After my morning shave, we share a breakfast of leftover rations and invasive wineberries. All I can do is gush about the night sky. So. Many. Stars. And the sky was so dark! The constellations are not so different from what one can hypothetically see from Earth (although our old sun shows up in one here) but the real difference is just how little light pollution is around. In LA, the Milky Way is just a candy bar. Here, it is a misty ribbon across the sky.
“Fill up now. These berries don’t travel very well because of how delicate they are,” Cleve advises me.
Right then, much to our surprise, someone steps into our clearing with a big backpack and some strange sort of bulky gun. Young, athletic, close-cropped hair halfway between pixie and crew, something of an androgynous look with the dumpy jumpsuit—I don’t have time to evaluate more than that before an angry voice demands, “You’re not with Morgan, are you?” I’ve heard a lot of accents on the streets of LA, but hers I cannot place. Her gun is out, but she’s not holding it like she’s ready to fire. Cleve is clearly eying his own rifle, trying to decide whether to make a move for it. I’m more worried about her doing something rash than him, though.
“There’s no need to be hasty here,” I tell her, holding up my hands placatingly. “We just woke up from cryosleep so we’re not on any sides whatsoever. The only thing that we’ve been able to gather is that Morgan did something really bad thirty years ago.”
“He does something real bad every day,” our visitor growls. Her eyes dart to Cleve’s rifle, and she nods a bit in appreciation that he hasn’t brought it to bear on her yet. “Well, you don’t look like Morgan’s crew,” she reluctantly acknowledges. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Mariah Thorne, and this is Cleve,” I tell her. Cleve stands and dips his head in greeting. “And you are?”
“Corazon Santiago,” she shares. “You said you just woke up from cryosleep?”
Cleve stands up a little straighter upon hearing her name. “Are you related to Pablo Santiago? He hired me on the original expedition.”
“Grandpa? He’s been dead for years. What do you mean he hired you? You really did just wake up, didn’t you?”
I nod. “Yesterday.”
“There is a piece of the ship half a klick south of here. There was one person who died in there, and…” Cleve gestures to himself and me.
That news does not interest Corazon. She looks around anxiously. “Have you seen the Morgan people?”
“Did you fire a shot yesterday?” I ask. Maybe the sound we heard was her. Or maybe it was someone with Morgan.
“No, I don’t have a gun.”
Her tone suggests I’m an idiot, but she’s the one with the chunky weapon clutched in her two hands. “What is that, then?” I ask. Maybe I am missing something here.
“This is fungicide spray… I guess you could call it a gun. It would burn.”
“But it doesn’t make bullet noises?”
“No!” she answers with a laugh.
“A fungicide spray?” Cleve echoes, looking at all the native flora around us. “There’s just so much…” The rest of his words are lost in chuckles at the futility of dealing with it all.
“Yeah, well, that’s kind of why you need the fungicide spray, right, if you want to build anything anywhere.” Then Corazon adds bitterly, “And Morgan wants to build everything everywhere.”
“You’re the first person we’ve met,” Cleve tells her.
I pull out the flyer I found yesterday from my satchel and climb to my feet. “Wait, is this…?” Corazon spits at the sheet when I hold it out for her to see. I raise an eyebrow. “So this isn’t Morgan fungicide that you’re carrying?”
“Oh, it is!”
“I’m confused,” I admit.
Corazon offers a screed as explanation. “Look, maybe when Grandpa was around there was some money. There’s no money now. The water’s perfectly clean—or for a while, anyway, until Morgan dirties it. So, no, the Santiago empire that Mom and Grandpa talked about all the time? Gone. Gone! Yes, I have to work my way up.” She certainly sounds like she’s working herself up. She must think we’re not taking her concerns seriously enough, but to be honest, I’m still just trying to get my bearings. “The Santiago name being dragged through the mud, fine, yeah, it is what it is. And I have to work for Morgan. But I’m getting the eff out, okay?” She drops her voice now, conspiratorially. “Are you with me, or not?” And then she’s back to full-on rant again. “‘Cause if you’re not, then get out of my way!”
Corazon has a lot of anger, I can tell, but she also sounds serious. “Are you running away?” I ask, still trying to put the pieces together. I am woefully lacking context here.
“I’m being exiled. I’m just trying to be exiled with something more than the shirt on my back.”
“What does it mean to be exiled here? Are you on your way to another human settlement?”
“Yes. I do know there is another one somewhere. But I don’t know exactly how to get there, and when you’re being chased by Morgan thugs, it makes it a little tricky.”
I swear, every time this woman explains something, she then adds another detail that throws me. “So you’re exiled and they’re chasing you?”
She shakes her head in disbelief. “Wow, you really did wake up yesterday. And I’ve heard things about planetfallers… You really haven’t figured it out, have you?”
“If you’re running away and you need help, maybe we can help you,” I tell Corazon. “Especially if you’re heading to another human settlement. We’d love to find other humans. But we need to understand the nature of the danger you’re in.” Cleve is eying how the woman is kitted out, and I bet he thinks the main danger she’s in is that she is young and reckless. Is she glancing around like that because she’s needlessly paranoid? Or is someone really after her?
“I heard multiple gunshots yesterday, okay? They’re close,” Corazon says, clutching her fungicide dispenser tightly.
“Oh, one of those was us,” Cleve tells her.
“We were attacked by, um… the thing that has that leg,” I volunteer, pointing at what Cleve recovered from the nest.
“Yeah, the fur beetles,” Cleve says.
“Wolf beetles?” Corazon supplies the proper name. “You killed wolf beetles?” Her voice cracks a little, and her gruff exterior melts. “Those are adorable creatures. I don’t know how anyone can kill that.”
“Have you met one?” Cleve asks.
“Have you had one gnaw on your arm?” I back him up. I briefly switch my cane to my right hand so that I can roll up my sleeve on that side. The bruises on my forearm are a livid blue and purple this morning.
“Well, what did you do to cause it to do that?” she asks, accusatory. “They don’t naturally do that.”
“So they unnaturally do that,” Cleve says evenly. He’s got bandages wrapped around his forearm as additional evidence. “And they do some damage.”
“You must have—” Corazon cuts herself off. “But that doesn’t matter.”
“Not right now,” Cleve agrees. “But it’s dangerous out there. Do you have a weapon?” This is one of the people he was hired to protect, or at least a descendant thereof. “Do you have any ability to survive in the outdoors?” I enjoy watching someone else be subjected to his competency questioning.
“I know my way around a little bit, yes,” Corazon protests, but she doesn’t sound very convincing. “And if you can help—”
“We’re going with you,” Cleve declares. I smile at being automatically included in this.
“How do I know I can trust you?” Corazon demands.
“I owe your family work,” Cleve says. But then he shrugs and adds, “You don’t know.” A statement like that could sound ominous, but coming from him, it just sounds honest.
“Uh, we also have leverage against Morgan,” I volunteer, not wanting the only Chiron resident we’ve met to pass us by.
“You have leverage against Morgan?” Corazon’s hostility is replaced with eagerness. “Tell me more. Look, I’m in debt to Morgan because I didn’t have a choice, okay? But the way that it works in his dome is that they don’t have jails. If you do something they don’t like or you don’t have the money to pay, they just kick you out and take everything from you.”
“And that’s what’s happened to you?” I ask.
“Well, they were about to kick me out, but I don’t intend for them to take everything I have left.”
“So, self-imposed exile?”
“It’s better than being kicked out and then dying the next day.” Cleve nods at her logic. “So yes, I took the fungus removal job so that I could be on the fringes and get out. And I know that there’s a station not too far that way.” She points in the direction of the higher peaks away from the coastline. “That Morgan crew, they’re not going to be satisfied with me getting away with this equipment, okay? That’s part of the problem. The equipment is more valuable than I am! It’s an effed up world. So what do you know about Morgan?” It’s not enough for Corazon to escape; clearly she wants revenge of some kind.
“Where’s the settlement?” Cleve asks, focused on security. “We need to get to a more controlled area. We can’t just stay out here in the open in these… shroomwoods? Whatever it’s called. Not if people are looking for you.”
“The repossession squad, yeah. And they know this area better than I do.”
“Then we need to find a safe place to start,” Cleve insists.
“See those two hills in the distance?” Corazon says, pointing. “Just beyond them, a straight shot through the pass. Supposedly they call it Data Haven. That’s what I’ve heard.”
“That sounds exactly like something Roze would be into,” Cleve mutters.
“I ain’t going back to that dome!” Corazon continues, getting herself worked up again. “Ten percent extra debt relief,” she growls, glaring at the offending flyer still crumpled in my hand. “What a load of crock.”
“Well, we’re not going back to the dome,” Cleve says, matter-of-fact.
That reassurance seems to do the trick. Or maybe Corazon is just flighty, because she shifts to asking about whether we can salvage anything from our cryopods. “Those are supposed to be high-quality tech, right?”
I try to let her down easy. “Nothing’s accessible. The top of the ship caved in after something triggered the pods to open.” It would take excavating equipment to get anything useful out of there.
“Oh, it was probably the worm yesterday,” she suggests casually.
“There was definitely a lot of shaking going on,” I acknowledge.
“Yeah, I passed a sinkhole. It probably was the siege worm.”
“They just travel alone, right?” Cleve’s question is understated. To Corazon, he probably sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. But I’ve been observing him for a day in this alien landscape, and I can tell that he legitimately wants the answer to this.
“I hope so. I don’t know,” Corazon says. “You think I’ve seen one in person? I’d probably be dead.” She tells us about someone who lost a leg to one of the creatures and has sworn vengeance on siege worms. She speaks like the fellow is crazy, perhaps not realizing how deep her own focused rage goes. I’ve just met her and I can see how she vibrates with anger when she says Morgan’s name.
“We don’t know anything about the social structures in place on this planet right now,” I tell Corazon plainly. “So we need to get to civilization. We have some information related to Morgan’s activities a while ago that could be incriminating. But it’s only incriminating if it’s delivered to someone who can do something with it.”
“Let’s start at this Data Haven,” Cleve says. “They’re going to know something about Roze there.”
“Tell me the leverage first,” Corazon demands. “What kind of dirt do you have on Morgan?”
Cleve pulls out the thumbdrive. “I have the evidence my friend sent me, but I haven’t been able to view it.”
“What kind of old-school junk…” Corazon shakes her head, appalled. “Planetfallers, I swear.”
“Have computers changed so much in thirty years?” I murmur.
“Sorry, no one came and gave me new tech when I was asleep,” Cleve says pointedly.
“Planetfallers are so weird…”
“Yeah, it’s weird,” Cleve agrees. But that doesn’t change the facts.
“Hang on,” Corazon grumbles. She digs out a small pad and compares the port with Cleve’s data stick. “Ugh. Well, we can’t read this now,” she complains.
“Fine, fine, but it’s related to Morgan committing a murder early in the settlement,” I tell her, going off what I heard of the message Roze left.
“Wouldn’t surprise me!”
“It’s evidence that Morgan killed the original captain,” Cleve shares. “That’s what Roze said, and I take them at their word.”
Corazon looks at Cleve blankly. “Captain of what?”
“Oh, of Unity? I heard something went wrong, but obviously I wasn’t there,” she says with a shrug.
“But surely a murder rap would be bad for Morgan’s reputation today,” I point out.
Corazon seems unconvinced. “Captain Garland was a war hero,” Cleve tells her. “A unifying figure in the whole project, well-known and respected.” A lot of different factions wanted different things out of the exploration and settlement of Chiron. Garland was able to get them to work together. There were a lot of different ideologies at play, and he got them all to ignore the twenty percent of matters they disagreed on in favor of the eighty percent of common ground they shared. Many of those people should still be alive today. Dying when he did, there’s likely a certain level of myth and legend about him now.
Cleve holds up the thumbdrive. “This seems like a job for that Data Haven,” he reiterates, eager to get us all moving.
“A place with a name like that ought to have the right kind of port,” I add.
“Yeah, probably,” Corazon agrees, satisfied that we are safe to travel with and can help her quest for vengeance. “I’ve only heard about Data Haven, though. Saw a message posted somewhere. It didn’t last long. They say supposedly you can get signal there.” She says it like that is some real treat. I suppose we’ll find out what she means when we get there.
It doesn’t take long to clear our campsite. Cleve just needs to put out the fire and pack his blanket. I shrug on my blazer and adjust my boutonniere, and then I’m ready to go. We move out, following Corazon’s very vague directions. She knows the safe word for getting into Data Haven, but she’s not sharing it until we get there. She only trusts us so far.