A child prodigy matures into Lieutenant Ava, who must make a fateful decision about which planet to colonize.

A tirigal wheeled above a vast, long, brown-grey rocky mudflat that separated a gently rolling sea from the waving blue-green grass of a gently rising coastal prairie. It saw Ava at the edge of the mudflat. She cradled a polished blue stone in her palms, peered into it, and then deposited it into her pocket. She stood looking out from the prairie, over the mudflat, and out to sea. Her hair was a white-grey color and too brittle to flow with the wind that rushed off the distant mountains, gusted over the prairie, and swept out to sea, although it tried, whipping around in stray strands, causing the woman to pull it back from her face and wrap it more tightly in its band.

The bird was accustomed to Ava’s ritual, which usually lasted longer than its stomach liked. The bird did not feel comfortable alighting in the shallows to peck up a beak-full of barnacles with the woman standing there. This strange two-legged creature was new, too new, and the bird was wary.

Ava knelt in the mud and gathered a sample of the briny pool. The tide swept in over the plain by night and a broad swath of puddles to evaporate under bright Shamash, and by afternoon, the pools were brine. Ava gathered beakers of mud and water and snapped them firmly into place in her carrying case. Then she stood and walked off to gather other samples elsewhere. The bird, famished, swept down and plunged its webbed feet into the mud.

Ava walked from the mudflats and into the waist-high grass of the prairie. North and South, it stretched as far as the eye could see; to the West, it stretched into the foothills and mountains, the ghost-blue hint of which, on a clear evening, Ava’s failing eyes could just barely discern from the sunset and shale-blue sky.

The bird watched Ava as she let her hands fall to her side and then raised them slightly, brushing them through the grass. She turned towards the mudflats again, set her case of tubes on the ground beside her, and sat down, at the edge of the prairie, her back against the grass and her bare feet in the mud. The bird knew that this ritual would continue until the shadows had outgrown their boundaries and wrestled away daylight’s shell. Then, after some time spent gawking into the bedazzled purple-black sky, Ava would rise, more slowly now by each moon, and make her way to the little shelter from which gleamed the single light on her desolate shore.


She was a deep, blue world, the jewel of Shamash. She took her name from Sumer, and she would one day be the cradle of a new civilization, the likes of which had not been seen. Ava watched the bird peck at the barnacles until it had eaten its fill. She rested her hand atop her case of test-tubes that would help her record the story of Guzagin before humankind. Her twin, Ekur, rose from the sea, above the black horizon.

Ava became a woman in Khanna, a village of salt-pitted scrap metal shacks that clung to the desolate cliffs of the Northeastern Pacific shores. It was an unusually cool morning. Wet sand clung to Ava’s feet, and with each step, her sandals sent salt spray splashing onto her bare legs. She felt the chill of it creep into her body. Her heart was dry and warm under layers of sun-protective shirts, but her legs were left to the cold wind that whipped them dry. Ava was not bothered by the savagery. The sensation of being warm and cold all at once was exhilarating. She felt outside of the discomfort, like an observer.

An oystercatcher soared out from the cliffs.

It saw Ava against the edge of a turbid sea. She walked a narrow path that stretched north and south as far as the bird could see. The path was a thread, and the thread was pinned between the cliffs and vast and roiling waters: tidal pools, shallows, flats, eroding pillars, and boulders. Over the thread, in softly slumbering breaths, a bubbly white foam drew into the grey sea and then surged forth in a soft and distant roar.

From the bird’s great height, Ava appeared to perpetually bend towards the water. She walked stooped over, kneeling here and there to break something from a half-submerged rock, to tug in a line of box traps, to dump something into one of the sacks she lugged around her waist or over her shoulders, always peering downward, her eyes attached to that narrow thread between cliff and sea.

The bird wheeled as Ava, her sacks laden, turned and trudged towards home, retracing her infinitesimally short journey along the thread. It watched her ascend a treacherous staircase hewn into the crumbling sandstone cliff, her back bent under her haul, and disappear into the yellow-flowered grape shrubs and bramble that surrounded a hovel that, by its placement, seemed to stretch the border of the shantytown.

The oystercatcher swept down to the littoral waters to begin its own hunt.

Ava crested the cliffside slopes and almost ran smack into her father. “Ava,” he said, and she looked up from the ground, straightened up, and slung a sack to him. He caught it deftly and smiled.

“Ava, you’re a woman today.”

He said these words if they held power. She wasn’t sure what that power was or why she would need it. The old women of the village had already taken her aside when she could no longer wash the bloodstains from her shorts. After she had answered their questions about the blood, and questions she did not at that time understand about various unattached men of the village, they had told her the same thing. “Ava, you’re a woman,” they had said, and then they told her many things about being a woman.

Her father’s announcement was different. At first it did not seem practical. It seemed more ceremonial in nature.

She followed him to a lean-to where they tossed the sacks into an old, rusty refrigerator, and then followed him into the shanty, where they sat cross-legged on salvaged flotation cushions awash in dirty light streaming through a sagging window, a shipping crate upturned for a table between them, eating sweet, fresh honey dripped over stale bread.

All the while, Ava’s father repeated for her how his father had declared him a man and had recalled for him the words of his own father, and his before him, as far as the stories could be carried by memory.

She listened, but it had been a long dawning of what promised to be a long day, just like the many days before it. She was already tired. She nodded. “Uh-huh.”

Her father reached behind his neck and unfastened the chain she had never seen leave his body. He leaned across the table and fastened it around her neck. “There now.” He sat up straight, looking stern and pleased. “It belonged to my father and to his father and to his grandmother before him. Now it is yours.”

That’s how Ava came by the talisman of womanhood. She nodded to her father and smiled.

“Do you hear that noise?” she asked. There were, of course many noises, and the question was not so specific. The morning winds had not died down, and they wailed off the cliffsides, rustled through the brambles, rattled the sheet-metal walls of their home, and drummed a melody on the bamboo wind chimes at the door. Just outside the far wall, a scurrying sound betrayed a rat that had survived her father’s traps, and faintly, from a great distance, resounded the boom of a hyperjet.

Naturally, her father responded, “What noise?”

Ava felt it was a fair question but rolled her eyes. “Oh,” she said. “The one like a very high whistle.” It was a terrible noise that would require fixing. It had become more noticeable as her father’s dedication of the talisman drew to a close, and now there would be no concentration, no sleep, without fixing it.

“Faintly,” her father said, “but older people don’t hear as well.”

Ava nodded. “Well, then, I’ll find it and fix it.” She finished her lunch in haste.

She found the noise outside, at the lean-to. A power converter for the solar cells had degraded. This was not simply a matter of comfort; their panels and batteries were barely sufficient for their needs. A sound, she had read, required the expenditure of energy. And they certainly did not have enough energy to expend on annoying whistles that old people could barely hear. Fortunately, she had also studied how to repair the component, and she set to work as her father checked his vermin traps.

Ava had read many books—enough to know that when a man anoints his son or daughter, it is time for the man to perish in an accident, go off to war, skip town for better prospects, go back to boozing, or run off with a loose woman. But despite that, nothing of the sort happened. Life just went on, day after back-breaking day.

The only thing that really changed is that she stopped asking for permission. She didn’t say, “Father, may I go to the library.” Instead, she said, “Parag, I am going to the library.” He didn’t act surprised. He just nodded. It was this way with everything. Her father was a quiet man, and when he had spoken, he had finished.

The library was part of the Reclamation Outpost—or rather, had become part of it. One day, a swarm of hyperchoppers alighted, disgorged modules and workers, and jetted off. The workers assembled the modules into a helipad and armory, a laboratory, a small clinic, and some offices. The Outpost was thus the only structure in Khanna that was not built entirely from scrap, although, to be fair, on that day there had been no Khanna. A hyperchopper returned, landed on the pad, and carried the workers back North, leaving behind a doctor, a few scientists, and a small squad of soldiers entrusted with the responsibilities of scaring off wild animals and shooting scavengers.

The Outpost quickly became unrecognizable. It remained quite intact, as it happened that the locals had little interest in cannibalizing the only clinic. But, just as the scattered havens of the wastelands coalesced into a village around this grain of civilization, the institutions that sprouted up were firmly attached to the Outpost, scrap by scrap, until it was indistinguishable from the shantytown, except that the Outpost became an unusually large heap of junk.

One spring day, from the clinic, the heart of that labyrinth, a squall rang out, echoing through those halls, trumpeted into the dusty footpaths, rattling and crinkling the sheet-metal walls of the village, which shook loose the dew, which then fell onto the dust and hardscrabble, causing the fireweed and yarrow to spring up and blossom, pale purple stalks and white clusters, throughout the village. Everyone paused to wonder.

The elderly woman who, from time immemorial, sat daily, by morning, on the porch of her general store, sorting through yesterday’s salvage, looked up and grinned widely at the entryway to the Outpost. “Oh,” she said, lifting her finger to her eyes. In her distraction, she’d pricked it on a jagged edge, and she watched as a bright red bead of blood formed on her fingertip. She sucked on it for a minute, enjoying the taste of her misadventure, and then returned to her morning routine, humming softly a lullaby.

A few days later a man and a woman emerged from the Outpost and stopped at the general store. The old woman smiled. “So, this is Ava. May I hold her?” And, of course, the old woman was permitted to cradle Ava, to rock her gently, and to pronounce all manner of nonsense upon her.

“Grandmother,” said Ava, because everyone in the village called the old woman “grandmother.”

The old woman looked up from her morning sorting and smiled. “Ava,” she said, “it’s good of you to stop in.” The old woman said this because the days were like a watercolor that had been left out in the mist, not too blurry for recognition, but beginning to blend.

Ava did not tell Grandmother they had spoken every day that week. Sometimes, walking the shallows, Ava would remember a part of a conversation as if it were immediate rather than long since concluded, or recall a task undone or unfinished which had slipped out of existence for a day or a week, knitting together a moment from distant fragments of time. In moments like those, Ava wondered whether, though her books told her time ran, and only in one direction, the memory of it might not. Perhaps, at this moment, she too was an old woman, sitting on her front porch, and simply did not know it.

In deference to the vagaries of consciousness, Ava simply said, “Oh, I wouldn’t miss a chance to stop in to see you, Grandmother!” She laughed and embraced the old lady with enthusiasm. “I love you, Grandmother.” It was easy for Ava to say these things, because they were true.

Ava sat with Grandmother, her legs gently rocking the swinging bench, and helped carry in the boxes of sorted salvage to the store when the business day arrived.

“Bless you,” said Grandmother.

“You’re welcome.” Ava kissed Grandmother on the forehead, left the general store, crossed the dusty footpath, and returned to the familiar halls of the Outpost.

Ava stood at the doorless entryway to the simple library. It was a modest hall, about five meters long, with crude counters and stools along its length. There were no bookshelves—only a few monitors bolted at even intervals along the counters. At the far end of the corridor sat an old man behind a massive steel desk. His gaze wandered from his monitor, to his desk, around the room, and settled on Ava.

He watched the child gape in wonderment. Eventually, he heard her speak. “This is the liberry?”

The old man smiled. “Yes, child. This is the library.” He pronounced “library” slow and fragmented, stretching out the last two syllables. “Li-braaary.”

The child blushed. “I know,” she protested. “Library.”

The old man simply smiled again. “Would you like to see a book?”

He watched her head move in an emphatic blur, and then heard her say, “Yes.”

The old man tugged at his desk until it made a terrible noise of metal grating on metal and towards him out slid a drawer, almost pinning him between it and the back of his chair, causing him to punch himself in the gut. “Ooof,” he said. Sitting in the drawer, neatly placed, was an ancient book with pages made of real paper and bound in a glossy cover that showed a woman in a frilly gown lying on a bed strewn with the red petals of something once called a rose. The old man lifted the book gently and turned it to face the child, upright. “This,” he announced, “is a book.” He paused, pondering how to explain further. “It’s not a very good book, and it’s not a book for children, but this is what books looked like, once upon a time.”

The child approached his desk, stood with her chest against it, and leaned towards as best she could. She reached out, without asking, and ran her fingers over the glossy cover. “Oh!” she breathed.

The old man pulled the book back slowly, laid it carefully in its place, and shut the drawer to the shrieking of metal. He raised his head to look at the child again. She stood waiting, wide-eyed.

“I would like to read a book,” the child began.

The old man stood up from his chair, walked around his desk, and hoisted the child onto a stool. “Do you know how to use a monitor?” he asked.

He was close enough, despite his failing vision, to see the child nod. “Uh-huh.”

The old man showed the child how to navigate the catalog of children’s books, read summaries, and select titles. He watched as she highlighted titles and then touched “Request Titles.”

The monitor displayed a message in flashing red: “Exceeds Maximum Requests.”

The child turned to him and pouted. He shrugged and pointed at the sign on the wall behind his desk. “What does the sign say?” he asked the child.

The child sounded out the words. “Children may request up to four titles at a time…”

The old man interrupted. “Yes, that’s the part.” He paused until the child directed her eyes back to his face. “So, request four titles. When you’re done with them, you can request four more.”

The child frowned and sighed, but turned to the monitor, unselected a title, apparently at random, and then touched “Request Titles” again. In several minutes, she was engrossed in what the old man assumed must be her first book, and he retreated to his desk and watched her, smiling at the child’s expressions, which were pronounced enough even for his old eyes, until he nodded off to sleep.

The old man awoke. He blinked hard three times and rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. An adolescent girl stood before his desk, pouting down at him. Her hair was jet-black; her skin was olive-brown; her eyes sparkled green. “Ava,” said the old man, after a while.

“Yes,” she answered— “don’t you know me?”

He drummed his fingers on his steel desk. “Hmmm-hmm.”

“Well,” she said, “I am going to select eight titles today.”

“Oh.” The old man gave Ava a serious look, meant to convey friendship, but also authority. “What does the sign say?”

Ava sighed, frowned, and pointed to the sign behind the old man’s desk. “Adults may request up to eight titles at a time,” she read, aloud.

The old man sighed in return. “But you are a child.”

“No.” Her eyes flashed. “Both the old women and my father have told me that I am a woman now. She paused, reached into her shirt, and pulled out the talisman. “See!” she insisted. “My father gave me this because I am a woman now.”

The old man laughed. “I suppose we can ask your father and make an exception,” he mused.

But there was, of course, a problem with that approach. “No!” she insisted. “If you have to ask him, then it isn’t true.”

Compelled by such irrefutable logic, the old man approved her requests. From that day on, Ava returned to the library as time permitted, reading her eight titles on the monitors. She did not understand why there was any limit at all on titles, since the books did not take up space and could not leave the library. The old man tried to explain something called licensing to her, but it was too boring to be worth understanding. All that needed to be understood was that it was a limit beyond adulthood that was not within the old man’s power to change. It was an inconvenience, to be sure, as it was much simpler to jump around between these tomes of knowledge as if they were encyclopedias. But she would simply work through the titles eight at a time.

What she did want to understand was something the catalogue called “Life Sciences.” It was here that she unraveled, among other mysteries, the true names of the crabs she trapped and of the strange and wonderful creatures that populated the tidal pools she splashed through each morning. She learned other things as well, many things about ecologies, aquaculture, and agriculture.

By her second summer of womanhood, Ava was the talk of the village. “She’s a sorceress,” the old women would say, not really meaning it, or at least not intending the word’s ancient meaning. They said this word with a sense of awe and glimmer of pride. The people of the village were not ignorant of science, nor were they frightened by it. They simply marveled at the mystical touch that Ava had with living things.

Ava’s gardens were like no others. She put her father to work. “We need to build a greenhouse,” she would tell him, and show him her plans. Then, they would haul and saw and hammer together until the frame was built and the contraption draped in translucent plastic. “We need to plow this hardscrabble,” she would say, and they would whale at the earth with mattocks until it was soft and yielding. Her fields and greenhouses overflowed.

A field of squash plants grew to gigantic, prehistoric proportions. The leaves were huge, the size of a man’s chest, and the plants towered above a tall man’s head. Her currants sprouted dense clusters of cherry tomatoes as if they were bunches of grapes, and they grew thick like brambles and spilled out of her fields, covering the countryside. Although it was certainly absurd, a gross and obvious exaggeration, the villagers repeated the rumor that her wheat fields had provided every last crumb of bread for Dillingham’s billions. And it was not untrue that that the wind gleaned her fields and spread grain wild among the clifftops.

Her villagers came to her for answers because she had made it clear that knowledge must only be held in trust. “Teach us,” they said, “so that we will never be hungry.” And she would say, “Bring your tools here tomorrow, and we will begin.” She set them to work on ever-expanding complexes of crops and fields and greenhouses. She taught them to farm the crabs and fishes and seaweeds in artificial tidal pools.

And so, the little town of Khanna became an oasis, a refuge among the wilds, and its wisdom spread up the coastline, throughout the inundated Bay, and far, far, to the North, and a thousand little villages provided solace for men and women who loved civilization but not the grand towers of Dillingham, men and women who took pleasure in the simple act of surviving well by their own wits and hands. This was a great stroke of Providence for all, as the Council of the Pacific Coast had been at the end of its rope to placate Dillingham’s citizenry, and was happy for once to see some emigration.

Ava sat at the edge of her cliff with her feet dangling in the air and watched the Pacific surge and gulp down the sun, which caused the shimmering red and gold to burst out of its long, broad path and cover up the ocean—the sun, at the end of the day, having the last word. She lay back on the hardscrabble and peered past the dome of the sky into the deep and dancing heavens.

Ava rose and shut off her little light which gleamed she felt somewhat pointlessly against the newly risen Shamash. “I have to remember to shut the thing off,” she spoke aloud, although there was no-one to hear, and although she knew the light was powered by a solar battery and would not expire. She shut the light off and ventured out onto the mudflats to gather samples. The nighttime tide was still receding, and the morning-time waters were not so salty, certainly not brine.

A merha uncoiled from its lair and swam slow circles, roiling the shallows around Ava’s feet. He studied her ankles with one eye. They were a dark mud color and sank into the leached red mud. He shot away in a line and writhed his long body in the sea to shake off the mud in which he buried himself nightly. The merha felt vaguely annoyed; he had planned to grab a snack from his little blind this morning, that is, until the creature attached to those strange knobs had startled him. He approached and rolled his body, catching a glimpse of Ava’s wiry body and frazzled grey hair, and darted off again.

“Ohhhh-baaaah, Ohhhh-baaah,” he sang, reminding the other merhas that it was morning and that their safety by night and hunting-ground by morning was about to desiccate or broil the unwary. “Ohhhh-baaah, Ohhhh-baaah,” chorused the Merha, up and down the Coast, spreading the word. Their long ridged dorsal fins, three meters long, cut streaks in the shallows as they headed for sea.

Ava stooped and gathered samples. When she was done gathering samples, she returned the case to her shelter, and she made her way to a corral she had built in the shallows, netting fishes into a bucket. She opened the corral and a merha flopped out, a bit too late for a convenient exit to the sea. But Ava knew the merha were strong and determined fish, and she was reluctant to eat them, because they sang.

The other fish she stored in a little freezer outside the shelter. She looked back to the corral and nodded to herself, although there was no-one to see. She had left its gate open, because she had enough fish for a few weeks, and would not want to catch more. She retrieved some seaweed from the freezer and killed one of her newly caught fish and grilled it on the solar stone she kept by her doorway. While the fish and seaweed cooked, she fetched a tin of water from her distiller, placed it on the solar stone, and added some leaves she had gathered on her last excursion through the prairie. They tasted of mint and lemon and, more importantly, had caffeine.

Ava had stacked some flat-stones, prairie grass, and dried mud to make herself a little table and bench. It rested at the edge of the clearing around her shelter, nearly at the boundary of the mudflat, but not too close. It was far enough away from her shelter that she could eat her breakfast and sip her tea in peace without feeling the presence of her work; not that she minded her work, but her work did remind her of other humans, and those she remembered with a mixture of fondness and frustration.

Shamash rose over the Merha Sea as the tides receded and flocks of tirigal alighted to scamper from puddle to puddle, chirping to each other as they probed the stones with their long and sturdy beaks.

Ava stood and studied the vast prairie, listening to the sound of her own breath just barely audible over the grass that whispered in a trillion voices. It was a sound she had become aware of instantly upon stepping from the shuttle; but it was also a sound that had faded into her unconscious mind, like an electric hum or a twirling fan, until she felt the impulse to focus on something quiet. Ava sighed and hoisted her pack in one deft move, hurling it from the ground and into the sky before her right arm looped around the pack and clasped it to her shoulder.

She turned. “Let’s move out, folks!” She held her chin high and smiled at Guzagin, which at this time of year, hung low in the morning sky like a distant moon. She did not turn, but behind her, she heard the din of twenty men and women hoisting packs and, as she walked, the low hum of the hover-carts. “We need to survey further inland,” she explained to her sergeant, who had huffed up beside her.

To prove her point, the sergeant’s foot plunged through the prairie, and he cursed and laughed as he pulled himself from knee-deep muck, because the same had happened to Ava. The prairie was firm, until it was not, and the crust gave way to a salty marsh. “I’m surprised we got out of the shuttle before it sank,” Ava said, picking her way forward. The problem, she knew, would have been the shuttle door, which would, of course, not open against the pressure of so much mud and water. They would have had to cut their way through the top. She wasn’t sure, though, what was worse, a perfectly intact shuttle half-full of muck, or a clean and dry shuttle with a manhole cut through the top. She thought that she would have to discuss improvements in shuttle design with the engineering staff, once the expedition was through.

When Shamash was high overhead, the group stopped and sat in matted grass, and each ate squares of hardtack and drank water from pressurized canteens. Ava turned back for the first time to see that, miraculously, all twenty of her charge were still present, and behind them snaked a wide path of grass trampled by feet and pressed into the mud by the hover-carts upon which rested their most precious equipment. Then she turned away from the group once more and peered over the long swaying grass, inland, pondering when the ground would grow thick enough to hold.

Ava stood and gazed into the sky. She felt uncertain which days she loved most—those spent on Guzagin, or those spent toiling in the gardens of Ekur, catching now and again a glimpse of that jewel of Shamash. She returned to the shade of the awning that hung over her shelter door, sat on her doorstep, and tapped notes into her holo-pad.

When Ava’s shuttle arrived, it kicked up the dust from an acre of hardscrabble fallow with brambles and wildflowers. She and her father had sat on their upturned crates throughout the long day, after returning from morning chores, watching the sun’s transit and the reddening sky. The dust got in Ava’s eyes and in her father’s eyes and made them weep. The villagers of Khanna saw the cloud reach out from Ava’s home and over the dusty pathways, and because they forgot to turn away, the sand blasted at their eyes. They rubbed out the tears with their knuckles, which only made matters worse.

“Doctor Ava Thunberg is leaving us again,” they told each other, with much grief, but without much sorrow. They could not help but learn Ava’s knowledge and Ava’s ways, and just as knowledge was to her a trust, she to them was cherished and nurtured in trust, and more, she was like the breeze coming off a cliff, which everyone knows may bear you up but will reach yet further.

The great leaders of Dillingham, their own brilliance inspired by the emigration of the citizenry, had built fleets of great ships that would bear humankind onward towards the stars. And Ava, an honorary Doctor of Agriculture and Aquaculture, would help lead the grand expedition of the Inanna, the most advanced and ambitious ship of them all. “Who better to feed a colony than this magician who brought our Coast to life,” they had said. “And who but this upstart who has captured the hearts and minds of our citizens is better to lead them?”

The great men and women of the Coast had not been so pleased to see Ava go. “There is room on the Coast, and life is much better when we have the numbers to speak for ourselves,” they had pleaded with her. “And think of the Interior, where you have only just begun to teach.”

But Ava put had her hands on her hips and stuck her chin out, and she had said, “You already have the knowledge I have learned.” And that had been the end of the matter. The Councils would have to grapple at each other on their own. And Ava, knowing she must set out on that journey from which no woman returns, had left the halls of the University to toil in the gardens and tidal farms alongside her father for as many days as they had left to themselves. Now the shuttle had come for her.

A lizard watched Ava from the brambles. The lizard felt it had an advantage in this situation, because its third eyelid could protect it from the dust that was making everyone else weep. The lizard was not happy to see Ava go, because the vast fields and gardens that stretched up and down the coasts meant that there were more insects for him to hunt, and he was very much pleased by this. Still, the lizard suspected that the other humans would not stop growing things simply because Ava left. The lizard unsuccessfully fought the urge to dash out into the open, and eventually scurried over to the shack and up the wall and perched atop a window-frame, inches above Ava’s head.

The lizard saw that as the dust settled Ava and her father were able to look at each other eye to eye and speak the language that humans spoke, but which has little meaning to a lizard. The men from the shuttle gathered a few containers from the shack, and then they sat, tapping their feet on the hardscrabble, until the night had grown deep and black for some time, and Ava and her father rose for a final embrace.

Ava stepped into the shuttle and sat silently as it lifted off to carry her into orbit, to the Inanna. The shuttle was not built for comfort, but it was practical. The passengers shared two long benches that ran along each side of the shuttle, and their gear was locked down in the center, under an elastic web. As the shuttle reached orbit, Ava felt herself float, just a bit, but held down by her seatbelt. The sensation of weightlessness was relaxing, and she let her eyes rest.

Ekur’s fields stretched past the horizon in all directions except the forest that bordered them just beyond the frame of the hypersonic rail that had sprouted more slowly but once rooted had outstripped them all in its growth. The children of Ekur toiled in the cool of the morning, maintaining the agribots and sampling the plants and soil.

A sikimus slithered through the damp soil, hiding itself in the young grain, and cautiously avoiding the robots and humankind. She coiled her long body and preened her clay-red hairy feathers, because she did not like feeling laden with moisture and dirt. Still, this could not be avoided, for the moisture and dirt were where the best meals were, the tasty six-legged pesgi, plump on shoots and grain. The sikimus watched Ava as she stood in the doorway of her outpost, watching the young men and women of Ekur carry on with her work. The sikimus was old, though not ancient, and had observed as the outpost grew from a tiny square of plowed land that grew more test tube samples than food, and gradually expanded until the fields reached further than the sikimus had ever traveled, bringing with it, for which she was most grateful, the bountiful supply of pesgi.

Ava saw the sikimus hiding in the grain and smiled. The grain brought the brightly coated pesgi, which brought the sikimus, and all were fed. The fields stopped short of the forest, and as vast as they were, were a speck in Ekur’s prairie.

Ava stepped through her door and pulled it shut behind her. She sat on her bed and cradled in her palms a clouded blue orb. She shut her eyes.

The urmah studied Ava as she knelt in a meadow with her left hand in her shirt, stroking a chain that held some sort of talisman. It was a bright day on Guzagin and the urmah could smell the sweat from Ava’s brow. The urmah, lithe and sinewy, covered in sleek short black fur, slunk up behind Ava, slowly, listening to her heart pound. It began to rain, and Ava released the talisman and, still kneeling, her eyes shut, cupped her hands to catch the rain.

The urmah had never seen a creature of this sort, and she was curious. She circled around, sat on her hind quarters in front of Ava, and dropped an orb into her hands.

At the weight of the orb Ava’s eyes opened and her heart raced. She saw the urmah sitting before her like a six-legged panther and fought the urge to scream or flee. She noted that she was wondering whether the creature was carnivorous; then, she realized that she knew. She saw a gazelle-like creature fall under the urmah’s powerful swipe, and she tasted the grass of the prairie and felt the wind of speed rush over her horns. She saw the urmah’s pride, she saw the urmah creep up behind her, felt its curiosity, and felt the lightness of its jaw as the orb fell away into her hands. She gasped and looked squarely into the urmah’s eyes. She held out the clouded blue orb and kept her hands steady as the urmah rested its paw in her hands.

During Ava’s lifetime it was common knowledge that she had selected Ekur over Guzagin for colonization, and “why” was a topic of some interest. Ekur was no less perfect than Guzagin, but neither did it seem more perfect. Shamash held several worlds in waiting for habitation, but Guzagin and Ekur were paradise. The Captain of the Inanna decided to choose but one, on the irrefutable logic that the greed for two worlds would weigh the colony down. “It’s simple,” she had said, “carrying people and supplies between two planets instead of one will increase our energy costs many times over.” And her command team had nodded in recognition of that simple wisdom.

Ava had led expeditions on both worlds, and Captain had bluntly asked, “So, Doctor, which one is it?” And Ava had responded, without the slightest hesitation, “Ekur.” It was her lack of hesitation or explanation that fueled mystery among the citizens of Ekur, but it had been a mystery that could only be explored under the influence of insomnia or intoxication.

When Ava had not made her usual morning radio reports for several weeks, it occurred to someone that she was quite an ancient woman, and that someone should probably check on her. They found her partly eaten by crabs, sitting on the edge of the prairie, on the edge of the mudflats. She was sitting with her legs folded and still cradled in her palms the cloudy blue orb.

The object was irresistible. The lieutenant leading the party reached out and touched the orb.

Ava stood at the edge of the cliff a few kilometers south of Khanna, looking out over the Pacific. She felt the sunrise resting on her shoulders. The shore had not yet emerged out of shadow. An oystercatcher circled above Ava, her hair jet-black. He watched as Ava sat down on the edge of the cliff and let her legs dangle over, and he could hear her voice drift up, carrying heavenward the inscrutable language of humankind.

“Hello, my friends.”


Submitted: September 25, 2022

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