by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Belong: Interstellar Immigration Stories, April 2010
The yellow sun of Heffe VIII beamed onto Kerri’s face through the freighter ship’s window. She’d been watching intently through the window ever since the ship entered the Heffen solar system. “It’s hard to believe that’s a dying sun,” Kerri said. It was still so bright and dazzling, hanging in the black, velvet sky. It looked young and promising, not old and fading. Kerri turned to her husband, Alan, who was sitting beside her, and smiled. “It’ll be good to finally see Heffe,” she said.
Alan, with the winningly mischievous smile that first captured Kerri’s attention, began speaking to her in Heffen. Kerri recognized the language; Alan had been learning it for months, ever since he’d been hired for this job. He had a knack for languages that Kerri knew she didn’t have. When he finished, he said, “That was a Heffen love poem for you. I found it in one of my books.”
Kerri was touched. She wondered what, exactly, the poem meant, but she didn’t ask. Already worried about coming to live on a world where she didn’t speak the native language, she found comfort in pretending not to mind. Kerri and Alan sat quietly for the rest of the flight across the Heffen system. Kerri wished she were better with languages.
As the ship landed, Alan said, “You know, this flight, the whole way from Wespirtech, will only take a few minutes when Anna finishes her elasti-drive.”
Kerri heard about Anna Karlingoff a lot. She was one of Alan’s colleagues at Wespirtech, one of the other physicists. When Alan first started talking about Anna, Kerri was inclined to be jealous. Alan teased her about it. After a while, Kerri asked around, and it turned out that Anna was madly in love with a geneticist. She was no threat, and Kerri felt foolish for doubting Alan.
Now that Alan had left Wespirtech for good, Kerri realized she would miss hearing about Anna. Living on Heffe would be better than her years with Alan at Wespirtech had been. Here, she could learn about the culture and make friends of her own instead of just hearing about his. At Wespirtech, she had been one of very few spouses, and the scientists kept mostly to each other. The Western Spiral Arm Planetary Institute of Technology, better known as Wespirtech, was the foremost outpost of scientific and technological advancement in the known universe, but it wasn’t a very friendly place to live for an outsider. She could not be more of an outsider on Heffe VIII than she had been there.
On Heffe VIII, there would be cities and gardens, museums, concerts, and shops. Kerri would have her own home. She could grow a garden again… It had been too many years since she’d had a real garden. At Wespirtech, the best she could manage was a few potted plants. Yes, Heffe VIII would be much better than the cold, steel buildings of Wespirtech, surrounded by that desolate moon.
Finally, the freighter ship, which had landed many minutes before, finished its complicated decontamination and hatch unlocking procedures. Kerri and Alan were free to disembark. Their bags were already packed, and their quarters on the ship were returned to the friendly but sterile state they’d known when Kerri and Alan boarded months ago. It looked like a hotel room, replete with generic, floral paintings and bad lighting. Kerri was glad she wouldn’t be living there any longer. Even their rooms at Wespirtech had been better.
The little, yellow sun blazed, almost mockingly, as Kerri and Alan stepped, holding hands, onto the world that was to be their new home. Alan looked at the sun appreciatively, like a mathematician looking at a particularly complicated and elegant differential equation. Up to the next twenty years of his life would be spent trying to save that dying sun. Kerri squeezed his hand proudly.
The Petriezskian Democracy had sent a welcoming squadron, and Alan, their new fusion dynamics specialist, was greeted with honors. For Kerri, it was exciting but unsettling. A full squadron of stiffly uniformed officials, with flags from each of the Heffen nations waving above their heads, had come to greet her! Except…they weren’t there for her, really. They were there to greet Alan, and Kerri was just the wife. She felt out of place.
Still, it was very interesting. Kerri had never seen a live Heffen before, much less shaken hands with one, although she had been studying all their records and had seen many 2Ds and a few holoscans. While Alan spoke in Heffen with the head of the welcoming party and was introduced to a series of new colleagues, Kerri looked closely at the faces of this alien race, her new neighbors.
By far, most of the Heffen present were Petriezski. That was not surprising, since theirs was the nation Kerri and Alan landed in and were soon to live in. The Petriezski had the richest and most politically powerful government on Heffe VIII, and, therefore, had been the ones to commission Alan.
Scanning over the crowd, Kerri picked out one face that was not Petriezskian. The flat-faced and short-furred Golan stood out quite a bit in the crowd of Petriezski with their longer, more articulated faces, and flowing fur. Of course, the red and gold ribbons draped over his shoulders, hanging almost to his feet, helped him stand out too. The Petriezski looked more formal and dignified. They were really quite handsome, the Petriezski were, with their ruffs of fur flowing out of the collars and over the shoulders of their uniforms. The Golan individual looked funnier with his stout, square frame and short fur. Kerri imagined he was a much more colorful individual…or maybe it was just those ribbons.
Kerri took Alan’s arm and gave it a steady squeeze. I’m tired and ready to go that squeeze said. Alan looked flustered but took the hint. The formalities were soon wrapped up. Kerri and Alan were shown to a hoverpod and flown to their new home.
* * *
Alan ordered the karfanor special for two, a Petriezskian dish. Kerri knew he tended to order dishes that were too bland for her, but she still couldn’t read the menu, and objecting would have been too hard. Besides, it was sweet the way he made romantic gestures, like ordering the meal for two.
They were at the fanciest restaurant in Ques’trian, the capital city of the Petriezski Nation, and the city to which they lived closest. Still, it was a twenty-minute drive by hoverpod away. It had been a few months since Kerri and Alan arrived on Heffe, although Kerri felt like she was still settling in. Alan had begun his work in earnest a while ago, studying the sun, trying to select the best plan of attack. Tonight’s dinner was a celebration. He’d located a similar but unwanted sun in a nearby star system and planned to mine it for matter transfusions to pump into the Heffen sun. He had high hopes for the plan working and was in high spirits. Kerri was happy to see him happy.
“The Petriezski are preparing a ship for the mining expedition already,” Alan said. “If you don’t mind, I was planning to fly along with them. It would be a few months.”
Alan was looking down as he said it, so he missed Kerri’s momentary expression. By the time he looked up, expecting an answer, Kerri had recovered herself and managed to say, “Of course, if that would be best for your work, it’ll be fine. It will give me time to work on my garden.” Just at that moment, Kerri couldn’t imagine doing much more than work on her garden without Alan there. She hadn’t been into Ques’trian alone yet and was afraid of how she’d get by not knowing the language.
“How is your garden, Kerri?” he asked. “When will those plants you’re having shipped from Earth X come?”
Kerri, happy to talk about her garden, reminded Alan of when the shipment would come and told him about all the different plants she’d ordered, including her special order for a kitty-willow tree, a favorite plant from her childhood. Then, she suggested that, maybe, before he left he could go with her to one of the local greenhouses and help her buy some native plants. It would let her get to work sooner, before the Earth X shipment came.
“I don’t think there’ll be time…” he said. “I’m sorry.” Then, returning to his favorite solution, Alan muttered something about trying again to get Kerri a Keat. Kerri knew better than to pin her hopes on it.
For a while, when Kerri and Alan first arrived, Alan talked a lot about contacting Anna, pulling some strings, and seeing if he could get a hold of a Keat. Normally, Keats, a genetically advanced breed of parrot designed to act as translators, were reserved for important diplomats. However, Anna was dating the geneticist who designed them. Somehow though, Alan’s promise never came through, and eventually he stopped mentioning it. From the gossip Kerri could gather through her limited correspondence over subspace, she suspected Alan’s failure to procure a Keat through Anna had to do with her nasty breakup with the geneticist. She also suspected that Alan didn’t know about it.
The karfanor special for two came, and Kerri and Alan were occupied for some time with eating. Kerri discovered she’d been right: Alan had ordered a meal too bland for her. It was all right though, and Alan seemed to like it. What Kerri wondered about was Golan food. She’d passed by a Golan kiosk on the street, teeming with the smell of exotic spices. It’d be too much for Alan. Maybe while Alan was gone on his mining expedition, she’d finally try it.
* * *
The shipment of plants from Earth X, including Kerri’s eagerly awaited kitty-willow tree, arrived while Alan was still gone. Kerri received notice of the arrival at home but would have to go into town in the hoverpod to pick the shipment up. She’d gone into town a few times already. Exploring the countryside, readying her garden for the coming shipment, and relaxing at home were good ways to spend time, but Kerri grew hungry for even the sight other people as the weeks without Alan stretched on. Eventually, she’d overcome her fears of a city where she stood out, the only human, and knew none of the language.
Fortunately, visiting Ques’trian alone had turned out to be very exciting. For one, the hoverpod was fun to drive, and while Alan was around he was always the one to handle the controls. During the long years at Wespirtech, Kerri had forgotten how much she loved flying hoverpods. At Wespirtech, there’d been no need for them, or for anything of their sort, since the entire institute was insulated in its steel and granite buildings with almost no access to the actual surface of the moon. There was nowhere to go that couldn’t be reached by hallways and elevators.
Coming to Ques’trian to pick up her shipment from Earth X, Kerri zipped the hoverpod at an almost unsafe speed along the familiar path. She parked it near the capitol building in a particularly reputable hoverpod parking depot. Then, Kerri walked to the greenhouse that received her shipment, by way of her favorite Golan food kiosk. To begin with, ordering at the kiosk had involved a lot of complicated pointing and gesturing. By now, though, the Golan woman who ran the kiosk knew what Kerri would want, and the transaction was much simpler. Kerri placed the paper wrapped, spicy flavored, meat and pastry confection in her jacket pocket. She would eat it on her way back home.
Kerri felt alive when she got home and started unpacking her new plants. Some of them were merely bags of seeds or bunches of bulbs, waiting to be planted. A few of the plants, though, had been sent fully-grown. The most exciting of them was her kitty-willow tree. Kerri removed the tiny sapling from its box gingerly and carefully unwound the moistened cloth from its young roots.
The tree didn’t look like much, just a branched stick at that particular moment. Kerri wished Alan were there with her to see and appreciate the unremarkable state of this thing that in less than a year would yield such amazing fruit, if fruit were an appropriate word. Kerri sighed. She felt the warmth of the sun on her back, and she imagined Alan out there, beyond the blue of the sky, finding more warmth to bring to the sun. He was working, so she would work too. If she worked hard, she might be able to get her plants in the ground and growing in time for the Heffen spring, only a few months away. Perhaps, when Alan came home, she could surprise him with a garden already in full bloom.
* * *
Kerri had grown used to visiting Ques’trian and walking among the Heffen, but she was nervous about tonight: in a matter of hours, she would be faced with her first Heffen guests. Alan offered to pick up klaufon pies in the city. He didn’t want to inconvenience Kerri with preparing a meal for his colleagues who were coming over to discuss work. Klaufon pies from the city would be all ready except for baking and sure to please. Alan hadn’t met a Heffen yet who didn’t like klaufon pie. Kerri knew it would have been easier. She was glad Alan had offered, and part of her hated herself for turning him down. Yet, by the time Alan’s colleagues were expected Kerri felt proud of her choice. The combination of Petriezskian and her own dishes, all made with fruits and vegetables from her own garden, made a delightful spread. The table looked beautiful.
The guests, when they arrived, turned out to be three Petriezski men, a Petriezski woman, and one Golan, also a man. Kerri could tell one of the Petriezski was a woman by the black touches of fur in her ruff. The color of Petriezski fur varied widely among shades of orange, red, gold, tan, and brown. And, almost all Petriezski had white markings on their long, thin faces and their ruffs. However, only the women had black shadings as well. The Petriezski woman, Kerri decided, was a particularly beautiful Heffen.
Golan men and women were harder for Kerri to tell apart. She could tell that Alan’s Golan guest was a man mainly from his bearing. Other than that, he was a funny, rounded, little fellow with a face flattened into folds like almost all the other Golan she’d seen. His main discerning feature was a strangely familiar braid of red and gold ribbons draped over his shoulders. Kerri remembered seeing him before, but couldn’t quite place him.
After a few minutes of talking, Alan turned to Kerri and asked, “Is the table ready? Can I ask them to come, sit down, and eat?”
Kerri replied, quietly to Alan, that everything was ready before the guests arrived, and turned to lead them all to the table. As they walked, Kerri realized why the gold and red ribbons were familiar. This Golan visitor must have been the same as the first Golan she’d ever seen, the one in the crowd when she and Alan landed on Heffe VIII. Kerri wondered idly what the ribbons were for and why she hadn’t seen other Heffen, or at least other Golan, wearing them.
Once in the dining room and settled into eating, the Heffen guests all seemed pleased by the dinner Kerri had prepared for them. Kerri smiled whenever one of them seemed to be giving her a compliment. She still didn’t understand Heffen but had come a long way towards understanding Heffen body language from her trips into Ques’trian on her own.
During the meal, Kerri noticed that the Golan kept mainly to her dishes, avoiding the standard Petriezskian dishes she’d made. The Petriezski behaved quite oppositely. Kerri was flattered that they all seemed happy with the meal, but she was particularly pleased by the Golan’s behavior. Kerri felt a greater affinity for the Golan already, simply because she preferred Golan food, always eating at the Golan kiosks when she went to town alone. Also, this Golan laughed more than his colleagues, and he seemed less interested in the conversation. He kept looking at her, as if they shared a secret, although she couldn’t imagine what it could be.
When the meal was over, Alan led the Heffen away from the dining room to begin discussing their latest results with the sun. Kerri stayed in the kitchen and dining room, clearing the table up. She could hear them talking in the living room, and she knew what they were talking about. The matter transfusions to the sun had not gone quite as expected, and Alan was working on a new plan. There were still hopes, though, that the irregularities in his scans would settle out over time and the sun would stabilize again, but as a much younger sun with a longer life ahead of it.
Kerri found herself wondering what would happen if the scan results did stabilize. If the sun were suddenly saved and Alan no longer needed here, would they move away? She liked the idea of returning to a world of humans, a world where she spoke the language. And yet… She loved the Heffen countryside. The trees of Heffe VIII were not quite like trees she’d seen anywhere else. They were lither, more arching. Sometimes their branches grew like corkscrews, twisting entirely around. The forests were certainly something to see.
Lost in her reveries, Kerri was surprised to see the Golan man return from the living room on his own. “Do you want something?” she asked, reflexively, forgetting he probably wouldn’t understand. She grabbed a glass from the cupboard and held it out, offering it to him, hoping he’d understand it as an offer to get him something to drink.
“You don’t speak Heffen, do you?” the Golan asked.
Recovering from the surprise, Kerri discovered herself facing a situation she had honestly never expected to face: since Kerri had slowly come to believe she’d never manage to learn Heffen, she never expected to have a conversation with one of them.
Before Kerri recovered enough to answer, the Golan added the question: “You do speak your own language, don’t you? Or is my English that bad?”
“I’m sorry,” Kerri answered. “I was just so surprised…I didn’t know any of you spoke English.”
The Golan laughed. “The others don’t,” he said. “They’re not used to learning languages because they were brought up here,” the Golan gestured expansively around.
Kerri looked confused, so the Golan clarified, saying “The Petriezski language is the most common language on our planet, but it’s not the only one.”
“I didn’t realize…” Kerri said.
“You probably think of it as ‘Heffen’ don’t, you? That’s all right. They do too,” he added, gesturing back towards the room where Alan was talking to his compatriots. “My name is Baury,” he added. “You probably didn’t catch that when we came in.” Kerri blushed at the reference to her verbal illiteracy of Heffen. “Why doesn’t Alan translate for you?” Baury asked innocently, not seeing Kerri’s embarrassment. “I’m sure you wouldn’t be interested in everything we have to say, but you probably would have enjoyed some of the compliments.”
Kerri smiled and said, “I could tell the compliments.”
“Yes, but you don’t know what they meant,” Baury teased with a chuckle.
Kerri, warming to the first face to face conversation she’d had with anyone other than Alan in almost a year, countered back, “Then why don’t you tell me?”
“Aah,” Baury smiled, for his face seemed built into a smile, “you’ll have to ask Alan.”
Kerri felt oddly rebuffed by Baury’s comment. As Baury probably guessed, she was curious about the compliments. What he didn’t know was that Kerri wouldn’t ask Alan. She knew his mind was too busied with his work to remember such minor details, comments made to his wife rather than to him. “Why are you out here?” Kerri asked, feeling prickly, “shouldn’t you be in there, talking with them about saving your dying sun?”
“I’m not a scientist,” Baury shrugged. “I work with them, but I’m mainly here because of Trenti, the tallest Petriezski out there. He’s my brother in law, married my one and only sister. He sees that I get invited along.” Baury looked up and grinned a particularly jovial grin. “They’re going to have a litter soon, you know. I hope they’re all beautiful, little pug-faced babies that look just like her.” Baury paused before continuing, “My sister’s beautiful,” he said. “She’s why I moved here…if it weren’t for her, I would never have left Gola.”
Affected by Baury’s warmth and the loyalty towards his sister evident in his tone, Kerri warmed to him again. She invited him to follow her out to her garden, where she had a few plants that needed her tending every evening. As Kerri clipped the browning buds on her cameline night bloomers, Baury told her about his beloved homeland, the nation of Gola.
From then on, whenever Alan’s colleagues visited, Baury came along. He played the part of heckler in their scientific conversations, but mostly he would separate from the rest and talk to Kerri. He told her that if he must speak in a foreign tongue to talk to friends, he might as well exercise his newest one, and Kerri was the only person to whom he could speak in English (since Alan avoided it in favor of the Petriezski tongue). Kerri welcomed the company and enjoyed learning about the political situation on Heffe VIII. Alan never mentioned it, but he was glad to see Kerri making a friend. Although Baury was the Heffen who made the least sense to him of all his colleagues, if Kerri liked him, Alan was glad of it.
* * *
Spring came, and Kerri’s kitty-willow tree finally bloomed. The flowers were simple, five-petaled, pink blossoms. The tree was still small, only about two feet tall, but it was beginning to look more like a tree and less like a twig. The extra year of growth before blooming, for it had failed to bloom at all during its first spring on Heffe VIII, had done well for it. Kerri showed it proudly to both her husband and her new friend; neither was particularly appreciative, but neither understood what was coming.
Days passed and Kerri expectantly watched the blossoms lose their petals and grow into fuzzy buds. She checked on her tree daily. Placed prominently in the center of her garden, it was the first plant she tended in the morning and the last she saw to at night. Therefore, it was hardly surprising that she should be there when the first of the downy, gray buds uncurled and dropped onto the soil beneath its parent tree.
Kerri reached down and picked up the tiny, perfectly formed kitten that was the seed of her kitty-willow tree. She smiled at the tiny cat as it explored the palm of her hand. Yet, Kerri couldn’t help but notice the difference between her current happiness and the sheer elation she remembered feeling whenever her kitty-willow tree bloomed during her childhood. The senses dull as you age, she thought. Nonetheless, it feels good to remember the joys from childhood.
Over the course of the following month, the rest of the kitty-willow seeds uncurled and fell from their natal branches. Each kitten-seed lived only a week or so, just enough time to travel and explore, searching for a good place to die, leaving its body to grow into a new kitty-willow tree. Kerri, unsure what their effect would be on the local, Heffen ecological balance, gathered all the kitten-seeds up and made sure none escaped from her own garden.
Alan, although he’d been told to expect the kitty-willow’s blooming, didn’t notice the box of kitten-seeds Kerri kept and played with all month long, nor did he think to ask after the tree. Kerri chose not to force them on his attention, since he was very busy with his studies. The sun’s reaction to the matter transfusions had finally stabilized, but the sun was still dying. Alan spent all his time at his work, trying to formulate a new plan to revitalize the sun. Kerri didn’t want to disturb him. Her kitty-willow tree would bloom again next year.
* * *
“Someday, I’d like to meet your sister,” Kerri told Baury, as he helped her clean up from another of Alan’s dinner parties.
“Aah,” Baury sighed. “My sister doesn’t leave home much. She feels too much like an outsider here, and she’s kept very busy with the little ones, you know. Also, Trenti doesn’t like guests in their house much, so I’m afraid you probably won’t get the chance.” Baury smiled conciliatorily. “She doesn’t speak English, anyway,” he said.
Kerri tried to imagine what life must be like for Baury’s sister, living in a foreign country. Kerri imagined it must be lonely, much like her own loneliness. “It must be hard for her,” Kerri said. “Aren’t there other Golan she spends time with? I see Golan men and women when I’m in the city.”
“You see them running the kiosks,” Baury said. “Am I right?”
Kerri realized that Baury was right, she never saw Golan anywhere other than running the kiosks. She nodded acquiescence.
“There are very few of us here, and we all feel it,” Baury said. “In fact, I’m the only Golan I know who’s brave enough to wear these,” Baury added fingering the red and gold braid ribbons that were, as always, draped over his shoulders.
“I’ve often wondered what those are…” Kerri said.
Baury chuckled. “Striking aren’t they? They’re a religious talisman. But the Petriezski don’t believe in our religion. So, most of my fellow countrymen keep their faith quieter than I keep mine.” Baury winked at her, and said, “I’ve never much cared for keeping a low profile.”
The friends finished clearing up the kitchen and dining room, and after Baury checked to see that the science talk was still in full force, the two of them retired to a bench in Kerri’s garden. It was a warm night, despite the cooling of the world’s sun, and distant stars twinkled in the sky above them.
“Why don’t the other Golan wear talismans?” Kerri asked. “They stand out anyway…you can’t help that…”
“You mean our flat faces, square bodies, and short fur,” Baury said. “Yes, you’re right, we can’t hide that we look different. But, we can hide that we are different. Some Golan think they get treated better if they pretend to be Petriezski who were just born in the wrong country. I don’t know. Maybe they do get treated better,” Baury ended pensively.
Kerri shared in the silence for a minute, and then asked, “Do they treat you badly, Baury?”
Baury, who was not the type to stay sad for long, smiled his characteristic smile and said, “Not to my flat face,” he said, and, then, nudging her in the arm, “there’s no telling what they say behind my back. Actually,” he said, bucking up even more, “you can hear what they say behind my back. Listen for the phrase ‘Galountan Golan.’ They might say it in front of you…although, please don’t tell me if they do.”
Kerri began to speak, looking as if she might ask a question, but Baury interrupted her before she could form it. “I won’t tell you what the phrase means,” he said. “It’s very offensive, and I don’t even want the idea in your pretty head.”
Kerri bowed her pretty head in submission. She didn’t mind not knowing.
“Now,” Baury continued, full of bluster, “our name for them is much less insulting. Roughly translated, let’s see, I believe it would be something like ‘needle-nose.'”
Kerri laughed at the accuracy of the image, and Baury laughed with her. They both felt good, laughing together, and they were still laughing when Baury’s brother-in-law Trenti came bursting out into the garden to find them. An animated conversation between the brothers-in-law pursued. Kerri judged from Trenti’s gestures and body language that he wanted Baury to come with him, but Baury shook his head and remained resolute. Trenti, agitated and clearly still excited by whatever news had brought him out to them, waved his arm dismissively, as if to say: fine, stay here if you must. Then, he hurried away.
Wide-eyed, Kerri asked, “What was that all about?”
“Oh, big news. Big breakthrough,” Baury said, with much less animation than Trenti’d had. “Something about tightening the atoms in the sun up. You should ask Alan. I’m sure he understands it better than I do.”
Kerri noted to herself that understanding a subject better didn’t necessarily mean one could explain a subject better. Nonetheless, she decided not to press the matter. She would wait until their guests left for the evening and learn about the breakthrough from Alan. Fortunately for the state of her curiosity, Trenti returned soon to tell Baury they were leaving.
Right before Baury left to join the others, he remembered a piece of information he’d heard that he thought would interest Kerri. He told her he’d heard of another human moving to Heffe, and he’d heard she was living nearby. Perhaps, Kerri should look this human woman up? She might, he suggested, be as lonely for human friendship as Kerri.
Kerri saw Baury to the door, where he rejoined his Petriezski friends. The colleagues bid goodbye to Alan in Heffen, and Baury smiled a knowing goodbye to Kerri. The door shut, and Kerri turned towards Alan, only to find herself swept up in his arms. Alan lifted Kerri in the air and spun around. “We have a new plan!” he said joyfully.
Kerri broke into a grin at the sight of his grin. She hadn’t realized how hard it must have been for him that the last plan didn’t work. The spinning ended, and Kerri, as soon as her feet returned to the floor, hugged Alan close. “I’m so glad,” she said. Then, pulling back enough to look him in the face, she added, “Do tell me about it?”
“It’s the strong force,” Alan explained. “It’s a number, and that number’s the same all over the universe. That number, the value of the strong force, partly determines how atoms are built…the way their nuclei hold together… We’re going to make it bigger…that will make the force stronger…but only locally.”
Kerri looked at her husband, soaking up his excitement, happy but confused. Alan picked up on the confusion and added, “If we make the strong force stronger, just in the vicinity of their sun, then the atoms of the sun will pull closer together, heating up the fusion. Combined with the matter transfusions we’ve already given it…” Alan drew a deep breath, “…it just might do the trick.”
“That makes sense,” Kerri said, appeasing her husband’s need for her to understand. And, though Kerri wasn’t sure she understood, it did sound reasonable to her. She’d taken physics classes, but it was many years back, and by now the concepts sounded, at best, familiar to her.
“I should be working on it,” Alan said, looking distracted by his physics thoughts. “There’s so much to be done.”
Before Alan drifted away from her entirely, back into his world of abstracts, Kerri re-caught his attention and asked, “Have you heard anything about another human moving to Heffe?” She looked at Alan expectantly, hoping for a useful answer. When Alan merely looked baffled and started to shake his head, Kerri gave up the hope. “Baury mentioned something about it…” Kerri mumbled.
“Actually,” Alan said after another few moments, “that does sound familiar. She’s a widow, I think, with a little daughter. Some kind of botanist… horticulturalist… gardener… something…” Alan trailed off, but then his face brightened, and he said, “Maybe you two would hit off. You should look her up.” And with that, Alan was back to his work.
* * *
Kerri parked her hoverpod within sight of the widow’s estate, then got out to walk. The estate stood in an open valley, a small house, with a large wall growing out behind it. The wall was stone and fenced in a sizeable area behind the house. The widow must, Kerri thought, have come to Heffe VIII with quite a fortune to be able to buy herself such an estate. Or maybe she’d been commissioned by the Petriezski government like Alan had?
Kerri approached the house from the side, taking the chance to jump up and look over the rock wall. Inside the wall lay a simple yard, children’s toys strewn about on short grass. Kerri was disappointed. If the widow was a gardener, she didn’t have much of a garden. Kerri followed the wall to the house, and as she came closer, another structure came into sight, formerly hidden behind the house. This second building had glass walls and glowed with an orange light from inside. Kerri perked up at the sight. Perhaps the widow was a gardener after all, for who else would have a greenhouse?
Standing at the front door, preparing to knock, Kerri heard giggling come from nearby. She looked down to see a small girl, perhaps four or five, hiding under the draping branches and red leaves of an ornamental maple tree. The little girl’s eyes widened, and her mouth formed the shape of an ‘O’. “You saw me!” she said. “I was going to surprise you.”
“You did surprise me,” Kerri said. “I’m not used to trees that talk to me.”
The little girl laughed. “I’m not a tree! Can’t you see me?”
Kerri played along and said, “Oh! You’re the little girl inside the tree…I didn’t see you before. Is your mother home?”
“You saw me,” the girl said. “My mother’s home, when she comes to the door I can surprise her.” Putting her forefinger to her lips, the girl admonished Kerri not to tell. So, Kerri knocked on the door, and when the widow came, the little girl’s plan was carried out flawlessly. Kerri was invited in for tea, and the little girl, who turned out to be named Lily, was told to play in her room.
“Your daughter’s beautiful,” Kerri said, when they were settled with pungent mugs of Golan tea.
“Thank you,” the widow Sharon said. “She looks just like her father.”
“No, don’t be sorry,” Sharon said. “That’s part of why I came here. I couldn’t stand living with people who didn’t think Lily and I could manage on our own. I miss my husband… I miss him most for Lily, because I know she’ll barely remember him when she’s grown. But…we’re fine.” The widow toyed with her tea bag for a minute. “I’m telling you this,” she said, “because the sooner you know it, the better we’ll get along.”
Kerri was surprised by Sharon’s forwardness, but she appreciated it.
“Now, let’s not talk about our pasts anymore,” Sharon said. “Let me show you my greenhouse, my future.”
Kerri rose and followed Sharon out the back door, through the edge of her backyard, and to the door of the greenhouse. Sharon stopped then and said, “You may want to leave your jacket out here. It’s quite warm inside.” Obligingly, Kerri hung her jacket on a convenient hook outside the greenhouse door.
Inside the greenhouse, huge lights hung from the ceiling and sat, squatly, on the floor. They flooded the entire area with orange light and a warmth so thick it made the air dance. The heat, at first, felt unbearable to Kerri, but she adjusted quickly. Seen in the right frame of mind, she realized, the heat was relaxing like a warm bath. After a few minutes in the greenhouse, Kerri even started to wonder how she’d managed to not feel cold outside.
The plants, of course, were all suited to such intense heat and light. They were also, Kerri noticed, almost entirely fruit and vegetable producing varieties. It was as if Sharon had come intending to feed the starving peoples of Heffe, deprived of good fruits and vegetables by the coldness of their dying sun.
“You like?” Sharon asked.
“I do…you have quite a setup.” Kerri looked closer at the organized tangle of plants: vines stretched across the floor and grew right up the trunks of various small trees. Every plant was laden with fruit: it hung from the trees, grew from vines on the floor, and Kerri was sure she could find it growing among many roots. “But, why…” Kerri eventually brought herself to ask, “did you bring all of this here? Surely there was a better world, one more suited to the plants you grow?”
Sharon smiled a coquettish smile. “I have a plan…” she began, and probably would have continued if Kerri hadn’t inadvertently interrupted to say:
“I mean, even if my husband…I mean,” Kerri corrected herself, “when my husband saves Heffe VIII’s sun, this world will never be naturally suited to these plants. They’ll always need a greenhouse here.”
“Your husband is the specialist here to save the sun?” Sharon asked. “I should have realized that…”
“He’s been working at it for years,” Kerri said. “But, he seems to be very close.”
Sharon smiled sympathetically. She clearly didn’t believe Kerri that Alan was getting close. Kerri fought against her impulse to defend her husband. Confused by Sharon’s sympathy and wanting to remove the spotlight from herself, Kerri asked stumblingly, “Your plan…tell me what your plan is…?”
Sharon looked for a moment as if she’d speak but held back considering some unknown thought. Eventually she settled on saying, “Perhaps I’ll tell you when I know you better. For now, it can be the mystery that keeps you coming back to visit.”
Kerri smiled and laughed, happy to realize she’d made a new friend, enigmatic though she might be.
* * *
Baury and his sister’s pups were already waiting outside as Kerri flew her hoverpod up to their house. They were all going to Lily’s seventh birthday party. Apparently, Lily went to school in Ques’trian, and she’d met Baury’s two nieces and one nephew there. They weren’t as old as Lily, but they were the only Heffen children she knew who spoke any English. Lily could speak the Petriezski tongue better than Alan, but she liked having friends who also spoke English: they could use it as a secret code when around the other Heffen children. Keeping secrets, and flaunting them, was fun.
“Thanks for picking us up,” Baury said as the little ones filed in to the back of the hoverpod. “I never could get the hang of flying these things.”
Once the nieces and nephew were strapped in safely, Kerri started the hoverpod toward Sharon’s estate.
“So?” Baury asked. “This is the first time you’ve seen my nieces and nephew…aren’t they handsome little troublemakers?”
“Flat-faced as any Golan, just like you hoped they’d be,” Kerri replied, paying more attention to steering than to the little ones in the back seat.
“What’s with the tree?” Baury asked, indicating the potted kitty-willow tree, packed tightly in the back, its uppermost branches straining against the hoverpod’s ceiling.
“That’s my present for Lily,” Kerri replied. “I painted the pot myself.”
“A tree?” Baury said skeptically. “Most young girls prefer toys other than trees…or so I’ve been told.”
Kerri smiled enigmatically, a trait she’d begun to pick up from Sharon. Baury would understand when she gave the tree to Lily. Kerri knew she would love it. A tree like that belonged in the possession of a little girl who would really enjoy it. Nonetheless, Kerri had felt a pang of regret as she’d dug it up from the center of her garden. She’d never gotten around to showing Alan the kitten-seeds… It always seemed like there’d be another year. She almost wished she’d gone with her first impulse, and merely grafted a cutting from the tree onto a healthy root ball. Then, she could have kept her own kitty-willow while still giving one to Lily. It was better this way. It felt like a rite of passage.
The hoverpod pulled up in front of Sharon’s estate, parked, and opened its side doors. Kerri, Baury, and the young ones got out. Kerri went to the back of the hoverpod to unload the tree, and Baury stayed to help her. The nieces and nephew, however, ran straight for the front door, eager to be playing with their human friend and joining in the birthday party games.
As Kerri carried the large, ceramic pot, hand-painted with playing kittens, Baury walked beside her. He began asking after Alan, how he was doing, whether he’d seemed different lately. Kerri answered that he Alan was, as always, busy. Perhaps, he seemed more anxious than usual, but Kerri knew of no reason to be concerned.
“There is a reason to be concerned,” Baury said, ardently. “Alan probably doesn’t know this yet, since Trenti just told me…” Baury waited a moment as Kerri put down the tree, and knocked on Sharon’s door. “The most recent plan failed. They can’t keep the strong force constant changed for long enough. It always collapses back to normal.”
Kerri was genuinely concerned. It would be hard for Alan to learn this… Before Kerri could say anything, she was flustered to find Sharon at the door, bidding them to come in. Kerri pushed her worries aside, picked up the potted tree, and went looking for the birthday girl.
Baury stayed close to Kerri, so he was there when she described the kitty-willow tree and its yearly crop of kitten-seeds to Lily. He was less than impressed, but he could see the wonder in Lily’s eyes.
“How soon?” Lily asked, eager to play with the promised dozens of tiny kittens.
“It’ll be a few more weeks, maybe a month, before it blooms again,” Kerri said. The disappointment of having to wait showed through Lily’s otherwise impeccably polite thank you. Still, Kerri felt a joy in watching Lily examine her new tree that rivaled the joy she’d felt as a child at owning one. Perhaps the senses don’t dull with age, she thought. They find new sources of delight.
Baury coughed, reminding Kerri of his presence. “A very nice gift,” he said.
“It was my favorite…of all the gifts I got during my childhood.” Kerri turned to face Baury. “What will they do?” she asked, returning to her worry for Alan. “Is there another plan?”
“There is another plan,” Baury said. “It’s dangerous. It’s been tried on other suns…” Baury trailed off, looking pensive. “It has a tendency to change the course of dying suns: instead of dying, they inflate, rapidly, into red giants.”
Kerri looked horrified, so Baury quickly added. “There would be time, a few months, maybe a year or two, to evacuate the planet. No more long and lingering death…the world growing colder while we cling to it. People would have to leave and leave quickly.”
“Unless it works, right?”
“Unless it works,” Baury agreed.
“Why are you telling me…” Kerri began but couldn’t finish.
“I’m worried about Alan,” Baury said, taking Kerri’s hands in his own and pressing them, looking up at her face earnestly. “He has a very hard decision ahead of him… If you can, I want you to convince him that we wouldn’t blame him for making the wrong choice. We all know our sun is dying…” Baury broke off for a minute, his small ears flattened against the top of his head. “We asked Alan to help us, but it’s not his fault if he can’t. Will you tell him that?”
Kerri agreed that she would.
* * *
Kerri hovered outside Alan’s home office, her hand resting on the doorframe. She could see Alan inside, sitting at his desk, his head leaned over his work. Lately, he was always working. Kerri didn’t want to disturb him. She really, really didn’t. But, her promise to Baury still hung over her, and by now she was sure Alan knew of his last plan not working.
Over the last few weeks, Alan had grown increasingly irritable. His moodiness and growing depression suggested to Kerri that Baury was right: Alan was feeling the immense weight on his shoulders of having to make a decision that would affect an entire planet’s population.
There were no excuses for waiting left. Kerri had to talk to him and make good on her promise to Baury. Maybe it would make Alan feel better.
Kerri came into the room, walked up behind Alan, and placed her hands, lightly, on his shoulders. She began rubbing the tightened muscles, but Alan shouldered her away. “I’m very busy…” he said.
“I know, but, we need to talk,” Kerri said.
Alan, still facing his work instead of Kerri, closed his eyes in exasperation, and repeated, “I’m very busy.”
“Alan, I know that,” Kerri said, pushing against Alan’s shoulder, turning him around to face her. “I know about the decision you have to make, and I want you to know it’ll be all right however it turns out. The people here know that you’re not a god…just a scientist, and they won’t blame you if it goes wrong.”
Alan looked at Kerri with hardened eyes, repressing all the frustration he’d been feeling. He didn’t speak.
Kerri continued, saying, “You know I’ll stand by you no matter what. In fact, if the sun does go red-giant… You know I’ve never learned the language here… I won’t mind if we have to move away.”
The hardness in Alan’s eyes narrowed to a burning. “You’re expecting me to fail,” he said, bitterness in his voice.
Kerri was astonished. Her mouth dropped open, and then she pulled herself together enough to speak. “You know that’s not true… I’ve always believed in you…”
“It’s that witch,” Alan said in almost a shout. “That widow-witch has turned you against me. She’s a vulture who’s just been waiting for me to fail, and she’s made you just like her!” Alan turned violently back to his work, and Kerri was left, standing behind him, her arms fallen slack beside her, in a state of shock. Alan had never yelled at her before.
“Sharon?” she muttered, more to herself than Alan. “She never said anything about you… Baury told me to talk to you…”
“Then the witch has turned him against me too. I never liked your friends, Kerri,” Alan said, surprisingly calm, without turning towards her.
For five, maybe ten, minutes Kerri stood in Alan’s office. He didn’t turn around or speak to her again.
Kerri locked the door to their low-grav bedroom before turning the gravity down that night. In the early hours of the morning, she heard Alan try the door. Lying alone in the dark, floating lightly on their bed, she heard the doorknob rattle, unwilling to turn. Kerri caught her breath. She was afraid Alan might beat on the door, order her to let him in…she’d never felt afraid of Alan before. Instead, he left without even knocking. Kerri sobbed herself to sleep.
* * *
Kerri was working in Sharon’s greenhouse when the news came. Sharon knew she’d have to break it to Kerri, who had been isolating herself from everything but Sharon’s greenhouse garden. She came over early every morning and left late every night. Sharon knew there was something wrong, but she was too sensitive to ask Kerri. Kerri would tell her when the time came.
The news Sharon received was this: Alan’s final, brilliant attempt had failed. Alan and his colleagues had slowed the sun’s rate of rotation, decreasing its centripetal forces and causing the sun to shrink in on itself. The hope had been to push the sun back on track as a young, yellow dwarf star with many millions of years ahead of it, again. Instead, the once yellow dwarf would soon expand into a red giant, but not over the usual time span. No, the inhabitants of Heffe VIII had only a few short years to evacuate, finding new homes in a universe which had dispossessed them.
As Sharon told Kerri, Kerri began to cry. Sharon was worried for her, but, then, Kerri had been crying a lot lately, so Sharon wasn’t sure if she was crying over Alan’s failure or not. Sharon gave her a hug.
“You expected this to happen, didn’t you?” Kerri asked, trying not to feel betrayed. “That’s why you brought these plants here…these plants that need a huge, hot sun…” Kerri broke down crying again, and Sharon led her out of the greenhouse, led her into the house, and sat her down with a mug of Golan tea.
“Nine times out of ten,” Sharon said, “the experts who are hired to save dying suns end up expanding them, artificially, into red giants. I didn’t expect Alan to fail…I just knew the odds.”
Kerri stared into her steaming mug of tea. She was thinking about the flowers she had found, waiting for her, every morning since her and Alan’s fight. Every night she locked the bedroom door, and every morning there were flowers waiting for her on the other side. Alan had never mentioned the fight.
“Artificially created red giants are the best kind for what I’m planning to do,” Sharon continued. “I’m sorry that Alan failed…I would rather that he’d succeeded and that I’d had to find a different sun…”
Kerri traced her finger around the rim of her mug. She dipped her finger into the hot tea and it stung. “Why are artificial ones better?” Kerri asked, trying to be interested, trying to think about Sharon instead of Alan.
Sharon was watching Kerri closely and growing more worried by the minute. “It’s time to tell you my secret,” she said. “Remember?” she asked. “I said it was a secret, to keep you coming back here. Well, now’s the time.”
Kerri managed to look up, her interest piqued by the mention of a secret she’d long forgotten.
Sharon continued: “I’m going to make a garden on the sun…on the surface of the sun.”
“Can you do that?” Kerri said.
“If you have the right technology: solar force shields and radiation osmitters; they’re very expensive and hard to come by. They’re also hard to put in place. That’s why artificial giants are better…you can fit the shields on them as they grow,” Sharon replied. “It’s been done before…a few sun-gardens have been very successful. There’s so much energy at the surface of a sun…the plants grow like crazy. You’d hardly believe it.”
Kerri tried to imagine standing at the surface of a sun, orangey-red light glowing around her, blotting out the eternal night sky above. She imagined the super-hot plasma sloshing beneath the force shield under her feet and plants growing everywhere. She asked, “Can I come?”
* * *
The swollen red sun of Heffe VIII hung in the sky over Ques’trian’s space port. The asphalt landing strips boasted far more spaceships than they’d seen at one time ever before. Long lines of Petriezski men and women, along with many Heffen of other nationalities, waited to board ships that would take them away from their home. The planet was more than half deserted now.
Kerri walked with Alan towards the lines, watching the sad faces around them. She wondered where most of these dispossessed would go… She wondered how much of their culture would survive. Baury along with his sister and her family were heading for Crossroads station. That was a good place, but a space station isn’t the same as a world when it comes to making a home. Still, it would be a good place to start out.
Kerri found the line she was looking for and led Alan there. The bags were already packed and loaded on board. Now, all that was left was to get in line and wait.
Kerri looked at Alan, standing beside her. His shoulders were slumped in the same dejected posture they’d held for months. He was a broken man, and Kerri felt horrible for what she was about to do. She had loved him.
Once she could see Baury and his family in the distance, coming towards them, she knew it was time. She drew a deep breath, and, standing a foot back from Alan, she started to say:
“Alan, there’s something I have to explain to you…” It would be easiest to just say it fast: “I’m not going with you. I’m going with Sharon…to garden the sun…”
Alan looked at her with disgust in his eyes. She was afraid of all the things he wasn’t saying, yet, glad not to hear them.
“I made sure your ticket was on the same flight as Baury’s,” she said. “I’ve asked him and Trenti to look after you.” Kerri wanted to say something more. She wanted to explain all the thoughts and feelings she had…she wanted to say something that would make it all better. She’d felt that way for months. There was no magic cure.
She and Alan had been growing away from each other for a long time. She doubted now that they’d ever known each other well. Maybe if he’d apologized with words instead of flowers… Maybe if he’d just asked what was wrong… Maybe… There were too many maybes. Kerri felt trapped when she thought of them.
Finally, Baury and his relatives caught up to Kerri and Alan. Kerri felt relieved to see his charming, flat face. “Oh, Baury,” she sighed. “I’m glad to see you.” They hugged each other, exchanged a few words of chitchat, and agreed, wholeheartedly, to keep in touch. Kerri said goodbye to each of the little ones and smiled at Trenti and the sister.
As Kerri backed away, starting to leave, she said to Baury, “Do look after him,” and, to Alan, she just said, “I’m sorry.”
She didn’t wait for a response.
Sharon and Lily were waiting for her, outside the hatch of their own ship, the only ship heading towards instead of away from the sun.
“I’m ready,” Kerri said, running towards them. “That was hard…”
Sharon smiled sympathetically and put her hand on Kerri’s back, guiding her into the ship. Once they were seated inside, Lily pulled on Kerri’s sleeve.
“To cheer you up,” Lily said, holding out a kitten-seed on her palm. Kerri took the tiny cat and cupped it in her hands. It was going on a voyage grander than any a kitten-seed had gone on before…
“You brought your tree?” Kerri asked.
“Of course,” Lily said. “Can you imagine how happy the kittens will be on the sun?”
Kerri imagined the little seeds, curled up, stretched out, in all a cat’s many poses, basking on the light of the sun. “It’s a perfect place for them,” Kerri said. It’s a perfect place for me, she thought. It was horrible leaving Alan…she wished the Alan she remembered, from when she was young, could come. He wouldn’t like it there: just plants and gardening.
Plants and gardening…
“It’s good to be doing something you care about,” Sharon said, piloting the ship into liftoff, rising through the atmosphere, breaking into the sky, and heading for the sun.
As the red giant swelled into view, Kerri knew she was going to her true and final home. She felt an excitement usually reserved for children.