“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.
“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.”
“‘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.”