I dream of new flowers, but who can tell
If this eroded swamp of mine affords
The mystic nourishment on which they thrive.
- L'ennemi, Charles Baudelaire as translated by Richard Howard
Slide’s words rattled out the doorway towards the dirt ruts that passed for a road. Their brown eyes were fixed on the small dot of the airlock two miles away. The sun shimmered hazily through the oxygen shield above them, its light beaming down on acres of well-maintained crops. Behind them only Gunnar seemed to hear their words.
“It happens,” he responded calmly. There was a rustling noise of fingers over paper. Then he added with more urgency, “Please Slide, sit down before Lee gets here.”
With a sigh and a shake of their head, Slide closed the door to the galley with much more of a slam than intended. The cheeky banner Reya had whipped up at some point before Slide joined jostled with the vibrations; the words “Newbraska” rippling against the wall. They trudged towards the table where their coworkers were waiting.
Gunnar was busily shuffling a well-worn deck of cards, beaming as Slide sat down to his right. The oldest of their crew and longest at the research station, the fatherly geologist loved his games of lunchtime whist. Grey haired and six feet tall, his face was a tapestry of smile lines and liver spots. He’d discovered the reason Karriss-7 was antithetical to plant life last year and, with the help of the rest of their team, treated a patch of land underneath the oxygen shield and nurtured the first plants to ever grow in the alien soil. It had been a major moment of celebration for them all.
To his left was Slide’s partner in the game, and occasional partner in the night, Reya. The stocky, short-haired mechanic gave Slide a playful wink of her twinkling gray eyes. An errant smudge of grease was still visible on the knuckle of her forefinger as she flicked a dealt card from the table up into her waiting hand. Like Slide she’d come out to this far-flung rim-world of arid dust to leave behind a strangling entanglement of personal problems on Terra.
Next clockwise around the round metal table was Q, Dr. Hydrega’s lab assistant. Short and lithe, she sported piercing blue eyes behind her thick glasses. She and the other lab assistant in the research facility, Sere, spent most of their time talking about the sprawling holonovel series “The Ruinous Suns”; the plot of which they had excitedly explained to Slide multiple times. They still couldn’t fully grasp it. She fanned out the half-hand of cards she had been dealt so far and began swapping them around.
Last to be dealt in was Slide, the newest staff member and resident computer tech at the Karriss-7 Agricultural Research Station. Their black hair was just starting to grow past their ears, allowing them the long-forbidden twirl of it around their finger when they were thinking or waiting. Light metal frames clutched thin lenses seated in front of two doe-brown eyes. Their alternating black-and-green nails splayed out their hand of cards and then collapsed them down to a single stack again. They nodded first to Reya and then to Gunnar who flipped over the trump card, a two of diamonds. The game began.
“I’m just saying she’s never been late with a supply run since I’ve started,” Slide said, reviving the topic now that the game had started.
“Well it doesn’t happen often,” Gunnar replied, throwing down a six of clubs, “but it’s happened a few times in the past. Usually when the port is celebrating one of their holidays.”
“And it’s not like we urgently need them,” Reya chimed in as she tossed an eight of clubs on the table, “between the crops in the walled field and the ones in the treated soil we’re nearly net-positive on oxygen consumption these days.”
“It’s just unusual,” Slide said as Q laid down a king of clubs with a silent flair of her fingers, “I’d have expected some sort of message.”
“They probably assumed we knew,” Gunnar suggested, “I think it’s Lane Gaphil Day or whatever over there.”
Slide pushed a three of clubs to the center of the table and then swept the whole pile towards Q.
“I believe it’s actually Gail Lafane Day,” Q corrected him as she made the cards she’d won into an orderly pile, “Lane was the captain of the survey mission, Gail was the one who planned out the port.” She slid a ten of clubs to the center.
“I thought Gail Lafane day was next month,” Gunnar said as he squinted his eyes to aid in recall. Slide played a three of diamonds, eliciting a sigh from Q.
“No, I think it’s today,” Q assured him as Gunnar played a 7 of diamonds, “Although I couldn’t be sure unless I saw a Novaglas calendar since Dr. Hydrega insists we keep a separate schedule from the city.”
“To keep us focused on our research and not the goings-ons and paltry celebrations of miners and fly-boys,” Reya quoted, a mocking tone sneaking into her voice by the end. With a grin she flipped an 8 of diamonds onto the pile and then slid the cards towards herself. “It’s no wonder the mayor hates her.”
“She means well,” Slide said defensively as Reya started the next round, “I just don’t think she like playing Terran politics. She once told me that she wanted this place to be a shelter from all the bureaucracy and corporate double-talk she dealt with when she was working at Aglonium.”
“A pity then that their CEO got promoted to Sector Chief of Agriculture when the company got incorporated into Terran Intelligence.” The familiar voice was light, sweet, and almost melodic belying the coldness and shrewdness of its owner. Everyone at the table looked up to see Dr. Algieba staring at the cards with a malevolent joy in her eyes. The tall, toned mycologist flashed them all her snarl of a smile, making all but Gunnar shrink back in their seats. “Anne is too much of an idealist, she never learned that scum rises to the top just as easily as cream. Run as far as you like, there’s no escaping Terran politics.” Her icy blue eyes narrowed in on Gunnar. “I see you didn’t save me a seat Dr. Cael.”
“Lee there’s only seven of us at this station, you can dispense with the titles,” Gunnar replied as he shifted his focus back to the game, sacrificing a card and losing the trick to Slide, “As I’ve said before I don’t think titles do anything but get in the way of honesty and openness among peers. And as I’ve also said before, you’re welcome to play with us if you promise to stop cheating.”
“Cheating?” A playful indignation punctuated her voice. “Gunnar if we were to merely follow the rules the universe laid forth for us our ancestors would have never left the ocean, let alone the planet. To make the most of life, to preserve and progress our species, we need to bend every rule to its breaking point. When they first landed on Karriss-7 two decades ago it was a lifeless waste. More than that, it actively resisted our attempts to colonize and plant on it. Was it cheating to wipe out all those microbes lying dormant in the dust, just waiting to leech every nutrient from the soil as soon as they became present again? No. Because that’s what we were sent here to do. To cheat and bend and break every law of the universe in ways that will benefit mankind.”
Gunnar frowned at her silently over his hand of cards, disapproval radiating from his soft galre. Slide threw a card into the center of the table before breaking the silence.
“Isn’t that a false equivalence, Dr. Algieba?” Slide said, looking at the grinning researcher towering over Reya’s seated form. They knew she was just baiting them, but they couldn’t stay silent. “A card game imposes its limits as part of the challenge. Adhering to its rules is where the fun of the game is derived from. Cultivating plant life on a barren planet to relieve the need for lengthy supply lines from out of sector is quite a different matter altogether in terms of both magnitude and morals.”
“Perhaps you have a point, but my point has already had its desired effect of cowing Gunnar into silence,” she chuckled and gave him a haughty wink, “In life what matters most is to survive and therefore to beat every challenge that comes your way. For my beloved fungi it’s done by outlasting everything else around it through endless endurance and wide-spread propagation. For us Terrans we need to be crafty, to exploit every opportunity that comes our way to put ourselves another step ahead of all the other forces in the universe.”
“And yet,” Gunnar sighed wearily, as if he’d had this conversation a hundred times before, “that’s still no excuse to cheat at whist.”
“Alright Gunnar, if you let me play in the next game I promise I won’t cheat.” Dr. Algieba pulled over another chair to sit on, eyes twinkling as she watched Q play a card. “How was your trip last weekend by the way?”
“Oh it was really nice,” he replied, the smile jumping back to his face almost instantly, “The government presented me with a distinguished service award for all my years studying dirt and rocks on their behalf. It’s really quite something.” He shuffled in his chair, reaching into his pockets. “Of course, of course; it’s back in my room. If you wouldn’t mind fetching it for me Lee, it’s on the nightstand beside my bed.”
“Hmmm…”Dr. Algieba hummed, considering the request, “I think I’ve seen a plaque before Gunnar, I’ll just imagine what it looks like.”
“Not like this one you haven’t,” he insisted excitedly, “It opens up! Inside there’s… well I don’t want to ruin the surprise. It’ll just take a minute Lee, and besides you’re already waiting for our game to end.”
“Fine,” she sighed, standing, “Just don’t start another game until I come back.”
She hurried through the hallway that connected the galley to the living quarters. Slide sacrificed a card, hoping to lure Gunnar into a low-card play so Reya could win the trick.
“You know she’s still gonna cheat if you let her play the next game,” Reya said as she watched Gunnar’s hand intently, trying to will him into making a losing play.
“I know she probably will,” Gunnar replied as he tossed out a high card in the trump suit, almost certainly spoiling Reya’s chances of taking this set, “But I have hope that given enough chances she’ll come around. And if she doesn’t, well it’s just a card game.”
“But she’s making a fool out of you sir,” Q quipped softly, voice almost lost under the hum of the ventilation. Reya played a losing card. Gunnar smiled as he raked the central pile towards himself.
“Bah,” he grunted, shaking his head, “If she’s cheating at a no-stakes card game where getting caught means automatically losing the trick, then whose the real fool? She’s not nearly as canny as she thinks she is: the last time she lost more rounds by getting caught than she won by cheating. Besides, any victory she can claim is poisoned from the outset. We all know she cheats, so we can assume any victory she attains is false. What does that leave her with? Only her own sense of smug pride at hoodwinking her colleagues in a friendly card game. A poor soil to plant one’s self-worth in, if you want my opinion.”
“Stars above, Gunnar,” Slide swore, “That’s a bit harsh for you.”
“Apologies,” he sighed, starting off the next round, “Even with my sunny disposition Lee’s behavior can be… exasperating.”
“Change the topic,” Reya hissed, “She’s almost back.”
The table looked in unison towards the hall where they saw Dr. Algieba rapidly approaching. They looked back at each other in panicked silence until Reya prompted the return to previous topic.
“I’m sure Jess will show up with the supply van tomorrow. There’s no need to worry Slide.” Slide arched an eyebrow at her. Reya responded with a small shoulder shrug.
“Oh don’t worry about that,” Dr. Algieba said as she approached, a large gold medallion in her hand, “Sector Command sent over reorganization orders this afternoon. The supply truck is coming along with a personnel carrier tomorrow.” She thrust the award towards Gunnar. “Alright, show me what’s so fantastic about this lump of metal.”
“Ah, see? No need to worry,” Gunnar said with grin towards Slide. He then took the award in his hands and ran his finger across the embossed plateau in its center. Above it were the words “Award of Scientific Merit” in a semi-circle, mirrored beneath the central decoration by “Distinguished Advancements in the Field of Geology. G. C.” He squinted his eyes and held the medal close to his face, searching for something, then with a pleased smile pressed on a tree engraved into the based of the plateau causing the front of the award to pop open.
“Wait. Reorganization orders?” Slide asked. No one in the room seemed to have heard them. Everyone’s eyes were on Gunnar’s award.
“See? Inside the award are tiny glass vials of soil samples from all the planets I’ve been assigned to,” Gunnar said excitedly as he pointed to each one, “This one from Planket-2 where the topsoil had a compound that would break down in sunlight to form pure sodium over time and spontaneously combust near irrigation systems. And this one here is from Hellion-1 where the microbes in the soil caused intense and rapid rusting even without the presence of water. And this one—“
“So it’s an award…” Dr. Algieba snarkily drew out the sentence to let her ridicule be known, “full of dirt?”
“It’s a memento of all the places I’ve worked and the problems I’ve helped solve,” Gunnar replied, not letting Dr. Algieba’s tone get to him, “They could have just given me a piece of paper or a stamped piece of metal, but they went through the trouble of gathering all the samples together to give to me. It’s far more thoughtful than I ever expected the Terran Institute of Science to be.”
“Excuse me, Dr. Algieba,” Slide interrupted, tapping the taller woman on the forearm, “I didn’t see any reorganization orders come through the mail system.”
“Probably because no one’s supposed to know except the head researchers here,” Dr. Algieba explained, “It was sent directly to Dr. Hydrega, Dr. Cael, and myself through private channels.” Gunnar patted his pockets again, searching for his hand terminal. “But I don’t see a reason to keep it secret, tomorrow when the supplies arrive Dr. Hydrega and myself will depart for our new assignments and Dr. Cael will run the facility until a new director is found.”
“Hold on,” Gunnar said as he scrolled through his hand terminal, “Here it is. Hmmm… I see. So they’re suspending the research here and turning it into a glorified farm?”
“Correct. Apparently they think we’ve solved all the problems Karriss-7 has to offer and would prefer our expertise elsewhere. I’d disagree but I’m looking forward to the change of scenery.”
“Dr. Hydrega is leaving too?” Slide asked, already knowing the answer.
“I believe I already said she was,” Dr. Algieba responded, giving them a mocking smile, “Weren’t you paying attention?”
Slide looked at Reya and tilted their head in the direction of the labs. Reya nodded quickly back and mouthed the words “see you tonight”. Slide flashed her a smile and scurried towards the hall, hearing Dr. Algieba’s voice ringing out behind them:
“Ah, an empty seat! I hope you all don’t mind if I fill in for Slide while they’re gone.”
Dr. Hydrega was frantically zipping around her lab when Slide walked in, her white lab coat billowing behind her by half-a-step as the hem of her pink dress lifted off the ground, striving to meet it. Seven of the ten grow beds had already been shut off and their former contents bagged for disposal and incineration. She noted something on her hand terminal and then rushed back towards the lab’s main computer, spotting Slide along the way. She stopped in her tracks and let out a heavy sigh.
“Aw shit, which one told you?” Dr. Hydrega asked them, her normally-restrained alto unnaturally agitated.
“Of fucking course. Leona wouldn’t think that maybe I wanted us all to tell the rest of you together.” She was hammering away at the keyboard for the lab terminal, intermittently tapping on her hand terminal to sync information across the two systems.
“So you’re really going?”
“Yeah. An enormous waste of time if you ask me. I have to restart at least a dozen experiments wherever they set me up, they only gave me a day to archive and trash all the ongoing ones, I’ll have to train a new team…” She glanced over at Slide, the hurt evident on their face. “Shit. Sorry Slide, I’m moving a mile a minute right now. Give me one second and then we can talk.” The botanist punched a few more things into the computer before taking in a deep breath. Then, just as rapidly as she had been preparing her lab for vacancy, she charged over to Slide and swept them into a hug.
“Stars damn it, I wish we had more time together kid,” she said as she squeezed Slide tight. A trickle of tears slid down their cheek. “But apparently there’s other planets out there in more need of a botanist than this one.”
“I know just…” Slide tried to piece together the words in their mind, to translate a thousand disparate feelings and anxieties into something intelligible. “You’ve helped me so much and I don’t know if I’ll know what to do when you’re gone.”
“It’ll be okay,” the doctor squeezed them again, rubbing their back with one hand, “You’re already doing so much better than when you first came here. I know it’s hard to see how much you’ve changed towards who you really are; but that’s only because it’s hard to see change in ourselves. It was hard for me too. But even if you can’t see it, you’re growing in the right direction now and all you have to do is persist.”
Slide gave a sob, a fusion of relief and sorrow. Dr. Hydrega released her embrace and held them at an arms length, smiling sadly.
“You can still reach out to me at any time and I’ll get back to you as quickly as interplanetary communication will allow. If you want, and you don’t need to decide now, but I can always request that you transfer to my new research station if you feel you need the support.”
Slide nodded at that. “Thanks,” they sniffled.
“You’re very welcome. Say, do you want to help me close down the lab? I’ll do a quick pass of my final notes on the remaining experiments and then if you could kick off the encryption and archival processes that would be a big help. After that it’s just emptying grow beds and dumping chemicals, which I know isn’t in your job description but…” She let the sentence hang with a shrug.
“Yeah,” Slide said softly, the proposal making them feel a little better, “I can do that.”
“Great. There’s a bunch of project documents already on there organized into folders by which sponsor within the Science Institute backed it. Start with those and I should have the rest of them ready in a few minutes.”
Slide went through the process of requesting the project encryption keys per sponsor and then running the encryption algorithm across each folder after compressing it into an single archive file. It wasn’t a very difficult process, but the simple repetition and the feeling of helping their mentor even in this trivial way soothed Slide a little bit. The first few folders were normal, with the projects beneath them reading things like “Effects of Sulfuric Pesticides and Herbicides” and “Study of Reintroduction of Karriss-7 Microbes”. Then one name made Slide cock an eyebrow, it simply read “Smut”.
“Uh, Dr. Hydrega. Are you sure all of these are supposed to be archived? There’s one under the projects for Central Terran Intelligence labeled something… odd…”
“Ughh,” Dr. Hydrega groaned as she rolled her eyes, “That’s all shit Leona was working on. She somehow cleaned out all of her experiments from her lab in a half-hour and insisted it would be less work if we archived both of our reports at once. If she left something stupid in there, then that’s her fault. Send it along and maybe she’ll learn to stop cutting corners.”
Slide shrugged and continued their task, finishing it shortly before the final batch of project notes had to be synced over. Those took another twenty minutes to archive. Then they began helping Dr. Hydrega empty the remaining grow beds and chemicals. With the two of them working together, it went relatively quickly. Within another hour the lab was fully emptied of experiments. Dr. Hydrega pulled out a set of keys and opened a drawer in the back with one, pulling it out to reveal a glass-covered control panel. She unlocked the corner of the panel with another and motioned for Slide to approach.
“We’ve never actually tested these, but they’re supposed to full destroy and render safe anything growing in Field X.” Slide looked at the four buttons and their corresponding gauges with a confused expression of wonder and a smidge of terror. Field X was a large, concrete outbuilding that only the head research staff had been allowed to enter. It was where experiments thought to be potentially hazardous to human life were grown.
“Hold each one down until all the gauges turn green and that should be the last of the experimental crops,” the doctor explained, sighing somewhat sadly, “I’ll go pack up my personal effects.” She gestured towards a desk filled with knick-knacks and an old-fashioned push-pin board she’d salvaged from someplace back on Terra.
Slide gingerly pushed each button and watched as the gauges above each one came to life one-by-one. The top one would flicker on in a crimson red then gradually grow yellow before finally and suddenly shifting to green. As soon as it had shifted to green, the next one in column would start its color-changing process; indicators of some step-by-step decontamination protocol they could only guess at the details of. When the final gauge of the final button turned green, they turned to see Dr. Hydrega pulling the last few papers and photographs off of the push-pin board.
She turned to face Slide with a smile, holding a familiar piece of paper. It was a few lines Slide had painstakingly and neatly written out months ago from one of their books, a translation of an old Terran text:
All things go through their processes: forever rising and forever returning.
Flowers bloom and blossom, but soon return homeward to root.
This cyclic return brings a temporary tranquility to the homecoming blossom and an iteration towards its eternal destiny.
“I tried to find the translation you used, but never found an exact match,” the doctor said, turning the words towards Slide, “If I had to guess, this is a translation you did?”
“Yes. Well, not exactly,” Slide answered, “I worked on it with a friend of mine back in school during interlinguistic studies. You know how in seventh grade they make you translate something by hand to appreciate the auto-translators?”
“No,” the doctor chuckled, “We never had to do that.”
“Oh, well everyone in my school had to do it. My friend Karmen and I decided to do something challenging so we chose a passage from the Tao Te Ching to try to translate. The first few days were a struggle, the old text leaves a lot up to the translator to piece it together into something that makes sense in our modern language. We ended up having to lean on the existing translations for guidance, but in the end we had something we were proud of; something that imbued the ancient words with something more modern and more personal.”
Slide ran their finger over the tight, neat script they had set into paper five months prior. A bittersweet smile of nostalgia crept across their face.
“I would have loved to see what you two did with the rest of the work,” Dr. Hydrega said, beaming, “I’m sure it would have at least proved interesting.”
“We did try another few passages, until it started to feel like we were just trying to reverse engineer the other translations back to the original symbols and then twist the construction of the phrases to make something new. It started losing the magic of our first effort and feeling like a rote process, like we weren’t being true to either the original version or ourselves. We were going to pick it up again after a break but…” Slide chewed on the corner of their lip as they passed the paper back to Dr. Hydrega. “We had a falling out after a brief attempt to date. Karmen realized she didn’t like boys and I was too stupid to realize that I wasn’t one. Damn. In retrospect that’s probably why I was so angry with her; even though I couldn’t admit it to myself yet I hated that she saw me that way.”
Dr. Hydrega pulled them into a brisk hug again. “Aw. We all grow at different rates and that can make those adolescent years real tough. Honestly I can’t say I handled mine much better.”
“Sorry Doctor,” Slide said as they straightened up again, “I didn’t mean to make this all about myself and my problems.”
“No need to apologize kid, I’d rather help you through yours than dwell on mine.” She let out a sigh and shook her head slightly. “If you want my advice, pick sometime in the future to send her an apology and stick to it. It’ll be nerve-wracking waiting for the response, but I’ve found that almost always folks are willing to forgive those flashes of anger and pain from years ago. I know I healed a few old rifts that way.”
“Yeah, I could try that,” Slide replied, part of their brain panicking at the thought, ”Damn. Who’s going to give me advice when you’re gone?”
“Well Dr. Cael is a good man, even if he’s a bit scatterbrained. And Reya has a good head on her shoulders and seems to like you plenty.” Slide felt their cheeks reddening. The doctor continued, “And as I said, you can always write me if you need help: general, transition-related, or otherwise.”
“Right, right I know. It’s just going to be different without you around, you know? Emptier.”
Dr. Hydrega tapped the scrap of paper.
“It’s just like the flowers returning to the root. We’ll all feel saddened by the parting, I’m sure. Well maybe not Dr. Algieba.” Slide let a laugh slip through their lips and Dr. Hydrega grinned. “But the fallow field builds up the nutrients for its next crop and, as you put it: the blossom that’s returned to its root is only taking a temporary rest before launching again towards its…” She looked down at the paper. “I’m sorry, before iterating towards it’s eternal destiny.”
She held Slide’s hand, matronly pride shining from her face.
“Time to time we have to cast off our autumn leaves so we can green again in the spring. You did it when you left Terra to come here, uncertain of who you were and would become. You grew and blossomed and now you’re stronger. I think you’ll find in my absence that you know how to handle yourself much better than you thought you did.”
“Really?” Slide asked, a hint of shame on their face, “Because I don’t really feel like I’ve bloomed at all. I still don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I’m still wearing baggy pants and sweatshirts to hide myself. I feel like I’ve barely even sprouted; like I’ve been stuck in stasis since I got on the ship from Terra.”
“If the progress you’ve made this last half-year is you barely sprouting,” the doctor said, kind levity flourishing through her voice, “Then I’ll be excited to see what your real blossoming looks like.” She gave Slide a peck on the forehead and a final hug. Slide wiped away another fit of tears and returned the embrace.
“Thanks doctor; for everything.”
“Anytime. And starting tomorrow, feel free to call me Anise.” She shifted one arm out of the embrace and pivoted them both to face towards the door. Slide felt a gentle force pushing and guiding them towards the lab’s exit. “Alright, let’s go do damage control on whatever Dr. Algieba’s been blurting out.”
“You gonna be alright?” Reya asked under the starlit sky, the faraway lights hazily refracting through the oxygen shield.
“Yeah, I think so.” Slide absently tapped a corn stalk, sending it rocking back and forth. “We got to say our goodbyes and she told me I could handle things without her.”
“I’m sure she’s right. She’s a smart woman, even if she can be a bit… particular.”
“Yeah… I’m sure she is,” Slide replied uncertainly. Reya grabbed their hand and tugged them further into the fields.
“I know it’ll be rough for a bit, but I’ll still be here.” They broke out of the rows of corn and began stepping between bean trellises. “And you can still write her or call her. Sort of like she’s your mom, but you know… supportive.” Reya searched their face for a reaction. “Sorry, that sounded more light-hearted in my head.”
“You’re fine,” Slide smiled slightly to put her at ease, “It’s just she really was sort of my mom out here. I stepped off that stars-damned ship and onto this barren world feeling like I was fifteen years younger. I remember walking down the ramp into the starport and feeling like I was back in high school, with all my life ahead of me and every option in the universe available. I felt like I could start over. The only problem was I had no idea where to go or what to do after that decision. For the whole ride from Novaglas to here, and even for the first few days afterwards, I was terrified that I’d just tanked everything back on Terra to stay stuck the way I was. When Dr. Hydrega said she knew what I was going through it was the first time I felt certain that I could do this, that I could really be me.”
“I know,” Reya said, gently squeezing their hand.
“And her leaving feels like I’m going right from seventh grade to living on my own. Like I know just enough to feed myself but still have no idea how to actually exist in the world.” Slide sighed, shaking their head. “Ugh, look at me. Twenty-seven and still crying over mommy issues.” They chuckled at themselves. “Sorry for all the melodrama, Rey. I know you want to stargaze.”
“It’s okay, it’s been an eventful day.” Reya typed something into her hand terminal and the oxygen shield above them grew more transparent in a few select sections. “And the stars aren’t going anywhere. Not quickly anyways.”
A wide section of the air shield shimmered as the voltage running through the semi-porous material decreased. Above them was a viewing window about a quarter-mile on each side, the supports at the edges nearly invisible. Slide knew that air was slowly leaking out into the thinner atmosphere outside the facility, but with resupply coming the next day and the high levels within the shield a few minutes wouldn’t matter. Reya pointed at a cluster near the edge.
“There go the Pleiades. In a few more days we’ll need to change spots if we still want to see them. And in another month they’ll be gone for most of a year.”
Slide followed the pointing of her finger to the seven sister stars hovering right at the edge of window Reya had cleared in the shield. They were small and packed together, only noticeable due to their combined brightness. Slide silently wished them good luck in staying together for millions of years more as their own group of seven was bound to break tomorrow.
“And chasing right behind them is Orion. Still looking quite a bit thinner all the way out here compared to back on Terra.”
Slide looked for the three close stars that formed the constellations belt, knowing that from there they could roughly piece together the dual trapezoids of his body. Having lived in the city back on Terra, they had to take Reya’s word that the constellations looked different out here. Hell, they had to take Reya’s word that the constellations she showed them were real at all.
“And if you follow the line made by his belt…” She traced the line in the sky, grinning like a fool, “Tada! You’ve found Sirius!”
“That one there?” Slide pointed alongside her.
“The bright one,” Reya replied. Slide adjusted their finger to point at the clearly brighter star nearby. “I guess the line isn’t as exact out here. And if I’m being honest I can’t really put together the rest of Canis Major from this perspective either.”
“If they’re that different from the ones on Terra, maybe we should make our own,” Slide suggested, “Or at least name them something more fitting.”
“Yeah, maybe we should. So many of them are the same stars, but what a difference some distance and perspective makes! I guess that warrants a new name.” She swept her finger further along the open window. “Oh look! Leo’s squished into almost a straight line!”
“That one? It almost looks like one of those ancient manual harvester things… What did you call those?” Slide paused just long enough to cut off Reya’s answer, “A scythe!”
“A scy— Yeah, one of those... Funnily enough the head and mane used to be their own constellation before being expanded into Leo: The Sickle.” Reya cracked her neck. “A hundred-million miles can change one harvesting tool into another I guess.”
She looked over at Slide and then back to the stars.
“You wanna know something really weird that I found while getting ready for tonight?” she whispered, eyes focused on the warped Leo.
“What?” Slide whispered back, almost giggling at the sudden seriousness in Reya’s voice.
“That star where the blade of the scythe would meet the stick… part… thingy of it.” Reya made a face as she stumbled over the words. “That star is called Algieba.”
“Like Dr. Algieba?”
“Right.” Reya looked at them, pondering over her words. “That’s weird right?”
“Sort of I guess,” Slide replied, not really sure what to make of the strange information, “Maybe her family named themselves after it for some reason a few generations back or something.”
“Yeah, that would make sense.” Reya lightly shook her head and giggled, “More sense than what I was thinking.”
“Alright, don’t laugh. But I was thinking that maybe Dr. Algieba was using a fake name.”
Slide gave her an incredulous look, “That’s a little far fetched, don’t you think?”
“I know, I know. But Leona Algieba? The feminized name of the constellation and then the name of a star in it?” Reya paused in thought. “Maybe she had to hide her identity for some reason.”
“I’m sure it’s just that her parents thought they were being clever,” Slide said with a shrug, “Who would she need to hide her identity from out here? We’re a million miles from nowhere.”
“I guess,” Reya sighed. A series of beeps began ringing on her hand terminal. “Looks like it’s time to route power back to that section of oxygen shield.”
Slide watched the patch of clear sky gradually shimmer back into the same foggy haze that marked everything around it. The starlight smeared itself outward, obscuring the shapes Reya had shown them over the past twenty minutes. Reya grabbed them by the hand and they stood there together in the quiet night for a few more moments. They let themselves hear the silence of the growing fields around them, let themselves feel separated from everything but each other in the low light.
A minute or two later Reya tugged on their hand and they trekked back to the research center.
“Before you go,” Slide asked softly, “can you… do the thing?”
“The thing?” Reya raised an eyebrow as she searched for her pants, “I have no idea what you possibly could mean. Maybe if you more directly asked for it…”
“You know…” Slide hushed their voice down to a shameful whisper, “Trance me.”
“I suppose I could do that.” She pulled her pants back on and clasped them before turning back towards Slide. “You need help sleeping again?”
Slide nodded their head. “With everything that happened today I just know that I’ll keep thinking about it over and over and not be able to fall asleep.”
“You’re so lucky that I’m a friend with extra benefits,” Reya joked as she wriggled back into her shirt. “Alright, lay back and hold out your hand.”
Slide did as instructed, allowing their head to rest on their pillow and offering their hand palm up to Reya as they’d done a couple of times before. Reya’s hand slid under their own and her thumb began tracing soft circles on their palm.
“Close your eyes Slide,” Reya commanded, her voice gaining depth and resonance it didn’t normally have, “Close your eyes and focus on feeling the circles I’m tracing on your hand.”
Slide let their eyelids droop closed and as they did so felt the path of Reya’s thumb become more prominent. Each loop of skin over skin left a tingling contrail behind it, a sensation that Slide easily latched on to.
“Feel the circles go around and around,” Reya said in that low, rhythmic voice, “and focus on my voice. Feel only the circles. Focus only on my voice.”
Slide felt their worries start to slip away. The concern over Dr. Hydrega leaving, the worry that they knew just as little about their identity as when they left Terra, their desire and fear of whatever one could call this relationship they’d fostered between themselves and Reya over the past few month; all of it faded into the background as they felt the sensations on their palm remain longer and longer after each pass of Reya’s thumb.
“You’re feeling very sleepy. Very relaxed. Good, just like that. Each time my thumb completes a loop, it makes you sleepier. Each time it circles around, you drop deeper into trance.”
The rest of Slide’s thoughts fell away. They were so tired and so ready to sleep. The only thing preventing them was needing to focus on Reya’s words.
“You’re doing so well Slide. You’re doing so well at going deeper and deeper into trance.” Reya began gently raising their limp arm, slowing the tracing of circles on their palm to a halt. “Now sleep.”
Reya dropped Slide’s arm on to the bed and Slide felt their mind plunge even deeper into a cozy, sleepy darkness.
“Slide, can you still hear me?”
“Mhmm.” It was all they could manage. Moving their mouth to answer felt like far too much work.
“Are you hypnotized?”
“Mhmm,” they answered again.
“Very good, but I’ll need you to say it,” Reya insisted, “Say ‘I am hypnotized.’”
“Mmmm…” Slide groaned, finding the last reserves of energy they could use to move their mouth. When the words came, they came slowly and with great effort. “I… am… hypnotized…”
“Good. That’s right, you’re hypnotized. So deeply hypnotized that when I say ‘true sleep’ tonight you’ll fall into a deep, relaxing, refreshing sleep and not wake up until tomorrow morning. Do you understand?”
“Mhmm.” Slide mumbled, fully ready to pass out for the night.
“Good. Love you Slide. Goodnight and enjoy your true sleep.”
“Love…” Slide’s mouth burbled out before their brain kicked off, leaving them sleeping peacefully on their bed.
“Affirmative Jess,” Slide said into the hand terminal, trying to maintain a professional tone despite the heaviness in their heart, “The airlock is sealing and we should have you through in just a few minutes.”
“Roger that,” the voice crackled, “Should be there soon.”
The rest of the staff was packed into the galley with them, eating their final lunch together before they parted ways. As Slide sat back down between Reya and Sere they couldn’t help but feel their anxiety pushed back to the corners of the metal room by a sea of mirthful reminiscence and cheerful camaraderie. There was an infectious happiness to the send-off that turned the bittersweet affair into a celebration of accomplishment and hopefulness.
“And gosh, the little sprout looked so tiny that we were all worried that it was malnourished,” Sere said between bites of her lunch to Reya, Q, and now Slide, “and I remember poor Slide started like two days after and we were all running out at every break to look at it. You must have thought we were all crazy.”
“Yeah, I remember,” Slide responded, a smile coming to their face as the memory became clearer, “I was trying to figure out where to start on system maintenance and Dr. Hydrega told me to ask Dr. Algieba who told me to talk to you, and you were just staring at a patch of dirt with a little speck of green in it. And when I asked you, you looked at me with bags under your eyes and this absolutely flummoxed look and said ‘What computers?’ and then went back to staring at the plant. I thought you were having a breakdown or something.”
“Haha yeah, two nights without sleep will do that to a girl. Thank the stars it had a growth spurt the next few days or I really would have had a breakdown.” She brushed her hair out of her face wistfully. “A week later though we knew we had done it; the first plant to grow in treated Karriss-7 soil.”
“I remember the afterparty,” Reya commented, “You and Q had Slide backed into the corner of that table over there and were drunkenly explaining the time-ecology of Neradin from that fantasy series you two are in to.”
“Neerafin,” Sere corrected, blushing.
“And I had to sweep in and save them before you talked about how they magically extracted their chicken’s meat from alternative time lines to create a no kill farm again.”
“Okay, that’s grossly oversimplifying the process,” Sere replied before stopping herself with a giggle, “Unfortunately I’m a little too sober right now to get into the details again.”
“On another note, have you tried this yet?” Reya tapped a half-eaten quesadilla on her plate, “I’m not going to miss a lot of Dr. Algieba’s personality and habits, but her cooking…”
“What is it?” Slide asked as they took a bite. The flavor was earthy and savory with a slight sweetness to it under the cheese and onion. It was really quite good.
“One of the experiments from Dr. Algieba’s lab,” Sere answered. Slide’s eyes bulged in panic.
“Oh don’t worry,” Sere giggled, “It’s from the control group for finding truffle alternatives that we could mass grow in this sector. Terrans have been eating these for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
A look of relief passed over Slide’s face as Dr. Hydrega stood up from her spot at the next table over. She was looking out the window where two large vehicles were coming up the road. It was almost time.
“How about a speech Dr. Hydrega?” Reya shouted, pointing out the window at the dust being kicked into the still air, “A few words before you go?”
“Well I don’t have anything prepared,” she said, “but I’ll start by saying that it’s been a great joy working and living alongside you all. We had a lot of false starts and a few failures, but everyone here worked hard and together we managed to bring greenery to this arid planet for the first time in eons. Dr. Cael and Dr. Algieba thank you for your expertise in your respective fields and you collaboration on this whole endeavor. Sere and Q, thank you for your youthful insight and putting up with with us; being a lab assistant on something like this is just as stressful as it is exciting. And Reya and Slide, thank you both for keeping the lights on, the irrigation pumps running, the oxygen shield up to date, and the million other things you did to make our jobs possible.”
She turned to the ‘Newbraska’ joke banner hanging above the door and then back to the rest of the assembled Terrans.
“When Reya made that stupid banner, I thought it was the dumbest fucking thing I’d ever seen.” A riffle of chuckles spread through their small crowd. “I was sure we’d be growing one of the off-Terra hybrids they’d developed at Aglonium or one of the alien species we’ve managed to find on other colonized planets. But of course it ended up being corn that we managed to first get to grow here and now with three square miles of the stuff I’ll begrudgingly admit that her naming was appropriate.”
Reya pumped her fist into the air, victorious.
“It’s still a stupid fucking banner,” she continued, gesturing back at it, “but with what we accomplished here, I’ll count myself proud to have been part of the ‘Newbraska’ research team. Thank you all.”
There was a pleasant rumble of applause as she walked over to Dr. Algieba and whispered in her ear. The towering mycologist shrugged her shoulders and took the same spot where Dr. Hydrega delivered her speech.
“Tough act to follow.” She said, pursing her lips and swinging her narrowed eyes from person to person. “I won’t say much since I’d just be echoing Dr. Hydrega’s sentiments, but truly we’ve done some of the most meaningful work in the galaxy here. I can’t get in to details, but you should all know that some of the things we did here will help ensure the continuation, prosperity, and freedom of Terrans everywhere for millenia to come. I know I may not have seen eye-to-eye with everyone here, but you all did excellent work and I thank you for that.”
She walked back towards her seat. Slide could almost hear the confusion in the light applause that quickly died off. They turned to Reya and spread their hands in questioning gesture. Reya shrugged and then tugged on Sere’s sleeve.
“What did she mean by all that?” She asked the lab assistant.
“I have no idea,” Sere admitted, “Getting edible foodstuffs to grow here was a big deal, but… I dunno, it sounded like she meant something else.” Sere giggled nervously. “Maybe she had a personal project for making mushroom based rocket fuel or something.”
The door opened and a middle-aged woman walked in. She was a little chubby and only came by a few times every month, but still she was the person they all knew the eighth best on the planet. Slide waved her over.
“Hey Jess, we’ll be out to unload in a second.”
“You don’t have to do that. Things are, well…” She let the sentence hang ominously in the air. Her usually merry face was somber today.
“You’re not going to unload it all by yourself, are you? That’ll take hours.”
“Just try to keep cool, okay?” Jess murmured, looking down at her feet, “They’ll explain everything. It’s all been signed off by sector command…”
“Wait. Jess, what’s going on?”
“What the fuck?” Dr. Hydrega shouted from across the room, looking out at the personnel carrier and then with a concerned look back at Jess. Slide saw them too: tall, twisting bundles of vines and leaves woven into humanoid forms. Five of them were striding towards the door, the three in the back holding some sort of weaponry.
“Are those…” Slide racked their brain to make sure they had the name right. “Those are Affini right?”
The plantlike aliens were little more than myth and rumor to Slide, who had left Terra shortly before the gossip had started to spread in earnest there late last year. As the year rolled over into 2552 however, even Karriss-7 heard the occasional story of missing ships, captured crews, and heroic rescues happening millions of miles away. It had never particularly concerned them or the rest of the research staff as every supposed attack or abduction so far had been about as far away from Karriss-7 as one could get in Terran-occupied space. For them to be here though; that was cause for concern.
“Yep,” Jess sighed, defeated, “And as of two days ago they own this planet.”