She ignores the shout at first, concentrating on realigning the actuators on the hydroponic panel. This one has always been stubborn; she remembers her own grandmother cursing it, then making the sign of the pyramid four times to ward away any evil consequence. With a grunt of frustration, she makes the complex glyph that switches it to manual control, and coaxes it back into the correct position with her gestures.
She'll be back again tomorrow, to do exactly the same thing. And the day after that. The panel needs a whole new set of servo motors. She put in the request months ago, but she knows it has been assigned the lowest priority.
Tala is out of breath, hands on her knees. Behind her is a crowd of a dozen or so of her classmates.
"They want to hear the story again, don't they?"
"Yes please, katolanon," one of the boys says. He's taller than Tala but probably younger, his beanpole shape showing the classic signs of having had his early development in one of the low gravity zones.
"I am no wise woman," she says. A good thing, too: the half-remembered rituals of her own childhood are part of their basic curriculum now. She remains convinced that the democratisation of knowledge makes their community more secure not less, though the process was not without its pains.
Their faces fall, and she reminds herself there is always a place for a storyteller. "But I do know some of the stories," she adds. "I know because they happened to me." She grins broadly, and sees that without her having bid them to, they are sat around her in a semi-circle, cross-legged and faces turned to her, rapt with attention.
"Is it true that you met him?" a girl pipes up. The look on Tala's face tells her everything she needs to know about their relationship.
"When I was your age--" She waves her hand equivocally in front of her "--or perhaps a little younger, he walked among us."
"So he was real?" a boy she hasn't seen before says, this simple confirmation clearly enough to make him credit every story of The Hermit he's ever heard with absolute truth.
She settles back in his chair. "There was a man who walked among us," she says, "and he certainly had some extraordinary abilities. But whether that means everything people say about him is true--" She shrugs "--I don't know. As I said, I was only young at the time. He certainly seemed magical to me."
* * *
She tells the story of the Hermit. Or at least, her version of it. Her telling is worn smooth now, like a pebble tossed and turned by the waves of Distant Earth. And yet, each telling is different, because she's never yet had an audience who could resist butting in with their questions.
She tells of how a man walked among them, but somehow was not of them. All who met him could tell that there was something different about him. Some thought that he was a prophet, because he could tell people their futures. But some people thought that he was more than a prophet, because in the telling he could make those futures true.
They ask their questions: did he ever tell her future? Well, of course, he told her that she would live to a ripe old age and be pestered by young children who wanted to hear about him. Does she believe that their world is the best possible world, because of the Hermit's choices? That's what many people say, she equivocates, not wanting to cause dissension when they get home to their parents and their differing views on the matter. What does she think of the fact that no one can find him on the original crew manifests? That's a relatively new one, the digital archaeology that reconstructed them only recently having been released into the public domain. But that reconstruction in itself throws enough doubt into the mix to mean that it doesn't prove anything one way or the other. Some claim it as evidence that he never existed, and she knows that isn't true. Some take it as proof for some of the wilder claims about his origins, and while she doubts those too, she knows that's not what her audience wants to her.
And then, the most inevitable question of all: did she ever see his magic? That one she can answer with complete honesty. She tells them of the one time she sought him out, when he'd been wandering the outer reaches of the habitable zone around the village for a decade or more. She obfuscates the reasons: the idea that she ever thought that an ambiguously magical Hermit could help with the troubles of a teenage heart seems ridiculous to her now, at the ripe old age of one hundred and thirty.
But then she gets to the good part, and gestures behind her back at the hydroponic panels so that they rotate just so and catch the distant light of the oh-so-slowly setting Sun. The actuators on that one panel will wear down that bit faster, but it's worth it to see the expressions on their faces as she appears for a moment the way she found him, the reflections of the reflection of her seeming to multiply her many times. A trick, of course, but it's a good one.
* * *
"What do you think, lola?" Tala asks, once they've all gone. "I mean, what do you really think?"
"I think you can do a lot with a few reflective surfaces and some misdirecting patter," she says. She doesn't add that she never saw any reflective surfaces when she'd been to see him
Tala puts her hands on her hips. "Lola ..."
"All right, kid," she says, "I'll tell you what I really think." She beckons Tala closer, and leans down towards her, lowering her voice to a confidential whisper. "I think that if what they tell us about our world -- or maybe I should say, our worlds -- is right, then there's no difference between being able to change the reality you're in, and being able to change which reality you're in." Tala frowned in confusion. "If every possibility happens, then what's to say that you're not choosing to live in one that you prefer?"
"So you don't think our world is the best of all possible worlds?"
She rocks back on the chair. "I think it might have been the best of all possible worlds for the Hermit. For a while, at least. But this place--" she gestured around, encompassing not just the farm or the village but the entire planet "--this place, with its tiny number of colonists. It's simple. There are far fewer of us here than there are on Distant Earth. Fewer different futures to see into, to worry about."
"So why did he disappear?"
She shrugs again. "Who's to say that he did? Maybe he just went further and further into the wastes. Maybe he really was the Quantum Immortal, and had lived as long as some people say, and he was just looking for somewhere simple to retire to. Or maybe he was resting, gathering his strength before some great undertaking." She grinned. "Maybe all the possibilities are true at once."
Tala's expression made it clear that she wasn't going to be satisfied with that. "But what do you think?"
"What do I think?"
"Yes! Just tell me, lola."
"I think seeing every reality that ever has been, is, or could be would be both a wonderful gift and a terrible burden. I think it would be amazing if you could still talk to people at all, let alone inspire them the way the Hermit did. And I think ... I think even if you were capable of such compassion, of being able to see the tiny details of the smallest part of the picture--" And for a moment, she feels again both that wound of betrayed first love, and the way he soothed it with his words "--I think even then, especially then, especially if you cared that much, you'd have so much more to do, out there in the many worlds."