Klavinski slogged across a shallow stretch of rose-scented water, soaking his worn boots and darkening the legs of his grey jumpsuit. The man on the sandbar was propped up on his elbows, unconcernedly watching his approach.

Erosion patterns on Mars, courtesy of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA

Paul Klavinski picked his way between well-groomed sun-worshippers on a beach of turquoise sand beneath a sunflower sky. He ignored the curious stares of wealthy tourists; his attention was focused on one very ordinary-looking man reclining on a sandbar at the far end of the beach in shorts and sandals.

Klavinski slogged across a shallow stretch of rose-scented water, soaking his worn boots and darkening the legs of his grey jumpsuit. The man on the sandbar was propped up on his elbows, unconcernedly watching his approach.

“Nice planet,” Klavinski said, once within hailing distance. “Maybe the best yet.”

The man removed his sunglasses. “Excuse me?”

“Get up,” Klavinski said, a little gruffness in his voice. He knew that his greying shoulder-length hair and his three-day shuttle stowage stubble didn’t lend the best impression, but he still had some strength in his bones and could project an aura of command when he needed to. The dumpling-soft man blinked up at him, sunglasses in one hand. Klavinski grimaced and forced his voice into a gentler tone. “We have to talk.”

“Do we?” The man got up without waiting for an answer.

“Let’s walk.” Klavinski glanced back over his shoulder at the sunbathers, and then pointed in the opposite direction, toward an empty stretch of beach. “How about that way.”

“If you like.”

They had hardly taken half a dozen steps when the clear yellow sky lit up with a crack of white-and-blue lightning, a single arc that stretched from horizon to horizon, rippling outwards for a second or two before dissipating. The crowd on the beach behind them gasped appreciatively, then again twenty seconds later when the thunder reached them.

“Quite a show,” Klavinski said. “Happen often?”

The other man shrugged. “More often some days than others.”

Klavinski nodded, watched the again unblemished sky for a moment longer, then produced a flask from inside his jacket. “Share a drink with me?”

The other man looked at the flask without taking it. “Who are you, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Klavinski frowned and spat towards the water. “Right,” he said. He took a swig of straight vodka from the flask, screwed the cap back on, and tucked it away. “Klavinski,” he said. “How about you? What are you called?”

The man frowned. “I have a name,” he said.

“Yes?” Klavinski sounded hopeful.

“I can’t recall it just now.”

“Then you’re just a regular John Smith,” Klavinski said, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder, a little too abruptly to pass for affectionate.

“Fine,” said Smith. He took Klavinski’s hand from his shoulder and stepped clear. “Let’s walk.”

They walked side by side in silence for a short while before Klavinski began to talk.

“I knew another Smith once,” he said, staring off along the empty beach ahead. “John Smith. He was a real buddy. The kind of buddy that’s like family. You know?”

“I don’t think I do,” Smith said.

“We went through a lot together. Owed each other our lives and our sanity. It’s like that, in deep space. Always is. I haven’t heard from him for some time now though.”

“I’m sorry,” Smith said, politely.

“Yeah.” Klavinski considered Smith for a long pause. “It’s too bad. Seems no one gets close to him these days — the corporation can’t take any risks with an asset like that.”

“I see,” said Smith.

“Thing is, I still worry about him. I was hoping you might be able to give me some recent news.”

Smith shook his head. “Sorry. I don’t really know very many people. And this Smith doesn’t sound familiar.”

Klavinski gave a curt laugh. “Doesn’t that just top it. I guess you don’t make many friends in, what, six days, right? That’s how long you’ve existed?”

“Six days … that seems right to me. At least, I can’t think of anything having happened longer ago than that.”

“Doesn’t that seem strange to you?”

“I hadn’t really considered it. I feel as old as the world.”

Klavinski pressed his weathered lips together for a moment. “You would.”

Smith regarded him for a long moment. Klavinski showed no sign of saying anything further.

“I’m sorry if I’ve said something to upset you,” Smith said. “I was enjoying listening to you tell me about your Smith.”

Klavinski heaved a troubled sigh and started walking again, making sure that Smith was following before he continued talking. “Me and Smith were astronautical surveyors working for NewPlanet VentureCorp, back when they just did mineral assets, speculatively buying up mining rights at auction to newly discovered worlds. We would go out to survey the planet and report back, make sure there was no life on them or anything like that. Nothing annoyed the corporation more than having a nice mineral-rich planet, but some jellyblob thing lived there so the Beijing Convention meant they couldn’t touch it.”

“This is all past tense?”

“NewPlanet has bigger fish to fry these days,” Klavinski said. “The last trip me and Smith took together was to a world code-named Opportunity6 — earth-sized, nice crust, no atmosphere — so low risk of jellyblobs. NewPlanet had paid big money for it and it was make-or-break for them back in those days. It was ten months each way so me and Smith took turns in cryo — three months on, three months off, with a week’s overlap so we could talk and make sure the other one was holding up. Seventy percent of our training was on staying sane. Lots of mental drills and exercises, self-diagnosis, self-counselling, counselling your partner.

“One of the techniques Smith used was what we called ‘meditative escapism,’ going into a trance state where you picture yourself somewhere relaxing. Smith had this one particular place that he went to in his head. He was reluctant to describe it to me at first — he thought it was an invasion of privacy or something.”

Klavinski laughed and glanced back over his shoulder at the tourists in the distance. “Pretty ironic now.” He turned to Smith, studying him.

Smith looked back and blinked. “But he did, eventually? Describe it to you?”

“You get pretty desperate for conversation out there. It was a beautiful place, he told me. A ring of mountains enclosing a network of blue lagoons in white sand, tiny islands everywhere. Crystal clear water shallow enough to stand in. A warm, gentle breeze. The islands are just beaches with a couple of palm trees, perfect for one person to relax. A paradise.”

Smith looked around him at the beach, the trees, the water — not quite the same as what Klavinski described, but not so very different. “Go on.”

“The day we finally arrived, Smith was deep in meditative escapism, so I started the survey scans myself. I knew something was wrong immediately. The planet was nothing like the Opportunity6 in the briefing dossier. It was an ocean planet with an atmosphere, for a start; much smaller than Earth. I roused Smith to help me check the coordinates, thinking that maybe we were in the wrong place. The sensor displays flickered as he stirred, then stabilized. The reading was the same. It was Opportunity6 all right. Then Smith noticed the ring of mountains and the lagoons.”

“The world from his head,” Smith said.

Klavinski nodded. “Right there in front of us. And the scans were saying there was a life form down there. Just one.” He paused to let Smith take that in. “Smith wanted to get the hell out of there. Thought he was going crazy. We had a big row and he accused me of being a figment of his imagination. I thought I was going to be stuck on a two-man ship with a psycho for ten months.

“We had to go down, though. NewPlanet was going to be pissed and they would ruin us if we hadn’t followed procedure. I took the shuttle down. Smith stayed in orbit. I honestly half thought he’d strand me there. You know what I found.”

“Another Smith.” Smith slumped to the ground and leaned back against a piece of driftwood.

“Pretty much identical to him,” Klavinski said, “but not quite. A bit better looking, and a bit younger. I guess we imagine ourselves a little different to how we really are. This one was naked. I gave Smith a ribbing about it later — turning everything into a joke helped keep him sane. The name Planetsmith, that was another joke that stuck.”

“I like just Smith better, I think,” Smith said.

“Yeah, me too,” Klavinski said. He sat down next to Smith before continuing. “The copy knew who I was — the early ones did. Seemed to know everything that Smith knew and he was pretty relaxed about it all. I guess that was the point. He had no idea how it had all happened but he didn’t much care.

“On the way back I didn’t go into cryo at all — no way was I trusting Smith on his own. When we arrived NewPlanet wanted to speak to Smith pretty urgently. I wish I’d thought to lie to them. It never occurred to me that they’d try to recoup their investment by using Opportunity6 as an exclusive resort for the mega-rich.

“If Smith wasn’t already nuts, that tipped him over the edge. NewPlanet hired some expensive lawyers and got the world classified as IP. Of course, our contracts gave them ownership of any intellectual property developed in their employ. Smith was pretty much destroyed by the whole thing — he went on indefinite sick leave.

“So NewPlanet went ahead with their plans and started building some luxury accommodation on the planet, which by then they’d named Lagoona. The Smith that was there just kept to himself, floating about in the water watching the fish, or laying on the little islands gazing at the clouds.”

“Sounds like a nice place,” Smith said, kicking distractedly at the sand.

“Yeah,” Klavinski said. “You’d like it. But building that resort was a mistake. Within a week of them breaking ground, Smith — the original Smith — had a seizure and had to be rushed to hospital. The doctors discovered a tumour growing in his brain. It was connected with the development on Lagoona, of course. The bastards gave him brain cancer.”

Smith clamped a hand to the back of his skull.

“Don’t worry,” Klavinski said. “This is all old news. It was touch and go for a while though. You see, the doctors started planning a course of treatment, but NewPlanet slapped an injunction on them. They figured that if the docs removed the tumour it might somehow mess up the resort development. That was a dark time, at least until I suggested to Smith that he just go ahead and imagine the resort existing on Lagoona, just like their drawings. I bet NewPlanet were kicking themselves that they hadn’t thought of it first. As soon as they got confirmation of the miracle, Smith got his treatment. I was pretty proud of myself then, but I’m not so sure anymore.”

“Not so sure?” Smith said. “You saved his life.”

“Yeah,” Klavinski said, “but you can’t figure they would have let him die, right? Bad for business. And if I hadn’t come up with that bright idea, they might have stayed content with just the one world. I mean, Lagoona was working out okay, but it was a long way away. Not everyone’s willing to take a ten-month trip for a vacation. And not everyone trusts cryo — you always hear about some guy who isn’t quite the same when he wakes up.”

Klavinski stopped as the heavens lit up again. The display went on slightly longer than before and there were several smaller aftershocks before the yellow sky cleared.

“Why does that bother you so much?” Smith asked, glancing at the sky.

“Not very relaxing, is it?” Klavinski said cryptically. “It wasn’t long before someone from NewPlanet came to Smith and asked him to imagine Earth in the sky over Lagoona. I told him not to do it. I mean, what if Earth had been yanked into orbit around Lagoona instead? Probably the end of life on Earth. But they figured that, seeing as Smith hadn’t created the Earth, it would have to happen the other way. What they called a ‘negligible and acceptable risk,’ if you can believe that.”

“And the sky?”

“This planet,” Klavinski continued, “is the seventeenth crowded into Earth’s orbit. Plays hell with Earth’s tides, though nobody seems to care much about Earth anymore. It’s more than a violation of the natural order, though. It’s a violation of astrophysics. The orbits aren’t stable, not on their own. It’s only the power of Smith’s imagination keeping these balls of rock from crashing into each other and falling into the sun. Earth too, now.” Klavinski gestured upwards. “Those fireworks are the cracks in Smith’s control made plain.”

Smith’s veneer of calm was long gone. “How bad is it?”

“Who knows. It’s been a while since I had any access at NewPlanet. In fact, they’d pay a tidy sum to get a hold of me. I’m a risk, you see.”

“You’re not worried I’ll turn you in?”

“What would you do with the reward,” Klavinski asked. “Take a vacation?”

“Fair point.”

“Let me tell you though, the last time I did see Smith, one thing was clear. Every new world was taking something out of him. He was becoming less himself, less able to hold it together. And holding it together was never really his greatest strength, you know? It’s not the planets though. It’s the Smithereens.”

Sweat was visible on Smith’s brow and Klavinski could see a chill run through him. “Me, you mean. I’m going to kill us all just by existing.”

Klavinski pulled out his flask again. “You sure you don’t want that drink?”

Smith took the flask with one shaking hand.

“It’s not just you,” Klavinski said, trying his best to sound reassuring.

“Me and the sixteen others, then.”

Klavinski started to say something, then bit it back. Instead he took the flask back from Smith and took a long pull before continuing. “Even if you didn’t exist,” he said. “Even if there were no Smithereens and old Smith was still at the top of his game, we’d still be done for. He may be in many ways a god, but he’s not immortal. What do you figure happens when he kicks it?”

Smith reached for the flask again. Klavinski let him have it, and then continued in a lower, more urgent tone. “But I think there’s still a chance. If we could get Smith to imagine all these worlds back where they belong, and if we can do it before his mind is too far gone, then maybe Earth at least will make it.”

Smith nodded and then grimaced. “NewPlanet will never let you near him.”

“Of course not,” Klavinski said. “And I don’t even know where they’re keeping him. That’s why I need your help. I need you to think as hard as you can. There was a place before this place. Where were you, Smith? Where are you?”

Smith closed his eyes, concentrating hard. It reminded Klavinski painfully of the way Smith had looked back on that last trip, when he was doing his meditative escapism. For a moment, Klavinski wondered just how much of Smith the Smithereens had inherited … but then Smith opened his eyes and the world about them was unchanged.

“I see a gray room with a window. The curtain is heavy, orange, woollen. There is a bird singing. It makes me sad.”

Klavinski tensed every muscle in his body. “Go on.”

“There is an uneaten meal on a table, wrapped in clear sanitary plastic. The words ‘Attention: CHAUD’ appear on it.”

“France,” Klavinski said. “Or Canada, maybe. Anything else?”

Smith exhaled deeply. “I’m sorry, no. That’s all.”

“It’s enough,” Klavinski said. “One clue at a time.”

“Is there anything else I can do?” Smith asked.

“One thing, I’m afraid.” Klavinski’s eyes fell to the sand as he reached into his pocket. “I need Smith to hold on just a little longer.”

Smith dropped the flask and scrambled backwards into the shallows. The surf covered the sound of the shot and the sun-warmed water bloomed red.

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