Cleve seems tired of hearing about Morgan. If he never met the man personally, he would have little connection to this, other than what he heard from his friend Roze. And certainly nothing about Morgan is going to keep us safe trekking across the wilderness as we follow Corazon’s vague directions. Cleve knows what he’s doing though, leading us up onto hills, checking for landmarks between us and the target pass, and then setting us going back down again until we reach the next rise.
In one valley, we cross a river, and as we make our way up the opposite bank, I look back behind us. Partly to enjoy the view, but also for signs of whoever Corazon is running from. Way down the winding, shimmering river, back in the general direction of the dome, I spot movement that looks like people. I stop Cleve and Corazon and point out what I observed. Corazon freaks out. “Get down! Get down!” she crouches lower into the xenofungus undergrowth, swearing.
Cleve’s rifle doesn’t have a scope, and if he ever had binoculars, they are long gone, scattered across the wilderness somewhere. We can’t make out much detail by eye alone, but Corazon is certain those are Morgan’s men. A team lead and three associates were following her, and there are four people downriver. “Let’s go wide,” Cleve suggests, eying the wilderness around us and considering routes.
“I ain’t giving up everything on my back just to get out of here,” Corazon insists. “Then I’d be more of a burden to you two than helpful.” I’m a little surprised to hear her sounding so considerate. Then she turns vicious. “Do you think we could just take them out?”
Cleve is of a mind to just conceal our trail. Hiding signs of our passage sounds like a good idea to me too, but it turns out to be easier said than done in this. It’s hard to hide all the squished mushrooms we’ve left behind us. After putting in a good effort, Cleve looks around himself in dismay and futilely tosses another clump of dirt. Some of it goes flying back up as a previously-unseen shimmering creature shakes the dirt off and floats up into the air. And so we see our next extraterrestrial lifeform. It’s like an enormous butterfly, but so translucent that without the shimmer, it would be almost invisible. It is beautiful, so light and delicate. The way it undulates through the air reminds me of a jellyfish. Cleve, though, is more focused on what it has clutched in its six little legs, a syringe labeled OAC 4/5. He tentatively reaches a hand out. The butterfly doesn’t flee, just flaps slowly, hovering in place. It lets Cleve take the shot and then drifts off into the shroom forest—or just the forest, as Corazon calls it. It is quickly lost to the eye.
A swear from Corazon further up the hillside alerts us that we’ve burned up some of our lead time and her tail is getting closer. “We might have to find a good place to hide,” Cleve says, giving up on concealing our trail. I’m not sure how he expects us to do that, since we’d likely leave more crushed mushrooms behind us as we look for one. “Or we could run.”
I’m not too keen on that plan. “In my opinion, running through rough terrain is a way to leave an even more obvious trail than before,” I argue.
“Well, how about you all hide, and I go further?” Cleve suggests. “They’re looking for one person, correct? So a single track leading off somewhere else could do it. And then maybe I can sneak back and rejoin you. Or…” he mulls over another idea, and as his eyes bounce between me and Corazon, I catch his drift. “They’re looking for her, they’re not looking for us.”
“Yeah,” I agree. “We hide Corazon, and then it’s fine for them to confront us.”
“Uh, I’m okay with that, I guess,” Corazon says. “But don’t trust these guys. They’re probably going to try to offer you some deal. But they don’t actually have any leverage, they’ve just got guns.”
“Are they going to want to check our IDs?” Cleve is practical as ever. “Is that a thing?”
“I mean, if you had a credit rating, that would probably be helpful, but I don’t imagine either of you do.”
“How would we know?” Cleve asks.
I won’t be shocked if someone claims I owe something for my free ride, but Cleve is here legitimately. “We can’t be in debt to a system we haven’t become part of,” I object.
“You’d be surprised,” Corazon says. She’s got a smirk, but it’s not a happy one. “They might say you’re technically inside Morgan territory and ask if you have a license to come through. Which of course they know you don’t. I assure you that the bureaucracy, at least, is perfunctory. They would hit you up with any charges they can—if they thought they could enforce it. And there’s four of them, and two of you. So… what do you say to ambush?”
Cleve lets out a breath. “I mean, it’s been a while since I’ve had to do an ambush…”
I sputter a bit at the suggestion. “The argument of there’s four of them and two of you is not helped by changing it to there’s four of them and three of you. And you only have a switchblade!”
“I also have the fungicide,” Corazon counters.
“Does that work on people?”
“It burns if you get it on you. Look, it’s a real nasty chemical. It’s hard to kill fungus, okay?”
I’ve made her defensive again, which is not going to help us come to consensus. “I may or may not have a debt rating here. I don’t want to have a rap sheet,” I insist.
“That’s fair,” she says, backing down a bit. “All right, so you’ll be out in the open with them and get them to go away. But if it goes south… ambush? I’ll ambush from—you know what? I just won’t tell you what I’m going to do. Then you can’t give it away.” She’s sounding almost playful now, and Cleve dumps a bucket of cold water on that.
“This isn’t wartime,” he says. “Or at least, not for us.” I’m glad he agrees that we shouldn’t just show up and start cutting up people. “Have you ever killed a person?” he presses Corazon. “Is this actually wartime? You’re talking about killing people. That’s what happens in wars.”
“Have I ever killed anyone?” Corazon pulls out her switchblade and flicks it open. “How do you think I got in this mess?”
“Oh great,” I mutter, dropping my head to my hand.
“Well, okay,” Cleve says. He doesn’t sound surprised. It’s just another piece of pertinent information that he files away.
“Look, it was self-defense; I had to do it,” Corazon insists. “Who do you think killed my parents?”
“You killed your parents?” Okay, now Cleve sounds surprised.
“No, not me!” Corazon explodes. “Morgan!” She does not provide any further details to tie all these disparate statements together.
“Self-defense is not the same as an ambush,” Cleve points out, back to dealing with practicalities. “It’s very serious business to start killing people, especially outside wartime. If we find ourselves in the middle of a gunfight, that’s something different. But neither of us,” he says, including me, “has been here long enough to just start up open warfare. Who knows who they’d think we are?” It sounds to me like Cleve has been on the frontlines and did not relish the experience. That’s another tick in his favor. Meanwhile, Corazon here is some rookie soldier eager to lay into her enemies.
“So what do you want me to do then?” Corazon asks. It’s not accusatory, though. I think Cleve has gotten through to her. “Be ready with a distraction? Wait for your signal?”
I share my thoughts on the matter. “You don’t need to be part of a distraction, or anything, really. You are what needs to stay hidden. Only if we’re actually attacked by these people should you take any action. Does that seem fair?” I glance over at Cleve for his input.
“Or you run,” he says. That makes sense. His job is to protect Santiagos; of course he wouldn’t want her to join the fray.
“If you’re attacked, I’ll come to your aid,” Corazon says. This is her fight, and she won’t back down from it too far. Cleve asks about how the men are armed, and Corazon tells us they have pistols.
“Bringing a knife to a gunfight is a last resort,” he tells her. “Especially a little one like that.” The knife on Cleve’s belt is a far more sturdy hunting knife, good for cutting through fungus stalks.
“I’m pretty good with it, though,” Corazon insists, flicking the switchblade around a bit more. She’s not trying to intimidate us; it seems more of a nervous fidget for her.
“Do you have anything we could bribe these guys with?” Cleve asks her.
“Yeah, we don’t even know what could be used to bribe people here,” I add. “If they try to squeeze us for trespassing, what would they actually want of us? What’s of value here? Is the fungicide?”
“Well, it’s expensive. But it’s what they’re looking for, and I’m hoping to sell it later. I can’t just give it up now.”
“Okay, but do you have a backup cartridge for it?” I ask. Corazon lets out a breath, weighing the gain from admitting to one. I press my case. “We could claim we found it on the other side of the river. If we give them something that points to you being somewhere else—not that we ever interacted with you—we could redirect them.”
“Yes,” Corazon allows, stretching the word out as she convinces herself this is a good course. “Yes, that could definitely work. It would throw them off the trail.” She gives me a small canister similar to the one currently mounted in the bulky gun. “And it’s a good bargaining tool. There’s definitely salvaging rights within Morgan Industries, so you’d have a right to it if you found it in the wilderness out here. Don’t let them push you.” According to Corazon, these repossession squads have some legal standing, some legitimate authority to question people, and sometimes they lean heavily on that.
“Is there anything else you can tell us about dome life that would be useful when interacting with these people?” I ask. It’s hard to project that you belong when you know nothing about what you’re walking into. We’re at a big social disadvantage by arriving thirty years late to this party.
Corazon doesn’t know enough about other domes for us to pretend to be from one of those. “What are you going to try to pass for? Planetfallers?”
Cleve gets a pensive look. “How old are you?” he asks me.
“I’ve lived twenty-six years, but I guess I’m a hundred fifty-six now.”
He nods to himself. “You look about that, so okay. I look about thirty-one?”
Right, he hasn’t been looking at himself in the mirror, like I have. “Yeah,” I tell him, pulling out my shaving mirror to give him the opportunity.
“We don’t look fifty, and they didn’t send babies,” Cleve observes.
He’s right. We have to pretend to be from here. It should work. He could pass for one of the first wave of kids. The tricky part is just how little social context we have. “Data Haven is a secret thing, right?” Corazon nods at my guess. “So do people who live in your dome only know rumors of other domes?”
“Yeah, there’s rumors. I’m pretty sure Professor Zakharov is from another dome. I wouldn’t say the information is tightly controlled, it’s just hard to get at, right? There’s not a ton of communication.”
“Did nobody send up satellites?” I ask. Surely some were brought along with Unity.
“Miasma,” Cleve says, suggesting ground imagery might not be great.
Corazon points out the lack of infrastructure for launching them. I suppose if Unity’s approach was rough, some of the materials brought along might have suffered a similar fate to our module. With a bark of laughter, Corazon dismisses the whole idea of satellites. “Besides,” she says, “it’s not like your radio signals could reach a satellite if you had one. What, through the atmosphere? That’s not going to work.” She’s looking incredulous again.
“Miasma,” Cleve repeats, as if that explains everything. I suspect he’s just as confused as I am.
“Yeah!” Corazon agrees. “Oh, right,” she catches herself again, remembering I literally woke up yesterday. “The miasma prevents radio communications,” she explains.
“Ah. Okay, that makes the lack of communication between different domed settlements make a lot more sense.”
“Yeah,” she tells me, “within the dome you have landline connections going places. And maybe for like thirty meters outside the dome. But yeah, xenofungus spores supposedly interfere with wireless communications.”
“So these guys might not know anymore than she does,” Cleve points out to me. Turning back to Corazon, he asks, “Are these guys high-ups? They’d just be footmen, right?”
Corazon scoffs at the thought of anyone powerful doing the grunt work. “Look, just say you’re from Morgan Surveying. No, even better, Morgan Prospecting. Yes, yes… Morgan Prospecting. One of many subsidiaries. They have their own attached sub-dome.”
I draw in a nervous breath. “Claiming I’m from their establishment is a very sketchy thing to do when I know nothing about it,” I tell her.
“No, no! There really is an important metallic deposit underneath that hill where you claim you just woke up,” she insists. I can’t help but wonder if it was our module setting off those readings.
“So we could just be out surveying,” Cleve says.
A plan is starting to come together now. “You’d need a reason why you don’t have any surveying equipment,” Corazon points out.
I pull out my sketchbook. “I have my surveying equipment.” Corazon looks unconvinced.
“Yeah, we’re just forward scouts,” Cleve says, backing me up. “You don’t want to lug out all the equipment through the mushroom forest.”
“Just forest,” Corazon reminds him. “If you say mushroom forest, everyone is going to know you’re a planetfaller. You don’t need to prefix it with mushroom,” Corazon goes on chiding him. “What else would it be? That is what a forest is.” I snort in quiet amusement. These are the same people who call the native mushrooms xenofungus.
Cleve is unconcerned with her argument. “Well, you slog through those things, that’s what I’ve learned,” he says, concentrated on the practical aspects of the forest.
“Yeah, yeah, hence the fungicide.” Corazon pats her spray gun.
Cleve and I are both satisfied now that we have enough to work with here. Corazon will hide, and we will head back down towards the river to encounter our targets farther from her. And hopefully she won’t have to murder any more people.