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The sky is orange.
That’s not the worst part—that’s a label I try to reserve for about a hundred things more offensive than an orange sky—but it’s the most jarring, even after three months’ planetary time spent on this specific chunk of rock and water and stupid colonial politics. If the suns are up at all, the sky is orange. Dark orange at sunrise and sunset, bright, artificial orange during the middle of the day, like someone out there decided the actual, literal sky is the best safety alert the universe has ever come up with. “Welcome to Zagreus, hope you enjoy the constant, nagging feeling that something is about to catch fire.”
When I complain about it—which, to be fair, is basically every day, since there isn’t much else to do around here—Viola starts talking about societal drift and recontextualization of the familiar and how, in a few generations, emergency systems on Zagreus will have to use a different color to catch people’s attention, since orange will have become so much background noise. That’s going to mess with some standard corporate design schematics. Or maybe it’ll just mess with the Zagreans, since I can’t really see, say, Weyland-Yutani deciding to change their entire corporate color scheme for the sake of one backwoods colony world.
Too bad the corps don’t set the plan for Mom and Dad’s research. I might not be looking at a sky like a safety light every time I open the window if they did.
My name is Olivia Shipp, and I am not on this planet of my own free will.
Something rustles deep in the bushes below me. I lean further forward, one foot hooked around the tree branch I’m perched on, for balance, and wait to see what’s coming. My dish of bait—some chopped-up local fruits, Mom’s special Zagreus “sugar water” recipe that she distills from half a dozen types of flower, and an assortment of native insects with low mobility and high caloric density—sits enticingly below me, ready to lure in at least a dozen types of creature. Maybe more. This is still a new world, as far as humanity is concerned. We’re making discoveries every day.
The colony’s contract with Mom and Dad covers me as well: when I’m the first one to spot something of interest, the credit goes to the colonists, like they’re the ones out here risking their necks to document another kind of not-quite-squirrel. I don’t mind too much. I get a small payment for every discovery I document, and small payments add up. Viola and I—we’re twins—will be eighteen soon, old enough to start making our own decisions about where we go and what we do. I want to take us to Earth. I want to meet distant relatives and let Viola see the best doctors in the known galaxy. That means being prepared to pay whatever it costs.
Besides, it’s a beautiful day, orange sky notwithstanding, and Kora isn’t coming until this afternoon. The colony schools are closed today for some local holiday. No one’s cared enough to explain it to me, a weird outsider girl with the mud under her nails and the pollen on her nose. Vi probably knows. Vi knows everything about a new colony like, five minutes before we land, because she says it makes her feel better about having to pull up roots and move again. I think she just likes to feel like the one who knows things, since she never gets to be the one who goes out and does them.
I duck my head, feeling guilty for even thinking that. It’s not Vi’s fault that she can’t go outside as much as we’d both like her to. She has some weird, previously undocumented autoimmune disease. She’s seen doctors all over the galaxy, and none of them have been able to help her. Both our parents take extra work, every chance they get, to make sure she has the best care possible. I love my sister. Even when she annoys the pants off of me, I love my sister. I shouldn’t be mad at her for things she can’t help.
There’s another rustle in the bushes. My attention snaps toward the sound, concern for my sister forgotten as I hold my breath and wait to see what emerges.
Slowly, nose pressed to the ground and twitching about a mile a minute, a long, low-slung herbivore comes slithering into the open. I call them “snuffle-squirrels,” and my mother calls them something long, scientific, and dull. Either way, it’s nothing new, and my shoulders slump in disappointment.
Most of the smaller life-forms on Zagreus skipped evolving proper limbs in favor of fleshy little stumps, like the legs on a caterpillar, or long, fringy things, like cilia. The snuffle-squirrel splits the difference, with four caterpillar legs in front, four more in back, and cilia along the length of its body. They wave as it walks, giving it a full sense of the space around it.
Mom says the cilia serve the same purpose as a cat’s whiskers, and that if a snuffle-squirrel or other member of this planet’s evolutionary equivalent to rodents loses too many of them, they’ll die, because they won’t be able to hunt, climb, or forage. She’s a xenobiologist and I’m just a student, so I believe her. Doesn’t change the part where it’s funny looking as all hell, these weird, super-long squirrel things with waving pom-poms sticking out of their sides.
Waving pom-poms, green fur that has a lot in common with cactus thorns, and four eyes, arrayed sort of like the eyes on a spider. Xenobiology is weird.
The snuffle-squirrel makes its cautious way over to the plate of fruit, sniffing repeatedly before deciding the risk is worth the prize. It shoves its whole head into a chunk of bright blue pseudo-melon, and begins to eat noisily. Because it doesn’t have paws like an Earth mammal, it has to do its caching internally, storing fat in its tail for the lean seasons. This is a juvenile, tail still thin and fur still evenly spiky.
We’ve seen snuffle-squirrels in every part of the local biosphere—forest and meadow and arid, scrubby foothills. Zagreus is what people call an “Earth-like planet,” meaning it mostly has systems that are at least somewhat cognate to the ones humanity is most familiar with. It’s a nice change. Our last colony world, I couldn’t go out without massive protective gear, and I’m pretty sure Vi never went out at all, not even during the transfer from ship to living quarters. Air I can breathe without a filter and sunlight on my face is a nice change. I’m not going to object, even if I hate the color of the sky.
Familiar or not, the snuffle-squirrel is a cute little thing. I sketch a quick series of studies, pencil on paper, like the pre-space naturalists. I’ll re-create it all on my computer later, but getting a sense of motion with my own hand makes it easier for me to translate it into virtual space. I’m pretty good. I’m getting better. Give me a few more years and I’ll be able to get work doing all sorts of graphic design, including the kind that people like my parents need, the kind that charts new worlds for humanity to claim.
Whatever kind of design I wind up doing, it won’t be the kind that requires me to travel for years at a time. Once I get my butt Earth-side, it’s staying there for at least a little while. I want to know what it’s like to have a home, not just a residence.
The snuffle-squirrel is still eating, gulping down melon as fast as it can. It’s so focused on what it’s doing that it doesn’t notice when the ground next to it trembles. I sit up straighter. This, too, is something familiar, but sometimes familiar can be wicked cool.
Copyright © 2019 by Mira Grant