The door to the hotel room slid open and Trellis took a moment to remove his work jacket.
Never one much for appearances, the coat he’d worn after spending a decade in the northwestern mountains — planting trees, cultivating the soil, arranging shipments of dirt and dead leaves and fill and logs and waste, carefully raising the right kind of mushrooms to form a bond with what had been a long-obliterated winter wasteland — was probably his closest link to home this far away. It smelled like soil and hydraulic fluid and sweat, contained memories of a victory against all odds, a sort of nylon suit of armor against the uncaring world beyond the treeline, a feeling of warmth beyond the insulation it provided.
It was as much him as his own body was. He hung it gently on the hangar, taking a moment to run his fingers through the fur lining the hood. Remembering long nights camped in the wilderness, staring up at the stars, wondering if the firs would ever grow, watching the lights of the aurora borealis dance across the sky like a ribbon on fire.
“They’re right,” he said aloud, shutting the closet, throwing himself across the bed, sighing through his nose. “Christ.”
He rolled over on his back, stared at the ceiling, raised his arm to see his datapad wrapped around his wrist. Accessing the room key application with a few taps, he dimmed the lights and closed the shutters, blacking the room out. A few more taps and the ceiling began to twinkle with the light of a thousand thousand stars a million million miles away.
He started to lose himself in his thoughts.
“Trellis, have you ever given any thought to, y’know, leaving?”
The spaceport was busier than usual. The sunlight, as always, cut across the living room like blades in Flake’s apartment. The viewscreen was on low volume, a science program about New Mawsynram’s unique weather climate. Some Aldyne Terraforming Corps Meteorologist was explaining the theories behind the rain.
“Leaving,” the bird asked, pulsing the coffee grinder. “You know. Those,” they said, nodding towards the picture windows as another stellarliner began its takeoff roll with the high-pitched whine of sublight engines.
“N-no. Why would I do that?”
Carefully unfolding a coffee filter and placing it on the scale, Flake tapped the grounds into the paper basket until their scale chirped satisfactorily. The bird set the filter in the glass brewer and thumbed the toggle on the electric kettle. “You finished your project, you’ve got cache now. You got a United Nations Egalitarian Cross for god’s sakes! The cascades…in five years it’ll be teeming with life again! You did that, Trel. What are you gonna do next?”
Trellis shrugged. “I figured I’d go back to Newhalem. Maybe start a farm–“
“A farm of what, bud?”
“I d-don’t know, a t-tree farm–“
“A tree farm! Wow! What kind of trees?” the jay crowed.
“Don’t patronize me,” the deer frowned.
“You know nothing grows out here that doesn’t glow in the dark, Trellis, yourself included.” Flake’s tone seemed to shift from sardonic to caustic. “Your potential here is tapped out. Do you not have higher ambitions? What about joining the terraforming corps on Venus? They could use someone to help expand the domes. Think about it. An entire forest named after you.”
“I don’t want to do that.”
Flake’s fist hit the counter with a thud enough to faze Trellis slightly. “You’re wasting your god damn skills fumbling around in some potting shed!”
The kettle clicked off, and Flake snatched it from its base, thumbing the Water key on his scale until it made a little melodic chime indicating the right weight had been reached.
The bird’s silence permeated the apartment almost as deeply as the smell of coffee grounds. The silence became uncomfortable.
“Call Flake,” Trellis muttered into his wrist.
The datapad chirped eagerly, attempting to set up the connection. Trellis rolled over on his side, reached behind his head, pulled out his hair tie, let his long silver hair fan out. After a beat, it chirped again to notify him the connection was established.
“Hello hey,” came the familiar voice, with a backing track of running water and clanking dishes in a washbasin.
“Flake,” Trellis sighed.
“Oh, hey bud,” the jay replied. The water stopped. “What’s up?”
“Why did you refer an application in my name to ASA?”
“Ah, okay. Not a social call,” Flake said, and Trellis swore he heard their eyes roll.
“No,” Trellis sighed, “not a social call.”
“Look, don’t think I’m not grateful. I just don’t get it. Why do you want me off the planet so bad?”
“What makes you think I want you off the planet?”
“Why are you answering my question with a question?”
Flake sighed. “You realize that there are thousands of opportunities out there, right? Millions? You could be the driving force that spreads our kind out past the Compact. We’re talking Neptune. You could be among the first folks to terraform Io. Io! They’re already working on it. Ring colonies. Drum colonies. New stations. You could be building oxygen forests! The work you’re doing is too important! You can’t just do one thing and give up!”
The line went silent on both ends. A sniff came through, crystal clear. Flake’s voice started to waver.
“I care about you but I can’t have you hanging around here and wasting yourself. I have work to do, too, Trellis. I have to do what I’m good at, and you have to do what you’re good at. It’s bigger than money or love or anything else. We’re still new here, relatively, our kind, you know? Having a Lyrician like you or me doing something like heading up a big multi-generational project…that could open doors. It could change lives, handlebars.”
After a pause to digest the words, including the emotion behind them, Trellis spoke. “You wouldn’t be saying it like this unless you’re planning something.”
“I’m not. Even if–”
A moment of silence. Hands held, released across tens of millions of miles. Trellis swore he could feel fingers intertwine. Their fights always ended like this.
“I knew this wasn’t a social call,” Flake said. Was that a smile?
“What are you doing?”
“Cleaning up. What are you doing?”
The deer sighed. Loudly. “I don’t know, Flake.”
A pause. The water stopped. Silverware clanking around loudly in a drawer.
“Marge told you about the Ivory Hermitage, didn’t she? It’s a huge initiative, you know. They’re just building it in Mars orbit and they’re going to tow it out past the Rim. You’d get to see the whole system, eventually. A Lyrician working for Aldyne, building a colony ship.”
“She…said it was a seed vault.”
“I mean, you looked at the diagram, right? Nobody needs all that space for plants, Trel. Come on.”
Another moment passed. Then another. Gears in the deer’s head began to grind away, chewing at this new information.
“I don’t want to leave the system.”
“I know, dear.”
“I don’t want to leave you.”
“I know, dear.”
“And…I’ll never get another opportunity like this again, will I.”
It was Flake’s turn to sigh. “Not in this lifetime, dear.”
Trellis hated when Flake called him “dear.” It was a blatantly transparent play on words. The jay just could not stop themselves. Even in times of duress, ever the joker. It was one of their most endearing qualities.
“I need to sleep,” Trellis yawned.
“You’ve had a big day. I bet you do, handlebars. Get some rest, think about things. Take a train around the planet, go see your parents or something. You can probably get a mass driver to New Vail somewhere out of Gusev, right?”
“I’ll look it up for you and fire it to your pad. Get some sleep. I love you and I’m hanging up for your own good okay? Okay. Mwah. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” Trellis said, the connection closing before he had a chance to return the sentiment.
Two weeks on Mars wouldn’t be so bad, he figured.