art by Jonathan Westbrook
The Dying Season
by Gwendolyn Clare
Paz took the measurements twice. Nicolai stood by the entrance, watching, and if she finished too quickly he would accuse her of carelessness, so she frowned thoughtfully at the handheld's screen and jabbed at buttons to make her analysis look official. Not that she needed the handheld--she knew the hollowheart trees better than anyone.
She knew they were dying.
The difference wasn't visible from the outside, but inside the hollow it was so unmistakable she found it hard to believe Nicolai doubted her. A thin, sickly scent of fungal decay had replaced the proper smells of musk and damp earth. The inner bark--usually a shaggy coating of soft protective tissue on the inside wall of the hollow--had become dry and friable. And then there was the rapid drop in temperature.
Nicolai started pacing when his impatience overcame his scrutiny, and only then did Paz stand, brush the dirt from the knees of her pants, and tuck the handheld away in its belt pouch.
"Well? What do you think?" said Nicolai.
"I think we're in trouble." What did he expect her to say? She'd warned him it would go wrong. Not that anyone ever listened to her. Still a kid, no Ph.D. to certify her years of observing nature. The colony had real botanists, of course, but they focused on potential edibles, so Paz was as close as anyone came to being an expert on the hollowheart trees.
Nicolai ran a hand through his hair as if he might like to yank it out. "Are you completely sure? We need the trees, Paz. We have less than two years until the mining ship arrives, and our infrastructure's falling apart instead of growing."
Paz wanted to say, And whose fault is that? but she bit her tongue. After all, it wasn't entirely Nicolai's fault--the mining ship had been launched years earlier, and Nicolai sent his go-ahead message years before that. They hadn't even known they would need the trees back then.
"Yes," Paz said. "I'm sure."
She grabbed her parka and pushed past him to duck under the brittle remains of the entrance's inner flap. It used to hang to the floor, a curtain of bark tissue functioning like the inner door of an airlock to keep out the cold. Broken now, and the outer flap grew stiff--Paz had to lean her weight against it to squeeze outside--and if that broke there would be nothing at all to hold in the heat.
Frost-brittle herbs crunched under her boots as Paz stomped away from Nicolai and the ailing hollowheart tree. She let out a sigh, breath steaming in the frigid air, and stopped to glare up at the planet-lit sky. Nephthys hung low over the western horizon as it always did in recent years. At the moment, the Jovian was swollen and luminous with reflected light, gasses churning in a slow procession of pollen yellow and ship-metal gray. A crescent of blackness ate into the planet's far side, by which Paz could judge the hour.
Her mother once told her that Nephthys had lingered on the eastern horizon in the early years of exploration, but the colonized side of the moon Bennu turned to face away before Paz was born. Now the planet crept inexorably upwards, reminding her of how little time they had left whenever she stepped outside. In a few years more, Nephthys would claim a position at the sky's zenith--an ominous glowing weight by night and a baleful silhouette by day, hoarding sunlight and casting the eastern continent into the perpetual shadow of a decades-long winter. The first winter their colony would try to survive.
Across the compound, several colonists were busily abandoning another cluster of hollowheart trees, dragging crates out into the cold and loading them on a hover sled. Paz shook her head, guessing those trees were already too far gone to recover. Had the colonists truly believed they could conquer a world in two decades? Foolishness. Paz could have told them that even as a small child, but no one had asked her opinion.
Not until now, when it was too late.
The colonists had started using the hollowheart trees a couple of years before, when the autumnal windstorms turned out to be stronger than predicted. After a couple of the inflatable habs collapsed, Nicolai ordered the rest to be packed up for the season to avoid further damage. The colony ships alone made for cramped living conditions, so people started converting hollowhearts into storage space and even living quarters.
But the trees were not merely a temporary convenience; they were a safety net in the face of uncertainty. As the storms worsened, everyone began to worry about what would happen if the colony ships' climate control or power supply became damaged. No one relished the thought of fending off hypothermia and frostbite and even death while the engineers struggled to restore the heat. The hollowheart trees would survive the storms, though--they had evolved to survive the long, harsh winter--and in an emergency they could provide a measure of protection from the elements.
Without the hollowheart trees, any small systems glitch could spiral into disaster. And when winter lasted for years on end, there was bound to be a glitch sooner or later.
The cold was starting to make Paz shiver, so she stomped off to the science ship and went by habit down the central hall to her mother's laboratory. She opened the hatch to find Yevgeni sprawled in one of the comfy chairs her mother kept arranged in a semicircle by the lightboard. Yevgeni was Nicolai's son, and at fifteen, he was the next oldest child after Paz.
"How'd it go?"
Paz shrugged and flopped down into the chair beside him. "I told Nicolai what he didn't want to hear."
"I bet Papa's thrilled with you," he said, grinning.
"Don't get too excited," Paz said sourly. "Nicolai's got enough pissed-offedness for everyone to get an ample helping."
Yevgeni stretched his long legs out and crossed them at the ankles. They shared the tall and lanky anatomy that came from growing up in Bennu's gravity. "What do you suppose'll happen when Bennu's rotation finally synchronizes?"
"The near side will descend into a permanent winter, the far side will heat into a sweltering desert, and the temperature differential will wreak havoc on the atmosphere," she said without hesitating. This was a topic she thought about often. "Most of the surface will probably end up sterilized."
Yevgeni leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling while he considered her answer. "I bet some species'll evolve to survive. At least in the twilight zones, don't you think? Life on Bennu's done okay so far."
"Until we came here and screwed it all up," she said darkly.
"So unscrew it."