Recovered Earth, Independent Territory of New Zealand, A. D. 2046
The New Murchison Station cemetery held only thirty graves. Flat grassland surrounded the fenced-in plot, and around and through the grassland a narrow runoff creek curled protectively, its low washing whisper steady above the cool dry wind. The wind made the blades of grass hiss and shiver. Snow-ribboned mountains shawled in gray cloud glowered over the plain. The sun was an hour above the Two Thumb Range to the east, its light bright but not warm. Despite the wind, Garry Lanier was sweating.
He helped shoulder the coffin through the leaning white picket fence to the new-dug grave, marked by a casually lumpy mound of black earth, his face a mask to hide the effort and the sharp twinges of pain.
Six friends served as pallbearers. The coffin was only a finely shaped and precisely planed pine box, but Lawrence Heineman had weighed a good ninety kilos when he died. The widow, Lenore Carrolson, followed two steps behind, face lifted, puzzled eyes staring at something just above the end of the coffin. Her once gray-blond hair was now silver-white.
Larry had looked much younger than Lenore, who seemed frail and phantasmal now in her ninetieth year. He had been given a new body after his heart attack, thirty-four years before; it was not age or disease that had killed him, but a rockfall at a campsite in the mountains twenty kilometers away.
They laid him in the earth and the pallbearers pulled away the thick black ropes. The coffin leaned and creaked in the dirt. Lanier imagined Heineman was finding his grave an uneasy bed, and then dismissed this artless fancy; it was not good to reshape death.
A priest of the New Church of Rome spoke Latin over the grave. Lanier was the first to drop a spade of damp-smelling dirt into the hole. Ashes to ashes. The ground is wet here. The coffin will rot.
Lanier rubbed his shoulder as he stood with Karen, his wife of almost four decades. Her eyes darted around the faces of their distant neighbors, searching for something to ease her own sense of displacement. Lanier tried to look at the mourners with her eyes and found only sadness and a nervous humility. He touched her elbow but she was having none of his reassurances. Karen felt as if she didn't belong. She loved Lenore Carrolson like a mother, and yet they hadn't talked in two years.
Up there, in the sky, among the orbiting precincts, the Hexamon conducted its business, yet had sent no representative from those august heavenly bodies; and indeed, considering how Larry had come to feel about the Hexamon, that gesture would have been inappropriate.
How things had changed...
Divisions. Separations. Disasters. Not all the work they had done in the Recovery could wipe away these differences. They had had such expectations for the Recovery. Karen still had high hopes, still worked on her various projects. Those around her did not share many of her hopes.
She was still of the Faith, believing in the future, in the Hexamon's efforts.
Lanier had lost the Faith twenty years ago.
Now they laid a significant part of their past in the damp Earth, with no hope of a second resurrection. Heineman had not expected to die by accident, but he had chosen this death nonetheless. Lanier had made a similar choice. Someday, he knew, the earth would absorb him, too, and that still seemed proper, though not without its terror. He would die. No second chances. He--and Heineman, and Lenore--had accepted the opportunities offered by the Hexamon up to a certain point, and then had demurred.
Karen had not demurred. If it had been her under the rock slide, rather than Larry, she would not be dead now; stored in her implant, she would await her due resurrection, in a body newly grown for her on one of the precincts, and brought to Earth. She would soon be as young or younger than she was now. And as the years passed, she would not grow any older than she wished, nor would her body change in any but accepted ways. That set her apart from these people. It set her apart from her husband.
Like Karen, their daughter Andia had carried an implant, and Lanier had not protested, something that had shamed him a little at the time; but watching her grow and change had been an extraordinary enough experience, and he realized he was far readier to accept his death than this beautiful child's. He had not overruled Karen's plans, and the Hexamon had come down to bless the child of one of their faithful servants, to give his own daughter a gift he did not himself accept because it was not (could not be) made available to all the Old Natives of Earth.
Then, irony had stepped in and left a permanent mark on their lives. Twenty years ago, Andia's airplane had crashed in the eastern Pacific and she had never been found. Their daughter's chances for a return to life lay in the silt at the bottom of some vast deep, a tiny marble, untraceable even with Hexamon technology.
The tears in his eyes were not for Larry. He wiped them and drew his face into stiff formality to greet the priest, a pious young hypocrite Lanier had never liked. "Good wine comes in strange glass," Larry had once said.
He came into a wisdom I envy.
In the first flush of wonder, working with the Hexamon, all had been dazzled; Heineman had after all accepted his second body gladly enough, and Lenore had accepted youth treatments to keep up with her husband. She had later dropped the treatments, but now she seemed no more than a well-preserved seventy...
Most Old Natives did not have access to implants; even the Terrestrial Hexamon could not supply everybody on Earth with the necessary devices; and if they could have, Earth cultures were not ready for even proximate immortality.
Lanier had resisted implants, yet accepted Hexamon medicine; he did not know to this day whether or not that had been hypocrisy. Such medicine had been made available to most but not all Old Natives, scattered around a ruined Earth; the Hexamon had stretched its resources to accomplish that much.
He had rationalized that to do the work he was doing, he needed to be healthy and fit, and to be healthy and fit while doing that work--going into the deadlands, living amidst death and disease and radiation--he needed the privilege of the Hexamon's medicine.
Lanier could read Karen's reaction. Such a waste. All these people, dropping out, giving up. She thought they were behaving irresponsibly. Perhaps they were, but they--like himself, and like Karen--had given much of their lives to the Recovery and to the Faith. They had earned their beliefs, however irresponsible in her eyes.
The debt they all owed to the orbiting precincts was incalculable. But love and loyalty could not be earned by indebtedness.
Lanier followed the mourners to the tiny church a few hundred meters away. Karen stayed behind, near the graves. She was weeping, but he could not go to comfort her.
He shook his head once, sharply, and glanced up at the sky.
No one had thought it would ever be this way.
He still could hardly believe it himself.
In the single-story meeting room of the church, while three younger women set out sandwiches and punch, Lanier waited for his wife to join the wake. Groups of two or three gathered in the room, ill at ease, to step forward as one and pay their respects to the widow, who took it all with a distant smile.
She lost her first family in the Death, he remembered. She and Larry, after their retirement from the Recovery ten years ago, had behaved like youngsters, hiking around South Island, taking up various hobbies, occasionally going to Australia for extended walkabouts, once even sailing to Borneo. They had been or had seemed carefree, and Lanier envied them that.
"Your wife takes this hard," a red-faced young man named Fremont said, approaching Lanier alone. Fremont ran the re-opened Irishman Creek Station; his half-wild merinos sometimes spread all the way to Twizel, and he was not considered the best of citizens. His station mark was an encircled kea, odd for a man who made his living from sheep; still, he had once been reputed to say, "I'm no less independent than my sheep. I go where I will, and so do they."
"We all loved him," Lanier said. Why he should suddenly open up to this red-faced half-stranger, he did not know, but with his eye on the door, waiting for Karen, his mouth said, "He was a smart man. Simple, though. He knew his limits. I..."
Fremont cocked a bushy eyebrow.
"We were on the Stone together," Lanier said.
"So I've heard. You were all confused with the angels."
Lanier shook his head. "He hated that."
"He did good work here and all over," Fremont said. Everybody's decent at a funeral. Karen came in through the door. Fremont, who could not have been more than thirty-five, glanced in her direction and then turned back to Lanier, speculation in his eyes. Lanier compared himself with this young and vigorous man: his own hair was solid gray, hands large and brown and gnarled, body slightly bent.
Karen seemed no older than Fremont.