his thumb, but it only made her more agitated. He refilled the syringe with the orange powder, quickly drove the needle through the back of her skull, and watched the light of her nascent mind blaze like a wildfire, then die away.

Carlo released the limp children and let them drift toward the floor while he resorbed the arms he’d used to hold them. His whole body felt weak and battered. He spent a few pauses steadying himself, then he pushed out two fresh arms and filled the syringe from the second vial. When a speck of the blue powder spilled onto his palm the sensation was like passing his hand above a flame. He gathered the damaged patch of skin into a small clump, then hardened the tips of two of his fingers and sliced it off.

He picked up the boy. A world away, his brother was still calling out for help. Carlo reinserted the needle, and forced himself to take his time delivering the poison lest it burst from the wound and escape into the room. The boy’s eyes had already been dull, but now the smooth white skin of the orbs began to turn purplish gray.

When the plunger could be driven no further, Carlo withdrew the needle carefully and set the dead boy down beside the cabinet. He refilled the syringe and turned to the boy’s co. When he gripped her a spasm passed through her body; he waited to see if there was any more activity, but she remained still. He slid the needle into her brain and sent the blue powder trickling through.

Carlo returned to the inner room. He set the boy he’d spared down on the bed beside his co, then unknotted the end of the tarpaulin that had remained attached to the guide rope. In the front room he brought the bodies together, positioning them as they would have been before they’d separated, and rolled them into the tarpaulin. He folded the empty parts of the cloth together and secured the shroud with cord. Then he packed the syringe and vials back into the box he’d used to bring them.

As he approached Silvano in the corridor, his friend’s whole body contorted with anguish. “Let me see them!” he begged Carlo.

“Go and tend to your children,” Carlo replied. A woman was approaching them—one of Silvano’s neighbors on her way home—but then she saw what Carlo was holding and she retreated without a word.

“What have I done?” Silvano wailed. “What have I done?” Carlo pushed past him and moved quickly down the corridor, but he waited by the ladder until Silvano finally entered the apartment. Comforting the surviving children —holding them, feeding them, letting them know that they were safe—was the only thing that could help him now.

Carlo descended past the level of his workshop, past the test fields where the seedlings he was studying grew, past the shuddering machinery of the cooling pumps, until he reached the base of the ladder. He dragged himself along the outer corridor, picturing the void beneath the rock.

A man was emerging from the airlock as Carlo approached. He removed his helmet and glanced at the tarpaulin, then averted his eyes. Carlo recognized him: he was a miller named Rino.

“There’s no greater waste of time than the fire watch,” Rino carped, climbing out of his cooling bag. “I’ve lost count of how many shifts I’ve done, and I still haven’t seen so much as a flash.”

Carlo placed the children’s bodies on the floor and Rino helped him fit into a six-limbed cooling bag. Carlo hadn’t been outside for years; agronomy was considered important enough to keep him off the roster entirely.

Rino snapped a fresh canister of air into place and checked that it was flowing smoothly over Carlo’s skin.

“Helmet?”

Carlo said, “I won’t be out that long.”

“You want a safety harness?”

“Yes.”

Rino took one from a peg on the wall and handed it to him. Carlo slipped it over his torso and cinched it tight.

“Be careful, brother,” Rino said. There was no hint of irony in his form of address, but Carlo had always found it grimly inane that the friendliest appellation some people could offer was a death sentence.

He carried the bodies into the airlock with him, slid the door closed and started laboriously pumping down the pressure. A loose edge of the shroud flapped in the surge of air across the confined space as he delivered each stroke. He unreeled a suitable length of the safety rope, engaged the brake on the reel and hooked the rope into his harness. Then he crouched down, braced himself against the outrush of residual air and pulled open the hatch in the floor.

A short stone ladder rising up beside the hatch made the descent onto the external rope ladder easier. Carlo used four hands on the rungs and held the children in the other two. As his head passed below the hatch the trails of the old stars were suddenly right in front of him—long, garish streaks of color gouged out of the sky—while behind him the orthogonal stars were almost point-like. He glanced down and saw the fire-watch platform silhouetted against the transition circle, where the old stars blazed brightest before their light cut out.

Carlo descended until he felt the safety rope grow taut. He clung to the children, unsure what he should say before releasing them. This boy should have lived for three dozen years, and died with children of his own to mourn him. This girl should have survived in those children, her flesh outliving every man’s. What was life, if that pattern was broken? What was life, when a father had to plead for an assassin to murder half his family, just to save the rest from starvation?

So who had failed them? Not their mother, that was sure. The idiot ancestors who squatted on the home world, waiting to be rescued from their own problems? The three generations of agronomists who had barely increased the yield from the crops? But then, what good would it do if the fourth generation triumphed? If he and his colleagues found a way to raise the yield, that would bring a brief respite. But it would also bring more four-child families, and in time the population would rise again until all the same problems returned.

What miracle could put an end to hunger and infanticide? However many solos and widows chose to go the way of men, most women would rather starve themselves in the hope of having only one daughter than contemplate a regime where for every two sisters, one would be compelled to die childless.

And if he was honest, it was not just down to the women. Even if Carla, given her say, had proved willing, he would not have been prepared to throw away his chance of fatherhood to raise these children as his own.

“Forgive us,” Carlo pleaded. He stared down at the lifeless bundle. “Forgive us all. We’ve lost our way.”

He let the children slip from his arms, and watched the shroud descend into the void.

2

Straining against the harness that held her to the observation bench, Tamara cranked the azimuth wheel of the telescope mount. Each laborious turn of the handle beside her nudged the huge contraption by just one arc- chime, and though she still had strength to spare there was nothing to be gained from it: a governor limited the speed of rotation to prevent excessive torques that might damage the gears. The soft, steady clicking of the wheel, usually a reassuring, meditative sound, drove home the machine’s serene indifference to her impatience.

When the telescope was finally pointed in the direction of her last sighting of the Object, she lay flat on the bench and wriggled into place beneath the eyepiece. As she brought the image into focus she was granted as glorious a vision as she could have hoped for: there was nothing to be seen here but the usual mundane star trails.

The trails were exactly as Tamara remembered them, so she knew that she hadn’t mis-set the coordinates. Twice now, the Object had escaped the field of view that had framed it just one day earlier. Such elusiveness proved that it was crossing the sky faster than anything she’d seen before.

Tamara turned the secondary azimuth wheel until she was rewarded with a small gray smudge of light at the top of the field, then she adjusted the altitude to center it. To the limits of the telescope’s resolving power, the Object was simply a point. Nothing in the cosmos was close enough to the Peerless to reveal its width, but even those orthogonal stars that had remained fixed in the sky for three generations showed color trails at this magnification. To possess a point-like image the Object had to be moving slowly—but the only way a slow-moving body could cross the sky as rapidly as this was by virtue of its proximity.

She ran her fingertips over the embossed coordinate wheels, recorded the numbers on her chest, then

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