Miranda Ayodele glowered at the not-quite-human being slumped on the rear bench of her rover. “I should have left you to die.”
Wide, dark eyes with cybernetic irises gazed back. Slender fingers lowered the rover’s oxymask from an androgynous, amber-skinned face. “I and my people have done you no harm.”
That placid arrogance made Miranda wonder again why she’d bothered to rescue the Dijuno she’d found staggering through the Tharsis lowlands without breathing gear. “No harm? You’ve doomed life on Mars!”
The genderless Dijuno—they had given the name Teshien Ri—tilted their red-blond head to examine her. “Please explain.”
“What are you even doing here?” she demanded instead. “What interest does your kind have in space travel? You jump between worlds as easy as riding an elevator. A million parallel Earths with almost-human natives you can study, trade with, or screw without consequences. Why risk yourselves on long, hard trips to barren rocks you actually have to earn a life on?”
“Ah.” Ri nodded. “You blame transbrane contact for the cutbacks to Martian colonization initiatives.”
“Damn right I do.”
“However, human scientists had already confirmed the transmission of gravity between brane universes, causing equal-sized planetary masses to form in corresponding spaces, undergoing convergent evolution due to identical impact and flare events, tectonic—”
“I don’t care about all that!”
“You would have achieved the breakthrough soon enough, and contact was accelerated due to—”
“We were building a life here on Mars! Building a nation of our own, through hard work and sacrifice!”
“If fewer lives are sacrificed, is that not good?”
“It’s wrong to sacrifice a way of life!”
“That will be humanity’s choice if it happens.” Those unnatural eyes held hers evenly. “Do you believe sacrificing me will have any effect on it?”
She refused to feel guilty. “Don’t you care what happens to you, Dijuno?”
“Certainly. But we channel our emotions into seeking solutions.” Ri’s head tilted abstractedly, their hands working unseen threads. “Ah. Miranda Ayodele. First-generation colonist, resident of Robinson City for twenty-eight Martian years. Son Bernard born in second year.”
Miranda bristled. “You have a file on me?”
“You have a large footprint in this planet’s public network. Though the connection is tenuous here, the network poorly maintained.”
“And whose fault is that?”
Their fingers danced. “Many Martian citizens’ online posts blame us, while others blame those who abandoned Mars to explore or colonize Earth’s transbrane counterparts.” Ri’s eyes narrowed. “Such as Bernard Ayodele, who returned to Earth nine months ago to join the exploration program. To pursue the unearned life, as you put it.”
“Don’t try to analyze me, cyborg.”
“I have a scion too. One I hope to rejoin, if you assist me in repairing my transbrane capsule.”
“Now you’re trying to win my sympathy. You just want to visit your kid? No. That doesn’t explain your people making the effort to cross space to a lifeless world. Only we did that, because you didn’t think we were worth contacting and left us to fend for ourselves. We had to reach other worlds the hard way, with our own wits and struggle.
“And as soon as we got good at it, you showed up with your quick and easy magic portals and lured our best and brightest away. Like you were afraid of us achieving something you hadn’t, so you had to seduce our children before they achieved something even greater!”
Miranda lunged out of her seat and grabbed the smaller humanoid by the front of their coverall. “No, you’re gonna tell me the real reason you came here, Dijuno. To spy on those of us who still think the rest of the Solar System is worth our attention and effort? To undermine what few colonies and outposts we have left? To steal the kids you haven’t already taken?”
Ri looked down at Miranda’s hands with curiosity, as if her threat of violence were merely a social behavior observed from outside. After a moment, Ri said, “The best way to discern your answers is to examine my capsule. Please take me back there.”
“So you can get a weapon, or activate whatever you…” She shook her head. “I’m not a fool.”
“If my capsule is indeed a threat, is it wise to abandon it? There are few left in authority, or you would have summoned them already. You feel responsible for maintaining the colony yourself. Or for protecting it. That, I surmise, is why you declined to join your son.”
Miranda resented Ri for knowing how to hit so close to home. Bernard had begged her to come with him, to explore not-quite-Earthly biospheres and civilizations together, insisting it was just as worthy a challenge as conquering Mars. Miranda had reminded him angrily how much she’d suffered and bled for Mars, how many friends and mentors had died for it. It had to mean something. How could Bernard be so ungrateful for all she’d done to build him a home here? How could he just throw it away?
How could he have let those be the last words they exchanged?
But Ri’s assessment was accurate. For Mars’s sake, she had to examine the capsule for herself.
Miranda left Teshien Ri in the rover and suited up to investigate the damaged transbrane capsule. She approached the spherical device with care, examining the intricate crystalline lattices embedded in its surface, though she realized she had no way to recognize any threat they posed.
The one clear thing was that the capsule was dented and lying on its side, at the bottom of a trail of depressions in the desert soil and dust, starting midway up a gentle slope. Glints of crystalline debris punctuated the tale the depressions told.
Leaning through the open hatch, its handle dark with Ri’s dried blood, Miranda saw unfamiliar symbols flashing, some kind of universal pictograms for brane travelers—clear enough that even she could decipher them. Malfunction. Off course. Contact lost.
Back in the rover, Miranda studied Ri for a long moment.
“You weren’t coming here.”
“What went wrong?”
“To be determined.”
“So you were going to a different Mar—a different fourth planet.”
“It is called Guzae. My scion is a researcher there.”
Miranda sighed. “Your capsule… it fell. From a few dozen meters up.”
The Dijuno squeezed their large eyes shut. “Yes. It was very painful.”
“But transbrane travel… it’s always to the matching point in space.”
“And every corresponding braneworld has the same size, the same topography.”
“Essentially identical to those in relative proximity, except when altered by intelligent effort.”
“So you were aiming for a destination at the same coordinates… the same elevation.”
“But we’re in an open plain. The only way you could have two capsule stations at the same height…” Ri simply waited for her to finish. “Is if they were both in tall buildings.”
“Hence my lack of breathing equipment. Although Guzae has a robust atmosphere and beautiful forests.”
Miranda struggled to take it in. “Why? With countless Earthlike worlds an instant’s jump away, why would two civilizations colonize space?”
Ri smiled. “When the people of Guzae’s brane discovered transbrane travel, they neglected space for a generation or more. So did the Dijuno’s ancestors, far earlier. But once the novelty wore off, they remembered there was much to learn from the system’s other planets. That the challenge of reaching them was no less worthwhile. Many others have done the same. Sometimes they have even found life on the fourth world or the outer moons.”
Miranda blinked away tears. “So Mars… it won’t be abandoned?”
“It may be for a time. But on countless braneworlds, the species that thrive and build civilization are the ones compelled to colonize new environments, even ones unsuitable for their survival needs. This lets the species spread widely enough to survive local cataclysms, and the need to adapt to hostile conditions promotes technological innovation.”
Another smile. “Humans are unlikely to lose that drive. Mars will be a home to humanity one day, with or without you, Miranda Ayodele. So you are free to find your son, make amends, and discover another new world alongside him.”
The tears came more freely now. “Your capsule’s trashed. You knew that.”
“You had to see for yourself to believe.”
“You don’t deserve to be apart from your kid.”
“If you will help me reach Earth, I can cross branes from there and reunite with my scion.” Ri studied her again, and she now saw it as sincere interest, not cold detachment. “Might you do the same?”
Miranda thought of that last argument with Bernard, the fierce temper they shared, the things they’d said—no—the things she’d said that drove him away. “Some divides are harder to bridge than others.”
Ri gave her a knowing smile. “Those are the ones most worth the effort.”