The snow crunches under our boots as us-in-Devora and us-in-Mel trace our way through the Forest-That-Thinks. We pause, waiting for directions.
Sunlight pierces through the low-slung clouds. The Forest speaks again and there’s a picture in our minds of the Very-Big-Wrong and the image of a landing site appears in our head. We have not thought of landing sites for a very long time.
What do you think it is? Us-in-Mel asks, mind-to-mind.
Us-in-Devora shakes her head and shrugs. I do not know.
Is it food? Us-in-Mel scoops a pile of dead Leaves from the ground on which we stand and crams them into our mouth. That part of us is always hungry.
I. Don’t. Know.
Faster! screams the Forest, and we snap to attention.
As we sprint to the landing site, Us-in-Mel makes careful blazes in the Forest’s thick trunks. It wouldn’t do to wander off—not when there’s a Very-Big-Wrong somewhere, loose and so close.
Us-in-Devora is the first of us to stumble into the clearing to the landing site covered with a fine layer of snow. She-that-is-us paces around it, careful not to step on the pieces of us that were broken off at the Wrong. Our nose wrinkles.
Smelly, she says, her mind-speak betraying her disgust.
It’s… Mel grasps for a word, but can’t come up with a better one. Smelly. Yes.
We pick up a stick, a stray dead part of us, and poke the thing in the clearing. It stirs.
26 January 2564
Today we enter the outer fringe of the Horsehead Nebula, a dismal little planet called Fleming-7, where two standard years ago we lost communication with sixty-five Terran colonists. A recovery team has been rallied to recover what we can from the ill-fated mission, laying to rest the suspicions and fears of their families.
I know I shouldn’t question the motivations of Central Control, but this is a fool’s errand. It’s a waste of time to hunt about for dead bodies on some lousy backwater. With any luck we’ll find what we’re looking for quickly, and I will be home soon to my precious Bianca, waiting for me in stasis, unwilling to lose our life together to such a distant journey.
At least I’ll get overtime, if we’re lucky.
We poke at the not-us on the ground for a good long time, until it turns over, coughs, and sits up, rubbing its face with its hands. It blinks, looking at us as we look at it.
“You’re alive?” It reaches for something at its waist, then reels back its hand.
“Of course we’re alive,” us-in-Mel says in the mouth-voice, Leaves falling from our lips. “Are you alive?”
“Am I alive?” The not-us scoots back.
“That’s what we asked,” says Devora. “You don’t have to answer now if you don’t know.”
The not-us stands and scrambles back to the site of the Wrong. It pulls out a little black box and pushes a button on the side. “I’m going to have to call this in. Just…stay there. Stay right there.”
Silly it-thing! we think. Where else would we go, if not the Wrong? Because it is wrong, and because it lies at the heart of the Forest-That-Thinks, we can’t exactly leave it alone.
While we wait for the not-us to finish with its black box, we play one of our favorite games. Devora ducks behind one of the huge trunks, while the us-who-is-Mel scampers behind another.
Marco, Devora thinks.
Polo, Mel thinks.
And we think as one, and because of this, we are happy.
8 February 2564
Unexpected complications have arisen. Several of the doomed colonists are alive, though badly traumatized from their experiences. Spectral analysis performed remotely aboard the ship has determined the overabundance of unusual compounds in the heartwood of the trees.
Aside from the trees and the colonists, there is no other life.
The survivors of the crash will be briefed, decontaminated, and brought aboard the ship. The properties of the planet must be investigated as well, for their usefulness and potential profit to Central Control.
I do wonder if there’s a way to spin this to my advantage. The euphoric, almost childlike state of the colonists leads me to believe that the alien compounds might fetch a good price on Terra. We’ll run tests, of course. Still, how fortunate it would be to return a rich man. That would almost make these months of isolation worth it, both for me and for Bianca.
We are in turmoil.
The Very-Big-Wrong, the it-thing from the landing site, has invaded the settlement, the place where the we-that-are-mobile gather to speak, to screw, and to eat of Leaves and body-food. We begged and pleaded at it and asked the Forest-That-Thinks to give us permission to use force to repel the intruder.
No, said the Forest.
But why? asked us-in-Devora.
He is of use. And then the Forest-That-Thinks did the cruelest thing it can ever do, shutting us off from it, so that Devora and Mel could only speak mind-to-mind in whispers, and they couldn’t hear the others of us very much at all.
Sometimes, we do not like the Forest-That-Thinks.
The intruder strode into the settlement with great bounce in its step. It is no longer afraid of us. And because we don’t want to be forever shut off from the Forest-That-Thinks by fighting back, it has no reason to be afraid of us.
We are powerless.
It has been here for seventeen cycles of the light that shines behind the cloud cover: seventeen dusks, sixteen darks. Refusing to eat either our food or the sap of the forest, it lacks Understanding. It will not speak with us except through the mouth, and only a few of us retain that primitive method of communication. Those who do are resentful at having to translate everything for the Wrong.
It is Wrong, after all! We are Right! Why has the Forest-That-Thinks forsaken us?
Forest has reasons, us-in-Devora says. Her real voice is barely a whisper compared to the ugly mouth-voice.
You trust too easily, us-in-Mel replies.
Maybe, she says, eyeing the intruder. It is breaking off one of our Branches, and our heart catches at the pain. Maybe not.
15 February 2564
Through observation and conversation with the other members of the crew, I’ve determined that the compounds secreted by the sap of the native trees seem to induce a weak telepathic ability in the stranded colonists. It’s a little scary to know how easily they can talk behind my back. If they weren’t so subservient, I might start to get paranoid.
Physically, the colonists are weak as kittens. The sap that opens their minds to one another betrays the body, and as a result the colonists are completely spotted with tumors of all sizes, making them look a bit like bags of rocks with faces. It brings to mind the terminal form of that ancient disease, cancer.
The other day, I caught a colonist eating his own tumors, using his thick fingernails to slice open the epidermis and ferret the tumor from his body. Then he popped it in his mouth like a cherry. I shuddered when I saw that. Must investigate further.
The crew sends cans of food down the elevator, but they won’t come down themselves, the big babies. Certainly, my bravery will earn me special mention from Central Control when we get back to Terra.
I hope so, anyway.
The intruder wears a mask around its mouth now and swathes its body in linens dropped from the ship in the sky. It doesn’t fear us, but it fears the Understanding.
To be fair, a few days ago, some of the us-that-are-mobile did try to put the sap in its mouth. And it did roar mightily about that with its mouth-voice, and it did hit several of us. The one-that-was-Mel died.
And yet, the Forest-That-Thinks remains silent. Help us, you who are also us!
But we will not stray, we will not allow the individual desires and hungers that once ruled us like iron fists to dictate our actions now. To do so would remove us from the grace of our Forest.
That would be suicide.
The intruder set up its camp at the edge of our settlement. There it stays, crouching, waiting. For what, we do not know. It speaks into its little black box with its horrible mouth-voice. It eats from silver cans. Its bright orange inflatable hut is like its ugly mind, a shield that hides it from the Community. When it questions us, which is often, it forces us to speak with our mouth voices, because it cannot yet speak the true language.
It laughs at us. It thinks we-who-are-mobile have forgotten the way we used to be. “I could fix you. Cut out those tumors, synthesize an agent to work against the tree sap.”
“No,” one of us says. “Not that.”
It lowers its eyes. “I could make you.”
We flinch when it says that. We have seen the power in the intruder, the way it cast us-in-Mel aside. We don’t want to be cast aside to die. Even though we are but instances of the Community, each of us still clings stubbornly to our own facet of life.
“Please don’t,” we say. “Please.”
It just laughs some more, that hideous noise smearing the perfect silence of our world.
Us-in-Devora travels often to see the intruder. She watches it from the bushes near its camp, and through her eyes, we see it too. At first we could see it brightly, as if with our very own eyes. Now, we can barely see it at all. We-who-are-mobile are very worried about us-in-Devora.
28 February 2564
The crew grows impatient. Ever since I came down they’ve been requesting a departure timetable. I know my faithless crew is reading these entries, so here’s your timetable: we’ll go when I say we go.
I have studied the sap of what they call the “forest that thinks” more in depth, and have determined that it is indeed highly carcinogenic. Why these people are alive, I have no idea. Nor do I know what triggers the telepathic sense. In all my weeks here, I haven’t felt a trace of the “mind voice.” Surely it must be controlled by the sap, or the tumors the sap generates.
Sometimes I wish I could taste it.I have made contact with a local. Research into the ship’s manifest reveals her to be one Devora Mikelski, a first-year xenobiology student undoubtedly chosen more for her looks than her grades. She displays no real curiosity about the properties of the forest that surrounds most of this snow-covered world. Like a little puppy, she follows me when I go out to study the trees, though she looks away when I take core samples from the thick, fibrous trunks. She allows me to palpate her many tumorous growths and take photographs. (See attached.) When I am around her, I wear a form-fitting mask, in case she tries to slip a bit of sap into my mouth or nostrils. She hasn’t tried recently. She obeys me utterly.
It’s quiet here, so very quiet. Sometimes, just to break the silence, I sing Bianca’s favorite songs at the top of my lungs, those awful jazz-rock hits she liked to listen to on the infobursts. The colonists cower, like I’m hurting them. But I’m not hurting them, right?
So what if I am? I’m lonely.
Devora washes the intruder’s spare masks and linens. We arrange its tins of food. We sweep the small inflatable dwelling with a soft-bristled brush, and try not to shudder when the intruder strokes our mounds of body-food and calls us “beautiful, in your own way.”
We grit our teeth. We remind ourselves that eventually, it will see the truth. We take the long view.
“It hurts,” us-in-Devora says through her mouth. The resentment we feel when we look at the intruder is as vast as the silver belly of its ship.
The intruder looks up from its mutilation of a branch plucked from the Forest, a piece still alive when it was severed. “What hurts, honey?”
We shake our head, thinking of us-in-Mel, the instance of the Community that Devora had cared for most. Our head glistening with blood and sap, our limbs shattered. “Nothing.”
Devora looks no more at the silent Forest-That-Thinks. We close our minds to the rest of us. We practice the unfamiliar pronoun which the intruder forces us to say.
“She,” says the intruder, jabbing at Devora’s body-food with a scalpel. “She. She.”
And it is a he, and to the intruder this means something profound.
She-is-Devora doesn’t bother listening to the rest of us anymore. Our voices are too faint to hear. She takes the medication the intruder provides and lets it rip the voice-giving structures right out of her body. She gazes into the mirrored pool outside the intruder’s inflatable hut, and retches.
It’s time. “When can we leave for Terra?” she asks, affecting her best traumatized-survivor impersonation.
The Wrong, it grins.
4 March 2565
Departure is nigh. I have only one week to pack my meager belongings and finish up my anthropological notes. Unfortunately, it would take several lifetimes to give justice to all I’ve experienced here.
Only one of the doomed colonists will accompany me back to Terra: Devora Milkelski, my little assistant. She has allowed me to remove the tumors from her body, though she cried when I did it. I tried to comfort her, but it didn’t help.
I’ve taken my last samples of sap and of bark, and while the colonists certainly did complain about it, I only had to sing one of Bianca’s songs to make them flee in terror at the shattering of their silence. How fast they fall, how weak they are in this environment. Even if they wanted to return to Terra, I’m not sure they could withstand the gravity or rapid pace of life. Only Devora seems excited to see her home planet after so many years away.
I asked her how much she remembered.
“Not very much,” she responded, running her hands over her fixed body. “The forest took so much from us, but you have restored it.”
Isn’t that wonderful? I’m her hero. And heroes deserve a reward, and I have been away from Bianca for a long, long time.
She-is-Devora watches us through a wall of frosted glass, one only she can tell is there. We send our thoughts and emotions to her, but they patter against the glass like the flying creatures we vaguely remember from Terra.
Goodbye, says us-in-Malik.
Farewell, says us-in-Qin.
The voices are so far-away, like transmissions through a shattered ansible, the Community must open their mouths and speak the words to she-is-Devora through our little-used larynxes. The voices come out ugly, nails on rusted steel. At the edge of the camp, the Wrong’s face crumples.
She-is-Devora responds in tears.
She packs her rucksack from the corner one of the inflatable pods the members of the Community abandoned when they landed, before they were the Community, before they had known such love. In the depths, she places a package wrapped in a layer of Leaves, and covers it with the clothing the intruder insists she wear.
Boots crunching through the snow, she returns to the invader, to the it-him. Her nutrient-stripped body is swathed in his castoff linens. Her hand encloses a sachet of sap.
“Take me back.”
We watch behind the wall only she-is-Devora can see, and we mourn. The loss of any of us is a loss beyond measuring. However bad it is for us, it is worse for Devora. Locked away from Understanding, one is but a shadow, a Branch broken from its Trunk.
Devora slips the sachet of sap between her teeth. As the elevator starts to rise, the intruder sweeps her up into his arms, tongue reaching down into the very depth of her-the-former-us.
Devora doesn’t say no.
The intruder’s eyes widen as we welcome a new member into the Community. When he falls from the elevator we are there to receive him. Receive us.
We must report that our return to Terra is permanently cancelled. We have found a place that surpasses even the pleasures of Terra, which disappears in our estimation as a shooting star disappears over the farthest horizon.
The body in which this instance of we resides can no longer stand, no longer walk to commune with the Forest-That-Thinks. It is no matter. We carry us wherever we wish to go. We carry us to the river, we carry us to the lake of snow and to the clearing where we can see the Very-Big-Wrong, the “landing site” that was once so important to us, but is no longer.
Sometimes, when us-in-me lies in this frozen body, as gobbets of body-food are pushed into our mouth by the other pieces of us, we think of you similarly frozen in your stasis chamber, and wish that you could experience all that we do. How dreadful it is to be alone! How unnatural!
Us-in-Me have no way of sending this transmission, it is but a thought projected into the minds of all who share the Understanding. We hope you-who-are-not-us are happy, wherever you are. And now we will think no more of you, for such things are irrelevant.
She-is-Devora is painfully alone, in a way she hasn’t been since arriving on the planet the crew calls Fleming-7, but that she only knows as home.
Two of the crew members say she-is-Devora pushed the one named Gabriel from the elevator, while three say it was an accident. But after she puts a little sap in their first-cycle coffee, it doesn’t matter. In the greenhouse, she buries the fist-sized Seeds she hid in her rucksack for future transplant.
It takes longer for the tendrils of the crew’s minds to reach outwards and entangle with one another and with hers. It takes weeks for them to become us. With so few people, it’s not the intense Understanding of the world swiftly slipping away through layers of black space, but it’s a start.
She-us is no longer alone.
“How many people live on Terra now?” Devora asks them-us.
“Much the same as when you left,” they reply. “Seventeen billion.” Devora’s heart soars to think of so many people joined in the mind-voice. She knows they feel the same.
When the first body-food is ripe, she-us shows them-us how to harvest it.
It will take years for Terra to become a true Community, all members knit together in harmony. Without the Forest-That-Thinks to boost the mind-voice, it will take even longer. But we will wait for the Understanding to take root, for all to think as one. It is a thing worth waiting for.
After all, we take the long view.
|Erica L. Satifka’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Ideomancer, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband Rob and too many cats. Visit her online at www.ericasatifka.com.|