Ambassador Vilma Rohan shrugged herself into her best jacket as the dropship hit atmosphere. She zipped it from waist to collar and sat back for a moment, only vaguely aware of the craft’s swaying and lurching descent. The movement dampeners took most of the force out of the buffeting anyway.
“Motina’s help, we can do this,” Rohan said, nodding to herself and unconsciously brushing her thumbs over the rings on her index fingers.
The pilot briefly glanced back at her. “Sure we can, Ambassador. I’ve made a thousand trips like this. Maybe more.”
“Sorry, that wasn’t meant for you. I was thinking aloud.”
The young man—he’d told her his name when she boarded the craft, but she’d instantly forgotten it—said, “Gotcha. I do that all the time. Still…” He turned around completely and grinned at her. “I’m happy to be here. Last one, and all that?”
She nodded, then gestured past him towards the dropship’s controls. “Just…”
“Sure.” He turned back. “ETA two minutes.”
Two minutes. Then the battle begins.
There was more to all this than mere stubbornness or pride, as Rohan had tried to explain to her superiors many times. “It’s loyalty. That’s what we’re up against. And family. For some people that sort of bond is stronger than steel.”
Chancellor Raphael had responded to that with a snort. “Put it under enough pressure and even the strongest steel will buckle.”
Another lurch from the dropship, and Rohan automatically squeezed tighter on her seat’s armrests, the pads of her thumbs now pressing hard against her rings.
The pilot called out, “Sorry, that was me. But we’re through to a steady pocket of atmo now, just about there. You want to set down next to it, or a hundred metres away so they’ll see us coming?”
“The latter. We want them to see us.” Rohan pushed herself to her feet, glanced down at her jacket and decided that informal would be better. She unzipped it about half-way. But that seemed too casual. Maybe the jacket is the wrong approach? Leave it behind.
She unzipped it completely and removed it as the dropship touched down.
The pilot spun around again and stood up. “All right, let’s do this!”
Rohan thought that in any other circumstance his grin would be infectious, but not now. “Just me. You stay put.”
“No disrespect, Ambassador, but if things get fractious out there—Motina deliver us—you’re going to want someone who can put out fires. I’m not just a pilot.”
“You are today. I’m going alone.” She stepped towards the hatch, cracked it open and winced a little at the blast of hot, dry air that rushed in.
“I understand, Ambassador. Motina guide and shelter you.”
“Guide and shelter.”
She pushed the hatch open fully. It collapsed into steps, and she walked out. Set foot on Earth for only the second time in her life.
Ahead, the farmhouse stood alone, as it had for the past nine thousand years. Patched up and rebuilt countless times, long past the point where there was any material from the original building left, but somehow it was still the same farmhouse. Perhaps that was symbolic, Rohan speculated. But symbolic of what, she wasn’t entirely sure.
It was daytime, around noon, the sky was cloudless and the sun baked down on the old farmhouse. Rohan shaded her eyes with one hand, waved towards the farmhouse with the other, though with the light this intense she couldn’t yet tell whether there was anyone watching her. If there wasn’t, she’d just waved to no one. That would be embarrassing, except that if they weren’t there to have seen her do it, then only the mother herself would know she’d done it.
As she crossed the cracked dirt, with its clumps of parched scrubgrass and grid of ancient sun-bleached wooden planks, Rohan’s boots kicked up a lot more dust than she’d expected. She couldn’t help wondering whether that was significant too. Of course it is. Everything is significant today.
Ten metres from the farmhouse a voice called out, “Well, you did say you’d be back.”
In the shade of the porch, Helena Lazarov sat on her old wooden rocker. Hand-carved by her father, she’d told Rohan last time, from a tree he’d cut down himself. A tree his grandmother had planted eighty-one years earlier.
“Ms Lazarov, you can’t… Don’t you understand what’s happening here?”
“Of course I do. I’m not stupid.” She glanced upwards, though from her position all she’d be able to see was the inside of the porch.
Rohan looked upwards too, though even at night it would be impossible to see the arks. Four thousand and sixteen of them. Each larger than any structure ever built on Earth.
In the name of the mother, what is wrong with these people? “Ms Lazarov… Helena. You have made your point. You have pushed them to the limit. But you cannot beat them. You are one family. They are—”
“All right. We. You are one family. Seven people. We are trillions.”
“So might makes right? What does the book say? Chapter ten, verse fourteen. ‘She who would stand alone against the storm is more favoured of the Mother than she who swims only with the rising tide.’” Lazarov tapped her chest. “Stands alone.” She pointed to Rohan. “Rising tide.”
“Out of context! And besides, that passage is open to interpretation. You could be the tide, and us the storm.”
“Stands alone,” Lazarov repeated, again tapping her chest.
“With six other members of your family. Hardly alone.”
Lazarov shrugged. “We’re a single family. That’s one unit.”
Uninvited, but no longer caring about that level of protocol, Rohan stepped up onto the porch and into the shade. “Where are they, anyway? Inside?”
“They’ve gone out for the day.”
Rohan bit down on her bottom lip as she slowly turned around and looked out across what had once been fertile farmland. “Where to? Where did they go? There are no cities left, no parks, nothing!”
“There’s a lot of interesting-looking wasteland, Ambassador. A whole world of it.”
Rohan spun back. “You cannot stay here, you damned fool!”
“Yes, we can.”
“They are going to pulverise the planet!”
Again, Helena Lazarov shrugged. “Not as long as I’m still here, they’re not.”
Through clenched teeth, Rohan slowly said, “We need the raw material. Without it, we can’t complete the Loop!”
“Yeah, well, that’s not natural. Nowhere in the book does it say that we’re going to have to give up our homes just so that all the planets can be mashed into one and rolled out into a ring big enough to go around the sun.”
“That isn’t how it’s done. It’s a strip of land, a loop ten thousand kilometres from side to side, three hundred million kilometres in diameter. We’ll live on the inside of that strip, a surface area greater than eighteen thousand Earths.”
“I don’t care how it’s done!” Lazarov pushed herself to her feet, stood almost nose-to-nose with the Ambassador. “We’re not moving.”
Rohan took a step back. “Look…. you’re the last family on Earth. Your names are already in the history books. No one can take that away from you.”
“That’s not what this is about.”
“Motina’s bane, but you are the most stubborn person I’ve ever…!” Ambassador Rohan realised that her fists were clenched and she forced herself to calm down, focused on rubbing her thumbs over her rings, feeling the familiar indentations of the prayers stamped into the platinum. “Did you even look at that last offer we made? A section of the Loop larger than the entire surface area of this planet! You’ll be the single wealthiest landowner in the history of the human race. We have offered you everything!”
“It’s not about wealth.”
“Suppose we leave you alone? Then what? Just you, your children, and your grandson. We’ll wait you out. The rest of the human race will cheer on the day that the last of you keels over. You’ll be reviled. Forever. You want that? You spend the rest of your lives alone, then the rest of eternity as… as a curse! No, worse, you’ll be an insult. ‘Hey, you see that guy? Stay away from him, he’s a complete Lazarov.’”
The woman turned to face Rohan with a smile. “This has been my family’s land for over three hundred generations. I can trace an unbroken line back nine thousand, one hundred and seventy-two years. Every one of my ancestors was born on this land, was raised on this land, died on this land. Well, no, not all of them died here. But they were all buried here. Every one of them. This is our land. People have tried to move us on many times. And every time they did, we fought back. Sometimes we fought with weapons on a battlefield, other times with words in a court of law, but however we did it, we won. Every. Single. Time. We won. Don’t you see that? Don’t you understand why I can’t leave?”
It hit Rohan like a shockwave, almost physically rocked her. Of course. I see it now. Oh, Mother, who can blame her for this? “It’s not about the land, is it? It’s about the history. The struggles of your ancestors. They put everything they had into this land, and now what you see is that it’s being taken away from you. Ms Lazarov… It’s not that. You give up this land and it’s not that you’ve lost. It’s that you’ve won the final battle. After this, there is no further need to fight.”
Lazarov turned away, shaking her head. “No. You don’t understand.”
“I do understand. We’re not taking this land from your ancestors, we’re asking you to give it to your descendants. You see? Your family has been fighting for nine millennia, and now you’ve won. The section of the Loop you’ll be given is the prize.”
Lazarov stared off into the distance, and without turning back to the Ambassador she said, “I want you to leave now. You’ve done your best, tried your hardest. And I appreciate that, I really do. Whatever happens next… Well, I won’t hold you responsible.”
“What do you mean, whatever happens next?”
Still looking away, Helena Lazarov smiled. “Where negotiation fails, the knife will succeed. Oh, I’m sure they won’t want the negative publicity of an actual attack. It’ll be subtle. Disguised as a natural accident of some kind. And then we’ll be gone and your people will move in and conduct their despicable work.”
“No. No, that won’t happen.” Rohan shook her head. “‘You shall not kill through anger, nor for greed, nor for envy.’ No. There has to be a way to… Look, what about this? We move you and your family off-planet. You take anything you need or want with you. First-class accommodation on the very best ark. And we’ll move your house. Intact. We can do that. Set up a force-field to keep it all exactly as you left it. We install it on your new land on the Loop in a location of your choosing. Trust me, if you weren’t looking out the windows you’d never know the difference.” She extended her hand. “What do you say?”
Slowly, deliberately, Lazarov turned back to face the Ambassador. But she kept her arms by her side. “You can do that?”
“We can. Shake my hand and it’s an agreement and we can get everything in motion today.”
“It’s not enough.”
“Not… Not enough?” Rohan dropped to her knees, buried her face in her hands to stifle a scream. She felt like she’d been kicked in the stomach, and it was only the pressure of her prayer-rings against her skin that helped her to keep a lid on her temper. With forced evenness, she said, “Oh sweet mother Motina, what more could you want? We’re offering you the equivalent of a planet!”
Lazarov spread her arms, palms out, and turned in a slow circle. “You have to take the land, too. You can do that, right? You take the land, and the house, everything. Intact. And then we have an agreement.”
Rohan raised her head. Her mouth had suddenly gone dry. “You’re serious? That’s what you want?”
The other woman nodded. “If you can do it.”
“We can do it. How deep?”
“What? Oh, ten metres would be enough. If your machines can sort of just, you know…” she made scissors motions with her fingers. “Cut it all out in one piece, lay it down intact on the Loop… then… then… Ambassador, are you crying?”
“Tears of relief! Yes, yes we can do that! We can build a ringworld three hundred million kilometres across, so we can certainly move forty acres of land! Motina guide us, we have an agreement!” She grabbed Helena Lazarov’s hand and grinned as she shook it for far too long. “You tell me when you’re ready to go, and we’ll get started. We’ll even let you press the button to destroy the rest of the planet, if you like!”
Lazarov gave a short laugh at that. “No, I think I’m notorious enough, thank you, Ambassador. You can give that honour to someone else. I’ll call my family back. Tell them to start packing. We can be ready this time tomorrow.”
Rohan finally let go of Lazarov’s hand, but held onto the smile. “Thank you, Helena. And thank the Mother! This is… this is the best news!” She stepped down off the porch, and slowly began to back away, head back to the dropship. “Guide and shelter, Ms Lazarov. Just think… the next time I visit your home, it’ll be in a much, much different place!”
“That’s assuming I invite you back! But it will all be identical, right?”
Still moving, Rohan said, “Apart from the sky, and of course there won’t be a horizon any more. That’ll be strange, but you’ll get used to it in time. Your grandson’s children will grow up in a whole new world, but it’ll be perfectly natural to them.”
Lazarov called after her, “Oh, I know. But I’ll be long gone then. Well, not gone as such. I’ll still be here. Right about where you’re standing now, in fact.”
The Ambassador looked down at her feet, at the parched, crack dirt, and the clumps of brown scrub-grass. And the ancient, weathered sun-bleached planks that protruded from the ground at regular intervals.
She understood, at last. Sometimes you fight to hang on to the past not because of pride, or stubbornness. Sometimes it’s about family.