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From: Chris Maldonado <cmaldonado@voortrekker.com>
To: Sameen Lee <sameen.lee@recoveryinstitute.org>
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Subject: Love from Esperance
Date: 7 Apr 2419 21:57:18 +0000
Date-Local: 21 Sep 2421 20:33:18 +0000
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I promised myself I wouldn't talk too much about the memorial. But
that was before...

I don't know what I was expecting. Rows of seats, I suppose. Trying
to find a comfortable spot while Director Soloviev talked too much
about people he didn't really know or remember very well. Our
friends, our loved ones - his employees. Because it was the
expected thing, the thing that people do at a time like
this. Trying to bring closure, whatever that means.

Instead, we made a garden together. Right at the center of our hab,
in a roundish open space that I hadn't got around to asking why it
was even there. Now I know.

The first thing we did, right in the middle of what was to be our
garden, we brought in a piece of Voortrekker herself and stood it
on end in a deep trench we'd dug to receive it. A tombstone, I
suppose you could call it, but I don't think any of us really
thinks of it that way. Four meters high, two wide, a jagged chunk
of hull plating with just the top left corner of the 'V' from her
name still visible on the charred surface. We helped a lot, those
of us who've changed, bringing it in from the crash site and
setting it in place. But I don't think there's a living pair of
hands on this planet which didn't touch it, didn't help carry it at
least a little way.

Once we'd got it set in place, once we had the concrete curing
around it and the braces set to keep it upright until its footing
could take the weight, the Director did say some things. I won't
try to write them all down here - I don't remember them all, and
anyway Jen and Eve and I were crying together, just like everyone
else - little knots of people, big groups, I don't think anyone was
alone in it. I hope no one was, anyway. I wish I could remember all
of what he said, but what I do remember, I don't think I'll ever
forget.

I don't know how long I'll live, as I am now. But thinking back on
what the Director said, I don't mind if I live a million years, or
a thousand, or ten, or one. I never liked to think about it. Not
for myself, and a thousand times as much, not for the people I
love. I never could imagine anything coming after, anything except
the end of everything. It's not as if I know otherwise, even
now. But I think I might not mind not knowing, because not knowing
doesn't mean I can't hope, and now I know what I can hope for. I
can hope that it's not the end of everything, after all. I can hope
that it's only a little time we have to spend apart, and when that
time is done, we'll be together again, in a place where no shadows
fall.

There were freshly turned patches of earth in that roundish place
at the center of our hab. I suppose we all knew they were
graves. Does it seem ghoulish that they're also part of what gives
our new garden life? I don't think it does. When our trees and our
flowers are grown, when our memorial garden has become the cool and
quiet place of solace that we'll help it be, we'll see our friends
and our lovers in every blossom, every branch, every blade of
grass. We'll walk and stand and sit and lie with them, all the time
we spend there. And they'll be there with us, too. And when new
people come to join us here on our new world - you among them, both
of you, I dearly hope - we'll bring them to our garden of memory
and tell them the stories of those who came before, and have gone,
and whom we hope some day to meet again, in a place where no
shadows fall.

That's what we did for one another, too. All the time we were
laying paths, building benches, planting seeds. We told each other
stories, and laughed together, and cried together, and somehow by
the time we were done, it...it wasn't so much. We still miss them,
and we always will. But the cloud that'd been over us - I'd hardly
even noticed it was there, with all the time I'd spent hidden in
Main Control, but it had settled in on me too, it had found me once
I came out of my hiding place and met everyone else again. It's
gone now. Like taking a deep breath when you hadn't even realized
you weren't able to, before. I think it's that way for all of us
now, and I think that's the way it was meant to be. We're not
carrying such heavy hearts, any more, now that we've laid our dead
to rest.

Well, and for one other reason. We've never really called this
planet anything other than "Ross", and that makes sense, doesn't
it? Our star is Ross 128, and our planet is in the catalogue as
Ross 128 b - but that's a bit of a mouthful, so we shortened it for
comfort. We never really had time to think about calling it
anything else. But the Director evidently has, because as we
finished our planting and mourning, he told us he hasn't been
thinking of this planet as "Ross" for a while now. He said he
thought it was time for us to decide on a name, and asked us for
suggestions, and he had a name of his own in mind to suggest:
Esperance, which means 'hope'.

So our planet isn't Ross 128 b any more, except in the catalogue,
which can do what it likes. We live on Esperance now. And our hab,
the colony that we're building? That's Hope.

Director Soloviev did all that for us, in the space of a few
hours. I'm not sure if I underestimated him before, or if he's
changed more than I would have imagined he could. Either way, I'm
glad I was wrong about him. We need the person he's become.

Of course, we need all of us, really. We aren't trying to keep to
the original build schedule - that'd be impossible even if everyone
had survived the crash, because almost all of our lifting gear,
earthmoving equipment, and heavy machine tooling didn't. But even
at the slower, merely backbreaking pace we're setting, there's so
much work to be done! As soon as we were done building our garden,
Jen got together most of us who've changed, along with the Director
and about a dozen others who haven't, and we went to work setting
up solar collectors.

That engineering problem she mentinoned, right after she got me out
of the ship - one of our reactors was getting dangerously unstable,
and we were going to have to shut it down soon. That'd only leave
one up and running, and we'd need almost all its output to run the
QEC and maintain our cryo systems so we can keep from losing our
livestock embryos - there'd be almost nothing left for the hab, the
labs, and the heavy equipment we've got left. So we needed as much
solar capacity as we could get, in a hurry.

As soon as Jen said that, I knew why she'd got all of us who'd
changed and didn't have other work to do that they absolutely
couldn't let wait a while. All that gear is really heavy! Usually
you'd need six or eight people to carry a single panel, but two of
us could manage it - the balance was a little tricky, and it was
thirsty work, but we could do it, and we managed to clear out most
of one whole cargo hold in the space of twenty, twenty-two
hours. Somewhere in there I think most of the unchanged people went
to get some sleep, and others came onto the job? I was mostly in
the hold and not paying much attention to anything except the work,
but I started seeing new faces after a while.

Anyway, most of the unchanged people started setting up panels once
we had enough of them out, while we switched to hauling storage
batteries. Even for us, it took five to a battery, and we only
managed to bring out nine of them in twelve hours before Eve made
us stop - we didn't really mind, we were mostly played out by
then. But nine will be enough, at least for a few sols! We'll have
to watch our consumption at night, and some of the high-energy
experiments will have to wait until we can bring the reactor we
have left back onto the hab power grid, but we'll still have enough
power for almost everything. None of our systems even flickered
when Jen isolated the failing reactor, and it's in cold shutdown
now.

By that time we'd all gone to the refectory, though. I hadn't
realized how hungry I was until I smelled food, and then I was
ravenous! I think we all were, even the unchanged people who'd been
working with us - it was getting late in the sol by then, and most
people were in bed or on shift, but we spent a solid hour and a
half in there anyway before people started leaving. Tired as I was,
it felt really good! I mean, eating, of course, but more than that
just...just being together, all feeling good about the work we'd
finished together, laughing and joking and sharing a sense of
accomplishment. I never really knew what that was like, before - I
never really quite knew how to get along with people, mostly, so I
mostly just hid in my lab or at home, and even on the ship I tended
not to spend that much time just being around people outside my
quarters or the bio section.

You both know that, of course! It's a wonder we ever even met -
Sam, if you hadn't kept coming and finding me at that
convention...But here, it's just different somehow. I mean, you'd
think it would be weird! With how different we are, how different I
am especially. But people just seem like they're not quite the same
somehow. Or maybe it's me, I don't know - maybe it really is
me. Whatever it is, though, it felt really wonderful just to be
sitting together laughing and talking with everyone over supper,
and all of us knowing we'd all just done something amazing
together. I think that might've been my favorite time here so far.

I am pretty worn out, though - amazing or not, it was a lot of
work! But there's one other thing I want to tell you about before I
finish up and send this. It really is amazing, and I'm honestly not
sure how I feel about it.

So, I mentioned that we planted trees and flowers in our
garden. You're probably wondering how we knew whether they'd even
germinate! Well, I did end up finding Gareth in botany the other
day, like I was talking about in my last message. I didn't get to
ask him right away about joining a fetch team, though, because he
and Elva were checking on one of her experiments. I don't know if
I've ever mentioned the two of them, but they're adorable
together - he's built like a wall, and even by my standards she's a
little tiny thing, maybe a meter and a half and so slight you
almost expect her to float from place to place instead of
walking. They spent a lot of time together back on the ship, and
they're almost inseparable now, which is no surprise
considering. But the experiment...

Remember before I left, when I was telling you all about the ship
and our plans for the colony? Hydro farming was an interim measure,
just while we worked out how to cultivate in the ground here? We
thought it'd take a couple of years! Elva was just doing basic
testing with one of the ADM maizes and a couple of hardy cereals,
planting them in our new soil and watering them with our new
rainwater. We do that mainly just to find out what stops them
germinating, what kinds of fertilizers they need, simple stuff like
that, and we expect it to take a long time for two totally
different ecologies to fit together. But when I came and peeked
over their shoulders, what did I see but three dishes, each with a
sample of Ross's sandy soil and a half dozen green shoots poking up
out of it!

They were laying out new experiments on a slate and talking a mile
a minute, and I didn't want to interrupt, so I got my hand unit off
this terrible armband and took a look at the experiment files. This
was actually the fifth attempt, and the first four had been
inconclusive - the seeds had sprouted and then just sort of died, a
day or so later. Looking at the microscopy, the cell walls had odd
little punctures, and the cells themselves didn't look right. Like
the stain hadn't taken properly, or something - it took me a minute
to remember where I'd seen something like that before: in the blood
samples we tested with the bug, not long before I went down.

After I told Gareth and Elva what I thought I was seeing, we took a
sample from one of the new shoots and looked at it under the scope,
and - there's no way those plants should be alive right now,
because they are just full of this bug, swimming freely in the
vascular tissue and apparently sessile in the parenchymal
cells. Then I had an idea - well, what I really had was an absolute
certainty, but those still don't count until you confirm them. I
checked Eve's med files on those of us who've changed, including my
own. She hasn't had time for more than the most basic micro
studies, but looking at blood samples is pretty basic, and guess
what? Sessile in the leukocytes, and swimming freely in the
plasma - just like in the plants, only adapted to the mammalian
cell structure and circulatory system. Nothing like what I'd seen
before. More like...

I said before that I don't want to assume "why?" is a question that
makes sense here, and I still don't. But just think about it a
minute. No one's ever seen anything like this before - a
prokaryotic pathogen that can cause disease in plants *and* humans?
It's been four or five hundred years since anyone even thought
seriously about the possibility! But what we're seeing here is even
more unlikely than that, because I'm increasingly convinced that
"pathogen" and "disease" aren't the right words for this. Not at
all.

What we're seeing looks a lot more like some kind of
endosymbiosis. We're not sure yet whether it's commensal or
mutualistic, and we haven't ruled out some kind of novel
parasitism, but it doesn't really matter - the point I'm making
here is, we only have one other example of anything even remotely
like this, and that's the relationship between eukaryotic cells and
mitochondria. But that took millions of years to evolve, and this
has happened inside of a couple of months.

I don't know what to think right now. This thing, whatever it is,
is truly incredible - it's beyond anything we could ever have come
out here hoping to find! And what it's already done is so
astonishing that no one's even making any guesses about what it's
going to do next. I don't have the words to describe what I'm
feeling right now, as a scientist and as a human being, just to be
witnessing this at all. To say nothing of helping investigate it!

But at the same time...I'm not even sure I still am a human being,
and whether I am or not, what I am now is what the bug has made of
me, and it's still in me now. Eve and I haven't taken biopsies yet,
but I see no reason not to assume it can't colonize any and every
type of cell in a human body. And part of the reason I won't make
any guesses about what it might do next is because I see no reason
not to assume that, whatever it does next, it won't do to all of us
who've changed. To me. And that's terrifying.

I miss you - I miss both of you so much! I know you'd both comfort
me if you were here right now. As much as I wish you were, though,
I'm almost glad you're not. I don't know what's going to happen
next, to me or to any of us. It hasn't hurt us yet, not in ways
that are lasting, but we don't know that it's going to keep on
being so nice. So, much as I miss you and wish you were here, right
now I'm more glad you're both back home where you're safe.

I'm going to stop here, I think, and go find Eve. Wake her up, if I
have to. She's got to be thinking about this too, and maybe she can
tell me something that'll make me feel better...if not, maybe just
talking about it with someone who's in the same situation will
help.

Silly as it is to say, please try not to worry too much about me -
a lot of this is just the way you start to think when you're up too
late on a lonely night. Writing to you about it has helped some,
though, and one way or another, I'm sure I'll be fine
tomorrow. After all, we don't have any reason to think it will do
us harm, either, and I think I'll have an easier time remembering
that once the sun's come up again.

I think I'll sit in the garden and watch that sunrise, when it
comes. Voortrekker's shard faces west, and there's a bench in just
the perfect spot to let me watch the orange light of our new sun
touch its tip and spread down over its surface. I put that bench
there myself, and I'm going to sit there and watch the sun rise and
remind myself that, if our new home wanted to hurt us, it would've
done so long before now. And until then, I'll go find Eve, and
we'll get through the night together.

I love you both. Stay safe and look out for each other, and Lia,
you heal quickly and get back up on your feet again, please! Both
of them.

With love as always - your Kit.