evening.

Even then, it took a while for Käthe and I to get comfortable with each other. She loved Skyville so much; she was really dedicated to sharing the beauty of the animals and nature with everyone. She always felt that the nature of Skyville could heal anyone of anything. Especially me. I think in the beginning she took me on as a project in healing. If she could help me, surely she could help anyone.

And maybe she was right. I was healed. It had taken a while, and she probably wasn’t done even yet. That night had been a long time ago, and here I was still “moving in.”

It may have taken a while, but I felt happy again, and perfectly safe—not like on Earth. Yes, I mused as Käthe was dealing with some late-breaking business on her screen, this was the place for me. I’d live out my years here, no more ridiculous spy missions or planetary expeditions.

I was sure Earth was getting along fine without me.

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