Mina did her best to ignore the braying laughter of the Freetown Habitation overseer, which was drifting over from nearly the other side of the dome, and smiled politely at the administrator in front of her.
‘Earth.’ The awed tone in his voice was sweet, like that of a child. ‘How was it?’
‘Simply marvellous,’ she said, hand unconsciously moving to the seal at her throat – the unforgeable proof of her pilgrimage. ‘I spent a year near the eastern coast of the Eurasian continent. A long time ago, there was a country there that dug hundreds of miles of tunnels. To honour the Patrons, we were excavating these tunnels by hand. We worked hard, or in silence.’
The administrator made an appreciative sound; his husband chose this moment to pipe in:
‘Did you see… you know…’
‘Once. One of the Patrons came and inspected our work.’
Mina smiled, and chose her words with care.
‘The stories are all true. He was beautiful, magnificent – he emanated power, I could feel it as he passed me. I cried at that feeling – I was at complete peace, in my proper place, on my knees in the mud – until long after my throat was sore. He was divine. I have no doubt of that.’
The husband offered Mina a tissue, and it was only then that she realised a tear had trickled down onto her cheek.
‘You’ve changed on your pilgrimage,’ came a familiar voice. The administrator and his husband bowed their heads; Mina turned to face the speaker, then did the same.
‘I believe I have learned much, mother.’
‘I see,’ said the planetary governor. ‘And do you believe that your lessons on Earth can be fruitfully applied on Paradise?’
‘I would never have returned otherwise: serving the Patrons on Earth was a far greater honour that I could ever deserve. But I will be of more use to them here, I think.’
Mina raised her head and looked her mother in the eye. The planetary governor seemed to have aged much more than three years during Mina’s pilgrimage: her hair was grey and her face was lined.
‘We have grown soft. Decadent. The workers treat the Patrons as a joke – their children scrawl obscenities on our walls. On Earth we worked until our fingers bled and our clothes were worn to rags. On Paradise the workers sing as they go about their chores, and take breaks as they will. It’s wasteful. Criminal.’
‘You think we should be more harsh towards the workers? That this would produce superior outcomes?’
‘It’s not just the workers, mother. We citizens of Paradise have duties to attend to, and what are we doing? We have the gift of life from the Patrons, and how do we spend it? We shirk and we drink and we party. It’s disgusting.’
The planetary governor didn’t say anything, and Mina became aware that the whole dome had gone silent. She felt a hot blush creep up her cheeks, but she held her mother’s gaze. Mina knew she was right – work was the sacrament, and only through unceasing labour could they show the Patrons proper devotion – and anyone who stood in the way of that, who stood between the people of Paradise and salvation, no matter who they were…
Someone gasped, from behind Mina. ‘Look at that,’ came a voice – the overseer of the Milan Habitation. Quickly, a murmur filled the dome. Mina’s mother’s gaze shifted, and her jaw dropped.
It had to be something big to warrant that sort of response, Mina knew. So she turned around and saw a miracle: amongst the black and grey of the surface of Paradise, where nothing had grown for two hundred years, there was an arc of green stretching from the Mountain to one of the civilian habitations.