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your shadow at evening, rising to meet you

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At one point, it was a source of consternation to certain of Earth's constitutional bodies that the original Mars mission made landfall on Christmas Eve. It was a diverse, multinational and – needless-to-express – strictly secular leap of faith into the unknown; with three hundred and sixty-four other days to choose from, the particular date was felt impolitic. Magnus never worried about it too much. "They'll speak of one longer than the other," she used to say, and all these years later Evan sees her point.

She still wishes Magnus wouldn't roll into a room full of children and official visitors, on Landfall Night, and say: "And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed."

"Magnus." Evan taps her foot and resists rolling her eyes upwards. Heavenwards, perhaps. The sky above the Tharsis Montes is blue with the translucency of eggshell, shifting through a blink-of-an-eye twilight to a depth of black never seen on Earth. The Milky Way dusts across it. Even through ugly fibre-optic tinsel and the silicate dome glass, it's beautiful to the point of pain. "That's not the line."

The kids are getting restive. One of Evan's students pulls at her sleeve, which is undoubtedly a precursor to Evan I have to pee or similar. Evan taps her foot again. "Magnus, please."

"Sorry." Magnus doesn't sound at all sorry. She leans back in her chair and rolls back a few centimetres. "O brave new world that has such people in't! I will show you fear in a handful of dust. That's not it either, is it?"

"Magnus, will you just say the fucking line."

The official visitors – from Terran Central Administration, by way of several months' journey time – look alarmed. The kids all perk up at once. Evan groans.

"Once upon a time," Magnus says, leaning out of her wheelchair so she's almost at eye-level with the nearest child. Magnus despises children with less of the open hostility with which she despises the rest of the human race, which is one of Evan's favourite things about her. "This was called Dome 2B. There were five domes and fifty people and a lot of duct tape and a broad range of talents. Don't do that."

A child pauses in the act of hitting his neighbour with a Happy Landfall Night card.

"Good," Magnus says. "We contained multitudes. We were combination botanist-linguist-polka-dancers. The best and the brightest the planet had to offer, at a hundred thousand dollars – you don't know what those are, kids, thank the Lord for that – per kilogram. Very efficient. Very pioneering."

None of this is the line either. The line is: "Teachers, technicians, surveyors, and more! Mars needs you!"

There's going to be a voiceover after that, and maybe some inspiring music, but they want the strapline spoken by a voice that speaks from history: the first commander of the first Martian colonisation expedition. Though with a calculated background of domesticity, Evan thinks: by the twinkling fibre-optic lights of a Landfall Night celebration and the faces of humanity's only extra-Terran children.

"Very pioneering," Magnus says again. "The Martian Colonisation and Exploratory Mission can go to hell."

She sweeps out, wheels soft on the carpeted floor. Evan checks the ratio of adults to children in the room, and goes after her.

*

Dome 2B was initially constructed of meteorite-resistant polymer and the will to survive. These days it's made of glass, with the peculiar orange-purple shimmer that comes from the local mineral impurities. It encloses pods and modules and the internal components of a rudimentary permanent spaceport structure. But along with what came with them, they have enclosed what was already here: precious square metres of the Martian landscape, under glass so they can breathe, but real sand and grit and dust underfoot. Evan knows to find Magnus at the very edge of the dome, her fingers outstretched to the inner surface, not quite brushing it. The surface will be unbearably cold to the touch, with planetary night well-advanced on the other side.

Evan waits a while before asking, "Well, what's wrong with you?"

"Nothing," Magnus says shortly, and lays her hands on the glass. Evan hisses and grabs her wrists, pulling her away.

"You're going to give yourself frostbite, you silly cow," she says. She would usually have much more to say on the subject of Magnus's various idiocies and self-destructive tendencies, but this time she trails off. Beyond the curve of the dome, the landscape stretches out before them, windswept and lonesome and every inch enticing, all the way to that distant horizon. Evan stares at it and then down at her oldest friend's fingers, bluish with cold, and feels frightened and miserable.

"Before we came here," Magnus says, gently. "Before we came, and we saw, and we conquered our own little space, and went forth, and multiplied. Before all that. They said to me, it will take all the years of your life. It will take all you have. Best to make peace with whatever gods you believe in."

"Magnus…"

"Because it won't be by their holy rites that you are laid to rest. And I said, yes. Yes. Take me there, and you can have all I have."

Evan looks up. At this time of year, it's easy to pick out the light that wanders among the fixed stars. Earth is bright tonight. Close-to it would be brighter still, the dark side strung across by the necklace of the equatorial stations, and the space elevator cables descending into the atmosphere. What was an extraordinary journey will remain extraordinary, but those technicians, surveyors, scientists, teachers, and – such luxury, and after thirty years, such necessity – artists, and primary school teachers, and lawyers, and town planners, will come at a payload cost of a hundred dollars per kilogram.

Magnus follows her gaze. "But here we are. Here we are, still. Holding welcoming parties. Making recruitment posters."

She's crying. Evan looks down again at Magnus's hands, half-frozen, reaching for further worlds to conquer. "We'll outgrow the domes," she says, carefully. "There will always be more to do."

"Yeah," Magnus says, and finally pulls back from the edge, blowing on her fingers to warm them, and wiping her eyes. "Like, for example, trundling back in to make a bloody speech all about technicians for a brighter tomorrow."

"We do need technicians for a brighter tomorrow," Evan says. She turns to look behind her, at their footsteps and wheel tracks in the reddish soil. On impulse, she kneels down to bury her hands in that crumbly dirt. Magnus watches her with something sad and sweet in her expression, and they go back inside together.

*

And it's a beautiful Landfall Night, in the end. The children make little presentations to the visitors from Terran Central, and one of them shows off a working scale model of a space elevator. The original mission crew sing their old embarkation songs. Evan nibbles on hydroponic fruit on sticks. When the evening is wearing long and the festivities are almost over, Magnus consents to being recorded for the colony recruitment message. "We can't offer you riches," she says, brusque and uncompromising as ever. "We can't offer you palatial accommodations or reliable plumbing. Only the sincerity of our need for you, and the sight of another world's sky. I promise you, it's worth the trip."

"I believe you," Evan says, into the silence that follows, and Magnus ducks her head in embarrassment. Evan smiles at her: her friend, Dr Prathiba Sengupta Magnus, who showed them fear in a handful of Martian dust, and promise, and beauty, and ambition, and will be laid to rest beneath these red-ochre sands; who has been holding a block of grilled tofu between two fingers for at least half an hour and probably ought to go to bed.

"Come on, mission commander," she says, and Magnus smiles, rolling after her. "You know, next year, it'll be a much bigger party."

"I hate everything," Magnus says, still clutching the tofu, her face alight with righteous misanthropy, and with the gleam of a thousand stars.