art by Jonathan Westbrook
Living With Trees
by Geetanjali Dighe
I had landed a few weeks ago on Bharini, on a routine scout mission. As a scout cadet I had explored many planets, but none of them came this close to being perfect. Bharini was a find that would earn me my stripes.
The cold rocky landscape was dominated by gigantic trees that had grown sideways, upwards and everywhere. Giant aerial roots supported and enmeshed the whole structure. My eyes failed to separate one tree from the next. They must have been a millennium old at least, to entangle like that. Gnarled old trees that knew nothing of death, nothing of destruction. Living mountains they were.
The 41-Arietis binary cast a faintly bluish light, almost white. Such beauty. Such hues. Such purity. If this is not religion, I don't know what is. Earth must have been pristine like this once.
I rode my mo-pod as it took records and measurements. I relished the first recon, especially on a breathable planet. The thrill of the first, cautious breath, the click of the helmet, the hiss of the new air. Bharini's air was faintly metallic, slightly chilly. In the first few days of setting up camp itself, I had ticked it as a Grade 1--set up base now--class planet.
But as usual, I delayed reporting it back to my base. I spent far too much time on my planets. I prolonged the data collection. I spent time preparing reports, logging minute details, setting up sampling bots, and searching for the lost ones.
I think every other cadet in the corps must have logged more planets than I did. I told myself I was diligent, careful, that I took pride in what I did, saving humanity and all that. But really it was just the joy of visiting pristine landscapes, even the inhospitable ones. There was profound peace in living alone on an uninhabited world. Untainted. Untouched. Unsoiled.
I was done with my sampling in the woods and I was just about to leave, when something crackled above me. There was a soft puffing sound. Before I could snap on my helmet and seal the mo-pod, a dull blue dust had settled on my uniform. I coughed and cursed all the way to camp, tearing my clothes off and injecting meds in my arms. That night, in the delirium of the fever, I thought I wouldn't live to see another day. I was so wrong.
I called them Gravaar trees. It was a name closest to what they had projected in my thoughts. I thought I was hallucinating at first when they voiced. It was the spores, they said, that had sprouted mycelia inside my brain.