The cruiser rattled. Septus Pertinax jolted awake, stretched out on a bunk. A ring of sweat had formed around his shirt collar.
Before touchdown on Endymion, he’d been dreaming of rooms: apartments in a manor high on a hill, each filled with light, with friends. Each of them toasted him. Each new room revealed new revelers, new hazy faces, and he drank with them in a whirling dance, every cup brimming with easy answers.
Septus’s bones popped as he stood up, feeling too old to be twenty-one. He hadn’t meant to sleep through the whole trip. But it didn’t matter. He’d never see this pilot again anyway.
“The treatment is simple,” Xhang said, brandishing a menacing double-headed tool. “I know this was all in your manual, assuming you have in fact read it, but that can’t substitute for experience on the ground.”
Septus had tried to read the manuals, but kept dozing off. He’d settled for learning anything he thought would save him from dying.
“Morning rose, Rosa lumina, escaped ornamental plant from the flowerbeds in Cynthia. It loves to form thickets too dense and thorny to walk through. As you can see.”
Septus stared at the menacing thicket while the others shivered and stamped in the dawn chill. His mother had grown morning rose in her greenhouse for years: seeing it here was like running into a favorite uncle at a brothel. Thousands of favorite uncles in dense stands that technology was apparently useless against.
Enneth was twiddling her fingers, impatient at a lecture she’d received before. Spider, the junior weeder who had modified his nose with dog genes to help him sniff out wild mushrooms, wasn’t facing Xhang.
“So, we mow them down first. That ensures we can reach every stalk in turn.” Xhang was a big man, and the axe made him look larger, but he was dwarfed by the two eight-foot-high mowers he stood between. “The one with the pulaski follows behind the mower, and digs the root networks out of the ground,” Xhang said. “You miss one, the whole bunch of bastards grows right back in a month. Any questions?”
“Uh, yes.” Septus raised his hand. “I understood we were going to be handling Rosa lumina with controlled burns?”
Enneth set her mouth in a line as Xhang thunked the axe head into the ground. “Look around, Pertinax. You see any way to control a burn? The valley’s under a permanent ban, direct order from Cynthia. We work the old old-fashioned way.”
He tossed the axe thing--pulaski?--at Septus’s feet while Septus stood dumbfounded. “You want me to dig roots?”
He might as well have bawled, But I’m a Pertinax! Enneth and Xhang took their seats without another word. Spider gave him a lopsided grin.
Hours later, the chill had burned off, and sweat was beading on Septus’s brow. Endymion’s east continent was hot when you wanted shade, though flash squalls blew in whenever you needed to dry off. His colleague with the dog nose spent half the day scampering across Septus’s work area in pursuit of the colorful grasshoppers that leapt in waves out of the path of the mowers. Their lunch break lasted thirty minutes in the middle of twelve hours out of the fifteen of summer daylight. After the fifth hour Septus started swinging the pulaski to a rhythm: I want to go home, I want to go home.
Which morphed at some point into I wanted this, I wanted this. Which was true. He had asked for no special treatment, no consideration of the vast sums of money his family had given to the Endymion Conservancy.
He just hadn’t expected this little special treatment.
When the sun dipped toward the mountains, Septus was so grateful he failed to notice himself catching up to Xhang’s. Pulaski over his shoulder in a way he hoped looked professional, he reached the mowers to see Xhang down from his mower, talking to someone.
“The line’s up at Dryad Mountain. See?” Xhang gestured at one of the peaks surrounding the valley. “We could have avoided this conversation.”
The reply came from a figure blocked by Enneth’s mower. “Would’ve loved to. But Big D’s got two peaks, and the line’s at the south one. That’s the north you pointed to.”
Xhang clenched a fist. “Don’t stand here and explain my own damn mountain to me. Your boss made up that south peak bullshit when his mine got too cramped.”
“You’re a liar.”
“Go ask Roberts! It’s nowhere in the paperwork.”
Septus inched closer. There were three men, not one, arrayed across from Xhang, who only had Spider for on-foot backup. Each of them was leathery and hairy enough to embarrass Septus with the softness of his face and hands. They wore identical deep-green pants and jackets with stitched, acronymed patches on the right breast.
RDGM. Now there was something Septus knew.
Rio Divuda Galactic Mining. Second-largest mineral extraction outfit in the galaxy, with ore veins on forty-six worlds. The Endymion Conservancy’s chief rival for ownership of the entire planet.
Septus gripped the handle of his pulaski. The day had gone when an heir to wealth was expected to be skilled with any kind of weapon, but he was still glad he had it.
One of the miners stepped closer. “Why don’t you ask Roberts? See if he’s feeling charitable?”
One could feel sympathy for Cardenas Xhang. The big supervisor was standing his ground, betraying nothing, but he was as likely to talk to Roberts as Septus was to show the slightest hint of weakness before his sister.
The orange-shot sky had cooled toward a deep blue. While Septus waited for someone to speak, a light breeze stirred the drooping petals of the morning roses, carrying clouds toward Copper Mountain.
“Thought so,” the lead miner growled. “Take my advice for once. Quit blocking the way of the future. Find yourself one of them resort planets with a big garden. Then you can spend all the time you like messing around with your 21st-century farm equipment.” He turned back toward the forest, leading his men toward a diesel tanker parked by a small bridge. “Evening.”
Dear Maesa,_ Septus wrote an hour later in the bunkhouse. _I hate it here.
He scratched that out. It had been burning a hole in his mind, but his sister would write back telling him to adapt. Anybody else in the family would send a cruiser to extract him right away, with a refrigerator full of cold tea to ease the journey, but he wasn’t writing to them. He crumpled up the page and fished out a fresh one.
Spider poked his head around the door. “Hey, Pertinax, we’re gonna shoot some hoops on the driveway. Wanna come?”
Enneth was with him, youthfully grey hair tied into a ponytail. Septus waved them off. “I have to finish this. Sorry.”
Spider shrugged, and left the door open. Enneth went to the trunk at the foot of her cot, digging through clothing for the ball. Septus ignored her and wrote.
Dear Maesa, Keats was the perfect name for this system. It’s all soaring mountains, hidden groves, and sun-dappled lawns, at least on the three middle-belt planets (Lamia, Grecia, and mine, Endymion). Legend has it the Colonial Service bestowed the name when somebody heard song that sounded like a nightingale, but turned out to be some kind of singing fish.
What else? How many sheets would it take to justify his decision to the person who had told him he would be back in three weeks? He already wanted to go back.
Something was burning into his skull. He looked up to see Enneth staring at him like one might at a harmless but disgusting beetle. “What?”
“You planning to acknowledge your inferiors at some point?”
“Why? You don’t like me. It’s not fair, but I can’t change it.”
“Not fair?” Enneth scooped up the basketball and hugged it to her chest. “What’s not fair is spending months sending in applications for a job the son of a donor gets by asking. What isn’t fair is then having to listen to said brat disparage your life’s ambition when it doesn’t turn out to be the exact specific kind of hard work he wanted. I don’t expect an apology, but it would not kill you to accept that we breathe the same air.”
Spider poked his snout back through the door. “Hey, let’s all just calm down, alright? No need to go nuts.”
Rage ground within Septus. Maybe she needed him to be a villain--maybe he could outmaneuver her by not being the jerk she’d cast him as.
“Enneth,” he said, “I would like to know why you came out here.”
She tugged a strand of hair. For a second, her fury looked to have all been spent. Septus quietly rejoiced.
“Because the place deserves it,” she said at length. “And if Xhang and I weren’t here, this valley would have nobody but those damn miners. No offense, Spider.”
Spider made a noncommittal noise.
“The valley would have…” How could a valley require anything? There wasn’t anything special about Copper. Sunrise and sunset took forever. There was only one creek that wasn’t full half the time. The mountains were jagged enough if you were into that sort of thing, but they’d lost their snow a month ago.
“You don’t think that miner guy was right?”
Septus regretted that the moment it had left his mouth.
“Septus. Bro. I respect you,” said Spider. “But you should really never say that shit ever again.”
“Well...I...” Septus thought of a vast, empty room, the kind of room that convinces one they’ve forgotten at a bad time why they came in. “I only mean what he said about planets. There are a thousand Earth-likes. 1,022, since the last survey came back, but what I’m trying to say is--”
“--what’s the point of protecting one?” Enneth finished.
“Well, what is the point?”
Maesa had told him several times about his habit of digging himself deeper. Something in his upbringing, probably.
“Are you asking us a real, serious question?” Enneth twisted around to bore into Septus with her eyes. “Or are you asking yourself why you came?”
“This is not about me.”
“Really? Because you weren’t making grand philosophical inquiries when we first met you. Before you knew about the heat index, or that we don’t have internet.”
“I knew you didn’t have internet.”
“Xhang’s here to get paid. Spider’s here so he can gather mushrooms. I’m here to be useful.”
Soaring mountains, hidden groves, and sun-dappled lawns, came his own words in his head. Had he meant them? How could Enneth be right about Copper Valley needing anything, when it changed based on Septus’s own mood?
He tried a different tack. “What about those miners? What’s their deal?”
Enneth rolled her eyes, aware he’d chickened out of a real attempt to understand. “It’s called Copper Valley. Guess what they’re mining.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
She rolled the basketball in her hands. “Rio Divuda is operating under the theory that Xhang can be broken. If they keep taking bites out of his livelihood, one day he’ll beg the Conservancy to sell. It’s happened before.”
Septus thought of a room with a vast, flickering screen spread out before him. “Sounds like an old Western.”
“Film from the 20th century. Fell out of favor after a golden age.” His face burned a bit to be seen with knowledge unrelated to plants or geology. “Set on a specific part of one continent on Earth.”
“The hell?” Spider asked. “There’s so many things on Earth.”
“Some of the other places had their own genres too,” Septus said. “Anyway, the hero would always be one lone man who came out of the desert. He was taciturn but devoted to justice. And he’d encounter a bunch of thugs working for somebody who wanted some land, and fight them off. Like the miners. Is why I’m bringing this up.”
Enneth’s stare hardened again. “This isn’t a Western.”
“I mean it, Pertinax. You’re not the hero. This is not a gunfight.”
“Do not try to fix this.” Enneth jabbed a finger at him. “I see what’s happening in your head. You recognize your family are the same people as the villains you just described. You want to atone, fine, but you do it by working where you are.”
She stalked out of the opposite door, leaving Spider to mutter something faint at Septus and follow her to the basketball hoop.
Septus gave up on his letter and paced from the bunkhouse to the southern edge of the compound. In the evening light, he could see all the way to where the road curved north toward Cynthia. MandeRosa pines sunned themselves on either side, their foot-long needles tracing lazy patterns in the evening light. Cottonbushes in their shadows let off drifting fuzz-like spores to coast on the wind. A bird too high to ID winged its way west toward the sunset and the Protean Sea.
He did not need permission from anyone to feel any way, to do anything. Not Enneth or Xhang. Definitely not a planet that couldn’t even speak.
He imagined a reply from Maesa, practically smelling the paper he would be squinting at in this half-light. Telling him to cope. To imagine that maybe, if he didn’t feel like he was here for a reason, he hadn’t found the right reason yet.
I didn’t come here to swing an axe. Anybody could do that. What could he do that nobody else could?
Talk. Negotiate. Make peace. He’d watched his father do that while bouncing in his mother’s arms.
Enneth had told him he wasn’t the hero. Well, they’d just have to see about that.
Xhang kept the keys to the riding mowers in the top-left drawer of his desk. His office was never locked. The garage barn where the machines sat was likewise unlocked, its big door easy for one man to push open. Who was here to steal anything?
He mounted the mower’s leather seat, picturing that close-walled anteroom full of gut-deep anticipation that he’d imagined when signing up for the job. Let them whisper in the palace and the bunkhouse that Septus Pertinax couldn’t make up his mind. He would leave them, would ride to the wilds.
Out in the work zone, he killed the mower’s engine to figure out what direction to drive in. Soft breeze swept down from the mountains, shaking sweet scents out of the faraway trees. The Red and Blue Moons hung in the sky, their light scattering over all the morning rose they hadn’t mowed that day. On a bright night, the hateful things were almost pleasant to look at.
This beauty proved he was making the right choice. Once again the valley’s mood was his as well. He pointed the mower toward the bridge to the miners’ side.
He kept the blades silent, forcing through the Rose with the vehicle’s pointed nose cone. Soon he hit the creek. Ten minutes’ travel north to an opening in the trees revealed a gravel ford inches above the water level. It must have been underwater a month or two ago, Septus thought, proud of himself for having an insight about the workings of nature.
Across the creek, columns of red-and-yellow scoured rock popped up amid the trees, forcing Septus to correct his path right-left-right to stay on a line. Just when he thought he was lost, he saw the fire.
The miners’ compound had one quonset hut of its own, painted over with gashes of graffiti, but the other buildings were tents. The fire roared in a pit in the center of the crescent of shelters. Men lolled around it, clutching bottles and leering at the dark.
Septus killed the mower and leapt off. There was no clear path, so he forced himself through the undergrowth, and thus, by accident, found himself sneaking up on the enemy camp.
At the treeline, he stepped on a dry branch, and was treated to the new experience of having several guns pointed at his chest, face, and groin.
His fear had not caught up with his senses before a voice rang out from behind the fire. “Put ‘em down, boys.”
Some grumbling, the miners holstered their weapons.
The man stepping around the fire wasn’t the largest, but he was the oldest, and like a tree his influence had grown with age. Septus had experience with people like this man he presumed was Roberts: people who existed more than other people. There were several in his family.
“He can’t weigh a hundred-fifty,” Roberts said in an old-Earth drawl. “Needin’ guns to deal with him is not a good look.”
“He’s creeping around our perimeter,” one of the gunmen said, though he and the other holdouts were sheepishly standing down. “Probably to pilfer everything he can reach. What’s the matter, don’t they feed you over at Fort Dickless Hippie?”
“If the man is not fed, we’ll feed him,” Roberts said soothingly. “Come, sir. Share our fire.”
“I didn’t come here to eat,” Septus burst out.
Two of the miners had shifted behind him, enclosing him in a ring with the fire and Roberts. “At least come sit,” Roberts told him, doing so himself. “Surely a man so out of breath has something significant to say.”
They couldn’t kill him. They’d put all the guns away by now. Still, a nagging voice from another room in his mind asked if this was what Maesa would have advised him to do.
“You need to leave our territory alone.” He took a careful seat on an upturned log across the fire from the mining boss. “Copper Valley is Conservancy land. You have your mine, we have our fields and river.”
“The hell it’s your territory,” another miner spat. “What do you defend it with, lawnmowers?”
“Lewis, please.” Roberts held a hand up. “It’s Pertinax, isn’t it? We heard when you came in. Quite the legacy you’re bringing.”
His brief pause before the word legacy shook Septus more than it should have. Perhaps it was the way Roberts kept leaning over the fire, looking impervious to flames.
“I’m here as a Conservancy representative,” was all he said.
Roberts nodded. “Then, as a Conservancy representative, perhaps you can clear something up. What exactly are you trying to do?”
He’d prepared for this, imagining what Enneth would have said. “We protect the land. As stewards.”
“For how long?”
He was in luck. This was in the manual. “Forever.”
“And if you die?” Some of Roberts’s men chuckled. “Or does Copper Valley hide the fountain of youth?”
“It’s a job. We can quit. Someone else would come along.”
“But the work is never done. We miners tap a vein and move on. We’re not held hostage by a piece of dirt. Certainly not by the morning rose.”
He had to be doing that fire trick on purpose.
“We need your valley, Mr. Pertinax,” Roberts said. “Our tunnels are running out of places to turn. The boys here, they’re getting claustrophobic.” Lewis pretended to hyperventilate, to howls of laughter from the others.
“You can’t have it,” Septus told him. “Make peace with Xhang. Whether or not you think we own the land for a good reason, we own the land. I’m asking you to respect that.”
“When you lot don’t respect yourselves?” Roberts asked. “Look at you. We have spaceships that can cross solar systems. Coca-Cola was only invented four hundred years ago, and now they sell it on Alpha Centauri III.” He pinched thumb and forefinger together. “Scientists have eradicated influenza. They’ve made cancer a non-issue. Metals we mine are used in machines that help people live to two hundred. And here sits the Endymion Conservancy...gardening. Is it any wonder I’m frustrated?”
Septus sat through the tirade scrambling for some way to respond. He kept recalling his mother’s greenhouse, the morning rose poking above the succulents.
“I’m trying to help you. There are other beautiful places, Mr. Pertinax. A whole galaxy full of them. If you could die for any valley, would you really pick this one?”
“We own the land,” Septus repeated dumbly.
“Conservancy says the people own the land,” Roberts replied. “Have you not read your own website?”
A bottle was passed around, as though there were something to celebrate. Septus drank a sip when ordered. The drink was hot, and ashy, and was still tickling his throat when Lewis guided him by the upper arm back to his riding mower.
It was only while driving back, fighting the bone-rattling shake of the mower, that Septus realized he hadn’t imagined Roberts using the exact word die.
The bunkhouse was dark when Septus swung around the outside of the compound, inching along at a kilometer an hour to keep the engine quiet. The whitewashed garage door was closed, just how he’d left it.
All that had changed was Cardenas Xhang, standing with his arms crossed in front of the shed.
Septus’s supervisor yanked him bodily out of the driver’s seat. “Stop!” Septus yelled, catching himself on the mower’s frame. He’d been dragged around enough tonight.
Xhang stared. “What could possibly have made you think that was a good idea?”
“You don’t know where I went.” One hand out like a ward, Septus clambered down to the gravel.
“It’s not hard to guess.”
“OK, but can you blame me? None of you would do what needed to be done.”
“I don’t care half as much that you went behind my back as that you stole Conservancy property to do it.”
“That’s what you care about?” Septus paced a circle away from the mower, and Xhang aped him, like they were beginning a knife fight. “A bunch of armed thugs want your land, and you’re still worried about invasive flowers?”
“You’ve forgotten your place.”
It was impossible to imagine Xhang didn’t take some joy in saying that. “Fine. Tell me where it is.”
“Not here. Clean your bunk out.”
“What?” That was not how this worked. There was a review, paperwork. “Are you serious?”
Xhang nodded. “You tried. Time to try something else.”
“That’s bullshit, man,” Spider told him as the crew left for the day, and he meant it from the depths of his soul. Enneth spared him a tongue-lashing, gave him only a quick sad look like she regretted not having cured him of some horrible mental illness.
Left alone, Septus flopped facedown on his bunk. Xhang was right. He didn’t belong here--neither in the Conservancy, nor on wild Endymion, save perhaps in its tamed enclaves with their troublesome flowerbeds and flown-in haute cuisine.
What if, he thought with his face pressed into the mattress’s vinyl covering, places didn’t need people to declare them valuable? What purpose was a Copper Valley unseen by humans?
He didn’t know how long he lay there. But when he next lifted his head, the sun was higher, and he smelled smoke.
Some part of him knew he was already blowing critical seconds. The minute he spent standing, sniffing, looking at the sky, and determining the smoke was drifting in from the work area made every subsequent step he took too late.
Xhang had caught a ride into town to submit whatever form would get Septus out of his valley. Spider and Enneth would have ridden in on a mower--only one, since Spider couldn’t drive.
That left only one in the garage.
Xhang’s office door was locked. But a rich brat’s lack of real-world skills didn’t prevent Septus from kicking things really hard. The movies had taught him where to aim: the lock with his foot, not the entire door with his shoulder. His second kick swung the door wide.
Septus grabbed at the mower keys and was outside again in three seconds. A plume of smoke billowed up into the overcast morning. Endymion was holding its breath.
He scraped the mower on the corrugated door as he peeled out. Did he remember how to get out to the worksite? He’d found his way in the dark last night, but this smoke was more than dark. The deeper he drove into Copper Valley, the more he choked, wiped tears from his eyes, wished he’d brought some sort of mask. He could only force himself forward, ever forward.
The road turned to grass underneath, the sky to choking black smoke. The horizon had turned orange-red, like a line of demons marching out of a crack in the world.
A rock juddered under one of his front tires and he heard the death-rattle of a wheel losing air. Next second a metallic lurch rattled the mower. Septus barked out “Fuck!” and stamped on the gas pedal. The mower didn’t move. The clinking protest of the axle against the ground mingled with the crackling fire.
The hellish orange glow had leapt off the horizon and was filling his vision, obscuring everything. Holding every other breath, Septus dismounted. “Enneth!” he shouted. “Spider! It’s Pertinax! I’m here to rescue you!”
Racing to the front of the mower, he got a grip under the bumper and crouched, trying not to look at the roaring orange crescent behind him. His first lift sparked an explosion of light before his eyes. He inhaled a gallon of smoke, and hacking his way through a coughing fit, saw the mower shift deeper into the ditch.
People were supposed to find hidden inner wellsprings of strength in situations like this. Crawling back, he heard a new sound drifting over the fire-roar. “Pertinax!”
“I’m here!” He raced toward the call. “Where are you guys?”
“You idiot!” Enneth cried. “Turn around! Get out of here!”
“Not when you need--”
He saw them first as shadows against the thundering brushfire. Enneth crouched over Spider, who was stretched out on the ground, pulaski abandoned in the grass.
“Why did you come out here?” Enneth was trying to tie a makeshift splint to Spider’s leg. Spider groaned.
“To save you two,” Septus said. “I brought a mower. It’s got two flats, but if we can get it out of that ditch we can ride out before the tires shred completely.”
“Can’t outrun a fire. We’d have to go upwind, north, and there is no north.” Enneth shook her head. “And Spider can’t walk. Something with his nose and the smoke, he can barely stand.”
“My ass,” the junior weeder gasped. He struggled to a sitting position, blinked, and fell back.
“We’ll carry him,” Septus said, sliding his arms under Spider’s shoulders and knees. Enneth took hold on the other side. “One, two…”
The sound of fire ripped through the morning, turning loud and alien. No sooner had they braced to lift Spider than the orange glow had spread to surround them, the demon army marching on. Carried on the wind from the north, the fire had flanked them on both sides.
The light seared his eyes. He couldn’t see his mower anymore.
Enneth let Spider down, her gray eyes watering. “It’s the miners. It was the damn miners that set this.”
Of course it had been Roberts and his men. And the spark had been a Septus Pertinax original. They had elected to force an end to the cold war, to flush the gardeners off their land. Septus darted one way and another. Heat and sparks and smoke beat him back.
He couldn’t panic. He panicked about not panicking.
Enneth took up the pulaski. “Remember your manual, Pertinax?”
“Manual!” he babbled. “Yes! Right!”
“We’re digging our way out of here! Help me!”
She attacked the ground around where Septus knelt, digging a circular firebreak. Septus kept his head low beneath the ceiling of smoke. “That’s not going to work!” he shouted at Enneth over the crackling.
“It’s our only option!”
“The wind is carrying sparks between the grass bunches--we’re standing in too much fuel!”
Enneth growled. She kept slamming her pulaski into the ground. Spider closed his eyes.
Septus had read the manual just enough to try not to die.
He recalled one trick. The thought of it filled his old self with dread.
But above the bunchgrass stood a thicket of thorny stalks that might work.
Smoke drifted down from the ceiling of the dark chapel. A clump of grass had caught alight by his right foot. He tore it out by the roots, thinking of Maesa, who he’d never see again. Everything he was had revolted against this place. So everything he was needed to go. Had to burn off the Pertinax, to burn his whole galaxy down, to be reborn.
Septus flung the burning bundle into the thorns. Amid all the smoke, he couldn’t tell what they were until he’d already set them on fire. But when he saw their petals, he burst out laughing.
Rosa lumina. Morning rose was going to save their lives.
Enneth heard him laughing and looked up. He ran back to help her drag Spider toward the space his smaller fire was sweeping through, but instead, she tossed him the pulaski.
Septus’s fire ate the morning rose down to its stems. Septus and Enneth heaved Spider into the space it left behind, dropped to their knees, covered their heads.
The technique dated to the days of Old Earth smokejumpers. Where there was no fuel, a fire couldn’t burn. Since nothing ate through fuel faster than a fire, one could set a small fire amid a larger one to burn a clear space where the blaze could not go.
Septus was no smokejumper. If his gambit had failed, he’d know it by the flames searing his skin.
Enneth grabbed the pulaski back and dug frantically. She forced Spider into the trench she hollowed, then Septus, then herself, scattering dirt over them all.
The world narrowed. He was hurtling through space beside the other two, captured in a galaxy of heat. He was outside the rooms now, no walls or roof protecting him, just the dazzling plummet of the empty sky and the rage of the fire below it.
The fire roared with a voice from the valley, the scream of Endymion: _Am I useless now? Are there a thousand others like me now?
Do I exist to be a pawn in your grand destiny, Septus Pertinax? Or a reflector dish for your thoughts?_
No,_ he thought. _I have no destiny. I am yours, wholly yours.
“Enneth!” he screamed over the firefall crashing onto their heads. “I know why!”
She mouthed. He couldn’t hear words.
“Why we stay! Why it’s sacred!”
Enneth covered her head. Her skin blistered scarlet.
Septus shouted, “Because something has to be!”
At some point after time out of time, the three stewards were reborn out of the womb of smoke. They helped each other stand, re-entering Copper Valley by a most unexpected route.
The landscape had transformed. A blasted moonscape of charred bunchgrass and scoured bald spots stretched away to the foot of the mountains, where scattered brushfires still burned. The creek bed and the mountains had served as firebreaks. The mining camp was probably unscathed. But not an inch of the Conservancy’s land in Copper Valley had been spared.
As a child, Septus had accompanied his parents on a visit to a failed terraforming operation. The thought of that desolation returned now: half-formed lumps of organic matter, water vapor drifting across a field of scree. He had cried so hard his mother had to take him back to the lander.
This time, he did not cry. Enneth beat him to it.
The woman looked older than her years as she grieved for the land she had bound herself to. She was part of this valley, and he could no more understand her pain than he could know how it felt to lose a child.
“C’mon, En,” Spider said. “At least there’s always good mushrooming after a fire.”
She sniffed. “The next year, maybe.”
“He’s right though,” Septus jumped in. “I mean, with all this gone…”
Enneth looked sharply at him. “All this what?”
“All this...the morning rose...”
How had it taken him this long to see?
The brushfire had taken it all. While they had lain low to survive the flames, Rosa lumina had stood tall and burned to the ground. Septus was standing in a textbook post-disturbance landscape: a slate wiped clean, where the scrappiest plants would take their chances to move in.
If he let them. Septus and the Endymion Conservancy had a choice here. “We could seed it,” he said.
Enneth wiped her eyes. “The miners burned the land, and now you want to terraform it?”
“Not terraform. Cultivate, like the old days. We can plant some sort of hardy native that will get a foothold before the morning rose moves in again. We can make this valley better.”
“We’ve got a staff of four. We’ll never seed it all in time.”
“Not with the resources we’ve got.” Septus located his mower on the horizon. “But with my family’s money, we could. The cost to rent a fleet of seeker drones would be a rounding error in the Pertinax books. Ask my sister if you don’t believe me.”
Enneth didn’t respond immediately. Septus felt sure she was enjoying the thought of titans of industry coming together to save Copper Valley.
Yet when she spoke, all she said was, “Let it live.”
“Let...what?” Septus stopped and turned. “What are you talking about?”
“Septus, you’re self-centered, blinkered, thoughtless, and privileged. But I can see empathy in you, too. I’m asking that empathy to let the planet live.”
Spider had already gone off sniffing. His enjoyment was perfect, his unity so complete that Septus would never know it.
“You don’t want the money?” Septus asked.
Enneth shook her head.
His familiar impotent rage flared up. “And if this valley was a person who needed a life-saving operation I could pay for? You’d still let it die?”
“I think,” Enneth said, “it tends to be bad news when repeated operations are needed to fix the complications from the original.”
“This wasn’t an operation. It was an assault.” The good feelings engendered by a near-death experience warred in Septus’s mind with Enneth’s intractability. “I’m going back home and finding out exactly what we need to do to restore native ecology in Copper Valley. Maybe I’ll buy the other side of the creek from Rio Divuda while I’m at it.”
Enneth nodded. When she looked up, her eyes wouldn’t meet his. “Find your place, Septus. The one that speaks to you. One body out of all thousand-and-change Earthlikes will.”
“All of them will. But first I’m coming back here.”
She said nothing more, leaving him to perplexedly seek out the scorched mower on his own. How dare she?_ he thought. _How dare she assume I’m not coming back?
Yet soon the flickering ember of his anger became eclipsed by enormity. He was truly outdoors, connected by rivers of stars to more lives than he could ever imagine. More instants, under rocks on riverbanks, in the shaded branch-worlds of trees, in crags under desert floors, than he would ever be capable of holding sacred.
But that was now his job.
If being reborn in fire was easy, everybody would do it, Septus thought, and bent with a tire iron to jimmy the ruptured tubes off the mower. From then on he dreamt no more of rooms.
The cruiser rattled. Septus Pertinax jolted awake, stretched out on a bunk. A ring of sweat had formed around his shirt collar.