I hadn’t visited Virgilian before. I wasn’t really authorized, in my non-official status. But with the arrival of the full settlement team, there was a big orientation tour and I found my name on the list to beam down. I could only speculate as to who had added me, or why.
I’d been reading everything from the work reports. While the photos that came back looked a lot like Earth – an Earth where the trees were mostly whitish in color, indicating a lack of chlorophyll, which in turn indicated a different way of processing solar energy. The sat scans indicated large groves of low, wide-spreading trees in the area of the proposed settlement. Both the thick trunks and the branches – which widened into palm-like flaps – were found to be devices for storing moisture, so that if you were thirsty, you could cut a small incision and tap a sap-like substance that was rich in nutrients.
Coupled with the mild climate, it came across kind of like the land of milk and honey.
As a gal facing some relocation choices in her future, I was naturally curious. The rustic qualities weren’t exactly my first choice, and it was a really long way from Earth, but I was trying to keep an open mind. If nothing else, my faith in my own adaptability had grown a lot in the past few months.
As much as anything I wanted the chance to size up the new settlers. I was kind of hoping against hope that they’d turn out to be a hip and appealing bunch. There were some mighty appealing people where I was. I thought I might make some better decisions if I had something comparable to weigh against that fact.
This was very much on my mind as I found myself materializing onto a make-shift platform on the planet’s surface. There were a lot of people milling around. Everything felt a little disorganized. I stepped off the platform, and the transporter tech gestured me toward a doorway. I went out into the sun.
Sun. Actual sun, warm on my skin. I hadn’t realized how much I missed that.
Looking around, I saw a cluster of strangers over by a temporary building, a large white structure that I knew was to serve as the center of the colony while the permanent structures were built. As I hesitated, feeling yet again like the odd one out, I saw Jim and Bones talking together. Bones waved, and I went over.
It was only a few days after Jim and I had had our little do-si-do in the hallway. I’d spent way too much time reliving that little scene, getting way too much guilty enjoyment out of it, so my smile toward him was a bit shaky. Bones just beamed at me, his own claim of friendship solidly established.
“So, can I interest you gentlemen in some prime real estate?” I asked, as usual trying to hide behind a joke.
They both smiled, and had a few snide comments of their own, which they kept almost to a whisper, leaning in conspiratorially, as we shared a few laughs at Kandel’s expense.
It didn’t surprise me, Jim’s need to privately vent that frustration, a frustration that had only grown since I’d talked to him that night. I’d heard the rumblings, just before we beamed down, about a little power clash between Kandel and the new arrived governor, who disagreed with where Kandel had decided to locate the permanent community building.
Kandel, for once getting a decision right, had staked out a location on a broad flat field, which allowed for other support buildings to be located nearby. The new governor took one look at the site and pronounced it aesthetically unacceptable. Apparently he thought it would be much more pleasing to set the main building in the middle of a grove of those whitish, gently wafting trees.
Jim looked over my shoulder toward where heated voices were being raised, and frowned. “Damn it,” he said. “I thought we’d settled this…” and without any explanation to either of us, he walked off to where Kandel and two others were deep in some argument.
“I think I’d better go, too,” Bones smiled at me. “No telling what those idiots might do to each other.”
I was left standing alone, not very concerned with their diplomatic challenges. They’d gone in the direction of the crowd. I walked into the deserted grove, drawn by the sense of tranquility, those wafting pale fronds, all around. For some reason it reminded me of an underwater scene, where beds of kelp sway in the water. I stood there a few moments, breathing in some sense of stillness and calm.
My peaceful reverie was interrupted by a surveyor, who clomped into the center of the grove, giving me nothing more than a cursory glance, or more accurately a surly glance while cursing a blue streak under his breath. He carried a bundle of survey stakes over his shoulder and was clearly very annoyed at having to re-do his work. I took it that the new Governor had won the argument with Kandel. The surveyor started plotting the building all over again, smack in the center of the grove.
I felt the sudden tension all around me, and hastily made my way out, walking down to the stream on the far side of the grove, where the burbling sounds of water began to sooth my spirits again. I found a grassy place to sit, and admitted to myself that I had no interest at all in this place as a new home. That inner confession, though it did nothing to clarify my long term outlook, for the moment made me happy, and I drifted off into contemplation, a million miles from the nit-picky problems of the colonists.
It was maybe a half hour later when I reluctantly wandered back toward the crowd. The newcomers were all sitting together, just out of my hearing, earnestly talking about something. I skirted the gathering and wandered back toward the clearing in the grove, not seeing the surveyor now.
But something wasn’t right. Something felt very weird, very…off. I remembered how tranquil I’d felt standing here before, how disruptive the surveyor’s resentful muttering had seemed.
And another thing – what the hell was this? The ground in the clearing, which I swear had been mostly flat, was now a tangle of roots. I tripped on one – a ropey vine-like thing, maybe 5-6 inches thick, as if it rose up beneath me of its own accord. I went down on hands and knees, landing crooked as another root seemed to yield under my weight, so I twisted my wrist and felt my hip bang against the knotty surface. Feeling both stupid and in pain, I looked around to see if anyone had seen me fall. No one. But, maybe eight or ten feet away, I saw a lumpy shape, something blue with dark streaks, sticking out from under another tangle of roots. The roots themselves seemed to be slightly… undulating as I looked, though I thought it must be the effect of the fall making me woozy.
The blue of the lump was the blue of the jacket the surveyor was wearing. The dark streaks were blood. And the surveyor was lying crushed under a massive root that hadn’t been there half an hour before.
And as I lay not far away from what could only be a dead man, wrist throbbing, hip jammed against some knobby, irregular surface, I felt the very ground beneath me; I felt… movement. Felt something creeping up around my ankle, tight, deliberate. Vise-like, and …conscious.
I started to cry out, but something stopped me, even as my mouth opened. I felt something as my palms touched the earth, something like a pulse, an underlying… heartbeat.
Something inside made me take a deep breath and … relax into the sensation, the way you do when you encounter a strange dog, whose ways you can’t predict. Stop, let your own defensiveness and suspicion and hostility drain away. Stay calm. Hold out a hand.
And that’s what I did. I felt the twisting ground beneath me, around me, felt it respond. That’s when it hit me: Aspen groves. The dream.
Aspen groves can grow to cover whole hillsides, all those glowing, golden trees with their small, round, shimmering leaves. But aspen groves are not a collection of individual trees. They’re one of the world’s largest organisms, a whole, connected by root systems that can spread over a vast area.
And as it hit me, the white fronds all around me stirred, as with a gentle breeze, though there was none that afternoon. This place – this thing – was alive. The grove was an organism to itself. I was amazed, and let myself into this receptive state even further, lying with my cheek to the dirt, even as my wrist throbbed horribly, and my knee jammed tightly against something hard and unyielding.
I closed my eyes, and tried to channel love, and respect, to ask what this conscious entity wanted. Tried to explain that it was not the intention of the newcomers to harm them. Harm it. Whatever. At least I hoped like hell no one intended harm.
There I lay, intently quiet and still, so it wasn’t my scream but someone else’s that broke the spell. Someone had seen the body. Well, both our bodies, except the surveyor really was dead by the time they could extract him from the tangle of tough roots that had crushed him. The roots around me felt like they had loosened, enough for me to free my foot, anyway.
Then I saw someone come forward with a blade, like a hatchet, to cut the roots away. “No!” I yelled, scrambling frantically but painfully to free myself. “No! Don’t!”
Someone pulled me out. Dr. Chiddattra, newly arrived chief medical officer for the colony, having seen that the other body was beyond her care, rushed over to me and took charge. She was obviously a take-charge kind of woman. But while she fussed over me, Spock arrived on the scene, and I caught his eye and gestured frantically. He elbowed his way through a gathering crowd of useless on-lookers, and looked a little surprised when I
yanked on the hem of his jacket to pull him down to where I still sat, my ankle swollen and throbbing. I didn’t care about that at the moment.
“Tell them they can’t build in the grove,” I whispered in his ear, now fighting waves of pain as my injuries rose to the surface of consciousness. “It’s all one thing, one organism, and… it’s conscious, Spock. I talked to it.” I pulled apart far enough to look into his face, daring him to disbelieve me, daring him not to take me seriously. But his look was thoughtful, as was his nod.
He stood and stepped aside, talking quietly into his communicator for a second. I managed to catch the word “Captain”, that’s all. He nodded in response to some command or suggestion. Then, rather strangely, he seemed to scan the crowd before stepping back over to me. He bent down and practically shoved Dr. Chiddattra out of the way as he scooped me up, effortlessly, strong hands under my arms, bracing my weight away from the injured ankle. He ignored her angry protestations as he gave a terse order to beam the two of us back to the ship.
Once there, he immediately handed me over to the waiting medics, turned, and mounted the transport platform again to return to the planet’s surface. Why had he bothered? Admittedly it was a rather thrilling rescue, but hardly necessary.
If the pain had been a little less intense, I would have been embarrassed to have boarded ship a second time in such a dizzy state. As it was, I wasn’t sure I actually heard what he said in such a low voice, as he delivered me to the others. I think he said, “You’ll be safe here.”
I also thought I heard, before I passed out, “Well done, Hani.”