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On ringworlds, your path is always clear. You always know where you came from and where you are headed to, for the ring's inside looms overhead, curving up into the horizon like a coiled serpent of cosmic proportions, an ouroboros that twines past and fate into itself.

Where we came from sets the path that we will tread upon. Past is future, just like infancy is fate. In the end, we always arrive at the place where we are expected: our only agency is the stones we choose to kick while on the road.

I spend my morning atop a grassy hill, gazing at the town below: its name is Zivara, a quaint enclave kissed by perpetual spring, a seed of Old Earth that has grown into a microcosm of its own. Beyond it, the ring curves into a mosaic of brown and green, a patchwork of parcels where exotic crops grow year-round. At midday, I close my eyes and feel the quiet wind running its many fingers through my hair before slowly making my way down. There is no need for haste – he'll stay put like dead men do.

There is music when I step into Zivara. It is a joyful tune of strings and pan flute, a wordless melody that tells of a bountiful harvest. Its rhythm edges on the debauched and I can tell that by sundown the people of this town will have taken their party to its natural conclusion – no feast of fertility would be complete without the promise of children. The crowd shifts and rocks through the main plaza, some entranced by the abandon of dancing, some others parsing through the stands of produce where vendors proudly display the fruits of their labor. Before I make my way towards the umber building where stumbling men hold half-full jugs of golden beer, I buy an apple – the reddest I have ever seen – and bite into it. My tongue jolts at its perfect bittersweet: a hearty core of wistful recollection, and an acrid aftertaste of single-minded purpose.

The bar is dimly lit, but the flare of festivity has nonetheless enveloped it and its patrons. Dance and song are a contagious disease in this town – it seeps into everyone to dissipate the troubles of everyday life in the cosmos. I sit next to a man who belches amidst content snores and order a beer: these people must believe that I'm just having a good time before I start asking questions.

I ponder the apple. Its flesh is thick, juicy, and unexpectedly soft as my teeth pierce it, yet hard enough to produce a satisfying, drawn-out snap. Subtle rivulets of gold course its blood-red skin, barely noticeable spirals whose concentric patterns glimmer with the tantalizing invite of a beating heart. The scar I have carved into its white-bone flesh is obscene, but what could such beauty incite in me, if not voracity? I lick my lips and dig in anew.

I take my time, not bothering to wipe away the drops of juice that tickle my chin. This moment – this entire experience – is far too intimate to rush. My memory becomes clearer, more vivid with every bite: I am at a place that no longer exists, resting on grass that has long withered away, under trees who have long been beset by rot. The sky is spotless, and the trees are laden with apples as red as the bleeding suns whose rise and fall marks this quiet age of innocence. The droning of my father's harvesters is in concert with the chirping of the crickets, an orchestra with no conductor that will continue beyond the curtainfall of dusk. Tomorrow there will be more work, more toiling under the suns, but for now I bury my troubles on kindly soil and feel our fields breathe in a perfect night. I grab ahold of a ripe apple, one of many that have dropped around me to the grass, and bite it with the ecstasy of a child, the triumph of one who fears nothing.

The memory fades slowly, like settling fog. I've nibbled the apple down to its core, and I wash down the aftertaste with another glass of beer. To relive the past through a fragment of what is no more – the fruit of a long-dead world – is to indulge in bitterness and grief.

"Quite the appetite you got there!" the bartender laughs. His smile betrays amusement at my devout gluttony. "Haven't seen anyone so enthused by one of our apples since we first grew them. Not from around here, are you?"

Not from around here. He doesn't mean this town, Zivara – he means the ring. Offworlder, his tone and gaze say.

"My father called this breed of apple summer heart," I respond. My hands caress the black seeds that line the apple's naked core. "They were his one true love: they are hardy enough to be grown even in the harshest climates, like they hold within a piece of the warm season, and their flesh remains perfectly soft and bittersweet for months. He said it was the only worthy thing our world would ever produce, and the only thing people would remember us by some day. He was a farmer, you see, and quite good at it. Our trees in bloom looked like someone had watered an entire forest with blood."

"He must be very proud!" I can tell he's sincere in his praise. "Not many things reach this far out, away from all the big spaceports and trading routes. But these… now these are here to stay! They're the gem of every harvest. Your folk are from Tuvir, right? Same as Cyril."

"We are. My father died many years ago, but he'd be happy knowing that summer hearts have spread beyond our little world. I know I am, for I haven't been home in a very long time."

"Felt like going back when you tasted it, huh?" the bartender quips. He then pours two foamy glasses of beer and slides one towards me. "Have another drink – this one's on the house. Let's toast to your old man, and to his wonderful apples."

"Thank you," I reply in earnest. "In a way, I believe my father lives on through the summer hearts; finding them here gives me peace."

"We all live on through the things we love," he agrees. We raise our glasses.

"To Zebulon." My father's name starts off sour on my tongue.

"To Zebulon!" the bartender cheers. "And to the summer hearts he so dearly grew."

We smile and drink silently for the next few minutes. A small thread of trust binds us together, far too small for me to impose on him, but strong enough that I can start asking questions.

"If I didn't mishear, you said there's someone else from Tuvir here on Zivara?"

"Oh, yes," he gulps down what is left of his beer. "Cyril. Quiet fellow, reserved. Doesn't come much into town, but we all appreciate him. He's the one who brought the summer hearts here, taught us how to grow them – though he never called the apples… well, anything. Still, I guess green thumbs are pretty common where you folk come from."

"Indeed. You could say farming is our creed and god."

He laughs a hearty laugh, though I can tell he's unsure if I'm being serious. I take advantage and fire my next question:

"Where can I find Cyril? I would very much like to meet one of my people, especially one who has also ventured this far away from home."

"Oh, he lives a few parcels out of town. Just keep going until you reach his cottage. You can't miss it. It'll probably take you half a day to get there on foot, though. Like I said, he's a reserved man, and he's become even more so after his wife died."

"I'm so sorry to hear that," I muse. My surprise is genuine: I did not know he had a wife.

"Yeah, poor girl. Her name was Amara. Caught some offworld disease and wilted like wheat. No doctor on the ring could cure her, so all we could do was try to help Cyril with his grief. I don't think he's done mourning, not yet."

"I will make sure to offer him my condolences," I say, and hand him a coin for his beer – and for the information. "I must be off. I'll try to reach him by morning."

"Are you sure you don't want to wait until tomorrow? I can book you a room for the night, dinner and breakfast included."

"You are very kind, but I have slept in worse places than the open field," I tell him. "Thank you for your hospitality."

"Hope we'll meet again, then," he concedes.

"That is unlikely. I'm only passing by, and I'll be gone within the next few days," I say with truth, though I've started to wish this were not so. "We walk set paths in the cosmos – who knows if they'll ever cross anew?"

"Well, wanderer," the bartender smiles, "I'm sure you'll find whatever you're looking for. However, I do hope you'll at least let me know your name. Friends – especially one-time ones – are best remembered by face and name." I give in to his smile and we shake hands as friends. "I am Alberto," he says.

"Gibborim," I lie.

I walk until dusk starts setting in, and a few hours past that before setting camp. Colossal panels slowly slide over the ringworld's inner face to provide its inhabitants with simulated night, keeping the perpetual daylight of the star it encircles from driving them mad. All ringworlds need a source of power, and all people need stable cycles of light and dark. Without them, they become lost, confused, and the need for routine festers into rancor as the coherence of time unravels into orphaned threads.

The thread I've been following leads here, to this artificial world, and to the cottage of the one who calls himself Cyril. Of course, there is no man named Cyril, just like there is no real night on the ringworld, just like there are no true summer hearts anywhere but here. Today's apple was the first natural one that I've eaten in years – all others are pretenders, the product of skillfull genetic engineering and soulless corporate scheming. I can tell by the apple's core: true summer hearts have pitch-black seeds, solid dark like a newborn's eye, humble cores that contrast with the gilded patterns of their red skin. Artificial ones – the ones he created – have seeds that glimmer like gold, a committee-dictated change meant to entice buyers further. It's not enough, it seems, that an apple be pretty and delicious. No, to them, the summer hearts should be as trophies – food that elevates its eater to a status beyond the mere consumer. That and, of course, be sterile so that no one but them may grow and harvest their treasure.

To think that he of all people has returned our crop to the universe fills me with ice-cold rage. So I've followed the thin, nigh-invisible thread he's unknowingly woven – the money, the apples, the whispers – to the very last frontier of civilization, a place where – if you walk for long enough in the right direction – you can peer off the edge of the world. I am a fly intent on eating the blind spider at the center of its own web.

I've come here to kill a ghost, a man who the rest of the universe believes to be dead and buried beneath the rubble of his own empire, forgotten by all but the survivors of his devastation. But I know better than to presume that men like him get their justice without someone pulling a trigger, without someone hoisting a noose. I know so because I've killed all of them, all who signed the death warrant for my world: they begged before I cut their guts wide open, before I kicked the stool from under their feet. Oh, how they offered me their riches in exchange for mercy, far more than I could spend in ten lifetimes. They all learned that the only thing blood money is good for is muffling its owner's screams.

Now, only he remains – the architect of their power, their master gene-hacker, their lord of life and death. He eluded me through four galaxies, through fifteen years of relentless hunting, but tomorrow I will look Gibborim in the eye and carve my vengeance through his heart.

The panels above me have brought the darkness in full, and a million points of light now pepper the expanse of the simulated sky. I do not know these stars. Does anyone? They could be random arrangements of asters known to no world, haphazard constellations welded together into a facsimile of true night. They could be phantasms, a memory of someone else's sky, echoes of dying light frozen in eternity for generations of oblivious settlers whose ancestors used these very stars to navigate the abyssal mantle of space.

This is a vicarious night, a sight seen through the eyes of long-dead people, a firmament of second-hand passions and stars. I wonder if the people of this ring ever ponder this. Do they name their pretended constellations with awe inherited from ancient peoples, or are they brought to despair by this facsimile with which they substitute true night? Do they think this simulacrum of a sky is as valid as the dark that swaddles other planets with its gentle embrace, or do they shudder at the knowledge that they will never experience the celestial dance with their own eyes? In a way, I think, memories are like this, too – life revisited by those who no longer live it, lingering shades of things that once were and now belong to the mind's eye.

I cradle the dried-up core of the summer heart and hold on to the shadow of a life that exists only in the taste of apples and hate.

By early morning, the orderly parcels of wheat, corn, and other produce meant for human consumption have given way to a labyrinthine forest filled with growths so alien that I doubt to even call them plants: bulbous tendrils that leak bright-orange orbs of gelatin; twisted alabaster pillars whose fruit is coarse on one side and smooth on the other; coral-like protrusions that host countless silver flowers; a thing that thrums and coos rhythmically as pollinators nudge its polyps. And near the edge of the forest, where a clearing of green grass pierces through the thicket, is an apple tree. Red fruit – its mottled skin made to glisten by the morning sun into spirals of kindly gold – hangs ripely from every branch, waiting for the softest wind, the slightest motion, to drop onto the ground and on unsuspecting heads. I hasten my steps: I'm in the right place.

The black soil beneath my feet reeks of petrichor, though there is no sign of rain anywhere; a hidden irrigation system must be at play to keep these otherworldly crops healthy. Beyond is a small wooden cottage, its window frames painted red by rust. Its brick chimney puffs wispy smoke, a telltale sign that someone is at home. I ready my gun and stride towards the front door.

The aromas of breakfast reach me before I've silently turned the doorknob – unbolted, as expected from a man who lives in the middle of nowhere – and made my way into the living room. Eggs, meat, fresh fruit, and other odors I cannot identify dance and twist as if welcoming me, beckoning me to join the cook on his morning meal. I take a brief look around. Sparse furniture, all hand-made and showing signs of age. Crates full of recently harvested fruits and produce. No pictures or art on the walls. An austere life for a man who once made whole planets kneel.

The man has his back against me as I walk into the kitchen, busy tending to his fire. He does not know he's about to die. The gun emits a shrill hum as I charge its potency to lethal, and he turns. Good – I like to see the fear flare before I put them out.

"I knew you'd come," he says without a hint of terror. He doesn't even hold his hands up, and his eyes are void of anything but an urge to finish cooking. For once in my career, I hesitate. He doesn't take the opportunity to wrestle the gun off my hands, nor to flee through the backdoor. Instead, he serves two glasses full of ochre liquid and offers me one. "Would you like to join me for breakfast before you blast a hole in my chest?"

We eat silently for a while, the gun never leaving my hand. I don't know why I still hold on to it. I might be afraid that this is all a trick, a trap awaiting to be sprung. He always was a devious man, after all – patient like all predators, never shy of herding his prey with promises of better lives, better crops. That's how so many worlds fell to him; others, he took by force.

I'm cautious around the exotic fruit he's served, though I've ruled out poison so far. I don't think he'd be eating with such content if he knew that any mistake could result in us both coughing out chunks of our stomach lining. He doesn't object to the weapon pointed at him, either; on the contrary, he looks at me almost reassuringly.

"Hope you like the eggs," he says. "Chickens are hard to come by this far away from most human settlements. I had to grow and carry to term my own embryos to get a couple of egg-laying hens."

I say nothing, but my glare reminds him that I'm not here on friendly terms. Criminals who parade their atrocities are the worst kind, drunk with impunity. I'm here to make sure he doesn't get away with it.

"I know what you're thinking," he says while refilling his glass. The liquid turned out to be cider – summer heart cider. "You've finally reached the man you hate most, and when you raise your gun to finally end him, he doesn't cower or plead like the others. Instead, he has you sit at his table. You've either walked into his trap, or he's so arrogant that he thinks he can convince you to spare him. I assure you it's none of those things."

"So you've made peace with death," I sneer at last. "How admirable."

"No, no," he lets out a resigned laugh. "But you can't blame me for trying. I've known you'd come for me – that someone would come – since the day I was born."

"Gibborim," I say while reaching for my glass of cider; I can't deny its tickle is pure pleasure on my tongue. "I came to kill you for the lives you ended, for the worlds you left in ruin – for my world. Do try to show some fear; don't ruin this for me."

"My name is Cyril," Gibborim frowns. A heavy shadow is upon his brow. "I know I'm in no position to make demands, but I would like to die bearing my own name."

"You might have disowned that name," I stand up, the gun humming in my hand, "but you go out on my terms. You are Gibborim, and you will die as him."

"I am not," he downs his remaining cider. "I am Cyril. Gibborim is buried behind the house. He's been there for the last ten years."

I forgo my gun for a shovel, and we dig. We dig until we've carved a jagged wound into the gentle soil, until our backs ache and our hands are almost flayed. I know this is absurd, idiotic, a window of opportunity for Gibborim – for Cyril – to finally spring his machinations and rid himself of me, but I can't help myself. I must know the truth. "Worst case scenario, you bury two bodies," Gibborim said. "You'll find out the truth either way." If this is a trap, I've already taken the bait.

The sun reaches its artificial zenith on this part of the ringworld. We are both drenched in sweat, our sole shade provided by Gibborim's house as we descend further into the earth. Dirt has found its way beneath my fingernails, and my mouth tastes of bile from keeping my breakfast down. I can feel my breath grow more and more labored, not just out of weariness, but out of expectation. Gibborim's frown has not changed since we left the house; to him, unearthing what he claims to be the truth seems like an exercise in regret and horror. He's buried behind the house. He's been there for the last ten years.

Suddenly, our shovels clang against a hard metal surface. Gibborim signals me to stop digging, and he kneels down to wipe away the dirt from the trove that holds his personal ghost. The words Bio-Innovations gleam in stark red lettering. Above them is a cracked monitoring panel devoid of vital signs: a cryo-capsule repurposed as a coffin.

I can wait no longer, so I drive my shovel into the capsule's hinge and lift. Gibborim does not object; instead, he joins me in my effort, and we struggle until the lid opens with a mechanical hiss. The body within is well-preserved, though dissecated after ten years sealed in a nonfunctional capsule. The cheeks are sunken, ragged. The eyes have shriveled and dried in their sockets, and the lips are little more than blackened strips that line gritted yellow teeth. Still, the dark skin and sharp jaw are unmistakable, as is the crooked nose and the prominent cheekbones. This is Gibborim, or a facsimile of him. The word clone dies in my mouth as I turn and once again point my gun at Cyril, the living image of the man I swore to kill.

"Start talking."

"You've figured out most of it," he says, side-eyeing the corpse we have unearthed. "Let's go inside. I'll tell you the rest over some cider."

"He had very little after the company went under. Enough money for bribes and a few months adrift; a functioning ship, unregistered; a portable lab; some contacts who could help him disappear. His one true remaining asset were the seeds: unmodified, unpolluted, pure. He'd taken enough of each species to restart any population, any breed he'd driven extinct for his investors. He took them from the Gibborim Bio-Innovations vault and ran while everyone else burned."

"Months, even years, blur together when you're on the run. There was nowhere for him to go: he was a wanted man in every star system from here to the Immortal Empire, as good as dead if he stepped anywhere civilized. In the end he found a place where he could hide, a world where he could fool himself into believing in second chances. This ringworld is the place where I was born. I remember my first thought. Not the ones he put in me, the memories of his life and crimes, the screams and pleading of the peoples he starved to death, but the terror of my lungs' first scorching breath. I wheezed and writhed as I tried to make my limbs function, to force legs that had never walked to give their first steps. I was confused, vulnerable, naked and drenched in amniotic fluid on the floor of what I thought was my own lab. But it wasn't mine, because I was not him."

"I knew this as soon as I saw his face – my own face, the face of my father, my brother, my maker. He smiled with satisfaction, with the glee of someone who has trumped adversity; his joy was nothing but perverse. I knew this, for I shared all his memories, all his recollections of cells dividing in an artificial placenta, of a zygote growing into a fully-formed copy of me – of him. I remembered his intention, the purpose of my creation: to serve, to continue, to persist. I was to be his assistant, his legacy, the first of many who would ensure his influence would persist long after his own death. I would be the heir to his empire, to his evil."

"To this day, I do not know what took hold of me, what terrible wrath possessed me at knowing that I was the copy, the clone. I lunged at him. My arms flailed clumsily at first, struggling against his own shock, but soon I grabbed onto his throat and squeezed. His eyes bulged red, first with wrath at my rebellion, then with fear and pleading as I collapsed his windpipe. He died with a drowned scream. I killed Gibborim. I killed myself."

"I spent a long time pondering what to do next. Killing yourself is always a life-shattering experience, even if you acknowledge yourself as the clone. I struggled under the weight of his memories, the horrid things I remembered doing yet knew I had taken no part in. I was a newborn, a creature with no past, and yet I struggled to piece myself together out of the whirlwind that was my murdered progenitor's mind. What was this feeling, this terrible thing that ensnared and choked me as I looked at his rigid body, at his terrorized final expression? For the first time in my life – and in his – I felt remorse. Why?"

"Perhaps what changed me, what made me distinct from Gibborim, was not just my origin, but the understanding of my nature as one of his abominations. I was – like the plagues he engineered, like the sterile seeds he forced upon entire planets to bend them to his will – a thing born of greed and spite. He did not mean for me to have agency, only to fulfill his designs. And yet, I had killed him. I tore apart his plans of enjoying a long life in hiding, of returning in triumph once the universe had forgotten him and his crimes. I was now his only foothold amidst the living, and only I could decide what to do with his inheritance and designs."

"I had his ship dismantled and burned most of his equipment. I kept the bare minimum for survival – and for my new mission. For ten years I have planted and spread the seeds Gibborim hoarded, the last remaining traces of entire worlds. I'm not even halfway done, but all those I've cared for have flourished and thrived: you saw them on your way here. Some have even made their way offworld, and I hope they'll find new homes out there. That's how you found me, isn't it? I figured you were from Tuvir. I am so very sorry."

"I lived a full life, these few years. I gave myself a new name, one I felt was less bloodstained than my maker's. I found love and lost it: the villagers must have told you about Amara. She adored the summer hearts, so I buried her under the apple tree."

"I've done everything I could to undermine Gibborim's legacy, to ensure that his crimes do not endure. The only thing left for me to do, it seems, is to die."

When Gibborim's plague ravaged our world, my father hanged himself in his room. He could not bear to see his beloved trees beset by rot, his fields barren and dead. I cremated his body and spread his ashes through our farm. Part of me, the part that was still a child, hoped that this would make the flowers bloom and the summer hearts flourish anew. But that is not the way of things, and our world remained a ruin, a grey wasteland where nothing grew. In some ways, I'm glad he left this world when he did. I could have not protected him from what came after.

When hunger came for us, Gibborim Bio-Innovations was there to provide us with gene-hacked seeds. Little by little, our world regained some of its color, but the next year we once again faced starvation: our crops would not yield new seeds, only dead, sterile specks of gold that mocked us from the apple's core. We were forced to buy new seeds from Gibborim, to give them more and more every year, until some started to sell themselves and all they owned to provide their loved ones with something to eat. We became slaves, forever indebted to Gibborim and the men in suits who walked the shadows beyond the stars.

I left Tuvir when I was eighteen. I stowed away on one of Gibborim's cargo ships and made my way into the Immortal Empire. I found a guild that would take me in if I promised to keep their ways secret, and I worked my way up. When the orders came, I hunted down and extinguished the lives they signaled out. When I outgrew my new home, they said goodbye with an omen: those who walk the path of vengeance must know the way into the future.

On ringworlds, your path is always clear. On a place like this, you always know where you came from and where you are headed to, and as Cyril's house burns in my wake, I stride my way forward. I do not once look at the flames. I carry with me the seeds he saved from his maker's clutches, summer hearts among them. I assured him that I will plant them once I find a new home for us all, a place where the orphaned children of a hundred worlds can come together and know their future is not a lie smeared across a false firmament. This is the life I now hope for: we walk set paths in the cosmos, but perhaps they are not always as straight as we believe them to be.

As for Cyril, I made it quick and buried him besides Amara. He did not ask to be born, to be the heir to death and suffering. Instead, he worked to erase the cruelty of his blood, to give back what was stolen. He did far more good in his brief life than me or Gibborim ever did. For that, I owed him some mercy, some small kindness in my vicarious vengeance.

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