by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in FlagShip, Volume 2 Issue 6, September 2012
The elasti-tron was covered with dried and wilting plants again. Einray grumbled as he started peeling the putrid produce off of the glass sample plate. He hated the squishiness of biology.
“What are you guys doing in here?” Einray asked.
Brent Schweitzer and the other biologists looked amongst each other, waiting to see who would answer him. Finally, Brent gave in and became their representative. “The botany and gengineering labs are still shut down from the accident with Deenah’s hallucinogenic moss.”
One of the younger scientists glared at Brent. She must have been Deenah. “It wasn’t an accident,” she said. “It was supposed to transmit neuro-waves that would interfere with human brains.” She dusted her hands off, but they stayed dirty from the potting soil she’d been shaking out of a flower’s root system. “I just didn’t think it would work,” she said. “That’s all.”
Einray shuddered at the powdering of potting soil ringing around Deenah on the floor.
“Anyway…” Brent continued explaining, “it’s really hard to decommission a plant that gives off groovy vibes to anyone who gets near it. For now, they’ve set up a field around the lab to cancel out the neuro-waves. But, until the moss dies off on its own, or someone can rig up a more refined way to cancel out the neuro-waves…”
“You’ll be working here,” Einray concluded, dismally. Biologists had no place in a physics lab. At least, not his physics lab.
But there was no way to avoid it. He was bumping shoulders with plant-laden practitioners of the squishy-sciences all day. And the next day. By the third day, he thought he’d give the day a skip. Instead, Einray came into the lab that night. He was deeply embroiled in measuring the vibrational density of elasti-tron generated chronoplasm, when the door to the lab swung open.
“Oh no,” Einray groaned, “not at night too.”
“I’ll assume that was meant to be inaudible”; the answer came from Schweitzer. He made his way across the lab to the corner that the biologists had staked out for storing their flora. It was a veritable mini-jungle, barely hemmed in by the smooth, inorganic lines of the elasti-tron and its kin. “I’m just checking on the growth of my tree. I’ll be out of your hair in a minute.”
Against his better judgment, perhaps because he was tired, Einray found himself saying, “You have to come in at night to do that? I’d think a tree would grow slowly enough to wait until morning.”
After a bit of rustling around in the corner, Schweitzer emerged, disappointment on his face. “It would seem, you’re right.”
“I suppose you’re trying to make a super fast growing tree,” Einray said, realizing that he was coming dangerously close to expressing interest. He balanced it out by adding, “How mind-numbingly practical.”
“I suppose it might be,” Schweitzer muttered, paying more attention to the chrono-logger he was fiddling with than to Einray. “But, then, so is this, and I believe you’re the one who invented it?” He shot Einray a glance, around the side of the sleek metal machine.
“Yes,” Einray answered, “But I needed a way to change sub-atomic particle velocities without observing them for my experiments. Other people came up with all the practical uses later.”
“Ah, I see,” Brent said. “You kept your hands clean.” He stood up, flicking the switch that turned the chrono-logger off.
“What are you doing using the chrono-logger anyway?” This time Einray couldn’t help feeling intrigued, and conveyed the feeling through his voice.
“I figured,” Brent said, “as long as I’m stuck in the physics lab, I might as well see if there’s a way to use all this physics stuff,” he gestured around at all the giant, metal boxes — elasti-tron, chrono-logger, and their ilk — , “in my work.”
“And?” Einray prompted. Anything involving his giant physics machines interested him
“So far, no luck.”
Einray started to make a derisive comment, but he found it stuck in his throat. So, instead he asked, “Are you sure you were using it right?” Coming over to the far side of the lab, he flicked the chrono-logger back on and checked all its settings.
“What’s wrong?” Schweitzer asked after watching Einray frown at it for a minute.
“What?” Einray said. “Oh… Nothing. These settings are fine.” He didn’t bother mentioning how surprised this made him. “What are you using it on?”
“Here, I’ll show you,” Schweitzer said, sliding a glass sample plate under an adjacent microscope. Six hours later, the dawn lights flickered on around the edges of the ceiling.
The dawn lights didn’t make it any brighter per se, but they changed the quality of the lab’s lighting. It was a clever idea from the administration: they hoped to enforce (or at least encourage) a semblance of a diurnal schedule on Wespirtech and its scientists by simulating the difference between natural daytime and unnatural nighttime light. With all the Wespirtech scientists working in underground labs on an un-atmosphered moon, even the “natural” daytime light was artificial.
Schweitzer and Einray were unfazed by the change in lighting. They had lined up a dozen petri dishes on the lab table. Each hosted an Altarian Ash seed, and the two scientists were carefully grafting their doctored zygotes into the seeds. It had been a long and tedious process.
Sure, the first part was fun and easy: run zygote after zygote through the chrono-logger at every setting imaginable. Einray had gone completely crazy making up weird combinations of quark vibrations to impress Schweitzer. Of course, the altered zygotes themselves were completely useless until they’d been treated with pheno-transcriptase to create DNA-containing cells that would be capable of replicating themselves and then spliced into viable Altarian Ash seeds.
But, by that point, Einray was hooked. So, there he found himself, hours later, poking at a tiny, fleshy green thing, trying to make his clumsy fingers work the tweezers properly. “Dammit!” he cried as his fingers slipped for the dozenth time.
“Hey, Jon, you look exhausted,” Schweitzer said. “I can finish up here, if you’d like to get some breakfast. Or maybe… go to bed.”
“Breakfast?” Einray said with distate. “After staying up all night?”
“That’s the best part of staying up all night,” Schweitzer said. “Eating breakfast before you go to bed.”
“Thanks but no thanks,” Einray answered. He skipped filling his stomach with sugary pancakes and greasy eggs. Einray went straight to bed.
The next morning — well, afternoon — Einray hit the lab and his first question, to the first person he saw, was: “Where’s Schweitzer?”
Deenah answered, “You just missed him.”
It took a moment for Einray to realize, with a sinking feeling, what Deenah meant. Schweitzer had just now gone to bed. And he wouldn’t be up, probably, for another eight hours.
“But… I want to know how the chrono-logged Ash are doing.”
Deenah shrugged, unhelpfully, and Einray scowled at her. He’d have to dig through the biologists’ little corner jungle and find his physics-ized plants himself. He hoped Schweitzer had labeled them properly.
Einray needn’t have worried. An entire row of seed-pots lined the far wall, each bearing a carefully printed label reading “Altarian Ash, 67-11, 9am” followed by the specifications of the chrono-logger settings for that particular seed.
Most of the pots sported a tiny, green sproutling in the middle of the dark, moist potting soil. Those didn’t interest Einray. One pot did. The tree in that one was the absolute perfect size for the pot. Approximately a foot tall, bushing out at the sides like a little tree should. “It’s a good thing Brent didn’t plant you in anything smaller,” he said, examining the plant. (Without touching it. Instead, he poked it with his chemi-pen.)
Einray wondered if he should re-pot the tree himself, but he decided not. Clearly, that tree had already served its purpose. Now Einray knew what settings to focus on with the chrono-logger. The next seed would grow even faster.
The next several days, Einray and Schweitzer worked long hours on the chrono-logged Ash, communicating almost entirely by notes. They shared a few bleary, mismatched meals — Einray eating breakfast, while Schweitzer finished dinner, or vice versa — but mostly they worked alone.
By the end of the week, they were planting the seeds in the atrium rather than pots. It wasn’t the ideal environment. Since the entire Wespirtech complex was built under an atmospheric bubble on the Da Vinci moon, the soil in the atrium only went so deep. Under that, it was hard moon rock. Still, the two men marveled at their work. Before they’d begun, the atrium was a grassy courtyard. Its only plants were experiments, mostly small bushes and flowers like Deenah’s foxcups and buttergloves. Now, it was a veritable indoor forest. The dome and starry sky above were barely visible through thick, green Ash leaves.
The two men shared a rare moment together, staring up at the trees. Einray’s hands were dirty, but he didn’t mind. It gave him a funny feeling, looking at all these living things… knowing that he’d made them. Clean, pure, abstract, infinitesimal physics had grown under his guiding hands into this vibrant mass of green.
“That was… fun,” he said. “I guess we’re done now.”
“I’m going to my sister’s wedding…” Schweitzer said.
“Archaic tradition,” Einray, the confirmed bachelor, said in response to Schweitzer’s bizarre non sequitur.
“It’s down on Da Vinci,” Schweitzer continued without missing a beat. “I could take some seeds and see how they do down there. That’s the next step of our experiment. Maybe show it to some corporate sponsors. See if we can get a grant to continue our research.”
Einray balked. “I don’t know that I want my name on a biology grant.” What he really meant was that the idea of dealing with corporate sponsors of any type made him queasy.
Schweitzer rolled his eyes. “Grants are always good. Besides, it’ll make an excellent wedding present. I’ll plant the seed right before the ceremony… And, when we come out,” he swooshed his hands toward the sky, “there’ll be a beautiful tree standing in its place.”
Einray wasn’t there, but he could tell something had gone wrong — horribly wrong — all the way from orbit.
“What the hell?” Deenah said. She’d been gazing out the window of the cafeteria, staring at the blue and green globe of Da Vinci that was rising over Wespirtech as she ate.
Einray was sitting at the far end of the same long table. He’d been spending more time around the biologists lately. He wasn’t a man of many friends, and his collegial collaboration with Schweitzer had made him feel more beneficent toward the entire biology profession. So, when Deenah exclaimed, he actually looked up and glanced out the window.
Along the shadowed curve of night on Da Vinci, the lights were going out. The cities were twinkling into darkness, and, though Einray couldn’t be sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him, he thought the rest of the central continent, that was still in daylight, was subtly shifting to a different shade of green.
“Einray! Jonathan Einray! Report to a com-station at once!” the intercom blared, and Einray jumped up without even putting his utensils down. The message repeated, following Einray down the halls of Wespirtech, until he reached his room and punched on the com, fork and knife still in hand.
It was Schweitzer on the com-screen. It looked like he was using a wrist-com, and there were trees, visibly growing, behind him.
Einray unconsciously mimicked Deenah: “What the hell?!” he said.
“So, I planted a seed…” Schweitzer answered, his voice coming through fuzzy from the wrist-mic.
“Um… This?” Schweitzer threw his arm around, giving Einray a wobbly but more complete view of Schweitzer’s surroundings.
Schweitzer seemed to be standing in front of a church — probably the site of his sister’s wedding. The steps from the sidewalk, the street corner, and, even the church itself, were all being overgrown. Trees sprouted around Schweitzer, piercing right through the pavement — right through the buildings. People ran about in confusion and hysteria. Schweitzer even jumped to the side, dodging a new seedling that sprouted under his very feet.
“Your chrono-logger did a lot more to those seeds than we realized. It must have. I’d laugh… but this is a natural disaster beyond all proportions.”
Einray stared, far from blankly, at the com-screen. Sub-sub-atomic particles juggled and rearranged themselves in his mind. “I know what’s happening,” he said.
“Great!” Schweitzer said. “‘Cause, I’m at a complete loss.”
“I don’t know how to fix it.”
There was a pause. The trees kept growing.
“Stupid biologist,” Einray muttered.
“I know, I should have tested it in a controlled environment.” Schweitzer’s voice bespoke the infinite, infinitely tested patience of someone who needs something.
“You shouldn’t have tested it at all.”
“If you can’t fix it, maybe I can. Just explain it to me.”
“Right…” Einray’s eyes were focused on the air in front of the com-screen. He was still juggling particles and quantum states in the imaginary workspace in his head. “I’ll try…” he said. Explaining quantum sub-physics to a biologist wouldn’t be easy. “But I’m going to get a shuttle. And I’ll tell you about it while I fly down.”
“Is that a good idea–?” Schweitzer tried to ask, but he found himself talking to an empty wrist-screen. By the time Einray flickered back to place, a tiny image on Schweitzer’s wrist-screen, he was already en route to Da Vinci, and he immediately launched into an in-depth, improvised lecture on the nature of piggybacked quantum states and how they effected chrono-logged sub-particles.
Schweitzer didn’t get a chance to mention his concern — namely that one of them should be at Wespirtech with access to all their equipment there — until both men had their feet firmly on the quaking surface of Da Vinci. By then, his concern was completely forgotten, swept away by all-consuming scientific awe.
“You’re saying…” said a tuxedo-clad Schweitzer to Einray as he emerged from the shuttle. (The rest of the wedding party had long since fled.) “You’re saying that… No. That doesn’t make sense.”
“I assure you,” Einray said, in the same matter of fact tone he always used, almost as if he wasn’t ducking errant tree limbs while doing so, “This is the only explanation.”
“But…” Schweitzer looked around at the trees, growing unthinkably around him. “If you’re saying what I think you’re saying, then these trees are travelling backward in time as they grow.”
“And the seeds they’re producing… in the past… are growing, backward in time, and producing more seeds and more backward growing trees.”
“And, of course, they didn’t do this on the moon, because it’s fundamentally inhospitable. And our atrium hasn’t been there very long,” Schweitzer said.
“Only twenty-three years.”
“Not enough history to travel through. That’s…” Schweitzer paused a moment, swallowed the words, really cool, and instead said, “…terrible.” Stepping aside as a seedling rapidly developed into the size of a healthy shrub at his feet, Schweitzer added, “We need a way to stop them.”
“In the past.”
“Unless we want to leave the city destroyed. Like it is right now,” Einray said, looking around at what was really more of a forest than a city. And an eerily quiet one. Most of the people had already fled, though he could hear occasional sirens in the distance.
The buildings that were still visible between the trees had taken on the aspect of ancient ruins, crumbling from the stab wounds inflicted by trees that had grown straight through their hearts. Piercing from underneath, the trees shot straight through the buildings’ roofs and their branches crowded out through broken windows. “We need to work fast.”
“We need equipment,” Schweitzer said.
“And an idea,” Einray countered.
“Equipment’s no problem. My aunt has a laboratory on the other side of Confucius Canyon — that’ll be somewhat shielded from the spread of the trees. She’s an amateur botanist.” Einray said the word dismissively. “But she dabbles with real sciences on the side. I’ll lead the way.”
They left the intra-orbital shuttle parked by the church. It was inefficient for close-range, planetary travel. Fortunately, along with an array of differently sized spacesuits, the shuttle’s supply closet was equipped with several collapsible supersonic hovercycles.
Einray and Schweitzer rode down city streets being shredded by roots that buckled pavement. The trees thinned, however, as they fled ground zero. The fleeing hordes, though, had gathered at the edge of town. Where paved streets turned to dirt roads, and city come forest turned into tree-sprinkled farmland.
Einray felt nervous riding through the crowds. But no one knew that the two men on hovercycles were behind this all… Fortunately. He feared to think what might happen if they knew. Images flitted through his mind of being dragged from his cycle and thrown to the ground, restrained, beaten, screamed at…
But, no one paid them heed, and the two men were soon cycling at full speed past the fields. As they rounded the canyon, the invading trees were barely a noticeable presence. Yet, a single glance over his shoulder told Einray that these golden, agrarian fields were on borrowed time.
Leaping off his hovercycle almost before the engine powered down, Einray dropped the conveyance on his aunt’s lawn. Schweitzer followed suit and pursued Einray in his dead run around the red painted ranch house. The greenhouse out back was unlocked, and Einray went right in.
“I guess, Auntie Einray is quite the dabbler,” Schweitzer said in awe as he entered.
Einray had already powered up a surprising array of equipment, and even more machines sat dormant on tables farther back, mixed right in with the hothouse plants.
“Aunt Janice, actually,” a feminine voice said from behind. When Schweitzer turned to see her, the owner of the voice was a small woman with silver hair and thick, antique-style glasses. They could have been actual antiques, except for the slight shimmer that gave away the data stream hidden inside them. Auntie Einray might be old, but she was armed to the teeth — or, more precisely, the eyes — with hi-tech technology.
She shook Schweitzer’s hand, but she swatted Einray on the back of the head. “This is what it takes? A natural disaster beyond all proportion, and finally you come for a visit.”
Einray shot his aunt an irritated glance and directed himself at Schweitzer, “We could trigger a chain reaction in a lump of chrono-unstable trilonium. That would release a massive amount of radiation, slightly displaced in time to both the past and future.”
Aunt Janice swatted her nephew on the back of his head again.
“What?” he said. “That would kill the trees!”
“That would kill every living thing on the planet,” she said. “Slightly displaced in time, so we’d die in both the past and future.”
“Fine. I could entrap the radiation in a fluctuating field that…” he trailed off. “No… that wouldn’t work…” And Einray was lost again to the flickering readouts on all the machinery around him.
“I think I’m out of my depth here,” Schweitzer said, looking at the machines Einray had powered up. “But,” he said, pointing further into the greenhouse, “That looks more to my liking. Do you mind?”
Aunt Janice walked right over and started powering up the section of her laboratory devoted to biology. “Though, I’m surprised any friend of my nephew’s would be interested in these.”
“Indeed,” Schweitzer acknowledged. He pulled some crumpled leaves and a chip of bark from his pocket and immediately started separating them into different samples for analysis. Test tubes, petri dishes, enzyme dispensers, and everything else he needed was readily available. Aunt Janice kept an excellent workspace.
“These samples are from the trees?” she asked. “The trees taking over the city?”
Schweitzer caught her up while running his samples. Collecting data was routine, and he could have done it in his sleep. Once he had the data, however… “I have no idea what to do with this.”
Einray spoke up: “We need to collapse the time wave function that allows the trees to… um…” he couldn’t really avoid saying it, “time travel.”
“No kidding,” Aunt Janice said. “Boy, you sure should have stayed away from biology. I guess, it was some kind of second sight that made you hate it so.”
Einray rolled his eyes.
Schweitzer shrugged. “If I had any idea how to do that, I’d be helping you here.”
“I could do it… An EM pulse, filtered to oscillate in the time dimension… But, I can’t be sure that wouldn’t scramble everyone’s brains in the process.”
“Scramble?” Schweitzer said.
“You know, if you wanted to work with trees,” Aunt Janice said, “I don’t know why you couldn’t have started on something simple. Like helping me save Stevie’s sycamore from those dreadful root-moths.”
Einray ignored his aunt’s heckling. “An EM pulse polarized like that… Of the necessary magnitude….”
“Yeah, yeah. I get the idea,” Schweitzer said. “No more trees, but a planet full of zombies.”
“Actually, the trees would be fine. They’d just stop time-travelling. So the city would stay a forest. But the rest of the planet would be saved!”
“Uh huh.” Aunt Janice looked unimpressed.
Schweitzer looked like he’d stopped listening. “What was that you said about root-moths?”
“Deadly things,” Aunt Janice said. “Beautiful like butterflies, but they lay their eggs in the roots of sycamore trees. My husband Stevie had a sycamore he loved…” Aunt Janice turned away a little, even though her thick glasses mostly hid her eyes. “Anyway, the root-moths got to it. The poor thing just withered away and died. He used to sit under that tree for hours…” There was a catch in her voice, “Reading… out under his tree…”
The catch in her voice caught her nephew’s attention, but he didn’t know what to say. So, in an uncharacteristic show of thoughtfulness, the awkward, middle-aged scientist took his elderly aunt’s hand and put his other hand heavily on her shoulder.
“That’s terrific…” Schweitzer muttered.
“Excuse me?” Einray said.
“Janice, do you have any of those moths? Or moth eggs?”
Aunt Janice took her hand away to dab at her eyes.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Einray said.
“Actually…” Aunt Janice said, “I saved some. For my moth collection.”
Einray gaped at her.
“I said they were beautiful.”
“Are any of them–”
Aunt Janice cut Schweitzer off, “Alive, yes. I see where you’re going.” She shuffled deeper into the greenhouse to a worktable overflowing with the draping greenery of her exotic, gengineered plants. She pulled out a drawer and removed a small, flat box. “I have dead ones, pinned. But, you’ll want these.”
Schweitzer took the box from her and flipped open the clear plastic lid. There were pinhead sized, oblong, yellow eggs inside. A bunch of them.
“I was trying to gengineer the moths out of killing trees.”
Schweitzer looked up, startled.
“Don’t worry,” Aunt Janice said. “I didn’t succeed.”
The chrono-logger was already powered up, and Einray remembered the final settings they’d used on the Altarian Ash seeds exactly. Nonetheless, he made a big show of fiddling with the chrono-logger’s knobs and dials to avoid being conscripted into helping with the icky, squishy moth eggs. Aunt Janice would make a better assistant for Schweitzer anyway. Her fingers were smaller.
When Einray could see that his companions were deeply involved, he slipped outside.
Already, the forest was coming.
If it were a person, it would be knocking on Aunt Janice’s back door. Short sprigs of treelings littered her lawn. The farther away, the taller they were. Approximately two fields away, the Ashes towered to the sky, as if they were reaching toward Wespirtech. Einray pictured the monstrous trees reaching all the way to his safe little home on the moon, and pulling it down. His pristine life in the metal halls, buried in the dead crater of a sterile moon — dragged into a mire of living, green, carbon-dioxide breathing hell.
Einray stood transfixed, mesmerized.
“We’ve got them!” Schweitzer shouted. “I hope they work…”
The biologist and the amateur dabbler came running past Einray.
“Do to those trees what you did to Stevie’s sycamore!”
Einray stumbled as a stubborn seedling sprouted under his foot. Another tree, almost head high, shoved him with its branches. Meanwhile, Aunt Janice and Schweitzer were scrabbling frantically at the ground, burying their precious moth eggs as deep in the roots as they quickly could.
“How long…” Aunt Janice began to ask, but her question needed no voice. Before she began to spoke, the moth eggs, responding to cues from the moisture and minerals in the soil awoke. Tiny caterpillar-like bugs hatched, gnawed on the roots, grew big, burrowed out of the ground — all backwards in time. Their chrysalises hid in the bark at the base of their victim trees. They grew wings, flew away, laid more eggs…
The whole cycle spiraled backward and outward in time. The trees themselves had traveled already back to the time the continents broke apart. Giant slug-like aliens had crawled across the surface of Da Vinci then. They’d never known trees. Not until Schweitzer and Einray sent them the Altarian Ash.
Then, suddenly, they knew butterflies.
From end to end of their timeline, the Altarian Ash were eaten away. Their strong trunks grew mottled. Their leaves turned withered and red. More and more, brilliant golden wings unfolded from the hidden crevices in their trunks and took to flight.
To Aunt Janice’s eyes, an entire forest burst into golden, beating flame. The flapping of the moths wings was a wind, and, then, they were gone.
With all the trees dead, from the beginning of time, there was nowhere for their eggs to have grown… They vanished in a beautiful paradox.
“Wow,” the word was mere breath, and before it was spent, the memory that caused it was gone. “That…” Aunt Janice groped for an understanding of why her nephew had brought a biologist friend of his to visit her and show off her laboratory. Exasperated to find none, she offered the men some tea and bid her nephew a fond farewell when he turned her offer down.
Schweitzer and Einray parted ways in town. Schweitzer still had a wedding reception to attend, and Einray felt an urgent need to escape him. Although his memories of recent circumstances were gone, the feelings inspired by them… lingered.
“Let’s not… do anything with those seeds we made,” Schweitzer said as Einray boarded the shuttle.
“No,” he agreed. “Let’s not.” In fact, although he didn’t say it, Einray firmly planned to destroy them. And all the records of their creation.
As the shuttle rose through the atmosphere and Einray felt the safety of his home and his own small room coming closer, the dread he’d felt on the planet began to recede. He was glad Schweitzer accepted now that the Altarian Ash adventure was over. That talk of grants and funding was all crazy talk.
But… It had been an adventure. Hadn’t it? Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to work with a biologist again.