My name was posted to the Tau Ceti Three crew list, along with my mother’s. Two sixth-years saw my broad grin and came over to look.
“NiIIIice,” the girl singsang, dripping puffs of lavender lashglitter onto my shoulder with every blink. “But don’t get stuck alone with that pilot. He’s soOOOoo boring.”
Her boyfriend—he had to be; he was dusted in lavender lashglitter—hooted. “She won’t have a choice. It’s her first survey. She’ll be ship-bound.”
“Well, don’t encourage him. Wear earplugs at aaAAaall times.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“You don’t want him to think you’re listening. He’s got this thing about filling up empty silence with what he calls conversation. The inner workings of the com system. The proper descent vector for using minimum fuel. Like that.”
The girl tapped her right ear with long nails finely splayed into fans. “Earplugs.”
The boy laid a proprietary hand around the girl’s neck, and I saw his nails matched hers. Oh, honestly. “They’ll keep the Raging Bore at bay. And if worse comes to worst, you can always let in a spider.”
They walked off with the razorblade laugh of the in-crowd bully, and I decided I liked the pilot on principle.
Time seemed to dilate until hours were years, but launch day finally came. I was going to a planet! Never mind that I would be confined to the survey shuttle; I would be off the Ceiaides for the first time in my life. Even a psych eval droid for pilot couldn’t have dampened my spirits.
The Raging Bore turned out to be a soft-around-the-middle young man named Mart Jansen with curly blond hair and a thick beard. Dr. Egil Parnum I knew; she was my mother. Our fourth and final crewmate was a tiny, honey-skinned woman named Dr. Bjalili Okara.
The two-light-year trip down to Tau Ceti Three took forty-six hours: thirty-nine wormhole and seven straight-space. The pilot was in the cockpit for a few hours at each end to maneuver us away from the station and onto the surface, but the ship was on autopilot for the rest of the trip. The four of us spent our waking hours in the mainbay. Despite the sixth-years’ stationside warning, the pilot was quiet as a mouse, and I felt smug. He’d turn out to be fascinating when you gave him a chance, and we’d be fast friends by the end of the trip. Watch their glitter-addled brains wrap around that.
“Hey, Mart, why don’t you join us for a game of cicce?” I waved my hand of cards.
“No, thanks. I don’t know how.” He looked up briefly, then reburied himself in his reader.
Or maybe I’d be spending the eight planetside days talking to myself.
“I’ll be interested to see the numbers on the higher animals this year. We’re getting close,” said Dr. Okara. “Another few decades and Teasy Three will be ready for colonization.”
“Dr. Tresnik told our class that Epilepsy Five was going gangbusters. He said it might outpace Teasy Three,” I said.
“Could be. But the Alpha Cen system is going to win this race by a light-year. I hear they’re opening up the colonization roster on Acey Twelve next month. Or Nivenia, I should say, now they’ve named it. Apparently it’s filled with woody Iridaceae.” Dr. Okara chuckled at her own joke.
“They say it’s a beautiful world. Even more beautiful than Earth.” I glanced at my mother. “I’m thinking of signing up.”
“You are? That sounds exciting.” My mother snorted air but Dr. Okara went on unperturbed. “Have you ever been to the Alpha Cen system, Laru?”
“No. I’ve never been to a planet, period. The thought of living on one makes me feel like a pioneer.”
Mart had stopped reading to watch us.
“The real pioneering work is taking a hunk of dead rock and turning it into a living, breathing ecosystem,” my mother sniffed.
“Oh ho ho.” Dr. Okara grinned. “Looks like I’ve stumbled into a family can of worms.”
Mart stood up and plucked rapidly at the curls of his beard. “Can I, uh, get anyone some coffee?”
Were we making him nervous?
“Me,” Dr. Okara said, raising a finger.
“Me, too, please,” I said, smiling my friendliest smile. My mother nodded, and he trundled off to the galley.
“What are you signing up as?” Dr. Okara asked as she pulled her feet up under her on the smaller mainbay couch.
“They’ve got eight slots for biologists, but I won’t be finished studying in time to apply for one of those.” My mother snorted again; I ignored her. “They have a lot of slots for elementary school teachers, and not enough people to fill them, I’ve heard.”
Mart returned with four cups of coffee. He placed two cubes each of sweetener and tannin binder in front of me, then watched intently as I dropped both cubes of binder in.
How very odd. Okay; okay; odd was okay. We were still going to be friends, or at least decent acquaintances, because I was not going to agree with the opinions of two snot-for-brains trend-lemmings.
“Oh, Laru,” my mother sighed. “I can’t believe you want to throw away a promising career on the cutting edge of exobiology to go put down roots on some primitive planet just being colonized. You’re only nineteen. At least finish your education first.”
We’d been having this conversation for months. To my mother, planetary life was for placid, stupid people who lacked imagination. The real thrill was out among the stars, playing God on the natural satellites orbiting them. There were twelve Ceti Sector planets in various stages of terraforming, and she had a hand in them all. Epsilon Eridani Four was just developing a greenhouse-gas cover; Tau Ceti Two had gotten its first injection of cyanobacteria. Tau Ceti Seven was scheduled for plant life later in the year. When my mother wasn’t out surveying the progress of gestating worlds, she conducted research on nanite-enhanced terraforming strategies back on the space station. Her work was varied and complex, and she loved it. She said it was exhilarating.
It sounded interesting. It sounded mentally stimulating. But exhilarating? I thought creating a community of human beings from wildly different places on a brand-new world with wide-open vistas sounded exhilarating. I’d watched plenty of old vids of Earth and Mars. I wanted to live in a place with sunrises and sunsets, rain that fell at non-programmed intervals, forests to lose myself in, hills and mountains and rivers and lakes. I wanted the planetary experience.
The distance was the only thing that gave me pause: it took two weeks to travel the wormhole network from Alpha Centauri to the Ceti Sector. I’d be lucky to see my mother once a year. I’d seen her wrestling not to throw that in my face just to keep me on the Ceiaides. I loved my mother for that, for fighting fair.
Mart touched our ship down with a dancer’s grace just after breakfast. Automated sensors collected the first routine samples of atmosphere; by lunchtime, the ship’s bioanalyzer had manufactured antibodies to the local airborne pathogens, and doctors Parnum and Okara went out on survey. I sat twiddling my thumbs in the mainbay with Mart for the five-hour wait; until my mother and Dr. Okara returned with the first samples to process, I had no duties.
“So. So, uh, Miss Parnum, this is your first trip planetside?”
Okay, see? He was opening up. Let the bonding begin. “Yes. I’m a fourth-year. Biology.”
“The same field as your mother.”
I nodded. He nodded. He drummed his fingers on his thighs, then pulled at his beard. “Biology. I was terrible at biology. I’m not good with animals and plants. Machines are more my thing. I would have liked to go into nanotech, but my scores weren’t strong enough.”
Nanotech was very complicated stuff; almost no one had the scores for it. “How’d you decide to become a pilot?”
“My dad would take me out sometimes. I liked sitting in the cockpit, reading off all the monitors. One hundred and thirty-eight individual pieces of information that let you predictably control a complicated machine. And the precision! It’s a thing of beauty. For example, do you know how a retroflux thruster works?”
“No, I don’t.” The words Raging Bore popped into my brain before I could stop them.
“It detects changes in temperature down to the picokelvin, and changes in density down to the milligram per cubic meter, and uses a series of nanosecond measurements to determine the vehicle’s distance from the surface and the amount of friction to apply to the landing pads. See, the measurements form a Gerrison curve, and based on the tangential acceleration of the curve vector, the retroflux unit can tell what kind of surface material it’s approaching—titanium alloy, organic matter, bioasphalt, whatever—and adjust accordingly. It’s incredibly precise, and completely predictable.”
“I can show you how it works, if you’d like.” He stood up and gestured toward the cockpit.
I saw an hour sitting in the pilot’s chair—no, standing behind it while he sat in it and pointed out dial after dial after button after switch. “That’s nice of you to offer, but to be honest, I’m not really a fan of shuttle tech. Besides, I’ve got some reading to do for class.”
“Oh, yeah, of course,” he said, almost before I’d finished speaking. He pulled at his beard and looked around the room. “Well, I’ll leave you to your books.” He pointed at my reader on the table. “Can I at least get you a cup of coffee, or something?”
I looked up at the disappointed blue eyes in his pale, pudgy face. He seemed angry with himself, and that made me angry with the sixth-years—and myself. “Coffee sounds good. Tell you what—why don’t I teach you how to play cicce?”
I thought he’d say no again, but he surprised me. His eyes widened as he smiled and ran a hand through his hair. “Sure. Why not?” He turned toward the galley, then turned back with a frown. “I have to warn you, Miss Parnum, I’m not very good at card games. I haven’t played much.”
“That’s okay,” I said, tapping controls to raise the low table to card-playing level and lift the smaller formfoam couch from its floor recess and inflate it. “Everybody has to start somewhere. And stop calling me Miss Parnum. Call me Laru.”
My mother and Dr. Okara returned with a rollcrate full of samples and some kind of skin rash. “I’m itchy all over,” Dr. Okara complained.
Mart looked really alarmed.
“It’s not that unusual,” my mother said. “The analyzer only screens for serious pathogens. Survey crew come back with sniffles and rashes all the time. Biodiversity makes for a healthy ecosystem.”
“This is the first time anyone’s gotten sick on my run,” Mart said. “That’s twenty-two trips. One in twenty-two doesn’t sound common to me.”
“Relax, Mart. It’s normal.” She put a hand on his arm and smiled at him. “Trust me; I’ve been doing this for a long time.”
Mart nodded, and she let go of his arm.
After dinner I suggested we do some singing. I love to sing, and my mother and I can belt out a pretty nice duet.
After our third or fourth song, Dr. Okara sniffed, coughed, and stood up. “Well, lovely as this is, I’m going to hit the sack. I’m bushed, and this damned itch is making me cranky.”
“You do that,” my mother boomed. Singing always put her in a good mood. “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.”
I laughed beside Mart on the larger mainbay couch and let myself fall against the rounded armrest. Dr. Okara looked at me like I was sprouting woody Iridaceae from my nose. “It’s an old Terran song,” I explained through my laughter. “Your nose is a little red.”
“Aha. Charming.” Dr. Okara raised a hand and turned toward the cabins. “I’m out of here. Good night, all.”
“Where did you learn all these ancient songs?” Mart asked as we readied the table for a game of cicce.
“My father was a music buff. After he died, we played his collection as a way of remembering him. We learned our favorites by heart. It’s a lot of fun, singing together.”
“If you can call it singing,” Mart ventured, his eyes darting from one of us to the other.
“Good one, Mart,” my mother said, thumping him on the leg with a laugh. “I knew you had it in you.” She played a card. “And you’re very good at cicce.”
Mart blushed, looked at me with a shy grin, and ran a hand through his hair, and I wished those sixth-years could see us. Raging Bore? Hardly.
I slapped a card triumphantly onto the table. “But not good enough. Cicce!”
My mother groaned. I stood and threw both arms into the air, eyes closed, head bobbing, hands in the old-Earth victory V.
Mart gathered the cards and looked at the clock. “Oh! It’s late. Past protocol.”
My mother looked over. “Just twenty minutes. Relax, Mart. I don’t sleep much back on the station, either. I’ll be fit enough for duty tomorrow.” She winked at me.
“Still, it’s protocol.” Mart plucked at his beard.
“That it is. Hup, off to bed with us all. Don’t stay up reading, Laru.” My mother leaned across the couch and plucked a skinboot from the floor. “You’ve got your work cut out for you tomorrow, analyzing the sequencer results. A hundred and eighty samples will take longer than you think.” She yawned and held up a hand. “Good night.”
“Sleep tight, Mama,” I said, standing and stretching. “Good night, Mart.”
“Good night, Dr. Parnum, Miss Parnum.” Mart smiled at me. “I mean Laru.”
I lilted to my cabin, happy for the way Mart was responding to a little friendship and eager to stretch my biologist’s wings in the lab tomorrow. In ten hours I would be touching things that had grown on this planet.
My professors on the Ceiaides had taught me to expect mutations in the Terran organisms transplanted to Ceti Sector worlds. Over the years, my mother had described many unexpected, and often beautiful, adaptations to which the older terraforming worlds’ unique variations from Terran gravity and atmospheric pressure were beginning to give rise: the enlarged butterflies of Tau Ceti One; the swaying, lace-like plants of Alpha Centauri Sixteen. But the mutations in front of me were improbable beyond reason.
“Laru? Lunch is ready.” Mart stood at the entry to the survey ship’s lab. “What’s wrong?”
“These samples. The DNA isn’t consistent. They’re like bizarre hybrids.”
Mart cocked his head. “Like what?”
“Two species intermingled. Like, say, two types of rose bush. But these are beyond possible. Take this one—this is a spider crossed with a birch tree.” I angled the sequencer’s screen toward him.
His expression of worry turned to stone before he looked away. “Ah. I get it. Little Miss Funnypants. I’m not that gullible, whatever they told you about me.”
Oh, crap. Why did I have to mention spiders? I opened my mouth to apologize, but he was already gone. I stood up and shouted. “Hey! You know I’m not like that. I’m not joking, Mart.”
I heard him pad back toward me, then saw his face peer in. “You’re not?”
“Oh.” He took another step in. “How is that possible?”
“Exactly. How is that possible? I don’t know.” I waved him closer. “All the birch tree samples Mom and Dr. Okara brought in yesterday have two kinds of DNA, from two completely different species. They’re Betula papyrifera everywhere except in the mitochondria. And there, they’re something else. An arachnid. An amphibian. Each one is different. So far, I’ve found two species of fungus, one protist, four plants, and eight animals encapsulated in the mitochondrial nucleotide barcodes.”
Mart was watching me intently, and I realized he was trying to understand what I had said. My ears began to burn: I’d just given my own retroflux thruster speech, to a much better audience than I had been.
“It’s like finding a… a com unit speaker inside a thruster,” I started again. “Not stuck onto the side of the control panel, but deep inside the thruster itself, wired in like it belongs there.”
His eyes registered comprehension. “That’s very odd.”
“It certainly is.” I stood up and prowled the tiny lab. “The birch samples are the only ones like this. Everything else is what it’s supposed to be.” I stopped pacing and stared at Mart as if the answer to the riddle was written in miniature script somewhere on his face.
“Come eat lunch?” he said, squirming under my scrutiny. I nodded and followed him to the galley.
“How did all this other DNA worm its way into the birch cells, Mart?” I watched him peel back the steamy polylactide film on a serving of fungoid tetrazzini, then funnel the condensing water into two cups of granulated strawberry. I wasn’t really asking; I was thinking out loud. He surprised me by answering.
“Dead spider scraped off the birch trunk?”
I shook my head. “All the foreign DNA was inside the birch cells. If it had been a dead spider, the spider DNA would be outside the birch cells. Like this cup on the table.” I picked it up. “Touching, but separate.”
“Dead spider that got inside the tree through a crack and disintegrated into the birch cells?” He slid my lunch over to me.
“Still wouldn’t work. That would be like spilling juice on your clothes—even if it sank into the fabric, it wouldn’t become part of the cloth.” I speared a forkful of gummy tetrazzini. “The DNA in one wouldn’t mix with the DNA in the other.”
“Not even if it was there for a really long time?”
I swallowed and shook my head. “Most cells can’t penetrate another cell and release their DNA into it. Only viruses and gametes.”
Mart cocked his head. “You mean sperm and eggs?”
I nodded. “In animals. In plants, it’s pollen and ovules.”
“So breathing in pollen is like breathing in sperm?”
“Yes, actually.” I’d never thought of it that way.
“Another reason to be glad I don’t go outside,” Mart said into his cup. I snorted, and a second later we were laughing like hyenas.
“You’ll make a really good teacher,” he said when we finally got ourselves under control. “You explain things really well.”
I was moved far more than I’d have expected by his words, and I realized I was actually really worried I’d be awful at it. “Really?”
He nodded. “You made all that make sense. I’m terrible at biology, but you turned it into thrusters. Nobody’s ever done that with me before.”
“They aren’t answering,” Mart called from the mainbay. “Probably in the com’s null spot. I’ll try again in thirty minutes.”
My mother and Dr. Okara wouldn’t be back from survey for another three hours. I’d redone all the birch samples and driven myself crazy trying to figure out what my results meant. I was desperate to hear what they thought. Maybe we were sitting on something enormous here. Some new evolutionary mechanism. I’d never heard of anything like it, in class or from my mother, which meant she’d never heard of anything like it, either. Which meant it was BIG.
A major discovery like this could make me a very desirable commodity. How could I possibly wait three more hours? “Let’s try them again.”
Mart raised his eyebrows and looked at the panel clock. “It’s only been five minutes.”
“So protocol is to wait thirty.”
I was buzzing with adrenaline. “Jesus, Mart, stop quivering on the altar of the holy gods of protocol. Move over. I’ll do it.” He took a hurried step back and I sat down at the com panel. No answer.
I was too preoccupied with myself to register the look on his face when I turned around. “How big is this null spot you mentioned? How long before they’re out of it?”
“That depends on their distance from the ship, and their orientation and velocity.”
I looked upward and sighed.
“Generally at least thirty minutes.” His politely unspoken Duh hovered in the air between us, but I was too wound up to acknowledge that I was being a jerk. All I could focus on was how impossible it was to wait a second longer when I was sitting on something THIS BIG!
“Well, that’s too long.” I walked to the storage cabinet behind the galley and pulled out a helmeted exosuit, way bulkier than the flexible skinsuits my mother and Dr. Okara were wearing. Mart was right behind me; he grabbed my arm, and I read real panic in his face.
“Laru, you can’t go out there. It’s against protocol.”
“You want to go?” Of course outdoor-phobic Mart didn’t want to go; the horrible snideness of my comment finally cut through my adrenaline hyperbuzz. “I’m sorry. That was completely uncalled for. But I’m jumpy, and sitting around waiting on protocol isn’t my style. This might be something big we’ve discovered. I’m going to find Mom and Dr. Okara.” I finished pulling on the exosuit and checked the air tank, then eased past Mart toward the airlock.
“Why are you wearing that suit?” His voice was shrill.
I turned and laid a gloved hand on his shoulder. “Relax, Mart. This is all there is; I wasn’t issued a skinsuit. Besides, it’s good protocol, right?” I squeezed his shoulder, then let go and stepped into the airlock, excited but also just plain thankful for an excuse to escape the cramped, windowless ship after sixty-eight straight hours and giddy at the thought of setting foot on an honest-to-goodness planet.
Mart waved frantically, and I opened the inner door. He looked faintly golden through my helmet’s nanowire visorplate. “The null spots,” he said. “One’s off the nose, one’s off the tail. They start out narrow, and get wider the further you go from the ship.”
I beamed at him. “Thanks, Mart. I didn’t know that.” Then I closed the airlock, waved, and stepped out onto the surface humming “Zippity Doo Dah.”
I walked to the edge of the bioasphalt landing strip and paused. My left foot came down onto the leafy soil, which gave gently under my weight; then my right foot touched down. I took a slow, reverent breath and looked around. Damn the helmet and its muffling, goldifying barrier, marring my first taste of life outside a space station. Without it, I would have heard birdsong, and the wind through the trees, and the rustling of small animals pattering away in search of cover; with it, I heard only the subdued crunching of my own footsteps. I reached up to loosen the neckline seal, then paused: I wasn’t supposed to be outside at all. Let the review board see I’d broken the rules responsibly. I dropped my hand and started walking.
The smooth, even ground was covered in last year’s leaves. Most had turned a decaying brown, but here and there, tips of orange and yellow dotted the forest floor. Tau Ceti Three was well into its spring season, and the space above me was a vibrant green canopy through which sunlight filtered, dropping bright specks onto the ground in gently bobbing patterns. I stepped through the swaying net of light and ran my gloved fingers along the trunks, tracing lines in the fine layer of pollen that covered them. The oldest tree here was no more than forty; the last to be introduced were in their first reproductive season, and younger than me.
The chuckle of running water filtered through my helmet, and I walked toward the sound. I squatted and peered eagerly into a middling brook, but no shining silver fish betrayed their positions; I saw only brown and gray pebbles lining the bottom, distorted in the swirling current. I longed to unlatch my exogloves and dip my fingers into living water, home to a trillion trillion trillion individual organisms too tiny to see, living out their microscopic lives in a miniature world within a world. Right here in front of me, within arm’s reach. For the first time, I truly understood the thrill on which my mother had so often waxed exuberant. I did feel like the creator standing before my creation, watching as it unfolded and grew and lived.
The temptation to touch it all made my fingers itch. But I was already walking a very fine line, and an unfounded disobey on my record would keep me permanently out of the colonization rosters. My stomach clenched; was there really a reason I couldn’t have waited for the others to return? Would the review board agree that three hours—no, thirty minutes—was too long to sit on my results?
I ran back to the ship, seeing nothing, hoping I could talk Mart into keeping my transgression a secret, knowing before I’d gone twenty steps that I wouldn’t ask him to.
All my adrenaline had turned to churning acid in my gut. By the time I finished the UV bath and stripped off the suit, Mart was waiting outside the airlock. He was visibly relieved to see me, which, irrationally, pissed me off. “You were gone twenty-six minutes. The others aren’t back yet. I’ve been comming them every six minutes. I should get through to them soon. I should have explained the null spots better. They’re fairly narrow. I’ll show you the RF patterns. You look worn out. Let me get you something to eat.” He was hovering solicitously beside my right shoulder, and I shoved him away. His eyes widened and I closed mine in instant and thundering regret.
“I’m sorry, Mart. It’s not your fault. Food would be great. I’m just mad at myself for torpedoing the thing I want most because I can’t frigging think two steps ahead.”
He didn’t answer. I opened my eyes and saw his cabin door closing.
Was there anything, anything, I could possibly not fuck up today?
I sank to the formfoam couch and kicked the table, then picked up the cards and threw them at the galley wall with a long, hard yell. Mart didn’t come ask me what was wrong, or if I wanted a cup of coffee. I was all alone with my reckless, idiot self.
I didn’t have to wait three hours after all. My mother and Dr. Okara returned less than half an hour after I did, both coughing and feverish.
Dr. Okara pushed the rollcrate into the mainbay and leaned against it, panting. “All I want to do is sleep.”
“Ditto,” my mother said. Then she frowned at me. “What’s wrong, Laru?”
I shook my head. She looked really sick; her skin was splotchy and sweaty, and she was breathing in short little pants. All the excuse I needed not to dump the day’s failure in her lap quite yet. “Just bored. Want me to make you some tea?”
Neither of them wanted tea; just enough water to down an analgesic before getting supine. Dr. Okara lurched toward her cabin as I kissed my mother’s burning cheek. “Sleep well, Mama.”
“You too, sweetie. Oh—how’d it go with the samples?”
“Fine.” I smiled brightly. “I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.”
She nodded and shuffled to her cabin.
And then I was all alone with my reckless, idiot self again.
I wallowed in misery for a while; then I tried to read for Terraforming II, but I couldn’t get the words to stick. Eventually hunger was the only thing I could focus on, and I knocked on Mart’s door.
“Mart?” I tried to hear movement, or even breathing, but it was quiet in there. “I’m really sorry about pushing you. I’m just mad at myself, and I took it out on you. I’m really, really sorry.” No sound. “Look, um, I’m going to eat something, and I thought you were probably getting hungry, too. I’ll make us some dinner, okay? Come on out in fifteen minutes and it’ll be ready. Okay?”
After another thirty seconds of silence, I trudged off to the galley and managed to heat up two foodpacks without burning down the ship. Mart didn’t show. Maybe he was just sleeping. Or maybe he hated me now.
One thing was sure: sleep was out of the question for me. I cleaned up my galley mess and pulled the day’s rollcrate of samples into the lab.
Mart shook me awake. “Were you here all night?”
I blinked my eyes and looked around. “What time is it?”
“Oh seven hundred local.”
“I guess I was.” Then it hit me: Mart was talking to me. “Hey, look, I am so sorry about what happened yesterday—”
“No, it’s not, I shouldn’t have—”
“It’s okay. I’ll make breakfast.” He padded out and I blinked at his receding back. Then I unstuck myself from the chair and followed him.
“The others are sick,” I said by way of conversation. “Sicker than they were, I mean. They had fevers. They came back early and went straight to bed.”
Mart looked up at that. “Fevers? What do they have?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Some local variant on the common cold, I guess.”
“Can you test it?”
“You mean run it through the analyzer? I guess, but I don’t see why.”
Mart had forgotten all about making breakfast; he was looking at me—more like through me—as if he saw some giant six-armed ogre bearing down on us swinging spike-studded clubs in every hand. Poor Mart, so scared of things that were alive, and nobody who took him seriously. Well, I could take him seriously. Especially after yesterday.
“Hey, sure. I’ll get a sample from my mom and run it through. Then I’ll have the synthesizer make up a batch of antibodies. Like a vaccine, to keep you from getting it. Wait here.”
I got a swab kit from the lab, then swung back into the galley on my way to my mother’s cabin and handed him a disposable face mask. “Here. You can wear this till everyone’s well again.”
He took it like a starving man being offered a four-course meal.
My mother was still sleeping. I tiptoed over to her bunk and whispered “Mama?” but she didn’t wake. Her breathing was still short and rapid; her skin was mottled, with specks of white among flushed streaks of red. I touched her arm; still feverish. Then I touched it again: the specks of white were hard and smooth, like flattened grains of sand. I shook her again, harder. “Mama? MAMA?”
I wasted no time getting the sterile swab out of its pipet. I wormed it between her slightly parted lips and waved it around inside her mouth, then practically fell over myself getting to the lab. “Okay, thing, analyze. Analyze. Analyze,” I chanted after I’d loaded the swab into an input tray.
A thousand years later, it pinged. No culprit: just the usual cornucopia of oral microbiota. “WHAT?” I shouted—which, of course, brought Mart running.
“What’s wrong?” he said through his face mask. “What is it? Is it bad?”
I shook my head. “It’s nothing. Literally. The analyzer didn’t find anything making her sick. But she’s really sick, Mart. She won’t wake up.” I looked at him. “We’ve got to go back to the station. Let’s go, right now.”
Mart’s eyes were wide and he was close to hyperventilating. “We can’t.”
“We have to!” My shout ended in a wail.
“Protocol. Section eighteen point four. Sick survey crew will be denied station reentry until the source of the illness has been identified.”
I wanted to scream. “But there’s nothing there to identify.”
“There has to be something. People don’t just get sick for no reason.”
“So there’s something.” Mart all but stamped his foot; his eyes were wild.
“Okay. Okay. Let’s think. It isn’t a virus. It isn’t a bacterium. It isn’t any kind of infection.”
“Too fast.” I shook my head. “And both of them. It can’t be cancer.”
“But something like cancer. Cancer’s not an infection, right?”
“Can you test for that with the things in here?” Mart swept his arm across the lab.
“I don’t know. But I’m telling you, Mart, it can’t be cancer. Cancer doesn’t just spring up overnight. The way they got sick is classic infection.”
“Maybe this planet has fast cancer. It has all kinds of crazy things. It’s got birch trees infected with spiders. It’s—”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Hold on. You said birch trees infected with spiders.”
“Yeah, just, you know, a figure of speech.”
“Maybe not,” I said. “Oh, my god.”
The only DNA in my mother’s saliva was her own. So I went back and carefully scraped a sample from one of the hard, smooth, white patches spreading across her skin and ran it through the analyzer. Again no identifiable infectious agent; but the sequencer told a different story.
The mitochondrial DNA was my mother’s. The nuclear DNA—the only DNA that mattered, the DNA that made the cell what it was—was Betula papyrifera.
My mother was turning into a birch tree.
“It was a figure of speech,” Mart said. “I don’t—how can this be happening?”
“It’s called transduction,” I said as I pounded out commands on the lab console. “We’ve been doing it in the lab for centuries, using viruses to move new genetic material into host cells to overwrite faulty genes. To make crops more resistant to station blight, or just to make them use less water. It’s also how we’ve gotten rid of most hereditary illnesses, like cystic fibrosis.”
Mart had that intent look again.
“Say you have a program with errors in one of its routines. You write a new routine without those errors and stick it in where the old routine used to be. That’s transduction.”
“Ah. Only the birch trees are rewriting the whole program.”
“I don’t understand how birch trees can do that.”
“Neither do I. But I just spammed the station with every bit of data we’ve got. There are some really bright minds there.” I chewed on a fingernail. “Someone will figure out how to make it stop.”
I checked on Dr. Okara first; she was just like my mother. Short of breath, feverish, and splotchy skin with patches of smooth, hard white. I didn’t know what to do for either of them. I sat with my mother, singing songs and telling her about yesterday’s colossal fuck-up. That made me weepy—not because I’d made such a mess of things, but because I didn’t know if she would ever actually hear about it. I leaned against her after that and cried for a long time.
Mart was sitting at the mainbay com station when I came back out, still wearing his face mask.
“No news yet,” he said before I’d even opened my mouth. “I’ve been waiting, but nothing’s come through.”
I nodded. I walked over to the couch and sat down, then stood back up again and looked around the mainbay. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
Mart swiveled to look at me. “You’ll probably feel better in the lab. I’ll make us something to eat.”
Mart shook me awake in the lab chair. He looked like I felt: his cheek was creased where he’d slumped against the com panel in the mainbay when he fell asleep, and his eyes were bleary. My eyes groped for the lab clock. Twelve hours since I’d sent up my mother’s DNA.
“They’ve got something. They want you.”
I jumped to my feet, instantly awake, and followed Mart to the mainbay.
“Laru Parnum here,” I croaked into the com.
“Rikkel Smit. Miss Parnum, we’ve developed an immunoglobulin that will protect you and Mr. Jansen from infection. I’m sending the blueprint now. Synthesis should take about six hours.”
I looked over my shoulder and smiled at Mart in relief. “That’s great news! Thank you so much, Dr. Smit.”
“We’re continuing to work on a fix to the invasive genome, but that will take some days longer. In the meantime, the immunoglobulin will protect you down there. We do need you to stay planetside until we have the delivery vector ready, so you can administer it.”
There was a brief silence. “Miss Parnum, as I’m sure you understand, the immunoglobulin will only prevent future infection. It won’t cure your infected crewmates.”
“Right. I understand finding a way to reverse the infection will take longer. Do you know how much longer? My mother and Dr. Okara are very ill.”
Dr. Smit didn’t answer; I thought I’d lost the connection. “Dr. Smit?”
“Miss Parnum, there won’t be a cure. There is no way to reverse what’s happened.”
“But when you correct the birch pollen—”
“It will stop infecting new organisms. Period.”
I began to gasp air in sharp, sucking breaths that brought no relief. Mart crept toward me and rested a tentative arm around my shoulder, no doubt afraid I would hit him again. That act of bravery nearly undid me. I clung to his hand and clamped my mouth into a thin line to still it.
“Miss Parnum… Laru, I am so, so sorry for your loss. Look, I know this is cold consolation, but your discovery will save the planet’s ecosystem from ruin. Five generations on the Ceiaides have invested a hundred and sixty years into terraforming Tau Ceti Three, and the last seventy would have been wasted. This kind of infection spreads exponentially… by next year’s survey, there would have been precious little but birch trees, and they’d have been doomed without other life to maintain the carbon-oxygen balance. We’d have had to raze the forests and reintroduce everything from the microbes up.”
I nodded, though Dr. Smit couldn’t see me. Mart cleared his throat and said, “Ah, Miss Parnum is nodding.” I laughed at that, and Mart’s right hand tightened on mine, as if he knew my laugh would open the floodgates.
“It was brilliant work, Laru, especially for a fourth-year. You have a bright future ahead of you.”
I didn’t answer, and Mart didn’t describe the way I was shuddering with the effort not to cry or his left hand gently patting my arm. The com remained silent for several seconds more, and then Dr. Smit signed off. I let myself go, howling and screaming and throwing things and curling up on the floor and kicking at the air. And when I finally rolled onto my back, bruised and hoarse and spent, Mart was still there with me.
My mother died later that night. That is: she stopped breathing with her lungs, and I could no longer find her heartbeat. The birch patches continued to spread until they consumed her skin, so something inside her was still alive.
“I can’t seal her in a hazmat bag,” I told Mart when I came back out. “I just can’t.”
He squirmed. “The protocol is very specific. Crew members who die on survey have to be sealed and returned for incineration.”
“I know. But it feels like suffocating her.”
He didn’t say anything else, and I didn’t push it. We still had some time; protocol gave us forty-eight hours.
We played a lot of uninspired cicce that day and the next, waiting for Dr. Smit’s team to send us the birch fix. I gave Mart a double dose of the immunoglobulin when it was ready. We were in no danger of infection inside the ship, which is the only place Mart was ever going to be, but I knew swallowing two cupfuls of bitter medicine would make him feel safer.
I still hadn’t sealed my mother and Dr. Okara in hazmat bags. I told myself I’d bag them as soon as they started to smell. Mart and I didn’t discuss it again; I didn’t know if he was unaware I was planning to violate protocol that grossly, or unwilling to fight about it. Maybe he was just working up the resolve to walk in and bag them himself.
On the third day of our wait, my mother began to sprout new growth. A load fell off me when I saw the pale green buds dotting her former torso. She was still alive. Maybe not in any way that recognized me, but that didn’t matter. What little doubt I’d had about keeping her on the planet was gone.
I came out of her cabin intending to tell Mart, but when I saw him bent over the cards, nudging this one and that one with a finger until they were precisely aligned, words failed me. He looked up, and two things I should have noticed earlier leapt out at me: the way he searched my face to see if I was okay, and the way he bit his lower lip to keep from speaking.
“Hey.” I smiled and walked over to him.
“Want something to eat?”
I shook my head. “I was wondering. Do you think you could show me how a retroflux thruster works?”
For an instant his eyes lit up; then the light went out and he looked away. “But you’re not a fan of shuttle tech.” He had remembered my cut-him-off-at-the-pass word for word. Ouch. “I don’t want to bore you, Laru. I know the things I talk about bore people.”
“Yes.” He looked at me with a sour smile. “I’m the Raging Bore. Hadn’t you heard?”
This moment needed complete honesty.
“I did hear that. And I believed it that first day, when you started to tell me about the thrusters. It’s true, they don’t interest me. Any more than plant DNA interests you. But you listened to me anyway, because you aren’t a shallow, self-absorbed ninny.” I waited until that sank in and he looked at me in surprise; then I said, “I’m really sorry, Mart. I was an ass. And you are not a bore. You’re a friend.”
He nodded, tears close to the surface.
“Shuttle tech still doesn’t interest me, but it interests you. And I really do want you to tell me about it.”
He searched my face then, looking for some sign I was atoning for my self-absorbed sins or otherwise little-white-lying to him. He didn’t find any: I was honestly eager to hear what made him sing, after all these muted days.
We stayed up talking, deep into the planetside night. Really talking, back and forth and at the same time, about everything and nothing. Mart did have a tendency to long monologues in excruciating detail on subjects that fascinated him, but I was quick to tell him when my attention started to wander. That broke through the last damper on his enthusiasm; he knew that if I was listening, it was because I was engaged in what he was saying.
For my part, I talked more openly about myself than I ever had with anyone besides my mother. It was a really good night, so rare and freeing that neither of us wanted to end it, even long past bedtime protocol, long past the point of fatigue.
I woke hours later on one of the mainbay couches. My face was swollen and sticky, my bra dug into my back, and I was cold, though Mart had apparently covered us both with blankets at some point. I looked over at his puffy, slack-jawed face on the couch across from me. He was dreaming, his eyes darting beneath their lids, his brow jerking lightly. I eased off my couch and tiptoed toward the galley, but I wasn’t quiet enough; he was sitting up when I came back with my coffee. I handed the cup to him and went to make a second.
“I’ll help you do it,” he said as I walked back in.
“Plant your mother and Dr. Okara.”
I stopped cold. I hadn’t told Mart about the new growth last night, despite all our heartfelt talk. The self-absorbed me of a day ago would have done it, angsting about what it meant for my life; but I’d rounded a corner yesterday, and I wouldn’t saddle him with that damning knowledge. I was only going to torpedo one future here. “No. It’s a blacklist offense. You stay here and file a report that you disagreed with me.”
“It’s only blacklist if it’s an unfounded disobey. Section thirty-two point nine of the fourth Terraforming Convention: survey crew will not transport viable specimens from their planet of origin. I looked it up.”
“You looked that up?” I was moved. “When? Why?”
“Yesterday when you were in with your mother. You were gone longer than usual. I figured you must have seen something new.”
I nodded. “She is viable, Mart. She’s sprouting leaves. I can’t believe you found a way to keep her here legally.” It wasn’t just my record he’d saved; I’d been pretty sure the Ceiaides would send someone to dig up my illegally planted mother as soon as we got back. “Unbelievable, Mart. You’re brilliant.”
Mart wasn’t sharing my relief; in fact, he looked pretty miserable for someone who had just kept the door to my newly bright future from swinging shut. Then it hit me.
“Oh, Mart. It’s okay. I’m strong enough to pull them outside by myself.”
He shook his head, looking queasy and even paler than usual. “It’s not the physical weight you shouldn’t bear alone. I’m going with you.”
“Thank you,” I managed to say, just before I burst into tears and spilled my coffee all over the floor.
Mart and I carried each body into the airlock; then he coached me through rigging two rollcrate trolleys together on the landing strip. He breathed heavily the whole time, and more than once I said I’d do the rest alone. He didn’t listen to me.
Then the moment of truth arrived. He pressed the release to open the outer door and stepped up to the edge. I held out a hand to him. We stood there in silence, side by side, close to the shuttle for several minutes, until he clicked on his com mike. “I’m okay.”
He sounded awful, somewhere between passing out and throwing up lunch.
“Mart,” I began. He walked over to the doubled-up trolley and pulled it toward the airlock in response.
We brought my mother and Dr. Okara out one by one and lowered them onto the trolley. Then I led us toward the creek I’d seen before.
This time I noticed what I had missed in my innocence four days earlier: very few fungi sprouted among the leaf litter; no moss covered the stones; only scant algae grew on the pebbles in the eddyless pockets of the brook. For every oak or maple we passed, there were a hundred birch trees. The youngest of them had oblong trunks woven of fused, ficus-like trunklets rising up. We saw countless apparent logs sprouting new growth along their lengths. At every one, I wondered what were you before?
I pulled us to a halt at a wide bend in the creek. “I think this is a nice place.”
Mart nodded and gave me a bulky exoglove thumbs-up. His hand trembled.
He shook his head.
I loosened the dirt in a wide patch of creek bank, and we laid my mother and Dr. Okara out, careful to avoid crushing the new shoots. Fine roots were beginning to grow on the side of their bodies that had lain against the cabin bunks; these we patted gently into the loosened soil, working side by side on our knees in silence. Then Mart clicked on his mike and I heard him humming, off-key but recognizable. I stopped patting and looked at him.
“I thought you might want to sing your father’s songs to her. As a kind of ceremony.”
My throat closed up as I tried not to cry again.
My first words came out as twisted croaks, but as I went on, my voice stabilized. Mart hummed beneath my words, something soft and tuneless and mostly in time with me. I sang song after song and lost count; the light dappling the forest had deepened toward sunset by the time I fell silent.
By next year’s survey to this location, my mother would be a young bonsai birch reaching toward the sky. I knew I would be on that survey ship; I would come and sing to her again, then and every year, until I died.
Someday, a hundred years from now, Tau Ceti Three’s first colonists might chop her down to build a home, or to burn a fire. My mother had never wanted to end up on a planet, but she would have been glad she was still useful, even in death.
“It’s ironic,” I said through my tears. “I was the one who wanted to put down roots on a colony world.”
Mart turned toward me with a horrified look, doubly golden through our two visors. “It’s okay,” I said, half-laughing, half-crying. “It’s a terrible joke in horrible taste. I know. But it’s funny, isn’t it?”
He wrapped his arms tightly around me then, and I cried my heartbreak into the verdant woods.
This story originally appeared in The Glass Parachute. Licensed here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Original story art copyright Matt Edginton. Used here with permission.