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What Any Dead Thing Wants

Written By Aimee Ogden

Aimee Ogden is an American werewolf in the Netherlands. Her debut novella “Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” was a 2021 Nebula Award finalist, and her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2022. Her third novella, “Emergent Properties,” came out in July 2023. She would make for a very annoying ghost.

Publisher’s note: this is the first of four novelettes we will be publishing this year—one in each season. If you’d like to read this on your favorite e-reader, we have a beautiful EPUB and PDF version to send you—just enter your email and they’ll arrive automatically (and you’ll be subscribed to our email list):

    The third week of a planetary exorcism is the hardest—at least if the planet in question has megafauna to deal with. Enthusiasm wanes even faster on worlds that never evolved past microbes. Hob’s crew always comes in like a team of intrepid explorers, swapping stories with the outgoing terraforming crew as they run down the handover checklist. But after ten, fifteen days, the work slows down, as the crew moves farther from the terraforming origin nexus. That’s where the ghosts are densest, the hauntings the most intense. Along the meridian lines that the crew follows around the planet to the secondary terraforming nexus, only the most stubborn haunts linger—the ones that won’t clear out at just the first reminder of their own recent mortality. The ones that don’t seem to give a shit that Hob and his crew are working to a strict deadline. Exo megafauna have, unsurprisingly, absolutely no sense of human decency.

    And of course Hob, as team captain, gets stuck with the stubbornest beasties of all. “Got one,” shouts Maseley over the comm, and Hob winces. They’re obliged to wear suits out here along the meridian, where the vestiges of the pre-transformed world remain, albeit with open visors to let them breathe the brand-new, thaumaturgically generated, human-friendly atmosphere. Still, Maseley yells through the grove of old-growth trees to Hob instead of talking to the suit comm that’s right next to his twice-damned mouth. “It’s another of these cabbage-faced motherfuckers.”

    Shit, thinks Hob, but he keeps that unhelpful thought to himself. They’re running behind on this job as it is, and the last thing anyone needs is to suspect the boss is cracking under the pressure. “Got it, Maze. Flag it and keep moving. I’ll take a look.”

    He moves off in the direction of Maseley’s map marker as soon as it drops into his visual overlay. Soon he’s forced to leave behind the yellow-white light of the G3-type star that wanders bloatedly across the sky, in favor of the shade of a grove of trees. The grove is unusually quiet, only a few brave birds gossiping back and forth, the vanguard of earthly fauna seeded here by the skilled thaumaturgists on the terraforming team. Usually there are more of them, little mammals too (whose species Hob can’t remember), flitting from tree to tree and chattering irritably and shaking the branches. Most of them make themselves scarce when a haunt passes through, though.

    The grove has a certain sameness that bothers him. The regularity of the placement, the symmetry of the branches—it looks like the terraforming team took a basic flora incantation and rubber-stamped it all over the area without the least effort to differentiate one tree from the next. 

    He lifts a hand and half-heartedly taps into the source—it’s all the same source, whether you’re creating life or banishing it, and it’s not like the Process audits are going to catch a little unauthorized application of thaumaturgy. Tongue between his teeth, Hob concentrates on a minor incantation, growth threaded through with an urge toward chaos. After a moment, new branches unfurl, new leaves mutter in the wind. Probably no one but Hob would notice the way that the edge has been taken off the grove’s unnatural conformity, but it’s the principle of the thing.

    Principles. Right. Such as, perhaps, doing the job you’re getting paid to do and handling yet another CFM haunt. Stubborn-ass beasties. The survey crew that preceded the terraforming event would have documented this flavor of megafauna, collected and stored a few representative specimens at one affiliated research institution or another. You never know, after all, if the resident microbial mat of Planet Terraformed-Out-Of-Existence produces the miracle molecule that’ll cure blister-lung, or metabolize bionatriline faster than it can accumulate in topsoil, or whatever. At some point, researchers will assign the species a proper scientific name. As far as the exorcist crew is concerned, though, they’re just cabbage-faced motherfuckers. Or CFMs when they’re feeling lazy. 

    Cabbage-faced motherfucker is somewhat euphemistic, though. Nothing about them even vaguely suggests what humans would think of as a face. The globular organs appended at irregular intervals along their fat, toroid bodies do, however, write cabbage in bold font. Hob doesn’t spot the CFM in question, but he does find tracks in the soil and some deep scratches in the bark of a tree near Maseley’s marker. Ghosts experiencing intense responses—anger, fear, confusion—can exert some influence on objects in their environment. Responses like that can be enough to trigger acceptance, or understanding, at whatever level exolife can comprehend: Oh gosh, would you look at that, I’m a dead cabbage-faced motherfucker! 

    It’s a good sign, and a bad one. Acceptance is the only way to permanently clear a haunt. On the other hand, Hob himself very much counts as an “object in their environment.” The terraforming team has already been through, wiping away poisonous atmosphere and clouds of unfriendly microbes, but there’s still a reason he wears this protective suit.

    The tracks peter out a few meters deeper into the trees. Hob doesn’t see any movement beyond the wind riffling through the leaves overhead (his ocular overlay tells him these trees are chestnuts). Not a single glimmer of ghostlight. 

    He takes some time to explore outward from the marker, but he doesn’t find any more tracks, nor any further damage to the grove. His educated guess is that there’s only the one CFM left in this area. Pair-bonded fauna are more likely to wind up in a co-haunt situation, anyway, and according to the info in the survey team compendium, CFMs exhibited mostly solitary behavior outside of a prolonged parental-care stage for newly hatched spawn.

    It’s enough recon for now; he doesn’t have time today to set up the incantations that a full megafauna exorcism will demand. He adds notes to the marker and trudges on in the direction the rest of the group has moved. A black and white bird scolds him noisily, and he walks faster, feeling appropriately chastened. This sector isn’t going to clear itself, after all.

    After a few dull but productive hours of exorcising alien microorganisms, Hob is ready to call it a day. (Microorganisms are so easy. Show a microbe a substrate it can sense but not digest, and it’s immediate game over. Like, its only job is eating and reproducing, take that away and bam. It’s not as if single-celled wannabe bacteria have a lot to live for.) He’s the last member of the team to report back to the modular habitat that they currently call home; the others have been trudging in on foot or trundling up in their fleet of transports for the past hour. There’s no airlock, not like on terraforming dome habitats, so before Hob can even step inside, he can hear Maseley and Yettal in the mess, arguing over whose turn it is to prep dinner. “It’s Yettal’s turn,” Hob shouts, tossing his helmet ahead of him into the locker room. “It’s on the goddamn duty roster, Yetz, does it have to go down like this every single rotation?”

    Then of course they mob him by the suit lockers, because Yettal has to lay out her whole rationale. Something about swapping turns on transport maintenance last rotation, although it’s hard to follow her logic when Maseley interrupts every other word. Hob absolutely cannot muster up a single shit to give, but Maseley and Yettal are so occupied with each other they don’t seem to notice.

    They both jump when Jaara’s voice booms out behind them. So does Hob, for that matter, but he doesn’t think they notice. “Flip a fucking coin or something, you two,” Jaara barks. “Your petty squabbles are not Hob’s problem.” She produces a tablet with an eye-crossing spreadsheet arrayed across the screen, as Yettal and Maseley retreat to the margins of the locker room. “Can I borrow you for a moment, boss?”

    “Yeah, of course.” He glances at Maseley and Yettal, and turns his shoulder toward them to hang up his suit. It’s not that he’s trying to be dismissive, it’s just that they’re being annoying as all hell. “See you both at dinner in a few.” 

    Once they’ve slunk away, he takes the tablet from Jaara and flicks two fingers over the screen, zooming out to a less migraine-inducing resolution. It’s not like he needs to read the actual numbers to know where they stand; Jaara lives for color-coding and the spreadsheet is a screaming eyesore of yellow, orange, and pink. “None of our metrics are in the red yet. That’s something.”

    “It might be something if this was a routine colonization.” Jaara shoves her hair out of her face for a better view of the tablet, as if she doesn’t have every row and column committed to memory. She had gray hairs before this particular job, but they’ve gotten more noticeable, silver spangles in the undergrowth of her severe side-shave. “Zetharin’s days are numbered. If this place isn’t cleared in time—”

    “It’ll be cleared.” Almost unconsciously, Hob pulls up the most recent news pull in his visual sidebar and scrolls to coverage of the poor, doomed planet in question. The exact nature of the thaumaturgical experiment that disturbed Zetharin’s orbit escapes him—partly because orbital astrology isn’t his field, and partly because the official reports have been purposely vague so that no one else can attempt the devastating effort to modify a planet’s orbit. But any layman could interpret the effects. Temperatures are dropping, crops are failing, energy sources can’t keep up with the increased demand for light and heat. Zetharin is a dead planet spinning; Hob has to clean up “Zetharin 2” well enough that a review team deems it safe for human habitation. “We can always jump ahead to the secondary nexus if we need to, and backtrack…”

    “Sure.” Jaara takes the tablet back and glares at it. If you could change metrics by sheer force of will, they’d be comfortably in the green by now. “The company loves it when we deviate from Process.”

    “Could be worse.” He nods toward the door, and toward the smell of questionably prepared mealmix. “You worked the Kadecur job, didn’t you?”

    A notoriously messy terraformation. She winces, acknowledging the hit, and follows him to the mess. It’s barely big enough for all of them, twelve chairs packed around a pair of flimsy tables in a square that’s two meters on a side at most, a daily appetizer course of jostled elbows and accidental footsies. Hob and Jaara squeeze into the last two empty seats, a small bastion of quiet amid the chaos. They both abstain from the traditional mockery of Yettal and Maseley’s culinary prowess: Hob because he’s the boss, Jaara because she’s Jaara. 

    “Looks good,” he says diplomatically, when Maseley unloads a tray of mealmix portions in front of him. Maseley rolls his eyes, so Hob adds: “Better than it smells, anyway.” What’s the point of being the boss, really, if you can’t get a good one in now and then?

    It’s the third night in a row eating the same variety of mealmix—someone did a shit job setting up the supply cabinets before takeoff, and Hob suspects it may have been him—and he tucks in without enthusiasm. Before he gets past the first bite, though, someone’s standing over him. It’s Rathana, his hair wet from the showers. 

    “Uh,” says Rathana, looking over the full mess. “Who the fuck is in my seat?”

    Whatever routine joviality had been on hand in the mess, it falls away now. Hob’s gaze rivets to the seat wedged into the far corner—to the guy in a nondescript jumpsuit, whose braided-back black hair and beaky nose bear only superficial resemblance to Rathana’s. 

    “Hi,” says the stranger apologetically. “Sorry for showing up uninvited.” Embarrassed under the sudden flood of attention, he goes to nudge the spoon sitting in the portion of mealmix in front of him, but his hand passes straight through. “But I think I’m dead.”

    Nothing in Process covers what to do if a dead human being waltzes into your exorcism site, because why the fuck would it? Still, while he waits for a reply from HQ on the subspace comm, Hob leaves Jaara to manage the rest of the crew and spends an hour searching and double-checking the handbook. No one terraforms a world already inhabited by humans—that’s the whole point of terraforming.

    The ghost, who has followed him to his quarters, watches with interest while Hob panic-scrolls. “What are you looking at?” he asks, inspecting the various jumpsuits and socks and underwear crammed into Hob’s cubby. He speaks Standard Spanglorin with the fluidity of long practice, and Hob can’t place his accent from its crisp plosives and not-quite-suppressed uvular trill. There are as many human languages as there are settled worlds—quite a lot more than that, actually—and trying to nail one down without a few more clues is a loser’s game. “If you’re reading to relax, I don’t think it’s working.”

    Hob pages into the part that covers the reasons that a Process Investigator might be required, then skips ahead to the next section marker. “I am not reading to relax.”

    “Okay.” The ghost cranes his neck to look at the handbook over Hob’s shoulder. “Maybe you should try that, then.”

    The tablet chimes, and Hob swipes away the handbook to read the message from HQ. No salutation, no advice, no assigned Process Investigator (not yet, at least). Additional information requested before proceeding. Is the haunt a deceased terraformer?

     When Hob looks up from the tablet, the ghost is studying Hob’s private stash where it protrudes from the bottom of his cubby. “Are those Arjali buttersweets?” he asks with interest. It’s a small mercy that Hob’s pornography collection is tucked away under a layer of emergency snacks. “Damn. I haven’t had one in years.”

    “Help yourself,” says Hob. A pathetic effort at exorcism, really, and one that only earns him an unimpressed look from the ghost. “Sorry. Uh. I have to ask: Were you one of the terraformers assigned here?”

    The ghost’s face scrunches thoughtfully as he plants himself next to Hob on the bunk. “What answer are you hoping to hear?”

    “No. I think.”

    “Oh.” A shrug. “That’s too bad. I was.”

    Hob squints. “Okay. Explain how to calculate the optimal number of meridians for full planetary coverage.”

    The ghost makes a deflating noise. “That’s not fair,” he complains. “I didn’t know you were a terraformer. Isn’t this an exorcist crew?”

    “It is. And I’m not.” Anymore. Hob keys into his tablet: Haunt is not an exorcist. Before sending this fragment of information, he glances sideways at the ghost’s implacable face. “How did you get here, then? If you’re not a terraformer?”

    “I crashed.” A ghostly finger gestures at the tablet. “Pretty sure that’s also how I died, if that’s helpful for your bosses to know.”

    “The company wouldn’t have authorized any other spacecraft to be in this system until the terraformation was done.”

    “Oh, no. By all the Thousand Gods of our ancient home,” says the ghost, without the least inflection, “I would hate to think I’d died doing something the company hadn’t authorized.” And he flickers out like a tablet screen gone dark.

    Hob adds to his message: Victim of crash (craft origin currently unknown). Please advise.

    Staring at the subspace comm does not, unfortunately, make the messages travel any faster. Nor does it make them any more helpful when they finally do arrive: Unauthorized entry is a forfeiture of legal standing in-system. Continue with exorcism as planned.

    Hob would continue staring at the delivered instructions, hoping his tired eyes were playing tricks on him, but he’s all stared out. He keys in a few simple requests to the system while he’s here, basic boss-guy shit: running a projection for sector clearance time, sending out a couple of recon drones. Then, tablet in hand, he wanders back to the mess, where only Jaara remains, watching the doorway. If he hadn’t expected her to be here waiting for him, with the whole Process handbook behind her eyes, he would already be melting down. In a boss-like fashion, of course.

    But Jaara will know what to do. “Which Process Investigator are they sending?” she asks, as he hesitates in the doorway. The mealmix in front of her has been cut into precise quarters, exactly three of which have been eaten.

    “None of them.” Hob shrugs, somewhat more pathetically than behooves the lead exorcism specialist on this assignment. “The higher-ups are saying that this doesn’t change anything. ‘Continue with exorcism as planned.’”

    He waits for her to remind him that that’s crazy, that’s ridiculous. Because they both know it is! No one here signed up to exorcise a human being. Certainly no one has trained for that kind of thing. There should be Process for this, there should be someone coming in to look into how a random guy not only ended up on a world mid-exorcism but ended up there as a corpse. If Jaara can just look him in the eye and say, in her own way, what the fuck, Hob, we can’t just exorcise a whole person, he’ll turn around and get back on the subspace comm and demand someone (he doesn’t care who) do something (he doesn’t care what) to figure out what happened here; and f she added this flies in the face of Process page 103 paragraph 4 line E, that would help a lot too.

    But Jaara doesn’t quote Process at him. “Okay,” she says, which is not what she’s supposed to say, because she’s supposed to be better than Hob, and not just at Process. “So. Who’s going to handle the dead guy?”

    “Well,” says the dead guy himself, from behind Hob. “I like to think I’m pretty self-sufficient.”

    Exhaustion does Hob the small favor of suppressing his startle reflex. “I’ve got to take care of that cabbage-faced motherfucker—”

    “Wow.” The dead guy makes an aggrieved noise in his throat. “My name is Ozzi. Not that any of you asked.”

    “—so I can handle our new friend here too, while I stay on site. No reason for the rest of you to hang behind; we’re cutting the margins close enough as it is.” If he didn’t know Jaara as well as he did, he might have missed the minute relaxation of the lines in her face. “You’re in charge of the others till I catch back up.”

    “Okay, boss.” What Jaara means is no shit, boss. Imagine Maseley taking the lead. The rest of her mealmix disappears into her mouth in one, two, three bites. Before she clears out of the mess with her empty tray in hand, she adds: “Good luck.”

    “Nice to meet you,” calls the dead guy—Ozzi, that is, assuming he’s been more truthful about his name than about his work history—before throwing his translucent hands in the air. “Oh, damn, I didn’t ask for her name either. Or yours. Because I’m definitely not calling you ‘boss.’”

    The next sector scheduled for clearance—the next seventy miles along the meridian—is still accessible from the modular habitat, so it stays behind for now when the crew leaves Hob behind. He waves the truck fleet off before setting out on foot toward the chestnut grove.

    No sign of their new pal Ozzi yet today. Hob woke once in the middle of the night, certain he would find a ghostlight-bright body looming over him, but his compartment had been empty except for himself and the nearly corporeal scent of some unwashed socks. Exorcising exolife has never been a cushy gig, but at least he didn’t use to worry about a haunt following him home.

    Without the human ghost on hand, he has some time to deal with the CFM problem. He takes his compendium out of its padded pocket and flicks the stylus over the screen. A cataloged list scrolls past, flora and fauna of all kinds, filtered and sorted by their current location. The fruits of the survey team’s labors, and the fodder for Hob’s job now. Previous interactions with the CFMs have shown them to be a scavenger species, which simplifies his task now. He selects a thumbnail of a different species of megafauna from the compendium, studies it for a moment, and steps back.

    The illusion that he generates looks just like the picture in the compendium; he hasn’t bothered to modify it from the base model. It’s sort of crescent-shaped, the hump of its back reaching higher than its shoulder. Its lacquered-looking scales catch and refract the meager light under the chestnut canopy, with hundreds of small, knobby, leafy protrusions poking up in between. The crew calls these things “battle slugs,” probably because “gemmiferous sprout-faced motherfuckers” is too much of a mouthful. Also no one but Hob knows that gemmiferous refers to sprouts, which are sort of like miniature cabbages; and Hob only knows because he specially sent a data request on the out-of-system relay. That’s what dedication to one’s craft looks like, baby. 

    No reason to take the time to animate shallow trembles in the leafy knobs or a ripple over the shiny scales—that kind of artistry is wasted on a CFM that would have eaten dead prey just as happily as live. It looks like a dead battle slug. It smells like one, or as close to one as he can make it based on the chemical signatures noted in the compendium. That’s going to have to be good enough.

    There’d been a time when Hob wouldn’t have illusioned up a single blade of grass without that kind of eye to detail. That time ended roughly somewhere between earning his certificate in technical thaumaturgy and his first day on an exorcism campaign.

    “Come and get it,” he calls, on the breathtakingly small chance that a) the CFM’s cabbage-y sense organs are tuned to the frequency range of human speech, and b) it understands a language resembling Standard Spanglorin. He feels like he has to say something when he attempts an exorcism, and he can’t think of anything with the right amount of gravitas right now. 

    A few of the chestnut trees have low-slung branches that let him get a foothold and climb higher, even in the cumbersome suit—some terraformer’s idea of a playground for kids from the settlement planned for nearby, maybe. Either way, he’s clear by the time the CFM comes snuffling-whuffling along, a lumpy yellow donut wriggling in wide sweeping arcs around the grove as it centers in on Hob and his illusion. There are haunts with less efficient movement patterns, but there sure aren’t many.

    It’s probably just as well he didn’t spend much time on the details, because the cabbage-faced motherfucker’s cabbages don’t appear to be feeding it much in the way of visual data. It rotates ungracefully through the trunks of several trees as if they aren’t even there. Stupid CFM doesn’t know: it’s the only thing that isn’t even there.

    Only when it approaches the make-believe battle slug corpse does it pause in its ineffectively circuitous route to investigate. A few cabbages unfurl, the leafy appendages on the outside slackening and pulsing unpleasantly as it…tastes?…the air. It must like what it finds, because the skirtlike flaps at the bottom of the toroid lift, and it tries to envelop the battle slug in its prehensile stomach.

    It doesn’t work, of course. That’s the whole point of the exercise. The CFM vibrates in distress, a painfully high-pitched frequency that Hob’s suit quickly blocks. It knocks around a few times, rebounding off tree trunks as it gropes for the delectable dinner that remains outside its reach. It’s mad enough to become corporeal; that’s promising. Come on, Hob urges silently, as he watches its hide flush green and orange in a patchy, bruised-looking pattern. Figure it out and go to haunt hell already.

    “That’s the first exo I’ve ever seen in person,” says Ozzi.

    Hob leans back, looking for the ghost. Sure enough, telltale ghostlight surrounds a human shape on the branch above him—but as he swings his head around, he overbalances himself. Gravity’s hand seizes him by the collar and gives him a good yank. His grasping fingers strip slender chestnut branches of their leaves as they slide through his fingers and then he’s in the air. 

    The fall is shockingly brief; his shoulders bounce off a solid branch and he hits the ground on all fours. Right on the spot where his own illusion is even now dissipating, as his concentration fragments.

    The CFM shrieks in outrage, its toroid rippling in circular waves. Although it’s not intelligent enough to recognize Hob as the architect of its untouchable meal, it’s not so brainless that it can’t at least spot a convenient target for its current rage. It whips around into Hob, sending him flying. Branches break—unless those snapping sounds are bones—as he crashes face-first into a stand of younger chestnuts.

    Dazed, he thrashes around: for a weapon, a hiding place, a tree that’s climbable in his current state. But the CFM is already on top of him, cabbages pulsing. Its stomach peeks out of its maw, then retracts back in. Hob must not smell like dinner. With one last squeal of ear-piercing disdain, it turns and slinks off into the trees.

    “Oh my god. Oh my god.” The shape that looms in his vision sheds more light than it blocks. When Hob’s vision clears, the shape resolves into Ozzi’s shocked face. His eyes glitter with more than ghostlight; Hob wonders if a haunt can cry real tears. “Are you okay? What can I do? I can go find the others—”

    “Fuck,” says Hob, more as punctuation than a response to the fall. Exorcism is rarely as easy as that, anyway. He gets up off the ground carefully, checking for injuries. Bruises, minor cuts, scraped knees; his left wrist is sore, but not, he thinks, broken or sprained. He dusts off his suit. “I guess there’s a reason they make us wear these things.”

    “I’m so sorry.” Ozzi hovers a short distance away, within arm’s reach, if his arms could actually reach anything. “I’m not any happier about the situation than you are. Probably less. But I wasn’t trying to get you killed.”

    “Well, you didn’t. So no harm done.” Reaching for his compendium pocket, Hob’s wrist twists unpleasantly, and he winces. “Not much harm done.” 

    At least the compendium landed in better shape than he did; the last thing Hob needs is to have replacement equipment fees levied against his paycheck. While he flicks up and down the entries related to CFMs, Ozzi peers over his shoulder. “I didn’t know they could still…do things,” he says, and gestures vaguely with both hands, flexing his fingers. “Touch things.”

    “Mostly they can’t. Only when they’re experiencing strong emotional activation.” Hob chews on his tongue, lingering over the entry on CFM mating behaviors. His next attempt at exorcising this exo haunt will require a little more effort than a half-assed illusion of dinner.

    A swath of ghostlight cuts between him and the compendium. “Hyah!” yells Ozzi, then steps back shamefacedly when his arm passes harmlessly through Hob’s hand. “Okay. Sure. Stronger emotional activation than that. Got it.”

    “Eh, you’re new at this exorcism thing.” Hob jams his compendium back into his pocket, making sure to zip the padded pouch closed around it. “You’ll get the hang of it.” 

    “Can’t wait.” Though Ozzi says it with the cadence of a joke, a frown flits over his face before he yanks a lopsided grin back into place. “Got as much time as I need to improve, now.”

    Maybe knowing a little more about Process will help shuffle things along, or maybe it’ll just get in the way. Hob creates a mental compendium entry for his human haunt and starts entering data: Thirty to forty years old at time of death. Occupation unknown. Business in-system unknown. Doesn’t like the idea of exorcism. Got upset when he thought he’d harmed a human being (me). 

    With that limited data entered, he makes a decision. “The emotional activation is the key.” It sounds almost like a confession. A conciliatory gesture, grudgingly offered. “That’s what lets a haunt finally break through to acceptance.” Before Ozzi can verbally process that, Hob adds: “I’m done out here today.” He jerks one shoulder in the direction of the modular habitat. “You coming back to base with me?”

    He doesn’t have a plan yet on how to get Ozzi out of here. Not yet. But he has a plan on how to make a plan.

    When Ozzi hesitates, Hob shrugs his understanding and sets off on his own. But as soon as he starts moving, Ozzi calls after him: “Fine. But only because you’re a better conversationalist than that exo.” When Hob looks over his shoulder, Ozzi drifts in his wake, slipping through shadows and tree trunks with equal ease. “The name ‘cabbage-faced motherfucker’ makes a lot more sense now, by the way.” 

    Quiet is a rare commodity in the habitat. Hob takes a moment to bask in it after he’s shucked his suit into the first empty locker. A friendly electronic hum—from the air circulation fans, the water recycling system, the pair of cleaning drones—takes the edge off the silence. As does the occasional scuffle from the ever-expanding family of field mice that’s made a home under the northwest solar array. Hob really does need to take care of that too, at some point: another little undesired exorcism.

    A few kinks linger in his back, all the muscles that clenched up in anticipation of his fall, which haven’t figured out yet that they can let go. While he massages the sore spot over his hips as best as he can reach it, he pulls up the latest download packet from HQ and flicks through it. Blink, a pay stub deposited in his account. Blink, the smiling faces of the latest set of new hires, terraformers and exorcists alike. Blink, a sample serving of news headlines. A blurb about rapid changes in Zethari weather patterns careens past him, and he double-blinks to dismiss the rest of the packet before the news has another chance to leave a mark.

    After a series of stretches and matching grunts (his toes are farther away than they used to be), he shoves his feet into his module shoes and stands back up. “I’m going to warm up a mealmix,” he says, and hesitates. “Sorry I can’t offer you anything. This situation sucks for both of us—but mostly for you.” He scratches the back of his head as if he’s speculating on the fly. “Are there…do you have people somewhere? Someone you’d want to send a posthumous message to?”

    Ozzi trips over his own insubstantial feet, which is quite an accomplishment when you think about it. “A message?” he repeats, following Hob into the galley. “To let them know where I—how I—oh.” His eyes narrow. “Oh, nice try, though. I thought maybe you’d start by offering me some holographic injera and doro wat.”

    “They’re not holograms. They’re illusions. We tap into the same source that any thaumaturgist does. Exorcists, terraformers, cosmological augurs.” Someone (Maseley) has left the pantry door ajar; Hob replaces the mealmix boxes into neater rows as he rummages around for the shrimp-flavored packages that no one else likes. Jaara complains that they don’t actually taste like shrimp, which is one hundred percent correct, but whatever they do taste like is delicious. “I’m not trying to sneak one past you. I already explained how it works.” He’s been told he has a reassuring voice. That’s why he’s mission boss, probably. You need someone who can say whatever shit you need him to say and make it sound true. “I mean, if you think you can keep yourself calm, you can dictate a message saying whatever you want, and I’ll send it to whoever you want.”

    Add water, add extra salt and pepper and a packet of chili sauce, put it in the heater, wait. Ozzi phases in and out of his sight a few times while Hob waits, tapping a fork against the countertop. The heater dings; Hob opens the door and gingerly removes the hot mealmix, peeling back the lid to let eau de not-quite-shrimp waft out into the otherwise empty galley.

    He’s picked his way through about half of the mealmix when Ozzi drifts back into quasi-existence opposite him at the table. “No,” he says slowly, as if he wasn’t sure what he was going to say until he opened his mouth. “No, I don’t have people. No one who wouldn’t be more upset to hear from me again than not to.”

    Hob swallows a mouthful of room-temperature printed protein. “Sounds complicated.”

    “It is.” Ozzi’s head tilts, and he swipes a finger through the soggy vegetables dangling from Hob’s fork. The finger passes through un-shrimped, and he makes a weird face that Hob can’t interpret. With CFMs and battle slugs, he doesn’t have to scrutinize the expression beneath the ghostlight glow to guess how the beasties are feeling. “How about you? Do you have people?”

    “Nah.” Hob anoints a wad of noodles with the last sauce puddled in the corner of the mealmix packet. “Not anymore.” 

    “Sounds complicated.” 

    “About as simple as it gets, actually.” In Ozzi’s patience silence, Hob’s chewing sounds obnoxiously loud. He pushes the noodles into his cheek to say around them: “My parents were old. No siblings. Not married, not seeing anyone—they wouldn’t see much of me anyway, if I was. I don’t really keep in touch with the folks from my old job, and they don’t keep in touch with me.” He drops his spoon into his empty-enough mealmix and stands. “Except Jaara, I guess. We weren’t on the same squad back then. And she’s stuck here with me anyway.”

    When he heads to the galley to throw away the packet and toss his spoon into the wash bin, Ozzi follows him—albeit through the wall instead of the doorway. “Sounds pretty fucking depressing if you ask me,” he says seriously, while the bottom half of his face is occupied by a shelf of beverage pods.

    “That hits hard coming from a dead guy.”

    Ozzi makes a deflating sound, sort of like a belly laugh that got roundhouse-kicked halfway through. “Jatya!” he swears (or at least it sounds like a swear to Hob, who has a working vocabulary of swear words that borrows from five or six different localects and languages). “I thought we were having a moment here.” A ginger attempt at a slap passes harmlessly through the side of Hob’s head. “Then you had to go bring up the whole dead-guy thing again.”

    “Damn.” Hob dumps the rest of his mealmix unceremoniously into the biocomposter and leans his arms on top of it. “I guess that means we’re still a ways out from acceptance.”

    They swap half-hearted smiles, and Ozzi dissipates like morning fog. Hob hangs on to the smile for a moment, staring into the empty space. Then he dusts his hands off on his pants and pulls up a side-tab for the compendium in his visual overlay. With the images and notes as a guide, he starts putting together a new illusion, from the bones up. This one has to walk the walk more convincingly than his poor battle slug carcass.

    Every now and then, he flicks over to Jaara’s metric files. Orange, yellow, 250 kilometers per day, yellow, 87% first-attempt clearance rate, orange. The colors don’t change, of course, nor do the numbers underneath. But he can’t stop checking anyway.

    The next morning, Hob stands alone in the shadow of his own personal module detachment, waving. No sign of the ghost yet today, which means he can claim this spare moment to see off the rest of the crew—and the rest of the habitat. Dozens of smaller modules school around the big central unit as it trundles over the open plain along the meridian. “Let us know if you need anything, boss,” says Yettal’s voice, in Hob’s ear. “Or if you think you’re starting to go crazy being out here with only haunts for company.”

    “Dumbass,” hollers Maseley, “how’s he gonna know if he’s going crazy?”

    A crackle of static precedes Jaara’s appropriate-volume command to keep the comm clear. They’re her problem now, and Hob only manages to work up a little guilt over that. 

    When he turns back to his module, a little yellow notification circle starts blinking in the bottom left corner of his overlay. One of his recon drones has identified a site as worth investigating. 

    “It’s not going to investigate itself,” he says, to no one, which is also who he has to convince that his illusion mock-up work-in-progress can wait. On foot, foregoing his protective suit in favor of a little extra mobility, he sets out into a pastel yellow morning.

    The site is a few kilometers off the meridian, down a ravine that slouches through a section of the forest where the chestnut trees are gradually overtaken by some other species, slim white-trunked trees with dozens of eye-shaped black patches: silent watchers tracking Hob’s progress. They’re so spooky-looking that he has to wonder if they’re actually an Earth tree and not a remarkably staunch haunt—which should be impossible anywhere other than along the meridian. But it wouldn’t be the first impossible thing to happen to him this week, so he double-checks his compendium. “Birch?” he reads incredulously. In the localect he grew up speaking, the word is an egregious insult: a leech, a saboteur, someone who acts in selfish interest to the detriment of the habitat.

    “Are you talking to me?” The haunt—Ozzi—falls into step alongside Hob without missing a beat. “Or yourself? Or another, secret, third person?”

    Ozzi’s…wispier than usual, a clot of mist that vaguely suggests a person. An ex-person. “You look like shit,” observes Hob, “even for a dead guy.”

    “Well, we’re pretty far off the, what do you call it, meridian.” Ozzi pulses, the shape of a shrug. “But I didn’t want you to get lonely.”

    It’s not uncommon for a haunt to attach itself to an exorcist, follow it around until it can be safely dismissed, but usually exorcists hang pretty close to the meridian themselves. Such an activity might loosen Ozzi’s tentative grip on the afterlife; Hob weighs whether or not he should bring that up and finds staying silent to be the heavier option. 

    “So?” Ozzi prompts, for want of a response from Hob. “What’s the deal? Taking a day off? Mental health walk in the woods?”

    “Afraid not.” They emerge from the birches at the top of the ravine on Hob’s map. Below, a scabby black line cuts diagonally across the creek at the bottom of the slope. Dark wings flare to either side, a pattern of leafless once-white trunks that have burnt to a dark, ashy gray. At the terminus point of the line lies a hunk of wreckage, blackened at one end and stained metal at the other. A ship. Or the haunt of one, maybe. “Look familiar?”

    “Oh—no.” A breeze sends ripples through Ozzi, and Hob loses sight of him altogether for a moment. “I remember it better before it was on fire.”

    They make their way down the side of the ravine: Hob picking his way carefully over dew-slick rocks and steep leaf-littered slopes, Ozzi glittering vaguely in his wake. At the bottom, Hob walks a wide circle around the wreck itself. He can make out the last few digits of the ship’s registration number, which he subvocalizes to record in his notes. Whatever the ship’s name was, the paint there has peeled unreadably away in the heat from the fire. 

    “Small,” he says. “Couldn’t have been more than four or five of you on board. So that rules out one of my theories.”

    Ozzi, no longer beholden to the same laws of gravity as Hob, floats upward without responding. The sunlight that breaks through the canopy refracts at the suggestion of his misty shape, and Hob has to squint to see him. For want of a better idea, he keeps expanding on those defunct theories. “My first thought was a squatter ship. Dump in a load of your own colonists before anyone’s paying attention, claim a chunk of freshly terraformed land, hope no one notices until you can get some sympathetic news coverage.”

    He speaks louder as Ozzi drifts around the curve of the ship’s hull. “Then again, I thought, maybe a thrill-seeker. We get a heads-up from HQ about those, once in a while. How close can we fly to the terraforming origin without getting wiped out of existence, ooh isn’t that fun; let’s race the meridians to the secondary nexus, this is a very good idea that has definitely never gotten anyone killed.”

    Ozzi hasn’t made it back around the hull yet, so Hob follows in the direction he went. The haunt is, well, haunting the part of the ship where—Hob thinks—the cockpit would have been. “But you don’t fit the profile for that,” he goes on. Ozzi twitches, shrinking by a few centimeters. “Usually they’re either dumb kids or dumb old people who have outlived all the fucks they had to give. Which really only leaves one possibility.”

    “Oh yeah?” says Ozzi. “And what’s that?”

    “You and your crew were symps.”

    A laugh ripples Ozzi’s outline. “Symps.”

    “Exo-sympathizers,” Hob amends, and racks his brain. There are half a dozen groups, each with its own self-aggrandizing title for itself. “You’re with Sparrowfall, or the Hundred Thousand Suns, or—”

    “You should just stick with symps.” Ozzi’s voice has lost its usual coat of cheerfulness. What’s underneath slices ice-cold into Hob. There are tender points even a protective suit wouldn’t cover. “It’s more honest. Excuse me a second.”

    The ship’s hull shimmers once as Ozzi slides through it. Through the pitted wounds in the hull, Hob can hear him muttering to himself. He can’t make much out—the distance aside, Ozzi doesn’t seem to be speaking Spanglorin—but curse words have a certain texture that transcends language barriers.

    While he waits for Ozzi to peter out, he picks his way around the wreck for a second, closer look. The front is in pretty bad shape, but the top looks more or less intact. Well. In a better state than he’d honestly expected. If he had the right safety equipment, he could probably get in through the wounds in the front of the ship and check out the rest.

    A ferocious clang echoes inside the ship, scaring away the rest of his coherent thoughts. It’s followed up by Ozzi’s shout: a distinct Spanglorin “Fuck!”

    Hob waits. It’s another couple minutes before Ozzi coalesces beside him; might be he lost his ability to hold on to his haunt-self after he failed at whatever it was he was doing in the ship. “Anything I can help with?” Hob asks mildly. “Being in possession of actual physical hands as I am.”

    “No.”

    They stand (and float) in contemplative silence. When Hob risks sidelong scrutiny of Ozzi’s expression, there’s not much there to see. Drifting, detached. Grief wakes an anger in some people, gets their fists up, starts them swinging. With others, grief books them a one-way ticket to a destination far from the immediacy of pain. With what he’s seen of Ozzi so far, Hob would have marked him as the first type, but both fight and flight tend to dig down to a deeper level than what most people display on the home screen of their personality. 

    Well, what the hell; he decides to take a chance. “I could’ve respected squatters,” he says, and heaves a sigh. “The survivors of Caloteru IV, or the folks left behind in the Trei Belt after the iridium interests dug everything dry? There’s no one looking out for those people.”

    Ozzi’s expression solidifies into incredulity. “No one’s looking out for exos, either. Not the ones that got mowed under to make room for New Bania, or Syfonica—certainly not the ones you casually deleted to make room for Zetharin—oh.” His voice, which had been gaining in volume and intensity, returns to conversational tones as he takes in Hob’s poorly hidden smirk. “Was that the laziest ever attempt to exorcise me the fuck out of your life?”

    “Pfft. No. I could have kept egging you on way longer if I was trying to get rid of you.” Hob nods his head toward the wrecked ship. “Seriously. Is there anything you want me to look for in there?” He hesitates. “Or anyone?”

    “Still no.” Ozzi’s eyes lift to the hole in the cockpit, then slide past, to the sky-spangled green canopy beyond. A bird calls quizzically in the distance, and another answers with the same curious chirp. “I don’t suppose they’ll just let it stay here.”

    Even though he already knows the answer, Hob calls up his visual overlay. “We’re standing right in the middle of the lumber preserve for a planned settlement,” he says apologetically. He calls up a minor illusion, replicating the map in the air between them for Ozzi’s benefit. “See? They’ll probably haul it off to a dump. Maybe back up to space, if the settlers, the uh, refugees, make a big enough deal about having it here.”

    “Well.” Ozzi puts a hand up as if to pat the blackened metal. He keeps his hand as close to the hull as he can without letting it pass through, so that it almost looks like he’s really touching it. Just for a moment, his arm is solid enough that Hob can barely see the trees through it. “All orbits decay in time. Shall we go?”

    The walk back is either boring, exhausting, or both: Ozzi bleeds out of existence about a kilometer in. He doesn’t reappear until after Hob has gotten back to the module, scraped lunch out of a mealmix packet, put the last few finishing touches on his new illusion, and shoved his feet back into his still-sweaty boots. 

    “No rest for the wicked,” Ozzi says cheerfully, as if this morning never happened, as if the crashed spaceship is still just a curious blip flagged by the recon drone. “Where are we off to this time?”

    “‘No rest for the wicked’ is a funny thing for a ghost to say.” Although the lemon-yellow afternoon suggests heat, the air is cool on Hob’s face and arms when he steps outside. He sets out toward the CFM’s grove, noticing that he’s starting to wear a track through the grass in this direction. He knows the spells that would call new grass up from nothing and cover the scuffed dirt, of course. Ground cover is a basic incantation, one that every two-bit thaumaturgist knows. But he smooths over that corner of his thoughts and leaves the spell uncast. “Don’t you have anywhere better to be? Like, I don’t know, the afterlife?”

    “I wouldn’t leave you to go alone. It can get dicey out there. Last time, you fell out of a tree!”

    Hob snorts. “I think that was because I wasn’t alone.” The conversation is easy enough for him to run out of the background of his thoughts, banter operating on autopilot; most of his brain is occupied with watching out for CFM tracks, listening for the telltale crack of branches. “What did you call them?” he says, cultivating an air of absence. “The CFMs, I mean. Did you have a name for those?”

    “Naming species was a little outside our scope. Temrethalin was our only biologist, and she was busy enough with other—” Ozzi cuts himself off, and Hob politely lets the name slide past as if he hasn’t heard it. “We all had better things to do,” Ozzi concludes instead. When he lifts a hand to flick a drooping chestnut branch, his fingers pass straight through.

    “What do symps get up to? Was there an Adopt-a-Battle-Slug campaign in the works? That ship didn’t seem big enough to whisk away a whole herd to greener pastures.” The terrain is starting to look familiar; they’re not far from the tree where he had his first close encounter with the CFM. He slows down, listening, looking. The spell that usually helps him locate a haunt is useless right now—when he opens the source and thinks the right words in the right cadence, his thoughts light up with neon red arrows pointing right at Ozzi. “If you wanted to get up close with real exos, get your graduate degree in CFM-ology or whatever, you could apply to one of the affiliated research institutions.”

    “We didn’t care about the individual species—no, let me rephrase. Our focus wasn’t on the biology of any given flora or fauna or bacterium or—or cabbage-faced motherfucker.” Ozzi barks a laugh at his own joke, hard enough to send ripples through his vaporous body. “For us, it was more than the loss of biodiversity. It’s the inhumanity of the process.” 

    “Yeah, obviously; exos aren’t humans.” The words slip out of Hob’s thoughts and into his mouth, only too late does he realize it’s obviously the wrong thing to say. Ozzi sheds a cascade of glittering sparks, and Hob doesn’t know either human haunts in general or Ozzi specifically well enough to know what that means—surprise, shock, outrage? He steps on the heels of his own ill-thought-out comment in his haste to leave it behind: “I think we’re getting close. I’m going to set everything up, and then we can make ourselves scarce.”

    He puts his back to Ozzi as he closes his eyes and calls up the idea he’s created. More than a mere image, this is a not-living-but-breathing rendition of a CFM. It casts a shadow; it gives off a sweet, swampy reek. As it solidifies and separates from the source that Hob used to make it, it rolls in a looping, wandering arc around the small clearing. Its cabbage-y appendages ruffle, and if Hob hadn’t been the architect of those delicate movements, he would think it looked as if the CFM was feeling out the shape of its own surprising new existence. 

    “Interesting tactic. I didn’t think they were social creatures.” Ozzi makes himself the opposite of scarce, reaching out to touch one fluttering appendage. Hob almost expects his hand to make contact, as if two things that weren’t quite real and physical must meet on some other plane than the one Hob’s life operates on. But of course his fingers slide right through, and the CFM continues past him. It wasn’t designed to react to the kind of stimulus presented by Ozzi. 

    Even though it ended poorly last time, Hob finds a foothold to haul himself up onto a low tree branch again. It’ll be harder for Ozzi to surprise him this time around. “You stay down there if you want, but I’m getting out of the CFM smash zone.”

    When he pulls himself another branch higher, Ozzi is waiting for him. “How many planets did you flip?” he asks conversationally. Like this is a job interview and he has some concerns about Hob’s work history. “As a terraformer.”

    The easy lie catches in Hob’s throat. His instinct is to spit it out, but he knows, in the long run, it would only do more damage. 

    Being honest with Ozzi means being honest with himself.

    “One. Just one.”

    A rumbling vibration spares him from Ozzi’s reaction. The CFM has arrived, and it’s headed straight for Hob’s illusion—as straight as its bizarre method of locomotion will allow. The frequency of the vibrations increases to a trill, and the cabbages bloom a darker color, purplish black, as it approaches the puppet-CFM. A query, or a request, perhaps, asked in color and sound.

    And answered in kind. The illusion does exactly what Hob designed it to do, burning source as it flushes pinkish-purple, buzzing its encouragement. It everts the net of membranes tucked under a flap beneath the bulk of its body. The membrane shines wetly, the bluish veins within it pulsing, as it protrudes toward the haunt. The haunt everts a membrane sack of its own, from which spongy, branching tubes emerge, and—

    “Oh, what the fuck,” says Ozzi in dismay. His indistinct form twists, head one way and torso the other, as if he’s not sure whether he’s supposed to avert his eyes. “Are you kidding me?”

    The CFM—the dead one—continues to slide up the musical scale until its trilling becomes a full-on shriek. This isn’t a question, it’s an exclamation, and it’s roughly the same one Ozzi just made, translated into CFM-language. Its colors change again, dappling and then muting, as it gropes around its would-be mate. But there’s nothing there to grope, nothing real. Look, but don’t touch. The proboscis—penis-sponge-thing—flexes, spasms, recedes. The CFM wails once more, in confusion or anger or both or neither; Hob doesn’t care what emotion it’s feeling as long as it’s feeling a lot of it. 

    Then it shrivels in on itself, and dissolves. The illusory CFM remains, still presenting its ripe membrane sac. Hob resents that he knows the phrase “ripe membrane sac,” let alone that his eye for detail spent so much time familiarizing itself with the concept. He lets the illusion go, unspent energy sliding back into the source’s fathomless reserves.

    “Was that it?” Ozzi’s voice comes out strained—not tense to the point of snapping, but certainly with whatever else he wants to say pulling the words tight. “Did it…work?”

    “It’s working.” Not as much progress as Hob hoped for, but Ozzi’s going to try to guilt him for every hard-earned inch. “You’re lucky you didn’t have to see this on Victory. They had these, uh, what did we call them—oh, bug-eyed hairbrushes, and do you want to guess what the dick on one of those things looks like?”

    Ozzi follows Hob when he descends, carefully, from the tree. “This isn’t empty prudery. It’s not like I grew up in a sex-neg culture, I just—fuck.” 

    He’s not behind Hob’s shoulder when Hob looks up from examining the site of the CFM haunt’s disappearance. Could he have—? No, there wasn’t enough emphasis behind that “fuck” to trigger a transition. Hob makes his tight chest relax enough to draw in a full breath. Make some notes. Write down his ideas, make a vague sketch, in case he forgets before he gets back to his mobile unit. 

    He’s finishing up, tucking his compendium back into its pocket, when Ozzi speaks up, from far overhead in the trees where he can’t see. “I’ve never really understood why they can’t just terraform the dying planet itself. Like Zetharin. Divert a couple blocs of the Transit Fleet, load everyone and everything that matters onto a ship—all at once instead of in waves, like they’ll move people here. Send in the terraformers, reset everything back to factory defaults. One happy healthy brand-new sparkling-clean planet, zero dead planets, everyone wins.”

    “They don’t take guys like me aside to explain company policy.” He looks around but can’t find a spark of ghostlight anywhere in the shadows. His line is a weak one, and he knows it. He doesn’t need a primer on the economics of it all. It’s only a matter of how you draw your lines of cost. C-suite execs see a bottom line that has to accommodate valuable and often perishable freight—freight that would only lose value while Transit Fleet ships serve as apartment buildings instead of cargo transports. It’s much pricier to house a planet’s population for the months and months it takes to execute a successful terraformation and clearance than it is to just leave them in place for the time being. And if you waste a planet that didn’t offer any economic value in the first place, then it’s hardly a waste at all. Folks like Ozzi do their accounting differently, and that’s fine for him, if he wants to go start his own pro bono terraforming organization, and in the meantime other people like Hob have to live in the real world where food doesn’t fall from the sky and engine fodder doesn’t grow on trees.

    “It’s expensive,” he says, to a knotty chestnut tree, since he still can’t tell where Ozzi is. “That’s all. It would be too expensive.”

    A rustle shakes the branches somewhere overhead. A pair of leaves, still green, flutter idly down. They settle silently to the forest floor. Hob calls Ozzi’s name without really expecting an answer.

    Not because he’s crossed. Hob doesn’t think so. He really doesn’t think so. It would take more than that. There are lines that haven’t been crossed. All of this today was about exorcising a CFM, not a human being. But Hob walks back alone anyway, following his own tracks homeward.

    The next morning, Hob wakes himself before his alarm. There’s a lot to do today, and their schedule is only getting tighter. He reads through updates from Jaara first—the next sector has been quieter, thank goodness, and they’ve made up a little of their lost time. He signs off on a few decisions, crew schedules, and supply drop requests. 

    The last thing in the packet is a list of potential rendezvous points, depending on how soon he thinks he can clear the ground here. With time, they get farther apart and closer to the secondary nexus…except for the final point, which is right where he’s sitting now. 

    It’s not as if they couldn’t get by without him. It’s not as if they aren’t getting by without him right now. Jaara feels better if she can point to his signature on the things she’s already figured out; he’s just her magic ballet shoes or magic feather or magic magnetic boots, depending on which version of that story the grown-ups in your habitat told. It’s not the end of the world if he stays here, circling the drain, a while longer. The world already ended, a long time ago now.

    He fusses for a while over a new illusion, recycling some parts from the previous version where he can, altering scale and paint colors and textures as needed, but his heart isn’t in it. In the late morning, he loads a too-heavy bag and heads out, under a sky scabby with clouds, in the direction of the wrecked ship. 

    Before he comes within sight of it, he changes tack. Back and forth, wide swings, keeping himself between the meridian and the ship. He kicks up underbrush as he goes, silencing the creak of crickets; he rifles through piles of leaf litter and sends flocks of startled birds skyward. There’s no guarantee he’ll find what he’s looking for. All creatures come into the world with a hunger, whether they arrive as squirming squalling nestlings or fully formed adults. Surely one of them, surely a whole swarm, has been through here before him. 

    In the end, it’s because of that hunger that he finds the body. He thinks it’s a mushroom at first, a swell of white tucked between the roots of a tree. But when he gives a testing poke, his fingers find something smooth and hard. He tugs, and the roots grudgingly surrender the gape-eyed skull. It’s streaked with dirt, but there’s not a molecule of flesh clinging to it. No way to know if it’s actually Ozzi’s, but a quick analysis from Hob’s overlay tells him the markers of age and size are a match.

    So.

    He takes his time spiraling outward from that spot, and turns up a few more odds and ends. Most of an arm, a few desiccated shreds of ligament holding humerus to radius, or ulna, Hob can’t remember which is which. Three rib bones and a vertebra, scattered at distant points, all of which show signs of tooth marks. He doesn’t even try to distinguish carpals and tarsals from pebbles, overlay or not. Everything he finds, he adds to a growing pile alongside the skull, and stands back, wiping his dirty hands on his shirt. 

    The modular habitat doesn’t have a shovel. It’ll have to be a flattish rock and bare hands. The hole doesn’t get very deep, not even after a great deal of effort on Hob’s part, but then, with remains this thoroughly picked over, he probably doesn’t have to aim for a full two meters. Once he’s thrown dirt back over, to fill in the big empty spaces around the bones, he stands for a moment. Maybe he should throw a couple flowers on it. Maybe he should say something.

    Maybe he should get on with his work.

    In the shadow of the shipwreck, he unfolds the ladder from his pack and counts the sections of Process he’s about to violate. Jaara would have known specific page numbers, probably, but he contents himself with ticking off on his fingers. One: Don’t enter potentially unsafe terrain alone. Two: Always have a plan for safe evacuation. Three: Don’t scale a ladder without a crew partner at the bottom to hold it steady. Well, he’s kilometers outside Process by now, and it’s HQ that sent him there, so to all seven hells with Process at this point.

    It takes some maneuvering to get him inside the cockpit in a way that he’s (fairly) certain will let the charred metal take his weight. Once he’s there, he finds himself in the company of two of Ozzi’s late friends: a pair of half-melted spacesuits with blackened bones peeping through at separated shoulder seams. The industrious creatures that tidied up Ozzi’s remains haven’t been at work in here: the unpleasantly organic smell of decaying flesh asserts itself over the ozone stink of the fire.

    Hob eases them, one at a time, out of their seats and totes them toward the hole in the hull. “Sorry,” he says helplessly, but there’s no way he can navigate the ladder safely with a corpse on his back. He tips them out onto the dirt below and doesn’t look to see them land.

    There’s not much else to see in the cockpit, except smoke stains and cracked computer screens and the flame-retardant emergency kit under the main console. Hob opens that and peruses the contents: a first-aid kit (bleakly hilarious), next-of-kin contacts (not that funny at all, actually), and the datasafe that probably backed up their reconnaissance or research or whatever they did, which might also tell Hob something about what happened to the ship. He slides everything into various internal pockets on his suit for safekeeping, except for the respirator mask in the first-aid kit, which he slides over his face, enjoying his next breath of trimethylamine-free air.

    There’s one more body in the cabin behind the cockpit, and Hob hauls that to the front of the ship too. Once he climbs down, he apologizes again to the three corpses, and arranges their limbs a little less pathetically: straightening legs, folding arms across chests.

    “Oh, sure, I see,” says Ozzi. It takes Hob a moment to locate him, a crystalline spangle of ghostlight in a shaft of pure sunlight. “I’m supposed to try to fuck them, yeah? That’s your M.O.?”

    “Don’t be a dick.” Hob takes a deep breath. Even in the respirator, the flavor of rot clings to his skin. It’s enough to make a guy a little edgy. “I’m trying to be human. Do you want me to bury them? Do you want to just say a few words, or—?”

    “I’ve already said everything I need to say to them.” Ozzi coalesces a little: the suggestion of a shoulder, a face. “Are they going to let a grave just stay here in their nice neat new forest?”

    “They might. If I request specially.”

    A red glitter shivers through Ozzi. Hob says, reluctantly: “No. Probably not.”

    “Okay.” Ozzi fades again, then pulls back together, even clearer than before. “Sure. Yeah. Bury them.”

    Hob isn’t going to get any less tired standing here. He starts, again, to make a hole. This time, there’s a fragment of the hull that makes for a halfway-acceptable shovel, and the ground is softer here too, deep lodes of a friendly and eminently diggable silt. Maybe this is where the terraformers planned to put a green cemetery. He probably needs to dig deeper this time. And his back is already tired from his earlier efforts. It’s going to be a long day, an extra long one in a series of long, long days.

    He stops more often for breaks, to wipe the sweat from his face, to see if Ozzi is still there. After a few of these, he stops to sit on the side of the growing grave and takes a crewcake out of his pack. These things are supposed to provide on-the-go energy for a day of heavy work, but mostly they just seem to work his jaw muscles to the point of drooling exhaustion. 

    “So,” he says, gnawing a corner off. “What was it like? Up there?”

    Ozzi pauses in his lonely, drifting vigil over the silent bodies. He’s almost a full haunt now, even this far from the meridian. Hob can see the lines in his forehead as his eyebrows rise. “You’ve been there,” he says. “At least we only saw it through the drones. But you’ve been right there. You know better than I do.”

    Hob thinks about waves of light washing over a world. He thinks about scarlet snake-whales the height of a man, screaming and writhing as they fight the inevitable. He thinks about iridescent flowers a cartwheel in circumference, whose petals immediately droop and wither and relinquish their hold on life, not enough substance to their soul to demand their own right to existence. He takes a bigger bite of the crewcake. It takes him longer to chew, so his tight throat has a chance to relax. 

    “Real nightmare shit,” he says, once he’s worked his way through the mouthful.

    The sound Ozzi makes is a little too desperate to be called a laugh. The conversation feels over, but Hob isn’t ready to pick up the shovel again yet. He nods toward the three crumpled spacesuits. “Who were they, Ozzi?” 

    “My friends.” Ozzi thinks a moment, then adds: “My coworkers. My family. The lines get blurry in our line of work.”

    “That can happen with people who care a lot.”

    “Not that you would know.”

    “Not that I would know.”

    They grin wearily at each other across the clearing, across the line of bodies. Hob pushes himself to his feet and picks up his makeshift shovel.

    Ozzi parts ways with Hob when the first thing he does upon returning to the habitat is to start stripping off all his clothes. Alone, he opts for an irresponsibly long, hot shower. He can eat cold mealmixes for a day, if the mini-solars can’t make up the energy deficit. Then he sits down with his compendium. First he plugs in the datasafe—but no, not today, he can’t look at any of that footage right now. Instead, he pulls a connection to the satellite. He sends a series of data requests to be forwarded to the quantum relay, eats fully half of his buttersweet stash, and folds himself into bed.

    When he wakes up, Ozzi is at the foot of his cot, swiping fruitlessly at Hob’s blinking compendium. “I have so many emotions, I should be able to interact with this fucking thing,” Ozzi says, as Hob blinks at him in confusion. “Unfortunately I think they’re all just annoyance.” 

    “Move.” Hob reaches around Ozzi instead of through him to grab the compendium. His data requests have been fulfilled, and he has a series of messages from Jaara too:

    Please see attached requisition list for approval. You missed yesterday’s check-in. Is everything okay?

    Per page 41 paragraph D of the Process Manual, the crew commander is expected to handle all approval requests within 12 hours. Can you let me know when you get this?

    Boss, if I don’t hear from you in the next hour, I’m sending Maseley and Rathana to come collect your deceased ass.

    This last is timestamped forty-five minutes ago; Hob hastily sends an apologetic reply and a promise to look at her requests soon, before he turns to the packets he received from the relay. The files are titled: Ozzi Sagar, Amindal Sagar, Temrethalin Ta, and Einda Malliso. Even without the biodata, it’s clear from the attached photos that Amindal is Ozzi’s older sister. The other two, both middle-aged women, are a partnered pair. Hob flicks aimlessly through the rest of the information, not sure what he’s looking for, scanning their histories of activist work, family and relationships, university studies, previous habitats of residence. 

    “Find anything juicy in my life story?” Ozzi peers at the compendium over Hob’s shoulder. 

    “Pretty boring stuff, to be honest.” Hob turns off the compendium and tosses it onto his wadded-up blankets. “I have no idea what to do now.” 

    “Sorry?” 

    Hob pushes up out of bed and crosses to his drawers, rifling through for a clean shirt. “A thoughtless exo is one thing. But you’re a person. Or you were. Are. Don’t make me get into the grammar of the situation.” He throws aside holey socks and an equally holey pair of boxers. “And we’re just stuck with this mess, and my bosses want me to make you go away, and I want—I want—there should be something I could do to at least help, you know? But the terraforming is over, nothing to be done about that; the exorcism is pretty much done too.” A slight exaggeration for dramatic effect, maybe, but hey. “There’s nothing either of us could do about your friends, except see them laid properly to rest, and if you’ve got something to say to whoever out there is still living and gives a shit about you, you’re being kind of weird about withholding it at this point since I already know way more about you than you wanted.” There’s nothing in his drawer that qualifies under any definition of clean. He balls up the dirty odds and ends briefly in his fists, then wads them back into the drawer and slams it shut. “I don’t know how to help you. I don’t know what you want. I don’t know anything.”

    “I guess I want what any dead thing wants.” Ozzi’s shoulders bounce helplessly up and down. “The impossible.”

    Hob sits down harder then he meant to against the drawers, banging his back against the raised edges. Something Ozzi said before pops back into his head, and he repeats it: “All orbits decay in time.”

    “You’re helping more than you think,” says Ozzi, and he pops like a soap bubble.

    Hob sits where he’s landed for a while, sifting the silence through his thoughts. By any objective measure, he’s alone either way, but the texture is different when Ozzi’s not there.

    When his leg starts to fall asleep, he makes himself stand up, and puts on the least grubby shirt.

    Though Hob woke early after his early bedtime, he’s not moving fast in the morning; every part of his body expresses its regrets in the form of delayed-onset muscle soreness. There’s something in the module medi-kit that helps speed muscle repairs, but its effects are far from instantaneous, and it’s a good two hours before Hob drags himself back outside. This CFM isn’t going to exorcise itself any more than Ozzi is.

    It’s only when he catches the first glint of ghostlight through the brush that he remembers: he hasn’t spent any more time on developing this new illusion. Well. There’s something to be said for the rawness and on-the-fly reaction of improvisation. He ducks into the cover of a massive, yellow-flowered bush and throws the bones of the illusion up behind him as he goes.

    At first, it’s only a smaller version of the CFM. Smooth nubbins in place of leafy cabbages,  a paler, more delicate color than the full-grown specimen. It crawls around in wandering circles, bumping curiously into trees and plants. Hob’s careful to make sure it avoids his hiding place. As he watches, he feels his tongue between his teeth. It needs something. A little more touch

    He shifts the connection to the source, drawing a little harder, and the baby CFM’s vague path takes on new urgency, frantic geometric patterns in place of curious circles. Its gray-white skin flushes even lighter, and Hob adds a noise. There’s nothing in his compendium about the vocalizations of juvenile CFMs, but he takes the sounds he’s heard the adult versions make and modulates them: altering the frequency, smoothing the texture. A mewling, bleating tremolo echoes in the clearing, and Hob’s heart clenches in spite of himself. He wrote and directed this little movie, so it’s pretty fucking silly to let it upset him.

    It’s supposed to upset someone else, after all.

    The haunt crashes into the clearing, bellowing a challenge, shrieking terror of its own. A cacophony of voices from various CFM orifices, but the meaning is pretty clear: some CFM version of you come after my kid, I’ll wreck your shit. 

    The shrilling dies away as the CFM recognizes—piecemeal?—that the juvenile is here in front of it, alive (well, “alive”) and apparently unharmed. It broadcasts another earsplitting challenge to the woods around it, as it approaches the juvenile for a gentle nudge.

    But of course, when it reaches Hob’s illusion, it slides straight through. There’s nothing there to be touched; there’s nothing there to do the touching with. It retreats backward, shrilling, and its cabbage appendages dilate fully, flexing and flaring. Trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.

    Hob sends the illusion after it. What does a hopeful baby-squeak sound like coming from a CFM? He makes his best attempt as the baby CFM trundles forward, its smaller body struggling over the rough ground. All over the universe, small creatures want a parent when they’re lost and confused and frightened, and this make-believe exo is no different. When the haunt runs out of room to retreat, Hob lets the illusion roll right through it—then triggers the fear-trill sound over again. Why won’t you help me? it seems to beg. What did I do wrong?

    The CFM rolls in panicked circles, as if to flee—but then it stops. With the oscillation of its own body, it begins to dig. Dirt flies around it in wide, round waves. Some of it pelts Hob in his hiding place, some of it rustles like rain in the foliage. 

    The CFM stops. It opens the cabbages on the side nearest the juvenile, and it closes them again. It calls once more—a vocalization Hob hasn’t heard before, a croak that slides up and down the musical scale.

    Its child is unreachable, beyond its ability to touch or comfort. A biological imperative, to make more of yourself, to protect the fruits of your reproductive labor—there’s a reason this thread is woven so thoroughly into life forms across a thousand planets. The fundamental disconnect is enough to penetrate into whatever limited version of a brain the CFM has.

    It understands. And it accepts. What else can it do, at this point?

    The whole world seems to squeeze, the swell of source beneath a successful exorcism. Hob winds his fingers into the branches of the brush, as if the haunt could take him with it when it goes. He blinks, and everything around him releases the breath it was holding. When he opens his eyes, the CFM is gone. Gone gone. He can feel the difference, as reality loosens up around him. He’s witnessed a successful crossing a time or two in his career; he knows what they’re like.

    He lets go of the baby-CFM illusion as he stands and shakes off the debris of leaves and dirt. His knees pop to let him know they’re not happy about how long he spent on them. “If you’re going to haunt me,” he announces to the clearing, “do it to my face, please.”

    Ozzi walks out of the shadows, a full human shape outlined in ghostlight, and steps to the hole left by the CFM. “Man, you’re really running short of options. I’ve never been particularly food-motivated, I’m ace, and I never had kids or younger sibs. What else you got up your sleeve?”

    Hob sits beside him, letting his feet hang down into this donut-shaped hollow. He wonders what drove the CFM to dig it—trying to hide from its inevitable fate? Making a hiding place for the little one it couldn’t otherwise protect? It reminds him of all the graves he dug yesterday, but nothing in the compendium suggests that CFMs or any other exos here had anything like funereal practices. A waste of energy on the CFM’s part in any case, but then he’s neither a xenobiologist nor a psychologist. Nor a xenopsychologist. If there’s another explanation, it’s past his understanding. 

    “Maybe I’m stuck with you,” he says. Ozzi glances sidelong at him with a sad, quizzical smile. 

    That makes this a little easier for Hob. You see your opening, and you step through it. He who hesitates, etc., etc. Something’s lost already and it’s not going to be Hob. 

    He takes the datasafe out of his pocket and sets it on the ground next to himself, on the lip of the hollow. “Or maybe I’m not.”

    Ozzi lurches. “Is that—?”

    “Of course you weren’t food-motivated. Not to an exorcism-worthy extent. But work-motivated?” Hob takes a hammer out his other pocket and holds it contemplatively in one hand. “That, I could believe.”

    “No. No!” Ozzi drops down into the hole, putting him eye-to-eye with Hob. Hob meets his translucent gaze indifferently. “Don’t do it. The footage is—you’ve seen what the footage is like!”

    “Nightmare shit,” Hob agrees. The hammer slips a little in his grasp; he tightens his fingers around its handle. “You think that matters? People care about human lives. Not exos. Not fucking CFMs.” Not dragonflowers, not Matisiran serpents. Not skymoss or jellybags or scissor-toads or twelve fucktillion weird little microbes. He looks away from Ozzi, toward the datasafe. “It’s all acceptable losses to them. Whose mind did you think you were going to change?”

    “Yours would have been a good start.”

    The datasafe rings resoundingly when Hob lands the first blow on it. It’s designed to absorb shock, after all, designed to take a hit. He strikes it again.

    “Stop!” Ozzi paws uselessly at—through—Hob’s arms, the hammer, the datasafe. A faint crack opens in its case as Hob lands another blow. “Fuck! Stop.”

    “Make me.” Hob brings his hand high and puts his whole shoulder into one more blow.

    The datasafe shatters. Tiny crystalline pieces go flying: into the brush, onto Hob’s clothes, into the hole. 

    “No!” Ozzi howls, and grabs for the shards where they’ve fallen. 

    He scoops up a handful of dirt and wasted computer parts, lifting them toward his chest. For a moment, Ozzi is a black hole, one that pulls everything in the clearing toward him. His fists close, and Hob leans away, bracing for a blow.

    The only thing that hits him is Ozzi’s resigned, weary look. Then the dirt tumbles through the space where Ozzi used to be, and Hob is alone.

    He waits, hearing his own loud breathing in his ears. Ozzi hasn’t crossed, not yet. It hasn’t worked but it’s working, he tells himself. He stands up, when he’s sure his legs will take his weight, and flings the hammer as far into the woods as he can. It crashes, metal against wood, and some kind of typical Earth-origin woodland hellbeast chatters its outrage at him. 

    He wonders whether he’ll see Ozzi again before he goes. Neither possibility is comforting.

    He takes out his compendium and calls up the files he pulled from the datasafe. He watches wave after wave of purifying light wash over CFMs and banana turtles and cloud-weed, peeling them out of existence layer by layer until it’s like they were never here at all. It’s been a long time since he saw terraforming from this end. He doesn’t like it any more than he did the last time.

    Remaking a world in your own image is only a good idea if you aren’t ugly as shit to begin with. 

    If Jaara is surprised that Hob makes a vidcall request to go over the day’s progress reports and requests, she doesn’t show it. Together they catch up on all the minutiae that Hob has let slide. He asks how the team is, and she says they’re fine; she asks how the ghost is and he hesitates. 

    “I’m working on him,” he tells her finally, and she nods, as if that’s all she needs or wants to hear.

    Before she can cut out of the call, he catches her with one more thing, and this time even Jaara can’t mask a startled expression. “You used to be a terraformer too, way back when.”

    It’s not a question, but Jaara answers it. “I was.” She’s already back in control of an alert-but-unconcerned expression. “For a while.”

    “What made you switch over to cleanup?”

    She hesitates, and he knows she’s trying to figure out what he expects of her, what he wants to hear. Finally she says, reluctantly: “I was having trouble sleeping during jobs.”

    “Bad dreams?”

    “No.” She looks down at her hands, or whatever’s in them, just off-screen, then back at Hob. “It was the noise. You know what I mean?”

    He does. He can handle hearing that noise one-on-one, but a worldwide chorus, an entire planet’s death-scream in unison—it’s too much. Even too much, apparently, for Jaara. “Okay,” he says. “Thanks. Good work over there. Keep it up.”

    “Okay,” she says. No thanks, boss; no you too. She ends the call first and he sits with the dark compendium in his hand for a while before he gets up in search of a mealmix and a clean fork.

    He should get out of bed. He should figure out what it’ll take to finish Ozzi off. He should eat something. He should plot out a rendezvous point for Jaara and the rest of the crew.

    He gets up and pees. He goes back to bed.

    He watches the footage from Ozzi’s drones. Over and over again. He scans through the dead ship’s maintenance logs, gives up, and directs a script to scan through them and ping his overlay with the results. He watches the footage again while he waits, closes his eyes, sees dragonflowers and CFMs disintegrating side by side in the darkness of his imagination. 

    When he opens his eyes again, a notification is blinking to let him know that his search has run. He wanted it to be company sabotage, wanted an obvious flashing “here there be monsters” neon red flag, but analysis suggests otherwise. The ship was cobbled together with what a bunch of starry-eyed symp believers could scrounge up with spare change. They’d fixed a faulty connection between gas exchange and ventilation systems a few times before, but this time the failure was catastrophic. A spark, an explosion, an impact crater that would soon be smoothed over and tidied up by an in-progress terraformation event.

    He would have known what to do, if there were obvious bad guys.

    If there were obvious bad guys, it would be easier not to be one of them.

    Ozzi reappears while Hob is in the head, his dick in one hand and his compendium in the other. “Shit!” Hob bobbles the compendium and narrowly avoids soaking it in piss. 

    “You shouldn’t use your comp in the toilet,” scolds Ozzi mildly. His voice is different, coming from farther away. “It’s getting harder to stay. I wanted to say…” His ghostlight throbs like a pulsar. “Well, fuck you, first of all. And also goodbye.”

    “You can’t!” Hob zips his fly and turns the compendium’s screen to face Ozzi. One of his rewatches is frozen there, a battle slug curling in on itself, its tissues unraveling even as it hunkers protectively down. “You can’t go yet. You have to tell me where to send it.”

    “Oh,” says Ozzi softly. He reaches as if to take the compendium, then remembers. His hand falls back to his side. “Really? You think it’s going to matter?”

    “I think it matters to you,” Hob says.

    Ozzi studies him for a moment. Hob can see his own face in the mirror, through the back of Ozzi’s head. He looks, even more than usual, like shit. “Okay,” says Ozzi finally. “Sure. Give me access to the relay. I have a destination code.”

    Hob enters his company password, and looks up, waiting for Ozzi to give him the next string of information. Instead, Ozzi frowns intensely. Mustering the emotions that still tie him to this world, his last reserves of want and need and hope. He reaches out and takes the compendium from Hob’s hands. “This might take a second,” he says, as if from the other side of a tunnel. “Sorry.”

    After keying in a few strokes one-handed, he thinks better of it, and sets the compendium on the corner of the tiny countertop. Tongue between his teeth with furious concentration, he enters the destination code one digit at a time. The air is heavy, so heavy Hob can barely breathe. He holds on to the clean-water pipe for balance.

    Ozzi finishes with the code and straightens up. “For what it’s worth? I don’t think I’m the only one it’s going to matter to.” 

    He gives Hob one more lopsided grin, and he stops.

    Stops existing, stops haunting. Just plain stops. The air goes back to normal, but Hob still can’t breathe. He listens, but all he can hear is his own all-but-fibrillating heart. This is the first time in his life it’s ever been weird to be alone in the john.

    When he’s sure he can pick up the compendium again without another risk of dropping it in the urinal, he scoops it carefully off the counter. The destination code has been input and the compendium recognizes it as valid, but Ozzi fucked off to the afterlife before pressing send. He’s left that for Hob to do. 

    “Asshole,” says Hob, and laughs—maybe a little hysterically, but he’s the only one who has to hear it—and covers the button with his thumb.

    He skulks around the habitat, waiting for Something to Happen, but of course nothing does. Data takes time to travel, vid takes time to be seen. Difficult conversations take time to hold. He picks at a cold mealmix and goes to bed early, leaving his compendium in the head so that he can get maybe his last good night’s sleep for a long time. 

    When he wakes up and sidles tentatively into the toilet, he’s got a dozen message notifications waiting for him. All blinking urgent—several from HQ, a few more from reporters or government officials or whatever. He glances through them. Interview request, a demand for official testimony, also he’s super fired. One of the notices from HQ lets him know that the appropriate section of Process has been triggered and that he has been logged out from all access to company files, machinery, even the habitat itself—if he leaves, the missive warns, he’s not getting back in. 

    He makes himself a cup of tea and goes to sprawl in the grass and drink it. It’s a nice day out. Maybe rain later, one of those brief midafternoon spritzes that seem to keep this planet watered. But for now it’s peaceful, and the sky is a striking lavender-blue. 

    By the time the transport rolls up, he’s long finished his tea and started to wish he’d stayed inside so that he could have brewed a second cup. “About time,” he calls to Jaara, as she steps down from the driver’s seat.

    “I’m supposed to take you into company custody, boss.” She doesn’t sound mad at him, or even annoyed. Embarrassed, maybe, at the situation. Or maybe just because of that reflexive “boss” that slipped out.

    “Makes sense.” He tosses the dregs from the empty plastic cup over his shoulder. “Are you going to?”

    “Why did you do it?” Not like her to answer a question with a question, but he’s already set the precedent on going rogue. “The people who want to know what it’s like, they already know. The rest don’t give a shit. Why bother?”

    “I don’t know,” he tells her honestly. He contemplates the bottom of his teacup. People read their fortunes in the bottoms of teacups, don’t they? He read that somewhere, but he’s not sure what a single red-brown droplet means to him. “I guess…I wanted to give a shit. A little bit of one.”

    Her perfect posture sags a little. Probably only Hob would’ve noticed. She sits down next to him on the grass and digs her fingers into the topsoil. “What now?” she asks. “Any other pointless nonsense you need to get out of your system?”

    They chase all the critters they can find away from the crash site and a couple square kilometers around it: rabbits and chipmunks, birds and even one snake that scares the absolute shit out of Hob on its way out of there. His compendium tells him it probably wasn’t poisonous (he didn’t exactly linger for a good hard look at the thing), but that would have been quite a way to go, wouldn’t it? Only after they’re sure things are fairly clear do they pull on their full protective suits—the things are useful, but too bulky when you want to move fast.

    “What about the trees?” Jaara asks wistfully, laying her gloved hand on a birch tree that’s grown around the scar left by the wrecked ship’s passage. “We can’t move any of them.”

    Nor can they move all of the worms, the microbes, the crawly little nasty things that burrow through the soil. On a subconscious level, trees want to go on living just as much as anything else does. Hob shrugs helplessly, and Jaara rests her head against the white bark for a moment before moving on.

    “Are you ready?” Hob asks, when they’ve spent about as much energy as they can afford clearing things out. The sun is high in the sky and the wrecked ship doesn’t offer much shelter.

    “Sure,” she lies gamely. She puts out her hand, and he squeezes it convulsively. You might think you’re ready for a terraformation, fresh out of training and ready to un-save the world. But no one really is.

    The light is too bright, rolling outward from the nexus of their joined hands. Hob’s suit tries to protect his eyes by darkening his visor, but he double-blinks to dismiss the change. He wants to see.

    In the flare, the trees bleach to clawing skeletal hands; untold trillions of unseen lives panic as they dissolve back into the source they came from, not so very long ago. Hob tries to ignore the noise, tries to tell himself it’s different this time. But the familiarity comes at him from an unexpectedly tender angle; reaching into the source to create life rather than its illusion doesn’t feel so different. This is an illusion-plus, really—take your idea of a CFM and then surrender control. Let your wants and demands recede, let its own break through. Give it enough source not just to seem but also to touch, not just to sing but also to listen.

    New foliage shoulders up through the crumbling remnants of chestnut and mulberry: yellow leaves, serrated and sharp enough to cut yourself on. Out of sight, strange and different single-celled life pulses into existence between grains of soil, within the veins of plants. There’s a faint greenish tinge to the air; Hob knows it’s poisonous, but he still wonders what it would smell like, how heavy it would sit in his lungs. 

    Without intervention, it’ll just blend with the human-friendly air outside this place. He cocks his head, feels around for the source whose touch he knows so well, and calls up a spinning, stirring wind. It spirals up from around his feet and spins wider, pelting him and Jaara with clots of dirt and broken bits of vegetation until its radius expands past them. Under his concentration, the wind swells wider—wide enough to wrap around this entire wacky little project of theirs. When he lets go, it stays in place: a spinning globe of gray, dirt-flecked currents. Lazy spirals, storms in miniature, curl through and collide. He’s never seen anything like it before. He’s certainly never made anything like it before. 

    It’s pretty, in a fucked-up kind of way. He hopes it gets to last a little while.

    With the perimeter set, he lets Jaara put the finishing touches on what they’ve created. As she works, he begins to record on his compendium. 

    “This is a preserve,” he declares, the compendium pointed back toward himself and held at arm’s length. “Put up walls, put up barriers, but do not fucking touch a cabbage on these cabbage-faced motherfuckers’ heads or we will put up a fight.” He keys in the destination code to match the one Ozzi used and releases the footage into the ether.

    “Yettal’s calling. I was supposed to be back with you by now, probably.” Jaara glances at her compendium, then shoves it deeper into a pouch on her suit. The work has left her face gray and clammy with sweat. Hob can only guess what he looks like right now. It’s easier than speculating about what Yetz wants to say: fuck you, boss; you’re under arrest, boss; where do I sign up for your doomed-ass little rebellion, boss? “Won’t they just plow it under again?”

    “Don’t know.” The shipwreck is gone, the buried bodies, presumably, too. There’s a swell of purplish soil, he thinks (he thinks) where the wreck lay, but it’s hard to be sure now that he’s overwritten the landscape so thoroughly. “I don’t know, Jaara.” There are a lot of things that he doesn’t know, and a few things he does. One is that this isn’t enough. The other is that it’s better than nothing. Has to be.

    A yellowish flash illuminates the freaky alien jungle—but it’s no ghostlight, only a battle slug, warning off other challengers in its territory. 

    “It matters,” he says aloud. 

    He’s not sure who he’s trying to reassure, because Jaara doesn’t look like she believes him and he doesn’t sound like he believes himself. Maybe the battle slug feels better for hearing it. He wonders if they should stay here and try to guard this weird little zoo, try answering some of those interview requests before they’re both locked out. 

    “Maybe just for now. Maybe just to you and me.”

    “But it matters,” she echoes, and it sounds truer coming from her mouth instead of his.

    They sit side by side on a stumpy, rubbery chunk of vegetation that doesn’t seem to be secreting anything that’ll eat through their suits. Idly, Jaara pats the plant matter under her legs. The stump doesn’t seem to mind. 

    “You want to talk about metrics while we’re waiting?” Hob asks, after a while, and Jaara chokes on an incredulous laugh. 

    He pictures shiploads of Zetharin refugee-settlers, corralled behind safety perimeters until the secondary nexus can be cleared. Maybe someone will catch a glimpse of a CFM from behind the barriers, and maybe that person will come up with a better name than cabbage-faced motherfucker. Oh, damn—he should have brought something to carve the crash victims’ names into one of the quasi-trees in the jungle. 

    “I don’t think we’re going to make deadline. They’re going to dock our pay, probably.”

    Neither Jaara nor Hob has enough energy left to laugh at that. All they can do is cave vaguely in toward each other, shoulder to shoulder, partly out of exhaustion and partly because the shape of the stump-thing makes this kind of lean inevitable. From out of sight among the wool-trees and pipe-orange plants, a trumpeting call rises, and another harmonizes with it. Two more calls, smaller and shriller, echo the first set. A mated pair of CFMs and a couple of young to round out the set. 

    “Just like I always say.” Hob cranes his neck for a glimpse of the CFMs, which stay stubbornly out of view. “The third week of an exorcism campaign is the absolute fucking worst.”

    “Yeah.” He can just see the crescent-moon glint of Jaara’s smile through her sweat-fogged visor. “But you’re leaving off the next part.” 

    “I am?” Hob racks his empty brain and comes up, unsurprisingly, empty-handed. “What else do I always say?”

    She clinks her helmet against his. “That if we can survive the third week? The rest is cake.”

    “That might have been an exaggeration on my part,” Hob cautions, and clinks her in return. 

    They both subside into silence. Waiting. Listening. Watching the yellow sun wrap itself up in green clouds and settle to sleep beyond the horizon. The CFMs have moved away, it seems; and if there are any ghosts lingering out there, well, they’re quiet tonight.

    Editor: E. Catherine Tobler

    Cover Art: inkshark

    Layout and Cover Design: Christine M. Scott