PM is on water duty when the meteor comes screaming out of the sky. Making fresh water isn’t exactly the most exciting, or most enjoyable, job in the world, but she doesn’t mind it. After all, they all need water, and it’s something she can do that actually helps people. A part of her mind always itches, demanding that she be delivering mail and packages, but there’s not exactly much call for mail. There’s always a need for water, and though it’s uncomfortable sitting near the fires while the sun’s overhead, she keeps a close eye on them, watching at the water simmers and the vapour collects on the pots lids, slowly dripping into the cups in the centre.
She looks up from the pots to see what time it is when she notices two suns in the sky. Only after a moment of squinting does she realize that one’s moving, and then a moment later fully understand what she’s seeing.
Meteor! She yells the word as loud as she can to everyone in the area. Meteor incoming!
There have been others before, now and again. They watched one plunge into the sea a few weeks ago, landing too far away for anyone to float a boat out and see if there was anything worth trying to dive for. This one looks like it’s headed straight for them, and everyone scrambles get a better view.
Someone figures out the trajectory and there’s shouting and pointing as they gesturing toward the edge of the city. It’s going to land just beyond it, maybe clip the edge of the city. Which means they may have a moment to see if it has any labs on it and if they can do any salvage before it inevitable sinks into the water. PM should stay and mind the water, but she’s swept up with the rest, a sea of black and white rushing through buildings to a sea of blue.
The meteor grows larger and larger, moving faster as it grows close. PM ends up near the front of the crowd as they gather in a semi-circle near the edge of the city, watching silently. There’s a sound as it falls, almost like screaming, and then the meteor is there and there’s a horrible crashing sound as it smashes through a building. The whole city shudders and creaks. Water’s thrown up and sloshes in through streets, and then out again, waves spreading rapidly on either side. PM barely keeps her balance, though others around her aren’t so lucky.
Smoke and dust fill the air, and as it finally settings, everyone cranes their heads to see what’s fallen. Maybe a cloning facility. Maybe a supply depo. Maybe even an empty building they can pull scrap from. Something. Anything.
But the dust clear and there’s only one thing on the meteor; a human. Specifically, a baby.
The disappointment is impossible to ignore. This is not what they needed. The bulk of the crowd turns their backs on the rock and heads back into the city to go to work. PM feels her heart sink as well. She had hoped for something more than this...
There’s another Prospitian beside her, staring hungrily at the small pink mass. She looks at PM and says: do you think it’ll taste good?
PM scowls at the woman and elbows past her, toward the baby instead of away. She has water she should be getting back to, but instead she approaches the rock and climbs. The baby is awake and gurgles as PM scoops her up, tucking her against her shoulder.
The woman throws insults at PM, and when PM refuses to go near her, she scowls back and disappears with the others. PM just sits down on the rock and carefully sets the baby in her lap.
The baby gives her a wide smile, showing off her toothless gums. She’s so soft and fragile, and her hair feels strange to the touch. PM doesn’t know the first thing about babies. Her experience has only been with adults. Children exist out here, but they’re rare and she rarely sees them at her work. She’ll have to find Roxy a family to care for her.
When she returns to the water, she finds that the impact has spilt a number of the pots and their water onto the fires. She rights them, refills the pots and gets the fires going again. PM will finish her job first, and then she’ll find someone to raise the baby.
She never does find someone else. People offer, but PM finds reasons to say no. In the end, she keeps her and names her. There’s a sign in the building PM lives in that has a name written in glass tubing. The baby’s taken with it, and PM gives her the name written in burnt-out lights: Roxy.
Human babies grow a little slower than carapacian babies, but that never stops Roxy. As soon as she can crawl, she’s learning to walk, and as soon as she learns to walk, she starts running. PM spends a lot of time walking briskly after Roxy, keeping a close eye on her. It’s dangerous here, and she can’t afford to look away for ever one second. Food is always hard to come by, especially fresh meat. Fishing is dangerous work when there are large and angry creatures below the waves. The small pink thing that can’t even fight back yet must look incredibly tempting to some.
No one ever gets too close to Roxy though, not once they see PM. She’s not intimidating on her own, but PM certainly knows the sword in her hand helps a lot. PM found it by the sign she got Roxy’s name from. The grip fits her hand and it’s well balanced, better than PM would have expected from something found in the ruins. She’s never been the kind of person who welcomed violence or wished for weapons, but the sword makes her feel confident in this place of strangers.
When Roxy’s little, she and PM live in the remains of a town hall with a number of other families. It’s a relief to have other people around to help out. The children all play together and the adults take turns cooking, cleaning and keeping watch. PM likes being on watch. She’s got a weapon, and she can keep an eye on Roxy as she legs it around the room, shrieking as she chases and is chased. The children don’t care that Roxy’s a different colour or that she doesn’t have a shell, but some of the parents aren’t so comfortable, and now and again, PM notices that Roxy’s playmates are called away by their parents. She also notices that sometimes they feed Roxy the dredges, as if PM won’t notice when the little girl is still hungry when PM comes off duty.
It takes some looking far away from the hall but PM finally finds a place for the two of them. She packs up, and though a few of her friends are sad to see her go, most people are just relieved to see PM move on and take the human with her. Living alone isn’t as safe as living with others, but Roxy finally starts eating enough and she stops being skin and bones.
The home’s surprisingly untouched on the inside. Maybe all the boarded up windows scared others away, but PM makes herself and Roxy a nice little home inside, letting the light in and shaking the dust out. There are books here to read, and all sorts of equipment that PM is careful not to touch, and soft pink wool with a pair of needles and a pattern.
PM teachers herself to knit the first year they live there and follows the pattern, making a scarf for Roxy. She adores it and wears it everywhere, and no matter where they go from there on, PM can always tell where Roxy is by the flash of pink following her.
When Roxy’s older, PM starts leaving her at home while PM goes to work. The hours are long, and their home is safe enough. But even so, she teaches Roxy how to fight. And even more importantly, she teaches her how to use a weapon.
They find the rifle in a closet with enough energy packs to last them until the end of the world. Every day for four months straight, they head up to the roof and PM sets up targets for Roxy. The sound scares people off, and it gives them time to learn how to do it properly. Roxy takes to it like she took to swimming and running, and she’s running circles around PM in no time, laser beams hitting their targets nearly every time.
When Roxy feels ready, PM leaves her at home and heads off to work. She hates to leave her behind, but she also knows that most other carapacian children her age are left to fend for themselves. And she has to trust in Roxy.
Things are better established by the time Roxy’s seven years old, and PM’s able to start delivering things again. She takes routes close to home at first, near enough that she’ll be able to hear the rifle shots if Roxy has to start shooting, and then slowly branches out, until she’s gone overnight sometimes as she runs items from one end of the city to the other.
Nobody really bothers PM. They eye the delivery bag, right until the moment they see her sword, and then they head off to find an easier target, one that can’t fight back. She only has to use it once or twice, and those moments are quick and vicious, memories that she prefers not to dwell on after the fact. PM never goes home hurt, something she remains proud of. She won’t let Roxy see her mother as anything less than a warrior.
There are a few times on those late runs when she comes home and spots new burn marks on the pavement and nearby buildings, and once when she spots a body lying face down in the street, their entire head reduced to an empty shell. She can’t find Roxy at first, until she finally hears the soft sound of crying from a closet door and carefully knocks on it, calling out her name before opening it. Roxy’s curled up inside, her eyes red and her nose dripping and her face so pale that PM’s heart seizes up and she fears the worst.
But she’s okay. She’s alive and intact, just upset. The warning shots didn’t work this time. The strange woman kept coming closer and closer, and Roxy did exactly as she had been taught to. Except the targets they shot weren’t full of blood and brains and they didn’t fall with such an awful wet sound. PM held Roxy tight and soothed her as best she could, so happy that her daughter was able to pull the trigger when she had to, and so sad that Roxy had lost something precious and dear when the stranger forced Roxy’s hand.
She stays with Roxy for a few days, until Roxy gathers PM’s gear for her and insists she go back to work. They both know that Roxy wants PM to stay, and that PM wants to stay too. But they both know that eventually, they both have things to do. PM kisses Roxy’s forehead and hugs her tightly before she leaves, looking back only once she reaches ground level. Roxy salutes her, and in that moment, she’s more than just PM’s alien daughter; she’s a warrior.
PM salutes her back and shoulders her bag, heading out on her rounds. But even as she walks away, she listens for the sound of rifle shots.
Roxy teachers herself how to use the computers around the house when PM’s gone. Every time she arrives home, Roxy has something new bit of technology to show PM. She finds old Earth stories to read and pictures to look through, and all sorts of information on the humans and how they lived. PM is so glad when Roxy excitedly presents some new information over dinner, rattling off statistics and books, and all manner of things. She knows how it hurts to lose your entire world, and PM at least has memories of what Prospit was like. Roxy only has what she can find on her computers.
The experiments start soon after. Windows appear in Roxy’s room, windows where she plummets through broken panes and appears somewhere else. The electricity is flowing by this point and every house in the city has it, though most never use it. Roxy takes full advantage and places her broken windows all over the place in empty lofts and cellers, creating a number of places to hide. The rifle stays on her back, but PM notices that she never goes through bullets like she did before.
Then there’s the appearifier, which Roxy quickly uses to supply them with fresh food. It’s mostly pumpkins but PM could care less if she has the same thing every night, so long as it’s fresh. Everything else in this place tastes of salt, even the few crops they do manage to cultivate. The pumpkins are always fresh and when they bake the seeds, they turn into the perfect food for PM to eat on her long-hauls.
PM attempts to keep track of the other items, but they mount up so quickly that she can’t, and most of them are things that PM only barely understands. She wasn’t a lab technician, and though she knows the equipment here looks frighteningly familiar sometimes, she puts her trust in Roxy to use it responsibly and properly.
Often, PM comes home and finds Roxy’s fallen asleep by the computer. Sometimes it’s obvious she cried herself to sleep, and when PM looks at the screen, she always finds Roxy looking at photos of her world before it ended. Sometimes, there are photos of a human woman that looks remarkably like an adult version of Roxy. PM doesn’t quite know what it means, but she knows it’s something precious to her and something Roxy wants to keep all to herself, so PM never brings it up.
She doesn’t mind Roxy using the computer to learn about her people, but she wishes sometimes she had an easier time of making friends. Roxy used to play with children, but when they moved, she ended up separated. These days, she rarely interacts with anyone who isn’t PM, choosing to quickly move through her windows and to watch videos left behind on the computer.
Then one day she comes home and Roxy is ecstatic, laughing and throwing her arms around PM, talking so far that her words slur over each other. She drags PM to the computer and shows her a small window with orange and pink text. Roxy tries to explain how it works, but PM doesn’t need to know any of that to know why this is so important: Roxy’s found another human, just like her. She’s found a friend she can relate to, someone beside PM to tell her secrets to.
They celebrate and have dinner up on the roof. Roxy tells PM all about this new friend. His name is Dirk. He lives alone on a house in the middle of the sea. He’s human just like her, and he arrived on a meteor too, or so he believes. There’s a glow to her cheeks, a happiness that PM has rarely seen in Roxy this past few years. She listens and shares her joy, even though a part of PM feels sad. Her own emotions stay locked tight away until Roxy falls asleep, and then PM goes for a walk to clear her head.
She’s happy for Roxy, she truly is. But there’s a part of her that aches. Roxy’s happiest with someone like her. PM does the best she can, but she knows that she’s a substitute. This human boy is like her. If PM was all alone in a sea of humans, she would feel the same as Roxy.
But knowing that doesn’t stop PM from having to wipe her eyes a few times. She walks the feeling out, and returns home without it preying on her mind. No matter what she is to Roxy, she knows that Roxy needs her mother. And no matter what, PM will always be that mother.
Things keep on getting better outside. The neighbourhood settles down and cleans up, and PM never worries about Roxy needing to send people away from their house. There’s a few more drone sightings in the area than usual, but she thinks nothing of it, only ever seeing them when she’s on her delivery routes. They seem to be searching for something, but they never bother her, and she rarely registers their existence.
She ends up changing her delivery route again, staying closer to home. Now that Roxy’s older, PM can actually spend a little time away now and again. She never goes very far, but it’s nice to sit and talk with people, to have a drink or two without constantly fearing the sound of shots.
Roxy craves the independence, and PM gives it to her. Sometimes, she wonders if she’s doing right by Roxy. Humans are different than carapacians, and she ages slower than the other children. And they seem to have different standards. It’s not until after Roxy gets used to having a few drinks each day that she mentions to PM that humans weren’t allowed to drink under a certain age. PM thinks about taking the bottles away from Roxy after that, but in the end, she lets it go. After all, it hardly seems worth fighting over, not when Roxy knows her own limits.
Her tastes and interests continue to evolve and change. Roxy’s next obsession is cats. PM can only assume that the lab equipment is involved because Roxy isn’t terribly forthcoming when PM arrives home and spots a cat in a tuxedo sitting in their living room. The others are kept elsewhere, and Roxy’s early experiments are kept in glass and placed on her shelf. PM isn’t certain how she feels about them, but the hobby keeps Roxy busy and the cat makes her as happy as her friend, so she trust her.
After the cats, it’s a series of books about wizards, and after that, her fascination with technology moves from hardware to software. PM isn’t quite sure what Roxy’s doing, even after Roxy attempts to explain, but she knows it involves Roxy talking with other humans in this world’s past, before the Reckoning came to pass. PM loses track of Roxy’s obsession after that point, but she does her best to encourage them all the same, tracking down the items Roxy needs when she asks for them.
At night, while Roxy stays up late talking with Dirk, PM finds herself up on the roof, watching far off stars. She’s glad Roxy has a connection to her past. Sometimes, she wishes she had one too. In a lot of ways, Roxy’s been a blessing since she’s kept PM too busy to wallow in grief over the premature ending of the game and her exile to this place. Even now, she can’t afford to fall apart with someone so young depending on her, and she gives PM the strength to pull herself together and to keep moving forward.
PM misses the empty skies of Skaia, where the only objects you ever saw were Skaia’s glow, and sometimes the faint movement of Derse across the sky. There are so many lights here and the moon is too far away, and she misses her golden city and her clean clothing and her little home high above the streets. But while she misses it, she doesn’t wish she were still there. After all, she would have never met and raised Roxy if not for her exile, and while her home had happy moments, raising a daughter has had happy moments too.
What worries PM is the future. While she’s glad Roxy has found another human somewhere in this world, she often wonders if that will be enough for them. They deserve a better future than this, one where they can grow and flourish. Other carapacians are less hostile and she can even trust Roxy to walk around the neighbourhood without PM, but it isn’t the same. She just isn’t as welcome as the others. What will happen when Roxy becomes an adult? What if she wants to live apart from PM? What if she never finds what she wants from this world?
When she spends too long on the roof, Roxy will come up to meet her with a cup of something warm to drink. Come inside, Roxy will say, you’re going to freeze your tits off up here.
PM nearly spits out the mouthful she had, swallowing it and demanding to know who taught her to say that. Roxy just laughs, says Dirk sent her some new books to read. It’s not as bad as it sounds, she assures PM, anyway neither of them have anything to freeze off anyway.
All she can do is shake her head, trying not to laugh. Roxy smiles like she already knows what PM’s thinking, and just like that, she sets aside the worries and missing for another night.
PM is across the city when the drones arrive. They come in waves and waves, so many that everyone stops to stare. She’s among them, watching them swarm like locusts as they pass over the city. Her eyes are scanning over the red armour when she sees where they’re headed: the other end of the city, where her home is. There’s no hesitation in PM, no stopping to second-guess their purpose or their destination. One moment she’s watching and the next, she’s running for home as fast as she can.
She bowls over people, not even bothering to apologize as she keeps moving. Her parcel bag is thrown to the side when it slows her down and she doesn’t even flinch as she leaves them behind. There was a time when nothing was more important to her than the mail, but her daughter is there and she needs to make sure she’s safe.
Halfway there, her lungs are starting to burn and her legs feel the ache, when the drones being to withdraw. Fear spikes in her heart and PM doubles her speed, her eyes searching the drones to see if she spots her daughter’s scarf or her body. That’s how she sees the red coming down from the sky, the awful ugly snarl that she unfortunately recognizes all too well. She watched Derse consumed by it as they evacuated Prospit, fearing that the Red Miles would turn on them next.
She doesn’t feel tired when she runs. PM doesn’t feel any pain, even as she slips and scrambles back to her feet, even as she rips her palm open climbing a nail-filled fence. She feels nothing but a horrible panicky need to reach Roxy and to hope it isn’t too late.
Her daughter isn’t home, but PM runs into her on the way there, stumbling across Roxy leading a dozen carapacians. There’s not time but they hug all the same, PM patting her daughter just to make sure she’s real. She gets blood in Roxy’s hair, but they don’t have time to worry about this. Roxy’s got a hangover judging by the look on her face, but true to form, she isn’t letting it slow her down.
Come on, we need to go, Roxy pulls PM along, and PM shouts for everyone to follow them. She doesn’t know what Roxy has planned, not entirely, but she knows Roxy has a plan. The girl’s been preparing for it for the past months, getting PM to stockpile food and water, first-aid and spare clothing. Now, with those Red Miles closing in, she understands why Roxy needed the supplies, and why she was so reluctant to tell PM everything.
While Roxy sets up, PM and the others put out fires and bandage up wounds, and do their best to keep things from going inside. She’s wrapping up her hand when a Red Mile smashes through the house. PM hasn’t heard Roxy scream since she was a baby, but the sound is unmistakable and she’s up the stairs to Roxy’s room in a heartbeat, screaming her name.
Roxy’s lying on the floor and she sees the strange purple scarf before she sees the blood pooling around Roxy’s body. PM sees the red mile and takes a swing at it, so overcome with grief that she can’t even think. It turns her sword into molten slag before bulging in PM’s direction. PM knows that this is it. Her daughter is dead on the floor and PM will be with her in a second.
But it doesn’t kill her. It retreats and PM’s left there with Roxy’s body. She falls to her knees, gathering Roxy in her arms. The tears come fast and hard as PM holds her daughter close. This isn’t right, this isn’t fair, this isn’t what she deserved. It felt like weeks since she’d climbed on that meteor and found a baby, like only yesterday she had learned her first words and shot her first gun. Her body was still warm, even as the blood kept flowing out of her.
A window smashed open. PM looked back, expecting this time the Red Miles would finally finish her. She doesn’t expect the boy - a human boy that is so familiar it knocks PM out of her grief - on a flying board to come flying into the room. He jumps off, throwing a piece of metal on the floor that quickly unfolds into a robot.
Roxy’s mom? He asks. She nods.
Dirk? A nod in return from the boy. He quickly approaches Roxy. Sorry about this, would have warned you if I could. I need to wake her up. And with that, he leans in, pressing a kiss to Roxy’s lips. She’s not really dead, she’s got her dreamself left. You’ll see her again when Squarewave gets you in.
Dreamself? PM realizes a moment later that she knows the boy. He was a Player in her game, a Derse Dreamer. Which means Roxy-
She looks around the room, seeing all the items for the first time with new eyes. This is all from the game, from Skaia. When she looks back at the boy, he has a red box in his hand. He lifts his high above his head, meeting PM’s eyes for a moment. Don’t worry, you’re going home, he tells her, you’ll see her again.
And then he places the box on his head, cleanly severing it. PM flinches back, pulling Roxy closer to her chest. Dirk’s body lands with a thump. PM looks at his body and then at Roxy’s, and finally at the robot, already going through the motions.
The bouncing robot straightens his hat, shouting out, hold onto your nuts, ‘cause we about to get crazy in here! PM holds her daughter close, one bloody hand tangled in her hair. He said she was going home. He said Roxy would be alive.
PM has not hoped for much since exile, nor wished nor anything else. But now, she hopes and wishes and puts everything she has on this one last dream. Let it be the truth. Let Roxy be alive and whole again. Let her daughter be alive.
The room fills with light, and the house departs.
Dirk told the truth. She finds herself in the medium once more. PM remembers this world; remembers that there were once people here long ago that all died before things ever began. She remembers the delivery routes and she remembers the way to Prospit, to Derse, to the other worlds.
Derse is burning. Prospit fleeing. The other worlds are dead and empty. But in the last one, she finds them. It’s Roxy’s laugh that draws PM near, that encourages her to climb the hill and seek her daughter in the hollow remains of a home.
They’re all there. Dirk is easy to recognize, and the others come to her after a moment; Jane and Jake. They’re talking over one another, excited and angry, as children often are, though that’s not fair. They’re not children, not anymore.
PM hesitates by the door, wondering if she’s even needed anymore. Roxy’s with her own kind now. And is this Roxy even her daughter? Is she the same girl who once rode on PM’s shoulders and ran side by side with her through the streets? A Dreamer is not the same as the little girl who slept in her arms at night and who excitedly recounted stories about wizards and Earth’s history to PM.
But she looks at Roxy and at the way she smiles, and she casts her doubts aside. Maybe Roxy will outgrow her, but not yet. Not today. Today, PM’s daughter died and was reborn again. She won’t walk away from a second chance, no matter how many doubts prey on her mind.
Roxy. The name echos a little as PM speaks.
The girl turns, her smile broadening further. She runs across the room, throwing her arms around PM and hugging her tight. Mom! Mom, you made it! I was so worried!
PM holds her tight, trying desperately not to cry with relief. I was so afraid, she whispers, stroking her hair. I was so afraid.
I’m okay, she says. And Roxy is. She grabs PM’s hand and pulls her into the room, shouting to the others. Guys, this is my mom!
The Propitious Mother follows her daughter, relieved and proud, and above all, thankful. Not every mother gets a second chance.