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art by Jonathan Westbrook

The Dying Season

Gwendolyn Clare has a BA in Ecology, a BS in Geophysics, and is currently working to add another acronym to her collection. Away from the laboratory, she enjoys practicing martial arts, adopting feral cats, and writing speculative fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld,Asimov's, Buzzy Mag, and Bull Spec, among others. She can be found online at gwendolynclare.com. This is her second appearance in Daily Science Fiction.
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."
Paz rolled her eyes at him.
"I'm serious," he said. "Figure out what's wrong with the trees and fix it. Too cold? Get the temp back up with some artificial heating. Bats died off? Introduce new bats."
"Yev, ecosystem engineering is really complicated. I could end up doing more damage than good."
"If the trees are already dying, it's not like you can make them worse. Dead's about as bad as they can get."
Paz chewed her lip, enticed by the idea of doing something, anything, instead of standing by while the trees died. "Still, I doubt it would work."
"We need those trees. Don't you think it's worth a try?"
After Yevgeni's suggestion sunk in, Paz quickly decided that if she was going to try anything, she had to do it right, which meant collecting preliminary data. And the data were all inside the trees.
Above her head, a honey bat the length of her arm clung to the honeycomb of a bees' nest, lapping at the sugary juices. His membranous wings stretched wide, vibrating so fast they blurred in her vision. The rest of the bat colony clung to the walls of the hollow above him, dormant brown lumps that cast long shadows in the light of her handheld.
Paz let the species interactions churn around in her head, searching for an angle she hadn't yet considered. It was a complicated mutualism. The hollowheart tree excretes sap in extrafloral nectaries to attract colonial bees, which store the sap in huge nests built inside the hollow. When the cold sets in, honey bats retreat to the hollow to hibernate. The bats stagger their hibernation periods so one bat stays conscious at all times, feeding off the stored nectar and generating heat by vibrating its wings. Eventually, the tree must stop providing nectar and the worker bees die, but the bats use the stored honey to keep the tree, the queen bee's eggs, and themselves alive through the years of winter.
Paz's mother slid through the inner bark flap. "I've been looking everywhere for you, minha filha. What are you doing?"
"Mapping niches," Paz answered without looking up from her handheld.
"But you already know what they're doing," her mother said. As if there existed any biological system that could be written off as "known."
Paz shook her head. "I need to know how many, in what proportions. I need to look for variables we might've missed before. There's plenty of work left to do." She tapped the stylus against her lips. "What if the bats are more temperature sensitive than we thought?"
"They are quite well adapted to cold, minha filha," she said with a note of exasperation.
"Not cold-sensitive, heat-sensitive. What if our body heat raises the temperature inside the trees too much? When the bats start hibernating, their immune response drops off, which is okay because the cold works as a natural pathogen suppressant. But a sudden increase in temperature might let pathogens proliferate before the bat's immune system can recover."
"I think it's wonderful that you're so interested in the local biology," said her mother, "but you skipped your timeslot at the gym."
Paz pressed her eyes closed. "Mama, I am so not arguing about this right now. Not here."
Her mother stood by the door flap for a minute, angry and silent. "Fine. But we will talk about this." She left in a huff, and Paz sighed.
She had no time to worry about her mother. She had so little time at all. The hollowheart trees were dying, and it might already be too late to save them.
All the adults were doing "important" work, so Paz recruited Yevgeni to help her transfer a few test subjects from a healthy tree to an ailing one. Paz sprayed the bats with a weak aerosol tranquilizer to keep them from getting overstimulated and waking up all at the same time, then she and Yevgeni carefully lowered five of them into a long, insulated box for transport. The bats were large, around fifteen centimeters snout-to-vent length, and each one felt like the weight of the world in Paz's hands.
Yevgeni took the front end of the bat box and Paz hefted the rear end, and they navigated back to Paz's test tree at the edge of the compound. When they squeezed inside, Paz checked the temperature on the portable heater to make sure it was holding steady--not too hot, not too cold--then gently raised each bat up, one at a time. Even through the stupor of hibernation, they instinctively grasped the vertical surface of the interior bark as soon as their feet touched it.
Paz put out synthetic sap to replace the tree's dried-up nectaries, so the faltering bee colony would regrow their numbers and produce honey for the new bats. Maybe, if these bats could restore the interior climate, the tree might begin to recover. If it worked, Paz would have to start a captive breeding program to get enough bats to repopulate all the damaged trees, but that wasn't a problem. With proof of concept, she could persuade Nicolai to support her project. All she needed was this one hollowheart tree to show some real progress toward restoration.
Paz dedicated herself to monitoring her relocated bats and every aspect of their microenvironment inside the test tree. Sometimes Yevgeni would sneak her some food from the caf, but she couldn't get away with skipping every meal, and at the moment her stomach was rumbling. She left her handheld in the hollow, slipped outside, and started across the compound, hoping she hadn't missed dinner.
"Maria da Paz Russo Carvalho!"
Paz's head snapped up at the sound of her full name pronounced with the sort of righteous fury only a parent could muster. Her mother had found her.
"That's three timeslots in a row you've missed," Mama said, rushing over to meet her daughter.
It was true--Paz had stopped bothering with her daily bone-density exercises. Her time was too precious now. She said, "What does it matter if I'm fit enough for one gee?"
Mama folded her arms. "If we can't survive the winter on Bennu, Nicolai will cancel the program and take us home."
Paz felt the news like a slap in the face. Quietly, she said, "Bennu is my home."
"You very well know what I mean," Mama snapped. "He will take us back to Earth."
"But," she sputtered, "the mining ship is en route. What about the space station they're supposed to build?"
Mama took a breath, as if bracing herself for the words. "Nicolai will have to cede the charter to them, or declare Bennu uninhabitable. Either way, it won't be us dying on Bennu."
"You can go back, if that's what you want," Paz said, surprising herself with the calmness of her tone. "But I'm staying here. Bennu is my world and I'll find a way to keep living on it."
"Don't be absurd. You can't survive on Bennu by yourself."
"I'm not leaving, Mama. This is where I belong."
"You'll learn to belong on Earth. You kids are all young, you'll adapt." When Paz showed no sign of relenting, Mama threw up her hands. "Ugh! I don't have time for this now. I'm late for a meeting with Nicolai. We will talk about this later."
Paz stood still and watched her mother storm off. A bugcatcher chittered at her from high in the branches of a hollowheart tree, as if Paz needed any more scolding. She squinted up; the male bugcatcher's wings reflected sunlight like a pair of broken mirrors as he flitted from perch to perch, anxious to dazzle and distract a potential nest predator. The birds were back in a nesting cycle after an oddly long period of celibacy, and Paz found it comforting to see someone, at least, going about business as usual. No, Bennu was not a lost cause--Paz clung to the thought.
Three days later, Paz woke groggily to her handheld pinging her. She tapped it to make the noise stop, rubbed her face, and thought about going back to sleep without checking why the handheld had rung. Instead she picked it up, noting that the time was barely past dawn, and opened the apparently "urgent" weather report for the last four hours, which had just auto-uploaded to her handheld. Her pulse quickened as she looked over the weather data, and suddenly Paz was wide awake: an easterly cold front had passed over them in the night, dropping the temperature a dozen degrees in as many minutes.
Paz pulled on thermal clothes and threw on her coat and boots, mind racing. How could this happen now, when her experiment was about to reach the critical, delicate phase when she would turn down the artificial heating and see if the bats could maintain the microenvironment on their own? She ran across the compound as fast as she could, long strides eating up the distance. Her heart pounded against her ribcage, more from panic than from the exertion of running. Bennu's gravity was light, but her fear for the trees was heavy.
Paz reached her test tree and shoved through the stiff bark entrance with practiced ease. She immediately felt the too-cold air within--the portable heater insufficient to counteract the drastic temperature drop outside--but it took her long seconds to process what she saw. The floor of the hollow was littered with the stiff bodies of five honey bats. All dead, from one night's unfortunate weather. Her experiment had failed.
Suddenly queasy, Paz fought with the bark flaps and stumbled outside. The air was still in the wake of the cold front's passing, but cold enough to bite at her face and chill her lungs. Slow, frozen breaths started to relieve her nausea.
Now Paz understood why her mother called Bennu's autumn "a estação moribundo"--the dying season. These years were a slow attrition, a death by imperceptible increments of everything Paz held dear. The implacable mass of Nephthys hanging over the western horizon mocked her with its yellow-gray gaze, promising to ruin her world. Nephthys pulled Bennu inexorably toward a synchronous orbit, and Paz felt like nothing more than a bug smashed on the windshield of Bennu's astronomy.
Paz wandered away from her test tree, wanting only to distance herself from her failure. She sank down to the hard earth beneath another hollowheart and let the cold seep into her bones. When her mother dragged her off to Earth, would she look back on this moment and miss some tiny detail she was not even aware of now? Bennu air, Bennu frost, Bennu ground beneath her? Paz did not know how to lose a whole world.
Above, some animal quietly rustled through the branches, and a fine dusting of snow shook loose to fall over Paz. She didn't bother to brush the powder away, but she did gaze up: the culprit was a drab little bird, probably the mate of the flashy bugcatcher that scolded her a few days ago. The nest must be close by. Paz mustered enough curiosity to bother standing up for a better look. After all, this might be her last bugcatcher, her last Bennu bird.
The female had constructed her nest close to the trunk, deep within the labyrinth of branches, so large predators would find it no easy task to get close. Something seemed wrong about the nest, though. Paz squinted, then took her binoculars out of her pocket. The scale was off--the nest and the hatchlings inside were much too large to belong to the bugcatchers. Could they be nest parasites? She took out her handheld to look up hatchling plumage patterns, then increased the magnification on her binocs and checked again. No, the hatchlings were a perfect match to the bugcatcher pattern on her handheld.
It didn't make any sense. Why did the bugcatchers skip a few breeding cycles, then invest all that saved-up energy in a single clutch of monster-sized young? What fitness advantage could that possibly serve?
As she stood under the tree, toes turning numb inside her boots, the clues slowly slipped into place in Paz's mind. These hatchlings were a different phenotype of bugcatcher--one not seen on Bennu since before the colonists arrived. A phenotype adapted for a long, cold migration.
Paz realized she was thinking about the winter problem all wrong, trying to force an ecological mode to fit with the colony's way of life instead of the other way around. What they needed to do was adapt their way of life to mimic the Bennuan ecology.
Paz ran back through the compound to the ship where she shared a cramped residence with her mother, but the quarters were empty. Checking her handheld, she realized she must have been outside longer than she thought--breakfast was almost over. She pelted down the corridor toward the caf and nearly crashed into her mother in the hatchway.
"Mama," she said, "I've got it!"
"Got what, minha filha?" her mother said, gently maneuvering her out of the hatchway so other people could exit the caf.
"The answer! The solution! So you know how a lot of species migrate constantly, following their climate zone eastward around the globe as Bennu's orientation to Nephthys changes, right? But the bugcatchers migrate a different way--all in one jump, they cross westward through winter into early spring. They establish a new territory and have time for dozens of nesting cycles to build up their numbers before the next migration."
"Paz." Her mother cast her an exasperated look. "That is very interesting, but I have things I need to do..."
"Don't you see? We could survive like they do. Establish colonies on both continents, and when winter arrives, close everything up and move around to spring."
Mama stopped fidgeting and went still, finally focusing her full attention on Paz. "We came here to establish a permanent settlement, not flit around like birds forever," she said, but there was doubt in her tone. "And the west continent hasn't been charted yet. It would not be easy."
"Mama, we have to stop thinking like Earth-life. Bennu-life has already solved this problem."
Mama nodded thoughtfully. "Okay," she said, and turned to leave.
"Wait--what? What do you mean okay? Where are you going?"
Mama stopped and looked over her shoulder. "I have to unpack the topographic imager. We'll need it for finding a new settlement site."
"Oh," Paz said. "Oh." She stood frozen for a moment, then ran to catch up. "It's heavy, I'll help you."
Her mother took her hand. "Minha filha, I think you already have."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 16th, 2012

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