Reckoning by the traditional calendar the colonies brought from Earth, it’s been just over eight months since the last boat bearing supplies from the spaceport at New Hestur made a visit. Since then, this world has made four circuits around the gas giant officially designated GM7229b, or THEIA-4b. Since we orbit the planet much more quickly, we have “lapped” our nearest inhabited neighbor twice in those eight months and are on track to do so again in a week’s time—this time at its perihelion, so close now in the southern sky in the evening that you can see the electric glow of cities on Devana’s surface. In those eight months, THEIA-4b has completed just under one-fifth of its orbit around its sun.
And, in those eight months, I have not seen one other person.
Of course, as I write this, Brad is giving me one of his looks, as though dismayed to learn I’m not counting him as a person. I stand by it, Brad.
He’s gone outside now.
I know you’re already planning to write back that if I don’t make an effort to socialize with other people, I’m going to forget how to carry on a conversation in person entirely. Unfortunately, I’m running that risk anyway. Emberlin, the wife of the man who runs the supply craft, is the only person in New Hestur who can sign, and when she says she’s out of practice—well, to be frank, there are apes aboard ark stations with bigger vocabularies. I’ve survived on writing this long; I can do it a while longer.
As of the last news I’d heard from town, they were working on settling an official timeline for the colony on Innri to be shut down and the settlers relocated, all their effort at homesteading written off as a failed experiment no longer worth the expense of funding. There will still be traffic through the THEIA-4 system, of course—St. Cosmas and Devana are practically Union core worlds by now—but even eight months ago, people in New Hestur were expecting resettlement offers any day. You can see, then, why I’m not sending this electronically; I’m trying to wean myself off depending on the generator, and I’m hopeful that if I can stay offline, I can go unnoticed.
Were you surprised to receive this on paper? I wonder if anyone on GM7461e—what did they end up calling it, again? Urda V?—has ever gotten a letter on paper before. If its fate is to be anything like Innri’s, I wonder if anyone ever will again. I wonder if your mom would remember when she and I were young, and we would do handcrafts in the colony ship’s galley. If you’d have told me that making your own paper would wind up being something I used on a regular basis as an adult, I’d have laughed at you. But the native plant life is almost bizarrely adapted to it, between the reeds and something very akin to a paper birch, and there are natural deposits of soda ash on the cliff face just north of here.
Something to write on it with was more of a challenge until Adam—that’s Emberlin’s husband—pointed out that the factories on Devana had needed to test the graphite deposits they were mining before forging high-carbon steel, and they’d determined its safety by manufacturing literal tons of pencil-lead. I managed to get years’ worth of the stuff for next to nothing.
Anyway, all that is to say that I’ll write you again soon. You may wind up receiving several of these all at once next time Adam comes all the way out to this end of the archipelago. Call them my collected writings, and maybe you can excuse your eccentric old uncle as more of an academic than a recluse.
May the world-lights guide you through shadow, as they say in New Hestur,
I wonder sometimes what you think about growing up where you do, especially since I know your mom was never quite as excited about taking part in second-stage colonization as your grandpa was. Civilization on Terra-B, the site of the first colony, is nearly 200 years old by now, and it’s as busy and cultured as the great cities back on the original earth, or so they say. Your mom and I were born on Antenor, the second planet in that system to have been developed, and the place where the desire for second-stage really took off. The more time and resources we had for education, the more people became aware of how many forms of life—crops and animal biodiversity alike—were still being tended on board the ark ships, our homes just barely unsuitable for establishing new populations. Calls began going out to expand our reach into the star cluster, to put what we’d learned on one system into practice for the dozen nearest habitable zones.
Your grandpa managed to be one of the first 500 volunteers to homestead on the new colonies. Deep down, I think he had a romantic streak, in the classic pastoral sense, and he fancied the role of the colonist as a space-age cowboy. Even his first posting, on Yatha, seemed too modern for him, establishing heavy industry within the first decade, when what he really wanted was forty acres and a mule.
No doubt you’ll hear that the program expanded too far, too fast, to even less suitable worlds, a great boom of colonization ultimately going bust, leaving planetoids half-developed. It’s probably safe to assume your mom holds the same viewpoint. But as practical as she is, she’s as stubborn as I am, and a successful colony like I can see on Devana will be plenty for her; making the long journey back to Antenor or Terra-B would only be giving up on the whole of our adult lives—and would mean not being “home” until you’d reached your adult life. So your mom staked her claim on Urda V when you were still too young to remember.
But, recluse that I am, I found myself a settlement that was already floundering, one that seemed unlikely to develop into a center of trade or culture. Call me a pirate, even; given the predators that dominate Innri’s native sea life, I picked the one map where “there be dragons.” I struck out for the wilderness—I’ve got too much of your grandpa in me. And don’t let your mom tell you that I focus on what your grandpa would want because of trauma or survivor’s guilt. (She thinks I don’t know that’s what she’s always thought, but I picked up reading her lips faster than I learned for anyone else.)
Here, I’m not the survivor of the Mahoranuiatea. Go through one of Innri’s winters in our little dugouts, and everyone you know becomes a survivor together. You stop being whatever you brought with you to this world, and the new landscape ensures you become a brother-in-arms with your nearest neighbor, even while he’s well over the horizon.
With love from the edge of all the worlds,
I’ve been testing some things, and I think I officially have a workable plan to stay put even while everyone else on Innri gets relocated. While a few might wind up relocated to the far colonies, I think the vast majority of the settlers will just wind up taking the short trip to St. Cosmas and settling down there, in-system. That’s Adam and Emberlin’s plan, anyway, and they’ve already staked their claim on a clever little scheme I would never have thought of myself.
That ship he’s used as a supply runner for the town is pretty small but not exactly a junker, either. Somehow he got clearance from system authorities to recommission it as a pleasure vessel, and he’s going to run aerial tours of the island chains of Innri, that unspoiled wilderness where there be dragons. The last flight I made is now going to be a booze cruise. And while the appeal of chartering a day trip into the unpolluted atmosphere is going to be seeing the islands never touched by our terraformers, he is working out special clearance to use the landing pad in New Hestur, where the ship is presumably docked right now, as a stop for maintenance and fuel rerouting when necessary. No impact greater than necessary to the environment, but enough to step out and breathe the air for a moment or two.
And that’s where I come in.
Adam won’t have to land more than once every four months or so, in order leave a parcel of supplies just off the landing pad. When it’s just me and Brad on the whole planet, I’ll be able to creep over hours, even days, later and retrieve the cache at my leisure. Before he arrives, I’ll have left a package for him in the same spot. If we’re ever caught at this little racket, then, officially, I’ll have been making him handcrafted furniture, though that’s a trick we’ll only be able to pull off once. Certainly, that wouldn’t justify his subsidizing my pirate’s claim on this homestead.
But the real money is in jerky.
In anticipation of having the monopoly on Innri’s drunken flyover tourism, he and Emberlin have already started collecting shells and seaglass and minor gems to make costume jewelry their passengers will flaunt on their holidays elsewhere in the colonies. That may itself prove lucrative enough, since nobody will pay enough attention to such cheap pieces as to wonder how long ago he should actually have run out of the stones. But even that’s potentially chump change; they’ve also put out feelers in the exotic-meats trade. The sea reptiles that seem to be the dominant native species are, it turns out, surprisingly edible, and the best part is that, if they find themselves stuck in a trap, they’ll shed their tails like some of the lizards brought from Earth to the colonies. It takes only months to grow back a shed tail that may bear 30 pounds of meat.
I set some simple snares in the lagoon east of my little dugout-house last week, and it took me only a few days to get a 19-pound tail, which Adam thinks could be worth almost a thousand credits on what passes for Devana’s black market. It’s currently on drying racks up on the high pasture, where the drying shed is typically hidden under cloud and nothing gets up there to disturb it except the alpacas, unless you count myself and Brad.
I’m sure you think I’m going to a lot of trouble just to avoid getting back on a spaceship and crossing back to another atmosphere. I promise you, though, this isn’t just running away from transit. If you were here and could breathe this air, out where you could believe you’re the only person in existence, you’d understand.
Maybe you’ve felt something similar on Urda V. Adam’s been there, and he says the air there is clear like it is here.
My love to your mom and sister,
Did you know that what we used to call the Canadian lynx purrs?
That’s one of those facts I learned a long time ago, but sometimes it still takes me by surprise. In fact, most felines can purr—the only ones that don’t are those four major species of Panthera that roar. And these days, that feels almost academic to bring up; none of the four have ever established a breeding population on a colony world, so, for all intents and purposes, all felines out at this end of the galaxy purr.
In any case, that means my companion out here in my little cloister actually sometimes talks to me so I can hear him. He sits close enough—or sometimes lets me rest my head against his belly—so that I’m feeling him more than hearing him, but it’s still something I can make out distinctly. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend it, even if Emberlin insists Brad is still feral enough that my trust in him makes me a damn fool.
But, then, the lynx’s presence on Innri is a long story of damn fools anyway.
At first sighting of land on Innri over the satellites, the terraforming executives and their planning agents had immediately started drawing up grand plans. Devana had been lucrative enough for industry and urban centers, and St. Cosmas was showing promise, but a look at the vast oceans on the innermost moon had sparked dreams of beachfront homes for the wealthiest colonists, vacation properties and timeshares. The rotational axis was offset from right angles to the orbital plane by 27 degrees—three and a half more than the old earth’s, for an exceptionally wide tropical zone, and, in place of major continents, the planet was instead dotted with tens of thousands of sprawling archipelagos, billions of little sea stacks and skelligs ripe for exclusive settlement, with some of the larger perhaps serving as lucrative citrus plantations.
The grand plans had survived only days before continued satellite surveillance had shown the curious disappearance of untold millions of these islands, until it was finally worked out that a combination of factors—namely the fact that the gravity was slightly less than old Earth’s norm, the extreme tidal forces from proximity to the gas giant, and a lack of major landmass to define any significant coastlines—meant that high tide rendered anything in the tropics unliveable; the ocean simply swallowed the lands whole twice a day.
Within another week, some of the plans for leisure homes were transplanted to St. Cosmas, while the orange groves wound up bound for another system entirely. Archipelagos were scouted near the poles with an eye to wool ranches and possibly cod farms. In the end, only one such archipelago was ever developed, in what was labeled the Northern hemisphere on maps because it faced the Northern hemisphere on Devana, even though, for Innri—and every other body in the THEIA-4b system, including both Devana’s sub-moons!—it was magnetic south.
Before they’d proven that some of the islands were big enough to support sheep, the first settlers planetside had mainly worked with rabbits, which felt like they took up a minimal footprint for rapid replenishment, but forgot to account for the fact that Innri’s gravity is just light enough to give rabbits an advantage over the fenceposts cut on St. Cosmas. Where species on other colony-worlds that could have been invasive had their spread limited by the human use of sterile spacecraft to travel around, the men and women of Innri quickly took to low-tech boathouses, and the rabbits of Innri quickly took to their rowboats and kayaks and wooden barges. Within two weeks of settlement, there were breeding colonies of rabbits on all seventeen major islands of the archipelago, and even out here on the islets I think of as mine. It had all the makings of an ecological disaster as the rabbits ran roughshod over the native vegetation, and the only native predators we’d encountered never got far enough from the water to dent their populations.
So what did the people of New Hestur do? They imported lynx.
I always thought that seemed like swallowing a spider to catch the fly, but I’m just a simple alpaca-farmer-turned-trapper these days, so what would I know about it?
In any case, the planet was saved, such as it was, by the great spread of oceans between archipelagos; we learned our lesson before ever touching down on a second, preserving all that untouched wilderness for cruise passengers to ogle. And a small handful of us wound up playing house with a cat the size of a Rottweiler.
It’s not like having a pet so much as like having a roommate, but he’s proven himself useful, and I’ll admit I don’t hate that his approval is one of the few things I can hear.
If I’m to be out here on my own, make myself into a hermit and a man of letters, then maybe I ought to aspire to the mold of St. Francis, with Brad as the legendary wolf of Gubbio. I think that would rather suit me, don’t you?
If not, well, then we’ve already established I’m a damn fool, so I suppose you’ll just have to indulge me.
Love from me and the rabbit-hunter who’s currently playing foot-warmer,
I realized I’ve never named this little island that’s rapidly becoming my whole world. I feel like it deserves a proper title. If I’m to live the life of a prior—even a Cistercian existence where I spend my days digging wells—the priory deserves to be called something.
If you have any suggestions upon reading this, let me know in your reply. The best I’ve come up with so far is Bradford Wood, and if I try saying that out loud, I become more certain than ever than a wildcat can roll his eyes.
At present, we’re preparing for what they call “The Long Night” around here, when we pass directly through THEIA-4b’s shadow, long enough to run down the stores of my meager solar panels. If I’m going to stick with studies of the odd print resources I’ve been able to hoard away in my makeshift library, or to write you further, I’ll need light as well as heat. The birchlike trees burn well enough, but the leaping flames of a woodfire always put me a bit on edge. Even though I know, intellectually, that I can’t hear the flames, there’s an echo in memory that never stops being unnerving.
I think Brad can tell that it unnerves me. Sometimes if we camp the night on the high pasture, overlooking the alpacas, we’ll roast a rabbit over a traditional campfire, and, inevitably, Brad will drive his head right into the center of my chest and give one of his self-soothing purrs, drowning out the crackling in my memory with deep reverb in my sternum.
Down by the lagoon, though, there are dense, mossy rafts of tangled roots, half sunk into low-lying mud, and you can carve up whole squares of it to burn in a stove, rather like peat. The smell isn’t the most pleasant thing, but my little dugout is ventilated enough that it’s not wholly unpleasant, either. At any rate, it’ll burn all night with minimal maintenance; I can shut the grate and let myself grow accustomed to a life disconnected from the power grid.
So my next few afternoons are going to be spent cutting turf in a bog; surely none of the other planets designated for Innri’s resettlement have anything quite so pleasant to recommend them!
Hoping this letter doesn’t still smell like peat bog,
I know you won’t read this letter for weeks, at least, but I hope your mother knows her brother was thinking of her today. By the old Earth calendar, it’s thirty years since the last voyage of the settler transport Mahoranuiatea. I really hope she’s doing well with the memory. I can honestly say that I haven’t had nightmares about it since settling here on Innri.
I miss trading these letters with her, but I know how insistent she is that my decision to live so far from everyone I knew before the Mahoranuiatea is some kind of defense mechanism, that I’m running away from the memory of the day and everyone who lived through it with me. In that, I’m grateful that you’ve stayed in contact, even as you and she ended up on another little colony world even further on the backside of nowhere.
If tradition holds from the last couple years, then there will be a bonfire in New Hestur tonight on the eve of the Long Night. This is to be the last one before the resettlements, so I can only imagine how much of what can’t be taken with the settlers will be fed to the flames. I don’t plan on attending, for obvious reasons.
Brad has been especially affectionate since I completed my stockpile of stove-fuel, but, evenings like these, I don’t quite want to drown out the sound of memory. I can remember that the last thing I heard before the fire breached the hull—in fact, except for the crackling flames, the last thing I heard before the decompression took my eardrums—was your grandfather’s voice when I told him I was coming to get him.
I can’t help thinking that Dad would have liked it here on Innri, especially on the Long Night when you have ten days in shadow to stay in and tell stories, and maybe go outside to catch a glimpse of the auroras, not just in our own atmosphere but on THEIA-4b herself. Maybe that’s part of why I’m so hesitant to move on.
May the world-lights guide you these coming weeks,
I wonder now if there are auroras on Urda V, or if you’re near enough the poles to see them. This is my fourth Long Night, and the sight of that lavender ribbon dancing in the sky never fails to take my breath away. Add the otherworldly sight of cities glowing on Devana, and the glittering necklace that is THEIA-4b’s ring stretching out behind it, and I can’t think of anything that compares.
Your mother won’t remember this, or at least I hope she won’t, but in the night after the incident on Mahoranuiatea, I’d woken up, throat raw but unsure if I’d been screaming because the silence was new and disorienting, and looked out the window to check for rescue craft. Our lifeboat had been adrift for seven hours; another nine would pass before we were taken aboard the Prydwen. In the distance, you could just make out another lifeboat; in between, a rolling lawn of what seemed like frost—the silicate glass of all Mahoranuiatea’s windows, blown into space in the depressurization that finally jetted the flames out into nothingness—glittered in the starlight.
The edge of the ring reminds me of that sight. And you’d think it would trigger a thousand anxieties, but instead I just remember the feeling of that overwhelming silence, and the peace that’s come in a place the silence seems at home.
Tonight, Brad and I are camped on the high pasture, so I’m writing this by firelight. Normally, this island rises to a cap of fog that never dissipates, but tonight the fog has settled low, and a few high crags seem to sail above the clouds. The weather above has been clear enough that the aurora and the stars alike are glimmering from horizon to horizon, and I can’t help thinking that this is what Dad had in mind when he signed us all up for the settlement expansion scheme.
Would it surprise you to know that I have actually been off of Innri since I first landed? For all your mother’s grousing about my reluctance ever to put myself back on a spacecraft, I have actually accompanied Adam on his supply runs between THEIA-4b’s moons not once but twice. I’ve been thinking about that as I look up into the night sky—Devana dipped below the horizon half an hour ago, but, out beyond the ring, there’s a bright object just large enough to distinguish it from the background stars, its lone sub-moon a tiny pinprick against the black, that I think must be St. Cosmas.
At closest approach, it takes nearly a week to cross from Innri to St. Cosmas. I know because I’ve done it twice, both times asking Adam for a small cabin without a view, where I could keep my head down in the dark and pretend I was in my little dugout cabin. I’m sure your mother would be trumpeting a told-you-so knowing that I mostly survived those weeks with the help of packaged food and sleeping pills.
Both times, though, the trip proved worth it. I’d helped offload timber, fish and wool for a few hours in exchange for what, for my Spartan existence, amounted to months’ worth of supplies, and then I’d had time to explore.
Where Devana is thick with people and industry, St. Cosmas has still maintained its wide open spaces. With only 20% of the planet covered in water, there’s no rush to settle it all, allowing for vast parklands, long drives, and idyllic orchards, mostly not quite warm enough for the citrus Innri’s planners had once dreamed about, but near-perfect for wine-grapes.
The world takes its name from, of all things, a Benedictine monastery that occupies almost 300 square miles, which boasts the finest vineyards in all the colonies.
Much to my delight, the Mother Superior who runs the nunnery there and also gives the occasional tour is so well-practiced with sign language that she actually taught me eight new words—three of them relating to religion, and five relating to drinking. It had so charmed me that I’d bought three whole cases of what our ancestors would have called Pinot Gris before remembering how much of a lightweight I’ve always been with alcohol and how positively wasted wine appreciation is on someone like me. Adam and Emberlin have been paid in wine a few times over the years by now, as have a few others in New Hestur.
I don’t recall; what is the legal drinking age on Urda V? If you’ll be old enough anytime soon, then the bottle I’ll send with these letters can be for you. If not, it’s for your Mom, and don’t let her think I ever suggested otherwise.
Wait, forgive me. If these are actually delivered on paper—if Adam holds true to his word and sends them on a transport rather than digitizing them—then it will be years before you actually get the chance to read them. And by the time the wine reaches you, Urda V may well be flourishing again or shut down entirely, and either way you’ll be old enough for a sip anywhere in the colonies (even on Yatha, home of military barracks and would-be latter-day Puritans, where the drinking age is twenty-six).
If Adam’s little scheme for me ever gets found out, I suppose I can settle on St. Cosmas. Should all other opportunities fall through, I could serve as an abbot fairly easily, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now. And something about that world is refreshing—it feels like a promise fulfilled, of what the expansions could and should aim to be. Dad would be proud of me living there, I think.
But never for a second did I consider settling down there when returning to Innri was still on the table. The promise fulfilled that St. Cosmas represents has nothing on my home—a world hardened, perhaps, and only habitable on its edges, but a frontier of raw promise still waiting to be realized.
No matter what your mother says, I’m not driven to stay here by fear of leaving. This is my world, Cade’s World—and these few islets are my cloister, perhaps, but also the homestead we used to dream of—and what scares me is the thought that I might not be allowed to return.
The Long Night doesn’t seem to have spooked the alpacas. I’m told that they hum when they’re content, and each time I’ve gone down to check, they’ve worn the expression that says they’re humming, and I can feel the rumble if I run my hand down the backs of their necks. Brad, however, has been stingy with his purring, and swats at my foot each time he resettles on the end of my bedroll, no doubt out of displeasure at the lack of an actual bed. Tomorrow—or at least when THEIA-4b is overhead again—we’ll set sail back to the “priory” and re-stoke the peat stove to pry the grip of this long cold from our bones.
For once, I’m hoping these letters do get digitized and sent ahead electronically; I hope you and your mom have the chance to read this before any of the settlers there on Urda V start gossiping about what’s happened here, because I don’t want you to worry. I’m fine, honestly and truly. Adam, Emberlin and at least half a dozen others arrived here by boat by first light—the first sunlight in a week and a half—to help me extinguish the fire.
I’d almost forgotten that the first thing settlers on Innri recommend to each other for lean winters is also the first thing they learned to warn each other to watch for. We call them “bog-potatoes.”
Looking at one, you’d be hard-pressed to tell it apart from a Désirée potato, other than the fact that it grows tangled in peat like a seed caught in a fiber-mat. But try to cut into one, and you’d find its flesh notably spongier and soaked through with fluid, while its outer skin has a thick, pithy rind like a citrus fruit.
It doesn’t taste terrible, if a bit bland; it makes for a decent mash with the right cheese and herbs and a lot of butter, kind of like adding pureed parsnip to your potatoes. But if you leave one in your peat stove, those things cook inside their own skins until they’re liable to pop.
From what Emberlin tells me in her stuttering sign, most of the settlers can safely get them dug out before they blow because the first sign of building pressure is a high-pitched whistle like a tea kettle—fat lot of good that does me, right?
I’d never encountered a bog-potato this side of the high pasture, and it didn’t occur to me that I might; I’d fallen asleep with the peat burning low figuring that was as safe as a fire could get.
It was actually Brad who saved my life. He was draped over my legs in bed when the stove grate blew open and showered the floor with sparks. It took him a few swats to rouse me, but it meant I was half-awake enough to smell the smoke as the rug started to kindle. I was half-panicked as I got outside, but that cat had the presence of mind to start digging; I grabbed my shovel and started walking the loose earth carefully back into the dugout to smother the flames.
By the time the boats arrived from New Hestur, I’d mostly gotten everything under control, but they helped me get most of my things out in the fresh air so I could air the place out without smoke-damaging everything I owned. Besides the rug, the only thing I lost was most of my most recent batch of paper, which collapsed and scattered in the first breeze. This single page is the lone survivor—so I hope you feel special!—but I can always make some more.
Gratefully still yours,
Well, I’ve heard the news, and I have to say I’m sorry that Urda V is to be resettled, too. I know how much your mom says you both liked it there. But I suppose it’s not much use dwelling on what might have been; relocation is as settled there as it is here, and I know better than to think your mother would do anything so foolhardy as ignoring clear direction and going off further into the wild.
That’s apparently just my domain.
I think, though, that what happened at the end of the Long Night only confirmed for me that I have to do exactly that. If anything, it’s confirmed for me that this isn’t about fear—not being scared of facing what happened, not being scared of the empty spaces in that part of my life, not even about being scared to get back on a spacecraft. It’s that everything I had could have burned down here, and I wasn’t scared. I didn’t panic. Out here where it’s just me, just a damn fool and his overgrown cat, where you can breathe in all the openness of near-perfect solitude—where there be dragons—it’s what I was hoping for even before the fire on Mahoranuiatea. Before Dad.
It’s been good for me, writing to you like this. Maybe I’ll write more just for me, about what you can learn when the world really is as quiet as it seems.
Hey, maybe before you and your mom get settled somewhere, you can just swing by St. Cosmas. You can look up Adam’s day-cruises; he named the business after Emberlin, so it’s not too difficult to find. Then do a flyover. I’m enclosing a little sketch I made that almost counts as a map so you can know what you’re looking for here out to the west of New Hestur.
The place still needs a name. Hey, what do you think of “Ashdown Abbey”?
Your friendly neighborhood hermit,
Tyler Whetstone is too Protestant to be called a disciple of St. Francis, but lives like a hermit-monk anyway in the hopes that someone, someday, will start a legend about his having befriended a wolf. An instructional designer, occasional voiceover artist and longtime LA Dodgers fan, he currently lives in Oklahoma with a senior rescue dog, a tabby cat, and an unhealthy relationship with Netflix scandi-noir. This is his first published piece of fiction.