The ridge sagged between the peaks like it was an ancient, rotting suspension bridge clinging to the mountains on either side. The path was wide enough but sheer, falling away for thousands of feet so swiftly that even the pines didn’t climb up the sides. The breeze from the valley below was the only thing daring to scale the grade, gaining momentum and bravely powering over the top of the ridge, carrying with it the piney scent of the evergreens at the base.
If it wasn’t for the sound of her boots crunching the gray granite under her feet, giving at least one of her senses the impression that she was on solid terrain, she might have thought she was walking in the clouds. She stepped closer to the edge as she walked, feeling the gentle slide of gravel and hearing the lonely call of stones as they tumbled into oblivion. And while there may have been a time when the thought of plunging a mile off the side of a cliff might have unnerved her, she was not the same girl she once was. Not even close.
Evelyn tucked her hands into the pockets of her thin coat, the synthetic fleece fibers warming her hands against the chill. It was spring, but the breeze, the altitude, the sun’s faint rays dropping low on the horizon, the blocks of snow still clinging to the cliffs higher up were all conspiring to press the chill deeper into her bones.
The path curved as it got steeper. It was new to her, though the surroundings made it seem familiar. Her once-black boots, brown now from the dust of thousands of merciless miles, shifted slightly as the treads sought purchase on the uneven terrain.
Pulling her hands out of her pockets, she zipped the fleece up to her neck and stretched, her hands clasping high on the boulder in her path. Her dry and calloused fingers instinctively found their way into the crack, and without so much as shifting her weight, Evelyn tightened her shoulders and lifted herself up, the long exhale the only evidence that she had exerted herself.
She didn’t stop or even pause to think, leaping and landing with the grace of a ballerina as she flew from boulder to boulder. Around the side of the cliff, she bounded and then leapt, leaning into the breeze, reaching with both hands, grabbing the ledge. Her hands clamped to the edge like grappling hooks. Nothing below her but a thousand feet of void. Nothing around her but the coaxing whisper of death on the wind, calling her to release herself into its terrifying certainty.
Evelyn let her fingers slip, the tips being the only things keeping her attached. She let herself hang, feeling the long stretch down the back of her arms, her shoulders, her sides, through her lower back and hips.
She closed her eyes and felt herself breathe. It had been six months since she was on the other side of the rock to which she clung. It felt like a lifetime. Maybe a thousand lifetimes. Perhaps it had all been just a dream. She wondered if she might see it all differently than it had been. She remembered it as being the place where she had spent the loneliest night of her life, even though Joseph had been just feet away from her.
She waited a moment longer, feeling the burn of the acid in her muscles, and then Evelyn tightened her shoulders again. With little more than an exhale, she lifted herself, swung a leg up to her handhold, reached higher, and, like a spider walking up a wall, pulled herself to the top.
The view of the valley below was exactly as she remembered, though everything seemed less black. She knew it hadn’t been black, of course. When she was there last, the valley had been coppery with the autumn harvest in the fields, even before the winter came. The lake had a deep blue shimmer. The forest below and on the far side of the valley was endless shades of green, and the skies above Orsus had the iridescent hum of violet blue. But her memories of the place, of the hours she had spent that night, on that cliff, were black.
The monochromatic memories added to the chill, and though Evelyn had hardly broken a sweat getting to the rock above the ledge, she felt her skin cool, as did her thoughts of what might have been.
She sat and slid down the rock, smacking her tailbone on an unfriendly jut. Wincing, she rubbed her backside, laughing at herself. She was putting her DNA to better use—Jane would have been proud of her, she was sure—but she certainly wasn’t all strength and grace.
Pushing the memories aside of her last visit to the ledge, Evelyn sat, letting her legs dangle over the side. She brushed her hands on the worn fabric of her cargo pants and reached inside her jacket. Pulling out the small bundle wrapped in cloth, she set it on the rock beside her and let the flaps of fabric fall open.
The dried berries inside could have passed for cranberries on Earth, and they tasted similar, though Evelyn noticed they tended to stain her lips and the inside of her mouth scarlet for hours after eating them. She didn’t care—she didn’t have anyone to impress at the moment—and after only glancing at them, she absently put one in her mouth, cradling it with her tongue, letting its tartness tingle the inside of her cheeks.
The sun was nearly down, the sky turning a fiery red over the tops of the white snow-covered peaks miles in the distance. She could have stared at it forever, the beauty of the death of a day and the birth of a night. But her curiosity overwhelmed her, and she stared at the colony in the valley below.
Evelyn wasn’t sure exactly what she was looking for. It had been a long time since she had been there. She wondered if there had been progress—new buildings or even a dock built into the lake. She figured it was all unlikely, as winter had come in between the time she had left and returned. But life in a colony on an alien planet doesn’t stop with the change of a season. Something would have had to change, and even at a distance, Evelyn held her gaze on the village to see if she could discern anything new.
The first thing she noticed was that there were fewer canvas tents pitched in the compound. This made some sense to her, assuming the colonists made their way into more substantial housing during the colder weather.
Shrugging off the subtle change, she followed the well-worn path between the tents into the village. It was exactly as she remembered. Two rows of small wooden shacks lined the street running into the center of town. A row of small wooden buildings ran along either side of the water’s edge. Evelyn could see the council building, the school room, and even Potter’s Field, the cemetery the villagers had set aside; they all seemed the same.
A twinge of disappointment seeped into her thoughts. Even though she didn’t care much for most of the people she had left behind, there were a few she wanted to see again, and for their sakes, she hoped for more. But from the looks of things, nothing had changed.
Evelyn picked another berry and put it in her mouth, drawing her knees up into her chest and wrapping her arms around them. She imagined what it might be like, down there in the dirt. She thought about Tau and Mina Moor, and realized a smile had crept across her lips—no doubt bloody red by now from the berries. The cookies Mina had made were delicious, but Evelyn wondered if their stores of grain would have held long enough through the winter for her to have kept making them. And then there was her husband, Tau, the giant with hands the size of dinner plates. Evelyn still laughed when she thought of the two of them together, with him literally standing a head and shoulders taller than her. They were quite a pair, though, and the fact that Mina wanted Evelyn to come back warmed her as she sat on her cold rock.
Doctor Khari’s thin face and long dark hair came to mind. Jane was Evelyn’s sister, of sorts, but Shani treated her as much like a friend and sister as anyone else ever had. The colonists had seen to destroying almost all the technology they had after exiling Evelyn, and she wondered what life must have been like for a doctor who had no technology left with which to doctor. How do you do what you were meant to do with no tools to do it? she wondered. Figuring the winter might have been pretty bleak for Shani, Evelyn found herself offering up a little prayer for the doctor’s safety.
Titus, who actually proved to be a friend in a moment when it did matter, strutted through her thoughts. Evelyn still had a hard time imagining him in anything other than his underwear, given his little show with her on the shuttle. She found herself smiling more broadly, unsure whether it was because of his bravado or her naïveté.
Images of other colonists came faster as Evelyn allowed herself to think, but she pushed them past, refusing to care. Councilwoman Vandergaast, who had offered her a moment of appreciation when Evelyn was too far past the point of caring to enjoy it. Misha, the councilwoman’s vile offspring, and her equally vile best friend, Autumn. They were all down there in the dirt. She imagined them scraping by, making a meager living and wondering if leaving Earth had all been worth it.
The sun was mostly down, the valley darkened by mountain shadows and the ocean of space beyond the cloudless sky. The stars had just started revealing themselves. Evelyn shrugged her shoulders. I guess they’re doing alright without me, she thought, wrapping the berries back in the cloth.
Tucking them back in her pocket, she stood and started back over the boulder she had slid down. It would be getting dark as she made her way to the shuttle, but she wasn’t worried. The moons would give her enough light to see by, but even so, she knew her way now across the boulders. She couldn’t forget anything. At one point she considered it a curse—that between her nanites and her brain no detail was ever lost. Not even the horrors of life she had experienced. But survival on an alien planet, in a galaxy light-years from Earth, demanded resourcefulness. She no longer had time or energy to waste wilting over the losses of her short life. But knowing what she knew, that made her a predator. She would survive.
Clambering to the top of the boulder, she turned to look one last time at the colony she had found not nine months earlier. Life was going on there without her, and Evelyn exhaled a deep sigh, wondering if that might be the last time she’d be back. But in the middle of the thought, Evelyn realized there was something nagging her about the darkening, quiet colony, and it didn’t take long before she realized what it was. It was dark. The sun was almost down, twilight washing over the valley, and the village was still dark. There were no lights burning in any of the sheds. There were no campfires lit among the tents or anywhere else that she could tell. From where she stood, there was nothing—no light and, more importantly, no heat—anywhere to be seen.
Within seconds, Evelyn realized that while the buildings and the structures below in Philips Landing were the same, something most certainly had changed. But whether it was that the people had left or migrated, vanished, were hiding, or were just behaving very, very strangely, Evelyn couldn’t tell. It was a mystery, though, and one she wasn’t sure she wanted to solve. Her pursuit of answers to too many other mysteries had ended with her being kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured, poisoned, battling bionic super-soldiers and sea monsters, and maybe worst of all … other teenage girls.
Evelyn shook her head and turned. She leapt into the darkness, certain she would land on the boulder below, content to leave the mystery of the disappearing colonists as an unread chapter in her life’s adventure that had, to that moment, been anything but certain.