Separation Anxiety

“Attention all travelers. Attention all travelers. Passengers on OLC Intrepid Light should report to Cosmodrome Terminal S for preboarding and cabin assignment. Passengers on OLC Intrepid Light should report to Terminal S for preboarding and cabin assignment. We thank you for your patronage.”

Auburn’s coffee was mostly water at this point, anxious stirring having melted most of the ice. The spaceport terminal was a bustling mass of humans, lyricians, and frames with places to go and people to see and cargo to carry. Everyone had a destination. Everyone had an origin.

The jackalope’s feet were propped atop his duffel bag as he sat on a high stool in the coffee shop just past the security checkpoint. He wasn’t given to nervousness – there’d always been a steadiness about him – but today he was tapping his toes against his luggage and wondering why he’d gone for cold brew instead of wildflower tea. He loved wildflower tea.

Did he? Trellis would make it for him some mornings. Something about the way it was loose leaf, how he always made sure there were mountain dandelion heads in it, floating gently on top of a bittersweet brew with just a few drops of honey.

He did. He did love wildflower tea. But he would never order it himself. Something about where it came from. Something about how the deer always knew exactly what blend of herbs would go together, how the flavors danced across the palate like a choreographed ballet, how they’d sit and lean against each other on the porch as the rain watered the forest and the garden and they’d let the silence do the talking.


“You could stay,” he said flatly, voice sharp-edged.

“I could give up my life, yeah. I’d rather not do that. If you were given the opportunity, wouldn’t you do something like this?” Pleading. It wasn’t like him to beg.

“It’s n-not giving up a life, it’s, it’s building one.” Distant. Fearful. Afraid. Of what, being alone? Auburn thought.

“I want to explore, Trellis. I want to find new opportunities! That’s what the frontier offers. That’s what’s beyond the belt. You’re so damn focused on the trees you can’t see the stars.”

The rain on the roof and the creaking of the branches in the forest outside punctuated the silence between them. For a moment the air was thick enough with tension to choke on. Trellis set about taking the first bite.

“How dare you.” The words hit like timber-fall. He wasn’t stuttering anymore.


His datapad chirped. He turned his arm to look at the message; the haptic interface jumped off the pad’s screen and hung amber text in the middle of the air, but the words may as well have shot him in the chest.

I'm not coming. --T

----------------
Original Follows
----------------

Trellis:

My transport for Tethys leaves in twelve hours.

You, obviously, mean the world to me -- I cannot begin to stress how sincere about this I am -- and I don't want to leave without sharing a moment and saying goodbye. I love you.

I'm going to Orbridge Port Euclid, and I'll be waiting at the cafe stand just off cosmodrome intake. I hope you'll be able to see me.

With love; longears.

Seven years and change of love, months of separation at a time, their last real moment together an angry one. This was his last chance to say goodbye.

God damn him.

Auburn gestured for the chord keyboard to reply. He thought a thousand things to say atop ten thousand more. He ground his teeth so hard he nearly chipped a tooth. He gestured away the keyboard and wrapped his hand around the screen to choke it back into standby mode.

He stood up and pushed his chair out, the metal legs making a scraping noise against the concor floor that would have woken the dead even in the din of the terminal’s bustle. He threw his bag over his shoulder and his coffee in the compost, unconsumed.

Guess that’s it then, he said to himself.

He choked back a sob.

Low Places

In contrast to many animals, leporidae are incapable of sweating of any kind. Nearly all of their heat exhaustion and thermoregulation occurs through their ears.

Auburn wished he could sweat now.

Maintenance of Tethys’ hydrocrackers was not comfortable work. Cramped (not for a frame, certainly, but absolutely for a jackalope of his size) and hot (an uncomfortable 45 degrees Celsius this far down from the solar collector) and dirty (a considerable amount of hydraulic fluid that was fine for Lyricians but not so much for the gaskets of the frames they’d tried to send down to do the work themselves), it was probably his least favorite job, but it was among the most critical of his functions — without the hydrocracker, there’d be no drinking water for Telemachus City, no heat for the few hundred thousand working and living and thriving there (“in no short part due to Guldsommar Generosity,” he mused, disappointedly).

After rotating the collar of the upward feed line until it was wrench-tight, he squeezed through a set of return pipes and very carefully past a photovoltaic reflector path into a control area. Using his wrench for leverage, he grabbed the cutoff valve with two meaty peach-furred hands and twisted clockwise to open it. The equipment flushed to life, no drips or spurts or splashes.

Another job well done. He smiled and lifted his wristcom to his mouth.

“Hydrocontrol, maintenance complete. Wheels are turning.”

“Copy clear, Auburn, looks like she’s hummin’. Union break?”

“Nah, Cole, I think I’m done for the day. Don’t think there are any other travelers left to process in my queue.”

“Yeah, yeah, was hoping to pawn off some of these wastew–“

“Nnnnnnope.”

“C’mon, man, the treatment plant could use an engineer like you helping them with their work orders!”

“The treatment plant could use any competent wrenchwringer!” Auburn shot back.

A bellicose laugh over the comms. “Yeah you’re right about that. All right, sounds like we’re wrapping up.”

“Fire up the gravlift for me. Auburn out.


“Looky looky! Guldsommar’s most talented waterboy,” came a squeaky voice from the descender airlock.

Paying no mind to his engineering manager, Auburn peeled the coldsuit from his upper torso, sliding his huge arms out of the upper sleeves and shimmying the rest down his legs. He threw it into his locker, crumpled, and slid himself into a tank top and a pair of Guldsommar-issue work slacks. “What can I say, I know my niche. You should try it sometime, Oleg. Afraid you might crack a talon?” He pulled his button-down work shirt out and wiggled his way into it.

“Got more important things to do than knock pipes with grease-knuckles, wolpertinger,” the osprey frowned as the shirt started to button. “You, ah, got a call while you were out. Someone at Aldyne’s looking for you.”

The locker door slammed shut. Auburn wasn’t one much for visibly shaken, but he sure looked that way now. “I assume they left a message.”

“They did, ja. I didn’t pry. Just said they were with Stellar Agriscience, said to call back soon as possible. I thought you didn’t know anyone in the inner rim.”

The jackalope’s silence spoke volumes. Oleg continued unabated. “Anyway,” he said, laying the transpariflex in his hand down on the bench behind Auburn’s locker, “here you go. Hope is good, ja? Never good when those inner rim guys make long distance calls.”

“No.”

“Anyway. Cole tells me you are off shift. Work went well I hope?”

“The gaskets on cracker 4 should be good to hold for decades to come. Pleased to say that the next fellow touches ’em won’t be me unless something catastrophic happens. The icegrind heads might have a few sols left of life on ’em, though. Probably need to be replaced sooner rather than later.”

Ja, ja, okay, will bring it up at the next planning. Take off. Get some sleep. Cool off? Maybe return that phone call?”

Auburn rolled the flex up and put it in his bag, threw the bag over his shoulder, made towards the door.

“Maybe,” he said, sliding it shut behind him without a second thought.


Auburn’s home — a condo in the neighboring city of Hallusport — was described accurately as “spartan,” though it left a lot of room for that word to do a lot of work. The concor walls were bare save for the hotel-style decorative lighting and on-lease artwork that came with the rental, the furniture and electronics were Guldsommar standard issue company stock for employee housing (“only the finest for our frontier founders” he’d scoffed once when the bed they’d provided him didn’t fit his nearly seven-foot frame and promptly split in half after a week of use), the pantry stocked just enough for a couple meals in advance.

After sloughing off his work clothes and hitching up his boxer briefs, he fumbled around in his bag for the transpariflex. “Open message,” he said to it, and the blank transparent sheet sprang to life with a full-page video message.

“Hey, longears. It’s, uh, I know. I know it’s been a while,” the voice began, soft like the caress of cotton, dewy like morning leaves, gentle like a mist settling in the branches of an enormous forest. Auburn’s ocean-blue eyes locked on to his correspondent’s golden ones, his expression and state shifting from exhaustion to fondness, an ever-so-slight tremor in his hand as he held the flex.

“Sorry to send you a message from my work address, I uh, well, actually have a work-related question that I wanted to propose, but also I’ve got a new job now, with Aldyne — yeah, yeah, I know, I know, but it’s arboriculture on a space station! I get to work with trees in space! I’m so excited. I can’t believe it. I’m going to get a chance to make some world a better world, where people like us can live. A new home for Lyricians. We’re going to be explorers! I’m going to be an explorer. A pioneer,” the

The camera panned away. A blur of gray and mint-green turned to walls of white, configured in a drum, with rows and rows of tree plantings and trimmings and agricultural equipment, peppered throughout with lush patches of all shades of green. “Look! Look at this. Isn’t this magnificent? It’s so…it’s so green! We did so much work to bring this back on Earth, and now it’s here. I’m so happy. Doesn’t this make you happy?”

It did.

The camera panned back, an image of mostly nose and eyes. He was never any good with technology, the jackalope laughed to no one in particular, echoing hard off the concor. “Auburn, I, uh, I know it’s out of the blue for me to call you like this. We haven’t spoken for years. I know that. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I wanted to hyperlight you and let you know that, well, we need people for the venture. We need ably-minded folk. I need a good hydrologist and I need a good engineer, and I know you’re both of those, and it’d be nice to see you again, e-even after all that, uh.”

The feed went quiet briefly. “Anyway. I’m sorry. I know it’s hard to catch transport out of the Jovians but if you can, please. If you can make it to Novaterra, meet me at New Mawsynram. Just…call first, okay? I’d love to hear from you. I’d love to see you.”

In the background, someone called a name. “Oh, uh, that’s me. Okay. I’m gonna hang up now, um, okay. Love you. Take care. Call me either way, okay? Okay. Bye for now. Look!” the message said, camera panning back to the lushness. “Look again! Okay. Bye for real now, okay, bye. Uh. End transmiss–“

End transmission.

///Shigo, Trellis R.
///Aldyne Stellar Agrisciences
///Technologies for the Modern Frontier

[CARNET ENCRYPT // 33KAPPA-979 // MESSAGE VALIDATED]

Crates

The cargo bay of the very plainly named Smyth-Kobar Benzene Fracturing and Reclamation Platform Charlie Echo Four One Four was aseptically lit, but the dingy and scraped-up paneling would never be as sterile as the photocells blasting overhead. The doors groaned open, the light poured out, and Meryl was able to make out the shape of a bird across the bay holding a large datapad and furrowing his brow, gesturing towards a pair of red-painted and grease-stricken Frames hauling something down the cargo ramp of his ship.

“Theo-doooore Colla-moooore!” Meryl bellowed from the cargo bay door bulkhead, her smoky drawl reverberating across the deckplates and over the din of the Smyth-Kobar Frames pushing gravtrolleys full of crates across a mostly empty warehouse and the Frames cleaning house behind them.

Her whiskers perked, ears high, eyes wide, arm thrust upward. Excited as ever, the cougar thumbed the magnetic toggle on her wristpad and kicked off the deckplates to float over to him. “Brace for impact!” she hollered.

Theodore looked up from his manifest, quickly stowing it to intercept her, his own magboots planted firmly against the deck. “Miss Meryl!” he hooted, throwing his wings open to tug her downwards, his much smaller frame bent backwards on collision, quickly remembering just how tall six foot six could be against his own foot shorter height.

Her arms squeezed him like steel cable. He tried his best to reciprocate. She gave the best hugs; it was his favorite part of the run. Toggling her boots back to magnetized, she took a quick step back and helped the gull reorient himself. “Whatcha got for me, Theo?”

“I, uh,” the seagull frowned, scratching at the back of his head beneath his yellow bandana. “Genuinely dunno, miss. Goldies sent me beltward for my monthly shipment of Benzene and said they had a crate from Smyth-Kobar. Framestuff, maybe? The, uh, manifest doesn’t say much other than it came off the lines out the frameyards in the Belt, and it’s been hanging around the Port Kishar warehouse for a while I think, but they had it flagged specifically for your station.” Theo’s face approximated a smile as best his beak would manage. “Guess I’m just the fella with enough cargo space to bring it your way. Where do you wanna we should drop it off?”

She seemed to ignore the question. “You been hooked up yet?” she mused, eyebrow cocked.

“Nah, got some issues with the collet rings. I, uh, filed a repair request with flight control before landing, but, well, you kn–“

“SAY NO MORE!” she bellowed, slapping her friend hard enough on the shoulder to bend him at the knees, sticking the thumb on her free hand in her solar plexus. “The station’s Chief Engineer’s gonna handle this one for you,” she winked.

Meryl unclipped the radio from its holster on her belt and clicked the button a couple of times. “Control, engineering; I got the GHV Big Boy docked here with some coupling issues. I don’t wanna run the risk of a fire down here when we cut the pumps on. Can you wake up gamma shift and get their boys down here? I got a whole team working on the collectors this afternoon.”

“Engineering, this is Station Control, we have all the Frames you can shake a sti–“

She bit back. “Do I sound like I want a couple of rust-throwing grease-draggers fixing this fella’s ship? This is life or death. You wanna get explosively spaced or do you wanna stay in liquor? Our tanks are close to busting and we got a long-hauler here looking to gas and go.”

Engineering, Station Control. You’ve gotta quit doing this, Meryl.”

“Cody, bless your heart, you know I will come up there and rattle you so hard the conduit mice are gonna think their end’s comin’. Do you comprehend me?”

A pause. Then, “Engineering, Station Control. I’ll get the on-call roster pulled, ma’am.

“Thank you, Station Control; Engineering out and about.” She clipped her radio back into its holster. “You wanna hit the galley? Grab a beer? Josie down in airponics started growing hops and barley and we just started stillin’ it here on station. It’s a-oh-kay lager, if I say so myself.”

Theo sighed. He knew there’d be no way to refuse the offer. A pint might do him good and a filling cycle would be just long enough for whatever passed for a hot meal aboard this old gas rig. “A beer? Sounds just about my speed,” he chuckled. But, uh, the crate?”

Meryl paused. “Oh, right. We can come back to it, right?”

The gull laughed. “Always later with you.” She threw her arm around her seagull compatriot, talking at-instead-of-to him about the latest news from Dione as their boots sniked off and on against the deckplate. The cargo bay doors groaned closed behind them as the red frames dropped a bulky looking crate onto a gravlift and pushed it around, losing it in the jetsam of the cargo already being rearranged.

Work could wait, she thought.

Escape

Vision blurred, breathing ragged, blood chilled, and adrenaline pumping, Gideon managed to swing his head into a position where he could see his captor.

“Tsk tsk tsk,” the angular figure seemed to say, opening their lighter with a metallic snik, flame sparking and drawing closer to their…mouth? beak…? before disappearing completely. “Gideon, buddy, look, you’re lucky we found you!”

A deep inhale, then a huge exhale. Mentholated secondhand stung Gideon’s nostrils. He coughed.

“Cold out there on the ice, Gid. You realize if we hadn’t found you that the Peacekeepers would have, right?”

“Who…who’s we,” the lemur spit, the taste of copper in his mouth. Was that…blood?

“Right now, bud, the only important identity is yours,” suggested his captor, whose black-gray visage got closer, coming into focus as they approached him, squatting down to meet Gideon eye to eye. Their tone was critical, harsh, unwelcoming. “It’s also important that you’re out of the cold. Antarctica is no place for an Aldyne dick trying to track us down, okay?” Another exhale.

Gideon couldn’t help but inhale this time, ragged and painful. Something was very wrong in his chest.

“What’s Aldyne doing out in this region, anyway? We’re not hurting anyone. We’re minding our business.”

“If you’re minding your business,” Gideon spat, licking his chops, tasting his own blood, “we wouldn’t–”

Whatever he had left to say was cut off by what felt like an electrical circuit in his ribcage. His whole body felt like he just ate an exploded battery. The fellow in whose possession he now found himself had stuck him with a shock rod in his open wound. Gideon screamed.

“We were minding our business. Now you’re minding our business. Our mutual acquaintance here didn’t want to peg you with a railgun from a few kilometers out but we don’t have a lot of options here at McMurdo. Your company decided to send your hired guns and you are the only one left from your team.”

His captor pulled the device out of his chest wound and Gideon took his first breath in what felt like an hour. “Honestly, my guy, I was not expecting Franklin to haul back any survivors, but since you had the good fortune not to keel over, you need to answer some questions, or I’m going to introduce you to a whole host of experiences I guarantee you corporate security hasn’t prepared you for! I’m not gonna ask you again! Why are you here!”

“I’m…” Gideon started, vision blurring again. The realization that his team of four was…where were they? Were there four? “Aldyne sent my team because we’d received reports of a Lyrician Liberation Cell out near McMurdo.”

Flake paused. Why would Aldyne Defense be trying to apprehend Lyricians? Why would they send a Lyrician security team to arrest others of their kind? This land belonged to them. These two were practically brothers.

None of this made any sense.

“AlDef is working with the UN now? Why?”

“They just sent me out here for recon, I don’t know what they were planning on doing beyond that! I’m just following orders!”

“Who cleared this operation? Who gave you those orders?”

Gideon spat, a mixture of fuchsia blood and hot saliva, in his captor’s face. That much he could see clearly. It didn’t take long for him to regret it when he felt the business end of the shock rod in his chest again, and his body seized like he was chewing on jumper cables.

“You were not invited here, blood traitor,” his captor sneered. The lemur could feel the air choke in his windpipe. “You took the side of the oppressor. You took their guns and you came to hunt us down after we’d been ceded this land in the McMurdo Concordat. You have the gall to literally spit in my face?”

A series of alarms, sharp and piercing, came from somewhere nearby. Gideon wasn’t able to make out where.

“Hey, Flake, he’s hurtin’ I think.”

“Frank, I think if there’s something wrong with our guest it isn’t my problem, right?” Flake removed the rod from Gideon’s wound. Gideon’s vision started to clear. He took a deep, ragged breath, choking on the air.

“Get this son of a bitch some respimix and medgel for his wounds. Where’s their skimmer?” the bird hissed, tossing the rod on a nearby utility cart, flexing their hand to loosen the joints.

“No skimmer. Big lander though, bear-loaded. Plenty weapons. Cal and Kethri said it had a small nuke. Looked mean. On their way out now to bring it in.”

“A lander? You said you only took out three AlDef guys plus” — the bird stopped, glaring at his captive coughing up hot pink phlegm on the floor — “this dipshit. What kind of lander was it?”

Franklin, a giant panda with more muscle than brains, frowned in deep thought, big black eye circles furrowing, wrinkling the scar across his forehead. “Uh…real big. Show me cards.”

The jay pulled out a deck of ship identification flexes from their back pocket and spread them across a table. Gideon was still catching his breath. “Which one of these.”

A beat passed. The klaxons from the medical equipment strapped to Gideon’s wrist started hollering again. Franklin laid a huge pawfinger on top of a Holland Aerodynamics atmospheric transport. “This one,” he said, proudly. “Cal say we can leave orbit if we take.”

Flake’s eyes went wide. “Yeah. Yeah. We definitely can leave if we take.” They paused again in thought. “Make sure he’s healthy enough to travel. We’ll need his biometric imprint to get the thing started, and it’ll only work if he’s alive. I need to go out on the frost and make sure they’re not planning on sending anyone else down here.”

“I worry?”

“Yeah, big worry. If AlDef is sending expedition teams that means the UN has no interest in honoring the treaty they signed handing this land over and we need to get the hell out of here.” Flake made a few talontaps on their wrist-worn datapad.

“Folks, uh, I hoped I’d never have to say this,” Flake’s voice came echoing throughout the McMurdo Station’s PA system. “I guessed correctly. The UN is about to clear us out. They left us a carrier. We’re on our way to secure it. Pack only what you can carry and be prepared for departure in twenty minutes.”

Franklin frowned. “We go?”

“Not without him,” Flake grimaced, brow furrowing, as he gestured at Gideon’s exhausted frame bleeding pink on the concrete floor. “Once he’s got a rebreather and he’s bandaged, get him in a thermal jacket and put him in a brace. We need to move.”

[next: https://steller.space/2021/02/14/departure/]

Consideration

[previously: https://steller.space/2020/12/09/registration/]

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?”

“Wh…what?”

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.”

“Trellis–”

“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–”

“Yeah.”

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…I don’t…maybe?”

“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.

 

Registration

“Mister…” said the desk attendant, looking at their datapad, eyes the first to fumble with the pronunciation and mouth the second, “Shee-go?”

Shigo,” the deer said, frowning as he stood. “Long I. That’s me. Just…call me Trellis.”

“Trellis, huh? Like, an arbor. Oh! Because you’re an arborist.”

“Arboriculturalist. And, uh, n-no, because that’s my name,” Trellis replied.

After a highly awkward silence, and after the attendant tried to find anywhere to look other than the deer’s two meter tall frame, they made a face like they’d just dropped a bowl of eggs. “My apologies. This way please,” they gestured down a corridor.

The poured concrete walls of the Aldyne Stellar Agriscience building offered a cornucopia of living color for decoration. Wooden paneling broke up the long gray halls with splashes of brown, bright white light diffused behind it to illuminate the corridors without making it feel too sterile. Fungal cultures grew out of little sconces dotting the walls, remnants of the same types of spores used to bring life to the Martian regolith. Lichens were allowed to crawl the walls on specially made stone lattices, tracing intricate patterns along the corridor. Trellis closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and for a moment, he felt like he was back home in the Cascades.

The echoing clunk of a steel door latch stirred him from his reverie, which he must have been lost in for a while; the assistant was already at the end of the corridor waiting at the interview room. “S-sir?” said the attendant. “Right this way.”

The deer’s eyes flashed open. “Sorry. I, uh. Sorry,” he stammered, continuing, a slight hustle in his walk.

“Director Stoughton will be in momentarily, she’s currently in a meeting that’s running just a bit long. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea?”

“Oh, um. Thanks,” Trellis said, removing his jacket and folding it carefully over the back of his chair. “Sparkling water?”

“Absolutely. Back in a moment,” the assistant said, the door sliding shut behind them, leaving Trellis alone with himself.

Director Stoughton’s office had a picture window overlooking Orion City’s Bell Fields district, hundreds upon hundreds of apartment blocks housing some of Mars’ best and brightest, all employees of the Aldyne Sciences Corporations, all working in Jacob’s Ladder, tarrying between the compound and the condos, raising families, doing work they believed was in the best interests of Lyricians and Humans and everyone yet to be born. Parks dotted the landscape, Hyperion trains criss-crossing the streets between the buildings. Trellis recognized some of the trees from the window, little clusters of paper birch and douglas fir clearly imported from Old Terra to make the residents feel at home.

In that moment, standing behind Director Stoughton’s desk, staring out her picture window, he felt very far away from the Northwestern Territories, and he felt very alone.

“It’s the pride of the company, you know,” came a low, burning voice from behind him. He pivoted. In the doorway stood Margaret Stoughton, her tall, broad frame filling the opening, taller ears barely brushing the top of the entry. “Orion City’s been a piece of the Aldyne corporate infrastructure for over two hundred years, and we take very good care of our own.”

“Looks like a scrip town,” the deer muttered flatly.

“We give our employees everything they need to survive. We only ask for their labor in return, Mr. Shigo,” the serval replied. “But we’re not here to have a labor rights conversation, are we? Quite the opposite in fact. Do you mind?”

“O-oh. Sorry,” Trellis said, quickly finding his seat like the song had stopped in a game of musical chairs. “No, you’re right. I-”

“You’re here because of the letter,” the serval stated, matter of factly.

“I, uh. Yeah. Sort of.”

The door slid open. The attendant wordlessly set a coaster and a glass of sparkling water on the small table between the two chairs in front of the large wooden desk, then exited without so much as a breath.

“A mister Katrena–”

Mixter,” Trellis corrected. “Don’t gender them.”

“No matter,” she frowned, ears flattening, their white tips disappearing behind her head. “‘A little birdie’ referred you, is that correct?” The words came out of her mouth laced with derision, bumping off her incisors and breaking loose with the same amount of sharpness.

“Th-they did, yes.”

“I’ve heard about your work on restoring the natural evergreens to the peaks of the Sun-a-do after the Glassing. Very impressive, Mr. Shigo.” Her ears perked, pulling her chair out, taking her seat behind her desk. She began to idly key information into her terminal.

“The UN did a thorough job of obliterating that region of the world, ma’am; I simply did right by the mountains. You can plant a tree but not a forest. A forest is a system. You can’t plant a system.”

“You can nurture one, though.”

“Y-yes, you could,” Trellis said, holding his glass, taking a slightly nervous sip, setting it down.

“Let me be blunt, Mr. Shigo. We were looking for a botanist, someone whose skills were more generalized. You are…not that. Specialized, to be sure, but not quite what we were looking for. But you may be just what we need.”

The deer’s brow furrowed. Not one to ever have held a decent poker face, the frustration became evident. “It was a week-long trip getting out here, ma’am, I don’t understand why–”

“I think — and my team thinks — you would be a perfect caretaker for our long term arboreal storage initiative. We call it,” she said, making a few taps on her console and swiping a document to the picture window behind her, “Ivory Hermitage.”

A tubular structure, spun gravity wheels spaced evenly throughout, appeared behind her. The diagram had some mathematics on it, none of which Trellis understood, but he got the jist; it was a seed vault and science laboratory, a space station pushed into a satellite-like orbit of Mars. The oxygen garden would need tending, there was room to grow all manner of plants, lichens, fungi…even trees.

“Wh…what?”

“You’re a botanist of a sort, as I said. Specialized. We’re Aldyne, Mr. Shigo. We have plenty of scientists of all kinds. Physicists, geneticists, horticulturalists, mycologists, geologists. We have arboricultralists too, but none with your reputation. Stellar Agriscience is one of our newer initiatives and we need a newer mind to help guide our aim. The ceramist guiding the apprentice’s fingers on the pottery wheel, if you will. Do you follow, Mr. Shigo?”

“Can you call me Trellis, please?”

Margaret sighed dismissively, waved her paw, slammed it on the desk. “No. Look, I don’t have a lot of time. You, however, have two weeks of stay booked at one of Orion City’s finest hotels, and a first class Solfed Charter back to Old Terra whether you take the job or not. So give it some thought. Take in the sights. Really consider if this is the right role for you, Mr. Shigo. But bear in mind we hand selected you from literally thousands of possible candidates. Just because you’re the top of the stack doesn’t mean we’re not willing to overlook you.”

“Why did you fly me up here th–”

Her pace quickened, frustrated. “You’d be curating an arboretum in zero gravity. Complete control over its contents, what we store, where it goes, what experiments are run, how the hydroponics are set up. Hell,” she said, stifling a laugh, “if you wanted to grow Ganymedan Poppies, we couldn’t stop you.”

Trellis took a moment to catch his breath. “What’s the catch?”

“No catch, Mr. Shigo. It’s a permanent contract. Full medical, full dental — lord knows you’ll need it with all those teeth, something something gift horse,” she chuckled, Trellis making a disgusted look at her prejudiced comment, “and a substantial stellar habitat stipend to spend both in orbit and on the surface as you like.”

The deer’s silence was telling.

The serval smiled, teeth bared, predatory. “Look, Mr. Shigo. You can enjoy your two weeks on Mars any way you like. I’m not here to tell you what to do. You want to go back to your little nothing cabin in your big nothing woods north of a metropolis full of criminals and poors, that’s a decision you can come to on your own, as an adult. I’m offering you a way out.”

She stood up and clicked something on her terminal, the wireframe diagram of the Ivory Hermitage disappearing, the vista of the residential blocks of Orion City returning to full view.  “A fellow Lyrician heading a stellar initiative. Not many of our kind can say that,” she purred. “Not many at all.

“Frankly, Dr. Aldyne sees something in your perseverance that I, too, find admirable. I’m here to conduct a hire, and I think you’re the right deer, dear. Since you already took the liberty of signing the non-disclosure agreement I’ve had my attendant deliver all the FOUO data I can share on the program to your datapad for review at your leisure. Take your time to study the information, the description of the role, and get back to me one way or the other.”

Trellis sank into the chair as far as he could, lost in thought, staring at his boots, trying to find any imperfections he could focus on, any small crevice he could escape into. “I have a question,” he said to the floor.

“What,” Margaret sighed.

“What did Flake say about me, exactly, that got you to message me?”

Mixter Katrena referred you to the program because they suggested, and I quote,” she said, grabbing a datapad off her desk and clearing her throat, “‘Handlebars knows that run-down nursery of his is only capable of growing irradiated little aloe plants. I’m tired of seeing him fret over dying flora when he could be nursing seedlings to new life.’ Your record in the Sun-a-do Restoration Project from the United Nations also helped in our decision, but frankly your passion for the work often speaks for itself.”

“I’m sorry?”

“‘He’s a nurturer,'” the serval said, once again quoting from the report, “‘practically a druid. The man has a way with plants. He sings to them, he treats them as a mother would their children. As his friend, his lover, and his family, I cannot think of a single individual whose thumb is greener than Trellis Shigo’s.'”

“They…Flake? Said that about me?”

“And, if I may, Mr. Shigo, whether you’re aware of it or not, their voice is at its loudest among those of our kind here on Mars, particularly after the McMurdo Concordat.”

“I’ll…” Trellis started, trailing off, pausing, losing himself in his memories. “I’ll need time to think.”

The door slid open, carefully timed, the attendant waiting just outside in the corridor. “You have two weeks, Mr. Shigo. Take as much of it as you need.”

[next: https://steller.space/2020/12/11/consideration/]

Outside

The smooth greased-metal sound of sealbolts whirring into place as the inner airlock door clenched itself into a solid seal between the cabin and what was about to be hard vacuum, the metal thud barely audible in his helmet assuring the deer that depressurization was a guarantee. Trellis grabbed the cuff around his suit glove and wiggled it just to be sure it was snug and locked into place.

[Inner seal confirmed. Pressure equalization in progress.]

“Nervous” was maybe close to the right word. After all, hard vacuum is pretty much the end of it, really. You can tell yourself this is routine, I’ve done this a hundred times all you want, but nothing is stopping metal fatigue or a loose suit seal from resetting your expectations.

The heads-up display in his suit helmet lit up, orange and yellow and subtle, meters showing available power, available respimix, vital signs, a compass, a clock sparking to life. “Everything a growing spacer needs to feel secure,” his trainer had told him.

He took a deep breath. A gauge on the wall counted down the time to cycle. The breath was reflexive — the suit was perfectly capable of generating the necessary breathable atmosphere to ensure he was comfortable — but it never stopped Trellis from doing it every single time.

In that moment, as the timer ticked down, the deer reached for the maglock toggle on the suit’s thigh. The button gave without a second thought, and the suit’s HUD confirmed the disengagement with a pop-up notification. Trellis applied the gentlest little push angling off the deck plate and began to rise, his gloved hands brushing against the top of the airlock.

He was floating.

[Magboot disengage not recommended]

He keyed the ACK button on his wristpad. He knew.

[Pressure equalized. Outer door seal disengaged.]

The timer exhausted itself, the yellow triangle light winking out, turning to a green circle. The outer airlock door clunked apart, the metallic whirring of the sealbolts unbinding themselves and retracting as the door slid open to reveal the vacuum of space.

Thumbing the toggle again to remagnetize himself, Trellis stepped out onto the catwalk and began making his way to the tidally locked front of the seed vault station.

“I love the color,” he would say to the other caretakers when they’d ask what his spacewalks were for. They didn’t know he’d been in contact with the Lyricians at Phobos Lab to help rebuild some of the agridomes there, smuggling seed packets in their returned supply canisters. They didn’t know it was to look at the verdant patches on the Martian surface near New Orion or Holyoke Green.

He gripped the railing and stared at the red planet’s surface. The station would be passing Syromyatnikov Plateau soon, the bringer of war’s largest boreal reserve, and their fruit forests were coming into season.

Trellis reveled in its verdant reaches.

Morning

It felt like every bump in the gravel on the way out of Trellis’ driveway telegraphed itself directly into the seats of Flake’s little runabout, the sounds of creaking plastic and shuddering frame filling the cabin.

“Just a little farther,” Flake muttered.

“It’s my driveway! I know how far it is,” Trellis replied.

“That was more for the car than for you,” the jay crowed, clearing the final pothole and emerging onto the forest service access road leading to the freeway. “Good lord! When are you gonna pave that thing?”

Silence from the passenger’s seat. Trellis was gazing back at his home, furrowing his brow and narrowing his eyes to see its lights through the thick haze of the morning fog. “Why would I pave a driveway I barely ever use?” he muttered.

“Oh, come on now, soursticks. You go to the nursery like twice a week. Besides, that little truck of yours has gotta be about thirty years old by now! You’re gonna shake that thing apart. You can’t just neglect your access road, y’know.”

More silence. Not a word. Their friend’s focus was clearly elsewhere, and attempting to jar it loose would take more than snide commentary about property upkeep.

Moments passed as quickly as the roadway signs and turn-outs. Flake thumbed the radio presets, not really to listen as much as to fidget. The deer slouched against the window, watching the sun cut knives through the mist in the trees.

He sighed. The mood in the cabin changed. The bird flinched at the noise, unexpected.

“You miss him, don’t you,” Trellis asked, quietly.

Flake stiffened, sat taller in the seat, and the vehicle swerved slightly when their grip on the wheel tightened with the motion. The seat belt’s limiter ratcheted. “I don’t want to talk about this. Not with you, Trel.”

“We’re going to have to, you know.”

“We’re not.”

“It’s been six years.”

I’m aware.”

“You know he still calls, right? He’s been asking about you. Wants to get together with the two of us for dinner.”

Slowing to a stop at an intersection, the steller’s jay palmed the right hand blinker and checked their corners. They sighed, touching their forehead to the wheel as another vehicle blasted through the stop sign in the opposite direction. “Trellis. He wanted to tear ass around the country, see the sights. I wanted to stay right where I was. It was an addiction. Marder was never going to be a good fit. I don’t miss him any more than I miss smoking.” They raised their head, turned to look at the deer, only saw silver mane furtively shifting towards the passenger window. Flake frowned. “Can we please change the subj–”

“Fine, fine. Sorry to bring it up,” Trellis replied, cracking the window. “I just…I wonder. I wonder what things would be like if you and I–”

“Never would have happened,” Flake interrupted.

“It almost did.”

“It didn’t almost did. We fooled around. We knew better. You, you, you and I were never…Trel, we were never that way.”

The blinker shut off as the runabout rounded the corner, swinging on to the exit ramp in the dawn’s early light, the sun starting to burn the fog off the freeway. The drive was mostly silent, save for the static crackling over the light jazz and occasional chatter on the radio. Trellis was focused on the trees as they flashed past the window, taking little notes in his journal, doing little sketches of the evergreens and the leafy trees giving up their protective garnishing in anticipation of the coming snow.

Flake, of course, was focused on the road. But they allowed themselves a stolen glance at their lifelong friend, college roommate, confidante, aloe source, sometimes rescuer of the wayward houseplant here or there.

And the jay smiled.

We probably could have been that way, though, Flake thought to themselves. Maybe. Just not then, and not there. The love Flake felt was more friendly than fiery, but it was there all the same. Trellis had to know that, somehow, the jay figured.

“Coffee sound good?” Flake asked. “Then the farmer’s market?”

“Coffee sounds great,” Trellis replied, wistful.

Summer

God, it was hot. The kind of hot that makes you wish winter still existed. What was left of the day’s sunlight bored through the slats in the vertical blinds, cutting across the apartment’s carpet like fiery blades. Spaceplanes took off and landed, seemingly infinitely, at the spaceport visible from the small apartment’s windows, the loud roars of afterburners drowning out the less-loud drone of the box fans stuck in the window, trying desperately to force hot air out of the western-exposed hotbox of a living quarters.

Flake splayed out on the couch, ice-sweaty water bottle clenched tight in their left hand, television remote in the right, flipping through channels and only pausing long enough to press the damp plastic vessel against their forehead. It wasn’t enough to ease the bird’s hangover, but then again, neither was the twelve-hour nap they started at seven o’clock in the morning.

Keys jingled in the door lock, the jay only acutely aware of it thanks to their temporarily heightened sensitivity to…well, everything. The door handle turned, the slick grinding of metal-on-metal mechanisms clunking into place thundering in the bird’s ears like the march of a thousand New Terran soldiers marching across the plains.

“When did you get in?” came the voice from the foyer, light and alpen, soft and grave like the ash of a forest fire sifting through a smoky breeze.

“When I felt like it,” moaned the bird.

“Jesus,” Trellis frowned. “Are you staying hydrated at least?”

An arm thrust weakly upwards from behind the back of the couch, rattling a water bottle full of ice cubes.

“Well, at least you have that going for you,” the deer mused. “Are you okay?”

The arm fell back to its place. Flake opened their beak, sprayed some water in it, choked it down. “As okay as I can be, given that I’m out of work, I’ve got no place to go, I’ve turned to my only friend within five hundred klicks, and I’m not aboard some godforsaken jobs transport to the new frontier,” Flake said, affecting those last few words as if delivering a marketing pitch. “Thanks for asking.”

The deer chuckled. “Thanks for not changing the locks.”

“Thanks for not changing anything,” Flake replied.

Spring

“I’m tired of work, you know? It feels like nothing I do ever leads to anything getting done,” his friend moaned.

Trellis sat patiently, stirring his coffee and listening to his old college roommate talk about his work, his love life (christ, he thought), his hobby, whatever streamed from his consciousness. Mostly he sat stirring his coffee, cold after so many minutes of waiting to get a word in edgewise, and thinking about his plants.

“Anyway, you know how it is. Chicken one day…hey, uh, are you there?” Flake asked, talon tapping on the table.

The deer, shaken from his navel gazing, let the stirring stick go, briefly watching it spin around listlessly in the coffee. “S-sorry.”

“Nah, nah, don’t worry about it. What’s on your plate these days? How’s the flower shop?”

“Spring’s around the corner. The plants aren’t used to it being so nice so early. Global warming…”

“Yeah,” said his friend, gazing out the window at the rain. “Terrifying.”

Trellis tapped his stick against the side of his coffee cup and gently laid it down on the table, as if that would somehow improve the quality of the already dead beverage. He took a pull from the cup, sucking down the grounds. “This coffee…detestable.”

Flake laughed. “What, you don’t like pour-over? Got any plans?”

“You know I don’t like pour-over and you know I don’t have plans.”

“Want to get together for drinks tonight? The Shady Pine has some really out-there new wave jazz trio doing a downtempo set.” He waved his hands in the air when he said “out there” as if to emphasize the oddity.

“No, Flake.”

“Five dollar cover,” the bird sing-songed. He waggled his eyebrows some. “Eh? Ehhh?”

“No, no. Evening in. Sorry. Maybe another time?” Trellis frowned.

A sigh. “Sure thing, man. I understand.”

“Thanks.”

– – –

Trellis McCormick boarded the bus home, took out his little black book, and started doodling.  Little tiny sketches of trees, plants, grassy patches the bus passed by. He wrote the names in the margins.

Scotch broom.

Douglas fir.

Weeping willow.

The rain picked up. What was simply background noise and streaks on the windows had turn into full blown wipers-on-high interrupting-idle-conversation rain. It beat against the leaves of the trees and the blades of grass in his neighborhood. The bus slowed down to cope with the weather and Trellis perked up.

He took a pull from his water bottle, then offered an empty toast to the windows and the plants beyond them as the bus rattled down the forest road. “Spring,” he whispered to no one in particular. “It’s here,” he smiled.