Chapter One: Teaching Grove
Rachel reached for the seedling. Her long fingers found the pliant trunk, thin as her pinkie, buried inside the furled branches. She unwrapped gauzy material from the root ball with her free hand, separating the roots by spreading them down and out in the air. Bits of soil fell through her hands as she settled roots and tree onto a mound of nutrient-enriched dirt. Still steadying the gangly cecropia, she swept anchor soil to cover the roots, tamped it down, and then tied the trunk very loosely to a long thin stake. Rachel sat back on her heels and admired the little tree. A warm breeze rustled its leaves and the smell of damp dirt filled the air.
A banana palm went in next, then a set of three heliconias near the path. Rachel’s crate stood empty. The distant sun, Apollo, hung low in the sky, illuminating beads of sweat as she stretched.
The other students had all finished more than twenty minutes ago. Rachel nodded to herself, checking to be sure the plot matched the picture in her head. Harry’s plot was well designed, and cleaner since he had gone back and raked the soil after watering. But she could do that too. Water first. She sighed and got up to get a rake.
“Nice job.” Gabriel’s voice behind her sounded flat, far away, even if the words approved.
Rachel turned around and looked back at him. Gabriel stood an inch taller than Rachel, but wider and stronger, carefully dressed in brown pants that tied at the ankles, high boots, and a tight-fitting shirt that showed muscles. He looked serious, like he’d gotten lost in his head. She wrinkled her nose at him and smiled. He didn’t smile back. He looked outward, higher than the horizon, fingering the bright metal and bead sculptures twisted into the long red-brown braid of his hair.
Rachel ran her fingers through her own short red hair, wondering if such a long braid was heavy. And what was he looking at?
Diamond patterns in a thousand shades of white and red: a gibbous world, huge and fully risen, brilliant across more than half its arc, sullen red where the sunlight didn’t fall. Harlequin. A broad straight band ran blazing white across its face, and disappeared where Harlequin’s shadow fell across it. A ring, Gabriel called it, but nothing ever showed but that thick white slash.
What fascinated Gabriel about Harlequin and its ring? It was a feature of the sky, changeable, but not of great interest. Tiny fiery-looking storms on Harlequin might affect weather on Selene, Gabriel had said once, but (he admitted) not by much.
A mystery. Council was always a mystery. Rachel knew Gabriel would wait there until she finished. Another mystery---Council always knew where they were---they could see everything on Selene. So he didn’t have to stay. Maybe I shouldn’t rake since I’m last, she thought. But the test is tomorrow!
She watered and raked anyway, perversely determined to spend time with each tree as she finished for the evening. Perfect, it might please Gabriel. (He still hadn’t moved.)
She put the rake away and stood as near Gabriel as she dared, and looked up too. Harlequin rose as Apollo rode low in the sky and then disappeared. Softer illumination replaced the red-gold sunlight, tinged by the oranges and reds of the gas giant. The planet covered a huge portion of the sky. Rachel could cover Apollo, the distant sun, with the width of her thumb held half an arm’s length in front of her. Harlequin took both palms to blot from view.
The gas giant made its own dim red light, shed by the intense heat in its constantly churning surface. Apollo’s reflection brightened Harlequin’s inner light, and the combined glow bathed Selene’s summer, making the night barely dusky.
Selene’s orbit around Harlequin defined seasons based on the amount of light available. “Summer” was the seven weeks when Selene orbited closest to Apollo, “winter” the seven weeks they were farthest away, and fall and spring filled in the time between. Summer hid most of the stars in its steady light. In full winter, night fell black enough to detail the galaxy spread around them.
Rachel watched her two shadows merge as Apollo set fully, and then put the tools away and strapped arm and leg sets on. She waved at Gabriel, and said “Good night” out loud, alert for a response from Gabriel. None came.
A few hundred yards from the edge of Teaching Grove, she pushed hard on the balls of her feet, straining upward with every step, taking ten-foot strides along the flat path back to Aldrin. She gained speed and height, finally leaping all-out. As she began the fall after the apogee of her leap, she snapped her leg and arm wings down just before the ground could catch her foot webs. Three strong kicks, a rhythm, and she was flying.
Rachel flew low in the treacherously soft light of Harlequin’s evening until she reached two tall poles that marked the outside of the colony’s first home. Her father had told her the poles once supported a great tent of air that Council built their first homes in. No longer needed, the tall stakes still marked the boundaries of home. She swung her legs from behind to just in front of her, braking, snapping her leg wings closed at exactly the right moment, landing with just one extra little hop that she expertly turned into a bounding walk as she folded her arm wings in.
Rachel followed a well-worn path past Council Row and its large lighted homes, sparing them hardly a glance. They were beautiful, iridescent, and closed to Moon Born. The faultless layout seemed like a wall to Rachel as she slipped along its outside edge toward the friendly chaos of tents she called home. The base color of the tents was a metallic shimmering light gray; fabric that repelled rain and heat alike. Colorful cloths were thrown and sewn onto the walls, covering and making windows, proclaiming family personalities. In the common areas between tents, children played skip-stones, studied, or sat in groups talking. Rachel waved at her friend Ursula’s brothers and some of the kids from her class.
In two more minutes she was truly home, ducking through a delicate blue fabric doorway. The inside of the tent was simple. Hangings divided it into four rooms---two sleeping rooms, a combination living room and kitchen, and a small workroom. They shared bathroom facilities with four other families.
Her father was already there, his boots off, his feet resting on an embroidered ottoman she had made him. Dark circles spread like stains under his eyes, and his long arms draped by his side.
“The other kids have been back more than an hour,” Frank said, smiling at her.
“I wanted my trees to be perfect.”
“Your work is always good.” Her father’s voice sounded warm, if tired. “I’ve got dinner on.”
Rachel went to the tiny kitchen and ladled vegetable soup into a smooth metal bowl. She’d cut the beans and carrots up that morning before going to the grove. “I’ll have to study.”
“You’ll pass,” Frank said. “Did you get any information about when they plan to start the planting for this season?”
“It’ll be soon. It has to be. Gabriel will be gone after the test, and I guess we’ll stay and take care of things at the grove. Gabe downloaded a bunch of new stuff for us this afternoon, so I better study.”
“Better call him Gabriel,” Frank said.
“And you’d better get some sleep.”
“I know. I’ll sleep after I read the new stuff he beamed me.” Rachel flipped open the wrist pad she’d been given when Gabriel chose her for the planting class. She commanded it to create a window in front of her. Numbers and descriptions flowed through the air. When her eyes blurred and the data stopped making sense, she slipped off to sleep, snuggling deep into a nest of blankets and pillows.
Apollo’s rise woke her. Her father had already gone. Rachel reviewed her notes again until she heard Ursula call from outside.
“Coming.” Rachel grabbed up some carrots and a hunk of bread for lunch, and grinned to see her willowy friend bouncing impatiently up and down in the path. Ursula was even thinner than Rachel, light-colored everywhere, with freckles and blue eyes. The light morning rain slicked the girls’ hair down so it hung in wet strings, and they shivered in the cool air. Ursula worried them up the path, keeping them from flying so she could practice vocabulary answers out loud until Rachel wanted to scream at her. If anyone besides Ursula babbled on so, Rachel would have stopped it, or walked ahead, but Ursula covered insecurities with noise. Ursula had been her friend as long as she could remember, the only other girl her age in the immediate circle of tents. They’d helped each other learn to walk, and then to fly.
Halfway up, two shadows flew over them. Rachel nudged Ursula in the side. “Hey, look, it’s Ice and Silence.” They heard the clank of bald Andrew’s homemade cable armbands against his wings. Harry flew quietly and expertly, pacing but not following Andrew. Ursula grimaced and made as if to duck.
“Hey,” Rachel said. “They won’t throw anything today. Even Andrew’s not stupid enough to risk making Gabe angry on test day.”
“Quit calling him Gabe! You’d think you were friends!”
“No Moon Born is a friend with Council. My brother Rich says they’re just using us.”
“Nah,” Rachel said. “Sure, they have a plan, and sure, we’re part of it. But they’re teaching us how to be what we want to be anyway. At least, I want to work with plants! Besides, who made Selene? Where does all our tech come from? Why fight something you have to have? It would be like fighting air.”
“Don’t think too hard. You’ll break your head. Think about tests. Let’s review pod functions again...”
When they finally arrived, Harry and Andrew were already bending over their plantings from the afternoon before. Rachel grimaced at Ursula, whispering, “Of course, those two are looking good to Council.” The rain had stopped, and the grove smelled fresh and clean.
“Always,” Ursula whispered back, making small kissing gestures behind her hand where only Rachel could see. Rachel stifled a laugh.
Ali waved at them. The tiny Councilwoman was all energy and flow, teaching and correcting and sometimes even laughing. The kids never said anything bad about Ali, even when they complained about Council. She got respect. No one talked back to any Council, ever, but sometimes Rachel could relax just a bit with Ali.
Ali and Gabriel were both of a type, except Ali’s hair and eyes were darker, but Ali’s eyes danced above a ready smile. Ali seemed like a tiny ball of energy that rotated around the taller and more serious Chief Terraformer. Rachel felt awkward around Ali, too tall, too spare, too angular.
When she got to her plot, Rachel drew her breath in sharply, barely managing not to draw attention by crying out. Her cecropia tree was missing.
Whoever had spirited away the tree had raked afterward. There were no footprints. Andrew or Harry, she thought. Probably Andrew---he’s mean. She could see the hole the theft created clearly---it would have been the tallest canopy tree once her little jungle finished growing. Rachel blinked back sharp tears that went with the anger in her belly. How could someone do this and not get caught? Didn’t Council see everything?
She glared at Andrew, who didn’t look at her at all, but stood like a perfect innocent, watching the other students straggle in while he smiled. Harry ignored her too.
Nine other Moon Born trailed into the group. They varied from about ten Earth standard years to Rachel’s fifteen. Ali greeted every one of them formally by name, always including a smile, a personal question, a touch. She walked through the wildness of tiny trees, bending down and touching a leaf or branch, looking carefully at the small mounds of dirt ringing each thin trunk, smiling both at nice jobs and small mistakes. She graded each plot as she went. Ursula and Harry both passed with no rework. Nick found himself the target of a long lecture, and he had to pull up three seedlings and replant them in different spots.
Rachel overheard Andrew whispering to Nick, “Too bad you couldn’t do it right the first time.” She opened her mouth to hiss at Andrew, but Gabriel silenced her with a stern glance from across the path. Well, at least he had noticed.
Ali looked at the trees in Rachel’s plot for a long time. She didn’t ask Rachel a single question, but Rachel just knew Ali could see the great gap in her carefully planned balance. Rachel bit her lower lip to keep quiet. Ali simply nodded and smiled and moved on.
How had she done? Did Ali like her work?
Andrew’s plot received a momentary glance and a cursory nod.
Just as they were leaving for the meadow, Rachel looked up at the tool tent. Familiar tips of leaves rose above the edge of the roof. Her cecropia! But what could she say now? It had to be Andrew; he didn’t have the common sense to be careful around Council. He was such a stupid show-off. Now he’d probably got them both in trouble, and worse, he probably didn’t care. She grimaced and walked on, keeping her silence.
Plastic and stone shapes dotted the meadow. Council had made them by fusing gathered pebbles and tiny chondrules from asteroids, covering the result with a soft and clear plastic compound. Useful art; neatly shaped into benches and sometimes into wild swirling sculptures. They had been there all of Rachel’s life.
She’d asked about them once, and Gabriel had said, “Wayne and Ali were bored one year.”
The First Trees surrounded the meadow on three sides. Gabriel and Ali planted them, by themselves, even before any Earth Born were awakened. There were kapoks and figs and palms and gray ciebas just starting to grow the buttressing roots that would someday be large enough to climb as if they were trees themselves. Rachel struggled with Council’s complicated year-math. Rachel’s mother Kristin was Earth Born, her father one of the first generation of Moon Born, and Rachel was born when he was forty-two Moon years old, or just over half that many Earth years, and his parents had been awake two Moon years before they had him, so the trees surrounding the meadow must be...twenty-five Earth years or more old. They were tall, the biggest more than a hundred feet. Branches intertwined tightly, even fifty feet above the forest floor. Webs of thin young lianas, vines, curled up trunks and hung down from branches, reaching for ground and sky together. Light in this part of the grove shone low and hazy, mysterious. The air smelled damp and rich, as if the canopy held in the scents of growth. It was Rachel’s favorite place.
Once, Gabriel had told her that the First Trees were planted too close together. He had miscalculated how much Selene’s oxygen-rich atmosphere and three-quarter Earth gravity would elongate everything that grew on the moon---stems, and branches, and people. He’d said trees were shorter and fatter on Earth. Rachel liked the intertwined effect---it made the First Forest dark and intriguing.
Gabriel’s voice brought her back to the present. “Now we move on to the practical. Your combined score determines whether or not you become a Horticulture Terraformer. If you don’t pass, there are other choices for work.”
Rachel’s stomach clenched. Not me. I have to be around trees. I have to help plant Selene. I have to pass! She imagined her father’s voice in her ear, suggesting she “breathe,” saying, “My daughter can do anything.”
“Some of our evaluation will be based on the work you did during class. That tells us how you approach day-to-day tasks,” Gabriel said. A few children groaned. Ursula and Rachel grinned at each other; this was good for them, they worked hard. “We’ll also judge how well you’ve learned the system’s ecology behind terraforming. First, Ali will question you as a group.”
Rachel and Ursula sat next to each other. They squeezed each other’s hands, passing a wish for luck back and forth. Ali faced the class, sitting cross-legged on a waist-high black dais. She opened a data window beside her, opaqued it white, and left it suspended in air to her right. “First, tell me what is in the base nutrient mixture?”
An easy question. Rachel chose to let one of the younger children answer it. Two of them, and Andrew, all registered an answer at almost the same time.
Ali called on the young blond boy Andrew had teased earlier, Nick, and his answer appeared in the window beside Ali. His voice started with a quiver of nerves, but got stronger as he listed, “Nitrogen, silicon, phosphorus, and potassium are macro-nutrients. Calcium, magnesium---” Nick stumbled through the rest, getting most of it right.
“Anyone else?” Ali asked.
“Iron,” Sharon spoke up.
“But we get iron from the soil,” Andrew said.
“We still have to measure it; there’s too much in some places,” Sharon answered him.
“Quite right. Why is it irregular?” Ali asked.
“Well, here, in the grove, it’s pretty even. All Selene’s soil came from space stuff, and in some places, the way you made the world, it didn’t work. It came out scattered.” Sharon put her hand over her mouth. Some of the other children tittered.
Rachel tried to cover for Sharon. “It wasn’t a mistake, it couldn’t be helped. Some asteroids and moons have more iron than others. Besides, everything else varies too. We have to watch places where there is too much iron---it burns the roots. We always survey the soil before we plant, especially in the field.” Rachel grinned at the younger girl. “And you’re right, iron is important. There has to be some, and there can’t be too much.”
“But every nutrient is like that,” Andrew said. “They all have to be just right.”
Sharon didn’t answer. Andrew had succeeded in making Rachel look foolish too. Rachel squirmed, furious for the second time that morning. She couldn’t show her anger---it might make her fail. It was easy to earn Council’s disapproval. She looked over at Sharon, who gave her a beseeching glance. Rachel smiled, the only help she could afford to offer.
Ali shifted her questioning to Andrew, perhaps to give Sharon time to recover her composure. Andrew delivered a well-organized example of the way the tiny measuring pods communicated wirelessly with one another, collecting and sending information about soil, atmosphere, and any plants they were attached to. The pods were ubiquitous---data flowed from all over Selene to be gathered up at Aldrin and forwarded to space, to the carrier ship John Glenn. Ali pushed him quietly, eventually questioning past his ability to answer confidently.
Question and answer had been running for an hour now. Rachel was so mad at Andrew she could spit. He’d monopolized all of the best questions. Some of her answers were better, but Andrew didn’t give her time to say them. And what Andrew hadn’t answered, quiet Harry had answered perfectly. Rachel couldn’t smack Andrew in front of Council, and she couldn’t seem to think faster either. Ursula hadn’t done too well; Rachel wanted to prod her out of her shyness. Things were not going well.
Finally Ali looked over at the two girls and asked them, “Why do we plant in this grove with our hands and not with machines?”
Andrew started to talk, but Ali pushed an open hand toward him to warn him off, and he closed his mouth again, fidgeting. Rachel glanced at Gabriel---they’d talked about this once on a walk. She licked her lips. “So that we get a feel for the plants and see them as living parts of an ecosystem. If we touch the plants, and know them, we can remember that later, when we are using mostly machines.” She looked at Ursula. “Ursula knows this too.”
Ursula looked gratefully back at Rachel and narrowed her eyes, plunging in bravely. “When we work by hand we know what the soil feels like. We know what the tree feels like.” Ursula hesitated a second. “And it’s ours, so we’re proud of our work here.”
Ursula ran out of words and elbowed Rachel, who said, “Terraforming Ecology is a form of engineering. Gabriel says engineers need to do things themselves to understand how to avoid mistakes.”
Ali broke in, “Do you think that’s true?”
Rachel stayed quiet for a minute. “Yes. I think we’ll know the plants better. I’ll always know the ones I planted here, and if I want to keep that, I’ll stay in some physical contact even when---if---I pass and work on planting machines.”
Andrew interrupted, “Besides, who’d want machines tearing up our soil? They were already here once: this whole grove has been prepared with the right basic soil. Why use machines where you don’t need them?”
Of course, Rachel thought, that must have been the right answer. Why do I always miss the simple stuff?
Gabriel changed the subject. “While you were talking with Councilwoman Ali, I downloaded some problems for you. You’ve got an hour, so take your time, but stay here in the meadow.”
The children separated and bent over their wrist pads. Rachel answered half of the questions easily, and struggled with the next few, sweat beading on her forehead as time ticked away too fast. Knowing that there must be cameras recording, Rachel kept her face turned toward her pad and didn’t look around at all.
After they’d all sent their answers back to Gabriel, the children scattered for lunch. Ursula and Rachel sat together. At first the girls ate quietly, swapping carrots for berries, and sharing two types of bread. Ursula looked dejected. “I didn’t even get through it all. What happens if I’m not picked?”
“I didn’t have time to finish the last question either,” Rachel said. “And besides, we don’t know how the others did yet.”
“I missed three. But I know Harry and Andrew finished it all.”
“How do you know that?” Rachel asked her friend.
“I watched them. They beamed the answers even before the hour was up.”
“That doesn’t mean they got them right.” Ursula didn’t look comforted. “Hey,” Rachel offered, “you always did well planting, and the whole time we were studying with Gabriel. I know he thinks you’re smart.”
“How do you know that?” Ursula asked.
“I watch him. I see him watching how you work, and sometimes he smiles.”
“What does a smile mean? What if I don’t get chosen? I’ll just die if I don’t pass,” Ursula continued. “What if I have to be a cook, or make tents? I want to be with you!”
“Well, it looks like we get to find out.”
Gabriel and Ali sat together on the dais, waiting for the students to notice and gather. Harry already sat at the Council’s feet, but the others, including Andrew this time, were all busy in a game of catch-the-disk, seeing who could leap highest and still land gracefully, disk in hand. Andrew’s bracelets jangled against each other so he rang loudly as he leaped, a signal for the other children to get out of his way. Andrew was one of the best players, and Rachel watched him catch the heavy disk with his feet, flip over in a one-eighty, and land triumphantly.
Ali clapped her hands and the players stopped and bounded over.
Gabriel started right in on the results. “Nick, you and Alexandra are the youngest two to pass. You’ll be in the advanced class next winter.” That meant that at least three younger children, including Sharon, didn’t pass. A groan came from the small knot of younger children. They’d all have to start over, most in different classes. They’d become simple farmers or get training for other town jobs.
Gabriel ignored it. “Eric, Julie, and Kimberly, you all passed. You get a break until Ali and I get back from planting.” The four oldest students---Harry, Rachel, Ursula, and Andrew---all looked at each other. It wasn’t possible they’d all failed, but Rachel’s heart sank.
Gabriel’s next words made it worse. “I want Andrew, Harry, Rachel, and Ursula to stay. Everyone else can leave.”
Rachel did her best to sit still while the others left. A knot of anxiety drummed at the top of her stomach, seeking release. She swallowed. Minutes passed, and Gabriel and Ali said nothing. Finally the meadow only contained the six of them.
Ali opened a new data window, larger than the one they’d used in the test. It showed darkness, and then the flash of a hand light bobbing as a dark figure walked down a path. Rachel squinted---it looked like---a human covered by tent material. Then the figure that held the light bent down and pulled up a tree; Rachel’s cecropia. As a hand reached for the plant, the tent fabric slipped for a moment. Metal rings glittered briefly in a flash of light across the wrist.
No one said anything for a long time. Rachel looked at Andrew, who looked at the ground.
Did he think he could hide? Rachel wondered. Then, At least he got caught. There were always cameras, everywhere.
“Andrew,” Gabriel broke the silence, “this is your real test.”
Andrew fidgeted, looking at the ground. “It was a joke.”
“Really?” Ali asked.
“You want us to get along. But she”---he pointed at Rachel---“she’s always perfect. Better than the rest of us. Besides, it was a joke. We play jokes on each other. It was just one tree.”
“Rachel worked hard on it,” Gabriel said. “It was the core of her pattern. You didn’t see that?”
Andrew spluttered. “It’s not fair. You pay more attention to Rachel than to any of the rest of us. And she only talks to Ursula. I had to do something to---”
Gabriel cut him off. “We cannot tolerate acts of vandalism.”
“Explain to me why I shouldn’t lock you up to think about this.”
Andrew shot a hard look at Rachel. It’s not my fault! Rachel felt anger mix with her anxiety. Would Gabriel fail them all because of Andrew? Harry and Ursula weren’t even involved! She looked around. Ursula’s hand covered her mouth, her eyes watching Rachel instead of Andrew. Harry was stoic, not looking at any of them. He must have felt Rachel’s eyes on him, because he turned and blurted out, “Andrew, apologize!”
Ali looked at Harry sternly, and said, “You have been known to help Andrew play his jokes.”
Andrew’s eyes widened. “Harry didn’t help me.” His voice still sounded surly. “The tree’s okay. So what are you going to do to me?”
“Which choice I make depends on you.”
“I...I...” Andrew looked back at Rachel. “I’m sorry. I’ll get your tree down and help you plant it back.”
“That’s better,” Gabriel said. “A little. Explain why your actions were wrong.”
“Because, because it was right before the test?”
“And?” Gabriel asked.
“I don’t know.” Andrew glowered at the ground, fiddling with his bracelets.
Ali picked up the conversation from Gabriel. “You must forge a working team. Mistakes in a project like this can kill. Oh, I know, pulling up one tree won’t kill anyone. But what might you do with more powerful tools? This is not a stable planet---it’s a moon being forced into a temporary home. There are too many humans to fit on John Glenn, and if we destroy the fragile ecosystem, some of you will die. Small mistakes can mean a lot here. Why do you think we’re so careful about what we let you do? Even the four of you, our best students?”
Gabriel looked sternly at Andrew. “Andrew, you’re young. And smart. You will stay here for the next ten weeks and you alone will care for Teaching Grove. You’ve had a demonstration---we can see what you do. See that you convince us you care about Rachel’s plot as much as your own. Actually, better than your own. Failure will cause additional consequences.”
Ursula clutched Rachel’s hands. Rachel’s heart sank. Andrew responsible for the grove? For her trees? What would she be doing?
She glanced at Andrew. His face was beet-red and he murmured, “Okay. I’ll prove myself.”
“Rachel, Harry, and Ursula will go with us for this season’s planting. Be packed and back here by dawn tomorrow. Requirements have been sent to your pads.”
Rachel whooped. Ursula’s grin stretched ear to ear. Harry turned toward Andrew whose expression had shifted from penitent to stunned.
Copyright © 2006 by Larry Niven