“You should leave Tani here…”
Gwen was digging in her garden as usual, on bended knees amid rows of mutated hydrangeas. It was Ms Krilov speaking behind; that monotonous tone was distinct and grating.
“…I doubt,” Ms Krilov paused temporarily, wondering if she should actually say it; she decided to. “I doubt Tani will even know you’re gone.”
Gwen turned around. Ms Krilov stood there, arms crossed, her sixteen-year-old son beside. A single blue eye was positioned centrally on his oblong forehead; that watery ball moronically looked up at an orange sky, where twin suns neared their zenith, and into nothing. He chuckled intermittently, spittle dripping from an undersized mouth, his thin body, unsymmetrical in almost every proportion, swayed languidly in the breeze. Like all men raised on Challax, this extrasolar planet on the fringes of the known galaxy, the youth had been affected more by the endless spores than women, his mind suffering the same toll as his body.
Gwen took her eyes off him and focused on Ms Krilov. “What about…”
“My son,” interrupted Ms Krilov, “is coming with me.” She unfolded both arms and held his hand; no love was conveyed in the action.
“He’ll die if he goes off-planet, probably within a matter of days.”
Ms Krilov reluctantly acknowledged the statement. “Yes, but in my arms, not here alone; unable to care for himself. Our quarantine designation has finally been lifted. If you try to stay they’ll take you forcefully. Just tell them Tani’s dead, let her loose, they’ll never find her. You’ll have to take your eldest, Gwen, she can’t stay. None of us can stay. Tani could, though…”
Moments later the woman and her son were leaving, walking up the pebble-lined path and through the gate. Gwen stood up. She watched both figures disappear into an ever-increasingly ghost-like village, Amaris Township, the first and only colony settled on the entire planet. Finding the image hard to bear she turned in the opposite direction. There gigantic trees sprouted every which way, always rising upwards, devoid of foliage, dominating and hiding a cold rocky landscape beneath. Shaped like giant roots so tangled and enmeshed amidst one another that a person’s first thought, upon seeing them, was that the forest must be one tree; but it wasn’t, each was many a millennia in age. Except over vast green oceans the Challaxian trees covered the entire planet. Bluish spores filled with mycelia pollen floated sluggishly above and throughout the forest.
Gwen recalled the original colonists’ planetary survey from twenty-four years ago which claimed the spores were not dangerous, that they were benign; a frequent and bitter memory, bitter because she was co-author.
Somewhere inside the forest Tani climbed gnarled boughs and ran along crooked limbs of trees, whispering secrets into hollows and listening to the saplings and seedlings long fingers entwining below Challax’s crust, shaking hands, feeling them touch the planet’s core and hearing it pulsate; it spoke to her.
From inside the house an alarm buzzed, Gwen groaned. Lately she had been skipping her daily bone-density exercises; today would be no different, there didn’t seem to be much point anymore. She threw down the spade and stepped briskly towards the house, impatient to turn the alarm off and check on Zelda, her eldest daughter.
Nighttime, the following day.
A small crowd of women and adolescent children stood in single file across the perimeter of the launch pad, moving briskly to board the transport-flyer.
Gwen and her daughter were already inside the craft, Zelda had the window seat.
Her webbed fingers danced through the air so fast Gwen could hardly keep up. Zelda did have a mouth, just no tongue or teeth or vocal cords; even so, Gwen often thought she could hear her voice.
She signed back. Tani will be happy there, she won’t be lonely. The forest is her home, the trees her friends.
Zelda scratched receding tufts of hair on her balding head. You’ll miss Tani won’t you mum.
The two of them embraced.
I’ll miss both of you, signed Gwen as tears shed from both eyes.
Lift-off! The thruster blasted and the shuttle shook. Challax descended behind. Leaving the planet’s orbit, vision instantly went from the ordinary Challaxian night sky of layered obsidian encrusted with flashing diamonds to a jet-black containing twinkling white lights too far away to see wink.
Below revolved a murky atmosphere shimmering the brown ochre of Challaxian trees. So soon the entire planet became a ball, then a shining orb, then merely another light among many. Gwen’s final agrarian report was done, finished weeks ago; once sent and received Challax would officially be declared uninhabitable.
The interplanetary vessel continued onward into the dark.
Things whose ancestors were once West African rainforest bats fluttered through and around intricate branches amongst an assemblage of trees more varied and myriad than any kaleidoscopic image. A distant cousin of theirs, a daughter born of man and woman, with almost as much agility as the bats, skipped across arms, fingers and limbs of trees.
From deep within the forest a voice emanated, though not with sound.
Tani put one ear against soft bark and listened, reaching kinship. She stood up and flexed out thin membranous wings, which broke through the skin on her back, and dove from the branch to fly through low-gee gravity; now a superior navigator than any bat. There was no centre to the forest, for the forest was the world, but Tani was deep inside; far, far away from the abandoned township. The vibration was near. Deeper and deeper inward she went; the scent of fungal decay, caused by spores, eased off to be replaced by a homely smell of musk and damp earth. Limbs and legs increased, root by root, until blocking out two suns; they writhed and wriggled as if in welcome.
Tani kept going further inside and soon disappeared.
Sean Mulroy lives in Newcastle, NSW, in Australia. His fiction has previously appeared in Perihelion Science Fiction and AntipodeanSF amongst others.