Distant Skies

Charlotte Ashley

Story image for Distant Skies by

I t is wood thrush season.

They are migrating south for the winter, following the same path every thrush has followed for thousands, maybe millions of years. Every single bird knows the way automatically, by instinct, without having been told. Their bodies know; the bodies of their ancestors knew, and the bodies of their chicks will know. They have the tools to make the flight, built in; wings exactly strong enough, tiny muscles filled with exactly enough energy. Even star maps showing them the way and senses tuned to the magnetic fields of the earth for orientation. They make this journey because they were made for it. They don’t have a choice.

Even though, for the last 180 years, that path passes right through the farm-towers of Aerobelle, my home.

Most of the thrushes get through just fine, resting on tangles of late season raspberries and dodging the aluminum beams; but not all. Hundreds fly smack into glass panes and solar panels, amassing in little broken piles at the foot of the towers.

Me, I polish the north-facing window of my home tier to flawless invisibility and tie a basket underneath. Wood thrushes are delicious: tender on the outside with the nutty crunch of filament-thin bone on the inside. But even if I didn’t love the taste—the juicy burst of flame-kissed breast, the sweet and sour surprise of the hind quarters—I would eat them out of spite.

Year after year after year, they fly into the same windows and get stuck in the same nets; they fall prey to the same hungry predators who need only to stand in one spot with their mouths open wide—and why? Because their bodies tell them to.

That is no excuse. That cannot be an excuse. Those who allow themselves to be ruled by their instincts get what is coming to them.

That goes for people, too.

Orbit-sml ><

O ur ancestors made a body promise to AeroSmart Agricultural. That’s why we live in Aerobelle. Our contracts have been lost to time, or maybe they were destroyed when AeroSmart went bankrupt, but we can all guess what changes the promise coded in us.

Our deep, belly-felt loyalty to these ancient towers. A knack for growing and nurturing the plants that spill out of the risers on every level. A love of heights. Even these long, strong fingers and broad, flexible shoulders. They might have been part of the contract too, all AeroSmart’s design. Like I said, the details have been lost. Our bodies keep our promises for us.

November is harvest season. Like every year, we have much more than we could ever use. We can’t help but produce excess—part of our body promises, I guess—but now that AeroSmart is gone, most of it goes to waste. We trade what we can, then we hold the Burning’s Day festival.

By tradition, the Burning’s Day feasts are meant to be open to everyone, strangers and uninvited guests included, but I put a stop to that years ago. Headhunters and recruiters kept showing up, offering jobs and fishing for old body promises. Now it’s just us, citizens of Aerobelle.

Today, there are one hundred and thirty-six people here, bunched up at the tables in the open-air atriums of the ground floor, shouting over each other to be heard. Vines and ferns drying to sunset shades droop from the rafters, cushioning our voices, mellowing our periphery. Everyone is smiling, most people are drinking, and not a single fight has started besides.

I’m at the head table with a handful of the others, quiet for a change because I’m already worn out from negotiating a trade. But I got through it, and the deal came with new windows for the lower tiers, replacement parts to repair some of the riggings and planters, and a winter’s worth of salt, sugar, and iodine. I’m letting my eyes glaze over as I watch Naiva’s twins feed themselves mashed butternut; Jilly and Naveen making eyes at each other.

Then Roger lays his hand on my shoulder.

“Behind you,” he says.

I crane my neck and look out over the railing, into the starry sky that isn’t as dark as it should be. A bright light trails across the horizon, southward.

“Satellite,” I say, but I frown too. It’s too big, too bright. It looks like a ship entering the atmosphere. A big ship.

“I think we’re having guests after all,” Roger mutters.

“No way,” I say. “They never come here.”

Roger says nothing and scratches his bushy beard nervously. I turn my back to the open window and suddenly I’m ravenous from the smell of cinnamon and sage from the coming feast.

I wonder how long it will take them to make landfall.

I wonder where they have come from.

I wonder if we can get through this feast and get to the Burning before they arrive.

My father’s people made the body promise to AeroSmart five or six generations ago, during the famines of that era.

My mother’s people, they made a promise to a generation ship. The ships come home every two hundred years or so, full of strangers and expectations. Strange or not, our bodies and theirs recognise each other because of this promise. My mother’s promise, that was made a long time ago. Seven generations, I’d guess.

About two hundred years ago.

I take a scoop of potatoes and pass the bowl on down the table, ignoring the budding excitement in my belly. It doesn’t matter if I am promised to this ship, these strange people. That doesn’t mean anything. We can feed them and supply them and send them on their way.

I am no wood thrush. I know my duties. Body promise or not, I have a choice.

Orbit-sml ><

T he body promise is a trap. Let me tell you about last time.

It is autumn. Someone spots a truck incoming, a brand-new Goldanning All-Terrain Hauler. The driver is alone, but has brought a full load with him: medicine, tools, spare parts. Everyone in the towers takes cover, climbing to the safety of their homes in the upper tiers so that they can’t see or hear what goes on below.

I go out to meet the driver alone. It is a cold, windy November day, just the kind that makes the upper tiers shake, groan, and sway. It feels good to be on the ground and everyone knows it. They complain when I order them up. He’s just one guy, what are the odds he’s here for any of us? It is always the same argument. Every generation thinks they are reinventing the law.

I can tell immediately that there are no promises between him and me. Everything about him repulses me. His cocky swagger and his false friendliness, his dyed hair and perfect skin. I don’t feel the slightest bit indebted to him. He seems like a born con man to me. It will be easy to negotiate the trade and send him away, the sooner the better.

But Shoanna has followed me down, despite the curfew. She is fifteen years old and a major pain in the ass. I can tell she is being driven hard by a body promise. Every kid wants to go to the city at her age, but with Shoanna, it is something extra, a drive to buck authority that kicks so hard at times that it even scares her. I know I can’t keep her inside forever, but I hope she can learn to resist her urges, her instincts, before too great a temptation lands in her path.

A temptation like Mr. Jordan Lee of TopTier International. She doesn’t see what I see. I have him made as a smarmy company man the minute we sit down at the bargaining table, slick and bossy and used to getting his own way. He doesn’t just want the food we’ve grown; he asks for people too. He offers jobs and opportunities, but I won’t let a single one of my people enter into another body promise if I can help it. I am a wall. That is my job.

But Shoanna hears his offer. Later that night, back on our tier, she tells me she is sick. She stays in bed when we go to box and bale the harvest. She skips meals. She has a mild fever so I give her space. She uses that space, oooh, does she use it.

We don’t even fight about it. There is no time. She hides in the cab of Mr. Jordan Lee’s truck and that’s it, she’s lost.

Maybe Shoanna didn’t even need to enter into a body promise with TopTier. Maybe she was already obligated to one made by some ancestor of her father’s. That’s the thing about instincts. You can’t trust them. What feels right and what is right are not the same. You have to fight yourself every day if you want to stay free.

Not everyone can fight for themselves. I learned the hard way.

Orbit-sml ><

W e spot the cloud of dust first thing the next morning, a transport crossing the dunes of the horizon. They’ve got to be coming here—there’s nowhere else to go. We’re the last fertile farm-tower in the drought-blasted region.

“You sure you should do this?” Roger asks me before I go down.

“I’ll be fine,” I tell him. Body promise or not. I am the face of this community because my head is on straight. I think. I don’t feel.

Roger nods. He knows me.

I unlock the trade hall and start a fire in the stove, warming the room up before our surprise guests arrive. There, protected by concrete walls and slate shingles, I have more privacy than in our tower home of glass and wire. Here, alone, I allow myself a short, controlled skip of excitement and whirl of happy anticipation.

I have never in my life even wanted to travel so far as the city, but today I am so thrilled by the idea of a generation ship that I feel full to bursting. These people have been travelling between the stars for hundreds of years. They carry stories and traditions from places I have never even heard of, have learnt things and built things no one on Earth knows. They have widened the arms of our family embrace so far that we span suns, and suns, and suns…

…but I know this feeling isn’t real. What do I care about spaceships and suns, off-world cultures and people? I grow beets. This longing, this excitement—it’s just the body promise. A handshake and an injection two hundred years ago and now I can’t help but love these strangers.

It’s dangerous and I know it. I flex all my muscles and shake out all my passion. I get it out of my system.

Two hours later, the strangers arrive.

There are four of them. They are the palest people I have ever seen, half-buried under thick layers of utility clothes, all straps, pockets, and padding. They move quickly and nervously getting out of the transport, but relax once they are inside. They immediately shed unnecessary layers, peeling away like artichokes, revealing two women and two men with thin, but friendly, faces. They look hungry.

“I’m Devan,” says one of the men. He steps towards me and the fire casts warmth over his features just so, flames like marigolds in his dark eyes. He looks like he’s moving in for a hug, so I thrust my hand out in front of me.

“Marrit Shaw,” I introduce myself, shaking his hand firmly. “And what do you want?”

He pulls his hand back and looks confused. I could be more polite, but I don’t want to open that door. Negotiate the trade and go. That’s all I want.

“We—I—do you know who we are?” He has an accent, a clipping of each syllable like he’s trying to speak clearly. He probably studied for this meeting. I can only imagine what he thought he’d find here.

“Yah. You’re from a generation ship. You’re looking to resupply.”

He looks relieved at that. “We’re your ship,” he says with a smile. “We’re very excited to finally meet you.”

His blind trust is sweet, but foolish. I will have to be strong for both our peoples. “You’re not my ship. Let us be clear. I feel the body promise. I know our ancestors agreed to care for each other. But I have a bigger obligation to protect my people here than I have to you. I think it is safest for all of us if you can get me a list of what you need—”

“A list?”

“A list. We’ll load you up and you go right back to where you came from. Aerobelle isn’t what it once was. AeroSmart—the company we all made promises to—has been gone since my grandparent’s time. We don’t have much anymore. I can tell you who to talk to in the city for a proper resupply.”

He looks hurt and glances at his companions. One of the women steps forward.

“We aren’t just here for supplies.” She’s a little older than me, and reminds me of my mother. Of any mother. “We came to meet you. We are your family, Ms. Shaw. And you are ours.”

I shake my head firmly. “I’m sorry, but you are not. The promise our people made was to AeroSmart. It was an agreement of convenience. I get it—your people had to make sure there would be someone on Earth here to care for you when you returned from wherever it is you went. But it was an alliance between parties who obviously did not foresee that times change. There is no AeroSmart anymore and we don’t owe you anything. Now look, we have several tonnes of fresh green that you’re welcome to—”

The two who have not spoken mutter a few phrases I don’t quite catch. I hear “Promise,” “Map” and “Go.” But the dark-eyed man—Devan—shakes his head fiercely.

“No,” he says. “I feel the promise too strongly. We are exactly where we should be. You feel it too.” He’s talking to me now, pleading, one hand twitching like he can barely keep from reaching out. “You must feel this,” he murmurs.

“I… I do,” I say, to him, because the damn promise—and it must be the promise—is clouding everything but the deep wells of his eyes and sharp angles of his soapstone cheeks. “And that is why you must go, before one of the children sees you.”

“But Ms Shaw—” The woman does touch me, a familiar weight that takes the edge off the blade I am using to fend them off. “It is too late for that. Our people are coming. We all feel the promise. We have waited our whole lives for this. We could not keep everyone away.”

“All of you?” I force myself to step back so she cannot touch me again. I need to stay alert. “The whole ship?”

“I don’t see how it could be otherwise. We have arranged for the others to come in stages—”

But I’m not ready to think about logistics. “How many?”

“Fourteen thousand,” Devan says.

Fourteen thousand. Like a flock of wood thrushes.

There is nothing a couple hundred of us can do about a migration of so many. They are coming. That’s a fact.

When I say yes, they treat it as a blessing, not a victory. They are incapable of seeing that we should be at odds. Devan starts to smile first, anticipating my yes before I even come to it. I smile back, and then we’re barely holding back laughter, sharing relief.

C’mon, you knew, and I knew, you would never say no. I know you. You know me.

This stranger. These strangers. I feel like I’ve known them my whole life.

I arrange for them to stay below. My people must stay above. I invite them to tonight’s Burning’s Day feast.

It isn’t as if they are headhunters. They’re just family. And we can take care of them. What’s the worst that can happen?

Orbit-sml ><

T hey come by the dozens. They come by the hundreds. Shelters and trailers speckle the rocky plains at the foot of the towers and vehicles parade towards us like ants. It is the friendliest, most seductive invasion in the history of mankind. Devan’s people don’t speak our language, but their giddy anticipation afflicts us all. They come to us laughing, they come to us with tears in their shining eyes.

I let people come down to greet them in small groups, rationing out hugs and handshakes like medicine, careful not to let anyone overdose. These people are handsy, but there are thousands of them and only a couple hundred of us. They’ll have to share.

Me, I don’t have to share. Devan has arrived for me alone.

That evening, we set up a Burning’s Day feast for the strangers, parallel to our own. The long tables spill out of the atrium and into impromptu gardens protected by canvas tarps and sand screens. The wind kicks dust into our meals, but the aroma of herb-baked zucchini and salt pork beans soothes every nerve and the flow of warm beer obliterates every hesitation.

I sit at the head table with a handful of my neighbours. We should be watching our guests with sharp eyes, ensuring no rum-addled youths try to climb the towers, but we have all grown complacent. Devan and I sit next to each other at the end of the table, swapping stories. He only has eyes for me. I’m flattered, or lonely, or maybe just drunk. The man has never seen a squash before. How can you worry about a man like that?

“Why would anyone make such a thing?” he asks, running a thumb over its hard, green ridges. He’s incredulous, but smiling. “They could have at least made it round, so you could peel it.”

“Nobody made it! Hey, I’m born and bred for Aerobelle, but I can’t grow a damn thing,” I laugh. “That’s why we keep seeds. They do the hard work for us.”

“We also keep seeds, but we made every single one of them. We can’t have that much waste on the ship. Too much bark or stone and it doesn’t justify the energy it takes to grow.” He palms the gourd and pops a whole plum in his mouth, closing his eyes in appreciation. “But we also have nothing that tastes like this. Mmhmm!”

“You see, there’s goodness in wild, unplanned things.”

He puts the squash down and turns his full attention on me. “This plant is no more wild than you or I,” he points out. “It has been pressed into this absurd shape by your ancestors and mine. By the droughts and the floods and the pests. By a million years of negotiations with the world around it. Wild?” He pauses. “Doesn’t this feast celebrate the opposite? Predictability, reliability, comfort. You are thanking every one of these delicious foods for turning out exactly the way you needed them to. This is a celebration of instinct.”

“Maybe, but they are eaten for their reliability.”

He leans in close. “Joyfully, thankfully, ambitiously eaten by a very hungry recipient.”

Ahem. “That sounds wonderful… for the eater. What of the eaten?”

“The eaten could still wake up the next day…”

“…to be eaten again the next night?”

“People need to eat. You don’t seem to mind that.”

I’m getting lost between the philosophy and the innuendo, the logic and the feelings. I forget if I am for or against eating squash, but I can’t deny I am very hungry.

I look away, at the others. They are laughing and eating and singing.

What is the worst that can happen?

“Come with me,” I say to Devan. “Leave the squash.”

Orbit-sml ><

D evan and I tumble together between risers overspilling with beans, the dry remains of tomatoes. He tumbles more than I do because he’s used to slick, manufactured hallways and artificial gravity—or maybe because he’s not keeping his eyes on the path. I catch him when he slips on the rung of a ladder, he holds me while we kiss, half-dangling from a walkway. We haul ourselves up the tower one tier at a time, pausing only when we don’t want to stand up too soon.

Ten storeys up, we’re tongue-locked and tangled on an irrigation bed formerly used for cucumbers and I’m staring at the starry sky thinking, I was grown for this. I’m budding, I’m flowering, I’m pollen-rich and ready to bear the most delicious fruit. I’m a grown woman and that’s what people do, no shame in that. I look at those tiny suns and imagine them dropping and flaring one by one to my intimate rhythm, a million million seeds untouched by anyone except maybe them, maybe him, my family from the distant sky.

That’s freedom. Infinite spaces nobody has touched, nobody has seen, nobody has tampered with. The ship isn’t the trap—Devan isn’t. Aerobelle is. These crumbling beams and fraying wires that we slavishly tend.

What was I thinking? I want to go. I want to go to the stars with him.

Orbit-sml ><

T he ear-rending screech of tearing metal cuts the night, punctuated by a woman’s terrified cry. My eyes fly open and I push myself half-naked out of the fallow, lurching over to the railing. Two storeys below me, a woman hangs by her fingertips from the rusted riser of the west stair, now twisted and torn from the beams. Everybody knows not to use those stairs, but this woman’s new, she’s from the ship. She slips with another panicked cry, too weak to hold on. She shouldn’t be up here.

“Julia!” a second voice cries, one I know. It’s Roger’s oldest, Avon. He’s nineteen, nimble, smart as hell, and now clambering over the railing to get to the woman. “Hold on, I’m coming!”

He has an overstuffed pack strapped to his back, tools and treasures poking out of every pocket. He is packed to run away—with her. But the pack sets him off-balance and he’s getting snagged on old bolts, too desperate to be properly careful. I can see where this will end if I hesitate for even a moment. I vault over the edge.

Even barefoot and tipsy, I climb better than anyone in Aerobelle. I descend, hand under hand, along the outside of the tower’s frame, towards Avon. The old staircase is bent over the railing, creasing it, making the whole balcony creak. This side of the tower hasn’t been repaired for years and the aluminum’s no better than foil now. The weight of two adults might be too much for it.

They shouldn’t be up here, but then, neither should I.

“Avon, don’t move a muscle. I got this.” He looks up at me in surprise, and I see it in his eyes. Guilt. Panic. Like I am his own mother and he’s going to be in so much trouble.

Good. Maybe he’ll listen to me, then. Maybe he won’t see the same guilt in my own eyes. “Get off the rail. Go inside. I’m gonna guide her down.”

His eyes narrow. “No,” he says. “I won’t leave her with you.”

I’m on their level now. I push away from the building and swing around a planter, using the momentum to catch hold of the irrigation piping. These pipes are still solid. I shimmy along them until I could kick the twisted metal of the stair if I needed to.

“Avon, I said get in,” I shout.

Avon ignores me and releases the rail, grabbing hold of the dangling stair instead. The whole thing squeals under his weight and the woman below shrieks. “Avon!”

“I’m coming!” he replies, his voice cracking. “Just hold on. I won’t let you fall!” He struggles to squeeze between the stair and the wall with that ridiculous pack and the whole thing groans miserably.

I tear some of the rubber hosing from the irrigation system out with one hand and strap it around the pipe. Avon’s still wriggling through a narrow gap that’s getting smaller by the second as the stair folds at a sharper and sharper angle. I hold tight to the loose end of the hose and drop down to the floor a dozen feet below me, pain shooting through my bare feet. The stranger—Julia—is still hanging on, maybe five feet out and up from the lip of the floor where I stand. I could touch her feet with the tip of my fingers, for all the good that would do us. Her screams crescendo sharply as a cold gust bursts through the building, rocking the stair. I see her start to slip.

I don’t have time for a careful plan. I bound right to the edge of the tier with the hose wrapped firmly around one arm and reach out over the gulf between us, my arm encircling her knees. She falls, then, collapsing heavily over my shoulder—but I’ve got her, and the hosing has got me. It jerks forward with our sudden weight, then springs back, bouncing us both painfully to the safety of the steel-slab floor.

Julia gets up first. I reach for her hand, but she’s staring over me with horror in her eyes. “Avon!”

I turn. He’s tangled in the metal, dangling by his pack with his arm twisted behind his back, his purple face frozen mid-cry. His legs are still kicking, but there’s no light in his eyes. It must have been the fall, or the snap-back of the stair. His neck shouldn’t bend at that angle.

I crumple. Julia screams.

Orbit-sml ><

I have made a terrible mistake.

I should never have let them come.

I should never have let them stay.

Avon is dead, and I am not sure who grieves more painfully: his father, or this stranger, Julia. She is 10 years older than Avon, at least. I want to hate her for trying to sneak away with the boy, this child, but I can’t. She is hysterical, inconsolable, tearing her hair out over a boy who she met last night. Her people have tried to take her away, but she kicks and screams and refuses to leave the atrium, where the remnants of last night’s feast are still set up.

I stand at the head of the table and watch as people come together, consoling each other, weeping on each other. I can’t even tell who is from Aerobelle and who isn’t. They fold into each other and become indistinguishable.

I feel his hand on my shoulder and know, without looking, that it is Devan. I let it stay there for only the time it takes me to find my voice.

Then I shrug him off.

“Get out.” I raise my voice. “Take everyone. Fill your transports. Take everything you can carry. But get out.” The room has gone quiet, but for the muffled weeping of a few. “If you don’t go, or a single member of this community goes missing, I will burn the harvest at dusk.”

The weeping becomes a whispering, which becomes a muttering. “What?”

I refuse to waver. “It is Burning’s Day. And I swear by the blood in my veins that I will burn every last grain in the stores if you don’t start moving, now. Get out.” Nobody moves. “Get out!”

Then they move, scared and unsure. I don’t stick around to watch. Standing here would just invite discussion, and there will be none of that. I take a ladder up to the upper concourse and slip from there into the eastern elevator shaft. I’m going straight to my nest via the hardest possible route, because Devan is already trying to follow me.

“Marrit!” he calls up the shaft, already far below me. “Don’t do this. Wait for me. I just want to talk.”

But I know too well where talking to him can lead. I squeeze my lips shut and climb faster.

“Marrit, I am coming up.” I look down and, indeed, he has somehow got hold of the lip of the shaft entrance and is pulling himself up to the scaffolding by the strength of his thick arms alone. I turn and leap across the shaft, catching the struts on the other side. I climb faster.

I hear scrabbling and I check on him again. He’s trying to inch lengthwise around the shaft, over to my side where there is no ladder. The idiot is going to get himself killed, letting his promise drive him after me like this. “Devan! Go back. Organize your people and give this up.”

“No,” he grunts. “I will not give you up.”

I catch that one like a brick to the chest. I push my longing aside and resume climbing. At a glance, I see he is looking down, trying to find a ledge for his feet. This is my moment. I haul myself over the next landing and tuck myself against the wall. I hope he has not seen where I have gone.

“Marrit?” he calls. I exhale. He has not. “Marrit, you are making a mistake. Think about the crime, Marrit. Love? Should we all suffer starvation for that?”

It isn’t love, I want to cry. It’s a cocktail of hormones that our bodies were programmed to give off under specific circumstances. AeroSmart hid a drug in our DNA. That’s not love.

“Your people are in pain, Marrit. We can pull together and help each other, not tear apart when we’re at our most vulnerable.”

Better to tear out the cancer than to let it eat up your whole community.

“What are you afraid of? We were made for each other. We were promised to each other. Why can’t we embrace each other, your people and mine?”

Why? Why?

“Because our people are indebted to unknown masters,” I say, “enslaved for generations. Families are broken up and never able to see each other again. Kids too young and stupid to think through the cloud of emotions climb damn staircases they shouldn’t and get themselves killed. Adults… who should know better… are distracted from their duties. These promises are curses. Just contracts designed to rob us of choice and free will. They aren’t real.”

I hear the scrape of Devan’s boot against metal and realize he isn’t far below me.

“Or maybe—” He pauses. “Maybe the body promise is just the midwife of our better natures. To ensure we always have a home to come back to.”

I can see him without looking. He will have his head bowed, knuckles tight around a girder, his eyes shut to better hear and think. He shifts his weight to ease the pain in his fingers, listening for me. I can see him and hear him and feel him. The promise we share is the same in both of us.

I lean out over the ledge and our eyes meet as his open. He is barely two feet away. He eases into that knowing smile, the smile I know means he knows that I know that he and I are built to know each other in every conceivable way.

And I smile back and reach over the edge. I unhook his fingers swiftly, one hand then the other, and watch him drop.

He falls.

He should have known better.

Orbit-sml ><

N o.


I throw myself to the ledge, my hand shooting out—and he’s there, barely two feet away. He smiles, a warm, trusting smile that never doubted me. I feel strangled and my heart is beating so hard against the floor that I swear I hear the bolts rattle. He lets go of the girder and grabs my wrist. I squeeze so tight, his fingertips turn white.

“You,” I say, “Asshole. You could have fallen.”

“You would never let me fall,” he says. He is so sure. He has absolute, unwavering faith in the promise. I can see the ghost of his falling body stenciled at the bottom of the shaft.

I pull him up and together we clamber into a heap on the floor, hugging, panting, laughing and maybe crying.

“That wasn’t too bad,” he says, finally, when we untangle ourselves. “I could learn to climb that every day, with practice.” He gives me a meaningful look.

I thread my long, calloused fingers with his thick, tender ones. “No, you couldn’t. You don’t belong here.”

I look up and down the empty shaft. Daylight is starting to line the air, creating bridges of light and mist back and forth across the expanse. I see a loose nut where Devan’s left foot had been a minute ago. It’s nothing but flakes of rust held together by habit.

“I’m starting to think none of us belong here.”

Orbit-sml ><

W e all leave together.

We bury Avon and leave him to steward the plants, a last precious payment to AeroSmart. The rest of us fill a couple of buses. We’re barely the hump on the camel’s back.

“Do you want to make a body promise?” Devan asks me. “To the ship. You don’t have to.”

“Aren’t I already promised?”

He kisses me. “You are promised to us. To me. But we are promised—” he points up “—out there. We are made for life between the stars.”

I wonder. Am I leaving because of my body promises, or despite them? Can I have made the decision to go, if I hadn’t been given the instinct to stay? Will any of my decisions be made freely, if I don’t know there’s a decision to be made? And our descendants—they will live their whole lives on the ship whether they have made the promise or not. Would I be doing them a favour?

I can see the ship on the horizon. It is bigger than anything I have ever seen. It’s the whole world. It’s our whole world.

“I’ll think about it. I promise.”


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Charlotte Ashley

Author image of Charlotte Ashley Charlotte Ashley is a writer living in Halifax, Canada. Her short fiction appears in a number of anthologies and magazines, including F&SF, Podcastle, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2017, and she has been nominated for both the Aurora and Sunburst Awards. She occasionally writes game content for Hit Point Press. You can find more about her at Once-and-Future.com or on Twitter @CharlotteAshley.

© Charlotte Ashley 2016, 2022 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created by Micah Hyatt using an image generated with DALL·E 2 and subsequently regenerated using Stable Diffusion.

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