There is a protocol for finding a missing person Outside. Number one, you do not jump up and yell, I’ve found him, he’s dead! Life on this arid world is harsh enough already.
Social graces aside, you make no assumptions. Maybe the person you’ve found isn’t the right person, or maybe he isn’t dead. You don’t shout out conclusions the moment you clap eyes on a corpse.
Number two, you call for help and you stay with the body until it arrives. No wandering off into the vast, unmapped areas of Parch, no detective work. Stay put with your suit zipped up and, obviously, Number Three, don’t touch anything.
Number three is a little muddier because Number Four — I may have this out of order — is to revive the person if possible. Nobody wants to be accidentally cremated.
So for the sake of the missing person, for the sake of the colony itself, there are rules, and you’d better follow them.
When I find Owen, I am alone. The search party has spread out over the stark, neatened landscape, radiating from where we found his buggy. Our own truck is moored beside it, pinioned into the friable Parch dirt.
We sent out drones first, of course, hunting him. Despite our organised fields under their plastic grow-domes, despite our small starts at seeding an atmosphere into this planet, despite the water and dust which is beginning to smudge the sky with blue, nobody goes Outside without a good reason.
That’s his privilege. My husband of fifty years is a widely-acknowledged hero, here at the colony and up on the ship and back on Earth. First Man, First Colonist, First Planetfaller. From the moment I met him in Star Class, when this settlement was just a diagram on our ship far above Parch, Owen was determined to claim those titles. And what Owen wants, he takes.
His stellar position as our founder, our original, means that the rules are slackly applied to him. He loves being Outside and nobody has the heart to stop him. Certainly not me.
I was, by the way, Second Person. First Woman, if you’re going to focus on gender. Add Woman to all of Owen’s Firsts and you get me. That would make me, among many other things, First Woman Parchian Miner, First Woman Offworld Geophysicist and other ridiculous titles printed under the picture of me in our little museum. Owen and I are the last surviving originals.
When the drones didn’t find him, everyone volunteered to go Outside and look. For a split second, the current Parch commander thought about telling me to wait at home by the phone. “Maria —” That moment would have been funny if I could still laugh. But I can’t, and so I picked up my suit and joined the search party without any discussion.
I’ve done enough waiting at home for more than this lifetime. Owen gets a call and hares off and comes back when it suits him, and needn’t disclose anything to me, all the way down the colonial ranks. I don’t need the report. He’s full of whiskey and satisfaction and I never want to spoil a good mood.
He got a call two days ago. Now I’ve found him, lying in the dirt with his visor shining up at the stars.
Nobody is nearby. Chen, young and keen and a new volunteer — a volunteer! — to the Parch colony, took the difficult ravine to the east. He’ll be here in two minutes if I call. Sharrock, the doctor, is on the same smooth hill as me. I can’t see her, but she would sprint across in thirty seconds. The others are investigating the crop processing factories in the valley.
Owen is lying on his back, legs splayed. The dirt is smoothed out around him as if he was making a dirt angel. Or as if he had a fit.
It’s after six pm. The sky is losing its characteristic butterscotch hue and turning to a dusky red, with a hint of blue around the setting sun.
I approach Owen with steady steps. My leg aches, an old injury. My speed is protocol too: never hurry, never let emotion spur you on. Slow and steady wins the race, and also, maintains delicate life-supporting machinery, keeps marriages alive and waters vital crops.
I have not called the others.
I will do it in a minute.
For now there is only my plodding progress, the dust-puffs edging my boots, and the endless sky.
The ship glints among tinier stars, due north of me. I never knew what a good view of it you could get from here.
I kneel down, awkward in my suit, and put my helmet visor close to Owen’s.
His white hair flares around his head. His eyes are half-closed, and with the slackening of his muscles I can see the handsome boy he once was. All his anger has drained away and left him a statue, a perfect figure, as everyone knows him to be.
There is a little moisture on the inside of his visor. That’s surprising: we’ve been searching for ten hours, but he’s been gone forty-eight.
The suits deflect light and heat, and do their best to maintain your personal moisture. You can live off your own wetness for a while, in one of these. It’s the part of planet training everybody talks about, the part everybody hopes never to have to use. Of course, by this point, we’ve all done it a dozen times. No, you can’t taste that it’s pee. No, you don’t care. If you’re in that situation, you’re busy. You can’t think about the vintage of the water you’re sipping.
So Owen would have lasted a while out here. I knew that. I knew he would kill me if I called out a search party too soon and they found him in some girl’s bunk. I waited, as long as I could, for his reputation’s sake.
Owen’s skin has the crumpled look of classic dehydration. His eyes, closed, are sunken with dark shadows around them. He does not look good. Well, who does, at seventy-odd?
Nevertheless it is my responsibility to try to revive him. I need to unhook my own moisture supply and connect him up.
My dodgy leg twinges.
I check my own levels, then I unhook my supplementary supply and carefully check that. Slow and steady.
In front of me, a hero lies dead, and I’m glad.
I have the hookup in one glove, and with the other I now scratch my com pad and say, “He’s here, attempting revival now.” That’s it.
“Revival,” says Sharrock. From her breathing I can tell she is already racing towards me. “My God.”
He was like a god to the younger ones, of course. Even today, planetfall is a major deal. Back then it was like jumping out of a plane in a cardboard box. Owen basically threw himself off a ship and hoped to land on Parch.
— Along with a thousand others, me included. There were tech failures on the drop, one after the other like a dripping tap. People died. Others were saved, everyone arrived shocked and wounded. Owen was first onto the planet. Firsts get remembered.
Chen arrives before Sharrock. He does not exclaim to any invisible being. Chen’s lot believe that God belonged to Earth, wrapped around that planet like water. Makes sense. Any god here would be pretty thin. Anyway, I’m grateful for Chen’s silence, and his professionalism.
I have my hookup linked to Owen’s now, and am kneeling, glaring at the indicators on Owen’s helmet, as air flows from me and, notionally, into Owen.
Chen begins standard checks for injury, for suit damage, for life. He does it all without looking at me.
“Are you OK?” he asks.
“Much better thanks.”
He glances up, startled at my frankness, and a look passes between us. Chen, as the new recruit, copped all the worst duties on Parch. For his first two months he never saw daylight, but I saw him on night patrol, checking the domestic seals. Sometimes I would open our door, put my finger to my lips and hand him a cup of coffee.
Later, when Chen was assimilated into regular Parch life, it was sometimes he who would give me a ride to the hospital, who stood stony-faced while I told Sharrock how I fell again. Owen would collect me, all solicitude and sorrow.
As we waited for Owen’s arrival, Chen would ask me about the early years on Parch. The last time, he said out loud, “You’re still a beautiful woman, Maria,” and I snorted coffee all over myself. “Get out,” I said, “now,” and threw him bodily out of the room.
Since then we haven’t spoken. How could we? It’s not Chen that would be punished, but me.
Owen likes Chen. I know they’ve socialised. Owen lately has been full of news from the ship, our gleaming cosmic companion. I thought Chen was falling under Owen’s spell. Now I wonder if it was the other way around. What was Owen doing out here? Why did he run out of air?
Sharrock arrives, some three minutes after Chen. Chen must have really moved. I remember his grandmother, a sweet girl, one of many sweet girls who chose to stay on the ship and have babies. Babies are the vital work of colonists, second only to providing air and water.
Did I mention that Owen was also First Father on Parch? Before she died last year, there was Suzette, who gained the associated title of First Woman To Fall Pregnant. Like she tripped. Tripped and fell onto his —
“Chen will continue revival,” says Sharrock to me. “Chen, report.” Chen relays his progress to Central in a series of brief codes. The truck is coming to the nearest possible point, to collect us.
I watch Chen follow protocol to the letter. Sharrock is the medic but she was third on scene and so she merely oversees, occasionally checking on me in a distracted, automatic way, because I am old and potentially a widow and so must be monitored.
At last we reach a moment where Chen stops pretending to revive Owen. He disconnects everything and sits back. He’s sweating. That’s not like him. “It’s over, Maria,” he says. “He’s gone.”
He doesn’t say I’m sorry. I’m relieved, because I am not sure I could stand it.
Sharrock lets out half a sob. She bites down on her lip, inside her helmet.
Chen reaches for my glove.
I jolt away, because if Owen sees, he will start something and I might not make it to the finish this time. And then I realise that Owen cannot see, even though he is right there with his eyes open.
I let Chen hold my glove until the truck comes. Then I straighten up and prepare to be brave, for the sake of the colony.
I could tell everything. I could now reveal, with the hero dead, what really went on at planetfall. I could tell the youngsters about the shoving and elbowing to escape the dropship, and how for the fifty years of our planet’s short occupation everyone has worshipped a man who did not want to stop and check for survivors. I could reinvent myself as a woman who does not fall. I could tell everyone how my leg got broken.
I could poison the entire early history of our brand new planet.
It’s a heady thought, and one that has sustained me for a long time. When he’s dead, I would think, this will be over. I’m going to tell everyone.
But now I feel differently. Now he can’t hurt me any more, I feel lighter than air. I feel as if I just had a big drink of fresh water. Not the sour regurgitated stuff of survival, seeped out from my sealed life: pure fresh water, real living.
Chen says to Sharrock, “Confirm cause of death. Recording.”
“Dehydration,” says Sharrock. “He appears to have been exploring alone.”
“Yes. Dehydration,” I say. It’s the easiest conclusion, out here. Why else is this place called Parch? I can’t see any signs of why he let himself dry out though. But then, I did not look closely. Chen did that.
“Owen was forgetful,” says Chen firmly to me. “He went off and forgot to monitor his levels properly. It’s not surprising, at his age.”
“That’s my age,” I say.
Chen is glaring at me. I am supposed to say something. I remember that he is recording.
“Yes,” I say. “It’s not surprising. — He was getting a bit . . . you know,” I say, because even I cannot lie directly to the law.
“We found him and tried to revive without success. The examiner will confirm it,” Chen says.
With a shock I realise he is telling me this, not guessing. The examiner will confirm it.
“It’s not suicide,” I say. Because to a lot of people that would sound glamorous. I cannot bear Owen’s inevitable plaque to portray his death as heroic self-sacrifice — saving us all his air, for the sake of the colony . . .
“No,” Chen agrees quickly. “Senility. Who knows why he came all the way out here? Alone?”
“Nobody,” I say. But Chen has echoed my thought. What was Owen doing out here? The only thing to see is the ship, and only the newbies might think that was interesting.
Cold realisation washes over me. I cannot look at Chen, and anyway, he is busy.
He knew. Chen the newcomer, the one who had to fit around our fifty-year-old social habits, our throwback conventions, Chen has not been blinded by Owen worship. Somehow his eyes were open. Maybe he has spent his whole life being told by his grandmother how Owen the hero let a boatload of people die.
Owen never came out here before. Before Chen.
And I have exchanged one secret for another.
In the truck we take off helmets, except Owen’s. I rub my hands over my face. Beside me, his knee jammed against mine in the cramped cab, Chen is trembling.
“I’m OK,” I say to him, but this is not what I mean. I mean, I won’t say anything. Not about Chen, not about any of it.
Let Owen be remembered a hero. The fact that Chen knows, has always known, is making my eyes water, and luckily everyone assumes this is grief.
Let Owen keep his reputation. The colony is built on values he never held, but they are good values nonetheless. I won’t wreck that.
But I will tell Chen, tell him everything, because I am now the last original left. I won’t be the one to poison Parch. Chen can choose that path if he wants. I’ll be long gone, dwindling away alone in a home which is finally my own.
Or maybe not. From the look Chen’s giving me, maybe there’s another chapter still to come in my strange life. Yeah, he’s a little younger than me. So what? People are people and I could certainly use the appreciation.
I give an accidental snort and Chen pats my hand as if I have just sobbed, not chortled.
I’m feeling OK. Another first. Will it continue?
I hope so. For my own sake.