Westin walked the night forests of Giausar IV. The hydrogen-filled bubbles hung thirty feet overhead, each one rooted to the ground by a bioluminescent umbilicus too thick to get his hands around to throttle or snap. Long leafy ribbons hung down from the bubbles, rustling in the breeze and brushing his face. It was like walking through a jellyfish bloom in the dark depths of an ocean trench.
He hated it. He wanted to go home.
Home was—would always be—Thuban II. But that bright sky and those continents of lush, cherry-colored tallgrasses were thirty lightyears away. Thuban II, where his pioneering ancestors had made a hard place a home six generations back. Where Westin was born, and where his grandparents would still die. He would never see them again.
Those are the things the Reach Authority doesn’t talk about. It’s always upward and outward and forward and onward. They never tell you that the cost of the Reach is cutting off your own hand. Cutting out your own heart and flinging it at the sun. That the homes of future generations are grown from the tear-soaked soils of the past. And for what? Expansion for expansion’s sake. To what end? He doubted his parents had any answers. He doubted anyone had answers.
He skulked on through the darkness of midday on this alien world, lost in inward thoughts and not much paying attention to where he was going. His attention snapped back to present and he yelped embarrassingly when he heard a nearby grunt. And again, another. Westin parted tendrilled leaves to find a girl in a clearing. She was chucking rocks into the air, and she was crying.
“Hey—” he said. He must have startled her as badly as she’d done to him, because the next rock came sailing past his head. “It’s okay!” he hollered. “What are you doing?”
She crumpled her way to a sitting position and wiped her eyes. “I was trying to pop those goddamn balloons. I hate them.” She sniffled, and Westin walked closer and sat nearby. He could see now she was about his own age, maybe a couple years older. He liked the angles of her face.
“I hate them too,” he said. “When’d you land?”
She sighed. “Couple weeks ago. You?”
“‘Bout a month. Where from?”
At that, he smiled his first smile on this strange planet. “Me too. I’m Westin.”
And then she smiled too. It was a more beautiful sight than any he could conjure or recall. “Gracen. Nice to meet you.”