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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Semiosis

A Novel

Sue Burke

Tor Books

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OCTAVO

YEAR 1–GENERATION 1


Grateful for this opportunity to create a new society in full harmony with nature, we enter into this covenant, promising one another our mutual trust and support. We will face hardship, danger, and potential failure, but we can aspire to the use of practical wisdom to seek joy, love, beauty, community, and life.

—from the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pax, written on Earth in 2065

The war had begun long before we arrived because war was their way of life. It took its first victims among us before we understood what was happening, on an evening that seemed quiet. But even then, we knew we could easily be in danger.

My wife, Paula, shook her head as she left the radio hut in the plaza of our little village. “There’s too much interference again. I’ll try one more time, but if they don’t answer, we’ll start a search.”

An hour ago, three women had gone to pick fruit. They did not come back, they were not answering their radio, and the Sun had sunk almost to the top of the hills.

Around us, tiny lizards in the trees had begun their evening hoots and chimes. Nine-legged crabs silently hunted the lizards. The breeze smelled bittersweet, perhaps from something in bloom. I should have known what, but I did not.

Uri and I were fixing an irrigation pump, but I knew his mind was on one of the women, Ninia. He had just begun living with her, and he was squinting up the path through the fields where she had gone. And then he was jerked back to the present when the wind tangled his long blond beard around the pump handle. He knelt to free it. I pulled a jackknife from my belt, stroking my own short beard. He saluted with one finger. He was a Russian Slav, and a proper Slav never cuts his beard.

Paula went back to her work at a rough-hewn table nearby, trying to make sense of weather data. A wide straw hat held her red hair in place and protected her skin from the Sun. She took a deep breath and stretched her stiff back. We all struggled with the stronger gravity. Finally she entered the radio hut again.

Everyone stopped what they were doing and listened. The hut’s walls were panels scavenged from a landing pod and the roof was tree bark, so the sound carried.

“Hello?… Ninia? Zee? Carrie?”

Static.

“Hello?… This is Paula. Do you hear me?”

Static.

“Ninia, Zee, Carrie? Are you there? Hello?” After a moment, she came out to the plaza. “Maybe the batteries died again. Let’s look for them.”

She kept her voice reassuring as she asked Ramona to bring a medical kit and Merl to carry a radio and microphone to listen for emergency whistles. We would also need people to carry three stretchers and someone to bring a weapon: standard operating procedure. Uri picked up his rifle.

We set off westward up the steady slope of a meadow toward a white line of vines and trees a kilometer away, hiking as fast as we could. Low clouds dotted the sky, some already tinted pink. The stronger gravity meant that the atmosphere thinned fast above us, so the clouds were always low. We passed the long field that we had planted with a native grass resembling Earth’s wild wheat, whose green shoots stood almost ankle-high. The air smelled of moist soil, and spiny caterpillar-like creatures the size of fingers inched across the surface, swallowing big mouthfuls of dirt and excreting dark castings that seemed to be good manure. The caterpillars might have been larvae of some sort. We had no way to find out except by waiting.

But the presence of the wheat worried me. The wheat was a lot like Earth grass, and if there was grass, then there were grazers, maybe animals like gazelle, moose, or elephant. And if there were grazers, then something hunted them. So far we had seen only small browsers and predators like little land crabs with trilateral symmetry, but we had found bits of big crab shells—and of big stone-shelled land corals with stinging tentacles. None of us went barefoot anywhere.

Uri and Merl took the lead, pointing at tussocks of dry grass or bright coral bushes where something could hide and leap out. Lizards fled at our approach, moving lightning fast. In heavier gravity, things fell faster and animals moved faster. We humans were slow and ignorant, still aliens. I saw a burrow and aimed a flashlight into it. Something inside barked, and we all jumped.

“Just a bird,” Merl said. Flightless bird-shaped animals with spiny feathers scurried around day and night, and while some were big, they did not seem dangerous. We kept going.

Merl fiddled with the radio receiver as we walked, pausing when Paula blew a whistle. In the thicker air, the sound would carry far, but it was answered only by musical calls from red-eyed bats swooping overhead.

We were panting and sweating when we reached the west edge of the meadow, where a vine-filled thicket formed a wall a kilometer wide and several kilometers long. Slim gray-barked trees that resembled aspens grew two stories high, their leaves wilted from a lack of water: a dry season or a drought, Paula was not sure. Around them looped tangles of snow-white vines jointed like bamboo that bore dangling thorns and grew so densely that we could barely see inside. Another snow vine thicket rose on the east side of the meadow just behind our village. Finding crops had kept me too busy to investigate the thickets carefully, but I had learned that the vines parasitized the trees.

These vines had also kept away hunger. Shortly after we landed, orange fruit like translucent persimmons had ripened quickly on the east vines and had recently appeared on the west vines. The fruit had tested safe, contained plenty of vitamin C, and tasted like cantaloupe.

The women had been to these vines. To the left, we could see ripe fruit close by, but to the right, the vines had been picked clean. We turned right, north. Ahead lay a river that pierced both the west and east thickets and our meadow. We had a long way to search, but the sunset was throwing a golden light over everything, reminding us with every glance how late it was. We could not pause to catch our breath.

Uri turned his energy outward as we hurried on. He prowled up to a tall blue-leafed shrub as if an ambush awaited on the other side. He paused dramatically, then dashed around it, recounting out loud the events of a war game he had played in the Russian Army.

“We see lasers ahead and we know where to aim!” Abruptly he fell silent.

I began to run even before we heard him howl.

The three women lay on the other side of the shrub, baskets of snow fruit set down beside them. Uri yelled Ninia’s name as if he could shout her awake. He fell to his knees and fumbled at her throat for a pulse, and his voice choked. I lifted Zee’s wrist. It was cold and limp. Carrie stared sleepily ahead, and a pair of tiny lizards climbed on her eyeball. I gagged and turned away.

But we had expected something far worse. I had tried to prepare myself for dismembered bodies, perhaps half-eaten or disfigured by giant coral stings, evidence of attack and predation in the battle for survival. The women seemed to have fallen asleep.

They had had peaceful deaths. This was wrong.

We looked around, frightened and silent. Something had killed without an obvious method or motive.

“Let’s bring them home,” Paula said, her voice low and steady. We began to assemble the stretchers.

* * *

We grieved that night in the plaza of our little village, a fire burning in the clay-and-stone hearth that Zee had built. Some of us talked quietly, sitting on benches in a corner under a canopy of solar panels. Of the fifty who had left Earth, now only thirty-one remained. Uri, tall and lean like a scarecrow, stood staring out at the fields, where glowworms and fireflies flickered like stars beneath vivid auroras. Those bright bugs needed to be seen for a reason that only they knew.

Hedike, a concert musician on Earth, played a serenade on a flute, but the song could not hide the buzzes, rattles, and barks of the night, more eerie than anything on Earth because we could not connect creatures to most of the noises. Something far away roared a song of three low, rising notes, and it was answered by a far-off roar in the opposite direction. Stars without constellations and legends shone overhead. A small star in the east was Sol.

Paula walked among us, gazing into every face to see who needed help and who could offer it. Bryan was talking to Jill when his bass voice rang out, “Something killed them!” Paula went to him and talked gently until he became calm.

But it was what we were all thinking. I went to the little lab. Ramona and Grun worked silently on the autopsies while chromatographs and computers hummed. The dead women lay under sheets in a corner. I looked away and pulled a flask from a shelf in the cooler. It contained sap that I had found fermenting in some taproots. It had tested no more toxic than cheap Earth wine and tasted sour and buttery.

The sap did not go far, but I had enough for those who grieved the most. Uri raised a gray clay cup in a toast. “For Carrie, Zee, and Ninia, who will never see the future of the Commonwealth of Pax.” He drained his cup like a shot of vodka and hurled it at the hearth. It shattered. Zee had made that cup. We did not have another potter.

I kissed Paula good night and rubbed her shoulders for a minute. She would stay awake until everyone had been comforted, and then, as our meteorologist, would prepare a forecast before sleeping herself. I was tired and had to get up before dawn, less than five hours away in Pax’s short days and nights. As the colony’s botanist I needed light to do my work.

* * *

Paula had come to bed and was asleep when I awoke to my alarm clock. I quickly switched it off, hoping not to wake her, but she rolled over to hold me close.

“I was dreaming about children,” she said.

We’d talked a lot about children. They’d grow up in this gravity, so they’d be shorter, adapted to their environment, and belong to Pax. Just Pax. Her Ireland and my Mexico wouldn’t mean anything to them. I held her tighter.

“Pax will be home.” I lay still, knowing that she tended to wake up suddenly and would fall asleep again just as suddenly. In the dark I could see little of the improvised hut that was now our home.

We had not expected paradise. We had expected hardship, danger, and potential failure. We hoped to create a new society in full harmony with nature, but nineteen people had died of accidents and illnesses since we arrived, including three who had died the day before for no apparent reason.

When her breathing became even, I slipped out of bed. Cold air slapped my bare skin. I dressed quietly and stepped outside. Our plaza was the size of a small soccer field, and on two sides we had assembled homes from wood, pieces of landing pods, stone, clay, parachutes, and tree bark. On the third side sat the lab, made from a landing pod designed specifically for that reuse.

The fourth side of the plaza remained open, facing the fields, where a lone aspen tree grew with a snow vine spiraling around it. Loose branches of vine hung down like weeping willow boughs. Zee had thought it looked like a living sculpture, named it Snowman, and watered it. In the predawn twilight, it looked like a phantom standing sentinel at the edge of our village. Overhead, the extraordinarily bright star was Lux, a brown dwarf that orbited the Sun, and Pax occupied its Lagrange point. Lux was bright enough to be visible even in the day.

I walked past the embers in Zee’s hearth. In a pen nearby, a couple of furry green house-cat-sized herbivores hopped like springbok gazelle to look at me through the bars. Merl was a livestock specialist, and they were his experiment in domestication. Wendy had named them fippokats after an imaginary childhood animal that had pink noses and curly tails like them, although to me they looked more like rabbits than cats. Someday we would develop complete taxonomies of our new home’s life-forms. The most important, we’d agreed, would be named after Stevland Barr, in honor of the first death among us. I intended to nominate the wheat.

Grun left the lab, walked to Snowman, grabbed a fruit, and turned back to the lab. He must have worked all night, not a surprise. He had the nickname “Grim” for being conscientious. I hurried to join him.

“Breakfast?” I asked.

Grun’s blue eyes seemed bloodshot even in the faint light. “The fruit the women ate yesterday were poisonous. The ones from Snowman aren’t. I think. They didn’t use to be. I’m going to check.”

“I’ll help.”

In the lab, Ramona slouched in front of a computer screen, her delicate brown face drooping. A fippokat lay limp on a table. On its side was a long incision, red blood bright as neon against green fur. I quickly looked away. I could stand sap but not blood. I felt relieved to see that the dead women had been taken away.

“We fed a west fruit to Fluffy to observe the symptoms,” Grun said. “He just fell asleep. Paralysis. He didn’t suffer. That was good, at least.”

“What was the poison?”

“We’re looking,” Ramona said.

“You tested the skin, too?” I said. “Not just the juice. You have to look at pulp, skin, everything.”

“We just blended the whole fruit,” Grun said. “Even the tiny seeds.”

“I can prepare the one from Snowman. Take a rest.”

Instead Grun examined the dead fippokat. I kept my eyes on the fruit, and by the time I had the sample ready, Ramona had news.

“Here’s a new alkaloid. The fruit you tested two weeks ago hadn’t got it, Octavo. I’ve got lists of both.” Her voice, with its thick London accent, began to recover some of its typical energy. “There’s some little differences, but this is a big one.”

We all knew that alkaloids were often pharmacological, if not toxic. I gave her the sample and went out to the east thicket to pick more fruit, lit by dawn twilight and surrounded by the morning’s chirps and buzzes. I thought about the ways that fruit can vary.

“Snowman hasn’t got the alkaloid,” she said when I got back. She switched to another screen. “Take a look at the structure. It’s like strychnine a little, don’t you think?”

“We should check sugar levels and organelles, too.” I reached for a microscope.

Within an hour, as the Sun rose and lit the room, working as fast as we could, we had learned what had happened. I realized it was all my fault, and I had to stop working for fear I would drop a piece of equipment and break it. Paula arrived as I tried to explain.

“Fruit does not simply get ripe,” I said. “It can get ripe and then change again as the season changes. It might become better suited for a certain species of animals that can disperse the seeds more effectively, and it becomes poisonous for other animals. Or maybe the west vine and east vine are different species. Maybe the soil is different.”

“Maybe,” Grun said. “We’ve still got a lot to learn.”

Ramona nodded. They were exhausted and did not understand.

“I was wrong when I said it was safe, and that is what killed them,” I insisted. “Maybe a change in nitrogen metabolism created excess alkaloids. Or perhaps it was a response to pests or pathogens. Or photoinhibition. Maybe it is unusually dry. The trees it parasitizes could have changed in some way.”

Paula took my hand. “Come outside and let’s talk.”

In the warm sunlight, she looked at me gently. “It’s always a shock, but we knew things would go wrong.”

“I killed them.”

“We all ate the west fruit before, and it was fine. It isn’t your fault.”

“We planted the fields on my recommendation. They could go wrong, too. A lot more people could get killed.”

“We’ll just avoid the west fruit until we figure it out.”

“But what will we eat?”

“We’ll find something. I know you’re doing your best.” She took me by both hands and kissed me.

* * *

My job, besides searching for edible plants, was to describe and classify Pax’s vegetation.

At first glance, it looked Earthlike: trees, vines, grasses, and bushes. But the bushes that had leaves like bluish butterfly wings were a sort of land coral, a three-part symbiont involving photosynthesizing algae and tiny animals with stony skeletons that held locked-in-place winged lizards. Other kinds of land corals captured and ate small animals, and at some point bush coral had discovered that keeping prisoners had advantages over hunting.

A second glance at the sky, although it was blue, also proved that we were not on Earth. Green ribbons knobbed with bubbles of hydrogen floated in the air and got tangled in treetops, or perhaps they anchored themselves there. Other floating plants resembled cactus-spined balloons.

Some trees had bark of cellulose acetate plastic that peeled off in sheets with razor-sharp edges. Maybe someday we could process it into rayon cloth or lacquer. One by one, I was finding fruits, seeds, roots, stems, and flowers that might prove useful or edible, which was the pressing issue. Moreover, as the colony’s botanist, I had to devise a taxonomy. Every scrap of information would help as we looked for a niche in this ecology for ourselves.

* * *

A little before we left Earth, we rehearsed our arrival. Supposedly we did not know where we were, but within minutes after the trucks had left us on a dirt road in a forest, we had guessed.

I noted majestic white pines with long bluish-green needles, coniferous tamaracks, and quaking aspens, their flat leaves rattling in the hot breeze. “This is northern United States, east of the Mississippi,” I said. “If we were in Canada, the trees would still be healthier.”

Merl listened to birds squawk and sing. “Sure enough. Grackles and Carolina chickadees.” He shrugged his wide shoulders. “That doesn’t mean we’re in the Carolinas. They’ve been moving around a lot on account of the heat.”

Paula looked at the clouds. “Thunderheads. Let’s think about shelter.”

Eventually, we got more precise, identifying it as Wisconsin even before we ran into a pair of Menominee women gathering vines to make baskets. The tribal council supported our project and was allowing us to spend two months trying to survive in their reservation’s forest, and the women were sorry to spoil our isolation. But before they left, they suggested coating our skin with wood ash and grease to repel the clouds of mosquitoes, advice we badly needed.

Other than that, survival held no major challenges because we already knew a lot about the environment. Deer were edible, for example. Instead, the rehearsal deepened our commitment as we witnessed the disaster of the forest despite the Menominees’ careful stewardship. Global warming was turning the forest into a prairie. All around us the trees were dying of heat and thirst and disease, bringing down the ecology with them. But the flora and fauna weren’t simply moving north. The disaster was at once too fast and too slow. In southwest Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold’s treasured Sand Counties were becoming sand dunes, and their prairie species were going extinct. The forests in northeast Wisconsin hadn’t yet become prairies to welcome them, so when the forests finally became grasslands, there would be no surviving prairie species to welcome.

I got to know Uri in the Menominees’ forest. His English was even worse then. For both of us, English was a second language, but the colony was strictly monolingual. We would avoid the disputes over language that were poisoning so much of Earth.

“Of course I volunteer for army,” he said. “I work for food. Like now, but not so nice food.” We were knee-deep in a swamp collecting cattail pollen, which could be used like flour to make pancakes. Actually, every eighteen-year-old in Russia had to serve. He had been a marksman.

He pulled a cattail head horizontal and batted it while I held a clay bowl underneath to catch the falling yellow pollen.

“Rifle is not antique. Is fallback, what we use if high tech would be jammed. And very entertaining. My unit gave shows like circus, even with horses, and was when I decided to join this project after my duty is finish. I saw too much of Mother Russia during travel and give shows. They are raping her. I not can endure stay and see it.”

That was true everywhere on Earth, environmental devastation that we wished we could fix, but the best we could do was try again elsewhere.

“I wonder if there will still be humans on Earth when we get to Pax,” Vera said one evening after dinner as we worked on the many tasks that survival required. It had been harder than we thought but also more rewarding.

“The people on this planet don’t deserve to survive,” Bryan said as he made fishhooks out of wire.

“The thing is, we can learn,” Merl said. “We’ll just have to do better. And how hard will that be?”

We were all in our twenties, selected for our skills and personalities. Merl, a sandy-haired Texan, had scored low on anxiety and high on agreeableness. I was responsible and self-disciplined. We were all glad to have something to hope for.

* * *

We awakened, cold and dizzy, with our muscles, hearts, and digestive systems atrophied from the 158-year hibernation on a tiny spaceship. The computer had brought us into orbit, sent a message to Earth, then administered intravenous drugs.

Two hours later I was in the cramped cabin trying to sip an electrolyte drink when Vera, our astronomer, came flying in from the control module, her tightly curled hair trailing like a black cloud.

“We’re at the wrong star!”

I felt a wave of nausea and despair.

Paula was spoon-feeding Bryan, who was too weak to eat, and she seemed calm, but her hand trembled. “The computer could pick another one if it was better,” she said.

“It did!” Vera said. “It is. Lots of oxygen and water. And lots of life. It’s alive and waiting for us. We’re home!”

We were at star HIP 30815f instead of HIP 30756, at a planet with a well-evolved ecology and, I noted, abundant chlorophyll. The carbon dioxide level was slightly higher than Earth’s but not dangerous. Seen from Earth, both stars were pinpricks in the Gemini constellation near Castor’s left shin. As planned, we named the planet Pax, since we had come to live in peace.

Stevland Barr never awoke, dead years before from a failure in his hibernation system. Krishna Narashima developed pneumonia and died on board. Hedike’s kidneys had failed, although he was recovering with regrown medulla cells.

Waking up was just the start. Two of the six landing pods crashed. One crash broke Terrell’s collarbone and crushed Rosemarie Waukau’s chest, killing her. The other, a disaster, killed all twelve people on board and destroyed irreplaceable equipment, including the food synthesizer, too heavy and bulky for backup units.

The gravity, one-fifth stronger than Earth’s, caused misjudgments. When I left our landing module, I became dizzy and fell, twisting my ankle but nothing worse, although our bones had lost calcium and grown brittle during hibernation. Breasts and scrotums weighed more and ached, and our hearts labored.

We suffered rashes from Pax-style poison ivies, welts from bug-lizard bites, and diarrhea until we artificially stimulated new digestive enzymes and our intestinal flora adapted. A Pax fungus caused hyaline membrane disease, collapsed lungs. It had killed Luigi Dini, the other botanist, before Ramona found a fungicide. Wendy mangled her foot fixing a tractor, the wound got infected, and the medics had to amputate up to the tarsus bone. Always sturdy, she renamed herself “Half-Foot” Wendy.

Then Carrie, Ninia, and Zee died from poison fruit. We still had enough people to populate a planet, since we had a cache of frozen ova and sperm to fall back on. We did not need genetic material as much as we needed hands to work.

* * *

Now, a month after we had arrived, I had to figure out what the snow vines were doing. I paced along the east thicket behind the homes of our village. Between the aspens, thorny vines wider than my thumb looped like barbed wire made of bone. I searched for a way in: a tree-fall clearing or an animal path. I told myself I was not afraid of a vine, not me, not a botanist. I walked past one of our outhouses and startled a fippokat. It raced into the thicket. I found its narrow path, dropped to my knees, and, with a shove, shouldered my way in. It was like a cage inside.

Knobby white vine roots and gray tree roots covered the ground, hard as stones beneath my hands and knees. Vines arched across the tunnel and grazed my head. The air in the thicket hung motionless and smelled of exhausted soil. I crawled slowly, bowed to avoid a thorn, and shifted my weight onto a knee already throbbing against a nodule on a root. The thorn slipped across my hair—and stabbed into my scalp. It yanked backward, pulling me up onto aching knees. I groped for the thorn and found it, and its razor edge slit my fingers. The thorn in my scalp jerked again. I fumbled until I could grab it by its sides and tried to back it out. Barbs tore my scalp, and my fingers slipped, wet with blood. Finally, I gritted my teeth and pulled.

I whirled back to see what had bit so deep: a fishhook-sized white thorn, now smeared red. It hung from a tendril that curled like a spring. A sharp little thorn, that was all, just like thorns on Earth, attached to the same kind of tendril that had hoisted bean plants in my mother’s garden. These were natural tools for a climbing vine. Their movements were normal on Earth and Pax. Nothing personal, and nothing to be frightened of. Plants don’t attack botanists. I tugged on the tendril to test its strength. It could have supported my machete.

Around me stretched vines and parasitized trees but nothing else, silent and empty, with no moss, no ferns, no grass, no competing plants of any type. The vines had eliminated them.

I wasn’t sure I could do this job anymore. On Earth, my botany degree had won me work on an industrialized farm to monitor engineered corn. For four years I had watched the near-infrared satellite images of the fields for dark patches that might signal the root blister blight that had caused corn crops to wilt from the top down and had started a war when I was a boy. Sometimes the war had been all I could see, my family running, trying to hide from the spy planes, drones disguised as birds or insects that would call in bigger, armed robot airplanes. If they didn’t kill us, we might die of hunger anyway. We were just farmers, no one’s enemy, but if we lived, we might join the enemy’s forces, so we had to die.

Now I had a planet to explore and people to keep alive, and I was afraid again. Maybe the other planet, the one we had aimed for, would have been better. Here, I was kneeling inside a thicket of a plant wholly unlike docile domesticated corn.

But I was our colony’s sole botanist. I had a big job, and I had to do it properly regardless of my fear.

I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I spotted some moss, a patch of green in the bole of a root. It moved again. It was a fippokat. I looked at more boles. They made perfect fippokat homes. Fippokat feces littered the ground, black raisins melting into the sandy soil. Perhaps this was symbiosis—two life-forms helping each other—with the snow vines providing housing and the fippokats providing fertilizer, like bromeliads and ants on Earth. That didn’t explain why the west vines had suddenly made fruit that could kill a fippokat.

I needed samples. With a pocketknife and plastic sample bags that I had been carefully cleaning and reusing since we had arrived, I took bits of vine, aspen, fruit, soil, fippokat feces, dead leaves, and bark, then very carefully I crawled out to uncramped sunshine.

I took samples from Snowman and from the west thicket—which stabbed me just as the east vine had. I tested the samples, and the results explained some things, but not the most important thing. The east thicket and Snowman were genetically the same individual. Snowman must have been a daughter plant from a shoot or underground stem. The west plant was the same species but a different individual. I could not explain why it had become poisonous. I could not predict whether the east fruit would remain safe. I had accomplished nothing.

* * *

That afternoon, we buried Ninia, Carrie, and Zee where we had buried the others, just south of the village in a little patch of ground next to the east thicket, where a mat of flowering turf covered the soil like a garden. Weeping, we rolled up the fragrant yellow blooms like sod, dug three holes, and lowered in the bodies. Everyone dropped in a handful of soil before we filled the graves and replanted the turf. Hedike led a song. Jill poured water onto the graves and recited a poem about rivers and oceans in a quaking voice. We each recalled our best memory of the women.

Zee had carved the other markers with names and the number of days since landing. This time Merl set plain stones at each grave.

“No names or dates,” he said, brushing soil from his hands.

“We need a Pax calendar,” Vera said. “And a Pax clock.” She pointed to Lux in the western sky. “That sets three hours before the Sun, and it rises three hours before the Sun. That’s one way to measure time.”

She pointed at another starlike light, an asteroid-sized moon called Chandra.

“That orbit’s almost the same as Pax’s rotation. It’s no good for telling time, except for seasons. But Galileo,” she said, pointing to a light in the northeast, “is perfect. It goes backwards, west to east, so anyone can spot it. It orbits two and a half times a day.”

Paula squinted at the sky. “Thank you. This—”

“Now we have it,” Vera said. “We have our own way. Our own clock, our own sky, our own time. It’s what we came here for.”

With that reminder of our hopes, we returned to our daily tasks for survival. A Pax day and night lasted about twenty Earth hours, and a Pax year about 490 Earth days. A year seemed like such a long time.

* * *

A week passed, busy for both the zoologists and me. A flock of tiny moth-winged lizards arrived, flying as gracefully as a school of fish, and we watched with wonder until suddenly, as a group, they swooped down and began to bite us. Ashes and grease worked again, then suddenly the moths disappeared.

Hunting teams found half-eaten birds and fippokats and thought they saw giant birds running away, but what bothered them more were the pink slugs twenty centimeters long they found eating old carcasses. The slugs would attack anything and dissolved living flesh on contact. Grun dissected one.

“Nothing but slime. No differentiated tissue. If you chop it into twenty bits, you have twenty slugs.”

Merl discovered the source of the three-note roaring songs. “I believe I’ve found us the big-time cousin of our friends the fippokats.” He had arrived just before the evening meal and sat at a table talking calmly enough, but sweat soaked his shirt as he petted a fippokat on his lap as if to assure himself that it was docile. Everyone knew he was not an anxious man, so we listened closely.

“If I had to use one word, I’d say kangaroo, but that’s not quite it either. Giant kangaroo to use two words, a good sight taller than me, and judging from the nests they had, they can knock over trees. I believe they’re vegetarians like our friend here, root-eaters very possibly, and I’d like to believe that the claws are for digging, but they’re the size of machetes. I saw a pack of around ten of them, but I didn’t get too close. And I wouldn’t recommend getting close.”

Most colonists tended to focus their attention on animals. Merl got many more questions about his day’s finds than I did, which I tried not to let bother me, but I knew that plants with their poisons and chemicals were as dangerous as animals, and because there were so many more plants than animals, they were more important.

“The plants here aren’t like anything on Earth,” I tried to explain one night. “They have cells I can’t explain. On Earth, all seeds have one or two embryonic leaves, but here they have three or five or eight.”

“And RNA,” Grun said, “not DNA. Nothing has DNA except us.”

“But it looks the same,” Vera said.

“No,” Half-Foot Wendy said, “I mean, floating cactuses? Blue ones? But they have thorns like Earth.”

“Yes,” I said, “thorns. They need to protect themselves like Earth cacti, so they grow thorns. Plants that need to get water from soil develop roots.”

“Not like Earth,” Uri said. “No earthworms. We have sponges instead.”

“But they do the same thing,” Vera said.

“We don’t really know what they do,” I said.

“But we know what plants do,” she said. “They grow. They’re useful or they’re not. And that’s all we need to know.”

I knew we needed to know much more, and I wished Luigi Dini had survived so I would have someone to work with and to talk to.

* * *

We had already realized from the disaster on Mars that transplanting Earth ecology wouldn’t work. Crops would not grow without specific symbiotic fungi on their roots to extract nutrients, and the exact fungi would not grow without the proper soil composition, which did not exist without certain saprophytic bacteria that had proven resistant to transplantation, each life-form demanding its own billion-year-old niche. But Mars fossils and organic chemicals in interstellar comets showed that the building blocks of life were not unique to Earth. Proteins, amino acids, and carbohydrates existed everywhere. The theory of panspermia was true to a degree.

I had found a grass resembling wheat on our first day on Pax, and with a little plant tissue, a dash of hormone from buds, and some chitin, we soon had artificial seeds to plant. But would it grow? Theory was one thing and farming was another.

Then a few days before the women had died from poisoned fruit, Ramona and Carrie had seen the first shoots, and whooped and squealed until we all came to look. They were twirling around the edges of the field, hair and skirts flying, and grabbed more of us by the hands until everyone in the colony, all thirty-four of us, danced with low, slow steps at the first evidence that we might survive.


Copyright © 2018 by Sue Burke