Back in the dorm Meiki gathered her things. She didn’t need much. A change of clothes, tools, first aid kit, some food and water. Her book of course, she could never go without.
Most important of all was the cloak. It had been a key part of her plan. Maybe she could still make it all work. Being invisible was still a huge advantage.
Meiki worked in the lab for five days making that thing. Metamaterials weren’t easy to synthesize with the basic crafters available at the dorms. The only reason she didn’t get an A on the project was because Charlie said she did merely an adequate job explaining the scientific properties and the cloak itself held little practical value.
In a way that was how Charlie made Meiki feel about herself- adequate, but of little practical value.
She planned to prove him wrong. Meiki adored Charlie truly, but he seemed oblivious to her plight here in Gates.
She wondered what he and Tyson had been talking about. What calamity? What was Prathama? Meiki thought. It certainly wasn’t mentioned in the histories. She did a quick scan of her book to make sure and found nothing. And who was Marie? Charlie had never mentioned the name before.
Did this have something to do with Charlie lying about the meteor? Was it a sign of this Marie planning an attack on gates? Was she some sort of despot? That didn’t make any sense. Gates had no reason for anyone to attack. Unless they were looking for the secret to making mushy apples.
She worried that Charlie would miss her. She worried more that he might not miss her. Meiki knew she was his hardest working student, but he never seemed to notice. Maybe the invisibility cloak worked too well. Maybe it hid her even when she wasn’t wearing it.
Meiki planned to leave for real. Tonight. Gates had gotten smaller as she had gotten larger. She needed someplace else. There was an entire planet being kept from her. An entire universe, maybe. One way or another she meant to see it.
Her original plan had been to sneak on board the truck and hide under her cloak until it got to Sagan. From there she could hitch rides openly to Newbright. Tyson ruined that by taking over Dav’s post. The cloak could hide her from the eyes of a human, but not from an android’s superior vision. Their visual units expanded way into ultraviolet as well as infrared. She might as well try hiding under a wool blanket.
Still, the cloak could be useful on her way to Newbright. Maybe she’d just bike the whole way. It didn’t matter. She could not stand to wait another day. Not another second.
The sky hung above in its usual overcast olive shade. She saw no sign of rain this night. That was good. Soon everyone would be back on the roof singing and carousing. No one would notice her. Not that anyone ever did before.
The school wasn’t really a prison. There were no guards or barbed wire fences to contend with. Meiki simply had to step out the door, walk her bike quietly down the road and turn right instead of left before getting to the market.
Every step she took from that point would be away from Gates, away from home. Still. She kept along the tree line. It would be best if no one knew she had gone until the morning. Maybe the others wouldn’t notice her absence, but Phel would care. The crafters always needed cleaning. The gutters were in need of repair too. He would be the only one on the planet who would truly miss her she figured, but only because without her he’d have to do all the work himself.
Through a rare break in the clouds she could just make out a distant star. Meiki had no idea which star. They hardly bothered to teach astronomy in Gates. Meiki figured no one cared because the stars were invisible most of the time anyway. She had seen videos of the grandeur of creation. Nebulae and galaxies smeared across the vast blackness of space in colors she almost never witnessed in real life. Why did people ignore such beauty?
Even in a world shrouded by clouds the mere hint of an infinite universe should stir the imagination of any who had one. Maybe that was the problem. Meiki felt like a mutant- the only person in Gates born with the power of imagination. The only person who could dream. She knew that wasn’t literally true, but when she talked to her classmates she became less certain.
The beautiful infinite cosmos remained forever hidden from her view, but it was there. She would find a way to see it someday. But first she would see Newbright.
The star had gotten brighter. She was sure of it. Stars were such an uncommon sight and usually so dim. There was no mistaking it. That tiny light in the sky had grown from a dull speck to a luminous point. Though still small it appeared nearly as bright as the sun at midday.
Against all possibility it became even brighter.
No. Not brighter. Bigger.
It grew in size as she watched.
“Another shooting star...” Meiki said to no one.
She stood in awe for several seconds.
“What are you doing?” came Phel’s voice from behind her,
“Out for an evening ride?”
“Um...”, she said, snapping out of her reverie, “Phel...I was...yeah. Just getting some exercise.”
“So this is it, huh? You’re finally running away? You don’t usually take all of your worldly possessions with you on a joy ride.” He sat on his bike too. He must have spotted her through his window and decided to follow.
Before she could respond a bolt of light flashed from the clouds into the forest beside them. In a microsecond followed the most immense thunderclap either of them had ever experienced. Trees cowered away from the blast. Meiki and Phel were thrown to the ground.
“What was that?” said Phel, “I’ve never seen anything like it!”
Meiki took a moment to right herself and adjust her pack before saying, “It wasn’t lightning. No way. It was another meteor. I saw it coming into the atmosphere. That must be what it was. A shooting star.”
“We should tell Charlie. Two meteors in one day? What if more of them are coming? There could be a whole meteor storm headed our way.”
“Ĝi ne estas meteoro ŝtormo” spoke a voice that seemed to stab out of the darkness.
“Who the hell are you?” spat Phel.
“Mia nomo estas Rashmi," said the voice. A human figure ambled lightly onto the road. She stood only a little taller than Phel. She had brown skin and wore a blue suit that looked painted on. It was inlaid with yellow markings that resembled circuitry.
Phel moved in front of Meiki and said, “Stand back. This lady is crazy for certain. Listen to how she talks.”
“Maybe she just isn’t from around here, Phel.” Meiki stepped around him and approached the strange woman.
“I’m Meiki. This jerk is Phel. We’re from Gates. Where are you from?”
“Mi estas de New Cydonia. Ĝi estas urbo sur Marso..”
They looked at her with slack jaws. The woman held her palm to her mouth and extended it toward Meiki.
“Parolu en miajn manojn..”
“What?” said Meiki, “You want me to talk to your hand? I’m sorry, lady, but this is too weird. Maybe we should just-”
One of the yellow inlays on the woman’s glove began to glow.
“There,” she spoke again, “that should make things easier. The multi-vox needed to sample a bit of your dialect. The modulator will convert my voice to something more recognizable for you. Your language is obviously an offshoot of an earlier form of my own. We should understand each other quite clearly now.”
“Multi-vox?” said Meiki, “Modulator? Your suit has tech in it that can translate speech? On the fly? Even a language you haven’t encountered? That’s AWESOME!”
“Meiki. Come on," said Phel, “Let’s get back to Gates and tell Charlie what’s going on. We don’t need to talk to this wacko. Let’s just go.”
Meiki ignored Phel.
“Are you from, Newbright? What did you say your name was?”
“My name is Rashmi. I’m from New Cyd-”
She paused. Her eyes widened and her head turned toward the woods like a dog does when it hears a sound that a person cannot.
“We need to leave here. Now. They’re closer than I suspected.”
“Who is?” said Meiki, but Rashmi had already started heading down the road. She ran fast. By the time they picked up their bikes and were after her she had dashed fifty meters away. After about a kilometer of riding they still hadn’t overtaken her.
“Meiki,” Phel said, “Turn around. Come back. Why are you chasing this chick?”
“You turn around. I’m leaving anyway. I told you that yesterday. That woman is fast. How is she running like that? Something in that suit of hers must maximize her natural abilities or something. We can barely keep up! She must be from Newbright. I know she can help me get there! I know it!”
“Well, I ain’t leaving you alone in the woods with that lunatic! I’ll follow you all the way to the city if I have to!”
“Suit yourself!” she said and kicked up the speed.
They continued like this for nearly a half hour before Rashmi stopped running. She seemed unperturbed by the youngsters catching up behind her.
“Don’t worry, children.” she said, “I’m sure nine kilometers is more than enough distance to keep them from detecting us right away. We can slow down the pace now.”
Meiki and Phel dropped their bikes and hyperventilated for a while. Meiki pulled a bottle of water from her pack and drank heavily. She offered it to Phel who did the same. He proffered the bottle to Rashmi who shook her head.
“Don’t need it.” She said.
“You don’t need water?” said Phel “After running nine kilometers?”
“I don’t need it ever. I have all I need.”
Phel looked back at Meiki, “What are we doing here? What are we EVEN doing?”
“I’m going to Newbright.” she said, “I don’t know what you’re doing. Following me I suppose.”
“You don’t know this weirdo. This chick who don’t drink water. They don’t drink water in Newbright? What are they a bunch of camels?”
“I do drink water. I just don’t need it. My suit regulates all of my physical needs. It’s...hmmm...I’m not sure how to put it in terms you would understand at your technological level. It’s a utility cloud made up of zeptoscale foglets.”
“You mean like nanobots?” asked Meiki, “We know what nanobots are. We ain’t stupid.”
“Well. Yes and no. I’m not a physicist, but a zeptoscale foglet compared to one of your nanobots would be like an ant compared to an entire planet. Or something like that. They’re really small. They can manipulate matter on the subatomic level and convert atoms of one type into another.”
“That’s impossible," said Meiki. She paid attention in physics class. To convert one element into another would require as much energy as a supernova. It could not be done. Especially not by a microscopic robot.
Rashmi held up her hand.
“Like I said, I’m not a physicist, I don’t understand the specifics of how this works. But it works. Take a look at my glove.”
The glove disappeared. Just faded away into the air leaving her smooth brown skin exposed. In less than a blink a glove of pure ice replaced it.
“Ow, that kind of hurts.” she said. “I better turn it back into graphene. I don’t want to get frostbite.”
At that the ice melted and an almost imperceptible fog coalesced around her hand until it looked just as before- a blue glove with gold circuit inlays.
“Anyway,” she continued, “the zeptoscale foglets provide all the water...and everything else I need.”
Phel looked nonplussed but managed to ask, “Everyone in Newbright has this kind of tech?”
“I’m not from Newbright. That’s your big city? The first settlement? I’m sorry, but most of our records regarding this colony were lost.”
“What?” said Meiki and Phel in unison.
“Colony?” Meiki said, “ Are you...could you be...from Earth”
“From Earth?” Rashmi winked, “Of course not.”
“I knew it," said Phel, “There’s no way-”
“I’m from Mars, of course.”
Phel looked at Meiki and then at his bike.
“We should go home. It’s way dark out and this woman is crazy.”
Meiki didn’t budge. She stared at Rashmi. She looked her up and down.
“You’re a Martian. For real? You’re from the old Solar System? How did you get here?”
“I crashed. It’s a long story, but I was in a solo craft. I came here on a mission to discover the remains of the Naya colony. We lost contact centuries ago. I’m here to speak to your founders if they’re still operational.”
“Yes, the android stewards who managed the colony in its early days before handing control over to humans. I assume that at least some of them are still functioning. They were built to last.”
“Oh.” Meiki said, “Umm...yeah...there’s Charlie and Tyson...and...I know there are others but I don’t know their names.”
“Can we quit chit-chatting about androids?” said Phel, “Who is after you? Why are you running? We don’t want to get mixed up in some weird space-alien business. We were doing fine here before you showed up. Seriously. Meiki. Come on. Let’s go home!”
“Miss...Rashmi?” said Meiki, “My idiot friend has a point. How do we know we can trust you? I mean who even are you?”
“My name is Rashmi Kapoor. I was born and raised in New Cydonia on Mars. It is a young city- less than two hundred years old. There is no way for you to have heard of it. When I turned forty I moved to Earth. I studied anthropology and philosophy at Tekton University. I eventually became a professor at that college. I held that position for nearly thirty years. While there I discovered the possibility of the existence of a lost colony. What anthropologist could resist such a find?
The college was unwilling to fund an excursion so here I have come under my own power. The craft I used is small but it uses an Alcubierre drive. It’s much faster than the antimatter ships that brought your ancestors to this world. I arrived here in less than five years...”
“Wait,” said Phel, “You’re the one who broke the harvester. It wasn’t lightning and it wasn’t a meteor! It was you!”
“Oh you’re quick,” said Meiki. “Miss Kapoor...Rashmi...I guess talking to us is like talking to someone from the middle ages. I mean. All your technology. Alcubierre drives? Zeptoscale foglets? That’s like...well, science fiction to me.”
“I apologize.” she said, “It must be a lot to take in all at once. It’s getting dark. And I’m sure the two of you need rest and food. Let’s make camp.”
She stepped off the road and ambled to a clearing in the underbrush then pulled a disc of black fabric out of her suit and placed it on the ground. In a moment it grew into a dome about four meters across and two high. It looked black and shiny like a bubble in a puddle of oil.
“Did you do that trick with carbon nanotubes?” asked Phel.
“Actually it’s some sort of plasma field generator. I don’t really know how it works. I guess I should have stayed awake in physics class. Not only will it keep us safe from the elements, but it will shield us from nearly all types of artificial detection.”
“About that,” Phel said, “you still haven’t told us who you were running from...or why.”
Rashmi gently brushed her fingers on the dome and a gap appeared, like a flap on a tent. It was hollow and she ducked inside.
“Come on in and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Meiki followed her into the tent. Phel hesitated then did the same.
The floor of the dome felt firm, but had a bit of give to it like a dense cushion. The inside looked black with gold inlays similar to those on Rashmi’s suit. It felt dry and dim and void of any external noise.
“They can’t detect us with their machines in this dome,” said Rashmi, “but they may still see us naturally.”
She waved her fingers in the air as if tapping buttons on a keyboard that only she could see. There came a low rumble from the sky followed swiftly by the patter of rain on the roof.
“Did you just make it rain?” said Phel, “Are you a sorceress?”
“No,” Rashmi laughed, “I’m not. But as the saying goes...any sufficiently advanced technology is-”
“-indistinguishable from magic!” said Meiki. “I love Arthur C. Clarke. Do you read a lot of science fiction?”
“Oh dear, I’m a student of human history and one of my specialties is the pre-emergence period. I’ve been fascinated with much of the culture of those centuries.”
“Yes...that’s what we call the time from the industrial revolution until the emergence of interstellar travel. The ships that took your ancestors to this world were one of the final expressions of that time in history.”
“What happened?” asked Meiki, “What became of humanity in the Solar System? That’s been the biggest mystery in the history of Naya. You guys never contacted us. Never came to see how we were doing. Everyone thought you had all died off or something. was there a war?”
“Well,” said Rashmi, “that is a bit complicated. It’s hard to tell the tale of several centuries of history in a single conversation. There was most certainly a war, several in fact. But there were also many other peaceful revolutions. Technology and society both were transformed multiple times since then. Between the dawning of interstellar travel and zepto-level technology humans are now capable of feats that I suppose do make us seem like wizards from your point of view. Most of us don’t need to eat or drink or even sleep anymore. Our lives have been extended vastly. I am ninety six years old but I suspect that I look like a young woman to you. The problems of the past, overcrowding, lack of resources, those are all behind us now. Most people live to pursue personal development in arts and science.”
“That sounds amazing," said Meiki, “Take me with you! Take me back to Mars and Earth! I want to live in YOUR world!”
“Well...I don’t usually just kidnap children I’ve just met and take them off into space with me. Right now I’m on a bit of a journey of my own. After that is done maybe then we can discuss the future.”
“You still didn’t tell us about the people chasing you," said Phel. “Who are they? Are you even really who you say you are? A professor looking for our lost civilization? Well, you found us. Here we are. What do you really want? What are you running from?”
“That is also complicated. The ones who are chasing me, they are rogue government agents. A certain faction of the Republic has decided it is better to ignore the past. They wish to leave colonies like Naya on their own. That is part of the reason why I could not get funding for my expedition. When I set out on my own...well...they sent a party of agents after me.”
“So. You’re a fugitive? On the run from the law?” asked Meiki. She tried to hide it, but the thought of her new acquaintance being an outlaw actually thrilled her. Meiki’s only exposure to crooks and bandits had been through movies and books so in her eyes Rashmi looked like Robin Hood.
“I suppose I am. I had not considered it as such. You make it sound so romanticized. I am merely a scholar...”
“A criminal is what you are," said Phel. “The government is out to get out on account of you broke the law. Why should we have anything at all to do with you?”
“Children. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to drag you into my conflict with the Catena.”
“That is what they call themselves- The Catena. It means “chains”. If it were up to them we would all be in chains. If you wish to part ways with me I will understand. But I beg you that if they find you do not tell them that you saw me.”
“I don’t understand," said Meiki, “You seem so advanced. All this technology. Yet your people are being enslaved? It just seems so...” she searched her brain for the right word, “...so barbaric.”
“That is exactly the problem.” Rashmi said, “Our technology has us caught now in an endless cycle. People are trapped eternally in a life that never ceases because of the very advances we have made.”
“What kind of advances?” asked Meiki, eagerly.
“I’m not listening to any more of this talk," said Phel, “I’m out of here. Make this rain stop. I’m leaving NOW. Meiki. You’re coming with me.”
“No I am not!” she said, “I’m going to Newbright. With Miss Kapoor if she’ll take me. Or on my own if I have to. But I am NOT going back to Gates. No matter what!”
“Well. I’m gone. I guess I’ll just have to get wet.”
As he ducked toward the exit flap Rashmi grabbed his arm.
“Take this.”she said, and handed Phel a bundle of fabric.
“What is it?”
“It is just a raincoat. I made it while you were talking. It only took a few seconds.”
Phel’s nose curled up, “Friggin’ Zepto-foglets. What can’t they do?, but he took the raincoat and put it on before crawling out into the wet night.
Rashmi and Meiki sat in the dim light of the dome.
“He gonna die out there?” Meiki asked.
“I hope not. The raincoat I gave him has a built in HUD with night vision and a positioning system. He should not have any trouble getting home. I think the Catena will ignore him because interacting with colonists such as yourself is exactly the sort of thing they wish to avoid.”
“Phel ain’t a bad guy. Isn’t, I mean. He isn’t a bad guy. He’s just a bit of a seed is all.”
“Seed? I think my translator doesn’t understand what you mean," said Rashmi.
“You know. A seed is like...someone who lives in the same town their whole life. Someone who never has big dreams and who is content to work a boring job until the day they die. But that isn’t me. I want more. This whole planet just isn’t big enough to contain me. Especially now.”
“How can I live? How can I sit in this gray dirt under a turd colored sky another minute when I know there are people like you up there? How can I go for another damn day on Naya when I know that I could live in Paris or Cincinnati or New Cydonia? Or who knows where else? There’s a whole galaxy out there. Even you people probably haven’t seen more than a fraction of it. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not having it. I’m supposed to be up there with people like you. Exploring the cosmos.”
“Well, Meiki,” she said, “maybe we can-”
Before she finished speaking the dome split open and the artificial downpour crashed upon them. Meiki’s heart felt like a dagger stabbing from inside her chest as she watched a pair of shapes...creatures...black with luminous blue eyes tearing at their shelter. They were ripping it apart.
Rashmi pushed Meiki out of the way of one of the things as its pinchers slashed and clawed at the remaining substance of the dome.
“Run!” shouted Rashmi.
The rain fell so heavy Meiki could barely see or hear anything else as she slid down a hill into the forest. She could make out a chittering noise as Rashmi batted at the attackers. She heard a sharp crack followed by a clatter. One of the creatures had been thrown against an oak. It lay twitching and whining.
Meiki got closer. In a flash of lightning she saw it more clearly. Black metal and plastic with legs and claws and sharp bits splayed in random directions. Shattered. Perhaps it had been broken before Rashmi threw it at the tree. Rather - it had not been put together properly in the first place. There seemed no way that even before it struck the oak that those parts could have fit together in any semblance of order. It was a broken thing. It looked like a robot assembled by someone who had never seen a robot or even a living thing. The pathetic being was a collection of random gears and sensors. She wondered how it had been able to walk at all.
She could make out the silhouette of Rashmi rending the other machine-thing to pieces. As the strange woman finished it the rain subsided. Probably a side effect of the dome being destroyed, assumed Meiki.
Rashmi looked down at her in the darkness. Clearly she didn’t need much light to see.
“Are you alright?” she called out to Meiki.
“I think so.”
“What were those things? The looked like robots, except...distorted. Fractured.”
“I think that they’re ghosts," said Meiki.
Rashmi sprinted down the hill so she could speak with Meiki more easily.
“Ghosts?” she asked, “What do you mean?”
“The Blackpatch is supposed to be full of ‘em. Seeds call them ghosts, but they look like broken bots to me.” her eyes opened wide, “That’s it. I think I know.”
“It’s barely mentioned in the archives. Just hints here and there. It’s almost like someone deleted most of it, but I’ve read that when the colonies first started the earliest stages involved self-assembling macrobots. Not nanos, but they had the ability to use materials they found to repair and replicate themselves. I always wondered what happened. The history books never said. Charlie never said.”
“So you think that your ancestors made these...things...and then somehow they...went rogue.”
“Yeah. I always heard stories about ghosts out in the forest, but I figured it was just a story. You know, just another boogieman. A way of making sure that little kids would never go out into the woods alone. Make sure we never ever left Gates. But now I know they’re real. The ghosts are real.”
“Well,” said Rashmi “I don-”
“PHEL! He’s wandering around out there right now! He could be getting his face eaten! Oh no. OH NO! It’s all my fault! He followed me out here.”
“Meiki...don’t worry. We’ll find your friend. I’m sure he’s fine. I can track the cloak I gave him. It emits a GPS signal that my suit can pick up.”
“Heh...” she said, “you really do think of everything, don’t you?”
“It’s a standard feature," said Rashmi plainly.
Meiki laughed until she remembered that her only true friend in the universe remained in grave danger.
They trudged through the underbrush in the direction of Phel’s signal. It was dark and he couldn’t have gotten far in the short time he had been gone. Still, something felt wrong. The trail went off the road. Why would he go this way, Meiki thought. Was he running from those things?
Rashmi dashed several paces ahead of her. She’s moving slowly so I can keep up, Meiki guessed, but she’s still lightning quick.
“It’s close...thirty meters this way," said Rashmi, looking at a screen on the back of her hand.
“Rashmi, do you see any sign of the ghosts?” Meiki asked as they stepped into a small clearing.
“No. I don’t. I also don’t see your friend. Oh. Of course.”
“Of course what?
It’s a trap.
Meiki caught up with Rashmi and saw what she saw. Phel’s raincoat hanging from a branch.
A source from above inundated the forest with light.